By Brittany Doohan
Setting a goal is easy — making it last is the real challenge. No matter what the goal is — losing weight, quitting smoking or starting a new hobby, like learning the guitar — after a few days, a few weeks or a few months, most people call it quits.
So why is it so hard to stick to your goals? Read on to discover eight goal-killing mistakes you may not know you’re making — and what you can do to succeed.
Do you have a long checklist of goals you want to achieve? Resist the urge to get started on all of them at the same time.
“Being ambitious is great, but trying to do too many things at once can make you lose focus” said Margie Warrell, executive life coach, media personality and author of Find Your Courage: 12 Acts for Becoming Fearless in Work and in Life. Setting out to accomplish multiple goals concurrently (like learning a new language while training for a triathlon) can leave you feeling too overwhelmed to accomplish anything.
When you do decide on your focus, break it down into small, measurable steps. If your goal is to lose weight, don’t vow to cut sweets, alcohol and carbohydrates from your diet all at once. Pick one not-so-healthy indulgence to avoid (like your daily dessert) and slowly build healthier eating habits.
Are you pledging that this will be the year you’ll eat better, relax more or be happier? The less specific your resolution is, the less likely you are to fulfill it, said Meg Selig, licensed professional counselor and author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success. A specific resolution, Selig said, sets you up to take concrete steps toward reaching your goal.
So instead of resolving to relax more, jot down activities that relax you, like taking a bubble bath, doing yoga or reading a book. Then pick one and figure out how you can manage your time better to incorporate that activity into your daily life.
Lasting change takes hard work. Many people have trouble following through on their goals because they’re not 100% committed to the goal they’ve chosen.
“A common [resolution] mistake is trying to change something that you don’t really want to change,” said Selig.
Are you vowing to eat more kale because you read that you should? Or to hit the gym every day because that’s what your friends do? A resolution that forces you to do something you detest (or deprives you of something you love) will leave you constantly frustrated, and will make you less likely to stick with it long-term. Rather than picking a goal that you feel like you should, have to or must do, try to come up with something that you want to do, said Selig. “When you have that deeper sense of purpose, it compels you to dig deep when the going gets tough and stay the course — no matter what hurdles you have to jump,” said Warrell.
You may feel discouraged after cheating on your diet with a cookie at lunch, but that doesn’t mean you need to wave the white flag of surrender on your resolution. Too often, we equate a temporary setback with total failure, said Warrell. Slip-ups are inevitable; you’re not perfect! It’s how you respond to those setbacks that help determine whether or not you’ll be successful in achieving your goals long-term.
If you’re tempted by sweet treats in the office, stock the fridge with your favorite fruit, or skip the break room until the cookies are polished off. “Reflect on the lesson your failure offers and make adjustments accordingly,” said Warrell. “Then tap your inner John Wayne: Saddle up again and climb back on your horse!”
A 2007 study from Dominican University in California found that people who wrote down their goals, as well as the specific actions they would take to achieve them, accomplished 76 percent of what they aimed to do. Those who didn't jot down their goals? They achieved less than half of what they'd hoped to.
When you write down your goals, it sends a message to your brain that you’re going to make your resolution a priority. “It helps you cross that existential divide from ‘I should change’ to ‘I want to change and I'm going to vow to do it,’” said Selig.
You can’t do it alone. Your family, friends and coworkers play big parts in helping you reach your goal — or holding you back from it. Are you trying to cut down on alcohol, but your friends are religious about meeting for happy hour on Thursdays? Are you trying to quit smoking, but all of your coworkers take a cigarette break together? You may find you need to change certain aspects of your support system to have success, said Selig.
Suggest a weekly spa date or a group lunch instead of a happy hour, or a coffee break instead of a cigarette break, explaining to your friends or coworkers why you need to make the change. If you have to skip out on a few social gatherings while you’re solidifying your willpower, that’s okay, too.
“Temporarily put yourself in more healthy situations until your newborn habit gets a little stronger and you’ve developed some muscles,” said Selig.
If you can, involve your family and friends in your resolution process — it’s a great way to keep you motivated. Find a buddy who has a similar resolution, and check in with each other weekly to talk about your challenges and progress. Even if your loved ones don’t share your goal, their support can be invaluable in helping you stick to your guns.
It would be great if we could just snap our fingers and be slimmer, more toned or conditioned to love Brussels sprouts, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. But that doesn’t stop many of us from hoping that we can find a quick fix to reach our goals.
Quick fixes like carb-only diets or intense 30-day workout plans may promise fast results, but they don’t help you develop any long-term healthy habits. “It’s easy to get caught up in an initial wave of enthusiasm, sure that your efforts will meet with early success, only to come crashing down when they don’t,” said Warrell.
For real, long-lasting success, your goal needs to lay the foundations for permanent behavior change. Think of a plan or pattern that you could live with, not just for a few weeks, but far into the future.
And remember: Changing your behavior long-term takes patience. It takes an average of two months of repeated practice to establish a new habit or behavior, according to a study done by the University College London. Once you’ve found a healthier lifestyle you can stick with, you’ll be flaunting that beach body for life, not just for the summer.
When you make a resolution, it’s easy to constantly be looking forward, thinking about what you have to do to accomplish your goal. But it’s also important to give yourself a pat on the back for the smaller successes along the way — you deserve it!
A small daily, weekly or monthly reward can help you emphasize the progress you’re making, said Selig. Reward yourself with a spa day after a month of daily exercise, or buy that jacket you’ve always wanted when you shed your first five pounds. If you have something to look forward to, you’ll be that much more motivated to keep pushing forward!
Published on December 27, 2012. Updated on December 14, 2015.
Brittany Doohan is a health and lifestyle writer living in San Francisco.