4 ways to ‘self-nudge’ yourself into achieving your goals

Posted on July 5th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

What are your goals right now? I currently have a variety of professional and personal goals about staying in touch with clients, my eating and exercise habits, reading non-fiction books, improving my Cantonese language skills, staying in touch with friends and family, and so on.

A recent research paper in the journal Behavioural Public Policy by social scientists Samuli Reijula at the University of Helsinki and Ralph Hertwig of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany summarised four methods that we can use to encourage – or ‘self-nudge’ – ourselves towards achieving our goals:

1. Using reminders and prompts
Research confirms that simply having strong intentions to do something is not actually a terribly effective way to achieve a goal. Statistically, someone who believes that he really, really wants to get a new job is no more likely to do so than someone who is only moderately keen.

Or, have you ever had the experience where you think you must do something when you get home – only to forget it when you arrive at home?

The truth is that we can often forget to do things. So it’s worth using reminders and prompts to keep our goals at the forefront of our minds.

For example, I have plenty of clients who set timers and reminders on their phones to remind them to engage in tasks such as practising mindfulness, eating fruit, going to the gym, or using psychological methods such as positive reappraisal and affect labelling.

You could use physical reminders such as Post-It notes, to-do lists or handwritten notes on whiteboards. You could send yourself emails that you are going to read later at home or leave yourself voicemails on your office phone.

Reminders and prompts work. So how can you keep your tasks, projects and life goals at the forefront of your mind?

2. Choosing a different framing
There are different ways to think about and measure our goals. For example, someone who habitually smokes 20 cigarettes a week but who wants to smoke less could focus on how many she smokes each week (e.g. ‘I smoked 5 cigarettes last week’) or how many less she smoked than normal (e.g. ‘I smoked 15 less than normal’).

That’s similar to thinking about how much we are losing (e.g. ‘By not doing this next exam, I am losing out on a salary increase of £5,000 annually’) versus how much we are gaining (e.g. ‘By doing this next exam, I will gain a salary increase of £5,000 annually’).

Someone who want to exercise more could think about the goal in different ways. He could focus on an outcome goal such as how much weight he loses every week or every month. Or he could focus instead on process goals such as how many minutes he spends at the gym or how many times he walks up and down stairs as opposed to taking a lift.

Another evidence-based method of framing decisions is to think in different ways about who we are versus how we behave. For example, one study found that people were more successful at achieving their goals when they thought of themselves in terms of a noun rather than a verb, e.g. ‘I am a hard worker’ rather than ‘I must work hard’. Someone who wants to encourage more charitable behaviour in herself might say ‘I am a charitable person’ rather than ‘I do acts of charity’.

The point is that there are often different ways of looking at goals. So think about how you phrase and think about your goals to find ways that motivate you.

3. Reducing or improving accessibility of options
One major finding from psychology research is that most of us don’t have very much willpower at all. It is much easier to do something when we make the right course of action easy for ourselves. Alternatively, we can make the alternatives more difficult.

For example, suppose you want to exercise but you often get put off by bad weather – when it’s raining or too hot. If that’s the case, think about ways to fit exercise into your schedule that aren’t affected by weather. For example, you could find an indoor exercise class or just exercise while watching online YouTube tutorials. Or if you are at all lazy, then join your nearest gym rather than the better-equipped or cheaper gym that may be further away.

A person who wants to drink less alcohol or eat less chocolate should simply ensure that the house has no alcohol or chocolate in it. The majority of people find it much harder to resist temptation when what they need is actually at hand (i.e. the alcohol or chocolate). When they need to make an effort to get it – for example by going to a shop – then they are more likely to stick to their original goals.

Some studies also suggest that we have more willpower earlier in the day than later in the day. That suggests that we should do challenging things in the mornings or afternoons rather than waiting until the end of the day when we are exhausted and only want ease and comfort in our lives.

4. Using social pressure and self-commitment to increase accountability
It’s often a good idea to share our goals with important people in our lives. This has two benefits.

Firstly, these other people can remind and prompt us about our goals. They can ask us questions to see if we have stuck with our stated goals. They can also make suggestions about better ways that we could achieve our goals.

Secondly, by sharing our goals with important people in our lives, we can put more pressure on ourselves to follow through. Research has found that sharing our goals with high-status individuals (i.e. people who are better than us in some way) can help us to stick to our goals.

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