Since it’s now December, we’re closing in on News Years, meaning News Year’s Resolutions.Ah, yes, that hokey time when people say they’re going to make positive changes in their life and…usually fail. But what if you didn’t? What if you could actually make these changes stick? Enamored with self-improvement as I am, I enjoy the idea of making and sticking to resolutions and figuring out what will make a goal – however ambitious or modest – stick until it becomes permanent.
Now, it’s worth noting as we’ve still got a month, that you don’t have to wait until January 1st. You can make all the positive change you want. All you need is a Monday (or Sunday, depending on how you personally start your week). Actually, all you really need is a morning, the start of a new day. Hell, to be truly honest, you don’t even need that. We gravitate towards these perceived starting points because they help give the decision some weight in our minds. So just keep in mind, waiting until January 1st isn’t necessary (this will be important if/when you struggle).
Stop, Do, or Achieve
Goals come in three varieties: Stop doing something you don’t like, start doing something you want, or achieve some milestone.
It seems like achieving a milestone is a different sort of goal but the process is the same. Stopping an activity or starting an activity involve the same process as achieving something, they just are open-ended. They are patterns of behavior that don’t have a defined endpoint. And that’s the first major problem people run into when they set goals.
Have an actual Goal
Saying ‘I want to be healthier’ doesn’t mean anything. Healthier than what? Healthier than you are now? Well, how healthy (or unhealthy) are you now? Do you eat hamburgers and tacos for dinner every day? Transitioning to just hamburgers might be healthier. Should you stop there?
When you set a goal, set a defined end point (IE it should have numbers). If you want to be healthier, define what healthier means to you. Is it a person that goes to the gym three times a week? Is a person who fixes dinner at home six times a week? What does ‘healthier’ mean?
The same goes for the perennial physical goals, like ‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I want to get in shape’. If you want to lose weight, get a haircut. Boom! You’ve lost weight. Get in shape? What shape do you want?
Use specific terms. If you lose weight, when will you know if you’ve achieved your goal? Alternatively, saying ‘I want to lose twenty pounds by this summer’ or ‘I want to add thirty pounds to my bench press’, you suddenly know exactly what you want. And, more importantly, you know what steps to take to get there.
Take Small Steps
If you decide, on January 1st, that you want to lose 20 pounds by the summer, that gives you five months to achieve that goal. That’s 4lbs a month. That’s 1lb a week. Even conservative diet programs will deliver results like that. The same is true for putting on muscle or building strength (or whatever attribute you wish). If you define where you are, where you want to be, and how long you have to get there, you can plot out exactly how much progress you need to regularly make. This leads us to another truth of setting goals.
Don’t Expect Regularity
You’re trying to drop 20lbs by June 1st. Good for you! You start on a nice, healthy diet and the fat sheds off. You lose 8lbs in a month. Then, you lose 2lbs. Then you gain 3lbs! Then you lose 5lbs. All progress, whether its physical or mental or social, is subject to waves. You’ll make great progress, you’ll make slow progress, you’ll regress, and then you’ll bound back again. This is so prevalent that it can literally be tracked. It’s part of how the more successful lifehackers are able to do the seemingly impossible, because they’re able to predict, down to the day it seems, when they’ll struggle and, as such, they’re able to consciously power through it.
Your results may vary, but don’t be surprised if you backtrack a little from time to time, or if your progress fluctuates radically. In the end, you will keep moving towards your goal by keeping on moving towards your goal.
Stay With It
It is consistency and diligence, far more than intensity, that determines a person’s success. There isn’t a perfect diet or exercise program out there; there’s just the one that you will stick to. Time and time again, when diets are compared for effectiveness, they’re always compared in short-term periods, a matter of days and weeks. When compared six and twelve months out, the weight loss is always nigh-identical. You don’t succeed with the perfect plan, you succeed by powering through the troubles and keeping at it. This is part of why small changes are more important than big changes. It’s easier to will yourself to do small things, even when its hard.
Small Changes Add Up
It’s hard to appreciate but a small change makes a huge difference. Say you want to lose twenty pounds by June. You can start by radically overhauling your diet, but if your current diet is crap, you’re really going to struggle. But if you resolve to eat a healthy breakfast for January and February, you can do it. Changing one meal is easier than changing the whole day’s eating. Lunch and dinner can stay the same; but breakfast is what you’ll fix. Give it two months and then in March and April, lunch will be cleaned up. Going into March, you’ll already have the progress and momentum of cleaning up your breakfast. You’ll know what to expect, you’ll have ironed out the kinks, and all with relatively little disruption. Now, changing your lunch will be a little easier. Come May, you’ll clean up dinner. So by the time you’ve reached June, you’re eating healthy for three meals a day. And, odds are, those twenty pounds came off a long time ago.
The Rule of 6s
Six minutes, Six Weeks, and Six Months
Six minutes is how much effort you should look to exert on any major change. If it will take more than six minutes to do, then break it down into smaller chunks. Let’s say your New years’ Resolution is to start cooking at home. Well, cooking is hard and if you don’t have much experience with it, you’ll find ways to set water on fire. So instead of cooking whole meals, start cooking side dishes or start cooking easy meals like spaghetti. Some might say ‘but don’t you want to avoid carbs’ or ‘make sure you stick to whole-grain’ or ‘you’ll save money if you make your own sauce’. All of those may be true, but you can tackle that down the road, once you’re used to cooking. Right now, you’re just building the habit.
Six weeks is how long it takes to set a habit. If you can keep doing something for six weeks, then it’s a habit and it now becomes easier to do than not to do. If you cook dinner at home for six weeks, cooking dinner at home will be part of your routine. You’ll have the energy for it and you’ll just do it naturally.
Six months is the goal. Six months is how long you need to maintain a habit for it to become a lifestyle. Do a thing for six weeks and it becomes harder to not do than to do. Do a thing for six months and it will take active effort to not do. It will be a part of who you are.
This is why, if you don’t exercise, but you want to start going to the gym, don’t start with crossfit. Don’t start with some insane workout program. Start with something easy. Go hop on the exercise bike for ten minutes, and then do some of the weight lifting machines, and call it a day. No, it’s not the most efficient routine, but it’s not the routine that matters; it’s the habit. It’s the lifestyle. Once going to the gym is a habit, or just part of who you are, THEN worry about optimizing it. Then worry about whether your training is truly effective. But don’t try to have the best routine ever while you’re still trying to just get off the couch.
Think about where you want to be in six months, not two weeks. Don’t focus on the short-term but on the overall objective. Knowing where you want to be, and how long you have to get there, will help you set the small steps necessary to get there.