The science of accomplishment

November 02, 2019

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Illustration by Sophia Khan
Illustration by Sophia Khan

We’ve all gone through the experience of setting ambitious goals for ourselves, following through for a couple of days and then giving up for one reason or another. Maybe we lost our motivation, forgot about our goals, or we simply could not muster the will-power required to achieve what we set out to do in the first place.

Accomplishing anything worthy is always difficult. But the good news is that it’s not impossible. Scientific research reveals there are various concepts and approaches you can practice to actually hit your goals and stay consistent in your performance.

Here, then, are the six ways you can learn to reach the next level, whether it’s to do with your studies, health, relationships or any other area of your life.

A scientific approach to goals

Everyone knows the importance of goal setting, but effective goal setting is an entirely different phenomenon. Research by Dr Gail Matthews reveals that following a precise goal setting process can increase the likelihood of achieving your goals by 33 percent.

The number one step is that you need to write down your goals, not keep them in your head. Secondly, you have to outline at least one action you’re going to take to make progress toward your goal.

If your goal is to eat healthier, decide what specific step you’re going to take to make it happen. It could be replacing the unhealthy midday snack with a portion of fruit, or deciding to skip that cup of coffee in the morning and instead start your day with a glass of green juice. Whatever your goal, be definite and specific in your intentions.

Next, share your goals with your friends and, if possible, find a buddy to report your progress to. Publicly announcing your goals makes it much less likely that you’ll slack off.

Develop a can-do attitude

Once you’ve declared your ambitious goals, doubt will inevitably creep in at some point, and you’ll begin to wonder, “Who am I to aim for these lofty goals? Maybe I should go for something more realistic.”

In this crazy pursuit of ‘realism’, you will gradually prune your vision until it’s so small that it no longer excites you. This kind of self-doubt is a major obstacle to all achievement. In order to overcome this tendency, you need to understand the concept of self-efficacy.

In psychology, self-efficacy is the belief in one’s own abilities to successfully face challenges and achieve one’s goals. People who have a good deal of self-efficacy are more comfortable setting ambitious goals and more likely to achieve them.

A simple way to enhance your self-efficacy is to remember the successes from your past — even the small ones matter — and remind yourself that you are competent enough to succeed. So if you’re aiming to take your maths grade from a B to an A, recall the time you improved your grade in another subject, or remember how you managed to master a new skill when everyone said you couldn’t.

Don’t be afraid of setting ambitious goals. Whether it’s creating a great piece of art, or getting an A in your toughest subject, or bringing social change in your community or your country, don’t dumb down your dreams. Remember what the ground-breaking entrepreneur Steve Jobs once wrote, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Overcome procrastination

Once you’ve mastered your fears and convinced yourself to take on the world, you may find yourself face-to-face with the next obstacle, that is, procrastination, which can often feel like a horrible monster bent on holding you back from your dreams. You may really want to learn a new music instrument, or start exercising daily, or read more books that you planned to, but the very thought of the effort scares you away.

So what do you do to overcome this pain-inflicting, dream-crushing monster?

Use the five-minute rule, a cognitive-behavioural concept that involves a subtle but powerful shift in perspective — instead of thinking that you need to spend two hours finishing up the assignment you’ve been avoiding, decide to only work on it for five minutes. Often, once you’ve started working, you’ll actually enjoy the task and may even like to finish it.

Another solution to procrastination is to involve someone else. Rather than relying on your willpower (which, as scientists have discovered, is limited) and hoping, for example, that you’ll feel inspired enough to go for your morning jog, try this: Ask a friend to drop by every day and join you in the activity.

Human beings are social animals; we’re much more likely to do things collectively that we wouldn’t feel like doing alone.

Illustration by Sophia Khan
Illustration by Sophia Khan

Find new friends

The motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said that you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. In fact, researchers have now empirically confirmed the influence our peers can have on us.

Dr Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and James Fowler, a theologian have discovered an interesting phenomenon: If you have a friend who has lately become obese, you’re 57 percent more likely to become obese as well. In other words, you’re not likely to succeed in your goals (despite all your good intentions) if you’ve got friends who are undisciplined.

By that logic, what’s the best way to become the high achiever you’ve always wanted to be?

Change your social circle. If you’ve been spending time with low-performing individuals, you’ve picked up their habits and attitudes. Maybe they squander their time on social media all day or pressurise you to hang out with them when all you want to do is study.

If your friends are not being supportive of your goals or if they do not have similar goals, it’s time to find new ones.

Try and make friends with people who do believe in doing something great with their lives, in creating wonderful things and bringing positive changes in the world.

Perhaps these people study after school rather than wasting their time watching television, or maybe they strictly control the time they spend on internet. Once you start spending time with them, you’ll automatically fall into the habit of high performance.

Develop a growth mindset

Psychologist Carol Dweck differentiates between what she calls the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset focus more on proving themselves or achieving things (rather than focusing on the learning process) because they think their abilities are fixed and they can’t ‘learn’ anything new.

Conversely, people with the growth mindset believe that they can develop their current abilities and learn anything, especially if they put in the effort, seek out help and creatively tackle challenges.

It is these growth-mindset people who actually achieve more than their fixed-mindset counterparts. Why? Because their entire focus is not simply on getting somewhere or achieving something, but they value the actual process of constant learning and self-improvement.

For starters, you can search online for whatever you want to learn or get better at, whether it’s improving your sleep, becoming a better listener, or raising your academic performance. You may discover, for example, that there are more effective study techniques than you’ve been using so far. Another way is to read books and listen to audio programmes to improve your knowledge, thereby staying committed to the growth-mindset.

Practise self-compassion

The biggest pitfall to being our best self is that we inevitably stop doing the things we said we would do, and in some way fall short of our ideals. Whether we let the setback stop us from our dreams, or whether we set sail again with renewed spirit, depends on how we react to it.

Research by psychologist Dr Kristin Neff reveals that if you criticise yourself for not meeting your goals, it actually de-motivates you by inducing fear and anxiety which in turn prevents you from taking remedial action.

A far more effective way is what Dr Neff calls self-compassion or treating yourself gently and engaging in positive self-talk (rather than harsh self-criticism). Her research shows that the people who treat themselves compassionately after a failure are more likely to take action to improve their behaviour in the future.

So the next time you find yourself not following through with a study plan (or any intended action) don’t think, “Oh, I’m an idiot. I can never do things right.”

Remind yourself that getting off course is normal. Feel the frustration, but don’t let it paralyse you. Forgive yourself and recommit to your goal, either by journalling about your intentions or critically reviewing your plans.

Now that you know some of the scientifically proven ways to boost your accomplishment, try and adopt at least one of them and stick to it in the next few days.

The latest research confirms that it takes, on average, 66 days to form a new habit. If you can sustain a new behaviour for that long, you’ll be well on the path to higher achievement.

Lastly, don’t forget that the real reward is not the attainment of our goals but the journey itself — and the things we learn in the process. So remember to have fun and enjoy yourself as you go after your most exciting dreams.

Good luck!

Published in Dawn, Young World, November 2nd, 2019