If you're planning to change or improve yourself this year, our talent doctor Rob Yeung has been studying the science. He discusses which approach works and why
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This article was first published in the January 2018 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
What would you like to change or improve about yourself this year? I frequently work with people who aspire to be more assertive and make a stronger impact at work, for instance, or with people who want the opposite: to talk less and become more consultative. But maybe you have a different need entirely.
When it comes to changing your personal behaviour and habits, some alleged experts and self-help gurus suggest you should envision the future you want to achieve. They sometimes recommend that you create a vivid mental movie of what it would look like to have succeeded at changing yourself. But does this approach work?
New York University scientist Gabriele Oettingen has investigated the link between future-focused thinking and people’s ability to achieve their goals. In one study, Oettingen and colleagues found that the more people engaged in fantasising about positive future scenarios, the more positive they reported feeling at that point in time.
That seems like a positive result. Fantasising, envisioning or daydreaming about a desired future can remove us from our momentary hassles and worries, so helping us to feel better instantly.
However, when tracked over time, the participants in the study actually ended up feeling worse as the weeks turned into months. The reason: wishing, hoping and thinking about a desired future seemed to reduce their motivation to achieve actual change. They put less time and effort into changing their circumstances, which led to them becoming unhappier over time.
Such research offers us a clear warning. If your goal is simply to feel good, then by all means fantasise, wish and hope - but accept that you may achieve less long-term. However, if your objective is to bring about real change, then you should avoid spending too much time dreaming and envisioning.
So how can we change successfully? For guidance, we can turn to research conducted some years ago by Peter Gollwitzer, then a professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany.
Gollwitzer and his colleagues have conducted literally hundreds of studies worldwide looking at people’s efforts to change themselves, in groups ranging from schoolchildren to entrepreneurs and business managers. The conclusion from this vast body of research is that a very particular type of goal format can significantly increase the chances that people follow through with their goals.
Dubbed implementation intentions, these goals are phrased in a very specific fashion: if situation X occurs, then I will do Y. For example, imagine that someone lacks confidence and wants to make stronger eye contact during meetings or even at job interviews. He might write out the implementation intention: ‘If I am meeting with someone one-on-one, I will remind myself to look at their eyes whenever they talk.’
Suppose a manager wants to stop a colleague from interrupting her so often. She might decide on a more targeted implementation intention: ‘If Mark talks over me, then I will ask “Please may I finish?” And then I will continue with what I was saying.’
Or consider an executive who feels very stressed by work. An appropriate implementation intention could be: ‘If I am feeling overwhelmed in a meeting, then I will breathe in and out 10 times.’ In addition, to cope with anxious feelings when sat at a computer, this executive might also write out a second intention: ‘If I am feeling stressed when sat at my desk, then I will walk to the kitchen and make myself a drink.’
The research is currently unclear as to how many implementation intentions a person should have at any one time.
A study conducted by Amelie Wiedemann, then a researcher at the Institute of Medical Psychology in Berlin, tracked a group of volunteers who were all interested in eating more healthily. Participants who wrote out five separate implementation intentions achieved more dietary change than those who wrote out one or two. Other studies have come up with mixed answers. What all of these studies do show, though, is that writing out implementation intentions in the specific format: ‘If X occurs, then I will do Y’ helps people to achieve greater change in their lives. So, whether your goals are personal or professional, trust the science.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace: talentspace.co.uk
"If your objective is to bring about real change, avoid spending too much time dreaming and envisioning"