Stop Confusing Yourself — Define Your Goals and Succeed

Stop Confusing Yourself — Define Your Goals and Succeed  

Matt
Apr 14, 2019 • 8 min read
Image credit: Vince Fleming/Unsplash

If you have ever failed at making a big change in your life, you might think that you lacked motivation. Really, you lacked clarity.

The biggest obstacle to success in any pursuit is a lack of clearly defined goals and processes.

Maybe the word ‘goal’ makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s understandable. Our culture tends to over-focus on goals – often one-dimensional goals which leave you feeling empty. If you replace the word “goal” with “getting what you want in life”, would you feel so averse? The goal is merely a symbol of what you want.

This article will explain everything you need to know about setting and achieving worthwhile goals.

 

What is goal setting?

 

Goal setting is usually defined as reaching towards a target, or objective. I find this definition lacking. Meeting a goal is more than reaching a target, it’s about becoming a different person. A goal will push you to expand and grow. You will have to learn and apply new knowledge and skills.

There are two fundamental rules to achieving any goal:

1. If you want to meet your goal, you’ll need to make changes to your behaviours.

2. The bigger the goal, the more behaviours you’ll have to change.

What you are ready to change and how much you are willing to change it is up to you. What’s important is that you understand some sacrifices will have to be made.

Every goal comes with a cost. To stay the course, you’ll have to be clear about why you want it. Clarifying what you find valuable is the most important part of goal setting, and often the least appreciated.

 

How to Set Goals You’ll Stick To

 

While I can’t tell you what you should find important in life. I can offer you scientifically backed guidelines which will help you craft a goal worth striving for.

There are 4 steps to creating meaningful goals which propel you towards success.

 

1. Define Your Goal Clearly

If you want to change an aspect of your life, you have to get clear with yourself. What precisely is it that you want?

Defining what you want in life can be difficult. A fuzzy definition comes with comfort. By refusing to specify your goals with clarity, you can avoid specifying the exact conditions for failure. Failure can be difficult to face… and anyway, you could just hope to stumble upon your desired future.

Unfortunately, success in achieving a goal is a very thin margin. The likelihood that you’ll bump into your desired future by chance is near enough zero. It will take planning and adapting to get to where you envision.

Don’t fall into the trap of ambiguity. Get clear with yourself. Define your goal as a time-dependent, actionable, objective.

Your goal may start with a vague idea. Take this initial idea and extract the meaning into a target which you could tick off a list.

  • “Get into better shape” might become “run the London marathon in April”.
  • “Be a better reader” might become “read 10 books by the end of the year”
  • “Lose weight” might become “lose 10 kilograms over the next 6 months”.

The best goals are black and white. You either achieve them, or you don’t.

 

2. Examine your motivation

Success begins and ends with your motives. What are the underlying reasons behind your goal? Never work towards a goal because you think you ‘should’, or ‘have to’.

There are two types of motivation; extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsically motivated goals are about achieving something outside of yourself. Obtaining approval and validation, or gaining power and public image. Extrinsic goals are all about the end result.

Goals built around an extrinsic motivator – “do this and you’ll get that” – are the worst goals to have. Money, status and fame will leave you hollow.

All you have to do is look towards our culture’s supposed role models; celebrities & politicians. These are the people who have ‘made it’. Status, fame, wealth and power. They have it all. Yet often these people are broken, unhappy & self-medicated. It doesn’t take a genius to see something might be wrong here.

The extrinsically motivated goal is based upon an underlying assumption. If you get enough stuff; fame, power, money, success, whatever ‘it’ is. If you get enough of ‘it’, people will love you… and then you’ll be happy, right?

Decades of studies have shown otherwise[1]. People who chase extrinsic goals, tend to be more depressed and feel more helpless[2,3].

As if that isn’t bad enough, extrinsic motivation reduces your interest in the process. Any activity you view as a means towards an end becomes undesirable. “ Do this and you’ll get that automatically devalues the ‘this’ ”, as Alfie Kohan phrases it[3].

Extrinsic motivation is a disaster for sustainable behaviour change. It will destroy your ability to stick to productive habits over the long term.

Intrinsically motivated goals are about doing the thing for the thing itself. Intrinsic goals are fulfilling. They meet your innate human needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. It is about enjoying the process; the struggles, the wins, the drama of the journey. 

