How many times have you achieved a goal — running a 5k, dropping 5lbs pounds for a social event, studying hard to ace an exam or presentation — only to abandon those same behaviors that got you to the finish line in the first place?
Finish lines are a tricky business. On the one hand, it’s tough to focus and achieve without a target in sight; definitive goals can inspire action and persistence and, once achieved, send confidence soaring.
On the other hand, eyeing a destination point can undermine lasting behavior change. After all, that finish line signals “You did It!” Crossing it can, quite suddenly, leave you feeling aimless. And if the journey was unenjoyable, stressful, or all-consuming, you may, out of sheer relief, relax all the rules and inch back toward your old habits.
How can you avoid “destination deflation” but still set goals for 2016 that are motivating and action-oriented?
When drafting your 2016 goals, try choosing different words; a strategy known as reframing.
For example, you might reframe “I want to drop three dress sizes for my high school reunion” as “I want to be a fit, healthy, and vibrant person.” Or you could reframe “I want to get a promotion at work” to “I want to be a more charismatic, collaborative manager.”
The idea is to shift your thinking away from goals that have a defined endpoint and toward goals that are concrete but have no finish line — in other words away from “doing” goals and toward “being” goals.
It’s a small change with huge implications. Reframing in this way forces you to ask yourself: Do I want to reach my full potential, or do I really just care about that promotion? The shift in perspective may even spark additional “being goals” that you hadn’t considered previously.
Wendy Lubell, a fitness expert and wellness coach in Washington, DC, used the reframing strategy with a workaholic client in her fifties who “felt fat and miserable” and wanted to lose the 10 pounds she’d gained since her twenties. “She’d get up at 5 a.m. to run hard on the treadmill before her high-powered job, and she didn’t sleep enough,” says Wendy. “She thought yoga and stretching were a waste of time, and she wouldn’t be caught dead walking in the neighborhood — she thought it was wimpy.”
Wendy prompted her client to consider why she felt losing 10 pounds was so important. “Why do you want to fit into those jeans?” she asked. “What is it that you’re trying to feel? How do you want your life to be?”
Eventually, the client realized it wasn’t a 10-pound weight loss she was chasing; it was a more balanced life. She agreed to try walking outdoors and was surprised to find it relaxing. “Breathing fresh air and getting sunlight, she was able to get into a meditative state,” says Wendy. “She’s so much happier now and recognizes all the pressure she put on herself.” The client lost weight but stopped obsessing about the scale.
Here are some strategies you can use to choose goals for 2016 that inspire action while also keeping the big picture in view.
- Look beyond the finish line.
Ask, “Where do I see myself after the reunion?” or “What happens after I get that promotion?” It’s absolutely important to set realistic goals and behaviors to reach your goals but don’t neglect to look further down the road.
- Find your intrinsic motivation.
You may be tempted to revert to your old habits once you reach your finish line, so ask yourself what you enjoy most when you’re in pursuit of a goal and try to incorporate that into a less ambitious, maintenance-oriented goal. For instance, if you enjoy the camaraderie of your Sunday morning training group, look for a post-race source for camaraderie, like a 3 mile Sunday run with a few friends, followed by coffee.
- Ask yourself “why”?
If you’re set on getting that promotion at work, ask yourself why and keep asking until you get to the real, underlying emotional driver behind your goal. Is it more money that you want or is it actually more respect? Once you understand that, you may realize that the goal you have in mind won’t satisfy your need.
- Set a behavioral goal to accompany your destination goal.
For example, if you’re training for a century bike ride, aim to eat a healthier breakfast every day or improve your flexibility by taking yoga twice a week. If those new behaviors become habitual, you’re more likely to stick with them after the event is over – even if your training plan screeches to a halt.
- Don’t throw your work-family-leisure time out of balance.
It’s especially tough to get going again if the pursuit of a particular goal has dominated your life for months. Make sure you keep space for regular life so when you achieve your goal, you’re not faced with a huge void.
- Ditch the word “goal”— at least for a few months.
This might seem like a radical step to take. We’re all so programmed to set goals and achieve them. But constantly setting goals, even reasonable ones, suggests that success and contentment are in your future, not your present. Persistent pressure to achieve can drain the joy out of self-improvement. Taking a break from goals may, ironically, be just what you need to make progress.
Here’s the bottom line — maintaining healthy and productive habits after achieving a goal depends largely on your definition of success. If you define success as feeling strong and vibrant you will maintain your good habits far more readily than if you consider “success” to mean losing 20 pounds.
Sharen Ross is the co-founder of www.mazlo.me. Mazlo’s two-week programs help people unlock their potential for personal and professional growth with just ten minutes a day of real-life practice supported by two weeks of personalized 1:1 coaching.