If you were faced with the decision to quit a bad habit or die, which would you choose?
Easy, right? You’d choose to quit the bad habit and prolong your life.
Or would you?
In one study, 60% of patients facing death due to cigarette consumption chose not to quit. Even though quitting smoking would save their life. (1)
Why do we avoid positive behaviour changes?
Two in three Americans is overweight or obese, (2) even though we have more access to healthy foods than at any other time in history. Nearly 70% of workers are disengaged at work – (3) even though there’s never been more effort or research poured into developing and supporting teams.
Even more shocking, a Harvard Medical School Study found that the majority of patients with lifestyle-related diseases that would lead to an early death ( like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, lung disease) were not able or unwilling to change their behaviour. (4)
Even when your life is on the line, why do you refuse to change the very behaviour that is keeping you sick?
Consider the following:
A study in the Journal of Neurology, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry (February 2012), which involved more than 15,000 American adults with a history of stroke, found that regular exercise and not smoking were each associated with a reduced risk of dying from any cause. Moreover, the more healthy behaviors that participants embraced (for example, eating five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables in addition to exercising and not smoking), the lower their death rate for all causes.
This probably doesn’t come as new information to anyone: exercise, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, don’t smoke, avoid excess alcohol consumption and you’ll live a longer and healthier life. No surprises here. We know this to be unequivocally true.
Why then, do you indulge in the activities or habits that are bad for you and avoid incorporating the activities or habits that are good for you?
Why you don’t change your habits
One potential reason for keeping your unhealthy or detrimental habits is that they’re secretly helping you achieve an unconscious goal. Sounds crazy, right? You’re the master of your domain.
How could a behavior you want to change actually be of any benefit?
When you make a new goal (think of New Year’s Day) you’ll either want to:
- Eliminate a ‘bad’ behaviour (like quit smoking) or,
- Encourage a ‘good’ behaviour (like going to the gym).
Your inability to follow through on these new goals is because you also have a competing agenda.
The problem with most goals or habit changes is that they fail to look at the whole picture. For example:
- Your smoking habit might have some surprising, subconscious benefits. Perhaps smoking allows you twelve ten-minute breaks all to yourself every day – a time where you do your best thinking.
- Maybe going to the gym five times a week will severely interrupt (and even erase) the quality time you get with your family at the end of each day.
All too often, the goals you set fail to take in the big picture. And when you fail to consider all the other moving parts that make up your life, you begin to see why sticking to goals/ambitions can be so challenging.
Let me lead with a couple of examples:
- Imagine an attractive, young woman that constantly received unwanted male attention. Cat calls, lewd remarks, you name it. She hated the attention so much that she (unconsciously) gained weight. When she was overweight, the male attention decreased.
Now at the age of forty, this same woman wants to lose weight. But she never seems to be able to stick to nutrition plans over the long term. She loses weight but then gains it right back. When she takes the time to reflect on the big picture of her weight loss goal, she sees that there are competing ambitions. One part of her wants to lose weight. But another part of her still wants to avoid unwanted male attention.
- A mother with chronic fatigue syndrome has set a New Year’s resolution to follow a fatigue-busting nutrition plan. This is not a new goal. Every few months she tries a nutrition plan. But she can’t seem to stick with it for more than a month.
After following the goal setting exercise I outline below, she has an ‘a-ha’ moment. Every time she embarks on a nutrition plan, she drives a wedge between her and her family at meal time. She prepares and eats food that are completely different from what her family eats. This separation in food results in a separation in family time, to the point where they don’t even eat meals together.
There are competing agendas at play. One part of her wants to regain her energy and she knows that changing her nutrition plays a pivotal role. But she also needs to have quality time with her family, and the only time this is available in their busy schedules is during meals.
This lack of behaviour change in these two examples are not due to a lack of willpower.
Your resistance to change has far more to do with there being a chasm of disconnect between what you genuinely want and what you are able to do. To bring about positive behaviour changes, you need to bridge the chasm.
A how-to guide on functional goal setting
You now know why you don’t change. All too often there are competing agendas at play. Agendas that you may not even be conscious of.
So, how do you better yourself or set goals while keeping the big picture in mind?
Below, I’ll walk you step-by-step through a holistic or functional goal setting exercise. This will help you make goals that are aligned with many of the other aspects of your life. By following this methodology, you’ll dramatically increase your odds of success. And, most importantly, you won’t feel like you need to fight yourself in order to achieve your goals.
In this style of goal-setting, I break your dreams/ambitions/aims into four steps:
- Your goal
- What you’re doing or not doing that moves you away from your goal
- Hidden competing commitments
I’ll walk you through each aspect individually, outlining the necessary tasks you need to complete in each category. At the bottom, I’ll give a detailed example of someone who has gone through the full functional goal setting process.
Step One: Your goal
This category is the most straightforward. Here, I want you to list your number one aim, ambition, or goal. Keep in mind:
- Your goal needs to be important to you. You need to have a strong internal urge or propulsion towards the achievement of this goal. This is much greater than “it would be nice”. You should feel as though you need to achieve this goal.
- Your goal should also be important to someone other than yourself. Perhaps your family will also benefit from you achieving this aim. Having a meaningful external motivating force for your goal is very important.
- Your goal needs to implicate you. You have to be the one implementing the behavior change. This should be the case regardless of outside influence.
- Focus the wording of your goal on what you want to become rather than something you want to stop being.
Step Two: What you’re doing or not doing that moves you away from your goal
In this section, I want you to list the behaviours you do (or fail to do) that move you away from your goal. These are the behaviours that continue to block you from achieving your goal. The key word here is behaviours.
I want you to focus specifically on your behaviours. Not your state of mind. Try to identify the precise behaviours or actions you use to prevent yourself from achieving your goal.
In this section, list as many items as you can. The more detailed, the better. I want you to get a crystal clear understanding of exactly which of your behaviours are preventing you from achieving your goal.
In this section, it is very common for people to avoid listing all the negative behaviours. A long list of negative behaviours can be intimidating. Who wants to see all the areas in which you’re deficient? It’s not comfortable.
I want to encourage you to move past these feelings and write down everything that comes to mind. Fill an entire page if you have to. And if you’re really feeling ambitious, ask a close friend, spouse, or family member what they think your negative behaviours are.
Step Three: Hidden competing commitments
To get you started on this third column, I want you to look back to your second column entries. For each point, imagine doing the opposite of what you wrote down. What is the most uncomfortable, worrisome, or scary feeling that comes up for you?
Write each of your answers down in a section called ”worries”. The key here is to name feelings; not actions. I encourage you to put forth a great deal of effort and vulnerability into this section. The worries you list should elicit a deep, visceral feeling of discomfort. The key here is to bring up feelings that put you at risk in some way. You should feel unprotected, raw, and vulnerable.
After generating a list of deep, heartfelt worries, it’s time to move onto the second part of this section. This column will help you bring to light that which you are actively committed to (albeit unconsciously) to making sure the things you are afraid of do not happen. This is the stuff that prevents you from achieving your goals/aims/ambitions.
With each of the worries you listed, I want you to now break them into hidden competing commitments. To do this, reword your worries into the following sentence structure:
I am committed to ______.
Fill in the blank space with one of the feelings you listed in the ‘worry’ section of this exercise.
Your entries in this section should be ‘a-ha’ moments. It may be the first time you actually are conscious of the feelings that are preventing you from achieving your goal. If you find this feeling to be lacking, go back and dig deeper into the uncomfortable feelings. It is incredibly common to superficially glaze over this section. None of us want to feel those uncomfortable feelings.
If your worries don’t elicit a deep feeling of discomfort, you haven’t gone deep enough.
After completing section three, you should have a feeling of intrigue. It’s not a solution to your problem or goal but its a fresh understanding of why you continually get in your own way. Now it´s time to move to the final section.
Step Four: The big assumptions
This section is about bringing to light some of your own assumptions. These are the default programs/beliefs you operate on to understand your place in the world. I like to think of it as the lens through which you view the world. Some individuals believe the world to be flat. This is their big assumption or the lens through which they view the world. The rest of us view the Earth through a lens that assumes it is spherical.
Your big assumptions are not necessarily facts, though you probably view them as such. When you treat an assumption as though it is the truth, you put the brakes on discovering something new about the world. Your assumptions are your blind spots. Checking your assumptions is essential to achieving your goals!
