How to create and maintain change
The energy and excitement of the holidays motivates many of us to pen well-intentioned resolutions. As we come off the high of new beginnings and settle back into humdrum responsibilities, maintaining that enthusiasm gets hard, real fast. Fortunately, we can turn to the principles of Learning Theory to help trick our brain into following through.
Here are some tips on how to build and maintain momentum when creating new routines.
Tip #1 - Set the right intention
Most of us have heard of SMART goals: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. You may even be a pro at creating them. But have you ever considered whether the goals you are setting align with your core values?
Let's take the very original New Year's resolution of physical fitness as an example. A SMART goal could look like: "I will lose 15lbs in 6 months." We could then break this down into specific sub-goals that lay out the weight-loss plan (for example, run three times a week, consume bread on weekends only, and so forth). Now what's the why? Why should I care about this goal? Why should I put myself through the hell of dieting and sweating for the next six months? I would much rather sleep in, carb-load in the dead of Winter, and stay up watching Netflix!
Dig deep to identify your top handful of core values, the ones that are your guiding compass when you are at a proverbial fork in the road. And answer this question, "How does this goal bring me closer to living a life in line with my values?" If Independence is one of your core values, perhaps working out helps you feel stronger, both physically and mentally. If Health is one of your core values, perhaps losing weight helps you address some chronic medical conditions. If Community is one of your core values, perhaps joining a running club helps you feel more connected to others in your neighborhood. Remembering this why will help pull you through when commitment to your resolution feels shaky.
How does this goal bring me closer to living a life in line with my values?
Tip #2 - Small things often
When creating change, think small. Incremental change is a more sustainable way to maintain gains in the long run. If you go too big too fast, you're likely to burnout before you get to the finish line.
After setting your value-aligned SMART goals, break them into bite sized steps - Steps so small that they do not require much of a stretch to reach. In Learning Theory, this is called Shaping. We shape behavior towards a target goal by reinforcing only those actions that are getting closer to the target behavior. This iterative process increases opportunities for positive reinforcement and so maintains the motivation to keep trying. Notice that shaping does not involve punishment for failing to meet the next iteration of change. You simply try again until you get it right and then move on to the next approximation of your target behavior.
Tip #3 - The Premack Principle
Those of you with kids have used the Premack Principle if you have ever told your child that they have to eat their veggies before they get to eat ice cream. David Premack's research on learning behavior taught us that behaviors we are more likely to engage in (because we presumably enjoy doing them) will reinforce behaviors that we are less likely to engage in (because we presumably don't enjoy doing them).
In other words, if I pair my desire to bum out in front of Netflix every night with my not-so-strong desire, but new-year-new-me-resolution to move my body more, I am more likely to achieve my goal. How could I do this? Maybe I walk on a treadmill or do squats while watching Netflix. Maybe I don't allow myself to watch Netflix unless I first go out for a walk. I can pair the less desirable and more desirable activities in any way I want, so long as engagement with the more desirable activity is contingent upon completing the less desirable activity first.
Tip #4 - Be flexible
Part of being kind to ourselves is being flexible with ourselves. Instead of setting strict rules around when you will do the tasks required to achieve your SMART goal, set expectations around how often you will do said activities. Coming back to our example of physical fitness, a "fixed marker" of achievement would be running every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; a "flexible marker" of achievement would be running three times a week. With "flexible markers" your mind will have fewer opportunities to beat you up for having an off-day. If your self-esteem and motivation take less of a beating, the one off-day is less likely to become an off-week or an off-month. Greater flexibility and kindness with yourself will more likely lead to small successes that build momentum.
Tip #5 - Believe in yourself, but ... Do Not trust yourself!
This one is simple. Instead of being cocky and thinking you can go it alone, call in help. Recruit a friend, family, or app to hold you accountable for sticking to your goals. We all need community to cheer us on.
If your self-esteem and motivation take less of a beating, the one off-day is less likely to become an off-week or an off-month. Greater flexibility and kindness with yourself will more likely lead to small successes that build momentum.
Now Keep At It, Don't Give Up!
Let this year be the year that you let yourself fall without beating yourself up for it. Remember, your goals are supposed to be realistic. That means keeping realistic expectations of yourself -- accepting that you (like all human beings) are likely to struggle, not beating yourself up when you do, and getting right back up to try again. The tips in this post are not going to prevent you from struggling. They WILL help you maintain your resolve and build momentum to help achieve your resolutions!