A thinking woman’s guide to resolutions – goal striving

Guest blogger, Katy Kennedy, returns for part 2 of the Thinking Woman’s Guide to Resolutions, and this time looks at Goal Striving. Again a condensed version of this first appeared on running community http://www.fetcheveryone.com.

Ok, have you all set your goals in a psychologically optimum fashion after my pearls of wisdom in part 1? Excellent, let’s move on to how to reach your goals then.

Goal striving means planning and executing behaviours that get you closer to your goals, paying attention to what you need to do and when you need to do it. There are probably multiple ways to achieve your goal. For example, I can achieve my goal of running 700 miles a year by running 1.92 miles a day, or by running a half marathon once a week (the latter might hurt though). There are also probably multiple opportunities to achieve your goal. Today my son is off school, so my interval session is going to have to fit in on another day. Realising that there are multiple ways of achieving goals can help you build resilience when you encounter setbacks.

A second aspect of goal striving is goal protection. You have goals which compete with each other, and all of these goals are open to threats: temptation or distraction for example. If it’s torrential rain outdoors, then the temptation is to slob on the sofa instead of slog on the street.

These challenges to self-regulation can be addressed with multiple strategies, which can be divided into 4 categories.

1 – Prospection and planning

This strategy can include visualisation and mental rehearsal, which can help you identify what/when/how aspects of behaviour. I can imagine myself running along the river bank, saying hello to the cows as the sun sets on a nice spring evening for example. Or, more likely, splashing through mud in the winter in the same venue (even better).

You can also use prospection to help work out likely obstacles or problems you may encounter. If you know you will be tired after work then exercising at the start of the day is likely to be more successful (if possible). If you get up at sparrow’s fart you’re less likely to encounter distractions from others (most right minded people are still in their bed!) or from work-related tasks which crop up. Alternatively, you could precommit to your goal by arranging to meet a running buddy or a tennis partner: the thought of letting down someone else can act to counter the temptation to skip your workout. You can also make small but powerful changes to your environment: locking the biscuits in a high cupboard which involves getting a stepladder out to reach, or avoiding the supermarket when you’re hungry, or taking the stairs instead of the lift. As well as reducing temptation, prospection may also be used to change the consequences of goal failure. For example, one study looking at smokers found that smokers who only bought one pack at a time not only had less temptation, but the cost was higher per cigarette. In terms of altering consequences of goal failure, I have actually found that the number one best method of making myself go to an exercise class is the fact that my gym fines me £3 for not attending a class that I’ve booked. I don’t think it was why they introduced it, it was to decrease the number of no-shows, but I find it a ridiculously powerful (if irritating) incentive.

2 – Automation

Sadly this doesn’t mean robots do your workout for you. All these goals require quite a lot of conscious effort and cognitive resources. Automatic processes play an important role in self-regulation, since they are less reliant on cognitive resources and less open to distraction.

The context in which you normally carry out your goal-related behaviour provides a direct cue to behaviour, without you needing to think about the behaviour too much. People who go running every day take advantage of this habitual behaviour: just getting up in the morning will prompt them to put on their running kit. You can probably think of other contexts where automatic responses can be useful: eating a piece of fruit with your morning cup of tea for example, or flossing your teeth when you’re getting ready for bed.  You can also automate processes which prevent goal disruption: an example is a study of successful dieters who managed to develop automatic negative responses to tempting foods.

There are quite a few lab studies on this, but it’s difficult to look at automatic behaviour outside the lab. More successful realistic studies have been done on another type of automatized behaviour: implementation intentions. These are if-then ways of planning a behaviour in a particular context. An example for me last year was when I decided the best way to get a run in at uni was at lunchtime on a Monday after eating my lunch early. With time, these implementation intentions can become automatic, though they are more successful at helping with positive behaviours (eg. exercising at lunchtime on Monday, eating an apple when you feel a need for cake) rather than negative behaviours (if I think about Coke I won’t have any). This has pretty obvious implications for the kind of implementation intentions you should be making, though you can make them till you’re blue in the face and not stick to them unless it’s a meaningful goal for you.

3 – Construal (how you understand or interpret things)

When you set your New Year resolutions, you may intend to exercise with a grand vision for a future self who is skinnier, fitter and feels healthy. When you have to get off your butt and go for a run, exercise now entails hassle, going out in the pouring rain, feeling tired after work and all the telly you could be watching instead of going out for 5 miles. The exercise concept is the same, but your construal of it has changed. Studies suggest that bringing construals of immediate behaviour in line with the more long-term construal can help with goal striving, at least in the lab. Changing construals from concrete to abstract (‘this Mars Bar looks yummy’ to ‘high calorie food can make you fat’) is shown to aid goal striving. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of research outside the lab over longer periods though: maybe you could come up with your own versions and see if it helps? Prospective planning and precommitment can take advantage of longer-term abstract construals by structuring the environment to protect goals from construal shifts, however trying to change construals in the moment (it’s raining, my sofa is comfy, running is going to be hard work in the gale outside) is a tough ask, requiring you to change to a longer term abstract perspective. If you solve that one, let me know.

4 – Effortful inhibition (consciously trying to suppress thoughts, feelings and behaviours which work against your goals)

This doesn’t work very well. In fact, it can make things worse. Smokers told not to think about smoking actually smoked more over 3 weeks than smokers asked to monitor their smoking.  It can work in some circumstances, but it requires cognitive and motivational resources and if you’re tired, drunk or busy then it’s less successful. That might describe some of us occasionally, mightn’t it?

It makes sense that using a combination of these strategies will result in more successful goal striving, perhaps by using prospection and planning first, using automaticity where it’s possible, construal when confronted with the here and now reality of temptation, and effortful inhibition as a last ditch attempt. However, all these strategies come with a bit of a health warning: there hasn’t been a huge amount of non-lab based long term research done on many of the strategies, let alone a combination of them. Still, it’s interesting to work out examples of how you could apply them, isn’t it?

If you’re interested in the original review paper that I based much of these blogs on, it’s called Self-regulation of Health Behaviour: Social Psychological Approaches to Goal Setting and Goal Striving by Mann, Ridder and Fujita in a journal called Health Psychology (2013). I took some of the backbone of the paper, added some other studies from other sources and then embroidered with my own examples: any dodgy bits are probably down to me.  I’m also not an expert in this field, I just thought the paper was very interesting and could apply to some of the resolutions you might be setting, I think the more knowledge you have and the more tactically you can think about your behaviour, the more successful you will be.

What do you think? What’s helped you most with achieving your goals? 

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