How often do you stick to your goals? It might be turning a dream into a reality, losing that extra couple of pounds, or learning a new skill. Chances are if you’re like most people you fail to stick with your daily goals about twenty percent of the time. And this increases quickly if you’re busy, tired or stressed.
Unfortunately, that means almost one out of every five times you try to work harder, eat better, or save more, you’re likely to skip it in favor of something else that’s easier to do in the moment, and end up feeling annoyed or disappointed in yourself. So, what’s the best way to become grittier and achieve your goals?
“The human mind tends to value the present more than the future,” explained Professor David DeSteno from Northeastern University when I interviewed him recently about his latest book Emotional Success. “And we’ve been told to rely on trying to use willpower to tamp down our desires and keep persevering towards our goals, but it’s not the strongest or the most resilient way to get there.”
Angela Duckworth suggests that succeeding in life takes grit – having the self-control and perseverance to pursue your goals over a long period, despite setbacks and plateaus. But is perseverance enough to get you through?
David has found that it can be difficult to delay gratification and cultivate perseverance if you favor cognitive strategies based on reason and analysis. In contrast, his research suggests that emotional strategies that draw on gratitude, compassion and authentic pride can offer you a powerful and efficient alternative when it comes to practicing self-control and grit.
“Social emotions are like booster a shot in self-control for whatever your goals may be,” explained David. “As you’re part of a social species what is adaptive for helping other people is adaptive for your future self as well.”
The truth is that self-control hasn’t evolved from your need to save money or lose weight, but from your need to co-operate with and accept individual in-the-moment sacrifices of pleasure or resources to ensure greater individual and collective long-term outcomes and survival. Instead of fighting your desires, social emotions change your desires to be more future-orientated. They can be leveraged to help you invest in your future self so that you can acquire new skills, persevere in the face of difficulty, and progress towards goals that benefit yourself and others. And to help you be more pro-social and create social bonds that buffer you against stumbles and stress.
So can you cultivate social emotions that will help to improve your grit?
David shared three suggestions:
- Practice gratitude – you’re grateful when you feel others have invested in you, which makes you willing to return the favor in the future. The real power of gratitude doesn’t come only from its expression; it comes from its shaping of behavior. As a result, studies have found that the more grateful you are, the more you are willing to accept short-lived costs in terms of your time and effort to help others. The essence of any strategy to cultivate gratitude is to appraise situations in ways that allow you to appreciate other’s efforts, support, and kindness. This can include counting your blessings two or three times a week and writing them down (focus on the little things not just the big ones), or reciprocity rings where people in a group first write down their name and requests for help with something, and are then encouraged to find someone else’s request that they believe they can assist with, and to write their name next to it and act upon it.
- Build compassion – compassion motivates you to care about others without having to have previously received help or benefits of any kind from them. Studies suggest that compassion can be improved through meditative practices that foster a shared sense of humanity and connection to others, but it can also be built by trying to find links – any link for example race, gender, class, religion, hometown, musical preferences, travel adventures, etc. – with another person that helps you to recognize them as similar to you or “on your team” as you have a natural bias to be compassionate to people who you perceive to be part of your tribe.
- Leverage pride – authentic pride that stems from proven possession of a valued ability — can push you to persevere in the face of difficulty to acquire skills that will benefit you in the long run. But for pride to work, it must be paired with humility—a humility to know that no matter your skill set, each of us depends on what others have to offer. When you’re admired for your expertise, it’s usually because you’re willing to share it, not because you lord it over those around you. You can leverage pride by working to develop the skills those around you value, by keeping a journal that tracks your success, your aspirations and your progress (remembering that this doesn’t always follow a linear trajectory), and giving meaningful, effort-based praise to others.
How can you harness the power of social emotions to reach your goals?