Now when you were coming up with your goals for the year it’s quite possible that they ended up sounding pretty similar to these:
- I want to lose weight
- I want to improve team communication
- I want to get back into writing
- I want to launch my app idea
- I want to procrastinate less
Yes, these are all swell ideas and certainly worth the effort, however, there’s a problem with goals like these: they’re way too abstract.
According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist and the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School, it’s natural for us to think abstractly, which is how we end up with goals like the ones above. But when it comes to making progress toward these goals, we need specifics.
During her recent appearance on the Harvard Business Review’s Ideacast, Halvorson explains that we don’t necessarily think consciously of our goals, and that the choices we make toward them are therefore not conscious decisions either. The example that Halvorson provided Ideacast listeners was that it’s a lot like driving home. Occasionally you’ll arrive in your driveway and have no memory of the various turns you made to get there. Essentially, your brain knew your goal was to get home and made the necessary choices to facilitate your arrival.
So in order for your brain to make good choices, it needs to know the specifics of what you want to achieve—i.e., the turns you need to take to get there. If your goal is to lose five pounds or to have your team turn in weekly status reports every Friday, then the choices you have to make are much more clear. In effect, specificity helps a brain on autopilot.
The other thing you need to understand when working toward your goals, especially ones you have repeatedly struggled with, is that success is less about willpower and more about planning. When we come short of our goals we often tell ourselves, “Well, I guess I didn’t have enough willpower.” But the truth is that everyone’s willpower fluctuates, motivation is fleeting, and success comes to those who plan for their encounters with temptation.
The strategy that Halvorson proposes in this case is to replace the “Stop doing X” mindset with “Do Y instead of X.” This is because while the willpower to stop doing “X” as an intention or a commitment is necessary, it is not sufficient in itself. Self-control, like a muscle, will strain and diminish in strength throughout the day, making it harder to resist those temptations. The solution then, is to consider your vulnerabilities and plan for your encounters with them. This is what Halvorson calls, “If-then planning.”
It’s pretty much just as it sounds, and in action it works like this:
- “If I’m tempted to have a cigarette then I will take three deep breaths and tell myself that I’m not a smoker.”
- “If it’s 2pm on Friday, I will email Susan a brief progress report.”
Halvorson explains that, “If-then plans work because contingencies are built into our neurological wiring. Humans are very good at encoding information in ‘If x, then y’ terms and using those connections to guide their behavior.” And if you’re familiar with the “if–then–else” construct in conditional programming (like many of our readers are) perhaps it’s easy to imagine your day as a sort of “if—then—else” flowchart.
In practice you’ll find that it takes a lot less willpower to follow through on a plan you already have, than it does to try and improvise your way through your vulnerabilities. In fact “researchers have learned from more than 200 studies that if-then planners are about 300% more likely than others to reach their goals.” So go give it a shot! And remember to be specific—granular even!
But as a final note, don’t be afraid of setbacks. They’re going to happen because nobody’s perfect. The key is to be flexible. If you end up feeling like you’re denying yourself too much, then the change you’re trying to make will no longer feel like a good change.
Anyway, I’ve got to go—it’s 2pm and I’ve got to email Susan. More later.
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“A Tool to Help You Reach Your Goals in 4 Steps” by Heidi Grant Halvorson
“Get Your Team to Do What It Says It’s Going to Do” by Heidi Grant Halvorson