There is a powerful, science-based method to achieving meaningful goals

Just that little extra push.
Just that little extra push.
Image: Reuters/Anton Ferreira
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s been more than two weeks since we all set our New Year resolutions. By now many have already failed. Those who haven’t failed face an uphill task.

The problem with sticking to your New Year resolutions is part of a wider problem about goal setting in general, according to Peter Senge, author of the highly influential book The Fifth Discipline.

Since it was published in 1990, the book has become a primer on how an organization can adapt quickly and effectively to excel in their field. Senge, a systems scientist who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, recognized that the key units of any organization are employees, and that achievement has to be prioritized on an individual level. In “personal mastery”—one of the five disciplines—Senge talks about the best route that an individual can take to set goals and accomplish them.

But first he identifies some common ways that people deal with goals and resolutions:

Guilt: Many try to stick to their resolutions by using the power of guilt. Those who agreed to a “Dry January,” for example, remind themselves of the horrible things that happen when they drink too much: bad hangovers, regrettable mistakes and such.

Grit: Still others hope to succeed at their resolutions by through blind determination. But at cost of hurting other aspects of life, they disregard the fact that willpower is a limited resource.

Diminishing goals: The goal of going to the gym everyday suddenly seems impractical. In light of the realization, the first response is to amend the goal by diminishing it. It’s a way of not failing completely.

Each of these responses are natural, but they often spell doom for resolutions. Those who diminish their goals can end up with achievable goals—but not the goals they had hoped to accomplish. Some might indeed succeed at chiding themselves into action, but risk sinking into negativity or losing perspective on other priorities.

When people fail to achieve their goals, Senge argues, it’s because they don’t have a vision. These “visions” can be grand ones that we hope will feature in our eulogies. They can also be short-term visions, such as “What my world would look like if I got that promotion.” Either way, a vision frames your goals in a larger life context. Once you have a vision, spend some time taking stock of reality, says Senge. The gap between the life you envision and reality is what leads to creative and emotional tension. These tensions can fuel willpower.

If you are trying to lose those extra few pounds because you want to fit in a pair of pants, you are likely to fail. But if losing them will genuinely improve your life, then you are likely to have the motivation to succeed. If you want that promotion just for prestige, you are less likely to work towards it. Instead if you want it because of the things you can do at that level, you can start some of those things now and get noticed as a person who deserves the promotion.

Senge isn’t the first one to use “vision” as a tool to set goals. People have all sorts of lofty visions for their life. But what sets the method apart is its root in reality. The tension created between vision and reality is analogous to a taut rubber band. If you bring the ends too close, it’s lax. If you stretch the ends too far, it’ll snap.

Both ends of the rubber band—vision and reality— contribute to willpower. The clearer your idea of where you are and where you want to be, the better your chances of getting there.

The desire for self-improvement can be traced back to at least the Stoics of Roman Greece. Our modern economy has made it a vital part of living. And if goals are the main unit of personal mastery, Senge’s breakthrough insight was to identify a better way of using them: His formula makes setting goals easier, and achieving them more satisfactory.