Get to Know Your Brain
Understanding the way the brain works is critical when it comes to achieving goals. Why? Because many (if not most) of the obstacles getting in the way of goals are merely perceived, suggests Garret Kramer, sports psychologist and author of Stillpower: Excellence with Ease in Sports and Life. What this means is that our minds create judgments, negative thoughts, and obstacles to goal achievement — and that these obstacles likely aren’t based in physical reality.
When we wrap our heads around the idea that thoughts exist because of what’s going on in the brain and not what’s going on in the world around us, then we free up energy in the brain and body by allowing those perceived obstacles to have less signiﬁcance in our minds.
So how can we overcome the inﬂuence of our own brains? It all comes down to mindfulness. Two of the best strategies for staying present and separating thoughts from reality are writing and meditation. Make it a habit to jot down how you’re feeling each day, times when you lose your cool, and moments when you slip up on a resolution. Compare those feelings to the events of the day and you’ll see there’s usually not a huge correlation between what happens and how you feel. Similarly, even ﬁve or ten minutes a day of mindfulness meditation can help us practice letting thoughts “ﬂoat by” without judging them or perceiving them as obstacles. When we master letting go of our thoughts, they will no longer have the power to block us from achieving our goals.
Learn How to Set Goals
Though studies show it takes approximately 66 days to form a new habit, it might not be that simple. There are a lot of variables involved in new habit formation, including individual character traits, the type of habit being formed, and the amount of logistics or dedication required to make a change. In other words, there is no hard-and-fast magic number for achieving new goals. This means that establishing your own schedule is key to defining your own success.
When setting new goals, it’s useful to begin by getting clear about how long the new habit will last. If the habit is meant to stick forever, be specific about milestones and accountability. Specifics are key to every aspect of a resolution: Measurable goals are achievable goals, so the way we set up our goals is integral to whether we follow through with them. (It’s not possible to “be successful” unless we establish parameters for what that means.) To create manageable goals, follow these three guidelines:
Use measurable and specific language. “I will meditate more” versus “I meditate for ten minutes a day, four days a week.”
Use present-tense language. “I will save more money” versus “I put $200 of every pay check into my savings account.”
Establish a clear timeline. “I will try group ﬁtness classes” versus “I will try ﬁve new group ﬁtness classes by March 2013.”
Establish an Accountability and Consequence System
Okay, so now we know how to set measurable, attainable goals. But how do we make sure that we actually stick to them? Most experts agree that accountability (a buddy system or tracking method) is crucial.
To hold yourself accountable for goal achievement, get clear in advance about what will happen if you slip up. Try to think of a consequence that isn’t directly related to your task at hand; it shouldn’t be hurtful or punitive, but rather something that’s inconvenient enough to provide incentive for keeping or breaking a habit. (For example: “If I spend any of my savings, I have to call up my high school music teacher and sing him a song” or “If I skip today’s workout, I will donate 20 dollars to charity.”)
It can also be useful to enlist other people to help keep you on track with your goals (none of us can be our best 100 percent of the time, so it’s helpful to have people around who can remind us of what we’re trying to achieve). A solid support network includes people who believe in your goals as much (if not more) than you do, people who can help you achieve them, and people who will hold you accountable.
If you don’t have a super supportive network around you, consider using social media and the internet for support. Find a blog that relates to your goal and start delving into the online network of people aligned with that goal. Seek out online content produced by life coaches, motivational speakers, writers, and thought leaders to inspire you when your surrounding network isn’t helping you reach your goals.
Prevention is always the best way to deal with drawbacks, and awareness is the key to avoiding such obstacles. The following are some common traps, and tips for how to stay away from them.
“What the Hell” Syndrome
Let’s imagine you’re on a new diet plan. You go to work, only to discover someone has brought a huge plate of brownies to the office. The treats stare at you all day long. Do you eat just one brownie or do you say, “What the hell?” and eat half the plate, promising to start over again tomorrow?
Slip ups happen to anyone, and the thing to keep in mind is that one missed day won’t dramatically derail the entire effort. But many studies show that when people slip up on a new goal, they tend to go totally overboard on the old habit — even more so than people not trying to change the original habit at all.
To prevent this what-the-hell situation from happening, a change of mindset — not willpower — will really make the difference. Big-picture thinking and a commitment to your daily action plan will determine whether a new habit becomes a long-term change. To achieve this big-picture mindset, focus on what you’re doing differently rather than on what actions you’re eliminating. For example, instead of focusing on not eating sweets or drinking less coffee, count the number of veggie servings you eat each week or the cups of water you drink during the day. By reframing the resolution in a positive way, we constantly feel successful — which will motivate us to continue making those positive changes.
The minute you sit down to meditate, your roommate bursts through the door and starts talking about their latest work drama. What do you do when the people around you (either intentionally or unintentionally) don’t support your goals? Follow these guidelines for coping with the less-supportive members of your social network:
Don’t Engage. If people question your new habit, try to direct the conversation away from the merits of your decision. In fact, it might even be useful to avoid sharing your personal goals with anyone, particularly those who are less likely to be supportive. The thinking here is to keep your energy focused on the task at hand instead of using it up by trying to convince your hot-dog-loving brother he needs to convert to vegetarianism along with you. You don’t even have to tell him why you’re a vegetarian. Just tell him what you can and can’t eat next time you go out.
Offer a Solution or Replace the Activity. If your friends invite you out for margaritas and burritos the day you decide to start losing some weight, try suggesting a different restaurant. When you get invited out for late night drinks, suggest a place that’s closer to your house so you can get to bed early. Or bring a buddy who can drive you home before midnight (remember that support system we talked about?).
The aim is to learn how to deal with negative inﬂuences without having to completely cut them off (unless they’re truly toxic people). Distractions and temptations will always abound. The trick is setting boundaries that enable positive relationships as well as the success of your goals.
Making Multiple Changes at Once
It’s much easier to change one behavior than it is to change two. If you have more than one habit to work on, start by prioritizing the most important one or the one that will lead to greater success down the line.
For instance, let’s say a person has three goals: The ﬁrst is to switch from drinking coffee to drinking green tea by March 2013; the second is to go to bed before 1:00am every night; and the third is to work out three times a week. In this case, it’s useful to start with the easiest change and let the practice of starting a new habit lead to the development of other habits down the line, once the person gets the hang of switching up their routine. Smaller habits tend to funnel into bigger habits, so allow the time to build up to a big goal instead of completely overhauling a lifestyle overnight.
Setting and achieving goals is much more about mindset than it is about the outcomes of our efforts. When we understand how our minds work, give ourselves measurable, specific action plans, cultivate accountability, and work to avoid pitfalls, we can create motivation from within that will help us succeed in every new goal.
How do you frame your mind to accomplish goals? How do you deal with setbacks, both internal and external? Share in comments below!