It's a new year, which comes with a fresh slate for setting exciting goals.
Have you ever made a New Year's resolution to return the gym regularly, then disappointed yourself when you've fallen off the wagon? It doesn't make sense, you were motivated at one point, so where did it go?
While motivation plays a part in achieving our goals, author of Atomic Habits James Clear offers a groundbreaking answer:
"We don't rise to the level of our goals, but fall to the level of our systems".
What does this mean? Simply put, setting ambitious goals can be exhilarating at the beginning of our journey, but it's just that; a journey with a start, middle and end. If you wanted to climb Mt Everest for example, you wouldn't focus on reaching the summit as your first goal, you would focus your energy into reaching Basecamp 1, then 2, then 3 and so on.
So, if reaching the summit is your ultimate goal, how do you actually get to the top?
It all comes down to our "systems" or habits. Actions we perform on a regular basis, that become "instinctual" over time. Think about it, we don't consciously think about the action of washing our hair or brushing our teeth, it's all remembered in our subconscious brain from years of repeatedly performing that action. Therefore, we don't need motivation to do the things that are already subconsciously programmed, like turning on a light switch in a dark room. Once we understand that motivation isn't the first step to try and achieve our desired outcome, it may change the paradigm of goal-setting entirely.
Our goal is to make these actions so effortless and natural, that they feel far less difficult or tiresome to achieve. It's important to note that patience, as well as confidence, are important on this journey, especially if you aren't seeing immediate results.
The formation of habits
Let's understand how habits are formed, so we can then apply this to our goal-setting! Every habit follows the same formative process that consists of 4 steps:
1. Every habit begins with a cue, or trigger to act
2. Then emits a craving for a change in state
3. Followed by a response or action
4. The ends with the reward, or the end goal.
The key takeaway from reviewing this 4-step process, is that habitual actions are always triggered by a cue from a certain stimulus. Trying to eat healthier? Then leave healthy snacks on the counter top to remind you. You can also further strengthen your cue, or trigger, by creating what Clear describes as "implementation intentions". These simply mean taking the ambiguity out of your intentions, and making them clear and structured. For example, if your goal is run everyday, how often will you run? How long will you run for?
You can also leave your running shoes by your bed as the trigger point for your action, thus strengthening your intention and making the achievement of your goal far more likely!
How to build habits
1. Make them fun!
While we don't necessarily need motivation itself to reach our goals, studies have shown that humans do need the anticipation of a reward, to make sticking to the goals more attractive. We can utilise this knowledge by transforming our habits into something we look forward to.
Clear describes this as "temptation bundling"- a fancier way of saying we can combine something we don't enjoy + something we do enjoy = pleasurable activity that is encouraging to continue ongoing. If you love listening to podcasts in the car, but are striving to walk more (even though you find walking boring), simply combine the two as a "temptation bundle", to accomplish the task while still enjoying the activity.
2. Make them easy to stick to
Our behaviours stem from programmed habits that are easy to action, that require little cognitive effort (that's why scrolling on social media is so tempting). Therefore, it's important to try and make our new habits are easy to implement as possible. Sometimes we fall victim to our bad habits, such as getting home from work and instinctively slumping on the couch to watch telly. How would we re-program this behaviour? It's as simple as leaving the remote behind the TV, rather than in an easy-to-grab spot. It disrupts our habit, taking us out of the subconscious mental autopilot of routine. If we want to create a good behaviour, such as drinking more water, keep a glass or bottle near you at all times.
3. Make them satisfying
The final way to change behaviours without motivation is to make your habits fulfilling and satisfying. This is why many of us give up on long-term goals, as the payoff seems too far away to be worth it. This is where patience comes into the process again, however we can always bypass the 'waiting period' by rewarding our ongoing commitment and positive choices.
For example, are you trying to cut down on your bought-coffees during the workweek? Allow yourself a delicious cappuccino or latte one day a week. You're sticking to your commitment to your goal, without depriving yourself of the pleasurable things in life that bring you joy.
Tracking your success
Now that we've discussed how to mould behaviours and create effective habits, how do you keep track of them to achieve your ultimate goals?
Clear advises the use of habit trackers or contracts.
The habit tracker is simply marking off every day you stick to your new habit or ideal behaviour. It offers the instant gratification we discussed earlier to help keep you excited.
The habit contract is essentially a commitment you make to a close friend, partner or family member, with an agreed set of expectations to follow (as well as consequences for failing to commit). Accountability is a big motivator for humans, especially when it could involve letting down someone whose close to us.
While you may not be able to see the direct payoffs, it's important to remember the pivotal role these micro-habits and decisions play in achieving our ultimate goals. You don't need to take giant steps to show you're serious about your dreams, rather, take the time to build a positive and supportive system of small habits to guarantee your success.