A fascinating line of research shows that the more we fantasize about achieving a challenging goal, the less likely we are to actually take a real-life step towards accomplishing that very goal.
So much for positive thinking and visualization practices! It turns out that daydreaming about our success is relaxing, but it isn’t energizing. We envision ourselves hopping off the couch and going for a run, and our brain reacts as if we’ve already gone for that run. Psychologists call this “mental attainment,” and it can really thwart us as we attempt to keep our resolutions and get into good habits.
Fortunately, related research shows us exactly what to do to avoid this surprising brain booby-trap. We need to follow up our resolution or goal setting with something researchers call “mental contrasting.” Here’s how:
Step One: Identify the Obstacle Within Yourself
Take a moment to stop to imagine what will prevent you from reaching your goals or keeping your resolutions. Start by imagining the external circumstances that might thwart you. Maybe you need support from a leader at work, for example. Or maybe you need your spouse to stop leaving junk food on the kitchen counter. Are those external obstacles overcomable? What will you need to do to make sure they aren’t roadblocks to your success? If needed, re-write your goal or resolution so that you feel you have a good chance at succeeding.
Once you’ve narrowed your resolutions down to goals that are challenging but that you still feel pretty confident you can achieve, identify how you will likely hold yourself back. What is it within you that will predictably stand in the way? How will you predictably self-sabotage? For example, maybe you’re afraid to ask that leader at work for support. Or perhaps you often shop while you are hungry…and so you are bringing junk food into the house.
Anxiety, stress, and laziness are common emotional obstacles. Bad habits and limiting beliefs (or incorrect assumptions) are others. What obstacles can you imagine you’ll face? You can use the “Make Plans for Obstacles” worksheet at the end of this free eBook to get started.
Step Two: Make a Plan
What will you do in the face of these obstacles? What instrumental behaviors will help you overcome the obstacles you’ve identified? Frame your plan using an IF/THEN sentence. For example:
- IF it rains, THEN I will still walk the dogs, and I will use the umbrella that is in the front hall.
- IF I feel anxious about asking my manager for support, THEN I will remind myself of the times when she has said that she is happy to help.
- IF I start to feel too overwhelmed to get started, THEN I will close all open browser windows, close all my apps, turn off my phone, and focus on one thing at a time.
A great deal of research shows that when people make a specific plan for what they’d like to do or change, anticipating obstacles if possible, they do better than 74 percent of people who don’t make a specific plan for the same task. Making a specific action plan dramatically increases the odds that you’ll follow through.
People who plan for obstacles tend to be able to meet their goals more successfully. For example, research shows that recovery from hip-replacement surgery depends in large part on having patients make a specific plan for how they will deal with obstacles.
It’s very painful to get up and move around after hip surgery. At the same time, recovery is generally more successful if a patient gets up and walks around a lot. In this study, patients who had just undergone surgery thought about getting up and walking around. Then, they made plans to handle the pain. So if their goal was to walk to the mailbox and back every day, participants practiced thinking: Okay, I’m going to get about halfway there and it’s going to hurt like heck and I’ll want to turn around.
Patients wrote down what they were going to do when they got halfway there and it hurt like heck. These patients recovered faster. They started walking twice as fast and could get in and out of a chair by themselves three times faster than people who didn’t make a specific plan to deal with the pain.
In sum: It is extremely important whenever we establish a new habit to think through all the seemingly minor details. Especially the details that tend to hang us up in the end. We need to decide what the key factors are for our success and how, specifically, we can set ourselves up to overcome the obstacles we may face.
You can use this technique daily by (1) jotting down a problem you need to solve or something that you’d like to accomplish, (2) noting what is likely to hold you back, and (3) making an if/then plan. To make this easy for you, I’ve included these steps in my new planner (it’s free online!), which you are free to customize and print out.