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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Research-Backed Way to Reach Your Goals (Because That's the Best Feeling Ever)

When it comes to personal development and success, setting goals is usually brought up immediately—and rightly so! Taking the time to do this is critical to achieving success in all aspects of life.

Most of this advice revolves around setting them—making them actionable, making them measurable, and making sure to set a deadline. While these are all true, they’re only applicable if we're actively taking action toward them. In other words, they assume that we’re working just as hard toward the same finish line on day 300 as we are on day two. As many of us know, that can be a far cry from reality.

Look, we’ve all been there, you just read the latest personal development book (or maybe, more realistically, an article), you’ve got your pen and paper out and you begin jotting down goals, unwavering on the belief that putting ink to paper will make them a reality. You integrate your new plan into this week’s calendar and execute it perfectly.
Then it happens…

You decide to stay out a little bit later than normal with your friends and can’t drag yourself to the gym the next morning. That handshake deal you thought was a sure thing suddenly falls through. You’ve applied to 10 jobs a day for a whole week and—crickets. All of that advice about actionable and measurable goes out the window along with your new goal.

The Million Dollar Question

When it comes to goal setting, the million-dollar question is how can I put myself in a position to maintain motivation and overcome obstacles?

To find that answer, we can look at a 2009 study by Columbia Professor Heidi Grant Halvorson on motivation that she brought up in her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

In the experiment, Halvorson broke participants up into two groups and asked them to solve a series of problems and puzzles. The first group was told that the number of problems they answered correctly was a direct reflection of their intelligence. As a result, their goal was to correctly answer as many problems as possible to prove who was the smartest.

The second group was told that these problems were a new type of training tool and they should aim to take advantage of the free opportunity to improve their cognitive skills.

When the experiment was under way, Halvorson threw in some unexpected challenges. Occasionally, she would enter the room and give some additional instructions, eating into the participant’s allotted time. The results were surprising.

Participants from the first group aiming for a high score were completely derailed when they faced a challenge. They solved a substantially lower number of problems than their counterparts who didn’t face any distractions.

Participants in the second group who were aiming to just get better noticed a difference. They overcame the challenges and still solved almost as many problems as their counterparts who took to the questionnaire without interruption.

What Can We Learn From This?

When it comes to success, many of us look to the world around us for a barometer. We say that we want to start the next Facebook, or that we want to look like an athlete, or that we want to be so rich that we never have to work. We think about which of our friends make more money than we do or work at more prestigious companies. Not only is this line of thinking downright exhausting, it’s also keeping us from achieving what we want in life.

In order to become successful and live out our dreams, you’re going to have to persevere through some tough times. If you go to the gym every day wondering why you don’t look like a supermodel, you’re going to get discouraged before you see any of the benefits you’ve worked so hard for! On the other hand, if you walk into the weight room each day telling yourself, I’m going to lift a little more than yesterday or I’m going to run a little farther than I did last time, you’re substantially increasing your chances of finishing what you started, as well as boosting your overall self-esteem.

Putting it Into Practice

Next time you go to set a goal, think about why you want to achieve it. If you find yourself comparing the results to others, stop and reframe it!

For example: Are you training for this marathon to beat your previous time or to beat the other runners? You’ll be happier and more likely to stick out the training if you aim to beat your own time.

Are you going after that promotion just to be able to tell people you got it, or because you want the challenges that come along with the new title and are excited about them? Again, the latter will make you happier and help you overcome the inevitable obstacles you’ll face along the way.

In both of the above examples, the plan you need to achieve the end goal is the exact same but the angle you’re looking at it from will determine whether or not you’re able to overcome adversity and persist until you’ve reached the finish line. And that, my friends, is the true differentiator between successful people who achieve what they set out to do, and those who don’t.

Photo of runner courtesy of Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images.