The Science of Goals: Think BIG, Act SMALL

Everyone has goals

We move through life with intention. It may conscious intention or unconscious, but we are a goal-oriented species with a bias for progress. 

Sometimes our goals are as slight as making it to the end of another business day. Sometimes they are grand. But we have all undergone the process of goal setting and, most likely, we have all failed at one time or another. Most likely we have failed numerous times.

…the time you scratched out New Year’s Resolutions on the back of a napkin while trying to drown self-loathing and a hangover with eggs and grease.

…when you were dragged into a “team building” exercise at work or forced to sit down with your manager to establish performance targets with metrics.

…the constant “I have to lose weight” or “I need to get my shit together” or “I really need to manage my money like an adult” realizations that swamp us daily, and that we respond to with a setting of the brow, clenching of fists and moment of resolve.

These are all goals. But chances are you never actually went through a process of identifying, clarifying and game-planning for them. You just…wished. And then forgot about them until the wish occurred to you again.

To make things worse, we’re surrounded with “experts” giving us useless ideas about achieving goals.

“Aim for the stars and if you hit the moon instead, that’s great!”

No. Not great.

You were aiming for the stars. Hitting the moon is a consolation prize. They give you the small stuffed animal at the fair for that shit, not the big one. Check out the math on this brilliant recommendation:

I’m supposed to be happy with that? That’s the kind of nonsense that sounds good only because, to us, feet on the Earth, reaching the moon would be pretty cool! But not if you’re aiming for Mars.

It’s the equivalent of setting out to run 100 miles and STOPPING AFTER TWO BLOCKS!

That’s like saying, “Go for losing 100 pounds! If you only lose AN OUNCE, that’s amazing.”

When you fail to reach your goals, the statistical likelihood is that it was a failure of planning and execution, not of ability or low willpower. It’s probably because you heeded the above advice or some other unproven, sound-bitey slice rubbish.

You have the ability to be successful in your pursuits, you have ample willpower, when used properly. You simply need a structure that will allow you to experience and practice the full potential you already have.

You need strategy, planning, execution and support.

What would you set out to accomplish over the next year if you knew you had a 76% chance of achieving it?

Would you run a marathon? Lose 50 pounds? Learn guitar? Take a vacation to Barcelona? What would you do?

A recent study showed that people who have properly designed goals have a 76% rate of success. That’s huge. Can you imagine the changes you could make in your life over the next year if there was a formula for creating goals that resulted in as high as 76% success?

BUT.

BUT.

(Yes, there’s always a “BUT.”)

But there has to be a formula. You can’t just randomly and haphazardly come up with goals and expect to produce a result.

The group of people in the above-referenced study who achieved a 76% success rate had certain pieces in place that produced their success that other groups in the same study didn’t have. They seem common sense, but considering the rate of failure we all have when pursuing goals, maybe they aren’t.

Here, based upon research, are the components that need to be in place for success:

  • Your goals need to be specific and in writing
  • You need to have a clearly designed and specific action plan
  • You need weekly support to stay on track

Let’s dig in.

Methodology

One of the biggest reasons you fail with goal planning is that you don’t really have a clear process. You ad-lib it. Try that approach with college, at work, in fitness and it won’t produce significant and meaningful results.

Improvising is great in comedy because it produces laughs. This isn’t really what we’re going for with goal planning and pursuit. The whole point of improvisational comedy is that you don’t know what’s coming next and the performers are always walking the tight rope of success and bombing. Improvisation in goal planning will produce the same thing, but it won’t be funny.

Mountains of research have been conducted into goal theory, goal contagion, goal shielding, willpower, social support. Thousands of studies in the fields of neuroeconomics, neuroscience, neurobiology, psychology, even biology and anthropology have produced incredible insights into the human relationship with goals and progress. If you want to be successful, you need to familiarize yourself with some of this information so that you can produce a research-based approach that will create results.

The process you are about to undertake is based upon research in these fields. We aren’t going to wing it. Here, in more detail, are the elements that need to be in place if you want to produce a 76% success rate like the people in the study.

Your goals need to be WRITTEN DOWN!

