For the past 10 years, I have split my time between my research on aspects of the way people think and trying to bring the insights from that research to a broader audience. One of the most rewarding ways that I get to do that is through classes I teach on effective thinking and changing behavior.
The driving force behind this work for me is that everyone has a mind, and few people are taught to use it. If more people understand the way that their minds work, then they will be able to use that knowledge to be happier and more effective at work and at home.
In particular, when people try to make changes in the way they act, they often fight against their motivational system, rather than designing their efforts to synchronize with the way the brain really works.
One of my classes focuses on helping people to achieve peak performance by integrating new goals into their lives. A centerpiece of my course is that learning to achieve new goals requires a lot of hard work. In particular, you probably define these goals too abstractly to be able to achieve them.
Suppose, for example, that you have to travel a lot for work, and you have found that you are putting on weight. It is hard to eat properly on the road and to find the time to exercise, and so you may find that the pounds magically appear. You might set the goal to lose weight.
But, what exactly does that mean? How can you simply lose weight?
How to Achieve a New Goal
1. Create your plan
The first step is to create an implementation intention, which is a specific plan that describes when and where you will take action to help you achieve your goal.
For example, you might start to travel with packets of oatmeal in your luggage to ensure that you get a good breakfast when traveling rather than eating whatever is available at the hotel or business function you are attending. You might also start asking your hosts on business trips to select restaurants with good fresh salads.
By developing a plan in advance, you are preparing yourself for the specific circumstances you will face rather than having to wing it each time you go on a trip.
Related: How to Get Motivated From Within
2. Prepare for obstacles
A second critical part of implementation intentions is that you have to envision the specific obstacles you will encounter if you want to succeed. For example, business trips often involve buffets where your dining options are at the mercy of the event planners.
Figure out how you want to deal with buffets. You might want to grab the smallest possible plate and then get on the line toward the end of the lunch period so that you can’t go back for seconds.
Related: 11 Ways to Be Mentally Tough
3. Focus on positive goals
A third thing you have to do is to focus on positive goals. One thing that makes weight loss so hard is that you probably define it negatively in terms of things you won’t do (like eating less or avoiding dessert).
Instead, focus on specific actions you can take that can ultimately become your new habits. That is why the suggestions I have made here are all focused on things you can do rather than things to avoid.
One reason that I am using this example of weight loss while traveling is that several months ago, I taught one of my classes to a group in Central Texas. I encouraged people to form implementation intentions. Several months later, I got a phone call from a woman who attended the class. She had started traveling a lot for work and found that she had put on weight despite her best intentions.
Related: How to Attract Your Goals to You
After learning about implementation intentions, she focused her effort on thinking about how to eat better on the road. And she called to tell me that she had already lost about half the weight she had gained since starting her job. It worked, she said, because she put in the effort to prepare for the situations she would face.
Art Markman, Ph.D. is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. His research explores motivation, reasoning, and decision-making. He is the author of Smart Thinking, and Habits of Leadership, in addition to his new book Smart Change.