4 Psychology Hacks to Help You Stick to Your Goals

Facing the perennial cycle of setting goals, getting pumped, and then giving up? These four hacks that will help you rock your goals instead of abandoning them.

Jade Wu, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #276
The Quick And Dirty

There are ways to set goals that make you more likely to stick with them and achieve good results. Here are four:

  1. Set a goal about learning something instead of achieving something. If your goal is about the journey instead of the destination, you're more likely to stay on track.
  2. Make sure your goal reflects a life value—a "big picture" thing that you care deeply about. This keeps you motivated.
  3. Don't think of your goal as avoiding a threat. Instead, make it about meeting a challenge. This makes you less likely to avoid working on the goal.
  4. Sign a contract with someone outlining the specifics of your goal. The social pressure can help keep you motivated and accountable.

There’s something about a new year that feels fresh and motivating. In 2020, we’re not only entering a new year but a whole new decade. What a great opportunity to reflect, refresh, and turn a new leaf! But goal-setting and goal-achieving are surprisingly hard to pull off. How many times have you started a new year feeling gung-ho about exercising only to have your enthusiasm fizzle by February? Or told yourself you were going to meditate daily and then never even get started on your path to inner tranquility?

Motivation is a tricky thing. But there's good news—your past struggles down mean you can't find success in the future. Motivation is like an engine you can tune. As long as you tinker with it the right way, it'll perform better.

Let’s look at four psychological hacks for tinkering with your particular motivation engine as you set your goals for 2020.

1. Set a learning goal instead of an achievement goal

Usually, when we set goals, we think of what we want to achieve, what thresholds we want to be able to say we crossed.

  • Lose 20 pounds
  • Earn a 3.5 GPA
  • Get a promotion at work

These goals are specific and concrete. That's good, at least! But research shows that setting long-term performance goals based on achievement outcomes may not be as effective as setting goals for what you want to learn.

Entering MBA students who set goals for the skills and knowledge they wanted to gain—like learning to network effectively—felt more satisfied by the end of their program and earned higher GPAs compared to their peers who set achievement-based goals like earning a high GPA.

So, let's look at an alternative to the weight loss goal I just mentioned. Instead of setting a goal to lose 20 pounds, a better one might be improving your nutrition knowledge by learning five new healthy lunch recipes. Not only does this offer a more specific target, it feels a lot more achievable.

2. Make sure the goal is attached to a life value

How do you choose your goals? Are they inspired by what your friends are doing? Are they prescribed to you by doctors, bosses, teachers, or other authority figures? Where your goals come from has a big impact on whether you’ll achieve them. One place they could come from is your own life values.

Values are not the same as goals. Imagine you’re sailing a boat on the ocean. Goals are like the islands on the horizon that you want to reach. Values are like the North Star that points you in the right direction. Not everyone’s North Star is the same when it comes to values. It’s important to know what big-picture things matter to you overall so they can help you navigate.

Where your goals come from has a big impact on whether you’ll achieve them. One place they could come from is your own life values.

For some, social connection is a major life value. Perhaps for them, a good goal would be to find new ways to connect with their friends. One example might be making an effort to physically visit an old friend they haven’t seen for years. For some, achieving influence and power is a life value, in which case their goal can be to create (or learn how to create) a more visible public platform for influencing political policy. For some, being engaged with nature is a life vale, so for them, perhaps a value-based goal is to start a garden or save money for camping equipment.

Ask yourself whether your goals are based on your larger life values. If not, make some adjustments. If your goal reflects a value you hold deeply, you’re more likely to be successful than if your goal is just another “should” on your to-do list.

3. Make the goal about a challenge, not a threat

If your goal is based on a threat, you’re less likely to achieve it than if it's based on a challenge. Here are some examples:

  • Threat: If I don’t decrease my blood pressure, I’ll get closer to having a heart attack.
  • Challenge: I want to decrease my blood pressure so I can be healthier for longer.
  • Threat: I need to step up with my studying because I’ll fail the semester if I don’t.
  • Challenge: I need to create a new study routine for myself so I can become the type of student I want to be.
  • Threat: I have to figure out how not to push my new boss’s wrong buttons so I don’t continue to have a rocky relationship with her.
  • Challenge: I want to reset my relationship with my new boss by learning new communication skills.

Notice the difference? The threat versions of the goals are scary-sounding. If you're not making progress toward your threat-based goal, you might find yourself avoiding dealing with the situation altogether. But the challenge-based versions are more hopeful and forward-looking. They give you more of a direction to strive toward. 

4. Sign a contract with someone

Who knows about your goals? How much detail did you share?

When it comes to motivation, we humans are very much social animals. Sometimes a little social pressure can help us achieve what we want. There's something about committing a goal to someone else that makes it easier to stick with it, or perhaps harder to give up.

If you’ve already announced your 2020 goals at the dinner table (or on Twitter!), good for you. Now you’ve got people to keep you accountable. That's especially true if you’ve asked friends to check in with you about your goal.

People who sign social contracts with their healthcare providers about increasing their exercise have a high success rate.

But you can even take it a step further by signing a social contract with someone. Yes, I do mean a literal contract that lays out, in black and white, what specifically you're committing to and how you'll measure your progress. What timelines have you set? What rewards will you get for achieving the goals? Both you and your witness should sign this document and agree to review it together at a predetermined time.

This might sound like overkill, but it works! When it comes to increasing their exercise level, people who sign social contracts with their healthcare providers have a high success rate. The contract works on each person for different reasons. Maybe it served as a memory-jogger, provided more social support, or helped them to problem-solve. The key takeaway is that singing the contract helped. 

So, go ahead and look forward to a 2020 challenge. Sign a contract with a friend to learn about nutritional meal planning, because being healthy is a life value!

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD Savvy Psychologist

Dr. Jade Wu was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast between 2019 and 2021. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine.