Man achieving goal attainment

By Jill Iman, Ph.D., Director of Implementation Science, Joining Vision and Action

At least half of you have “failed” at achieving your New Year’s goal

I know I can’t be the only one who finds it hard to believe that we’re halfway through February. Apparently it’s also the month where anywhere from 50% to 80% of those making New Year’s resolutions “fail.”

I hate that word, particularly in this context, because not meeting a year-long goal in the first month or so does not mean you have failed at this goal attainment over time (but I digress). Nevertheless, someone, somewhere is keeping track of these supposed goal-attainment failures, and whether or not you choose to create resolutions each year, I think we all can relate to the act of setting a personal or professional goal and not always seeing it through.

How can we use psychology to increase goal attainment?

So this is where we can look to research to help identify key elements of goal setting and subsequent follow through to inform how we set and implement our goals, even those created at the organizational level.

For example, as part of JVA’s strategic planning process, we always like to end with an action plan for implementation. Basically, what is going to be accomplished? by when? And by whom? And while we’ve witnessed the excitement in the room after a day-long retreat, we also recognize the realities that come with our daily lives and being able maintain this momentum.

So what if we could pull some tools from psychological literature to help increase action planning follow through?

Research tells us that when creating our goals we’ll be more likely to attain them if they are proximal in time (as opposed to distant), include specific standards for success and feel feasible (realistically attainable)

[1]; also known as SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound. With that said, this research is not meant to ignore the times in which it’s important to set grand (perhaps even wild), long-term goals that are important for vision and motivation; but instead, provide some guidance on increasing follow-through… if that’s the goal of your goals.

And then to keep us on track and to help with goal setting and goal striving, it may be useful to pull from the research on implementation intentions—the act of linking a goal-directed response (behavior) to anticipated circumstances that may derail or foster goal pursuit.[2] In other words, creating “if-then” statements in advance of goal pursuit is remarkably powerful at giving us the tools to maintain goal-directed focus and behaviors by attaching planned responses to situational or circumstantial cues:

  • “If I sleep past 7 a.m. on a weekday, then I will take my gym clothes with me to work and go to the gym before I come home in the evening.”
  • “If it is the end of the month and I am processing payroll, then I will also update the financial data in our organization’s dashboard.”
  • “If I am at a dinner party with XYZ, then I will speak with her for at least five minutes about the importance of supporting early childhood education through private-public partnerships.”

In essence, there seems to be much benefit gained from not only thinking about the goal itself, but also in thinking about strategies to overcome challenges with goal setting and striving. What else have you found to be helpful with increasing organizational goal attainment?

[1] For a summary, see Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2010). Strategies of setting and implementing goals. In J.E. Maddux & J.P. Tangney (Eds.), Social psychological foundations of clinical psychology (114-135). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

[2] Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. The American Psychologist, 54(7), 493-503.