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Understanding The Psychology Of Goals Will Help You Follow Through On Intentions

It’s surprisingly easy to make your goals a reality.

Succeeding in work—and life—is ultimately about expanding yourself, and this is what intentions do. This idea of growth is baked into the very origins of the word, combining in—, a Latin prefix for toward, and tendere, meaning “stretch.” When we form intentions, we’re stretching toward our futures, and helping bring the most successful versions of ourselves into the world. This is part lofty, philosophical reflection—what do I really want?— and part grounded, everyday task management—how do I make my schedule reflect my values?

The science of intention setting is interdisciplinary: it involves your personality traits, the mindset you bring to your work, and your relationships, to name but a few factors. The key is to bring your big picture dreams—write a book!— into down-to-earth reality—get up an hour early and type into an empty screen. In a way, intention setting is a mindfulness exercise: you step outside your day for a moment, take account of where you’re at, and where you’d like to go—and it consistently leads to improved performance.

Here are a few of science’s best insights into making that everyday magic happen.

Welcome to The Thrive Guide to Intention Setting

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and burnout while increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will show you how to set intentions, explain why it’s harder to follow through for some people more than others, and demonstrate the changes you can make in your life to make your intentions more like to be realized.

To do that, we’ll outline the latest research on how the best ways to both set goals and follow through on them. Thrive Global is centered around Microsteps — small, science-backed changes you can immediately incorporate into your daily life that will have a big impact. (Want to skip right to those? Here they are.)

Thrive Guides also feature New Role Models Of Success we can look to for inspiration on intention setting: Escada chairman Megha Mittal shares on how Zen Buddhism has influenced her approach to life, MSNBC anchor Ayman Mohyeldin details how empathy helps him understand himself and other, and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank reveals how Teddy Roosevelt helps him get the right things done.

Our Tech To Thrive section will help you master the daily practice of setting intentions.

And since no one truly gets anything done alone, our Managerial Takeaways lays out what leaders can do to help their teams and organizations get better command of their intentions, and also get everybody on the same page.

But first, let’s dig into what psychology, organizational behavior, and neuroscience know about intention setting.

The personality trait that helps turn intentions into reality.

There’s a word for the personality trait that helps people make a lifelong habit of following through on their intentions: conscientiousness. And it’s been thoroughly studied by psychologists. Brent Roberts, a University of Illinois professor who’s done a lot of research on the trait, says that conscientiousness is the degree to which someone controls their impulses, cares about goals, makes plans, delays gratification, and follows the rules.

Conscientious people are better employed, get better job performance ratings, and have higher overall career success, earnings and life satisfaction than their less conscientious peers. Conscientious managers shield their employees from toxic work environments, and conscientious 10-year-olds turn into healthier adults at age 50.

The daily setting of intentions is a practice of linking your daily activities to your long-term goals. And conscientious people are very attuned to goals: how to set them, how to follow through on them, and what to do if you can’t meet them. (Hint: have a plan.) Conscientious people are on time for things and make deadlines. They’re also organized, so they don’t lose 20 minutes looking for a file that a less conscientious person would have lost. Being conscientious “is like brushing your teeth,” says Brent Roberts, a University of Illinois psychology professor who studies conscientiousness.”It prevents problems from arising.” If you’re the kind of person who sends a calendar invite after asking someone on a date, you might be conscientious. The research has found that conscientious people are orderly, industrious, responsible, self-controlled and tend to follow traditions and norms. (That’s also why, if they want to innovate, which often requires breaking the rules, they may need to act as though they’re not so dutiful.)

Thankfully, your level of conscientiousness isn’t something that’s fixed — it appears to “naturalistically” increase over the course of a lifetime; researchers infer that as life layers on the responsibilities—bigger job, a spouse, possible offspring— you have no choice but to learn to handle them.

But if you’re of the more free-spirited, anti-authoritarian stripe, fret not; Cambridge personality scholar Brian Little has found that people can adopt “free traits” when taking on personal projects that really matter to them, and do the opposite of what comes naturally to them, given that the situation demands it. The procrastinator, upon reflecting on the import of a big project at home, may choose to set careful deadlines for herself and act on them.

As Little outlines in his new book Who Are You, Really?, another way a less conscientious person can borrow a strategy from their more dutiful peers is by spinning mundane tasks into enjoyable ones. “A numbingly boring task can be made more interesting by transforming it into a game where you pit yourself against an imagined opposition or even your previous self of yesterday,” he writes in . “Even if you are not so conscientious, this strategy can help you get through a long to-do list.”

