When it comes to setting big goals, building healthy habits, or following through on New Year’s resolutions, we’re often our own biggest enemy.
We give up before we’ve started, tie ourselves to unrealistic timelines, and use our failures as evidence of our weakness.
“What’s the point?” we ask ourselves. “Why should I even try?”
It’s easy to fall into traps of negativity, depression and self-sabotage when you’re facing a challenge like managing your diabetes or high blood pressure. But you have more power than you might think.
1. Waiting until you’re ready
You’ve probably heard it a thousand times, but it’s worth repeating once more: getting started is the hardest part. Whether you need to commit to a healthy eating plan, change your sleep schedule, or start exercising, the most important step you can take is the first one.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Faced with these challenges, we often feel cynical, overwhelmed, and unprepared.
If only we had the motivation, we tell ourselves, we’d get going, stick to our plan, and start to live the life we really want.
Unfortunately, no lightning bolt of motivation is going to strike and send you speeding toward the life of your dreams. It’s only after you’ve gotten started that you’ll find the motivation you’ve been waiting for.
But how do you start when you don’t feel motivated? When you don’t feel “ready”?
Use a “pre-game” routine
In a blog post on how to get motivated, author, entrepreneur, and habit-formation guru James Clear recommends using a simple “pre-game” routine to fight that resistance.
A former college baseball player, Clear describes how he used a routine of light jogging and ball tossing to get himself ready to play, even when he didn’t want to. Because he was so consistent with his pre-game routine — and because it was so easy to do — it didn’t matter whether he felt motivated when he walked into the locker room. His routine set off a chain reaction that put him into “game mode.”
Your own pre-game routine should be “so easy you can’t say no” and “get you moving” physically toward your goal. “Your only goal,” Clear says, “is to start the routine and then continue from there.”
Follow a simple, consistent routine, he says, and you can find “exercise mode” or “writing mode” or “organizing mode.”
So think about it: What “modes” of thinking and behavior could help you to build better habits and manage your chronic condition? And what “pre-game” routines would be easy to start and get you headed in the right direction?
Just get started
If sticking to healthy foods at the grocery store is tough for you, try for “smart shopping mode”. Start by looking at your shopping list (a reminder of what you really need to buy). Then head inside and browse the store ad. Next, check out the floral section or browse the magazine stand. Make a loop of the store’s outer perimeter (where all the good stuff is). Then, and only then, start putting things in your cart.
Or try for “exercise mode”. Don’t think about the walk or run ahead. Just get started. Put on your shoes. Step outside and smell the fresh air. Check your mailbox. Check the pedometer on your phone. You’ll find yourself already dressed and standing outside — might as well start walking!
As Jeff Haden says in The Motivation Myth:
“You can’t wait for motivation to get you on track with your goals, because motivation is not a spark that drives us to action, but the result of progress. Little successes build stamina and fuel further action.”
So don’t wait for motivation to fuel you. Just get started and you’ll soon be building healthy habits — one tiny, repeatable step at a time.
Even a half-spoon less sugar in your coffee is a step in the right direction. You’ll feel encouraged to keep going, and you’ll give yourself that much more of a chance at success.
Whether your focus is on building healthy habits or changing bad ones, keep in mind the words of prolific writer Steven Pressfield: “Start before you’re ready.”
2. Biting off more than you can chew
Portion control is key to managing a condition like high blood pressure, cholesterol, or diabetes. But you should also keep it in mind when you’re thinking about your goals. Hungry for progress, we tend to cram giant, unrealistic goals into impossible timelines, half-knowing we can never reach them.
Starting tomorrow, we tell ourselves (notice it’s rarely “starting today”), I’ll walk 2 miles, eat only vegetables and lean meats, clean the house, and read a book.
When tomorrow comes and goes, with nothing close to that level of progress, we feel like failures. It’s just too much, we tell ourselves. I’ll never get there. I’ll never change.
Think small, get specific
Don’t double-down on your unrealistic plan. Instead, narrow your focus to the tiniest of changes you can make today. “To achieve a lot more,” Haden writes, “start by doing a lot less.”
Don’t worry about the mountain — just focus on the step right in front of you. On today. As Dale Carnegie puts it in his famous self-help book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living: “Live in day-tight compartments.”
Goals like “I want to be healthy” or “I want to feel better” are vague and scary. What is “healthy”? What does it mean to “feel better”? Does anyone ever reach really these goals?
