Now that our summer break is wrapping up, I’ve started asking my kids about their hopes for the coming school year. Every year at this time our conversations remind me a little of New Year’s Eve with adults – lots of optimism, but initially no plans concrete enough to justify faith in their intentions.
Here’s the thing: Intentions are never enough. Even full-blown goal-setting isn’t worth much if you don’t do it right.
It’s a mistake not to set goals in a way that’s proven effective; just vaguely wanting to do well in school, make the team, or be class president will not get kids where they want to go. But kids don’t know this; how could they? We parents need to teach our older kids, our teens, and our college students how to change their behavior in a way that helps them reach their goals.
Enter behavioral psychologist Sean Young, who knows more about behavior change than anyone. Using Sean’s framework – as well as the research I wrote about in my book “The Sweet Spot” – I’ve freshened up my plan for how my kids and I set our goals (and inspire behavior change). This framework can obviously be applied to many different types of goals, and I’ve created a goal-setting worksheet to make it all easy here.
NOTE: The example below is from the worksheets that I helped my daughter Macie complete last year around this time. Happily, Macie accomplished her goals and is headed off to college this week! Before she goes, we’ll complete a new worksheet.
1. First, state the big goal. What would you like to accomplish in the next three months or so?
Macie is a high school senior applying to colleges this fall. She knows she needs sleep to be mentally and physically healthy – and to do well academically and athletically. Specifically, she hopes that she won’t get caught in a cycle of exhaustion this year, where she oversleeps and then has to rush out the door in the morning, skipping breakfast and generally not starting the day well. Her dream is to get eight to nine hours of sleep each night and get out of bed as soon as her alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m. on weekday mornings.
2. Next, break this larger idea down into long-term goals. Long-term goals take up to three months to accomplish. Macie’s long-term goal is to have a 30-day “streak” of getting eight to nine hours of sleep each night and getting out of bed within five minutes of her alarm going off in the morning.
3. Break it down again into short-term goals. These goals should take one to three weeks to accomplish. Macie’s first short-term goal was to outline for herself specific morning and evening routines in 10-minute time increments. Those specific plans helped her see what she needed to do to get to bed by 10:30 p.m. and wake up by 6:30 a.m.
4. Now break goals down into very specific, ridiculously easy baby steps. What can you do today? Tomorrow? Here are the baby steps Macie took:
- Get an alarm that doesn’t bug her (that she won’t resist setting).
- Ask a parent to enforce the family rule that phones are charged outside of bedrooms. (We let that slip with her over the summer.)
- Set her alarm for 6:30 a.m.
5. Set up the environment to make things easier. Our environment dramatically influences our behavior. We like to think our behavior is all our personality and preferences, or that it’s the strength of our ironclad will that determines our success. But actually, we are hugely influenced by the people, places and technology that happen to be in close physical proximity to us.
This means that to be successful in reaching our goals, it’s very helpful to set up our environment to make things easier, to create what are called structural solutions. This usually means removing temptations. For Macie, it meant getting her phone out of her bedroom at night (where it would keep her up) and while she was studying (where it would distract her so much she couldn’t finish her homework by bedtime).
6. Involve other people. We humans are often more motivated to do things that we might otherwise resist if it makes us feel more of a sense of belonging, or if it deepens or increases our social connections. In addition, involving other people can provide added motivation–a little external willpower as we establish new habits–getting them to do stuff they’d rather blow off.
For example: I make sure Macie is out of bed in the morning. If she is not, I annoyingly sing “rise and shine.” She is too old for this, and it bugs the heck out of her to have me hovering in this way. This is sufficient motivation for her to get out of bed before I arrive.
7. Identify why the goal is important. Help kids think less about what they want to achieve and instead focus on how they want to feel. Identify a “why” for the goal that will motivate them over the long haul.
We do better when we let go of our logical reasons for why we want to do something. Why? Because research shows that good, solid, logical reasons for doing something – like exercising because we want to lower our blood pressure or ward off cancer – don’t actually provide lasting motivation. It turns out that emotions are far more motivating than achievement goals in the long run.
So help kids shoot instead for a feeling a certain way. For example, maybe they want more confidence or calm. Macie wants to get out of bed on time because she wants to feel “on it,” “well-rested” and “disciplined.”
8. Make the new behavior a part of their identity. Macie wants to be able to say, “I am a person who is well-rested and self-disciplined.” She’s tracking the days she gets into and out of bed on time, so she can look back and see, “Yup, I’m on it!” Collect evidence that your kids are the type of people who do whatever it is that they are trying to do.
9. Make the behavior more enticing. We human beings pursue rewards: a pretty little cupcake, attention from a mentor, a sense of accomplishment. When our brains identify a potential reward, they release dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger. Dopamine motivates us to pursue the reward, creating a real sense of craving, wanting or desire for the carrot that is being dangled in front of us.
Rewards need to be immediate or, even better, built into our routine when possible. Macie loves her bed; hitting snooze instead of getting up is its own reward, which makes getting out of bed much more difficult (and who doesn’t relate to that?!) So I’ve worked with Macie to praise herself enthusiastically when she gets out of bed on her own using what B.J. Fogg at Stanford calls the “Yay Me!” reward.Even something as small as a short mental victory dance can trigger a little hit of dopamine, enough to tell your brain to repeat whatever you just did. She is basically giving herself a pat on the back and noting how “disciplined” and “on it” she is.
10. Make the behavior more habitual. Once we do something on autopilot, everything is easier – we don’t need much willpower to enact our habitual behaviors. Can you help kids make the behaviors related to accomplishing their goals habitual in any way? Do this by anchoring behaviors in existing habits or routines, or even a schedule, using a when/then statement: “When I do x, then I will y.” For Macie, it starts at 7 p.m.: “When it’s 7 p.m., I will put my phone in the charging station while I study.”
What are your kids’ goals for this new school year? What are your goals? Now that you have a framework for how you and your children can achieve those goals, you can lead by example to turn talk into something more.
If you need support setting and achieving your goals, I hope you’ll check out our Brave Over Perfect group coaching program! At only $20 for 3 coaching calls and two months of online support, it’s a no-brainer. Learn more or enroll now here.