Why are long-term goals so hard to stick to? Why is it so easy to self-sabotage no matter how important the goal is to you? It seems baffling that we can work in such opposition to our own best interest. We all do it, and it leaves us all kicking ourselves, so why do we do it again and again!
Here’s the thing, the reason we struggle with long-term goals even when they’re of high value to us, is exactly because they are long-term. They’re distant, so in the ‘now’ we can’t achieve gratification from them, they can’t satisfy us while we wait for them and work for them. Unfortunately, we’re attracted to things that offer instant reward, even when it may be miniscule relative to how rewarding reaching your long-term goal would be.
Why Do We Fall Off Track?
It makes sense, we can only experience life in the ‘now’ and the future is intangible. This makes it hard to pick something in the future over something that you can have right on the spot. It’s a psychological phenomena that we all have to try to work around. What causes it is delay discounting and preference reversal.
Delay discounting is where the more distant a reward is, the more it drops in value to us which can lead to preference reversal, which is the tendency to set out for a larger more distant reward, but end up opting for a smaller but sooner reward instead.
This is why we go for the sleep in, the Netflix binge, the party, or the one-too-many pieces of cake, even though it would be rationally expected that passing that test, graduating, lifting that P.B, or reaching a healthy weight would be by far more satisfying and more worthwhile. For some, the perceived value of a reward drops off quickly the more distant it is, while for others the percieved value doesn’t reduce that much at all with distance. This is why some of us have so much willpower and self-control, but others find it incredibly hard to stay on track.
Strategies for Success:
1. Treat Yo’ Self:
With the knowledge that we prefer and opt for immediate rewards over delayed rewards, it makes further sense that you are more likely to stick with a long-term goal if pursuing it offers immediate rewards – rewards that present either during or following a behaviour.
‘Immediate rewards’ can be natural, such as endorphins or just enjoying an activity, or can be created by you or others, such as receiving praise or a treat. To reward something you don’t do much of, you can also introduce rewards according to the Primack Principle. According to this principle, lower probability behaviours are reinforced by higher probability behaviours. Basically this means that giving yourself the option to engage in an activity you do more of after you complete an activity you do less of acts as a reward and increases how often you do the ‘less often’ activity.
Because evidence shows that immediate rewards predict sticking to long-term goals, why not hack that? If you’re having trouble sticking to a goal because you don’t enjoy the work you have to put in to achieve it, then add in some of your own rewards! It’s a behavioural fact that we are more likely to engage in a behaviour which we are rewarded for, so the more a behaviour is rewarded, the more we do it.
Ideas for Reinforcement:
- Make sure you do that work somewhere you enjoy. Ensure that you’re comfortable, warm, fed and your space is clean and pleasant so that it’s a nice, enjoyable environment to be in. It’s proven that having a rewarding environment acts to reward the behaviours performed in that environment.
- After a set time or after getting a set amount done, allow yourself a treat, or a set amount of time doing something you enjoy.
- Get someone to join in with you, having social support can be motivating and more fun, therefore more rewarding.
- Reach out to someone close to you and tell them about the work you just put in for your goal, hearing them be proud and praise you can act as a reward.
- If there are alternative methods to achieving your goal and you aren’t enjoying the method you’re currently using, try another way! This is very relevant for achieving diet and exercise goals – there is no one-way to be fit, healthy, gain or lose weight. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, change it!
2. Lock it In:
Another strategy to beat preference reversal is to lock ourselves in with a commitment that holds us accountable to take away the option of switching to opt for the immediate reward.
This could be signing up for a competition, a challenge or event, getting a coach or a tutor. Just book yourself into something you can’t get out of! So next first of January before you have the chance to back out of your resolutions, sign up to something straight away.
3. Break it Up:
As the saying goes, you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Long term goals can feel unattainable and huge which can make them hard to stick with. It can be helpful to create some smaller, (challengin enough to be motivating) more attainable seeming goals which will help you progress towards your overall goal.
By breaking your goal down into manageable chunks you will be more motivated to work on them as the completion of each goal is less distant, and less daunting.
Completing smaller goals will fuel you on by rewarding you with a sense of achievement each time, making you feel more capable, and more confident in your abilities, which will in turn motivate you to keep working towards your end goal. Celebrate the small successes!
When You’re Struggling:
1. Don’t Be so Hard On Yourself:
It can be defeating to repeatedly fall off track, it can make you feel incapable, and cause you to just give up altogether. The best thing you can do is accept that this tendency to slip-up is a human thing, it’s not just a ‘you’ thing and it doesn’t make you terrible. Be compassionate with yourself and accept that these things happen. It’s more adaptive to take failure as a lesson that you can apply to getting back on track. Most of the time a single slip up isn’t the be-all and end-all of reaching a goal – but giving up definitely is.
It’s important to have confidence in yourself and your abilities because believing you are capable can make you try harder, which ultimately makes you do better – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. This may sound like empty ‘believe in yourself’ motivational B.S, but it’s a very real thing. High self-efficacy is shown to predict better performance. Self-efficacy is the belief in your own capability to manage and carry out an activity successfully. Having high self-efficacy increases motivation and planning, which leads to improved performance and higher levels of success.
It isn’t always that simple to have a positive mindset, but sometimes there are things that can help. Focus on your good qualities, what you’ve achieved in the past, and the areas of your life you are succeeding in. Take a moment to feel proud of those things, and acknowledge what you’ve got going for yourself. Write it in a journal to refer to when you’re stuck in a spiral of negative self-talk.
Just because progress might be slow or hit a downward curve doesn’t mean it won’t take an upward turn for the better if you keep persisting through the slip-ups. It’s amazing how much we can do if we simply have confidence. Fake it till you make it, it’s ok to give your ego a boost.
2. Have Perspective:
Sometimes we get down on ourselves for not achieving a goal quickly enough. It’s important to remember that often these time-frames we set for ourselves are societally shaped. For example, things like, graduating by 21, having a house by 25, getting married by 30, are societal expectations, but you do not need to fit into that mould to be successful!
Success at any age or stage is just as worthy an achievement. You don’t have to be in a rush to live your life. Go at your own pace, and don’t compare yourself to others – you never know what their experiences have been behind the scenes to get them to where they are, so their experiences are not comparable to your own. You have never missed the boat to do or achieve anything – you dictate your own life.
3. Get Your Priorities Straight:
This also relates to neglecting goals. We can be very aware of the lack of work we put in to a goal even when in reality, we may be doing so because another area of our life is a priority at that time. In these cases neglecting a goal can be necessary, it’s not failure or laziness, it may simply be that you need to be putting your time and energy into another area of your life or another goal which takes precedent.
Take a step back and look at the bigger picture, allow yourself to prioritise. You don’t have to achieve every goal you have for your life ASAP – you aren’t superhuman. Be realistic with the timeframes you set and accept that you have your whole life to achieve your goals. Just because you aren’t working on something or succeeding at something right now doesn’t mean you’re failing or that you won’t ever achieve it.
Strategise and be sensible in your goal setting – achieving your goals doesn’t have to be a joyless back-and-forth battle. Play it smarter, not harder.
Need help with a specific goal?
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