The Science of Achievement: 7 Research-Backed Tips to Set Better Goals - Scott H Young - Deepstash

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Goal setting: the good and bad

Goal setting: the good and bad

Setting goals can change your life for the better. For example, goals can help you get in shape, improve your finances, or launch a business. But goal-setting can also make you feel miserable. Potential problems are disillusionment and burnout.

The difference between success and burnout lies in how your goals are designed.

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Aim for hard, not impossible

Psychologist Edwin Locke's research on goal-setting shows three important findings:

  • Setting goals improves performance.
  • Hard goals improve performance better than easy ones.
  • Specific targets work better than "trying to do your best."

Other research shows that easy goals lead to poor efforts, and too hard goals also lead to poor efforts. That means that goals should be challenging but not overly difficult.

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Use the 80% rule

Use the 80% rule

We can motivate ourselves to pursue our goals using the 80% rule.

Track your smaller goals (30 days goals) and track your success rate. If you're under 80%, try setting a more achievable target. If you're over 80%, try something more challenging.

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Deadlines are poison for creative problem-solving

Deadlines are poison for creative problem-solving

One exception to specific, challenging goals is creative problem-solving. Tasks that need deep thinking, such as learning or creative work, goal-setting can become problematic. These tasks require all your working memory. A stressful deadline can hurt your ability to generate a creative solution. 

One solution is to set goals to work on a creative problem for a chunk of time without expecting results. This allows you to focus on the task.

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Visualize failure

Visualize failure

Visualise the difficulties that might come up when pursuing your goal and deciding in advance what you will do. You might get sick two weeks into an exercise program. Your exams get rescheduled.

Your motivation is usually at its highest when setting the goals. Planning for difficulties can keep you from abandoning your goal when things get tough.

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Keep it to yourself at first

Keep it to yourself at first

You don't have to tell other people about your goals. 

Peter Gollwitzer found that telling people about your goals can act as a substitute for actually taking action. Announcing our goals can make us feel like we have already done something and result in putting in less effort.

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Break it down and make yourself accountable

Break it down and make yourself accountable

Research shows that we procrastinate when we perceive tasks as unpleasant.

When we set goals, our motivational hardwiring doesn't cope well with things in the future. We'll start to slack when the deadline is in the far future, and the immediate work isn't enjoyable.

  • The key is to break down your goals into smaller, daily actions.
  • Try to create an incentive to stick to the daily plan.

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Set goals you want to achieve (not only those you feel you should)

Set goals you want to achieve (not only those you feel you should)

Much of the stress from setting goals comes from goals that are not truly your own. 

External incentives, such as paying someone to complete an otherwise interesting puzzle, could dampen internal motivation. Too many outside goals make it harder to motivate ourselves consistently.

However, life-affirming goals feel deeply meaningful and easier to achieve.

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