3 tips for achieving your goals in 2022
Let’s cut to the chase: it’s New Year’s Eve, the juxtaposition of last year’s melodramatic closing followed by a hopeful prospect for the new year. The clock has struck midnight, and the fairy of New Year’s resolutions pays a visit. “This year, I want to hit the gym three times a week, read a book a month, and travel somewhere exotic…” Fast forward to the first week of January, the streets and gyms are full of joggers and sports enthusiasts. We feel invigorated, “It’s great, just by being around other motivated fitness enthusiasts, I can already feel my cholesterol levels dropping.”
Fast forward a month, to 8 a.m.; “Just let me nap for another 15 minutes, and I’ll hit the gym after work.” When 5 p.m. rolls around, “What an exhausting day at work, I just want to turn on the TV, turn off my mind, and disappear into the couch.” From then on, the same day repeats itself, the magic spell of motivation wears off a bit day by day, until the following year, when the New Year’s resolution fairy comes to inject us with a motivation booster. .
This is not a cautionary tale, nor a sarcastic mockery that aims to shame the evil twin of motivation, procrastination. As a meticulous machine created by evolution, our brain has a built-in “bug”, the tendency to follow a path of least resistance. Our mind craves instant gratification and ignores long-term fulfillment (here’s a brief video illustration of the famous marshmallow test). For this very reason, we gravitate to the couch when we really should be hitting the gym, and we sink into cookies when we really should be reaching for a bag of carrots.
Source: Andres Ayrton/Pexels
If you feel discouraged and defeated at this point, I have good news. There are tips we could use to combat the powerful incentive for instant gratification and make our long-term goals possible.
1. Connect to your values before setting goals: Goals are tied to overt behaviors, while values are compasses that guide our behaviors.
As a therapist, one of the most common enemies to achieving our goals is the difference between ‘goals’ and ‘values’. Goals are about the behavior we adopt and they are often concrete. For example, going to the gym three times a week is a goal, while our health and wellness values provide overall direction with a set of behaviors, which can include going to the gym and eating healthy. I’ve often seen people give up on their goal of going to the gym after a few days of slacking off or give up on their goal of healthy eating after a few late night pizzas. For this reason, goals can be restrictive and oppressive, while values are liberating and liberating. Instead of beating yourself up for not sticking to your fitness goals, think about why (i.e. values) you accept them in the first place. If you go to the gym because you value your health and fitness, just because you didn’t go today doesn’t mean you can’t try again tomorrow or take care of your health by eating more healthy today. Connect to the values that underpin your goals and use them as a guide to who you want to be and what you want to represent.
2. The art of setting goals: make them realistic/sustainable and maximize intrinsic motivation.
Another common mistake related to goal setting is our tendency to overlook the importance of setting realistic and achievable goals. In a study (Wilson and Brookfield, 2009) looking at how process (i.e. keeping heart rate above 140 beats per minute for 50% of training) compared to outcome goals (i.e. keeping heart rate above 140 beats per minute) i.e. losing four kilograms in six weeks) affects participant motivation and outcome in an exercise program, researchers found that process-related behavioral goals tend to increase our intrinsic motivation and perceived control on our goals, as well as helping us stay in the present rather than focusing on future results. In other words, keeping our heart rate above 140 for 20 minutes straight is more tangible than the pressure of losing four pounds after six weeks.
3. Reduce friction: Instead of working hard, consider working smart.
Too often I’ve seen people work hard on their goals and feel discouraged by the lack of follow through. A major misconception about goals is that we need to override our brain’s tendency to slack off. The reality is that the brains of those who eat healthy and stay fit are not that different from the rest of us; they are not genetically engineered with more willpower or aversion to junk food, but the only difference is that they can convert agonizing behavioral goals into automatic routine habits.
In his book Good habits, bad habits, psychologist Wendy Wood eloquently says that the key to developing healthy behaviors is not willpower or self-control, because simply forcing ourselves to turn away from unhealthy behaviors often backfires (for example, trying not thinking about a chocolate glazed donut will only multiply the chocolate donuts in Your mind). On the other hand, habits are self-reinforcing cognitive pathways, they are automatic and do not require much thought effort, just like playing the piano or driving a car. It is estimated that an astonishing 43% of our daily behaviors are habitual (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 6, 2002).
To increase or decrease the likelihood of a behavior, we can try to creatively increase or decrease “friction,” the barrier that stands between us and our desired behaviors. For example, not having cookies at home or taking a different street to avoid your local bakery are ways to increase friction, making it harder to access unhealthy foods, while putting on your gym clothes before your last call zoom or working out at home to avoid traffic jams are ways to reduce friction to make it easier to reach your exercise goals. Along the same lines, a useful way to identify behavioral friction is to notice the emotions or thoughts you are feeling before you engage in a behavior: do you dread the trip to the gym more than the actual training? Do you notice boredom or stress before going to get chocolate?
Since the start of the pandemic, many of us have been uprooted from our daily routines and forced to adapt to changes – from the busy morning commute to settling into a home office, from local gyms to virtual fitness classes. I want to offer the note of hope that sometimes unexpected life changes could present as a catalyst for establishing new behaviors. Pay attention to your habits and routines and introduce gradual changes to create new possibilities. The pandemic may still threaten us and our lives may still feel constricted, but we might find freedom by introducing new behaviors for a sense of expansion.