Succeed : How we can reach our goals | Book Notes #5

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.

The New Year is just around the corner, with it comes reminders about creating a New Year’s resolution. Ah, I have a love and hate relationship with this one. I love it because the new year seems to bring that feeling of new beginnings, of clean slate and fresh starts, so it’s perfect time for setting a new goals for the rest of the year. But then, I hate also because after about 3 weeks or so, all that enthusiasm that I had for the new goal seems to disappear and my new year resolution along with it. It gets frustrating after a while, frustrating enough to put me off from the whole thing. My mindset was I must be bad with this whole goal setting thing, and I just don’t have enough self-discipline to do it for the whole year, so I just won’t bother with it.

But I now realized that I’ve been looking at it all wrong, I was looking at goal setting as either something I can or can not do, an inborn trait of sorts. Not as a skill that I can learn to do, improve on and be better at. In reading this book Succeed: How we can reach our goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson, I learned all about goal setting. I learned the following lessons:
  1. how to choose the right goals which will make me happy
  2. that there are different approaches to goal setting, learning which one we usually use and which one to use in different situations can be a great advantage
  3. steps and strategies for more effective goal setting

Lesson 1: Choosing the right goals

Ever heard of those rich and famous people in interviews where they admit to being unhappy with their lives, despite seemingly having everything? They worked hard to get to where they are but after having achieved the fame and money they wanted they realized it didn’t make them happy. I’ve always wondered why and this book has possible reason for it.

In the book, the author talks about two kinds of happiness:

“Achieving any goal will generally give you at least a moment of happiness. But there is happiness—that pleasant but often fleeting sensation of goodness, and then there is happiness—the head-to-toe feeling of lasting warmth and well being that comes from pursuing certain kinds of goals.”

The two kind of happiness are the fleeting kind and the lasting kind. Fame and fortune only gives the fleeting kind of happiness not the lasting kind that they were probably expecting.

But how do you know which goals gives the lasting kind of happiness? How do you make sure you’re pursuing the right kind?

The answer – is that your goal should be able to satisfy your basic human needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy.

Basic human needs:

  1. Relatedness
    • “Relatedness is the desire to feel connected to and care for others—to love and be loved. It’s the reason we form friendships and intimate relationships throughout our lives”
    • We are social beings, so it’s not surprising that one of our basic human needs is the desire to be connected with others. Goals for making connections, deepening relationships and contributing to our communities satisfy our relatedness needs.
  2. Competence
    • “The desire for competence is about being able to have an effect on your environment and being able to get the things you want out of it”
    • Goals for learning  a new skill, personal grown will satisfy this need.
  3. Autonomy
    • “.. is about experiencing a feeling of volition, of authenticity, of choice. It’s believing that you are the origin of your own actions- that they reflect your beliefs and values.”
    • Goals that we choose, not our parents, not our boss, not our partners – but us. We put in more effort and enjoy working on a goal more if it’s something we choose.
    • “..self-chosen goals create a special kind of motivation called intrinsic motivation — the desire to do something for it’s own sake. When people are intrinsically motivated, they enjoy what they are doing more. They find it more interesting. They find that they are more creative and they process information more deeply. They persist more in the face of difficulty. They perform better…”
    • This is why overly controlling learning environments that doles out rewards and punishments does not produce intrinsically motivated students. Being allowed to make a choice and choosing our actions helps increase our intrinsic motivation.
    • There’s a really interesting quirk in our need for autonomy, because it doesn’t really even have to be an actual choice, it can be just be a feeling like we are making a choice. Like in the example mentioned in the book about a study on young children, where they were given a computerized math learning program with a science fiction theme. One group were given a feeling of choice, by allowing them to select the name of the spaceship icon they are using and the name of the enemy ship. The other group were not given any choice, the names were pre-selected for them. The results, the children who were given the feeling of choice were more willing to continue playing even using up their recess time to do so.
    • “Intrinsic motivation can be protected and even restored when we percieve our environment as autonomy-supportive. when we feel our inner experience is acknowledged and we are offered choices, even trivial illusory choices, our need for autonomy is satisfied, and our motivation and well-being enhanced”

Lesson 2: Different approaches to goals

When I brush my teeth or open doors, I tend to use my right hand without even consciously thinking about it.  I’m right handed, so using my right hand to do most of my activities is my natural tendency. We have natural tendencies, automatic things we do by default, even when there are other alternatives.

As I learned from the book, we also have natural tendencies in our way of thinking when it comes to approaching a goal. We tend to default to one way of thinking too, just like I default to using my right hand. That’s not saying we can’t shift from one to the other, because we can, just like with our hands we aren’t confined to one choice.

  1. Behavior: Abstract vs. Concrete
    • When thinking about our behavior towards our goals, we tend to think either in abstract or concrete way.
    Abstract Concrete

    Thinking about our goal in an abstract way  is when we focus on the thinking about  why we are doing something. We tend to focus on the big picture. We think of how the task we are doing is connected to our goal.

    It’s useful when you want to get motivated or enhance self-control.

    On the other hand we can think about our behaviour towards our goals  in concrete terms. This is when we focus on the what  – the steps or nitty-gritty of what we need to do.

    It’s useful when we are dong something unfamiliar or difficult. What we need to do is break down the task to specific steps.

    To think in abstract way, you can ask yourself these questions:
    • What is the purpose of the action for you?
    • What goal does it help you achieve?
    • How will you benefit for it?
    To think in a concrete way you can ask yourselves these questions:
    • What should be my first step?
    • What is the next specific action that I need to take in order to accomplish this goal?
  2. Focus: Promotion vs. Prevention
    • When thinking about our focus, we tend to think either in prmotion focused way or prevention focused way.
    Promotion Focus Prevention Focus

    “Promotion-focused goals are thought about in terms of achievement and accomplishment. They are about doing something you would ideally like to do. In the language of economics, they are about maximizing gains”

    The main focus here is the gain.

    People with this focus get motivated by the goal if the chances of succeeding is higher. They tend to have more risk bias.

    When you are promotion focused, you are more eager and enthusiastic to succeed. Positive feedback helps encourage more action and negative feedback dampens it.

    If you want to inspire, you can show the positive role models and give them advice about the value of optimism.

    “Prevention-focused goals are thought about in terms of safety and danger. They are about fulfilling responsibilities, doing the things you feel you ought to do. In economic terms, they are about minimizing losses, trying to hang on to what you’ve got.”

    The main focus is the prevention of loss, for people with prevention focus a goal is a necessity, they don’t much care about the chances of success ( like matters of life and death).

    They tend to have a more conservative bias.

    When you are prevention focused you are more vigilant, negative feedback just motivates you more, because you are ever more alert for the possibility of failure.

    If you want to inspire, it would be better to tell a cautionary tale or a negative role model and advice them on the virtues of defensive pessimism ( setting low expectations and preparing for possible obstacles).

    To shift to promotion focus, ask:

    • What outcome do we want to achieve and what behaviours will promote them?

    To shift to prevention focus, ask:

    • What outcome do we want to avoid and how can we prevent that from happening?
  3. Mindset: Fixed vs. Growth
    • What we believe about our abilities can have a big effect on our achievement. Dr. Halvorson referenced Dr. Dweck’s book Mindset which I also read summarized before here. In Dr. Dweck’s book she labeled the two mindset as fixed and growth mindset, in this book Dr. Halvorson labeld them as get good mindset and getting better mindset, respectively.
    Fixed Mindset (Get good mindset) Growth Mindset (Get better mindset)
    When you believe that your traits like intelligence or athletic ability is something you either were born with or not. When you believe that your abilities can be improved on with effort and persistence
      When we have a fixed mindset, we tend to seek external validation that you do indeed posses that intelligence or ability. Your goals tend to be tied to your self worth. So you become preoccupied in proving yourself every chance you get. It can be incredibly motivating at first, trying to prove yourself as smart or athletic, but in the long run, when things get tough, it is not adaptive. When you have an either you have it or you don’t mindset, putting more effort into it doesn’t make sense because in your mind you should be able to do it already if you do indeed have the ability. This can lead to self doubt and depression.   When you have the growth mindset on the other hand, you seek progress over perfection. You desire to get better, your focus on learning and improving. If you are not making any progress, you change strategies or put in more effort, instead of blaming your lack of ability. When things get tough you persist because you believe with effort you can make progress. You also enjoy the journey more because you are focused on the process and not the outcome.

     To switch to fixed mindset:

    Frame it in a way that we will be compared with others and that our performance will determine our ability.

    To switch to growth mindset:

    Frame a situation in such a way that  what we are doing is an opportunity to learn a valuable skill and that we can improve over time.

I find that learning about our tendencies to be tremendously helpful for several reasons.
One, is that we now know that there’s an alternative, there’s a different way of thinking about our goals, so we are not stuck on the way we’ve always thought about them and with the information that we have. Two, we know how to shift from one to the other.
Three, learning about our own dominant ways of thinking can help us sift through the advice we get from books or other people, we can distinguish between the ones that are most likely work for us and the ones that will not. In turn, we could also help give better advice to people, once we learn about their own tendencies as well.
Lesson 3: Steps and strategies for more effective goal setting
  1. Choose a goal wisely
    • As mentioned earlier, goals that are good for our overall well being are the ones that satisfy our basic needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy. So when choosing a goal, it’s best to check if it falls in one of those needs.Great goals are also specific and difficult.Being specific means there’s a clear criteria of whether you reached it or not, not some vague, easy-to-find-loopholes goal that you can trick yourself into saying you’ve done it when things get boring or difficult.It also needs to be difficult but possible. Achieving a difficult goal in the end is better for our well being as we feel greater satisfaction from it compared to achieving an easy one.
  2. Find the WHY
    • You need to keep in mind the reason for why you are pursing your goal, especially in times when you get tired and unmotivated. Connecting the task at hand with the bigger picture will help you persist.
  3. Find the HOW
    • Listing the steps will give you a definite path to follow, gives direction to your effort. An effective plan details exactly what will be done, when, where and how.
    • You can use the if-then method in planning your steps.  For example, if your goal is to loose weight, then your if-then plan can go like this:  if it’s Saturday afternoon, then I will go to the gym. It was mentioned in the book from that the if-then planning is “the single most effective thing you can do to increase your chances of success.”
  4. What’s the cost?
    • Once you are done listing the steps, you can determine the cost in terms of time, effort, money and other resources. This will help you determine the feasibility ( whether you are likely to reach your goals or not) of succeeding. This will help you determine if you  will need to get more resources to go ahead with pursuing this goal or do it some other time.
  5. Plan for obstacles
    • Think about the obstacles and temptations that will arise in pursuing your goal. Then form a plan in dealing with them. You can use the if-then planning method to plan on dealing with obstacles too.
  6. Monitor your progress
    • “When it comes to goals, your brain works on a very simple principle: reduce discrepancies. That’s how psychologists refer to the difference between where you want to be (at your goal) and where you actually are. When your brain detects a discrepancy between them, it wants to take action to close the gap. “
    • Get feedback on how you are doing with your goals.  This feedback can come from the outside world ( grades, evaluation, money) or self generated. Monitoring is essential so you could adjust your behaviour and strategies accordingly.
    • If you find yourself not succeeding, resist blaming it on your lack of ability, instead figure out if it’s caused by needing:
      1. more time
      2. more effort
      3. a new approach
      4. help from expert
      5. greater self-control
      6. better plan

Strategies you can use for better goal setting:

