If you’re anything like me, even a fleeting glimpse of how your goals can come together is enough inspiration for you to take off at top speed. Yet at the end of the day, you find yourself buried under mountains of momentum and confusion. There are many versions of this quote, but my all-time favorite is by Eknath Easwaran. He said, “Nothing really worth having comes quickly and easily. If it did, I doubt that we would ever grow”. No matter which path you choose, it’s important to take your time building a solid foundation. Outlines with measurable objectives, reminders of the future/goal you’re working toward, and a way to track progress are all things that help me figure out a course of action and remain on it, even when curiosity, impulsivity, and (occasionally) pride come knocking. We’ll take a look at these tools and some alternatives to accommodate different learning speeds and styles. Additionally, we’ll go over how to maintain these changes later in the article.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Get Started with Goal Planning
Let’s build a foundation. In order to avoid tumbling down the hill face-first it’s best to figure out where you want to go. If you already have a goal in place and just want to figure out how to honor your decision long-term, feel free to skip ahead to the next section (two paragraphs down if you need help creating goals and six down if you’re a pro at that, too). If you haven’t quite identified an area of focus, stay with me. The easiest way to figure out where you want to be is to acknowledge where you are. If we’re talking about long-term results, the best way to address this is through self-discovery. This can come in many forms, my favorite to introduce to people is a self-assessment that takes into account various forms of wellness. For example, most self-care plans are made from examination of the following: physical, mental, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual wellness. In the world of clinical psychology, this is known as a holistic approach. This type of approach can be vital in determining areas of need, so you can create a more focused and beneficial plan moving forward. If the self-care assessment is something you’re interested in doing, I would recommend this one. I have found Therapist Aid to be a reliable resource for both personal and professional use. Plus, you don’t need a membership to access this page or its content. Read the instructions and answer to the best of your knowledge. No one is grading you on this.
Hopefully, you have a better idea of what you’re working toward. But how do you take an idea and turn it into a goal? Practicality. What does achievement look like and how will you know when you get there? We’ll use mind mapping as the primary way to break that concept down. SMART goals are also vital and a solid alternative if you’re not very visual. What both strategies have in common are measurable outcomes (or milestones), that are identified and created after breaking down the bigger goal.
Specifically what the mind map does is it takes your main idea or concept (building from the earlier example: physical health) and helps you break it into smaller sections. What about physical health? “I want to take better care of my physical hygiene”. Great, what change needs to be made to honor that choice? “I will wash my hands every time I leave the bathroom” or “I will shower every other day”. That’s an awesome goal, it breaks down your main concept (physical health) and has a measurable element (“every time I…”). We’ll get further into implementation later.
I first ran into the mind map style of planning accidentally on my own. It was just the natural way my brain broke things down. Another helpful tweak was the utilization of brackets. However, it was confusing to almost everyone I ran into and I had a difficult time explaining what the seemingly random shapes met until I found the Passion Planner. They have an exercise at the start of each planner called a “Passion Roadmap”. What is that? It’s a mind map. Instead of most of the other sites, they teach you how to break concepts down into applicable steps and then encourage you to follow through on monthly, weekly, or daily layouts throughout the rest of the planner. Even better? The cool thing about Passion Planners is that they offer free templates on their site. You can get monthly, weekly, and daily layouts along with a variety of inserts. I found this sample to be the most effective, as it’s currently the only one that features a Passion Roadmap. However, after testing it out, please actually buy one if it works for you. I would hate to see them go out of business for something as generous as free samples. I, personally, have bought at least six of their planners.
The Importance of Maintenance
With the goal layout and breakdowns complete, let’s dive into implementation. How can we make them stick? The easiest way to lay a solid foundation for long-term change (and/or ongoing maintenance) is through achievable action steps and attaching any new habits to your old ones. Sometimes referred to as habit stacking, this approach takes something you’re already doing on a regular basis and combines it with something you want to start doing. For example, if you wanted to refer to our earlier goal of showering every other day, you could say that using the bathroom first thing in the morning is your pre-existing habit and then follow it up immediately with the shower that you otherwise would put off. That, in an essence, is habit stacking.
Somewhat akin to this example, is how I inspired behavioral change in myself. When I wanted to quit smoking, I analyzed triggers that drove my desire to smoke versus the habitual aspect where I just found myself there because I was bored. In a way, I practiced habit stacking by forcing myself to walk the entire time I was out smoking. Eventually, I went outside at the same intervals I would’ve smoked but didn’t bring cigarettes with me; instead, I enjoyed the fresh air and added grounding exercises to my walk. I continued this process until I was able to manage the trigger of smoking without giving in to my cravings. I was able to be more intentional. It was a very long process and commitment was key, but I’m five months in without any nicotine and still going strong. Plus, because I chose to move through the stages carefully and came up with other ways to address my stressors, I am able to recognize when I’m encountering a specific trigger (that leads to cravings) and find an alternative, healthier way to cope.
