Pursuing growth and change purely for the intrinsic sake of achievement brings many benefits, not least an ongoing boost to our wellbeing. Why not walk through the below accomplishment landscape and consider whether you have the right goals in place.
Perhaps you’ve pursued accomplishment, winning, achievement, and mastery purely for their own sake, without expectation or reward, writes psychologist Martin Seligman. It’s when we apply our skills and effort and give our time to achieve specific goals.
Playing a video game, learning a foreign language, or practicing a complex piece on the piano may be seen as a challenge worth engaging in without seeking out anything in the way of positive emotions, relationships, or meaning – though they may still happen.
Seligman’s PERMA model of wellbeing recognizes that achievements, or accomplishments, are vital elements in our journey toward happiness and creating more fulfilling lives.
After all, people who lead an achieving life are often absorbed in what they do and experience joy, amusement, inspiration, and even serenity. This fifth element of the model brings us even closer to a complete account of wellbeing [1, 2].
A mindset for achievement
Beliefs about our abilities and how we experience achievement and success influence our short and long-term resilience, motivation, and enjoyment. After all, trying our best, overcoming obstacles, and reaching out beyond our limits can bring excitement, challenge, and deep satisfaction.
Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, recognizes the importance of the set of beliefs that make up our view of the world. After all, our thoughts about what we can do and our readiness to take risks, succeed or fail, shape the challenges we take on.
Those with a ‘fixed’ mindset see their abilities and attributes as already set, inherited, and part of who they are. Others, with an incremental or ‘growth’ mindset, see opportunities to grow and develop – who they are can be shaped by experience. For them, investing effort, a desire to learn, and getting the feedback they need shapes who they are and who they will become. They are not limited.
And research confirms it. In a poll of 143 creativity researchers, there was broad agreement that the perseverance and resilience that results from a growth mindset are vital to achievement [2, 4].
Pursuing and achieving goals
The PERMA model of wellbeing suggests that accomplishments and the very act of striving to reach a goal are inherently gratifying. Yet, we need to align such goals with our values and authentic interests to ensure we remain engaged and focused.
Professor of psychology, Peter Gollwitzer believes that pursuing value-driven goals passes through four phases – he calls it the ‘Rubicon model.’
In the ‘pre-decision phase,’ we begin by reflecting on what we want and our options for getting there. Next, in the ‘pre-action phase,’ we focus on pursuing the goal. Once we have decided and made a plan for how and when we will go for it, we cross the commitment barrier. The ‘action stage’ involves acting on our plans – taking us toward our objectives. Then, finally, in the ‘post-action phase,’ we realize the success or failure of our efforts – we then either continue onward, change course, or abandon our attempts [3, 5].
What drives us to achieve goals?
Hitting our goals isn’t all plain sailing. In fact, there is much on the path to getting what we want that can help or hinder us. We need the drive and resilience to overcome obstacles and get things done.
Consciously or unconsciously, we score each goal based on how likely we are to achieve it and how much value it adds to our own and others’ lives. Unless it scores highly, we may never start, let alone finish. The goal content is then decided by our needs, and shaped by our environment, inherited traits, and sense of self-belief and perceived control.
Our perceived degree of control is also vital. Even if it’s a goal set for us, if we have a say over how and when we do it, we can increase our ‘intrinsic motivation’ – do something for its own sake rather than driven by reward or punishment. And it’s important. A 2009 study found that smokers are more likely to quit and remain ex-smokers if their goals are intrinsic and value-driven.
So, we are more likely to get something done if led by our passions, strengths, and values [3, 6].
But what are the challenges?
Psychologists have found several challenges that impact whether or not we progress toward our goals: failing to start, derailment, overcommitting ourselves, and seeing a goal as unproductive or lacking value. At each point or stage, we have the opportunity to fail or continue.
And yet, other factors can help. Pursuing goals needn’t be a solitary endeavor. Indeed, the more social support, the better, especially when constructive and reassuring. Avoiding temptations is also vital. If our goal is to avoid smoking, we may want to take the long walk home, bypassing the store that sells cigarettes.
Goals that are positive and desirable focus our attention more than ones that are negative – eat more healthily and exercise more, rather than lose weight and stop drinking. Approaching goals positively affects our performance and encourages our adherence to healthy habits, boosting wellbeing and happiness [3, 7, 8].
