There is no shortage of advice out there on how to achieve goals. The problem is separating the techniques that actually work from the useless advice being offered in many self-help books and blogs.
Fortunately, psychologist and author Richard Wiseman has done the difficult work of separating the wheat from the chaff for us, and he presented his results in his excellent book, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot.
Wiseman studied more than 5,000 people who were trying to achieve a goal or change some aspect of their lives. At the end of either six months or a year the participants were asked to list the techniques they used. The ten most frequently used techniques were as follows:
- Make a step-by step plan.
- Motivate myself by focusing on someone that I admire for achieving so much (e.g., a celebrity role model or great leader).
- Tell other people about my goal.
- Think about the bad things that will happen if I don’t achieve my goal.
- Think about the good things that will happen if I achieve my goal.
- Try to suppress unhelpful thoughts (e.g., avoid thinking about eating unhealthy food or smoking.
- Reward myself for making progress toward my goal.
- Rely on willpower.
- Record my progress (e.g., in a journal or on a chart).
- Fantasize about how great my life will be when I achieve my goal.
The first thing Wiseman learned from the study is something that anyone who has tried to lose weight or save money in an emergency fund already knows. Change is hard! Indeed, although most of the participants in the study were confident in their ability to change at the start of the study, only about 10 percent reported that they had achieved their goals.
Wiseman next looked for a correlation between those who had successfully changed and the techniques they had used. Did those who succeeded use different techniques than those who failed?
Remarkably, Wiseman found that those who successfully changed were more likely to use five of the techniques listed above, while those who failed to change were more likely to use the other five. And yet all of the techniques seem reasonable and have appeared in various self-help books.
Take a couple of minutes to read the list above again and see if you can identify the five change techniques that actually work. Write down the numbers of the techniques you think worked.
Change Techniques that Work
Wiseman found that the odd-numbered change techniques above helped people reach their goals while the even-numbered techniques were useless, or even harmful. The bad news is that, contrary to what you might have heard elsewhere, emulating a role model, focusing on the negative consequences of not changing, trying to suppress unhelpful thoughts, relying on willpower, and fantasizing about how great things will be after you succeed are not likely to help you achieve your goals.
The good news is that you can avoid wasting time on these unhelpful methods and focus your attention on the techniques that actually work. Here is a little more information about how to use each of the beneficial techniques to help you reach your goals.
Make a Step-by-Step Plan: Famous motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once stated that no one just goes out for a walk and finds themselves on the top of Mt. Everest. Change is always difficult, but it is nearly impossible to succeed without a plan. The plan doesn’t have to be perfect, and it might change along the way, but people who successfully reach goals start with a plan. Looking more closely at successful plans showed that the best ones broke the overall goal down into up to five sub-goals, each of which was concrete, measurable, and time-based.
Go Public: I am not talking about listing your start-up on a stock exchange, although that would be an interesting goal. Instead, I am referring to the benefits that come from telling other people about your goal and enlisting their help and support.
When my eldest daughter, Kelsey, was small she thought she could do anything as long as I held her hand. While she might have slightly exaggerated the power of her father, she was dead-on in thinking that everything in life is easier when you have others helping you. Indeed, a study conducted by Simone Schnall found that people at the bottom of a hill thought it would be much easier to climb it when they were accompanied by a friend than if they were alone. Although the study didn’t test it, I believe they were probably right. So don’t keep your goals to yourself. Share them with people who can support you, help you, and hold you accountable.
Think of the Benefits: Focusing on the benefits of achieving your goal is a better motivator than focusing on the negative consequences of failure. However, be careful with this one. Thinking about the good things that will happen when you achieve your goal gives you an instant shot of happiness before you have earned it. You need to remind yourself that this shot of happiness doesn’t mean much unless you actually follow your plan and reach your goal. Wiseman suggests not imaging the perfect future you (number 10 above, and shown not to work) but instead objectively listing the benefits you will receive by reaching your goal. The key is to focus on the benefits of a better future rather than the limitations of your current situation.
Keep Score: Keeping score is a great motivator. Of course, keeping score is a lot more fun when you are winning than when you are losing. When we are not doing well most of us tend to ignore the scoreboard. And since you will be both the scorekeeper and the participant, you will be tempted to simply turn the scoreboard off when things aren’t going your way. Don’t do it. The information on the scoreboard is perhaps even more important to you when you are losing. Remember this quote by Charles A. Coonradt:
“If you have the courage to keep score, even when you are losing, you will win more in the long run.”
How you keep score is up to you. You can track your progress in a journal, create a spreadsheet, make a graph to hang where you will see it every day, or come up with some other method. How you keep score is not important, but it is vital that you design a scoreboard that is meaningful to you and then have the courage to use it, even when you are losing.
Reward Yourself: Achieving goals is difficult, so progress toward your goal should be rewarded. Don’t wait until you achieve a major goal to reward yourself. Instead, reward yourself for achieving sub-goals. Decide in advance what your rewards will be and make them part of your plan. Rewards do not need to be big, but they should be meaningful to you and should not conflict with your overall goal.
There you have it. The five techniques that will help you achieve your financial goals – or any other goals you might have. To give yourself the best chance of reaching your goals ignore all the other advice out there and develop a plan based on these five principles.
Change is never easy, so starting the process with a blueprint that works is vital. This one is simple, intuitive, and has been tested by research. Wiseman has provided the blueprint; the rest is up to you. So pick your top financial priority, develop a plan, and start building a better financial future.