First step: What do you really want?

by Dr. Steve Wright

…then goals and commitment.

Since this is my first post, I thought I would talk about the topic of taking a first step. Some ideas that came to mind were about goals and commitment.

Concrete goals help you focus. They take a vague idea and make it more specific. They clarify what you need to do, and they actually help you get it done. People who make clear goals, with a time frame for getting them done and a way to gauge performance, are more successful.

According to psychological research,* goals help you in at least four ways:

1. Goals help you pay attention to, and learn, what you need to know to accomplish them.

2. People with goals make more effort, both physically and mentally.

3. Goals help you stick with a task, giving you more persistence in pursuing the accomplishment.

4. Goals help you use relevant knowledge and strategies.

Goals also help you commit. If you say you’re going to do something, you’re more likely to do it. If you make a decision to accomplish your goal (or each specific step needed for a more complex goal) by a certain date, there will be psychological forces helping you to do it.

Obviously, the reverse is true: commitment helps accomplish goals, especially challenging ones.

Sometimes you have to take a risk and make the commitment even if there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to accomplish exactly what you’re setting out to do. Olympic divers need to put themselves in the right frame of mind the moment they jump, but if they wait too long on the board over-thinking it, they’re more likely to have a poor dive. The preparation they needed happened before they even climbed up the diving board, during the many hours of training leading up to the execution of the dive. When it’s time to dive, take the leap.

But before goals and commitment you have to decide something: What do you really want?

This may not be as easy as you think. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out that we’re actually pretty bad predictors of what’s going to make us happy. He wrote a best-selling book about it called Stumbling on Happiness. More on that later.

Sometimes you know exactly what you want and you can just pursue it, with whatever goals and commitment are appropriate. Other times, especially when it comes to big things, it’s not always completely clear. When the question “What do you really want?” is expanded in scope to mean “What do you really want in your work or career?” or “What do you really want in life?” – then a lot of people aren’t completely sure. Often they haven’t really thought it through very carefully. Sometimes they were just going after things they thought they wanted. In many cases they’re not very happy with some aspect of their work or life.

When it comes to their work, some people say “Just give me a paycheck.” Those people are not as happy in their work life as people who find some inherent value or meaning in what they do. Even people who have what many would consider a mundane and boring job, like an assembly line worker, can be satisfied with their work if they feel it has intrinsic value. In one study I ran across, some assembly line workers reported that they took pride in their role as creators of a quality product, they said they liked their jobs, and their scores on standard measures agreed.

One thing that contributes a lot to life satisfaction is engaging in activities that make use of your personal strengths. One prominent psychologist spent three years studying this, and working with a colleague (an even more well-known researcher and past president of the APA), wrote an important book which features a list of personal strengths. Take a look at that list and ask yourself how much you’re using your strengths in your life, in your work, and in your leisure activities. Are there changes you could make to spend more time doing the things you find rewarding and valuable?

I’ll be writing a lot more on these and related topics. Please subscribe and check back with me.

I asked myself the question: “What do I really want…out of this web site?” My answer was that I wanted to create as much value as possible for my readers. I want to share what I think and what other psychologists think about how to increase your happiness, life satisfaction, and meaning in life. Some of it will be straight out of research studies, and other ideas will be informed and influenced by them. Either way there will be some science behind the advice. Think of it as “Dear Abby 2.0.”

*If you want to take a look at a review of the academic literature on goals, there is a good one entitled “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation” (pdf format) that was published in American Psychologist in 2002. It’s not light reading, but a lot of scientific findings are presented on this topic. A side benefit is that even in the first couple pages you can see how far psychology theory has come in the last 50 years since the dark days of psychologists’ thinking being almost universally conditioned by the ubiquitous conceptual assumptions of behaviorism, even on questions where it didn’t make much sense.

Written by Dr. Steve Wright on September 2nd, 2008

Leave a Comment