Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Five Keys to Setting Goals and Achieving Them

When it comes to goals, we often know how to set a goal but we don’t know how to achieve that goal.

What Makes it so Difficult?Viewing a trail

  • Most goals involve a change and although that may mean  improvement– change of the familiar is stress producing.
  • Compounding this is the fact that what we are often attempting to change the very patterns we are using to reduce our stress.

We want to become more assertive at work but we play it safe by flying under the radar.

We want to be more social but we avoid dating to keep the pressure down.

  • When we think about goals and change, we tend to think in absolutes. Either we succeed or fail and fear of failure is  a conscious and unconscious deterrent.

Five Keys to Goal Success

It is useful to reconsider goal achievement as a process that includes five key steps: Goal Setting, Goal Writing, Goal Commitment, Goal Accountability and Re-definition of Failure.

Goal Setting

Own Your Goal

We often get caught up in others expectations or lofty goals that are far from our own personal needs or values. Your partner may think you need to make more friends, go back to school or join a gym but if the goal is not personally meaningful, it is difficult to sustain in the face of challenges or distractions.

Consider Goals that Reflect Your Values and Dreams

As unrealistic or as unimportant as it may seem to others, if you have a goal of changing your career mid-stream, learning to surf at 50, or beginning your day by meditating—it has potential.

I once worked with a man who had been a social worker for a number of years but really wanted to be a dentist.  He gathered his savings, took out loans and went to dental school. He started on a new career path and a new life without guarantees- it worked!

Modify the Goal to Fit You

  • If you have a goal to exercise but can’t imagine being in a big room with a lot of seriously sweaty bodies, pass on the great 6 months free gym membership.
  • If you picture walking in your neighborhood looking at gardens as more likely than working out, then go with that as your exercise goal.

Success with even what seems like a small goal has a big psychological impact. It  gives us a sense of agency— the feeling we can make things happen.

 Keep it Simple

 In our enthusiasm for changing our financial situation, our living arrangement, our health or our social life, we often set up multiple or complicated goals. Research finds that the more complicated the goals, the more difficult and the less success in achieving them. A suggestion is to list all the tasks or changes related to your goal and choose one.

In one case it was leaving the office with a cleared desk; in another it was doing one tedious chore to music each day; for someone else it was reading at the park at least one afternoon a week.

Making it Happen

Once you have set up a goal, research finds that writing that goal, public commitment to an action plan, and setting up public accountability significantly increase the chances of successful achievement of that goal.

In a study on the achievement of work-place goals with 267 participants from a wide variety of businesses, organizations, in the US and abroad, researcher Dr. Gail Matthews at Dominican University of California assigned participants to one of five groups:

  • Group 1 was asked to think about their goal
  • Group 2 was asked to write out their goal
  • Group 3 was asked to write out their goal and an action plan
  • Group 4 was asked to make a public commitment by sending their written goal and action plan to a supportive friend
  • Group 5 was asked to send their written goal and action plan to a supportive friend and then send weekly progress reports to the friend.

Of the original 267 participants, 149 completed the study and were asked to rate their progress and the degree to which they had accomplished their goals.

Writing the Goal

Every group that wrote out their goals accomplished significantly more than Group 1 who were only asked to think about their goal. Writing down the goal engages us in conceptualizing it and making it real. It opens the door to a plan of action.

Public Commitment

  • The people in Group 4, who actually wrote out their goals with an action plan and sent it to a supportive friend, reported a significantly higher level of success that those who just wrote or thought about their goals.
  • Whereas those thinking about their goals reported accomplishing 43% of their goals, writing out a goal and action plan and making it public, changed the rate of success to 64%.

If at this point you are thinking – why would I set myself up and go public with my goal? You are not alone. Over the years, people have often told me that they were not telling anyone about their new goal in order to avoid feeling pressure or avoid judgment if they failed.

An alternative and effective way that people make a public commitment is to choose a supportive friend or group, even a virtual group with whom they make the public commitment without pressure. It is the reason that office or staff versions of the biggest loser, plans to walk together with others or group competitions of the number of steps registered on a cell phone or life-band like “fit bit” are popular and effective in improving the chances of success.

Public Accountability

  • Those participants in Groups 5 who wrote down the goal, sent it with an action plan to a supportive friend and in addition sent in weekly progress reports increased the report of goal achievement to 76%.
  • Public accountability on a regular basis fosters the experience of goal achievement as a series of incremental steps over time. You are giving voice to your steps along the way.
  • Public accountability as key to successful goal achievement also reflects the power of relationships on our motivation and actions. It speaks to the importance of coaches, mentors, trainers, teachers and parents who can journey with us during the process . We often can’t see the incremental changes in ourselves. We often are ready to give up in face of a setback. The possibility of seeing ourselves in the eyes of someone who believes in us is  often crucial to hanging on and achieving a goal:

“ It is only a day, let’s learn from it.”

“ You are doing it.”

“ Shake it off, you can do this.”

“ Let’s adjust the plan, we are ok.”

“You are half-way home.”

“ We are in this together.”

“ Catch your breath, the finish line is ahead.”

Re-definition of Failure

One of the most powerful aspects of goal achievement is a Growth Mindset that re-defines failure as needed information, lessons learned and an inevitable part of any goal achievement. As John Maxwell says, “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception and response to failure.”

 You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream-C.S.Lewis