Finding your inner resolve: setting specific goals and managing stress are key to making your changes last

Ah, it’s that time of year again. January 1. The promise of a new start, and the fragile hope that as we embark upon another waltz around the Gregorian calendar we might just do it better this time.

That 2019 will be one of growth and progress, not just more of the same. We will get fit. We will eat more chia seeds. We will read more mind-improving books.

For many of us, celebrating New Year means dusting off the same old resolutions we’ve been making for years now. Renewing the gym membership that, last year, barely got used after February. Pitching ourselves into the annual self-improvement frenzy with a kind of vague, abstract optimism, rather than a concrete plan. But a little understanding of the science of psychology and human behaviour can go a long way if we want to turn wishful thinking into lasting change.

Don’t rely on willpower

We tend to believe that the difference between whether we succeed or fail in our goals all comes down to discipline. But according to clinical psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy, reliance on willpower is a red herring. “Willpower will only get you so far,” he explains, adding that it’s better to think of willpower as short lasting, but motivation as sustaining and longer lasting. The key to stoking motivation? “You need a plan in place.”

That plan, he goes on, should be as detailed and specific as possible. When it comes to setting goals, Murphy cites the SMART goals acronym. It’s in common use in corporate strategy and management, but can be usefully applied to personal goals as well. It stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

“There are two parts to sustaining resolution,” says Murphy. “One is identifying what you want. That vision for yourself in the future. And mapping that vision out. For some people, that is where the use of vision boards and having a plan for where you want to be comes in. But that’s not strong enough either. That’s like your magnet, to pull you to that space. You need to then plot the steps to get there. And that’s where goal-setting plays a massive role in order that you go from wishful thinking to achieving.”

He offers the example of applying the SMART criteria to health goals. “So instead of saying I want to be healthier, I want to be happier, I want to lose weight — they are all very loosely defined. Whereas if you said I want to lose 2lbs a week for the next eight weeks. That’s a very defined goal. The more you can define what you want the better.”

Build your self-efficacy

Dr Murphy adds that another vital factor which influences a person’s likelihood of sticking to a resolution relates to what psychologists call self-efficacy.

“Self-efficacy is your confidence in your ability to achieve something. A person might make a goal and say ‘I want to lose half a stone’. But if you said to the person, how confident are you that you can achieve that, on a scale of zero to 100? They might say I’m only 5pc confident, or 10pc confident. We know that goal won’t be achieved, because the person is not confident,” he explains. This applies regardless of what the goal is, whether it’s giving up smoking or moving forward in a career. If you feel defeated from the outset, you’re doomed.

“So the kicker question is, what can you do to increase your confidence by 10pc or 20pc.”

According to Dr Eddie Murphy, it’s best for the individual to try to troubleshoot the problem themselves. “A person will often identify their own solution,” he says. It might be ‘I’ll get a wearable tracker. I’ll engage in peer support around my goal. I’ll get a mentor. (if it’s a career goal) I’ll get a life coach.’ He says the key is to identify and plan for things that can give you a boost along the way.

“Before anything happens, your confidence, your self-efficacy needs to increase. It’s the secret sauce, self-efficacy. It can be bolstered by specific tools.”

Be responsive, not reactive

Motivation and confidence trainer Pat Divilly agrees that confidence is vital. But in his coaching work, he also emphasises the significance of stress as an obstacle to sticking to resolutions. Under stress, he says, we tend to revert to the same ingrained habits and behaviours of old.

It’s all very well, he says “thinking about thriving in life and working on your goals. But if a tiger comes into the room we don’t care our goals anymore, we just care about survival. And in the same way, our body doesn’t know the difference between the stress of a tiger coming into the room or the stress of fighting with our partner, the stress of our boss giving us grief. We get into a flight or fight response, we just want to survive and we revert back to old behaviours that maybe haven’t supported us.”

The answer, he says, is to practice techniques that counter stress, and help us respond to a stressful situation rather than react to it. The distinction is a crucial one.

“Reactions happen in the moment, but they are what you do on autopilot,” he explains. “A response is also something that you do in the moment, but it gives you what you want in the long term. And the difference between both is the level of stress.”

When you become reactive, or when you are likely to revert to behaviours from the past, he advises taking “a few conscious breaths” as a way of changing gear from being in the “survival part of the brain”.

That applies whether that is lighting up a cigarette, putting off a work project or going to the gym. “If, for example, you are craving for a cigarette, before you cave, take four or five conscious breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth.”

He’s a big advocate for relaxation techniques as the foundation for any kind of behavioural change. Whether it’s breath or meditation or going for walk, he believes in the importance of building “increments or pockets of time in the day you can put in there where you give yourself a chance to relax. . . I’m always telling people in corporate, if you think about an athlete going to the gym every day and really putting pressure on their body every day, eventually they’re going to get injured. They have to put in the time for rest and recovery.”

The principle applies to any kind of performance, at work or in relationships “those efforts of relaxation are important for ‘emotional’ recovery. They help you come back into the room again and be more creative and more responsive.” In a better place, all around, to move forward and thrive.

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