When paired with a trained and certified coach, this approach to goal setting, championed by the Center for Fulfillment, is grounded in rigorous scientific research, and is most likely to lead to successful goal attainment.
How to Set Realistic Goals and Follow Through
What are the biggest changes you want to make in your life? Are you going to shed a ridiculous amount of pounds? Take your medication everyday? Call your parents or grandparents every week? Wake up earlier to work-out before work? Whatever it may be, we as humans are all inherently bad at predicting our “future selves”, the selves we aren’t in the present, but we who we picture ourselves to be in the future. We want to want to work out, just not today. Tomorrow. Do you know the Latin for “to put off ’till tomorrow”? By no coincidence, it’s “procrastination”.
Maybe when it first pops into our minds, we have the motivation to get going. To sustain those behaviors we need to do every day in order to attain our goals. On our own, we can sustain that level of motivation for a few days, a week, a few weeks, maybe even a month. But at some point, we're inevitably vulnerable to giving in. You're hardly alone in these inherently human tendencies, but there are ways to sustain that motivation and keep you on track through the experience and toolbox of a qualified coach.
Deviation from the initial thrust of energy has a term: as behavioral scientists, we refer to it as the “honeymoon” effect. It's the idea that we’re in love with our goals for the first week or two, then we start to see the negatives in things. We doubt ourselves and our ability to succeed. Our life priorities get shifted as our other responsibilities add up. The inertia that pushed us so hard in the beginning starts to wear off. We come up with excuses. To be frank, the love we felt during our honeymoon is no longer there.
Sure, you can divorce that goal, or push it off for another date, or you can shift your perspective to start over where you are, with increased motivation. That's the precise moment you realized you need a coach, You need supportive supervision. A role model. Proven strategies and tactics that have worked wonders for people before you. You recognize the value of someone who will hold you accountable and who has been educated and certified at exactly this.
What can we do to avoid the honeymoon effect? How can we set realistic goals that make a tangible impact on our lives? How can go from helpless to flourishing? Luckily, the same field of behavioral science that coined the term, “honeymoon effect”, also provides a set of means through which our coach helps to set you up for success. We need to avoid the demoralization that happens when we aim too high, or the banality we inevitably experience when we aim too low. The “Goldilocks” rule tells us our goals need to be just right.
One way to get our goals right is to set S.M.A.R.T. goals: This acronym, built upon from frameworks from the Microsoft Corporation, stands for set “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely”. Make your goals clear. Ambiguous goals give too much wiggle room for excuses. Don’t make your goals too hard that they discourage you, and make sure there’s a way to hold yourself accountable. Give yourself a reasonable time-frame for when you achieve that goal, and perhaps set a new one based on where you are at that moment in the future, not where you wanted to be last December. Structure the year into quarters and give yourself permission to adjust your goal as needed. Maybe it’s not how you envisioned achieving your goal, but perhaps that ideal was just unattainable within the constraints you set. Be like Goldilocks and get it just right.
No matter where you look, there’s one element of goal attainment that is a surefire way to keep the motivation going, even when the honeymoon period wears off. That element is: Meaning. We'll dig deep into the relationship between meaning and fulfillment. These two elements seems to capture the essence of well-being, and improvements to well-being are ultimately the end goal.
At the end of the day, what the science continues to show us is that people are most motivated when it comes from within; when the task and its consequences are important to us or the people we love. Frequently, we're better at advocating for others than we are for ourselves. However, when we tie our goals to a sense of meaning, our behaviors are fueled by an intrinsic motivation, and are less dependent upon external factors. We don't need to be that rabbit chasing a carrot on that stick. We’re in the driver's seat of the car that’s holding the stick.
After determining the goal we want to achieve, the question we need to ask ourselves is a simple: “Why“? What’s the deeper meaning behind the resolution that’s important to you. Is your resolution to lose weight in order to avoid the health issues that may arise in the future? Then perhaps your “why” is to live a longer, more active life late into your senior years. Do you want to be a better role model for an overweight niece who thinks she can’t enact a healthier lifestyle? Or any other reason that’s meaningful to you. By providing yourself with a meaning for your resolution, writing it down, placing it in a place you’ll see everyday, you remind yourself why you set that resolution to begin with, and it’s a meaning that likely won’t change in a few months, or even a few years.
You’ve got your “why”, then it’s important to get to the “How“. How you are going to reach that goal is arguably just as important as “why”. You don’t want to achieve your goals by means that are inauthentic, or by cheating. If you do that, you’ll deprive yourself the every essence of your “why”. You may end up doing more damage than not having set a goal to begin why. Your how may not be clear in the beginning, but avoid the pitfall of viewing your resolution as set in stone: you can adjust it in the future. While the “why” gives us a reason for performing a behavior, it’s the “how” that takes things one step further. At this stage we start action planning. Forming an action plan shows us a tangible path to start moving toward that ideal future self: the self that accomplished your goals.
Make a plan and monitor yourself. Action planning involves breaking down goals into manageable pieces; it involves identifying and sticking to a set of tasks that, if followed, guides a person on a path to achieving their goals. Researchers argue that when it comes to self monitoring, simplicity is likely the key. Use the myriad of apps out there to help you keep track of progress toward your goals; and look for those that provide positive feedback along the way.
