I’m A Human Behavior Professor and I Have Bad News About That Goal You Just Set

Here’s what other human behavior experts won’t tell you

Melody Wilding, LMSW
Jun 17 · 3 min read

It’s easy to set goals. Reaching them is difficult. That’s because people often misunderstand the process of goal-setting and how to change for the better. As a human behavior professor, I see people inadvertently set themselves up to fail.

Here’s is what other human behavior experts won’t tell you about achieving goals:

  1. Trying to motivate yourself usually doesn’t work. Motivation is fickle. It ebbs and flows with your energy and emotional state. You should focus on developing self-control instead. Self-control is a learned skill that is shown to help you make positive decisions with less stress. Using a commitment device, or making a choice in the present that locks you into a future behavior, is one of the best ways to develop self-control. Deleting social media apps from your phone or wearing gym clothes to bed are two examples of commitment devices that can increase your chances of success, even when you don’t feel motivated.
  2. Writing down your goals is helpful, but insufficient. Journaling and committing your goals to paper can be powerful, but writing down your goals isn’t enough. Without action and accountability, your big dreams remain just words on a page. One study conducted by Dominican University looked at the effectiveness of writing down goals. The research found that people who wrote down their goals achieved more than those who did not. People who wrote down their goals and sent a weekly progress report to a friend accomplished the most of all. Find an accountability buddy, seek out a support group, or hire a coach with whom you can have regular check-ins.
  3. SMART goals don’t always work. You’re probably familiar with the concept of SMART goals — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. SMART goals were made for the workplace, and they’re best suited when you’re trying to reach a well-defined end state. SMART goals start to fail when you’re aiming for big, ambitious objectives that inherently involve uncertainty. Obsessively focusing on designing goals that are specific and measurable can keep you stuck and make you frustrated. The truth is you don’t always need to know the final destination. You just need to know the very next step to take in order to move forward.
  4. It’s good to be pessimistic. A positive attitude is often touted as the key to goal achievement, when in fact, a healthy dose of pessimism is needed to get ahead. A certain type of negative thinking, known as defensive pessimism, can actually be beneficial. Vividly imagining challenges can help you strategize and creatively problem solve. Obstacles inevitably arise on the path toward reaching your goals, so I suggest coming up with if/then contingencies. For example, “If I’m feeling too tired to go to the gym, then I’ll take stairs instead of the elevator.”
  5. Reaching your goals may not make you happier. Have you ever noticed that sometimes you don’t feel any different after reaching a big goal? In fact, you may have felt let down or a sense of disillusionment. This phenomenon, commonly known as the arrival fallacy, happens because working towards a goal triggers a rush of feel-good dopamine in your brain. Once you reach the goal, dopamine levels drop, which can leave you feeling empty.

Before moving on to the next thing, celebrate your achievements. Reflect on what went well. Think about what you learned and what you can do differently next time. Pausing to internalize your success boosts your confidence and your happiness along with it.

©Melody Wilding 2019. Originally published on Quartz.

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Melody Wilding is a performance coach for sensitive high achievers and professor of human behavior. She helps leaders at companies like Google, Facebook, HP, Salesforce and HBO stop doubting themselves so they can strive for a successful career and a balanced life.

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Melody Wilding, LMSW

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Executive coach to sensitive high-achievers. Professor. Feat. NYT, NBC, CNN. Get your free copy of The 5-Minute Inner Critic Makeover: melodywilding.com/guide

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment.