Skip to content

What does research show about setting and achieving goals?

    New Year - setting and achieving goals

    At this time of the year, many of us are thinking about what we will commit to as our goals for the next year. Whether you call them New Year’s resolutions or goals, they are basically the same. They are what we hope to achieve. They can be things we hope to do, things we want to give up and so on. But what has scientific research found about our ability to set and to achieve these goals?

    Basically setting goals is easy, but achieving goals is hard work. There are two main things we need for success in achieving goals:

    1. Abilities and skills to achieve the goals
    2. Motivation to do so.

    Elliot T Berkman wrote a long article1 reviewing the “emerging brain science on goals and behavior change.” Here are some of his conclusions:

    Achieving a goal normally means we have to engage in new behaviors. There are 4 types of possible behaviors:

    1. Complex-Routine behavior: These require some skills or knowledge but not much motivation. For example, driving your car somewhere you have been to often – it can feel a bit like your autopilot has been switched on. It’s become a habit.
    2. Simple-Routine behavior: These require few skills and not much motivation. For example, eating or walking.
    3. Simple-Novel behavior: These require few skills but a lot of motivation. For example, changing a diaper for the first time.
    4. Complex-Novel behavior: These require skills and motivation. Most goals require this type of behavior.

    So to find out what’s holding you back from achieving a goal, you have to look at both the skills and motivation required

    Do you need to take some classes in order to gain the skills you need? Will the task become easier the more often you do it?

    In terms of the skills you need to achieve this goal – “are they related to interpersonal abilities (e.g., empathy and perspective taking) or executive functioning (e.g., inhibition and attentional control)”? Or do you already possess the skills, but need someone to make you realize that?

    In terms of motivation, what is holding you back? Are you afraid of embarrassing yourself if you fail?

    Research on the development of our skills

    There has been a lot of research on our innate executive function skills, but alas few studies on how we can improve them. Executive functions feel hard and we have to put a lot of our conscious attention into achieving them. It’s like how you can’t multi-task when you are doing complex mental arithmetic.

    Executive function skills allow us to do things we have never done before. That’s why humans seem to have a prefrontal cortex. Our brains are geared to allow us to start doing these new things automatically. But we have to repeat them a lot for them to become new habits.

    The evidence is not clear as to how long we can use our executive function skills before we feel tired and why this feeling of tiredness occurs. It is also not fully clear whether we can train the brain to improve its executive function skills.

    Some people say that it is best to try and change one small behavior and then to make it a habit by repeating it everyday for at least 3 weeks. For example, if you make it a habit to do a few pushups when you first get out of bed. If you do it everyday, it becomes a habit like brushing one’s teeth. Then in a month’s time, we may add a few stretches after the push-ups and do both for 3 weeks. So gradually we can add more and more good habits until we have a whole routine of good habits.

    But if we try and adopt a number of new habits all at the same time, we may find we don’t have any that really stick with us.

    Research on our motivation for achieving goals

    Because developing our executive function skills requires us to focus on the task at hand, our brain can feel like it is missing out on other opportunities. So to feel fully motivated to do the work, we have to be really clear on our priorities in life. “Habit learning is facilitated when the new behavior is consistently preceded by specific cues and then rewarded.”

    Small cues and rewards can really help. Ideally you should set up patterns so that you don’t need another person to be involved. For example, before you go to bed, put your gym shoes out. Then when you wake up you will see them and that can be your cue to go to the gym. Have some juice in the fridge that you can drink when you get back as your reward.

    Studies have confirmed that we don’t like being forced to do things. But to increase our desire to do them, it can help to remember our core values and why we wanted to achieve this goal in the first place. It can help to reflect on how you see yourself. Do you see yourself as a “health conscious person” – the kind of person that would never eat junk food? This can help you to grab the apple rather than the chocolate bar after your workout at the gym.

    In achieving goals, it’s important not to get distracted by fears of social rejection. For example, if you are overweight, if you focus on what people will think when they see you exercising, this can inhibit your determination to do it. Just remind yourself that the more you do it, the better you will look and someday those same people will be the ones commenting on how fit you are and wishing they were as fit as you.

    Precommitting to things ahead of time can help. For example, if you subscribe to have a box of organic food delivered each month, you will be more likely to eat healthy as it will cost you more money to do otherwise. Then you will be less likely to make bad purchasing decisions when you are tired.

    Reframing it

    A lot of it depends how you frame it in your brain. For example, if you rate your foods according to their healthiness, it can help switch your focus from just eating what tastes yummy (which tends to be full of sugar and salt). Aim to eat the foods with the highest healthiness rating and over time you will start to appreciate their own unique taste values too.

    Our brains are wired to reinforce the habits we have learned over the years. So it can be hard to change the way we do things. That’s why it is best to start with modest small incremental changes. Aim to just achieve one goal at a time.

    Another way is commit to give someone (or a charity we don’t like) a large sum of money if we don’t achieve our goal within our set timeframe. But we should reserve this strategy for goals which we just never seem to finish or things that are particularly important to us.

    Conclusions about achieving goals

    There are many ways to go about achieving goals both in terms of the skill development required and the motivation to achieve them. What goals will you set for the coming year and what strategies will you put in place to achieve them?