The Science of Setting and Achieving Goals

When Angela Duckworth was 27, she left her high-pressure management-consulting job for an even tougher gig: teaching seventh-grade math at a New York City public school.

Duckworth quickly learned it wasn't smarts that determined whether her students accomplished their goals and got good grades—not by a long shot. "I was convinced every one of my students could learn the material if they worked long and hard enough," she says in her popular TED talk.

After a few years of teaching, Duckworth found herself asking the question, "What if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?" She's made a career of that question, becoming a psychologist who has studied how and why people set and—most importantly—achieve their goals. A key quality she's found that separates the winners from the losers? Grit.

"Grit is stamina. Grit is sticking with your future day in and day out -- not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint."

Even the least seasoned of runners knows that the key to making it through a marathon is pacing yourself: not pushing too hard or too fast and exhausting your energy while also not backing down when it gets tough. But how does that marathon-mentality resonate in regard to setting and achieving goals in our work lives and careers?

Have a growth mindset

In her research, Duckworth has studied stamina and goal-setting of groups ranging from West Point cadets to National Spelling Bee contestants. In a study of Chicago public high school students, she found that kids with more grit were far more likely to graduate high school than others. In other words, those students with the stamina to be in it for the long haul were the ones who fared best overall.

One fundamental way to develop this is to have what Carol Dweck, Stanford psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, calls a "growth mindset," or the belief that your abilities aren't fixed, but rather that they can be developed and strengthened with time. "These are the people who go for it. They’re not always worried about how smart they are, how they’ll look, what a mistake will mean," Dweck tells Harvard Business Review. “They challenge themselves and grow.”

Set meaningful goals

Challenging yourself to grow on a daily basis requires setting goals that are meaningful to you. According to John Norcross, psychologist and author of the book Changeology, specificity is critical when it comes to setting goals you actually achieve. He encourages people to think of goals in terms of how defined, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-specific they are. Rather than maintaining the bird's eye view of what you want to accomplish, break it down into the smallest, most manageable steps you can. "Small steps together equal a giant leap," Norcross writes.

Setting and achieving goals isn't about knowing how you'll get to the end-result, but rather understanding the incremental steps needed to edge you closer to it, according to Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal. “You can make very, very small changes that are consistent with your big goals without having to understand how you’re going to get to the endgame,” she tells TED.

Build accountability into your life

We wouldn't get much of anything done if it wasn't for accountability. If you don't pay your bills on time, you'll face late fees. If you fail to take your dog out in the morning, you'll wind up with an unpleasant surprise on your living room floor. If you don't prepare for a presentation, you'll risk falling flat on your face. Those kinds of tasks have clear accountability measures, but once you get into more creative, big-picture territory, holding yourself accountable can become more elusive.

Research economists at the University of California, Santa Barbara looked at the difference between reward and penalties when it comes to achieving and sticking with goals for the long-term. They looked at gym attendance and found that while visits increased when people were given financial incentives for working out, once the rewards stopped, so did their attendance. On the other hand, participants who created commitment contracts that required them to pay a certain amount to charity if they didn't keep up their gym attendance had a long-term shift in their behavior compared to those who were simply rewarded.

Don't fill yourself with false hope

It's easy to allow our goals to quickly outsize our realistic capabilities. Ambition is important, of course, but the danger comes in setting unrealistic expectations for what you can get done, which can set you up for feeling like a failure. Janet Polivy, psychologist at the University of Toronto, has a name for this type of unrealistic goal setting: false hope syndrome.

"It is important to learn to distinguish between potentially feasible and impossible self-change goals in order to avoid overconfidence and false hopes leading to eventual failure and distress," Polivy writes.

It’s also important to plan for potential failure so you aren’t derailed when it comes along. “In that moment when you fail, often the first instinct is to push the goal away," McGonigal says. "It’s so uncomfortable to be in that place of self-doubt or self-criticism and guilt.” Anticipating that you're likely to get off track or fall behind will prepare you to push ahead. It's all about maintaining that growth mindset and grit to push forward.

Never underestimate the power of positivity

Reframing goals so that they are positive, rather than triggering you to feel intimidated or afraid, is also important to making progress. “Any sort of avoidance is going to trigger inhibition systems, whereas positive goals are going to trigger approach and reward motivation,” McGonigal says.

One way to do this, according to leadership coach Peter Bregman, is to think in terms of focus areas rather than hard and fast goals. For example, a sales person who maintains a goal mindset might focus on winning a specific number of clients—a task that some might find daunting. Translating that goal into a focus area, on the other hand, would mean concentrating on reaching out to lots of potential clients, rather than over-focusing on a number.

"A goal defines an outcome you want to achieve; an area of focus establishes activities you want to spend your time doing," Bregman writes in Harvard Business Review. "A goal points to a future you intend to reach; an area of focus settles you into the present."

Rather than letting your to-do list or set of goals overwhelm you, break down what you're trying to achieve into the smallest, most attainable steps and focus on being realistic about what you can get done. Don't shy away from failure and remember how important maintaining a positive frame of mind can be. You'll cultivate a growth mindset and the stamina and grit it takes to make it for the long haul.

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