Successful Goal-Setting for Women—How to Use Your Strengths
Have you set your goals or resolutions for 2018? Or have you given up on the idea?
Estimates are that by February, 80 percent of people will have abandoned their resolutions. Only eight percent actually keep them all the way through the end of the year.
These statistics may discourage you. Yet goals are critical to your future success. According to a 2007 study, goals matter to life satisfaction, and “happy” people are those who have a desire to pursue goals. In a 2010 study, researchers found that attaining intrinsic goals (those that relate to personal growth, close relationships, and physical health) helped people attain happiness, while other research shows that attaining one’s goals leads to psychological health and well-being.
So if goals really can help you feel more satisfied in life, what is the trick to sticking with them? Here’s something to think about: Women need to set different goals from men.
There are a number of standard tips about “smart” goal-setting. Smaller goals are better than larger ones, for example, because smaller ones are more attainable. Rather than saying you’ll lose 25 pounds this year, for example, plan to lose 1-2 pounds a week, and you’ll be more likely to succeed.
As noted in our previous article about setting healthy living goals, it also helps if you set a range for your goal, rather than a specific number. Planning to lose 1-2 pounds a week, for example, works better than planning to lose 2 pounds a week. You could also plan to save $10-50 per week, rather than $35 per week.
Setting a specific goal that encourages action is also helpful. In other words, if your goal is to improve your relationship with your sister, rather than saying, “my goal is to have a better relationship with my sister,” you might say, “my goal is to either talk on the phone or share a meal or activity with my sister at least twice a month.”
These tips will all help you to set goals that will increase your odds of succeeding. But as a woman, you can do even more. That’s because when it comes to goals, women just think differently.
Study Finds Key Differences Between How Men and Women Approach Their Goals
Last year, Leadership IQ—founded by bestselling author Mark Murphy (Hard Goals: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be)—reported on a study about goal-setting differences between men and women.
The group surveyed nearly 4,700 individuals about their goals, and received responses from 2,506 women and 2,184 men. The majority of the respondents were from the United States and Canada, and all answered questions about their goal-setting process, personal effectiveness, and overall life fulfillment.
For the survey, participants rated their agreement or disagreement with statements like, “When I think about this goal, I feel really strong,” and “My goal is so vividly pictured in my mind that I can tell you exactly what I will be seeing, hearing, and feeling at the precise moment my goal is attained.”
The statements were created to focus on four areas that have been found in the past to help encourage the attainment of goals. These included:
- Emotions: If you feel emotionally attached to your goal, you’ll be more motivated to make it happen.
- Visualization: If you can visualize achieving your goal, you’ll be more likely to succeed.
- I have to do this! If the goal seems “required” to you—something you must do—it will feel more necessary for you to do what you need to do to attain it.
- Difficulty: If the goal is challenging, you’ll be more likely to perform at your best.
The researchers then analyzed the differences between men and women’s responses. Here’s what they found.
- Women care more: Women scored significantly higher on this than men—they felt more of an emotional attachment to their goals. When asked how they felt about the statement, “When I think about this goal, I feel really strong emotions,” they were much more likely to strongly agree.
- Men are better able to visualize their goals: Men scored significantly higher than women in this area. They were more likely to picture themselves achieving their goals, and were also more likely to have created drawings, photos, writings, or other visual representations of them.
- Women were more likely to procrastinate: This could be because women feel more responsible for taking care of others (and may therefore put their goals last), but for whatever reason, women didn’t feel as much urgency attached to their goals as men did.
- Women set tougher goals than men: When setting goals, women were harder on themselves. They were more likely to agree with the statement, “My goal is pushing me outside my comfort zone. I’m not frozen with terror, but I’m definitely on ‘pins and needles’ and wide-awake for this goal.”
What can we do with these findings? First, we can conclude that while men and women may have been setting goals in the same way for years, they actually approach those goals quite differently. Knowing that, we can use the results to increase our odds that we’ll achieve our goals this year, no matter what they are.
To Achieve Your Goal: Use Your Strengths and Work On Your Weaknesses
If we look at the four areas mentioned above, we can see that women are doing great on two of them: attaching their emotions to their goals, and setting goals that push them beyond their comfort zones. On the other two, however, they’re not doing so well: visualizing the goals, or creating a sense of urgency about them.
To make this year’s goals the goals you will achieve, try dialing up your strengths while working on your weaknesses. Here are some tips to help you out.
- Use your heart.
Most likely, you care about the goal you’ve set. Whether it’s losing weight, getting a promotion at work, or starting your own business, it’s something that affects you, emotionally. That’s a good thing, as you can use it to drive your motivation.
What you want to do is dial up that emotional connection. When you think about losing weight, don’t think about the numbers on the scale—think about how great you’ll feel in that new set of jeans. When you think about getting a promotion, don’t think about the higher paycheck—think about how you’ll feel being recognized for your contribution. When you think about starting your own business, don’t think about the obstacles in front of you. Instead, focus on the excitement you feel, or the renewed sense of purpose that this business brings you.
