Springtime is an interesting time. We are a few months past the New Year, where we ambitiously declare “this is the year”! And then it gets cold and we don’t see results so we sort of let go of our goals. The weather starts to warm and we look forward to getting out and doing things but also freak out because we haven’t made a dent into our goals and Summer will soon be here and then Fall and then we’ve wasted another year not getting “it” done. And we berate ourselves, make excuses, blame ourselves and others for why we can’t do something. Often what I hear as a therapist is “I tried to follow a plan or that person but it’s impossible”; “I couldn’t follow through because I don’t have the time”; “They don’t know what they’re talking about, they don’t have the same life and responsibilities that I have”. And while you’re busy identifying why something doesn’t work, you find yourself depressed and anxious and upset that your life isn’t what you want it to be. What I often find in my practice that leads people to failure, other than a poor mindset, is the lack of a plan (a realistic one). In addition to the lack of a plan, people want to see instant results, or they don’t personalize it to their specific situation. In the age of Amazon Prime and Uber Eats where everything comes to us within the hour or within a few days, we have a hard time acknowledging that sustainable lifelong change can take months or years. Unlike the food you’ll eat that will be gone in 20 minutes, you cannot apply the same mindset to a healthy, balanced life. That takes time. How long really depends on your plan, your consistency with your plan and your mindset. Below are some tips to get you focused and on your way to success.
Develop a plan that you can do consistently for one year. Look at the habit you want to establish. Whether it’s exercising, working on your mental health, developing a hobby or going back to school, explore what you would do on a daily or weekly basis to be successful. Most of us look for a quick fix or see the goal from the short term (i.e. by a certain date) but really if you think about it, once the goal is achieved, are you ok with going back to habits that led you to be unhappy in the first place? See the goal from a broader lens and set those goals from an annual, even lifelong perspective. What may be a short term goal should be viewed as something that is foundational and is the building block for a bigger goal. For example, if your goal is to write a book, what can you do every week or every day to get that achieved. Is writing 500 words a day sustainable for 365 days? Maybe instead you tell yourself that your goal is to write 300 pages for your book this year. That’s a page a day and allows for setbacks. Is working out 5 days a week realistic for a year, especially if you get sick or go on vacation or have to stay late at work? Perhaps you set a plan to work out 100 hours this year. That comes out to about 30 minutes a day, four days a week, including setbacks. Focus on global goals that are sustainable.
Explore your mindset. Do you believe that something can’t be done? Do you believe in your ability? Are you afraid of what people might think? Does something someone said to you influence whether you go for it or give up? There are all kinds of chatter going on in between our ears and we often listen to the negative voices that deter us or make us feel bad. Focus on nurturing a positive mindset, being open to trying. Find resources and content that inspire you to try and make you hopeful about how the change can be positive.
Write things down. WRITE. THINGS. DOWN. WRITE! THINGS! DOWN! How can you achieve your goals if you don’t have a sense of the things required to be successful? It’s not enough to have a desire and a goal, but it’s about taking the time to figure out all the baby steps along the way, figuring out when you are going to schedule the time to work on your change, and identifying markers for success. Writing things down, whether it’s through your phone, journaling or a planner, or all of the above, helps you assess what is and isn’t working for you in the present moment, what you would like to see change in the future, how you are going to get there, preparing for possible obstacles and figuring out how to make your plan doable over the course of the year. Your plan can be something as simple as: every Monday through Friday at 3PM, I am going to spend 20 minutes or write one page (whichever comes first) with the goal of having a chapter written by the end of the month. And then you put it in your planner and check it off every day.
Do a time study. Before you commit to a routine and put it in your planner, time yourself. It is amazing how often people say they don’t have time for something, but realistically if they timed themselves and were focused, they could get a lot done. Try it. Set a timer for 20 minutes and work on your habit, without distraction and without stopping. How much did you get done? I have done this with cleaning personally. In 20 minutes, I have been able to clear the dishwasher, vacuum my entire house, clear the garbage from every room AND dust the furniture in one room. After picking a room every day and a global chore, at the end of the week, the house is clean and I get to enjoy the weekend. This is after writing down a plan of what chores need to get done and believing in progress over perfection. What is also really important is that you don’t allow yourself to get pulled into a million different directions. This can be hard if you have children or other emergency, but focus on assessing what you can realistically get done in an allotted amount of time. Checking your personal email or social media does not count as an emergency.
