How many times have you found yourself being puzzled about not being able to follow up on your goals although you were so convinced when you set them? Examples?
- Checking emails is a time drain, I’ll only check them twice a day.
- I will meditate for 10 minutes every morning before breakfast.
- I’ll go to the gym every other day.
- I will never procrastinate and hit the send button 30 seconds before the project submission deadline.
- I will speak up more in meetings.
- I will be a better listener/ more patient with my “difficult” colleagues.
I bet you can help me expand the list!
The funny part is that each time we are so convinced that “it will work this time!” We must be making some serious error or false assumption somewhere, don’t you think? Well, here’s one phenomenon that sheds some light on what might be happening.
In his book Stumbling on Happiness Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about presentism – the tendency to let our current experience to influence our view of the past and the future. In other words, when we evaluate the past or think about the future we take our present experience (e.g., mood, state of mind, motivation) as an anchor.
Among its many interesting implications presentism also influences the goal pursuit. Broadly speaking, the goal pursuit involves two steps.
First we select a goal; then we implement the chosen goal. Presentism plays a role in both of these steps – this time I’ll focus on the first one.
As I’ve mentioned last time, it is important to choose not any goal – but rather a SMART goal (Specific, Measurable, Agreed upon, Realistic, Timely). That would sound something like: Running for 45 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at 6 a.m. This meets the specific, measurable and timely criteria.
If the person wants and is motivated to take on running for 45 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at 6 a.m., that would also make it agreed upon. In other words, the goal has been chosen by the person and not imposed on her by someone else. This corresponds to what some researchers call “self-concordant goals” – that is, goals that are consistent with values and interests of the person.
Of course if it is a realistic goal or not depends on the person’s current level of fitness as well as her weekly schedule. Now, “presentism” plays an important role here – especially with respect your current mood and level of motivation. Research in the area of affective forecasting – predicting how you will feel in the future – suggests that we are pretty bad in our forecasts! That means when you try to predict how you will feel about running tomorrow at 6 a.m. you mainly rely on your current mood which is likely to be quite different from the one you’ll experience 6 a.m. tomorrow.
And this has important implications for the “realistic”ness of your goal. In other words, it seems pretty realistic right now because you are all motivated and determined about making it work, but that does not guarantee that you’ll feel that way when it’s time to get out of the bed tomorrow morning at 6 a.m.!
I think this nicely explains why we are puzzled by not being able to follow up on our goals that we were so convinced of when we set them. We base our predictions too much on the present experience and underestimate how fluid our moods and motivation to act could be.
In this situation researchers who study affective forecasting suggest doing some “time travel” – that is, representing the future as though it were happening in the present. To be able to that we need to use mental images of the future more often and more accurately.
For the running example this would mean imagining as vividly as possible your experience of waking up, rolling out of the bed, putting on your running gear at 6 a.m. And doing that 3 times a week. How realistic does it feel? Effortless, somewhat unpleasant, painful, impossible? Making an accurate assessment would make your goal pursuit more successful.
If your goal seems realistic after the “time travel” next steps of implementation are more likely to follow smoothly. But if your goal doesn’t pass the test, you would be better of adjusting it to make it realistic – that would also save you from feeling guilty and discouraged in your goal pursuit each time you hit the snooze button.