Most people I’ve known, or come into contact with as part of my work, have at some point in time wanted to make some kind of positive lifestyle change. The usual culprits are getting fitter/get more exercise, lose weight, eat more healthily, sleep better, or be more productive at work (i.e. get more stuff done). How well people are able to make such changes in their life depends on how knowledgeable they are about “behaviour change” – that is, how much they know about the process of making such changes in their life.
In a series of posts called “Become a Behaviour Change Expert”, I am going to teach you some key principles about how to effectively change behaviour, so that you can become your own ‘behaviour change expert’. You can then use these ideas as part of making any kind of lifestyle change. These posts build on my previous post about self-experimentation, and also form a part of the broader focus on mental fitness.
In this post, Part 1, I look at “Setting Goals” – specifically how you can set better goals. In talking about setting goals, I am going to use the example of “getting fitter” as the lifestyle change in question.
A. Describe the goal in terms of the specific outcome that you want to happen
We call this the ‘outcome goal’. This is what will happen if you achieve what you set out to achieve. In the example of ‘getting fitter’, this could be a number of different outcomes, depending on your personal circumstances.
For example, for someone who had been told by their doctor to get fit, it might be related to their blood pressure, or cholesterol, in which case the outcome goal might be a specific blood pressure reduction (e.g. get my blood pressure to below 140/90). For someone who is generally healthy, but setting out on a goal to get fitter it might be to ‘be able to jog 5km, without walking’.
As with describing any goal, try to make it S.M.A.R.T.
S = Specific – ‘getting fitter’ is too vague, so you need to clearly define what fitter actually means for you.
M = Measurable – related to being Specific, being Measurable means the goal can be defined in a way that allows you to determine when the goal has been achieved. “Getting fitter” doesn’t allow you to determine when you have achieved it, but getting your resting blood pressure down to a specific number does.
A = Achievable – set goals that are challenging but within reason. Make it too easy, and there won’t be any challenge and you might lose motivation. Make it too hard, and you will quickly become discouraged. Some trial and error here is normal as you learn how difficult the goals you set should be.
R = Relevant – this is somewhat obvious, but set goals that you want to achieve, that are consistent with your values, and are relevant to your situation. If you don’t really care about getting fitter, don’t set goals around fitness.
T = time-related – Related to Achievable, put some timelines or deadlines around the goal. You might revise these as you go along, but setting a date by which you want to achieve the goal, helps you plan the next step, but can also give you a kick up the arse.
B. Describe the goal in terms of the specific behaviours that need to be done in order to achieve the desired outcome
These are called the ‘behaviour goals’. These represent the behaviours and smaller goals that need to be achieved in order to achieve the ‘outcome goal’. Whilst there is usually just the one ‘outcome goal’, there might be multiple ‘behaviour goals’. For example, to achieve being able to ‘jog 5km, without walking’, might involve a schedule of fitness goals, increasing in intensity week by week until the outcome goal is achieved. And if you look at any Couch to 5km program, you will see it consists of increasing intensity goals over 6-10 weeks – https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/c25k/Pages/couch-to-5k-plan.aspx
All behaviour goals, like outcome goals should be defined using the S.M.A.R.T. process. The only difference here is instead of defining a single goal, you are defining the steps/ behaviours required to reach your outcome goal.
Where possible, make ‘behaviour goals’ things that you do, rather than things that you want to stop doing. For example if you are trying to quit smoking, you should attempt to do this by introducing incompatible or replacement behaviours for smoking – e.g. instead of taking a smoking break, take a break and chew some nicotine replacement gum.
C. Brainstorm and analyse the problems that you might encounter in trying to achieve these goals and devise solutions
Whenever we try to make positive changes in our lives, there will always be problems and barriers that crop up. Some of these we can identify ahead of time and develop solutions.
Practical barriers involve aspects of the environment or our situation that need to be addressed in order for the goal to be achieved. For the goal of running described above, lacking a good pair of sneakers would constitute a practical barrier. Practical barriers can typically be addressed quite simply through obtaining the necessary resources or scheduling time. I tend to include physical health barriers in this grouping as well. Some goals are impaired by physical health. Tackling this involves both ensuring the goals are reasonable given your health, as well as ensuring you are getting the best treatment available for those health problems. Physical health problems commonly influence goal achievement through psychological/emotional barriers.
Psychological/emotional barriers include the different ways that our minds get in the way of making positive changes. Lack of motivation (“I can’t be bothered going for a run today”) or self-doubt (“I am never going to be able to do this”) are two of the most common. These can be a little more challenging to address, and require a shift in your self-talk – namely what you tell yourself about the goal, and your ability to achieve it.
