Heidi Grant Halvorson is one of the world’s leading researchers on goal setting. Her book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street, 2010) delivers on its subtitle by mixing theory with practical, scientifically grounded advice. It’s one of those great books that makes me wish I had 60 pages instead of two to share all the goodness. Let’s jump in!
Set the Bar High
First, Halvorson shares some interesting data: “Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, two eminent organizational psychologists, have spent several decades studying the extraordinary effectiveness of setting specific and difficult goals,” she writes. “In more than 1,000 studies conducted by researchers across the globe, they’ve found that goals that spell out exactly what needs to be accomplished, and that set the bar for achievement high, result in far superior performance than goals that are vague or that set the bar too low. And this is true regardless of whether the goal is something you adopt on your own, something you are assigned to complete, or something that you develop jointly with your parent, teacher, boss or coworkers.”
The trick, continues Halvorson, is to set goals that are difficult but not impossible. You don’t want the bar so high that you’ll never reach it, but you want to keep it high enough that you’ll subconsciously increase your effort to get there.
Right now, grab a piece of paper and write down your No. 1 challenging-but-possible goal and the first three steps you’re going to take in the direction of that goal.
Acknowledge Your Obstacles
Here’s a counterintuitive little piece of goal wisdom: “Women who imagined that the path to weight loss would be easy lost an average of 24 pounds less than those who imagined themselves having a hard time resisting temptation,” Halvorson tells us.
Fascinating. And it’s not just a fluke in a single study.
“[Gabriele] Oettingen [PhD] and her colleagues have found the same pattern when looking at students in search of high-paying jobs after college, at single individuals looking to form lasting romantic relationships, and at seniors recovering from hip replacement surgery. No matter who they are and what they are trying to do, we find that successful people not only have confidence that they will eventually succeed, but are equally confident that they will have a tough time getting there.”
This is a really Big Idea. I’ve read a lot of goal-setting and general self-development books, and I can’t remember reading one that referenced these studies — perhaps because people don’t like to hear that reaching their goals will be challenging. But apparently, acknowledging likely obstacles is an important element in improving our chances for success.
So grab your pen and paper again and jot down some of the obstacles you suspect you’re going to face on your way to your No. 1 challenging goal.
If you’re already well aware of the obstacles, but lack confidence in your ability to succeed, Halvorson has advice for you: “If you believe that you are having a hard time reaching your goal because you lack the necessary ability, and that you can’t do much to change that . . . well, there’s no way to put this nicely: You are wrong. Effort, planning, persistence and good strategies are what it really takes to succeed.”
Set Good Goals
Halverson points out that the very nature of our goals has a lot to do with whether or not we’ll stay motivated to achieve them.
In general, she notes, intrinsic goals work best. Goals that involve making, supporting or strengthening relationships fall into that category. “So do goals that focus on personal growth, physical health, or self-acceptance — addressing your shortcomings or, if they can’t be helped, simply coming to terms with them. Goals that have to do with contributing to your community or helping others also fulfill these needs.”
So which goals won’t satisfy our core needs? “Goals that are all about obtaining external validation of self-worth — like being popular, famous, or rich — not only won’t make you truly happy, but will actively diminish your sense of well-being, by interfering with the pursuit of goals that will really benefit you.”
So, if your goals fall largely into the money-fame-power-popularity category, it’s time to switch them out for dreams that will net you more genuine happiness and satisfaction.
Cultivate Confidence, Not Fantasy
So, what about the much ballyhooed power of “visualizing success” and thereby attracting your desired outcome? Halvorson isn’t sold on this idea. “I won’t name names,” she writes, “but it seems like there are an awful lot of self-help books out there telling people that if they just picture what they want in their minds, it will somehow happen. That would be great if it were true, but scientifically speaking, there really isn’t much evidence for it.” (It’s also interesting that many of the same goal gurus who tell us to “just visualize the desired outcome” tend also to be focused on extrinsic goals like wealth and fame.)
On the other hand, Halvorson isn’t opposed to using visualization as a practical tool. The optimal goal-setting strategy, she notes, involves something called “mental contrasting.” Basically, that means thinking positively about how it will be when you achieve your goal, “while thinking realistically about what it will take to get there.”
She also points out that “visualization can be very helpful, if you imagine the steps you will take in order to succeed,” rather than just replaying imagined scenes of the success itself.
Ultimately, to make real progress toward a goal, you must also experience a psychological state Halvorson refers to as “the necessity to act.” Focusing on results alone won’t do it.
“Mentally simulating the process of achieving the goal, rather than the hoped-for outcome, not only results in a more optimistic outlook, but in greater planning and preparation,” she says.
“Picture yourself doing what it takes to succeed, and you will soon find yourself believing that you can.” And the best part, she asserts, is that you’ll be absolutely right.
Brian Johnson is a philosopher and (professional) student of life. He used to build businesses. Now he reads a lot and has fun integrating universal truths into his day-to-day life. He also likes to hike, laugh, write, think, teach and hang out with his wife, Alexandra. Learn more at Philosophers Notes.com.