Instead, choose a specific, measurable goal, and tie it to a plan of action. Turn a fuzzy goal like “I want to do a better job of managing my diabetes” into an active one: “I want to lower my average monthly blood sugar by 10 points.”
The question then becomes: How do I do that?
The answer: One day, one glucose reading at a time.
From here, you can start to pile up little changes. Eat one slice of bread instead of two. Snack on carrot sticks instead of chips. Tame your sweet tooth with dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. Over time, these tiny tweaks can play a big role in building healthy habits.
As Haden writes, “You don’t have to become phenomenally better at one task. You can just get a teeny bit better at a number of tasks.”
Strike while the iron’s hot
Another helpful tip comes from Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg, who recommends you “strike while the iron’s hot.” Motivation, Fogg explains, comes in waves, and if you can catch the motivation wave on its way up, you can take steps to make building healthy habits easier in the future, when the wave inevitably crashes.
When you get home with your groceries or prescription, take advantage of the motivation wave that got you to the store or pharmacy in the first place. Wash and chop your vegetables and put them into containers for easy snacking later. Refill your pill case. Set your glucose or blood pressure monitor somewhere you can easily find and use it later.
Tiny changes in routine like these, over time, can make a world of difference in building healthy habits.
So set a goal, then immediately shift your focus to the process you need to follow in order to reach it.
Think of your big goal like a certain well-known rotisserie oven: set it and forget it!
3. Beating yourself up
Holding yourself accountable is important for building healthy habits or changing bad ones. You have to be honest about how your behaviors have kept you from getting where you’d like to be.
But most of us take “personal responsibility” too far. Instead of embracing our power to change, we beat ourselves silly with negative self-talk. This may feel like tough love, but it’s actually a form of self-sabotage.
Ironically, trying to “hold yourself accountable” could actually be keeping you from achieving your goals.
Change your story
As blogger Maria Popova puts it in her discussion of Adam Phillips’ essay “Against Self-Criticism,” this cruel, self-critical voice is “strikingly unimaginative” — telling us the same story over and over, serving only to drag us into disappointment and depression. Eventually, we just want to give up.
You fall off your eating plan or slack on your exercise routine and see yourself as a failure. Flawed, hopeless, not worth the effort.
But this is only a story you’re telling yourself about who you are and what you can do. It’s unfair, one-sided, and cruel — a “mean little myth” as the novelist Marilynne Robinson put it.
So how can you change that story?
One tip comes from Harvard psychiatrist John Sharp. In his book, The Insight Cure: Change Your Story, Transform Your Life, Sharp advises that you take some time to listen to these voices and make a note of any “I always” or “I never” statements that pop up.
Once you’ve identified these, you can start to reframe them more productively. “I never stick to my eating plan” becomes “I haven’t had enough healthy food in the house. I need to make a shopping list.”
Work on self-acceptance
Likewise, instead of accepting the self-critical voice at face-value, take a cue from writer Mark Manson. In a post on self-discipline, he stresses the importance of “de-link[ing] your personal failings from moral failings” and “accept[ing] that you cave to indulgence and that this doesn’t necessarily make you a horrible person.”
Our merciless self-talk, Manson adds, doesn’t just torture us. It can, ironically, become an excuse that keeps us from building better habits. After all, if you’re convinced you’re a horrible, hopeless person, what point is there in trying to change?
If you see yourself as a horrible person because you can’t give up ice cream, “that ‘horrible person-ness’ precludes [your] ability to change or improve in the future.” If we can’t do anything about our cravings and compulsions, he asks, why try?
By refusing to give in to your self-defeating story, you can keep in mind what’s really important: that, as Zig Ziglar says, “Failure is an event, not a person.” Our shortcomings are generally the result of habit. Old patterns run on autopilot, leading us to make the same mistakes day after day.
So don’t lose hope. Instead of beating yourself up for your bad habits, work on designing the life you want. Be mindful of the choices you make and work to transform your old behaviors into new healthy ones.
You might not get it right the first time, and that’s ok. Because there is no failure. Simply experiment and adjust to find what works for you.
There’s still plenty of year left, and plenty of opportunity for building better habits. You just have to give yourself a chance.
As Pressfield writes: “A child has no trouble believing the unbelievable, nor does the genius or the madman. It’s only you and I, with our big brains and our tiny hearts, who doubt and overthink and hesitate.”
Instead of giving in to negative mindsets, ask yourself: What goal do I want to reach this year? And what’s one small step I can take to make it happen?