4 Hacks to Set and Achieve Your Goals

All of us have goals. Some of us are diligently making progress towards them. Others of us, well, let’s just say we’ve hit some bumps along the road. Or, in some cases, we’ve hit a wall.

Goal striving is an important aspect of our happiness. But setting and achieving goals can be really difficult, especially if the goal is demanding. Getting clear about what we want to achieve and maintaining the motivation despite everything life throws at us are challenges that often keep us from getting what we want.

If you know you’re falling short of your potential when it comes to reaching a goal of yours, these 4 mental hacks for setting and achieving your goals can help.

Goal-Setting Hack #1: Control the Process

Let's say you have a goal to lose weight. There are many ways you can begin to approach it. You start making some changes to your diet. You get outside and exercise more. But if you set a goal to lose 25 pounds by the end of the year and you’re struggling to make progress, you may be overly focused on your outcome.

How much you weigh is ultimately a complex balance of many factors including your diet, exercise, hormones, stress, and genetics. Some of that is within your control. And some of it isn’t. By tying your success to an outcome, you avoid the direct responsibility for the steps you’re taking to achieve it.

Instead, before you even start, make your goal about the process. When your goal changes from “lose 25 pounds by New Year’s” to “exercise five times per week, every week,” you’ve instantly given yourself more control and helped yourself get more specific about the “how” in addition to the “what.” Stay motivated!

Goal-Setting Hack #2: Contrast the Good and the Bad

It feels good to dream about what life will be like when our goal becomes our reality. Imagining possible futures in this way can help us to clarify our values and decide which goals to pursue.

What this dreaming doesn’t do is help us actually make progress on goals.

Goal researcher Gabriele Oettingen claims that when we overly indulge in the benefits of goal achievement, we often lose sight of the obstacles that we’ll have to overcome to get there. In order to fight this tendency and build a sense of agency, Oettingen developed a technique known as mental contrasting.

It’s simple. When you want to build motivation for goal, take a moment to think of one great benefit you’ll receive from achieving it. For example, if you’re starting a new business, imagine how great it will be to provide great service to your customers and to have people raving about and referring your products. Then—and it’s important that this step comes next—switch gears and ask yourself, "What about myself is an obstacle to all these wonderful benefits?" Maybe you don’t have much experience with business finances and your lack of confidence is keeping you from making important decisions. Now, design a plan of action to handle it, like hiring a financial advisor or taking a business course online.

Goal-Setting Hack #3: Prioritize Motivation

When a goal feels exciting, taking steps towards it is usually energizing and happens almost effortlessly. But maintaining motivation, particularly over the course of longer-term goals like finishing a college degree, can be daunting.

When an activity or task is inherently enjoyable, we do it for the sake of the activity itself (think of playing a board game or having a great conversation with a friend). Tasks like these are intrinsically motivated because the motivation comes from the activity itself. Along the path to achieving a goal, these parts usually take care of themselves. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, are all the external motivators, from earning money to avoiding shame, that keep us working at a task that may be less enjoyable. This is where we need a little help.

While there is some debate in psychology about the instrinsic and extrinsic motivation distinction, knowing why you’re doing something helps you stick with it. In particular, when your goal demands a few steps that really don’t excite you—like that chemistry class you’ve been dreading that’s required for your nursing degree—remind yourself of the big picture. Why are you pursuing this goal? What will achieving it mean to you? 

And rewarding yourself with a small shopping spree when you pass a milestone step may be just the boost you need.

Goal-Setting Hack #4: Defeat Procrastination by Focusing on the Nuts and Bolts

Our tendency to procrastinate can be driven by many things, from a fear of failure to an internal conflict we’re facing with the task in front of us. But when we avoid taking the action necessary to achieve our goals, we rob ourselves of the joys of success.

A team of German psychologists studied procrastination and how the way we think about tasks before we approach them affects us. Specifically, they considered two ways we can construe a task before taking it on: abstractly and concretely. For example, if your task is to head to the gym for a workout, an abstract construal would keep you focused on how good it feels to work out, what you’ll look like after a few months of exercise, or what sort of race you might sign up for once you get into better shape. Conversely, a concrete construal orients us more towards the “how” of achieving the task, so we might pull up a quick mental map of the equipment at the gym and decide which ones we’ll use and for how long.

In research settings where participants were primed for either an abstract or a concrete perspective, those in the abstract condition took 64% longer to complete a basic task over a period of a few weeks. Focus yourself on the nuts and bolts of what needs to get accomplished and what resources you need to help you. And setting deadlines—particularly those set by others or those we set and share with accountability partners—can help us stay on track.

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