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Achieve Your Goals: Research Reveals a Simple Trick That Doubles Your Chances for Success

Achieve Your Goals: Research Reveals a Simple Trick That Doubles Your Chances for Success

We all have goals. And what’s the first thing most of us think about when we consider how to achieve them? “I need to get motivated.” The surprising thing? Motivation is exactly what you don’t need. Today, I’m going to share a surprising research study that reveals why motivation isn’t the key to achieving your goals and offers a simple strategy that actually works. The best part? This highly practical strategy has been scientifically proven to double or even triple your chances for success.

Here’s what you need to know and how you can apply it to your life…

How to Make Exercise a Habit

Let’s say that – like many people – you want to make a habit of exercising consistently. Researchers have discovered that while many people are motivated to workout (i.e. they have the desire to workout and get fit), the people who actually stick to their goals do one thing very differently from everyone else. Here’s how researchers discovered the “one thing” that makes it more likely for you to stick to your goals.

In a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers measured how frequently people exercised over a two week period. The researchers started by randomly assigning 248 adults to one of three groups.

Group 1 was the control group. They were asked to keep track of how frequently they exercised over the next two weeks. Before they left, each person was asked to read the opening three paragraphs of an unrelated novel.

Group 2 was the motivation group. They were also asked to keep track of how frequently they exercised over the next two weeks. Then, each person was asked to read a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise for reducing the risk of heart disease. Participants in Group 2 were also told, “Most young adults who have stuck to a regular exercise program have found it to be very effective in reducing their chances of developing coronary heart disease.”

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The goal of these actions was to motivate Group 2 to exercise regularly.

Group 3 was the intention group. After being told to track their exercise, they also read the motivational pamphlet and got the same speech as Group 2. This was done to ensure that Group 2 and Group 3 were equally motivated.

Unlike Group 2, however, they were also asked to formulate a plan for when and where they would exercise over the following week. Specifically, each person in Group 3 was asked to explicitly state their intention to exercise by completing the following statement…

“During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

After receiving these instructions, all three groups left.

The Surprising Results: Motivation vs. Intention

Two weeks later, the researchers were surprised by what had happened in the three groups.

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  • In the control group, 38% of participants exercised at least once per week.
  • In the motivation group, 35% of participants exercised at least once per week.
  • In the intention group, an incredible 91% of participants exercised at least once per week.

Simply by writing down a plan that said exactly when and where they intended to exercise, the participants in Group 3 were much more likely to actually follow through.

exercise-intention

    The study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that 91% people who planned their intention to exercise by writing down when and where they would exercise each week ended up following through. Meanwhile, people who read motivational material about exercise, but did not plan when and where they would exercise, showed no increase compared to the control group. (Graphic by James Clear.)

    Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that having a specific plan worked really well, but motivation didn’t work at all. Group 1 (the control group) and Group 2 (the motivation group) performed essentially the same levels of exercise.

    Or, as the researchers put it, “Motivation … had no significant effects on exercise behavior.”

    Compare these results to how most people talk about making change and achieving goals. Words like motivation, willpower, and desire get tossed around a lot. But the truth is, we all have these things to some degree. If you want to make a change at all, then you have some level of “desire.”

    The researchers discovered that what pulls that desire out of you and turns it into real–world action isn’t your level of motivation, but rather your plan for implementation.

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    How to Follow Through With Your Goals

    “Deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success.” – Heidi Grant Halvorson, Columbia University professor

    This business about planning your actions and achieving your goals isn’t a random, one. For example, similar studies have found that…

    • Women who stated when and where they would perform a breast self–examination, did it 100% of the time. Meanwhile, those who didn’t state when and where only performed the exam 53% of the time. (1)
    • Dieters who formulated a plan for when and how they would eat healthier were significantly more likely to eat healthy than those who did not. (2)
    • People who wrote down when and where they would take their vitamins each day were less likely to miss a day over a five week span than those who did not. (3)

    In fact, over 100 separate studies in a wide range of experimental situations have come to the same conclusion: people who explicitly state when and where their new behaviors are going to happen are much more likely to stick to their goals.

    You can apply this strategy to almost any goal you can think of, and certainly to most health goals. For example, if you want to start a daily meditation habit this month, then you’ll be more likely to stick to your goal if you plan out when and where you’ll meditate each day.

