Plan a Process Goal
If you’re like most people, you promise yourself that you’re going to lose those 10 extra pounds and drop a dress size, or maybe lower your cholesterol and improve your health. Frustration mounts and, as each year passes, you likely struggle to meet these goals.
Rather than focusing on yourself as the failure, take a close look at the goal itself. Goals often focus solely on the outcome. Unfortunately, you cannot directly control an outcome. You can’t mandate that your body lose 10 pounds or force a change in cholesterol, but you can control the action steps you take to get there. Process goals are behavioral objectives you plan to implement to achieve your desired goal. By focusing on these behavioral objectives rather than the outcome, you become empowered to take action toward healthy behavior change.
If your outcome goal is a change in weight or health status, create a process goal by determining the step(s) you will take to get there. For example, if “lower your cholesterol” is your goal, how will you do it? Will you increase your daily steps? Include a fiber-rich food at each meal?
Solidify your goal by nailing down the details. When will you perform this behavior? Where and with whom? How will you do it? The more detailed your process goal, the greater your likelihood of success.
In a perfect world, your process goal would be enough, but in the real world this is never the case. Whether it’s time, obligations, finances or simply disinterest, barriers to adherence come up. Consider what obstacles might arise or identify the barriers that have knocked you off track in the past and make a realistic plan to address them.
For example, if your new workout routine requires you to be at the gym five days a week, consider alternatives that necessitate less time or travel when time is tight. Though fewer or shorter workouts may not be ideal, some movement is always better than none.
Whether you choose an ACE Certified Health Coach or Personal Trainer, your best friend or an office mate, find an accountability buddy to check in with. Social support is essential for maintaining healthy behavior change.
Determine exactly what this accountability will look like. How often, when and where will you check in? What exactly will you be checking on? This will help you maintain focus and direction as the initial excitement of a new goal wanes.
As humans, we have a natural negativity bias that extends to our own self-evaluations. This causes us to focus more on what’s wrong with us rather than what is right. We get frustrated and beat ourselves up at the first sign of derailment, hoping this will push us back on track.
Unfortunately, self-criticism is not the great motivator we imagine it to be. In fact, recent research suggests that self-criticism actually worsens eating behavior and weight-loss outcomes (Duarte et al., 2017).
Self-compassion, on the other hand, can be a much more powerful tool for behavior change (Terry and Leary, 2011). And, while it might sound extravagant, self-compassion isn’t overly permissive.
Consider a 7-year-old child who struggles with his math homework. You encourage the child to keep at it, not because he’s bad, flawed or incapable. Rather, you know that even though learning multiplication tables is tough, it's ultimately necessary for the child's long-term well-being.
Self-compassion can be similarly applied to your own resolutions. Creating lasting behavior change is challenging. Rather than beating yourself up when you veer off track, acknowledge that what you are trying to do is hard and setbacks are normal. Then reaffirm that you’re working in your own long-term best interest, even when it doesn't feel like it in the moment.
Changing behaviors to improve health is a long-term process requiring forethought, preparation, accountability and compassion. Consider these steps when planning this year, and make your 2018 New Years Resolution one that lasts.
Duarte, C. et al. (2017). The impact of shame, self-criticism and social rank on eating behaviors in overweight and obese women participating in a weight management program. PLOS ONE, 12, 1, e0167571.
Terry, M.L. and Leary, M.R. (2011). Self-compassion, self-regulation and health. Self and Identity, 10, 3, 352–362.