3 Goal-setting Tips That Don’t Work (And 3 That Do)

“What are your New Year’s resolutions?” As 2011 approached, I heard this question frequently. I usually responded with a cryptic answer about how I always have a list of goals, but don’t necessarily call them resolutions. The word itself usually makes people either hopeful or cynical. I tend to belong to the latter group. With the low success rates of New Year’s resolutions, who can blame us?

Last year, the New York Times (s nyt) published an article (login required) citing research finding that about 80 percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions break them by Valentine’s Day. A study from 2007 supports this, saying only twelve percent of people achieve their New Year’s goals.

Perhaps this means that before we list our goals for 2011, we should take a closer look at our own attitudes towards goal-setting. What misconceptions do we have, and what can we do to remedy them?

Myth #1: Tell everyone your goals so that you’re publicly accountable.

In theory, publicizing your goals with friends, or on your blog or Facebook profile, might force you to achieve them, so as not to be seen as someone who’s all talk and no action. But according to a 2009 study by goal-setting researcher Peter Gollwitzer (PDF), this isn’t always true. Most people state their behavioral goals in very general terms (“My goal is to eat healthier”) that gives the premature impression we’ve already done them.

Here’s what works instead: implementation intentions. Gollwitzer defines them (PDF) as a plan spelling out when, where, and how you intend to accomplish a goal. In fact, another study (PDF) shows that implementation intentions work so well that they can help you accomplish your goals despite the presence of distracting thoughts and emotions.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy after you establish a plan. You’ll need to check and update your plan often. It’s also important to start working on your goal as soon as possible. The more time your goal remains inactive after you’ve stated your intentions, the less likely you are to accomplish it.

Myth #2: Reward yourself for your progress.

Some people suggest that to keep yourself focused and motivated in your pursuit of a goal, you need to have rewards for accomplishments. For example, if you successfully stick to your schedule for a week, you’ll give yourself the license to go out with friends during the weekend. While there’s nothing wrong with rewards per se, you need to be careful about how you think of them.

Research shows that for large goals (e.g.. becoming healthier) that have many supporting subgoals (e.g.. sticking to a diet, exercising regularly), whenever you successfully achieve a subgoal, you should reward your personal commitment to the larger goal rather than to  your progress. Rewarding yourself for achieving one subgoal may lead you to ignore the other subgoals, because you’ll view them as substitutes. If you reward your commitment to the larger goal, the subgoals will seem interrelated, and you’ll be more driven to pursue each of them.

Myth #3: Focus on yearly goals.

By definition, New Year’s resolutions are goals that must be achieved within a year. While this tradition can work for some goals, it may not be effective to use such a long time-frame. First, even if we think we know ourselves well, we tend to be poor predictors of what we’ll need or feel in the future. Our perspectives, situations, and desires may differ greatly within a year. Second, most research (PDF) backs up the idea that setting short-term goals is more effective than looking at the big picture. This means that even if you have a list of yearly goals, it’s better to break them down into smaller monthly or weekly subgoals.

Given these goal-setting myths, we should be more attentive to how we set our goals, what works in practice, and what only seems effective in theory. By looking at our goal-setting behavior together with the goals themselves, we’ll be more likely to accomplish more this year.

Do you set goals during the New Year? Which tactics improve your success rate?

Photo by sxc.hu user lazydog

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