Recently, I wrote about how important it is to pick the right goal for yourself, so you are not banging your head against the wall trying to meet an impossible or insignificant objective. I actually think the reason we don’t meet our goals is mostly because the goals suck. But if you have a really important goal that’s right for you, here are some ways to ensure you see the goal to completion:
1. Think about the rewards.
People who get paid to reach their goals are better at reaching them. This is why we typically can meet deadlines for work, but not self-imposed deadlines. And that’s why movie stars can stay rail-thin, while the rest of us have a harder time losing weight: A movie star’s livelihood is based on their ability to lose weight.
So if you can think like a movie star, and decide that your livelihood depends on meeting your goal, then you’ll probably meet it.
Here are some mental gymnastics to that end: People who meet one goal can meet more goals because self-discipline is a muscle that gets stronger and stronger. Additionally, most of our career goals depend on self-discipline. So we can all tell ourselves that if we meet our one goal, whatever it is, we will have more successful careers and thereby make a lot more money.
Goal-setting tip: Don’t set a goal about money. It has no intrinsic value beyond your basic food and shelter. Set your goals for things that truly will change your life. The money will come from living a better life.
2. State your goals in a way that encourages sticking to them.
You can’t structure that change if you are telling yourself only what NOT to do. My friend, Jay, points out that kids are a good example – they’re much better at "be quiet" than "shut up." (Which immediately shows me not only why my kids are never quiet, but also that maybe my most important goals should be in the parenting arena.)
If your goal is to stop smoking, the encouraging goal is to replace that behavior with something else. One recent goal of mine was about not eating bread, but I reframed it so that I eat only foods that make me feel good. You can’t change behavior if you don’t know what to change it to.
Don’t make your goal so broad that you can’t tell on a daily basis if you’re getting there. For example, I have a goal to keep my marriage together. On a day-to-day basis, though, my number-one thing is to keep my computer turned off when I’m home with my husband. It takes discipline and I have to plan for it. For example, at 9am I start making sure that no one is going to be waiting for me to respond to them between 6pm and 8pm. This would be easy for some of you, but I have been responding to email during ‘family time’ for years, so people expect it. I have to retrain myself to retrain them.
3. Write the goal down every day, and put the handwriting on your wall.
Many books extol the idea that if you write your goal down each day, it makes you more committed. I tried it. It works.
One of the reasons this works is that changing our behavior takes intense focus, and writing down our goals reminds our brain. Bruce Wexler is a neuroscientist and author of Brain and Culture. He found that children have brains that can easily change, but adults become more hard-wired, and changing our behavior requires a more extreme amount of intense focus than we ever imagine.
Writing down your goal will take about a minute a day. Not that long at all. But it’s a good litmus test. If you can’t commit to thinking about the goal each day, you probably won’t have the focus to change.
4. Commit to three weeks.
The hardest part of changing behavior is that your brain is addicted to the bad behavior. If you force yourself to change your behavior for three weeks, your brain will start to produce more dopamine in response to the behavior that you are trying to change to, according to Monika Fleshner, a neuroimmuno-physiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
During those three weeks, you need to know, the night before, how you are going to meet your goal the next day. For example, when my goal was to lose my pregnancy weight, I had to organize every day around going to the gym, scheduling the babysitter, and breastfeeding. Each day required a different schedule, but I worked it out the night before.
When I was starting out as a professional writer, I knew I needed to write an hour every day, but it was really hard for me. I used to put it off and put it off and then it wouldn’t happen. Until I realized that I had to schedule every single day around that hour in order for it to happen.
McDonald’s tip: You also have to organize your days around avoiding the dopamine triggers of the behavior you’re trying to avoid. For example, if you don’t want to eat fries, drive three blocks out of your way to avoid your regular McDonald’s. According to Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for some people, just seeing the colors red and yellow makes their brain release dopamine in anticipation of McDonald’s. Your issue might not be fries, but most of us have our own version of the red-and-yellow trigger.
5. Make some new friends to go with your new behavior.
People who don’t change their behavior tend to justify it by saying that it’s socially acceptable, according to Cindy Jardine, a professor at the University of Alberta who studies public health. This is why, for instance, if you have fat friends you are likely to be fat. So travel in circles where the behavior you want to change is not accepted. And find like-minded people. They will help you to be the person you want to be.