Most people view goals as a distant means of potential happiness, whether they’re trying to lose 10 pounds, train for a marathon, or get married. And while imagining the milestone might inspire happiness, the trudge to get there often does not.
Goal-setting happens everyday, whether you’re checking items off your to-do list or trying to find a new job. “We are a goal-focused culture, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of Bring Your Brain to Work. “Even our language tends to refer to the completion of tasks: It’s ‘John bought a shirt at the store,’ rather than the process, ‘John went shopping and found a shirt.’ It is no surprise that the most natural way to think about goals is to focus on the outcome.”
Outcomes matter, Markman says, “because they provide a yardstick for measuring your progress toward goal attainment.” You have to hit some marks to survive and thrive, after all. But for distant goals that take extended effort to pursue, the time spent is more like 99 percent process and one percent obtainment. “It is hard to stay motivated just by focusing on the outcome,” Markman says. “The day-to-day grind can become too much.”
So, how can you stay happier and more satisfied pursuing your goals, ultimately achieving more and feeling more accomplished? Here are some ideas.
Set attainable goals, or goals within goals. Some people set goals that they’ll never achieve, and thus they are always grinding and never feeling payoff. Don’t do this. In a 2019 study, people who set goals they perceived to be attainable had a higher level of well-being—meaning, people are most satisfied when they feel they have control over reaching their goals.
So, aim to lose 10 pounds, and then another five when you hit the first target; don’t set the bar immediately at 25 pounds. Aim to run a 5K, then a 10K, and then a half marathon, before you start training for a full marathon. Keep moving that bar once you hit each benchmark.
Create a process for living, where goals happen as side effects of great changes. If you like the healthy meals you prepare for your week, then you’re more likely to do it again next week. If you enjoy going to the gym or yoga, you’re more likely to stick with it. If you enjoy your new job, you’re more likely to stay and want to work hard there.
Liking your food, fitness routine and work can all lead to obtaining goals, but the focus is on the enjoyment of the process. “In my book Smart Change, I argue that people should focus on creating a process for living their lives and developing habits where the key outcome they want to achieve happens as a side-effect of that process,” Markman says. “If you are solely focused on the outcome, your only opportunity for joy and satisfaction comes when you reach the big goal. If you actually enjoy the tasks you are doing day-to-day, though, then each day can have some joy in it and there is an extra celebration when you reach your overall goal.”
Find accountability when the progress is slow. To achieve a big goal, you must delay gratification—like hitting the gym when all your friends are going out for burgers. “This is particularly true when you have to do a lot of things you don’t enjoy in order to achieve the goal,” says Markman. “At some point, people also want to enjoy themselves in the moment. And that can lead people to discount the value of the long-term goal in favor of short-term enjoyment.”
This is especially true when you’re right in the middle of pursuing your goal. “It is easy to be motivated when you first start, because you see rapid progress; if the final goal is in sight, you are motivated to reach it,” he says. “But, in the middle, your progress is often slow. It can be hard to see the incremental change.” Markman suggests engaging with other people, like friends and mentors, to help in these middle times. “You might be willing to give up on your goal if you are only accountable to yourself—but having other people as a part of your process allows you to let them help you stay motivated.”
Focus on the positives in the process. The best goals are positive goals, or goals that “focus on actions you are going to take rather than actions you are not going to take,” says Markman. Don’t focus on all the foods you cannot have, like red meat and alcohol, while losing weight. Don’t focus on the series you’re going to skip, like Big Little Lies, in favor of time at the gym when you’re looking to tone up this summer.
What is enjoyable about your new routine and your goal-setting? “For instance, focus on your plan for how you are going to eat and what foods you are going to enjoy, and how you are going to prepare them and set portion sizes,” says Markman. “If you are continually focused on what you are not going to do, you are relying on willpower to help you in the face of temptation.” That might work once or twice, but it’s difficult to keep up in the long-term.
Don’t replace new goals for your old ones. The work doesn’t stop when the final goal is met; often, you have to maintain that goal. “If you are focused on the outcome, after you achieve the goal, other goals often come in and replace the one you were pursuing,” says Markman. “With weight loss, a big problem is that people will reach their target and then go back to doing what they did in the past, which leads them to put the weight they lost back on.” Or lose the muscle tone after you bench 200 pounds. Or lose the boss’s attention after you hit the promotion.
Remember: You’re not setting goals. You’re making long-term changes for a more satisfying life. Those goals don’t cease to exist when you’ve hit your final target. All good things take work.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.