Why Simply Setting Goals Still Isn't Motivating You To Follow Through

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Years ago, when I was 19, my first mentor asked me to write down a list of my goals. He gave me a sheet of paper to fill out that had topics like health, wealth, relationships, business, lifestyle, experiences, and charitable contributions. I filled out the sheet, and then he asked me the question that really changed my life: Was I interested in, or was I committed to, achieving these goals?

I asked him what the difference was. He said, "If you're interested, you'll do what's convenient. You'll come up with stories and excuses and reasons why you can't. If you're committed, you'll do whatever it takes."

Thinking about your own life now, if you've set goals for yourself in the past and failed to achieve them, does that mean you're not committed? Not necessarily. The word "committed" means different things to different people. Sometimes, our long-range goals can seem so big and so far away that—as much as we commit to striving for them—they continue to feel out of reach, and we continue to feel like we're failing. The key is to reframe how we commit and what we commit to.

More than a goal, your brain needs a plan.

One clue as to why it's so easy to give up on big goals and fall into old, well-worn behavior patterns can be found in the way our brains work. If you decide to lose weight, for example, you may set a goal of changing your diet. You may even feel truly inspired by your goal and committed to your success—yet the next thing you know, you're right back there in front of your TV snacking on unhealthy, processed foods. How did this happen?

The brain has a built-in conflict of interest when it comes to time. It literally has two different clocks: Part of the brain works to set goals for the future, but another part is focused on immediate gratification. This is why simply setting large goals isn't actually pushing you to do the work you want to do; those goals are running on one clock but totally ignoring the other.

The bridge between these two regions of your brain is planning. Unless you have a specific plan in place for what steps to take when your gratification center comes into play, you will default to old patterns of behavior over and over again. That's not a lack of commitment; it's a lack of a plan.

Photo: Guille Faingold

Imagine you're tasked with the job of getting a group of people to exercise at least once a week. You know from experience that even one exercise session a week is difficult to get people to maintain. So how would you do it? Without paying them, punishing them, or forcing them, how would you get a group of couch potatoes to change their ways?

Using some good old psychology, you could probably come up with a few ideas. For example:

  1. Measure: by asking people to track their exercise each day.
  2. Motivate: by handing out some information on how exercise combats heart disease.
  3. Plan: by asking people to write down in advance specifically when and where they would exercise.

These are all tried-and-true approaches for getting people to take action toward a goal, but which works the best? Researchers did a similar experiment, and their results are astonishing:

  • Group 1 (measure) exercised at least once a week 38 percent of the time.
  • Group 2 (measurement plus motivation) exercised at least once a week 35 percent of the time.
  • Group 3 (measurement, motivation, and planning) exercised at least once a week an amazing 98 percent of the time!

Planning was the "X" factor. In fact, as you can see, using motivation without planning (Group 2) reduced the number of people who exercised. To be clear, these weren't complicated plans. All that the researchers asked Group 3 to do was fill in the blank on one simple statement: "During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE]."

That's it. A simple sentence completion involving planning, and participants were able to nearly triple their success rate beyond motivational approaches alone.

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Committing to one small step can make all the difference.

So sure, go ahead and set a huge goal—but create a plan to get there, and let that plan start with one small, achievable step. Allow "commitment" to your goal to mean fully enrolling yourself in achieving one small step toward it. Then, once you achieve that, commit to the next small step.

How would your relationship to your goals change if you allowed yourself to commit to one small step at a time? Being solely committed to the final outcome can often feel overwhelming. When you only focus on the end goal, it's easy to tell yourself, "That's too far away. I can't make it." On the other hand, if you commit—right here, today—to just one achievable step, you begin putting the essential building blocks in place to achieve your larger goal but without the pressure that comes with committing to only the end result.

Try out these bite-size commitments:

  • Yes, I'm committed to one step today.
  • Yes, I'm committed to one action that builds my mental, emotional, and physical self toward my ultimate goals and dreams.
  • Yes, I commit to picking myself up when I fall down and taking the next small step toward my goal.

The way to reach any goal is one step at a time. Bite off just as much as you can chew each day, commit to that, and you take down the tension level of feeling like you're failing in the face of some insurmountable task. Even two minutes a day dedicated to your goal will help you reach it—and if you can't commit to two, commit to one.

Be committed to one small thing each day that will build the momentum of positive reinforcement in your brain that is required to reach your goal. Be committed to yourself. Pick yourself up and keep going as many times as you need to, no matter what. Challenge yourself to let go of what isn't working. Be committed to not staying in the same mental, emotional, or physical struggle you are in now; then take one step toward a positive shift. Commit to taking away the option of "staying where I am." Once you remove that option, take one step; then take another step.

That's how you slowly build the neuro muscles—the confidence muscles, the certainty muscles—and that's what it's going to take to achieve your goals and dreams. But you don't have to eat the whole elephant! Just take a little bite, today.

Now here are the 5 questions to ask yourself to make sure your goals are achievable.

And are you ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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