You need to write down your goals. Seriously, they need to be clearly defined, specific, and IN WRITING!

Studies show that people who have written goals are almost TWICE as successful as those who do not have goals written out.  Twice as successful. So, if your approach is to just hash them out and store them in your head, don’t bother.

There is something very powerful about writing them out and committing them to paper. I don’t know that the explanation on this is crystal clear, but the data is.

Human beings are a visually-oriented species. The visual cortex in the brain has the highest concentration of neurons of all the cortices. Why?

I have to read more into this, but I have a theory.

As primitive humans, our survival was based on what we could see, visually. We lacked technology, we didn’t have radar, sonar, GPS, the internet, Google maps, Google Earth, drones. We had to have visual awareness of the things we needed for survival, and the things that put us at risk; food, shelter, predators, safety.

When foraging for food we had to cover large swaths of territory daily, searching for sources of food. We had to SEE it to retrieve it. So, it makes sense that sight is our most neuron-rich sense.

Additionally, our neurochemical reward system is based on sight. When we saw a fig tree in the distance, our brain gave us a shot of dopamine that would motivate us to go get it, and when we retrieved the figs our brains would give us another shot. Our brains directed us toward food sources so that we could survive by manipulating and encouraging us with brain chemicals. All of this was dependent upon sight.

So, when we see our goals in writing, it cues our brains to seek them out. We pursue what we see, which is why it’s critical to have your goals in writing and review them daily or, at least, weekly.

You need to have a plan of action!

Can we discuss the Law of Attraction for a moment? This notion that you can visualize a Maserati in your driveway and it will appear at some point in the future is ridiculous. That’s called “dreaming.” People misunderstand the Law of Attraction. The universe, the world, America, they don’t reward thinking without action. So, while the first step is clarifying and visualizing what you want, there has to be action.

And there are benefits to framing a positive mindset, for sure. But let’s not confuse visualization with creation.

However, when you visualize a goal, put it in writing, engineer a specific series of action steps for achieving that goal (and get support), then it makes sense. It’s more of a Law of Creation, in that case.

So, a critical step in goal-setting and goal-pursuit is creating a specific series of actions that are recognized as being necessary for the achievement of the objective, and then executing them!

Action is critical. As is this next requirement…

You have to have support!

We’ve said it many times before; to be successful at fitness (or anything) you need to have knowledge (know what to do), a system (plan for doing it) and support (help in executing).

Research bears this out.

To quote researcher Dr. Gail Matthews, who led the goals study we are using as our model:

“The positive effect of accountability was supported: those who sent weekly
progress reports to their friend accomplished significantly more…

There was support for the role of public commitment: those who sent their
commitments to a friend accomplished significantly more than those who wrote
action commitments or did not write their goals.”

The study participants who checked in WEEKLY with a supportive friend around their progress were significantly more successful than those who did not.

You need help.

If you want to achieve success with your goals, you need a coach, mentor, support group or friend to check in with every week to make sure you’re staying on track, make suggestions and offer objective help. If you try to do this on your own, you will fail.

Nothing in your life is created alone. Nothing. Not education, not your profession, your spiritual growth, parenting, nothing.

And now, the process….

Having a goal is not a single-step process. You don’t just identify something you want and it appears. There are specific steps to follow in order to engineer a systematic process for the achievement of objectives and in our program, it goes like this:

  1. Identify a powerful 12 month goal you want to achieve
  2. Create a short-term goal that demonstrates progress
  3. Define daily and weekly action steps
  4. Strategize for challenges along the way

We’re going to go through each step in this process, and you will see that there are accompanying worksheets and videos to help you.

A note of caution; you may not get this down perfectly the first time. That’s fine. There may be a few revisions done until you nail down what you really want and what you really need to do to get it.

Version One is better than Version None. The key is getting started.

WATCH THIS VIDEO to recap what we have covered so far.

Here we go…

The Game Changer – 12 Month Goal

DOWNLOAD THIS SMART Goals Worksheet!

