3 lessons from psychology that can help you achieve your goals

It’s that time of year when many of us think and talk about setting goals. Yet how many of us set ourselves ambitious goals at the start of a year, only for our motivation to ebb away way as the months go on? We then end up being hard on ourselves at the end of year, telling ourselves, “Next year it will be different”. And the vicious circle continues. If that sounds familiar, then check out these three lessons from psychology to help you achieve your goals.

  1. Plan for obstacles as well as outcomes

Many of us, when setting goals, have been encouraged to focus on positive visualisation – thinking of the ideal future we want. However, the downside of positive visualisation may mean we become complacent, putting less effort in because we already have a sense of achievement. Mental contrasting, however, is the act of positive visualisation of achieving a goal combined with visualising the internal struggle that could stop us achieving that goal.

Thinking about potential obstacles and planning for how we’ll overcome these obstacles are the steps we can often miss out. Professor of psychology, Gabriele Oettingen, has developed an evidence-based framework underpinned by the concept of mental contrasting. The framework, referred to as WOOP, helps people to ground their dreams, mobilising these as a tool for taking direct action. WOOP stands for:

  • Wish
  • Outcome
  • Obstacle
  • Plan

Here’s a step-by-step guide for using WOOP

  1. Make sure you are somewhere you can think and imagine. As WOOP draws on imagery, it’s important to create the space for your imagination to be free.
  2. Think about a Wish you want to achieve this year (you can change the timeframe to suit your needs). Imagine that wish in detail. It should be challenging, fulfilling but realistic. Summarise your wish in 3 to 6 words.
  3. Continue to let your thoughts and feelings run free. Imagine what it would feel like to achieve the best Outcome of your wish. Think about what the best result will be from achieving your wish. How will you feel? Imagine and then vividly describe the outcome. Summarise the outcome in 3 to 6 words.
  4. Now, think about the Obstacles inside yourself – the things you do that might hold you back. Think about your behaviours, feelings and thoughts that could hinder you. Vividly describe them in detail. Now choose one main inner obstacle that might prevent you achieving your wish. Summarise that obstacle in 3 to 6 words.
  5. Thinking about your main obstacle, what Plan can you put in place to overcome that obstacle? Come up with ideas for actions you could take and thoughts you could think. Choose an effective action or effective thought that can help you overcome the main obstacle. Create an ‘If-Then’ plan. Complete the statement:

If (insert main obstacle), Then I will (insert action)

The power of thinking ahead about obstacles is reiterated in another study, published in Psychology and Marketing. The researchers found that action crisis thoughts (seeing a series of setbacks) may lead people to start devaluing their goal, amplifying the difficulty of sticking to the goal. This kind of thinking may also lead people to draw back from committing to their goal. However, the same study also found that if a person (or their support network of family, friends, and professionals) were to know ahead of time that a setback is likely, he or she might be more likely to stick to the goal. In other words, thinking ahead and planning for a setback can make a big difference.

2. Tell others about your goal – make it public

If you want to achieve a goal, make sure you share your objective with the right person. In a set of studies, researchers found that people tended to be more committed to their goal when they told someone about their goal, particularly if they believed that person had higher status than themselves. For example, your line manager or mentor. It didn’t seem to help people at all to tell their goals to someone they thought had lower status, or to keep their objectives to themselves. The research suggests that people were motivated by sharing a goal with someone they thought had higher status because they cared about how that higher-status person would evaluate them.

Another study, from 2016, suggests that when we are trying to achieve a goal, the more often that we monitor our progress, the greater the likelihood that we will succeed. The researchers also found that our chances of success are even more likely if we report our progress publicly or physically record it. This reinforces the powerful role of mentoring, coaching and action learning sets in facilitating learning and achieving goal success – because you’re held to account. It also highlights the potential positive impact of social media, for example sharing and tracking our progress against a goal on platforms such as Instagram.

3. Think about effort, not just reward

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London examined why people tend to make unrealistic plans which then fail. The study found that when people first decide on a goal they are typically motivated by rewards. However, once they begin to put plans into action, their focus turns to the difficulty of the effort they need to put in. The findings suggest that rewards are not enough to ensure people put in the effort they need to achieve their goals. We need to think carefully about the amount of effort we may need to put in. In other words, if we aren’t careful our plans can end up being informed by unrealistic expectations because we focus too much on the rewards. Then when reality sets in, we realise the effort is too much and give up.

A focus on effort, is just one of the things we need to think about and that can impact our motivational state when it comes to our goals, according to research led by Sharon K Parker. The study creates a theoretical model which suggests there are three motivational states we need to take into account when it comes to setting and achieving the goals we’ve set ourselves. These are:

CAN DO – this is all about the belief that you can achieve the goal, the expectation that you have an element of control over the goal, and the assessment that cost to you will be low.

REASON TO – this is about your internal motivation, an emphasis on the “why of your goal (as opposed to the “how”), and the goal linking to your personal values and/or identity. Reason to is important for longer-term goals.

ENERGISED TO – this is about your emotions, feelings and mood. The more positive these are, the more likely you are to put the energy and effort into achieving your goal. Active feelings, such as feeling enthusiastic, are more impactful than passive feelings, such as feeling content.

These states will, to varying degrees, may be impacted by our individual and/or organisational context, so it’s important to pay attention to and work with or around these. When it comes to proactively setting goals, think about how you can achieve the goal, your reason for setting the goal, and how energised you are in relation to the working on your goal.

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If you liked this post, you might also like these:

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