Achieving Your Goals: 6 Psychological Hacks

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!

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?

 

 

References:

1. Kirby, K. N., & Herrnstein, R. J. (1995). Preference reversals due to myopic discounting of delayed reward. Psychological science, 6(2), 83-89.

2. Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2017). Immediate rewards predict adherence to long-term goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(2), 151-162.

3. Kurth-Nelson, Z., & Redish, A. D. (2012). Don’t let me do that! – Models of precommitment. Frontiers in neuroscience, 6, 138.

4. Stock, J., & Cervone, D. (1990). Proximal goal-setting and self-regulatory processes. Cognitive Therapy and Research14(5), 483-498.

5. Chemers, M. M., Hu, L. T., & Garcia, B. F. (2001). Academic self-efficacy and first year college student performance and adjustment. Journal of Educational psychology93(1), 55.

6. Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Schulz, R. (2003). The importance of goal disengagement in adaptive self-regulation: When giving up is beneficial. Self and Identity, 2(1), 1-20.

The Awareness Series: Anxiety Disorders

In all likelihood, many of you will be familiar with it too, whether through personal experience or someone you know, even whether you were aware of it or not. Anxiety disorders are very common, so it’s important you educate yourself about what having an anxiety disorder means, for your own sake, your loved ones, and the sake of others in your community.

I decided to begin my mental disorder awareness series with a disorder I am personally familiar with. In all likelihood, many of you will be familiar with it too, whether through personal experience or someone you know, even whether you were aware of it or not. Anxiety disorders are very common, so it’s important you educate yourself about what having an anxiety disorder means, for your own sake, your loved ones, and the sake of others in your community.

To start, I’m going to clear up a commonly confused interpretation of anxiety. Anxiety is the feeling of anticipation and worry over a future threat, as is perceived by the individual. Everybody experiences this. Feeling anxiety is not exclusive to individuals who have anxiety disorders. During an extremely stressful time, you may experience very intense anxiety, which is normal, and real, and should be attended to. For people with anxiety disorders, however, anxiety plays a more impactful role in their lives. What makes an anxiety disorder a disorder is, surprise surprise, disordered anxiety – anxiety which is excessive, persistent, and having a negative impact on an individuals life or functioning. It most often is brought on by an interaction between genetics and life events, experiences, or learning.

Some don’t understand how anxiety works, which leads to misunderstanding. It’s not as simple as just calming down, or taking some deep breaths, or telling yourself that what’s causing the anxiety isn’t worth feeling anxious about.

 

The Brain and Anxiety:

Inappropriate Threat Perception:

The fight-or-flight response exists to prepare you to face a threat. A threat is something that could cause you harm. Something that is dangerous. This response prepares you to either fight off an attack to defend yourself or to escape to save yourself. In people with anxiety disorders, this response is activated for things that are not actually a threat. For example in social anxiety disorder, one may be anxious and afraid of calling the doctors to the point that their fight-or-flight response is activated. This shouldn’t happen because calling the doctors doesn’t pose any risk or danger – calling the doctor can’t injure or kill you.

Brain Activity in Anxiety:

In the brain, when we perceive something we think is a threat to us, our amygdala (the center of our brain which controls our emotions and survival instincts) gets notified to send us into this ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. In people without anxiety disorders, this should be shut down if what was deemed threatening is realised to not actually pose you any risk, this is processed by your prefrontal cortex (your major logic and thinking region). Your prefrontal cortex then can communicate with your amygdala and stop the anxious response.

In the brains of people who have anxiety, however, scans show that there is lower than normal activity in the prefrontal cortex, and elevated activity in the amygdala. This means that the prefrontal cortex isn’t recognising that the perceived ‘threat’ isn’t a real threat, so it’s not communicating with the amygdala to get it to shut down the fight-or-flight response. This leaves the amygdala to be over-activated, maintaining the feeling of anxiety even if it is a disproportionate reaction.

Chemical Role in Anxiety:

A chemical in our brain called Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) also plays a role in regulating our anxiety. When GABA binds to its specialised structures in the brain it lowers brain activity by reducing the electrical impulses. When we experience anxiety, GABA gets released as part of a cycle to prevent prolonged anxiety by reducing electrical activity in the amygdala, allowing, essentially, for you to relax. In people with anxiety disorders, there is overexposure to the stress hormone cortisol due to prolonged and excessive stimulation of the fight-or-flight response. This exposure to cortisol eventually results in a break down of these specialised structures in the hippocampus (a brain area involved in memory and emotion, part of the anxiety regulatory system) that GABA binds to. These structures are required for GABA to carry out its function. Fewer of these structures means less GABA can take effect. This means when you have an anxiety disorder, activation of the fight-or-flight response doesn’t get turned off as quickly as in someone without an anxiety disorder, and their anxiety isn’t as regulated, because this chemical in the brain has less opportunity to take effect.

 

Treatment:

There exists a variety of treatment options available for those who suffer anxiety.

  • Different prescription drugs exist that can improve chemical functioning. They can relieve excess exposure to cortisol, allowing broken down structures in your brain to rebuild so that GABA can work properly. Some increase the functioning of other beneficial chemicals that improve anxiety symptoms such as serotonin. Doctors work with you to ensure they work well for you individually and are appropriate. The use of medication is better paired with therapy to treat the root cause as well.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help you change the way you think, so you no longer perceive inappropriate things as threatening.
  • Therapy can also equip you with the tools you need to cope with bouts of anxiety so that it doesn’t have as much impact.

Symptoms and Different Anxiety Disorders:

While I can’t cover all anxiety disorders in this article, keep in mind that anxiety disorders share anxiety as a symptom, and ‘anxitey’ presents its own umbrella of symptoms that are common among the different types. The main differentiation between anxiety disorders is the stimulus that triggers anxious symptoms. For all disorders, for clinical diagnostic criteria to be met, symptoms must cause the individual significant distress and impair functioning or impact their life. If you or someone you know is being affected by anxiety, it’s worth taking some action to get on top of it, treatment really does help.

Different disorders have different criteria, their own extra symptoms, and their own different and specific triggers of the anxiety which differentiate them. Here are some of the more common anxiety disorders:

Generalised Anxiety Disorder:

As is suggested by the name, Generalised Anxiety relates to anxiety which doesn’t have a specific trigger, and can arise from little or no provocation. According to the current diagnostic criteria, Generalised Anxiety involves excessive anxiety and worry that is difficult to control and lasts most days for six or more months.

The anxiety and worry lead to three or more of the symptoms below:

  • Restlessness
  • Easily tired
  • Concentration issues, experiencing ‘mind blanks’
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Trouble with sleep

 

Panic attacks and Anxiety:

Panic attacks are a very real and terrifying experience for some who suffer anxiety disorders. Symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks may be similar, however, during a panic attack, the symptoms are significantly more intense. These symptoms may include:

  • Overwhelming fear
  • Racing heart
  • Rapid breathing
  • Trembling
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling of choking
  • Fear of death
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself and/or your surroundings
  • Chills or hot flashes

Anxiety may build up gradually to exhibit some of these symptoms as a response to a stressor. Panic attacks often occur without provocation or warning, although they can also occur as a response to a stressor as well. Because of the severity of these symptoms during a panic attack, unlike anxiety, the experience may feel like a medical emergency, resulting in the fear of death or of losing control.

Phobic Disorders:

Phobic disorders are anxiety disorders where there is a specific thing, whether it be an object or situation, that the person responds to as a threat, even though it doesn’t pose any danger. In phobias, people go out of their way to avoid encountering their fear. If they are exposed to their fear, they feel extreme discomfort and anxiety which may result in a panic attack.

Examples of phobias include agoraphobia and social anxiety/social phobia, and some common and more well-known triggers such as snakes, spiders, blood, and needles.

Agoraphobia:

Agoraphobia is often thought to be a fear of leaving the home or being outside, and while this can be a part of agoraphobia, that’s not what the disorder exactly is. Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder which involves extreme anxiety or fear about more than one of the following situations in which they may not be able to escape or get help if they begin to panic:

  • Public transport
  • Open space
  • Enclosed space (e.g. aeroplanes)
  • Being in a queue or a crowd
  • Being alone out of the house

Social Phobia:

This is an anxiety disorder I personally struggle with and is also very common. People with social anxiety disorder fear that they will behave in a way, or show anxiety symptoms (for example, blushing or sweating) that will cause embarrassment or humiliation.

