“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I feel like I’ve been repeating this statistic all over the place these last couple of weeks, but I don’t mind because I think it’s such an important number: 92 percent of people who set New Year Resolutions fail to accomplish them (1).
You might interpret this as a result of weak will or plain laziness, but in most cases it’s more about the goal setting strategy itself.
And the problem with not having a target (as any decent archer will tell you), is that you will never hit it.
So this year, I suggest we take a smarter approach. Let’s find out specifically what we want, break it down into manageable pieces, and create sustainable habits that will take us all the way to completion without going crazy in the process.
[Note: Make sure to read all the way through this article to download your free copy of The 2016 Goal Setting Workbook that will take you step-by-step through each of the steps outlined below!]
Goals vs. Habits
Man, setting goals feels GOOD. You get to envision what you’d like your life to look like and in the process of writing it down, you can almost taste what the end result would look like. This, in turn, leads to that awesome feeling of burning excitement and you can’t wait to get started. It’s no wonder gym’s see a massive spike in attendance at the beginning of the year.
But, as we all know too well, that initial feeling soon wears off and within a matter of weeks (or days), your goal starts feeling like a grind. And as the initial inspiration fades and disappears, so does the people in the gym.
As I’ve written about in The Science of Willpower, self-control is a limited resource. And this is why we run into problems when we focus on goals instead of creating the underlying habits that will support those goals. Eventually, we will run out of inspiration and willpower, and when we do, we’ll quit.
So if you are serious about creating truly lasting change this year, use your initial inspiration wisely. Create a plan for the specific habits you’ll need to implement to reach your goal. Then forget about your goal and instead start focusing on showing up every day. If you just trust the process in this way, the results you desire will inevitably show up as a side effect.
Let’s get started!
Step 1: Uncover Your ‘Keystone Habits’ by Using the ‘Wheel of Life’
One fact that is important to realize is that some habits are better than others because of their tendency to ‘spill over’ and create positive effects in other areas of life. These ‘keystone habits’ (2) are a great place to start because once implemented, they make other habits much easier to adopt.
Examples of keystone habits typically include proper sleep, exercise, eating healthy, meditation, reading and socializing. A helpful framework for uncovering your personal keystone habits is the wheel of life:
Take a moment to rate yourself in all of these areas on a scale from 1-10. Then consider what habits you would need to adopt to make it a 10. Write them down.
Finally, pick 1-5 habits that you think are most likely to be your keystone habits. These are the habits we’ll get to work on first.
PRO TIP: Feel free to add different categories to the wheel if you want. The wheel above is a good place to start but if you feel like something meaningful is missing, go ahead and add it in.
Step 2: Create S.M.A.R.T. Goals & Habits
You may or may not have heard of this acronym before. If not, it stands for:
- Specific – What exactly is it that you want to achieve?
- Measurable – How will you quantify and measure your progress?
- Action-Oriented – What will be your minimum daily (or weekly) quota for this goal?
- Realistic – Is your goal challenging enough to inspire you but still possible to achieve?
- Time-bound – By when do you want to achieve this goal?
The S.M.A.R.T. framework is a very handy tool for creating effective goals and is used in therapies such as CBT. In this step, we’ll be using it to transform any ambiguity into very specific and actionable targets.
Take each of your habits from the previous step and walk them, one by one, through the S.M.A.R.T steps. Create your long-term goal and the habit (minimum daily or weekly quota) that will get you there.
Let’s say you’ve decided to pick exercise as one of your habits. After going through the S.M.A.R.T. framework your exercise goal should look something like this:
‘By December 31st, 2016, I will walk 10,000 steps every day. To get there, I will start by walking 3,000 steps this week and increase this quota by 200 steps each week after that.’
Do you see how much practical difference this has compared to the vague intention of just ‘getting fit this year’? Having something measurable to aim for every day reserves your mental energy and helps you build the momentum necessary to start making this new behavior so automatic you won’t have to rely on willpower to get it done every day.
PRO TIP: For most people, it’s much more effective to start with a really small daily quota and then increase the difficulty as the habit gets more and more automatic. Usually, getting started is the hardest part so consider committing to a really tiny habit when you’re just starting out. You can always adjust it later.
Step 3: Find Helpful Resources & Tools
In this step, we’ll look at the resources and tool’s you’ll need to effectively maintain your habits. Start by asking yourself where your knowledge gaps are for your habits and look for resources that can fill that gap.
To stick with the previous example of walking 10,000 steps every day, you might want to do a google search for ‘10,000 steps’ and learn more about how to effectively get started with this habit, how much calories you can expect to burn, if you need to stretch, if it’s okay to walk when you have a cold, etc. Knowledge in a topic builds confidence, so make a point of educating yourself in what you’re trying to achieve.
Also, take a moment to consider what tools and equipment would be helpful. For walking, this could mean a phone app or pedometer to track your steps, Runkeeper to track the distance you cover, walking shoes, a good podcast or audiobook to listen to etc.
PRO TIP: For further resources and tools on behavior change, join my newsletter.
Step 4: Design Your Environment
As I’ve written about many times before, your environment has a huge influence on your behavior. Because of this, it’s crucial that you take the time to deliberately design your environment to support your new habits.
Psychology professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has a clever and intuitive way of explaining how this works: All of your behaviors require a certain amount of ‘activation energy’ to get started. The larger this amount of activation energy is, the less likely you’ll be to perform the behavior, and vice versa:
“If a person is too tired, anxious, or lacks the discipline to overcome that initial obstacle, he or she will have to settle for something that, although less enjoyable, is more accessible.” (3)
So what you need to do is simply to change this ‘activation energy’ of your behaviors by:
- Make your desired behaviors as easy as possible.
- Make you unwanted behaviors as hard as possible.
In our example, this would mean making walking as easy as possible and all other competing and unwanted behaviors as hard as possible. For example, you could do this by having all your equipment readily available (shoes by the door, podcasts downloaded and pedometer ready to go) while at the same time making competing behaviors harder to fall into (put car keys and/or bus card in the garage).
You get the idea: proactively design your default environment in a way that promotes your habits as much as possible.
PRO TIP: Create an evening routine in which to prepare your environment to support your habit the next day.
Step 5: Get Accountability
We’ve all experienced the powerful effect a little bit of external accountability can have on us. It’s one thing to skip the gym and sleep in if no one else knows what you’re doing, but it’s a completely different story if you know your trainer or workout partner is expecting you to show up.
For most of us, promising ourselves that we’re going to do something simply doesn’t provide enough incentive to actually follow through. The immediate consequences for slacking off just aren’t big enough to get us moving.
But as soon as you involve other people in your goal, the game changes. Now your identity is on the line, and no one wants to be perceived as the kind of person who commits to something publicly and then fails.
This is the reason why teaming up with a coach, mentor, trainer and/or accountability partner or group is so effective. Knowing that you have someone to report back to that can provide you with encouragement (and, if necessary, some gentle reminders that you’re not delivering what you said you would) is a very powerful way to change your own behavior.
Step 6: Create Your Rewards & Consequences
A lot of my clients have a hard time rewarding themselves for their efforts. This is usually because they feel like they haven’t done more than what’s expected of them and since they haven’t put in an extraordinary effort, they don’t really deserve a reward. After all, what’s the point of celebrating an average performance?
But that’s not the point. You’re not celebrating because you’ve made some huge achievement. You’re celebrating the fact that you’re taking steps in the right direction. And this is a very important part of reinforcing your good behavior.
Small rewards build motivation and momentum for the future. It gives us a sense of achievement and pride which in turn boosts our sense of confidence in what we’re doing. So make sure you plan out some nice incentives for making progress on your goal. If you want some inspiration for this, Leo Babauta has some great ideas on how to reward yourself without spending a lot.
In terms of consequences, a very effective strategy is to create a ‘commitment contract’. This contract should include the following:
- Your goal. The daily (or weekly) quota you want to commit to. For example: Walk 5,000 steps every day.
- Something at stake. Cold hard cash and/or your reputation. For example: Send a friend 50 dollars and/or let your social network know that you’ve failed by publishing a Facebook status.
- A referee. Someone that will hold you accountable to your contract. For example: An accountability partner or coach.
Share your contract with your referee and put it somewhere you will see it every day. If you’d prefer a digital contract I highly recommend StickK. This clever service created by economists lets you donate money to a charity you DON’T like if you fail. How about THAT for a consequence? 🙂
PRO TIP: Start a journal and start recording your small wins every night.
Step 7: Schedule It All
Next, your habit(s) NEEDS to go into your schedule. This is important not only because you’ll need a daily reminder when the habit is new, but also because it shows you’re serious about creating this change in your life. If this new habit is truly important to you, you shouldn’t have any problem listing it right next to your work deadlines or whatever else is considered a priority in your calendar right now.
I also highly recommend you start using a habit tracker like coach.me. This gives you a natural place to turn for some immediate reinforcement as you check off your habit for the day immediately after completing it. It also helps you stay on top of how well you’re doing in your habit creation efforts which is very handy when it comes to the final step of this process, namely:
Your weekly review. The main difference between people who succeed in creating sustainable change in their behavior and those who get stuck is the way they view setbacks. Most people see setbacks as discouraging failures and get tempted to quit. Successful changers see setbacks as valuable data to analyze so they can get better results in the future. If you want to create lasting change this year, this change in mindset is crucial.
So, how do you go about doing that? Once again, our schedule comes to the rescue. Schedule in a 30-minute weekly review for reflecting on your efforts over the last seven days. This will be the time you take for yourself to reflect on the past seven days to see what went well and what didn’t so you can adjust your approach in the future. If you can just stick to this weekly routine, you will inevitably find a way to create the change you want in your life through the not always glamorous, but highly effective, strategy of trial-and-error.
PRO TIP: If you don’t have a calendar, try Google Calendar.
The Next Step: Grab Your Free Copy of The 2016 Goal Setting Workbook
The best way to create big change is to plan while your inspiration is high so you have a system to fall back on for when you don’t.
To help you get started right away, I’ve put together a free download called ‘The 2016 Goal Setting Workbook’. This resource contains everything outlined above (without the verbal diarrhea) so you can easily walk through each of them step-by-step and create a massively powerful personal plan of action for the upcoming year.
When you do, you’ll also get immediate access to my popular e-book ‘The Science of Willpower: Proven Strategies to Beat Procrastination & Get Big Things Done‘ + a bunch of other powerful resources and tools for creating lasting behavioral change.
Then get a cup of tea or coffee, put on your favorite music, and get to work on your goals and habits for 2016. One year from now, you’ll be happy you did. 🙂
- New Years Resolution Statistics
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The fabulous Sarah Moore for creating the amazing cover art for the workbook!