written by
Ryan Dixon

Goal setting: How to get what you want using behavioural psychology

Strategy 18 min read

I am notoriously bad with goal setting and seeing through long-term goals, as such a couple of beneficial nuggets of knowledge have come to light through my previous experiences. Firstly, the best accomplishments don't happen overnight, they are achieved through long-term persistence. Secondly, it is human nature to take the lazy route. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a quick win and will always opt for effective shortcuts where possible but more often than not there is no free lunch, as it were.

With that being said, there are a number of ways that I can stack the odds in my favour when setting goals which I want to share, for your benefit just as much as a personal reminder to myself.

First and foremost… What do you want?

"Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask."― Tim Ferriss

Knowing what you want takes out 80% of the hassle, get specific before you move forward. Instead of “I want to start a business”, make your goal “I want to start a business in the tech industry, selling high-end, custom headphones to producers who work in the music industry around Europe”. From here you already know where to look, who to look for and in turn where to find them, what kind of copy you will need to talk to your customer etc.

If you have a chance to go broad, don’t. Go narrow.

Bruce Almighty "Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true!"

NB: When writing a list of all the things you desire it is important to set aside the constraints of time, money and obligation, think less on what you “should” do, or “could” do with more “insert perceived limitation”. This list should be entirely without doubt, fear or expectations. Take your time, take a break if you need, take a little walk somewhere quiet but most of all don't censor or edit the nature of the list. Be sure to set challenging goals that excite you, go outlandish! The goal itself can be as crazy as you like as long as you follow it by creating a realistic timeline and process to get there.

Reduce the competition... Creating your own niche:

In business, this is called the ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ or, to a marketer ‘the law of category’. It is where you find your own market where you are the only player. For example, tell me what these men all have in common…

Pete Conrad

Alan Bean

Alan Shepard

Edgar Mitchell

David Scott

James Irwin

Charles Duke

Eugene Cernan

Harrison Schmitt

You most likely can’t, however if I include Buzz Aldrin or Neil Armstrong then you will likely come to the conclusion that they have all walked on the moon. Yet no one really remembers anyone involved after the first mission (that's not to say it is any less impressive).

Creating your own niche is similar, it removes all competition creating a space that you can dominate. Consider the fact that computers started out the size of rooms, but quickly advanced to mini-computers, desktop computers, super computers, laptops, tablets and on it goes. Find your own category to branch out into and make your own. The best competition, is no competition.

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).” ― Mark Twain

Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss you will be among the stars:

The other option is to aim higher than everyone else. Think of it as a food chain, there is less competition at the top. Don't just be good, be exceptional.

The degrees of separation between being the worlds best and being pretty good are minute, but that small difference is the difference between being in competition with a few or many.

As they say, the fishing is best where the fewest go.

How to say no...

What you don't do is just as, if not more, important than what you do. Prioritise meticulously, time and energy are your greatest assets and both are limited. Think ‘priority’, not ‘priorities’. Have a set goal in mind and continuously ask yourself “is my current task advancing my main goal?” If not, stop and refocus. A useful tool to break down the importance of tasks is Stephen Covey’s time-management matrix (seen below), this will aid in separating the important tasks from the rest.

Stephen Covey’s time-management matrix

Remember, your destination is concrete but the route taken to get there can be fluid. Give up low-level goals strategically if they are hindering your success, know when to drop a project or task that isn’t working and find an alternative route.

Tom Hanks "no, no, no"

Numerous studies have shown multitasking can make a serious dent in your productivity, seeing reductions of up to 40%. By trying to achieve too much at once you are more likely to disappoint yourself or, achieve half-baked results at best. This can also be a blow to your confidence, hindering later attempts at the same goals.

Baby steps

Breaking your goals down into manageable bite-size chunks will sustain motivation in the long-run by creating a minimum resistance path to achievement while also enabling clearer progress tracking. Essentially this is a process to make decision making simpler when the time comes.

Ask yourself: "what would this look like if it were easy?"

By breaking a goal down into a timeline you create many smaller achievements rather than a strict pass/fail and can see that you have in fact made progress through ‘little wins’. In behavioural training, something similar is shaping, when you get stuck or feel frustrated with a task it can be helpful to run over each of the previous steps to assure yourself of progress and interrupt the pattern of failure with the reminder of the success you have achieved to get to that task.

