How to set motivating goals

Posted on January 13th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

I’m coaching a lot of individuals at the moment who are trying to set goals for their careers as well as their home lives. Here are a collection of tips:

1. Start with small steps that you can succeed at

People often set themselves really big goals. So, a lot of people in their personal lives decide they want to lose so much weight. Often, people decide that they want to read so many self-development or business books every month. You may be tempted to set similarly large goals yourself.

But most people find big goals really difficult to achieve. In fact, one study by psychologists found that nearly half of the people who make New Year’s resolutions have given up on them after only one month.

When I’m helping clients to make changes in their lives, I ask them to set themselves small goals that they feel at least 80% certain they can achieve. For example, if someone wants to lose 20kg of weight, they might as a first step decide to “go for a 15-minute walk two times a week” or “go to the gym three times in a month”. After a month of success, they might then decide to change their goals to “go for a 15-minute walk two times a week and one cycle ride a week” or “go to the gym six times in a month.”

The thinking behind this kind of incremental goal setting is to start small. Get some success behind you for a few weeks or months. And then, when you have achieved something relatively straightforward, build on that success by making your goals a bit bigger.

You can watch a short video of me summarising that advice here on my Instagram feed.

2. Pursue what you want rather than focusing on what you don’t want

Sometimes, we want to stop ourselves from doing bad behaviours. So, goals such as “I want to stop smoking” or “I want to make fewer negative comments” are known as avoidance goals – as these actions are about avoiding or reducing doing something.

Unfortunately, research tells us that avoidance goals aren’t terribly effective. If you do have an avoidance goal, try instead to turn it into an approach goal – an action about what you do want to do. What do you want to do instead of smoking cigarettes? You might decide that you want to “chew gum when I feel anxious”. Or if you want to be less critical at work, think of a substitute behaviour that you want to focus on instead, e.g. “I want to agree with colleagues at least twice every meeting.”

To read more about the science behind avoidance goals versus approach goals, take a look at this piece that I wrote on my LinkedIn profile. You can also ‘follow’ me there if you like.

3. Set yourself a high-low goal

If you are thinking about setting yourself a goal that has a numerical target, consider setting instead what’s known as a high-low goal. For example, suppose you want to learn a new language or some other technical topic – and your original aim was to “spend 20 minutes studying on this phone app.”

Studies actually show that it’s more effective to set a range goal or what’s known as a high-low goal. So you might decide that you would ideally like to spend 30 minutes a day on the phone app, but you would settle for just 10 minutes on a day when you’re busy.

I’ve written about the psychology of setting high-low goals on this very website.

4. Share your goal with someone who intimidates you

Some studies have found that telling friends or colleagues about goals can be motivating. However, other studies have found that sharing goals with others has no benefit.

The latest research suggests that sharing a goal with someone else can be helpful. However, you get the most benefit by sharing your goal with someone who is higher status in that area of your life.

For example, imagine I want to set two goals: one is to do with fitness and the other is to do with the business I run. I should share my fitness goal with someone I consider more skilled at fitness. For example, I have a friend called Chris who is a personal trainer and tennis coach. He knows more about health and fitness than I do. I consider him to have more status in the world of health and fitness than I do. So, by sharing my fitness goal with Chris, I may be more likely to stick with my goal – as I don’t want him to think badly of me.

However, this friend who is a personal trainer doesn’t know much about running a business. So I should share my business goal with another friend – an ex-colleague called Daniel who runs a much larger and more successful business. I think Daniel is so smart in terms of his understanding of economics, sales and marketing and other business-related issues. So, if I were to tell him about my business goal, that should make it more motivating for me.

So, who could you share your goals with? Remember: it should be someone you consider to be more successful – to have more status than you – in this type of goal.

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