What does a diplomat living in Ottawa have in common with a public servant on the Hill or a private-sector CEO? Goals. Sure, the nature of the goals varies, but successful goal-pursuit is the defining common feature of success in any of our careers.
We all have goals. We don’t all achieve them. The question that fascinates me as a psychologist is: Why? What contributes to goal success, on the one hand, and what factors lead to procrastination or goal abandonment on the other?
It turns out that there are many different answers to these simple questions. In fact, when we look at our goals over time, we can see that goal success or failure can be determined at any stage in our goal pursuit. For example, some goals are defined so badly at the outset that they are destined for failure even before we take action. Other times, we set meaningful goals for which we hold great hope only to find that they become terribly aversive to us when we actually try to do them, and we begin a self-sabotaging cycle of avoidance.
Goal success depends on strategies that fit the different stages of our intended tasks or projects. Although it is a complex process, I think you’ll be surprised at the power of simple “if-then” intentions to foster success.
Problems with initiating goal action
The most important strategy for successful goal pursuit is just get started. It’s that old issue of “a job begun, is a job half done.” Getting started primes the pump for success, as research shows that progress on our goals boosts happiness and motivation. But what if getting started is your problem?
A practical way to help get started is to visualize what you will do — and when. It’s important to do this, as it puts the cue for action in the environment. For example, my goal may be to prepare a report. My specific intention becomes: “if I have arrived at my office desk, then I will immediately write out the main points.” Numerous studies demonstrate the effectiveness of this simple if-then strategy.
Staying on track
It’s one thing to get started. It can be quite another to stay on task. Keeping our focus on the job at hand often means resisting temptations. Strangely enough, these temptations can even be other tasks. An if-then temptation-inhibiting intention can help here. For example, “if my email alert chimes, then I will ignore it until this task is complete.”
Interestingly, research has shown that the effects of these if-then intentions are important at any age. Six-year olds who prepared for an experiment by thinking “If I see a distraction, then I will ignore it,” more successfully ignored funny cartoon pictures or movie clips while trying to complete a categorization task than the children who did not prepare this way. If six-year-olds can actually ignore cartoons to stay on task, we can all enhance goal pursuit with these temptation-inhibiting intentions. The trick is to make this if-then decision ahead of time.
Stop doing what doesn’t work
Let’s face it. We often get stuck in the pursuit of a goal because we’re approaching it the wrong way. One key to success then is to recognize when to switch our approach — or the goal itself. Research in this area has shown that preparing mentally by thinking “If I receive disappointing feedback, then I’ll switch my strategy” kept people on task. This simple approach can keep us from following a non-productive route, procrastinating or from giving up completely.
Preventing willpower burn out
We are all familiar with the common expression, “where there is a will, there’s a way.” The successful completion of almost any goal requires effort, often courage and always willpower. However, we all know that our willpower is a limited resource. And, there are days when we’re convinced it’s not a renewable resource, especially as we reach the end of our ability to cope. Not surprisingly, given these experiences, researchers argue that willpower is like a muscle that can be easily exhausted or underused in our human desire for feel-good comfort.
Yet, when it comes down to it, being strategic and being able to muster up the willpower to exercise self-control is at the heart of successful goal pursuit. In the excerpt below, taken from my recent book chapter, “Willpower, willpower, if we only had the willpower,” I outline some things to think about to strengthen and make more strategic use of this important limited resource.
Strategies for Change
We all feel depleted throughout the day. We all have moments where we think, “I’m exhausted, I just can’t do anymore” or “I’ll feel more like this tomorrow.” This is true, this is how we are feeling at the moment. However, successful goal pursuit often depends on us moving past these momentary feelings of depletion.
Given the role of motivation here, it is crucial to acknowledge the role of higher-order thought in this process, particularly the ability to transcend the feelings at the moment in order to focus on our overall goals and values. Otherwise, we may give in to ’feel good’, and stop trying.
It is exactly when we tell ourselves we’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow that we have to stop, take a breath and think about why we intended to do the task today. Why is it important to us? What benefit is there in making the effort now? How will this help us achieve our goal?
Here are some willpower-boosting strategies you might use to ignite what feels like the fumes left in your own willpower gas tank.
1. The “willpower is like a muscle” metaphor is a good fit, as the capacity for self-regulation can be increased with regular exercise. Even two weeks of self-regulatory exercise has improved research participants’ self-regulatory stamina. So, take on some small self-regulatory task and stick to it.
This can be as simple as deliberately maintaining good posture or using your non-dominant hand to eat. The key element is to exercise your self-discipline. You don’t need to start big, just be consistent and mindful of your focus. Over time, you will be strengthening your willpower muscle.
2. Sleep and rest also help to restore the ability to self-regulate. If you seem to be at the end of your rope, unable to cope and unwilling to do the next task, first ask yourself if you are getting enough sleep? Seven or eight hours of sleep are important for most of us to function well.
3. A corollary to sleep and rest is that self-regulation later in the day is less effective. Be strategic, and don’t look to exercise feats of willpower later in the day.
4. A boost of positive emotion has been shown to eliminate self-regulatory impairment. Find things, people, or events that make you feel good to replenish your willpower.
5. Make a plan for action. “In situation X, I will do behaviour Y to achieve goal Z” or “If this happens, then I’ll do this” (anticipating possible obstacles to your goal pursuit). This puts the stimulus for action into the environment and makes the control of behaviour more automatic. It may well be the thing that gets you to exercise in the evening even though you usually feel much too tired to begin. “Just get started” supports this approach.
6. Self-regulation appears to depend on available blood glucose. Even a single act of self-regulation has been shown to reduce the amount of available glucose in the bloodstream, impairing later self-regulatory attempts. Interestingly, just a drink of sugar-sweetened lemonade eliminated this self-regulatory depletion in experiments. The message from this research is that if you become hypoglycemic, your self-regulation will suffer. Keep a piece of fruit (complex carbohydrate) handy to restore blood glucose.
7. Be aware that social situations can require more self-regulation and effort than you may think. For example, if you are typically an introverted person but you have to act extraverted, or you have to suppress your desired reaction (scream at your boss) in favour of what is deemed more socially acceptable (acquiesce again to unreasonable demands), you will deplete your willpower for subsequent action. These social interactions may even make it more likely that you will say or do something you will regret in subsequent interactions. Getting along with others requires self-regulation, so you will need to think about points 1-6 to be best prepared to deal with demanding social situations.
Finally, so much of our ability to self-regulate depends upon our motivation. Even on an empty stomach, exhausted from not enough sleep and pushed to the limit for self-regulation, we can muster the willpower to continue to act properly. It is difficult, but it can be done, particularly if we focus on our values and goals to keep perspective on more than just the present moment. In doing this, we can transcend the immediate (and temporary) feelings we are having to keep from giving in to ‘feel good,’ which lies at the heart of so much self-regulatory failure.
Timothy A. Pychyl is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University (procrastination.ca). His just-published book is The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.