The Psychology Behind Setting Goals You’ll Actually Achieve

By Relationships Australia

The idea of change can seem insurmountable, even when we’ve recognised that it’s our own behaviour which needs shifting. Sometimes the simple thought of trying to break habits or make changes makes it easiest to keep sliding back into the familiar. We explain the psychology behind setting goals – and how to actually want to work towards achieving them.

At their best, goals can help us with focused and deliberate delivery – if we really nail the process of setting them.

“There’s never enough time to make the changes you need to make, but there seems to be plenty of time to keep making the same mistakes,” says Elisabeth Shaw, a clinical psychologist and our CEO here at Relationships Australia NSW. “It’s very tempting to stay with the familiar, even if we find it really irritating.”

Why should we set goals?

Goals help us plan in a deliberate way and to pace ourselves on our path there. One of the keys to setting the right kind of goals is taking a good look at how we’re going to get there and working out what our measures of success look like.

What makes a ‘good’ goal?

Often, it’s easy to judge broad goals like “I should speak up more in meetings” – despite their good intentions – as failures. ‘Failing’ at goals isn’t great for our morale or motivation and heightens the temptation for us to resist change.

So, how do we set targets that we’ll feel good about, so we can build the momentum to keep on kicking goals?

Good planning is key

If you’ve planned well and the goal is specific and measurable, then it will set clear expectations and measurements. As Charles Kettering said, “a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved”.

That means it’s important to properly understand why we’re setting a goal before we set out to tackle it.

Elisabeth gives the example of setting the goal that you want to work your way up to being a project leader, which you plan to achieve by demonstrating you have the skills that the role requires.

“First ask – why do I want to be a project leader? What are the skills of a good project leader? What would others in the company say makes the best project leaders? Do I know anyone who is a good project leader?”

“You might be unsure on how to answer some of these questions – which means you need to do a bit more investigation before you try to achieve this goal.”

How we can select and set the right goals for us

If you’re setting goals arbitrarily, you’re not setting yourself up for success. Dig deep to uncover what you really want to accomplish and understand why it’s so important for you to get there. This will help to reveal some of your core motivators.

The following questions will help you determine whether the goal is something you want to achieve, or something you think you should be striving for.

What is the context of your goal?

The context of a goal is important – realistically, what are your chances of success? You may be focusing only on the end state, without resolving the sub-problems along the way.

For example, if you’re looking for a promotion but your workplace has a flat structure, the person in the role you want has been there for years and it doesn’t look like they’ll leave anytime soon, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

What does success look like?

Being able to articulate the goal to yourself, and maybe others, can help drive you to succeed. Why is this goal important to you and how do you get there?

“You could try setting up a vision board of how achieving your goal will actually look,” Elisabeth suggests. “For example, if you’re saving up to go on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, collate photos of where you’re going and what you’ll be doing.”

You might be surprised at how much this can inspire you to focus.

Is it your goal or a goal someone wants for you?

To find the motivation that achieving goals requires, it’s important to work out who or what is the driving force. Is it something that you want for yourself, or something that society or another person is expecting from you?

“For example, your manager is pressuring you to work 12 hours a day, and you’re feeling obligated to meet their demands – but in reality, you’d rather be at home with your family for dinner,” Elisabeth says.

“In this case, you’ll need to consider whether something you genuinely want to achieve, or maybe it’s an opportunity to acknowledge that your manager’s expectation is competing with your more important goal – spending time with your family. Your goal might then change to finding a new role in a team or organisation that prioritises work-life balance.”

Is your goal driven by a ‘should’?

Is this something you genuinely want to work towards, or something you think you should be working towards?

Maybe all your friends are getting married and having kids, and you feel pressure to take their lead – but deep down, you’re more interested in going travelling, investing in your career or moving abroad.

Aim to move away from ‘I should’, towards ‘I want to’. Your goal has a good chance of failing if you haven’t determined this important factor.

Are you using the SMART framework?

You’ve probably heard of the SMART framework but – while it’s nothing new or ground-breaking – setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound goals is a simple but powerful way to make sure we’re not going down some fanciful track or working towards a goal that’s simply unachievable.

If you’ve got big ambitions, you’ll need to develop a project plan for your goal that outlines simple steps to take now, and in the future, to help get you to where you want to be.

Why do we fail at achieving the goals we’ve set?

Good goals usually fail when we have a competing goal – sometimes one we don’t even know about, because we haven’t really stopped to analyse why we’ve set the goal in the first place.

Say, for example, you’ve set out to show more initiative at work, but subconsciously you’d really prefer to fly under the radar and avoid coming under the gaze of your pressurising boss.

If you’ve ‘failed’ at achieving a goal you believe was realistic, try writing out your reasons for achieving the goal, and then your alternative reasons for not achieving the goal.

“You might learn that you don’t like change, so your goal should really be about confronting your ambivalence around change, and questioning why it feels more comfortable to stay the same, rather than aiming for a promotion you’re not sure you want,” Elisabeth says. “Sometimes we’ll need extra help with this – from a friend, colleague, therapist or coach.”

There are other reasons we might not have achieved the goals we set ourselves, too:

  • We didn’t take the steps needed before we could really focus on our goal – like setting a goal to secure a promotion but needing to address our underlying anxiety first so we could go into the job interview with confidence.
  • The goal was ill-defined or unrealistic, under-planned or under-resourced. For example, your manager set you a goal that wasn’t possible without the provision of additional resources or within the deadline they set.
  • Your dream is out of step with your current reality. Your goal might be good, but right now it’s just not possible. You might be focusing on other things that are important to you, which means you can’t commit to this goal right now. That’s OK.

Quick tips for success when setting and achieving goals

Elisabeth shares a few more of her pearls of wisdom for goal-setting success:

  • Take stock of yourself: What is going on for you in your life and how do you feel about yourself? What would change mean to you and what would it cost you? Give yourself a realistic and compassionate understanding of yourself and your circumstances.
  • Decide if the goal should be public or private: If your goal is to reduce the amount of alcohol you’re drinking, maybe it’s helpful to tell your group of friends so they can support you to drink less and hold you accountable if you fall off track. Or maybe you’ll decide the external pressure would be unhelpful for you, and it’s better to keep it private.
  • Plan for wild cards (as opposed to giving up or making excuses): Time-bound, realistic and small goals help when unforeseen challenges arise, like losing your job or experiencing health issues.
  • Manage people; manage expectations: Sometimes our nearest and dearest don’t like us changing – they might struggle when we become more assertive or set boundaries, even if it’s the best thing for us. People can have mixed reactions to our goals and that can be a pressure. Be mindful that our friends and family might not want the same goals for us as we want for ourselves.
  • The value of learning: Sometimes not meeting goals or meeting unexpected goals is a learning in itself and can help us understand ourselves better. Look at what held us back – was it ourselves or others? Was it within our control or outside of it?

Finally, don’t forget to recognise and congratulate yourself on the wins – big and small.

When we achieve our goals, it’s an opportunity for celebration, as we reflect on our growth and determination. Stop and remind yourself that you accomplished this goal because you put the effort in – and that is worthy of celebration. Rather than diving straight into an even bigger and better goal, give yourself time to pause and enjoy the moment.

If you feel like you need extra support in setting and achieving your goals, Relationships Australia NSW also offers a range of services that can support you with workplace-related issues.

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