What Muriel James can tell us about goal setting and achievement.

1 January 2022

Patrick Brook - January 2022

January is named after Janus, a mythological Roman god associated with beginnings, endings and transitions. He is portrayed as having two faces, symbolising his capacity to look to the future whilst reflecting on the past. It is probably no accident, then, that January is a month where we perform a similar function: contemplating the things we would like to have achieved whilst planning those things we'd very much like to see happen – essentially our New Year's resolutions!

Millions of us set resolution type goals each year yet often fall short in bringing them to fruition. This has nothing to do with our intentions, which are usually sound and something to celebrate, but more so to do with lacking an effective process that will guide us appropriately and help us overcome any obstacles we may encounter along the way. In other words, being successful in realising goals is not just about setting the right one and having the will to achieve it, but involves a thought-out plan that you need to follow to succeed. Muriel James, an award-winning Transactional Analysis psychotherapist who died in 2018, left a legacy of thinking which can provide us with tools to achieve this successfully. Working within the psychotherapy field, James would use a 'contract' consisting of seven key questions that she and her clients would work through to realise the changes they would like to make. As with all Transactional Analysis concepts, her ideas are equally applicable to many of us in our everyday lives.

Question One - What do you want to gain?

Within this first question, James invites us to be specific about our goals and think about them within a more positive mindset - the word 'gain' is significant. In essence, if we want to make changes, it is essential to focus on the positive (what we will gain) rather than the negative (what we will be 'giving up').  

For example, if you're trying to lose weight, you are more likely to succeed if your mindset is about gaining fitness. If you're trying to give up smoking (or any other habit), it can be helpful to think about it in more favourable terms – i.e. in terms of the health 'benefits' that you will receive, rather than what you will be 'missing out on' or being deprived of. James reminds us of something much research into goals and goals setting has been supporting for some years: that when we state our goals in terms of positive gain, our chances of success are greatly improved.

Question Two - How will you know when you have it?

James' second question is crucial: every goal needs to be assigned both a measurable unit (to quantify success) and a unit of time (against which we will measure our success). The specific unit of time will vary depending on the goal. For instance, if you want to lose weight, your measurement might be kilos lost per week; if you're going to feel less lonely, make more connections with others and maybe make some new friends, we might formulate our goal as something like: 'By the end of March, I will have taken myself out of my comfort zone, joined in with some new social activities and have identified three people (new friends) who I can regularly talk to about more personal issues.' Having clearly defined and stated measurements is critical because they provide an objective way to know when we have achieved our goals and if we are making progress towards them.

Question Three - What are you prepared to do to get it?

This third question taps into ideas around assessing motivation - do you want to achieve your goals badly enough that you might be willing to make a few sacrifices to achieve them? If not, then you might as well walk away because your chances of success are slim. Setting goals is a great thing, but in reality, it might well take some sacrifice on your part. The more prepared and motivated you are, the more likely you will accomplish your goals. Setting goals is useless if they remain nothing more than dreams. You have to put in some work!

Question Four - What do you want from others to help you get what you want?

There's no doubt that getting support from others to achieve goals can be a valuable component of success. Research suggests that goal achievement is significantly correlated with the number of people supporting you. Some research (informal reference?) even indicates that goal achievement is directly associated with the amount of social pressure you feel to achieve a goal!

There are many different ways that you might want to garner some support - you might enlist the help of friends or family, for example, discussing your goals with them before you begin pursuing them. They may be able to provide insight, offer suggestions and even help you stay accountable. Another good idea is to start or find (and join) a group of like-minded individuals working on similar goals. This could be as simple as getting together once a week to discuss each other's progress and help motivate one another. The group doesn't have to meet in person, and if they do, that could even encourage more people to attend and provide more support! James reminds us not to be afraid to reach out and let others know that we may need some help.

Question Five - How might you sabotage yourself getting what you want?

Within this question, James has cleverly put her finger on one of the most significant barriers to goal success: self-sabotage. Self-sabotage is a process that consists of repeated attempts to undermine your achievements. The process is usually unconscious. For this reason, you need to be aware of its existence if you want to stop it from spoiling your efforts. Self-sabotage can often be noticed through particular behaviours: for example, an inability to say no, a failure to commit; a tendency to blame others when things don't go the way we want them to; a failure to appropriately appraise resources (e.g. overloading and setting too many goals at once): or making decisions without really considering the consequences. It's easy to fall into the trap of self-sabotage - you're certainly not alone! However, you will thank yourself in the long term for taking steps to address whichever self-sabotaging tendencies are your particular preference.

Question Six - How will you stop yourself from sabotaging getting what you want?

Tackling our self-sabotaging behaviours isn't as easy as it sounds. James is reminding us that if we are conscious of what they are, we can take steps to avoid them. In my experience, being brutally honest with yourself is often best. Sometimes this can be as simple as writing down a list of your self-sabotaging behaviours and working toward changing them one by one. The next step is to think about habits that will help you achieve your goals instead of hindering you. This includes positive and productive behaviours like organising your time and being realistic. If you find yourself avoiding the changes you know are good for you, it's time to face the consequences of your actions head-on and fight back against laziness or negativity in favour of something more productive.

Question Seven - How will you celebrate when you achieve what you want

An often overlooked component of an effective process is ensuring you celebrate your achievements. You worked hard for that goal, so it's essential to pat yourself on the back and enjoy your success. The most common way people fail to celebrate their achievements (and set themselves up for failure in the future) is by not allowing themselves to feel proud of what they've accomplished, by feeling guilty about celebrating, or even minimising (in Transactional Analysis we call it 'Discounting') the nature of the accomplishment, perhaps by comparing it less favourably to others. It's OK to celebrate! It's OK to feel pride in yourself and your achievements, and it's OK to know that you can accomplish goals according to your personalised timetable and what you think is an appropriate milestone.

So, if you are one of those people who are thinking about resolutions and setting goals for this coming year, ask yourself if your goal is specific and phrased in positive language; if it is measurable; whether you are prepared to do what you need to get it; what support you might need from others; what you might do to sabotage; how you might stop yourself from sabotaging; and what you are going to do to celebrate when your goal(s) have been realised. By following this framework and developing an appropriate mindset for success, you will crystallise your intentions and give yourself the energy, discipline, and support you need. Happy goal-setting!

Patrick Brook is a TA Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Supervisor and Internationally Accredited TA Trainer. He is also the Academic Director of Connexus Institute, Hove.