Every year, January is the season for getting back in shape and getting healthy—or “trying to get healthy” as so many put it. It seems safer that way. To try is to give your best effort, while still leaving the back door open in case you can’t quite reach your goals.
Well, no more “trying,” no more excuses, and no more half-hearted attempts to improve your health. The attitude you adopt toward your goals can significantly impact the outcome, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. “The real key to reaching your goals is to actually do instead of just talking.”
For that, of course, you need a plan. To hit all your milestones, instead of giving up as soon as the going gets tough, Markman suggests three easy steps.
Get out your calendar and a piece of paper for the first step. “You need to be very specific about what you are going to do and when you are going to do it,” says Markman. “Saying, ‘I am going to get in shape’ is not specific enough. You need to be clear.”
Maybe your goal is to walk 10,000 steps every single day. Or perhaps your goal is to lose 10 pounds by June. Or maybe you want to get a one-hour workout in before you head to the office three days a week. If you can’t answer both “what?” and “when?” in relation to your goal, then it’s not specific enough. Write down all your goals somewhere as a reminder of what you’re working toward.
Focus on Process, Not Outcome
Big steps to improve your health are great. But when you finally reach the apex—you gave up sugar, you completed that triathlon—people who have only focused on the overarching goal may be more prone to backslide. “You have to focus yourself primarily on the process for living your life, rather than on the outcome you want to achieve,” says Markman. “If you focus on losing 15 pounds and then reach that goal, it can be hard to shift to another goal while maintaining a particular weight.”
It’s easy to throw all your energy into reaching a specific goal in a hurry. But all too often, it’s not possible to stick to that rigid diet and intense workout regimen for a long period of time. “Instead, focus on what you are going to do each day and each week and create a sustainable set of behaviors, where one result of those behaviors is that you attain the outcomes you want,” says Markman.
Ditch the juice cleanses, the intense daily workouts, and the quick fixes. Work on small habits that create dramatic change over time. It might take you longer to lose the weight or hit your PR mile time, but slow and steady doesn’t just win the race—it strengthens your stamina after you cross the finish line, too.
Cut Yourself Some Slacka
Your attitude when you don’t reach your goals is just as important as your attitude when you do. “It is important to treat yourself with some compassion,” explains Markman. “When you fail to achieve a goal, you have to start by remembering that behavioral change is hard, and then try to learn something from your failure.”
Let’s say you went on a sugar binge. Or maybe you couldn’t motivate yourself to workout… for two full weeks. Hold yourself accountable for the hiccup, without framing it in such a do-or-die negative light. “What can you do differently tomorrow that might help you make sustainable change?” says Markman.
With a few slight adjustments, over time, you’ll settle into a healthy routine that works for you— and you will never need to “try to get healthy” again.