Goals…we all set them – lose that last five pounds, eat better, quit smoking – but only a few of us actually find it easy to make those changes in our lives, particularly if we are changing long-standing patterns. One of the reasons that goals, like New Years Resolutions, often fail is that we aren’t setting effective and achievable goals. There is a major difference between wishing something would change and setting a goal to make that change and following through.
Fitness and diet goals are among the most commonly set goals (as well as the ones that so regularly fail). Many of us start the week strong, but by mid-week, we have lost sight of eating healthy or exercising and fall back into old habits.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in health sciences to know that diet, exercise, and sleep are three of the most crucial things that can dramatically impact and – when properly addressed – improve both physical and psychological health. But the diet, fitness, and pharmaceutical industries are lucrative, multibillion-dollar industries for a reason: Most people struggle with sustaining long-term change in these areas. So, welcome to the club!
What can you do to enhance the likelihood of sustainable change?
Here are six steps to planning and executing your goal to increase the likelihood of success.
1. Pick a specific behaviour to change.
Start with no more than one to two behaviours to change at a time.
- Precisely define what we want to change.
- Ensure the goals are measurable. If we need to revise goals later on, we will have to know where we are headed, and how to determine if we are getting or have gotten there.
- Ensure the goal is realistic. We may want to lose 30 pounds, but a realistic goal may be to lose 15 pounds this year and 15 pounds the following year.
- Ensure the goal is time-limited. Set a specific period of time in which the goal will be accomplished.
2. Identify readiness to change.
Before beginning, ask questions such as: “How ready am I?” “Is this the right time for me to make a change?” “What are the pros and cons of changing?”
- Consider the benefits of the change. How can we begin to change in a realistic fashion? What would life be like if we didn’t do it? Is it worth it – how or why?
- Consider how the change fits with other important life values.
- Prepare to change. Gather the information and tools that we need. Anticipate setbacks. Remember that small change is better than no change. Get support as we begin the changing process. Consider how to build on changing behaviour over time. What other behaviours can we add in? Once the changes have been made, consider how to transition to a long-term maintenance plan.
3. Identify barriers. Anticipate setbacks.
If we tried to make a change in the past, what got in the way of success?
- Be brutally honest about why we failed. Then solve the barriers that were encountered in the past.
- Identify the pros of not changing the behaviour – this can often help us appreciate why the change hasn’t happened yet.
- Identify the cons of changing – the reasons the change may be difficult to do.
- Establish a specific contingency plan for each of the barriers identified.
4. Implement change.
Approach behavioural change gradually. Make small, specific changes.
- Make a schedule to build change activities into day-to-day life.
- Follow the “double-time” rule: Schedule double the time anticipated it would take to achieve the change.
5. Revisit and revise.
Do not get discouraged by setbacks. If we are not on track with the changes identified, work to identify the barriers again. Were our expectations too high? Was the specific goal we set too ambitious?
- Revise goals as necessary.
- Expect and visualize success.
6. Remember Rewards.
Set milestones that help track progress and ensure to schedule in regular rewards for each achievement.
Behaviour change can be challenging – especially if we have been developing the habit over a number of years. Remember these six steps and know you that success doesn’t happen overnight. Be consistent and know that we all face setbacks, it’s how we keep getting back on track that will eventually lead to permanent change.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.
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