The beginning of the year is the most opportune time to start something new. Consequently, many start off their year with a list of resolutions; from exercising more to drinking less alcohol. Many even spend tons of money investing in exercise equipment, training gear, and other tools needed to make the year a successful one. Unfortunately, only 66% of those who set new year’s resolutions at the beginning of January would have stuck to them 2 weeks into January, 55% by the end of January, and only 43% after 3 months of setting their goals.
Luckily, the month of February presents an opportunity to start afresh. Added to this, it’s still early enough in the year to make good progress before taking stock in December of how well you fared. In this article, a few tips and tools are presented to help you make good headway in this month and the year ahead towards your goals.
Make time to plan
The first step is to make time to plan! Block out 2-3 hours in your diary this week to plan your goals for the year. Making time to take stock of where you are and deciding how you will move forward to achieve your goals will be an overarching theme in this article.
Once you have set time aside, choose a weekly slot (30-minutes or so) to reflect on progress. This will be an important part of ensuring you stay on track for the rest of the year.
Get your goal hierarchy straight
Once you have made time and you are sitting down to think, write down your superordinate and subordinate goals. Bettina Höchli, Adrian Brügger, and Claude Messner did a study on the success rates of setting different types of goals and defined superordinate goals as “more abstract than subordinate goals [and] represent or broadly define what people ultimately value or aspire to.” A superordinate goal is thus linked to the person you aspire to become, often does not have an end date, and is long-term in nature. This is your ‘WHY’.
Examples of superordinate goals are:
- “I want to look more attractive”
- “I want to be healthier”
People who do not have a convincing ‘why’ are doomed to fail, as these are the goals which will keep you motivated when you feel like giving up. Having lukewarm reasons will also leave you vulnerable to failure. So, spice it up, make it exciting!
Subordinate goals, on the other hand, are more specific, time-bound, and realistic. They are the building blocks for our superordinate goals.
Examples of subordinate goals include:
- “I want to start running three times a week”
- “I want to decrease my carbohydrate intake by x amount each day”.
Both superordinate and subordinate goals are equally important. Without superordinate goals, you are likely to give up when you feel despondent, given that you do not have a bigger picture to work towards. Without subordinate goals, superordinate goals remain pies in the sky. Aspirations that cannot be actioned. It is thus important to define both; this will help you establish your why and your how. Using them in tandem has been found to improve success significantly.
Plan! Plan! Plan!
Details on how to draw up an effective plan requires a separate post, but it is important to note that subordinate goals will require further elaboration. If you have defined your subordinate goals adequately, they they should be specific, telling you exactly what you want to achieve and by when. Once you have established a deadline, identify milestones, and decide week-by-week and month-by-month, depending on your time horizon, how you will achieve each milestone.
If you, for instance, want to run a 21.1km by the end of June (on 30 June 2021 to be exact), set up a programme with milestones building up to the big day. You might opt for a running programme which will give you a weekly plan to get to 7km, 10km, 12km, and then 16km a few weeks before the big day. Planning at the granular level also gives you an overview of how much work will be required, helping you prepare yourself mentally for the task at hand, but also to realistically gage whether you have enough time to achieve your goal. If you realise that you don’t, you may need to think about where you can move items around in your dairy to ensure you get to your goal. Or, alternatively decide to shift the goal out by a few weeks if it is not reasonably possible to get to your goal on the specified date.
Similarly, if you want to loose a certain amount of weight by a particular date, you would need to plan your activities (diet, exercise etc.) and identify milestones towards the larger objective.
Remember to make time to plan and reflect. Perhaps on a Sunday evening or a weekday morning, on how you are faring towards your goal and whether any adjustments need to be made to your plan. Not keeping regular stock of progress will leave you vulnerable to giving up all together if you realise too far down the line that you won’t make it for your predefined deadline.
Rewarding yourself, or practicing positive reinforcement has proved to be a key element in determining whether someone will be successful in achieving their goals. Reinforcement management is based on the premise that “[an] individual’s behaviour is a function of its consequences”. These could be both positive and negative. Negative reinforcement helps us manage undesirable behaviours – like sending a child to a naughty corner when they misbehave. Positive reinforcement serves a similar purpose.
People who employed reinforcement techniques were more likely to stick to a goal or habit within the first few weeks. For many this may be the most difficult time, especially for those who are trying to establish longer-term habits.
It is also important to ensure that your rewards are regular and proportional to the achieved goal. Rewarding yourself with an all-expenses-paid trip for achieving a 5km milestone might be a bit excessive, particularly if this milestone is set on the way to a much larger goal, like running a marathon. This will not only create the notion that rewarding takes too much effort (e.g. planning the trip, taking time off work), but will also set the bar too high for the overarching goal you are working towards. Sometimes rewards take time and it is important to make sure that rewarding yourself does not become a chore.
Not rewarding milestones, however, can leave positive reinforcement too far down the line. Reinforcement management is about ensuring that you keep your foot on the pedal to ensure that you don’t loose momentum, but if you do, that you can quickly pick up where you fell off. A short timespan for milestones and rewards may just be the key to achieving your success.
Use the Martin System to build habits
If your new year’s resolution is something you want to do more habitually, for instance, “I want to quit smoking”, “I want to exercise more regularly”, “I want to cut out meat for 2 days every week”, or “I want to be in bed by 9pm from Monday to Friday every week”, the Martin System is for you!
Explained by Thomas Frank, the Martin System helps you build better habits in two week cycles. This system is based on building a habit in shorter bursts of time to ensure that you are more resilient when you do fail, but that you are also not intimidated by the notion of applying the habit indefinitely.
Building a habit is about creating a ‘winning streak’. When you are trying to go without something (alcohol, cigarettes, certain foods), how long you can go for matters. This also means that one slip-up often leaves us vulnerable to demoralising thoughts of failure and many people resultantly just give up trying.
With the Martin System, you only commit to something for two weeks at a time and you keep track of the days on which you succeeded and failed. After the two week cycle is over, you can reflect on the number of days you succeeded, but also take note of the factors which drove you to fail on the bad days. This gives you a chance to ‘start over’ after two weeks, without feeling like you are doomed to be a failure forever.
Get professional help
Sometimes we need help with our goals. Specifically if we have attempted a goal multiple times, but have failed. Seeking professional help could be the answer! Consulting an expert not only means that you will get advice from a seasoned professional on the goal you want to achieve, but also creates an element of accountability.
If you would like to work out more, for instance, getting a personal trainer could be what you need. Not only will they give you a plan which is personalised to your needs (allowing you to skip the planning phase on your own), but it would also mean that you are less likely to easily skip the morning workout if you know someone is expecting you to show up, and you’re paying them money to do so!
Similar professionals could be consulted for other areas of your life: life coaches, dietitians, running coaches, career coaches, you name it!
So, there you have it; make time to plan, make sure you’ve categorised your goals correctly according to the goal hierarchy, plan the details, reward milestones and bigger goals, use the Martin System to build longer-term habits, and get a professional to help you, should you feel the need to.