The difference is subtle but potent. From the outside two people could be working towards the same end goal, yet the underlying thoughts and feelings differ. Here are a couple of examples of extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation:

  • Studying to get a good job vs Studying because you are engaged in the subject
  • Starting a business to get rich vs Starting a business to benefit the world

Put into the context of fitness, exercising to gain power or status through an attractive body is a bad idea. There is more to life than being ridiculously good looking. The goal will leave you no happier[4]. Worse, you will be less likely to actually stick to your new behaviours in the long term[5].

Exercising to develop self-mastery; to feel better, to sharpen your mind and learn how to use your body, is a more sustainable choice. You will find the process more enjoyable and maintain healthy habits more easily.

Why is it that you really want to work towards this goal? You can tell if your goal is intrinsically motivated by asking yourself the following questions:

Autonomy

  • Is my goal about a passion, curiosity or interest? 
  • Do I get excited about the goal, or does it just feel like another chore to check off?
  • Does the goal align with my personal values?

Competence

  • Is my goal about becoming a better person?
  • Is my goal about experience and growth?
  • Am I going to learn new skills, or develop mastery?

If you answer no to all of these questions, you should reconsider what you want to do.

 

3. Give Your Goal Gravity

Your goal has to feel desirable to keep you on track over the long haul. The more reasons you can find for completing your goal, the more valuable the goal will become.

Imagine how working towards, and achieving, your goal will make you feel. This feeling isn’t limited to the goal itself. It will seep into every aspect of your life; Your work, your relationships and, most importantly, your contentment.

Now flip the script. Imagine a place you don’t want to be. A personal hell. Envision a future where you are broke and about to become homeless. How do you feel? Do you feel motivated to do whatever you can to avoid this future from happening?

We are around twice as motivated to move away from a negative outcome as we are towards a positive one[6]. To make your goal even more attractive, think about the consequences of failure. What will your future look like if you don’t work towards the goal?

I cannot stress the importance of this stage of goal setting enough. If you can get clear on your ‘why’, the odds of accomplishing your goal will become exponentially higher. You will bolster your resolve and become resilient to difficulties along your journey.

 

4) Challenge Yourself Without Overwhelm

We all have a desire to overcome challenges, but only if the challenge is an optimal level of difficulty. Imagine playing a serious game of football against a professional. The game would be too difficult. Your motivation would get crushed. Conversely, if you play against a toddler, it wouldn’t take long to become bored. You would win every time.

Research has shown that if a goal is too easy, or too hard, your motivation drops precipitously[7]. To stay on course, you have to work towards a challenge of just manageable difficulty. If the goal is too easy, you will become bored with it. If the goal feels impossible, you will procrastinate or give up.

Only you will know what level of difficulty is right for you. A word of warning though, most people set their sights too low. They overestimate how much they can achieve in a single day, and drastically underestimate how much they can achieve over a year. Writing a book sounds overwhelming. But what about writing a single page every day? The process is different, but the result is exactly the same.

Don’t play it safe. You have more potential than you currently imagine. Stretch yourself. Make the goal push you to become the best version of yourself.

 

Create A Process

Everyday people vow to do difficult things, without following through. Vowing, no matter how sincere you are, doesn’t work.[8] Tomorrow comes. Tomorrow goes. You still won’t haven’t followed through.

This isn’t because you’re weak-willed or lazy, it’s because you don’t have a process. A process makes willpower irrelevant. Once you’re clear about what you want to do, there is no confusion. All you do is follow your plan.

Here are a couple of tools to create a powerful process.

1. Implementation intentions

As we mentioned earlier, your goal will challenge you to become a different person. You’ll have to adopt new behaviours and learn new skills. Behaviour change is difficult, but by creating a specific plan you’ll find it easier.

When your intention is set, you don’t need to wait for motivation. Will I go to the gym in the morning or at night? Will I read my book today or tomorrow? With a plan, you don’t need to decide. Clarity prevents procrastination.

Studies have found that you are far more likely to adopt new behaviours when you set a specific plan. In one study, a group with a specific plan was 2-3x more likely to exercise compared to a control group with no plan[9].

