As we wind up Live Happy’s 90 Days to a Happier You challenge, happiness and grit expert Caroline Miller reminds us of what it takes to make goals, stick to them and achieve successes in life.
Congratulations on completing the 90-day challenge! By now, if you have been diligent about setting your goals, preparing your environment, assembling your support team, going outside your comfort zone and getting feedback about whether or not your strategy needs tweaking, you’ve accomplished something to be proud of—but now what? How do you ensure that you stay focused, motivated, optimistic and successful? And what do you do if you slide backward?
This is a tricky period that you’ll need to navigate effectively if you want to make your new habits stick. It’s not uncommon for people to give up on their goals if they don’t think they’ve been successful enough, if they’ve hit a speed bump or if they’ve become complacent and found that maintaining progress is more difficult than expected. Researchers have even dubbed the third Monday of January “blue Monday” because of the familiar trifecta of depressing scenarios—credit card statements from the holidays, broken New Year’s resolutions and depressing weather.
Here are some of tips I’ve found can be helpful in situations like these:
Step 1: Know your success map
Success leaves clues, so “unpack” the specific steps that helped you achieve your goals. If you slip backward, it will be important to have that “success map” available because there might be something you can easily add back to your formula to regain your footing and confidence. This is also helpful if you’ve unwittingly started doing something that is making it difficult to maintain progress.
One frequent culprit that undermines ongoing success is alcohol, which self-regulation researcher Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., has said is the No. 1 deterrent to all goal accomplishment because it removes the ability to delay gratification or use good judgment under stress. Other roadblocks can be negative people, time-sucks like Internet surfing and email, and visual prompts that undermine motivation.
Step 3: Pursue consistency, not perfection
Unexpected disruptions to your schedule, including travel, holidays and new relationships, can also set you back. When these types of scenarios throw you offtrack, guard against the “What the hell?” effect. Psychologists have found that if we decide we’ve blown our resolution or goal commitment for any reason, we need to get back to our routine as quickly as possible. If we just give up and say, “What the hell? I’ll just eat the whole box of Twinkies,” we lose the opportunity to learn that long-term consistency, not short-term perfection, is how we create and maintain positive habits.
Chris ran into the buzz saw of the holidays just as he was making internal and external commitments to up his running, but instead of seeing the setbacks as signs that he didn’t have what it takes to remain committed to his goal, we added some steps to his routine that made it more likely that he’d bounce back as soon as his schedule became routine and predictable again.
Step 4: Review your steps
Carlo C. DiClemente, Ph.D., and J. O. Prochaska’s, Ph.D., “stages of change” research shows that rushing through the goal formation and goal pursuit process can result in short-term success that quickly goes backward. The only course correction is to go back and assess whether or not you spent enough time preparing for action, for example, as opposed to rushing into action. Did you find enough people to take your morning carpool shift before committing to joining a rowing team, or did you just assume it would work out on its own? Once you ensure that every step of your plan is thoroughly researched and put into place, you are more likely to make continuous, positive progress.
Step 5: Disengage, don’t quit
There’s a fine line between quitting your goals and redirecting your energies, but sometimes quitting is the smartest option. This is called “disengaging from unworkable goals,” and it’s the right choice when something in your environment has changed decisively and pursuing your goal no longer makes sense. For example, if your spouse lost her job just as you were about to return to school, it probably makes more sense to re-establish financial footing and then return to your goal of getting a master’s degree. People who push to the finish line without taking new data into account are like mountaineers with “summit fever” who refuse to acknowledge an impending blizzard and continue to push to the mountaintop at their peril. Don’t be that person.
Step 6: Keep it up
Finally, one of the surest ways to continue to be positive and proactive is to set fresh goals once you achieve your initial goal. Don’t just rest on your laurels and hope that life will continue to be satisfying and meaningful. Flourishing high-achievers usually set harder goals upon reaching other successes, so see these 90 days as the start of a beautiful relationship with yourself and your best-possible life!
Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, is a professional coach, author, speaker and educator. Her book, Creating Your Best Life, is the first evidence-based book to connect the science of happiness with the science of goal-setting. Caroline gave an acclaimed TEDx talk on grit in 2014, a topic she will cover in her upcoming book, Authentic Grit.