Shaping: The process of reinforcing successively closer and closer approximations to a desired terminal behaviour.

This is a neat psychologically trick to seem as though you are always overshooting tasks, by setting the end goal high but the tasks to get there very low there is much more chance you will overshoot your success. So instead of going straight in with an hours exercise every day, try just 5 press ups in the morning.

"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."― Sun Tzu

NB: Quant based marketing was a method used to grow mint.com, from scratch to 1 million users in one month (I have linked an article on this as it’s great reading!). It is also a great method for breaking down goals and how you plan to achieve them! Quant-based marketing is a method where you start with the end goal in mind and work backward, do the exact same thing with your goals, breaking them down into small simple steps to get there.

Visualisations and affirmations

Define your goals clearly and specifically. Go into detail about what you want to achieve, why you want it, how it will benefit you, how you plan to achieve it and how you will gauge accomplishment, along with a timeline and most importantly a deadline. By writing out each of these questions in detail you are helping to foster your interest, reinforcing it and creating something that you can come back to in times when things seem hard or unachievable.

NB: A fellow named Cyril Northcote Parkinson first stated a long time ago that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Known today as Parkinson’s law or the law of time, it dictates that the time you set for a task will be spent doing said task. Therefore it is wise to set timelines in which to complete important tasks, these will also help gauge progress and reduce dropout rates.

“A goal is a dream with a deadline”― Napoleon Hill

There will always be room for improvement. With this in mind however, forever editing will end up causing a severe lack of finished work. Setting deadlines prevents late stage tinkering. Business projects will generally involve large teams initially to ensure all serious issues are addressed in the early stages. Then, as the project develops fewer and fewer people are involved. I am sure you have heard the proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth”, this is somewhat similar.

“Perfect is the enemy of great.”― Voltaire

The psychology of emotion

Humans are emotional beings and as such it is best to work with one's emotional desires. Willpower may work in the beginning but is unsustainable for most people in the long-run. This can be seen in fad diets, broken new year's resolutions and, I guarantee it won't take you long to list of a few things you yourself have tried for a short period of time but failed to pursue. Relying solely on willpower will eventually create negative feelings towards the habit you are forcefully trying to establish and can be damaging to long-term achievement, it is better to work with emotions and use them to your advantage rather than battle against them. If you aren't enjoying something, figure out why, and work with your emotional self to prove the benefits and work around the issues.

The Joker - "I like this job, I like it!"

Decision making is the balance between the pain of indecision and the benefits of making the decision. By working with your emotional self and imagining in detail the benefits of making a decision along with the pain that will come from indecision, you can tip the scales in your favour while reducing the anxiety that indecision brings.

If you’re ever feeling lost or uninspired revisit your vivid description of your goal and write out two lists detailing the cost of not making the decision and the benefits of what can come from moving forward (NB: if you are still unsure, you can use a method called fear setting which is gone through here).

Learn to use your emotions to your advantage.

NB: Confidence Testing:

*The coffee challenge- Go to a local cafe or restaurant and ask for 10% off your coffee/lunch. Sounds easy right.

Try it you will be surprised, you may learn something about yourself or you may just save some change.

*For Men(or women)- Go into town and spend an hour walking around and asking women(or men) for their number. Say you saw them and thought you’d take a chance, I am sure you will flatter a few women if anything. You don't have to call them back, just get their number.

*Eye gazing- Hold eye contact with someone for 30 seconds, try not to be creepy and if they ask why just say you reminded them of someone you know.

The reason for these challenges is to inoculate yourself against fear from uncomfortable situations. Throughout life, uncomfortable situations will arise and the more often you experience them the easier they will be to handle.

Embrace them, as they are usually less painful than your reptilian mind makes them out to be.

A game of stakes

“80% of success in life is showing up”― Woody Allen

Take action now, right now.

Find something you can do to move forward right now. Anything that can make you accountable and start you on the route to your goal.

Let's face some facts. You won't always be motivated, accept this early and save yourself a little pain. There are going to be sometimes when you wake up and want and hit snooze, use some of the techniques in this list along with a dash of grit to overcome these. Break it down, leverage emotion. engrain routine and reward yourself.

