Frequently Asked Questions

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How do I stay disciplined?

Anyone who has ever started learning something has asked the same.

Here’s what Professor Laurie Santos teaches Yale students (as part of the “Science of Well-Being” course) about how to reach your goals. Below is a recap:

1. Know what your goal is

We all think that we have goals, but to actually actualize those, you have to consider them as goals.

Figure out what your goal is (when you have a really specific goal, it forces you to figure out how you’re going to do it. And it’s actually figuring out how you’re going to do it that seems to lead to better performance).

Give it quantitate precision (who, what, where, when; write all those different parts down, and see it quantitatively, that will help you).

(Example: I’m going to learn French for the next 3 months; I will be studying 3 times a week (Td, Th) at 7.45 AM and Sa at 9.30 AM at my home, 45 minutes each day; I will be sharing my progress with my colleague, Alex, who speaks good French.)

The quantitative specificity with which you define your goal gives you a plan of how to enact it. See Klein et al (1990)* study listed in the footnotes for more information.

2. Know what your obstacles are

Think about your goal, what it’s going to give you, and what are the problems that might lead you not to do it.

To get the positive benefit of thinking about your future success, you also need to spend the same amount of time to think about some of the obstacles that might get in your way. By contrast, if you only think about the obstacles, you dwell on how hard it is, and then you’re never going to get around to doing anything.

In the beginning, just thinking about or indulging is good enough (to reach the goal), but over time, if you really want to keep overcoming your obstacles, it seems like having both of those things in place helps. And it seems to help even way down the line, 24 weeks out, and 24 months out.

(Example: I want to get a promotion at work to take care of International (French) partners. I have started learning French and have some good basis, but I need to dive in deeper to get myself to a confident level. A 2-week trip to France will give me a final confidence boost. I want to go to Paris in 3 months. To reach my goal, I will need to stay disciplined to study 3 mornings a week, 45 minutes each time, twice before my work commute, and once on Saturday. I would need to wake up and go to bed 1 hour earlier on weekdays, I would need to deprioritize any requests that would get in the way of me doing it, including late-night gatherings on Fridays for the next 3 months. Sadly, this also means me missing out on some parties unless I manage to complete my learning on Friday evening.)

See Stadler & Oettingen (2010)** study listed in the footnotes for more information.

3. Plan your goal

Visualizing success and obstacles isn’t enough unless you start planning your goal.

Sometimes, when you plop yourself into the situation, it starts influencing you implicitly (you’ve committed to learning French, but at a Wednesday casual gathering your friend is inviting you to attend a birthday party on Friday). You need to be prepared to get through situations like this automatically without having to recruit much willpower.

Develop a series of if-then rules, and practise them outside of the situation by visualizing it (if my friend Mary asks me to join her birthday party on Friday, I would have to say no unless I will have done my scheduled Saturday French practise on Friday afternoon). It has to be in the if-then specific format for your automatic system to pick it up.

Tip: You can also use it to help you remember stuff. For example, if you want to remember your keys, think of some specific action you’re going to do, like, grab the doorknob - think keys. When you grab the doorknob to leave, you think keys and automatically as you will be grabbing the doorknob, you will think of keys.

See Gollwitzer & Brandstätter*** below for more information.

Tip: Having an if-then rule when working on reaching hard goals increases your chances to succeed drastically. In the quoted above study it was threefold.

4. Use the WOOP shortcut

There is an easy mnemonic that you can use for putting all these strategies together for any set of goals that you have from the specificity to the visualizing to the obstacles to the planning:

WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, and Plan. Check the works by Gabrielle Oettingen at NYU for more information. Briefly, this is how it works:

  1. Think up an idea you are going to do the visualization for, take a few minutes a day to visualize it (think about your wish, think about what your goal is as specific as possible, e.g. I want to learn a language three times this week at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for 20 minutes, et cetera, et cetera.) Spend two minutes thinking about that.
  2. Think, what’s the best possible outcome of that, what would be great about it, what you’d want to tell other people about when you achieve it.
  3. Ask yourself: “But what are the potential obstacles?” And then, visualize them (e.g. it is a really busy week to stick to my learning plans, there is a music festival happening, et cetera).
  4. Ask yourself: “What’s my if-then plan?” And develop one.

*Klein et al. (1990). The role of goal specificity in the goal-setting process. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 179-193.

This paper tells us that goal specificity improves task performance.

**Stadler & Oettingen (2010). Intervention effects of information and self-regulation on eating fruits and vegetables over two years. Health Psychology, 29(3), 274-283.

This paper tells us self-regulation helps you stick to your goals.

***Gollwitzer & Brandstätter (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 186-199.

This paper tells us that those with implementation intentions (aka having a plan to perform goal-directed behavior given certain situations) are more likely to achieve their goals

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