Did you know that 80% of New Year resolutions fail by February? Goal setting doesn’t fare much better throughout the year either. To help you achieve your goals, we’re going to walk you through common personal development goals people have and how to obtain them. We’ll also show you what others have done to achieve their goals and how you can follow suit.
What We Know About Setting and Achieving Goals
With the self-help becoming ever more popular, we now know things about being productive that people from previous decades did not — mainly The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and the essential findings behind keystone habits.
Understanding the psychology behind habits allows us to unlock the hidden mechanisms underlying goals more efficiently.
Here’s How Habits Work
Duhigg’s book is one of the best texts a general audience can use to understand how they’ve acquired the habits (good or bad) and why those habits persist. Every person has thousands of daily habits, but only a portion of which we are aware of. From smoking to jogging every day, all habits follow the same trend, which Duhigg describes as a loop.
- The first is the cue. Cues are what triggers the habit loop. For example, let’s say you’re a smoker. Your cue would be the internal biochemical processes that finished up your last intake of nicotine and now needs more. The cue could also be seeing someone else smoking or smelling cigarette smoke.
- Next is the craving. Cravings feel like someone’s knocking on your brain like it’s a door. It’s the internal desire pulling you to open that door and let in the substance.
- The response comes next. Are you going to open that door? Will you fulfill that craving by smoking that cigarette? Or are you going to refrain and sit in the discomfort of having a craving — of hearing someone constantly knock on your door?
Active smokers will smoke a cigarette when they crave one. Ingesting nicotine is their response to wanting nicotine.
- Finally, there’s the reward. It’s the rush of pleasure the brain feels when it fulfills the craving. Your brain remembers that good-feeling boost, so the brain not only feels fulfilled because if resolved a craving — nicotine, in this case — but it felt pleasure from completing the habit.
When the craving comes knocking again, the brain will open the door without checking to see who’s there, which is why habits often feel autonomous.
The brain’s in the business of maximizing pleasure and avoiding discomfort as much as possible. It’s much easier to go along with the habit loop than to disrupt it — you know this feeling if you’ve ever tried to start a positive habit like going for a run in the morning.
You already have your morning routine. Let’s say it’s washing up, eating breakfast, and checking emails. To introduce jogging in the morning — an activity that requires a lot of physical energy — would not only disrupt your daily routine but disrupt it with an exhaustive activity, which you’re brain is less likely to feel motivated to do.
The ubiquity of habits in our lives is why understanding how habits operate allows us to work past resistance to starting new habits. When you understand why you don’t want to start a habit, you can reason yourself out of it. You can say “Alright, I’m feeling lazy because I haven’t fully established my cues and rewards,” and work toward ingraining them.
Tips to make habits stick:
- Reward yourself after starting a new habit. The first time you start a habit, treat yourself to something you like. If it’s going for a run, you can watch an episode of television. If it’s reading for 25 minutes a day, you can buy yourself an ice cream.
When you reward yourself, you instantiate the pleasure of fulfilling that habit even when your brain hasn’t fully adopted the habit loop. The first few times you start the habit will be the toughest until you build more momentum, so rewards give you something to look forward too after completing the habit.
- Start simple. No, you can’t run a seven-minute mile when the last time you ran was in high school. You’ll have to work up to it by starting to run at all.
When you tell yourself you’ll run for only five minutes or around the block, you operate underneath the tests of your willpower. You’re not forcing yourself to perform that habit, which uses willpower which is easily drained. Instead, starting easy lets you incrementally build momentum that’s conducive to getting positive results.
- Find a friend. Who doesn’t love someone watching your every move? With an accountability partner, someone knows the habit you’re trying to build and who will feel disappointed (or laugh, or call jokingly call you names, or whatever kind of friendship you have) with you if you don’t accomplish that goal.
Thus, finding an accountability partner gets you results, because the social pressure of not disappointing your friend means you’ll force yourself to get that habit done.
Keystone habits are good habits that lead to other good habits. When you sleep for eight hours a night, you feel more productive the following day and accrue the positive health benefits of a full night’s sleep. Therefore, proper sleeping is a keystone habit.
It’s utterly crucial to focus on first keeping your mind and body healthy. Though Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been refuted by scientists, it can hold as the general framework for productivity and personal development.
You’ll find it incredibly difficult to start up a business when you don’t have enough money or time to eat or sleep well. More broadly, you’ll find it difficult to accomplish your goals when you don’t have your mental state in line. Before you start building goals, you have to make sure you’re taking care of your body. Proper habits are the results of a healthy lifestyle.
The Importance of Intentionality
Your brain is prone to road blocking itself. To accomplish any goal, you have to first and foremost permit yourself to achieve it. Yes, that’s a cliche, but, yes, you have to do it.
Often, we don’t even know we’re holding ourselves back. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s a lack of willpower that restricts us prevents us from overpowering cravings, causing us to fall back into bad habits. Roadblocks are everywhere, but roadblocks remain insurmountable when you tell yourself that little plastic fence in your lane is a mountain.
With an intentional mindset, you can recognize those roadblocks that will slow you down, but you can tell yourself that the challenges aren’t as threatening as they seem. When you view personal development as the intentional use of time, you cultivate mindful strategies to develop that goal further.
Such mindfulness, psychiatrist Judson Brewer says in his TEDxTalk, can be the key to successfully building a good habit or quitting a bad one. According to Brewer, mindfulness isn’t about restriction — forcing yourself to return to the task at hand. It’s about being curious and constantly observing yourself.
In Brewer’s experiments, he wanted to see what would help people quit smoking. So he told smokers that they were allowed to smoke, but when they did they, they had to be curious. What did smoking feel like? How did it taste? When people acutely perceived their actions, they realize smoking was terrible, and they lost interest. They quit smoking easily and naturally.
The takeaway: be aware of what you’re doing and when you’re not in control. When you do that, personal development will come much easier. It won’t be still won’t be easy, but you’ll mitigate feeling out of control in the pursuit to build discipline.
Personal Development Skills to Help Your Personal Development
We’re getting a bit meta, but building skills is, in itself, a skill. No matter what personal development goals you want to cultivate, each goal will benefit from these underlying skills and qualities.
You’ll be itching to see progress, and failing to see immediate results can discourage you. Patience helps you through the jet lag period you’ll encounter when you first start building goals.
Perhaps you want to draw every day to get better at art. Those first few drawings will be terrible compared to the skill you want to have, but drawing every day requires patience. When you commit to constant growth and put the hours in, soon enough you’ll see progress.
When it comes to envisioning success, our idealism can get in the way of practicality. The idealist in you says you’re a natural! You can master this task quickly and efficiently because all along you were a prodigy. But when reality tells you the truth, that you’re like everyone else, it’s hard to continue seeing slow growth and bad results.
Patience requires humility and maturity. Not everyone can stomach their inadequacies, but the successful personal development goal maker sits through the discomfort, knowing they will see real progress if they stick with it.
Patience requires its other half — willpower. Willpower stops you from jumping ship when a task gets too hard or when you do not see results fast enough. Willpower forces you to do your habit or work toward your goal on the days there’s nothing you want to do but give up, quit, go to sleep. Willpower is the superpower you need to develop to accomplish anything you want to do.
Some activities to boost your willpower include:
- Control when you eat. Multiple religions use fasting to teach followers discipline. Even if you’re not religious, regulating when you eat is a difficult yet rewarding way to build discipline.
- Don’t hit the snooze button. Snoozing puts your body in sleep inertia, which contributes to that groggy, slow feeling in the morning. Besides, an alarm is essentially a goal to get up at that time in the morning, and you resign yourself to failure when you snooze. That’s not a good way to start the day.
Be sure to wake up at the same time every day the first time your alarm goes off. Eventually, your circadian rhythm will get used to the schedule and facilitate waking up.
- Take cold showers. Cold showers are uncomfortable, which is why they’re effective at building discipline. Sitting through the discomfort makes it easier to grit through other discomforts, such as tackling that big project you’ve been putting off. There’s a reason cold showers has grown popular in the self-improvement community.
