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Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D.

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Two Steps to Rebooting Your Resolutions

Posted: 02/ 3/2012 8:14 am

We are about a month into the new year, so it's a good time to check in on your 2012 goals. How are they going? Probably not as well as you hoped. If so, you're far from alone -- in fact, studies suggest that more than half of the people who made New Year's resolutions this year will have broken them by now.

Real change can be hard to come by, and it's tempting to want to start lowering expectations, or throw in the towel on your goal completely. But don't despair, because it's not too late to push the reset button and try tackling those goals again. This time around, you'll be better armed.

Most of us place blame for our failures in the wrong places. We believe that we lack the talent, or the willpower, or some other innate ability, to get the job done. But one of the first things you learn when you study achievement for a living is that innate ability (to the extent there is such a thing) tells you nothing about your chances of reaching a goal. My own research, along with decades of other scientific studies on motivation, paints a very different picture -- that in fact, like so much in life, it's really all about strategy.

Here are two scientifically-tested strategies that can spell the difference between another year of disappointment, and the significant, lasting changes you have been looking for.

1. Get Specific. No, Really. Very Specific.

Whenever people tell me about their goals, I hear them say that they want to "get ahead at work" or "eat healthier" or "spend less and save more." To which I respond, "OK, but what will success look like? How will you know when you have reached your goal?" Usually, that's followed by a long pause, a look of confusion and a reply something along the lines of "I hadn't really thought about that."

Taking the time to get specific and spell out exactly what you want to achieve removes the possibility of settling for less -- of telling yourself that what you've done is "good enough." Thousands of studies have shown that getting more specific is one of the single most effective steps you can take to reach any goal.

Instead of "getting ahead at work," make your goal something more concrete, like "a pay raise of at least $_____" or "a promotion to at least the ____ level." When what you are striving for is vague, it's too tempting to take the easy way out when you've gotten tired, discouraged or bored. But there's just no fooling yourself if you've set a specific goal -- you know when you've reached it and when you haven't. If you haven't, you have little choice but to keep working toward it if you want to succeed.

2. Think About What You Want and What Stands In The Way. Mentally Go Back and Forth.

This strategy is called "mental contrasting," and in a nutshell, it involves thinking optimistically about all the wonderful aspects of achieving your goal, while thinking realistically about what it will take to get there.

First, imagine how you will feel attaining your goal. Picture it as vividly as possible in your mind. Next, reflect on the obstacles that stand in your way. For instance, if you wanted to get a better, higher-paying job, you would start by imagining the sense of pride and excitement you would feel accepting a lucrative offer at a top firm.

Then, you would think about what stands between you and that offer -- namely, all the other really outstanding candidates that will be applying for the same job. Kind of makes you want to polish up your resume a bit, doesn't it?

That's called experiencing the necessity to act -- it's a psychological state that is crucial for achieving any goal. Daydreaming about how great it will be to land that job can be a lot of fun, but it won't get you anywhere. Mental contrasting turns wishes and daydreams into reality by bringing into focus what you will need to do to make them happen.

In studies my colleagues and I have conducted -- looking at situations ranging from 15-year olds doing summer prep for the PSAT, to human resource personnel trying to manage their time better, to singles trying to find a romantic partner, to pediatric nurses trying to improve communication with parents -- the results are always the same. Mental contrasting reliably leads to greater effort, energy, planning and overall higher rates of achieving goals. Taking a few moments to mentally go back and forth, between the future you want and the hurdles you'll have to overcome to get there, will help you find both the clarity and motivation you need to succeed.

For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals and get happier and healthier in 2012, check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

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