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A Simple Ritual That Will Make Your Goals “Stick”

Five tips for achieving your goals

Do you struggle with sticking to your exercise, diet or "being nicer and more patient" goals? It's likely that you sabotaged yourself by focusing on what you didn't do instead of celebrating what you did.

The brain needs evidence of success if you want your new behavior to become a habit.

Pathways in the brain act like a rubber band. You can stretch them but they will snap back into place if you don't give yourself evidence that what you want is attainable. You then resign yourself to repeating negative but comfortable behavioral and thinking patterns, using your brain to justify your behavior.

This is especially true for changes that are difficult for you to make. If the brain's primary function is to protect you, it will work hard to keep you from facing a failure. Your emotional brain works in tandem with your logical brain to conjure up masterful rationalizations that enable you to avoid the discomfort of change. Life goes back to normal even if it is unhealthy.

To counteract the brain's love of the status quo, you need to frequently experience the feel-good payoff for your personal development work. From the moment you make the choice to change, you must daily recognize both the effort and positive effects of your work.

For example, you may be working on feeling less irritated with a co-worker. To create long-lasting behavioral change, you need to (1) see early and consistent evidence that you can be successful at letting go of feeling irritated, and (2) sincerely evaluate the evidence as positive when you journal or dialogue about what happened. What does it feel like to be more at peace? How good do you feel when you are gracefully in control? How will this help you get what you want in the future?

Be sure you are emotionally tied to the payoff. Instead of hoping to be thinner, focus on the things you love to do that you will be able to do more of when you are thin. Instead of pushing yourself to exercise more, keep reminding yourself of how wonderful it will be to dance at your grandchild's wedding or be able to fully enjoy your vacations. Tie your success to what you love and value to maintain your motivation.

Remember to write your goals using words that describe what you want to create instead of what you don't want anymore. Your brain doesn't comprehend the word "don't." If you tell yourself, "Don't eat a snack before bed" you are essentially reminding yourself that you will be hungry for a snack before bed. Focus on what you want to create so you can easily identify your evidence of success.

When you regularly identify, document, and acknowledge the evidence that you can successfully enact your goals, you give reality a chance to unfold before your eyes. The more times you acknowledge the good effects of your efforts, the more you feel in control. In summary:

  1. Make sure you have defined specific activities you can celebrate. Set small goals that you can achieve, taking a new step each day.
  2. Write about your victories in a journal so the evidence of success is tangible and accessible for you to review on a regular basis.
  3. Talk about your victories with a buddy who is working with you to achieve similar goals. Or find someone that loves to celebrate with you.
  4. Send congratulations notes to yourself. Predetermine rewards and then give them to yourself to validate your progress.
  5. If you slip, don't beat yourself up. Don't drown yourself in blame, shame, regrets and self-hatred. Be kind to yourself. Forgive the slip. Review your journal of victories. Breath in the sweet taste of gratitude for the work you have done so far.

Personal transformation is more likely to happen if you make a point of noticing your accomplishments every day. Then, little by little, your goals become habits. Eventually, you become the person you vision yourself to be.

More from Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.
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