When you set yourself a goal, try to be as specific as possible. "Lose 5 pounds" is a better goal than "lose some weight," because it gives you a clear idea of what success looks like. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve keeps you motivated until you get there. Also, think about the specific actions that you need to take to reach your goal. Just promising you'll "eat less" or "sleep more" is too vague; be clear and precise. "I'll be in bed by 10 p.m. on weeknights" leaves no room for doubt about what you need to do, and whether or not you've actually done it.

Whenever I ask people to tell me about their goals, I hear them say that they want to "get ahead at work" or "eat healthier" or "spend less and save more." To which I respond, "Okay, but what will success look like? How will you know when you have reached your goal?" Usually, that's followed by a long pause, and a look of confusion. Then a reply something along the lines of "I hadn't really thought about that."

Taking the time to get specific and spell out exactly what you want to achieve removes the possibility of settling for less—of telling yourself that what you've done is "good enough." It also makes the course of action you need to take much clearer. (If my goal is to "get along better with my mother," it isn't obvious what I should do to reach it. But if I get more specific and instead make my goal to "speak to my mother at least twice a week," I know exactly what I need to do and how often I need to do it.) Thousands of studies have shown that getting specific is one of the most critical (though often overlooked) steps to take in reaching any goal.

Instead of "getting ahead at work," make your goal something more concrete, such as "a pay raise of at least $_____" or "a promotion to at least the ____ level." When what you are striving for is vague, it's too tempting to take the easy way out when you're feeling lazy, discouraged or bored. But there's just no fooling yourself if you've set a specific goal; you know when you've reached it and when you haven't. If you haven't, you have little choice but to hang in there and keep trying if you want to succeed.

Being specific about what you want is just the first step. Next, you need to get specific about the obstacles that lie in the way of getting what you want. In fact, what you really need to do is go back and forth, thinking about the success you want to achieve and the steps it will take to get there. This strategy is called mental contrasting, and it is a remarkably effective way to set goals and strengthen your commitment.

To use the mental contrasting technique, first imagine how you will feel attaining your goal. Picture it as vividly as you can in your mind—really think about the details. Next, think about the obstacles that stand in your way. For instance, if you wanted to get a better, higher-paying job, you would start by imagining the sense of pride and excitement you would feel accepting a lucrative offer at a top firm. Then, you would think about what stands between you and that offer—namely, all the other really outstanding candidates that will be applying for the same job. Kind of makes you want to polish up your résumé a bit, doesn't it?

That's called experiencing the necessity to act; it's a state that is critical for reaching your goal, because it gets the psychological wheels in motion. Daydreaming about how great it will be to land that job can be very enjoyable, but it won't actually get you the job. Mental contrasting turns wishes and desires into reality by bringing attention and clarity to what you will need to do to make them happen.

In studies my colleagues and I have conducted—looking at situations ranging from 15-year-olds doing summer prep for the PSAT, to human resource personnel trying to manage their time better, to singles trying to find a romantic partner, to pediatric nurses trying to improve communication with parents—the results are always the same. Mental contrasting reliably leads to greater effort, energy, planning and overall higher rates of achieving goals. Taking a few moments to mentally go back and forth between the future you want and the hurdles you'll have to overcome to get there will help you find both the direction and motivation you need to succeed.

Putting It into Practice: Get Specific

1. Write down your goal.

Example A: My goal is to get ahead at work.
Example B: My goal is to lose some weight.

2. Ask yourself, "How will I know when I have succeeded?" Describe the moment when you will know that you have reached your goal.

Example A: I will know I have gotten ahead when my boss tells me that I'm getting promoted to director.
Example B: I will know that I have lost weight when I can fit into my size 8 jeans.

3. Go back and rewrite the goal, using the information.

Example A: My goal is to get promoted to the director level.
Example B: My goal is to fit into my size 8 jeans.

4. Now for a little mental contrasting. Think about two positive aspects of reaching your goals and two obstacles that lie in the way.

Examples of positives: I will make more money. I will have more influence on the company's strategy.
Examples of obstacles: My co-worker wants the same promotion. I'm not sure what my boss is looking for.

5. Beginning with the first positive aspect, write a few sentences about what it will be like to experience it. Next, write a few sentences about the first obstacle, and why it's a problem. Repeat for the second positive aspect and obstacle.

How do you feel right now? If you feel as if you have a good chance of reaching your goal, you should be feeling energized and determined. What do you need to do next? Mental contrasting should help provide you with clarity as to your next step.

9 things successful people do differently This excerpt was taken from Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, by Heidi Grant, PhD. Copyright 2017. Harvard Business Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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