WATCH THIS VIDEO about creating your Game Changer

First, you need to identify your Game Changer goal, which is a long-term goal that you REALLY want to accomplish. Here are the important features of a strong Game Changer goal:

  • Give it a 12 Month time frame. It needs to be the goal that is on the horizon. Something you can see in the distance that you want to aim your ship toward. Long-term goals are often beneficial more because they give you something tangible for which to design an action plan and less as a source of motivation. Your brain can have difficulty comprehending time and staying motivated by it, but by crafting a good long-term goal and using it as a point in the distance from which to deconstruct a series of short-term actions, you can override this. You are then using the Game Changer as the point of origin for your plan, that’s it’s power. Outside of that it’s not much more than an idea. it’s not substantive. But it provides the end point for the action steps, which are the power of the program and ARE substantive, which we will discuss shortly.
  • Be specific. Generality is the enemy of progress. “I want to get better.” Okay, how much better? If you can’t measure it, it becomes difficult to quantify progress or success. There are over 1,000 studies showing that specific, challenging goals produce superior performance to goals that are vague or easy.
  • Think BIG. It needs to be something that matters to you, something you’ll fight for, something that will significantly improve your life and levels of happiness and make you proud.
  • HOWEVER, it needs to be realistic and you have to genuinely believe that you can achieve it if you apply the effort, fight for it and are prepared to deal with obstacles along the way. Research shows that it’s crucial to believe it’s achievable and that people who don’t think they can achieve a long-term goal, don’t. Research shows that having “realistic optimism” about your chances for success is critical to succeeding, and this isn’t just New Age, metaphysical, “power of positive thinking” gobbledygook.

Probably the most widely known and universally accepted theory in the study of motivation is something called Expectancy Value Theory. It states, in a nutshell, that people are motivated to do anything as a function of (1) how likely they are to be successful (that’s the expectancy part) and (2) how much they think they will benefit from it (that’s the value part). And of course the more motivated you are, the more likely you are to reach your goal. So it’s not just pop-psychology feel-good nonsense. Believing you will succeed really does make you more likely to succeed.”

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., author of “Succeed; How we can reach our goals

  • You need to identify and acknowledge the challenges you’re going to face along the way. Studies show that people who are cavalier about challenge fail and that people who genuinely recognize that they will face significant challenges along the way are able to prepare for those challenges strategically and mentally. This is a process called “mental contrasting.”

“Considering both what you want and what stands in your way will give you the clarity to make good decisions.”

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., author of “Succeed; How we can reach our goals”

Here are some examples of strong Game Changers:

  • “I want to lose 47 pounds.”
  • “I want to reduce or eliminate my medication.”
  • “I want to run a marathon.”

These are all specific, powerful and achievable within a 12 month time frame.

Note: We have had a number of clients at Arena Fitness eliminate or reduce their need for medications, but you should only aim for this goal with the support of your physician.

Now, identify the “why” behind this goal.

  • Why is achieving this important to you?
  • How will achieving this goal improve your life?
  • How will you feel about yourself when you achieve it?

Staying connected to the emotional reasons that drive your goals is helpful for keeping you focused and connected along the way.

Examples:

  • “I want to feel confident and proud in my wedding dress next year!”
  • “I’m tired of feeling not in control of my health and dependent upon medication. I want to feel in control!”
  • “I’ve always wanted to run a marathon and I want to prove to myself that I can do it!”

So, your formula for a strong Game Changer is to construct a specific, meaningful 12 month goal that would significantly improve your life and happiness, and that you truly believe you can accomplish if you work hard and acknowledge that there will be challenges along the way. Then, connect with why achieving it is important to you and how you will feel about yourself and life when you achieve it.

This is what you’re aiming your ship toward over the next year.

NOTE: It is generally recommended to focus on ONE big goal at a time. Multiple goals may end up depleting your energy and willpower or competing with each other for your focus.

The Stretch Goal – 3 to 6 Month Goal

WATCH THIS VIDEO about creating your Stretch Goal

Next, you need a Stretch Goal, which lies between where you are and where you want to end up, and assures that you are on track for success. Here are the important features of a strong Stretch Goal:

  • This is a 3 to 6 month goal that is a check-point on the road to your Game Changer. This is a goal that, in and of itself, would be an accomplishment. Something that you would need to “stretch” to reach.
  • Be specific. Again, progress can only be measured if it’s quantifiable, assuming you’re aiming for a quantifiable end result. There’s nothing wrong with aiming for general improvement as long as you don’t base your sense of achievement on being able to measure it speciifically.
  • It needs to be related to the Game Changer. If you have a weight loss goal but your Stretch is to be able to play your first song on the piano, you’re dividing your efforts and your Stretch is leading you on a path that is not directly in line with your big goal. Make sure that you break out a Stretch that is a fractional part of your Game Changer or clearly related so that, upon completing it, you will know that you are clearly on the path to achieving your Game Changer.
  • NOTE: I personally prefer the 3 month time frame because it gives me data as to whether I’m progressing properly early on in the process. Then, if I’m not, I can course-correct before I have veered too far off course.
  • It needs to demonstrate clear progress toward your Game Changer.

Your Stretch Goal is the “little brother” of the Game Changer. It informs you as to your progress and gives you a clear target for your Quick Wins (coming up next).

Here are some examples of Stretch Goals that are related to the Game Changers above:

  • Lose 20 pounds. If your Game Changer is to drop 47 pounds or reduce/eliminate medication, this Stretch is a clear demonstration that you are progressing properly.
  • Exercise 120 minutes per week at 60% to 75% maximum heart rate. This would be another option as a Stretch for reducing/eliminating your medication. If you hadn’t been exercising and want to be able to reduce your Type 2 diabetes medication, for example, this might very well be a great step in the right direction. Exercise helps you regulate blood sugar, so going from minimal or zero exercise to two whole hours of physical activity per week would be a huge step in the right direction.
  • Complete a 10k. If your goal is to run a marathon in a year, then completing a 10k in three or so demonstrates clear progress toward your objective.

Now, identify the “why” behind this goal.

  • Why is achieving this important to you?
  • How will achieving this goal improve your life?
  • How will you feel about yourself when you achieve it?

Staying connected to the emotional reasons that drive your goals is helpful for keeping you focused and connected along the way.

Examples:

  • “… so that I feel good about myself on my vacation!”
  • “… so that I know that I’m getting progressively healthier!”
  • “… so that I experience the rush of crossing the finish line!”

Next, my favorite part, the “engine” of your program!

Quick Wins – Your Daily and Weekly Action Plan

DOWNLOAD THIS WORKSHEET SMART Goals Worksheet – Trigger

WATCH THIS VIDEO about creating your Quick Wins

Once you have your goals in place you need a plan for achieving them, a process that delivers you to the end result. These are your Quick Wins; daily and weekly action steps that are the engine of progress. 

  • Quick Wins are daily and weekly actions that are the heart and soul of your Game Changer. They are the micro-commitments that will actually make your Stretch and Game Changer a reality. They are the engine of your program.
  • Your Quick Wins are the “boots on the ground” actions that will drive you to your long-term goals if you do them! They are where your power are! You can only control what you do RIGHT NOW, not 6 or 12 months into the future, so make sure that you set up easy-to-complete but relevant daily and weekly actions that are designed to lead you to the point on the horizon you want to reach in 6 to 12 months.

Long-term goals are critical, but only if there are action steps designed to lead to them. Simply focusing on a goal in the distant future isn’t effective unless your short-term actions are specifically designed to lead you there. This concept forms the basis of the “progress principle:”

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”

– Teresa Amabile

This “progress principle” illustrates the power of your brain’s reward system and how achieving small, incremental goals pushes you toward your long-term goal by harnessing the power of your brain chemicals.

“Collecting wins, no matter how small, can chemically wire you to move mountains by causing a repeated release of dopamine. But to get going you have to land those first few successes. The key to creating your own cycle of productivity is to set a grand vision and work your way there with a few, achievable goals that increase your likelihood of experiencing a positive outcome.

“Your vision is your destination, and small, manageable goals are the motor that will get you there,” says Dr. Frank Murtha, a New York-based counseling psychologist with a focus on investor psychology, behavioral finance and financial risk taking. “Without the vision you’re on a road to nowhere. Without the goals, you have a destination but no motor. They work in tandem, and you need both.”