    What to Do When Plans Fall Apart

    “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” – Robert Burns

    Sometimes you won’t be able to implement a new behavior – no matter how perfect your plan is. In situations like these, it’s great to use the “if–then” version of this strategy. You’re still stating your intention to perform a particular behavior, so the basic idea is the same. This time, however, you simply plan for unexpected situations by using the phrase, “If ____, then ____.”

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    For example…

    • If I eat fast food for lunch, then I’ll stop by the store and buy some vegetables for dinner.
    • If I haven’t called my mom back by 7pm, then I won’t turn on the TV until I do.
    • If my meeting runs over and I don’t have time to workout this afternoon, then I’ll wake up early tomorrow and run.

    The “if–then” strategy gives you a clear plan for overcoming the unexpected stuff, which means it’s less likely that you’ll be swept away by the urgencies of life. You can’t control when little emergencies happen to you, but you don’t have to be a victim of them either.

    Use This Strategy to Achieve Your Goals

    If you don’t plan out your behaviors, then you rely on your willpower and motivation to inspire you to act. But if you do plan out when and where you are going to perform a new behavior, your goal has a time and a space to live in the real world. This shift in perspective allows your environment to act as a cue for your new behavior.

    To put it simply: planning out when and where you will perform a specific behavior turns your environment into a trigger for action. The time and place triggers your behavior, not your level of motivation.

    This strategy ties in nicely with the research I’ve shared about how habits work, why you need to schedule your goals, and the difference between professionals and amateurs. (For a complete discussion on habit formation, check out this free guide I put together on transforming your habits.)

    So what’s the moral of this story? Motivation is short lived and doesn’t lead to consistent action. If you want to achieve your goals, then you need a plan for exactly when and how you’re going to execute on them.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.
    References:
    (1) Breast self–examination study.
    (2) Healthy diet study.
    (3) Vitamin study.
    (4) If you’re interested, you can find an analysis of 94 “implementation intention” studies here.

    Featured photo credit: Efrén via flickr.com

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    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on July 3, 2020

    How to Control Your Thoughts and Be the Master of Your Mind

    How to Control Your Thoughts and Be the Master of Your Mind

    Your mind is the most powerful tool you have for the creation of good in your life, but if not used correctly, can also be the most destructive force in your life. To control your thoughts means to influence the way you live your life.

    Your mind, more specifically, your thoughts, affects your perception and therefore, your interpretation of reality. (And here’s Why Your Perception Is Your Reality)

    I have heard that the average person thinks around 70,000 thoughts a day. That’s a lot, especially if they are unproductive, self-abusive, and just a general waste of energy.

    You can let your thoughts run amok, but why would you? It is your mind, your thoughts; isn’t it time to take your power back? Isn’t it time to take control?

    Choose to be the person who is actively, consciously thinking your thoughts. Be someone who can control your thoughts—become the master of your mind.

    When you change your thoughts, you will change your feelings as well, and you will also eliminate the triggers that set off those feelings. Both of these outcomes provide you with a greater level of peace in your mind.

    I currently have a few thoughts that are not of my choosing or a response from my reprogramming. I am the master of my mind, so now my mind is quite peaceful. Yours can be too!

    Who Is Thinking My Thoughts?

    Before you can become the master of your mind, you must recognize that you are currently at the mercy of several unwanted “squatters” living in your mind, and they are in control of your thoughts.

    If you want to be the boss of them, you must know who they are and what their motivation is, and then you can take charge and evict them.

    Here are four of the “squatters” in your head that create unhealthy and unproductive thoughts.

    1. The Inner Critic

    This is your constant abuser who is often a conglomeration of:

    • Other people’s words—many times your parents
    • Thoughts you have created based on your own or other peoples’ expectations
    • Comparing yourself to other people, including those in the media
    • The things you told yourself as a result of painful experiences such as betrayal and rejection. Your interpretation creates your self-doubt and self-blame, which are most likely undeserved in cases of rejection and betrayal.

    The Inner Critic is motivated by pain, low self-esteem, lack of self-acceptance, and lack of self-love.

    Why else would this person abuse you? And since this person is youwhy else would you abuse yourself? Why would you let anyone treat you this badly?

    2. The Worrier

    This person lives in the future—in the world of “what ifs.”

    The Worrier is motivated by fear, which is often irrational and has no basis. Occasionally, this person is motivated by fear that what happened in the past will happen again.

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    3. The Reactor or Troublemaker

    This is the one that triggers anger, frustration, and pain. These triggers stem from unhealed wounds of the past. Any experience that is even closely related to a past wound will set him off.

