Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Have goals? Try this strategy for maximizing success

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

soccer match

OK. So let's say you have set a goal for yourself-- sticking to your diet, perhaps, or adopting a learning orientation, or maybe not being hurt by prejudiced remarks. The number of life tasks in which we must set goals for ourselves, with the hope of achieving them, is almost endless.

soccer match
Source: Wikimedia commons (photo by Jason Gulledge)

What can you do to maximize your chances that you'll succeed at your goal?

Let's take the example of dieting. In my last post, several readers and I shared some principles that help us eat (and live) more healthfully. One reader, Terry, correctly drew attention to the association between weight and amount of TV watching, while I myself concentrated on eating more green vegetables. Now, from these general strategies, we might set the following goals for ourselves:

1) Watch less TV.

2) Eat your veggies.

How many of us have New Year's resolutions posted on the mirror or the fridge that look like that? They seem like perfectly reasonable to-do lists, and at least they help us keep the goal in mind.

But there is a problem. You see, beyond telling us what the desired end is, they don't tell us much about the how. And there is a relatively straightforward, research-proven way to frame the goal to improve your chances of actually doing what you set out to do.

Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues have found that beyond setting goals, setting what he calls implementation intentions maximizes the likelihood of engaging in goal-directed behavior. The principle behind implementation intentions is straightforward. As therapists have long known, our behaviors often become strongly associated with the contexts in which the behavior is performed-- this is why, for example, sleeping therapy will often stress that the only thing people do in their beds is sleep. This is so that the context (the bedroom, the bed) will itself cue the behavior (sleeping). In my own case, a long standing problem has been my tendency to eat cereal at night, after the kids go to bed. As I tiptoe down the stairs at night, I'll often find myself anticipating (yumming, I call it) that bowl of cereal. It is a classic example of the conextual cue eliciting the thought of food.

An implementation intention I might set for myself here is:

IF you are tiptoeing down the stairs after putting the kids to bed, THEN grab a piece of fruit.

Implementation intentions take the form of IF... THEN... statements: IF you are in X situation, THEN engage in Y behavior. This way of framing the goal takes advantage of the contextual cue to remind you of your goal. This, in effect, puts our tendency of contextual cueing to work in your favor. In one study (Gollwitzer and Brandstatter, 1997), students were asked what goals they had set for themselves over the holidays, such as completing a given assignment or finishing a book. Among students who had framed their goals in terms of implementation intentions, about 66% ended up successfully completing them, whereas only 25% of those who had set goals without the implementation intentions did so.  Clearly implementation intentions helped! This was particularly true for difficult projects (for easily achievable goals, there was no improvement as a function of implementation intentions).

Again, in my own case, I'll say things to myself like

IF the kids are having dessert, THEN make yourself a cup of coffee.

Rather than saying a global, "don't yield to temptation," I tie my behavioral strategy to the situation, and make it more likely that I'll stay on course when I'm most tempted (i.e., when my kids are savoring their snacks)

Now, going back to the earlier examples, then, instead of just instructing yourself to watch less TV, try this: isolate the particular situations or cues in which you have the tendency to be a couch potato, and then give yourself a specific behavior to do. Let's say, for example, that you tend to gravitate to the TV after dinner. You might say:

IF you are looking for something to do after dinner, THEN go for a brisk walk (for example).

The nice thing about implementation intentions is that they are flexible, and you can tailor them to your particular goal as well as context. Framing your goals in IF... THEN... terms helps you be more attentive to the contextual cues that are likely to cue unwanted behavior, and can serve as reminders of the behavior you do want to engage in. So remember: IF... THEN....

Try it!

You can follow this blog through Twitter and Facebook. Copyright 2012 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.