Part 2 - Goal Setting
These researchers actually brought women in who had the goal of eating more fruits and vegetables, and they taught them this mental contrasting technique. And what you find, these circles are the mental contrasting case, is that in the beginning, just thinking about or indulging is good enough, but over time, if you really want to keep overcoming your obstacles, it seems like having both of those things in place helps. And it's a technique developed by Gabrielle Oettingen at NYU, who has this wonderful book on Rethinking Positive Thinking, where she describes this WOOP process, and all the data suggesting that it works.
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The last thing we’ll end on is one of the most empirically validated sets of things for behavior change and that’s thinking about your goals in a very specific way. Setting your goals using a couple of techniques that can make your goal achievement a lot easier. And so, we all think when we have goals, like some of you may have goals for some of the stuff we mentioned, but to actually actualize those, you have to consider them as goals. Research suggests that thinking about your goals in very specific ways can let you achieve them even more. And so, a few of the ways that you can think about them, first start with the idea of figuring out what your goal is. And so, that is what I’m going to refer to as goal specificity. And I mean something very specific, haha, about goal specificity, it’s this idea that you have some quantitative precision about your goal. Like, yes, I’m going to meditate. But how? Where? Am I going to meditate here in my house? Am I going to meditate by myself? Am I going to meditate today at 8:00 PM? How many times a week am I going to meditate? For how long? The quantitative specificity with which you define your goal, it turns out really seems to matter. And it matters in the way that you get specific about the task in the way you’re going to do it, that specificity seems to give you a plan of how to enact it. And so, we can see that across a bunch of different studies. I’ll just give you one. These folks had participants doing a hand-eye coordination task, and they wanted to set a goal of doing really well at it. And so, they just asked subjects if they had a specific performance goal. So, you’re doing this task, and they ask subjects, “Do you have a specific goal? Do you want it with your percentage correct that you want a hit? Or a specific speed? Like, what’s your specific goal?” Some subjects had it. Some subjects didn’t. But if you look at later subjects’ performance, what you find, is those who had more specific goals had a better task strategy. So, when you have this really specific goal, it forces you to figure out how you’re going to do it. And it’s actually figuring out how you’re going to do it that seems to lead to better performance. And so, the upshot is, for whatever goals you’re thinking about, make those goals incredibly specific. Like the who, what, where, when, all those different parts, write them down, see it quantitatively, and that will help you. That’s part number one: knowing what the goal is. Part number two though is thinking about your goal and what it’s actually going to give you, and what are the problems that might lead you not to do it. And so, for a long time, folks have thought in terms of positive thinking, like if you just think about your goals, it’s going to be awesome. There’s a lot of cheesy stuff you look at positive thinking on the internet. It seems like all I just think about, think about your goals, and you’ll achieve them, like the secret. Well, it turns out that’s sort of half of it, it is helpful to think about your goals. It’s actually really helpful to think about the outcome in a lot of detail, indulge and think about those outcomes. But to get the positive benefit from doing that, you also have to do something else. Which is spend the same amount of time as you do thinking about your goal and how awesome it would be to meet it, thinking about some of the obstacles that might get in your way. And this is a phenomena that researchers have referred to as mental contrasting. It’s this idea that you’re visualizing your positive future outcomes, everything, how awesome it would be once you get your goal, but you follow that up by thinking about, what might be the things that get in your way. How does this work? Well, imagine you’re indulging as positive thinking and thinking about your goal, you’re like, Oh, I want to get to the top of the mountain. That would be so great if I went to the top of the mountain, and you do that. What’s the outcome? While you’re feeling good about it, but you haven’t really done anything to make that goal get closer to happening because you neglected the fact that it’s a pain in the butt to climb up a mountain and maybe you need to get right the good shoes and you haven’t spent any of your cognitive effort figuring out the obstacles. By contrast, if you only think about the obstacles, you dwell on how hard it is then you’re never going to get around to doing anything. You have to be such a pain to get the shoes and so on. Without the thinking about how good the positive is going to be, you don’t get both. However, if you actually take the time, to again, intentionally and effortfully do both, first indulge in how great it would be and then think about what the obstacles are. It turns out that you now have visualized both things that you need to succeed. And this is what mental contrasting is. And there’s a bunch of work suggesting that this technique seems to work in a variety of different contexts. Here’s just one. Again, back to our healthy eating goals. These researchers actually brought women in who had the goal of eating more fruits and vegetables, and they taught them this mental contrasting technique. They said, Okay. Imagine what the great outcome will be if you actually eat your food and vegetables. People visualize like, Oh, I’ll be healthier and have more energy during the day. But they didn’t stop there. They then said, Okay. Imagine what the obstacles are? People like, Oh, they’ll kinda go bad in my fridge. They were like, You know more. I have to bring them with me or I’ll have to avoid the cookie aisle or whatever. But now they have both pieces, and they can see that they have to overcome these obstacles in order to get to that good thing. And so, the question is, how does that work? Does it actually affect their healthy eating? And so, here’s just a plot of how many fruits and vegetables these people are eating across the week and across time from the baseline, all the way over to 24 months later. This is like a two year follow up of these folks. And what you find, these circles are the mental contrasting case, is that in the beginning, just thinking about or indulging is good enough, but over time, if you really want to keep overcoming your obstacles, it seems like having both of those things in place helps. And it seems to help even way down the line. This is like 24 weeks out, there are 24 months out. Excuse me that people are doing this stuff that this mental contrasting is still having this interesting effect. And so, it seems like it works pretty well. And so, this is the idea of goal visualization. Don’t just visualize the good part, take time to do both parts. But both of these aren’t enough unless you add in the third component too, which I’m going to call goal planning. And we all know this, like, we could have had a really specific goal, when I go to the dining hall, I’m going to eat the healthy apple, and we could have thought about the outcome and so on. But sometimes you plop yourself into the situation when you’re supposed to do the thing and there’s this tempting thing there that you maybe thought about the obstacle but when you’re in the situation in the here and now, now that situation is affecting you implicitly. Now it’s automatically, grab the pizza, grab the pizza. So, how do you intervene on the automatic way that situations affect you without realizing it? How do you intervene on the fact that the candy jar just being present is going to mess you up. And this is what a researcher Peter Gollwitzer has figured out. He’s figured out a way to not just have a plan, but to have a plan so implicitly that it allows you to get through situations like this automatically without having to recruit much willpower, and it’s a set of techniques that he refers to as implementation intentions. Basically, the idea is that it’s a strategy that you have in the form of an “ if-then plan” that can help you lead to a better goal attainment. But it works in some of the same ways as mental contrasting, where you just practice it outside the situation. Like you just have time where you think and you visualize, if I’m in the dining hall and I see the pizza, I will turn and walk away, grab the orange. Like if I’m in the dining hall and I see the pizza, I will turn away and grab the orange. You set it up and it sounds really silly, but you set it up in a very specific, if-then plan and it turns out that our automatic systems can pay attention to that stuff. Like our automatic systems listen if you put it in with that level of specificity. And it seems to actually increase habit change in performance. One of those power weighs Gollwitzer talks about the implementation intentions is to help you remember stuff. It’s also a very powerful intervening technique on memory. So, if I want to remember my keys, I think of some specific action I’m going to do like, when I grab the doorknob to leave, think keys. When I grab the doorknob to leave, think keys and automatically as I grab the doorknob, all of a sudden that plan pops up, and it can actually help me. Again, sounds like, why would visualizing this plan, if-then plan help? But it turns out empirically, it just seems to work. Seems to kind of act on our automatic urges and our automatic motor actions. And so, here’s just one piece of evidence for this. Gollwitzer and colleagues tried to look at whether or not people having implementation intentions, this really specific if-then plan could help them do well on their new year’s resolutions. And a kind of particular form of new resolutions, your resolutions that you have after you get back from break. So, some of you may have experienced this, you’re going home for Christmas break and you’re thinking about next semester and you’re like, Next semester, I’m going to have this goal. Some of those goals might be easy, some of them might actually be hard. Real things you want to change. My question is what controls whether or not you succeed. And what they did was just a survey students about what their goals were and whether they were easier or hard, and they asked, Do you have this implementation intention? Like have you really practiced like, when I get back, if this happens, then I will do that. And you just saw naturally who had this sort of thing. And then, he looked back and tried to see whether or not people succeeded. And here’s how he finds, if you look at the percentage of people who succeed, for easy to implement goals, having this implementation intention form, which is the yellow bar, it helps a little, but not tremendously. And that’s because easy goals, like you’re probably just going to achieve it, you don’t need a lot of help. But what about for harder goals? What he finds is that having this implementation intention, this really specific “if-then plan,” can increase your percentage of succeeding about a threefold for harder goals. It’s like really having if-then plan, that’s going to actually help you out. And so, that’s the third piece which is the goal planning, really having this if-then plan. But now, the question is, okay, I’ve given you all these strategies. Is there some easy fast mnemonic that you can use for putting all these strategies together for any set of goals that you have from the specificity to the visualizing to the obstacles to the planning? And that is a technique that researchers have come up with that they call WOOP, which is an acronym for Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, and Plan. And it’s a technique developed by Gabrielle Oettingen at NYU, who has this wonderful book on Rethinking Positive Thinking, where she describes this WOOP process, and all the data suggesting that it works. And so, here’s how it works. Again, this method of thinking, the ideas you actually do some visualization, like take a few minutes a day to visualize the stuff, where you think about your wish, you think about what your goal is as specific as possible, like, I want to meditate three times this week at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for this much time, et cetera, et cetera. and I actually spend two minutes thinking about that. Then I think, what’s the best possible outcome of that, is this first O, and I’m like, Oh, that would be great. I’ll feel so good. I’ll see the students in the dining hall, tell them I did it. They’ll think I’m a good teacher for teaching the stuff. Then I say, “But what is also the potential obstacles?” And then, I visualize that. And then, I’m like, Oh, this is a really busy week, all these things. And they say, Oh, hey. What’s your if-then plan? And then, I do this very specific if-then thing. Little cute acronym is W-O-O-P, but seems like it helps a lot. And as you’ll see in a second, she has a cool app that will force you to do this visualization and time you as you do it. But does this sort of thing work? Having a cutesy acronym for all four of these relevant parts. Well, Angela Duckworth and her colleagues tested this out in schoolchildren. And so, they picked a set of classrooms of disadvantaged fifth graders and they taught them this technique with the acronym of think about your wish, think about the outcome, all these things. And then, they had each of the fifth graders pick a goal that was important to them that was related to schoolwork. And they could pick their own goal, but it was related to that and they had to do this WOOP technique every morning when they woke up for a while to think about. And the question is, what happened to their outcome in terms of their GPA, their school attendance, and school conduct, and so on? Again, sounds like a cheesy technique, but when you look at the outcomes, it’s pretty impressive. So, this is WOOP, but in this paper, they call it mental contrast plus implementation intentions, which is basically, what it is is both of those things together. Here’s what happens to the student’s GPA. They’re actually bumping up like a whole potential grade level from a C minus to, sorry, a C plus to a B minus. So, it seems like on average, it’s boosting their GPA to be thinking about some academic goal they had. In terms of their conduct, they have better conduct rating by teachers across time by WOOPing every morning. And in addition, if you look at their absences, you can get differences in the number of days that these kids are absent over time. It seems like actually thinking about and doing these things over time is helping them. What about adults trying to get to their goals? Well, again, you can get people to do studies by having them do healthy eating or exercise goals which is a little easier. And so, here’s one on exercise goals, they brought in middle-aged women who wanted to increase their physical activity. They taught them the WOOP technique, had them practice this. What’s your wish for physical activity? What’s your best outcome? What are the obstacles? What’s your if-then plan? Think about your important wish. Do all these specific parts. And then, they measured this not just a little bit of time, but they actually measured their activity months and months later. So, is this the kind of thing that can stick over time? And here’s what they find in terms of physical activity. Women who were asked to do the WOOP method versus some control, where you think about you know that physical activity is helpful for you and so on. In the beginning, we’re exercising a little bit more, but then weeks later four weeks later eight weeks later even 10 weeks later, they’re increasing their number of physical activities in minutes by about twice as much in like exercising probably at least about twice a week when they hadn’t really done that before. It’s like really thinking about these things seems to be an important way to get your habits, which again, 10 weeks on, imagine you’re at the last resolution you made, your week one, that might be great, but 10 weeks on, are you still doing that? This is a technique that can help you do that in general.
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