Let’s get right into it: It’s New Year’s Eve, the juxtaposition of melodramatic closure of the last year followed by a hopeful outlook for the new year. The clock struck midnight, and the New Year’s resolution fairy pays a visit. “This year, I want to go to the gym three times a week, read one book a month, and travel somewhere exotic…” Fast forward to the first week of January, streets and gyms are packed with joggers and gym-goers. We feel invigorated, “This is great, just by being among other motivated fitness enthusiasts, I can already feel my cholesterol level dropping.”
Fast-forward one month, at 8 a.m.; “Let me just snooze for another 15 minutes, and I will hit the gym after work.” When 5 p.m. comes around, “What an exhausting day at work, I just want to put the TV on, turn off my mind, and disappear into the couch.” From there on, the same day repeats itself, the magical spell of motivation wears off a bit day by day, until the next year, when New Year’s resolution fairy comes and injects us with a booster of motivation.
This is not a cautionary tale, nor a sarcastic mockery that intends to shame the evil twin of motivation, procrastination. As a meticulous machine made by evolution, our brain has a built-in “bug,” the tendency to follow a path of least resistance. Our mind craves instant gratification and ignores long-term fulfillment (here’s a brief video illustration of the famous marshmallow test). For that very reason, we gravitate towards the couch when we really should be going to the gym, and we surrender in front of cookies when we really should be reaching for a bag of carrots.
Source: Andres Ayrton/Pexels
If you are feeling despondent and defeated at this point, I have good news. There are tips we could use to fight the powerful pull towards instant gratification and make our long-term goals possible.
1. Connect to your values before setting goals: Goals are related to overt behaviors while values are compasses that guide our behaviors.
As a therapist, one of the most common enemies towards accomplishing our goals lies in the difference between “goals” and “values.” Goals are about the behavior we are carrying out and they are often concrete. For example, going to the gym three times a week is a goal, while our values regarding health and wellness provide an overarching direction with a set of behaviors, which may include going to the gym and eating healthy. I have often witnessed individuals giving up on their goals of going to the gym after a few days of slacking off or giving up on their goal to eat healthy after a few late-night pizzas. For that reason, goals can be restrictive and oppressive, while values are freeing and liberating. Instead of beating yourself up for not sticking to your fitness goals, consider why (i.e., values) you are agreeing to them in the first place. If you are going to the gym because you value your health and fitness, just because you didn’t go to the gym today does not mean you can’t try again tomorrow or care for your health by eating healthier today. Connect with the values behind your goals and use them as a guide towards who you want to be and what you want to represent.
2. The art of goal-setting: Make them realistic/sustainable and maximize intrinsic motivation.
Another common mistake related to goal-setting is our tendency to overlook the importance of setting realistic and achievable goals. In a study (Wilson & Brookfield, 2009) examining how process (i.e., keeping heart rate above 140 beats per minute for 50% of the workout) versus outcome goals (i.e., losing four kilograms in six weeks) affect participant’s motivation and outcome in an exercise program, researchers found that process-related behavioral goals tend to increase our intrinsic motivation and perceived control over our goals, as well as help us stay in the present rather than focus on future outcome. In other words, it is more tangible to keep our heart rate above 140 for 20 minutes at a time than the pressure of losing four kilos by the end of six weeks.
3. Reduce friction: Instead of working hard, think about working smart.
Far too often, I’ve seen people working hard on their goals and feeling discouraged by the lack of following through. A major misconception regarding goals is that we have to overwrite our brain’s tendency to slack off. The reality is, the brains of those who eat healthy and stay in shape are not so different from the rest of us; they are not genetically modified with more willpower or aversion to junk foods, yet the one difference is that they can convert agonizing behavioral goals into automatic routine habits.
In her book Good Habits, Bad Habits, psychologist Wendy Wood puts eloquently that the key to building healthy behaviors is not willpower or self-control, because simply forcing ourselves to turn away from unhealthy behaviors often backfires (i.e., try not to think about a chocolate glazed donut will only multiply chocolate donuts in your mind). On the other hand, habits are cognitive pathways that are self-reinforcing, they are automatic and do not require much effortful thinking, just as playing the piano or driving a car. It is estimated that a stunning 43% of our daily behaviors are habitual (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 6, 2002).
To increase or decrease the likelihood of a behavior, we can try to creatively increase or decrease “friction,” the barrier that is in between us and our desired behaviors. For example, not having cookies at home or taking a different street to avoid your local bakery are ways of increasing friction, making it more difficult to have access to unhealthy foods, while putting your gym clothes on before your last zoom call or working out at home to avoid traffic are ways of decreasing friction to make it easier to meet your exercise goals. Along the same vein, a helpful way to identify behavioral frictions is to notice what emotions or thoughts you are experiencing before engaging in a behavior: are you dreading the drive to the gym more than the actual workout? Are you noticing boredom or stress before reaching out for chocolate?
Since the pandemic first started, many of us are uprooted in our daily routines and forced to adapt to changes—from the busy morning commute to settling into a home office, from local gyms to virtual fitness classes. I want to offer the hopeful note that sometimes unexpected life changes could present as the catalyst for setting new behaviors. Pay attention to your habits and routines, and introduce incremental changes to create new possibilities. The pandemic may still be looming over us and our lives may still feel constricting, yet we could find freedom by introducing new behaviors for a sense of expansiveness.
Copyright Alina Liu, PsyD