    This person can be set off by words or feelings and can even be set off by sounds and smells.

    The Reactor has no real motivation and has poor impulse control. He is run by past programming that no longer serves you—if it ever did.

    4. The Sleep Depriver

    This can be a combination of any number of different squatters including the inner planner, the rehasher, and the ruminator, along with the inner critic and the worrier.

    The Sleep Depriver’s motivation can be:

    • As a reaction to silence, which he fights against
    • Taking care of the business you neglected during the day
    • Self-doubt, low self-esteem, insecurity, and generalized anxiety
    • As listed above for the inner critic and worrier

    How can you control these squatters?

    How to Master Your Mind

    You are the thinker and the observer of your thoughts. You can control your thoughts, but you must pay attention to them so you can identify “who” is running the show—this will determine which technique you will want to use.

    Begin each day with the intention of paying attention to your thoughts and catching yourself when you are thinking undesirable thoughts.

    There are two ways to control your thoughts:

    • Technique A – Interrupt and replace them
    • Technique B – Eliminate them altogether

    This second option is what is known as peace of mind.

    The technique of interrupting and replacing is a means of reprogramming your subconscious mind. Eventually, the replacement thoughts will become the “go-to” thoughts in applicable situations.

    Use Technique A with the Inner Critic and Worrier and Technique B with the Reactor and Sleep Depriver.

    1. For the Inner Critic

    When you catch yourself thinking something negative about yourself (calling yourself names, disrespecting yourself, or berating yourself), interrupt it.

    You can yell (in your mind), “Stop! No!” or, “Enough! I’m in control now.” Then, whatever your negative thought was about yourself, replace it with an opposite or counter thought or an affirmation that begins with “I am.”

    For example, if your thought is, “I’m such a loser,” you can replace it with, “I am a Divine Creation of the Universal Spirit. I am a perfect spiritual being learning to master the human experience. I am a being of energy, light, and matter. I am magnificent, brilliant, and beautiful. I love and approve of myself just as I am.”

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    You can also have a dialogue with yourself to discredit the ‘voice’ that created the thought—if you know whose voice it is:

    “Just because so-and-so said I was a loser doesn’t make it true. It was his or her opinion, not a statement of fact. Or maybe they were joking and I took it seriously because I’m insecure.”

    If you recognize that you have recurring self-critical thoughts, you can write out or pre-plan your counter thoughts or affirmation so you can be ready.

    This is the first squatter you should evict, forcefully, if necessary:

    • They rile up the Worrier.
    • The names you call yourself become triggers when called those names by others, so he also maintains the presence of the Reactor.
    • They are often present when you try to fall asleep so he perpetuates the Sleep Depriver.
    • They are a bully and is verbally and emotionally abusive.
    • They are the destroyer of self-esteem. They convince you that you’re not worthy. They’re a liar! In the interest of your self-worth, get them out!

    Eliminate your worst critic and you will also diminish the presence of the other three squatters.

    Replace them with your new best friends who support, encourage, and enhance your life. This is a presence you want in your mind.

    2. For the Worrier

    Prolonged anxiety is mentally, emotionally, and physically unhealthy. It can have long-term health implications.

    Fear initiates the fight or flight response, creates worry in the mind, and creates anxiety in the body. This may make it more difficult for you to control your thoughts effectively.

    You should be able to recognize a “worry thought” immediately by how you feel. The physiological signs that the fight or flight response of fear has kicked in are:

    • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, or surge of adrenaline
    • Shallow breathing or breathlessness
    • Muscles tense

    Use the above-stated method to interrupt any thought of worry and then replace it. But this time, you will replace your thoughts of worry with thoughts of gratitude for the outcome you wish for.

    If you believe in a higher power, this is the time to engage with it. Here is an example:

    Instead of worrying about my loved ones traveling in bad weather, I say the following (I call it a prayer):

    “Thank you great spirit for watching over _______. Thank you for watching over his/her car and keeping it safe, road-worthy, and free of maintenance issues without warning. Thank you for surrounding him/her with only safe, conscientious, and alert drivers. And thank you for keeping him/her safe, conscientious, and alert.”

    Smile when you think about it or say it aloud, and phrase it in the present tense. Both of these will help you feel it and possibly even start to believe it.

    If you can visualize what you are praying for, the visualization will enhance the feeling so you will increase the impact in your vibrational field.