Using the example above, your vision (destination) is your Game Changer, and the motor getting you there is your action plan consisting of your daily and weekly Quick Wins. Small wins, stacked up consistently, generate momentum and motivation and fuel you toward progress.

Keep in mind that your long-term, Game Changer goal has no substance. Hear me out on this. That isn’t to say that it isn’t a valuable and powerful objective, but it’s in the distance, it’s in the future, you can’t touch it, it’s just an idea! The strength of the Game Changer is in giving you something specific to aim for that is far away, and to give you an end-point for which to game plan effective action steps. But, on it’s own, a Game Changer is a dream. Without a path designed to lead you to it, it’s merely a wish, a cloud.

The power of your goal process is in the daily and weekly action steps, the micro-commitments that are in the here and now. They are the physical, tangible levers that will tip your forward progress incrementally, day by day, inexorably building momentum until it becomes an unstoppable, tsunami-like force.

A single pebble rolling down a hill is just a single pebble rolling down a hill. A million pebbles rolling down a hill is an avalanche.

Keep these points in mind when considering and creating daily and weekly Quick Wins; small steps, compounded over time, transport you over a VAST distance. This is the key to success.

Daily Quick Wins Keys to Success:

  • Be specific. As always, specificity is key.
  • Make them “too small to fail”. These daily action steps should be small. And when I say “small,” I mean “tiny.” And when I say “tiny,” I mean so small you’d be embarrassed to admit them to a friend. So small that, if you get in bed at the end of the day and realize you haven’t done them, you’ll get up and do them. They aren’t so big as to activate your brain’s stress response which will work against you. They’ll fit beneath the threshold for activating stress, so you’ll do them. And, if you do them, every day, your progress will slowly compound and build until it creates a massive result. But you’re not focused on the massive result! That will activate your stress response! You are simply focused on the tiny actions.
  • Rolling these tiny wins up will create momentum and build confidence. Eventually, daily practice of these quick wins will encode the behavior in your brain so that they become habits and run almost automatically.
  • 1% compounded growth on a weekly basis equals a 67% annual improvement. So, even small, incremental steps produce large returns over time.
  • Continual success with your tiny wins will activate your brain’s dopamine reward system. Read the quote again by Dr. Frank Murtha, which is above. This describes the dopamine reward system.

Here are some examples of Daily Quick Wins:

  • “I’m going to follow my meal plan every day!” If weight loss is a goal, having a supervised, expertly designed nutrition program is critical. Don’t put yourself in the role of nutritionist!
  • “I’m going to eat ONE serving of veggies.” If you are the kind of person who doesn’t eat veggies at all or only sparingly, then increasing your daily consumption by ONE serving is a great micro-commitment that is achievable. It will increase your intake of micronutrients and, hopefully, replace a serving of processed food or meat.
  • “I’m going to drink 2 glasses of water.” If you live on coffee, juice and soda, then increasing your water consumption by a glass or two per day will make a significant improvement on your health and is a realistic micro-commitment.
  • “I’m going to limit myself to one serving of processed food daily.” If you eat a lot of processed food then cutting it down by even ONE serving per day is a noticeable health improvement. Processed foods are clear contributors to obesity, overweight and all of their related diseases.
  • “I’m going to do ONE minute of exercise.” Don’t laugh. If you don’t do ANY exercise at all, this is a micro-commitment that can break your barrier and set you up to develop a long-term exercise practice. I have a daily commitment to 1 minute of mobility work and it has been truly transformational.
  • “I’m going to do 1 minute of meditation.” Meditation is phenomenal, but is not easy to start on your own. If you are willing to do even one minute of breath focus or download an app to help you, that’s great!
  • “I’m going to keep a food and exercise journal.” This only takes a couple of minutes per day, but research shows that people who keep a journal lose twice as much weight as those who don’t!
  • “I’m going to walk around the block.” If your goal is to run a marathon but you’re starting from scratch, this is a great way to take the first steps toward your goal in a way that won’t overwhelm or demoralize you.

Keep in mind, these are minimum commitments. That’s what makes them so powerful. You’re not committing to ONLY one minute of this or one serving of that, you’re committing to AT LEAST one. A lot of the time you may end up doing more than the minimum, but the minimum is small enough that you’ll do it every single day, produce continual forward progress, build a habit and improve.

Aim these micro-commitments, the daily action steps, directly at your Stretch Goal. After all, the Stretch is a shortened version of the Game Changer, and our objective is to hit the Stretch in 3 months or so. Once we do that, we can reset the Stretch and adjust our daily action steps accordingly as we steadily and unrelentingly drive toward our Game Changer.

Here are three options for effectively managing your Daily Quick Wins to make sure you do them every day:

Option 1 – Way of Life App

This app is great. It will enable you to track your daily habits effectively. You can set notifications and reminders. Very effective. But it’s not quite as systematic as one of the other two options.

Option 2 – “If…Then” Strategy

I’m going to cover this concept in greater detail when discussing how to prepare for obstacles and challenges as they arrive, but this approach can also be effective for the reinforcement of new behaviors. It basically goes like this:

IF this happens, THEN I will do this.

Here are some examples:

  • “If it’s 12pm, then I will meditate for 2 minutes.”
  • “If I’m making my morning coffee, then I will take my vitamins.”
  • “If it’s 6pm Monday, then I will exercise for 45 minutes.”
  • “If it’s 4pm Sunday, then I will meal prep for next week.”

You are priming your brain, in advance, to take a specific action when a trigger occurs. Your brain then begins to unconsciously scan for that trigger (IF) and automatically knows what to do when the trigger takes place (THEN) because you have prepared the script in advance.

Using the examples above, the time (12pm) or the preceding activity (making morning coffee) become the triggers (IF) that your brain has been searching for so that it can perform the predetermined actions (THEN) in response (meditating, taking vitamins, etc.).

Option 3 – Attach your new behavior to an existing habit

BJ Fogg is a behavior scientist and author, and the founder and director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab. He has a great formula for introducing and supporting micro-habits and it starts with attaching the new habits to an existing one, as follows:

After I (existing habit), I will (new daily quick win).

Here are some examples:

  • “After I finish my breakfast, I will take my vitamins.”
  • “After I finish my coffee, I will meditate for 2 minutes.”
  • “After I brush my teeth, I will have a big glass of water.”
  • “After I feed the dog, I will do the dishes in the sink.”

You take an existing habit that is already firmly entrenched in your daily behavior (breakfast, coffee, brushing teeth, feeding the dog) and add the NEW behavior to the end of it. You know you’re going to do the habits that are already in place, so they act as reliable triggers for your new, daily actions (taking vitamins, meditating, drinking water, doing the dishes).

Brilliant.

Now, on to your Weekly Quick Wins.

Weekly Quick Wins Keys to Success:

Next, you’ll build your Weekly Quick Wins. These are slightly larger chunks that work with your Daily Quick Wins to propel you forward.

  • Be specific.
  • Make sure they’re relevant to your Stretch Goal (which is relevant to your Game Changer).

Here are some examples of Weekly Quick Wins:

  • Meal prep for next week.
  • Limit dining out to 1 or 2 times.
  • Walk/run X miles.
  • X minutes of exercise.
  • Complete 50,000 steps.
  • Log X MEPs.

Your Weekly Quick Wins enable you to quantify actions that need to take place regularly but not necessarily every day.

Okay, the goals and action steps are in place. Now, what happens when you run up against temptation? If you don’t have a plan in place for that, you’re screwed. Do, let’s create a plan.

How to deal with Temptation!

DOWNLOAD THIS SMART Goals Worksheet – If_then

WATCH THIS VIDEO about dealing with Temptation

The best plan of action is susceptible to demolition when temptation presents itself. And it will.

You’re going to want to skip a workout. You’re going to be drawn like a moth to flame to shitty but delicious food. You’re going to be tempted to cut into your sleep time to catch up on Game of Thrones. Your unhealthy friends will try to lead you down a dark path.

