Use these goal setting and goal achievement tips and techniques to significantly increase your success and satisfaction.
Sadly, how most of us go about goal setting and goal achievement sets ourselves up for failure. This article is based on what I’ve learned from science, clients and personal experience. It covers best practices for how to define and work towards goals in ways that will maximize success and satisfaction.
The first success factor is to be clear on what you want. Surprisingly may people set goals that will unintentionally lead them to misery. So, in the first half of this article I’ll give you tips and techniques on how to clarify what you really want; how to define your goals in ways that actually support success.
The second success factor is work towards achieving your goals effectively. The big surprise here is that research shows that many widely espoused goal-setting and visualization techniques actually reduce your likelihood of succeeding. So, in the second half of the article I’m going to give you tools and techniques that have been proven to be the best for supporting goal achievement.
Part 1: Know What You Really Want
Obviously the first step in successful goal achievement is to know what you really want. However, what we really want, and what will actually bring us satisfaction, are often less obvious than you might think.
The Traps of Materialism
We (Americans) live in a highly materialistic culture. We’re bombarded with thousands of advertising and entertainment messages daily that tell us that material success is the most important thing on the planet. It’s not. And it won’t make you happy.
Here are the two most common traps of materialism to avoid.
Money is Not Very Important
If you’re unemployed or struggling to put food on the table, then it is appropriate to focus on material goals. If you’ve got those things covered, then making more money won’t make you any happier. If you’ve got the basics covered, then don’t focus on money.
It turns out that beyond the basic necessities of food, safety and shelter, having more stuff doesn’t make us any happier. Looking back on my own life, many of the times when I was most successful in the material world were also the times when I was most miserable in the emotional world.
Many studies have shown this effect. A large-scale international survey showed that people in the very poorest countries were less happy than others, but that people in moderately poor countries were no more or less happy than people in the richest countries. Also, research by Ed Diener from the University of Illinois, showed that the 100 wealthiest people in America are only slightly happier than the average American.
In my own travels, I’ve found people in some poorer countries, particularly in Southeast Asia and Latin America, to be significantly happier than people in richer countries in Western Europe and America. A recent Gallup Poll verifies this observation.
We’re bombarded with messages that having more stuff will make us happier. It won’t. If you have a decent job and reasonable financial security, then get over it.
More money won’t make you happier. Instead, you’ll be better off focusing on other things that will.
Happiness Doesn’t Come From Things
Research shows that things, possessions, don’t make us happy. Experiences do. If your primary goals are about obtaining more things, then change your goals to having richer experiences.
Psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich found that people gain more happiness and satisfaction when they spend their money on experiences (like a vacation, concert, going out for a meal) than on things (like a flat screen TV, smartphone, clothes). Their research has shown that both short- and long-term happiness comes more from buying experiences rather than things.
If your goals are to buy things, then change them to goals to buy experiences.
The Traps of “In Order To…”
It’s easy to fall into the trap of chasing goals ‘in order to’ achieve something else in the future, but with goals that won’t actually produce the desired end result.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work hard on things now that will bring you future success and satisfaction. Every year I have one or two development goals that are specifically intended to improve my skills in order to support future success. Often developing those skills is not fun, but it is valuable. That’s not what I’m talking about.
The trap is when the ‘in order to’ desired result won’t actually follow from achieving the stated goal.
For me in my twenties this took the form of pursuing career success at the expense of everything else. I was hell-bent on getting promotions, buying a flashy car and owning a nice house. In the process I got divorced (in large part because I was ignoring the relationship in favor of my career) and for a few years I had chronic anxiety-induced digestive problems. I succeeded in my career, but the career success brought me no satisfaction.
If I had looked deeper, I would have found that what I really wanted as the end result of all that career success was actually respect. Respect from my colleagues, respect from my friends, respect from my family and respect from my already-deceased parents. And ultimately I wanted self-respect.
The irony is that the ways I was going about achieving my career success were actually sabotaging the respect that I so wanted from others. I was a bit of an ass in those days, and it would have been fair to describe me as a self-centered egomaniac who only cared about his own results. That cost me at work and at home.
If I’d realized that my real goal was respect from others and ultimately self respect, I would have been much more successful at achieving my goal.