Some activities which may be affected by social anxiety include things such as eating in front of others, asking for help in a shop, answering or making phone calls, public speaking or performing, meeting or talking to new people, or even being observed doing some kind of motor skill such as writing, running, or playing a sport. In some cases, it can cause extreme self-awareness resulting in the inability to perform behaviors naturally, which causes more anxiety.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD):

People often joke about OCD, but the reality is that the disorder severely impacts the lives of those who have it. The obsessions or compulsions that an individual has are time-consuming and interfere with their day-to-day functioning or cause them distress or harm.

Obsessions in OCD are intrusive thoughts or impulses that are unwanted and may be disturbing, out of character, against their wants or needs, and that the individual may or may not know are irrational or extreme. The intrusive thoughts may cause the person a lot of distress as, even if they know it is extreme, depending on the nature of their obsession, they can truly be fearful for the wellbeing of others, even that they may cause harm to their loved ones.

The anxiety caused by these thoughts can result in behaviors adopted in order to cope. These behaviors are called compulsions. The behaviors may be used to prevent anxiety or distress, reduce it, or prevent something terrible they believe may happen from occurring. They’re defined as repetitive physical or mental behaviors. The behavior may be not connected in any logical way, or they may be obviously excessive.

 

 

Anxiety disorders are more complex than they appear, and can really impact peoples lives. Encourage people who are suffering to get help, or seek help yourself if any of this sets off alarm bells for you. Anxiety doesn’t define who you are as a person, it isn’t an expression of who you are, but an expression of an affliction you have to deal with.

 

 

 

 

References:

1. Martin, E. I., Ressler, K. J., Binder, E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2009). The neurobiology of anxiety disorders: brain imaging, genetics, and psychoneuroendocrinology. Psychiatric Clinics, 32(3), 549-575.

2. Lydiard, R. B. (2003). The role of GABA in anxiety disorders. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 64, 21-27.

3. Nuss, P. (2015). Anxiety disorders and GABA neurotransmission: a disturbance of modulation. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 11, 165.

4. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.

5. Verywellmind. What Happens to Your Body During a Panic Attack?https://www.verywellmind.com/what-happens-to-your-body-during-a-panic-attack-3024889.

6. Thriveworks – Counseling and Coaching, (2017). Agoraphobia DSM-5, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment 300.22 (F40.00). http://thriveworks.com/blog/agoraphobia-causes-symptoms-treatments/

7. Social Anxiety Institute. DSM-5 Definition of Social Anxiety Disorder. https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/dsm-definition-social-anxiety-disorder

8. Beyond OCD.org. Clinical Definition of OCD. http://beyondocd.org/information-for-individuals/clinical-definition-of-ocd

7 Tips From a Bad Uni Student to New Uni Students

Hindsight. It is a beautiful thing. As the end of my studies are drawing near I have the pleasure of looking back and wondering what on earth I was doing half the time over the past three years. Lots of missed opportunities and sub-par decision making. So like a wise older sister I shall now impart to you some worldly knowledge in the hopes that your uni experience is a successful and healthy one.

Tip One: Be thrifty

Whether you are getting a student loan, paying your way, or getting support from your parents, uni is expensive. I have spent a week or two in the last few years eating cereal with water because I ran out of milk and couldn’t afford to get more. Do not let that be you. That’s gross. Make sure you have money for necessities before you go out for lunch or go out drinking, even though its tempting.

Tip Two: Prioritise

Because Uni is so expensive, don’t take it for granted. If you have a loan, you’ll be paying for it later, and if you fail a course and have to re-sit it, you’re adding to the cost for future-you. If you don’t do the work for your classes in favour of your social calendar or your new Netflix subscription, you are wasting your own time and money. That being said, having a good social life is a huge part of your uni experience.  But you do need to make sure you strike a balance between work and play so you form a good work ethic and set yourself up for the rest of your studies.

