Every day we’re bombarded with messages that we should change- lose weight, eat better, save more money, and so on. And most of us are perpetually trying to make some kind of change. Not that we shouldn’t try to better ourselves, but we often fail because making the change isn’t something we really want to do.
Let me explain. I don’t mean that we don’t want to lose weight, get a better job, or be more patient. We do- but what we don’t want to do is commit to doing the things necessary to make it happen. Change is a process- not a one-and-done deal. I blame society in part, because we’re led to believe that once we do X, we’ll reach our goal- and THEN, we will be happy. We live in a culture of instant gratification- do this and you’ll get that. But that’s not it. To notice any weight loss, it could take a week or two- or to notice that you’re saving more money, it could take even longer. Most goals requires sustained effort, for a significant period of time- even once you get there. This means life change- not doing something for however long (a day, week, or month), and then resuming whatever you were doing before.
Yes, you can lose 15 pounds for your wedding, for the summer, or for that reunion. Eat better, drink less, work out more, and so forth. BUT, what happens once you get there? Mission accomplished, right? Maybe for now. Most people revert to old ways once a short-term goal is reached, or they gradually stop working so hard and go back to the old habits. It’s comfortable and familiar. But when you do, the weight comes right back. Same thing with saving money to buy a car, a house, or to go on a vacation. Once you get there, it’s easy to loosen up with your cash and to “live a little” again. Soon enough, you’re back to living check to check, stressed out as ever.
Ok, so now what? I’m sure the last paragraph rings true for most people- if you were lucky enough to reach your goal to begin with. The good part is that if you have ever reached a goal, you’ve proven that you can do it, and that you are capable of sustaining the necessary effort. That’s great, but if you want change to last, you have to change your mindset– not just your behavior. If you want to drop weight, you need to give up sugary drinks, salty snacks, or late-night fast food runs. You also need to commit to regular exercise- this depends on your health and current rate of exercise, but on average it’s suggested that we exercise for 30 minutes a day. If you want to save money, you need to commit to not buying everything you want. You need to learn to wait- and when you do, you’ll realize that most things you say you want are just impulses and will pass. Save $X per week or per paycheck. If you want to be less reactive, work on your patience and use other strategies besides yelling and flying off the handle when you get frustrated. But not doing these things, cheating, or giving up when you’re not feeling yourself succeeding- that will lead to frustration and feeling like a failure.
Recognize that we’re amazing when it comes to making excuses. We can rationalize almost any action that we want to do– to have that drink, to buy and eat a whole chocolate cake, to skip the gym, or to buy that new pair of shoes. “I deserve it”…”I’ve been doing so well”…”I need it”…”I’ll work out twice as hard tomorrow”. Do any of these sound familiar? We can convince ourselves of almost anything, but this is a slippery slope. Chances are having dessert one day will lead to dessert the next, or making one impulse buy will lead to another, or foregoing the gym Saturday will lead to the same thing on Sunday. Don’t give in to the excuses and instead, refocus on your goals.
Committing to change- as in committing to the actions that lead to change is hard. There’s no doubt about that, and that’s why we fail, or only succeed for some period of time. But if you really, really want what you say you do, you have to commit. Whatever change you would like to make, here are eight strategies that could help to set you up for lasting success. I’ll use weight loss as an example, since it tends to be the most common.
1. Stop thinking in all-or-nothing terms. If you ate poorly for breakfast and lunch, it’s not to late to eat a healthy dinner. If you skipped the gym on Monday because you were tired, thus “failing” at your goal of going to the gym 7/7 days, make sure to go on Tuesday. First of all, going to the gym seven days out of the week is probably unrealistic, but don’t expect perfection because it’s highly unlikely. Whenever you catch yourself slipping, pick yourself back up. Get back on track as soon as possible. All is not lost because you made a mistake or lost focus for some period of time.
2. Set SMART goals. Write them down and review them daily. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. These are the elements of a good goal. More information can be found here, but here is an example: Instead of, “I want to lose a lot of weight”, say, “I want to lose 20lbs by my 3oth birthday so I can feel healthy”. This is considering that you need to lose 20lbs and that your birthday is not a week away. SMART goals are much easier to reach than vague ones.
