New Year’s Resolutions?

It’s that time again. Humans, by nature, are goal driven though I’m not a regular resolution setter. But I do use it as a time to reflect on how my year went and what I want to accomplish in the next year. 

Most people, however, don’t follow through on their resolutions. Only 8%, to be precise. I’m not surprised. We sincerely want to quit our bad habits, pursue our dreams and be our best selves, but when it’s time to work on our goals, why are we suddenly compelled to clean out the vegetable drawer – or is that just me? Our intentions are good but our follow through, well, sucks.

In the past, when I set goals, I used to think I had superhuman powers and put unrealistic demands on myself and my time – who needs sleep? I never questioned this approach and each time I felt like a failure because not only did I NOT reach my goal, I barely got started.

I thought I lacked discipline but the problem wasn’t me, the problem was my approach. I didn’t need iron-clad willpower, what I needed was a system that took me from planning to DOING. Action is the only way to build momentum and create new habits and I’ve discovered a few tools that helped me move through my fears and resistance to reach my goals.

But first, I’d like to talk about how our brain works. Our brains have 3 parts:

  • the primitive brain handles our survival instincts,
  • The limbic is our emotional brain and is used for building social bonds.
  • The neocortex is the thinking brain, used for logic and reasoning.

For goal-setting purposes, it’s important to know that when you experience fear or stress, the primitive brain is going to override the thinking brain. Every. Single. Time. It’s going to do everything in its power to alleviate that stress. My unrealistic plans triggered some fear and my primitive brain reacted, thus the overwhelming desire to clean the fridge. I needed a subtler approach so my brain worked for, not against me. The tools that work for me are: break it down, the 5 minute plan and low expectations.

The first tool is to break our goals into manageable tasks. Writing a novel is daunting, but if we break it down into chapters, pages or even better yet, paragraphs, it seems doable. In my previous process, to continue my writing analogy, I tried to jump from never writing to a finished novel overnight. It’s like expecting a baby that just learned how to roll over to start running. I was depriving myself of the learning opportunities in all those little steps and the habits and confidence they built. I finally realized that achieving a goal means growing into it, one step at a time.

The 5 minute plan is a another great tool to overcome resistance. I actually thought I could work 3 hours a night, 5 nights a week and another 16 hours on the weekend to work on my goals, in addition to my full-time job and everything else life threw at me. And I wondered why I couldn’t get started! Then a coach suggested I turn it down a notch and start with 5 minutes. It seems counter-intuitive, what could I accomplish in 5 minutes? Never mind I wasn’t accomplishing anything before

Here’s the thing, getting started is often the hardest part and 5 minutes is ridiculously easy and non-threatening (remember that primitive brain?), that it was easy to commit to. And if you know Newton’s First Law of Motion, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Five minutes is usually all I need to overcome inertia and get the ball rolling.

The final tool is lower your expectations. Now, I’m not saying lower your standards, always try to do your best. Just accept in the beginning your best might not be all that good. But in order to improve you have to practice. I read about a pottery teacher that did an experiment. He told one class that they would be graded on the quantity of pots they made. He told another their grades would be based on one pot. The class that was graded on quantity actually produced the best pots. Why? Practice! They were focused on the process while the one pot class was focused on the product. In the beginning quantity is more important than but will eventually lead to quality. It’s the process, all that practice that matters, not the product, which is just the end result. So quit worrying about how good it is.

Pursuing our goals is gratifying but the path is seldom easy. It’s good to have some tools that we can use that work with our brain to get us started as well as get us back on track if we slip into old habits when the novelty and excitement of our goal seeking wears off. The new year is right around the corner. I challenge each of you to apply breaking things down, the 5 minute plan and lowering your expectations to your goals and this just might be the year you join the 8% club!

How to Stay Motivated

How to stay motivated

Why is it 92% of us who make New Year’s resolutions abandon them before January is even over?