It’s going to happen. And if you get caught flat-footed, without a plan, without a strategy for dealing with it, you’re going to fail the test.

Fortunately, there are proven strategies for planning ahead for temptation.

Strategy #1: Manage your environment

We are all greatly impacted by our environment; the people in it, the ideology and social norms, politics, social media, the things we surround ourselves with. Our environment is filled with invisible cues that impact our behavior. If you don’t manage your environment, your environment will end up managing you!

People

  • Pay attention to the people in your life. Are they supportive of you and positive progress or are they a negative drain on you? Surrounding yourself with negative people will deplete your self-control and open you up to potential failure. Have you ever felt exhausted after spending time with someone who is negative or whom you simply don’t like? You’re not imagining this.
  • Be mindful of the people in your life and surround yourself with advocates, with people who are interested in growth and positive progress. Studies show that “goal contagion” is a real thing. Being in the presence of people who are striving to achieve goals similar to yours has a motivational effect on you.

Places

  • Here’s a good rule of thumb; if you’re an alcoholic, don’t keep booze in the house. Remove temptation that could lead you away from your desired goals. Delete social media apps that distract you from your work, put your phone on airplane mode when focusing on a project, change your route home after work instead of driving by McDonald’s.
  • If you are trying to lose weight, don’t keep sweets, ice cream, soda and frozen dinners in the house. If you do you’ll eat them. Instead, manage your nutrition environment by stocking your kitchen with healthy food items that are consistent with your goals.
  • Place motivational cues around the house. Create an environment full of visual cues that encourage progress.

“If there are goals you want to pursue (losing weight, stopping smoking, remembering to call your mother, fixing up the house), are there triggers in your environment that will help your unconscious mind activate those goals? Leave healthy snacks out where you can see them. Leave a fitness magazine lying on the counter in your kitchen. Keep a to-do list, in big letters, someplace where you see it every as long as you fill your environment with them, you can count on your unconscious mind to start giving you a hand in reaching the goals you want to achieve.”

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., author of “Succeed; How we can reach our goals”

  • Prepare in advance. Keep your gym bag in your car, fill a glass of water and put your vitamins on the counter the night before so you’ll be ready to take them at breakfast the next day, meal prep, put your running shoes by the front door. These are all visual cues in your environment that will contribute to positive action.

Build an environment of success instead of temptation and you’ll put yourself in a much stronger position to succeed!

Strategy #2: Implementation Intentions

Remember in the Quick Wins section when we discussed the “If…Then” strategy? Well, this is incredibly effective for helping you successfully deal with temptations, obstacles and challenges when they arise.

Dozens and dozens of studies have shown conclusively that people have a much higher success rate with the achievement of goals when using the “If…Then” strategy, also known as Implementation Intentions or “pre-commitment,” than when they operate without it. By giving your brain a pre-planned response when a specific situation occurs, you program it to respond automatically and in a way consistent with your goals.

First, identify historical challenges that have presented themselves and interfered with your progress. Things like:

  • “I don’t have time, I’m too busy.”
  • “I’m a foodie, I like to dine out with friends.”
  • “My husband brings crappy food into the house!”
  • “I travel a lot.”
  • “I crave sugar!”

Then, take some time to brainstorm positive responses you can take when these challenges arise that won’t screw up your goal pursuit. What positive actions can you take?

Lastly, put the challenges and responses together in an “If…Then” format:

  • “IF I feel like I don’t have time to exercise, THEN I will do one minute of jumping jacks right now!” This may sound silly, but remember the value of micro-commitments and how they encode habitual behavior. You will be responding to the challenge in a positive way that disproves it and establishes a new habit.
  • “IF I know that we have plans to go out to dinner with friends, THEN I will eat in advance so that I’m not starving when I show up to the restaurant and overeat! AND, I will review the menu in advance so that I will be prepared to order something healthy!”
  • “If I know that my husband has the habit of bringing shitty food into the house, THEN I will talk with him in advance and ask him to either not do it or to at least hide it from me!” Guys, if your wife, girlfriend, husband is trying to lose weight and asks you not to bring shitty food in the house, be a grown up for God’s sake and help him or her out.
  • “IF I know I’m going to have to travel, THEN I will plan my food out in advance or keep a food and exercise journal while I’m away.” Studies show that journaling produces twice the weight loss and not doing it.
  • “IF I’m craving sugar then I will drink a big glass of water and delay gratification for 45 minutes!” Studies show that delayed gratification is very effective for overcoming temptations. Instead of denying yourself a specific food, just tell yourself that you won’t eat it now but that you can have it in the near future if you still crave it. Often, that future craving dissipates.

