This year, my new year resolution is to finish the first draft of a novel. It’s a realistic goal – I’m not saying it has to make money, or even be any good. I just want the words on the page, even if all they do then is languish for ever in a folder.
Well, I say that’s what I want – but of course finishing a draft was my new year resolution last year, and the year before that, and before that. In truth, I’ve been pushing back this particular ambition since 2017.
Maybe for you, it’s running a marathon – or a 5k. It might be losing a particular amount of weight, or completing a course in yoga or a foreign language. It could be a time-intensive project such as making a quilt or researching your family history.
Many of us have these mid- to long-term goals that are ambitious, but (in theory) achievable with the requisite investment of time and effort. I’m going to guess that many other people also have not made a start – even if last year’s lockdowns meant that they, like me, had endless hours to fill.
So why do we put off these goals, and how can we make 2022 the year we finally attain them? I spoke to experts to find out.
Focus on the process – not perfection
“It’s a very human problem,” says Fuschia Sirois when I describe my situation. A professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, Sirois studies procrastination and perfectionism – and their toll on wellbeing. She says both factor into our failure to get started on projects.
“When you’re working towards something and you’re not quite there, anything is possible; you can imagine how successful it will be,” says Sirois. “But we know that’s not what happens in real life.”
In other words, just taking a step towards my goal will be a sobering reminder of the long road ahead. The story I’m capable of writing may not be bad, but it will, inevitably, be unlike how I have imagined it, and that realisation alone can throw us off, says Sirois. “We preserve that goal when we never get started – it just becomes that abstract thing, out there.”
So willpower and a plan are not necessarily enough. Sirois’s research shows that we procrastinate on a task to avoid difficult emotions. “We are not rational beings. Our fears, anxieties, personal internal struggles, the negative scripts we have about ourselves, our self-esteem – all these things come into motion.” Procrastinating can then add another layer of self-criticism – while perfectionism can trick us into thinking that there’s an optimum time to start.
The paralysis Sirois describes is painfully familiar. I couldn’t count the number of weeknights and weekends that I’ve felt ambient guilt for not writing, even though I had not planned to do so.
Sirois suggests, instead, that I try drilling down into these emotional blocks. For instance, they could represent my being critical of myself, which I can meet with self-compassion – or my uncertainty about the task, calling for research.
“It’s easy to blame the plan. It’s much harder to say: ‘I don’t know how to manage my emotions’,” says Sirois. Part of the problem, she says, is that we find it hard to accurately forecast our emotional states, meaning we can overstate the struggle of working towards our goal or the satisfaction we will feel achieving it – or both.
“What we learn about ourselves along those longer journeys such as running a marathon or writing a novel, how we build our skills, the relationships we make and strengthen: that is actually what makes the experience much more rich and rewarding than we could ever imagine – but we tend to forget these things.”
The solution, says Sirois, is to seek meaning from the process, not the outcome. A recent study showed that people who thought about why their goal was important to them spent much less time procrastinating than those who only thought about how good it would feel to achieve it.
If I thought my latest chapter was bad, she suggests that I could reframe it to myself as “I’m becoming a better writer”. Someone training for a marathon might focus on keeping fit, spending time with friends, or following in family members’ footsteps.
“You can look at the struggles you’re experiencing in a broader perspective, to see what it means in terms of your own personal growth,” says Sirois.
But it’s tough, even for the experts. When she was on deadline for her recent audiobook, Do It Now: Overcoming Proscrastination, Sirois says, “it took me for ever to get started”.
Katy Milkman, a behavioural scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of How to Change, suggests the barrier to making progress is often our bias towards feeling good now.
“It may not be that pleasant, in the moment, to achieve that long-term goal,” she says. “You know you should, you know that you will be glad when you have – but each time you sit down, there’s something more tempting or proximate that is taking your attention away.”
One way to overcome this is by linking the task to something pleasurable – for instance, restricting our favourite snacks or tea to writing sessions or watching TV only when on the treadmill. Milkman mentions a student who let herself light a scented candle only when she was working on her dissertation.
It would have to be a pretty special scented candle, I say. “I agree,” says Milkman. “That’s not the thing for me.” Instead, she has beloved audiobooks that she uses to motivate herself for workouts.
Another way is to use cash. Milkman recently conducted a “megastudy” of more than 60,000 US gym members, which found that this worked. Awarding reward points (equivalent to only 9¢ or about 6½p) to people who returned to the gym after missing a planned workout increased visits by about 16% compared with the baseline offering. Extending a bigger reward (points worth $1.75) for every workout was almost as effective, increasing visits by about 14%.
So, if you want to run a marathon, try paying yourself a pound for every day you stick to your training plan. That strategy can be applied as the stick, not just the carrot, says Milkman: ask a loved one to charge you for every run you miss. That also adds an extra layer of accountability.
If you don’t want to burden friends with this, there are services that automate it. Beeminder.com, for instance, plots your progress towards a quantifiable goal on a graph. When you cross to the wrong side of your trend line, Beeminder charges you. StickK.com likewise leverages the “psychological power of loss aversion” to drive behaviour change, charging you when you break the terms of your “commitment contract”.
