During college, basketball was integral to my identity as a student-athlete and regular exercise was a part of the routine. Fast-forward to my professional life and time became even more scarce than it was in college with a hectic work schedule to go along with a slammed social calendar – exercising dropped off my long list of priorities. More recently, I’ve leveraged the science of goal pursuit to get back into my exercise routine.
Goal pursuit is a psychological term that describes the process by which someone formulates goals as well as how they strive toward achieving those goals. In the next couple of paragraphs, we are going to be discussing the best way to approach your goals by leveraging behavioral science to give you a leg up on the rest of the world when it comes to making your aspirations a reality.
The biggest mistake many of us make when setting goals for ourselves is attempting to achieve something massive without a proper plan; we focus on the outcome rather than the process to get there and get lost along the way. While the intent is good, the implications of “keeping our eye on the prize” can leave us feeling like a failure or that the end point in our journey is unattainable. Adam Alter, psychologist, and Professor of Marketing at NYU, broke down the subject of goal pursuit to Business Insider in 2017:
“The nature of a goal is such that you have, for most of the time, effectively a failure state where you’re not achieving whatever that goal is,” Alter says. “And that’s aversive. That feels pretty bad to most people.”
The question then becomes, how can we achieve a lofty goal like losing 50 pounds or running a marathon without getting down on ourselves? The secret is to think critically and in detail about the process, acknowledging the steps that need to be taken to get there. Plan ahead and set bite-sized goals for yourself rather than focusing on the final outcome. Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy has conducted considerable amounts of research in this area and is insistent that focusing on short-term goals that build into a long-term goal is the best way for an individual to establish the right habits to succeed in their endeavors.
“Eventually, in aggregate, you get there,” Cuddy says. “You may not even realize it, until one day you turn around say ‘Wow, this thing is much easier for me now than it was a year ago.’”
From my personal experience, I could not agree more. As mentioned earlier on, I faced a difficult transition from college to my professional life when it came to maintaining a regular exercise schedule. I remember thinking to myself, “How do I fix this? How do I get back to the point where I can play basketball for several hours? How do I get back to the point where I can do a dozen pullups?”. On numerous occasions I got myself back into a routine of exercising, but the minor monthly progress I saw was defeating. I went through a cycle of failed fitness attempts for several years: exercising regularly, feeling defeated, taking a break from exercising, feeling bad about myself, and repeat. After doing some reading on the subject, I decided to set smaller goals to build on and instead of feeling defeated in the context of my bigger fitness goals, my mental outlook shifted and I began to see those baby steps as a step in the right direction. Eventually I retained this outlook and I am in the best shape I have been in since 2015, with room to grow.
It does not matter if your goals are fitness-oriented, job-oriented, family-oriented, or any other type of orientation; this concept applies. Take the time to think about the little things that are required to achieve your end goal. Focus on the process, celebrate all progress, and you will enjoy the results.