Many of our goals concern “extrinsic,” or outside rewards. Saving money, for example, is usually about building up the numbers in the bank account. But focusing on the “intrinsic” or internal rewards, is the more likely way to success. For example: This money will help me and my family feel safer.
Word your goal in such a way that it taps into your emotions. “I’ll feel so great about myself when I lose 1-2 pounds this week.” Or, “I’ll be so excited when I get my new business website online.” The more you can focus on your emotions, the more likely you’ll be to succeed.
- Create visual reminders.
According to the survey above, women weren’t as good at visualizing their goals, and visualizing increases your odds of success. Fortunately, this is easy to do. You just need to commit a little time to it.
Take your goal and imagine how things will be when you achieve it. Take some time to let your imagination go, and put in all the details. Where will you be? What will you be wearing? What will you be saying? How will your loved ones respond?
Then create a visual representation of this image in one of the following ways, or in another way that works for you:
- Write about it: Write at least a page describing exactly how it will be when you achieve this goal. Include as many details as you can.
- Create a collage: Using pictures from magazines or online sites, create a physical collage (on an actual piece of construction paper or cardboard) that reflects that moment when your goal is achieved. Put some images on it of the outfit you will wear, for example, or the total that will show up in your savings account. Add in some pictures of you and your family smiling and happy, or you holding onto your “doing business as” certificate from the state. Get creative and have fun with it, then hang the collage somewhere you can see it often.
- Draw it: If you like to draw, you can use that skill in a lot of ways. Create a sketch of your journey to achieving your goal, or sketch out a draft of how your website might look. Draw you taking your new morning walk, or create a picture of the equipment you will have in your exercise room. The possibilities are endless.
- Create urgency.
You know how it goes. You set your goal, then you get sidetracked. There are kids to take care of, parents to check in on, jobs to work, houses to clean, pets to get to the vet, etc. It’s so easy to put your goal in the back seat.
It’s time to change that. If you want to achieve your goal, you need to create some urgency around it. Visualizing it will help, but then the most important thing you can do is to break down your goal into daily tasks. What will you do every day toward this goal? You need to commit to this, or you’re likely to end up a year from now no closer to your dreams.
If your goal is to lose 1-2 pounds a week until you’ve lost 25 pounds, break that down even further: What actions will you take toward that goal each day? Maybe you’ll walk for 30 minutes, eat one less dessert, cut calories on your lunch, and switch all the soda out for water. Write down these steps and work on them each day. Do the same for whatever your goal is—break it down into daily actions.
Next, make a list of the benefits you’ll experience when you achieve your goal. If it’s to save money, you might list things like, “My husband and I are less stressed,” or, “I don’t worry so much about what may happen if someone in the family has a health problem.”
Finally, create a two-column chart and fill it out. In one column, write down all the ways you’ll be disappointed if you don’t reach this goal by the end of the year, and in the other column, write down all the ways you’ll feel great if you do. So if your goal is to start your own business, your left column may say something like, “My dream will still feel a million miles away,” and your right column might say, “I’m so proud of myself for making this happen!” Then revisit this chart often to remind yourself of how important it is to get going on this goal now.
- Challenge yourself.
According to the survey above, women are already good at this. We set tough goals, which means that they stretch us, and require us to become more than we are today.
That’s a good thing, because these types of goals are more strongly associated with success. That may be because you know that this goal could really change your life for the better, so you become more motivated to achieve it. If you set a goal that is too easy, you’re likely to think it doesn’t matter much anyway, and you’ll forget about it by February.
That means setting a goal that gets you out of your comfort zone is a good thing. You want to be challenged, as that’s how you learn and grow. Women need to be careful, though, that they don’t set goals that are too hard. If your goal intimidates you, or if you find after a few weeks that you’re avoiding it, you may need to ease up a bit. Otherwise, embrace the challenge, and then focus on the type of person you’re going to be when you overcome this challenge.
What growth opportunities exist? What skills do you need to learn? How can you educate yourself? Who do you know that can help? Make sure this goal inspires you and taps into your inner dreamer. Then break it down into smaller steps you can achieve throughout the year.
Bruce Headey, “Life Goals Matter to Happiness: A Revision of Set-Point Theory,” Social Indicators Research, April 2008; 86(2):213-231, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-007-9138-y.
Sheldon KM, et al., “Extrinsic value orientation and affective forecasting: overestimating the rewards, underestimating the costs,” J Pers., February 2010; 78(1):149-78, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20433616.
Christopher P. Niemiec, et al., “The Path Taken: Consequences of Attaining Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations in Post-College Life,” J Res Pers., June 2009; 73(3):291-306, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2736104/.
“The Gender Gap and Goal-Setting: A Research Study,” Leadership IQ, December 27, 2016, https://www.leadershipiq.com/blogs/leadershipiq/the-gender-gap-and-goal-setting-a-research-study.