3. Enlist help. This has a few benefits. First, sometimes we need help to reach a goal. Talk to a parent, partner, friend, or colleague. Ask for advice, trade ideas. Telling others also provides accountability, which could enhance your motivation. Your friend or partner might even work toward the goal with you. I have seen countless workplace weight loss contests and walking clubs, which are good examples. If your partner or family joins you, this could also increase your success- by giving you a gym partner, getting junk food or alcohol out of the house, or someone to talk to about successes or setbacks on a regular basis. I have some friends who are really (I mean really) into Crossfit. I haven’t done it, but you can’t help but notice how much they have changed physically. Apart from the social aspect of it (which makes exercising more fun), I think a big part of their success and of Crossfit in general, is the accountability factor. If you know friends will be at a class or might be expecting you, you’re more likely to go.
4. Track your progress daily and weekly. Write your goals down and then track progress in a journal, on a calendar, or using a chart. You might even make yourself a point chart- giving yourself a reward for meeting a goal. For example, buy a new tie or outfit when you have lost X pounds, or each time you lose 25% of your goal. Tracking progress, including specific behaviors, also helps you to look at the big picture, rather than obsessing about a mistake or setback.
5. Plan ahead. If you’re trying to lose weight, plan meals ahead of time, or make sure there are healthy options when you go out. Bring sneakers and exercise clothes on vacation so you can hit the hotel gym or go running. Or if you want to go to the gym before work, get to bed at a reasonable hour and have your gym or work items ready ahead of time. Don’t just fly blind and expect to make good choices in the heat of the moment.
6. Recognize excuses for what they are. This may be one of the hardest, because we are so good at tricking ourselves. We all make excuses, and in trying to make any kind of change, your motivation will wax and wane. Write down excuses ahead of time so you can recognize them when they pop into your head. When you notice yourself beginning to rationalize an unwanted behavior, stop yourself and refocus on your goal. Think about the progress you have made so far or how good it will feel when you do make noticeable progress. Engage in a healthy behavior, like taking a walk, listening to music, or drinking a glass of water. Chances are you will refocus and the craving or rationalization will go away.
7. Prepare for setbacks. As in addiction, relapse is common and to be expected. This doesn’t mean you should accept it, but what it does mean is that this is not a reason to give up. If someone has 30 days without eating sweets and then eats one donut, should he go on to eat the whole dozen- or should he stop himself and refocus on his goal? The all-or-nothing rationale that we often use would say, “Yes, you might as well eat all of them- THEN get back on the wagon”. But that doesn’t make sense. Same thing with the other examples I gave earlier. When you slip up, relapse, or realize you made a mistake, you take steps to correct it. I read an article recently about behaviors that healthy people engage in. One that struck me was that they exercise regularly, even if they only have 15 minutes. I have been guilty of this one- skipping a workout because I didn’t think doing so for the time I had available was worthwhile. But something is better than nothing, and if you do this often, the net result will be much more consistent working out than otherwise. The point is that “healthy people”, i.e. those who meet their goals (at least pertaining to health), are committed to the behaviors that lead to reaching of those goals- and that is what brings lasting results. Those who aren’t prepared to handle setbacks often end up in the same cycle of getting motivated, doing well, making a mistake, and then continuing to make more because they feel frustrated, guilty, or bad about themselves.
8. Don’t become complacent. When you’ve reached a goal for any period of time, recognize that resuming old habits or “loosening up” will likely lead to old results. If you worked hard and lost 20lbs, rest assured that you will regain that 20lbs- and possibly more, if you quit the gym or go back to eating McDonald’s food. Once a change is made, you’re in the maintenance stage- which requires the same amount of energy as it took to get there. Remember that, and at any sign of a slip, get back to what you were doing before and you will be ok.
So there you have it. If you follow these strategies, you will be more successful in setting and reaching goals- whatever they are. Related to #3, if you find yourself in a continuous cycle of trying and not succeeding, or giving up because change is too hard, it may be time to bring in a professional. Contact someone like a psychologist who can help you to examine the situation and find ways to help you to make change. You can find a referral here or here. A psychologist can help you to set realistic goals, to uncover and deal with barriers to reaching them, and to develop the confidence and perseverance that you need to succeed. Real life change is hard, but it is very possible, whatever your goals are.
Dr. Jesse Matthews is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chester Springs, PA. He helps people of all ages to address many kinds of issues. You can view his Psychology Today profile here. For any questions or to arrange an appointment, please contact him at 610-482-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.