Be flexible. Recognize that what works for you one day may not work for you the other. If you are someone who does shift work or has various responsibilities throughout the week, incorporating your habit one a daily basis at the same time may not be realistic. You know this in advance, so you build it into the flow of your life. Where can you find 20 minutes to work on your habit? First thing in the morning? On your lunch break? Right before bed? Instead on 20 minutes on a daily basis, can you devote 2 hours on your day off or on the weekend? Instead of identifying why something cannot work, be creative and explore ways that in can work.
Regularly check in and adjust as needed. Because you are seeing your goal from an annual lens, you need to check in regularly with your plan and adjust where needed. Maybe you planned to get up early to work on your habit, but you realize that you are not a morning person, or you just cannot focus. If after a month of trying, something is not working, change it. Don’t give up on it because it didn’t work exactly how you planned it out originally. Maybe you realize that you are better able to work on your goal in the evening or at lunch. Get to know yourself and your rhythm and explore how to work in the thing that you want.
Be open but be discerning. What is wonderful about social media is that we are exposed to a variety of ways in which people are doing things that are helping them be successful in their own lives. The operative term is what is working best in their own life. While you are impressed by their choices, you have to figure out how to make it work for you. That role model may be able to work out for an hour in the morning because they have no children, but you only have 20 minutes because you have three children. Instead of demeaning their advice, do it your way. Get up early because it serves you and do what you can. And if you can’t do it in the morning, can you squeeze in some time to work on your plan during lunch or while you’re brushing your teeth? I have seen moms doing 20 squats while brushing their teeth and doing pushups against the wall prior to getting in the shower because that is the only time they can work out. They walk at lunch and lift gallon milk jugs at dinner time. Be inspired and get creative. Focus on the message of these influencers and find what works for you. Maybe what they do will work for you or maybe it won’t but focus on doing something.
Establish a before and after. You cannot give yourself credit for the progress you have made if you don’t establish a baseline. How can you truly see how far you have come, if you don’t acknowledge how far you have come? Doing the “before” exercise can be disheartening and depressing because it is clear that you are not where you want to be. That’s ok. Honor the sadness or frustration and remind yourself that you are taking steps today with the belief that a year from now you will not be in the same place. Promise your “before” self that you are going to do your best to make changes every day to support your “after”. And identify who the “after” you is. Is the “after” you someone who is healthier, kinder, published, in a new job, in a new relationship, has more money? Identify who you want to be and ask yourself constantly if you are doing things today to make “after” you proud. If not, find compassion, tell yourself tomorrow is a new day and re-focus your attention. Hopefully at the end of your year, you can look back and appreciate the process, not just the end result.
Explore alternatives. You may be interested in a program or school or service but you can’t afford it. Can you find free or less cost alternatives like YouTube for how to recipes, a YWCA for cooking classes or online degree programs? Be open to alternatives that are unplanned for or unexpected.
Prepare for setbacks. Even with the best of our intentions, life happens and we may be faced with setbacks that derail us from our plans. While this may be frustrating, especially if you have gotten into a momentum, try and see the derailing as an opportunity to check in with yourself. Is it possible that you should change course or your focus? Be less hard on yourself? Instead of simply staying in anger, sadness and/or frustration, ask yourself and the Universe, is there something you are trying to teach me or tell me? Try and listen for the answer. If the answer is more anger and frustration and sadness, be ok with that and ask yourself what it is you CAN do, instead of just sitting in the space of things you CAN’T do.
Change overall is hard, but you can do it with having a plan. Of course, getting support for your plan is important and you can get that support from loved ones or a therapist. Having a sounding board to help you navigate your plan and your mindset and foster greater success.