It’s a new year, and for many of us we are thinking about what we want for ourselves, our family and the world in 2021. Having survived 2020 we probably want something different than what we endured for the past 9 months. Maybe we want health, travel, connection, stability, prosperity, or peace. For many of us it could be all of the above. But how do we go from wishing for these things to actually getting them?
Being a research-based person I turned to science to see what researchers have found on this topic. Fortunately for us, goal-setting and achievement have been studied for many decades. We actually do have a good sense of what steps lead people to achieve their goals versus dream big but stay at home on the couch.
Some of you may have heard about the mythical “Yale study” where graduates of Yale were interviewed years after graduation about their earnings. The typical story is that the researchers asked these Yale graduates (or sometimes it’s Harvard) if they wrote down their financial goals prior to graduation. The alleged study authors “found” that of the 3% of graduates who reported writing down their fiscal goals before graduation they were making more than the other 97% of graduates combined (who did not write down their earning targets). Sounds great, right? Sadly it turns out that study never happened. However, other studies have been conducted, such as this one done by Gardner and Albee in 2015, which showed that following certain steps MORE THAN DOUBLED participants chances of achieving their goals. The bad news is that it wasn’t as easy as just writing them down, sticking them in a drawer, forgetting about them and then years later outperforming 97% of everyone else. It required more effort. However, nothing that the participants did was super-human. One of my favorite parts of the study is that the goal-setters harnessed RELATIONSHIPS to help them achieve more. Since humans are naturally relationally-oriented this makes sense. Since our earliest evolution as pack animals we have been concerned with how others see us and have benefitted from the support of others. So it’s nice to see that this carries over into achieving our goals for a new and better year.
OK, so the nuts and bolts of what this particular study showed is that there are a series of steps that one can take to increase achievement of goals. The more of these steps you take the more likely you will be to achieve them. I’m going to start with Step Two because Step One was just to think about these things without writing them down. I assume we all know how that will go...so let’s move on to Step Two which actually starts the process for real...
Step Two: Write your goal down, rate how difficult it seems, how important it is to you, to what extent you have the skills to accomplish the goal, your level of motivation and commitment to the goal and any prior experiences with working on this particular goal. You can make up your own scale for this, such as a 1-5 scale or 1-10 scale, or use a progressive list of adjectives such as “easy, moderate, difficult, impossible”. So for example if my goal is to get in shape I could say that it seems, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most difficult thing I have ever done, that getting into shape is going to be a “7”. Then for what extent I have the skills I could say, again 1-10 with 10 being “I have all of the skills”, it’s a 9 because I have gotten into shape before so I actually am pretty confident that I know how to do it (what exercises, etc.). My level of motivation, again 1-10 for this example, may be an honest “5” given the year I just had...my commitment may be a “6”.
Step Three: Now write “action commitments” for each goal. These are concrete steps you can take towards a specific goal. For example if my goal is to get in better shape an “action commitment” is to schedule some classes with a personal trainer, or buy a gym membership, or carve out an hour every evening to walk in my neighborhood.
Step Four: Share these goals and action commitments with a friend. In my example this does not need to be someone who is actually going to go to the gym with me but just someone who knows I am trying to get there 5x/week (or whatever my goal is).
Step Five: Update this friend on a weekly basis as to your progress on your goal, using your action commitments as ways to measure your progress.
It’s not lost on me that this process mirrors psychotherapy, be it individual, couples or group. For most therapists goal-setting is an important part of the intake process as well as, over the intervening months, helping clients figure out the steps necessary to take in order to bring these goals into fruition. Then the weekly therapy sessions act as these “touch points” where the client reports to the therapist how they are doing towards their goals. Therapists can offer support, collaborative problem-solving and feedback to help the client move closer to achieving them. Of course this isn’t the only thing going on in therapy but in my experience it is an important part.
OK, so if you are willing to do these 5 steps what can you expect? Based on the aforementioned study, what I will call the “Dreamers” (Step 1, just thinking about your goals) surprisingly got at least 50% of the way there (towards achieving their goals) 43% of the time in the 4-week study period. Of course I’d like to think that they stalled out in weeks 5, 6 or beyond, because in my experience just dreaming about things rarely makes them happen. But another way to look at that is this: if you are too burned out, battle-weary, overwhelmed or depleted thanks to the year we all just had, at least thinking about your goals will, 43% of the time, get you half-way there in a month’s time. So that’s actually good news given how we all probably feel right now.
BUT, if you want to try to channel that Type A, kick-butt, storm-the-hill person you used to be before the pandemic laid us all flat, press on. Because the “Committers with Friends” who actually wrote down their goals, made action commitments and shared it with a friend had achieved at least 50% of their stated goal 62% of the time. That’s a 44% increase in achievement. Not bad for just a brief writing exercise and a one-time chat with a buddy! But of course if you are ready to kick 2020 in the teeth and go for the gusto, keep talking to your new goal-BFF on a weekly basis to update him or her on your progress on those action-statements. That will get you a whopping 76% towards at least 50% goal achievement in a mere month’s time. That’s a hefty 77% improvement over the Dreamers group.
This study was done on folks in their 20’s through 70’s so that’s good news for those of us over 50. You can still teach old dogs to achieve new tricks. It’s also good news for those in a generation that has been plagued by accusations that they can’t achieve doing their own laundry (sorry, Millenials).
