Goals. Resolutions. Good intentions. We all set them, but more often than not we don't manage to achieve what we wanted to.
Why is that? Why are we so bad at getting what we think we want?
Achieving any kind of goal means taking lots of little decisions. We regularly have to decide whether to do something that helps you towards it, or moves you further away. The problem is that the ones that move us away tend to be the ones that give us short-term pleasure. That extra slice of cake? Another pair of shoes? Checking Facebook instead of calling your parents? It's easy to give in at the moment we have to make a choice, even though part of us knows we'll regret it later.
To change a habit you have to take more decisions that benefit your long-term goal, and less that give you short-term pleasure. But guess what! Your brain can't always be relied on to make the right choices. In fact, it's often more likely to take you in the wrong direction, by focusing on what's going to give you immediate pleasure, rather than helping you to remember your long-term goals.
So here are three reasons you're not achieving what you'd like to, and ways you can beat temptation to help you succeed.
You don't know what you want to achieve
If you're going to succeed at something, you need to know exactly what it is you're trying to do. 'Watch less TV', 'be more organised', or 'save money' are too vague to help.
The more specific you can make a goal, the more likely it is you'll get there. The ideal goal is something that's very measurable. So you might turn 'not be late' into, 'arrive at work 10 minutes early 4 days out of 5'. 'Save money' might become, 'Put £50 pounds every month into a savings account'.
When you've decided what it is, write it in your diary or on your phone. Then spend some time imagining what it will be like once you've achieved it. How will it feel? Will it change your home or your appearance, or is it more of an internal challenge? What will it feel like to be always early instead of late, to have more money in the bank, or to have a tidy house? A picture can be very powerful: find an image in a magazine, or even draw something that means 'success' to you. Keep your reminders somewhere where you'll see them often.
Then work out the steps you need to do it. If you need to be earlier to work, what time do you need to get up? What preparation do you need to do the night before? Do you need to go to bed earlier? If you plan to get fitter, do you need to find an exercise class in your local area, or pump up your bike tyres? Write down the steps in order. At any point, you need simply to focus on the next step. Put the next action in your diary, or somewhere else to help you get round to doing it.
Take a few minutes every day to think about your goal, and remind yourself of what it feels like. It will help your brain to prioritise that goal, even when it's tempted by short-term, unhelpful actions.
If you'd like more on creating goals you're likely to stick to, you'll find another essential secret in Should I Set Goals In My Life?
You plan for being at your best, not your worst
Making a good decision when you're full of energy is easy. But if your brain is tired, or distracted it's more likely to give in. Many of us spend a lot more time tired and stressed than bursting with good intentions, no matter how much we'd like it to be different. You need to find ways to help yourself focus on your long-term goals even when you're at your worst.
Look at when you're more likely to make the decisions that move you away from your goal. Do you 'treat' yourself to a pair of shoes you don't need after a particularly stressful week? Does chocolate in the cupboard prove irresistible after 9pm, or after an argument with your teenager? Do you stay up late because it's just too much effort to go to bed?
Ask yourself how you could remind yourself of your goals at that point. Could you put a picture of what it's going to be like to achieve your goals in your wallet, or on your food cupboard? Can you choose a word you can repeat to yourself to remind yourself of how good it will feel to move towards your goal?
You can also plan to distract yourself from temptation. If you know that you've got a bad week ahead, try arranging in advance to catch up with a friend or do a project at home rather than going on a shopping trip. Resolve that next time you'll have an argument, you'll go for a short walk, or decide you won't start doing anything new after 10pm in order to get to bed before real lethargy kicks in.
Managing your energy levels can also be very helpful to beating short-term wrong decisions. Improving your diet, getting more sleep or more exercise can help you achieve other goals simply by giving your brain more energy to resist the temptation of short-term pleasure.
You're measuring your progress, not your commitment
Nearly at your target weight? Congratulations! But you'll probably start going downhill from now.
Yes, it's true. Measuring progress towards a goal can actually have the opposite effect. Rather than keeping your eyes on what you want, you relax, get complacent, and start to make decisions that move you away from it.
The problem is that your brain sometimes gets confused. It registers satisfaction at having made progress in the same way as having achieved your goal. That means it stops sending you reminders to make good decisions, and allows the short-term pleasure part of your brain to take over.
There is a way to beat it, however, and that's to measure your commitment instead. If you're making what seems like good progress, ask yourself instead: 'how committed am I to achieving it?' Simply by thinking of in that way makes you much more likely to reach your goal.
Doing something that helps that commitment can be useful. Exercising with a friend, joining a class where you have to pay in advance, or working with a coach can help your brain focus on moving towards your real goal.
As my swimming teacher used to say, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So next time you feel yourself tempted to go off track, ask yourself: 'What do I most want for my life?' And feel the satisfaction of moving a bit closer to success.