Academics call these specific plans ‘implementation intentions’. They define where, when and how you intend to implement new behaviour. An implementation intention looks like this:

I will [ACTION] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]

To adopt new behaviours, all you have to do is use this sentence. 

  • I will run for 30 minutes at 5 pm on my way back from work
  • I will meditate for 10 minutes at 7 am in my living room
  • I will read for an hour at 9 pm in my bedroom
  • Motivation doesn’t work. If you want to progress on your goal, build a plan and stick to it.

Build new behaviours which support your goal through implementation intentions and every day you will be one step closer.

 

2. Tracking

What gets measured, gets improved. The simple act of recording something improves your awareness of it. Awareness is a powerful change tool. When you see the truth laid out in front of your face, it’s kind of hard to ignore. You can’t un-see it.

Don’t track just for the sake of tracking. Swimming in data is useless. The key is to track data that will help you discover and understand your habits.

One use of tracking is to capture the habits you struggle with the most.

If you want to improve your eating habits, you could keep a food journal. It will make you more aware of what you choose to eat and why you chose it. Don’t only track the food, write down your feelings/thoughts around when you eat. How full you felt after your meal. Anything that will help you gain more insight into your eating habits.

After a few days, you’ll begin to notice patterns and draw connections.

  • Maybe you notice that you binge on sugar when you’re stressed.
  • Maybe you discover you’re snacking because you’re not eating enough at meals to stay full

Use the insights you gain to build new constructive habits.

  • Next time you’re stressed you could plan to stop and breath 10 deep breaths.
  • To stay fuller, you could eat a fist-sized portion of vegetables at each meal

Whatever it is that you discover, you’ll have the awareness to take a productive next action step.

Another use of tracking is to measure your progress.

Goals are daunting. The gap between where you are and where you want to be can feel insurmountable. Instead of focusing on the end goal, look at small wins to keep you motivated.

  • If you lost 0.5kg this week, you’re one step closer to losing 10kg
  • If you read 140 pages this week, you’re becoming a better reader

Tracking your results gives you evidence that you’re moving towards your goals. This feedback will keep you motivated… or if it’s negative keep you honest. 

If you find that your progress isn’t what you would like, it’s a sign you need to change your process. Are you putting in all of the efforts that you could be? Are any bad habits pulling you down?

If progress is stalling, start tracking key habits and behaviours to look for clues. Once you’re clear on what’s letting you down, use implementation intentions to re-write new habits.

 

Conclusion

The most powerful way of achieving what you want in life is it to get clear on what you want and why you want it. 

Most people dismiss goal setting because they have chased shallow goals. Get clear on the precise reasons why you want your life to move in this new direction. Don’t work towards a goal just because you think you ‘should’.

To ensure your success, your goal must move you just beyond your comfort zone, into the zone of optimal difficulty. It is here that you will be stretched to become the best version of yourself. 

Once you are clear on your what and why you must think about how. Use implementation intentions and tracking to build new productive behaviours which will guide you towards success.

References

[1] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.68
[2] Boggiano, A. K., Shields, A., Barrett, M., Kellam, T., Thompson, E., Simons, J., & Katz, P. (1992). Helplessness deficits in students: The role of motivational orientation. Motivation and Emotion, 16(3), 271-296. doi:10.1007/bf00991655
[3] Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)
[4] Satterfield, J. M. (2001). Happiness, excellence, and optimal human functioning: Review of a special issue of the American Psychologist (2000;55:5-183), Martin E P Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, guest editors. Western Journal of Medicine, 174(1), 26-29. doi:10.1136/ewjm.174.1.26
[5] Teixeira, P. J., Carraça, E. V., Markland, D., Silva, M. N., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9(1), 78. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-9-78
[6] Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1977). Prospect Theory. An Analysis of Decision Making Under Risk. doi:10.21236/ada045771
[7] Nicholas Hobbs, “The Psychologist as Administrator,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 15, no. 3 (1959), doi:10.1002/1097–4679(195907)15:33.0.co; 2–4; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

[8] Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey,” American Psychologist 57, no. 9 (2002): 705–717, doi:10.1037//0003–066x.57.9.705

[9]  Sarah Milne, Sheina Orbell, and Paschal Sheeran, “Combining Motivational and Volitional Interventions to Promote Exercise Participation: Protection Motivation Theory and Implementation Intentions,” British Journal of Health Psychology