The Science of Getting To Where You Want To Be

planning stay focused

[Reading time: 1 minute 45 seconds]

When I heard Katy Milkman's* TedX talk about why people feel compelled to make New Year's resolutions, I knew she hit the nail on the head when she said the beginning of a new year feels like a fresh start.

On January 1, we feel that we've been given a clean slate. And in the course of feeling like we get to begin again, two things happen in our psyches:

  1. We have confidence our future self will be more capable than our previous self.
  2. We are able to let go of our earlier failures.

"Events that cause a disruption in our daily patterns are opportunities to reset our way of being." ~ Katy Milkman

Turns out, this concept of getting a fresh start isn't something that just happens on January 1... it happens all the time: after significant birthdays, when we experience major life events (like a new job, a move, illness, getting married) but also on a small scale like the start of the week.

This explains why I feel so enthusiastic about planning for the upcoming week.

Mary Ellen Baker getting things done this week!

"Often when we make plans, we don't focus on what will trigger us to act. Instead we focus on what we intend to do." ~ Katy Milkman

In addition to the Fresh Start strategy, there are a few other things we can do to trigger ourselves to act:

Make a plan. Don't overcommit.

 "I'm going to walk three times this week." is very different from "I'm going to take more walks."

In her book How to Change, Katy writes that a plan with a little built-in escape clause can almost double the likelihood of reaching a goal.

If I tell myself "I'm going to walk every day this week" and I miss a day, I start thinking "Why bother walking tomorrow? I've already failed at the plan." The way we interpret failure has a lot to do with our future success. Walking three times in a week is completely doable but walking every day doesn't allow for any mistakes.

Under-promising provides a built-in buffer so that self-confidence can survive small mistakes.

 Create an intention for when, where, and how

Studies show that people who create an intention for the implementation of their goal are almost twice as likely to achieve it. Why? Because forming a concrete plan doesn't leave success up to chance.

One technique is to use an if-then strategy:

  • If I see stairs, then I'll take them.
  • If I make coffee, then I'll unload the dishwasher. (Lucky for me I don't have coffee every day)
  • If I make cookies, then I'll give half away.

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear says that implementation intention is effective because it can also leverage two powerful cues: time and location.

 "I'm going to walk three times this week." Could be changed to:

"When I get home from work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I'm going to change into my exercise clothes and walk the Fanno Creek trail at 6:15 for 30 minutes."

Coming up with such a specific plan requires time, thought and attention. When we are so clear about our plan that we see and feel ourselves actually doing it, we also strengthen the part of our brains that has to do with memory and recall.

Another valuable takeaway from Katy's book is that achieving transformative behavior is an ongoing effort - and being tired or hungry makes obstacles like temptation (and forgetfulness) harder to overcome.

Here are a few other tips from How to Change:

bundle temptations with your goaltry a commitment devicemake it fun!spend time with experts and their techniques will rub offdon't overdo - just one goal at a timebeliefs affect our expectations. Pay attention to what you are telling yourself

* Katy Milkman is a Professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and host of Charles Schwab’s behavioral economics podcast Choiceology. Here's a link to her book: How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.


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