According to Beeminder, you might find this strategy effective if there is “anything you know you should do, you really do want to do, you know for certain you can do, yet that, historically, you don’t do”. Also, if you are a “nerdy, lifehacking data freak”.
Sounds like me. I stop short of signing up, for now, but I think this would work better for me than a scented candle.
One of the most common strategies for success is to visualise it – picturing yourself crossing the finish line with a personal best, or seeing your bestseller on shelves. But, says Gabriele Oettingen – a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation – this could actually be counterproductive.
Over many studies, her research has established an unexpected but powerful correlation between positive thinking and poor performance. “The more positive a daydream about the future, the less I put in effort to actually realise it,” Oettingen explains over Zoom from New York.
In other words, fantasising about our goals makes us feel good in the short term – to the point of lowering our blood pressure – but it saps us of the energy we need to take action. “People feel accomplished,” says Oettingen. “Like they’re already there.”
Worryingly, Oettingen suggests, this inaction could over time even lead to depression, with a correlative link established between fantasising about the future and a more negative mood.
So, instead of simply visualising, Oettingen advocates what she calls “mental contrasting”: not just fantasising about success but comparing your daydream with reality to reveal what, specifically, is holding you back from achieving it. Once you understand clearly the obstacles standing in your way, you can plan to overcome them with an “if it’s this then I do that” plan. For example, my issue is that I prioritise work over writing my novel. So I could resolve to write fiction first thing in the morning, before I check my work email. Or if my goal was to jog in the evenings, but I lacked the motivation at the end of the workday, I could start small by putting on my running shoes before I clocked off – helping me over the first hurdle.
Oettingen dubs this approach “Woop” – wish, outcome, obstacle, plan – and says it works for just about any behaviour change, from creating healthy habits to improving relationships and academic performance. (There are free resources at woopmylife.org, and an app.)
Once you have nailed down what is holding you back, you will find that you are energised to work towards your goal – or that you aren’t as invested in it as you thought. In that case, Oettingen says, you can let go of this dream without guilt.
You could well find out that your goal was something you thought you should achieve, she says, because it is socially desirable or something your family and friends want. “By really looking at the obstacle, I will understand what to do to overcome it – I will also understand if the obstacle is too costly, there is not enough time, or it is simply not surmountable,” she says. “And then, with good conscience and full consciousness, I will simply get out and devote myself to more promising, feasible futures … Mental contrasting is a way to clean up your life.”
And with that, Oettingen articulates the uneasy thought I have every time another new year rolls around without a draft done: how much can I really want to write this novel, if I still haven’t finished it?
Test your goals
Dave Evans was an early employee at Apple under Steve Jobs, and led the design of its first mouse. Now – as co-leader of Stanford University’s Designing Your Life course, and as co-author (with his boss Bill Burnett) of the bestseller of the same name – he teaches a practical approach to problem-solving. “We’re the get-you-unstuck guys,” he says cheerfully over Zoom from his office in sunny California.
What I am grappling with, Evans tells me, is known as an “anchor problem” – in other words I am stuck on only one solution to my goal, which makes it “either impossible, or incredibly difficult to reach”..
Evans suggests a spot of reverse engineering – that I try reframing my problem by picturing myself six months after I’ve finished my draft. Why, specifically, am I happy? How is my life different, or better? “The first thing you have to do is be really empathetic with yourself, and with the person you think you’re trying to be.” From there, he says, you can work backwards.
It might be that what future Elle wants, more than a finished draft, is to have a regular practice of fiction-writing – and I (she?) can work towards that without needing 80,000 words to show for it, Evans points out. “Give yourself a chance at succeeding,” he says.
“One of the biggest problems psychologically with the grand goal is unattainability. It’s incredibly de-energising – people give up. So set the bar low: ‘What if I wrote for a week? I’m not writing a novel, I’m writing a chapter.’ Then do it again. Give yourself a chance at succeeding,” says Evans.
He calls this prototyping: exploring different paths and possibilities through defined experiments. “Before you run a marathon, try a couple of 10ks,” he suggests. Not just for practice, but because you may find that achievement is enough, or that you don’t enjoy running enough to do a full marathon.
The flexibility helps to ground your goal in reality, Evans says – to connect with your actual motivation, and confront the inevitable cost of pursuing it at the expense of other goals. “Many people who have this goal – the book, the marathon, the peak, ‘gotta lose 50lb’ – have almost no idea at all what’s involved.”
Some may even be in a “long-term, nostalgic relationship” with their fantasy, says Evans. “But design always starts with reality.”
If you revisit your goal and find it is no longer relevant, you can still honour it as something that was significant to your past self, which has steered you this far and from which you can now move on.
People who test their “grand goal” report feeling two things, says Evans: “They feel more hopeful – and they feel it’s doable.” I assure him that I’ll check back in next year. Then, that night, I write a scene: messy, not beautiful, but words on a page.