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February 22, 2023

Try This When Your New Year’s Career Goals Go Down The Drain

If you’re like many people this time of year, your New Year’s resolutions might have become a distant memory in a little over a month. How many times have you resolved to improve your work habits and set career goals? Or how often have you promised to eat healthier, lose weight or exercise more? Then […]

If you’re like many people this time of year, your New Year’s resolutions might have become a distant memory in a little over a month. How many times have you resolved to improve your work habits and set career goals? Or how often have you promised to eat healthier, lose weight or exercise more? Then a month down the road, your vows go down the drain. You’re not alone. It’s easy to let your intentions slide when you have so much on your plate.

The Neuroscience Of Reaching Your Goals

Neuroscience shows that your brain doesn’t register goals unless it’s clear about what you intend to do. The good news is there’s a tool that can help you stay on track. It’s called the if-then plan—a self-made strategy that keeps you from getting sidetracked by identifying predetermined actions you will take when a specific situation occurs. Making an advanced decision builds habits that help you stick to the action part of a challenging work goal. Being specific about when and where you will act on your goal automatically alerts your brain to be on the lookout for a specific situation (the if) and the action that you will take (the then).

Without an automatic reminder, your brain gets sidetracked from remembering the intended behavior and constantly calculates whether an event is the right one for carrying out the intended action. One of the problems with setting a goal is that we think of it in vague terms. Once I started using this plan to exercise regularly, I went from a vague “I will start exercising” to "I will start the Alpine ice hack and meet my personal trainer at the gym for a one-hour workout.” And I’ve been at it for five years.

Let’s say you worry all weekend about meeting a Monday afternoon deadline and keep putting it off. You might not realize that the emotional worry is carrying you away from your goal. A plan to meet the deadline might go from a vague, “I will stop procrastinating,” to applying “If X happens, then I’ll do Y.” The X is the situation and Y is the action you take when X occurs. Plugging your idle vow to stop procrastinating into a specific action plan might look like this: “If it’s nine 0’clock on Monday morning, I will sequester myself at my desk, close my emails and silence my devices until 11 o’clock to focus solely on the deadline.

This baked-in strategy of the if-then plan inoculates you from a self-defeating “what-the-hell-attitude.” Research conducted by Peter Gollwitzer at New York University found that having an action plan for what you intend to do before you encounter a situation can triple your chances of accomplishing a goal. One study found that 91% of people who used the if-then plan stuck to their plan compared to 39% of those who didn’t use the formula: If X happens (the event), then I’ll do Y (my action). Armed with an if-then plan, those are pretty good odds that you’re more apt to carry out your goal without struggling to consciously think about it.

Putting Your If-Then Plan Into Action

The motivational speaker Zig Zigler said, “You can’t hit a target you cannot see, and you cannot see a target you do not have.” When setting a goal you need to specify not only what you plan to do but also where and when you will do it. Your brain develops a heightened vigilance for the if situation. Once triggered, it is automatically equipped with the prepared response.

Suppose a coworker has a habit of talking over you in Zoom meetings, and you want to speak up the next time it happens. But the fear of colleagues perceiving you as defensive or unprofessional keeps you from doing anything. You say you want to be more assertive and speak up but remain vague about what that means. An if-then plan helps you be more specific, enabling you to act with assertiveness instead of react with defensiveness. Plus, you boost your chances of follow-through without struggling to consciously think about it by plugging the goal into the if-then formula: If (or when) (X the event happens), then I will do (Y my action). “If Charlene interrupts me in next Wednesday’s meeting, I will say, ‘Excuse me, Charlene, but I haven’t finished my thought,’ and I will continue with my point. ”

This builds your self-talk, and you end up doing what you tell yourself you plan to do because the if-then plan becomes linked in your mind. Your brain recognizes the situation as an opportunity to advance the goal. When the situation is detected, action is initiated automatically. Now, you have hardwired the situation in your brain—being in the meeting on Wednesday and being interrupted—directly to the action: speak up with a specific phrase, responding (not reacting) to Charlene in a strong but professional way and continuing with your point.

Southern novelist Eudora Welty once said, “It doesn’t matter if it takes a long time getting there; the point is to have a destination.” Here are a few other examples of how to specify your destination so you can get there. Suppose you work for a boss who is temperamental, whose temper tantrums make you afraid you will yell back at him or storm out of his office. A self-made plan might look like this: If (when) my boss blows his top again, then I will imagine staying on the launchpad and focus on keeping myself calm instead of getting on the rocket ship with him. Or imagine your goal is to practice mindfulness meditation on the way to work, but your mind wanders about all the things on your to-do list. An if-then plan might be, “When I am on my way to work, I will hold my attention in the present moment, focusing on what’s around me—the sky, trees and people—and what’s inside me—my breath, heart rate and muscle tension, instead of the things on my to-do list.” Good luck on your journey to reaching your New Year’s resolutions even if it’s late in the game, although it’s never too late to reach your career goals for 2023.

Article written by:  Orville Lynch, Jr.
Mr. Lynch, a member of the legendary two-time Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame Award winning Lynch Family. Mr. Lynch is a nationally recognized urban media executive with over 20+ years of diversity recruitment and serial entrepreneur with numerous multi-million dollar exits.
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