If you’re anything like me, there have been times in your life where no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to muster up enough willpower to reach your goal. If I had a dollar for every health kick I went on I could probably buy myself a pretty nice watch by now! After the passage of a few weeks your motivation wanes and all of a sudden it seems near impossible to see yourself triumphant at the end. How is it possible to be so gung-ho one day, and then fall down the doughnut hole the next?
As it turns out, you’re normal! Stanford psychology expert Kelly McGonigal explains that basic human nature dictates that “there’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort.” While both of these parts are necessary to human survival, they can be detrimental to reaching goals that require short term sacrifice for long term gain.
So how can we avoid this most basic of human instincts to run towards instant gratification? Luckily there are a few science-based tips to help you reach your goals.
- Pick a Goal YOU Want. This seems like a simple one – aren’t all goals things that you want? Not necessarily. It is easy to fall into the trap of setting goals that you feel you should do. For example, Kelly McGonigal says it’s easy to think “I should exercise” – when you hate to exercise! If you hate the treadmill and set a goal to run on one five times per week, how long do you think you’ll be able to hold on? Instead, figure out your end goal – such as, “I want to get into the healthy weight range for my height” – and figure out the best way for YOU to get there. Sure your friend Cindy lost 20 pounds doing Cross Fit and eating Paleo, but you hate working out in a gym and can’t live without a bowl of oatmeal in the morning. So instead, you might decide to pledge to take 10,000 steps a day and start counting calories.
- Be Flexible. Continuing off of tip number one, what happens if you think you like spinning, but two weeks into you goal of “Spin three times per week” you realize the music that you once found motivating is just giving you a headache and the saddle is a bit more uncomfortable than you bargained for? You switch it up! (For the record, I love spinning.) By allowing yourself to be flexible, you avoid that “all or nothing” mentality that could cause you to throw in the towel if you can’t (or don’t want to) reach your goal anymore. Psychology Today says that using goals more as guides to get you to where you want to go instead of strict rules that are set in stone. In one study, athletes who were advised to continually set and re-set realistic goals felt more competent, had more self-esteem, and were less afraid of failure. By constantly assessing what is important to you and what you feel you can achieve, you might actually be able to go further than you ever thought you could!
- Find a Friend. Use the momentum of group willpower to bolster your own willpower. By tapping into the motivation of others, you will feel more supported and get that extra encouragement you need when you just don’t have the oomph yourself. This could be anything from a friend who walks with you at lunch, a email chain or text message group you can contact when you’re just not feeling it, or even your own money! For example, with ClassPass, you cannot cancel within 12 hours without paying a cancellation feel of $15. When I kind of want to go to class, but feel the urge to binge watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt while eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s on the couch creeping up, I’ll just hop on the ClassPass app and schedule something so I have my wallet holding me accountable. My bank account has convinced me to go to class countless times, and you know what? I’ve never regretted it once!
- Think Positively. In high school, my volleyball coach would always direct us in positives. Instead of, “Don’t stand up!” she would say, “Keep your knees bent!” so we would be ingraining the information about what we should be doing instead of what we shouldn’t. It’s like when people say, “Don’t think about a purple elephant” – what do you do? Think of a purple elephant! The brain is powerful and latches on to these thoughts, and will actually start creating neural pathways to make those statements stick. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard, says “some negative emotions are motivating, but for the most part they are not.” So if you’re telling yourself “I’m fat, I can’t eat that,” what you’re really internalizing is “I’m fat, eat that.” As Amy mentions, “If you say, ‘I’m going to stop eating junk food”… you’re denigrating yourself before even getting started. You’re better off framing your goal as ‘eating healthier’ so that you’ll remain motivated and optimistic.”
The brain is a powerful tool – when harnessed correctly. Don’t let psychologically damaging goal setting practices unintentionally derail you from reaching your dreams!