Motivation isn’t enough: Here’s how to achieve your goals

Here we are at the start of a new semester. As we become reacquainted with our dorm rooms, discover new classrooms and reclaim old routines, it can feel automatic to simply fall back into the mechanism of things. With the new year just begun, many of us have made resolutions — and resolved to actually stick to our resolutions this time.

However, our motivations counter each other.

On one hand, we want to re-adapt to life as it was before Christmas break. We were cozy, even in our daily struggles. On the other hand, we want things to change for the better. I’m talking about all of the strides we set out to make each year to improve our lives. Big steps towards a big future. Drink more water. Go to office hours. Don’t wait until the last night to study for a test.

Spring is on the horizon. The air tastes like new beginnings. But, as we have learned from years passed, this is not enough. The new year will not even boost us with enough good-willed motivation to last until February, let alone the end of the semester.

What a dilemma we are stuck in. Every new year we want change but fail to attain it.

When considering what the forces that drive change might be, it is natural to look at the world around us. By analyzing how others have achieved change in the past, we can begin to assess the different strategies, and perhaps even think about applying some to our own lives. In this spirit, I consulted some Southgate residents to come up with ways that we think could help Duke students trigger change.

The first key step is setting goals that are as specific as possible. Take a student that found last semester’s math class particularly challenging and was not able to achieve a B+ in the class due to some poor test scores. His first impulse might be to simply “study more” this time around. While this goal allows for some flexibility, this extreme vagueness will not help but harm him. Instead, it might be more productive to set out to review class notes at the end of each lecture to ingrain concepts more deeply.

The second step is taking small, reasonable steps towards your goal, rather than trying to achieve it all at once. You’ve heard it before: set reasonable goals for the new year, or you’ll find yourself disappointed by the time December rolls around. However, some of us are naturally very ambitious, especially here at Duke. There is no denying that some of us like to aim high. Then, goals do not have to be reduced, but simply achieved in small steps, each of which should feel easy. Call it a smooth transition.

Well then, what does this look like?

Say you slept late and skipped breakfast at Marketplace (and a few too many of your morning lectures) last semester, and you decide to wake up earlier this time around. As we have just learned, “waking up earlier” is vague goal. Then, say you decide on 7:30 a.m.But you did not “fix your sleep schedule” over break as you had set yourself out to do, and instead, you slept until noon every day. Waking up at 7:30 a.m. might feel impossible. However, if you break this goal down into chunks, you might realize it will only take you two weeks to adjust and not feel like a wreck if you just set your alarm back twenty minutes each day. It’s not a perfect fix, especially if you have morning classes, but with some adjustments, this plan is much more likely to work than no plan at all. Two weeks will go by before you know it.

The last issue is that often times, we tend to rely on our internal motivation to lead us towards our goals. This often does not work because there is nothing that keeps us accountable. Instead, self-imposed pre-commitments can do wonders for our motivation, because now some extrinsic reward is on the line. Let me explain: We still might not find the strength to go on a run every morning, even if we set a clear mile goal or start with short runs. Yet, by enrolling into a PE class, we suddenly have an external motive for showing up to the gym to work out: our class grade depends on it. As it turns out, this is exactly why some students decided to join Fusion Fitness for Women, taught by Ms. Maria Finnegan, this semester. Our drive is surprisingly fleeting. As motivated as we might think we are, sometimes we need something to anchor us down.

There are other strategies that can work for ambitious students and adults. Some make vision boards, others cover their walls with motivational quotes, others still write their resolutions list over and over again, put it under their pillow at night and quite literally “sleep on it.” Nevertheless, there lies a common thread among all of these tried-and-often-failed strategies: That even with their aid, less than one in ten Americans stick to their resolutions every year.

In a way, it is true to say that change will happen only when it needs to happen. In other words, a breaking point will eventually be reached where change will become inevitable. One Southgate resident I talked to summarized this idea nicely: “If you wait that long to start achieving something, how badly do you really want it?”

Then, goals should be dynamic. The way of achieving them is to carry them across the years, and looking at the long-term picture, let our goals shift with our current state. At the end of the day, it is not our future self that will be asked to work towards that goal, but our current self.

Regardless how you set out to achieve your goals this year, try to remember that effort is a marker of change. DukeEngage’s motto reminds us of this: “Challenge yourself, change your world.” Only through hard work and honest introspection might we be able to set realistic goals this year — and actually stick with them.

Anna Garziera is a Trinity freshman. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


Share and discuss “Motivation isn’t enough: Here’s how to achieve your goals” on social media.