When it comes to lifestyle or behaviour change, goals provide structure and motivation.
But how can we best set goals, in order to have the strongest chance at success? How do we begin to identify our most appropriate goals?
A common barrier standing in the way of success is when we find ourselves exclusively relying on willpower and determination. Doing so implies that, somehow, your future self has the motivation and skills to achieve the goal that your current self can’t accomplish. While this perspective can create momentum to get started, it doesn’t necessarily maintain behavioural change.
It's important to select goals that stick. If we experience failure, we often end up believing that we didn’t try hard enough, are lacking willpower or are lazy. Every time this process is repeated, those self-beliefs become stronger and reduce our sense of self-efficacy.
One planning method CAN help us to counteract as well as overcome these obstacles; the goal hierarchy.
Instead of singular, possibly unrelated goals, we can interlink themes to form a network.
At the highest tier, we have superordinate goals. These are based on our personal life values; how we aspire to be, what’s meaningful and important to us on a deep, personal level. In short, they give us the reason WHY we want to engage in a particular behaviour.
Clarity of these values can determine the quality of our choices for goals that we select further down the hierarchy.
Intermediate goals are often those that we typically see people set or discuss their desire for. They often include goals such as “lose weight”, “get fit” or “do more exercise”. While this provides an overall context, becoming more specific about how and when we’ll perform the behaviour change (as set out in the next section) makes it more likely we’ll engage with the new habit.
Subordinate goals are the most specific- they specify the exact actions we’re planning to take, as well as how they are going to be accomplished (eg. 30 min exercise class at the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays). An accumulation of several subordinate goals can fulfil a superordinate goal. In other words, they can serve as pieces of the puzzle to form an overall picture of our ideal self.
The more important our goal is to us, the more likely we are to remain committed and motivated, and the more likely we are to reach it!
Here’s an example of a the goal chart that someone might complete:
Whilst subordinate goals fulfil the actions we can take on a day to day basis, we can see that flexibility can be applied when trying to reach an overall intermediate or superordinate goal.
For example, if we set an intermediate goal of losing weight, this can be supported through multiple subordinate goals- dieting, reducing stress, improving our sleep, working on our emotional regulation or engaging in regular exercise. If a challenge or obstacle arises, eg. interrupted sleep or a training injury, there are multiple alternative means for continuing to support our overall goal of weight loss. By not placing all of the momentum and pressure in a singular goal eg. a 10kg weight loss, it means that we can adapt our plans without too much stress or despondence.
Before we finish up, here are a few more tips to consider before you draft your goals.
Establish priority. Don’t try to do everything at once. What is most important, meaningful and useful to you, right now? What can probably wait?
Select approach goals instead of avoidance goals. When we look at the research, the evidence suggests that we are more likely to have a better psychological approach, better resilience and more likely to be successful with our goals if we frame them positively.
Allow for flexibility. A more pragmatic approach means you’re more likely to stick to habit change, but also less likely to throw in the towel when you face a challenge. Prepare yourself for challenges and setbacks, and reassess your concept of failure. Goals should be specific, but you need to be mentally prepared to give yourself a little slack at times, and be comfortable with doing so.
Focus on process more than outcome. Look at the tasks, behaviours and habits that lend themselves to an overall goal or focus, instead of purely driving towards an end point. Which steps or processes are going to support my overall outcome and can be used as milestones along the way? Which habits or changes are going to feel rewarding and motivating?
Modify your environment to support you. This might mean changing your bedtime routine, removing certain foods from the house, asking others to support you through this process.
Hit the sweet spot - your goal pursuit should provide you with a decent levels of challenge, but not to a level that induces frequent failure which can be demotivating. Conversely, you don’t want your goal to be too easy or requiring too little effort, as this can make it mundane and impact motivation and feelings of self-belief.