Whether or not your assumption is true, write it down. They are your assumptions after all. Your assumptions are your brakes. They’re what tell you to slow down, or, that this road is dangerous – don’t go there. Maybe the road is totally safe and it’s just your assumption that prevents you from going down it. Maybe that’s the coolest road in town. You’ll never know unless you check your assumptions.
An example of functional goal setting
You now have the steps required to holistically or functionally set goals. Now, I’m going to give you a tangible example. This will help ground the process for you.
Mary is forty-four years old. At thirty-seven, she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. She has tried numerous times to follow the nutrition and lifestyle advice to improve her energy. But every time, something gets in her way. Mary can never make it more than two months.
This is the first time she has used functional goal setting.
Step 1: Mary’s goal
To increase my energy to the point that I can work a part-time job (25 hrs/week).
Step 2: What Mary’s doing or not doing that moves her away from her goal
- I put the health of my friends and family before my own. I always sacrifice my health for someone else’s.
- I stop doing what I know will help as soon as it becomes even a little bit challenging.
- I’ve read conflicting nutritional advice and convinced myself that my current plan is wrong and that I need to try a different approach.
- I watch television instead of doing yoga, reading a book, or drinking tea which always makes me feel better.
- I spend too much money on clothes I don’t need instead of the vitamins I need to improve my energy.
Step 3: Mary’s hidden competing commitments
I worry I will:
- Be awful at any job because I haven’t worked in so long.
- Not be accepted by my family as my focus may change.
- Be embarrassed if working 25hrs ends up being too much.
- Mess this up again because I don’t know enough information.
- Be too lazy to ultimately put in enough effort.
With the worry list complete, Mary takes each worry and re-words it into “I am committed to…”
I am committed to: learning enough information to be amazing at any job I choose.
I am committed to: keeping my family close even while I change my focus.
I am committed to: being open to working less than 25 hrs each week. My body will tell me how much I can do. And I will listen to it.
I am committed to: following one nutrition plan for a year.
I am committed to: recognizing when I need to ask for help to keep my focus on my goal.
Step 4: Mary’s big assumptions
- Chronic fatigue syndrome is incurable.
- My family prefers me at home with low energy so I’m always available to them.
- I won’t notice any improvement. This will make me discouraged and ready to give up.
- That my medical doctor won’t support my nutrition plan.
Once you’ve got all the sections on functional goal setting complete it’s time to get to work. You will need to give your goal attention every week. I find that around thirty minutes each week is plenty of time. Most importantly, you need grit so you can stick it out. You’ll likely start to notice changes around the two month mark.
Every night before bed, I would like you to write a short list of one or two tasks that if completed, will move you in the direction of your goal. This is your “to-do” list for the next day. Be sure to also include mundane tasks that also require your attention. This can include things like cleaning the house, going for a walk, picking kids up from school.
While you’re lying in your bed (but before you’ve fallen asleep) I want you to take a couple minutes to visualize yourself experiencing the end results of your goal. See yourself having achieved your goal. Notice what that feels like. Notice the emotions you experience. Make note of how your life is different.
I also encourage you to put this goal somewhere you’re going to see it daily. Maybe it’s on the bathroom mirror or on your fridge. Pick a place that you know you’ll look at every day. This will help to keep you focused.
And the final part on your road to success is to be very mindful of when your motivation towards the goal starts to wane (and it will). When this starts to happen, re-read your answers to Step Three. Identify which of your needs is at risk. Then, make a plan to address that need while still moving in the direction of your goal.
If we return to Mary, she may notice that her desire to gain more energy is starting to wane – she had a day of pizza and pop, and now she doesn’t want to eat healthy again. After checking in with her hidden competing commitments, Mary realizes her connection with her family is decreasing. The pizza night was the first time she had eaten out with her family since focusing on her goal. Instead of sabotaging her success, Mary elects to choose weekly family dinners at a local, organic restaurant. These dinners ensure she deeply connects with her family every week AND she stays on track with her plan.
When you start to notice a decrease in your motivation, move quickly to check in with your hidden commitments. They’re what will get in your way. As you progress towards your goal, you’ll be challenging your assumptions along the way. I encourage you to be open to being wrong. You just might surprise yourself!
Also published on Medium.