With researchers recently reporting that people around the world are more stressed and less happy than ever, it’s easy to understand why it’s feeling harder than ever to achieve our goals. Let’s face it, as environmental, political and social challenges around us continue to grow, even the most optimistic and determined among us can feel like it’s just too hard to make the difference we want. So, how can we sustain our energy and focus?
“Goal setting is something we’re all familiar with, but too often our goals are left unattained,” explained Dr. Grace Lordan from the London School of Economics and Political Science when we interviewed her recently. “While you may have a rough idea of where you want to be in five years’ time, people often fail to make meaningful plans to take the small, positive steps required, meaning hopes don’t translate into reality.”
Grace explained there are three common challenges that hold us back from setting more meaningful and effective goals:
- Fear of failure – Behavioral science tells us that the anticipation or fear of failure is far worse than the pain you experience if things don’t go right. This is important to flag as it’s something that holds many people back. Yet, by being mindful, you can navigate your way around it.
- Not enough time – Behavioral science suggests that by taking an inventory of your time sinkers – activities that are either useless to you or give you only instant enjoyment, but don’t help you work towards your goals – you can prioritize the time you need to build the skills you need to reach the goals you’ve set.
- What others think/say – Other people’s narratives and beliefs about what you are capable of can also make it challenging to achieve your goals. However, behavioral science suggests the spotlight effect means even if you make a public mistake, other people are more forgiving than you anticipate them to be. In all probability they won’t even remember your error. This makes the spotlight effect freeing in the sense that you can put yourself out there and people are unlikely to notice when things don’t go well for you.
Even when we overcome these challenges, we often set goals that are too big and too abstract, then expect results too fast. To avoid these common mistakes, Grace recommends:
- Breaking your goals down into smaller skill-building steps – If you can set a goal for five years’ time (e.g. to have a new career or to improve your physical health and wellbeing), you can then identify the smaller steps that will allow you to get there. Looking at the big goal, you can ask yourself “What do people who are doing that role today spend their time doing?” and “What tasks are they involved with that I can become involved with?.” The answers to these questions can become the small steps you need to get started.
- Putting in place some short-term carrots – When it comes to working towards a bigger goal, there is often a steep learning curve, which can feel overwhelming at first. It can even make the potential benefits feel too far away to be worthwhile. But by bundling your small steps with instant rewards (carrots), you can overcome your inconsistent time preferences, reduce the costs of engaging in these activities now and improve the immediate benefits to keep you motivated. To begin creating your own carrot, ask yourself: ”How can I lower the immediate costs and increase the immediate benefits of the small steps I need to take?”
- Building your resilience by noticing the small things – We tend to focus on negative encounters with greater longevity and feel them much more than the equivalent positive encounters. Because of this, it is unlikely you are reaping the full rewards of positive encounters for your resilience. To combat this, try to celebrate small wins by taking time to notice what went right with the day and savor these moments.
Rather than trying to save the whole world this week, what are the small positive steps you can take towards making your goals a reality?