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it's impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli
Star Trek Into Darkness 2013. Bones: "Jim, you just sat that man down at a high-stakes poker game with no cards and told him to bluff."

NB: There are a number of psychological principles you can leverage here:

The sunk cost effect- Individuals commit the sunk cost fallacy when they continue a behaviour or endeavour as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort) (Arkes & Blumer, 1985). Say you want to learn Krav Maga (because it’s pretty awesome), well if you pay for three months worth of lessons up front you are more likely to attend these sessions than if you were to pay on a lesson-by-lesson basis.

The endowment effect- The endowment effect describes a circumstance in which an individual values something which they already own more than something which they do not yet own. By owning your goal and the outcome along with creating a stake in it you will be more committed to seeing it through until the end.

High-stakes commitments- Creating financial stakes have been found by Stikk to increase success rates by up to three times as much. This has been studied by The University of California, Santa Barbara economists and not only does it increase success rates, but habits are often sustained long past the commitments end date.

Positive reinforcement

Reinforcement is a huge driver of the human learning process and it is well advised to use this to your advantage. Positive reinforcement is, for most cases, the best method to change a behaviour either in yourself or others.

It is to be noted however reinforcement must be given immediately after the skill/action you intend to reinforce. This will create a subconscious link between the desired action and the positive reinforcer.

This can be used for rewarding yourself for waking up at a specific time by allowing yourself to have that breakfast you love so much rather than your standard toast. To a cube of green & black’s dark chocolate for doing 20 minutes of meditation.

NB: this can also be used as a handy method to ‘train’ housemates or colleagues with undesirable habits.

Routine and decision fatigue

As mentioned before, motivation is the first step but past that it is persistence/perseverance that will be the driving force behind success. One of the best ways to cut decision fatigue is routine.

Decision fatigue:- refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.

Think of it like a downwards sloping curve, every day you one have the ability to make 20 quality decisions and the more you make the more your reasoning power gets drained. But building routine into your schedule you will remove the drag caused by multiple smaller decisions through the day. For example, Mark Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt every day(Style, not literally the same t-shirt. He’s not an animal!), thus removing one decision he needs to make every morning. This can similarly be done throughout your morning routine, from waking up to leaving the house. By making the same breakfast, showering at the same time, drinking the same coffee every day. You get the idea.

Friends. Joey: "Could I be wearing any more clothes?"

Building on the same routine with multiple habits is called habit stacking. Similar to shaping, this method can be used to cue up different habits, then build on them creating a series of habits, or, a habit stack.

A cue is an action or event that signals the start of a new action/event. Every day when I wake up I do the same thing, I walk into the kitchen and make the same tea every day. Here the cue is waking up and the habit is making tea, Simple enough, but build these into a chain of events and you have yourself a habit stack. Which done enough will be an automated sequence of events that you should have to barely think about.

Kaizen a Japanese word translates to English as ‘resisting the plateau of arrested development (or more literal ‘continuous improvement’). Progression at any point is more important than perfection, a persons grit is a better measure of success than talent or short-term achievement. Even if it’s baby steps, always be moving forward.

NB: For a long time it was thought that IQ was the metric of a person's success, however more recent evidence (seen in multiple studies here, here and here) suggests there is a strong relationship between fluid intelligence/working memory(the part of the memory that relates to delayed gratification) and long-term success.

“IQ is what you know. Working memory is what you can do with what you know.”― Tracy Alloway

Also, contrary to popular belief, IQ along with fluid intelligence and working memory is something you can exercise (although the ways of doing so are highly frustrating!!). A game was developed by brainscale.net called Dual N-back along with a handful of newer games to push working memory past the standard parameters. Basically a RAM upgrade, but for us humans.

Post-game analysis

This is something often skipped outside of the workplace, however reviewing personal goals is just as important, if not more so than reviewing business goals. Not only to assess the development of said goal but to ensure that you are on the right path to success.

Updating your goals periodically will sustain excitement along with reducing the “danger of the finish line” effect, where once you achieved something you lose interest. This will also provide a level of accountability to yourself to keep to deadlines and not sacrifice the quality of your achievements as you know you will have to write your failure out, in detail on paper. This sounds like a petty, old-school punishment but it actually works well!

