Change is hard, we all know that. Stress, temptation, peer pressure and lack of time conspire to keep you from building positive new habits. Sometimes it seems pointless to even try at all. But what if there was a simple formula that could guarantee success? You still have to do the work, of course, but having a system in place to guide you step-by-step can make reaching your goals so much easier.
The 5 Components of Goal Success
Regardless of what type of goal you have, it’s important to recognize that a goal is really just the outcome of a number of habits or behaviors which, if practiced consistently over time, result in that desired outcome. As such, breaking a goal down into those manageable pieces and following a few methodical steps is much more effective than trying to make vague, sweeping changes all at once. To succeed over the long term, it’s best to think small and hyper-specific over the short term. Applying these five components of habit formation to your overall goal will help you get results every time.
No matter how huge your ultimate goals may be, successful change happens one habit at a time. Within that “habit” are a number of actions you must either do or avoid doing every single day. For example, pretend that you want to lose 50 pounds over the next year – that’s your ultimate goal. In order to do that, you’ll need to change some of your old habits and form new ones. One of those habits might be to limit the number of calories you drink every day. Within that habit, there are a number of specific actions you can take (or avoid) every day in order to help you quit your old habit of consuming lots of calories from beverages like soda, flavored coffee drinks, beer, wine or cocktails.
Rather than just telling yourself you want to “drink less,” it’s much more effective to make up a checklist of actions you can tick off every day. The actions on our hypothetical checklist might include things like, Drink five glasses of water every day; Reduce cream and sugar in coffee by half; Reduce number of daily sodas from three to two; Limit weekly alcohol consumption to four drinks, and so on. As time goes on, you can adjust the specific parameters for each action to move you even closer to your goals. For example, after a week of reducing cream and sugar in your coffee by half, you might cut the sugar altogether and substitute low calorie almond milk for the cream. Or, once you’ve gotten used to having only two sodas every day, you can cut that down to one.
For many people, it’s most effective to focus on only one or two actions at a time. This may feel like painfully slow progress, but slow, permanent progress is much better than quick, short-term progress. Biting off more than you can chew will burn you out quickly and set you up for a relapse into old, bad habits.
The most important component of behavior change is motivation. It’s critical that you know the reasons why you’re doing a thing before you get started, and if you’re not doing it for the right reasons, you won’t stick with the effort. And, as I write in my weight loss book, those reasons need to be about you. Changing to please others, or even because you “know you should” won’t last for more than a few weeks. You need to identify up front what you are going to get out of this. How will losing weight (or whatever your goal is) benefit you? Will you be able to do things you can’t do now? Will it make you better at your job? Are you more likely to get more work, or a promotion, or a raise if you can improve in this one area? Will you sleep better, hurt less and enjoy life more? The more specific you can be, the greater your motivation will be. Write your motivators down and review that list often.
A trigger is something that prompts you to do an action. We have tons of triggers when it comes to bad habits. Right when I finish eating lunch or dinner, I want to eat chocolate. Finishing the meal and clearing away the dishes has become a trigger for me to eat chocolate. In order to change that action (assuming I want to quit eating so much chocolate), I need to re-pattern that old trigger. I can do that simply by associating a new action with it. When I clear the dishes, if I eat a 1/2 cup of blackberries or go for a walk around the block instead of eating chocolate, after some period of time, I begin to associate finishing a meal with eating blackberries or going for a walk instead of eating chocolate.
If I want to create a positive new habit, then I will need to set up some new triggers for it. Let’s pretend I want to brush my dog’s teeth every day, but I always forget to do it. I need something (a trigger) to remind me to do it. I think about my daily routine and decide that it would be easy to brush her teeth right after I brush my own teeth. In this case, this is a pretty strong trigger, because the target behavior is very similar to the trigger. “Brush my teeth” leads to “Brush Zoey’s teeth.” Not all triggers will be that relevant, but they don’t have to be. The only thing that matters is that you tie your new action to some other action or event that already happens every day.
I am super bad at remembering to brush my dog’s teeth. Even with my easy, relevant trigger, I forget to do it more often than I remember. I need some help here.
Fortunately, helpers come in many forms. They can be visual cues that remind you to do something, an actual reminder that you set up for yourself, or an accountability system you’ve put in place. In the case of visual cues, I could put Zoey’s toothbrush in the drawer where I keep my own toothpaste. Then, when I get out the toothpaste to brush my own teeth, I see her brush and remember to do that. Or, I could use a reminder, like an app on my phone that will ding at 8:00 every morning and display the message, “Your dog’s teeth are rotting. Brush them now!” Or, I could set up an accountability system by asking my wife to check in with me at lunchtime and see whether I remembered to brush the dog’s teeth. The more helpers you set up, the more likely you will be to follow through with your actions until they become habits. Setting up your external environment to support new behaviors takes some time at the outset, but it can save a lot of time and frustration down the road.
I’m kind of on the fence about this one, but rewards do make a difference for some people so I’ll mention them here. Personally, I feel that if you’re motivators are genuine and strong enough, then making progress toward your goal will be reward enough. However, if you want to throw a little party for yourself every once in awhile along the way, then go for it!
Remember that your rewards need to be small but significant (that is, they won’t leave you in the poor house, but they matter enough to motivate you) and they should never run contrary to your overall goal. For example, if your goal is to lose weight and you’ve hit your dietary and activity action targets every day for the week, you might treat yourself by going to see a movie or buying a new pair of shoes, but you definitely don’t want to celebrate your accomplishment with a piece of chocolate cake.
If one of your goals is to lose weight, you can get follow a proven step-by-step program and get lots of action-specific details in my book, Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss.