Caroline Miller is a plain-spoken, no-nonsense writer and professional coach who happens to be one of the world’s leading experts on achieving goals. She is the author of “Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide,” which was named one of the top three “Business Bibles” of 2010 by the Washington Post. I asked her how to make resolutions stick, and she paraphrased Gertrude Stein: “Most people don’t understand that all goals are not created equal: a goal is not a goal is not a goal. Simply having a goal doesn’t mean it’s a good one, so you need to ask yourself the ‘so what?’ question about the goal. So what if I get that job/lose that amount of weight/travel to that place/learn that skill/adopt that value? You need to be able to state why that goal is important to you and how your life will be enriched as a result of attaining it.”
In other words, make sure you buy into the goal. That is the difference between what experts such as Miller call intrinsic motivation — I do something because it is important to me — and extrinsic motivation — I do something because someone else thinks I should.
Rule 2. Make sure your goal is challenging and specific, but not impossible.
I want to be able to bench press my (pre-holiday) weight, or run a couple of miles in less than the length of a Baptist sermon. OK, good goals for a man of my modest abilities and encroaching age. I also want to start at quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. Not going to happen (although maybe I could take a snap or two with the Falcons).
Miller understands this: “Studies of the most successful and happiest people show they set challenging goals that take them outside of their comfort zones, then achieve them. Too often, we set vague or ‘low-hanging fruit’ goals because we don’t want to disappoint ourselves by not hitting the mark. Or just as bad, set unrealistic, ‘If you can think it, so you can be it’ goals. To alter our lives in the coming year for the better, we have to go out of our comfort zones and do hard things that we might shy away from under normal circumstances, but things that are within our reach if we stretch.”
Vagueness is just as bad. “I want to get in better shape” is very different that “I will run the Spokane Lions Club 5K on March 15 in under 30 minutes.” Guess which sticks?
Rule 3. Find pathways to success.
Intrinsically motivated and tough but realistic goals are not enough without a plan to achieve them. Industrial psychologists call these “pathways.” At work, we call them action plans. Road maps. Game plans. You can use whatever metaphor you want. But don’t even think about making resolutions or setting goals without a specific plan to get there. Alexander Pope’s immortal 1749 lyric, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” is inspiring and an accurate description of mankind, but hope and wishful thinking isn’t enough. You need a plan.
Rule 4. Use strengths to meet your goals.
Most resolutions fail because they are built on personal or organizational weakness. It is like the biblical story of the house built on sand instead of rock — it collapsed. Basically, a resolution or a goal focused solely on weakness is saying, “I am going to try to stink less at (fill in a weakness here) next year.” It is a fool’s errand. Understand and focus upon a key construct of what psychologists call goal theory: agency. An agency is a personal attribute — yes, a strength — that you consciously draw upon to meet your goals. Don’t ignore weaknesses, of course, but build your action plans on the rocks of your character, not the sands.
Rule 5: Keep track of your progress.
At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, goal setting is “all about the journey.” Whether you lose 20 pounds or 10 does not make that big a difference. It is about finding the intrinsic motivation to improve your life, working hard to do so, seeing the results and feeling good about yourself in the process.
Keeping track is the way to do this. It allows you to note small victories on your progress toward your goal and celebrate milestones (lost a pound today — swearing off Jack and Coke before 11 a.m. really works. Yay! I’ll keep it up). Keep a diary of what you are doing every day. Maintain a schedule and hold yourself accountable. Look for the little wins along the way and savor them — the destination will take care of itself.
And remember the most important rule of all — have fun out there every day. Happy new year.
Note: This column was originally published in “Psychology at Work” on Jan. 6, 2012.