Sticking to your goals

Originally written for, published 31 December 2016


We’ve all done it – looked back at the end of the year and wondered where all that time went and asked ourselves: “why didn’t I become that better version of me that I promised myself on January 1?”

New Years’ resolutions are big business and each year 92 per cent of us will fail to achieve our grandiose plans. What I’ve come to realise is that planning and preparation is key, small changes are more sustainable than big ones and relapses are normal.

Here are my tips for successful behaviour change:

Know your goal and your why

The reasons behind your goal must resonate with you to provide a solid foundation to establish your new behaviour and ensure success.

Extrinsic motivators (motivators that come from outside yourself, like looking good for an event or doing something for someone else) are usually less effective than intrinsic motivators in the long term. That’s not to say extrinsic motivations are ‘wrong’, they can be very effective in the short term, but ask yourself if it’s enough to convince you to stick to your goal.

Focus on actions

Your goal sets the direction and your why provides motivation and the impetus for change but to achieve your goal, focus on the behaviours you need to instil. Having a goal does not deliver results, it’s the consistent process of carrying out actions leading to the goal that’s crucial.

Small manageable steps

Break down your goal into a series of mini habits or behaviours that you can establish over time.

Our brains love habits and as much as 40% of our daily behaviours are based on habits rather than conscious decisions. That why it’s so hard to build new behaviours or break old habits.

According to Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, habits are simple cue-routine-reward loops designed to save effort. It works like this:

  • We get an external cue that spikes brain activity and we decide on the appropriate action.
  • The action we’re used to performing when we get this cue is performed.
  • We get a feeling of reward or success as our brain registers the completion of the action and the link between the cue and the routine is reinforced.

We make these cue-routine-reward loops because our brain is always looking to save energy. The basal ganglia part of the brain programmes repetitive behaviour so we don’t need to consciously think about it. It often overpowers the prefrontal cortex, that part responsible for conscious, reasonable decision making. The prefrontal cortex uses more energy and is easily tired so going along with a habit is easier, we don’t have to ‘think’ and it frees up space to focus on other things.

Picking small, easy changes eliminates perceptions of difficulty and helps protect you from exhausting your prefrontal cortex with all that reasoning.

One change at a time

It’s said you can handle up to  three new habits at once, but why make it harder on yourself? Choose one change, commit to it and when that habit is ingrained, add another. Committing to too many changes at once is overwhelming, drains your prefrontal cortex and makes it easier to slip back to old ways.

Choose keystone habits

If you can’t decide what your one change should be, look for a keystone habit – that is, something that can pull the rest of your life in line. For example, writing down your food could kick off more mindful eating, better food choices, more organised shopping and better cooking habits.

Avoid life changing transformations

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of making big, dramatic life changing transformations but this is sure to lead to failure. Stick with small lifestyle changes that are easily repeatable. As these new behaviours are so easy and reasonable to do each day, you’ll be more consistent, helping you to create and reinforce new cue-routine-reward loops.

Redirect cravings

Interrupting your cue-routine-reward loop is tricky as it’s not only your auto-pilot behaviour but your brain gets attached to the reward you feel at the end of the loop. Instead of resisting that craving for reward, redirect it – keep your cue the same but change the routine to reap the reward. For example, getting in the car has always been your cue to have a cigarette. Keep the cue (getting into your car) but find something to change the routine, like have a water bottle handy to rehydrate. You’ve changed the routine and can feel good about the successful completion of your new action.

Environment is important

If you’d like to be more positive, surround yourself with positive people. If you’d like to eat healthier, ensure you have healthy options around you. An environment that makes it easier to establish your new habit will make it easier for you to succeed.

Be mindful

We know that up to 40 per cent of our actions are on auto-pilot but when we bring an awareness to our thoughts we open up choices for ourselves like the choice to not believe or identify with the thought. Without awareness we fall back into old habit loops.

Slips up are not failure

Missing your new habit once has no measurable impact on your long-term success. Give up the all-or-nothing approach and remind yourself that things come up, it’s not the end of the world and get back on track. Make plans to accommodate disruptions if you know they are coming up. Remember that slips are inevitable, it’s not a failure, just a part of the process.