5 Key Elements Of Sustainable Change

Good intentions are not enough

Posted Nov 19, 2015

Sticking to one’s plan is hard work. We humans are notoriously poor at following through with our plans. Life has a natural way of derailing even the most carefully laid-out plans. The challenge is finding ways to close the gap between good intentions and human nature. Self-control is the key to success. Self-control is the capacity to restrain unwanted thoughts and impulses in the pursuit of long-term goals. Successful self-control depends on the following factors.

1. Goals. One has to have a goal. Goals basically guide our choices. The more specific the goal, the better able people are to reach it. A highly abstract goal may not be actionable (e.g., to get healthy). For example, instead of pursuing the goal of “being healthy”, a person may adopt the goal of “walking at least 30 minutes everyday”, which is more concrete and easier to monitor. Also, it is easier to postpone vague (or open-ended) goals with remote deadlines than focused and short-term tasks. Having only one goal makes self-control more successful than when people have two or more conflicting goals. For example, it makes no sense to decide that one is going to quit smoking and diet at the same time. As Plato’s counseled: “Do one thing and do it well.”

2. Motivation. One has to be motivated and committed to reach the goal. The more you want the goal, the more likely you are willing to make the efforts and sacrifices required to achieve it. For example, most people believe that smoking cigarettes is bad for them, and many have quit smoking in order to improve their health, but others may not value that outcome. An important way of motivating people is the use mental contrasting strategy, a problem-solving strategy for achieving goals. The strategy implies vividly imagining a desired future (e.g., overcoming a bad habit), anticipating obstacles for realizing this future, and making plans on how to overcome these barriers. In his book The Power of Negative Thinking (2013), the basketball coach Bobby Knight writes about the importance of “mistake-avoidance strategy.” He defines it as “recognizing, addressing, and removing obstacles to winning.” That includes preparation and the elimination of mistakes.

3. Self-confidence. Confidence in one’s abilities generally enhances motivation, making it a valuable asset for individuals. The confident individual is more likely to persist in the face of obstacles. In the face of difficulties, people with weak self-confidence beliefs easily develop doubts about their ability to accomplish the task at hand, whereas those with strong beliefs are more likely to continue their efforts to master a task when difficulties arise. When low self-confidence causes people to avoid activities, they miss the opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills. For example, a college student with a low sense of confidence for math may avoid enrollment in upper-level math courses. The decision not to enroll then deprives him of the skills development experiences. In contrast, goal attainment may raise feelings of self-confidence, which can result in one setting even more challenging goals.

4. Self–Monitor. Self-monitoring is a form of feedback. Monitoring progress toward goal attainment helps one to concentrate on goal-relevant activities. For example, evidence shows that a key success factor to weight-loss maintenance is the use of self-monitoring. Successful dieters count calories and otherwise carefully monitor their food intake, and that the cessation of monitoring often undermines dietary efforts. In general, monitoring allows people to assess distance to the goal, which can be done by either looking back at how much one has achieved, or how much more has to be done. Focusing on the unaccomplished portion of a goal provides a bigger incentive for those who have a deeper commitment to the goal, while focusing on the accomplished portion better motivates people whose commitment is more uncertain.

5. Willpower. Willpower represents vitality or psychological energy that one uses to resist other temptations in order to work toward one’s goal. When in vital states, people are more active and productive, cope better with stress and challenges. For example, reformed alcoholics are far more likely to relapse if they are depressed, or anxious or tired. Diets are broken in evenings more than mornings, which suggest that as the day wears on willpower gets depleted.

In conclusion, if you want to know whether someone will stick to a given goal (resolution) you will need to know how specific/realistic the goal, about his motivation, his level of confidence, and the strength of his willpower.