Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Art of Creating Goals You'll Stick To

Photo from Flickr by Neeta Lind

 Every year, right around the winter holidays, people all over the world set New Year's Day resolutions for themselves. The combination of an individual's deepest desires, hopes and dreams, forge into an idea, or a resolution and commitment to a particular goal. "This is the year that I'll finally..."

The beginning days of January start promisingly for most goals. Gym memberships go on the rise, new routines are formed and the search for the perfect job begins with great optimism. Then for most people, life gets in the way and very few goals make it past the Super Bowl in February.

Because the beginning of a year is such an epic event for us, the goals we set are usually huge. The bigger the goal, the more we celebrate the coming of the new year. After all, it is hard to get excited about small changes that aren't that noticeable. If you are overweight, you become so sick of being that way that you don't just want to lose weight, you want to be thin! What is the motivation in losing just ten pounds if you'll still be overweight?

A difficult part of changing habits is that often the payoff doesn't come quick enough and for those goals that are more accomplishment oriented (travel to Italy, sky diving, quit smoking, etc), the timing is never right. The problem with New Year resolutions that go unfulfilled however isn't that the goals are unrealistic, it's that very little thought was even put into the creation of the goal itself. Sure, in the back of your head you may have been telling yourself all year long that you need to accomplish this goal. Once the goal becomes a reality though, somewhere is the process, life gets busy and suddenly the goal doesn't seem that important anymore.

Most goals are set at impulsive moments in our lives. Whether it be a New Year's resolution, an unattractive glimpse at your body shape in the mirror or the moment your boss really ticks you off, a goal created in haste is certain to go to waste (no pun intended). If you aren't thinking clearly at the time the goal is created, eventually the rational part of your brain will catch up and say, "Hey, what exactly are we doing all this for again?" Impulsive goals give you an immediate high and aren't all that bad if they help you quickly get over pinned up anger. Once the impulse wears off though, and life returns to normal, it is amazing how insignificant that goal can become.

So how then do you create goals that you'll stick to? Goals created through hard work and by using your whole brain, not just that impulsive amygdala portion of it, are much more likely to stick. Goals that are set impulsively may be fun at the time, but you need to spend just as much time figuring out and reinforcing why it is that you are setting a certain goal for yourself as you will in actually working to achieve that goal. The more energy you put into the creation of the goal, the more loyal and connected you are to it. When you constantly feed yourself information about why the goal is important and how you'll accomplish it, the easier it becomes to trust yourself. If you stop trusting yourself though about why you set the goal in the first place, the resolution is doomed.

To put it in perspective on how your brain gets in the way of accomplishing your goals and why trusting yourself is such a critical component to achieving goals, imagine if you were in a plane about to sky dive. When you step to the edge, how could you not think about how insanely crazy it is to jump out of a plane thousands of feet in the air? You tell yourself that you don't have to do this, and you know what, you're right. So how do you actually come to the decision to make the leap?

There are risks to sky diving, ones that can get you killed, but you also choose to sky dive partly because of these risks. If there was no risk, it wouldn't appeal to thrill seekers. Before you sky dive though, you go through in depth training and learn everything you can about the real risks that are associated with it. This pre-goal training enables you to trust and believe that the knowledge and skill you have acquired to put yourself in this position, will mitigate the risks associated with the extreme situation. It also enables you to clearly, and not impulsively, decide if sky diving is really that important to you. The methodical process of learning about sky diving in a non-impulsive way, help to ensure that you won't lose your wits at jump time. As with sky diving or any other goal, the information that you acquire and the energy that you put into understanding the goal, are the key components that enable you to follow through to completion.

To see a goal to completion you need to set up reinforcements and constant reminders that help trigger the importance of your goal. If you don't set the right goal though, the one you truly want and clearly need to accomplish, all the reinforcements and reminders in the world won't prevent you from inevitably giving up on that goal. In fact, they'll be more apt to make you feel even worse about yourself.

The biggest goal setting irony is that the impulsive amygdala part of your brain that created the goal in the first place, is exactly the same part that makes you give up. This is why impulsive goals don't stick. They can't stick because you didn't create them, the reactive, fight or flight part of your brain did. Instead create goals systematically, methodically and creatively. Do the hard work necessary to create goals and go through a process. Knowledge, certainty and a clear understanding of the goal creates focus. Focus is achieved by using your whole brain and focus pushes you through because you've eliminated all fear and doubt.

Setting goals doesn't have to be as intense as sky diving. If you realistically want to achieve your goals though, spend some quality time thinking about why they are so important to you. Goals demand that you sacrifice your time and energy so figure out exactly what this commitment of energy will look like. Learn everything you can about the goal in advance, and spend the necessary time required connecting to the often difficult process that you'll have to go through to accomplish it. Having a clear picture of why your life will be better once this goal is achieved, makes it easier to push on through after the initial high has worn off.