There’s a Simple Secret to Achieving Long-Term Goals, and It’s All In Your Head

The Secret to Achieving Long-Term Goals Is All In Your Head

You know that thing where your long-term goals feel so far away all you want to do is spend the next six months in the fetal position? (Of course, I could just be projecting.) Setting, keeping and achieving long-term goals is a tricky business—and it turns out there may be an uber-simple shift in thinking that will help you get to the finish line faster.

Researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of Michigan completed a series of seven studies to investigate the relationship between measurements of time and how they impact reaching a goal.

In the first two studies, researchers recruited 162 participants and asked them to read six scenarios—three with time metrics and three without. For the time-metric scenarios, participants imagined they were completing tasks in preparation for an event (such as a birthday party, wedding, or presentation) and were asked to report how long it would be until the event would take place.

When participants considered the length of time in the smaller of two possible units, the event seemed closer: Events seemed an average of 29.7 days sooner when considered in days versus months, and an average of 8.7 months sooner when considered in months versus years. When the events felt closer, people were more inclined to start planning or saving sooner, even when future events were described as being tens of thousands of days away.

“This is a new way to think about reaching goals that does not require willpower and is not about having character or caring,” psychological scientist and lead researcher Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California said in a statement.

Next, researchers wanted to know if this thought process would also impact participants’ plans to take action, so they primed each participant with one of two time metrics for three randomly assigned scenarios. They were asked things like when they would start saving for college or retirement, and were given time metric options like “in 30 years” or in “10,950 days”.

The result? The time metrics that felt shorter impacted plans for action: Participants planned to start saving four times sooner in the “days” condition versus the “years” condition, likely to do with the fact that a shorter timeline makes us feel more connected to our future selves—and more motivated to cut back on instant gratification for the sake of future rewards.

By using smaller time metrics to feel closer to your future self, investing in the future doesn’t feel like as much of a sacrifice. “This may be particularly useful to anyone needing to save for retirement or their children’s college, to start working on a term paper or dissertation, pretty much anyone with long-term goals or wanting to support someone who has such goals,” said Oyserman.

It’s incredible how a simple shift in thinking can make such a big difference in not only how you feel about your long-term goals, but how you go after them—and anything that will help you achieve the exact life you want for yourself? Priceless.

How do you handle the enormity of your long-term goals?

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