A new year means a new beginning. We reflect on how much (or little) we accomplished the last year and promise ourselves this year will be better/different. This year we’ll lose the weight, finish our degree, get a better job, travel more, etc. Our enthusiasm and optimism is running high – we are motivated with a capital M. But sometime before February 1 we start running out of steam, we are stressed, tired and end up falling into our same old habits and routines.

How to Stay Motivated

How do we keep up our enthusiasm for our goals in the “real” world?

  1. Come up with a compelling “why”. What is the reason for wanting this goal? To feel better, make more money, find a sense of purpose, be more fulfilled? It should be personal (i.e. something you feel strongly about achieving, not something your parents/significant other/boss/friends think you should do).
  2. Make it positive. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – make your “why” positive. You will be focusing on it a lot and it’s hard to stay motivated if your constantly pounding away at the negative. For instance, if your goal is to lose weight (even the word “lose” has a negative connotation), focus on the positive benefits such as better health, feel better, have more energy (your compelling “why”) instead of “I don’t want to be fat”. With the latter, fat becomes your focus and you’ll end up with more of it, not less! Examine your goal, if achieving it makes you feel like you have to deprive yourself, you need to either find another goal or get a different perspective on the situation.
  3. Envision the end result. Create a vision for life after you’ve reached your goal. Imagine what you’ll look like, how you’ll feel (joy, pride, confidence, peace, etc). The key is to make your vision as vivid as possible to tap into strong, positive emotions. I make it a habit to think about my goals right before I fall asleep because our minds are in a receptive state. Another way to keep your vision front and center is to create a vision board or post pictures on your bathroom mirror or fridge. The pictures you choose should evoke a positive emotion.
  4. Break your goal into small steps. Maybe your goal is to lose 50 pounds. That’s a pretty daunting goal – it can feel out of reach when you’re just getting started. Break your goal down. Commit to losing two pounds this week. Feels much more doable.
  5. Find a buddy. Find a friend who is working on goals (they don’t have to be the same goals) and check in with each other. First, having someone support you, cheer you on, bounce ideas off of and bitch to is helpful. Secondly, if you’re like me, I tend to find it harder to break a promise or disappoint someone else so I tend to step up my game.
  6. Celebrate the wins. Don’t wait until you’ve achieved your goal, celebrate all the small little wins along the way. Find ways to celebrate that won’t throw you off track or sabotage your progress (such as treating yourself to a donut when you’ve lost 2 pounds). It could be something simple like hitting the neighborhood park, watching an episode of your current Netflix obsession, indulging in a hot bath with candles and music, any little treat you wouldn’t normally do.
  7. Learn from the losses. There will be times when things don’t work out so well, maybe you backslide. Forgive yourself, learn from it and move on. Maybe it’s a sign you need to take a different approach. Maybe you’re pushing yourself too hard and need some downtime. But don’t use it as an excuse to give up. One slip doesn’t mean failure. It means you’re human.

 

Quit Depending on Willpower

Willpower is ineffective in achieving goalsThe American Psychological Association does an annual survey called Stress in America. The most cited reason for not being able to follow through on changes (such as losing weight) is willpower.

What is Willpower?

Willpower is self-control. The ability to delay gratification, a strong determination, or restraint. Willpower is a tool our conscious mind uses to help us control our lives. It carries a negative connotation – deprivation. It is an ineffective way to achieve goals.

Why Willpower is Ineffective

To illustrate why, I’ll share with you what I learned in my neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) training.

Willpower is an ineffective tool to changeThink of your mind as an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg, the part that is above water, represents your conscious awareness. In addition to willpower, we also use rational and analytical thinking as a way to control ourselves. Unfortunately, only about ten percent of what we do, we do consciously.

Below the water line lies the rest of the iceberg, our subconscious mind. This accounts for 90% of our behavior. Herein lies our habits, physiological systems (ie. breathing), impulses and emotions and our strategies for dealing with our world.

When we employ willpower to make changes in our lives, such as weight loss, we are only using ten percent of our mind. However, the other 90% is running the show. You are pitting logic (conscious mind) against emotions and deeply ingrained habits and strategies. As a result, willpower is always going to be a struggle.

If you want to elicit real, permanent change, you have to get your subconscious on board and leverage its power.

Imagination is More Effective than Willpower

There is a reason why diets fail and you have trouble breaking bad habits (habits of thought included).With willpower, you are in a constant battle with your subconscious mind. The odds are against you and your subconscious mind is going to sabotage your efforts.

Instead of having your subconscious fight you, (willpower creates stress by exerting force) you want to win it over so it will work for you. How do you do that?

Luckily, we have the perfect tool – imagination. Imagination is positive and affirming. Using our imagination diminishes stress and opens up our creative channels instead of strong-arming us into submission, like willpower.

Change in itself is often stressful. The key is to find the path of least resistance, make it as easy and fun as possible. Imagination and visualization helps us do that. There are a couple of guidelines to make this work:

  1. Know your “why” – what is motivating you to make this change?  What result or outcome do you want? Just because your spouse, boss, parent, etc said you should do it is not enough motivation and chances are you won’t succeed. Make it personal and meaningful to you.
  2. Make it positive – When you have your why, the reason you want to make this change in your life or why you want to achieve a goal, make sure it’s positive. When times get tough (and there will be some rough patches), your “why” is going to be your life preserver. It’s going to remind you of the big payoff of all this hard work. You’re going to be giving it a lot of focus, so make it positive. If you’re goal is to lose weight because you are tired of being called a fat slob, then all that’s going to do is dredge up bad feelings. And if you’re an emotional eater, next thing you know you’re shoving down donuts as a means to comfort yourself. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of losing weight – having more energy to play with your kids, feeling better, etc.

Once you determine your reasons for making a change/achieving a goal are truly yours and you are motivated to do it, you can enlist the power of your imagination and use visualization instead of willpower.

Note: Imagination/visualization are tools to keep you motivated and should be used in conjunction with action, not instead of. Without action, you aren’t going to achieve anything.

How do you use imagination to help create positive, permanent change? Find a (preferably) quiet place. Giving yourself time right after you wake up or right before you go to bed is ideal but you can do it anywhere – while on the train/bus to work, waiting in line, drinking your morning coffee, taking a shower, etc. Then use your imagination to visualize any of the following scenarios. Make it as real as possible, include sounds, smells, sensations, etc. Evoke as many positive emotions and feelings as you can.

  1. Visualize your life after you’ve accomplished your goal. If it’s weight loss, imagine how you will look in your new clothes and how confident you feel. Picture your new found energy, imagine just how much better you feel when you can climb up stairs or playing with your (grand) children without getting winded. Focusing on the end result will help keep you motivated.
  2. Mentally rehearse. Our brains don’t distinguish between real and imaginary events (which is why our bodies react to imaginary fears as if they were really happening). Athletes employ this technique all the time but it can be used for any situation. You can rehearse a speech, visualizing yourself in front of the crowd, appearing confident, enjoying yourself.
  3. Vent your emotions.Change is hard and one of the things that trips us up is our impulses and emotions. And since what we resist, persists, give them a voice and acknowledge them instead of burying them. If you don’t, eventually they’ll rear their ugly little heads and the littlest thing will push you over the edge. Instead, invite all those emotions in – fear, jealousy, doubt. You can give them names and personalities. Let them have their say and vent. You can do this in your head or you can write it out in a journal, which is my favorite method. The point is, acknowledging them diffuses their power.

When you use these tools, you’ll achieve your goals with less stress because you’re leveraging your subconscious mind with the power of your imagination instead of trying to force yourself through willpower. In other words, which would you prefer, a boss who is a drill sergeant or someone who acts more like a mentor?