If setting goals is so useful, how come we don’t do it?
Setting goals can leave some people feeling trapped, especially if it feels they’re pushing themselves to do something they’re not sure about. Also, we might feel worse if we don’t achieve our goals.
If you feel reluctant to set goals, you could always focus on the way you get things done instead.
For example, if we want to lose weight, we can set a weight loss goal, or we can work to establish healthier habits. Either could bring the results we want.
For weight loss, relevant habits might be:
Buying more vegetables.
Eating out less.
Eating fruit instead of sweets.
Walking for 15 minutes each day.
If we want to be more fit, rather than setting goals of distance, weight or repetitions, focus on strengthening the habit of taking regular exercise.
Don’t break the chain.
We can make healthy habits easier by starting a chain. Take a printed calendar and place it where you’ll see it every day. Keep a marker pen with the calendar.
Each day on which you do your healthy behaviour, mark a tick on your calendar.
Seeing your success each day, and the desire not to break the chain, can be powerful motivators.
Another way to use chaining is to chain one habit after another. For example, getting out of bed is followed by stretching exercises, which is followed by brushing teeth, which is followed by identifying your top three priorities for the day … and so on.
Making healthy behaviours into habits helps us get them done with a minimum of effort, reducing the cognitive load, or the “thinking work” we have to do to get something done.
Written by: SC.
Written on: 20 May 2019.
Last updated on: 06 June 2019.
Checked by: JL.
Checked on: 06 June 2019.
Date for review: May 2021.
Flesch Reading Ease: 72.
We can all get better at setting goals. Here’s a quick guide to setting goals that are genuinely helpful.
Write goals down.
When we write our goals down, we can “tick off” the ones we’ve achieved. This gives a confidence boost when we look back at the things we’ve done.
Make goals specific.
A good goal should specify what you’ll do, when, where, why, with whom, and how. A good goal is not vague, it goes into detail.
Use simple language.
Although your goal should be specific, don’t use long words. The simpler, the better. Ask yourself: “could an average six year-old understand this?”
Make goals positive and active.
Write goals in positive language. Avoid words such as “stop,” and “reduce.” Where a goal is to do less of something, it’s better to say what you’ll do more of instead.
For example, it’s better to set a goal to “take more exercise” than a goal to “smoke less.” When we think about stopping smoking, we make a mental image of the very thing we’re trying to reduce. Remember, we tend to intensify what we notice.
Make sure goals are achievable.
We can’t make other people change. We might put pressure on them, and try to support or encourage them to change, but at the end of the day we can only change ourselves.
Is your goal achievable for you, given the amount of time, energy, money, resources and motivation you have? A goal you can’t realistically achieve may make you miserable!
Make goals measurable.
How will you know when you have achieved your goal? Describe what people will see or hear when you’ve achieved your goal. If your goal isn’t measurable, how will you know when you’ve achieved it?
“Feeling different” goals aren’t much use. If you set a goal to “be happier,” how happy is happy enough? The goal is too vague.
Set time limits.
Choose a time during the day when you’ll work towards your goals, as well as a time by when you’ll have achieved them. Some people work best early in the morning, some later in the day.
Break up large tasks into more manageable pieces, and think whether these might actually be goals in themselves.
Visualise your goals.
Play your goals through your mind like a film. Make it as real as possible. As you think about having achieved your goal, enjoy any good feelings as though you’ve already succeeded. Acclimatise yourself to success!
Learn from others.
If you know someone with a similar goal, what can you learn from the way they go about things? Can you talk to them? Search out people, or books, or websites, that are positive, optimistic and inspirational.
What’s in this for you? What are the benefits of achieving this goal?
The goals we’re doing because we feel we “should” or “ought,” or to please someone else, are often much harder to stick with.
Break your goal down into smaller goals if you can. This way, you can enjoy a sense of achievement each time you achieve one of them. Build your confidence with early successes at smaller goals.
Turn your goals into a “to-do” list.
For example, break down a goal of losing 5Kg in a year, to a “mini-goal” of losing 0.2Kg this month.
Breaking the mini-goal down may mean you have fruit for breakfast, a salad for lunch and a low-calorie supper.
If you haven’t achieved a mini-goal, all that needs to be re-done is one mini-goal, not the whole diet. This can help stop us getting upset and giving up.
Remember SMART goals are:
Try this now. Think about a personal change you want to make. Make a note of it here, by typing in the following boxes.
My SMART goal.
Implementation intentions were introduced by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer. We’ll call them “IMPS.”
An IMP is simply an “if – then” plan.
If “X” happens, then I will do “Y.”
IMPS are more effective than willpower alone, because when faced with temptation, willpower eventually runs out.
A goal identifies what you want to achieve, for example, to take more exercise. IMPS also specify exactly what you’ll do to achieve that goal, for example:
“When my alarm goes off at 6 o’clock each morning, I will have a shower, then I’ll run up and down stairs 10 times.”
