If you set yourself up for success, yes.

Goals are having a renaissance. 2014 marked the year of the do-good goal. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Taylor Swift, and David Beckham raised millions for philanthropy and tennis player Caroline Wozniacki ran the New York Marathon to raise money for kids, not herself. Bravo! They did it!

January is peak season for goal-setting, yet every year, goals seem harder and harder to realize for the rest of us. How do we successfully reach our goals? And if they’re so laced with treachery, are they worth setting anyway?

Happier People Have Goals

Yes, they’re worth it. At our core, humans are goal-oriented. We are driven toward goals that satisfy basic needs like hunger, sleep and reproduction. Aimlessly floundering through life goes against our nature and eventually erodes our sense of wellbeing. Overarching goals, like wanting to live a healthy lifestyle or have a fulfilling relationship, give us both broad guidelines and specific ideas of where to focus our energy and resources. Seeing our values in action and feeling a sense of accomplishment really does makes us happy. So how do we stay on track to get there?

Choose Specific Goals Over General Ones

Goals give us a way of measuring success and knowing when to quit. Well-defined goals that are relevant to our interests increase goal commitment and accomplishment. The widely used acronym S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) is an approach often cited as most effective, yet research also points to the importance of content and context. Will the process itself be rewarding and reinforce your sense of identity? For example, a goal of getting back to tennis to become more fit and win matches is too broad. Joining a three-day a week clinic with match play geared toward raising your competitive level by next summer is more engaging, challenging, and specific.  

Focus on the Why Behind the What

When you choose a goal, think about why you want to achieve it. To be successful, your goal has to connect with your values. By reminding yourself of why you want to achieve something, the process will have meaning and therefore you will be more motivated to stick with it. Intrinsic goals, or those that we pursue because both the process and the purpose are rewarding, lead to lasting happiness and success.

Too often we get tripped up in the trappings. An outcome goal of ”looking good” or “making money” is missing the element of meaning. If you’re trying to convince people you have power, it won’t lead you to lasting fulfillment and a deeper sense of accomplishment.

Don’t Just Dream About it, Strategize to Get There

Before spending thousands on a gym membership or a SuperSoul pass, consider that a sobering number of studies show many new exercisers abandon their New Year’s resolutions within 2 weeks and at least 50% within 6 months. If you’re dreaming about the outcome without having considered what it will take to get there, you’re setting yourself up to fall into that statistic. Gabrielle Oettingen, a professor at New York University and the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking reports that dreaming about goal success as if it’s already happened seems to fake us out into feeling like we’ve already gotten our reward, and makes us less likely to expend the effort necessary to actually get there.

You have to imagine the upcoming obstacles—and include inner obstacles like fear or exhaustion—and devise a strategy for overcoming them. Plan for the temptation to stay in bed by making an early exercise date with a friend; if you feel sore one day, just go for a 15-minute workout, no pressure. Always have a Plan B. And maybe it’s not a good idea to buy that SuperSoul pass if you’ve never been to a spin class.

Oettingen uses the acronym WOOP to describe this strategy (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) and an app to help out is available at WOOPmylife.org. Priming our minds to a realistic effort instead of just straight success increases goal commitment.  

Commit to Flexibility

How will you challenge yourself to improve your wellbeing this year, assuming that negative emotions like frustration and guilt are along for the ride? Psychologist Robert Biswas-Deiner, co-author of Happiness, Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth and The Upside of Your Dark Side, suggests we think about goals as strivings rather than mandates. “Rigid commitments make it easier to label yourself a failure. Too often we use a slip or deviation as an escape hatch,” he says. But does eating one cookie mean you have to finish the whole bag? Biswas-Deiner suggests thinking of a setback as a ”choice point” to acknowledge the moment, and to remind you of the values behind your goal. 

It’s tough to do at first, so Biswas-Deiner suggests creating a contingency mantra that contains—in writing—your best self talking to your worst self, a strategy he metaphorically refers to as “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS.” For best results: Pick a time when you are feeling upbeat and healthy and or energized. Choose a phrase that pumps you up and reminds you that it’s ok to mess-up, and include why your goal will contribute to your well-being. His personal catchphrase? “Failing does not make me a failure.”  

And remember, perfection is overrated.

Sources:

  1. Oettingen, Gabriele. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Current, 2014. Print.
  2. "Woop Is a Scientific Strategy That People Can Use to Find And Fulfill Their Wishes and Change Their Habits..." WOOP. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
  3. Diener, Ed, and Robert Biswas-Diener. Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Blackwell, 2008. Print.
  4. Kashdan, Todd, and Robert Biswas-Diener. The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self--not Just Your "Good" Self--Drives Success and Fulfillment. Hudson Street, 2014. Print.