If you can’t do the work involved, achieving your goal is all the more unlikely. But let’s look at the role action planning plays in goal attainment, and why it’s so important. Action planning involves breaking down big goals into smaller, more manageable pieces; it involves identifying and sticking to a set of tasks that, if followed, guides you on your path to achieving your goals. We look at our schedule and see when we can fit those steps into our busy Google Calendar. Make room for it. You need only to look above for your reason why. Combining your how and your why is oftentimes incredibly powerful: “I want to have dinner with my kids three night per week and engage in meaningful conversation, so I can show them I care and they will do the same with their children”.
Positive behaviors are easy when they become habits. You don’t want to force yourself to achieve that resolution, you want to build it into your routine and actually have your behaviors pulling you. When that happens, you’ll feel as though the universe is pulling you toward your goal. Psychologists view people as having essentially two selves: the automatic self and the reflective self. The reflective self thinks about every decision and makes a bunch of mini-decisions and calculations to determine whether we are going to perform an action. With the reflective self, we, at the end of our lives, aim for the optimal number of utils, which is an economists way of describing the benefit we gain — kind of like a virtual currency like bitcoins.
Set reminders. This simple but often overlooked tactic reminds us when we need to take an action toward our goal, and ignoring the reminder requires a conscious effort to break a promise to yourself. Setting reminders serves as a trigger to perform an action. Achieving that action then provides a reward. Believe it or not, our brains are wired to reward us after a vigorous workout. And the fact that you’re one step closer to achieving your goal is a further investment in that goal, likely to fuel the cycle of “Trigger, Action, Reward, Investment” that makes habits form.
In reflection, we consider and compare the net benefit of work and leisure. Reflecting on past decisions, why we made them, and incorporating that answer into present situations takes energy and becomes draining. You want to use your greater cognitive skills when necessary, but as much as possible, you want to default to the automatic self that makes smart decisions for you, with minimal drainage of mental energy that you’ll need to apply to other goals, like resisting the aroma of freshly baked cookies. Forcing yourself takes mental energy; energy you can’t replenish right away, making you exhausted and leaving you with a negative sentiment toward that resolution.
The interesting myth about habits is that you have to do them every day for 28 consecutive days in order for them to form. That’s somewhat correct. Habits are a powerful way to stick to goals and shouldn’t be discounted. Habits need not be daily. While we like to think that we have to perform a behavior every day for 28 days in order to form a habit, that’s a myth. What the researchers say is that in order to form a habit, we need to perform that behavior 28 period in a row. If your resolution is to do laundry every Saturday, you can form a habit around that, it will just take 28 consecutive weekends you wash your laundry on Saturdays. But what can you do to achieve that level of habit?
There are essentially two kinds of goals: behavioral and results– oriented. The distinction is crucial to setting goals that are attainable. In some situations, you may want to set one or the other. In other situations you might opt to start with one, gauge a baseline, and then set the other. So what’s the difference? A behavioral goal gets at the “how”. Going to the gym 3 days per week. Doing homework with your kids once per week. Results oriented goals set you up to either accomplish them or not. In the beginning of the year, knowing that we are overly ambitious in our goal setting, it might make sense to start with a behavioral goal. Then when that behavioral goal becomes a habit, you’ll be in a more realistic circumstance with proper knowledge to set an ambitious, but win-able results-oriented goal.
Goals are great, when attaining them leaves you with a habit to keep to keep it going. That said, when it comes to goal setting, broadly put, human beings perform better when we:
1. Set specific, difficult goals and timelines (Locke & Latham, 2002)
2. Have the knowledge, skills and ability to achieve the goal (self-efficacy), and action plans that break goals down into manageable pieces (Gollwitzer, 1999)
3. An environment of supportive supervision with feedback on progress (Little et al, 2006)
4. Attach goals to meaning, like people and other intrinsic motivators (Latham, 2004, Grant, 2013)
With so many forces standing in our way, achieving our goals seems nearly impossible. One example might be us setting our goals each year as resolutions. Most the time, as quickly as we formed the habit we resolve to form: poof, it’s gone.
Much of what motivates us comes down to expectations, so managing our expectations, keeping them in-line with our capabilities, helps us in this process. Expectancy theory proposes that effort is a function of motivation and outcomes (Vroom, 1968).
Sufficient motivation to achieve the minimum behaviors required to achieve our goals can therefore be answered by asking 3 simple questions:
1. If I put in the effort, will I succeed?
2. If I succeed, will my efforts be rewarded?
3. Even if my efforts are rewarded, will I value the reward?
Unless a person answers “yes” to all three questions, they are not likely to adequately perform the behavior. At a very minimum, this suggests motivation to change behavior can be influenced by helping people reverse “no” answers. But there is an answer. The scientific community has compiled a list of “Behavior Change Techniques”, you can browse through and apply to your specific New Year’s resolution. Some are better for certain goals, and others better when applied to a different goal type. Some, when applied to incorrect goal types or personalities of the goal-setter, may even backfire. In your sessions with Tali, you will utilize these behavioral techniques as a toolbox to enhance your odds of achieving your dream life. As a licensed coach, Tali will help you turn lists of scientific data into a concrete plan that works for you.
Set Realistic Goals and Achieve the Impossible
To work with a goal-setting expert and shift your perspective on what's possible, schedule a consultati0n with Tali today!