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I'm pretty good at maintaining my health goals, if I do say so myself. Eat nutritiously? Yep, most of the time. Exercise? I've got my regular routine. But my other goals? Not so much. There's that book idea I've been kicking around, the website I want to launch, the new fitness classes I've been meaning to master. But every night, by the time the baby is in bed, something more pressing always pops up.
A lot of people are just like me, it turns out, and get trapped in a state of inertia. Some are perfectly content with where they are and see no need to reach higher, and that's okay, experts say, as long as they are truly happy. But most of us are stuck in place because we're afraid to take a risk and fall short. "The major cause of fear of failure is low self-confidence, when we're convinced we just don't have what it takes to be successful," says Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, the author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and a social psychologist in Easton, Pennsylvania, who has spent years researching what motivates us. The more we doubt ourselves, the less likely we are to pursue anything but the easiest of goals, she explains.
So how do you stoke your confidence and become a go-getter? Well, it helps to have a little kick in the pants. "You've been talking about launching a website since websites existed!" my mother exclaimed, exasperated, when I brought up the subject recently. I realized she was right. It was time to stop discussing and start doing. So I asked Halvorson as well as some other top experts to help me bust my rut. Here's what they taught me about how to turn a dream into a reality.
Use this plan as your road map to success.
When I was in my twenties, I had heaps of willpower. I would stay late at the office and get my butt to the gym first thing in the morning. But now it takes all the mental strength I can muster to do the work I have to get done every day. The thought of creating a website makes me want to flop on the couch.
"I've turned into a lazy person!" I lament to Halvorson. She assures me this isn't true at all, pointing out that I'm simply juggling too many things, which is often a dilemma for women. "It's hard to have any willpower left when you're putting out fires all day," she says.
"But that doesn't mean you can't reach your goals," she adds. "It's just a matter of being realistic." So maybe I won't be able to write my book and launch a website and have the perfect yoga butt. But I can choose one, make it a priority and push all the other to-dos lower on my list.Be picky.
Ask yourself: What would I like to improve in my life right now? What do I most want to change? The right goal is the one that speaks to those wishes, says Maryann Troiani, a psychologist in Barrington, Illinois, and the author of Spontaneous Optimism.
It should also be something you really want to do as opposed to a milestone you pursue because you think you should. For instance, are you trying to lose 10 pounds to feel good about yourself or to impress other people? Goals that are personally satisfying are naturally motivating, Halvorson says. They'll also make you happier. "With a sense of choice, people apply themselves more fully, and they're more resilient to setbacks." says Richard Ryan, PhD, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Rochester in New York who has conducted research on motivation and reaching goals.
I decided to focus on my website. It's something that will scratch my creative itch and also allow me to try an entrepreneurial venture, a terrifying yet exciting prospect.Reach high.
"Just do your best" always sounded like a cop-out to me; in fact, it is. Reams of studies have suggested that a specific directive, like "Run a nine-minute mile" or "Increase sales by 10 percent," will fire up people to perform better than if they're told to run as fast as they can or boost sales as much as possible, says Gary Latham, PhD, an organizational psychologist at the University of Toronto. "The admonition 'Do your best' is a recipe for mediocrity," Halvorson adds. Okay, then. I resolved to work on my website for an hour every day.Do the write thing.
With pen and paper, so you can't delete it with the stroke of a key. "When you write out a goal, it gives your conscious and subconscious a chance to fully absorb your intention," Troiani says. Your objective becomes real and demands a commitment.
I gave it a go. "I will launch my website by September," I scrawled in my notebook. According to Latham, the best way to move forward with a plan is to "go public" with it. "Put it on the refrigerator door for others to see," he suggests. "Each week, write down your progress. If people are watching, you'll feel more motivated to persist." So I did. And I do.See the good and the bad.
Visualize not only your goal but also the challenges you'll face along the way, Troiani says. Anticipating speed bumps prepares you for the work that's necessary to achieve success. Case in point: In a University of Pennsylvania study, women who expected that they would succeed in their diet shed an average of 26 pounds more than those with low expectations. More impressive, women who had doubtful as well as positive fantasies lost, on average, 24 pounds more than those who only fantasized positively. If we think the process will be simple, we'll coast and be less equipped to tackle obstacles when we do encounter them, Troiani explains.Break it down.
In past years, whenever I opened up my website-project document, a wave of anxiety would wash over me. I may as well have been planning to climb Mount Everest. "Goals need to be broken into scalable chunks," Halvorson says. "You need to work backward from your goal to figure out the steps you need to take to reach it." For me that means first writing my website mission statement, then coming up with a domain name and outlining the sections of the site.
This strategy works for any objective, including losing weight and switching careers. Finding a new job isn't so daunting if you focus on the smaller achievements that will get you there, like attending two networking events each week or sending out two résumés a day. "Write down these steps as a checklist," recommends Charles Purdy, who manages career-advice content for Monster.com. "Checking them off as you complete them keeps you motivated."Hang out with goal-driven people.
Whether it's being fit or being happy, we pick up behaviors from those around us. The same goes for being goal oriented. Study after study has suggested that when we spend time with people who act decisively to get what they want, we begin to pursue our own objectives in a similar manner. And when people share a meaningful bond -- as running buddies, say -- they're even more driven to achieve the same goal, according to an Ohio State University study. "This is why even though it takes discipline to get to the gym, we'll exercise instead of sitting around eating Cheez Doodles once we're there. We're wired do what everyone else is doing," explains Keith Payne, PhD, the paper's coauthor. My plan: I'll start spending more time with and bouncing ideas off my most get-things-done friends.Reward yourself.
When it comes to difficult tasks, we're like puppies: Dangle the proverbial bone in front of us and we feel a sudden resurgence of energy. In a University at Albany SUNY study, scientists instructed subjects to watch a funny video of Robin Williams; one group was allowed to laugh, and the other wasn't. Then researchers asked both groups to drink a beverage made from vinegar. When one cent was offered for each ounce consumed, the group that didn't laugh drank less than the group that did because their willpower had already been depleted. But when the reward was increased to 25 cents, both groups drank the same amount. Whatever reward inspires you -- in my case it's either new running shoes or a spa treatment -- go for it. "It's an excellent way to tip the scales back in your favor when you're just too tired to resist temptation," Halvorson says.Make a plan.
Strategizing works, no matter the goal, experts say. If your aim is to lose 10 pounds, then one of the many plans you might make is to eat the grapes in your bag if someone brings cookies to the meeting. For me that means taking full advantage of sudden free time instead of squandering it. I told myself, If my husband is bringing my son to swim class, then I'm working on my website at Starbucks.
"The more you practice your plan, the more it will turn into a habit," explains Elliot Berkman, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. It becomes less about how strong your goal "muscle" is and more about a reflex.
So how did all these research-proven strategies work for me? Well, within a couple of weeks I had a mission statement for my website, a list of discussion topics I wanted to tackle, and a bunch of blog posts -- more than I accomplished in the last two years put together. The more I worked on it, the more I wanted to work on it, energized by everything I've been able to create. These days I write entries every weekend -- some good, some terrible -- but at least they all get me further away from that state of inertia that made launching the project so hard for so long.
What I've learned is that goal reaching is as much physics as it is psychology: An object in motion stays in motion. And with visions of a website launch party by fall, I have no intention of stopping now.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2012.