“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” – Calvin Coolidge
So you got off-track with your goal. It happens. Behavior change takes time, and it takes persistence. Research on people who quit smoking, for example, shows that it takes several attempts before they finally quit for good. Beating yourself up over a short-term setback will only keep you stuck. Instead, forgive yourself completely, and use these five tips to start fresh today.
1. Recognize Inertia, and Just Get Started
A body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted on by an outside force. Likewise, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. You may recognize that as Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion – also known as inertia – but it also seems to work the same when it comes to our psychological processes. Once we stop moving, it takes a bit of mental energy to get going again. When you do get going though, it’s much easier to maintain the behavior. The trick is to just get started.
This is deceptively simple. Obviously, you don’t feel like doing whatever it is you have to do, or you’d be doing it. But that’s mainly because of inertia. The trick is to do something – anything really – to get yourself moving again in the direction of your goal. According to Professor Tim Pyschyl, an expert on procrastination, once you get started, you’ll feel differently about the task:
“Just get started … Once we start, our attributions of the task change. Based on other research, we know that our attributions about ourselves change too. First, once we get started … we perceive the task as much less aversive than we do when we’re avoiding it. Second, even if we don’t finish the task, we have done something, and the next day our attributions about [ourself] are not nearly as negative. We feel more in control and more optimistic. You might even say we have a little momentum.”
2. Be Specific About What You Will Do To Get Moving Again
In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath call this “scripting the critical moves,” and it’s an important step toward initiating any change process. Ambiguity, they say, is the enemy of change.
“Any successful change requires a translation of ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors. In short, to make a switch, you need to script the critical moves.”
So, for example, it’s not effective to tell yourself “I want to get back to exercising again.” You have to make it more specific. Otherwise, your rational mind will find too many options about how to do that. And too may options will likely keep you in a state of analysis paralysis. Instead, tell yourself something like “I will reinitiate my exercise routine by going to the gym on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”
3. Set an Implementation Intention
Part of the reason people never get back on-track with their goals is explained by how their goal is set (i.e., Is it specific enough?). Another part of the problem, however, is there’s no clear plan for acting on the goal.
An implementation intention is a mini action plan that’s been scientifically proven to help you follow through on your goals. In one study, for example, women who wrote down an implementation intention specifying when and where they would conduct a breast self-examination did so 100% of the time. On the other hand, women who failed to create such a plan did so only 53% of the time.
An implementation intention takes the form of an if-then statement (if situation X arises, I will perform behavior Y). So, following my example from above, you might write down you implementation intention as follows: “If it’s 7:00 am on Monday, Wednesday or Friday, I will go to the gym, and walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes.” Again, the key here is to be very specific.
4. Use Time Blocking to Eliminate Distractions
The demands on our time are greater now than ever. Likewise, never before in history have we faced so many possible distractions. If you jump every time your phone rings, a new email arrives or you iPhone buzzes, you’ll never get back on track with your goal.
When you create an implementation intention, you’re not only giving your rational mind specific instructions about what to do. You’re also making time in your schedule to actually do it. But you have to take it a step further. You have to set aside a specific block of time when your attention is dedicated 100% to working on your goal.
Time blocking works best if you set a definite start and end time when you have no other meetings or commitments. Lock your door, turn off your phone, and make yourself unavailable for any other tasks. If the Internet is too tempting, download what you need ahead of time, and turn off your Internet connection during your time block.
5. Recruit an Accountability Partner
Research shows that when you share your goals and commitments with others, you’re more likely to follow through on them. My own experience confirms this. When I got off-track with my exercise routine a few months back, I decided to start going to the gym with my girlfriend every morning. After a couple weeks, it became a sweet, little routine and something we both look forward to. When one of us occasionally lacks the motivation to get out the door, the other provides the necessary encouragement to follow through. Of course, now an again, we both decide to blow off the gym and go enjoy some time together at our favorite breakfast spot.
An accountability partner doesn’t have to be a spouse or significant other. It can be a coach, a friend, a colleague or anyone you trust and respect enough help you get back on track. When you keep your goals and commitments secret, it’s too easy to avoid changing your life and to drift back to old habits and routines.
“Supposing you have tried and failed again and again. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.” – Mary Pickford
It’s Never Too Late
As I said at the beginning, behavior change takes time and persistence. Learn what you can from the short-term setback, then let it go. Start fresh today, and use the five tips above to get yourself back on-track with your goal.