How To Do What You Can't Do: Habits and Goals
Pretty much everyone could use new or different habits in some area, and we all have goals. But how do we get started, gain momentum, and keep momentum when trying to build or change goals and habits? This is a battle we pretty much all face, and throughout our lifetime. There is general advice most people are aware of, like start small, repetition, accountability, reward yourself, etc. However, sometimes we need more tangible or specific suggestions along with the rationale to get enough of a push to begin. Below are various suggestions on how to implement new habits, change old ones, and reach goals.
Create SMART Goals - One of the most important basics of creating a goal that always applies is something that is easiest to remember with the acronym S.M.A.R.T. This stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time stamped. A goal with out specifications is simply a wish, a goal must be able to be measured and have a finish line to know when it is actually obtained or reached. Specific means your goal is defined clearly and is not ambiguous. An example would be “lose weight” vs “lose 20 pounds”, or “be more social” vs “get out of the house at least 3x per week to spend time with friends/family”. You need to know what it looks like when you actually reach your goal. A good rule of thumb is to answer the who, who is involved, what do I want, where is the goal to be achieved, when do I want to achieve it, why do I want to achieve this goal. Measurable means there are specific criteria to compare your progress against. Using the example above, “20 pounds” would be a great measure. Achievable just means to meet yourself where you are. It isn’t always about ability; you have to consider where you currently are in your behavior or performance. More on this in a later suggestion Realistic means the goal needs to be within reach and relevant to your life purpose. Having a goal of jumping to the moon in 30 days may meet the other criteria, but it isn’t likely to happen. Time stamped is straightforward. Have a date or identify a length of time you plan to achieve your goal by/in.
Make Objectives, Not Goals - When creating a goal, it can seem overwhelming to look at the final product. It is better to identify a set of objectives to reach that goal. For example, you need to go from floor 1 to floor 2 and there are 12 stairs to get up there. Each stair would be an objective and the goal would be getting to floor 2. It is much easier to go up one stair opposed to 12, so focus on one at a time and eventually you will see yourself on the second level. If you want to workout 5 days per week for 30 minutes, start with 2 days/week for 15 minutes for 2 weeks then up that to 3 days/week or up the length of time you work out. If you want to be working out 5 days/week for 30 minutes in 3 months, simply break down the objectives so that in 3 months you will be at the 5 days/week for 30 minutes. For example, week 1 start at two days/week for 15 minutes, week 3 for three days/week, week 5 for four days/week, week 8 for five days/week, week 10 do 5 days/week for 20 minutes, and by week 12 (3 months) you can be at your goal.
Approximate a Behavior - If you have a goal to change a habit or add a new habit and find it difficult to achieve, then just try your best. Not in general, but literally just aim for the best you can. This is like having objectives as discussed above. If you wish to quit smoking but feel it is impossible to do so, then approximate the behavior of not smoking best you can. For example. If you smoke a pack a day, then simply smoke 1 or 2 less than a pack a day for a period. Keep slowly decreasing this until you get down to two cigarettes and then can much more easily cut down to three. If you want to drive again after being traumatized by a car accident, start as close to that behavior as you can. If you can’t drive on the freeway, can you drive on surface streets? If not on surface streets, can you start by being a passenger in the car? If not that, can you just drive the car to the store on the corner and back? If you must, start with just sitting in the car in the driveway for 15 minutes, then after a while start the car and sit there, then drive to the end of the driveway and reverse back, then to the corner store, etc. Just do what you can, and you will normalize the behavior a little bit at a time until you reach the full goal.
One Day/Step at a Time - This is a saying that is often use in self help groups like AA/NA, but it applies for everyone. If you have a goal that is difficult to do, just focus on the next step. Don’t worry if it is hard to go to the gym 3 days a week, just worry about going today and tomorrow you can try again. Break it down even further if you need to. If it is difficult to think of waking up in the morning and going to the gym, then make your goal to simply wake up and put on gym clothes, and the next goal is to just drive to the gym. You still don’t have to work out, but if you are parked at the gym it is going to be a lot easier to go into the gym if you are already there. Similar to approximating a behavior, you can do this backwards too. For example, if you need to quit smoking just worry about today, and if you can’t quit then just make your goal to put a cigarette out before you smoke all of it and not to try and avoid them all together. A little at a time to reach a goal is better than not doing it.
Allow “Failure” - Schedule in opportunities to not follow though so you don’t always feel like you failed. If your goal is to diet and you say 1400 calories a day, give yourself a bank of 200 or 300 calories that you can use throughout the week. In case you want to celebrate a b-day with cake, or you are just a little hungry. We are humans, not robots. Or if you schedule to workout Monday, Wednesday, Friday then know that if you wake up Monday and don’t feel like it you don’t have to “fail”. You have the weekend as make up days if you need them. Don’t back yourself into a corner, allow a buffer for any goal you have.
Repat, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat - What you put your attention on takes up more space in your thoughts and day, and what you practice you get better at. Changing habits and behaviors, or adding a new habit, takes practice. It may seem difficult or even impossible at first, but you have to repeat as often as possible. Your brain literally creates new physical pathways when you learn new things and change behaviors. If I were to say to meditate for 20 minutes you may think it is impossible, but practice is how anyone gets there. I meditate 20 minutes daily, but I started at 30 seconds about 10 years ago. People can do things you feel you can’t because they practice and repeat. When you get into a car one of the first things you do is put your seatbelt on. You don’t think about it or plan it out, it is an automatic behavior. This is because you have done it over and over for years. You used to have to be motivated and told to do it, but eventually it became and automatic response to getting into a car. Habits can be created through repetition, be patient.