Let’s just be real here. The majority of us set New Year’s resolutions, knowing all along that we will more than likely quit just weeks, if not days, after January 1st. We do it year after year, and we watch the people around us do the same thing.
So what is it about human nature that leads us to set goals only to see our vision and plans drop by the wayside before we’ve even given ourselves a fighting chance to succeed? In our 21+ years in the outsourced customer service business, we have employed thousands of people. We’ve learned a little about human behavior in the process, but mostly we’ve learned to stay curious. As this new year unfolds in front of us, we got curious about the psychology of goal-setting and why some people succeed so brilliantly when so many of us simply don’t.
Here’s what we found out:
Keep the Focus on the “Why”
Take any typical New Year’s resolution – we usually know how to reach our goals. The formula for achieving some of the most common goals is almost always straightforward. Knowledge is rarely the problem.
The problem, of course, lies in our willpower and motivation. The truth is, willpower is limited and unless you have a powerful “why” behind your goals, in addition to the “how,” then the motivation that comes with an inspiring new goal is likely to burn out pretty quickly.
Determining realistic goals that really matter to you can be challenging. They’re probably not going to be easy wins. And they must be motivated by internal reasons – no amount of outside pressure or external expectations are enough to make your goals work for you. Aligning your goals with who you are and what you really want to feel as a result of achieving those goals is an essential strategy behind any accomplishment.
For example, learning to speak a new language is a goal – learning to speak French because spending a month in France is on your bucket list may help you stick to the process of learning the language.
Make a Plan. (This one is brought to you by Captain Obvious…)
The initial effort of setting a goal is exciting. It feels transformative and inspiring. The challenge is, once your willpower inevitably burns out, focusing solely on the outcome of your goals is no longer sustainable or productive. If you have no process or plan to sustain your efforts, the enormity of the goal will slowly overwhelm you.
Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal claims that you don’t necessarily need to know exactly how you’ll reach that end point; you just need to focus on single, consistent steps that together will lead you in the right direction. Incremental gain is so much more powerful than the illusion of instant gratification.
Hand in hand with this concept is the need to pace yourself. The strongest marathon runners never start out the race at a sprint. As the cliché goes, slow and steady wins the race. Small but intentional steps take less self-discipline, so you have a much better chance of staying on track. Finally, add in the factor of timelines and accountability, which will support measurable action on the path towards achieving your goals. Give yourself a deadline for achieving the goal, and if possible, enlist someone to help hold you accountable along the way.
Learn to Accept Failure
File this one under “Irony”: low tolerance for failure seems more likely to result in failure. The problem occurs when you’re so hyper-focused on the outcome of your goal that you afford yourself no slack should things go south. It’s perfectionism at its finest, and it almost always ends in burnout.
The trick is to identify potential obstacles and conflicts ahead of time. Life inevitably gets messy, and even the best laid plans will get overturned in the process. Although you can’t predict the exact nature of any future challenges, you can prepare for them to some extent. Have a back-up plan, and accept the fact that you may have to cut yourself some slack.
We spend a lot of time on this concept with our new hires. We brace everyone for the fact that at some point, they are going to be plagued with doubt. They are going to feel like failures. They will probably ask themselves what on earth they were thinking when they accepted this job. Psychologists refer to this as the Transition Curve that accompanies any major change in our life. We like to call it The Journey Through the Valley of Despair. Our job as employers is to ensure that the Valley of Despair is a shallow valley and that the journey through it is as short as possible. And that means making it okay to fail. We know it is going to happen. We tell our new hires that when they feel that they don’t know what they are doing or that they have made a big mistake there are three steps to take immediately:
- Tell someone. Chances are someone else is feeling like a failure too or has at one point in their life. Empathy and compassion can make you stronger.
- Don’t look at the big picture. Just do the one small thing that has to be done right now.
- Be patient with yourself.
Develop a Growth Mindset
A popular TED talk from psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth tells the story of her study on people who are more likely to achieve success in their goals. Her results were surprising. She found that many people hold the pretty typical belief that their abilities and capacity to learn is fixed. When this is the case, these people are more likely to fail and give up as a result of that failure. However, people who believe they can grow in their ability to learn are more likely to persevere toward their long-term goals, even if they experience failure.
In short, small failures shouldn’t discourage you from long-term success. Duckworth calls this “grit,” and deems it essential to personal growth and development.
Baby Steps or Major Missions
Whether it is tackling the day-to-day challenges we face in the world of customer service and sales support (nailing that service level, getting average handle time down to a new low, setting new sales records) or going after the New Year’s Resolution-type big ticket goals (running that marathon, climbing that mountain, learning that new language,) you can make 2016 the year you “silence the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.”
We’d love to hear your thoughts on goal-setting and what it takes to make those goals reality.