8 Psychology-Based Tricks for Staying Motivated and Accomplishing Your Goals
Ready to make your goals a reality?
Once the holiday decor has been packed and stored away, we turn our attention to another tradition: setting New Year's resolutions. A new lap around the sun is an inspiring time to unpack our frustrations, create hope for the journey ahead, and give us purpose heading into a new year.
Setting goals is actually good for mental health and life satisfaction. But all too often, we set audacious—and let's face it, near-impossible—aspirations that basically set us up for failure. In turn, this can create frustration, threaten our self-confidence, and sometimes leave us feeling worse than we did before setting said goal. So what's the deal? The key to really sticking to plans lies in motivation—and more importantly, maintaining that motivational stamina far beyond the first month (or week) of the year. Luckily, there are some effective ways you can "trick" yourself into staying positive and productive—ultimately accomplishing whatever goal, large or small, you've set for yourself (New Year's resolution–related or otherwise). Here, psychologists share some tried-and-true strategies that really work.
One tool therapists use in cognitive-behavioral psychology to help their clients shift their perspective is cognitive restructuring. This involves identifying how and when your thoughts go from happy to sad, explains psychologist Yvonne Thomas, PhD, and then reframing those thoughts.
So, for example, say your goal is to incorporate more vegetables and whole grains into your diet. You find this easy and fun for a few weeks—then you get a craving for pizza and decide to order takeout. Rather than accepting that you’re human, and sometimes you’ll eat cheesy, topping-piled slices and sometimes you’ll prefer a salad, you engage in “all-or-nothing” behavior (“I’ll clearly never be able to choose the healthiest option all the time, so there’s no point trying anymore”). So you give up on the goal entirely. This is a common habit, but isn’t healthy or helpful.
Once you isolate exactly when you’ve hit that discouraged, all-or-nothing mindset, the second part of cognitive restructuring comes: attempting to change these thoughts into more realistic ones. Sticking with the above example, this might look like, “I really enjoyed pizza last night and I’m looking forward to my nutritious oatmeal and fruit in the morning,” instead of, “I’ve failed at my resolution and I’ll never succeed.” It sounds trite, but life really is about balance (no one can eat steamed veggies for dinner all the time).
“If you can alter your thinking to be healthier, there’s a greater likelihood of staying motivated and committed,” Thomas explains. “You can consciously convert the thoughts to a more middle-ground perspective, so you remain logical versus emotionally fired-up, which can interfere with motivation to stick with goals.”
Psychiatrist Jeffrey Ditzell, DO, wants you to fall in love with the vision that you wish to create. If your goal isn’t something that gets you excited to push through, it’s challenging to remain motivated because we won’t look forward to the daily work it takes to meet it. That’s why a vivid and inspiring vision of your success can help you stay on track.
If you’re an artistic person who responds to visual reminders, Dr. Ditzell recommends collecting images or words from magazines or online that encompass what you want to become or achieve. Place these inspiring photos in a place you see every single day. “Essentially, you’re trying to jump-start the brain’s dopamine pleasure pathways to fuel performance,” he says. “Remember, you can revisit and modify the vision of what you’re trying to create to continue making it exciting and novel to the mind.”
Let’s say one of your greatest aspirations is to reorganize your home. Maybe you’ve been inspired by a home organizing show on Netflix (hello, The Home Edit); or living, working, exercising, sleeping, and eating in the same place 24/7 has made you realize it’s time for a purge. Rather than deciding you’ll finish every single room of your house in a week, Thomas recommends breaking big goals down into digestible micro-goals. This way, you don’t become overwhelmed by the task ahead. “By dividing this into smaller portions, there’s a better chance you’ll try to tackle them and also end up feeling more confident and motivated to do the next pieces,” she says.
When brainstorming your goals, think about the why behind them. Do you want to enrich your life? Make your day-to-day routine smoother? Find more satisfaction with your job, relationship, or self-esteem? Are you actually ready for a big change?
All of these questions can help identify whether you’re coming from a place of positivity and purpose, or setting aspirations fueled by things like fear or shame. “When we have this mindset towards ourselves, it is difficult for us to stay motivated because we get stuck in a negative cycle of thought,” says Hanna Stensby, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Focusing on your identity and your self-perception with a lens of self-compassion is a great way to stay motivated.”
Even if the goal itself doesn’t change (“I want to rethink my spending habits”), the mindset and motivation for setting it impacts your likelihood of sticking to it (“I’m so broke and bad at saving money—there’s something wrong with me,” can become something like, “I want to learn how to curb unnecessary spending and save up for the things I love in the future.”)
Part of remaining on the course to success is doing the prep work. Dr. Ditzell explains, you game the system by ensuring you pepper the path with tools to support your consistent effort. In other words: Make it easier for yourself by eliminating potential roadblocks. “This could be as simple as preparing meals ahead of time to create choice extinction or having a source of cold water on hand in order to hydrate yourself throughout the day properly,” he says. “Whatever it is, you want the supports in place to achieve the win, and they must be accessible to you, as you need them.”
There’s always power in joining forces with someone else. We naturally remain motivated and focused when we have constant support and accountability, Stensby says. But it only really works if you know this person (or people) will go on the journey with you and hold you accountable. You can then design actionable ways to be there for one another while making strides, hitting hurdles, and pushing toward the end goal. “Talk with this person about your process and check in with them on a daily basis about what you did towards your goal,” she says. “When you have someone you know you’re going to be reporting your progress to, you’ll be much more likely to stay consistent.”
Stensby encourages you to write down all of the perks you'll gain from developing a new habit or putting in the effort toward your aspirations. “Write it down and display the list of ‘pros’ for why you’re working towards your goal somewhere you’ll see them every day,” she says. “In those moments when your motivation wanes, you can remind yourself of the benefits you’ll experience afterward.” So if your goal is to get up earlier and become a morning person, keep a list of all the positive rewards you'll reap on your bedside table. They'll help get you through on mornings when all you want to do is hit snooze and pull the covers over your head.
If you’re working remotely for the foreseeable future, and your goal is to create a better balance between your professional and personal life, you know it can’t happen overnight. Or probably in a week—or a month. Instead, it takes trial and error, some days when you thrive and others when you struggle. It’s all part of the process; but if you only acknowledge where you fall short, you’ll lose steam quickly. Instead, Ditzell says it’s essential to pause and recognize every tiny step forward you make. People often see this as blowing your own horn or being self-aggrandizing, but Ditzell insists it’s the opposite: “This is an opportunity to reinvest and recoup the energy in each milestone in order to set up and fuel the next round,” he says.