Twelve strategies for achieving your goals from the book Willpower

One of the topics covered extensively in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength is goal setting and achievement. The book’s authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney identify 12 proven strategies for successfully reaching your goals:

  1. Having a positive attitude about the future. A general sense of optimism about the future helps people to believe they will ultimately achieve their goals.
  2. Formulating affirmative, long-term objectives. Lofty, big-picture objectives like “finding an interesting career” and “having a good family life” keep your momentum going even when there might be small setbacks along the way. “To stoke motivation and ambition, focus … on the road ahead.”
  3. Goals and objectives cannot conflict with each other or with your world view. The more congruent your goals and objectives are, the more likely you are to achieve them.
  4. When setting specific goals, make them on a monthly plan. The idea is that “life rarely goes exactly according to plan, and so the daily plans can be demoralizing as soon as you fall off schedule. With a monthly plan, you can make adjustments. If a delay arises one day, your plan is still intact.”
  5. Focus on just one large goal at a time. If you try to stop smoking and lose weight at the same time, you’ll probably end up failing at both. Stop smoking first, then move onto the weight loss (or whatever large goals apply to you).
  6. Precommit to success and don’t give yourself alternatives. When speaking, say that you are un unclutterer, not that you are becoming one. If you are trying to follow a healthful diet, make rules like “I don’t eat doughnuts” and “I eat green vegetables every night for dinner.” When you precommit to how you will behave, you won’t snack on a doughnut in the break room at work because you are not a person who eats doughnuts.
  7. Use David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. The authors are big fans of Allen’s system for creating precise next actions and using the tickler file. Knowing exactly what you need to do next and when items need to be completed frees up your energy to focus on the work and not trying to remember to do the work.
  8. Work on your goal every day. High school valedictorians are rarely students who cram for exams. Rather, they review material and consistently study every day. The daily habit of working toward a goal produces dependable, positive, long-term results.
  9. Set your goals publicly. “People care more about what other people know about them than about what they know about themselves. A failure, a slipup, a lapse in self-control can be swept under the carpet pretty easily if you’re the only one who knows about it … But if other people know about it, it’s harder to dismiss. After all, the other person might not buy the excuses that you make, even though you find them quite satisfying.”
  10. Help others. Navy SEAL commandos going through Hell Week are more likely to survive the week and become SEALs when they have “the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear, and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more than the ‘fist’ of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others.”
  11. Monitor your actions daily. Keep track of your progress using a smart phone app or computer program, write a sentence or two in a journal, or update your progress on Twitter. Then, be sure to review your entries so you can see how well you have progressed toward your goal.
  12. Give yourself relevant rewards for achieved milestones. Obviously, achieving your goal will be extremely rewarding, but the road to success might be a long one. Set up milestones throughout the process and award yourself when you meet these milestones.

15 Comments for “Twelve strategies for achieving your goals from the book Willpower”

  1. posted by How to Focus on

    I learned in a psychology course that when you try to give up one addictive activity (e.g. smoking) it makes you more vulnerable in other areas (e.g. eating habits). This is why it’s important to focus on one major goal (as you suggested) at a time.

  2. posted by Donna on

    #6 absolutely works. Years ago, I quit smoking and did it cold turkey. I worked in a restaurant (where everyone smoked). I had to tell myself that I was a nonsmoker and that I didn’t do that any more to get through my shifts. It worked. I changed my mentality and my habits followed.

    More recently, I had to adjust what I was eating and when temptations came to eat something I shouldn’t, I told myself “I don’t eat ______” any more.

  3. posted by L on

    I’m starting to realize that your mindset plays a big role (The “I don’t ____”) – I used to tell other people “it’s a terrible habit and I want to stop” secretly hoping I’d stop and surprise/impress everyone.

    Also: I have something to say about #5 (give up one thing at a time). I think you should re-evaluate every few months or year, otherwise you might fall behind in some aspects of your life (for example if you give up smoking you might stop working on your friendships because you say “I’ll be a better friend when I quit smoking… but for now my friends simply get in the way of my goal”)

    It seems to me that giving up more than one thing at a time works sometimes: for example, I’m giving up overindulging on crappy food AND I’m starting to exercise regularily (even if it’s only a 15 minute walk.) I’ve tried to do both these separately, but when I tried to exercise I’d feel crappy in the morning because of all the food, and when I tried to fix my food habits I wouldn’t feel motivated but I feel motivated if I’ve just exercised (more aware of what goes in my body)

  4. posted by Dea on

    @L–good example, know just what you mean. Exceptions to every rule, as the saying goes. I find these willpower posts re: the book to be very timely and helpful and plan to buy the book. Can safely say I would not have pursued this book otherwise, so thank you Unclutterer! Am a bit stumped as to the low number of comments on this post (and the other one concerning this book)–though it would generate much more discussion.

