Every year it is the same song a dance. Gyms start filling up the first week of January and come the end of March the membership roles start thinning out again. You know what they say, in like a lion out like a lamb. So what happens? I'd argue the dropout rate is not solely the domain of low willpower or lack of determination. Successful behavior change and goal achievement are built around proper planning, getting the right help, committing to a specific amount of consistency and finding a doable path that you'll enjoy. Willpower is essential but can only get you so far. Without a plan, a goal is just a dream.
When making resolutions, the data show overwhelmingly, folks are interested in increased physical health, which incidentally includes weight loss and a better diet. Why? Despite what the fat acceptance and anti-fitness people state, getting in better shape will produce positive transformational lifelong effects. People who exercise regularly and maintain normal body fat will enjoy improved sleep, better sex, higher self-esteem, enhanced mortality, increased energy, improved mental health, a more robust immune system and experience a superior level of overall happiness. It is the strongest lever one can pull to increase mortality and life satisfaction.
Have you ever written down your goals? The action of writing down goals is meaningful because it provides you with an accountable document that narrows your focus, provides short-term motivation and sometimes even a little excitement. Vividly describing your goals in written form is strongly associated with goal success. People who clearly describe or picture their goals are more apt to accomplish them than people who don't. If you can imagine it, you can create it - within reason; there is no way Danny Devito will ever look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
We must individually interrogate what truly moves us to action and embrace those feelings, even if uncomfortable. Ask yourself, "why am I doing this?" Drill down to find the genuine reasons behind your decisions. It may be happiness, anger, sadness, loneliness, joy, or fear. Embrace those core emotions and use them to guide your motivation. You may just find an urgent and sudden need to make a change.
ACTION TIME: Do it. Take 3 min and write down three specific, small, quantifiable goals you'd like to achieve and why in the next three months. Here is an example:
Lose 10 lbs. because it will increase my self-esteem
Be able to do 20 full pushups because I want to be stronger
Fit into my jeans from college because I want to feel attractive
Did you do it? I'll wait...
Goal-setting theory shows across hundreds of studies that creating specific and concrete goals are powerful motivators and boost success in goal pursuit more than vague and abstract goals. Having precise goals that specify exactly what you will do and how is critical in developing and adhering to a resolution. Keeping them small, manageable, and measurable will set you up for some quick quantifiable results. It is easier to build on some wins when you already have a few in your pocket.
When setting goals, it is crucial to be aware of human nature, especially your own nature. Most of us abhor absolute limits. Defining goals with a rigid globalizing restrain like 'I will workout every day' or 'I will never have a cookie again' is a recipe for failure. Whereas adopting a flexible process focused approach will lead to better results. Flexible restraint abandons perfectionism in exchange for a more adaptable, malleable, and accommodating approach. Focusing on the process while tolerating and including minor deviations will make the goal path more enjoyable and easier to follow. Don't set yourself up for failure by totally depriving yourself. It is healthy and practical to have some wiggle room.
Our environment and internal cues often get in the way of our goals. Have you ever had a diet plan ruined by having a friend bring you some delicious cookies or visiting your mom and then she makes your favorite lasagna? External stimulus can have a significant effect on our goals. Additionally, our internal stimulus, like stress or emotions, can also throw a wrench in the best-laid plans. So what to do? Armed with the knowledge that these stimuli may derail your success, it is vital to proactively have a counterplan. The general idea is quite simple: you want to modify your environment to reduce friction between you and your goal-compatible actions (example: have a treadmill desk) and increase friction between you and your goal-incompatible activities (example: don't bring Doritos into the house), and introduce tools that simplify your goal striving process.
Frequent and personalized feedback is important for reinforcing enthusiasm and adherence during the process of behavior change. Find some people you trust in your life and tell them about your goals. Ask them to help and you'll be accountable. Having a strong support system will make it easier to follow the path. If your friends and family know what you are trying to accomplish, they will likely be more willing and prepared to offer assistance. You are more likely to succeed when there is internal pressure to not let others down. And don't forget, professional help from a dietician, therapist and personal trainer are valuable resources.
After a while, the paths you build to work toward your goals will become habits. It is these habits that will take root in your foundation. However, it is essential to realize that your brain is always seeking the path of least resistance. So at first, changes may be difficult; however, if you persevere and are consistent, it will become easier and more manageable. Once you develop a strongly reinforced habit, it can become automatic. Changing the underlying structures (biopsychological) to the path of least resistance cannot lead anywhere except in the direction you really want to go. Habits form because our brain wants to save energy and automate activities. Frequent practice over time will re-wire your brain to reflect the new habit pathways. Common sense does not result in common action. We all know Twinkies and Oreos are unhealthy and conversely, daily exercise is beneficial, yet many of us ignore this common sense.
Aristotle once wrote: "Excellence is an art won by training and habituation...We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."
Successful goal attainment and habit change are possible, but leaning exclusively on willpower and determination isn't likely to get the job done. Success is reachable if you have a plan. Follow these evidence-based strategies:
Write down a few specific, small, manageable and quantifiable goals
Take a few minutes to visualize the path and the goal attainment
Adopt flexible process focused goals & steer clear of too much rigidity
Plan to modify your environment if needed (internal and external stimuli)
Develop a support group to hold you accountable
Be consistent to reinforce the pattern to become a habit
Forget the naysayers who scoff at New Year's resolutions. I say, even temporary attempts at self-improvement deserve applause. Imagine an artist picking up a brush, a chef trying a new spice, a person going to the gym or a parent prioritizing family time. Sure, their journeys might be brief, but the spark of striving, the push beyond comfort, is something to celebrate. Many times this little spark is all that is needed to effectuate change.
Resolutions, however fleeting, whisper hope, nudge us towards a brighter future, and leave a residue of motivation that lingers long after the confetti settles. So cheers to the dreamers, the repeaters, and the never-give-upers! Let's embrace the magic of "trying," the thrill of new beginnings, and the simple truth that even short-lived progress is a testament to our human potential for growth. Happy New Year!