Person at top of mountain for personal development goals concept

9 Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Personal Development Goals

We all have personal development goals. Some of them are more intentional than others, and only a fraction of which come to fruition. So what separates achieving goals from wishful thinking?

After taking a look at what some of the leading psychologists and behavioral specialists have to say about the way we set and achieve goals, it’s clear that there is such a thing as goal setting theory for those who want to upgrade their personal and professional development.

To some, these tactics may sound pedantic or cliché. But to many lifelong learners, professional trainers, and other polymaths, there are certain truisms that make a world of a difference when put into practice. Just consider your own life. I think we all find that the greatest truths are sometimes quite simple, and the greatest wisdom is merely applying what we know.

So, in this article, we’ll take a look at how to set goals and achieve them – and truly put them into practice – by leveraging the science of goal setting.

Goal Setting Theory Starts with You

What you’ll hear from many lifelong learners is that any kind of personal development or training starts from within. The assumptions we carry when setting new goals not only have far-reaching impacts on the quality of our personal growth, but also on our ability to retain and build on what we learn.

To ensure your personal goals have the highest likelihood of long-term success and impact, consider these 3 often overlooked pointers from several experts.

1. Locate Your Motivations

Begin by asking yourself: who are you doing this for?

According to data gathered by the Midwest Comprehensive Center, a research satellite for the US Department of Education, there is promising evidence that your “learning orientation” (where your motivation to learn is coming from) has a huge impact on the quality of your learning.

The obvious question here is whether learning is motivated by personal reward or external factors, like impressing your peers or proving your worth to an employer. We all know the clout that can sometimes be gained from the nonchalant party trick of speaking Mandarin or playing the ukulele. This “performance” orientation to learning, as described by the studies cited in the report, is linked with dwindling levels of motivation and a lower “self-concept” (our perception of our own abilities, especially when it comes to acquiring new knowledge or building skills).

Opposite this is a “mastery” learning orientation, where our focus is on learning for the sake of learning—when we are present with the personal joys of falling, getting back up, and trying again. The report found that this is where our intrinsic motivation deepens and where we become “more likely to prefer challenging tasks, adopt more effective learning strategies, and possess a growth mindset.”

So, I’ll ask it again, and this time be honest with yourself: who are you doing this for?

2. Learn to Say No

Very often the first step to accomplishing your goals is saying no to other ones. As the personal growth and habit specialist James Clear has written, clearing away the clutter (mental or physical) is often an important preliminary step to achieving your goals.

We all have our way of navigating a sea of invites, requests, favors, opportunities, and curiosities, but sometimes the best strategy is simply saying no. As Clear puts it, “the truth is that we say yes to many things we don’t actually want to do. There are many meetings held that don’t need to be held. There is a lot of code written that could be deleted.” A huge tip for successful personal growth and professional development is knowing when to prioritize certain commitments by turning down others.

Remembering that time is a finite resource, Clear points us to an important adage by the economist Tim Harford:

Every time we say yes to a request, we are also saying no to anything else we might accomplish with the time.

Tim Harford

3. Chuck Your Stereotypes

When it comes to achieving your goals, we often unconsciously carry around some image of what it looks like to “learn” or “grow.” Many of us probably envision a child at a desk engrossed in an exam, an extreme athlete gulping down a protein shake before dawn, or a law student feverishly cross-referencing leather-bound tomes in a library.

Since there’s no one “look” to learning, it’s important that we not let our preconceived notions of growth get in the way of our goals, especially if our aim is to become lifelong learners.

To understand why, we would all do well to remember that as our digitally-mediated world continues to evolve, so too do our models for goal setting and personal development. Let’s take a closer look at what I mean here.

The German cognitive scientist Gerhard Fischer, founder of the Center for LifeLong Learning & Design at the University of Colorado, Boulder, published a paper as early as 2000 anticipating the shifts in learning that new forms of technology would bring. Observing how outdated the mechanized, factory-based models of education prescribed by behaviorism and Taylorism were becoming, Fischer foresaw that the way we learned would radically change in our high-tech world.

B.F. Skinner / F.W. TaylorBeyond Skinner / Taylor
there is a “scientific,” best way to learn and to work (programmed instruction, computer-assisted instruction, production lines, waterfall models)real problems are ill-defined and wicked; design is argumentative, characterized by a symmetry of ignorance among stakeholders
separation of thinking, doing, and learningintegrate thinking, doing, learning
 task domains can be completely understoodunderstanding is partial; coverage impossible
objective ways to decompose problems into standardizable actionssubjective, situated personal interests; need for iterative explorations
 all relevant knowledge can be explicitly articulatedmuch knowledge is tacit and relies on tacit skills
teacher / manager as oracleteacher / manager as facilitator or coach
 operational environment: mass markets, simple products and processes, slow change, certaintycustomer orientation, complex products and processes, rapid and substantial change, uncertainty and conflicts
(Table adapted from Figure 2 in Fischer’s paper, “Transcending Skinner and Taylor”)

It should be easy to see that the stereotypes I mention above line up pretty well with the old Taylorist model: the child with the standardized exam, the athlete with the strict routine, the law student pulling from a static set of knowledge. While these forms of learning aren’t defunct or without value, they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

When it comes to what learning can look like today, it’s important we remind ourselves that no one image of accomplishment can fully capture what our personal or professional growth will look like. As we can see from Fischer’s table, lifelong learning requires a plethora of new strategies and paradigms, sometimes taking place in conventional educational environments, sometimes not.

The crucial piece of advice here: the ways you learned in the past are not necessarily how you best learn now. Sometimes the secret to achieving personal development goals is unlearning old habits as much as it is building new ones.

How to Set Goals: What Works?

Anyone who’s done a bit of research into the seemingly perennial question of achieving goals will surely have come across the SMART criteria. Originally developed by the management consultant George T. Doran in 1981, the acronym emphasizes the core components of successfully realizing any aspiration:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

Like I mention above, these goal setting ingredients may seem obvious, but their usefulness for achieving personal development goals can’t be overstated.

Specificity is crucial for moving beyond a fleeting desire to a concrete personal development plan. The same can be said about making a goal measurable, or easily quantifiable. From here we can ask ourselves if our goal is truly achievable: do we have the time, money, or energy it requires? Perhaps we need to adjust our plan in an effort to achieve something more realistic. Finally, we must remember to ensure our goal is timely, or that it follows a definitive schedule.

As the clinical psychologist Ron Breazeale puts it, “hope does not involve just a fantasy or wish. It involves a specific plan for achieving that fantasy or wish.”

Still unsure of how to best achieve your ambitions or tend to those professional goals? Good. While the SMART criteria will be one of the first things you hear from most coaches, advisors, and counselors, it’s equally important we pay attention to our individual psychology.

With this in mind, here are 5 nuggets of wisdom I’ve come across.

4. Be Like Goldilocks

Returning to the advice of James Clear, we find that the way we structure our feedback system is one of the most important strategies for staying motivated and building on incremental progress. It’s something he calls the “Goldilocks Rule,” a rather clever way of outsmarting ourselves and catalyzing growth in the process. Clear writes,

The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.

James Clear

Think of a barista mastering the art of coffee. Once they’ve conquered a normal latte, it’s time to move on a café au lait. But getting overambitious and taking a stab at an iced cinnamon almond milk macchiato risks major disappointment and dampened spirits. This is why staying close to the current limit of our abilities allows for consistent motivation, long-term perseverance, and the natural high of accomplishment.

One way of understanding why this method is so effective is by remembering the power of receiving quality feedback. If you stay close to the current limit of your abilities, chances are your victories and setbacks will be similar in number. By including immediate evaluations of your progress, your minor victories create the confidence needed to address weaknesses. The key is to ensure your feedback system is consistent and trustworthy.

From here it becomes a process of incremental improvement. With the ability to see ourselves “stick the landing” enough times, we quickly develop the inner fire required to keep at it.

Illustration of James Clear’s Goldilocks Rule from JamesClear.com

5. Practice Deliberately

Deliberate practice has gotten some fairly consistent attention on this site. Like the SMART criteria, it’s a tried and true approach to fine-tuning our goal setting in order to excel.

One of the biggest takeaways from the Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice is its methodology of breaking a goal down into a set of micro-targets.

With these micro-targets, or mini-goals, we have the capacity to devote high-intensity attention, intelligence, and creativity in short bursts. This then allows us to transcend the limitations of mindless repetition and become deeply intentional about what we are learning and how.

Again, continual feedback is vital here. As Ericsson relays in his co-authored book, The Making of an Expert, the most adept practitioners and learners continually seek out feedback, especially if it’s hard to hear.

One way of evaluating our performance is of course through metrics—think strength training reps, your mile time, or how many pages you read. But another far more rich channel for receiving feedback is through a coach or mentor. This kind of one-on-one relationship is how our performance can be evaluated qualitatively, checking for personal hiccups, forgetfulness, comfort zones, or how we’re relating to the learning process.