Strategy #3: Don’t rely on Willpower

In my experience, the most commonly cited explanations for a lack of success with fitness, weight loss and health revolve around a lack of willpower, self-control or discipline, all of which pretty much mean the same thing; an inability to stick to a plan. People think there’s something wrong with them that they don’t have ample willpower, they seem to believe it’s a character defect or a shortcoming.

This just isn’t true.

If your strategy for success is reliance upon a rock-solid foundation of willpower, you’re doomed. Willpower, or self-control, has been shown to be a finite resource. As with all science, there is debate within the community as to the details, but there’s an enormous collection of research to back up the notion that your willpower and self-control become depleted when consistently tested. New research suggests that degrees of motivation impact the susceptibility of willpower to be depleted, but what is pretty clear is that if you stand nose to nose with temptation over and over again, eventually you’ll crack.

Willpower is a part of your success formula, but it’s only a part. If you lead with willpower, you’ll crumble.

Every time you have to resist doing something you want to do or do something you don’t want to do, you draw upon your willpower reserves. Do that often enough and, like the battery in your smart phone, you’ll run out of power when you need it most.

Your formula for success should be clearly identifying objectives, crafting a specific action plan for achieving them, strategizing in advance of obstacles and preserving your willpower as a means of last resort. Willpower comes last, not first. Planning comes first.

Studies indicate that, like muscles, you can build willpower strength by undertaking small and progressing challenges. But, in the meantime, be judicious in it’s application.

Strategy #4: Forgive Yourself

You’re going to screw up. You’re going to stumble. It’s unavoidable. When you do, stop for a moment, take a deep breath, forgive yourself, and get back on track.

This isn’t just a touchy-feely, sensitive, New Age recommendation, this is critical. Research shows that people who are able to forgive themselves for missteps quickly and get back on track are much more successful in continuing to pursue goals to completion. Getting down on yourself, beating yourself up, making yourself feel shame and guilt for making a mistake tend to drag you into a succession of failures that can ultimately result in what psychologists call the “what the hell” effect.

We’ve all been there. It goes like this:

“I shouldn’t have had that piece of cake. Dammit, why are you such a f*** up? You always do this! What’s wrong with you??? Oh, what the hell, I already blew it, I might as well have the whole cake now!”

Shame, self-deprecation and guilt are not strong motivating forces, despite what you may believe.

Stop. Take a breath. Forgive yourself. Tell yourself you’ve been doing great, you stumbled for a second but you’re getting right back on track. And move on.

In conclusion….

We are most engaged in our lives, most fulfilled, when we are in the pursuit of something that matters. And when we are in the pursuit of “something” we need to be clear what that “something” is and how we can reach it. The absence of clarity and direction is like being adrift on a raft, floating in whatever direction the currents lead.

If you want off that raft, if you want to reach land, you need to have a process that rescinds navigational control from the elements and returns it to you. This process will do that.

Where do you want to be next year? What big change do you want to create? It’s well within your power. You just have to transcend simple desire and get into action.

Remember the components that need to be in place for goal setting success:

  • Your goals need to be specific and in writing
  • You need to have a clearly designed and specific action plan
  • You need weekly support to stay on track

Failure in the past does not dictate success in the future.

To quote:

“Across studies, intentions account for about 20 to 30 percent of the variability in goal achievement—that’s a fancy way of saying that about 70 to 80 percent of the time we have plenty of commitment, but we screw it up along the way.”

Stop screwing it up along the way.

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Jonathan Aluzas is co-owner of Arena Fitness, a fitness center that offers group training in Encino as well as personal training in Northridge.