You may have heard the old saying, “Nothing succeeds like success.” While true, it can be frustrating. How do you get your first big win anyway?

According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, research shows there are a broad range of things you can do and attitudes you can adopt that will dramatically increase your chances of reaching your goals.

The first step is deciding precisely where you want to go. While that may sound relatively easy, it’s typically tough, Halverson writes. That’s because just identifying goals isn’t enough. It’s critical to understand that how you set your goals is also very important.

You have to start by being very specific, such as:  “Exercise daily,” or “buy a $100,000 condominium,” or “lose five pounds,” she suggests.

It’s also important to make your goals both challenging and realistic. “Challenges really get the motivational juices flowing,” she points out. Yet if the goals aren’t do-able, it’s a set up for frustration.

Identify the big picture, or in other words, remind yourself why you are setting the goal. So, if you’d like to get an “A” in college Chemistry, is it because you want to get into medical school? If you decide to learn a new language, is it so you can get more out of a trip you’re planning, or perhaps to help you communicate with people in another country as part of your job?

While you’ve got to stay positive as you pursue your goals, Halvorson warns that you also should avoid underestimating the size of the challenge that you’re taking on.  “Most goals worth achieving require time, planning, effort and persistence,” she notes. People often get discouraged when they haven’t prepared themselves for what it will take to succeed.

It’s also valuable to use a technique called “mental contrasting” to set your goals. That means imagining the great things that will happen if you succeed, while at the same time picturing the obstacles that stand in your way.  That approach will help you decide whether your goal is something to which you truly are willing to commit. Research shows that thinking about both the prize and the struggle will help motivate you.

Succeed also emphasizes that you should stop questioning your ability: “More often than not, reaching a goal is actually about effort, persistence and planning.”  To boost your confidence, it’s helpful to think about your past achievements to remind yourself of challenges you’ve overcome in the past, Halvorson adds.

Although some people advise visualizing your success, Halvorson does not. She says it’s more useful to imagine yourself doing what needs to be done to succeed. Just picturing yourself crossing the finish line doesn’t actually help you get there, but visualizing how you run the race –including the strategies you will use, the choices you will make and the obstacles you will face –will.  That’s what she calls “realistic optimism.”

Halvorson also believes that in order to reach your goals, you’ve got to have or develop what she calls “grit.” That entails learning to make commitments, not being afraid of long-term goals, and being persistent in the face of difficulty.

However, it’s equally important that you don’t forget to enjoy yourself along the way, even if that’s not always easy. “For many of us, it just doesn’t come naturally to focus on what is interesting and enjoyable about what we’re doing when we’re in goal-pursuit mode,” she writes. But if you focus on judging yourself by the progress you are making rather than the endpoint, you’ll likely be more resilient.

Similarly, don’t forget to ask for and accept help. Sometimes people avoid seeking support because they’re afraid of looking incompetent. Stop focusing on demonstrating your abilities and start working on improving and developing what you know and can do, she advises.

Should you ever quit? Halvorson says yes. “It’s perfectly okay to walk away from a goal, even when it’s something you’ve really wanted and could in fact reach, when the cost of achieving it seems to be too great,” she says. Some sacrifices aren’t worth making because they’re either too painful or they require you to give up too much.

But if you do give up on a goal, Halvorson suggests you be sure to replace it with a new one. “This will enable you to maintain your sense of engagement and purpose, and to keep moving forward with your life.”


Learn more: Succeed: How we Can Reach Our Goals, by Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, Penguin Group, 2012. 

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