Image:The Power of Science

By Kazuma Sadakane

Time to overcome your goal achievement failures

There is a variety of non-sense information to reach a goal; positive thinking, commitment, self-discipline, and avoiding procrastination, and so forth. They say that avoiding procrastination is crucial to accomplish your goals. However, they don’t give you enough information or break down the strategy into small steps to easily follow. I think that’s technically neither helpful nor practical.

Overcoming procrastination is one of the hardest problems to tackle. This is because the causes of procrastination are mostly low conscientiousness (disorganized and impulsive) and self-handicap(doing something else to make an excuse). For example, some people clean their rooms rather than prepare for their coming exams in a few days to make excuses in case of getting bad grades.

I’ve done something like that. I’d drunk a couple of beers a day before a linear algebra exam. As a result of that, I got an 85 in that exam, which was the lowest score in my entire college life. So, if you are a student, don’t do that.

I’ll put aside the topic of how to deal with procrastination, as I’ll write one on it. So, In this article, I’ll focus on the more practical strategy instead of how to change our mindsets.

I think most people misunderstand positive thinking as positive dreaming. Positive dreaming is a motivational hindrance when desired future outcomes are difficult to come by. I personally don’t recommend you think positively. What we need are feedback and plans.

“The highest level of effort occurred when the task was moderately difficult”, and “human behavior is affected by conscious purposes.” (Locke, 2002)

As a rule of thumb, people who are committed to their goals perform better. In addition, those with high self-efficacy tend to develop effective task strategies. However, as other researches show, that doesn’t mean if you believe you are capable, you do perform better. The belief needs to be bucked up, and you need to understand that your task and your goal are meaningful to you.

Our motivation fluctuates depending on our moods. Lack of progress reduces our motivation. For example, when I apply my stories to Medium publications, but they reject them, I’ll lose my motivation. Nevertheless, My original goal is not to get my stories accepted by the publications.

If some person plans to lose 10kg in 3months, and if only 5kg is lost two months later, s/he presumably loses the motivation and might stop the workout. Of course, regardless of the initial goal, s/he should keep doing the workout.

Goal focus. I’ll lose 10kg by in 3months.
Task focus. I’ll work out 1hour every morning.

Linda Houser-Marko says when we are not motivated, we should more focus on the tasks we’re doing.

Linda and her colleague separated the participants into two groups and investigated how the goal focus and the task focus affect subjects’ goal achievements. They conclude that under the lack of motivation, the task focus is more advantageous in accomplishing the goal.

I experienced the same thing when I was a student. I was aiming at straight 4.0 GPAs, and tiny mistakes always made me depressed and demotivated me.

“these higher level goals are more self-relevant and holistic and give us a sense of direction in our lives.” However, “during times of difficulty, it is more beneficial to keep your nose to the grindstone.” (Linda & Kennon, 2002)

Plans never work in the way we initially expect, and our negative moods negatively affect our goal pursuit. In addition, our willpower is not reliable. Hence, we might want to make two types of plans-task focus plans and goal focus plans-taking into account our mood changes.

We cannot keep running without taking any break. Don’t push yourself too much. Even god “created the world in seven days” with a day off.

Rita Coelho do Vale and her colleagues suggest that planned lapses in self-control can help you stick with your goals. The cheat days boost your drive in the long run.

According to them, “goal deviations should be minor and temporary” and “they constituted almost 15% of the activity, one day of the week, in one of our experiments.”

“It is however crucial that the hedonic goal deviations are planned because unplanned goal deviations might easily be interpreted as failures, which may reduce consumers’ mood, and may lead to a “what-the-hell” effect (Cochran & Tesser, 1996) with goal pursuit being stopped altogether.” (Rita & Rik & Marcel, 2015)

The key point of it is “planned temporary deviations”. Not like,

well, I’m tired. I’m gonna work out tomorrow anyway, so it doesn’t matter to take a day off today.

Stick to the plan. Don’t change it.

The cheat days are like short vacations. I was strict with myself; when I intently focused on the long-term goal-success, I regarded a short break as evidence of the failure cascade of goal achievement. However, now I’m convinced that the temporary deviations not only help us regain self-regulatory resources but also give us opportunities to check if we’re moving toward the right destination and prevent us from being narrow-minded.