To tackle lack of motivation I suggest shifting your perspective, and acknowledging that in the case of pursuing goals that are important to you, that motivation arises from taking action, not the other way around. Taking small steps towards your goal is what will fuel ongoing motivation.
To tackle self-doubt, I suggest some self-compassion and a growth mindset. Acknowledge that making mistakes or experiencing setbacks is a normal part of making any significant life change. Remind yourself that it is persistence and practice that better predict success, rather than talent or skill.
Social barriers involve the ways that other people can get in the way of you achieving your goal. Examples include partners or workmates that don’t support or ridicule your behaviour change efforts. It might be commitments that you have to certain people (e.g. clubs, societies) that get in the way of you finding time to make the desired changes. Sometimes these barriers can be addressed through simple negotiation – working out with others a change in schedule or responsibility that allows you to pursue your goals.
In the case of people who actively or passively block or ridicule your change, the solution may involve being more assertive and taking ownership of the change and arguing its merits. If there are people in your life who are actively blocking you making positive life changes, then it might point to some bigger issues in that particular relationship that need to be addressed first. You will have to consider however whether the person is attempting to protect you from make a poor lifestyle change (which you think is positive).
D. Plan your goal attempt in detail
Once you’ve got your outcome goal and behaviour goals well defined, and have thought through the various barriers, get it all written down. This is your personal plan. It might be you write it all out on a piece of paper, or create a document on your computer. You might draw it out if you are artistic, or even record yourself talking it through. Regardless of how you record it, make and store somewhere your complete plan. To assist in this process, I have attached a goals worksheet to this post which walks you through all the steps described in this post.
E. Sign a behavioural contract
Attached to the end of the plan, make a contract with yourself where you commit fully to pursuing the goal, and to tackling all the barriers that might pop up along the way. Sign it. If you have a supportive person in your life, get them to witness the process. I know this all sounds a bit theatrical and over-the-top, but if you’ve picked a goal that will genuinely change your life, then I think taking it seriously is warranted. The attached goals worksheet has a spot where you can make a simple contract to yourself.
F. Make a public commitment to pursue the goal
I am going to mark this one as optional and in reality it can have both positive and negative impacts on achieving your goal.
Some people like to make a public commitment, to their friends/family/colleagues/peers. Often this is as simple as letting them know of your plans via social media. On the plus side, sometimes this works well. People can provide helpful feedback on your goal, and support you as you achieve milestones along the way. Some people might even join you in trying to make the change in their own life. This can be very motivating. On the downside, some people can feel embarrassed or ashamed if they make a public commitment to achieve a goal, and then it doesn’t quite go as planned. This can be very discouraging.
If you do decide to do this step, make sure you have a detailed plan first. The plan ensures you have thought in depth about your goal ahead of telling others about it.
G. Review and revise the goals following a period of implementation
Regardless of how well you plan your goal, unforeseen barriers will pop up, and/or you will need to revise the outcome and behaviour goals. You might discover that it will take you longer to achieve the goal than you thought, or there are more steps required in achieving it. Needing to review and revise goals is a perfectly normal part of the goal pursuit process, not an example of failure. Even if it turns out that you no longer wish to pursue the goal, then you will have learned that via a systematic process and be better informed about why the goal is no longer relevant.
In reviewing and revising your goals, try the following:
- Clarify clearly the discrepancy between what you did manage to achieve and what you wanted to achieve.
- Clarify any barriers that popped up that you did not expect. Brainstorm solutions for those barriers.
- Review whether your strategies for coping with the barriers that you did predict were effective. If yes, keep them. If not, brainstorm alternatives.
- Revise your plan (this might involve drawing up a totally new plan).
Some final thoughts on goal setting
The steps described above might sound like overkill in terms of setting goals, but the process of describing and defining your goals, identifying and problem-solving barriers, and reviewing goals is what makes them important, focuses our attention and helps us determine if we are genuinely motivated to achieve them. I’m not suggesting that you use these steps when setting simple goals (e.g. open up a bank account). These steps are for goals where you are genuinely trying to make a significant positive change in your life.
The two areas where I see these steps as most relevant are:
Attempts to improve our health through lifestyle change
Attempts to improve our work/study output through productivity hacks
These are changes that have the potential to have significant benefits in terms of life satisfaction and wellbeing.
As mentioned throughout the post, attached is a goals worksheet that gets you thinking through the steps described above. Use it if you’d like to be walked through the steps described above.
Coming up next…..
In Part 2 of the series, we look at how to use feedback and monitoring when making a lifestyle change.