Yesterday, I looked at some psychological factors that help or hinder New Year’s Resolutions.
Today is all about taking action – the doing part of achieving your resolutions. The thing about changing your habits (which is the ultimate aim for most resolutions) is that it takes a little effort, a little thought and a little planning. And when life is already busy, that effort can be all too much. This is why many of us give up on our resolutions before January has even ended.
So what we need to do is to make keeping resolutions easier. Creating an action plan as per the steps below is one way of making your goals easier to achieve.
1. Make it personal
Before I talk about creating an action plan, I want to say that no one can tell you exactly how you should reach your goal, what exact steps to take and the specific strategies you will use. Because we’re all different, there’s no one-fit solution. Sure, you can get ideas about how to reach your goal (in fact, research is an important part) as well as get some outside help, but at the end of the day you will need to sit down and nut out a strategy that works for your unique circumstances.
Let me give you an example: A lot of people suggest getting up early in the morning before the rest of the family in order to exercise / meditate / prepare / work etc., but what if you’re not a morning person? Is it really a strategy that’s going to work for you in the long run, day in and day out?
While my ideal day would start around 5am with a cup of tea and some quiet reflection and planning before the little fella woke up, the reality is that he’s awake at 4am and that’s when we drag ourselves out of bed, bleary-eyed. When changing habits, we often have to work around circumstances that we can’t change.
2. Work out what you need to do to reach your goal.
Step two and three really go hand in hand. To achieve your goals, you will need to work out exactly what action steps you need to take, which means doing a little research to find out what those action steps might be.
Just say you want to get fit. What exactly will you do in order to achieve this goal? How will you measure your success (how will you know when you’re ‘fit’)? What specific exercises will you do? How many and how often? When? Where? Will you join a gym? Hire a personal trainer? (there’s no rule that says you can’t get help! In fact, getting help is the smart way to achieve your goals).
Before you begin you may need to ask an expert for advice, browse the internet for ideas, read a book or two, crunch some numbers or join a group to find out exactly what you need to do to achieve your goals.
3. Break down your resolution into manageable steps
Once you’ve done some research, the next step is to start writing down your action steps. Let’s look at losing weight as an example. A resolution like ‘reach goal weight of x amount of kilograms’ is still an unwieldy goal, despite being specific and measurable. Even when we break it down further to ‘eat healthy’, it still doesn’t tell us what we’re actually going to be doing.
Here are a few questions to ask and steps to look at instead:
- What are you going to eat for breakfast?
- What are you going to drink with breakfast? During the day? At meals?
- What are you going to eat for a mid morning snack?
- What are you going to eat for lunch? Afternoon snack? Dinner? Dessert? On the weekends? Out with friends?
- When will you buy breakfast? When will you prepare breakfast?
- How will you find the time to prepare foods?
- How will you take your lunch to work? How will you keep it cool? Where will you eat it?
- Will you prepack snacks? What snacks? How will you keep them fresh?
- Are you getting a balance of nutrients throughout the day?
4. Small changes over time
Are you looking at that list above and thinking ‘that’s too much to think about’? The truth is that it is too much to think about! Yesterday I wrote about how we only have so much willpower and concentration and you’ve already got work, family, housework, friends, and everything else to think about. Changing 50 habits all at once is literally impossible, which is why by February, many of us have given up on our New Year’s resolutions.
So don’t try and change your diet.
Instead, focus on one and only one aspect of changing your diet for the first month. For instance, you might choose to eat a healthy breakfast every day. Don’t worry about the rest of your diet, that will come later. For January, just focus on breakfast. That’s manageable. In February, once you’re in the habit of eating a healthy breakfast, you can look at morning tea, or lunch or drinking two litres of water or whatever the next step is for you. And in March something else. By December you will not only find you’ve achieved your goal (or you’re well on your way) you will have also cemented positive habits that will last a lifetime.
5. Get specific, very specific
This may seem over the top, but you want to use tools to help you change your habit, without relying on your busy and unreliable brain. So the next step is to be very, very specific about how you’re going to do your action step and write it down.
Taking our healthy breakfast example further, your next step is to decide:
What you will eat; when you will eat it; where you will eat breakfast; when you will buy the ingredients for breakfast; when you will prepare breakfast; whether you will need to get up earlier in the morning to make breakfast (and if so, whether you will need to go to bed earlier at night or iron your work shirt for instance, some time other than the morning) and so on.
What you want to end up with is something specific and actionable such as: ‘I’m going to eat a bowl of oatmeal and fresh fruit with a cup of tea every morning at around 7am after I shower. To do this I need to buy oatmeal, milk and fruit each week when I shop and get up about 15 minutes earlier every day (6:15am).’
You now have something that you can actually do. ‘Lose weight’ isn’t something you can put into action, the above strategy is.
The final step, of course, is to actually do it.
6. When life gets in the way
To make your action steps realistic, you need to work in with life as it is day to day. Many of your circumstances are ones that you can’t (or don’t want to) change, so it doesn’t make sense trying to build new habits that don’t fit in with your existing circumstances. As I mentioned above, there’s no point me trying to find quiet time early in the morning because the little fella is invariably awake before I am. I can’t force him to sleep in, instead I need to find a quiet time that works in with the the existing flow of life.
The other thing to note is that it’s important to schedule time for yourself and your goals and keep that appointment just as you would any other appointment. However, flu happens. Friends drop by needing help. Kids won’t nap. Life keeps going on. Flexibility is a strength too.
7. Set yourself up for success
Use whatever tools and assistance you need to reach your goals. If that means setting a timer every hour to remind yourself to drink a glass of water, then do it. It’s a little weird, but do what works. If it means hiring a personal trainer, then that’s great. If it means setting up a separate savings account and automating savings, do it. If it means nicotine patches or counselling or clearing the pantry of cookies or affirmations or joining a class or whatever, use the (positive) strategies that work for you.
These eight action steps for achieving your resolutions go hand in hand with the strategies in yesterday’s article. As you’re working on each action step, don’t forget to look at your underlying reasons for why you have been doing what you do. For example, if your action step is to eat breakfast and you don’t because of time constraints, then you need to address the issue of time first or eat a healthy breakfast that works in with your time constraints. If you find yourself not sticking with a new habit, it will usually be because you have underlying reasons not to. To achieve your goal, these need to be examined rather than ignored.
If you’ve made New Year’s Resolutions this year, I hope that you achieve them and that this week’s articles help you do that. Tomorrow I thought I would share one or two of my own resolutions and my action plan. Also, I have created a goal setting worksheet that you can download and print, that I hope will be helpful when it comes to achieving your goals.