Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals

Summary Written by John Petrone

The Big Idea

Pump up that Self-Control muscle

"Use it or lose it. Your self-control muscle is just like the other muscles in your body. When it doesn’t get much exercise it becomes weaker over time. But when you give it regular workouts by putting it to good use, it will grow stronger and stronger and better able to help you successfully reach your goals."- Succeed, page 194

Halverson provides several ways to exercise our self-control so it is ready for the avalanche of obstacles that we face when trying to reach our goals. One of her suggestions is to take on a small challenge such as standing up straight or doing 100 sit-ups a day. The act of consciously trying to do this will reinforce our willpower and enable us to tackle bigger tasks.

Besides giving it a regular workout, we can also boost our discipline by observing or thinking of a person we know that has lots of willpower. She calls this contagion, the act of influencing from watching. An additional self-control boost is anything that enhances our mood. She describes a study in which participants were given a small gift (a reward) following a difficult task. The reward boosted their self-control reserves, allowing them to perform an additional unpleasant task.

But similar to our muscles, self-control can get depleted if it is over-worked. We shouldn’t attempt too many goals at the same time, such as working out and dieting. Our willpower can be overwhelmed by too many demands at the same time. “Immediately after you’ve put it to the test, you will be more vulnerable than you usually are to temptations, distractions and other pitfalls that can throw you off track.”

She goes on to explain that most people fall prey to their weaknesses (such as overeating or not working out) at the end of the day, once they’ve exhausted their self-control reserve. Knowing this, we can plan ahead for these potential self-control traps and set-up a strategy such as If-Then plans to alleviate such bad influences.

Insight #1

Make If-Then plans to help with goal execution

"Planning when, where and how you will take the actions needed to reach your goal is probably the single most effective thing you can do to increase your chances of success."- Succeed, page 177

No goal is achievable without a plan. Spelling out exactly what needs to be done along with how and when can greatly increase your chances of success. Many times the biggest obstacle to achieving our goals is seizing the opportunity to act. Halverson’s solution to this obstacle is setting up If-Then plans, which work as follows: If I am in this situation, then I will take this action. An example would be: If it is 6 p.m. on Monday, then I will go to the gym.

According to the author, If-Then plans work because they help us seize the moment. Creating these specific strategies helps our brain to detect when opportunities arise in the day to act on our goals. Studies performed by her and other researchers confirmed that setting up these If-Then plans dramatically increases the odds of reaching our targets.

If-Then planning also “conserves our most precious motivational resource: our self-control strength. Anytime our unconscious mind can take over, detecting situations and directing our behavior without conscious effort, it is far less taxing and requires less willpower.”

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Insight #2

Focus on improvement not perfection

"When we focus on getting better, we take difficulty in stride—using our experiences to fuel our improvement. People who pursue growth often turn in their best performances because they are far more resilient in the face of challenges."- Succeed, page 75

Halverson breaks down the types of goals people usually set into two types: proving yourself (be good) and improving yourself (get better). Be good goals are about trying to prove yourself, such as how smart you are at school or work when compared to everyone else. Get better goals are about self-mastery. It’s not about a particular outcome, but more about improvement and how much progress has been made. Based on her research, it seems that people who set get-better goals have more resilience and perseverance.

Focusing on getting better goals allows us to handle challenges and obstacles much better, providing another boost to our self-control muscle. “When the road gets rocky, people who are focused on proving themselves tend to conclude that they don’t have what it takes-and give up way too soon.”

So before skipping that next workout, create an If-Then plan and seize the opportunity. Reach for this invaluable book if you’re serious about achieving your goals and making this year count. “You can be more successful in reaching your goals than you have been in the past. Make success happen.”

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Heidi Grant Halvorson

Heidi Grant Halvorson is a social psychologist, and Associate Director of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center. Her research has focused on understanding why some people give up when their goals give them trouble, while others can rise to the challenge. She is the author of SUCCEED, NINE THINGS SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DO DIFFERENTLY, FOCUS, and THE EIGHT MOTIVATIONAL CHALLENGES. Through her books, articles, and her blogs (99u, Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, Fast Company), she hopes to help people understand that ANYONE can reach their goals, and give them the scientifically-tested strategies they need to succeed.

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