Dr Maike Neuhaus
Failing to plan is planning to fail
Without wanting to sound negative, one thing I can assure you is that simply having the best of intentions will not guarantee you that pot of gold.
A crucial but often overlooked step in goal-setting is planning. And that includes the things you want to do if everything works according to plan (usually referred to as goal-setting) and those that you'll do if things go pear-shaped (typically referred to as coping planning).
Coping planning entails preparing for scenarios in which things don’t go according to plan.
Most of us already have a pretty good idea of what that could be – meetings that drag out, kids getting sick, the weather, traffic jams, feeling tired, the partner cancelling on us and so forth.
Some of these roadblocks can be unavoidable as we don't have any influence over them. However, what we can do is to anticipate as many of them as possible and identify strategies we can apply to avoid any negative impacts on our goals.
For example, if you need to leave a meeting on time to make your next appointment but are worried it may go overtime, you could announce your timely departure at the beginning of the meeting (often, this will make for a more efficient meeting after all). If you are planning a run but hate bad weather, you could consider options to use a treadmill elsewhere or do some other form of physical activity.
What are the things that could get in your way when you’re about to tick that new goal behaviour off your list?
The more you can anticipate what could possibly get in your way and develop strategies to be at the winning end anyway, the more likely you will be to achieve what you set out to achieve. Then you should write it all down.
Write it down
Did you know that the simple act of writing down your goal might make you more likely to achieve it? So easy, yet seemingly so effective – at least according to an international study lead by Psychology Professor Gail Matthews.
In this study, people were divided into five groups being tasked with varying intensities of goal setting techniques. It was shown that the mere act of writing their goal had a significant impact on the likelihood of participants having accomplished their goal four weeks later. So, I recommend to grab your notebook and write down your (REALLY) SMART goal including your coping plans.
But before you put your notebook back into your drawer, let’s talk about the other two factors that distinguished the goal attainers from those who were unsuccessful in Matthew’s study: their commitment and ability to hold themselves accountable.
Research shows that your goal-setting efforts will only be effective if you commit to them. Management and human resources Professor Howard Klein conducted a review of all currently available studies on the impact of committing to goals and concluded that goal commitment is a strong predictor of goal attainment.
Klein defines goal commitment as the “volitional psychological bond reflecting dedication to and responsibility for a particular target”. In other words, it is the determination to put continued effort into achieving the goal over time.
Goal commitment mobilises effort and increases persistence. It asks questions such as
How willing are you to achieve your goal?
How much would it take you to abandon your goal?
What do you think are the chances that your goal will stay as it is, without needing revision along the way?
How valuable do you find pursuing your goal?
How realistic do you think is it that you will achieve your goal?
How easy is it for you to take your goal seriously?
How willing are you to put effort into attaining your goal, over and beyond your usual effort to attain it?
Goal commitment is particularly important the more difficult or ambitious the goal is. So, take a couple of minutes to go through the above questions and estimate your own commitment to your goal.
The last step you can take to maximise the chance of achieving your goal is to establish a plan to hold yourself accountable to it. That means that you will have a system in place that won’t let you get away with not achieving your goal – at least not unnoticed.
Your first point of accountability is you: You can cultivate accountability by practising self-awareness and establishing a habit of monitoring your progress over time. Writing a to-do list (including your goal, of course) in the morning and reviewing it at night is a good way to do this.
But holding yourself accountable works even better when you involve other people. Identify your biggest cheerleader, tell them about your goal, send them your plan (the goal and coping plan you’ve written down) and ask them if it’s ok for you to send them regular progress updates. Optimally, they will check in with you if your updates drop off or show that you’re not progressing as planned.
Cheerleaders can be anyone who is usually supportive of you and happy to support you in this particular goal. This can include a friend, family member, your coach, psychologist, a colleague or even your boss.
So, once you've articulated a goal, develop a contingency plan, write it down, ask yourself how committed you are to it and tweak your goal until you are fully committed. Then identify how to ramp up your accountability and you've established a solid base to create the changes in your behaviour that are necessary to reach your goal.