Making Dreams Come True

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.
Robbie Burns from :To A Mouse

New Year’s resolutions can be notoriously hard to keep. At work, vows to: manage time better, be more assertive, balance family and work life effectively, stop procrastinating or be on time can easily flounder despite the best intentions.

While many may attribute the failings to lack of willpower, the key reason may lie in what psychologists call a reduced sense of “self-efficacy.”

Self-efficacy refers to people’s judgments about their ability to organize and carry out action plans designed to meet particular goals.

According to Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura, people do not perform effectively or meet their goals – even when they know what to do and are motivated to do it – because they judge themselves as incapable. But, he wrote, if people have a sense of personal efficacy, they believe they have some control over events in their lives.

Research shows desiring a positive outcome (more money, power, social recognition) is not enough to boost performance. An employer can offer monetary incentives, company recognition, a plum position, or a corner office but staff may continue to under-perform.

Bandura found that believing one can complete the task, meet the deadline or make the sale is a more powerful predictor of success than rewards. This is because people who judge themselves to be efficacious expect positive results and are willing to work towards success. Self-doubters, on the other hand, expect less of themselves and experience negative outcomes as a result.

Keeping resolutions, making important changes or striving for cherished goals all require high self-efficacy to be successful. In other words, if you think you can do it, you probably can.

Strengthening your sense of personal efficacy is important to enhanced work performance and goal attainment. These eight tips help reduce self-doubt and aid in keeping resolutions:

1. Break the task down
Reducing a large goal into small steps increases the likelihood of success. For example, to stop procrastinating, analyse the kinds of projects that cause you to put things off – projects with distant deadlines, for instance. Next, observe the procrastinating behaviour: surfing the Internet, talking on the phone etc. Then, create a plan to devote small amounts of time to the project and reward yourself with procrastinating behaviour (e.g., if I work for 30 minutes on the project, I can surf the net or make that phone call). Build in procrastination time (I’ve slotted 45 minutes for this project-15 minutes of procrastination followed by 30 minutes on the project). By analysing the larger goal, breaking it down into doable parts and executing the parts, plans become attainable.

2. Identify successes
Notice what you do right when executing your step-by-step plan. For example, when analysing the projects that produce procrastination, notice how quickly you were able to identify the variety of situations that bring it on. Notice that you didn’t procrastinate for long before coming up with the project list. Highlight successes with the smaller steps on the way to the larger goal.

3. Speak kindly to yourself.
People with high self-efficacy tend to talk positively to themselves, saying “I’ll figure this out”, I’ll try another approach”, or “I’ll take a break and then try again.” Those with low self-efficacy find themselves saying “This is beyond me” or “I’ll never be able to do this.” If you find yourself putting yourself down or saying demoralizing things to yourself, revise the sentence. Instead of saying, “I can’t do this”, consider, “I can try this for a little while”.

4. Keep at it.
By persisting, you are more likely to seek a variety of solutions, maintain your interest in the goal and withstand setbacks. Stubbornly refusing to give up helps you stay focussed on the task. It is important to attempt different solutions when a plan suffers a setback, so guard against repeating unsuccessful solutions.

5. Recognize relapses will happen.
Self-efficacious people know they may return to old habits – being late, procrastinating or avoiding speaking up. The difference between those who are effective and those who self-doubt lies in how they handle setbacks. Rather than considering a setback or failure as permanent, see it as temporary and a sign you need to alter the plan, try again or get support .

6. Solicit helpful feedback.
Asking for feedback regarding your progress is important to keeping you on course. Be sure to ask about how you are doing with the steps toward your goal. It is important to solicit feedback from those who are truly interested in your development rather than people who tend only to criticize. Selectively obtain feedback that will help your efforts rather than demoralize you.

7.Recognize undermining situations.
Self-efficacy can be undermined when circumstances make progress difficult. Recognizing these types of situations is important to a sense of control and well-being. For example, people subjected to systemic bias or prejudice can experience resignation rather than motivation when their efforts don’t net results. Finding ways to influence the situation or change it can help or re-locating to a healthier workplace may be the best solution. Structures in the workplace can work against optimal performance-when sales targets are set too high or too low, people may give up or reduce their effort. Sometimes workers persevere for the wrong reasons, including familial or societal pressure to succeed in a particular career, staying in unfulfilling or unhealthy jobs for the money or meeting standards or expectations of others instead of oneself.

8. Keep it about the task.
There is a big difference between working on a task and taking the task personally. Refrain from translating setbacks into a personal deficiency. Blaming others for failure or believing problems are due to a lack of aptitude will net apathy and resentment. Instead, focus on setbacks and failures as information to learn from.

Failing to achieve desired goals or experiencing little control over one’s life can be depressing and anxiety provoking. Enhancing self-efficacy in the face of failure, and setbacks could be the necessary antidote to apathy, feelings of helplessness and a lack of progress. And in the end, the success of your New Year’s resolutions may depend on it.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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