By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, MSW, RSW
The fading summer months can stir in us renewed motivation. The temperature cools and sharpens and it nudges us from summer dreams. We are suddenly squirrels, conscious of the nuts that must be stored for the cold months ahead.
Fall seems to be a time for self-reflection. A time to take a step back, and take a good look. A time to reflect on goals met, un-met, in-progress and to-be-determined.
Yet, so many of us regularly find that another year has passed and and we are not any closer to meeting our goals. Often, a desire for change is just not enough. That’s because when we set goals, we often fail to reset our brains to acknowledge them. Then, when the momentum of the changing season wears off, we settle back into our regular patterns. We forget that our brain’s default is our well-worn habits.
To help train your brain for much better results this fall, you can start by completing these tasks:
1. Ask and answer: “What exactly do I want to accomplish?”
This might seem obvious, but clarifying the specific changes you want to make is integral to the change process. If you’re feeling a need for change but still struggling to figure out what exactly that change should be, you can start by exploring one question:
if I could wake tomorrow and my life is better, happier, more meaningful what would be different?
Clarifying what you want can help elucidate the ripple effect that a change will make in your life, and really awaken your brain to the significance.
2. Ask and answer: “Why do I want to accomplish this?”
As I said above, just knowing what you want to accomplish might not be enough to ensure the follow-through. It helps to make the value of the goal clear. (Moreover, if you take a good look and find that the value is not really substantive, you might find the reason you haven’t been overly motivated!)
Take a notebook and write out the answer to the questions:
“why do I want to accomplish this?” and “how will my life be better?”
To make the value even more clear, write out the costs and the benefits of things remaining how they are. Then write out the costs and benefits of completing the goal. Help your brain become more conscious of all the reasons you really want to make this change.
I’m not joking when I say write it out. We can ‘know’ something in the back of our minds but that knowledge can lose fortitude in the busy moments of our daily life. In order to solidify goals in our brains, it is best to spend a little time reviewing all of the reasons we want to make change. Writing it out helps to forge a tangible argument that we can return to when competing thoughts (“I’ll start tomorrow”, “it’s unobtainable” “It’s not worth it!”) come in and pull us off schedule. Many studies have shown the impact of actually putting pen to paper in solidifying understanding in our consciousness. (See references listed below.)
3. Figure out what gets in the way of accomplishing these goals
Change is a process, not an event – and it is the small moments when we make the small choices that we move toward our goals. Each time we choose a small behaviour that disrupts our progress we take a step in the wrong direction. We reinforce our old neuropathways that keep us in this habit behaviour and away from our goal. So every goal-oriented choice helps set a new habit in your brain, and every goal-disruptive choice will only reinforce the old patterns and make them stronger.
Many of our behaviours get in the way of accomplishing our goals. And though these behaviours might be pretty obviously disruptive, (staying up all night watching Netflix made me pass on my morning meditation practice), it is helpful to start to name and record the choices we make that keep us off track, i.e.: Increase your consciousness of them.
Then, ask yourself, why?
Try your best to bring awareness to the moment when you have chosen a disruptive behaviour. Acknowledge the behaviour as non-judgementally as possible. The key here is self-compassion. If you judge or get angry with yourself, you will likely feel shame and want to withdraw and hide in the habit behaviour, not challenge it. The shame will likely not help you feel confident and motivated to make change and pursue your goal.
Instead, get curious and compassionate with yourself. Really consider why you are choosing the disruptive behaviour: what is going on for me that makes me want this behaviour? What am I really feeling that is making me want to choose this? Try your best to name the emotion, “overwhelmed”, “anxious”, “sad”, “hurt” – whatever it may be, and then consider whether there are other things you can do that would truly fulfill this need or help soothe you. (it’s helpful to have a list ready – see rest and recreation below).
4. Focus on the journey – not the outcome
Emphatic focus on the end goal can actually be counterproductive to the change process. We get caught up in valuing outcomes and forget to value effort. If we don’t value our small efforts and congratulate ourselves for them, we likely won’t make them. Be sure to notice any steps you take toward your goal and celebrate them. This will cause your brain to seek this reward again and keep you moving in the right direction.
Set a structure
Start small and create a structure of smaller goals that will lead to your desired end. Remember, you are retraining your brain here, so we need to build the appropriate neurological infrastructure to make new habits sustainable. If not, the task will be too much of a change to ask of your brain and the mass of that big goal might overwhelm you and cause you to seek refuge in avoidance. Identify some small steps that you might take, even ten minutes a day to start and then commit to gradually growing from there. Then pay close attention to times when you choose not to complete the goals of the week/day/moment. Notice what thoughts get in the way and write them down. Then ask yourself if the thoughts are wholly true and consider whether you really have to follow them.
Schedule Rest and Recreation
Make sure that steps toward this goal are feasible for you now. Be sure it is not just one more thing you have to do in your incredibly busy schedule. Be sure to revel in the sense of accomplishment you get from the small tasks toward your goal.
We all need rest and rejuvenation time so that we can be active for accomplishment. Recreation is needed to “recreate” ourselves and our motivation. Increase your overall motivation by setting pleasurable tasks, and those that give you little senses of accomplishment throughout your day. This will get your momentum moving for the bigger goals on the horizon.
5. Consider how you motivate yourself
When it comes to self-motivation we really do catch more flies with honey. As Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff writes,
“There is an ever-increasing body of research that attests to the motivational power of self-compassion. Self-compassionate people set high standards for themselves, but they aren’t as upset when they don’t meet their goals.” (Neff, self-compassion.org)
This type of attitude breeds a go get-em approach to goal achievement. While, the opposite, self-criticism, breeds fear, avoidance, low self-worth and minimal sense of reward for task completion.
As Neff writes,
“The habit of self-criticism engenders fear of failure, meaning that self-critics often don’t even try achieving their goals because the possibility of failure is unacceptable.” (Neff, self-compassion.org)
The more we try to drive ourselves with fear, blame and shame, the more likely we are to attach our accomplishments to our overall sense of self-worth. If my entire worth is dependent on the goal achievement, I will feel way too much pressure, and likely retreat and avoid, and have difficulty truly registering and celebrating the little steps forward that form the progress.
For some self-critics the fear of failure really does spark the fires of motivation. However, when it does, it also brings lowered self-worth, ample chance of burn-out and a dulled reward when the goal is accomplished. When motivated by our critical voice, goal accomplishments are barely registered, but simply help us feel as though we’ve remained afloat for now, and our worth is now in the balance of the next achievement.
Anticipate lapses and set-backs
If, (and likely when), you do have set-backs, remind yourself they are part of the process and self-compassion is your friend. Your old neuropathways are always ready to fire and send you back into old habits. It happens to all of us. Shaming yourself will likely make you frustrated, hurt and zap your motivation, read: “I knew you couldn’t do this – you may as well eat the whole thing!” Plan for setbacks and lapses and approach yourself with compassion and curiosity when you have them, and always.
Any and all of these steps are easier said than done, and often require some help and support. If you are struggling with setting and maintaining healthy goals you might benefit from the support of a qualified CBT therapist.
I maintain a regular mental health blog on the darouwellness.com site, so check back in for more support for anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional difficulties, trauma and general coping and mental wellness.
Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet is a Mental Health Therapist, Supervisor and Instructor.
- Breines, G., Chen, S., (2012). Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Personality and Social Security Bulletin. University of California, Berkeley, USA.
- Carver, Charles S.; White, Teri L., (1994). Behavioral inhibition, behavioral activation, and affective responses to impending reward and punishment: The BIS/BAS Scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(2)319-333.
- Neff, K. The Motivational Power of Self-Compassion. From: http://self-compassion.org/the-motivational-power-of-self-compassion/
- P. A. Mueller, D. M. Oppenheimer, (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science.
- Prochaska, JO et al., (1992). In Search of How People Change. American Psychologist, 27(9)1102–1114.
- Segal, Z., Williams, J. M. G., Teasdale, J. D., (2013). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression. New York: The Guilford Press.
- Wallace, R., Pearman, C., Hail, C., Hurst, B., (2007). Writing for Comprehension. Reading Horizons, 48(1)41-56.