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It’s never too late to set a goal for yourself, but the New Year offers people a fresh new start to rewrite chapters of their lives, set new goals, or become better versions of who they want to be. Many people want to be healthier, read more books, or learn a new instrument. It can seem daunting when you don’t know where to begin or if the finish line is just too far to even see. Here are some strategies and mental tools you can use to achieve your goals.
1. The WOOP Method
This mental tool was developed by Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D. at New York University, who studies wish fulfillment and goal attainment. The specific psychological process that she studies is called mental contrasting. Mental contrasting is a process by which we visualize our goals and the obstacles that prevent us from being able to accomplish them. The WOOP method has been found to increase academic achievement, improve time management, and reduce stress.
Here are the four steps of the WOOP method:
W (Wish): What is your wish? What do you want?
O (Outcome): What would be the best outcome possible? How would obtaining this goal make you feel?
O (Obstacle): What is holding you back from obtaining your goal? Is it an emotion? Is it a specific attitude you have towards yourself?
P (Plan): Make a plan to overcome your obstacle.
You can learn more about this mental strategy at Gabriele Oettingen’s website here. It includes youtube videos to emulate and an app to keep you on track to obtaining your goal.
2. Set a specific goal
To fully reap the benefits of the WOOP method, the best way to obtain your goal is to make your goal as specific as possible. For example, I want to be healthier is just too abstract to be able to accomplish. A more specific goal such as, I want to run a 5K is a tangible goal that you can measure in a specific time frame. Having a more specific goal enables you to visualize success more easily. When we see success as attainable, we are more willing to maintain our commitment to our goals.
I once heard that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, including yourself. I think that this is one of the most important lessons I ever learned from Oprah. We do not live in a vacuum, and our social environment is always influencing us. One way that you can reach your goals for future years is to find others that have the same goals as you. This can help to motivate you to stay on track, build, stronger relationships, and be subtly influenced by the norms of your social group.
3. Turn your goal into a habit
One of the easiest ways to maintain behavioral change is by being consistent. If you want to lose weight, go to the gym every day even if you don’t feel like it. Once a behavior is automatic and routine, you will spend less time deciding to act. When we have more time to make a decision, we think of any excuse we can as to why we can not achieve our goals.
4. Change your environment
Rearrange your environment to set yourself up for success that is aligned with your goals. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg gives tips on how to use visual cues to activate behaviors. He recommends leaving objects around that enable your goals by taking advantage of the psychological process of priming. For example, if your goal is to go the gym three times a week, leave your sneakers near the door to remind you of your fitness goals.
5. Set small attainable goals for yourself
Once you have decided on a goal for yourself, you need to make a plan as to how you will achieve this goal. Breaking up the larger goal into smaller attainable goals that can be done daily makes you feel accomplished and energized towards working toward your goal. Small successes give you the confidence that you can achieve larger goals down the road.
Many people rush into making lifestyle changes, but many people end up giving up on these goals because they made too many changes too fast. Behavior and specifically, lifestyle changes, are a marathon. Small steps towards your goals lead to lasting behavioral change.
6. Don’t beat yourself up
Practice self-compassion with yourself when you are unable to achieve the smaller goals you set for yourself. Life happens, and we cannot always get to the gym because our boss asked us to stay late or you were driving so you were forced to eat McDonald’s. If you cannot achieve your goal for the day, just start again tomorrow where you left off. Continuing to move forward is never a setback.
7. Write about it
Robert Cialdini, Ph.D. is the king of marketing and persuasion research. His book Influence describes social psychological principles that you can take advantage of to trick your brain into behavioral change. One of the principles that he discusses that you can use as a tool for yourself is to write a public commitment. Because we have a psychological need for consistency, you are more likely to behave in accordance with your goals by aligning with your past behavior (your commitment).
8. Make it your identity
Many people fall short of completing their goals because they tell themselves that it is just not who they are. I am not a runner, I am not a musician, or I am not a volunteer. The more we incorporate activities into our identity, it becomes easier to maintain the behavior. Roles and identities give us some sort of idea about how these identities should be played out. For example, if I strongly identify as a being a runner, I will change my behavior to meet my expectations of who a runner is. Our expectations vary from person to person based on what we know about these roles, but they can provide us a with a basis to get started. It’s never too late to be a rockstar!
9. Keep your eye on the prize
Social psychologist, Emily Bacletis Ph.D., of New York University, studies how our motives and emotions can alter our visual perception. Her brilliant research has shown our attitudes, beliefs, and emotions can alter how far away we perceive an object to be and she has applied this research to goal attainment. Her findings show that looking at specific targets such as a few blocks ahead rather than your surroundings can help us to see the distance shorter, walk faster, and make exercise easier. This ability to narrow our attention or keep our eye on the prize can help individuals see distances as shorter, thus motivating us towards our goal by making it seem more attainable to achieve.
You can check out her NPR talk here.
And her TED Talk on why exercise is harder for others here: