Forget about what didn't work in the past. This is your no-fail approach to success.

By By Moira Lawler
Photo: Shutterstock

High five for setting a goal that'll help you become the best version of you (though, let's be honest, present-day you is pretty badass already). Making that commitment, whether your goal deals with work, weight, mental health, or anything else, is step one. Here's step two: sticking with the goal so it actually comes to fruition. That part is a little trickier (OK, a lot trickier) since there are so many barriers that can get in your way. Here, take a deep dive into how you can set yourself up for success and overcome potential hurdles-plus where to source extra doses of motivation when the going gets tough.

1. Set a specific goal (and then make it even more specific).

SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) goals usually come up in work settings, but using that format when forming your personal goals is equally smart (sorry, had to), says Elliot Berkman, an associate professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in research on goals and motivation. So, rather than "I want to lose weight," make it "I want to lose 3 pounds by February." (Need some goal inspo? Steal some ideas from Shape staffers.)

2. Keep your goal to yourself.

You've probably heard that it's helpful to broadcast your goals to anyone who will listen in order to hold yourself accountable. Forget that approach. New York University researchers found that sharing your goals with others can actually make it less likely that you'll achieve them. The researchers determined that when other people notice your new, positive behaviors, you feel accomplished right off the bat and therefore less motivated to keep going.

3. Identify the personal reasons behind the goal.

You know the old saying, "Where there's a will, there's a way"? That applies really well to goals, Berkman says. What it boils down to is this: If you really want it, you'll work for it. Outline the personal reasons the goal matters to you. Why did you set this goal? How will that new job make you feel more fulfilled? How will dropping unwanted pounds give you more energy to do other things? "Then you'll start gaining some traction on being motivated," Berkman says.

4. Believe your willpower is unlimited.

Once you've outlined the reasons you're working toward a goal, make "I can do it" your mantra. Researchers from Stanford and the University of Zurich asked college students about their views on willpower. Their beliefs were rated by how strongly they agreed with statements that willpower was an unlimited resource ("Your mental stamina fuels itself; even after strenuous mental exertion you can continue doing more of it") or a limited resource ("After a strenuous mental activity your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refueled again"). The first group procrastinated less, ate healthier, didn't spend their money impulsively, and earned higher grades when faced with grueling school demands. What does this mean for you? Adopting a view that your willpower knows no bounds could help you stay focused when you're tempted to quit.

5. Pinpoint potential roadblocks in advance.

Be realistic about how pursuing your goal will change your lifestyle. Committing to early morning workouts means you won't have the luxury to sleep in, and trying to cut back on drinking may mean you won't hang with your happy hour crew as often. Predict what'll stand in your way so you can be ready to overcome the obstacles or restructure your goal if you're just not willing to give that much up. Consider financial factors, too, Berkman says. You might be gung-ho about hiring a personal trainer to whip you into shape right now, but if that'll strain your budget six months from now, starting with a more cost-friendly workout program that you can stick with long term-such as doing YouTube workouts or running outside-will eliminate that "I failed" feeling down the road.

6. Plan accordingly.

Yes, there's the superficial planning you need to do-such as joining a gym to aid your goal to work out more often-but think bigger than that, too. "You need to do some deeper planning like, 'How is my life going to be different as I work toward this goal?'" Berkman says. "Really think through not just the physical, logistical steps but also the deeper, kind of psychological impact of changing how your whole life is structured and how you think of yourself." That could mean you need to picture yourself as a rise-and-shine exerciser versus a snooze-button queen. Or the girl who's the first one in the office if you're gunning for that promotion. Achieving your goals could require an overhaul of your identity, and you have to be OK with that in order to be successful.

7. Find a way to make your new habits enjoyable.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that people who enjoy their workouts exercised more regularly than those who dread them. Well, duh. That totally makes sense, but what you probably didn't know is what makes people enjoy exercise. The researchers found gaining a sense of achievement (such as running your fastest mile ever or giving yourself credit for your perfect squat form) and building some kind of social interaction into your workout are the top two reasons. So if your goal is to exercise more, find a workout buddy and sign up for classes that track your performance (Flywheel, for instance, logs your total power on its website, which can make you feel accomplished at the end if you beat your previous performance).

8. Think about your gains.

It's easy to feel defeated by everything you have to give up to pursue your goal: sleep, cupcakes, online shopping, whatever it may be. But zeroing in on those sacrifices can make the goal seem impossible. Instead, focus on what you'll gain, Berkman says. If you save more money, you'll see your bank account grow, and by becoming a regular at the 7 a.m. spin class, you could meet a new fit group of friends. Those gains can serve as a motivation boost.

9. Embrace your competitive side for a quick dose of motivation.

A study published this month in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports found that social comparison was the most effective motivator for encouraging physical activity. The researchers found that during the 11-week study, the group that compared their performance with that of five peers attended more classes than the other groups. This drive to keep up with the Joneses can be a motivator in some situations, but there are limitations, says Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist, performance coach, and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. For instance, trying to beat your friend in a race could inspire you to train harder, or seeing a friend get a fancy new job might inspire you to start looking for one, too. Comparing yourself to others could work in the short term (so long as you keep the competition friendly and it doesn't move into full-blown envy). "In the long term, though, goals that are internally driven are more powerful than those influenced by external factors," Alpert says.

10. Reward your progress (even if it seems insignificant).

"The time aspect is one of the biggest challenges in goal pursuit," Berkman says. "Usually the outcome that you're striving for occurs way in the future and all of the costs are incurred in the present moment." That can throw you off course since humans are all about instant gratification. "If the only thing that keeps you going about a goal is the gain you're going to get in the future, that's sort of setting yourself up for failure," Berkman says. Here's a better approach: Don't try to make a huge change all at once. Instead, shoot for small incremental changes, and reward your progress along the way. The reward should complement your goal (as in, a new workout top is a better reward than a milkshake for losing 3 pounds), but it doesn't need to be tangible. If you send $500 from your paycheck straight to your savings account, you can start thinking of yourself as a saver. And that's progress if you've thought of yourself strictly as a spender before.


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