Happy New Year! Cheers to this year being the one that you join the 8% of people who actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions.
For decades, behavioral scientists have studied goal attainment to figure out why so many of us fall short on the objectives we set for ourselves. There’s now a wealth of data out there on the behaviors that can amplify the likelihood of achieving any goal. Here are four.
Behavioral scientists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham combed through 35 years of empirical research on goal setting. One of the conclusions from their meta-analysis was that ambiguous aspirations, like “I want to do my best” rarely inspire the behavioral change it takes to actually improve performance. What works much better, they found, are goals with clearly defined outcomes.
All of us want to do better in one way or another, but if we aren’t crystal clear as to what those ways are, it’s doubtful we’ll make much progress. Specific goals are energizing. It’s hard to get excited about just “doing better.”
Most importantly of all, a specific goal establishes the mental clarity our brains need in order to conceptualize the path toward achieving it. It’s fine to set goals, but the whole point in doing so is to influence future behavior.
Say you want to finally learn how to drive a stick shift. Great–now you can get down to learning the maneuvers (clutch, break, shift, etc.) it takes to drive a manual car. If you just want to be “a better driver,” though, it’s far less clear what steps will actually take you there.
For many, pursuing a goal is a frustrating endeavor. Armed with the best intentions, many people lose their self-discipline after a short time and give up on the goal.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The evidence suggests that self-discipline is a depleting resource, threatened on all sides by a range of factors. One of the best ways to preserve your motivation is to set action triggers for yourself.
Action triggers are pre-established decisions that link a behavior with its environment. Imagine that you want to begin going to the gym. One action trigger might be visiting the gym on your way home from work. That idea is simply to connect the behavior (going to the gym) with an external reference (driving home from work). This will pass the control of the behavior to an environmental stimulus, which will also improve the likelihood that you’ll get in the habit of stopping by the gym on your way home from work.
If it sounds simple, it is. But action triggers have nevertheless been found to have an enormous impact on follow-through.
In the pursuit of any goal there are always unexpected twists and turns. Rarely do things go as planned. Successfully adapting to new obstacles and changing circumstances is crucial when it comes to achieving your goals.
The best way to know how and when to alter your course is through feedback. Research confirms that receiving feedback that helps explain and contextualize where you are in relation to a goal can significantly impact whether you reach it.
For example, over the course of pursuing your goal, you may notice that you aren’t making as much progress as you once were. Feedback from an independent observer can help you analyze what’s occurring. Maybe you’ll need to change your strategy or exert more effort. But it’s hard to make those judgment calls on your own.
And it isn’t just the fact of getting feedback that matters. How you respond to it will also determine your outcome.
There’s one piece of advice that prevails within the scholarly literature on goal attainment: Tell others about it.
When you publicly announce that you’re pursuing a certain objective, you increase your chances of attaining it. The reason is because of the powerful psychological principle of consistency. As human beings, we want our words to match our actions.
Consistency is also a social norm: we want others’ words to match their actions. As a result, both individuals and societies tend to look down on those who are inconsistent. We see them as liars, flakes, hypocrites, or worse.
When you share the specifics of your goal with others, you tap into that principle, creating a context that can pressure you to realize it. It’s a tremendously potent motivator, so why not use it in your favor?