Yesterday, in Part One, I talked about the importance of setting good goals. Indeed, developing the habits or forming the changes you desire will not be likely if you set the wrong kinds of goals, or try to focus on too many of them at one time. But, supposing you have followed my advice and set one or two very good goals – goals that are important to you, that get you excited – what are the next steps you can take to ensure that you actually achieve them?
I’ve found that there is a honeymoon period with any new endeavor, a time frame when a person’s excitement and motivation are at their highest because the undertaking is new, and newness itself is exciting. At least with health and fitness goals, I’ve found this period to last about three weeks. After that, the excitement wears off and the grind of daily life slowly chips away at motivation and any gains that have been made up to that point. But, if a person is able to use the energy of those first three weeks to do some important ground work and build a solid foundation, then even when the newness wears off and the issues of life loom larger, it is still possible to stick with the habits and changes desired to reach the goal.
This groundwork is simply a manipulation of the environmental factors you have control over. By arranging certain aspects of your life in certain ways, you can make it much more likely that you’ll stick with your new habits. These are little tweaks to the minutiae of your life, tricks and hacks set up to do the three things necessary to follow through with your goals: Remind You, Help You and Hold You Accountable.
Remember to Remember
One of the toughest parts about forming a new habit is simply remembering to practice it. Old habits have enjoyed years of rule, forming strong neural pathways in your brain that can make them seem “automatic.” But of course, we aren’t machines forced to follow the impulses dictated by our circuitry, so if we can just call up that good old human free will, we can often times change our behavior right there in the moment, forcing those neurons to travel down a new and different pathway. Do that enough times, and you’ve formed a new habit. So how can you manipulate your environment in order to remember your goals and target behaviors more often?
Living in the digital age of today, it’s never been easier to remind ourselves about a variety of things. No doubt, you already own a number of devices that you can use to send yourself little messages throughout the day. Using the example I mentioned yesterday – my goal of consciously thinking about and correcting my posture at least 20 times each day – I’ll be using a variety of things to remind myself to sit or stand up straight. Each morning, I’ll get a pop-up message on both my phone and computer at 8:00 a.m. telling me to remember to practice good posture. I’ll also include a few words about why I want to do this, for it’s important to remind yourself of your motivation often. I’ll use the native “Reminders” app on my iPhone and Macbook air for this, but there are similar apps for every brand of phone and computer on the market.
If you are really low-tech, you can simply use the alarm on a clock or your digital wristwatch to remind yourself to think about your goals for the day. Just set it to go off about fifteen or twenty minutes after your wake-up alarm, so that you don’t get confused and “snooze” away your reminder.
Throughout the day, I may set more alarms or reminders to prompt me to check my posture. I’ve changed the screen saver message on my laptop so that it queues me to sit up straight whenever it goes into power save mode. If I thought it would be more helpful, I could write myself actual notes on paper or notecards or sticky pads and leave them in places where I am likely to see them throughout the day.
Finally, I’ll ask Laura to prompt me to sit or stand up straight when she notices me slouching. Having a trusted friend or family member remind you in a non-nagging way is one of the most powerful things you can do.
Think about your day – where you spend most of your time, what your normal routine is, who you come in contact with – and set up your environment so that your attention is drawn to your target behaviors as many times as possible.
This tip is all about actually manipulating your physical environment to make it as easy as possible to practice your target behaviors. If your goal is to eat less junk food, then hiding junk food in hard-to-get places, or (better yet) not bringing into the home or office in the first place, are examples of how you can alter your environment to help yourself. If you want to work out more, getting the gear you need for the kinds of workouts you want to do, and then having that gear ready to use is another example. In my case, my sitting posture is much worse than my standing posture, so I’ve set up my office area to encourage better posture. I have a high desk and the only chair I use is a hard, round wooden barstool. This doesn’t allow me to slouch like I tend to do in more comfortable chairs, and it makes me get up and move around more often.
Give some thought to your physical environments, at home, at work, at the gym, and devise a few ways you can alter them to set yourself up for success.
Make the Grade
Probably the most important factor in following through on a goal is checking in with yourself frequently. Depending on the goal, frequently might be several times a day, or once a week, but if you find yourself nearing the end of the honeymoon period and you haven’t given yourself a performance evaluation yet, you might be in trouble.
Taking a few moments at the end of each day to review how you did is key for a few reasons. First, it keeps your goals present at the top of your mind, rather than letting them grow stale and get buried beneath other concerns. Next, it helps you to remember. If you had a bad day, where you forgot to work on your target behaviors, giving yourself a bad grade is likely to make you try harder the next day. Finally, checking in and evaluating your progress helps you make the inevitable changes you’ll need to make when things aren’t going as swimmingly as you’d imagined on January 1. Behavior change is very much a trial and error effort, but it’s not a haphazard one. You will need to act like a scientist, looking for the flaws in your experiment and making educated guesses about what changes you’ll need to make in order to get better outcomes next time.
I’ll be using the Tally Counter app (pictured at the top of the page) to track my daily posture reminders. At the end of the day, I’ll check my tally and see how I did. At the end of my first week, I’ll see how regularly I’ve been meeting my target of 20 check-ins per day, and I’ll assess whether it’s helping to improve my posture or not. If I need to, I’ll make adjustments at that time, and I’ll continue in this manner, checking in every day and at the end of each week, until I’m on a good roll, comfortable that my new habit is progressing just the way I want it to.
There is one other way that checking in can be instrumental to your effort, and you can think of this tactic as your secret weapon. If you check in not only with yourself, but also with other people, you will add an incredibly effective layer of accountability and a great big motivational component to your effort. By making your goals – and your progress toward them – semi-public, you increase the odds of sticking with them exponentially. Whether you’re engaged in fun competition with a group of friends, or you’ve joined a motivational support group, or you’ve just asked one trusted person to listen to your progress reports at the end of each week, having someone else that you feel accountable to makes your commitment more real to you. Not only that, but it gives you the added bonus of having another perspective on how things are really going and where you might try to improve.
If you have set good goals and you can create an environment that reminds you of them often, helps you practice the target behaviors associated with them, and holds you accountable, I guarantee that come February or March you will not be among the masses who have abandoned their New Year’s resolutions. Instead, you’ll know that, thanks to your SMART, hard work, you are that much closer to realizing your dreams in 2015.