Coping With Stress
There will be times in your life when work, life, family, and a bunch of other things will get in the way of your personal development. You want to find ways to handle stress in ways that don’t hinder your health, relationships, or finances, and you also want to make sure that your stress doesn’t cause you to atrophy the personal development you’ve been doing.
- Talk it out. If possible, find a friend with whom you can blow off steam. There’s nothing better than verbally processing why a situation makes us upset. If you feel uncomfortable chatting with friends about stress, writing it down in a notebook is the next best option.
- Avoid unnecessary stress. Sometimes the boss piling extra assignments onto you is unavoidable, but other times you might be contributing to your heightened blood pressure. Are you a procrastinator? Are you unable to say no to people? Take stock of your situation and find ways to cut out stress-inducing behaviors from your life.
- Channel that stress. Rather than reaching for junk food or sipping alcohol to take the edge off your stress, repurpose your stress rather than numb it. Going for a jog in the morning or using stress in a creative endeavor (writing, painting, sculpting, etc.) will improve your life far better than masking stress with bad habits.
Mindfulness, at its core, is simple: be aware of what you’re doing at every moment. Sounds easy, right? But once you actually try to do it, you realize how hard it is to be constantly aware of what you’re doing. The brain easily gets distracted by daily trivialities.
How often have you been trying to work when you’re suddenly your phone pings, and you’ve spent the next ten minutes on social media? With mindfulness, you can be more aware of what you’re doing and how you’re behaving rather than getting passively pulled along by your brain’s fleeting whims or blown through life with its ever-changing winds.
Mindfulness keeps you solid and determined. It helps you diagnose what it is you actually want in life (which usually doesn’t involve hours of your life on pointless activities) and keeps you focused when distractions seek to get in the way.
As you go along in personal development, mindfulness helps you notice when you’re slipping and when you’re getting too passive in your self-growth. Even if you think mindfulness is a fad craze, developing your cognizance promotes personal development.
Tips on developing mindfulness:
- There are multiple ways to meditate, including focusing on your breath or sitting with your thoughts and experiencing what occurs around you. When stop focusing on random thoughts that pop in your head, you develop an internal eye to observe your inner and outer states rather than immediately acting, which builds self-control.
- It may feel odd to the journal, especially if you’re an adult. But you develop self-awareness by writing down your day and how you felt throughout it.
You can view them from a third-person perspective. Depending on how well you list details in your journal, you’ll more objectively see how your actions or behaviors occurred in the context of the day, the situation you were in, etc., as opposed to viewing yourself from your biased first-person perspective.
Top Personal Development Goals and Examples
With the sub-goals in line, here are the best personal development goals to help you gain more fulfillment out of life — in addition to hypothetical examples in which you can develop these goals.
Engage in Active Listening
Listen, there’s a difference between listening and hearing. Listening involves absorbing what the other person says as opposed to waiting for them to stop talking before you speak. You pay attention to the other person’s words, body language, and intent. You avoid talking about yourself or tangentially talking about some random piece of information.
Active listening involves humility and respect. You give someone else the focus, peppering him or her with questions to prompt them to continue talking. When you actively listen, you build mutual trust with a person. You show them that you can respect them since you can relinquish focus onto them. Thus, relationships tend to improve when you actively listen.
Further, your work and productivity life improve when you actively listen as well. It’s estimated that 70% of workplace errors and miscommunication comes when people don’t actively listen. When you give someone to focus and critically think on what they say, you promote efficient communication to get stuff done.
Examples: John talking to his coworker Charles. Charles is describing the details of a work assignment due next week and the steps he took to accomplish them. John is half paying attention, nodding along politely but his mind is on his vacation next week.
As such, John misses Charles describe a massive error in his calculations for the project, which they don’t catch before submitting the report. The boss isn’t happy. While Charles should have been aware of his mistake, John could have helped Charles catch it had he been actively listening.
Don’t do what John did. Be present and engaged when people listen and absorb what they say.
