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Why do we fail to reach our goals? Whether it's wanting to impress our bosses, find a loving relationship, straighten out our finances, or take better care of ourselves—we all feel that there is at least one part of our lives that is in real need of improvement. (And, in reality, it's usually more than just one part.) We want to do better, we even try to do better, but somehow we fall short or miss the mark—sometimes over and over again. So we go looking for something to blame for our failures, and most of the time we blame ourselves. We feel like we just don't have what it takes—whatever that is—to reach our goals. And we could not be more wrong.
As a social psychologist, I've spent years studying achievement. I've carefully observed thousands of research participants pursue goals at work, in the classroom, on the playing field, and in my own laboratory. I've asked people to fill out weeks of daily diary reports, telling me all about the goals they pursue in their everyday lives. I've reviewed hundreds and hundreds of studies on goals and motivation. And I've come to a few conclusions, two of which I'll share with you now.
Most of us blame our failures on the wrong things. Even very smart, accomplished people don't understand why they succeed or fail. Before I started studying this for a living, my intuitions about achievement were no better than anyone else's. I thought that I was good at school and disastrous at sports because I was born that way. I wasn't—actually, no one is simply "born that way." I had a lot to learn.
Another conclusion I've reached after all these years of studying achievement is that anyone can be more successful at reaching his or her goals. Anyone can. I really can't emphasize that enough. But the first step is to put aside your beliefs about why you've succeeded or failed in the past, because they are probably wrong. And the second step is to read this book.
You may not be aware that the government keeps track of this, but on its website www.USA.gov, you can find a list of the most popular perennial New Year's resolutions Americans make. On that list, you probably won't be surprised to find both "lose weight" and "quit smoking." Every January, millions of people—and like me, you may be one of them—have set one of these two goals for themselves, vowing that this is the year that they will finally get healthy, fit into their skinny jeans, or stop spending a small fortune on cigarettes.
According to the latest reports issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two out of three Americans are overweight, and one in three is obese. The majority of these individuals would very much prefer to weigh less. Overweight individuals not only grapple with an increased susceptibility to heart disease and diabetes, but they contend with the self-esteem-crushing consequences of being heavy in a society in which thin is in. And yet, despite an abundance of diet books and plans, and a very real and powerful desire to be slim, relatively few people who set out to lose weight actually manage to lose it and keep it off long-term. We're not getting any thinner, and our skinny jeans are still waiting for us in our closets.
The CDC also keeps track of smokers—today, roughly one in five adult Americans smoke. In its surveys, seven out of ten smokers reported that they wanted to quit smoking completely, and nearly half of those who wanted to quit (over 19 million) had stopped smoking for at least one day in the previous twelve months in an attempt to kick the habit. Only about 3 million manage to make it last—that means that about 85 percent of the people who want to quit, and have actually set themselves the goal of quitting, fail. In spite of all the public awareness of the serious risks to one's health, nearly half a million Americans die every year from smoking-related illnesses. So if you're a smoker and you fail to quit smoking, you may well die as a result of it. And the 85 percent of people who try to quit and fail each year know it.
So, why the high failure rates? It's obviously not that the many who try to lose weight or quit smoking aren't motivated. There aren't many incentives more powerful than knowing "this could kill you." Why then do people fail, over and over again, to achieve goals that are vital to their well-being? The most common answer you'll hear, and probably the one you were thinking when I asked that question, is that it's about willpower. And by "willpower," I mean some innate quality of inner strength that allows those who have it to successfully avoid temptation. Most people believe that it's fundamentally a character issue. Some people have willpower (the thin, nonsmokers—and we admire them for it). Others don't, and we judge them accordingly. Those who don't are simply weaker, less successful people, with less admirable character traits.
Interestingly, that's not only how we describe the failures of others—it's also how we describe our own shortcomings. Countless times I've heard colleagues, students, and friends talk about how they "just can't stop" smoking, "just can't resist" the dessert cart, "just can't get going" on a difficult project. And once you've decided you just don't have the willpower to lose weight or quit smoking or stop procrastinating, why bother trying? What hope is there for you?
Well, the answer is that there is actually plenty of hope for you, because it turns out that willpower is not what you think it is. And it might be helpful to use a less lofty term for it, because what we are really talking about here is plain old self-control. Self-control is the ability to guide your actions in pursuit of a goal—to persevere and stay on course, despite temptations, distractions, and the demands of competing goals. It's really, really important—one of the critical elements necessary for achieving your goals that I'll be talking a lot about in this book. But it doesn't work the way you think it does.
Successful People and the Paradox of Self-Control
First of all, it's simply not the case that some people have it and others don't. If that were true, then you'd expect all the people in the world to break down very clearly into "winners" and "losers." Because they are in possession of the mighty power of self-control, successful people would be successful all the time, winning at everything they do. And unsuccessful people, the ones utterly lacking in this critical ability, would pretty much stink at everything they tried. Why, without any self-control, these people would find it nearly impossible just to get out of bed in the morning!
