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Psychologist Says There's A Huge Misconception About Goals

July 28, 2020 3 min read

Psychologist Says There's A Huge Misconception About Goals

What do you do if you want to get something important done? You set a goal and you work towards it right? But have we been doing it wrong all this time? Adam Alter thinks so.

Goal setting has long been a staple in self-help, self-improvement circles, and an essential tool on the path for personal and professional success. But top psychologist Adam Alter says that the traditional concept of always striving to achieve bigger and better goals is inherently flawed. Instead of leading to success, it leads to frustration and an ongoing sense of failure.

“The nature of a goal is such that you have, for most of the time, effectively a failure state where you’re not achieving whatever that goal is,” says Alter, “And that’s aversive. That feels pretty bad to most people.” 

So, Who Is Adam Alter?

Alter knows his stuff. He is a social psychologist and associate professor of marketing and psychology at New York University's Stern School of Business. Last year he published “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.”

His reasoning makes a lot of sense. Setting a sizable goal somewhere in the distant future may keep us striving forward, but in reality, most of our time is spent merely reaching for that target. Often the sense of achievement we feel when we achieve our goal is short-lived, as we tick it off and head for the next thing, and the next.

So, if long-term goal setting is not the optimal way to motivate ourselves and achieve success, what does Alter suggest as an alternative? 

The Alternative To Constant Goal Setting

Alter’s alternative states that it should be all about using systems instead of bigger, longer-term goals. Firstly, figure out what you want to achieve - what that big, long-term goal is.

Maybe it's training to run a marathon within the next six months. Any professional athlete knows the benefit of a training plan - and the method is no different for any goal.

Rather than stating you want to run a marathon in six months and willing it to happen, break it down week by week.Depending on your level of fitness, it may start as simply as, "I will run two kilometres every day for one week."

This way, you are creating a tangible, everyday habit, and achieving your goals every day, in advance of the big challenge ahead. Consider timelines, and dissect the task down into monthly, weekly and daily targets, creating a system that will set you on the path to success. 

What About The Complex Goals?

Even more complex goals, such as setting up your own side business, can be managed in this way. Figure out the steps, your timeline, your time budget, and create lists.

While the individual components of setting up a business are not necessarily “habits”, like running every day is, you can still create the habit of setting aside an hour every morning or afternoon to work through your list. 

Why Does This Method Work Better?

This method makes a lot of sense with regards to neuroscience. Setting incremental goals actually increases the flow of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a huge role in motivation.

Every time you complete a small task or micro-goal, your dopamine levels spike, creating feelings of pleasure and reward.

Reaching your goals every day is extremely reinforcing in itself. It helps you to create a regular positive feedback loop that builds your confidence and keeps you inspired and motivated. 

So, what does it all mean? Should you still set goals?

The answer is yes. Long-term goals keep us dreaming, inspired and moving forward.They help us build the kind of life we love to live. But, the important factor is to break the long-term goal down into micro-goals, to give yourself the best chance for success!

Download your free copy of our How to Define Your Goal printable worksheet and get started today!

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