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How to Finally Achieve Your Goals in 2020, According to Science

Fix one thing before you do anything else.


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Daniel Mowinski

2 years ago | 4 min read

Through most of my twenties, I struggled with two conflicting sides of my personality.

I was (and still am) a lavish goal-setter. I loved to snuggle down on a winter’s evening and plan my goals for the coming year, outline my strategies for achieving them, and plot nice little time-frames.

But I was also a chronic procrastinator. And I mean chronic. If lying in bed while scrolling through YouTube videos was paying work, I’d have ousted Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest man years ago.

I realized I needed to attack this problem head-on. So I turned to science. I read dozens of books, experimented with new ideas, and spent hours poring over research papers.

In this post, I’ll share what I learned — the insights and strategies that enabled me to pursue my goals with commitment, persistence, and only the occasional lie-in.

Have You Got a Self-Motivation Problem?

Your plan of action is like a set of directions. You’re at point A and you want to get to point B. You’ve got a map with a route sketched on. And your motivation, your desire to undertake the journey, is the fuel in the car that will carry you to your destination.

Yes, willpower will get you over the bumpy bits. Positive habits, such as sitting at your desk every morning at 8 AM sharp, will support you. The dictum “just do it” will certainly push you across the starting line. But to maintain long-term commitment, you need to actually like the work.

Research shows that “intrinsic motivation”, the desire to undertake a complex task or routine because it’s satisfying, is by far the best driver of long-term performance, persistence, and success.

So here’s the crucial piece of the puzzle:

To ensure progress in goal-oriented tasks, you need to foster “intrinsic motivation”. The work required to achieve your goals should excite you because it’s fulfilling and inherently rewarding.
Knowing how to structure a task in the right way, so it “flicks your motivation switches”, is essential. It’s also important to adopt the right practices alongside a task. Both these strategies make up the all-important skill of “self-motivation”.

Dr. Ayelet Fishbach, citing years of research, states in the Harvard Business Review:

…effective self-motivation is one of the main things that distinguishes high-achieving professionals from everyone else.

And there’s good news: self-motivation is a learnable skill. It’s about using the right understanding, tools, and rituals to maintain your drive and inspiration.

Daniel H. Pink puts it well in Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

The science demonstrates that once people learn…fundamental practices and attitudes — and can exercise them in supportive settings — their motivation, and their ultimate performance, soars.

Fundamentally, a driven person knows how to use the right “practices and attitudes” to keep their motivation simmering nicely along.

Where Willpower and “Just Do It” Come In

A lot of people don’t like the word “motivation”. They equate it to “sitting around waiting to feel good”. And some writers on Medium have even conjectured that motivation doesn’t exist. Instead, they suggest, the best strategy is to get off your bum and “just do it”.

But I think this is a potentially catastrophic mistake. Why? Because “just do it” — another way of saying “rely on your willpower and suffer through” — isn’t a viable long-term strategy.

It’s true that at times, no matter how attractive a task is, or how good your motivation rituals, you’ll feel apathetic. In these cases, “just doing it” can be effective.

Action can lead to motivation (rather than vice versa) but, in my experience, it only works for those tasks that are already intrinsically enjoyable and engaging. Exercise is a great example. You just need a temporary boost to get your serotonin pumping, after which the activity becomes its own reward.

But adherence to the mantra “just do it” is doomed in the long-term. Willpower is the ability to act even when you don’t want to. And research suggests you can only exercise so much of it. It’s a useful tool for getting started when you’re in a rut. But it’s no alternative for sustained motivation.

Practical, Science-Backed Ways to Boost Goal-Related Motivation

So how can you consciously cultivate motivation?

This is a huge topic, and I’d highly recommend you pick up a book like Drive by Daniel H. Pink or The Now Habit by Richard Fiore. Both offer in-depth overviews and introduce you to a raft of motivational tools.

For now, here are some of my favourite tips for boosting intrinsic motivation:

  • Set “mastery” goals and not just “performance” goals: Mastery goals, which boost performance and motivation, are geared towards increasing competence. “Reach 20 new customers per month,” and, “Write 1000 words a day,” are mastery goals. “Make $3000/month,” and “Lose 50 lbs so people will compliment me” are performance goals.
  • Foster a sense of progress: Research shows that a “sense of progress” is an essential part of maintaining interest in a task. Regularly expose yourself (weekly or even daily) to positive results associated with your work.
  • Challenge negative self-talk: Often, negative chatter is responsible for feelings of inertia in relation to a task. Challenge the most common culprits.
  • Reaffirm your purpose: Human beings crave purposeful work. Reminding yourself of how a task fits with your broader purpose will have an uplifting effect.
  • Give yourself small rewards: Small rewards, given directly after or during a task, increase the “intrinsic motivation” associated with it.
  • Undertake “Goldilocks” tasks: Goldilocks tasks encourage states of “flow”. They combine the right balance of ease and challenge. Ensure your chosen project involves these kinds of activities.

Commit to Mastering The Skill of Self-Motivation

Consider how different your life could be if you knew with nearly 100% certainty that you would be able to stick to any plan you set.

For most people, that’s an exciting (and maybe even scary) thought. But it’s not out of reach.

Self-motivation is one of the best-understood and most researched areas of personal growth. It can be learned and leveraged for exceptional results.

Make the commitment, right now, to master this fundamental skill.

Your future self will thank you.

This article was originally published on medium.

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