You may have heard about The Secret, the 2006 book that has sold over 28 million copies and has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 200 weeks.
The “secret” that is described in the book and movie is “The Law of Attraction”, which tells us that if we want something to manifest in our lives, we need to imagine it regularly–to “know” that it will come to us.
Many people have testified that the “Law of Attraction” has worked for them, and many of us probably have examples in our own lives where this has happened to us.
But what does science actually show us is the best way to achieve what we want in life?
Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology at New York University and University of Hamburg, and author of the 2014 book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, draws on twenty years of social science research to give us the best way to reach our goals.
Dr. Oettingen tells us that rather than focusing solely on the positive outcomes we want in our lives, we should also focus on the specific obstacles that keep us from reaching these goals.
The research shows us that simply dreaming about a positive future, without making a plan or anticipating the setbacks, 1. Saps the energy we need to reach our goals, 2. Predicts lower physical and mental health, and 3. Leads to a lower sense of overall well-being.
What do we need to do–in addition to imagining positive outcomes–in order to be sure to achieve our goals?
The answer is surprisingly simple!
The key to achieving our goals is to envision any possible obstacles, and to make specific plans about how to overcome them when they arise.
Dr. Oettingen’s mental strategy for achieving goals is known in the scientific community as “mental contrasting with implementation intentions”–that’s a mouthful! You can just call it WOOP, to reflect the following mnemonic:
Wish + Outcome + Obstacles + Plan.
Let’s look at each of these steps for achieving our New Year’s Resolutions:
Clarify your goal.
You are most likely to reach your goal if it is specific, meaningful, achievable, relevant, and time-focused. Many of us know this by the acronym SMART, as coined in 1981 by George T. Doran.
Let’s look at two common New Year’s Resolutions and see how we can make them SMART.
1. I’m lonely–I want to have more fun this year.
2. I want to stop procrastinating in 2018.
See if you can state your goal in one sentence. Be sure to state what you do want, not what you don’t want!
1. I will arrange to participate in one new social activity every Friday.
2. I will make a list of projects I have been putting off and work on the next one on the list for 3 hours every Sunday afternoon.
The “M” is often shown to stand for measurable, but if you have been specific in stating your goals, then they will very likely already be measurable. “Meaningful” is more helpful, because we are much more likely to want to stick with our goals when it becomes difficult (and it usually does!) if they have some important meaning in our life. Connect your goal to an overall value you have in your life, and write that down. In the above examples, you might write:
1. “Connecting with other people on a deep and meaningful level enriches my life.”
In fact, social connection has been shown to be one of the major components of a happy life all over the world.
2. “I value productivity, and also the peace of mind I will gain by finishing these projects.”
Make sure you can break down your goals into small parts that you can achieve bit by bit, so you can see your progress along the way. Again, if your goals are specific enough, this should be fairly simple. Make sure to list the steps under each of your goals. In the above examples you could make a list of social activities or break down each project into smaller steps.
Again, the most common “R” in SMART goals is “results-focused”, but if you have already followed the directives in “specific”, “measurable”, and “achievable”, then your goals will probably already be results-focused. A more appropriate “R” might be “Relevant”. Make sure your goals are related to the things you value most in your life. It is easy to focus on a goal like “Lose 10 pounds”, when a goal that might better reflect our values is “Be healthier by exercising three times a week for one hour”.
Often this criterion refers to an end measurement of the goal, but if you are focused on changing habits, like being more connected to others or working on unpleasant projects instead of putting them off, then a more appropriate “T” might be “Trackable”. Keep a record of when you work on your goal. Remember all those stars on the calendar when you were a kid? They work.
Imagine your goal. This is the part that is similar to the method popularized in The Secret. Imagine your goal, and what it would be like to reach it. Spend 10 minutes sitting still and visualizing your goal. Visualize not just what it would look like, but engage all your senses. Sound–what would people be saying to you? What would the conversation be like when people asked you how you achieved your goal? Is there a way you can add smell, taste, or touch into your visualization? The more senses you use, the stronger your visualization will be.
Another thing that is critical to your visualization is emotion. In fact, often when we have a goal that seems concrete, like “finishing all those projects on my list”, what we are really reaching for is a feeling, such as peace of mind when all those projects are finally finished, and pride in our accomplishment. Make sure that when you visualize your goal you focus on the emotions you will feel when you get there.
Don’t think you can stop there, however. The last two steps of the process are critical to your success:
Think about anything that might keep you from achieving your goal. Write these things down. Know your enemy!
Sometimes you can’t understand why it is so hard to achieve a particular goal. Year after year you make the same resolution and never seem to make any progress.
This might be a good time to ask a trusted friend or family member for an outside opinion. What do they think might be an obstacle you will face in trying to achieve your goal? You might be surprised at what they say!
If you seem stuck in your efforts to achieve a particular goal, and friends and family aren’t helpful, this can be an excellent time to reach out to a therapist. Therapists are trained to understand all of the hidden reasons why you might not be able to reach your goals. They can help you uncover your blocks and get unstuck.
You don’t have to have a big problem in order to benefit from therapy.
That’s right. Therapy can help you clarify your goals and figure out how to get there from here.
This is the most critical part of the strategy!
Make a plan for what you will do to overcome each of your obstacles.
When we make a plan ahead of time, we are in control of the process; we don’t have to fall victim to all the things that can sabotage our best intentions.
Again, therapy can help you find ways to overcome obstacles that have been blocking you from achieving your goals for years. If you are still making some of the same resolutions that you were making in 2012, then it might be time to get some professional help!
If you are interested in learning how therapy can help you find your own unique superpower in 2018, and use it to achieve your New Year’s resolutions once and for all, give me a call at 323-999-1573, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s work together to make 2018 your best year so far!