Positive Goal Setting

By: Dr. Donald E. Wetmore

Did you know that most people who try to attain their personal goals fail? This is especially true of behavior changing goals such as weight loss, smoking cessation, alcohol and drug abuse programs. When I discovered this, I was intrigued and wanted to find out why.

For example, the majority of people who start a weight control program and achieve their weight loss goal (so we exclude those who attempt, go part way, and then fail) will be at or in excess of their previous weight level one year later. There are similar failure rates for other programs designed to control smoking, drugs and alcohol.

As I looked further into this, what was puzzling to me was that most of these programs are technically correct. For example, if you follow what most weight control programs suggest you will lose weight. The addiction control programs methods are sound. So why do these goal setting programs fail so broadly? Certainly it is not due to lack of desire on the part of those who try these programs to achieve their personal goals.

I found at least part of the answer.

If I am in involved in weight control, I say that I want to “lose” weight. If smoking is a problem, I will want to “quit” smoking. I may want to “stop” drinking. What are “lose,” “quit,” and “stop”? All negative goals. And that’s the problem.

We naturally move towards positive goals and intuitively away from negative goals. We are pleasure-seeking organisms who seek pleasure and avoid pain. Lose, quit, and stop are all negative goals. (The first three letters of a diet are “die.”)

So why do we ever get involved in these negative goal programs in the first place? Typically, it is a negative emotion such as fear or anger. We fear what is happening to our health or are angry with ourselves for what we have done and, based on that emotion, we now submit ourselves to do these negative things such as lose, quit, and stop, much like we would punish a child.

Then one of two things occurs. We fail and nothing more really matters. Or we succeed. As we succeed, we start to get confident and somewhat cocky. “I haven’t had a cigarette in three days!” As we gain that confidence, the negative emotions that brought us into the negative control program in the first place start to weaken. And when those negative emotions, the anger and the fear disappear, we go right back to our previous behavior.

Sound familiar?

To increase our chances for achieving any goal, we need to frame it as a positive goal with a positive outcome. Don’t tell yourself you are going to “lose” weight. Say, “I am going to get into a size 8 dress by next summer .” Instead of “quitting” smoking, how about, “I am going to get fresh, pink new lungs and more money in my pocket.” Rather than “stop” drinking, instead see yourself waking up with a clear head, without a frequent hangover.

We will move more naturally and comfortably toward the achievement of a positive goal. The mind will more readily accept a positive goal and not automatically try to find ways and rationalizations to sabotage us as with a negative goal.

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Dr. Donald E. Wetmore

Certified Executive Coach, Consultant and Trainer
Author, “Organizing Your Life” and “The Productivity Handbook”
Productivity Institute
Personal Productivity Solutions to Leverage Your Impact
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Stratford, CT 06615
(203) 386-8062
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