The take home point here is that we can ALL get better at making our dreams a reality with a few not-so-time-consuming steps that will increase clarity, committee to, support and accountability. That could go a long way to making 2021 a redemptive year for all of us.
Wishing you health and happiness in the new year, along with better goal achievement!
If you have found this blog helpful PLEASE Tweet a link or post it on Facebook or promote it on other social media platforms. We all need a little mental health boost this year!
"They knew that there was a power and a beauty deep inside me, but that I was afraid of this and I was in fragments. Men and women alike, old and new at teaching, were like aunties or grandparent in their firm patience with me, in their conviction of my worth. They had a divine curiosity about me-- "Hey, who's in there? Are you willing to talk straight and find who you actually are, if I keep you company? Do you want to make friends with your heart? Here-- start with this poem.
This is who I want to be in the world. This is who I think we are supposed to be, people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness."
Indeed. I agree. I believe in the inter-connectedness of all beings and in the interdependence of people as an essential part of the human condition. We are now learning that loneliness is a greater risk factor than smoking for disease and death. I believe it is not only a capability but a responsibility of all of us to reach out to each other. To be that curious person who will keep company and share poems and generally help our fellow humans. To quote John Lennon, "imagine" how the world could be if we all took on that job.
And I can't bear not to share just one more excerpt from this book:
"When we agree to (or get tricked into) being part of something bigger than our own weird, fixated minds, we are saved. When we search for something larger than our own selves to hook into, we can come through whatever life throws at us."
Again the research on social isolation and altruism comes to mind. How we can help ourselves by literally helping others. I think it's not a coincidence that many 12-step programs tell folks to do "service work", literally to go serve others, as a way to save themselves from their destructive habits and addictions. Sometimes spending too much time navel-gazing can drive a person crazy. Sometimes you just need to get out of yourself and realize that other people are struggling and you can probably do something to help them.
So Stitches is about pain, it's about how life can knock the wind out of you and then kick you while you are down. And that while you are down there you just may realize that there is some beautiful little insect crawling around on a blade of grass that you would have never seen had you not been face down in the lawn gasping for breath. It's about how just when you need it someone can come along and offer you a hand, and you may find yourself helping them in kind. About how somehow we keep finding ways to mend and darn and pull the threads together to keep this sometimes fragile thing we call life from fully unraveling.
It's a mercifully short book given how busy we all are these days. The writing is beautiful. It may make you feel better about being human and messy and confused a lot of the time. I loved it and I am looking forward to delving in to another one of her works soon.
Wishing you health and happiness, and feel free to recommend books for me to read and review!
We've all heard that its hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But what about humans? How easy is it to change a person? We've all tried to make changes to ourselves, whether it's losing weight or stoping smoking...and sometimes we can do it and sometimes we fail. So clearly people can change, but clearly it's not an entirely easy process!
Psychotherapy is, at it's core, designed to change people. We do this through helping people have new experiences that are more in line with their goals of who they want to be and how they want to operate in the world. Our brain is shaped largely by experience. If you have the experience of practicing piano every day then the pathways of neurons (brain cells) that are used to play piano get stronger. Think of neurons like muscles-- the more you work them out, the stronger they get. So if you work out the same "set" of neurons (a "neural pathway") every day, say by practicing piano, then those get stronger and stronger and easier to activate. This is how we build proficiency in things, like playing baseball or practicing piano, or even being good at making small talk.
Some people grow up in families where they don't have certain experiences like being able to talk about their feelings, or being able to ask for what they need from others. When those experiences are missing in childhood those neurons that are associated with that behavior are weak and hard to activate. Psychotherapy aims to provide experiences that were missing in childhood (or adulthood) that are needed to build adaptive behaviors that help us lead happy and fulfilling lives. So for example a person who grew up in a house where it was not OK to talk about one's feelings gets to talk openly about how they feel in therapy. That in turn exercises those neurons and strengthens that neural pathway so that talking about one's feelings becomes easier and easier.
In a very real sense psychotherapy is like hiring a personal trainer at your gym-- a person who can learn about how you would like to be (versus where you are now), set up an "exercise routine" to work out those muscles (neurons) and take you through those steps so that you can develop the muscles (skills) that you want. If we were to take a "before" and "after" picture of your brain we could actually see those neuronal changes that are a result of psychotherapy. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that one impact of psychotherapy is that the connections between the frontal lobe (which involves planning, organizing, regulating emotions, understanding consequences, controlling impulses and lots of other things we associate with being mature and healthy) and the limbic system (which is associated with raw emotions that can be overwhelming and "messy" if not regulated) are strengthened. So in a very real way psychotherapy helps your brain use the "smart part" (frontal lobe) to regulate your more primitive emotional center. This give you more control over intense emotions that otherwise may derail you from staying balanced.
The bottom line here is that our brains do change. Even in adulthood. This is good news for those of us who would qualify as "old dogs"! So if there are things about yourself that you wish were different I would encourage you to consider psychotherapy. As one person put it, "it's never too late to have a happy life".
And now that you know what a healthy relationship looks like, you can evaluate for yourself how well these people are doing: http://valentine.thisamericanlife.org. This is a collection of short personal stories about love and heartbreak, things we can all relate to.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.