It's obvious that none of that is actually true. Winners don't win at everything, and no one is so lacking in self-control that they can't accomplish anything. It's true that some people may have more self-control than others, but everyone has some. And as it turns out, even people with a lot of self-control sometimes run out. To vividly illustrate this point, all you need to do is think about all the very successful people—people who have risen to the very top of their game—who have struggled publicly with one of these two difficult New Year's resolutions.
Celebrities who have talked openly about their many attempts to lose weight and keep it off include Grammy-winning musicians (Janet Jackson, Wynonna Judd) and Oscar or Emmy-winning actors (Oprah Winfrey, Roseanne Barr, Kirstie Alley, Rosie O'Donnell, Elizabeth Taylor). As you've probably noticed in the checkout aisle, popular magazines are constantly splashing photos of these and other well-known faces on their covers. Sometimes, the celebrity proudly displays a slimmed-down body that is the hard-earned result of a healthy diet and exercise. At other times, the photo reveals the consequences of a return to bad habits, along with some very unkind comments. (If you're wondering why I listed only women celebrities, it's not because successful men don't struggle with their weight, too. Women are simply more likely to talk publicly about it.)
This is probably a good time to point out that while we do sometimes fail to reach our goals because we don't know what we need to do to reach them, it's more often the case that we know exactly what needs to happen, and still we fail. Everyone knows that eating less and exercising more will help you lose weight. But knowing is one thing, and actually doing it is another thing entirely. Many of us can look at our own struggles with whatever it may be and see that very clearly—whether it's weight loss, quitting smoking, realizing our potential at school or work, repairing (or staying out of ) dysfunctional relationships. We seem to make the same mistakes over and over again, even though we feel we know better—even when failing to reach our goal subjects us to unpleasant, often cruel public scrutiny.
Speaking of public scrutiny, there is perhaps no better example of how a very successful person can have a tough time conquering his New Year's resolutions than our current president and his on-again, off-again battle to quit smoking. In February 2007, then senator Obama told the Chicago Tribune that he had resolved to quit smoking once and for all.
I've quit periodically over the last several years. I've got an ironclad demand from my wife that in the stresses of the campaign I don't succumb.
It didn't last. President-elect Obama told Tom Brokaw in late 2008 that he had stopped, but that "there are times when I've fallen off the wagon." As the New York Times reported in December 2008, "his good-humored waffling in various interviews about smoking made it plain that Mr. Obama, like many who have vowed to quit at this time of year, had not truly done so." There's really no way of knowing if or when the president kicks his habit—his staff doesn't discuss it, and he's not likely to be caught smoking on the White House lawn. I certainly hope he has quit; but it would hardly be surprising if he hasn't, given that it can take smokers as many as ten or more attempts before they finally quit for good.
Does President Obama lack self-control? Hardly. Barack Obama worked his way up from relatively modest beginnings to become arguably the most powerful man in the world. His meteoric rise from community organizer to Harvard Law Review president, state senator, U.S. senator, and finally president of the United States would be worthy of admiration were he the son of well-connected, New England bluebloods. But he isn't—he's the mixed-race child of a broken home and a family of average means, with no particular advantages other than his clearly extraordinary intelligence and determination. Even if you're not a fan, you've got to admit that this is a guy who knows something about reaching goals.
All the individuals I've mentioned have known extraordinary success. Many have overcome nearly insurmountable obstacles and adversity in order to achieve what they've achieved. Countless children dream of one day becoming an award-winning artist or a powerful world leader. Very few actually do it. No one achieves that kind of success without possessing a lot of self-control. Achieving even ordinary, garden-variety successes requires plenty of self-control. Think back to the achievements in your own life—the ones you are most proud of. I'll bet you needed to work hard, persist despite difficulty, and stay focused, when it would have been much easier for you to just relax and not bother. You needed to avoid temptation, when it would have been more fun to give in. And you probably needed to be critical and honest with yourself, when it would have been far more pleasant to just let yourself believe that you were awesome and needed no improvements. Each of those aspects of reaching a goal requires self-control. Undoubtedly, someone like President Obama is in possession of an extraordinary capacity for self-control. But the president has repeatedly quit smoking only to start up again. How can that make sense?
What Self-Control Is Really Like
Actually, it makes perfect sense if you understand the true nature of self-control. And recently, in light of some very interesting research findings, psychologists have come to understand that the capacity for self-control is very much like a muscle. That's right—like a bicep or tricep. I know that sounds odd, but let me explain.