Tip Three: The ‘Fresher Five’ won’t kill you

If you haven’t heard of the ‘Fresher Five,’ it’s a common phenomenon where you gain five kgs plus in your first year. I’m telling you now, this is a real thing. Obviously, the metabolically blessed among us escape gain-free, but for the rest of us mere mortals, it is brutal and sneaky.

It’s easy to get caught up in the bad habits that are fostered in the first year, especially if you just moved out of home. But first-year and uni, in general, isn’t some alternate ultra-fat-storing universe where weight gain is unavoidable, obviously the usual still applies. You know the drill: eat your fruit and veggies, eat your protein, manage your portion sizes, don’t go ham on the higher calorie treats, and keep active. The major traps in first-year revolve around making new friends and wanting to involve yourself in every social opportunity on offer, and social eating and social drinking are a big part of that. Remember that you can still hang out with people and have fun without over indulging. Sometimes a sugar-free energy drink at a party is just as fun, or choosing the smaller option at lunch and skipping the added cake or fries (or in my case, milkshakes).

Stress eating is another catch, so keep the healthy snacks stocked up so you can turn to those when you need to. Keeping on top of your health is worth it, and as an added bonus it’ll help keep you mentally sharp for your studies.

However! If the fresher five befalls you, do not fret! At different times in life we have different priorities, and if in uni you find that socialising and keeping on top of your workload is what is most important to you, that is perfectly fine. For me, I was well and truly acquainted with the Fresher Five by the end of my first year, but my lifestyle now is a far cry from what it was then and the fresher five is a distant memory. Do your best, but don’t beat yourself up. You have the rest of your life to follow your fitspo dreams.

Tip Four: Don’t procrastinate

Do not do this. I myself used to be terrible at it. Worst of all its been proven that procrastination isn’t some kind of trait, or brought on by anything out of your control. Nothing is making you procrastinate. Procrastination is a choice. I hate this fact, but it is, none the less, a fact. Do not choose to leave your work to the last possible moment.

While you’re putting off your work, yes, life is good, but that it sets you up for a very, very not good time ahead. Often you underestimate how long an assignment is going to take, or you run into some unforeseen issues that you haven’t left yourself the time to sort out. Issues like this make doing your uni work suck way more than it needs to. Its no fun and wreaks havoc on your stress levels.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘diamonds are formed under pressure,’ because while you may somehow pull an A+ out of your ass the night before the deadline, that does not mean you will manage that miracle every time. Don’t be lazy. Make like Shia LaBeouf and just do it.

Tip Five: Sleep

Partying and late night cram studying can absolutely ruin your sleeping pattern, and leave you sleep-deprived. This is bad for you, more so than you may think as sleep plays a role in keeping your cognition on point, your mental health, and your weight regulation. Go to sleep at a regular hour like a regular person as often as you can. Enough said. Go to bed.

Tip Six: Use successful study methods

I study psychology, and one thing they drill into us is that in order to consolidate your learning, to really get it to stick, you need to engage with the material. The more involved your processing of information, the better you will learn it. For a start, don’t skip lectures. Second of all, take notes. When it comes to note taking though, not every method is equal. You’re better off going old school and taking notes by hand, not on a laptop because writing by hand has been shown to improve learning as it requires more processing than typing. On top of that, if you have readings to do, take notes by hand for that too because reading often isn’t enough. In fact, its been shown that when you re-read material and it becomes easier to read, that isn’t necessarily because you learned the content, it can mean that you have simply become familiar with the writing allowing the act of reading to flow more smoothly.

Tip Seven: Take opportunities

Get involved in Uni life. There are so many clubs and study groups and extracurricular opportunities that can help your learning, forge valuable connections, and give you the boost you need to make things easier when it comes to getting a job at the other end. I wish now that I took what opportunities I could early on, and I’m kicking myself for it now. You have the chance to give yourself an advantage, so why wouldn’t you?

Take these tips and let my learnings through trial and many errors be a lesson to you. Even though I have managed to be successful in my studies (please don’t think I’m a total loser I promise I’m doing fine), it could have been a hell of a lot smoother, and I could have done myself much prouder had I adhered to this advice. You have been warned. My conscience is now clear. Go forth and kick some academic ass.