It is your life. What do you want to do with it?
To improve some area of your life, you’ve probably already made a New Year resolution or set a goal?
However, anyone who has tried (and failed) to give up smoking, lose weight, go to the gym knows that it is harder that is sounds. Intention alone is not enough! Sticking to goals requires you to make a new habit or break and existing one.
To compound matters, according to research by the University of Scranton, the depressing fact is that 92 percent of people do not achieve their New Year resolutions or goals. Worse still, Strava (the social network for athletes) found that by 12th of January most people will have given up!
So why bother!
No one is perfectly happy. No one has a perfect life. To err is human. So, when we blunder or fail at something, we are driven to correct it and improve a less than perfect situation. Hence, we set goals (or make resolutions) to improve things. This involves finding ways to undo bad habits and create new, good, habits. All easier said than done!
The good news is there are evidence-based things you can do to make it more likely that you will stick to your goal – to lose weight, cut back the booze, do more exercise, spend less time on the internet or more time with the kids, or whatever it is you want to accomplish.
Breaking bad habits
To achieve goals and resolutions we must do some new things, or stop doing some old things. This necessitates making new or breaking and replacing old habits. However, changing existing habits is hard because in addition to the undesirable consequences that we are trying to get rid of, bad habits also offer rewards. Let’s face it, people get immense pleasure from smoking, drinking alcohol or eating sweet things.
According to Charles Duhigg, an expert in habits, you must change your current routine and make it easier to do a new one. For example, if you want to exercise or go for a run, put your gym kit or running clothes by your bed and put them on as soon as you wake up. Once you have your running gear on it is harder to choose not to go. The next step is to create rewards to help make it stick.
Reward your craving brain
Based on the rewards you get, your brain creates cravings. Cravings create habits – bad ones such as cigarettes, alcohol and chocolate, as well as good ones such as cleaning your teeth, taking a shower or doing exercise. All these habits, bad or good, provide you with some form of pleasure.
If you want to break an undesirable craving, try to figure out what is triggering it. What reward are you getting from it and how can you still get this reward by creating a different habit? So, for example, when you are feeling stressed and need a break, if you normally take a break with a cigarette, find a way to take the break (the reward) but without the cigarette. Make your break a lovely experience that you look forward to. Each time you do it, you become more likely to repeat the behaviour.
Pre-plan your rewards (small treats). Coffee is often my ultimate treat. For you it will be something else. It might be a lovely hot shower, smoothie, herbal tea, or reading a chapter of your favourite book. Only you can say what is a treat for you. Obviously, make it something that is not going to sabotage your main goal! If you go for a run and promise yourself a cream cake afterwards, it undermines your goal to get healthy, fit, slim or whatever your goal is.
Not sticking to your goal is less about laziness or lack of self-control. It is down to the method you use to accomplish it! So, below are 12 evidence-based ways to help you increase your chances of achieving that elusive thing you’ve wanted for so long.
1. Visualise what you want – in detail. Detail will make it real for you. Picture what it will look like and feel like when you achieve it. Look forward to it, imagine it. Keep it front of mind. Think about it every night as you drift off to sleep.
2. Make it your priority! Schedule your daily actions towards it and stick to your self-promise that you will do it. Change your internal self-talk to “I’ll do whatever it takes”.
3. Write it down. Use your device if you must, but good old-fashioned pen and paper has been shown to instil more commitment. Put it somewhere you can see it daily.
4. Remind yourself why you want it. Answering ‘why’ it is important to you and linking it to your purpose and meaning is a powerful motivator.
5. Tell a supportive person you are doing it. This makes it more likely that you will stick to it because you don’t want to let them down, and they can help spur you on when you are feeling less motivated.
6. Make it incremental. Break a big goal or resolution down into little things you can do against it every day. Running is a good example of incremental upgrades – from walking, to jogging, to running.
7. Create a craving and make it a routine – like cleaning your teeth! If you are like me, you wouldn’t think of going to bed without cleaning your teeth. I sometimes clean my teeth after my evening meal because there is no way I will eat chocolate or drink alcohol after I have cleaned my teeth. It works for me!
8. Use positive emotions and rewards around your new routine that are both pleasurable and achievable. Only you can determine what a reward or treat is for you.
9. Plan to do something everyday against your goal – no matter how small. This will make it feel doable and over time you will see progress. It will build your confidence and get some early success under your belt. Your goal can be long term, but the steps you take must be short-term (e.g. daily).
10. List the potential barriers to success – what might hold you back or stop you? Put things in place to mitigate these. If you know that you eat chocolate late at night, don’t buy it or keep it the house!
11. Review your success frequently. This is easily done, for example with a binary tick list of your daily actions, e.g. did you do it? Yes or No? I use a step counting device so that I know each day that I am achieving my goal of 14,000 steps.
12. Celebrate and reward your progress – no matter how small. Rewards increase motivation. It is important to trigger a reward after a positive behaviour. List small rewards that you will treat yourself to when you have completed a small step.
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Goals should be difficult but not impossible, so dream big (audacious goals are compelling), but, according to Sabina Nawaz, in HBR, you must start small. Equally, playing it safe with goals that are too easy will not get you to your dream!
Furthermore, fewer is better – one goal that you focus on and achieve is better than 6 that you give up on. Make sure it is something you really want and within your control to achieve it.
Be determined, commit. Positive language will help you. Avoid words like I may, I should, I’ll try. Say “I will” and state by when you will do it. Be specific e.g. I will go for a 20-minute walk, 4 days a week and after I have done it I will enjoy an amazing cup of coffee.
Imagine how you will feel when you have achieved it. Picture it, feel it, dream about it! People who do this increase their chances of success. Success has little to do with how clever you are. Rather, it is linked to your determination, energy and your knowledge of what drives, motivates and rewards you.
Accept setbacks as a temporary phenomenon and find a way to get back on track – this may mean adjusting the steps to easier ones (to begin with), until you have created a new habit.
Don’t put off your life. This is your life and it is happening now. You can choose to be who and what you want to be.
Some people work hard to achieve what they want from life. Others wait and watch things happening to them. Which do you want to be?