the science of setting goals

The Science of Setting Goals (and Meeting Them Too)

It’s a new year! That means everyone’s making new year’s resolutions. But the last thing you need this year is yet another broken resolution. What you need is to turn your resolutions into goals, things you’ll be excited to work on and achieve.

To help you create and meet your goals, we’re going to use science to ensure that not only do you start the year right, you’ll end it successfully as well.

1. First, write down your goals.

One study made by Dr. Gail Matthews at Dominican University in California found that people who “wrote their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not.”  In fact, writing down your goals makes you 42% more likely to achieve them, according to the same study.

2. Turn your goals into addictive tasks.

Breaking down your big, lofty goals into smaller tasks not only makes the work easier, but also more addictive. Whenever you complete one of your tasks, cross it off your list. Doing so lets your brain release a “feel good” chemical called dopamine. The more tasks you accomplish, the more dopamine you enjoy, and the closer you get toward your goal.

3. Turn your goals into habits.

Goals are hard work, so it’s best to turn them into habits to make the work easier. Habits are created with the help of neural messengers called endocannabinoids. To get these messengers working for you, you just need to be consistent. Set aside a specific time of day to work on your goal. Or better yet, anchor the action to an existing habit. Work on it after having lunch or before you take a shower. Over time, your actions will turn into habits, making the work easier and automatic.

4. Change your environment to build new habits.

A study discovered that transferees to a new college were more likely to change their daily habits versus those who remained at the same place. Our brain is wired to favor the routine over novelty, even if the routine is unhealthy. If your current surroundings are making it hard for you to work on your goals, it might be time to switch it up and work somewhere else.

5. Share your progress with supportive friends.

The Dominican University study above also revealed that sharing your goal progress with friends makes you 25% more likely to reach your goal, versus those that just wrote down their goals. That additional push of accountability and boost in confidence as you progress will help motivate you to work harder toward your goals. Just remember to share your goals and progress in a way that doesn’t bring you too much satisfaction, otherwise you’ll lose your incentive to keep striving.

The Right Way to Think About Goals

Setting goals is well and good. But what happens when you don’t meet them? I’m sure you’ve failed to achieve a goal or two last year, and it probably wasn’t a fun experience. Do you avoid setting the same goal this year? Or do you avoid creating goals altogether?

If you’ve had a negative experience in setting goals, here’s a small tip for you: you are not your goals. Sure you’re going to miss a goal or two (or more), and that’s alright. It’s not the end.

Always remember that goals are there to help you, not to hinder you. Think of your goals as a way to motivate yourself, instead of being an end in themselves.

If your goals aren’t pushing you forward and motivating you, maybe it’s time to change your goals so that they better connect with your values.