I clipped into my bike. I had 12 tough miles in front of me–over hills, up and down a mountain, and slow-going terrain through sand and mud. But I was primed. It was a beautiful day, I could hear the beat of the music in my ear, and I felt good that I was taking on this challenge, knowing how much stronger I would feel physically and mentally when I was done!
Ok. So there weren’t really hills and a mountain and sand. It was just going to feel that way. Actually, I was at spin class sitting on my stationary bike getting ready to set out on my virtual ride with my favorite instructor, Lin.
Lin has a great way of taking something hard and making it doable. She tells you what the ride will entail, breaks it down into bite-sized doable chunks, and primes the pump with positive imagery and great tunes. She then breaks each step of the journey into smaller mini goals. Like when she tells the class, “We’ve got a 6-minute tough climb coming up with 4 increases in intensity along the way. So make sure there’s enough in your tank to keep adding resistance.” And through her encouraging words and pushing us to keep going–”You can do it!” “We’re almost there!”–she reminds us of the benefit of working hard and the pride of persevering, and we’re inspired to ride on. Best of all, as we complete each step, we hear: GREAT JOB! YOU DID IT!
So here we are on the first day of February; hopefully, you’re still in your New Year’s resolution frame-of-mind. How’s it going for you? Are you getting done what you had planned? Interestingly enough, studies show that when it comes to achieving our goals, we can approach our own days like that spin class. It starts with simply setting our intentions for the day: a) aim to make your activities for the day successful; b) think about your attitude and let go of negative thoughts; and c) give priority to the things that matter the most that day.
Once you set your goals, think about that virtual bike ride I described. What seemed difficult and challenging (12 miles, including climbing and descending a mountain) became doable with a few easy steps. First, prime the pump. Lin always gives us encouraging thoughts, images, and great music to get us ready to face our ride. In your own world, you can set the stage for success by getting your brain in a positive, upbeat place as you set out on your day. It might be playing a great tune on your way to work or a difficult meeting, visualizing a favorite place, surrounding yourself with objects that inspire, writing down words and phrases that prompt you to stay positive and to complete your tasks, or even rehearsing in your mind how you want specific events in your day to go.
Second, break your to-do list down into bite-sized chunks–the more specific the better. According to Caroline Webb, the author of How to Have a Good Day, research suggests that we are more successful when our goals are focused and achievable. She also recommends only keeping today’s tasks in view and being realistic about what you can get done. Webb says, “While achieving goals rewards us with a spike of motivating pleasure, not achieving them does the opposite. So it’s usually better to break your big audacious goals into a series of small step-by-step goals that are within your reach.” Just like in my spin class, the big, hairy audacious goal of riding 12 grueling miles became doable when broken into smaller steps. And don’t forget to give yourself credit for each goal you complete. “Check that off my list–yeah.” “Good job!”
Finally, pre-empt negative thoughts or inaction with these two strategies: the “personal why” and a “when-then” plan. Webb suggests when setting goals, we find a “personal why”–meaning we’ve decided for ourselves why this goal is worth achieving or personally satisfying (“I know spin will tighten my butt AND make me healthier”). Now we have a sense of autonomy which can lead to higher performance and success. The other strategy is to have a plan in place for when we avoid or ignore what needs to get done. So to make sure we accomplish our goals, put into place a specific plan like “when this happens, then I will do that.” For me, I always lay out my workout clothes the night before, so when I wake up and think I don’t want to go to class, then I put my clothes on before I go downstairs to make my coffee. That way I’m more likely to get my butt out the door.
One final caveat. My oldest daughter who graduated from college last spring learned in one of her psychology classes about the power of setting very specific goals. So she put that knowledge to use. Instead of telling herself that she was going to do well academically, she set the goal of getting straight A’s. She told me about how the specificity of that goal kept her motivated and prompted her to take the necessary steps to make it happen. And she did it!