Published on May 5th, 2015 | by Senia Maymin1
The Surprising Activity That Helps You Reach Your Goals
By Senia Maymin, Ph.D., and Margaret H. Greenberg authors of Profit from the Positive—
One of our clients, Kevin, had a goal to complete a redesign of his website by the end of the third quarter. However, as a business owner, he never seemed to find the time to focus on it while juggling dozens of other responsibilities. “At the end of each day, it just falls off my to-do list because more urgent things pop up,” he told us. As executive coaches, we work with highly successful people like Kevin who are usually quite good at getting things done and getting good results. But … sometimes these same clients find it hard to achieve their more strategic or longer-term goals due to day-to-day demands. Usually, they are missing just one ingredient. The following study gives a hint of the missing puzzle piece.
When people turn actions into habits, there is an emotional benefit: people feel less stressed.
Would You Bet on Good Habits, Good Outcome, or Both?
See what your prediction is about the following. Psychologists Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor wanted to see what would help students get a good grade on an exam 5-7 days away. The researchers divided the students into three groups: habits, outcome, and both habits and outcome. Students received the instructions to visualize the good study habits that could lead to a good grade on the exam (habits), to visualize getting a good grade (outcome), or to visualize both the good study habits and the good grade (habits/outcome). Which group would you put money on as getting the best grades on the exam? Students in the habits group did better on their exams than students in either the outcome or the habits/outcome group. What does this mean? When you have an important goal, sometimes you need to focus on the “good study habits” equivalent. What are your good productivity habits to push the project forward? What are your good planning habits to move a home renovation project forward? Why did habits outperform both outcome and habits/outcome? The researchers found that focusing on the good study habits decreases anxiety and increases planning, both of which helped the students achieve better grades.
Habits are the Missing Ingredient
We’ve been trained since we were children that goals tend to sound like this: “I’m going to run that race” or “I’m going to finish that project.” Rarely do we think of successful goals as sounding like this: “I’m going to exercise at the gym every day at 7:30am” or “This week, I’m going to block off the hour after lunch and close the door to my office to work only on this project.” We asked Kevin a related question, “Kevin, what habits are you setting to get the web redesign done?” “Habits? I put it on my to-do list,” he told us. “Let’s get more specific,” we suggested, “How can you make working on your web redesign into a habit? For example, how can you work on this project in the same place and at the same time each day?” He objected, “I’m not sure I need to turn this project into a habit.”
Emotional and Mental Benefits of Habits
Psychologist Wendy Wood and colleagues find that when people turn actions into habits, there is an emotional benefit: people feel less stressed. One of the problems with leaving an item on a to-do list is that by being on your list each time, it grows in mind share (and potentially, in the stress of not having completed it). Let’s look at the mental side of the story. What if Kevin were to make small—really quite small—dents in the project? What if he made working on the redesign into a habit and spent 15 minutes on it every day right after lunch? When we are focused on short-term processes, then each time the process works well, it reinforces behavioral success-patterns. Thus, Kevin would also get a mental shot of mini-success. Given the emotional component of less stress and the mental component of small wins, Kevin decided to try setting a habit. He decided he would schedule a 3pm appointment with himself for 30 minutes each day (that’s the “same time” part of habits). As for the “same place,” he worked on this project in the conference room down the hall so he wouldn’t be interrupted. In business, we often praise goals and demonize habits. Employees are encouraged to “set an audacious goal” or try to “break a bad habit.” Maybe we’ve had the equation wrong all along. It’s a little bit ironic that the straightest line to achieving our goals may be to turn them into habits. Senia Maymin
Article Photo by kodomut
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