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Comfort, in terms of personal development, means stagnation. It means atrophy as well, as comfort means you are not challenging yourself, which means you’re not growing. And if you go from a state of being challenged to a state of comfort, you will lose the growth you obtained.
Ceasing to get out of one’s comfort zone is why weightlifters lose their muscle once they stop working out and why a singer’s range decreases once they stop singing. It’s hard to work out and to do those vocal runs. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s precisely why the weightlifter and singer got to the skill level they did — because of pushing through discomfort.
Worse, you might think you’re challenging yourself when you’re actually not. A challenge should involve a little bit of fear and resistance. If those aren’t there, then the activity is at the edge of your comfort zone but within. Therefore, you’ll experience less growth than if you got a few paces outside your comfort zone then redrew the line a bit further out than where it started.
Your brain’s a talented persuader and will convince you to stay in your comfort zone. It’s easier. What if you fail? What if you exerted all that time and energy only not to get the results you want?
Self-doubt and laziness is the recipe for stagnation and living a passive life. You have to whip yourself into shape and expand your comfort zone to achieve the personal development you want.
Example: Rebecca finds it difficult to talk to strangers, despite finding conversations with strangers interesting. She likes learning about people she might not have otherwise met, but she can’t make the first move. Rebecca wishes she could be one of those people who could strike up a conversation anywhere and is frustrated that she can’t.
Rebecca’s waiting in line for coffee. Rather staring at her phone the whole time, she puts it away, swallows her fear, and asks the person behind her what they’re ordering. They respond. Rebecca replies that it sounds interesting and that she’s never tried it. The stranger says it’s their go-to favorite, and they continue the conversation naturally until Rebecca has to order.
They continue to chat for a little bit until the stranger gets their drink and leaves. Despite mostly being small talk, Rebecca is proud she spoke to the stranger. It was small, but it was more than she would have done had she stayed firmly planted in her comfort zone.
Some people can make time to work, put hours in for passion projects, and still hang out with their families while taking care of their health. It seems like a superpower, really, but these people have managed the difficult art of time management.
Time management involves willpower and mindfulness. You have to resist pleasurable yet time-wasting behaviors such as social media and understand which activities will bring you the most joy in life, such as fostering personal relationships and accomplishing the goals toward which you worked.
Example: Taylor is the type of student who waits until the last minute to finish every task, but every time he does he feels he misses important parties or friendly get-togethers because he spends whole weekends working. Taylor decided enough is enough.
Instead of pushing his work to the last minute, Taylor swore to do a little bit of work every morning. He usually finishes around noon, leaving his evenings up to hang out with friends, relax, or get into a new hobby. His stress has decreased tremendously, and he’s much happier now.
Organize Your Physical Space
Researchers from Princeton showed that clutter negatively affects your mental performance. Whether it’s an overstuffed closet or papers covering your desk, your work environment represents how well your mental space will work.
As such, make sure to keep your personal spaces as organized and clutter-free as possible. With the rise of minimalism comes many resources to educate yourself on how to downsize the number of items you have while keeping what’s important to you. With fewer items in your life, there’s less of a chance for your spaces to become cluttered.
Example: Jennifer has way too many clothes, and after a long day at work, she can’t be bothered to fold up her clothes and put them away. At the end of each week, she has dozens of clothes littering her bedroom. She felt exhausted waking up to that each morning.
She decided to end her bad habit. She took a weekend to clear out her closet of things she hasn’t worn in years and the clothes that no longer fit her. Jennifer kept a third of the items in her closet, and now her room doesn’t get nearly as bad as it was. She’s still working on hanging her clothes up immediately, but her brain already feels a lot clearer.
Personal Development Takes Hard Work
But it’s possible to start small and work your way up. Keep a journal to mark your progress, or use habit-building apps like Habitica, which uses gamification to motivate you to complete your goals.
Start with the core goals like patience, willpower, and healthy coping with stress before moving onto larger tasks. You have to learn to walk before you run, so keep your goals realistic and attainable and in small increments.