  5. posted by Dea on

    Argh–“thought” it would generate more discussion…

  6. posted by MaryJo @ reSPACEd on

    I work as a professional organizer, and I have referred the book “Getting Things Done” to a few clients. I have to say that I have never had one client actually finish reading that book, let alone implement any of the book’s principles. There’s something about the way that book is written that doesn’t speak to people who are dealing with chronic disorganization. And I don’t refer it to clients any more.

  7. posted by Elizabeth on

    The monthly plans idea is good and definitely works but it’s also important to consider what you are going to do each day. Especially if you are changing a habit. What I mean is that you can think ‘by the end of this month I will not have smoked a cigarette’ for example but to achieve that it’s better each day to think ‘I am not smoking today’. Same goes for diet stuff or exercise (if you don’t enjoy it) Otherwise the mind thinks that you’re being deprived long-term and will rebel.

  8. posted by organizingwithe on

    It’s amazing to me how much I’ve been reading lately about what boils down to “think positive”. It seems that what our parents taught us years ago is really the key to happiness!

  9. posted by JustGail on

    It seems this post requires many of us to give more thought before commenting. I haven’t read the book, so this may be addressed in it – “don’t over-react when you let things slide”. Perhaps this should go with #11. What I mean is when you have a doughnut, don’t fall into the trap of “oh I blew it, I’ll never ….., I may as well give up”. Acknowledge you slipped, take a deep breath, and get back on course.

  10. posted by Sooz on

    #9 can trip up people, depending on their personality & how they grew up.

    If you grew up with a parent who criticized you (or talked down to you) about your every announced goal, you would learn very quickly to keep your goals PRIVATE and not share them with anyone else. It’s just something to be aware of.

  11. posted by David Rodriguez on

    Recently I saw a very thought-provoking video on TED, that disagrees with rule #9, which is about sharing your goals. He says that keeping your goals to yourself can be a more powerful motivator. Interesting right?

  12. posted by Kaye on

    While there are some pretty decent suggestions listed here, I personally hit a roadblock when I read something like #1: “Think positive!” This is to advising a dieter to “just eat less!”

    I don’t know if it’s a result of being raised by people who were not positive-thinkers, or if it’s part of my (or anyone’s) nature or what, exactly, but I don’t see it as something you can just turn off or on and DO, just because it occurred to you.

    It frankly doesn’t even seem like something you can LEARN to do. I mean, you can get more skilled at quieting the negative voices, but I can’t see positivity coming completely naturally to me over the course of one brief lifetime.

    Although admittedly, that’s a pretty negative assessment of it all. 😉

  13. posted by JustGail on

    Sometimes it seems the “think positive” has become to mean we must take on a perky, chipper, the-world-is-grand, happy joy-to-the-world attitude. For me, it’s usually more like what you said, Kaye – quiet the negative voices. Or just quiet (sometimes teeth-clenching) determination, such as “I *am* stronger than that cigarette (or cookie).” People often mistake my reserve for being unhappy or pessimistic, when it’s merely that I don’t do perky.

    And I agree that making your goals public can be a huge mistake, depending on who you’re telling them to.

  14. posted by Rachel on

    I’m not sure I agree with #9 either. Someone might announce a goal to get the approval of others (extrinsic motivation), but just the act of announcing it takes care of the approval part. To successfully meet a personal goal, intrinsic motivation is needed, and intrinsic motivation comes from within, not from other people or outside rewards.

  15. posted by heatherK on

    I haven’t read “Willpower”, but the book “Renaissance Soul” by Margaret Lobenstine is also a great book for helping one to achieve goals. It starts you out by having you define your current values, then goes on to teach a strategy for doing what you want to do. A second book that’s along the same lines is “Me, Inc.” by Scott Ventrella – I haven’t read that all the way through yet, but so far it’s along the same lines. Anyway, just thought I’d throw those out there as other options.

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