Goals Aren’t Chores
Goals are powerful. Once they’re set, you’re eager to reach them. Your goals modify your behavior; they pull you. You should therefore not neglect to set your goals. But how you set your goals will determine their power. Your goals become less effective when, rather than feeling excited by them, you see them as chores. To set goals that aren’t chores, you can start by asking yourself the following questions:
Have you set your goals and are these the right goals for you? Do your goals fit the person you are and are they the best for the person you hope to become? You want to get the content of your goals right.
How do you define your goals to yourself? Can you make them feel more exciting by focusing on what you’re trying to achieve, rather than on the means you take to get there?
Are your goals optimally abstract so that you don’t lose sight of where you’re going as well as exactly how you’ll get there?
Can you define your goals in terms of approaching a state of physical and mental comfort instead of avoiding an undesirable state of discomfort? You’ll likely be more motivated with an approach goal, though you might feel it’s more urgent to avoid an anti-goal.
Put a Number on It
once you set a target, don’t get discouraged if you fail to meet it. Realizing that the goal target is somewhat arbitrary is often the key to a healthy relationship with our goals. While missing the train by one minute is as bad (and feels worse) than missing it by an hour, missing your annual savings goal by a few dollars, your exercise goal by a few workouts, or your reading challenge by one book doesn’t make a big difference in your life as long as you don’t let these small discrepancies discourage you from sticking with your goal. Keeping this in mind, set targets by answering the following questions:
Can you put a number—how much or how soon—on your goals?
Are these goal targets challenging? Easy to measure? Actionable?
Have you set these targets yourself or did someone else set them for you?
Do these targets work for you? If you’re concerned that a goal target might be malicious, you should revise it. You might even revert to the “doing your best” or the “be awe-some” vague target, until you have a better sense of what a realistic, challenging number to attach to your goal might be.
The study of incentives advises us to take caution when adding extra reasons to pursue a goal. While incentives motivate action, too many incentives can backfire. They change or dilute the central reason we’ve aspired to a goal and therefore make it seem less pressing or exciting. In addition, incentives might prevent us from realizing the impact of our behavior on our goal in the first place. And while certain incentives might seem more powerful than uncertain ones, the opposite is true. Certainty results in habituation such that people stop caring about receiving the incentives. Keeping these risks in mind, you should ask yourself the following questions about your incentive system:
What incentives can you add to your goals so you have extra reasons to follow through? Consider, for example, rewarding yourself with a movie night or a long bubble bath after getting your annual flu shot or finishing an important project at work.
Consider the incentives that exist for pursuing your goals. Do they modify the meaning of pursuing your goals? If so, these incentives need to be revised. If, for example, external rewards reduce your enjoyment of reading books, get rid of these rewards.
Have you added incentives to new activities that you’re still exploring? If you’re still figuring out your preferences, incentives might lead you to believe you’re only doing something for the incentive it provides. Remove these incentives.
Do your incentives fit the activity? Financial rewards, for example, are a poor fit for pursuing relationship goals. Many of us would feel less motivated to keep in touch with people if we were paid to do so. Remove these incentives.
Intrinsic Motivation (and why you should have more fun)
Intrinsic motivation, defined as the experience of an activity as its own end, is an important ingredient in sticking to our goals. When setting a goal, we want it to be exciting and provide some immediate gratification. Yet we often underestimate how much intrinsic motivation will be the driving force of our actions, and so we fail to set goals in a way that capitalizes on intrinsic motivation. To increase your chances of following through on a goal, you can start by answering the following questions:
How can you make pursuing a goal more immediately rewarding? You could, for example, introduce music, podcasts, or audiobooks to your exercise routine.
What is the most fun path to pursuing your goals? You could, for example, choose to join a water aerobics class rather than buying a treadmill.
Are there immediate benefits you can focus on while pursuing your goal? You could, for example, direct your attention to certain parts of your workout, like that euphoria you feel when you exercise.
Can you remind yourself that other people, including your future self, care to be intrinsically motivated just as your present self does? Such a reminder will help you set achievable goals for yourself and others and can further improve your relationships.
Progress Increases Motivation
Progress helps sustain your motivation by increasing your commitment, including building confidence in your ability and affirming the value of the goal you pursue. It is, therefore, useful to monitor your progress. Once you’ve achieved some, it’s usually easier to keep going. Yet, interestingly, lack of progress can also help sustain your motivation. It’s often useful to look ahead at what you have yet to achieve in order to stay on track. To motivate yourself by monitoring progress, ask yourself the following questions:
Look back at what you have accomplished. Does that mental exercise help you regain your goal commitment? Does it remind you why you’ve chosen to pursue this goal in the first place?