Set your own IMPS.
There are two things to think about when setting IMPS:
Identify what you’ll do to achieve your goal, and when you’ll do it
Identify any obstacles, and how you’ll deal with them
IMPS are written as an “if – then” statement:
“If it’s 6 o’clock, Monday through Friday, then I will get up, go to the bathroom, use the toilet and shower, then run up and down stairs ten times before I do anything else.”
It’s a good idea to identify any problems that could push you off course.
Once you’ve identified these problems, you can create an “if – then” statement to deal with each one.
For example, suppose you’re trying to lose weight, but you’ve struggled with these three situations:
By mid-afternoon you feel tired, so you pop out to buy crisps.
When you feel stressed, you overeat.
They only sell unhealthy snacks in your local shops.
In order to shield your goals, you can create “if – then” statements, for example:
If I’m at the office, then I’ll take fruit to eat in the middle of the afternoon.
If I’m feeling stressed, then I’ll go for a walk, or talk to a friend.
If I think I might have to buy food at lunchtime, then I’ll take sandwiches to work.
When to use IMPS.
You set a goal, but don’t start it. You may need help with action initiation.
You set a goal, start it, but get distracted. You may need help with keeping focused.
Can’t get started?
This happens for three main reasons: forgetting stuff, missing opportunities, and having second thoughts.
Forgetting – you want to get your money under control, decide to keep hold of all your receipts, but you forget to keep them.
Missed opportunities – you want to read a novel every month, so carry a book around with you. While waiting for an appointment, you miss the opportunity to read, and pick up an old waiting room magazines instead.
Second thoughts – you decide to walk a mile each day. You plan to walk, but it looks like rain, so put your feet up instead.
This happens for three main reasons: temptations, old habits, and bad moods.
Temptations – you set the goal of losing weight, you see a cake shop, you’re tempted, you go in, you buy a cake.
Old habits – you want to stop smoking, and you tend to smoke after drinking with friends. While at a friend’s house, they offer you a cigarette. You smoke it almost without noticing.
Bad moods – we tend to prioritise “mood repair” above our other goals. You’re saving for a holiday, you have an argument with your partner, you blow the money on a treat for yourself.
Have you done any of these things? You can use “if – then” statements to help shield your goals.
Good and bad IMPS.
Make sure your IMPS are specific. Avoid vague IMPS like these:
If I want to smoke, then I’ll distract myself by doing something else. It’s better to be to be specific about how you’ll distract yourself.
If it’s morning, then I’ll exercise. It’s better to be specific about what you’ll do, the time and the day.
Here are some examples of good IMPS:
Goal – Keep track of my spending.
IMP – If I take out my wallet to pay for something, then I’ll keep the receipt in my wallet, then I’ll take out a notebook and jot down how much I’ve spent.
Goal – Lose weight.
IMP – If I’m walking down the street and I see a cake shop, then I’ll cross the road and keep walking.
Goal – Save money.
IMP – If I’m at the bank, then I will make a deposit in my savings account, however small.
Goal – Relax.
IMP – If I feel myself getting angry or upset, then I will take a deep breath, count to twenty, and distract myself.
Goal – Read a good book.
IMP – If I have some waiting time, whether it’s waiting for the dentist, or waiting to pick up my kids, then I will take out my book and start reading.
With implementation intentions, you’re planning the actual things you’ll do to achieve your goals, as well as when and where you’ll do these things. You’re also creating a plan about how you’ll maintain progress, even when faced with obstacles.
Research shows IMPS are much more effective than willpower alone.
Before you go, why not write down some IMPS, maybe an “If – then” statement about how you can keep your progress going with this Programme, when faced with obstacles or distractions.
For more information, read: Gollwitzer, P. M., Wieber, F., Meyers, A. L., & McCrea, S. M. (2010). How to maximize implementation intention effects. In C. R. Agnew, D. E. Carlston, W. G. Graziano, J. R. Kelly (Eds.). Then a miracle occurs: Focusing on behavior in social psychological theory and research (pp.137-161). New York: Oxford Press.
Do you feel you’re working hard but not achieving much? Maybe you’re confusing “urgent” with “important” tasks.
Dwight Eisenhower said: “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”
An urgent task needs attention right away. Important tasks count towards our personal goals. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but often they’re not.
Take a look at the following Eisenhower Matrix:
Tasks that are both urgent and important.
Some things are both urgent, and important. They need immediate attention and count towards our personal goals.
Some emails – maybe a job offer, or a new opportunity.
We need to crack on with these “DO FIRST” tasks. Instead of waiting to the last minute, schedule these tasks in advance.
We can often reduce the number of “urgent and important” jobs by using a diary, and by thoughtful planning.
