The Last Goal-Setting Advice You’ll Ever Need (Because this Method ACTUALLY WORKS)

"I'd really love to read ANOTHER goal-setting article this year" — said NO ONE EVER

by Maria Kubitz

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Have you written yours yet?

Placed them prominently on your fridge to get yourself psyched and ready to tackle them as soon as Friday rolls around?

Are you giddy from the potent cocktail of excitement, hope and determination that they inspire in so many of us?

Go ahead. Soak up those good vibrations as much as you can.

Because come January 1st, you’re sure as hell going to need all the mojo you can muster to have even the faintest chance of turning them into reality.

A New Year’s resolution. It’s like the illegitimate child conceived when Best Intentions had a drunken one night stand with Unrealistic Expectations.

The resolution is born with so much promise locked inside.

Unlike all those previous resolutions, we convince ourselves that THIS time will be different. This year will be the one where everything magically falls into place.

Except it won’t.

Hate to burst your bubble, but New Year’s resolutions that involve a significant change in behavior are almost always designed to fail.

They’re too big. Too ambitious. Too vague.

Too. Much. Work.

If you’re lucky, you’ll make it to the end of January before you leave them broken and abandoned on the side of the road.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

What you need to do is rethink your approach to achieving behavior goals. (Notice I didn’t say “setting” goals.)

There’s plenty of articles on goal setting. Long-term goals. Short-term goals. BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious) goals. SMART goals. CLEAR goals. Shall I go on?

As long as goals are clearly (and specifically) defined, broken down into manageable steps, have measurable results, and a realistic timeline, it doesn’t really matter which approach you prefer.

What matters is that any goal focused on changing your behavior implicitly includes a huge barrier between you and success:

Habit. It’s a bitch.

Goals – by their very nature – require change. Humans – by their very nature – are averse to change.

Change represents the unknown. It’s dangerous. It can get us hurt. It can even get us killed. (At least that’s what your subconscious would have you believe.)

Habit is familiar. Predictable. Comforting. Safe.

And habit is damn hard to break.

Forget the 21-day habit-forming myth. Just ask anyone whose newly adopted habit has been sidelined by illness, tragedy, out-of-town guests, or any significant event that uproots the norm.

When the “honeymoon phase” of a new habit is over, you’ll hit rough patches that test your resolve. Reverting back to old, familiar habits feels safe – even if they’re not good for you.

The only way to ensure a new habit sticks is to make it second nature. Turn the desired behavior into something you just do without spending time thinking about why you should or shouldn’t do it.

It’s automated. Like brushing your teeth or doing the laundry.

And how exactly do we do that? There’s a few critical steps to forming new habits that will help us reach our behavior goals. Heck — they’re required.

1. Understand the science of habits

There’s a basic formula habits follow. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that for every habit, there is a three-part psychological pattern called a “habit loop”.

The habit loop

The cue – or trigger – activates autopilot mode in your brain, prompting a certain behavior (the habit we’re referring to). Based on experience, your brain knows the behavior will produce a predictable reward that it likes. Examples:

Morning routine (cue) = brushing teeth (habit) = healthier teeth + no painful procedures at the dentist (reward).

Strenuous effort required to exercise (cue) = finding excuses to avoid the physical pain and exhaustion (habit) = no more pain (reward).

Someone criticizes you (cue) = immediately putting your defenses up to protect yourself from the hurt you feel (habit) = no more perceived pain (reward).

See the problem? Habits often promote behaviors that prolong or exacerbate the very same pain our brain sees as a threat.

Our logical thinking puts forth the reasonable argument that embracing and learning from this “pain” is the only way to overcome it. But guess who always seems to win that argument?  You know it baby… HABIT.

Habit is such a powerful force because we do it when we’re NOT thinking. It’s instinctual.

2. Choose a new habit

Follow these guidelines:

  • Don’t be greedy. Choose ONE new habit/behavior to work on at a time.
  • Be reasonable. You’re not going to go from eating fatty, sugar-filled food to being a vegan overnight, or go from a couch-loving sedentary lifestyle to that of a triathlete in one fell swoop. Think of something realistically attainable. (Visualize Point A to Point B instead of Point A to Point Z.)  
  • Avoid vague generalizations like the habit of “eating healthier” or “being more active”. Be specific. Eating one meal with no meat each week. Trading one weekly 30-minute TV show for a walk to the end of the block.  

Then take a minute to look at the unwanted habit/behavior it’s replacing and isolate the trigger and reward associated with it. You can’t change what you don’t know.

3. Think small. Think baby steps. Think ridiculously easy.

Here’s where habits undermine goals, which usually spells certain doom.

Our logical thinking often bites off more than we can chew. It introduces extra effort into our normal routine. The higher the effort, the more motivation required to sustain that effort.

More effort + more motivation needed = perceived discomfort and pain.

Our subconscious brain rebels immediately.

We can’t rely solely on motivation. It will fail us every time shit hits the fan.

Instead, we begin a new habit by incorporating something so small and easy into our existing routines that our brain can’t find a good reason to poo-poo it.

Is your brain really going to argue over eating ONE meal without meat each week? (We’re talking 1 out of 21 meals!) How can it possibly complain about doing THREE measly sit-ups each day? The extra effort required to do them is so minimal, it’s not threatening.

I know your logical brain is screaming at me right now, saying, “What’s the point? How is that going to change ANYTHING?”

Oh, but it will…

4. Incorporate the stupidly simple new habit into your daily routine.

Here’s the catch. A new behavior habit can’t become second nature unless you make it routine.

Your new mini-habit must be done each day as part of your existing, consistent routine. You brush your teeth in the morning and before bed. It’s predictable. It’s familiar. It feels safe. It has a reward.

Same deal with your new habit. You need a consistent trigger and reward.

Choose a predictable point in your existing daily routine to serve as a trigger for your ridiculously simple new habit. It could be right after you get dressed. Or after you finish the dishes. Or after a meal. What the trigger is doesn’t matter as long as you do it regularly.

Then make sure you reward yourself each time you successfully do the new behavior. A mental “high five” or positive affirmation of what you’ll achieve by adopting the new behavior can suffice.

Consistent trigger + super easy behavior + predictable reward + routinely done = new second nature habit.

It may take a few months, but once your new mini-habit becomes second nature, your brain becomes accepting of the idea of adding to it. Three sit-ups are so easy, why not 10? One meal without meat is pretty easy; how about three? And so on…

So throw out your New Year’s resolutions. Tear them into little pieces and have a fire ceremony around their ashes.

Because we all know, shamelessly duping someone into doing exactly what you want, while convincing them it was their idea all along, is a great way to get results.

Especially when that “someone” is your very own brain.

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Maria Kubitz
With over twenty years in a successful marketing communications career at companies ranging from huge corporations like Hewlett-Packard to small startup environments with less than ten people, Maria has seen first-hand what works and what doesn't. In 2012, Maria launched a grief support website where her honest, heartfelt writing has helped ...read more

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