How To Actually Achieve Your Goals: Three Practical Strategies To Try Today
Oodles of real life tips borrowed straight from behavioural science and my own personal experience.
It is time to dive into the nitty gritty. How do you ACTUALLY DO something that you have never done before? This post will be chock full of practical tactics so I recommend that you spend some time digesting and reflecting on how you can apply some of these suggestions to help you achieve your own goal.
I have set many goals in the past and not achieved them. Most times a failure to achieve a goal (e.g. to lose weight) is not made up of one specific instance (e.g. mega food binge). A failure tends to be the accumulation of many small decision making fails (e.g. consistently overeating).
Thinking about why I have had many small fails, I see a pattern emerging. Almost always I chose the easier and/or more pleasurable option.
- It is easier for me to sit on a couch then it is to get up and do a 10 minute workout.
- It is easier for me to buy ready meals than it is to cook my own food.
- It is easier for me to spend hours surfing the internet than write my blog.
- It is more pleasurable for me to eat chocolate than a piece of fruit.
- It is more pleasurable for me to drink a creamy cocktail than a diet coke and vodka.
- It is more pleasurable for me to go out with friends than paint my living room.
Infrequently, or maybe even frequently* choosing the easier and/or more pleasurable option will not harm you. When you choose it every time though, you head further and further off track away from away from your goal. You don’t see it happening on a day-to-day basis, but one day you wake up and think, “how did I become this person?!”
Let’s be honest, very few people will reliably prefer hard and horrible over easy and pleasurable when given the choice. Those people are likely the top, top performers in their field and I’m guessing to get to that level is probably not your intention (it is certainly not mine).
So how can we mere humans do things the we don’t want to do?
Strategy One: Make It Easier
Work with your momentum
After you have finished work, don’t sit down on your couch until you have worked on your goal. It takes an incredible amount of energy to overcome the inertia of sitting and being comfortable, so do not make a pit stop on that sofa!
If I still have things to do and I need to sit down, I will perch on the coffee table in my lounge. I can only sit there comfortably for so long until I have to get up. Similarly if you are going out somewhere, like the gym, go straight from work. DO NOT HEAD HOME FIRST! Work with your momentum, it is much harder to stop and start again than it is to keep going.
Test if there an easier method to get the results you want
I want to improve my fitness, but I hate having to drive away from my house, cram my many bags into a locker, work out which piece of equipment will be free the soonest and try not to turn up late to the exercise class. It just all feels like hassle. Compare this to rolling out of bed, with unbrushed teeth and hair and doing a YouTube workout in the comfort of my own home. I’m still improving my fitness, but with YouTube it is a million times easier, and because it is easier I actually do it.
Make working on your goal the default
If you go to bed in your gym clothes, then the default when you wake up is to continue wearing them, and therefore work out. It takes extra effort to take your gym gear off.
If you remove every piece of tempting food from your house, then the default is to eat whatever you have in your cupboards. It takes extra effort to buy cheat food. (You can also leave your money at home when you’re at work so you cannot buy stuff on your lunch break!).
You can download apps and set them to block particular timewasters (e.g. Facebook) during work periods. Then your default is to work. It takes extra effort to procrastinate and become distracted. Download “Offtime” on your phone if this is a problem for you.
Capitalise on high energy states
After a long day, the last thing I want to do is cook a healthy meal. So when I do feel in the cooking mood at the weekends, I can prepare for those times when I know I can’t be bothered. I can make 2 or 3 meals in one sitting and freeze them for later. If you are already making one meal, it is not that much extra effort to make a second or a third at the same time.
Work on yourself during the times when you have the most energy. I go into shutdown mode after 10pm, so I know I need to be productive before I hit that slump. In the weekends, I like to get up and be doing stuff straightaway whereas my boyfriend will prefer a more leisurely start to the day, he comes alive at night. Tailor your tasks to when you have the most energy.
Schedule working on yourself in advance
We have such busy lives that sometimes the difficulty is not actually doing the thing you are meant to do, it is when you are going to do it.
If you are anything like me, you think, “right, I am going to do this thing tonight”. But then you get distracted so it doesn’t happen, so you think, “never mind I will do it tomorrow instead”. And then it doesn’t happen tomorrow either. So you go on throughout the week promising yourself, but doing nothing.
When you decide in advance, “Tuesday in my practice day”, then it stops this weird mental dance from happening, and it stops the planning and re-planning from taking up your attention. No more deciding and no more bargaining with yourself, that day is your day.
Strategy Two: Make It More Pleasurable
Bundle your “wants “ with your “shoulds”
Research from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that an effective way to do more of the stuff that we don’t particularly like to do, but should do, is to temptation bundle. This means that you reserve really fun things for times when you are working on your goal.
For example you may only watch your favourite TV programme when you are stretching. Or you may only listen to your favourite podcast when you are out running. Or you many only go to the coffee shop and have a hot chocolate when you are writing.
Obviously this requires some self-control to not do the really fun thing when you are not working on your goal. But nevertheless, it does make working on yourself more enjoyable.
Test if there is a more enjoyable method for getting the results you want
There are hundreds of different methods designed to help you achieve your goal. Take losing weight, if you look in any book store you will see shelves upon shelves of different diets. You can follow the latest fad diet, or you can find the method that really works for you.
For example, my boyfriend tried all sorts of “eat in moderation diets” and he struggled to follow them and didn’t lose any weight! Then he tried the Slow Carb Diet from Tim Ferriss which advocates eating mainly vegetables and meat for 6 days and then having a cheat day once a week.
He loved it! He lost a bunch of weight and it suited him perfectly. I on the other hand do not enjoy eating that much meat, or saving all my treats for one big blow out, so that diet does not work and is not pleasurable for me.
If I only tried that method I would be doomed to thinking that I couldn’t lose weight, when really that approach was not a good fit for me. Try out different approaches, different teachers, different text books, whatever it is! And when you find the one that fits you, it will be more enjoyable to do.
Make it fun with friends
Why just go for coffee or for a meal with friends when you can go for a walk together, or practice yoga together, or study together, or learn to cook a new healthy meal together. If you have a friend who has a similar goal to you, buddy up! You get to hang out, share the pain, get better together and maybe even have a little healthy competition.
Every Saturday I do yoga and pancakes with one of my friends. I would probably be doing yoga anyway and now I have the bonus of definitely doing it, having a laugh and also learning from my friend, who is way better at yoga than me!
Track your progress
One of the best feelings in the world is getting better at something. Knowing that your hard work is paying off and you are improving can keep you going when the going gets tough!
One reason for this is because once you get to a certain level it is really painful to go backwards, so at the very least you are motivated to stay where you are. But the problem is that often progress against your goals feels sooooo slow. It’s hard to remember where you have come from and what you used to be like.
You need to take at least weekly records, of whatever you are working on to measure and track your improvement; your weight, the number of words you have written, your time doing 5km, or the new moves you have learnt. This will also help you build up your confidence in getting to the next level.
Reward yourself for progress
This is similar to temptation bundling, except you reward yourself after you have worked on your goal. For example, pancakes are our reward for doing yoga on yoga and pancake Saturday. You may wish to buy yourself some new gym gear for hitting a new personal best. Or a new kitchen gadget for losing one stone. Or a spa day for finishing your exam. Or even a new magazine for just turning up to Italian class.
The important thing is that your reward does not undermine your goal. That means no chocolate cake for having gone to the gym!
Strategy Three: Just Do It. (Even though it is hard and horrible and you don’t feel like it.)
This is the very definition of discipline and is the most difficult of the three strategies to achieve your goal, but arguably the most valuable one to practice.
Emotions SHOULD NOT rule our lives. Sometimes I don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning to go to work, but I do it because if I didn’t go to work I’d be fired and have no money. There would be a negative consequence if I acted on my emotions.
Typically there is no such consequence when it comes to personal goals. Or at least the consequence doesn’t come until way, way down the line.
- You didn’t feel like going to the gym so you didn’t. No one tells you off. You don’t look any different the next day.
- You didn’t feel like writing your novel so you didn’t. You lose nothing. No one is banging on your door for your book to be published.
- You didn’t feel like practicing guitar so you didn’t. No one cares. Your potential future fans don’t even know you exist yet.
It is only when you realise 3, 5, maybe 10 years from now that the gap between what you envisioned your life would be and what it actually is, is now so large it is almost insurmountable.
All because you didn’t feel like it.
There is only so much you can make achieving your goal easy or enjoyable. The reality of the situation is, if you truly want to be the person you want to be, then you have to do stuff you don’t want to do EVEN IF THERE IS NO CONSEQUENCE AND EVEN IF IT IS PAINFUL TO DO.
That is the secret to success.
And to be honest unless you become an unfeeling robot, there is no magic bullet to getting over this. **
But I will keep on looking.
*I’ve not heard of the ideal ratio of choosing easy (not in line with goal) versus difficult (in line with goal) options, but I would guess that somewhere between 50:50 and 70(in line with goal): 30, would on balance move you closer to where you wanted to be.
**The nearest to a magic bullet that I have found, is people who build their identity around being disciplined and always doing the difficult thing/taking the hard option. For example, Jocko Willink, David Goggins.
Thank you for reading! 😃 If you have enjoyed this, please consider clapping or sharing my post. Let me know in the comments below, what is your goal and how do you make working on it easy or more enjoyable?
*** You can also keep in touch with me by signing up to my email list, just click here. As a thank you, I will send you a FREE 30-day wellness challenge calendar printable which is jam-packed with feel-good activities for a healthier, happier and zestier you! ***