The New Year’s celebrations have come and gone. You’ve made your resolutions or you feel vaguely guilty that you didn’t. After all, that’s what the new year is all about, isn’t it? We’re supposed to take stock and set new goals for the coming year. Never mind that most people break those resolutions within about 48 hours. Never mind that breaking them leaves us with a sense that we’ve failed ourselves and perhaps someone else yet again.
Why do so many people’s good intentions fall flat? New research on goal-setting gives us some answers. Not surprisingly, all goals are not good ones. Not all goals actually motivate people. And not all goals get us where we really want to go.
If you’ve repeatedly set goals that don’t work for you, you might gain some insight by considering these possibilities:
Is the goal threatening?
Let’s say you want to finally lose the 25 pounds you’ve gained over the last five years. Or maybe you want to finally start a savings account by putting 10 percent of your salary into the bank. Just thinking about the goal makes you anxious. You wonder if you can do it. You don’t really believe you can. You are careful not to tell anyone else about the goal because you don’t want the humiliation of admitting that, yes, you once again failed. A goal that threatens our sense of competence and self-discipline is a goal that is sure to fail.
Does the goal seem too hard?
We’re told we are supposed to “aim high;” that goals by definition are something we haven’t yet achieved and need to work toward. But it’s one thing to try to stretch our limits. It’s another thing to set ourselves up to snap them. Goals that are helpful are goals that people see as a reasonable challenge, not as a setup for failure. Maybe it’s more realistic, for example, to set the goal of losing 5 pounds in the next month by making healthier choices instead of shooting for losing all your extra weight. Maybe it’s more realistic to put a few dollars a day in a piggy bank for a few weeks before you make that auto-deposit in your savings account. Once you feel even a little successful, you are more likely to re-up for doing more.
Is the goal going to limit your thinking?
Sometimes people become so single-minded in pursuit of a goal, they lose sight of what they really set out to accomplish. Yes, you can lose that 25 pounds by going on a fad diet and exercising for two hours a day. In a couple of months you will have done it. But – and this is an important but – you aren’t really healthier. You haven’t changed your lifestyle. You have set yourself up to regain the weight as soon as you start eating normally and spending less time on the stationary bike.
Is the goal really your own?
If the goal is a response to other people’s harassment or even their well-meaning attempts to motivate you to do something for your own good, chances are you won’t stick to it. To be helpful, a goal has to reflect personal commitment, not the desire to get someone off your back.
Is the goal only aimed at the result?
Researchers have found that “learning goals” are more successful than concrete achievement goals. People who are focused on achievement tend to give up when they aren’t making the results they wanted. People who are focused on process tend to stick with it. Getting back to our weight loss example: People who focus on eating healthier are more likely to stick with it than people who deprive themselves in order to reach a specific weight. Interestingly, people who focus on process tend to do better at reaching the achievement goal (in this case, weight loss) even though they weren’t set on doing so.
Does success depend on external rewards?
Some families pay their kids for every A. For some kids, it seems to provide extra motivation to learn. Sadly, for other kids, the goal becomes the pay rather than the education. By cramming before exams they get the grade — and the bucks — but they don’t remember much after the tests. Even sadder, they don’t delight in learning for its own sake.
Does the goal conflict with a less obvious but more important goal?
To get back to our saving money example: Yes, it’s a good thing to save and it’s very satisfying to see the amount saved be bigger on each monthly bank statement. But if finances are tight, it may not be easy or even advisable. Paying all the bills and paying them on time to maintain a good credit score may be more important than putting money into a low-interest savings account.
Does your happiness depend on reaching goals? Goals are seductive. It can feel great to set a goal and reach it. It can make you feel effective and happy.
But the truth is that goals are not life. Often, life takes us down paths we don’t expect and can’t control. Often life throws opportunities for growth at us that derail us entirely from our stated goals. Sometimes it’s important to push those things aside and keep on going toward the target. But often enough, it’s more important to find happiness where life takes us.
Our challenge (do I dare say “goal”?) is to live our lives in a way that lets us set our sights on measurable outcomes yet readjust when life presents us with something more important, more possible, or more satisfying.