How to set realistic goals for change

Making New Year’s Resolutions and sticking to them are two very different things. Two Ontario researchers have each discovered different ways to make reaching goals more likely.

“Goal setting behaviour actually occurs in four stages,” says Psychology Professor Luc Pelletier of the University of Ottawa. “The awareness phase, the decision phase, initiation phase, and the implementation, or maintenance, phase.” His research shows that in each of these phases, the messages that most effectively lead to success can differ.

“Most messages target only one phase,” says Pelletier. “But what you need to get motivated to work out, for example, in the awareness phase is information about local gyms and things like that, whereas what you need in the maintenance phase is a message that connects you to the wider purpose of your goal, such as long-term health and wellness.”

The type of goal we set is also instrumental to success, says Pelletier. This thesis jibes with a wide body of research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. An intrinsic goal is one the connects to your personal reasons for striving for it – “I want cook healthier food instead of eating out because I’ll feel better.” An extrinsic goal is about something external, such as, “I want to eat less junk food because I want to be as thin as the women in beauty magazines.”

Study after study shows that people who set intrinsic goals and maintain that focus throughout are more motivated and successful at reaching and maintaining change.

Another way to improve your chances of success is to set ‘approach goals’ rather than ‘avoidance goals’, says Pelletier. This means framing your goals in a positive way, such as focusing on the enjoyment you get from an activity like swimming, rather than what will happen if you don’t hit the pool in the morning.

“And always be sure to set goals that aren’t too rigid,” says Pelletier. “Things will come up in your life, so it’s important to be flexible too.”

Brock University professor Antonia Mantonakis also found that the process of staying motivated is both more complicated and simpler than we might imagine.

One problem with staying on track is something social scientists call ego depletion, she says.

“If you think about making these kinds of choices – ‘Am I going to eat a chocolate bar?’ ‘Am I going to go to the gym?’ ‘Am I going to sit down and get my paper done?” Mantonakis says, “The idea is that you have a limited reserve of resources and you could become depleted.”

This means that if you’ve resisted the donuts your co-worker brought in all day, for example, you may end up binge watching television after work instead of tackling your to-do list.

“Research shows, time and time again, that when I’ve depleted my resources I’m more likely to have a self-regulation failure,” says Mantonakis. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed to fail.

In a study she conducted with colleagues called “Is Getting Started an Effective way for People to Overcome the Depletion Effect?” she found that the depleted participants could actually complete a task as effectively as the non-depleted group, even if it took them a little longer to get started, as long as they were told to conduct the task. Interestingly, it didn’t matter whether they had chosen the task or if they had been told to do it by the researchers.

“If you break down the self-regulation failure into the initiation versus the completion phases of whatever the task is, it’s usually the initiation where people fail,” she explains. “So, if you could just overcome that obstacle initially, you should be fine for the rest of it.” It could be as simple of asking a friend to hand you your running clothes, pick you up for the gym, or choose your dessert for you at the buffet. Her research shows that once you get started, your willpower returns.

In the end, being motivated to set positive goals and reach them for the love of what you’re doing is a great way to maintain your goals long term. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a big help just have an obvious reminder – or a kick in the pants from a friend – to get you back on track too.


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