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Chasing your goals
A constant struggle

January 27, 2004

Well, we have officially entered the New Year with which, most people expect and hope to gain new levels of achievements in various possible aspects of their lives. What kind of new year's resolutions have you set for yourself for 2004?

This also happens to be the Chinese Year of the Monkey. I was out buying a Christmas gift for one of my friends when I passed by a little Chinese store; I walked out of there with an ornament consisting of three little monkeys attached to each other horizontally.

As to why I bought what I did, well, when I asked the store keeper about the meaning behind these monkeys, he explained to me that each of them was declaring a new year's resolution of sorts.

The first monkey was covering its eyes, the second one its mouth, and the third, its ears. This gesture of theirs is supposed to inspire its owner to achieve the following in the new Chinese year: "See no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil". Therefore, regardless of our origins, nationalities, or celebrations, we all strive to set some kind of a goal for ourselves; something which, will give us a kind of higher meaning in life or some minor satisfaction.

While talking to several of my friends about their resolutions in the past and present, I noticed something very interesting. They were either setting very common goals for themselves, such as losing weight, or had completely given up on the idea of setting resolutions which according to them would only lead to failure in the end.

Only a small minority of people I have spoken with have actually given me a completely thought-out and original resolution. So the question is what is the motivational factor behind these different types of goal-setters? What can be said about the different strategic methods these people employ in reaching their endpoints or in some cases not reaching them?

To start off, it is important to talk about the concept of self-regulation and what theorists such as Baumeister and Heatherton suggest as being its successful ingredients. Self-regulation is defined as "the capacity to alter or over-ride one's typical way of responding".   

The three ingredients which are necessary in order to avoid self-regulatory failure are as follows: standards defined as abstract notions of what you want to accomplish; monitoring, which consists of checking ones progress in order to obtain accurate feedback; and last but not least, strength, also known as will power.

Having mentioned this, it is also important to differentiate between self-determined goals reflecting one's own interests and values and non self-determined goals mostly being caused by feelings of guilt, or other external pressures.

What category do you see yourself falling into? That is the question one needs to be address when forming initial thoughts about these resolutions. Because let's face it, a lot of the goals that we set for ourselves - whether at a young age or later on in life - are based on the desires which have been implemented in our minds by our elders or superiors.

Do you really want to quit smoking or is it something which has been sung into your ears for so long that you felt pressured to finally give in? What about that resolution of spending less time with your friends and more time with your family? Is that really something you want or is it just guilt creeping up on you? Not only do you have to ask yourself this but you also have to make sure that you spend enough time structuring your goals. What do I mean by structuring?

Well, it's important that you specifically know what you want to achieve. Don't just say to yourself that you want to be more communicative in your relationship. Instead, set a goal to write each other at least once a day; or talk more on the phone at nights before going to bed. Not only that, but you must also make sure that you have some kind of a back-up plan.

Don't limit yourself because I can tell you with complete certainty that you, just like the rest of us, will encounter obstacles which will try and set you off from your path. In such cases, you need to be flexible and mobile enough to just walk around those obstacles or right through them. So, the more specific you get, the more you can actually think about the different ways, through which, to accomplish your goals. 

Alright, so far so good! But there is something else which is overlooked at first glance, yet when pointed out, seems very obvious when forming such ideas in our heads. It's very simple. Challenge yourself! If you do not, then what is the point of putting so much time, attention and effort into something which will not give you any kind of reward in the end?

Research seems to also give a lot of evidence for the insertion of implementation plans into one's goal intentions. What exactly do I mean by implementation plan? Simply, when, where and how your responses will get you to your desired end-point. This will force you to actively focus on the commitments you set for yourself and actually pay attention to them.

As funny as it may sound, if we set a resolution for ourselves which will not require us to actively participate in, then we will lose track of what we are doing and where we are going with it. This also connects well with my next point which has to do with transcendence.

Transcendence was a concept first developed by Plato  who defined it as "the rising to a state beyond sense experience" but was later further developed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant who reserved the term transcendent for entities such as "God and soul which are said to be beyond human experience and unknowable".

The key phrase here is "beyond human experience", which in connection with the idea of human motivation simply means to focus beyond the proximal situation, to more distal and long-term outcomes.

I was recently having a little discussion with someone who mentioned to me that we have a tendency of overanalyzing our goals and desires. What is the point of always asking this horrible "why"? Why not just go with the flow and see where it takes us. Well that sounds pretty good because overanalyzing certain things can lead to anxiety, but isn't something being overlooked here? We need to think about the "why" because that will lead us to ponder the long-terms effects and consequences our actions will have.

Why is that a good thing? Well, imagine you had set the goal for yourself to become more independent from your family (e.g. move out) and if you were to only focus on its short-term effects, I don't think that you would necessarily be motivated enough to go through with such a plan let alone get it started.

It's not easy to know that your actions are hurting your family members who might have become dependent on you in some ways. However, if you were to focus on its long-term consequence, that of finally being able to make your own decisions in life, then you would find enough motivation in yourself to achieve such a goal.

So, if you are thinking about your new year's resolution, you still have enough time to make alterations to it. Make sure your goal is specific, challenging, transcendent, and intrinsically motivating. Pay enough attention to it so that it does not become an automated task, but rather something which will provide you with insight into your own intentions and also let you know how you are doing.

Now having said all of this, I will end with the mention of a new year's resolution, which I found to be pretty creative and out of the ordinary. Someone had set a new years resolution for themselves to party more, or in other words, to have a more active social life. This person happened to be a hard-working student. What kind of problems will she encounter while trying to achieve this goal of hers? How successful will she be in the end? You be the judge of that.

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By Yasaman Rohani



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