By Anne Harding Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD 10/2/2015
Explore the psychology behind goal setting and learn how to make it work for you.
Once you set your goal, use implementation intentions to help you grab opportunities to reach it, and overcome or sidestep obstacles that could keep you from achieving it.
Want to make big or small changes in your life?
It may seem like a simple idea, but setting goals is a great first step — and understanding the psychology behind setting and reaching goals will greatly increase your chances of achieving them.
“It’s important to know what you want to do, but it’s even more important to know how you want to get there,” says Peter Gollwitzer, PhD, a professor of psychology at New York University in New York City. Dr. Gollwitzer developed the concept of “implementation intentions,” which are “if … then …” plans designed to help people achieve goals.
Extensive research shows that using this strategy helps people achieve goals ranging from getting more exercise, to expressing themselves more effectively.
Forming implementation intentions makes achieving goals easier because it allows you to anticipate opportunities to move toward your goal, and to recognize potential obstacles and distractions.
For example, if your goal intention is to eat more vegetables, an implementation intention for eating in a restaurant could be, “If the waiter approaches the table, then I will ask him what vegetables they have today.” Another might be, “If I get hungry between meals, then I will snack on carrots and celery.” The second implementation intention (snacking on carrots and celery) requires you to do a little planning and preparation by making sure you have veggies cut up and ready to eat in your fridge.
“For all of these critical situations, you can make plans, and these plans are best when made in an ‘if…then …’ format,” Gollwitzer says. “It’s a different kind of action control: It’s not top down by your good intentions, it’s bottom up from your opportunity. You don’t have to think.”
Here’s more about how you can use the science of motivation and goal setting to achieve your own aspirations:
1. Accentuate the Positive
Before you can implement your intentions, you must set your goals. And the way you set them is important, says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at the Montefiore Medical Center and associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “It’s better to set a goal on something positive that you do want, rather than something negative that you don’t want,” Dr. Rego says. “Sometimes people get caught in the trap of focusing too heavily on the negatives in their lives.”
So for example, if you want to lose weight, rather than having “I want to stop eating junk food” as your goal, it could be, “I want to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.”
“It’s just turning from what’s there that I’m unhappy with to what I want to strive for that would enhance my life in some way,” Rego explains.
|Align your goals with your values.
If your goals are in line with who you are
— and who you want to be —
they’re easier to achieve.
2. Be SMART
Goals should also be “SMART,” Rego and other experts on motivation say. This acronym, borrowed from the business world, stands for “specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based.” A non-SMART goal could be, “I want to weigh what I did in high school.” The SMART version could be, “Over the next month, I want to lose 2 pounds per week.”
A key strategy for building SMART goals is to break a large goal into smaller pieces. “By doing that and setting smaller targets, the goal is within reach, and yet it’s still a challenge,” Rego says. And achieving smaller goals can help push you forward to the next step. “If you can set a goal and achieve it, you get a boost in your motivation, and a general good feeling about yourself and the world you’re living in,” he adds. “If you set a goal and you blow it, it saps your strength.”
3. Align Your Goals With Your Values
Know why a goal is meaningful for you. “It’s important to ask yourself, ‘How does this fit into the bigger picture in my life, why am I doing this, is it really a goal that’s based on a value I have, or is it something I feel I should or must do?’” Rego says.
Ensuring that your goals are in line with who you are — and, especially, who you want to be — makes it much easier to stay committed to these goals, and to ultimately achieve them, says Lateefah Watford, MD, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Jonesboro, Georgia. “Goal-setting has to be a very personal thing. You can’t align your goals with those of your mom or your best friend or your cousins,” Dr. Watford says. “You have to do what works for you.”
4. Be Kind to Yourself
There will almost certainly be slips or missteps on the path to achieving your goals, and the important thing is to not beat yourself up about them. “We all have that inner voice that comments on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Rego says.
View any bumps along the way as chances to reassess and readjust your plans. “Maybe you do need to tweak the goal a little bit, but you also need to look at the failure as a learning opportunity,” Watford says.
5. Just Do It
Don’t wait for motivation to strike, or that thing you want to do may never get done. “Rather than waiting until you feel like doing it, the magic is to start doing it and then see how you feel,” Rego says.
So if you’re struggling with a writing project, for example, tell yourself you’ll sit down at the computer and write for five minutes. “Often, people are thinking, ‘I can’t do that.’ It may be that their bar, or their standard, or their goal is too high or big. Just keep reducing it until you say, ‘That I can do right now,’ and do it,” says Rego.
6. Keep Your Goals to Yourself — or Not
If a goal is strongly tied to your identity — say, for example, you want to be fit and attractive, and you set the goal of hitting the gym every day for an hour — you may be setting yourself up for failure if you tell other people about it, Gollwitzer’s research shows.
By “showing off” your goals, he explains, “You feel that you’re already there and that you’ve reached the goal, so you can slack off a little. What we find is that when people announce their identity-related goals, they feel they’ve reached them. There’s a sense of goal attainment or goal completion.”
But Rego and others argue that the benefits of letting other people know about your goals outweigh the downsides — as long as you choose the right people to tell. “By sharing goals and reaching out for assistance, and asking people for support, you not only learn how to do it [work towards goals] more effectively, but you also gain a support team that can help you in achieving these wonderful goals you’ve set,” Watford says.
And here, implementation intention can help. Gollwitzer’s research shows that using this strategy erases any negative effects of publicizing your goals.