Finally, an Answer to Why We So Often Fail to Achieve Our Goals

And what to do about it.

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Photo by Dev Asangbam on Unsplash

It’s that time of year — again! — when many of us make resolutions to change in the New Year. What do you want to achieve? To meditate daily? To publish a book? To get into shape?

Whatever you want for yourself, you’re probably aware of the dismally low probability of your success. Only 8% of people accomplish their New Year’s resolutions. What’s going on? Why are we so terrible at achieving our goals?

Most people try to accomplish their goals by using willpower. With it, we force ourselves to sacrifice today to get what we want tomorrow.

But if that’s what most people do, could it also explain why most people fail?

According to author and psychologist, David DeSteno, willpower isn’t well-suited to helping us achieve our long-term goals. He’s found in his research that willpower predictably fails us, and fails us even more frequently when it really matters.

The problem is that we’ve been sold the idea — for decades — that willpower, grit, and perseverance can be reliably been controlled by the rational and logical parts of the brain. We’ve been convinced that when it comes to achieving our goals, emotions are the problem and our rationality is the solution. But what if that’s not true?

In DeSteno’s book, , he questions the prevailing wisdom that emotions hold us back from achieving our goals. Instead, he asks,

DeSteno believes the answer is a resounding “Yes!” and he’s got some impressive results to back up his claims. His research focuses on three emotions in particular: gratitude, compassion, and pride. He calls these because they all lead to cooperation, which has undoubtedly been a hallmark of our species’ success.

To cooperate, we set aside our immediate self-interest to pursue ends that don’t benefit us in the short-term. When you agree to help your friend move a couch to his new condo, you know it’s going to be a painful and time-consuming undertaking. But you do it anyway because you know the value of friendship. In the present it hurts, but in the future you’ll reap the rewards. And I don’t just mean he’ll help you move couch someday — I mean that cooperation breeds deeper friendships and that’s obviously a good thing.

What these emotions , DeSteno contends, is . They make it easier for us to delay short-term gratification in favour of long-term aims.

But, how does this help us achieve our goals?

There is someone with whom we could each choose to cooperate that we often ignore. We care deeply about this person but all too often ignore their pleas for help. Who is this person? It’s our future self.

Interestingly, this is no mental trick. These emotions help us put more value on the well-being of our future selves, and doing so makes it easier for us to choose actions that benefit our future selves. These emotions motivate us to put down the cookie and go to the gym, to stop watching Netflix and meditate, to turn off social media and write. They make it easier for us to delay gratification — they do the hard work for us!

Isn’t that incredible? And a relief? I, for one, would love to stop relying on willpower considering how often it fails!

These three emotions — gratitude, compassion, and pride — can be cultivated so that we experience them more deeply and often. Read on to learn how to effectively practice these emotions and finally achieve your goals.

#1 How to cultivate gratitude

DeSteno was involved in this ingenious study, which demonstrated that increased gratitude is associated with placing a greater value on the future. The authors concluded that the study is “…the first to document that elevated levels of an emotional state in daily life are associated with enhanced self-control and patience.”

This conclusion — that gratitude can increase our self-control and patience — is not what we’d expect. When it comes to pursuing our goals, we tend to think of emotions as the enemy. It’s time to change that mindset.

Thankfully, feeling more gratitude in your life is not difficult. One well-researched strategy is to keep a gratitude journal. Write down three things a couple of times a week that you’re grateful for.

The trick here is to not write down the same three things each time. We all have big things in our lives we’re grateful for and the problem with thinking of those things over and over again is that we habituate to them. What we need to do instead is write down the little things we’re grateful for. Maybe someone held the door for you at the grocery store. Maybe the sunrise was beautiful. Maybe a meeting at work went really well.

The point is to look for the good things in your life that you might otherwise not pay much attention to. They’re there, we all just have the bad habit of ignoring them.

#2 How to cultivate compassion

is defined as the emotion that drives actions aimed at relieving the suffering of others. DeSteno has conducted several studies (see here, here, here, here, and here) that concluded compassion can cause us to forego immediate gratification to help alleviate the suffering of others.

How could this help us achieve our personal goals? We can direct our compassion toward our future selves. If we know that our future self will regret acting contrary to our goals, like not going to the gym or not meditating, having compassion for our future self will make it easier for us to choose actions that align with our long-term goals!

Thankfully, it’s not hard to cultivate compassion, either. According to DeSteno, one way to do this is to meditate. Download an app like Headspace or Waking Up and meditate for 10 minutes a day. It will not only increase your compassion toward others, but it will increase your compassion toward your future self, too.

#3 How to cultivate pride

We don’t often think of pride as a good thing, since we tend to associate it with arrogance and hubris. However, DeSteno has shown that feeling prideful can produce prosocial outcomes. Indeed, he found that feeling authentic pride — as opposed to arrogance and hubris — caused participants to persist longer on effortful tasks compared to neutral participants, as well as participants who were made to feel other positive emotions.

According to DeSteno, cultivating pride is simple: take pride in each step you take toward a goal, not just when you achieve it. Allow yourself to feel pride every time you meditate, every time you exercise, every time you write. Whenever you take a step toward a goal, feel the pride of that accomplishment, however small it may be. This will help you persevere through those tough moments when you just want to quit.

Will you take advantage of your emotions?

Our emotions don’t exist to get in our way — they exist to be useful to us. As we have seen, gratitude, compassion, and pride are three emotions we can take advantage of to pursue our goals. They literally make it easier for us to make choices that serve our long-term interests.

If you’re sick and tired of trying to use willpower to achieve your goals, try something new. Try using your emotions. You will be pleasantly surprised by the results!

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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