How to Achieve Your Goals: The Top Eight Things You Need to Know
Conventional wisdom says that if you want something, you just need to put your head down and keep pushing until you get it. However, if you’ve been following our seven-part series of articles presenting the latest research and theory about goal-setting and achievement, you know that your effort only accounts for a small portion of the complex dynamics of human motivation and goal achievement. These articles are by no means the last word on the matter, and going forward, we’ll continue to develop the topic for you from time to time. But here, we’ve collected the fundamental concepts you need to keep in mind if you want to be effective in accomplishing your goals . . . and it so happens that putting them into practice can yield far more than just objective achievements.
- First things first. Your goals are either attractive or aversive, meaning you’re either trying to be closer to or further away from a certain state. In each case, there is your current state and the one to which you’re comparing it. Similar to the way an air conditioner depends on a thermostat, you’re always comparing those two values—whether you’re doing it consciously or not—and gauging your pace of progress. These factors comprise a feedback loop that affects both your motivation to take action and the way you feel.
- Keep your eyes open. The need for feedback means that being willing to assess your progress, even if it’s not as impressive as you’d like, is imperative. (There are exceptions, though. Keep reading.) Without feedback, you have no idea whether what you’re doing is working, let alone knowing what you need to do differently to achieve better results. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help you develop the capacity to collect this valuable feedback, because (among other things) it works to loosen the aversion you have to unpleasant experience, like bad news.
- Pair up your feedback loops. Just having an aversive goal isn’t very efficient or stable, because there are lots of ways not to be a certain way. When you pair an aversive goal with a complementary attractive one, you link a repulsive force to a propulsive one, improving both your pace of progress and your aim.
- Don’t take your goals at face value. Take a look beneath any superficial goals you may have. If you have the goal of being rich, could it be that wealth is, at least in part, just the extrinsic manifestation of the sense of competence that you really desire? By identifying the values that underlie your attractions and aversions, you’ll become more intrinsically motivated, which will make you happier and better able to withstand setbacks or slow progress.
- Do some experiments. Once you have an educated guess about the values that inform your goals, try setting some smaller, more concrete goals that correspond to them, and pay attention to how you feel as you achieve them. If you feel better, you’re on the right track, and if you don’t, then don’t worry—it was just an experiment. Try something else. Going forward, it’s a good idea to remain attentive to your emotional reactions to any kind of successes or failures you experience—even accidental or unrelated ones—because they can clue you in to things you may not have known are important to you.
- Bite size goals are important, too. If you’ve identified lofty, intrinsically satisfying goals, that’s great! However, achieving them might also be a lifelong process, and your day-to-day progress might be hard to notice. That’s a problem, because when it comes to your satisfaction and motivation, your perception of velocity toward your goals is more important than your distance from them. If you set shorter-term intermediate goals that correspond to them, you’ll probably find that you feel happier and stay more motivated.
- Simplify your strivings. Once you have intermediate goals that are aligned with your big-picture ones, try just paying attention to the intermediate ones. If you think that abstaining from a piece of cake will help you be thinner, which will help you attract a mate, which will allow you to have a family, which will result in a happy and fulfilled life, then you’re imagining a long chain reaction in which any number of things can go wrong and make you feel bad. It’s easy to fall into this trap. Why not just abstain from the cake to be healthier and leave it at that?
- You go where you look. Motorcyclists know that if you round a corner and find a rock in your way, fixating on the rock is a good way to hit it. It’s better to look at the path around the rock. In the same way, whether you have a lone aversive goal that needs pairing up or you’re trying to quit or reduce a behavior, focusing on what you don’t want to do can have the opposite effect. It’s when you’re pursuing such inhibitional goals that short-term goals and frequent feedback can work against you: you become hyper-alert for evidence that you’ve screwed up, and failure impacts your emotions more than success. Try to find a way to reward yourself for abstinence instead of punishing yourself for indulgence.
So, achieving your goals will indeed require effort to do something that doesn’t come as easily as what you’re currently doing. Otherwise, you’d already be doing it. But by applying some of these fundamental (and research-supported) principles, you can transform your goal-seeking from a long slog toward a distant reward to a journey that is inherently fulfilling each step of the way.
You can recognize the values that lie at the foundation of your goals, narrowing your focus so that your efforts are nurturing the qualities that matter to you deeply. Along the way, you can cultivate acceptance of the way things are right now, and compassion for yourself when things don’t go your way, which is going to happen. When you do these things, your effort will be transformed from a chore to be endured, to a means of empowering your most genuine self to light your way. In doing so, you might find that your effort feels a bit more effortless, too.