Look ahead at what you still need to do to accomplish your goals. Does that mental exercise make you eager to start moving? Looking forward is a reminder to stay on track and monitor the pace of progress to meet your goal.
Tune in to your emotions. How do you feel about your goals? If you feel good about holding your goal but not as good about your progress, your feelings will guide your actions and help you sustain your motivation.
The Middle Problem
While beginnings and ends are clearly marked, middles can be long and ill-defined. You can’t tell exactly when your middle started and when it will end. How can you sustain your motivation to work on a goal and do it right during that long and undefined period? When planning your strategy, ask yourself these questions:
How does being in the middle affect your motivation to get something done? How does it affect your motivation to do it right? For any given goal, which one is more important for you: getting it done or doing it right?
We sometimes slack off in the middle because middle actions don’t seem to matter as much. Can you pay attention to your actions in the middle, make them memorable so they will matter?
To shorten middles, can you set monthly, weekly, or even shorter subgoals? By setting subgoals, you can minimize the tendency to cut corners in the middle by minimizing the middle itself.
Can you identify arbitrary temporal landmarks to mark a fresh start? A Monday, the first day of the month, or a birthday can all mark a new beginning for pursuing important goals.
“You’re Wrong!”: Learning from Negative Feedback
Negative feedback can lead you to tune out and stop paying attention, so that you don’t learn. In extreme cases, it results in learned helplessness, so that you learn the wrong lesson. Here’s the paradox: failures are hidden, but when we’re willing to elaborate on and learn from them, we gain valuable information. Realizing that negative outcomes provide unique information that’s critical for success, we should learn to both seek out and learn from information about failure. Start by asking these questions:
What makes you committed to your goal? What makes you the expert in pursuing your goal? Feeling confident that your goal is within reach will make it more likely that you’ll learn from negative feedback.
Can you think about pursuing goals in terms of growing your abilities rather than proving these abilities? Keep in mind that whether you succeed or fail in a goal, you always learn.
Can you give others advice based on your personal mishaps? Try articulating the lessons you’ve learned in the format of advice to another person.
What can you learn from observing others’ successes and failures? Learning from others’ mishaps is often easier.
When identifying the best path to a goal, can you pay close attention to information on failures? Don’t limit yourself to your own failures. Listen to those who have failed, as well as succeeded, and extract lessons from their experiences.
Pursuing Goals in the Presence of Others
The presence of others influences our motivation, even when they’re not physically with us. When you’re in love, you behave as if your loved one watches and listens to everything you do, say, or think, even when they aren’t around. Your loved one motivates you to be your best self. You also rely on your friends and family, among others, to keep you moving forward because they’re watching you, even if only in your head.
Here are some questions that will help you design a social environment that motivates you to stick with your goals:
Think about the people in your life. Should you conform to their values, including stated goals and actions? Should you instead complement what they say and do? You should probably do both, and it’s useful to identify how your goals and actions fit within others’ goals and actions.
Who should be your role models? Recall that effective role models don’t just demonstrate success. Watching sports on TV, for example, doesn’t get you in shape. Your role models are the people who expect you to do well.
How can you use the power of being watched to facilitate your performance? Whether by performing in front of an audience or working in a public place, when executing highly practiced goal tasks, you can use social facilitation to your advantage. But when learning a new task, try practicing alone.
Goals Make a Happy Relationship
People connect through their goals. We want our friends, family, and partners to know us so that they can help us achieve whatever we set out to do. The extent to which another person supports your motivation predicts how satisfied you are in your relationship.
You should accordingly develop insights into the roles of those around you in your goal system. They’re not only instrumental to meeting your relationship goals; they facilitate all other goals. Your personal trainer facilitates your goal of “keeping in shape” just as your partner might facilitate your goal of “getting a promotion,” for example. You should also consider how you, in turn, play a role in their goal system. Would they say you facilitate their emotional and intellectual growth? Would they say you help them stay healthy? Finally, keep in mind that while our relationships support our goals, it’s also possible to develop goals with the sole purpose of deepening a relationship. These are goals that will be facilitated by the relationship and may involve anything from developing a new skill (rock-climbing or baking, for example) to acquiring a new purpose in life (promoting social justice, for example). To do all of this, you can start by asking:
How well do you know the people in your life? Do you know their goals, needs, and aspirations? How well can you draw their goal system? If you’re struggling, start asking questions, making observations, and taking mental notes.
Do the people in your life know your goal system? Is it possible you’ve been too quiet or ambiguous about what you want?
What do you do to facilitate your partner’s goals? What do they do that helps you achieve your goals? What needs to be changed?
Can you develop goals, like a new hobby, that will serve as glue for a relationship? This can be a goal that allows you to be supported and support someone in turn.