The science of setting goals

Dec 22, 2014 /
The science of setting goals | Kelly McGonigal |

How to make New Year’s resolutions that actually work out this time.

It’s the time of year when optimism strikes anew and we think to ourselves: our New Year’s resolutions will totally work out this time. Never mind that we abandoned them by Valentine’s Day last year. And the year before. And, well, you know the drill.

But what if this year really could be different?

There’s a science to setting goals. The problem is that it often stays in the ivory tower or gets muddled with misinformation. We called up Kelly McGonigal (TED Talk: How to make stress your friend), a psychologist at Stanford University, and asked her about the best way to set and accomplish a goal, scientifically speaking. Below, she shares four research-backed tips to help you craft and carry out successful goals.

Choose a goal that matters, not just an easy win.

Our brains are wired to love rewards, so we often set simple goals that make it easy to check off boxes. Did you go to the gym today? Check. Did you write in your journal? Check. “It feels really good to set a goal,” says McGonigal. “People often set them just for the burst of optimism they get when they vow to make a change.” But if that’s all our New Year’s resolutions are about, no wonder we end up abandoning them so quickly.

A meaningful goal — one that truly inspires you to change — requires going deeper. “Give yourself permission and time to think about what it is you want to experience in your life or what’s getting in the way,” says McGonigal. Think about what you want in the coming year, then ask yourself why you want that — three times in a row. For example, if you want to quit smoking, ask why do you want to quit? Then, if you want to quit for your health, ask why do you want good health? Then, if your answer is to be alive long enough to meet your grandchildren, ask why do you want to meet your grandchildren? “You get to something that just feels so obviously important to you,” says McGonigal. It really drives home why that goal matters, and that motivation can bolster you as you work toward the goal.

Focus on the process, not the outcome.

When we set goals, it’s easy to fixate on that magical ending when we’ve reached the goal and everything is better. But we can’t control outcomes, and we certainly can’t will them into existence (though this writer has tried, many times). We have to inch toward them, one choice at a time.

“People often get lost thinking they have to change everything all at once,” says McGonigal. “But small changes can pave the way for bigger changes.” Ask yourself, what is the smallest thing I can do today that helps me reach my goal? For example, if you’re shy and you want to be more outgoing, you might accept someone’s invitation to lunch or say hi to someone you usually walk past in the hallway. From there, just follow the breadcrumbs — one small choice after another.

“You can make very, very small changes that are consistent with your big goals without having to understand how you’re going to get to the endgame,” says McGonigal. If you make daily choices that are consistent with your goal over and over again, you will eventually reach it — though it may look nothing like what you expected.

Frame your goals positively.

How you describe your goal makes a big difference. Focusing on what you want to bring into your life — not what you want to avoid — will make you more likely to actually pursue it. “That’s basically just brain chemistry,” says McGonigal. “Any sort of avoidance is going to trigger inhibition systems, whereas positive goals are going to trigger approach and reward motivation.”

Think about what you want to foster in yourself or what you want to do more often. That positivity can help motivate you when you find yourself slipping. “Saying ‘I don’t want to be fat anymore’ gives you no positive motivation to draw on when you just ate the second box of donuts,” says McGonigal. Be nice to yourself. It works.

Prepare for failure (in a good way).

Moments of failure are inevitable, but most of us abandon the goal entirely when minor failures and setbacks start piling up. We give up on getting fit when we miss the gym, or we forget about losing weight after a night of burgers and milkshakes. “In that moment when you fail, often the first instinct is to push the goal away,” says McGonigal. “It’s so uncomfortable to be in that place of self-doubt or self-criticism and guilt.”

Your task is not to avoid failures, but to plan for them. Ask yourself, how am I likely to fail? For example, if you’re likely to choose unhealthy meals when you’re hungry, carry a light snack that can tide you over. Psychologists call this an if/then contingency plan, or “if this happens, then I’ll do that.” It’s a mental plan for how you’ll react to things that might trip you up.

When detours and roadblocks come up, remind yourself why your goal matters to you. Those simple reminders about why it’s important can buoy your motivation and keep you headed in the right direction. Who knows, you might just make it past Valentine’s Day this year.

Featured illustration via iStock.