Every January, millions of us make “New Year’s Resolutions” with the hope of driving change in their lives… to lose weight, to save more, to drink less, to exercise more, etc. And last month research was published sharing the sad facts about these resolutions, including that only about 9% of us succeed in achieving the outcomes we want.
They key problem here, is that a “resolution” is little more than a fantasy, just positive thinking like prescribed by the likes of "The Secret", where we’re just supposed to believe that something good will happen. I’m a big believer in the value and power of positive emotions (more on that at in another post), but research shows that “positive thinking” alone isn’t just ineffective in helping us achieve our objectives. It’s actually more likely to work against our achieving what we want.
In order to achieve what we want, we need well-constructed actionable goals.
So, now that it’s February, and you’ve had a month to work on your resolutions, I challenge you to take each of your resolutions and convert them into actionable, achievable goals. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Goals: Effective, but require thought.
Actionable goals move us forward, and they are good for us. Research on “goal theory” shows that goals have an energizing function, they lead to greater efforts both behaviorally and cognitively, and they can motivate persistence toward goal achievement. But crafting a goal so that it has these effects can present some challenges. Consider the following five factors in goal attainment:
1. Commitment: Do I want this?
Ask yourself these questions: How committed to the goal are you? Is it tied to a core value or to a larger over-arching goal? What is the bigger outcome you are trying to achieve?
Goals without something bigger to anchor them in tend to suffer from “goal neglect” and get abandoned. Anchor your goal in something more meaningful to you.
2. Confidence (or Self Efficacy): Can I do this?
It’s important that you feel able to actually perform the tasks to achieve the goal, and we’re not talking about discipline or habit here. It’s about performing the tasks themselves, like knowing how to run, to construct a meal plan, etc. If you don’t feel confident in the tasks required, find someone to train or coach you to develop the skills required.
3. Feedback: How will I know how I'm doing?
What kind of feedback will help you track your success, both in terms of effort (the behaviors required to reach your goal) and the desired outcome? The better you measure both, depending on the goal, the more likely you will be to sustain motivation. The good news is that there are lots of smartphone apps that will help you track habit development and goal progress. Find one that works for you! And don’t forget the human factor – friends and “goal buddies” can be very effective in providing positive feedback and sources of motivation.
4. Complexity: Have I broken it down enough?
It makes sense that the more complex a goal is, the more challenging it may be to achieve. One key is to have more complex goals at the top of your “goal hierarchy” and break them down into smaller achievable goals. Another key is to think of more complex goals as “learning” or “process” goals instead of “performance" goals — focus on the process of learning as you work your way through the complexity, not on the end result. This essentially makes the “doing” itself the goal.
5. Action Plans: How will I actually do it?
A key difference between a resolution and a goal is that a goal has set of actions or steps to achieve it. Break your goal down in a way that makes sense for you, that de-complexifies the effort, that enhances your commitment, and breaks it down into steps that make you feel more motivated and confident.
So, go for it. Take one of your resolutions and make it a goal. I bet you’ll end up in that 9% of us who actually achieve the outcome we want!
Stay tuned for more on goals through the month of February!