All too often we set ourselves goals about the changes we wish to make, which we don’t stick to, regardless of how strong our initial desire to make the change is. Why is this the case? What is it that gets in the way of us achieving the goals we set ourselves?

Here we will look into recent research which sheds light on these challenges, before outlining our thinking on how to turn goals into action and really make change stick.

“Envision the change” & “tell someone else your goal” – is this the most successful way to implement change? It doesn’t look like it!

Two of the most common pieces of advice we are given about successfully implementing change are “envision the change”, and “tell some else your goal”. But are they really true? Do they really lead to successful change? Recent research suggests maybe not.

You will no doubt have been told that focusing on the desired outcome – imagining yourself  thinner, healthier having given up smoking, or being able to speak French fluently – will make you more likely to be successful in achieving your goal. However Gabriele Oettingen‘s research demonstrates that the exact opposite is true – dreaming about a desired future actually leads to low investment in the goal and little success in achieving the desired outcome.

And what about telling someone else your goal? Surely it’s beneficial to tell other people about what we aim to do? Again, recent research suggests that by telling other people about our goal, we feel as if we are already part way towards the goal, and as a consequence are less motivated to actually work to achieve the goal. Watch Derik Sivers talk about this further in his short Ted talk.

Making change stick

So how do you make a change that you will stick to and ensure you reach your goal? The key is to focus on how rather than just what.

  • It turns out that being positive about envisioning the change is beneficial, as long as you also make a plan for how it is you will achieve the goal – plan the small steps rather than just the big picture.
  • Set yourself small tasks and goals, one at a time, which will help you towards making the change you want to make. Keep it simple. Change requires repetitive focused practice over a number of days, and we do our best when our mind only has to focus on one thing.
  • Take some time to identify potential setbacks and obstacles – both external and internal – that you might face which could interfere with you reaching your goal. The obstacles could be other people, competing demands, or voices in your head, for example.Make a plan for how you will overcome these obstacles if you face them.

And what about telling other people your goals? You may find it helpful to tell one or two close colleagues or friends about your goal. But as well as telling them about the overall change that you wish to make, tell them about how it is you plan on doing this – share the small goals and obstacles you think you will face – and ask them to support you and check in with you regularly about how you are getting on.

But keep this support group small.  Remember, a broadcast goal is one our brains give up on.

One slip up is not a disaster

One of the more common reasons we fail to reach our goals is that we give up after one slip up – we give up on our diet after we have an unhealthy day, or we stop going to the gym after we have a busy week where we are unable to get to the classes we had decided to go to.

How you treat yourself when you fall off the wagon is as important as when you are on the wagon. Don’t beat yourself up if you are unable to make a change you planned to make, or if you slip up and fall back into old habits. Be kind to yourself and use it as a chance to learn more about yourself – what was it about the situation you were in or how you were feeling which caused you to not be able to stick to your goal? What can you do so that you are able to overcome this obstacle in the future? Remember “one slip up is an opportunity”.

Turning your goals into action

So, the research and our practise tells you that in order to make a successful change and achieve your goal (remember, one at a time), we recommend that you make a plan for yourself by thinking about the following questions:

  • What is your goal?
  • What is the timeframe in which you want to achieve your goal?
  • How will you feel when you are successful? What will you hear? What will you and others see? Use this as a motivator to create and commit to a plan.
  • How can you break your goal down? What small changes can you make which will help you achieve your overall goal? Choose the first step.
  • Which 1 or 2 people will you tell about your goal plan in order to have them encourage you to stick to the plan to achieve the overall goal? Who are the friends you trust on this one?
  • What challenges – from other people, from your competing demands, your self-belief etc. – might you face in reaching your goal? How will you overcome these challenges so they don’t get in the way of your success? What is your plan?