The Psychology of Goal-Setting. How to Set Goals Programmed for Success?

We’re almost 3 months into the New Year. The expectation that, after the 31st of December midnight, Covid-19 would -miraculously- disappear has failed, together with some (if not most) of the New Year’s resolutions. We keep getting ourselves trapped in the completely misguided idea that we can fundamentally change our lives, in the space of 12 months. How to change that?

I got into a rabbit hole of researching ways on formulating goals that adjust psychology and build habits that lead to success. And what I found has a new angle to many of the classical goal-setting techniques, such as SMART goals.


The methodology is based on stoicism and is created to combat self-destruction during the decision-making process. Formulated by Tim Ferris, early-stage tech investor and best-selling author, visualisation of the worst-case scenarios works great for goal-setting. One of the key parts of his theory includes defining the cost of inaction. Emotional, physical, and financial cost during 6 months, a year, or 3 years time. In his own words, whatever the goal would be – asking for a raise at work, exercising, or leaving a toxic relationship – writing the consequences of inaction often paints a terrifying picture. Therefore, helps us to understand that no action is not an option. What a motivation!

You can learn more about his methodology below:

“I needed this yesterday” type of goals

There is a classic marketing agency task-expression: “needed this yesterday”. These types of tasks represent the requests under the “important” and “urgent” category. These are always treated as a priority and thus are finished first. The same applies to fulfilling our personal objectives by spreading our goals across time. As simple as it sounds, we just have to make them urgent! Give yourself a clear deadline every, let’s say, 3 months with one or two priorities to work on. 

The physical environment effect

Let’s imagine that one of your yearly aspirations is to reduce screen time. There is a part of working on this goal that depends on a conscious decision, turning off notifications from Instagram or LinkedIn for instance. However, there is an unconscious part as well – our physical environment. How are we going to reduce time, if our living room is set up for us to  always face the television? How are we aiming to lose weight if the first thing we see on the eye level in the fridge is a beer and when Instagram is filled with fitness models eating chips and sipping cocktails?

Well, James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits has some advice here. He claims that we need to adjust the physical environment so that it increases the number of steps before falling into unwanted behaviour. So, move that sofa to face the window and put that beer at the very top of the fridge. Our behaviour is a response to the physical environment, and we need to make it work for us, not the other way around!

Process over result 

Let’s finish with some of the classics: “I want to lose 7kg in the next year”. Aiming to lose the extra weight by its nature isn’t wrong, the way we formulate it, however, is. Such a goal is doomed to fail when we -unconsciously- put it into the category of pain and long-term patience. As Steven Bartlett in the podcast “The Diary of the CEO” puts it: the majority of the goals we set fall in the category of “big achievements” and those cannot give us instant gratification. Therefore, on average, 80% of them fail by mid-February. The underlying solution is: reformulating the goal into a process-oriented intention. “Doing physical exercise at least 15-20 minutes a day” is a great replacement, where 15 minutes can be a walk, yoga, run or swim session – whatever you prefer. But committing to something that is oriented to a process rather than a far-fetching result eventually helps to achieve that initial ambition of losing 7kg!

To conclude, goals are something that gives us direction and to achieve those we need discipline. But there are also some actions we can undertake to trick our mind into working in our favor and giving that instant gratification that makes us fulfilled. So, set those fears, adjust your physical environment and change your result-orientation into process-goals. Happy mind-tricking and (actually) reaching your goals!

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026;