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Forget about those New Year’s Resolutions and try goal setting instead.

While that fleeting intention and good resolve may have some merit what’s more useful is to examine how effective goal setting can help you achieve more of your heart’s desires and with less angst and guilt.

Goal setting assists us to we learn new skills and stretch our mental capacity. In a world that’s changing fast, setting and achieving goals is a great way of keeping up, adapting and evolving to match the shifting sands of our working and living environments.

But goals can be tricky because what we’re talking about is behavioural change and that can be hard. Our brain is a pattern recognition machine that prefers to keep us in the status quo where expected and familiar outcomes keep us feeling safe and our automated behaviours consume minimal mental energy.

It’s said that “where there’s a will there’s a way” which is especially true for goal setting because if you can tap into what you really want, it’s far easier to find the determination to overcome the many roadblocks and obstacles that can otherwise stymie your progress.

What is a goal? 

A goal is something we desire, but for whatever reason haven’t attained yet. It comes with the expectation it will require effort, time and perhaps even some discomfort to achieve.

What do you need to pack in your goal-setting kit bag?

There are essentially three things that will help you to achieve your goals.

  1. Knowing what you really want.
  2. Having the understanding of your own capacity to achieve your goals.
  3. Taking action.

Make the goal a stretch but not a snap.

We have a Goldilocks brain. If a goal is too easy, there’s little challenge, we lose interest and become quickly bored. Too hard and the motivation to keep on is easily depleted. The key is finding something that will stretch us and provide enough challenge, but not too much.

That’s why BHAGs can be a problem. Love them or loathe them, big hairy and audacious goals if TOO big and unrealistic turns motivation down and fear and procrastination up. Our brain isn’t stupid. It knows what is possible. Which is why chunking down a big goal into smaller components can help make a project feel more feasible. Better still successfully completing each component triggers the brain’s reward circuitry, leading to that delicious dopamine hit that motivates you to continue.

Your brain loves novelty so trying out something new is exciting, especially when it feels like fun.  Achieving new skills whether at work such as when learning how to make the best use of that new app you’ve just downloaded, or in life as when learning how to play the guitar or pass your driving test feels great. We know too that success only comes with continuing practice. Getting used to a few failures along the way is to be expected and keeps the momentum of progress moving forwards.

Here are ten tips to help you achieve more of your goals.

  1. Know your intention. This is your why. Big or small it’s vital to know why you’re putting this goal out there to be fulfilled. Is this something that matters to you personally, that you feel strongly about, or is really someone else’s goal they would like to see you succeed with?
  2. Know what’s real. Sure you might have the goal of travelling to China next year. But will your workload, finances and other commitments allow for this without creating too much pressure on yourself. Check in and ask how much attention, focus and time you can realistically devote to your goal.
  3. Adopt a winner’s mindset. Your state of mind has everything to do with your success. Choosing (yes, it’s your call) to work with a positive frame of mind has been shown to reduce stress and increase optimism, resilience and tenacity. Many studies have confirmed it is your belief system that determines your energy and outcomes.
  4. Keep the goal in your level of consciousness. This is where writing down your goals and keeping them visible – on the back of the bathroom door, on the fridge or on your computer screen provides that visual reminder necessary to ask yourself – what do I need to do today to move me towards my goal?
  5. Be as specific as possible. Rather than citing a desire to lose weight, choose the actual weight you want to be. Rather than telling everyone you want to get fit, tell people which activity you will be doing, for how many minutes and how often. A dietary or exercise prescription should look like something your Doctor gives you. For example and exercise prescription for a person currently not exercising at all might be: Walking around the block for twenty minutes with your partner twice a week.
  6. Keep your eyes on the prize. Busy lives can easily sidetrack us. Maybe you’ve been asked to take on some overtime, your kids have been sick or you’re just tired. This is where staying focused on the end goal can help. Research by social psychologist and professor Emily Balcetis from NYU has shown how in a race keeping your focus on the finish line makes the goal feel up to 30% closer, up to 17% easier to achieve and we get there faster because we increase our speed by astounding 23%! Her research also showed how setting goals boosts systolic blood pressure, a sign indicating the body is getting ready to achieve your target.
  7. Set goals that light you up. Rather than focusing on what you want less of (which always feels much harder) look for the positives. Rather than seeking to lose weight, which entails going on a diet, feeling deprived, hungry and grumpy, try reframing it as a goal to gain energy, health and vitality so you feel (and look) terrific.
  8. Ask yourself every day. Is what I’m doing moving me towards my goal or not? And don’t forget to show a little self-compassion. Beating ourselves up for not achieving the day we had planned saps motivation and the will to continue. We’re human and imperfect so instead, acknowledge what didn’t work and ask yourself what might have helped to produce a different outcome, so you can start afresh the next day. Studies have shown that the occasional lapse has no impact on your long-term success, so long as you can pick yourself up, and get going again. If those lapses are getting a little too frequent then maybe it’s time to ask “how much do I really want this?” If the reality is the goal no longer inspires you or is someone else’s expectation of you, it’s time to stop. Why waste time and energy on something you don’t want?
  9. Celebrate all wins especially the small ones. Sure hold a party to celebrate getting to your destination, but it’s the check in points along the way where you can acknowledge your progress and celebrate small frequent wins that your brain finds especially rewarding. The power of small wins should never be underestimated.
  10. Stay accountable. Share your goal with an accountability buddy or someone who will be checking in on your progress. Working with someone who shares a common goal can be super effective too. This is the basis for the success of Weight Watchers and other such groups. Enjoying mutual support from others who ‘get’ the difficulties you may encounter can help keep you going.

Goal setting when matched to your values and beliefs will enable you to achieve more, boosting your health (both physical and mental), resilience and happiness.

That’s smarter thinking at work.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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