I have the privilege of working with a diverse group of people who have this one thing in common—they want to lose weight and get healthy. They know where they want to be, they set a goal, and they see the value in getting support to help them reach those goals. Most people are quite familiar with goals. It’s drilled into our brain from an early age to set and achieve goals. Some may even be familiar with setting “SMART” goals—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. What is poorly understood, however, is how to set process goals, short-term goals and how to create systems that enable them to reach their long-term goals. The problem with outcome, or long-term goals is that they merely provide direction, but do not by themselves lead to actionable steps. In fact, I have seen long-term goals have the opposite of the intended effect on a person’s behavior and motivation. It’s easy to get discouraged when a long-term goal is so far away that it seems nearly impossible to reach. That’s why it’s important to understand the detailed steps involved in helping a person reach their goals. We call this the process.
Convincing yourself to change
Before embarking on a life-changing journey, it’s necessary to reflect on WHY you want to do it. Dig deep and take time to reflect on why you want what you want, and how you will get there. Some common goals such as “I want to lose weight,” or “I want to get healthy” are too vague and generic. This is where I might probe a little further and encourage the client to reflect on specific reasons why they want to be healthier or lose weight. Change is hard. When the going gets tough, it’s too easy to stay the same. Of course, “easy” is a relative term. Even if a person knows that their health is suffering, staying the same is at least familiar.
Focus on the process and the outcome will follow.
Process goals are steps you take to reach your long-term goal. If you want to get fit, your process goal might be to walk every day, but even that’s too vague. How long will you walk? What will your intensity be? What are the barriers involved in this process—time, energy, weather? Process goals aren’t mysterious, but in order to set achievable goals, it’s imperative that a person understands all of the details involved. For example, if you set a goal of running 3 times a week, you need to know that your mind and body might not be thrilled to follow through on that just because you made the decision. You will need to arrange your world (set up a system) so that the behavior occurs without much thought. That behavior needs to be encouraged by a system that allows it to occur through automation, rather than willpower. The body prefers to be lazy. Being lazy (conserving energy) was an evolutionary advantage at one time. We know that we will feel better and reap the rewards of the exercise once it’s completed, but that does little to motivate us initially.
Set yourself up for success by creating a system.
If you have a goal of exercising 3 times a week, here’s an example of how to set up a system to ensure that actually happens:
- First, you prepare by getting everything ready the day before. If you are working during the week, as I do, you will make sure that all your meals, snacks and water bottles are prepared and ready to go. You will make sure that your gym bag is packed with your work clothes, shoes and any necessary toiletries.
- You will set out your workout clothes for quick grab and go.
- You will set out your running shoes, as well as socks so that you can put them on in a hurry.
- You will avoid any stimulants that night such as caffeine, large meals, social media or television so that you can get quality zzzzzzz’s
- You will go to bed on time so that you get 7-9 hours of sleep.
When the morning arrives, the only decision you need to make is to start the first step of the process. If you set yourself up correctly, everything falls into plan because you created the system to work that way. When you do this enough times, it becomes a habit, and then eventually, hopefully, a ritual. Everything hinges on how the previous day goes and that’s where many people neglect to plan. Having a workout routine does not just happen on the day you decide to workout. The routine begins in the 24 hours prior to that. The other caveat to making this system work is that you must manage other aspects of your life so that stress and lack of sleep do not interfere with your process. The number one challenge for most people is time management. Most people I know suffer from chronic stress and sleep deprivation and therefore, the above system seems like such an enormous feat. It’s all about choices and we all have the same 24 hours in the day. How do you manage it? That’s a good question for each one of us to reflect on.
Controlling the future?
Placing too heavy of a focus on the outcome can delay action (not to mention happiness) by causing a person to focus only on some future event. Although long-term goals are helpful at directing, they may also prevent people from focusing their energies on factors that are entirely within their control. If you were to sign up for a 26.2 mile marathon, you would hold that goal in your mind, but the real control lies in your training schedule. You plan to finish, but the fact is that you have little control over that outcome; however, the months and months of physical training and nutrition are almost certainly within your control.
Commit to a process and surround yourself with the right people.
Systems and processes work. Focus on your daily habits and rituals and the desired outcome will follow. You may not see the whole staircase, but you can deliberately choose to put one foot in front of the other and adjust your steps as needed. Another often neglected aspect in goal-setting is that of support. Weight loss should never be a solo sport. It’s an endurance event, without a finish line and it’s important to surround yourself with others who have behaviors you wish to emulate. Support may mean that you have to develop new friendships and relationships, and let go of ones that hinder your growth. It’s a painful reality, but your behaviors are a sum of the behaviors of the people you share your time with. Are your friends and family inviting you for walks, yoga or bike rides? Or are they pushing you for margarita’s and Mexican because it’s been a hard day? Who you spend your time with most certainly determines how successful you will be, unless you are lucky to be one of those magnificently stubborn people—a born leader. Most people tend to conform to the behaviors of those around them and that’s why I encourage my clients to build a robust support system.
There are so many wonderful articles on this subject, but I pulled a lot of idea’s for this post from James Clear http://jamesclear.com/goals-systems. I highly encourage visiting his website for wonderful information about habits and goal-setting.