Goals, Habits and Small Steps to Self-Improvement

April 8, 2020

Placing that marathon medal around your neck, picking up the keys to your new home, earning that promotion and pay raise… all great examples of the goals that many strive to achieve.

Then it’s time to reflect on your efforts, enjoy the rewards and be happy. But it’s not always so straightforward.

At this time of year, we’re constantly reminded how important and powerful big goals are. We’re told that success is just a SMART Goal or Stretch Goal away.

Indeed, it is our hopes, dreams and aspirations that keep us going. They give us something to focus on and work toward.

But sometimes, our goals are so big that they become overwhelming. We don’t know where to start, or lose our way further along the path. And not achieving the unachievable seems like a failure.

Right now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, so many people’s goals are on hold or cancelled outright. Let’s face it, over the painful past 12 months, just getting through the day has seemed achievement enough.

Are Your Goals Still Relevant?
We’ve been forced to reassess what is important in life, and whether our goals are still what we want to achieve, anyway.

I’ve just finished reading “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, and it made me think differently about goals, habits, self-improvement, and success.

The author says that habits are the brain’s way of coping with information overload in new and stressful situations. The brain uses the trial-and-error method of testing varied solutions to a problem, and when it finds one that works, it sticks with it. “If this, then that.”

The theory is, each time that we’re faced with a tricky situation (known as the cue), our brain will remember what satisfied it last time (craving), and tell us what behavior to perform (response) to solve the problem or relieve the stress (reward) this time.

Our reactions become more automatic through repetition, freeing up energy for new, difficult or creative challenges to come. Clear says that we ingrain well-practiced behaviors until they become part of our identity, “like roots from a tree.”

Nurture Your Goals Like a Seed!
However, such habits can be unhealthy. And changing bad habits can be difficult, like uprooting a strong oak tree! Equally, planting new habits is like nurturing a new seed or plant shoot. We might not see the results on the surface for a long time, but eventually our habit can grow and blossom into something amazing!

What I found inspiring in the book was the reminder that small, incremental, positive changes are what lead to success in the long term.

Often, we give up too soon. We don’t see enough improvement in our efforts, or it feels difficult and uncomfortable. But just one percent improvement each day, while barely noticeable at the time, adds up to a huge improvement over the course of a year.

Start with a minute a day of a new activity, until you have a habit you hardly notice. Then add just one extra minute a day each week and, before you know it, you’ll have created a solid practice with minimal effort.

The book also taught me how to choose and design habits that I am more likely to stick to. The author advises we make any hoped-for habit obvious, easy, attractive, and satisfying.

Reward Yourself for Sticking to Your Plan!
For example, would you like to read more books? Make it obvious and easy by putting the book you’re going to read next to your bed or couch. Also, frame your habit in a positive way to incentivize you, or by linking it to another attractive activity, such as joining a book club. And reward yourself for sticking to it: whenever you finish a book, treat yourself to something you enjoy, even if that’s another book!

Clear also advises that we create habits around our natural abilities, preferences and strengths. That way, we’re more likely to succeed.

For example, if you love swimming, but you find jogging a chore, don’t choose running a marathon as your goal! Make your goal a swimming one. And you can design your career, and wider life goals, in a similar way.

Get to know and understand yourself well, and craft your own path to success accordingly. Ask yourself, “Who do I want to be? What kind of partner or colleague? What kind of leader or friend?”

What small habits can you start creating today to get you on the road to your version of happiness? Let us know, below.

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