Do the worst, first.
When we’ve a list of things to do, it’s often best to do the hardest or nastiest job first.
Mark Twain said that if we eat a frog first thing in the morning, nothing worse was likely to happen to us that day.
If we get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first, it’s easier to look forward to the rest of the day, rather than dreading the jobs to come.
Jobs that aren’t urgent, but are important.
These tasks may not have a pressing deadline, but they help achieve our overall goals.
They might involve improving relationships, future planning, and self-improvement; for example:
These important things can add to our happiness, fulfilment and success.
Often, we focus on whatever seems urgent at the time, while we hope to get the important stuff done later. The trouble is, the urgent stuff tends to “crowd out” the important stuff, leaving us busy but feeling like we’re not really getting anywhere.
DELEGATE or DECLINE.
Urgent but unimportant tasks.
These tasks need attention straight away, but usually don’t help us achieve our goals or mission. Sometimes, they involve helping other people meet their goals and priorities, for example:
Favours for friends.
People dropping in.
These might be “feel good” tasks. They can often make us popular!
They might feel important, but mostly we’re doing things that are important for other people, rather than for ourselves.
In the long run this can make us resentful. We might need to learn to say “no,” or learn to delegate better.
Tasks that are neither urgent, nor important.
These are our distractions, for example:
Surfing the internet.
Playing video games.
These can help us reduce stress, so we shouldn’t get rid of them completely, but make sure we don’t devote too much time to them. They won’t make us happy or satisfied in the long run.
Identify a list of things you have to do, think about your goals and create your own Eisenhower Matrix below.
Things I need to DO now, that are both urgent and important.
Change is rarely straightforward. Thinking it’s going to be easy can lead to frustration, if it turns out to be harder than we thought.
Don’t despair if you don’t make the same progress every day. It’s probably better to think that change might take a lot of effort. That way we can prepare ourselves for any tough times ahead.
Change is not linear.
When a plane is on autopilot, it doesn’t travel from A to B in a straight line. The autopilot makes adjustments to the course, so the journey is more like the wavy line below:
Like an aircraft, we change by making small adjustments to our path. Overall, we can move towards our goal, even if it doesn’t seem that way from moment to moment.
Are you ready?
Take a look at the diagram below …
When we’re at stage one, we haven’t thought much about change. We might be fairly comfortable with the way things are.
People at stage two are thinking about change. They feel less comfortable than those at stage one. Maybe they know there’s a problem, but think things can’t change. They might think the problem isn’t worth dealing with, or tell themselves there’s nothing they can do about it.
People at stage three have made a decision. They might have made plans or set goals. We usually feel better when we have a plan.
We get busy. We work on our goals.
Change gets easier, and our confidence grows. Feelings of well-being increase.
There’s no guarantee of success, something goes wrong. Life is about setbacks as well as successes. But we don’t give up.
We build on the gains we’ve made. We learn to become more resilient, more “stable under stress.”
Of course, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. One day we can feel determined, like we’re at stage three. The next day something happens, and we can feel like we’re back at stage one again.
It’s normal to feel uncertain about change; we might switch between good and bad days many times before we reach our goal.
Change is often harder than we think.
Some days are worse than others.
Do not let failure put you off.
Keep your goals in mind.
Notice the good things.
For more information, read: Prochaska, J. O., & Norcross, J. C. (2002). Stages of change. In J. C. Norcross (Ed.), Psychotherapy relationships that work (303-313). New York: Oxford University Press.
When we focus on our goals, we focus less on our problems. This helps us feel more positive and gives us more energy. Goals provide something to aim for, and allow us to measure our success.
We intensify what we notice.
When we turn our attention inwards, we risk making our sensations and emotions stronger, because attention intensifies experience.
When we focus the mind on sorrow and pain, we risk intensifying those feelings. When we focus on our goals, and on our strengths and well-being, we strengthen those positive feelings instead.
Do I need goals?
Having goals doesn’t work for everyone. Some people find it more helpful to focus on WHY they do things, rather than on where they want to be. Others prefer to work by principles. They find it more useful to focus on HOW they’re doing things.
For some, identifying positive habits; small positive behaviours repeated each day, feels more helpful.
If you’re the kind of person who finds goals useful, and you want to get better at goal-setting, you’ve come to the right place!
Sometimes we’re ready, willing, and able to change. Other times we’re just thinking about it. Sometimes we’re not convinced change is needed, or whether change is possible.
Think about what you’re prepared to put into your goals. Think about how committed you feel to setting goals right now, then score your commitment from 1 to 10.
A score of 1 means:
“I’m not going to put much into it, but I’ll give it a go.”
A score of 10 means:
“I’m prepared to do whatever it takes, no matter what.”
Choose a number to show how committed you feel today. Don’t think about it too much, just make a note of it below.