A common theme for health-related goal setting, and one that I agree with overall, is that goals should be set with consideration of their sustainability. In other words, you should make only those changes that you can continue doing, or else you will not see consistent long-term success. A thought occurred to me though. Isn’t it overwhelming to think of doing ANYTHING for the rest of your life (with a few possible exceptions like breathing!)? That’s a long time for most of us. It is measured in years or decades, not minutes or days. So, I would like to present another way of looking at motivation and goal setting, without in any way taking away from the overall need to view changes as sustainable for the long haul.
This is my pitch for the value of short term goal setting when the goal over the hill seems like too much and too far away. I have been struggling with running for the last few months. After finally discovering that regular stretching will allow me to run farther without knee pain, I was increasing my running distance when I injured my hamstring while playing softball for the first time in probably 30 years. (Lesson learned: Never care so much about getting on base that you make quick leaping movements without stretching first.) As my leg began to heal, I started running slowly again, with no particular goal in mind other than doing it. I stopped whenever I felt pain or if I just got tired. Since it had been a while since I had run regularly, I found that I tended to stop if I was a little winded even if my leg was fine. One day I noticed that when I made the decision to quit, it was because I was considering what was ahead (a hill, a long stretch, another hill). The thought of something hard ahead made it easier for me to quit, and it had very little to do with how my body felt at the moment. This awareness made a big difference for me. I hear lots of fears from clients about the eating version of this. The “hill” ahead is often something like a dinner out at a favorite restaurant, Thanksgiving, or a vacation. The anticipation of the hurdles ahead can be discouraging enough to derail a plan completely.
On future runs, I tried to go just a little farther when I felt like quitting (just to that fire hydrant, that manhole cover, that real estate sign . . .). Relative to eating, that “little bit farther” could be as simple as following through with a plan for dinner tonight. My experience with running helped me realize how valuable short term goals can be to help people get the confidence back that is needed to keep motivated – for that long term goal. Long term goals should feel maintainable, but that does not mean that we don’t need to have short term strategies to push through the times when it just seems tougher.
The concept of “living in the moment” is the ultimate short term strategy that I find helpful with goal setting. If today a goal seems overwhelming, but in general it is realistic, it may be because you are imagining it being tough every single day. How about just asking yourself how comfortable you are right now with the changes, not how comfortable you are when you envision yourself doing it for the rest of your life? To use the running example, that’s just way too many hills to see at once. In reality, there are days ahead when you will not understand why it was so hard before. Somehow, with practice, the hills seem to shrink and there just are not as many of them as you previously thought!