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 you avoid positive behavior changes?
What’s getting in your way of making positive behavior changes?
Two in three Americans is overweight or obese. (2) Even though we have more access to healthy foods than any other time in history. Nearly seventy percent 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 patients with lifestyle-related diseases that would kill them (think, type 2 diabetes, smoking, atherosclerosis, etc.) the majority couldn’t change their behavior. (4)
Even when your life is on the line, why do you refuse to change the very behavior that keeps you feeling 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 activities/habits that are bad for you and avoid incorporating activities/habits that are good for you?
Why you don’t change your habits
One potential reason for keeping your unhealthy or detrimental habits in play 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 years day) you’ll approach it from either wanting to eliminate a certain behavior (quit smoking) or, amplify a new/good behavior (go to the gym 5x/week). Your inability to follow through on these new goals often comes about from a competing agenda.
The problem with most goals or habit change is that they fail to look at the whole picture. Maybe your smoking habit has some surprising, subconscious benefit(s) tied to it. Perhaps smoking allows you twelve ten-minute breaks all to yourself. 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 to achieve 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 girl 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 girl 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 (arguably stronger) part of her still wants to avoid unwanted male attention.
In a seperate example, a mother with chronic fatigue syndrome has set a new years resolution to follow a fatigue-busting nutrition plan starting January first. 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 aha moment. Everytime 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 seperation in food results in a seperation 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 pivital role. But she also needs to have quality time spent with her family. And the only time this is available in their busy schedules is during meals.
This lack of behavior change is not due to a lack of willpower on your part.
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 behavior changes, you need to bridge the chasm.
Do people change?
It’s commonly assumed that people don’t change. Or, if they do, it’s very minimal. Once you’re over the age of thirty, you are who you are.
This is the fallacy you’ve been lead to believe. It’s this assumption that encourages you to focus on your strengths and avoid your weaknesses. Because it’s unlikely you’ll ever develop your weaknesses.
This assumption was made popular by research done in the eighties and nineties. At that time, it was assumed that after adolescence, there were no changes in mental development. Basically, you are who you are. And there’s nothing you can do to change it. (5)
As it always does, science progressed. Today’s understanding of the brain paints a radically different picture. Your mental development does not end in adolescents. Nor after the age of thirty. Your brain has the ability to learn, grow, and change at any age.
Regardless of your age, you can change your behavior. If you can alter your brain at any age, why then are you still so resistant to change?
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 assist you in making 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 in order to achieve your goals.
In this style of goal-setting, I break your dreams/ambitions/aims into four categories:
- Your goal
- What you’re doing or not doing that moves you away from your goal(s)
- 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.
1. Your goal
This category is the most straightforward. Here, I want you to list your number one aim, ambition, or goal. Please keep the following salient points in mind when crafting your goal:
- 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.
2. What you’re doing or not doing that moves you away from your goal(s)
In this section, I want you to list the behaviors you do (or, fail to do) that move you in the opposite direction of your goal. These are the behaviors that continue to block you from achieving your goal. The key word here is behaviors.
I want you to focus specifically on your behaviors. Not your state of mind. Try to identify the precise behaviors 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 behaviors are stopping you from achieving your goal.
In this section, it is very common for people to avoid listing all the negative behaviors. A long list of negative behaviors 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, seek counsel from a close friend, spouse, or family member. Ask him/her what they believe to be the negative behaviors you employ are.
3. 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(s). 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.
4. 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 through. Some individuals believe the world to be flat. This is their big assumption or the lens through which they view the world through. 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 spot(s). Checking your assumptions is essential in 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 assumption(s).
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 in a real-world example.
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 partaken in 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
- Mary puts the health of her friends and family before her own. She always sacrifices her health for someone else’s.
- Mary stops doing what she knows will help as soon as it becomes even a little bit challenging.
- Mary reads conflicting nutritional advice. She convinces herself that her current plan is wrong and that she needs to try a different approach.
- Mary elects to watch television (an activity she knows does not recharge her) in place of gentle yoga, reading a book, or drinking tea (activities she knows to recharge her).
- Mary spends her disposable income on clothes she does not need instead of the vitamins she needs to improve her 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…”
- Learning enough information to be amazing at any job I choose.
- Keeping my family close even while I change my focus.
- 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.
- Following one nutrition plan for a year.
- 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.
- Her family prefers her at home with low energy. This way she’s always available to them.
- She won’t notice any improvement which will lead to her feeling discouraged and ready to give up.
- That her medical doctor won’t support her nutrition plan.
You’ve got all the sections on functional goal setting complete. Well done. Now 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. You need to stick to this for more than a week. You’ll likely start to notice changes around the 2-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, etc.
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 hidden commitments (step 3). 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 quickly checking in with her hidden competing commitments, Mary realizes her connection with her family is decreasing. The pizza night was the first time she ate 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.