How to Better Achieve Your Goals According to a Social Psychologist

New year, new me – or so the saying goes. Whether you want to exercise more or save up for your dream vacation, Emily Balcetis, social psychologist and author of the upcoming book Clearer, Closer, Better, has cracked the code. Here are her top five strategies for achieving your goals this year.

By Stephanie Mercier Voyer


Emily Balcetis is a social psychologist whose work focuses on motivation science and figuring out strategies that can help us better meet our goals. In her upcoming book Clearer, Closer, Better (you can pre-order a copy here), she explores how the way we look at the world around us can pose unexpected challenges, and how using our eyes in different ways could help us overcome these difficulties. We spoke with Balcetis to get her take on how to make sure you stay on track to reach your objectives.

1. Set goals that are moderately but not impossibly challenging

At the start of the new year, people tend to set ambitious goals with unrealistic expectations about their progress, like wanting to lose 40 pounds in 40 days. And when very little has changed on the scale after 20 days, people understandably get demotivated. The trick is to define objectives that are just a step back from that, while being careful not to make them too easy, either. Because when something requires too little effort, people aren’t excited to check it off their to-do list. This is why goals that are moderately, but not impossibly, challenging are the most inspiring to pursue.

2. Foreshadow failure

Our default is to think about what steps we need to take to accomplish our goals. Very rarely do we take the time to think about the challenges that we might experience along the way. I advise foreshadowing failure and troubleshooting the solutions to those obstacles, because when something is suddenly not working, you have relatively little bandwidth to figure out an escape solution. Write down all the ways in which things could go wrong, and then think about what options are available to you should this happen. A good example is Michael Phelps at the Beijing Olympics. When his goggles started filling up with water at the beginning of a race (meaning he would have to swim completely blind), he wasn’t anxious about it because he had prepped for that very situation. He simply started counting his strokes and knew exactly when to flip off the back wall to keep going. He went on to win a gold medal. That’s a great example of how a potentially debilitating challenge can be overcome with the right planning. When we don't plan, disaster can happen.

3. Foster a healthy mindset

A lot of times when we talk to ourselves, we will say things like “I’m not a math person. I’m not a running person. That’s not me.” We tend to do that after we’ve experienced some kind of struggle. We consider that to be diagnostic of our potential, but this kind of thinking can pose a problem for us if we’re trying to take on something big. There are going to be challenges along the way, but if we label those moments of hardship as indicators of our inabilities, it suggests that something in our character might be seemingly impossible to overcome. A better way to begin to talk to ourselves is to think of every challenge as an opportunity for growth. Experiencing a setback doesn’t have to be so life-changing – it doesn’t have to make us feel like we have to reinvent our understanding of ourselves. Instead, it can be an opportunity to try something new.

4. Look back on your successes

When we’re first starting out, we should reflect on our successes to date. That’s where motivation stems from. When we’re in the planning phase, we should set aside moments for evaluation where we can look back on the progress made. Doing so can tell us whether we’ve got traction. It can be difficult to notice change when you’re a few weeks into something new – it’s enough time that you might have forgotten what things were like before. Once we see that progress has been made, it signals to us that we have the abilities and the resources to accomplish what we’ve taken on. It’s confirmation that we’ve set the right kind of goal.

5. Focus your attention on the finish line

The last strategy is sort of a counter to the previous one. When you’re nearing the end of a goal, instead of looking back on your successes, you need to focus your attention on the finish line. We’ve done a lot of research with runners, and this strategy seems to hold in all the cases. We found that when people focused on the finish line and eliminated all the distractions around them, it literally looked closer to them. This visual illusion made it so that people could run faster and said it hurts less. What we studied in regard to visual attention holds the same way with cognitive attention. So as your project is coming to an end, it’s important to maintain focus on your goal. While multitasking can be useful for some people under certain circumstances, the degree to which we do it is really cognitively debilitating. By keeping our mental resources focused on that looming deadline, we’ll actually be able to reduce our inclination to multitask and get the job done.

Researchers have found that when we use these strategies, our bodies literally gear up to take on a new challenge. When we set a goal that’s motivating but not impossibly challenging or too easy, and we foreshadow challenge and create contingency plans, our blood pressure and heart rate increase. And while chronic increased heart rate is a bad thing, it’s actually a good thing to see it happen in an isolated moment – it’s our body’s way of energizing to take on a new task.