How can someone ensure the implementation of their goals? Motivation. Specifically: vision, tracking, and rewards. Based on a few hours of scouring the internet, it seems the most common way to go about this is something like a vision board (to serve as a reminder of where you want to be). This could be a dedicated board on Pinterest, a photograph stuck to the front of your fridge, or an affirmation taped to your mirror. Your reminder should be wherever you’re going to interact with it the most. No judgments here. I have a sticky note on my front door that says “Be a shepherd not a wolf” and a poster hangs on my mirror that reads “Work hard and be nice to people”. I know people that put reminders on their fridges and others who have prayer requests haphazardly taped to seemingly random walls. Whatever works for you is exactly what you should do.
You’ve identified an area of focus, said the magic words, and maybe even created new habits, but how do you know if it’s working? Is all the work you’ve put in actually getting you closer to where you want to be? By far the easiest and fastest way to know is through journaling. Psychology makes an argument for guided journaling, with an emphasis on cognitive-behavioral therapies. These exercises are rapidly becoming more popular within the self-help market. If the concept is new to you, type CBT journal into the app store for a wide selection of free resources. The brave could try YouTube. Bullet journaling is another contender that’s become more and more popular in the later years. It can be something as simple as a simple yes or no, a checkbox tucked away in the corner of your office calendar, or a recurring task on your phone. If you’re interested in bullet or reflective journaling, you’ll find thousands of examples at your fingertips. All of which will undoubtedly claim to be the easiest, most beginner-friendly of them all. My recommendation? Start small, and steer clear of therapy modalities that weren’t recommended by a professional.
Let’s say your goal is to shower once every two days (again, making use of our earlier example), mark a square in the bottom left corner of every other day on your desk calendar at the office, and check it off. You don’t have to explain why it’s there, and it doesn’t need a label. Keep a notepad app on your cell phone with a row of checkboxes and review dates. A simple yes or no prompt, if necessary. Don’t overwhelm yourself with a full system immediately. The more change you force yourself to conform to, the less likely it is to stick.
The final aspect of motivated change is simple, and yet likely counters what you’ve been practicing at home. Rewards. For the most part? Self-explanatory. However, how many times have you or someone you know attempted to start a diet, rewarded themself with candy, and then quickly relapsed? There are different types of rewards for different systems. For example, your friend’s reward of a “cheat day” or chocolate treat after a month of eating healthy doesn’t serve to support her goal. Instead, it offers an excuse to break it. It is, for all intents and purposes, self-sabotage. A better alternative is to find a reward that honors your goals and works with you toward accomplishing them (versus unintentionally sabotaging yourself). I did originally stumble upon this outlook in a YouTube video of some kind but for whatever reason can’t seem to find it in my playlists. If you encounter one that seems relevant, comment below and I’ll check it out.
Ideally, by now, you’ve developed a well-rounded concept of whatever change you want to make, both internal and external drives are secure, and you’re ready to wander out into the world bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Remember at the start of the article when I said I had a habit of taking off, full-speed down the hill, and falling on my face? That’s the equivalent of what I would be setting you up for if I left you without addressing regression. Regression is a natural part of any change. Can you have lasting results without it? Sure. Rarely. Maybe not. It’s not really something anyone can measure or predict.
One thing we briefly touched on was finding the right reward, making sure to find things that support your vision or goal as opposed to openly working against it. Solid support networks are a huge bonus. The more rounded out or balanced your overall health is, the easier it is to implement and stay motivated long-term. But, at the end of the day, the premise remains: regression happens. Don’t regard the experience negatively and toss out whatever tracking method depicts your lapse, don’t practice dishonesty by checking boxes for tasks you didn’t complete, or accepting rewards you didn’t earn. Keep the evidence, and review it. What led to this, and how can you prepare for the future? Life is movement, constant movement. You’re not going to be at your best all of the time. That’s not an excuse to throw the towel in, but it is, ideally, enough to inspire you to sit down with yourself (in total transparency) and examine why you quit exercising a week ago or didn’t lose the amount of weight you wanted. Maybe that’s because you chose to reward yourself with bars of Hershey’s chocolate every two weeks. Maybe it’s because of something that was completely out of your control. In either scenario, what accommodation can you make moving forward?
Once you have an idea, tackle it the same way you tackled your goals up to this point. Remember, you are your first and closest teammate. The world is yours; explore.
Disclaimer: The original version of this article was published on another platform.