Goal-setting, Willpower and Behaviour Change - Part 2:  

“A vision written down within a timeframe becomes a goal. A goal broken down into actionable steps becomes a plan. A plan backed up with action will always become a result.” Kain Ramsay 

 In this article we follow on from Goal-setting, Willpower and Behaviour Change - Part 1 to explore a variety of options for dealing with the obstacles that keep us from finally achieving our goals and setting in place strategies for successful behaviour change.  

You may have heard of the famous “Marshmallow Test” by psychologist Walter Mischel. This research laid the groundwork for the modern study of willpower. The study, which showed some children struggling more than others to delay eating marshmallows placed in front of them revealed valuable lessons. According to Mischel, self-control is not pre-determined, and we can all learn from five-year olds when it comes to strategies that enhance willpower.  

In an interview with Walter, he lists 4 strategies to help boost willpower

  • Avoid temptation: If your goal is to stop gambling, avoid temptation by not booking dinner in a casino. When you expose yourself to the temptation it activates your ‘hot system’/limbic system which is likely to override your executive function/‘cool system’.  

  • Distract yourself: If your goal is to eat less cheese but your friends throw you a surprise fondue party, distract yourself by thinking about what good friends you have, or reflect on all the fun you’ve had together.  

  • Minimise your stress: Stress affects the function of the prefrontal cortex making it harder for us to apply our executive functions to make decisions based on long term goals. 

  • Mentally transform the temptation: If your goal is to reduce your junk food intake, rather than drooling about a juicy pizza try imagining the vegetable fats and processed flours ballooning up your fat cells! Nice! 

  • Create an if-then plan: This strategy, also called an implementation intention, has been shown to be quite effective in reinforcing good decision making. If your goal is not to smoke if someone offers you a cigarette, your if-then plan may look like this: “If someone offers me a cigarette, I will say no thank you, and I will look for a healthy snack instead”. With a pre-set plan, you have less  need to tap into your willpower to make the right decision. By having this proactive plan in place it gives your ‘willpower centre’ a rest. This method harks back to as early as the follow up to the Marshmellow test; the Mr Clownbox test.  

A framework for goal-setting can also be useful, and possibly even necessary, to achieving your goals. The SMART framework is one such framework frequently employed by organisations. Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science Of Motivation, more recently established the WOOP framework for setting clear, focused, and achievable goals. Partly, this framework stems from the fact that knowing what you want, though useful in terms of giving direction, does not necessarily provide you with the oomph you need to accomplish it. Oettingen describes WOOP as the use of positive fantasies in a productive way – through mental contrasting (a visualization technique) and implementation intention (MCII) – as a strategy to fulfil wishes and attain goals. The WOOP process comprises the following steps: 

  1. Wish: Identify a wish dear to you. For example, think about the next four weeks – what is you most important wish? It can be a little challenging but needs to be something you can accomplish yourself. 

  2. Outcome: What would be the best outcome if you fulfil the wish? Imagine it. This is like positively fantasising. Instead of carrying on the fantasy, however, you go to step 3. 

  3. Obstacle: What stops you from fulfilling the wish and experiencing that outcome? What is your inner obstacle? Focusing on the intrapersonal obstacles don’t allow us to come up with all sorts of excuses outside of ourselves. All these outside excuses fall away. Once you can imagine the obstacle in you, you also can identify the solution. Deliberate plans to overcome obstacles consciously create unconscious habits; after a while merely thinking about step one will trigger the other steps. E.g. in mental contrasting the future, reality and obstacles are strongly linked with the imagery so that you can’t really think about the future without the reality that the obstacle sits in, and the obstacle is linked to the instrumental means to overcome the obstacle.  

  4. Plan: If that obstacle occurs, then you must show a behaviour or think a predetermined thought to overcome the obstacle. Say to yourself: “If (name the obstacle) occurs, then I will (name the  behaviour) to overcome it”.  

Oettinghen believes that this framework, based on MCII, through the conscious strategy of linking imagery with desired future states, obstacles, and the instrumental means to overcome the obstacles, eventually creates automatic nonconscious processes which support goal attainment.  

Pulitzer prize winner and author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhig, offers a useful guide for successful behaviour change, which is predicated on habit formation. Follow the link for a fun, easy to digest clip on the matter. Duhig lists three components to forming a habit, which will ultimately ensure successful behaviour change. 

  • A cue: Identify a que that will become your signal for carrying out the goal aligned behaviour. E.g. “When my alarm goes in the morning, that is my cue to make a green juice”.  

  • The behaviour: Carry out the sequence of behaviours – your routine.  

  • A reward: Pair the completion of the behaviour with a small reward that will make you feel happy. This action, known in behavioural sciences as positive reinforcement, allows the brain to form an association between the action, the reward, and the feeling of happiness, increasing the likelihood of the behaviour continuing in the future, regardless of the presence of the initial reward. E.g. Initially you may pair that green juice with a cheeky 20 minutes of your favourite sitcom.   

In her Ted Talk, Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal addresses some myths around goal attainment and willpower.  

  • Desire does not equal happiness: McGonigal encourages us to pay attention to our internal state and become familiar with the difference in the feeling of wanting something and happiness. 

  • Willpower is not a strength or sign of our virtue: Willpower is the ability to do what you really want in the long term and is consistent with your long term values. McGonigal likens willpower to a muscle that can be strengthened through simple practices such as posture control, or only opening doors with your non-dominant hand for a period of time.  

  • Guilt and shame are not motivators: These actually do the opposite. The things we feel most guilty about are the things we turn to for comfort. The answer is self-compassion, so the faster you forgive yourself for ‘slipping up’,  the faster you can get back to the goal and stick to it.  

  • The belief that we need to change our inner experiences so we can tackle the goal: Science says the more you do this, the more you resist your inner experiences and therefore the stronger they get. You actually transform them by accepting them and focussing on changing the behaviour first while tolerating what is happening in your internal world. 

Kelly has created her own model to guide behaviours aligned with goals. She sums it up as I won’t power, I will power, and I want power.  

  • I won’t power: Be clear and specific about what you are saying no to. “I will say no to that cake”. 

  • I will power: Be clear and specific on what you are saying yes to. “I will instead eat a piece of celery”.   

  • I want power: Be clear on why you want this. “I want to be fit and healthy when I’m older to actively engage in the lives of my family”. When our goals align with a personal value, such as being around for our grandkids, and we can easily recall this when faced with a goal challenging situation, we are much more likely to choose the goal aligned behaviour.  

Finally, Adam Grant suggests it is important to monitor and assess progress toward our goals. This assists in goal attainment by creating self-awareness and allowing us to adjust our direction along the way as appropriate.  

With this many helpful resources available on the subject of goal attainment, we can all give those out of reach goals another crack. Why not choose one of the strategies above and try it out for size. One of them may just fit you.  

Blog by Ance Strydom