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    Now, take a calming breath, slowly in through your nose, and slowly out through the mouth. Take as many as you like! Do it until you feel that you’re close to being in control of your thoughts.

    Replacing fearful thoughts with gratitude will decrease reactionary behavior, taking the steam out of the Reactor.

    For example: If your child gets lost in the mall, the typical parental reaction that follows the fearful thoughts when finding them is to yell at them.

    “I told you never to leave my sight.” This reaction just adds to the child’s fear level from being lost in the first place.

    Plus, it also teaches them that mom and/or dad will get mad when he or she makes a mistake, which may make them lie to you or not tell you things in the future.

    Change those fearful thoughts when they happen:

    “Thank You (your choice of Higher Power) for watching over my child and keeping him safe. Thank you for helping me find him soon.”

    Then, when you see your child after this thought process, your only reaction will be gratitude, and that seems like a better alternative for all people involved.

    3. For the Troublemaker, Reactor or Over-Reactor

    Permanently eliminating this squatter will take a bit more attention and reflection after the fact to identify and heal the causes of the triggers. But until then, you can prevent the Reactor from getting out of control by initiating conscious breathing as soon as you recognize his presence.

    The Reactor’s thoughts or feelings activate the fight or flight response just like with the Worrier. The physiological signs of his presence will be the same. With a little attention, you should be able to tell the difference between anxiety, anger, frustration, or pain.

    I’m sure you’ve heard the suggestion to count to ten when you get angry—well, you can make those ten seconds much more productive if you are breathing consciously during that time.

    Conscious breathing is as simple as it sounds—just be conscious of your breathing. Pay attention to the air going in and coming out.

    Breathe in through your nose:

    • Feel the air entering your nostrils.
    • Feel your lungs filling and expanding.
    • Focus on your belly rising.

    Breathe out through your nose:

    • Feel your lungs emptying.
    • Focus on your belly falling.
    • Feel the air exiting your nostrils.

    Do this for as long as you like. Leave the situation if you want. This gives the adrenaline time to normalize. Now, you can address the situation with a calmer, more rational perspective and avoid damaging behavior, and you’ll be more in control of your thoughts.

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    One of the troubles this squatter causes is that it adds to the sleep depriver’s issues. By evicting or at least controlling the Reactor, you will decrease reactionary behavior, which will decrease the need for the rehashing and ruminating that may keep you from falling asleep.

    Master your mind and stop the Reactor from bringing stress to you and your relationships!

    4. For the Sleep Depriver

    (They’re made up of the Inner Planner, the Rehasher, and the Ruminator, along with the Inner Critic and the Worrier.)

    I was plagued with a very common problem: not being able to turn off my mind at bedtime. This inability prevented me from falling asleep and thus, getting a restful and restorative night’s sleep.

    Here’s how I mastered my mind and evicted the Sleep Depriver and all his cronies.

    1. I started by focusing on my breathing—paying attention to the rise and fall of my belly—but that didn’t keep the thoughts out for long. (Actually, I now start with checking my at-rest mouth position to keep me from clenching.)
    2. Then I came up with a replacement strategy that eliminated uncontrolled thinking—imagining the word in while breathing in and thinking the word out when breathing out. I would (and do) elongate the word to match the length of my breath.

    When I catch myself thinking, I shift back to in, out. With this technique, I am still thinking, sort of, but the wheels are no longer spinning out of control. I am in control of my mind and thoughts, and I choose quiet.

    From the first time I tried this method, I started to yawn after only a few cycles and am usually asleep within ten minutes.

    For really difficult nights, I add an increase of attention by holding my eyes in a looking-up position (closed, of course). Sometimes I try to look toward my third eye but that really hurts my eyes.

    If you have trouble falling asleep because you can’t shut off your mind, I strongly recommend you try this technique. I still use it every night. You can start sleeping better tonight!

    You can also use this technique any time you want to:

    • Fall back to sleep if you wake up too soon
    • Shut down your thinking
    • Calm your feelings
    • Simply focus on the present moment

    The Bottom Line

    Your mind is a tool, and like any other tool, it can be used for constructive purposes or destructive purposes.

    You can allow your mind to be occupied by unwanted, undesirable, and destructive tenants, or you can choose desirable tenants like peace, gratitude, compassion, love, and joy.

    Your mind can become your best friend, your biggest supporter, and someone you can count on to be there and encourage you. You can be in control of your thoughts. The choice is yours!

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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