How to increase the chances of making effective and lasting change
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
At the time of writing 2018 is drawing to a close, and as sure as night follows day, people across the globe will be making the traditional New Year’s Resolutions. Some will succeed and many, many will fail.
Clearly it’s about change, about wanting something better. That 'something better’ is most often achieved through changing habits. This is particularly true for fitness, health and weight loss.
“You cannot change your future, you can change your habits. And surely your habits will change your future" Dr A.P.J.Abdul Kalam, former president of India
Changing habits has been on my mind as it’s a large part of the content of the life coaching course I’ve recently begun, and it’s also been interesting finding myself slipping into the routine of the required study, a process that’s been surprisingly seamless. It’s also coincided with upping the ante with my own exercise program in preparation for an Obstacle Course Race in a couple of months, so that’s unusual to have 2 fairly substantial alterations in weekly routine at the same time. So, it’s been cause for reflection on change and habits.
Another part of that analysis has been reflecting on what's common amongst the Personal Training clients I’ve had that have succeeded in making lasting change. And while I don’t claim to be a world leading expert at mastering change, it nonetheless feels timely and worthwhile to share some ideas on how to go about it:
Developing the habit matters more than intensity and effort
Of course intensity and effort do matter, ideally you’d like to feel the level of effort your putting in will yield change. However the importance of intensity and effort is overrated initially. If you seriously want to change how you look, feel and perform physically then in reality, it’s going to come about from the cumulative effect of many, many workouts done over months or years.. Consider someone who turns up and goes like a bull at a gate- in initial workouts, they’ll likely get really sore and fatigued. There’s a good chance they’ll struggle to find the motivation for consistently daunting workouts, the habit then never gets engrained and the resulting failure saps confidence and belief in the ability to get fit (or whatever the goal might be).
Prioritise forming the habit, as just attempting something new can be a step out of the comfort zone. Adding a level of intensity will only add to the discomfort level, which in turn makes the change harder and in all likelihood, less achievable. Add the intensity once you’ve built a decent degree of habit, just focus on simply turning up regularly first. Turn up often enough and it'll become so habitual it’ll be virtually automatic, and that's a nice stage to reach.
This strategy isn't just applicable to fitness, you could apply it to great effect with learning an instrument, learning to drive and an infinite number of other things.
Set big, medium and small goals (in that order)
The big goal could be something like losing 20 kilo’s in 18 months. That’s a straight forward goal, although not usually an easy one to achieve. This big goal is the goal that’s most likely going to drive you to do the more regular tasks involved in the smaller goals. This big goal needs to be specific and measurable and also just as critically- meaningful and important to you. If it lacks personal meaning and importance, you’ll be less inclined to persevere through the challenging times and be less fulfilled if you do indeed manage to achieve it. Aligning your big goal with what’s important and meaningful can be a whole other area to explore and beyond the scope of this post, but a good start could be at least giving it some consideration. (My ability to have slipped fairly easily into the habits of studying Life Coaching and training for the Obstacle Course Race have certainly been, at least partially, attributable to alignment with things I find meaningful and important i.e. personal development, psychology, fitness, performance, planning)
A medium goal would be something more immediate, still measurable and specific, but less daunting. To expand upon the 20kg weight loss example, a medium term goal to accompany it could be to lose 3 kilo’s in 3 months. Achieve that and it’ll provide you motivation and belief that you can keep the ball rolling toward the bigger goal.
Small goals could be very small sub goals or tasks. Losing a kilo in the first month would be a good small goal in relation to the 20kg big goal. To achieve that you could set a more process-orientated goal, such as doing 3 x 30 minute walks per week. In the even shorter term buying a new pair of walking shoes within the next 3 days could be essential. Another very, very small goal to apply would be when really struggling for the motivation for your 30 min walk, would be to simply put on your shoes and aim to walk to the end of the street. That may seem ridiculously small but remember you need to prioritise engraining the habit. Besides which once you get to the end of the street, you can re-evaluate and aim for the end of the next street & before you know it you'll have found a rhythm and be on your way.
The need for having such structure with goals usually becomes less critical once change has been made and habituated. What was once a challenge to change, can become just a regular part of life.
This is similar to the previous point about the very small, process oriented goals. If you make a plan to go to the gym tomorrow at 6am and take the time to do address the even smaller details involved, such as organising your workout clothes and drink bottle, you’re a much greater chance of going than if you’re plans are vague, or non-existent. It may sound rather obvious but all too often we have general intentions to do things without ever actually making any sort of plan for the action needed. Once you get something properly scheduled it’s almost like your mind locks that in as part of your short term future. In effect you’ve started the process of taking the intended action.
This is a critical part of what makes Personal Training effective- you commit to a specific time and a specific place for a workout. Admittedly, scheduling when there is someone else involved means you’re a lot more likely to turn up because you don’t want to let someone down, but still, even if you’re only committing to yourself, that scheduling will have power. This is not merely an opinion, as the study mentioned in this article by American blogger James Clear shows.
A particular personal training client springs to mind when I think about scheduling. In spite of some physical challenges and a stressful job, he makes the effort to schedule exercise and does his upmost to stick to it, even if it means modifying intensity or duration because of fatigue, minor illness or niggling injury. He’s achieved significant physical change from a pretty low starting point and it’s primarily a result of consistency and scheduling. I’ve no doubt his commitment to scheduling has also contributed to his highly successful career.
Start now- imperfectly
Of course many endeavours and goals require some consideration and discernment but for many people, in many instances there's too much thinking. Deep down you probably know if that’s happening with you.
In all likelihood if you’re thinking about it, you’ll have a level of desire and excitement. Go with that, ride that wave, use that energy. Excessive thinking and wanting to have every skerrick of possible information will only cause stagnation, procrastination and the moment will pass.
Have a go. Find things out. Be prepared to be a beginner. It’ll be imperfect. You’ll learn stuff, and that’ll help. [Note to self: Practice what I preach with that advice!!]
You may need to schedule the very first bit, but do that- take the first step in taking the first step. Need some help getting going on your path to change? Contact me to find out how I can help.