Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Book Summary)

I read this book by Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist, because, well, I want to be more successful at reaching my goals – don’t we all? The research discussed here-within supports my objective because willpower is not an innate strength – it a muscle of self-control and perseverance – and therefore it can be improved through exercise and rest, and compensated for with customized incentives.

The cherry on top is that developing self-control in one area improves it in many other areas of your life – cleaning more regularly, for instance, when you get in the habit of exercising regularly – without conscious intention. Resting, by the way, can be as simple as thinking of something uplifting or someone you know with self-control (as long as you don’t imagine simulating it, which exercises self-control when you need to rest). The point is that anyone can succeed, you and me included.

Get Ready

Know thyself. I tend to think in more abstract terms, describing the why of my behaviour, because big-picture and long-term give me a sense of purpose. But thinking in concrete terms is more useful when the behaviour is unfamiliar and complex, or when you need to evaluate feasibility for the near future and take action.

I also tend to believe if I have to work hard at something, I must not be very good at it, and therefore prefer to do things that come naturally to me. This approach can cost me enriching life experiences. At the same time, I’ve always been a fan of self-improvement, secretly practicing basketball for hours and hours because it was something I wanted even while I recognized it was never going to be my forte. Following this incremental theory keeps me improving despite mistakes.

  • Set specific, difficult (but possible) goals so you don’t settle for “good enough” and instead enjoy your accomplishment.
  • Be confident you will succeed but recognize the process will be challenging so you’re prepared to put in the effort required.
  • Just about anything can trigger goal pursuit unconsciously, including cues we set up for ourselves. Simply befriending academically ambitious students, for instance, led me to pursue my desires more directly without realizing the effect at the time.

Get Set

Different outlooks impact many aspects of how we attain goals. For instance, due to my tendency toward conservative preservation (see prevention-focused goals below), I can pick a path and stick to it without procrastinating. But when I have a promotion goal (see below), I’m more exploratory, abstract, creative, and risk-taking. The trick is to set the right goal for the person and situation. If I need speed now, I go for promotion – if I need accuracy and maintenance, I go for prevention.

Because I more often set performance goals, i.e. to look and feel how “good” I already am, I can take it personally if I don’t achieve a set outcome. However, I start off with a lot of energy that has helped me be a “high achiever” when the circumstances are right, particularly when the reward is enticing.

By instead setting mastery goals to get “better,” I could be more motivated by self-improvement to take more action – as opposed to self-validation, which it seems may have led to the many times I’ve quit when I didn’t at first excel at a long series of extra curricular activities in my youth. I’m continually battling my “all or nothing” nature to be more adaptive, even if my expectations of success fall, and of course to enjoy the journey a lot more. In fact, people focused on progress are even more likely to take action to improve when they are discouraged.

  • Promotion-focused goals are about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities by eagerly doing what you want to get love. We all pursue both, but I’m typically more about prevention-focused goals, vigilantly minimizing losses by doing what I should to stay safe. The prevention mindset means encouragement can actually decrease my motivation, while increased possibility of of failure increases motivation to work for that peace and relief in jeopardy. I can acknowledge my past successes, but I can’t afford to get too confident in myself and my future success.
  • Unlike the pursuit of image and money, pursuing meaningful relationships, growing and developing as a person, and giving back to the community can give us a head-to-toe feeling of lasting warmth and well-being That’s because unlike validation in the eyes of others, satisfying intrinsic needs (i.e. relatedness, competence, autonomy) is a source of limitless self-worth. Goals around personal growth, physical health, or self-acceptance, then, support authentic happiness, while seeking power over others, polishing your public image or other external signs of self-worth… not so much. We only turn to these superficial goals when we feel stuck in situations where relatedness, competence, and autonomy seem unattainable.
  • If you’re having trouble with procrastination, like starting an exercise program, focus on the why, i.e. “wanting to be healthier and more attractive” and remember the consequences of failure. If it’s more urgent, though, focus on promotion.
  • If you’re starting something requiring resilience like a new career or dieting when there’s a lot of temptation, be specific (i.e. “lose 10 pounds”) and think about the practical steps toward progress, focusing on prevention – see cookies as bites of danger, potent reminders of the possibility of failure. If temptation is particularly strong, move from what to why i.e. big picture values compared the the fleeting pleasure of watching TV when you should be studying.
  • If you need to be creative, optimistically focus on promotion when autonomously choosing a goal (put any deadlines or potential rewards at the back of your mind because they can actually detract from your motivation).
  • If you want to enjoy the process, focus on professional development that means something to your personally rather than obsessing about your annual review and coworker competition.
  • If you’re motivating someone else, frame the situation strategically, include them in the decision making, give them choice on how to accomplish the goal, use triggers they associate with the goal, and employ the right role models.


  • Intention is critical, but it only accounts for 20-30% of the variability in goal achievement. One reason we screw up despite commitment is we miss opportunities to act in a timely manner when juggling goals. While dieters may have a goal to manage weight, all humans are wired to enjoy food, and so their brain has to choose one goal to deactivate.
  • In addition to under-regulation, we might also fail due to mis-regulation, i.e. choosing an ineffective strategy, such as trying to give up smoking with thought suppression. Particularly in this case, feedback is important because your brain wants to close the gap between actual and desired state, but we can neglect to self-monitor when it feels like slowing your momentum or you fear negative feedback.
  • The most important action for success is to plan simple if-then details, i.e. the when, where &  how of, “I will workout for 30 minutes at the gym every work-week morning.”  This provides you the cue to automatically seize opportunities and conserve self-control for unplanned obstacles.
  • When you feel burned out: (1) stop before you start (i.e. abstain from dessert when you’re feeling vulnerable); (2) remember your big picture motivation and how you’re doing compared to how you want to be doing; (3) acknowledge your limits and avoid pursuing two goals at once; and (4) reward yourself.
  • If you attribute improvement to your efforts, then you are more likely to keep on trying. You almost always have or can get what it takes to succeed. The only times when giving up makes sense are when you have higher priorities that require your attention or a goal is just costing your too much – maybe it’s just not worth the unexpectedly unpleasantness. In those cases, let it go and find a new goal.
  • When it comes to motivating others, empower them with honest feedback, staying positive and practical. Avoid comparing to others or praising fixed qualities – focus on what can be improved.

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