The secret to success might not be what you expect, writes Lee Suckling.
It turns out there is actually a secret to achieving your goals. According to psychologists, it's approaching them backwards.
I am extremely sceptical of any study that claims to have uncovered a secret to anything. There are no real secrets to success in life. Everything is generally some combination of hard work and luck. Yet scientists might be onto something with this new approach.
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New research by Queen Mary University of London tells us we need to look at goals first based on the work involved, and only later refocus on the end game. This reversed process is a true secret to achieving your goals, whether they're the perfect body, writing a book, or completing a marathon. It's all about the hard yards you put in. The crowning glory comes later.
People often make unrealistic goals that are focused only on the final reward. We will set a goal like getting six-pack abs, and loosely keep the image of that flat stomach in mind when exercising and changing our diets. However, for the most part this strategy is doomed to fail. We underestimate the work involved in getting those abs – dieting and exercise is a tough slog that's difficult to maintain – so we quit. That ideal has become something not worth the input.
What's really required, according to this new behavioural science and neuroscience research, is to first focus on how much work is involved, and whether or not you can actually sustain it in the long-term. It's the journey, not the destination, they say.
When you're okay with how much effort it takes – i.e. how feasible a diet is to maintain as a lifestyle, or how much time you need to spend each night actually writing your book over the course of a year or two – then you can refocus on the goal. That will propel you forward to achieving it.
If you don't take into very serious consideration the frustrations, the plateaus, the mind games you'll play on yourself when you feel like you're not getting anywhere ... you'll forget about the goal and just give up.
"For example, getting up early to exercise for a new healthy lifestyle might seem like a good choice when we decide on our New Year's resolutions," says one of the study's authors, Magda Osman. "But once your alarm goes off on a cold morning, the rewards aren't enough to get you up and out of bed."
From personal experience of achieving big life goals like getting a specific body shape, writing a book, learning a language, or completing a master's degree, I can tell you there's one additional thing that's necessary in goal attainment. You have to enjoy the work. Or at least learn to.
I get it, going to the gym every day, five to six days a week, is really difficult. So is maintaining the discipline to cut out sugar or go very-low-carb. Getting up early on chilly mornings is unenviable, researching and writing into the night is painful, learning another language's verb forms is finicky, and meticulous academic referencing is a pain in the arse. You have to be okay with doing those.
Not just okay. You have to be happy doing them. You need to teach yourself that they can be fun parts of your daily routine.
Thankfully, there is a little trick in finding enjoyment in that hard work. There are mini-rewards in effort required by way of endorphins. I get them after a hard workout, or when I'm finishing writing something, or when I complete a day of really clean eating.
The process may be tough but the immediate good feelings afterwards serve as a reminder of what you're doing. This helps in that refocusing of your overall goal, sure. More importantly, it gets you back on track tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. That small hit of instant pleasure each day is the only reward you should need. You can feel righteous, and that righteousness is your fuel.
As time goes by and you notice progress (which is always slower than you think: another factor to be okay with), suddenly your final goal feels much more doable. This combination of mini-reward and major-reward spurs you on to completion.
Will there be mishaps and steps backward? Always. If you're okay with those too – they're an acceptable and expected part of goal attainment – then I've no doubt you can achieve exactly what you're after in the long run.