Many of us take the opportunity of a new year to make a fresh start and dream big about what the future will hold. As organizations often engage in some sort of annual goal setting or performance management process, the new year is a great time to advance your professional development goals as well.

But to be successful in reaching your developmental goals, you’ll need to do more than dream lofty dreams. It is no secret that setting New Year’s resolutions is often a fruitless activity—as few as 8% of people report successfully fulfilling their New Year’s resolutions, and a Google search of “how to keep your New Year’s Resolutions” returns almost 17 million results.

How can you increase your success rate? Here we will present some foundational techniques supported by seminal psychological research, and then discuss.

Traditional Goal Setting Techniques

According to long-supported goal setting research, the key to meeting your goals is to be specific in what you want to achieve, provide yourself a challenge with a difficult yet attainable amount of developmental stretch, and set a timeline.

You should also set incremental, smaller goals that help you build to the bigger accomplishment. These are likely techniques you’ve heard of if you’ve read any of those 17 million websites promising to help you succeed at your resolutions.

Adding “Mental Contrasting” To Your Development Strategies

Research from NYU Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, suggests engaging in “mental contrasting” when planning for how to achieve your goals will increase the likelihood of your success.

Mental contrasting is a 4-step reflection process to help you uncover obstacles to reaching your accomplishment, dubbed the WOOP approach. There is even a smart phone app to help you through the process, available for iPhone and Android.

Wish: Make a wish of something you want to achieve. Keep the wish time-bound and fairly immediate (a 4-week deadline is a good timeline).

Outcome: Consider the best possible outcome you can expect if you were to fulfill your wish.

Obstacle: Identify your internal obstacles to success. Go beyond excuses like, “I won’t receive support from my boss” or “I won’t have enough time to commit”. These are not appropriate obstacles.

What is it about you that will hold you back? If you’re honest with yourself, this will likely be an uncomfortable exercise. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not digging deep enough. Consider engaging colleagues in a 360-feedback process if you’re really stuck to help you develop in areas that will impact how others view your leadership.

Plan: Determine what behaviors will be necessary for you to overcome your obstacle. Record your WOOP, and put your plan in motion.

Remaining Persistent Through Grit and Deliberate Practice

And should you find yourself making less progress than you anticipated on your goals, University of Pennsylvania Psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research on grit suggests you just keep at it. Passion and perseverance for long-term goals—and the requisite amount of effort, even when underperforming—predict success over and above intelligence, talent, and conscientiousness.

Duckworth recommends consistent, deliberate practice and refinement of your approach over time. Don’t think you’re gritty enough? Don’t worry—she also says anyone can learn to be gritty by putting in the effort over time. Better habits that support your new behaviors are built through repetition, and if you remain engaged toward your goal, progress will eventually become easier.


Have you tried the WOOP approach to goal setting, or the WOOP smart phone app? What obstacles have stood in your path to progress? What have you done to motivate yourself to continue to practice new skills when it’s difficult? Have you developed your grit? Share your experiences in the comments section.

If you need help creating good leadership habits, consider Executive Coaching to support you in identifying necessary behavior change and remaining accountable to your goals.

If your team could benefit from developing greater passion and perseverance for long-term goals, contact us to discuss High Performing Team Solutions and see why shared commitment to the vision and extraordinary goals is a critical differentiator between ‘good’ and ‘great’ teams.


For inspiration on what to develop in this year, contact us or check out: