How to Get Your Behavior Change Goals Back on Track
Jaclyn Maher, PhD - University of North Carolina Greensboro
Embarking on a journey to change your behavior for the better is often infused with enthusiasm and determination, but the road to self-improvement can encounter unexpected detours. As the initial excitement wanes and life's complexities unfold, it's not uncommon for good intentions to veer off course.
In fact, almost half of people who set a New Year’s resolution give up on it by the end of January. If you want to get back on track with your behavior change goals, whether it is becoming more physically active, eating a healthier diet, or something else—you are not alone. Indeed, you are in good company.
In truth, anyone who follows through with a substantial change in their behavior will probably have to re-up their energy and determination at some point. Setbacks are normal and are not synonymous with failure. They should be treated merely as expected bumps in the road. However, righting the ship will require a thoughtful reassessment, a renewed connection to your goals, and strategy.
Creating Reachable, Meaningful Behavior Change
Reflect on your why.
Why did you want to change your behavior in the first place? Be candid about what motivates you. Maybe you wanted to become more physically active to ensure you can live independently as you age, or maybe you attempted to eat more fruits and vegetables so you would feel good in a bathing suit on vacation.
Understanding the “why” behind your behavior change desires will reignite your commitment. It could also help identify short-term rewards that will enable you to maintain your behavior change long-term.
Reflect on what worked well and what didn’t.
It’s important to be critical about what worked and what didn’t when you initially tried to change your behavior. You may have planned to get up every weekday at 5 am to exercise, but you couldn’t stop hitting the snooze button, or perhaps your toddlers had FOMO and started waking up at 5 am too (speaking from experience).
In that case, be honest. The mornings are not going to provide the time needed to work out. So, are there times you can fit exercise into your schedule? Conversely, you might realize you are great at sticking with your goals on days when you have an exercise buddy but inconsistent on days when you do not. In that case, make more activity “dates” with friends and family. Send calendar invites and codify schedules.
This kind of reflection will help you adjust your approach, plan ahead, and move forward with newfound knowledge about yourself.
Set realistic and detailed behavior change goals.
Our goals are often too lofty and lack detail. Goals should be challenging but doable. So, take larger goals and break them down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Make progress more tangible as well. The more measurable the better.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you are aiming to eat healthier but you also know that you have a sweet tooth. It probably isn’t realistic to set, “I am not going to eat any sweets” as a goal. Rather you might set a smaller, more specific goal of replacing your nightly bowl of full-fat ice cream with a low-calorie alternative like Greek yogurt ice cream or sorbet.
Create a schedule.
The more specific you are about the when, where, and how of your goals the more likely you will be to follow through.
If you want to eat a healthier diet, meal plan throughout each week. This eliminates the need to think about what you are cooking for dinner on a hectic Tuesday night after your daughter’s soccer game and before your son’s guitar practice because you have already decided (and bought the ingredients, and maybe even done a little of the prep work for the meal).
The same goes for exercise. Don’t just aim to walk more. Plan to go for a 10-minute walk at noon on Friday and put it in your calendar. You will be less likely to hem and haw over whether to actually go for the walk when Friday at noon rolls around. Having a schedule written out will help you stay focused and organized and avoid excuses about “finding time.” You created the time already when you created your schedule.
Create structures of accountability.
Share your goals with a friend, family member, or colleague who can provide support and feedback and hold you accountable. Having someone else to share your progress and challenges with can be motivating too.
Monitor your behavior change journey.
Use smaller goals as check in points and reflect on all that you accomplish. Recognizing your progress, no matter how minor, can boost your confidence and motivated you to stick with your behavioral goals. By monitoring your progress at regular intervals, you can, again, identify things that are not working and change your approach accordingly. Consider modifying your strategies or timelines to better align with your current circumstances.
Make it fun!
We are more likely to stick with behaviors that we find enjoyable. If your behavior change goals involve activities or things you don't particularly enjoy, try to find ways to make them more enjoyable. This could involve incorporating music, socializing, or combining with other things you like.
If that doesn’t work, look around for alternative activities that might support the same result. There are often many ways of reaching your behavior change goals. The key is to find the one that works for you!
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