Last Updated on April 21, 2020 by Barbara Trapp

Goals, Habits, and Willpower

New research shows that some of what we have been told about goals, how long it takes to form a habit, and the willpower needed to get those things done may be wrong. Here are some of those myths and ways to flip your beliefs.

The best way to achieve your goals is to tell people

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Goals, Habits, Potential

“Tell everyone your goals.” Going public with your goals has been a popular suggestion for years. But does it really make a difference? According to research by Peter Gollwitzer, Professor of Psychology at NYU, telling people your goals takes the edge off of motivation. It’s as if the act of telling people was the first step towards making progress towards that goal. So telling people you are going to lose 20 lbs by summer actually gives you a slight feeling of accomplishment and you may delay a relevant first step, like clearing unhealthy stuff out of your pantry.

Flip it: Keep your big goals to yourself but write them down and keep them visible in your planner and vision board. (Announce them to the world if you want when you’ve reached a milestone!

Start with the hardest, “worst” task first

Eat that Frog. Fit that big rock in the jar first. But is it a tasty frog? Is that the right rock? Should you focus on the hardest/easiest or the biggest/smallest? What’s important is to distinguish between the important/unimportant tasks. The hardest task may not be the most important task and vice versa.

So zero in on the most important task and break it down into micro-tasks. The satisfaction that comes from completing a tiny first step of an awesome (as in big and life-changing) goal is a feel-good motivator for getting things done. That accomplishment might provide just enough positive reinforcement to keep you moving forward with a harder/bigger task.

Flip it: Start with the smallest task of an important project. It may be the easiest, but it will give you a feeling of accomplishment that can provide motivation to keep going through the tougher ones.

It takes 21 days to form a habit

This idea originated from Maxwell Maltz, in his book, Psycho-Cybernetics (1960). 21 days is certainly a good start, but it may be just the beginning of making it stick. According to a research article in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it can take from 18 to 254 days to make a habit a… habit. Yes, 254!!

If you are new to meditating, hanging your keys on a hook, or making your bed every day, it may take a bit longer than 21 days. Consider that a 30-year-old who has never been the bed-making type will have been practicing the habit of leaving their bed unmade every morning for about 25 years (I’m giving 1- 5-year-olds a pass here!). That’s 9,125 days. So 21 days may not be the magic bullet, but it is certainly a milestone to be celebrated!

Flip it: Consider 21 days as a goal for a streak – an unbroken number of days you have practiced this new habit – and reward yourself with something meaningful. Note: “Meaningful” does not have to mean “expensive.”

We have a limited amount of willpower

Willpower printed on silver metal key tagGoogle “limited willpower” and you will see all three sides: It’s limited. It’s not limited. Have some sugar to get more. Ego depletion is the belief that we have a limited reserve of willpower. Deny yourself bacon at breakfast, a greasy burger and fries at lunch, and cookies and a Snickers bar in the afternoon and you are doomed to blow it all in the evening.

This concept gained traction in the late 1990s when Psychologist Roy Baumeister led a study on the topic. But more recently, another study has suggested this might not be the case. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discovered that the subjects of Baumeister’s original project already believed that willpower was limited. Note: Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is one of my favorite books. I recommend it to all, especially parents who are trying to figure out how to support and motivate their children.

What does this mean? Henry Ford’s quote, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right,” may apply here. Belief may drive behavior.

Flip it: This is where positive thinking comes into play. When willpower reserves are running low, review your goals and your reasons why recognize your progress and give yourself a gritty pep talk to stay the course.

Think only of positive outcomes

I will be the first to encourage people to think positive,  happy thoughts! Positive thinking reduces stress and keeps you motivated to be productive. Negative self-talk, on the other hand, is self-defeating and non-productive. When I am anticipating a win or loss for myself, I hope and plan for the best, but… I also imagine the worst-case scenario. Why? Because it forces me to do a little risk analysis and imagine plan B or any actions I need to take to ensure a great outcome. It’s not that I’m planning for failure; I’m preparing for success! And rarely does the worst-case scenario happen!

Flip it: Think positively, but also analyze the worst-case scenario. You might identify some quick fixes that will help you realize your ideal scenario. Just don’t stay in the pit of negativity too long!

Do you need help with goal setting, habit-building, and accountability? Life coaching can help! Call me at 904-500-7678 (SORT), message me, or just go ahead and schedule your free consult for life coaching or organizing! I’d love to help you simplify, amplify and Zen Your Den® (and your life).


Barbara Trapp, CPO®, Certified Professional Organizer®, Productivity Consultant, and Life Coach
Zen Your Den®
Professional Member, NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals)
Life Transitions Specialist, NAPO
Residential Organizing Specialist, NAPO
Workplace Productivity Specialist, NAPO