We’re well into a new year and a new decade, and many (if not most) of us have probably set ourselves lofty new goals. Setting and achieving personal and professional goals can be rewarding, but it can also feel confusing and frustrating.
You see, many of us set a goal without a clear idea of what we need to do to reach it. We might even have some steps in mind, but we don’t know which ones will get us to where we want to be. Even for those of us who do succeed in reaching our goals, we typically find it difficult to pinpoint the actions that got us there. This lack of clarity means that people don’t always continue the behaviors that contributed to their success.
Two behavioral scientists at the Stanford Graduate School of Business recently conducted studies of over 1,600 people who set various types of goals to determine why some people not only achieve their goals but can also successfully sustain their learned behaviors, while others stop their efforts and regress. Regardless of the activities involved—from dieting to exercising to attending online courses—we found that those who viewed reaching their goal as a journey, rather than a destination, continued the “good” behaviors that aided their success after reaching their goal.
Knowing that the “destination” metaphor we so often use for goal setting is one of the things that hold us back, how can looking at goals as a continuing journey help us better achieve success and maintain it over time?
Reflect before you launch forward
When we set a goal, we often focus so much on the “new” that we forget to draw on the power of past successes. That’s why it’s crucial to reflect on what you achieved last year before you embark on your new year’s goal. That goes for success in all aspects of your life—whether that’s your career, family life, personal growth, or health.
As you reflect on your past goals and successes, avoid viewing them as destinations. Instead, see them as a journey of many steps. Seeing success as complete or finite can often lead to its benefits to slip faster than they came. That’s why it’s so easy to put on those 20 pounds again or lower your output at the office after your boss awards you a raise.
On the other hand, our research showed that if you review your completed goals through the lens of a journey rather than a destination, you’re more likely to continue those behaviors that helped you achieve these goals. Ask yourself: Which actions had a positive impact on my success over the past year—and what did I learn from them? How to make skills that lead to the little victory more routinized? How about those little challenges I overcame along the way—why did they happen, what did I learn from them, and how to drill out those out moving forward? Identifying those actions that lead to the wins and losses, positive steps in a continuous journey makes it easier to follow through, sustain the positive behaviors and continue improving.
Record your progress along the way
Periodic reflection on your past success only encourages you to maintain that motivation going forward. It also forces you to be mindful of the journey you’ve been on, which equips you to tackle new challenges. Of course, you can apply what you’ve learned from achieving one goal to the next, but your new goals may be very different. Whatever your new goals are, you need to view the new challenge as a journey (rather than a destination) right from the start.
One way to do this is to keep a diary or log. Take notes daily or weekly to track your progress as you go along, but don’t limit yourself to the empirical data. If your goal is to lose weight, recording that you lost 1.5 pounds last week is important, but you also want to note what you did differently, what you learned, and how you felt. Remember, advancing toward a goal requires consistency, not taking one giant leap. Don’t forget to take note of anything that pushes you forward in a positive direction, no matter how small it seems.
Keeping a journal of everything that contributes to your current progress helps you see that progress is a continuous journey, not a single destination. But it also helps when it’s time to reflect on your accomplishment. When you have a track record of your progress, you can recall all the smaller achievements and challenges that went into achieving the larger goal. This encourages you to continue that journey toward even greater and longer-term success.
Why the journey is a better metaphor for success
We hear and read a lot about the importance of “the journey” these days, yet we don’t really live that philosophy. Our research shows that seeing goals as a journey rather than a destination increases our chances for initial and continued success, but shifting that metaphor isn’t something that comes naturally.
After all, we’re a destination-focused society. We see countless images of the ideal body type, the perfect “look,” and the possessions that achieving a successful career can bring. We’re taught to have a laser-like focus on the end result and the destination. In the end, this is why so many people fail to continue the goal-aligned behaviors they learned along the way, even if they managed to reach the goal.
But what you learn along the way to success is more important than the achievement itself. The real key to sustaining success is acknowledging and embracing those smaller steps, milestones, victories, and habits we develop on the journey. After all, a destination is just one step in a journey that never ends, and who wants to stop there?
Dr. Szu-chi Huang is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Dr Jennifer Aaker is a behavioral psychologist, author, and General Atlantic Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.