Many of us look at the New Year as a time to reflect and recalibrate, to set new expectations and goals for ourselves and our businesses. As we depart this strange and difficult year for another one, I’m going to dig into some of the nitty gritty of goal setting. I’ll tackle the question of willpower—why it’s overrated, and if it even exists—and share some ways to improve your chances of reaching your goals in 2021.
The Machine of Goal-Getting: Willpower, or Something Else?
Willpower. It’s the fuel that powers us to reach our goals … right? Actually, what we commonly think of as “willpower” doesn’t really exist, at least on its own.
You might remember the (in)famous “marshmallow study” of 1972, where kids were given the choice of eating one marshmallow now or two later, then tracked into their teenage years. The kids who skipped the first marshmallow—the ones with more “willpower”—were more likely to succeed later in life. But critics argue that multiple factors could have influenced a child’s “performance” on the test, and attempts to replicate the study’s findings have raised more questions.
Maybe even more importantly, the marshmallow study has also helped deconstruct the notion of willpower itself. We might think of willpower as an abstract ability to push on despite distractions and impulses, but what is willpower, exactly? A fuel source that gets gradually depleted? Or something more complicated?
What Willpower Really Is
New research suggests that what we consider “willpower” is a complex interaction of factors, including: our motivation, our habits, our ability to recognize and avoid distractions, our ability to set appropriate goals, our self-control (which can be genetically influenced), and our life context (no small thing!). Willpower is more than just a simple finite resource, for sure.
In fact, the belief that our willpower is finite may actually cause our willpower to be depleted more quickly! In one study conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, test subjects who believed their willpower “tank” was being emptied were more likely to run out of motivation, while those without this limiting belief were able to keep going for longer.
It’s a classic example of the placebo effect at work—but not in a way that’s helpful when it comes to reaching our goals!
So if conserving your willpower’s not going to help you reach your goals, then what is? Here are a few strategies you can put to good use instead.
Goal-Getting Strategy 1: Write Stuff Down
One of the most powerful actions you can take to improve the likelihood of succeeding with your goals is to write them down.
Not just once, though—I love the advice of personal finance blogger Kalen Bruce to write down your goals consistently and conscientiously. That means keeping your goals front and center by writing them down fresh each day. Not as a chore—write them slowly and mindfully, visualizing the substance of what you’re writing. That way, your goals become living, breathing things, not just dull mantras. Bruce also suggests writing down the actions you’ll take each day to reach your goals. And finally, write them accurately—change what you write as the actions you need to take need to shift in order to reach your goals.
Goal-Getting Strategy 2: Visualize
Many coaches talk about the importance of visualization in reaching your goals. One popular way to do that is with a vision board, a set of images representing what your goals will look and feel like once you reach them. These visualization techniques have their place—but they can fall short without an emphasis on the process it takes to actually create the vision on the board.
There’s another visualization technique you can put to use, called process simulation. That’s where you visualize not the goal’s outcome but the steps and actions needed to get to it. Studies of students asked to apply process simulation to a group project or exam prep found that this type of visualization resulted in greater success—better project completion rates and higher test scores—compared to control groups.
Think of process simulation as the next step after writing down your goals and actions, where you walk yourself mentally through the process of taking those actions. After you write down your daily actions, simply take a few minutes to quietly and clearly visualize yourself taking those steps!
Should You Share Your Goals?
What about sharing your goals? While it may seem like giving others a window into your aspirations is a good way to make yourself more accountable, the truth may be a little more complicated.
As entrepreneur and CD Baby founder Derek Sivers explains in a 2010 TED talk, research dating back for at least a century has shown that sharing our goals with others may actually impede our ability to achieve them.
If that sounds too extreme, maybe a happy medium is more your style. In a now-classic conversation in an early session of the SPI Podcast, Michael Hyatt shares his goal-sharing strategy with Pat Flynn:
You can jump to 14:05 to get to the heart of Pat’s and Michael’s discussion about goal sharing, but here’s Michael’s philosophy in a nutshell: share your goals with a chosen few who can support and hold you accountable to work toward those goals.
This makes sense, but why not still share your goals more broadly—especially if you have a big audience? Here’s what Michael says:
I think it can be sometimes dangerous if you share it with people who might be naturally cynical, or people who are negative and can pull you back down and maybe they're threatened by the thought of you accomplishing something that they wish maybe in their hearts that they can accomplish or have the courage to pursue. And you don't want those kind of people creating a sort of friction or resistance that will keep you from reaching the escape velocity that you need to accomplish the goal.
When Goals Are No Good
We’ve dug into some ways you can improve your chances of succeeding with your goals. But are there situations where being goal-oriented can cause more harm than good?
The answer to this rhetorical question is: Quite possibly.
For one, the nature of the goals we set can affect our intrinsic (internal) motivation to keep striving. When we reach a goal that’s performance-based, like making a certain amount of money in a year, this can actually diminish our intrinsic motivation. Instead, focusing on what we learn along the way—developing skills and competencies—can help maintain our intrinsic motivation.
But goals can become even bigger problems when they make us single-minded and miss or ignore important aspects of our lives—or even worse, causing us to act in ways that are unethical or cause harm to ourselves or others.
This is why some experts suggest deemphasizing your goals and placing your focus elsewhere. For investor, author, and podcaster Tim Ferriss, defining your fears and figuring out how much pain you want to endure is a way to overcome self-paralysis and take action. It’s a philosophy he explains in a 2017 TED talk:
I think Ferriss’s “What’s the worst that can happen?” framework falters by glossing over structural inequalities and disparities in access to social and financial capital; for some people the worst case may be really bad. But the framework Tim shares in the video is still a useful way to identify and address the internal saboteurs standing in the way of reaching your goals.
Systems and Processes > Goals
There’s another way to be an ace goal-getter without focusing on the goals themselves, and it’s a strategy embraced by author James Clear.
For Clear, reaching your goals is like rowing a boat. In this metaphor, goals are like the rudder that sets the boat’s direction, while the oars represent the work and process to reach those goals. Clear’s point is that success has more to do with our systems, processes, and habits than our goals themselves. It’s the approach he details in his landmark book Habits [affiliate link], which he discusses with Pat in session 340 of the SPI Podcast.
Goal Setting in 2021: Be Real
Speaking of habits, research has shown that in times of stress we fall back on our habits—good or bad—so cultivating healthy ones is crucial. And I'm sure we can all appreciate how stressful things have been lately.
To be better goal setters and getters, we need to be willing to question how we think about goals and work to achieve them—especially when the world around us is straining our personal and social support systems.
So as you’re setting your goals for 2021, be audacious but sensitive to the very real constraints you may be dealing with—the financial, social, emotional stresses of being an entrepreneur in a pandemic. And then find a goal-setting strategy that works best for you.
Whatever your goals for 2021 may be, I hope this post has given you some tools and motivation to go out and get them!