Here’s the thing: Intentions are never enough. Even full-blown goal-setting isn’t worth much if you don’t do it right.
My error this summer was that I didn’t make a specific, science-based plan; I just vaguely wanted to do more exercise and meditation. Enter behavioral psychologist Sean Young. His awesome book, Stick with It, summarizes all the science around how to change your behavior. And setting goals is, at its core, about behavior change.
Using Young’s framework—as well as the research I wrote about in The Sweet Spot—I’ve freshened up my plan for how my kids and I set our goals (and institute behavior change) before we go back to school. While here I use my desire to exercise more than a model, this can obviously be applied to many things—and to working with kids to set their own goals for the school year. I’ve created a goal-setting worksheet to make it all easy here.
1. First, state the big goal. What would you like to accomplish in the next three months or so? My hope is that I’ll get back to an efficient but well-rounded exercise routine that includes a little stretching, strength training, and aerobic exercise in about 20 minutes, six days per week.
This isn’t a ton of exercise, but because I can do it in so little time, it is realistic. (Six days a week seems ambitious, but I have given myself the option of combining two days, for three longer workouts if, say, I’m traveling or something.) One thing I’ve learned a million times, over and over: Realistic is better than sexy. I’ll take a small success over an ambitious failure any day. Small successes show us that we really can change our behavior in a lasting way.
2. Next, break this larger idea down into long-term goals. Long-term goals take up to three months to accomplish. My long-term goal is that by the end of the year, I’d like to have had 10 “streaks,” or weeks in which I have completed my exercise plan.
3. Break it down again, into short-term goals, which take one to three weeks to accomplish. I have three short-term goals:
- Work with a trainer to set up my workouts (the specific exercises and stretches)
- Memorize the circuits and learn to do them properly
- Have two “streaks” (entire weeks where I complete my plan) in a row before Labor Day.
4. Now, break your goals down into very specific, ridiculously easy baby steps. What can you do today? Tomorrow? My first step was to call my friend Aaron, a trainer, who put together the exercises for me. Today, a baby step is to learn the warm-up stretches he gave me. Try to break your baby steps down until they are so easy you feel little or no resistance to them.
5. Set up your environment to make things easier. Our environment dramatically influences our behavior. We like to think our behavior is all our personality and preferences, or that it’s the strength of our iron-clad will that determines our success, but, actually, we are hugely influenced by the people, places, and technology that happen to be in close physical proximity to us.
This means that to be successful in reaching our goals, it’s very helpful to set up our environment to make things easier, to create structural solutions. This usually means removing temptations—if your goal is to stop checking your phone while you drive, keep the phone in the trunk. And making sure that what we need is easy and convenient—if your goal is to eat more kale, keep a lot of kale in the fridge, and a list of restaurants that serve it.
I made exercising even easier for me by moving my yoga mat and other equipment into my office. I work out at four in the afternoon, when my attention at work is starting to flag and I’d rather exercise than work…and everything I need is right behind me!
6. Involve other people, even if you are an introvert. We humans can often get ourselves to do something we might otherwise resist if it makes us feel more a part of a tribe or a clan—if it deepens or increases our social connections in some way. Other people can also work as a bit of external willpower, getting us to do something we’d rather blow off.
I scheduled a series of Skype calls with Aaron, both so he can make sure that I’m doing the exercises correctly and because I look forward to talking to him. I can tell you that if I didn’t have a call with him today, I’d be very tempted to push my workout time out a little bit, so that I could finish this article. For me, changing the routine is a very slippery slope—10 more minutes at work can easily become 20 and then 40…until it’s time to make dinner and there is no time for exercise.
7. Identify why your goal is important to you. Think less about what you want to achieve and focus in on how you want to feel. Identify a “why” for your goal that will motivate you over the long haul.
We do better when we let go of our logical reasons for why we want to do something. Why? Because research shows that good, solid, logical reasons for doing something—like exercising because we want to lower our blood pressure or ward off cancer—don’t actually motivate us over the long haul. It turns out that emotions are far more motivating than achievement goals in the long run.
So shoot instead for a feeling-state that you want more of (for example, maybe you want more happiness, confidence, or calm). I want to establish this exercise routine because I know it will increase my energy. Feeling awake and energetic is very important to me.
8. Make it a part of your identity. As in: I am a person who exercises. I’ll be tracking the days I exercise, so that I can look back and see: Yup, I’m an exerciser. Collect evidence that you are the type of person who does whatever it is that you are trying to do.
9. Make the behavior more enticing. We human beings pursue rewards: a pretty little cupcake, attention from a mentor, a sense of accomplishment. When our brains identify a potential reward, they release dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger. Dopamine motivates us toward the reward, creating a real sense of craving, wanting, or desire for the carrot that is being dangled in front of us.
Rewards need to be immediate or, even better, built into the routine when possible. This is why I listen to audiobooks while I exercise; when I look forward to listening, I make exercise more enticing.
10. Make the behavior more habitual. Once a behavior is on autopilot, everything is easier—we don’t need much willpower to enact our habitual behaviors. Can you make your behaviors related to accomplishing your goal habitual in any way? Do this by anchoring behaviors in existing habits or routines, or even a schedule, using a When/Then statement: “When I do X, then I will Y.” For me, it’s “When it’s 4pm and the reminder pops up from my calendar, then I will exercise.”
What are your goals for this new school year? Leave them in the comments below.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of “The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction” (BenBella, 2020), former director of the GGSC, and served for many years as the author of its parenting blog, Raising Happiness.
This article was first published by the Greater Good online magazine.