Here are two versions of the ‘in order to’ trap:
Success (and Beauty) Won’t Buy You Love
The advertising myth of our age is that the outward symbols of success – fast cars, big houses, nice clothes, whiter teeth – will make us happier. They won’t.
In my twenties I was a poster child for this trap. But a more extreme (and much more famous) poster boy for this is Donald Trump. He’s pursued wealth and has succeeded gloriously, but it obviously hasn’t made him happy.
Don’t let this be you. Figure out what brings you direct satisfaction (rather than “In order to…” dreams) and do that. If you’re stuck on this one, there’s an exercise below to Clarify Your Real End Game.
Love What You Do or Change What You Do
If the path to achieving a goal involves doing something you hate, then change your goal, or change your path.
In his book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn presents and avalanche of scientific evidence for one undeniable fact: People who love what they do are more motivated, happier and more successful than people who don’t.
I’m not saying that you should never do anything you don’t like. Every job involves some things that are less fun. I own a software business that I’m passionate about. The mission of the company is an expression of my own values and goals. However, part of the job involved detailed software testing. I hate software testing. But in the context of the mission of my company, I’m OK with doing software testing from time to time.
Contrast that with a woman I met at a business-networking event a couple of years ago. She was working full time as medical writer for a pharmaceutical company so that she could paint on weekends. She hated her full time job and was miserable. That approach just doesn’t work.
If achieving your goal requires you doing something full time that you hate, then change your goal, or change your plan for how you’re going to achieve that goal. It’s just not worth deferring your life in order to achieve something else later.
Clarify Your Real End Game
Pick one of your current goals, and imagine yourself sometime in the future having fully achieved that goal. Does that future self feel completely happy and satisfied, or is there still something missing? If there’s still something missing, then it’s time to clarify your real end game. Here’s how.
To make sure you have identified your real end game, start with your current goal statement, and ask yourself this question repeatedly, writing down your answer each time:
- What would having that do for you?
For each answer you write down, ask yourself the same question again, regarding the new answer. Keep going with this until you get to something that makes you feel good: happiness, joy or satisfaction. Then ask yourself:
- If you had that fully and completely, how would you feel?
Your objective in this exercise is to get to a feeling state that would leave you completely happy and satisfied with regard to your originally-stated goal.
For example, when I talked about my mad drive for career success in my twenties, one of my stated goals was “To be promoted to Vice President before the age of 30.” If I had kept asking myself the question above, I would have eventually ended at the answers of “To be respected by my peers, friends and family.” and the ultimate answer of “To experience self respect.” Now that’s something that feels good.
The important thing here is that by driving for a promotion I was sabotaging respect. In contrast, if I had realized that my real goals were the respect of others and ultimately self-respect, there would have been way more efficient ways for me to go about achieving my real goal.
Here are some examples of the transformations from original goal to real end game that I’ve heard from some of my clients:
- From “Get a raise” to “Support my family” to “Raise happy and healthy children.”
- From “Travel more” to “Have adventures” to “Have a richer life experience”
- From “Quit my job” to “Be my own boss” to “Enjoy my work”
- From “Buy a Porsche” to “Demonstrate my success” to “Find a woman who loves me”
The point of each of these is that achieving the original goal on the left hand side may well not lead to achieving the real goal on the right hand side. (Survey many Porsche owners and you’ll find this to be true.) But focusing directly on the goal on the right hand side gives you a much, much higher likelihood of creating what you really want.
Use this process on all of your goals to make sure that you’re working towards your real end game goals.
If your goals are only about what’s in it for you, then you’re going to end up mean and unhappy. If your goals include contributing to others, then you’re going to be happier and more accepting of others.
The research is overwhelming: people are happier, more satisfied and more accepting of others when they are altruistic. If all your goals are self-centered, then take some time to think about your core values and what you would really like to contribute others if you could wave a magic wand. Then add some goals that would fulfill your altruistic desires.
Go for balance here. People who only have selfish goals tend to be, well, selfish. But people who only have altruistic goals tend to abandon themselves and be miserable for other reasons.
Part 2: Use Effective Goal Achievement Processes
Now that you’re clear on what you really want to achieve, here are best practices for goal achievement.
Avoid Common Traps
First here are two common traps to avoid.