“Compared with forward planning, backward planning not only led to greater motivation, higher goal expectancy, and less time pressure but also resulted in better goal-relevant performance”(Park, Jooyoung & Lu, 2017)

We mainly have two options of planning.

Forward planning(chronological order) and backward planning(reverse chronological order: beginning with a target point in the future and working back in time toward the present). When the goals are complexed to plan, backward planning is argued to be particularly helpful to increase goal pursuit motivation. This can be explained by the same effect of backward chaining(do the task backward to attain a new skill).

For instance, if children learn to brush their teeth, their parents break the process down into steps. The parents complete the steps except for the last one that the children learn. When they get used to the last step, they’ll do the last two steps. They continue the same process till they acquire the skill completely.

Both backward chronological order learning and planning give us higher goal expectancy and allow us to think about the process more clearly. We cannot conclude that backward planning is efficient in the long-term goal, as the experiment was for a short-term goal, but I think we can still apply it as a supplemental tool.

Now, It’s time to learn a schema.

What is WOOP?

W(ish) → what we want to acomplish.

O(utcome) → what we achieve or feel as a result.

O(obstacle) →what prevent you from making the wish a reality

P(lan) → What we do to overcome the obstacle.

With WOOP and If-then plans, the probability to reach a goal will be twice or much higher than non-planning or positive thinking.

Wish: It is a primary goal that we want to achieve by ourselves. You cannot define it as “I wanna be a millionaire with bitcoin.” This is because you cannot predict and control how bitcoin fluctuates. The third party cannot be heavily involved in the goal pursuit.

Wish: “I want to work as a web-development freelancer by the end of this year”

Outcome: This is a benefit as a result of achieving the wish, or how we feel when we fulfill the wish.

Outcome: “working more flexibly”, “to have more spared time to start a side hustle”

Obstacle: This is what prevents us from making the wish come true. It includes inner or outer environments: How you feel and what you experience. However, if it is something you cannot overcome or control by yourself, you need to redefine the wish.

My Obstacle: building a portfolio, self-doubt, and watching Netflix.

Plan: This is how we overcome or manage obstacles to reach the goal. We use If-then plans.

“If situation Y is encountered, then I will initiate goal-directed behavior X!” For instance, If I’m starving, then I’ll eat some nuts or vegetables.

Peter Gollwitzer and his colleague’s research indicates the effect size of if-the planning for goal achievement is 0.65. The medium-size effect is 0.5, so it is of medium-to-large magnitude. However, other strategies are lower than 0.5.

My Plan:

If I’m too lazy to create a project, I’ll write a README of my Github page and an article on the project instead.

If I feel self-doubt, I’ll search for other people’s projects and analyze them to apply them to my projects.

If I feel like watching Netflix, I’ll watch tutorials on web development and data science instead.

The strategy to improve one’s own life is experimental. Try and get feedback. Analyze the feedback and modify the strategy. Therefore, we should modify our schemas once in a while.


First step:

Wish: I want _______________.

Second step:

Outcome: I will feel/get/can do ____________ when I accomplish the goal.

Optional step: (if the goal is long-term)

Backward planning: Split the time frame into three. (if you want to complete the goal in one year, then 3–3–4 months). For each time frame, set a goal and write down outcomes. You can keep doing this to make your plans more specific. The clearer the plans are, the more likely we’re to stick to the plans.

Last: I want to complete _______. (the last goal: this is the wish)

Middle: I want to complete _______. (the middle goal)

First: I want to complete _______. (the first goal)

Third Step:

(For each goal, Identify obstacles before filling out if-then plans) I think more than three if-then plans for each goal are hard to remember.

Obstacles and Plan: If I feel/experience_____, then I’ll ____.

Obstacles and Plan: If I feel/experience_____, then I’ll ____.

Obstacles and Plan: If I feel/experience_____, then I’ll ____.

If your plans are not specific enough, then break them down and fill out WOOPs.

Remember, when you’re motivated, please focus on the task you are working on. In addition, please take a day off once in 7~9days.

Please adjust the plan based on your feedback Once in a while.