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How To Set Goals Like an Olympic Champion

By Stephen Kraus

Virtually every Olympic athlete shares the same goal: winning the gold medal. But the interesting finding from research by sports psychologists is that the most motivated and successful athletes set goals in a very specific way that is far more precise and detailed than just setting one big goal.

The best news: we can all use the goal-setting strategies of elite athletes to achieve more motivation, success and self-improvement in our everyday lives.

Here's the most crucial principle: supplement the big, long-term goal with specific, challenging, near-term goals. Then focus more of your psychological effort and attention on those near-term goals.

An athlete who wakes up each day to focus only the gold medal (or the Super Bowl, or the World Series, etc.) will quickly become overwhelmed. Their motivation will wane. He or she will start to wonder: How can I get from here to there? Is this level of success really possible for me? As two experts on sports psychology, May and Veach, put it: "Repeated daily focusing on long-term goals is often counter-productive. The focus is too far into the future and prevents the athlete from completing the intermediate steps essential to ultimate success."

What happens when you focus on near-term goals? According to the research in the field of positive psychology (the scientific study of happy, successful people), lots of good stuff, including"

- Heightened performance, success and motivation

- Greater likelihood of accomplishing goals and making life changes

- More success in initiating and sustaining self-improvement efforts

- A stronger psychological sense of confidence and self-efficacy

- More determination and persistence, particularly after setbacks

- More enjoyment and intrinsic interest in the topic

What happens when you don't set near-term goals, or focus too heavily on long-term goals? I call it "goal-mismatch," and psychologically, it's a perfect recipe for low motivation, procrastination and rumination - thinking about goals, but not taking action toward goals. It's also a recipe for general unhappiness, failed attempts at self-improvement, and a lack of success. People who focus too much on their long-term goals view those goals as more difficult, more pressure-filled, and less enjoyable, while their near-term goals seem less motivating, relevant and satisfying.

Who avoids the psychology of goal-mismatch, and successfully leverages the psychology of near-term goals? Again, research in positive psychology points to many examples, including"

- Successful and motivated athletes, as I described above

- Successful students. Research conducted at Stanford University found that students struggling in math significantly improved their grades, as well as their motivation and psychological well-being, by focusing on near-term goals.

- Successful business and military leaders. Effective leaders often "segment" or "compartmentalize" complex tasks or missions into smaller, "bite-sized" sub-missions.

- Resolution-keepers. Less than 20% of New Year's resolution-makers become resolution-keepers. One of their key success strategies for maintaining their motivation and self-improvement efforts: focusing on near-term goals.

- Happy people. Those who are most satisfied with life are those working toward enjoyable, moderately challenging goals of high short-term importance.

It's easy to use the power of near-term goals to achieve more motivation, success and self-improvement in your everyday life. Just don't go overboard by making goals "too near-term." For example, students asked to make general monthly plans and goals perform better than those asked to make highly specific daily plans. They spend more time studying, study more effectively, are more motivated, procrastinate less, and get better grades. Monthly planners experience more flexibility in crafting strategies for accomplishing their goals. They achieve more success and self-improvement in part because they more easily adjust "on the fly" and are less easily "derailed" by changes in circumstance. A daily planner who gets a mild case of the flu quickly finds his daily goals unattainable, resulting in disappointment and a loss of motivation. General planners enjoy the process of planning more, gaining a sense of designing their lives via self-improvement, while highly specific planners get the sense of their lives being controlled by their appointment books and PDAs.

The bottom line: Set weekly or monthly goals, and work aggressively toward them while giving yourself some flexibility about how to achieve them. Do this, and you'll not only get the maximum boost in your performance and motivation, but you'll also enhance your success and self-improvement efforts. And you'll be using the psychology of success to set goals like an Olympic champion.

About The Author
Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Stephen Kraus separates the science of success from self-help snake oil.

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