(Spoiler Alert: It's all in the strategy!)
By Amy Wood, Psy.D.
It's that time of year again for me and psychologists everywhere. The New Year is picking up momentum and our phones are ringing off the hook with calls from New Year's resolution enthusiasts who haven't been able to follow through on their good intentions.
Boomer Brief Self-Help Columnist Dr. Amy Wood
These disillusioned, depleted people meant business when they committed to working out five times a week, eliminating dessert, and getting out of debt.
Chances are pretty good that you are one of these people wondering how it all went wrong and what to do about it. Here's what you need to know to get yourself back on track: America's independence from Britain didn't happen on one hot summer afternoon in 1776.
Perhaps because we learn about historical triumphs from distilled, abbreviated versions of the long, drawn-out truth, we expect to achieve our personal goals in full, flawless sweeps.
For the sake of fitting our heritage neatly into textbooks and television shows, the false starts and frustrations involved in any kind of major feat are whittled down into deceptively tidy inspirational legends. As we strive to fulfill our individual longings, what we get when we look to our shared past for incentive is the misleading message that we should be able to accomplish our aspirations smoothly and speedily--without second-guessing or stalling.
Most of us living in the modern age are by our very nature ambitious go-getters with a healthy drive to better ourselves and our world by setting and reaching lofty goals. We hail, after all, from ancestors whose desire for greater liberty and opportunity led to the founding of countries, the collapse of stifling regimes, and countless time-saving inventions--from the automobile to the fax machine--that free us up for realizing the very dreams that beckon us. But experienced as we are at recognizing our desire and need to improve our lives and devoted as we are to enriching our circumstances, we fall utterly short when it comes to conceiving reasonable strategies for making those changes happen.
In our fast-paced culture, we conjure up perfectly legitimate dreams with the comparatively crazy expectation that we must realize our visions instantly. Somehow we believe that putting this kind of pressure on ourselves to perform will propel us forward. What happens, of course, is that we sabotage our success with goals so daunting that they trigger a fear and flight reaction. No way can I switch careers/paint my house/write a book/lose 50 pounds just like that!
We stop in our tracks before we even begin. Our aspirations are motivating, but our unreasonable approach--go from A to Z this minute!--is paralyzing. So we go back and forth between wanting something to happen and realizing we just don't have what it takes to make it happen now. Each swing of this pendulum seems to confirm that we must lack the guts, the brains, the willpower, the luck, or some ever elusive goal-manifesting power, when the only thing we're really missing is a sensible game plan.
Whatever you want to bring into your life, there's only one way to attract those things successfully, and that's one step at a time. I know you want to make dramatic strides and I wish I could help you, but breaking your goals down into manageable phases is the only way that really works.
Think about it for a minute.
All the skills and smarts you acquired as a child, before you started demanding on-the-spot results from yourself, came gradually. Very gradually. You learned everything from walking and talking to setting the table and riding your bike through a series of very small shifts and stages. You moved from writing your name to writing term papers, adding two plus two to figuring geometric theorems over the course of several grades, umpteen instructions, and a multitude of homework assignments.
You've advanced through academic and social lessons because the lessons were structured--challenging enough to be stimulating but not so challenging that you froze in fear at the very thought of advancing toward them.
Children have no issue with taking small steps because they haven't yet bought into the cockeyed logic of adult achievement that says small goals aren't worth the effort because they won't really get you anywhere. We adults have lost touch with what most children know: that we get the most done when we feel creative and confident, not when we feel overwhelmed and intimidated.
One beauty of a small goal is simply that it lets you get started--and getting started is crucial because that's when the magic happens.
Every masterpiece begins with a single musical note, brush stroke, or written word. It is the act of crossing that line between apprehension and creation that liberates your mind, frees your ideas, and lets your intuition take the lead.
Once that first step is in motion, the goal begins to manifest. Because the secret to starting is outwitting your fear, taking a stride so small that your inner critic sleeps right through it is the way to proceed. All you have to do to get going is decide on a series of steps so ridiculously, laughably, insanely doable that self-doubt doesn't stand a chance of getting in your way.
If you're like most time-pressed Boomers, you may think, "If I take small steps, it'll take way too long to reach my goals." I understand where you're coming from, but I want to assure you that, contrary to this false logic, taking small steps actually helps you achieve your goals more quickly than you ever thought possible.
With the satisfaction that comes from completing that first small step, you will feel more confident, motivated, and ready for step two, step three, and so on. Whereas big goals sap your strength and stamina by triggering draining emotions like anxiety and self-doubt, small goals encourage the positive emotions and energy that invigorate real growth and accomplishment.
The goal of cleaning your house may actually exhaust you more than the cleaning itself. However, that first small step of picking up three pairs of socks from your bedroom floor may be surprisingly inspiring. The big goal of finding a new job may send you into a panic, but a first step of placing a bouquet of flowers on your desk may nudge you toward feeling more worthy of a better career opportunity.
Get the Right Tools
Get the Right Tools
Something to keep in mind as you consider various goals you might want to take a crack at reasonably is that a primary reason people have trouble accomplishing their goals is that they don't have what they need--the necessary supplies or space or frame of mind--for the job. If your goal is to write an article, you'll need a computer and a comfortable, inspiring workplace free of distractions. If you want to learn to salsa dance, you'll require appropriate shoes and clothing. If you want a raise at work, you'll need to research your rationale before meeting with your boss. You will be more apt to succeed at whatever you set your mind to if you incorporate any important prep work into your small steps.
One more important thing to consider about goal setting is that goals are accomplished more quickly when you reward yourself along the way.
When you don't reward yourself--either because you consider rewards kid stuff or not worth the money or because you don't think you deserve or need compensation for your work--you risk losing momentum at best and sabotaging your success at worst. The really cool thing here is that compensation can be anything meaningful to you--a new CD, lunch with a friend--anything that adequately expresses appreciation to yourself for a job well done.
To stay motivated as you move forward, encourage yourself with small but appealing incentives bit by bit, much like you'd reward a dog biscuits at every point of learning a new trick. Then, when you've reached your final goal, you can reward yourself more handsomely--perhaps taking a vacation when you've arrived at your ideal weight, arranging a spa day for yourself after you've organized your house, subscribing to a season at the local theater when you've overcome your TV addiction.
One final point: goals get accomplished when they feel good.
Some goals are easier to feel good about than others. A goal to decorate your house may feel good if you enjoy shopping for lamps and rugs and are comfortable picking paint colors. And a goal to get in shape may feel good if you love being active and already know how to exercise and eat well. But if you don't feel excited about or up for working on something--even if you really, really want it--you'll have trouble being successful.
If you're invested in accomplishing a particular goal but find that the process is burdening you, try rewarding yourself more frequently. Give yourself ten minutes of your favorite internet activity after every ten minutes of filing papers...listening to music as you clean in half-hour increments.
By creating a manageable strategy and compensating yourself sufficiently, you can create the incentive to get almost anything done.