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The 7 keys to setting effective goals

Creating an action plan for success may be simpler than you think, says Rory Gallagher.

Dreaming big is an exciting and inspiring part of creating change. But when it comes to actually turning your goals into a plan for success, the key might be to think smaller.

In their new book, Think Small, Owain Service and Rory Gallagher outline the surprisingly simple, scientifically-proven steps to achieving your goals. Here, Rory shares a few insights.

A goal-setting process that works

When it comes to setting goals, all the knowledge in the world of behavioural science won’t change the fact that we’re all susceptible to human frailties. While mistakes and setbacks are to be expected, by using a framework achieving your goals could be far more simple.

Working in applied behavioural science as part of part of the Behavioural Insights Team, a social purpose company, it became clear that many of the same lessons used for public policy could be applied personally. So, I developed a framework organised around seven simple steps to help anyone achieve their goals.

1. Set your goal

Many of us fail at this first step – by focusing on too many things and not stopping to think about whether any of these goals might ultimately make us happier. Go with the evidence: focus on a goal that will improve your wellbeing, and set a single key objective.

2. Make a plan

The key here is to create simple, clear rules that reduce the cognitive effort required to stick to your goal. If you want to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, try setting yourself a simple, easy-to-follow rule, like “no drinking during the week while at home”. These ‘bright lines’ are much easier to follow than more complex rules because they don’t require any calculating, and make it easy to know when you’ve stepped over the line.

3. Commit to achieving it

You’re much more likely to succeed if you make a public commitment, write it down, and then appoint someone to act as your ‘commitment referee’. When I wanted to exercise more, I commandeered a whiteboard at work, wrote down a commitment to exercise three times a week for three months, and appointed a colleague as my commitment referee.

4. Reward yourself

Many of us recognise the benefit of a reward in motivating ourselves to achieve a goal, but a reward can backfire if it’s poorly targeted, and might turn your motivation into a financial transaction.

Instead, try small rewards along the path to the ultimate goal, and a big, ideally non-financial reward to celebrate your ultimate goal.

5. Share your goal

One of the simplest things you can do to help achieve your goal is to ask others to help you. Imagine how many people you know who would be willing to help you achieve your goal, if only you asked them. Countless studies show that if you work with others, you’re more likely to ultimately succeed.

6. Seek out feedback

It’s no good setting yourself a long-term goal if you don’t know where you stand in relation to it, and whether you’re making progress. It is also incredibly powerful to understand how you are performing in relation to other people. Surround yourself with people who are willing to provide constructive feedback.

7. Stick to your goal

Once you’ve put these steps into practice, it’s time to employ techniques that will enable you to stick to your goal. One of the most important techniques is to test new ideas, and to incorporate these learnings into your future routines. You want to test variations in your routine or rules, so you can see which are having the strongest effect. And then, ultimately, do more of the stuff that works best, and less of the things that don’t make a difference.

For more strategies on setting goals, get your hands on Think Small: the surprisingly simple ways to reach big goals by Owain Service and Rory Gallagher.

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