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Goal setting on steroids

“Are you freaking kidding me?!? Do you mean to tell me – do you actually mean to say that there’s a way to set goals that boosts revision by sixty percent? Why the hell am I just finding this out now?”

I was having a little trouble believing what I was reading. I knew about Gabriele Oettingen’s research into goal setting from the book 59 Seconds, but until recently I hadn’t read the research itself. Eye-opening was something of an understatement.

In one study students who (unwittingly) used MCII goal setting did 60% more practise questions than their classmates.

If you’re studying for an exam and you aren’t excited by the prospect of boosting your revision by that kind of margin, then you might be clinically insane. Check for the following signs: dribbling, eyes moving independently of one another, making monkey noises, donkey wrestling (list may not be medically accurate).

Assuming that this has peaked your interest, I’m going to give you a bit of theory, then I’m going to give you the instructions as close to those from the original experiment as I can.

MCII is a combination of two techniques: Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions. This might sound intimidating, but it’s very straightforward.

The first technique is designed to overcome a simple problem – positive visualisations don’t work. In fact, fantasizing about achieving a goal can have a negative effect. Apparently, this may be because the fantasy gives our brain the same feelings of satisfaction that we’d get from experiencing it.

According to the studies, dwelling on how unpleasant our lives are, isn’t much use either. However, by contrasting our crummy reality against our dreams (Mental Contrasting), we can generate  motivation.

The second technique helps to prevent motivation from dropping off. It seems that, when it stops being clear how we can accomplish a goal, this actively de-motivates us. Implementation Intentions guard against this by forcing us to confront obstacles up front, rather than allowing them to sneak up on us.

Okay – enough theory. What do you actually need to do?

Mental Contrasting

Write down two positive outcomes associated with completing all your study sessions and two obstacles of present reality that could interfere with completing the task.

Imagine the first positive outcome as vividly as possible, then spend some time elaborating on it in writing.
Repeat this for the second positive outcome.

Implementation Intentions

Rewrite both obstacles, suggesting a specific solution for each one in the form: ‘If [I get attacked by a giant octopus], then I will [fight it off by hitting it on the head with a shovel].’

Write out a third ‘if…then…’ statement specifying where and when you intend to study.

That’s it. Unbelievably, that’s the technique that could make the difference between a pass and a fail.

Duckworth, Angela Lee , Grant, Heidi , Loew, Benjamin , Oettingen, Gabriele and Gollwitzer, Peter M.(2011) ‘Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions’, Educational Psychology, 31: 1, 17 — 26, First published on: 14 September 2010 (iFirst)

P. M. Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen (2011) ‘Chapter 13: Goal Pursuit’, The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation, Oxford University Press

3 Responses

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