Like a muscle, self-control can vary in its strength—not only from person to person, but from moment to moment. Even well-developed biceps sometimes get tired, and so too does your self-control muscle. In one of the earliest tests of this theory of self-control strength (or self-regulatory strength, as it is sometimes called), Roy Baumeister and his colleagues presented very hungry college students with a bowl of chocolates and a bowl of radishes.
Both bowls were placed on a table in front of each student, who was then left alone to stare at the bowls. Some of the students were asked to eat two or three of the radishes during their alone time, and to not eat any of the chocolates. Others (the lucky ones) were asked to eat two or three chocolates, while avoiding the radishes. Compared to the chocolate eaters, the radish eaters should have had to use up a fair amount of self-control. It's hard enough for most people to eat a raw radish, or to not eat readily available chocolates—just imagine doing both.
Next, to see how much self-control the students in each group had used up, Baumeister gave them each a puzzle to work on. The puzzle was difficult—actually, it was unsolvable—but what interested Baumeister was how long the students would work on it before giving up. As the "muscle" theory would predict, he found that the radish eaters gave up much faster than the chocolate eaters. They even reported feeling more tired afterward.
So how does this relate to you and me, and to situations that don't necessarily involve radishes? Think of it this way—if you've just finished working out, chances are your muscles will be tired, and you'll have sapped some of the strength you started with when you arrived at the gym. If you've just finished doing something that requires a lot of self-control (like producing a television show or leading the free world), you've probably spent a lot of your self-control strength as well. Recent research shows that even everyday actions like making a decision or trying to make a good impression can sap this valuable resource. People who are very successful in one or more areas of their life are successful precisely because that's where they devote the bulk of their capacity for self-control. When you deal with a lot of stress all day, no matter who you are, you may find yourself depleted and vulnerable to goal failure.
In an article in O magazine, Oprah concludes a discussion of her most recent weight gain by observing:
What I've learned this year is that my weight issue isn't about eating less or working out harder…; It's about my life being out of balance, with too much work and not enough play, not enough time to calm down. I let the well run dry.
I think that last remark is particularly insightful and right on the money. When you tax it too much, the well of self-control will certainly run dry.
What You Can Do about It
So perhaps now you're thinking, "Okay, my failure to lose weight isn't because I lack willpower in general, but because I've spent it all on other important goals, like succeeding at work. Great. How does that help me, exactly?" Fair enough. It helps you because, if you understand the kind of thing self-control is, you can plan accordingly. This brings us to another way in which self-control is like a muscle—namely, that if you rest it for a while, you get your strength back. Depletion is only temporary, and you are most vulnerable immediately after you've used up your self-control reserves. Did you ever notice how dealing with a temptation seems to get easier over time? It may feel like torture to forgo that dessert or cigarette, or to think about starting work on that project you've been dreading, but it doesn't keep torturing you quite so much as time passes. If you can get past that moment when your self-control is nearly spent and give it time to bounce back, you're probably going to be just fine.
There are other ways around this problem, too. A lack of self-control strength can sometimes be overcome with well-chosen incentives or rewards. Psychologists Mark Muraven and Elisaveta Slessareva told students participating in a study at Case Western Reserve University to watch a five-minute video clip of Robin Williams performing a particularly funny piece of stand-up. Half of the students were told that they would be under observation and were instructed not to laugh or smile while watching the video. This took a lot of self-control (it was a very funny clip), and it sapped their willpower resources. To demonstrate this depletion, all of the students were then given a cup of orange Kool-Aid to drink—except instead of using sugar, the experimenters made it with vinegar. It was unpleasant, though drinkable if you forced yourself. If you've ever psyched yourself up to swallow cold medicine, you know that it's an act that requires significant self-control, but it's doable.
Muraven and Slessareva didn't stop there—they also varied how much the students would be paid for every ounce of vinegar Kool-Aid they managed to get down. When the students were receiving relatively low pay for drinking the vinegar Kool-Aid (one cent per ounce), those who had been allowed to laugh at Robin Williams drank twice as much as those who had to suppress their laughter, demonstrating that that latter group had indeed depleted their self-control strength. But among students who were paid well (twenty-five cents per ounce) the effect completely disappeared. Even the suppressors managed to drink down quite a lot of the gross concoction.
Does this mean that money can create self-control? Or, to put it differently, that rewards can replenish your willpower? Not exactly—it's probably more accurate to say that increasing your motivation through better rewards can help you compensate for a temporary loss of self-control. This is no doubt why so many successful dieters report that they used nonfood rewards as a key part of their diet strategies. Increasing your motivation, in whatever way works for you, is an excellent way to tip the scales back in your favor when you're just too tired to resist temptation.
Another way in which willpower, or self-control, is different than you may have imagined is that it's neither innate nor unchangeable. Self-control is learned, and developed and made stronger (or weaker) over time. If you want more self-control, you can get more. And you get more self-control the same way you get bigger muscles—you've got to give it regular workouts. Recent research has shown that engaging in daily activities such as exercising, keeping track of your finances or what you are eating—or even just remembering to sit up straight every time you think of it—can help you develop your overall self-control capacity. For example, in one study, students who were assigned to (and stuck to) a daily exercise program not only got physically healthier, but they also became more likely to wash dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, and less likely to impulsively spend money.
In another demonstration of how self-control strength can be increased through regular use, Matthew Gailliot and his colleagues asked participants in an experiment to spend two weeks using their non-dominant hand to do things like brush their teeth, stir drinks, eat, open doors, and use the computer mouse. (In another version of this study, they asked participants to refrain from cursing, only speak in complete sentences, say yes and no instead of yeah and nope, and avoid starting sentences with I.) After two weeks of training their self-control muscle, compared to a no-training group, they performed significantly better on a task that required self-control. Specifically, they were better able to avoid using any stereotypes when forming an impression of a person. Sadly, that turns out to be very hard to do, though that is a topic for another book.
The Topic of This Book
I've spent a lot of time in this introduction talking about self-control, not only because it's important, but because it's a great example of how our intuitions about things that seem obvious can sometimes fail us. And consequently, it's also a great example of how the science of psychology can be really useful—helping us to see not only what kind of thing willpower really is, but also how we can, if we want to, get our hands on some more of it.
This book isn't actually just about willpower, however. It's about achieving goals, and self-control is just one piece of that puzzle. Specifically, Succeed is about understanding how goals work, what tends to go wrong, and what you can do to reach your goals or to help others reach theirs.
Too much of the advice you'll typically hear about reaching your goals is both obvious and useless—we all know we're supposed to do things like "Stay Positive!" "Make a Plan!" and "Take Action!" But why do I need to stay positive? Is that even always true? (No.) And what kind of plan should I make? Does it matter? (Yes.) And how do I take action? I know that to lose weight I need to eat less and exercise more, but I never seem to actually do it. Can I fix that? (You bet.)
Some of the advice in this book may surprise you—in fact, I'm certain it will. But that advice is drawn from excellent sources—not only my own research on goals and motivation, but several decades and many hundreds of rigorous experimental and field studies, conducted by some of the world's leading scientific psychologists. I wish that I could have called this book Succeed: The Three Things You Need to Do to Reach All Your Goals. At the very least, I'd probably sell more books that way. But it's not that simple—there are more than three things you need to know. For example, it turns out that there are many ways to frame the same goal in your mind. Do you think of getting that promotion as something you ideally would achieve, or as something you ought to achieve? Is mastering your classwork about developing skills or proving that you're smart? Those differences matter—differently framed goals need to be pursued with different strategies and are more or less vulnerable to different kinds of errors. Frame a goal one way, and the person pursuing it will work hard but never love what he is doing. Frame a goal another way, and you'll create interest and enjoyment—but to be honest, probably not spectacular performance (at least not in the short run). For some goals, confidence is essential, while for others it doesn't seem to matter if you're sure or shaky.
The important thing is that while achieving your goals is a bit more complicated than just doing "Three Things," it's not overly complicated, either. In Part 1 of the book, "Get Ready," I'll talk about the key principles of goal-setting that seem to be universally true, whether you're pursuing goals at work, in relationships, or for self-development. In Part 2, "Get Set," you'll learn about the different kinds of goals we set for ourselves, focusing on the few distinctions that seem to matter the most. I'll show you how to choose the goal that will work best for you personally in your situation. And you'll learn how to instill the most beneficial goals in your children, students, and employees. In Part 3, "Go," I'll take you step by step through the most common reasons we fail to reach our goals once we've started pursuing them. And you'll learn effective, often simple and easy-to-implement strategies for avoiding these pitfalls in the future.
In the last decade or two, social psychologists have come to know a lot about how goals work. Succeed is my attempt to take that knowledge out of the academic journals and handbooks and spread it around a bit more so that it can do some good.
Posted May 30, 2011
I see a lot of excited, effusive book reviews: "Read this book!" I think this book too is one you should read, but for compelling, logical reasons: the first being that it really has the capability of changing how well you get things done. That alone should make it worthwhile, but here are other reasons. The author has devoted her life to this topic. She broadly surveys the psychological studies done previously (which I thought was excellent - not just her research or opinions). The lessons are easy to apply, and they apply to all of us - over-achiever or procrastinator alike. She summarizes each chapter in a few, direct pages, in case you want only the lessons and techniques she recommends to change how well you get things done. She makes complex studies easy to understand. As an example of one lesson in the book, she shares a technique that will double your chances of following through on a commitment. If you want to be more successful at getting things done, and getting others to get things done, this book is worth reading.
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