Autumn is here. We want something new in our lives. For that to happen, we need to change habits that are not supporting us to enhance our levels of happiness.
A strategy that presents the most validated sets of action for behavioral change, is very well known to most of us. It is considering the things we want to actualize as goals and then, thinking about them in a very specific way. That is, setting our goals using a couple of techniques that can make their achievement a lot easier.
- Start with the idea of figuring out what your goal is. What you need here is goal specificity. That is, having some quantitative precision about your goal. For instance:
- Yes, I’m going to do some exercise. But how? Where? Am I going to do some exercise here in my house? Am I going to do some exercise by myself? Am I going to do some exercise today at 8:00 PM? How many times a week am I going to do some exercise? For how long?
The quantitative specificity with which you define your goal, seems to matter. That specificity will give you a plan of how to enact it.
This has been observed across a collection of different studies. Here is one: Participants were doing a hand-eye coordination task, and researchers wanted to set a goal of doing well at it. So, participants were asked:
- “Do you have a specific goal?”
- “Do you want a hit with a percentage correct?”
- “Do you want to achieve a specific speed? “
Some participants had it. Some participants didn’t. And looking at participants’ performance, it was obvious that those who had more specific goals had a better task strategy and better results.
So, when you have a really specific goal, it forces you to figure out how you’re going to do it. And that effort is exactly what leads to better performance. Thus, I encourage you to think the who, what, where, when and write them down, see it quantitatively to support yourself.
- The second point is thinking about the problems that might lead you not to achieve your goal.
For a long time, we have been hearing about positive thinking, and there’s a lot of cheesy stuff on the internet about it. They say: “think about your goals, and you’ll achieve them”. It has proven, though, that it is half of the truth.
It is helpful to think about your goals. Moreover, it is really helpful to think about the outcome in a lot of detail, indulge and get energized by those things you want to experience.
But to get the positive benefit from doing that, you also have to spend the same amount of time thinking about the obstacles that might get in your way.
And this is a phenomena that researchers have referred to as “mental contrasting”. How does this work?
Imagine you’re indulging thinking about, for instance, getting to the top of the mountain. What’s the outcome? While you’re feeling good about it, you haven’t really done anything to make that goal get closer to happening, because you neglected the fact that it’s quite challenging to climb up a mountain! Maybe you need to increase your body’s physical stamina or/and get the right shoes. You haven’t spent any of your cognitive effort figuring out the obstacles.
By contrast, if you only think about the obstacles, you dwell on how hard it is. Then, you’re never going to get around to doing anything.
However, if you actually take the time to intentionally and purposefully do both, first indulge in how great it would be and then think about what the obstacles are, it turns out that you now have visualized both things that you need to succeed.
And there are several studies suggesting that this technique works in a variety of different contexts. Let’s look at one where participants had healthy eating goals. That is, they wanted to eat more fruits and vegetables. So, the first step was to have them imagine the outcome they wanted. And the participants responded something along the line: “I’ll be healthier and have more energy during the day”. And then, they were asked: “Imagine now what the obstacles are” And people mentioned fresh products going bad in the fridge or that they needed to avoid the cookie aisle at work.
They now had both parts of the equation in their mind, and they could see that they needed to overcome obstacles in order to get their goal.
The study followed these people for 2 years. It was found that in the beginning, just thinking about or indulging is good enough. However, over time, if you really want to keep overcoming your obstacles, it seems that having both parts in mind, helps.
- Nevertheless, these aren’t enough unless you add in the third component too, which is goal planning. Because there will be situations where you will be tempted to go back to your previous habit and get the jar of cookies and eat it all!
Researcher Peter Gollwitzer has figured out a way to, not just have a plan, but to have a plan so implicitly that it allows you to get through situations like this automatically, without having to recruit much willpower.
It is a strategy of ” If-Then” plan. This can help you lead to a better goal attainment. It works in the same ways as mental contrasting, although you practice it outside the situation. For instance:
- “If I’m in the dining hall and I see the cookies, I will turn away and grab the orange”.
- “If I’m in the dining hall and I see the pizza, I will turn away and grab the apple”.
You set it up in a very specific, “If-Then” plan, even if it sounds really silly. And it turns out that our automatic brain systems pay attention to that stuff. And it seems to actually increase results in habit changes efforts.
You can try it also with other things, as remembering to take the keys from your home. Think of some specific action, like:
- “When I grab the doorknob to leave, think keys”. And repeat it to yourself,
- “When I grab the doorknob to leave, think keys” …. and automatically as you grab the doorknob, suddenly that plan pops up, and it can actually help you remembering your keys.
This simple technique seems to act on our automatic urges and actions. And it is easy to implement. Try it to see how it works for you.
To those seeking new levels of happiness!
Nicole Mantzikopoulou, September 2021