How to set goals and stick to them

Headshot image of Lauren Gordon, Bupa UK Behaviour Change Adviser
Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor at Bupa UK
02 January 2019

Whether it’s hitting a personal best on your 5km run time, gaining a promotion at work or saving up to buy something special – it’s good to have something to work towards. Research shows that goal setting is linked to higher achievement, both at work and in our personal lives. But, if you want to successfully achieve your goals and change your behaviours long-term, there are some key steps that you need to take.

Here are seven evidence-based steps to both setting and achieving your goal.

1. Set a behavioural goal

Often, we self-sabotage our goal before even getting it off the ground because we think of it in the wrong way. Big picture goals like “be healthier” give us too much wiggle room so that we can rationalise any behaviours that go against it. “Well, I did have a salad last week, so it won’t matter if I have dessert and a glass of wine today”. The opposite approach would be to think of the goal in terms of black and white. All-or-nothing goals like “have a salad every day” or “no more wine” are so restrictive and unrealistic, that we could end up simply replacing the wine with beer. Or we give up altogether when life throws us a curve ball.

Instead, start by identifying the behaviour to be achieved, for example, eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Thinking of the end goal in behavioural terms helps to focus it, and start off our journey on the right foot. Make sure to only set one goal too, otherwise it’s too much change in one go.

2. Create the pathway to achieving your goal

Once you’ve identified a goal, you need to shape the pathway in order to achieve it. The process you put in place is what makes the difference. If you’re a runner, your goal might be to run a marathon. The process is how often you train, the food you eat to fuel you, the recovery you do for your muscles, the shoes you wear and the support you get from those around you.

One behavioural technique to help shape this pathway and support the process is to use an action plan. That is, thinking through the specifics – the whats, wheres, whens and whos. What type of running training will you do during the next six months? What will you wear? What resources do you need? Where exactly will you run? When will you rest? Who will help you to achieve this?

In your action plan, it might also help to think through potential problems and work out ways you can address these before you are confronted with them. We are much more likely to reach our goals when we have a solid plan in place, which is hard to back out of.

3. Identify the small changes

When a task seems too big, our brains will resist it and direct us towards the easy path, such as our routine behaviours. So we need to maximise our chances of success by breaking the goal down into the small, achievable, meaningful wins. If you want to be able to do 100 push ups by the summer, first break down this goal into a smaller behavioural goal, like doing one push up a day. Gradually you will be able to build this mini-goal up to doing five a day, then ten, and so on. It takes times to build up our strength, so start with the smallest version of your goal.

It might help to latch this mini-goal onto something that’s already in your daily routine. For example, you could do your push ups when you come in the door from work, or just before you have a shower in the morning.

4. Make it fun for you

Being too focused on the end result doesn’t help us to create any emotional feelings towards the goal and the process. It is well known that we are much more likely to keep up with something if we enjoy it. If we want to complete a marathon but don’t like running, chances are that our lack of intrinsic motivation won’t get us very far.

Goals should be something that we enjoy the challenge of, and feel an accomplishment from completing. If your goal involves giving something up, whether that’s smoking, drinking or unhealthy eating habits, try substituting the old behaviour with a new healthy but rewarding behaviour, to fill the void.

5. Commit to the goal

Research shows that people who actively commit to doing something are much more likely to carry this out. This is because we like to be consistent with the things we have previously said or done. The best commitment is one that is shared with others and is voluntarily made. Even better, if we write the details of the commitment down, for example in our calendar, we are committing the time to ourselves, and holding ourselves accountable. This will also act as a reminder if you think you’re likely to forget!

6. Maintain your motivation levels

It’s natural for motivation to come and go. But a few weeks down the line, if your motivation towards your goal has waned completely, try this neat behavioural trick to revive it and re-engage yourself. Let’s say your original goal was to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but lately you had been struggling because of a hectic lifestyle – you’d had to travel for work, been working late, and was grabbing food on the go.

You could try using a high-low range goal instead. Your goal for one week could be to eat four to six pieces of fruit and vegetables a day. This still averages out to be five, but it gives you more space for when life gets in the way. 

7. Consistency is key

Sometimes when we make some small changes, we get fed up when we don’t see tangible rewards straight away. But the difference comes when we make the decision to do this small change every day. Goal success is the product of small, consistent actions that lead to daily habits and lifestyle change. Over time through making these marginal gains, even just improving by one percent every day, we reach a tipping point. All the work so far has been building up to this, and the rest of the journey is a downhill sprint. By now these small changes will have become positive habits in your routine, so make sure to keep up the running, even after crossing the race finish line.

Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health and a view of any future health risks. You'll receive a personal lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a happier, healthier you.

Headshot image of Lauren Gordon, Bupa UK Behaviour Change Adviser
Lauren Gordon
Lead Behavioural Insights Advisor at Bupa UK

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