How to Use Your Unconscious Mind to Achieve Your Goals

The most effective way to change your behavior for the better is to work in tandem with your unconscious mind.

It’s the end of January. How many of us made New Year’s resolutions this year, but have already broken them? Maybe we told ourselves we’ll exercise more, or spend more time with our children, or not get so angry all the time. But we’re no closer to these goals than we were before.

It turns out that part of the problem is the way we make these resolutions: They rely on our conscious decision-making processes. We just set a good intention to do things differently, and we leave it at that. But experience should tell us that good intentions are often not enough.

In my new book, Before You Know It, I present all the ways our personal ship of good intentions can get blown off course by the powerful unconscious motivations and environmental cues that also influence what we do. Because we are not aware of these unconscious influences, we do nothing to counteract them. Yet they are like the currents and winds that affect a ship’s course just as much as the captain’s rudder. Ignore them, and you may drift further out to sea—or crash into the rocks.

The first question to ask yourself when a resolution is failing is: Do I really want to change? If you are honest with yourself, maybe down deep you actually want to keep drinking, or overeating, or not exercising. And those “wants” are going to override the good intentions of your resolutions.

There was a famous experiment done at Princeton many years ago with divinity students—highly moral and compassionate individuals. They were supposed to give a sermon in their next class, but the experimenters intentionally made them late; they had to hurry to be on time. Along the way, a person lay in distress in the hallway, but the late students rushed right by and didn’t help. Their goal to get to the next class on time overrode their own personal values, and they failed to act on those values and help the person in need. Ironically, the topic of the sermon they were to deliver was the Good Samaritan parable from the Bible.

The same thing can happen to you and me. Despite our values and intentions, we may have some other goal that conflicts with our new resolution. And if our resolution is something that, down deep, we don’t really want to change, our conscious mind is very adept at coming up with convenient excuses and rationalizations. “Hey, I’ll start that new diet tomorrow.” And then that tomorrow never comes.

So ask yourself if you are truly committed to change. Only if the answer is “yes” can you overcome those powerful winds and currents that can drive you off course.

Another surprisingly powerful influence on what we do comes from environmental cues that trigger behaviors unconsciously, without our realizing it. The behavior of others, for example, is quite contagious, and we can “catch” it through our daily contact with other people and even through social media. To read more from John Bargh, click here.