It is easier to set goals than to achieve them. Setting goals requires only thinking about the future, and envisioning what you would like that future to be. If you want to learn to sing, you can imagine yourself as a successful singer and how rewarding it would be to sing for a group of people who are enjoying your music. If you want to become a better student, you can think about studying or passing tests or getting a good report card. Actually satisfying your goals, though, requires effort. It requires the energy to move forward and actually carry out a plan to achieve the goal.
Where can that energy come from?
Research by Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues suggests that there are two key factors that help you get the energy you need to satisfy your goals. First, your goals need to be realistic, and second, you need to compare the future you desire to your situation right now. Let me discuss each of these in turn.
The first point seems obvious at some level, but it is really important. You need to set goals that are realistic. Your motivational system is actually pretty smart. If you set a goal that you really cannot achieve, then no matter what you do, you will have difficulty getting the energy to work on it. Instead, you will have feelings of low energy and frustration. So, if you are having difficulty getting energized to satisfy a goal, you should spend some time thinking about whether your goal is realistic.
The second important thing to do is to compare your desired future to your present world. This process has been an important thrust of Oettingen’s research. The key is to find the differences between what you hope for your future and what is true now, and to assess the obstacles that stand in your way of turning the present into the future. Thinking carefully about these obstacles allows you to find ways to overcome them.
Just thinking about the future does not work the same way. In Oettingen’s experiments, people who contrast the future with the present are much more likely to achieve their goals later than those people who just indulge themselves in thoughts about how nice the future would be if the goal were satisfied.
New research suggests that an important reason why people satisfy their goals successfully when they contrast the future to the present is that this process gives them motivational energy to pursue their goals. For example, in a paper by Oettingen with Doris Mayer, Timur Sevincer, Elizabeth Stephens, Hyeon-ju Pak, and Meike Hagenah in the May, 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people were asked to either compare their future to the present when thinking about making a change in a friendship or to just think about a positive future outcome. Consistent with past research, people who were contrasting the future to the present were more likely to commit to this change in a personal relationship than people who just thought about the future.
At the same time, people’s blood pressure was being examined. Systolic blood pressure is a reasonable measure of how energized or aroused someone has become. People showed a bigger change in blood pressure when they were contrasting the desired future to the present than when they were just thinking about the desired future. This change in blood pressure was highly correlated with people’s statements about how committed they were to actually satisfy this goal.
In later studies, they found that people got energized when they were thinking about goals that were realistic to achieve, but not when they were thinking about goals that are unrealistic to achieve.
So, if you want to achieve your goals, you need motivational energy. Happily, this motivational energy is easy to come by. All you need to do is to keep your goals realistic, and then think carefully about the difference between your present reality and your desired future. When you think about the obstacles that prevent you from satisfying your goals, your motivational system will naturally give you the energy to get started on the road to overcoming the things that stand in the way of what you want.