We all know how hard it can be to reach goals: lose those five pounds, quit smoking, get an exercise routine going. Not to speak of finding a new job or giving up destructive habits like overspending or drinking. And while it will always be hard to reach difficult goals, there are a few pointers how to make it a bit easier on the way to getting there. One of them is the realization that positive thinking won’t necessarily get you anywhere. If you indulge in what is called an overly positive outlook (as in “oh, I can have this piece of cake, I’ll eat less in the evening”), you quickly throw all good intentions overboard and your weight loss goal has been compromised before it even got off the ground.
If all you do is visualizing a positive outcome (“I”ll be able to run these five miles!”) without realistically thinking about what you can actually do, there is no inspiration to really try. And when we fail to achieve the goal, we feel easily demoralized and throw all good intentions out the window. If you tend to be too optimistic about your goals and see yourself failing over and over, you have to adjust your expectations to reality. Look at your exercise plan. Is it actually something you can integrate into your life, or are you setting yourself up for failure? The way to do it is to compare what you are doing now (like not exercising at all) to your goal (for example running five miles a day). Make it more realistic. Start with one mile three times a week. Most importantly, make a “what – if” plan. What if I come home and I simply don’t feel like exercising.
Imagine what you can do to stay the course. “If I’m not in the mood, I won’t sit down, but will take a walk around the block.” If you won’t let yourself off the hook but can motivate yourself to take a small step towards your goal, chances are that something will happen. It may not be one mile three times a week, but maybe you run one mile, walk one mile and mow the lawn. It will feel much better to register some kind of success rather than nothing but failure. If you find yourself running out of steam, don’t focus on what you’ve already achieved. Rather than thinking “I ran almost a mile, it won’t hurt if I stop”, keep at it by reframing the thought into “only ten more minutes to go.”
The method is called “mental contrasting” and was designed by psychologist and researcher Gabriele Oettingen. It works the same way with trying to refrain from something you want to stop doing. If you want to quit eating sugar, assess how many times you’ve tried before and how successful you were. If you’ve failed before, don’t stop cold turkey. Break it down into smaller goals. Begin with cutting out sweets and soft drinks and replace them with the most sugary fruit you might enjoy (like mangos or grapes). You can also start by replacing rich ice cream with somewhat less sugary treats like oatmeal cookies or sherbet. Make an “if – then” plan.
If you are tempted to indulge in sweets, distract yourself momentarily. Stretch your body or play with your dog. It’s all about delaying gratification. The moment will pass and a few minutes later you may not feel so tempted anymore. Accept that small long term goals are much easier to reach than grand and quick changes. If all you want is get it all in no time whatsoever, you’ll be frustrated and demoralized. Everything we want to achieve requires dedication and hard work. Expecting a quick fix is the first fantasy to let go off.