  1. Set up the right environment
    • Some of are actions are intentional and executed with our conscious attention. But not all , majority of what we do happens without our awareness,  they happen unconsciously, it happens when we are on autopilot. Our environment influences our unconscious. If our environment is set up in such a way that it constantly remind us of our goal, we are more likely to succeed. Words we read (in posters or books) , or objects that we see and people we surround ourselves can influence us unconsciously.
  2. Use triggers
    • Surrounding ourselves with triggers also helps our unconscious mind to keep working towards our goal .
  3. Create a feeling of choice
    • This is especially helpful if the goals we need to achieve were assigned to you. The end goal maybe determined but you can have a feeling of choice in choosing some aspects of how it will be achieved. This satisfies our basic need of autonomy.
  4. Use the right Framing
    • Goals can be framed in different ways. This will be especially helpful when you are trying to convince others to adopt a goal. If you want to have promotion focus, you can ask them what  what they can gain, if you want them to have prevention focus, ask what you they can lose if they do fail. If you want to frame it as a performance goal, tell them they are going to be compared with others or that it their performance will determine their ability ( intelligence, creativity, etc), if you want to frame it as a mastery goal, tell them that what they are doing is an opportunity to learn a valuable skill and that they can improve over time.
  5. Use the right role models
    • Depending on your focus, you can either use a positive role model or  a cautionary tale.
  6. Use Visualization
    • Instead of visualizing the outcome, imagine the steps that you will take to get things done, imagine the process. You can also visualize the steps you will take when in case of obstacles. Imagining actions vividly beforehand will make you better prepared to take them
  7. Commit publicly
    • We are more likely to achieve our goals when we are accountable to others, find a friend, a family member you can be accountable to.
  8. Cultivate realistic optimism
    • Realistic optimism  is believing that you will succeed because of factors under your control, through putting effort and using the right strategies instead of luck, fate, or fixed ability. To check if your optimism is realistic do the following:
      1. Identify why you believe you will do well
      2. Challenge any unrealistic assumptions
      3. Replace unrealistic assumptions with plans to succeed
  9. Think about past achievements
    • When feeling demotivated, remind yourself about your past achievements, this will supply your brain proof that you are were able to accomplish goals before, therefore you can do it again.
  10. Develop your willpower
    • Willpower is like a muscle that we can exercise to get stronger.To improve,  what we need to do is to choose an activity that we don’t usually do, one that would require us to override our impulses to just give up or not bother doing it, make a plan ( use the if-then planning) and add it into our daily routine.It will not be easy at first, but will go easier over time as you develop your willpower muscles. Increasing your willpower muscle by doing that one activity could spill over to other areas of your life as well. It causes an upward spiral, the more willpower we have the better we are at executing the steps to achieve our goals.Like muscles though, exercising our will power can leave us tired. It gets depleted as we use it, and when it’s used up we are more vulnerable to temptations. So it’s best to not tax our willpower too to much, plan for rest so we could bounce back and not pursue several willpower challenges at once.

What I thought about Succeed: How we can reach our goals

Many of the ideas in this book were tackled by previous books I’ve read and written about before, like Mindset and Better than beforeso understandably the concepts discussed overlapped. But I didn’t really mind because repetition is essential for some concepts to really sink in. Plus I like that this one explained the tendencies of prevention and promotion focus in more detail  that it made me truly grasp how much it affects my behaviour and decision making process. It was a eureka moment for me.
The explanation about selecting goals that satisfy one’s basic needs is gold too. There are a lot of seemingly worthy goals to pursue that it’s sometimes difficult to choose, having those 3 criteria in mind every time I select a goal really helps. It narrows down the choices and serves as a guide post that we aren’t going the wrong way.
This is a great book to start with if you are setting a new year’s resolution. Create your goal plan using the steps in the book. With some goals, I think you can turn the action steps into habits, so it more automatic and easier to do in the long run. You can follow up your reading with Better than Before for other habit forming strategies which I think are also very helpful .

Book Summary of Succeed: How we can reach our goals

  • The right goals to pursue that will be good for our overall well being, should meet our basic needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy.
  • Abstract vs. Concrete : We have a tendency to think about our behaviour,  in an abstract terms by thinking about why we are doing it.
  • Promotion vs. Prevention: Our focus can either be promotion ( focused on gain) or prevention ( focus on what we could lose)
  • Fixed mindset vs. Growth mindset: Fixed mindset believes our abilities are either inborn or not, people with this mindset tend to pursue performance goals. Growth mindset on the other believes that abilities can be improved through effort, people with these mindset tend to pursue mastery goals.
  • Goal Setting:
    1. Choose your goals wisely( specific, difficult and meet our basic needs)
    2. Find the why
    3. Find the how
    4. What’s the cost
    5. Plan for obstacles . Use the if then planning.
    6. Monitor your progress.
  • Other Strategies
    1. Set up the right environment
    2. Use triggers
    3. Create a feeling of choice
    4. User the right framing
    5. Use the right role models
    6. Use visualization
    7. Cultivate realistic optimism
    8. Think about past achievements
    9. Develop your willpower muscles

Actionable Takeaways

  • Check my current goals if they satisfy the basic needs list
  • Choose one goal, write down a plan using the goal setting checklist and implement it.

Simple Rules
→ short, easy-to-remember rules I can set for myself to follow the principles of the book

  • Check a goal if it satisfies at least one of basic needs of either relatedness, competence or autonomy, if not, discard it.
  • A goal should have a why, when, where, how, what needs to be done, if-then for obstacles in the plan before it’s considered to be an actual goal, otherwise it’s just a wish or a want, and most likely will not succeed.

Interested in finding out more