How science can help you hit your goals

While we all know that having goals is important, studies show that there is much more to attaining them than simply knowing what you want. Tricks such as writing down your goals or having a support group can make it more likely that you will hit your targets. 

Here are five (scientifically proven) ways to help to get you to the point you are hoping for.

1. Send regular progress reports

Psychology professor Dr Gail Matthews, from Dominican University set out to find out what makes goalsetting successful.

Her study followed people who wanted to achieve various goals including completing a project such as writing a book chapter. She divided participants into different groups and asked them to carry out various tasks including writing down goals, making a commitment to a friend and sending progress reports to a friend around the goal.

Those who sent a weekly progress report to a friend, explaining how they were working towards achieving their goals, achieved more than those in other groups, even those who wrote down their goals and action plans.

2. Be ambitious

Everyone loves an ‘easy win’, but research shows that setting harder goals will help you to achieve more. A study asking families to drop their electricity bills and setting goals of either a 20 per cent cut or a two per cent cut, showed that those given the harder target conserved more.

Results from a review of other goal-setting studies showed a similar effect. In 90 per cent of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, so aim high!

3. Make it part of your identity

Language is powerful, so use it to motivate yourself to take steps towards achieving your goals. A 2018 study into how to increase the number of people who vote found that simply reframing the way people saw themselves helped change their behaviour.

In that case, simply describing someone as “a voter” rather than describing “voting’ as a behaviour that people engage in led to an uptake in the number of votes cast.

Similarly, you could use this to describe yourself as a ‘saver’ or an ‘investor or even a ‘writer’, depending on what your goal is. Self talk is powerful and can help you to achieve your goals.

4. Be specific

Vague goals, such as ‘do my best at’ or ‘improve at’ do not generate as much ambition as specific goals. A 1989 study found that those who have general goals are more likely to be satisfied with their performance, even if given negative feedback, than those with specific goals. This may lead to self-satisfaction, but ultimately to not hitting the goal that you want to achieve.

Experts often suggest that targets should be SMART, an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based. If you fix your goals with this in mind you are more likely to achieve them.

5. Plan backwards

When working out the steps you need to take to achieve your goal, academics have shown that you will have more success if you work backwards than if you work forwards.

This means looking at the goal you want to achieve first, and  working back from this in achievable steps until you reach the present moment. For example, if you wanted to save £100,000 over 20 years, work back from this to work out what you would need to have in 18 years, then 15, then 12 to achieve this goal.

Academics carrying out this study from the Peking University HSBC Business School and University of Iowa believe this allows people to think more clearly, especially with complex goals.