Don’t Focus on What You Don’t Want
Your attention goes where you focus. If you focus on negative goals, you’ll achieve negative outcomes. If you focus on positive goals, you’ll achieve positive outcomes.
Researchers into the psychology of weight loss asked one groups of dieters not to think about chocolate, and said nothing to the control group. They tracked the food intake of each group. Guess what? The people who had been told not to think about chocolate ate more chocolate than the control group.
Jennifer Borton and Elizabeth Casey at Hamilton College in New York State, asked a group of people to push negative thoughts out of their minds, while the control was given no special instructions. The group attempting to actively suppress their negative thoughts actually thought more about them and also rated themselves as more anxious, more depressed, and as having lower self-esteem.
Check each of your goals to see if any of them are stated in the negative and if they are, re-write them in the positive. Some examples might help:
- Change “Stop eating comfort foods” to “Eat healthy foods”
- Change “Stop dating losers” to “Start dating awesome people”
- Change “Stop procrastinating” to “Do one thing each day to move my project forward.”
- Change “Don’t yell at my kids.” to “Be more playful with my kids.”
Visualization Alone is Detrimental to Success
If you only visualize success, you actual success will diminish. You need to visualize both success and the process of working towards that success.
Unfortunately many, many self help products have spread bad advice in this regard.
This time last year I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a yoga teacher. She was telling me that she was doing everything right to create abundance in her life – she had read The Secret and had applied everything – and yet she had been struggling financially all her life.
I asked what she was doing to put her dreams for abundance into action. What actual steps had she been taking?
“Ummm… what do you mean?” she answered.
Research shows that people who only visualize success perform worse than people who visualize both the success and the work they will do to achieve that success.
It takes action to make dreams come true. All the visionary CEOs I know who have created extraordinary companies and all the micro entrepreneurs I know who have created awesome lives for themselves have two things in common: They dream big and they work big.
If you’re not willing to put the work into achieving one of the goals on your list, then just cross it off your list. If you are, then dedicate your whole being to making your dream a reality.
Goal Achievement Best Practices
Finally, now we can get into the best practices for achieving your goals for greater success and satisfaction.
Work Directly Towards Your End Game
With the exercise to clarify your end game, you got clear on what you really want. As much as humanly possible, work towards directly achieving those end results, with as few intermediate steps as possible.
Now you’ve gotten clear on what your real end game is, this one is quite simple. When you focus your efforts on your true end game goals, you’re more likely to succeed than if you focus on surrogates like buying a Porsche.
Set Goals and Work Towards Them
In his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman summarizes the best scientific research into best practices for goal achievement. Here is the optimal process for goal achievement, based on that research.
- Pick one of your goals and think about it
- Visualize having reached that goal, and write down two benefits that would result from that accomplishment
- Think about the obstacles or barriers you might encounter to achieving that goal
- With the benefits and barriers in mind, write down how you might overcome each of the barriers you identified
- Create a step-by-step plan for achieving your goal
- Identify rewards you will give yourself for accomplishing each step
- Go public: Share your goals and plans with your community
The last point about going public may surprise you. It turns out that the more publicly we make a declaration, the more likely we are to fulfill on that declaration. Sharing and committing to goals publicly are no exception.
Repeat this process for each of your goals.
Now you have set yourself up for success for the year.
If you find you have unconscious barriers to achieving your goals or find that you sabotage yourself, then you may want to dig deeper into exploring your goals, motivations and barriers to success. For that, our self-study DVD program, Dissolving Barriers to Success, would be ideal.
Design Your Own Life
Recent happiness studies show that most people have a baseline level of happiness across the span of their lives. Some people are happier than others, but any given person’s baseline happiness does not change much. Something bad happens and they feel briefly less happy. Something good happens and they feel briefly happier. But the baseline doesn’t change.
It turns out that there’s only one reliable way for a person to increase their baseline happiness. Curious as to what that is?
The only reliable way to increase your baseline happiness is to blame circumstances less and take accountability for creating the results you want more. It’s as simple as that.
Use the tools here to take accountability for creating the life you want, and in the process increase your overall happiness and satisfaction.
If you would like to go further with creating the life you want, consider our course, Dissolving Barriers to Success.
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