How to set goals and make them stick

It's no surprise that we struggle to make new habits stick - according to research even New Year's resolutions fail in the first six weeks of the year. Now, Dr Amy Iversen, an executive and performance coach from The Iversen Practice, has revealed the five common mindsets that are most likely to fail at forming new habits - and how to beat the statistics and create healthy habits.

Based on years of work with leading professionals from politics, law and finance, Dr Iversen has identified the characteristics that prevent change from five mindsets. They are:

  • The rebel – believes rules are for others and made to be broken, feels suffocated by conventions, creates rules only to derive unconscious satisfaction from not following them, their disobedience undermines their desire to succeed.
  • The addict – not limited to drugs, alcohol and gambling, we can experience addiction in all aspects of life. Addictions are often targeted with New Year’s resolutions but it can be hard to reverse the downward spiral.
  • The self-saboteur – spoils their own dreams and aspirations, incapable of taking action for their own benefit due to damaged self-worth, will find subtle ways of undermining their own goals.
  • The child – afraid of humiliation, settles into their comfort zone and is not easily moved. Stuck in a regressed position, the stress and anxiety of anything new makes change unbearable.
  • The perfectionist – derailed by a failure to live up to their own exacting standards, stops trying as soon as they feel like they have fallen short, future attempts discouraged by the apathy and depression that follows a failure.
Dr Amy Iversen

We caught up with Dr Iversen to find out more and find out how to make a positive change to behaviour.

Are New Year’s resolutions a help or hindrance to changing behaviour? Why?

We aren’t against New Year’s resolutions at all; resolutions and intentionality at New Year or at any time of the year are a great idea! The challenge is how to stick to them. New Year’s resolutions are definitely a help to changing behaviour. They provide an impetus and a motivation to effecting behaviour at a time when change is apposite. New Year often follows a time of gluttony and excess, which provides a great excuse to bring in the new. There is also powerful symbolism as one year is ending and another beginning.

This is time for a mental reboot and a reconsideration/recalibration of what is important. New Year’s resolutions are made at a time when one is forced to slow down and be on holiday with more time to think and connect with what is important and what needs to change. We’re also normally around friends and relatives. Intimate relationships where we can test out what change might mean to self and others. This can be a useful springboard on which to incorporate change into our life. A client of ours successfully gave up smoking having spent a holiday period with his young children which brought into sharp focus the impact of his habit upon his family.

Read: It doesn't matter if you failed your New Year's resolutions

Would we be more likely to succeed at changing our behaviour if we didn't tie it to New Year’s resolutions?

The New Year is as good an opportunity as any to initiate a change. The reasons that resolutions fail is not because they are made at New Year per se. Having said that, it could be argued that New Year’s resolutions may be more likely to be reflex, in response to expected social norms (think of dry January) or family pressures.

A resolution made at a time other than the New Year will have had a different perhaps more powerful trigger, thought process and rationale, and therefore may be more intentional. For example, a client of ours faced triple bypass surgery in the summer of last year and successfully resolved to give up alcohol or cigarettes prior to surgery. The motivation to change is key to changing behaviour and this can occur (or not occur!) at any time of the year. Our experience is that this motivation can wax or wane at any time and so having a coach or third party is helpful for sustaining and bolstering motivation in the longer term.

Is there anything that everyone should do when setting New Year’s resolutions to improve their chances of success?

To make sustainable change you need three things: You need a powerful trigger or impetus which spurs you into action. You need a motivation – motivation is the engine of change , which keeps you going. Finally you need a plan; 'if you fail to plan, you plan to fail'. What was it that spurred you into action initially?  What is it now? Sometimes the goals need to be tweaked and adjusted to ensure that they are still relevant.

At this point it is helpful to split the objectives into Specific, Achievable, Realistic and Measurable goals (SMART). Small bite-sized steps are much easier to achieve than one huge step. A major reason for failure is that people aim too high – we had a client struggling with obesity who was new to exercise who came to us with a goal of running 10K within a month. In our view this client would be much more likely to succeed if they planned to walk around the local park once a day to build their fitness up. With overambitious goals, at the first hint of failure it is natural to feel deflated and defeated. It is easy to feel the need to give up.

Again, having a third party involved to provide motivation and to boost morale when needed is vital; a friend, relative, or coach. Elite sportsmen and women do not get to where they are without the encouragement and support of a wider team around them; that’s what teams are all about. Peer group pressure and the supportive power and synergy of group dynamics make the seemingly impossible possible. To have clearly in mind what the end point may look like is powerful. To visualise, smell, taste, hear, what the end point might look like. Share this with a few trusted friends so that they can help you on the journey. They might even join you.

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