Psychology confirms what most of us already know. We need to set goals if we want to focus our attention, become energized, and boost our commitment. But that alone is not enough. Goals need to be well-formulated – they must be transparent regarding their relevance, purpose, direction, and accountability.
One way is to use one of several frameworks. The most common approach uses the SMART, or slightly extended, SMARTER acronym. Goals must be crafted carefully. Ask yourself, is the goal you are considering: ‘Specific’ – clear and concise? ‘Measurable’ – can you score progress and success? ‘Achievable’ – is it challenging yet possible? ‘Relevant’ – does it fit your values and overall life goals? ‘Time-bound’ – do you know when you will start and finish? And the two optional ones: ‘Exciting’ – does this excite you? ‘Reviewable’ – things change; can you revise along the way?
Goal setting is valuable in all aspects of our lives, but is particularly helpful in sport. In a 2019 study, forty-nine youth swimmers found practicing self-talk and goal-setting meaningful and beneficial with a slight improvement in their times – this could be the difference between getting a medal and walking home empty-handed [7, 8, 9].
Understanding goal types
Not all goals look the same, yet they all share one common factor: ‘change.’ They aim to get an individual, team, community, business, and beyond to transform from state A to state B.
Before you set a goal, you need to be clear about your goal type. Consider each of the following: ‘Outcomes goals’ – I want to be the very best there is at X; ‘Performance goals’ – I want to improve at X; ‘Process goals’ – I want to practice and get better at X; and ‘Delivery-focused goals’ – I want to deliver a change project.
For example, wanting to get better at tennis is not the same as setting aiming to win at Wimbledon. And wishing to improve IT skills is different from promising to deliver a new technology solution within three months.
Knowing what goal type we strive for will influence how we define and approach the goal, using the right strategy and actions .
Entering the discomfort zone
Goals should be meaningful and take us into the ‘discomfort zone,’ says Michael Hyatt in Your Best Year Ever.
He outlines four steps to stretch us and help us overcome resistance: firstly, recognize and acknowledge the value of moving outside the comfort zone; secondly, lean in and take the opportunity; thirdly, acknowledge and own the fear; and, finally, don’t overthink it, take the next step even if the outcome is unclear.
Our drive to accomplish and reach for achievements helps us succeed in what we do and live a more fulfilling life according to our life goals. However, there is a risk. Failure may come at a cost, but so does not trying.
Setting clear, well-defined goals creates excitement, motivation, and other positive emotions and has the potential to build relationships and engage in flow-like activities. In many ways, achievement, while a standalone element of the PERMA wellbeing model, also energizes all the other elements.
Visualizing the future
Imagining a possible future is a well-proven tool for setting and working toward your goals. Visualizing the ultimate destination creates a believable path to where you want to be and can appear as real to the mind as actually performing the activity.
All it takes is a little time and some quiet. Find somewhere comfortable to relax – close your eyes. Become aware of and observe each breath: inhaling and exhaling deeply yet comfortably. Gently shift to thinking about the future and how it might look having successfully reached your goal. Imagine all your senses, engaging sight, touch, sound, hearing, and even smell.
Reflect on how you would feel and what would be different. What would others notice about you and the situation that has changed? Experience the sensations in your body and explore how you feel in this new position.
When ready, open your eyes, yet hold on to those feelings of accomplishment. How things could be can be a strong motivator to set and deliver goals [9, 11].
Obstacles often get in the way of making changes – even positive ones. ‘If-then’ planning is a popular approach, often used in sports psychology to help get elite athletes ready to respond to every eventuality.
Start by creating a list of what could ‘realistically’ go wrong. Plan how you could respond to each one – what could you do to cope and overcome the difficulty? These are known as ‘implementation intentions’; they will help you regain control.
For example, ‘if I am panicking before the job interview, I will go for a walk, take a few deep breaths and call my partner.’ ‘If I cannot answer a question, I will ask them to repeat it, take a drink of water, and remind myself of my valuable skills’.
Planning and preparing for the worst increases confidence and reduces anxiety before an event. During the activity, if something happens, we can respond quickly, wasting little time and energy, and avoid falling into a downward spiral of ‘catastrophizing’ [9, 12].