It’s a good idea to set goals at the beginning of the year. In fact, research shows that people are more motivated to make changes at the start of a year, a month or a week. Beginnings encourage us to muster our focus and resolve.
But research also shows that we’re unlikely to persevere unless we anticipate and plan for obstacles ahead of time, says Benjamin Converse of the University of Virginia. If the goal is to lose weight, for example, we might need to carve out the time and money to plan meals and grocery shop for healthy ingredients in order to maintain a home cooking routine.
How can we keep our good intentions alive, without quitting our goals and feeling worse about ourselves than before we started? Success is not necessarily a reflection on who you are as a person, says Ayelet Fishbach, professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Success can depend on being at the right place and time with the right people.
To help you along, we offer some advice from Independence Blue Cross Medical Directors Reetika Kumar, MD, FACP and Ryan Connolly, MD, MS; as well as academics who have researched the science of motivation.
1. Set positive and realistic goals.
“It’s actually very hard to just stop doing something, particularly when it has become a habit,” says Dr. Connolly. A key approach is to commit to a positive habit that’s incompatible with the one you’re trying to get rid of. So, instead of deciding to “stop lazing in bed every morning,” it is much better to decide to exercise every morning at 7am. “It’s very hard to lie in bed while exercising!” he adds.
In addition, it’s important to set realistic goals, says Dr. Kumar. “Don’t set yourself up for failure. Losing the 20 pounds you’ve gained in the past year can’t be done in a month, but maybe a 1-2 pound a week goal will keep you going.”
2. Monitor your progress and see where you are at the midpoint.
If you need to adjust your goals, have the flexibility to do so. To-do lists can be helpful when one item motivates you to do the next one but keep sight of your priorities. University of Virginia professor Leidy Klotz has found that it’s often more important to remove items from your list than to add new ones.
3. Don’t work at cross purposes.
Make sure your rewards don’t sabotage your goals, Dr. Kumar says. “If you’re trying to lose weight, have your reward be a new pair of jeans rather than an all-you-can -eat buffet at your favorite restaurant.”
4. Seek social support.
Surround yourself with people who can help you succeed. Find a buddy who shares your goals and can keep you motivated, Dr. Kumar says. An accountability partner can help you stick to your goals.
5. Pair the hard work with something you like to do.
Based on the work of behavioral scientists Katy Milkman, Julia Minson, and Kevin Volpp, the technique of bundling temptations recognizes that we struggle to do what’s distasteful in the moment, but we can reach our goals by relying on short-term gratification rather than willpower.
If you find it hard to exercise, for example, pair it with listening to your favorite music or podcast. Need to stop putting off studying? Reward yourself with a favorite TV show if you finish by 9:00 pm. Don’t feel like raking leaves? Challenge a family member to a competition and the winner gets to pick the evening movie.
The goal is to “take the fun that might typically distract us from our goals and use it to transform an obstacle into an enticement,” Milkman says.
For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.