Whether or not you’re naturally conscientious, you can use those strategies: you set standards for yourself, create incremental deadlines, and regularly check-in with yourself along the way to see how you’re doing. Little says can practice with something as simple as doing the dishes: if you are present enough with the process—appreciating the shifting heft of a bowl or plate in your hands as you wash it, the sensation of the water, and the like—you can find something delightful in it. “You can get so absorbed in that fine act of conscientiousness that it becomes meaningful in itself,” he says.

Following through on intentions also means not being afraid of imperfection. (That’s part of why perfectionists are such notorious procrastinators; something can’t go wrong if you never get started.)

Beyond being conscientious—hitting deadlines and the like—we need to adopt a mindset that sees mistakes as challenging, rather than embarrassing. As stepping stones on the road to success. That is the psychology of making intentions happen.

The mindset that helps people follow through—and recover when things don’t go quite right.

Even with your best intentions, you’re not going to get everything perfect the first time; goals are rarely reached on the very first try. So it’s important to take the right attitude toward imperfection. Influential Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has found that students—and the adults they become—are more able to have sustainable success by having the right “mindset.” She has found that, depending on how parents and other caregivers model and teach kids about achievement, people enter the world with either a fixed or a growth mindset. If kids are told they did well on a test because they were so smart, then they may have developed a fixed view; if they were told their success was because of their effort, then they’ll be growth oriented. “Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is simply an inborn trait—they have a certain amount, and that’s that,” she’s written. “In contrast, individuals with a growth mindset believe that they can develop their intelligence over time.”

Kids—and adults—with a fixed mindset want to look smart, and thus find mistakes embarrassing proof that they’re not perfect. If their success, or lack of it, is solely due to an inborn trait, why try harder next time? Because of that, the fixed mindset steers people away from risk, experiment, and innovation, while a growth mindset sees mistakes as a sign of challenge. To be fixed means that you think effort means you’re just not naturally good at something; growth holds that effort is the only way to improve. The key, Dweck says, is to actually ignore “success” in favor of pursuing challenges: that way, you’re pouring your effort into the task at hand, rather than becoming self-conscious about how it might look to others.

Anne Lamott, the writing sage and author of Bird By Bird, calls on aspiring scribes to write awful first drafts: no successful writer sites down at their desk feeling great, and then neatly unfurls crisp, clear copy. “This is just the fantasy of the uninitiated,” she explains. Rather—whether it’s the great American novel or a client-winning slide deck—they slog through a cringe-worthy, childlike first version and revise from there. “All good writers write” terrible first drafts, she says. “This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” And so it goes with any other project you take on: get your ideas on the page (or Excel doc), and revise from there. The key is to see the project as a challenge, and not get alarmed if it doesn’t come out perfectly the first time. Trust yourself that you can revise, because you can.

The relationships that shape your goals.

Setting your intentions—and holding to them—isn’t just a matter of what’s in your head. An intriguing line of research shows that our goals aren’t just of our own authorship; they’re drawn from our environments, particularly the people we surround ourselves with. Research indicates that we absorb our goals and expectations from our significant others, lending empirical weight to Sheryl Sandberg’s advice that the biggest career decision you’ll ever make is deciding whom you’ll marry. Similarly, we like people more when they seem relevant to our goals, and the people who are best at sticking to their goals surround themselves with others who are similarly on point. The results indicate that focus involves “positioning oneself in social environments that support goal pursuit and increase one’s chances of success,” writes co-author James Shah, a Duke professor who’s done a significant amount of goal research. Indeed, his work has also found that just hearing about a friend’s deadline will make you more goal oriented.

Commit to making changes right now.

While these might seem like deep-seated character qualities, they’re all things that we can nurture throughout our lives. We can look for ways to be more conscientious in our work and our relationships, and we can try to spot where we still have a fixed mindset about some things — took the wrong exit off the highway, I’m such an idiot! And socially, we can purposefully ally ourselves with people who share our ambitions, and realize our goals together.

Here are some simple microsteps to start on right now:

  • Write down three things you accomplished at the end of each day.
    When you let yourself acknowledge what you have achieved — however small — rather than what you haven’t, you’ll be much more motivated and engaged.

  • When you wake up in the morning, don’t start your day by looking at your smartphone.

    Instead, take at least one minute to breathe deeply, or be grateful, or set your intention for the day.

  • Do one small thing each morning that brings you joy.

    Before diving into your phone, make time for at least one thing that brings you joy – meditating, spending a little time with someone you love, making breakfast, or taking a walk. From this foundation, you’ll be better able to set your intentions and be productive once you get to work.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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