James Clear synthesizes it all for us as a nice, neat formula:

Deliberate practice always follows the same pattern: break the overall process down into parts, identify your weaknesses, test new strategies for each section, and then integrate your learning into the overall process.

James Clear

6. Change Your Environment

The environment that we choose to learn in can work both with and against us.

According to research compiled by cognitive psychologists Robert A. Bjork and Elizabeth L. Bjork, accomplishing our goals in one environment can lead to unconsciously associating what we’ve learned with a physical space, internal experience, or other ambient cues. While this can help with simple memorization, it can get in our way when trying to recall information or deploy freshly-learned skills in a new environment.

As a result, the two psychologists recommend the tactic of changing our environment or context, where forgetfulness is actually heightened. “Restudying the material in a different location,” they write “where more of it will have been forgotten at the time of this restudy, rather than the original location, where more of it will still be accessible at the time of this study, actually enhances later recall of that material.”

Similarly, they found that this logic can be applied to the intervals at which something is learned. For example, taking an abnormally long break before returning to the same learning material can strengthen retention.

But keep in mind that these techniques are not isolated to those of us learning a new language or memorizing trig functions. Developing your long-term memory is itself a skill that enhances other forms of learning, including the ability to combine different kinds of knowledge and apply it in diverse settings. The two psychologists continue:

Contextual cues influence not only what is retrievable from memory, but also how information is encoded in the first place. So while a change in environmental context can decrease the likelihood that information studied in a different context can now be recalled, it also increase the likelihood that, when such information is restudied, it will now become associated with a greater range of contextual cues. Thus increased encoding variability can help to sustain access to the to-be-remembered information across a variety of different contexts, especially at a delay and as contextual cues change, which, in turn, can foster transfer of that learning to new situations.

Robert and Elizabeth Bjork

7. Be Flexible

Behavioral scientist Katy Milkman pinpoints compassion as one of the essential components to healthy and effective personal growth.

More specifically, Milkman advocates for flexibility when turning a goal into a habit. While consistency is crucial to success, a draconian regiment risks creating negative associations when approaching specific objectives, ultimately stifling progress.

Consider one of the studies Milkman completed with some of her colleagues, which focused on Google employees attempting to build a regular workout routine. Milkman relayed her counterintuitive findings to NPR:

The conventional wisdom was that those with a consistent routine form the stickiest habits. They tested this out with two groups. Members of both groups told the researchers they had an ‘ideal’ workout time. One group was encouraged to go to the gym at that set time for each visit, while members of the second group got a reminder to go at their ‘ideal’ time but were encouraged to work out whenever they could fit it in. The results? Members of the group that worked out on a strict schedule simply didn’t go to the gym if they missed that window, while the more flexible group formed a more lasting workout habit.

Katy Milkman

With this in mind, Milkman prescribes flexibility as an undervalued tactic in goal setting psychology. Sometimes a bit of compassion in the midst of our busy lives will give us the space we need to breathe and return to our goals when the time is right.

8. Banish Your Ego

We all fail. It’s one of the universal laws of learning. That’s why not taking it personally can be a huge asset when approaching our goals.

This was the conclusion recently drawn by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach in their paper, “Not Learning from Failure—The Greatest Failure of All.” As a social psychologist teaming up with a business psychologist, the two found from the several studies they conducted that the more we identify with our mistakes, or view them as an indictment of our character, the harder it is to relate to this kind of feedback as itself valuable information.

In other words, the ability to take your ego out of what happens when you do something wrong opens you up to a huge amount of data on how to improve.

The studies showed that two ways of correcting this natural proclivity was “positioning people as vicarious learners or instructing people to reappraise feedback in less threatening terms.” We of course can imagine how this might be adapted to self-driven learners coaching themselves through their learning process to achieve personal development goals.

So next time you stub your toe, strain your brain, or stumble through that work presentation, give yourself the gift of pausing to reflect from an impartial vantage point. How might you be your own best friend?

9. Take What Works and Leave the Rest

What remains clear throughout much of the science of goal setting is that almost any form of expertise can be learned, but oftentimes the most effective tactics are as unique as the rest of our lives.

If there’s a single piece of time-tested advice we all can remind one another of, it’s that what works for one person won’t work for another.

This is why the best way to confront stubborn hurdles is to experiment with different strategies. If you find yourself banging your head against the wall, it’s probably a sign that the way you’re approaching your personal development goals needs retooling. Remember to be patient, while not abandoning your ability to think critically about how you learn.

By Gabe Kahan for Mission to Learn

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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