By -

Dear Anna,

I’m good at setting goals for myself, but I’m bad at sticking to them. Do you have any suggestions that might help?

The good news is that research continues into how people can grow and achieve their goals. One of the most interesting I’ve read recently is the link between famous quotations and willpower.  Selecting a motivating quote from a set turned out to increase short-term willpower and reduce its decline in a study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology. Build yourself a set of motivation quotes that work for you. One of my favourites is Nelson Mandela’s “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.  

Habits are better than intentions.  

I know many professionals who have the intention of reading more, reading more for leisure, or just keeping their reading up to date. Each of these intentions need to be turned into a habit.  For me, the habit is reading when others might be checking their social media or watching Netflix. The tips that follow are from Wendy Wood’s 2019 book Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. Well worth a read if you can get into the habit.  

1. Context counts: the physical environment makes a difference to establishing a habit. Change the surroundings to make a new habit stick. Put the water bottle right in arm’s reach, use the kitchen area that doesn’t have snacks, or find an easy way to carry your reading with you. 

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat: log your progress on an app and include how it felt – was it was hard work, or is it starting to feel automatic? Don’t be surprised if complex habits along the lines of giving more regular feedback or raising your profile take longer than giving blood every month. Track your progress and don’t worry if you miss a day or two – turns out persistence is better than perfection.

3. Reward: In a year with the summer Olympics, go for gold on this one. Rewards have to be bigger and better than normal to help us trigger the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine and lock in the habit. The best rewards are those that combine a sense of fun with making you feel good. This is the same mechanism in our brains that make some online games so hard to give up.  Choose your rewards carefully! 

4. Coffee-type consistency: Most of us make a hot drink the same way at the same time of day in our own homes. Current research is suggesting that the consistency of timing makes a difference – a tricky one in a profession where each day and week brings with it an ever-changing set of priorities. Here you might find linking a new habit to an old one the way to go. Make the next day’s healthy lunch while you are cooking dinner, or put the agreed task into your list before you leave the meeting room.  

Keep up the momentum on your goals by consciously turning them into habits. Somewhere along the way your tax payer’s dollars have contributed to the research universities are doing on how to achieve our goals. Make the most of the insights from research and give these tips a go.