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Achieving goals

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Individuals often set goals, such as "to lose 10 kg" or "to eat healthier". Several activities can be undertaken to increase the likelihood they fulfill these goals.


Step 1.

Individuals need to ensure they are committed to the goal. To foster commitment, individuals should first decide whether or not they would like to undertake the necessary acts, such as eat an apple, wearing formal or causal clothes.

Individuals are more likely to persist with a decision and thus remain committed if, immediately beforehand, they answer a simple decision (Muthukrishnan & Watheiu, 2006). After they reach a simple decision, such as decide whether or not they will wear formal or casual clothes as they consume an apple, individuals experience a sense of confidence or certainty. This sense of certainty then extends to the next decision they reach.

Step 2.Individuals should then consider other activities they have already undertaken that might have facilitated this goal. They might, for example, reflect upon other healthy food they have consumed. That is, when individuals reflect upon the extent to which they have already pursued the goal, their commitment rises (Minjung & Fishbach, 2008).

Step 3.Before individuals commit to the goal, they should ask themselves "Will I fulfill this objective". Indeed, they should direct a similar question to each of the activities they will undertake to pursue this goal. They could ask "Will I eat fruit every day" and "Will I avoid chocolate every day".

In response to directives, such as "You must eat fruit every day", individuals tend to entertain contradictory thoughts: They attempt to counter this demand. Thus, when individuals verbalize directives to themselves, such as "I will eat fruit every day", they inadvertently consider some conflicting thoughts. They reflect upon the possibility they will not eat fruit. Their confidence and persistence decline.

This problem has been shown to dissipate if individuals merely ask questions to themselves. Indeed, these questions have been shown to enhance motivation (Senay, Albarracin, & Noguchi, 2010 & see Psychological reactance theory).


Step 1.Individuals should first engage in a similar behavior to a smaller extent, such as eat one apple or work diligently for one hour. This exercise ensures they can later visualize the desired behavior vividly& images that are not vivid can be detrimental to motivation (see Petrova & Cialdini, 2005).

Step 2. Individuals should attempt to form a mental image of the behaviors they will enact--exercise at a gym, for example--but from the perspective of an observer, watching themselves engage in this act. Individuals are especially likely to engage in some behaviour if they imagine themselves performing this act from the perspective of an observer--and not from their own perspective, as shown by Libby, Shaeffer, Eibach, and Slemmer (2007 & see Visualization).

In particular, as Libby et al. (2007) maintain, individuals often ascribe their own behaviour, such as laziness, to factors that are not related to their own character, such as illness. In contrast, they often ascribe the same behaviour of another person to the character of this individual. If they imagine themselves performing an act from the perspective of another person, they virtually conceptualize themselves as someone else. They will ascribe the visualized behaviour, such as exercising in the morning, to their character. They will, unconsciously, perceive themselves as more disciplined and fit, for example. Because of this perception, they are more inclined to enact the behavior they visualized.

Step 3. Individuals should stipulate the precise time and place in which they will implement these intended actions as well as how they will overcome obstacles. Furthermore, they should even repeat to themselves, several times, their intention to execute this behaviour in the corresponding setting. (see Implementation intentions). They could decide they will exercise as soon as the rain ceases. They might decide they will perform indoor exercises, however, if the rain returns.

These plans, called implementation intentions, are especially effective when behaviors need to be enacted are inconvenient, for example (Gollwitzer & Brandstatter, 1997), shielding individuals from distractions. That is, when the imagined time and place arises, the motivation to engage in the desired act is rapid and effortless (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1999 Gollwitzer & Brandstatter, 1997).

Nevertheless, implementation intentions should not be formed if individuals formed the goals under duress (Powers, Koestner, & Topciu, 2005). That is, they should apply this approach to personal goals--goals that, if unfulfilled, will not disappoint anyone else.

Step 4. To achieve goals that relate to self improvement, such as to lose weight, individuals should consider three of their unique qualities--attributes, for example, they do not share with other members of their workgroup or social collective (see Self construal). In particular, they should reflect upon these unique characteristics both before they set goals and before they pursue goals.

When individuals focus on their unique qualities, they conceptualize themselves as independent rather than connected to a broader social collective. As a consequence, they become less likely to be distracted and their worries often dissipate. They become less concerned they will violate some social norm or expectation and thus feel they can focus on their own endeavors (Downie, Koestner, Horberg, & Haga, 2006). In addition, they formulate goals that align with their core values--not the preferences and expectations of other individuals. Hence, they remain committed to their goals, rather than shift their objectives incessantly to accommodate the preferences of their friends or colleagues (Downie, Koestner, Horberg, & Haga, 2006).

Step 5. Sometimes, individuals would like to fulfil a specific goal, such as meet another friend or exercise more regularly. Individuals should identify a person in their life--a friend, colleague, or relative--who usually facilitates their capacity to achieve this goal. For example, suppose they would like to extend their social networks. They should identify a person who has, in the past, facilitated their attempts to meet other people. Merely reflecting about previous conversations with these individuals seems to promote motivation to fulfil personal goals (Fitzsimons & Shah, 2008).

That is, when these friends, colleagues, or relatives seem prominent, individuals feel they will be supported in their endeavors to fulfil the goals these individuals embrace. They feel more confident and committed to these goals, and this state enhances their performance or persistence (Fitzsimons & Shah, 2008).

Sometimes, individuals want to pursue a goal that is relevant to many different settings. They might, for example, want to lose weight--a goal that dictates their behavior at home, at work, at restaurants, and at many other locations. Thus, individuals cannot readily imagine the precise setting in which they would like to change their behavior.

Step 6. Instead, individuals should identify the emotions, sensations, or thoughts that tend to coincide with the habits they would like to change. To illustrate, when they eat excessively, they might often feel bored or dejected. These individuals should thus form the intention to change their behavior in response to these emotions, sensations, and thoughts. They might, for example, imagine themselves feeling bored and dejected. They might then form the intention to eat only healthy food in this context.

In this example, the implementation intention, thus, coincides with a specific mental state rather than a particular location. This exercise has been shown to curb undesirable habits (Adriaanse, de Ridder, & de Wit, 2009).


Adriaanse, M. A., de Ridder, D. T. D., & de Wit, J. B. F. (2009). Finding the critical cue: Implementation intentions to change one's diet work best when tailored to personally relevant reasons for unhealthy eating. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 60-71.

Brandstatter, V., Lengfelder, A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2001). Implementation intentions and efficient action initiation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 946-960.

Downie, M., Koestner, R., Horberg, E., & Haga, S. (2006). Exploring the relation of independent and interdependent self-construals to why and how people pursue personal goals. Journal of Social Psychology, 146, 517-531.

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Minjung, K., & Fishbach, A. (2008). Dynamics of self-regulation: How (un)accomplished goal actions affect motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 183-195.

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Petrova, P. K., & Cialdini, R. B. (2005). Fluency of consumption imagery and the backfire effects of imagery appeals. Journal of Consumer Research, 32, 442-452.

Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Topciu, R. A. (2005). Implementation intentions, perfectionism, and goal progress: Perhaps the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 902-912.

Sheeran, P., Webb, T. L., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2005). The interplay between goal intentions and implementation intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31 ,87-98.

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Last Update: 4/28/2016