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8 Ways to Achieve Success in 2008

8 Ways to Achieve Success in 2008
8 Ways to Achieve Success in 2008

I don’t believe in resolutions. The idea that a trick of the calendar should be the driving force for real change in my life seems silly. And yet, there’s no denying that a year is a good block of time to think with — long enough to carry out big projects and short enough to keep the end-goal in sight. Plus, a year is a good block of time to look at to get a “big picture” view of your life — what you’re doing wrong, what you’re doing right, what you’d like to change.

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So while I won’t be sitting down to make a list of resolutions this January 1, I will spend some time over the next couple weeks thinking about what I want to achieve in the next year: new projects I want to start, old ones I want to wrap up, personal faults I want to conquer, and personal strengths I want to build on.

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However you define it, we’re all working towards some sort of success. Whether that’s achieving wealth, happiness, fame, greater family togetherness, a stronger commitment to one’s faith or one’s vocation, or whatever else, we all want to succeed at everything we set out to do. Here’s 8 tips to help make that happen in the coming year:

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  1. Set SMART goals. Don’t just make goals, make SMART goals. The idea of SMART goals is credited to George Doran, and stands for:
    • Specific: Goals should be as particular as possible. So, for example, not “lose weight” or “make more money” but “lose 10 pounds” or “increase my salary by $10,000 a year”.
    • Measurable: It should be possible to keep track of your progress. You can track weight loss on a chart, or check your salary to know if you’re moving towards your new salary goal, but you can’t measure progress towards, say, “be happier”.
    • Achievable: Unfulfilled goals make us feel terrible about ourselves, so make realistic goals. So “lose 10 pounds” is better than “lose 150 pounds”; if you’ve never run before, “run a 5k” is more achievable than “do an Iron Man triathlon”
    • Relevant: Is this a goal that a) will have an impact on your life, and b) that you are prepared to pursue? If not, maybe your goals should be to attain the skills and resources you need to tackle the bigger, more distant goal.
    • Time-bound: Give yourself a clearly defined end date to achieve your goals by. This gives you a sense of urgency, and also helps keep you focused — you want to lose 10 pounds by June, not at some point in the course of your life, right?
  2. Make a plan. How are you going to achieve success this year without a plan? Planning is the big “gotcha” for lots of people — we might have a big general plan, but when it comes time to sit down and actually do something, we have no idea what to do. Write a plan for achieving your goals in specific, discrete, and doable actions, one after the other. If some steps are contingent on actions or conditions you don’t know right now, sketch them out as well as you can. Make a contingency plan, too, in case things don’t go as you thought they would.
  3. Commit to a due date. Go through your list of projects and assign each one a due date. Do the same for any vague “I’d like to do this” things you have floating around in your head. I use a formula that goes “By March 31st, I will have [insert goal here]” and list everything I want to have finished by then, with matching lists for June 30, September 30, and December 31. Maybe quarters don’t work for you; if not, pick another way to do this, but do it.
  4. Make it public. Share your goals and commitments with other people — your partner, your parents, your friends and co-workers, your blog audience, anyone — to make the commitment more real. If you’ve told everyone you’re going to finish your novel by June 30, then you’ll have a powerful incentive to get it done. And they’ll help, too, if by nothing else than nagging you about it.
  5. Find a support group. A group of like-minded people with similar goals can be a great motivation. Not only will they understand what’s holding you back, they may have tips that can help you overcome your blocks. And if not, chances are they’re struggling with the same things you are, and you can work through them together with the knowledge that it’s not because there’s something wrong with you.
  6. Accept failure graciously — and move on. There’s a chance with any undertaking that you’ll fail. Accept that, and do it anyway. If you do fail, examine the reasons why, and move on. The only real failure is the failure to learn from your mistakes.
  7. Change yourself, not the things around you. Too many people fall into the trap of believing that they can buy their way to happiness — a new product will make them super-organized, a new car will make them feel better about themselves, etc. Change your attitude, not your things– if you’re unorganized, figure out why you have a hard time putting things into a memorable system and change that; if you don’t feel good about yourself, look at your life and what’s not going well, rather than seeking out a remedy that has nothing to do with what’s making you unhappy.
  8. Silence you inner critic. There’s a difference between knowing yourself and undermining yourself. Learn to ignore the nagging voice in your head that says you’re not good enough, smart enough, or good-looking enough to succeed. Set goals, make plans, and move forward in spite of that voice, and soon enough it will start losing its power over you. It might not ever go away, but you don’t have to let it run your life.

Too many of us go through life without reaching success not because there’s something wrong with us but because we’ve failed to define what success even means to us. Instead, we sleepwalk through our days, doing the things that we’ve learned we’re supposed to do, and wondering why none of it feels quite right. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering whether you’re going to have to keep doing the things you do today for the rest of your life, it’s time to sit down and figure out what you’d rather be doing and how to start doing them.

And this year is as good as any to do that. Good luck, and Happy New Year!

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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