We all have goals and dreams that we’d like to attain, but how many of us have the motivation and drive to make them a reality?
Consider this: 41 percent of people regularly make New Year’s resolutions. Yet, only around 9 percent actually achieve them (source). It makes us sound like a population of slackers, doesn’t it?
So why are some people super-motivated to achieve their goals, while others are just sort of “meh” about it?
It turns out that it isn’t so much about willpower as it is about following some basic goal-setting principles.
Create Attainable Goals (With Solid Plans On How To Achieve Them)
One of the main reasons why people fail to meet their goals is because they create lofty goals with no concrete plan for achieving them.
For example, Lisa might say that she wants to make a million dollars by the time she’s 35, but she doesn’t sit down with a financial advisor to discuss how to make that a reality.
All she has in mind is that end target, with no specific details about the smart investments, career paths, or personal promotion needed to succeed.
Her goal is vague and she doesn’t have an action plan to adhere to. She’s unlikely to reach that target unless some miracle comes along.
Think about all the people we mentioned earlier who make New Year’s resolutions but give up on them after a few months. How many of them just put forth something vague they’d like to have or do, but don’t follow through with tangible efforts?
You can say that your goal is to own a huge house, but when? How are you going to get there? What critical path and work-back schedule will you adhere to in order to make that happen?
The key, apparently, is to set smaller, attainable goals in pursuit of a larger one. The American Psychological Association noted that people who set specific, small goals (that are challenging, but not overwhelming) are more likely to achieve them than those who don’t.
Think of them like stepping-stones that all have to be crossed in order to get to the island of happiness and rewards.
It takes time and effort to reach lofty goals. Most people will burn themselves and give up when striving for a massive dream, instead of aiming to hit one target at a time.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say Sven wants to lose 50 lbs. He has tried to do so in the past, but when he didn’t see the scale drop significantly in a short period of time, he got discouraged and gave up.
He felt that his efforts weren’t good enough, and he would never achieve his goal, so why bother?
A smarter approach would be to sit down with a nutritionist and a trainer, and set an attainable goal of losing 5lbs in a month.
Now, instead of “I am going to lose 50lbs,” his goal looks more like this:
“I will adhere to my nutrition plan, work with my trainer at the gym from 5-7pm every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, with the goal of losing 5lbs by the end of the month.”
This is a stepping-stone. It’s a small goal with a direct action plan, with support structures in place.
At the end of the month, when Sven realizes that he’s met his goal, he’ll feel an amazing sense of achievement. All of his hard work paid off!
As such, he can ride that high and be motivated to do it again: another 5lbs lost by the end of the following month.
…and after 10 months, what will have happened? He’ll have lost that 50lbs he set out to lose, without any loss of motivation, or guilt, or self-loathing.
Don’t Set Too Many Goals At Once
Going back to the New Year’s resolutions bit, those who set just a few goals are far more likely to attain them than those who set out to achieve a dozen (source).
This is because those goals are the ones that are most important to them, so they can focus their time and energy instead of diluting it all over the place.
Are you familiar with the quote: “When we have too many priorities, we have no priorities at all”? It’s quite apt. When everything is set as being important, nothing is.
Approach your goals as an ER doctor would approach triage: with the most vital ones being placed as top priorities and the others falling into some order after that.
If your goals are related to each other and will move forward together, even better!
To use Sven as an example, let’s say his two goals for the year were to lose 50lbs, and “travel a bit.”
Losing weight was the priority for him, so that was placed as highest in importance.
Now for the travelling.
We’ll have him put together a list of the places he wants to see most. Let’s aim for… Iceland and Sweden, to visit relatives and such.
He can approach this as both a goal AND a reward: if he manages to lose that 50lbs, he will reward himself with a trip to see both countries. We’ll talk more about rewards below.
They need to add value to their goal, and feel that they’re pursuing it because it’s important to them, not because it’s being forced on them.
When people feel obligated to do something, they automatically resist it. University of Rochester psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan noted that when people feel that they’re in charge, they have more motivation to succeed.
Sven managed to attain his goal because he wanted to attain it. As such, he hired a nutritionist, and a personal trainer to help him get to where he wanted to be.
Even though they helped to hold him accountable, HE was the one in charge here: it was his decision to get help from them.
It’s not just yourself that you can be held accountable to. You can feed your motivation by being accountable to someone else.
Let’s say you want to save up X amount of money within a year. Okay, that’s all well and good, but why? What is your motivation?
If your motivation centers around another person, then that’s a completely different story. We’re far less likely to fail if it means that we’ll disappoint another, than if we’ll just disappoint ourselves.
Many of us have experienced the kind of self-loathing that occurs when we fail to meet a goal we’ve set, but we tend to be able to get over that rather quickly… even if it means just shutting down and not thinking about it.
When it comes to disappointing someone we care about, however, we’ll generally try to put in the extra effort to make sure we succeed.
It’s awful when we feel as though we’ve failed someone we care about, and knowing that we’re putting effort toward making them happy can give us the extra push we need to keep going.
Set A Schedule
Routine is incredibly important, as all kinds of things can come up over the course of a day to sideline us. This even goes as far as making sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
If you’re working on building a business, schedule specific times during the week for marketing and outreach. Set aside a couple of hours twice a week at the time of day when you know you’re at your most energetic, and put that positive energy to good work.
Write this schedule out in your day timer, program it into your phone, and set alarms to keep you on track.
This goes for scheduled breaks as well! Make a point of getting away from your desk during meal times to give yourself a rest, and remain completely present as you enjoy your food.
Take regular stretching/walking/exercise breaks, and hell, you can even schedule socializing time too.
Many of the most successful people are those who stick to schedules they set for themselves, and those little **pings** of achievement when you finish work by a deadline, or get a solid workout at the gym, will help to keep you motivated.
Rewards (Also Known As “Treat Yourself”)
Working toward a goal is wonderful, but achieving that goal doesn’t have to be the complete reward in and of itself.
By celebrating our “little wins,” we keep our dopamine levels spiking merrily, keeping us motivated and propelling us forward.
It’s especially important to reward yourself after slogging through efforts that are… less than awesome. Like filling out piles of paperwork, or doing a grueling workout routine when already exhausted.
When you’ve pushed through and achieved one of these small goals, go ahead and reward yourself with something that’s important to you.
Go for a professional massage, buy yourself something you’ve been eyeing for a while, or take a date to a restaurant you’ve wanted to try out.
Best of all, these little rewards keep you moving toward your end goal, not just because they fuel you in the moment, but because those little dopamine hits you get from them keep momentum going.
Interestingly, science has proven that dopamine doesn’t just kick in after you’ve achieved something, but rather, it’s released when you’re striving toward something good.
The happy highs you’ll get from both attaining small goals AND being rewarded for them will re-ignite the fire under your butt to help you keep working toward your big target.
Hire A Coach
In our example above, Sven hired a nutritionist and personal trainer to help him achieve his weight loss goals. So can hiring an expert coach really keep you motivated?
Well, while the research in this area may be sparse, one well-designed study suggests that a professional coach can help a person’s goal commitment and progression.
The key word here is professional. The study compared professional coaches to peer coaching (i.e. a support group situation where peers discuss their goals). Professional coaching led to better outcomes.
So, hiring a professional coach with expert knowledge of the goal area you are working in can help drive you to attain those goals.
What goals are you striving for? Can you see ways to implement these techniques in your own life? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.