By reviewing your goals in writing it is easier to sort through your thoughts, seeing where you fell short and where you succeeded beyond expectation. This will provide clarity around both your failures and your achievements, the former being a lesson learned, the latter being further motivation. A string of missed deadlines can be a kick in the ass or it can be debilitating if it becomes too long, so keep an eye on it.

Accepting that you will fail can be hard but the key is to learn from each one and persistently pick yourself back up, dust yourself off, and move forward. No one earns success overnight, and persistence along with passion are what separates the crowd in the end.

“Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.”― Jim Rohn

Start now!

Take out a piece of paper and spend 20 minutes writing out a list of:

  • The skills you want to achieve(being)
  • The activities you want to do/places you want to visit(doing)
  • The things you want to buy/own(having)

Then choose one of each to work on.

Alternatively, if you have something in mind but you haven't plucked up the courage to move forward yet or have been putting it off for one reason or another.

Take a piece of A4 paper and split it into 3 columns: Worst possible outcomes, How to mitigate these outcomes and best possible outcomes. use this to write down all your fears and the ways you can mitigate them if they were to happen then measure them against all the best possible outcomes that could occur if you did move forward. This will bring a ton of perspective to the table!

Accountability case study 1:

A study by Psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews at Dominican University laid evidence to show the effectiveness of accountability, public commitment and written goals on achievement rates.

267 participants from all over the world and a range of different backgrounds including but not limited to entrepreneurs, educators, artists, vice presidents, attorneys, bankers and managers, were separated into 5 different groups.

o Participants in Group 1 were simply asked to think about their goals (what they wanted to accomplish over the next 4 weeks) and then asked to rate that goal on the following dimensions: Difficulty, Importance, the extent to which they had the Skills & Resources to accomplish the goal, their Commitment and Motivation to the goal, whether or not they had Pursued this goal before and if so their Prior Success.

o Participants in Groups 2-5 were asked to write (type into the online survey) their goals and then to rate their goals on the same dimensions.

o Group 3 was also asked to formulate action commitments.

o Group 4 was asked to formulate action commitments and send their goals and action commitments to a supportive friend.

o Group 5 was asked to formulate action commitments and send their goals, action commitments and weekly progress reports to a supportive friend.

Mean goal achievement rate graph by groups. In ascending order: group 1 (4.28), group 3 (5.08), group 2 (6.08), group 4 (6.41), group 5 (7.7)

After 4 weeks the participants rated the degree to which they completed their goal and the results showed that those who had written down their goals had significantly higher success ratings than those with unwritten goals, more impressive was those who where accountable to a friend had significantly higher success than those who wrote down their goals and nearly two-fold the rate of success than those who had unwritten goals.

Mean goal achievement: unwritten goals (4.28) vs. written goals (6.44)


Accountability case study 2:

In 1961 a woman by the name of Jean Nidetch from Queens, New York, had been overweight for most of her childhood and adult life, described by herself as “desperate” she started a diet sponsored by the New York City Department of Health Obesity Clinic. Although having success with the diet after the first few weeks she was still cheating and eating foods she wasn’t supposed to. Not feeling comfortable talking with the woman who ran the Obesity Clinic she decided to invite 6 of her overweight friends to share her new diet and discuss her progress. After convincing the other women to join her on her diet plan and attend weekly progress meeting where they can each share their struggles and progress, she started to see herself as an “emotional leader” and so was the beginnings of weight watchers. Today in the UK alone around 6,000 meeting are held each week and Weight watchers international, as of 2007, had retail sales of over $4 billion while literally saving the lives of millions of people around the world.

The core principle behind all this? Accountability.

Weight watchers isn’t the only company that has leveraged this, think about the exceptional expansion of Crossfit. Crossfit does not pretend to be anything special, and taken at face value it isn’t, there’s nothing different about ‘where’ they train, or ‘how’ they train, go to any Crossfit gym and….. it looks exactly like any other gym. However the core principle of accountability runs deep, with some describing it as almost religious (NY Times: “When Some Turn to Church, Others Go to CrossFit”).