Linda Allen was 9 years old when she decided she wanted to join the baseball team. Unfazed by the fact that no girl had ever been allowed on the all-boy team, she asked the coach what skills she’d need, then set an ambitious goal. After two months of practicing and focusing solely on her goal, she tried out. Not only did Linda become the first girl ever to make the team, but she snagged the coveted second baseman spot just as she’d envisioned.
“My parents instilled it in me to set my goals high, work hard and never settle for less,” says Linda, now a successful insurance agent in Fort Worth, Texas. “Even then, I knew if I walked onto the field with no preparation, I would have failed.”
That valuable lesson set the stage for Linda’s future. She has seen goal setting work in both her personal and professional life, and also raised her sons to use goal setting in everything from academics to their careers. “It’s not rocket science,” she says. “You create a system that works for you and then own it and use it.”
Set realistic goals
As a new year begins and many people make all-or-nothing resolutions (lose 20 pounds!) in hopes of creating change in their lives, experts instead encourage us to set goals with a clear plan. For example, create a weekly exercise plan and stick to it; and start cooking at least four meals a week at home. The numbers back up the experts; while just 8 percent of resolutions are successfully kept, people who set goals show a success rate of 90 percent.
“Even if the goal doesn’t happen the way you wanted, by using the planning and execution, you know you have given it your best,” Linda says. “So you don’t feel like a failure, you readjust and win with the best outcome possible for you.”
Understand the "Why" of goal-setting
Knowing what drives us to set goals, and why they’re important, may affect how we structure our goal-setting process. “The thing that encourages us to set goals is that we see some gap in our lives,” explains Jan Stanley, who has a master’s of applied positive psychology from University of Pennsylvania and has helped organizations and Fortune 500 companies develop goal-setting strategies. The first key, she says, is to make sure our goals and values align.
“We all have things we hold dear, whether it’s our family, saving the planet or just wanting to get more out of life,” Jan explains. Examining what’s important to you personally, and then using those values-based intentions to create goals, builds the foundation for successfully setting attainable targets.
When Linda makes a goal, she defines it, writes down the steps needed to reach it and then prioritizes those steps so she can make them part of her daily actions. According to Jan, that method is exactly what it takes to make our goals more accessible.
Make it part of a routine
“One of the things that is so powerful about implementing actionable steps into our routine is that we know what we’re going to do today,” Jan says. “Now we’re no longer wondering what we should or could do; we know what we need to do today to reach that long-term goal.”
Much-cited research from Edwin A. Locke, Ph.D., a pioneer in goal-setting theory, shows that the more specific the goal, the better the individuals trying to reach that target will do. As you work toward your goal, several things happen in your brain that propel you toward success.
Each day you follow that routine, you reinforce it as a habit and gain momentum. And, when you accomplish your daily objective, your dopamine system—the neurotransmitter that doles out rewards—creates a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction, which is important to keep your brain’s motivation and incentive high. That’s important to keep us going, Jan says.
“We have these lofty goals of what we want to accomplish, but there’s so much work to do and so many off-ramps that can divert our attention,” she explains. “If we have a way for our brains to experience rewards throughout the process, we’re more likely to keep with it.” Think of scaling Mount Everest: It’s not going to happen in a day, so it’s the day-to-day progress that keeps you motivated.
Setting yourself up for success
As much as we’ve been taught to dial in to our willpower, it may be our brainpower that proves to be the stronger ally when it comes to setting and achieving goals. Learning to use creative techniques, like visualization, can help prime your brain for accomplishing that goal.
“When we envision something happening, our brain treats it as something we’ve already done,” Jan explains. “That’s why psychologists work with athletes to envision themselves doing things like breaking through the tape first. Our brains can’t tell the difference between when you’re visualizing it and when you’re actually doing it.”
You can reinforce that visualization by writing about it. The Best Possible Future Self writing exercise, developed by Laura King, Ph.D., of the University of Missouri, Columbia, has become a popular practice for achieving goals. Its effectiveness lies in connecting your sense of accomplishment with a clear-cut vision of what the future looks like, Jan says.
In this exercise, participants write in vivid detail what their lives will look like when that goal is achieved. They describe how they feel and what they’re doing. The writing becomes a sort of road map for the future and makes it easier to detfine what steps should be taken and can help establish priorities.
In other words, it becomes an outline for your own personal success. “Most of us really want to make a contribution with our lives,” Jan notes. “Can we be happy without ever setting goals? Maybe. But when you’re looking at making a contribution and finding meaning in your life, goals help clarify that contribution, and outline the steps we need to take to make it happen.”
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy.