I Think I Can – I Think I Can – I… Oh…

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution? What’s your record? Five? Six days? A couple of weeks, maybe? The fact that you did it for that long shows you can. You quit smoking for a week? You gave up chips for 3 days? You gave up soda for 2 weeks? You were right when you said “I think I can”, but you couldn’t keep going. Why not? Maybe you didn’t have enough motivational posters of people standing on mountaintops and zippy quotes like “Life at the top of the mountain, because you thought you could!” or something else equally cheesy.

Maybe you needed a smart goal?

Specific – Quit smoking!

Measurable – Zero cigarettes for the rest of my life!

Attainable – Yeah, I went 16 years without smoking and tons of my friends don’t smoke!

Relevant – My health is going to suffer, I want to be healthy – this is the first step.

Time Bound – To infinity and beyond. Whatever infinity is.

So, you’ve got your motivational picture of a mountain which is symbolic of your no smoking goal, you’ve got your SMART goal, and it’s New Year’s Eve, a perfect way to start – New Year, New You! You’ve even posted on Facebook that this is an era of “NEW ME!” What can possibly go wrong?

And there you are, January 15th, half way through a pack of cigarettes you bought last night and feeling down on yourself. But, but… the mountain – and the little train. I thought I could. And suddenly your whole identity as a mentally strong, focused and goal-oriented individual dissipates into the air, and instead of exercising you get out the ice cream and prepare for a Netflix binge session. I think I can make it though six hours of Netflix and a tub of ice cream before bedtime. Yeah, I am 100% certain of this. And I’m right – hit that one right out of the park and didn’t even have a SMART goal.

So what went wrong, and more importantly, how can you fix it next time?

What went wrong is that you didn’t have enough reason to keep going and probably relied on willpower alone to get you through. Here’s the thing with willpower – it’s unreliable. It will let you down. That’s not to say that self-control is a bad thing, or that it can’t get you through times high emotion or temptation – it can, which is how you made those first few days of meeting your ‘new you goal’. The problem with willpower is that it is a crummy way of life, and it isn’t sustainable indefinitely. Eventually it will fail, and when it fails it takes a part of your being with it. Instead of having a moment of failure, the mind says “I am a failure”, because the mind was the one tool you were using to achieve the goal.

So what can you do to achieve your goals, and keep them for the long haul?

1 – The first thing is find someone (or even better, multiple someone’s) to help. Research has time and again shown that people who join a weight-loss group will lose more weight and keep it off compared to those who go it alone. Why? Because when you are achieving things with other people they tend to encourage and congratulate you. The more positive reinforcement you get, the more likely you are to keep going. Make sure your mental spotter is someone who will praise your achievements and encourage you when you fail. Having someone who only encourages with a “Hey, you gained 10lbs this week, but you gave it a shot” won’t help. The best support you can get is someone who will tell you how your life is being impacted, “Hey – I’ve noticed you don’t wheeze when you go up the stairs anymore and you don’t smell like an ashtray! You must feel great!”

What’s the response going to be? – “Yeah! I do feel great, and thanks for noticing.” It gives a little more reason to keep going when times get tough.

2 – OK, this may sound contrary to what I have been saying, but have a plan. Not just a “I am not going to eat chips again” plan, but a proper one. Accept that you won’t always succeed. You will hear people say cheesy corpspeak things like “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” (which is an oxymoron, because failing to plan is exactly that, having no plan), but you should have a plan to fail. Not an epic, forever, never coming back from it fail, but a “whoops, where did that ice cream go” kind of fail. When creating this plan it’s important to keep track of your wins. If you go 10 days without eating chips and then one day decide you can’t resist those mouth-watering and highly delicious salt n’ vinegar kettle chips that were left over from the old you, you haven’t failed. You missed a day. It’s OK. Go back to your data and see how well you did. You made it ten days? You can go another 10 starting tomorrow. It’s not the end of the world, and you’re not a bad person. You just like chips.

This is where your mental spotters comes into play – “You missed a day, but great comeback with 10 days of hitting goal! You must feel good about that?”

3 – Finally, what’s your actual goal? The ultimate goal. “Getting healthy” isn’t a goal. Getting healthy is a direction you are headed, but how will you know when you are there? “I want to quit smoking because I don’t want lung cancer” while sounding like a great goal, isn’t a goal either. It sounds like a good goal though, but it’s not. Why? Is lung cancer a guarantee if you smoke? Is not getting lung cancer a guarantee if you don’t? Set yourself a tangible and real goal you can achieve. Something real and definite. If a pack of cigarettes is $5 and you usually buy a pack a day, put $2 in a jar every day and save for something you want to treat yourself with. Put one of those barometer things next to it and fill it in a bit more every day to show how close you are getting.

And one last bonus point – all those posts on social media where people are meeting their goals all the time, never struggling, and achieving their dreams. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Not one of us on this planet is able to easily achieve all we ever dreamed of without hard work, failure, missed goals, self-doubt, and most importantly, the support of someone we trust. I’ll go a step further – I have never once met anyone who has ever achieved anything of note without the support of someone who believed in them. So here’s your two part mission:
1 – Find someone you trust and ask them to help you.

2 – Find someone who is struggling and ask if you can help.

You may change more than just one life. I think you can.

Image from The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper. Illustration by George and Doris Hauman.

Categories: Goals, Hope, Mental Toughness, Performance

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