Change “Don’t” Goals into “Do Something” Goals

Kyla Holcombe, Ph.D., Insights Consultant & Organizational PsychologistEmployee Engagement1 Comment

Many of us are working on personal and professional goals, especially at the turn of a new year. I hear people saying all the time they have goals like, “I am going to stop running late,” “I’m going to drink less,” or “I’m going to quit getting derailed by email.” These are fine intentions, but they aren’t likely to be successful.

Think back to classic experiments where people were instructed to not think about an elephant. What are you thinking about? Can’t get it out of your mind, right? The same is true for our goals: when we set goals to quit a behavior, stop doing something, do less of a habit we don’t like, or avoid something we know isn’t benefiting our lives, we are likely to revert to that behavior because it is exactly what we are framing our goal around.

“Don’ts” are all around us if you look. Have you ever seen signs that say “Don’t Push” or “No Loitering”? When it comes to safety, “don’ts” can have big implications. Imagine what happens in a manufacturing plant when signs are posted to say: “Danger. Don’t Look Up” – what do people immediately do (especially visitors or people who haven’t been trained properly)? They look up. A sign that says “Danger. Look Straight Ahead” is likely to be more effective in preventing injuries from above.

Rather than focus on what you want to stop doing or do less of, you are more likely to get on the right track by thinking about an action you can do instead of the behavior you’re trying to quit. Consider these goals and how people reframed them:

This strategy is applicable to all aspects of life – work, coaching, parenting, exercise, nutrition, hobbies. Pay attention to how you frame your goals and your internal dialogue. When you catch yourself in a “don’t”, immediately consider how you can change the language to something you can do instead.

If you find yourself feeling stuck in a “don’t”, consider an action that is in competition with what you want to stop doing. For example, if your toddler is running wild in the store, you could yell “stop running,” or you could instruct her to “walk” instead. If you don’t want to feel frustrated with a coworker, the opposite of frustration is compassion and empathy; can you consider where your coworker is coming from or how to clarify what you are expecting from your coworker? 

Small changes in how we think about our goals and communicate them to others can make all the difference in changing our behavior (i.e., real, lasting changes). Pay attention to your “don’ts” this week and how you can shift them into ”dos” instead.

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