Every year you tell yourself that this will be the year you change your life. You’re finally going to get in shape. You’re getting out of debt. You’re going to write your first book. And you mean it too!
So you set out at a sprint, super-motivated and overflowing with enthusiasm. You take out a gym membership and start going every day. You start a diet determined to lose the extra 20 pounds. You’re even waking up at 5 am every day to write for an hour. You’re doing great …. at least for a while.
But fast-forward a couple of months and your goals have fallen by the wayside. Despite your best intentions you weren’t able to sustain them.
Because here’s what happened:
- You worked out so much in the beginning that you got injured after 3 weeks and had to stop. You’ve not been to the gym since.
- You went on a super low-calorie diet and the pounds started to drop off. That was until Linda brought chocolate cake in to work. One slip-up turned into two then three. Now the diet’s a distant memory and you’re 5 pounds heavier than when you started.
- Your writing was finally progressing but after a few weeks of 5 am starts you missed your alarm a couple of times. You got so disappointed with yourself that you stopped writing completely.
‘What’s wrong with me?’ you think.
‘Time after time, year after year, it’s the same story.
Why can’t I seem to make this work?
What am I doing wrong?’
You feel like a failure, frustrated and helpless. Are you destined to be one of those people who start but can’t finish? Are you sentenced to remain stuck in a life that you hate but unable to change?
The secret to lasting change
The good news is no, you’re not. You can transform your life at any time but it starts with understanding why you’re failing and what you can do about it.
So how do you make lasting change when you find it impossible to see anything through?
Follow this simple formula.
1. Remember it isn’t a race
One of the big mistakes we make when starting something new is trying to do too much too quickly. Yes, I know, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of your inspiring vision of the future. You just want to get there… fast.
But the problem is you set a pace you just can’t sustain. Once the euphoria wears off all that’s left is hard work.
To make matters worse, if your goal is ambitious there will be a gap between where you are and where you want to be. The size of the gap can be so intimidating that you give up, you just can’t see how you’ll ever get there.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have big goals and grand visions for your future but when starting the journey to making them happen you have to bring them a tad closer to home. The trick, therefore, is to start small.
As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, describes it, ‘Find the simplest, smallest version of the goal that you are trying to achieve’. Start with a form of the goal that is very easy for you, so easy that you can’t say no to it.
Why? Because at this point it’s not really about the goal, it’s about establishing the behaviours that will get you there. It’s about creating a habit of doing the things you need to do and you have a better chance if you start with something small.
The takeaway? Start small even if you’re tempted to go all in.
2. Act like a pro
When establishing a new habit it helps if you do it everyday. After all, you’re training your brain, literally wiring the new behaviour into it. That comes through repetition and needs time to take effect.
But the reality of showing up everyday can be difficult. With our busy lives it sometimes just isn’t possible. The key, therefore, is to remember that you need to be consistent. Consistency is essential for making progress and getting better at pretty much anything we want to do.
That means scheduling your task (whether daily, every other day or twice a week) and showing up to get it done. By doing that you are developing the skills you need and building the habits that will help you make progress towards your goals. It’s all about creating a process that will lead to success.
Showing up consistently isn’t easy.
There’ll be days you don’t feel like it, when you’re too tired and would rather be doing anything but the thing you need to do. But remember, if you only show up when you’re motivated you’ll never achieve your goals. Instead, you have to act like a professional.
As Steven Pressfield author of ‘The War of Art’ puts it: ‘Acting like a pro means showing up everyday, it means showing up no matter what. A pro is committed over the long haul, he accepts no excuses.’
When you show up like a pro it’s because you know what’s important and you’ve committed to making it happen. Showing up pretty much guarantees progress.
The takeaway? If you want to have any chance of success you have to do the work even when you don’t feel like it.
3. Follow the 1% rule
Doing more and getting better are important if we want to reach our goals but how you improve is possibly just as important. If you want improvement that you can sustain then it’s better to do it in small increments. Make it an increase that although challenging can be achieved, not so big that you struggle and fail at it.
Don’t, for instance, try to jump from running 15 minutes one day to one hour the next. Or if you’ve established a writing habit of a page a day, avoid jumping to five pages as the next step. Instead, increase the task by a tiny increment using 1% as a guide.
With each increase in the task whether duration, intensity or complexity move back to step 2 to establish consistency. Now increase the task again.
As you cycle between these two steps and as you get better over time you will move closer and closer to the goal you’ve set yourself.
The takeaway? Small improvements may seem trivial but over time they add up to big gains.
4. Don’t expect to be perfect
Now up till now you’ve been doing really well. You’ve taken your big goal and broken it down into smaller chunks. You’ve set a schedule and are showing up consistently. You’ve steadily increased the task over time and improved, moving closer to your goal. Great work!
Then disaster strikes!
Something came up so you missed your workout. You broke your diet by binging on cake and ice cream. You hit snooze and didn’t wake up to write.
The result? You feel like a failure.
The truth is, no matter how dedicated or committed you are, you are probably going to slip up. You’re human and that’s OK. The problem comes when you mistakenly think that being consistent means being perfect. A failure can lead to you feeling so disappointed that you stop the actions that got you to where you are. It’s an all or nothing mentality. But you don’t have to be caught unawares. You can prepare for failure and recover quickly when you mess up. These 3 strategies can help when things don’t go to plan.
1. Have a recovery plan
So you’ve missed a workout. Now what do you do? Can you schedule it for another time of the day? Can you do it on another day that week? It’s so easy to let one mistake morph into two then more and before you know it you’ve stopped doing the very things that got you the progress you’ve made. Have a contingency plan just in case.
2. Don’t fail twice
Say you broke your diet today, resolve to get back on track tomorrow. Use the ‘Don’t fail twice’ rule as a guide and if you mess up once try your best not to make it twice in a row.
3. Play the long game
Understand that enduring change is more of a marathon than a sprint. So you slipped up, it happens. Instead of focusing solely on the negative event assess the progress you’ve made so far. Celebrate it. What were the highlights? What are you looking forward to? Cultivating a positive mindset will help you get back on track.
The takeaway? The reality is you are probably going to slip up at some point. Plan for it.
The life of your dreams is only minutes away
Making change happen in your life doesn’t have to feel like a throw of the dice. You don’t have to stay on that merry-go-round of frustration and helplessness. Instead, apply these four steps to whatever it is you want to do. I’ve used it in my life for everything from establishing a regular workout habit to improving my foreign language skills. It really does work!
Don’t let past failures hold you back. Instead, picture the life you could create as you achieve your goals and make a decision to take that first step. Start now, start small and get on the path to your dream life. All it takes is just minutes a day.