How many times have you set yourself a goal, pursued it with great enthusiasm for a week or two and then abandoned the mission when you’re only part of the way there?.

If this sounds like you, you’re in good company. The vast majority of us have, at some point in our lives, been guilty of ‘New Year’s Resolution’ syndrome, where we set ourselves an unrealistic goal, throw everything at it for a few days and then give up when we don’t see immediate results. Whether it’s starting a diet and aiming to lose a stone in a month, trying to run a marathon, or learning to play a musical instrument, changing our behaviour to achieve our goals can be really challenging.

What are the keys to successful change?

According to Chip and Dan Heath in their brilliant book ‘Switch’, there are three vital ingredients to successful change:

  1. A clear direction. Having a clear and specific goal is vital. Where exactly are you aiming to get to? What will it look and feel like when you get there?.  As the Japanese proverb suggests, you need to act with clear purpose and intention if your efforts are to move you towards your goals: ‘Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.’  And is the goal really achievable for you? If it too vague or too ambitious, you are setting yourself up to fail.
  2. Ample motivation. It’s helpful to identify a compelling, emotional reason for wanting to make the change in the first place. Why do you care about this change? Why does it matter? What will it do for you and your loved ones?
  3. A supportive environment. Tweaking the environment you’re in and building new habits into your daily routine can be an easier and more effective way to embed behavioural change than relying on your willpower alone. For example, removing all unhealthy treats from the cupboards when you’re trying to lose weight is much easier than stopping yourself from eating the stash of chocolate you have hidden in the larder. Choosing to replace the biscuits you eat every day with an apple is a small daily change that is relatively easy to make, and over the course of 6 months will make a noticeable difference to your weight.

So what can we do to make it more likely that we achieve our goals?

I’ve read around this subject a lot and drawn on the extensive work of many behavioural change experts. Based on my research and my own experience with life coaching clients, my top tips are summarised below:

  1. Be clear on your why. And revisit this often. Being clear on the purpose of the change and why you’re putting in all this effort will boost your motivation when change feels hard. Re-focussing your thoughts on the benefits of the change to you and the people you care about most will help you to keep going.
  2. Set one goal and focus your energy on this. In his best-selling book ‘The Power of Less’, Leo Babauta talks about the importance of focussing on one goal at a time. Ideally the goal should be achievable in the next 6 to 12 months, and should be something you feel passionate about. Having just one goal as your focus reduces anxiety and stress, and improves your chances of you achieving it.
  3. Plan and celebrate regular achievements. Once you’re clear on your big goal, it’s important to set yourself small, intermediate goals along the way, and to celebrate each goal when you achieve it. Reinforcing small achievements throughout the journey is vital to keeping you motivated and generating a feeling of momentum as you move closer to your destination.
  4. Spend time focussing on what is working, rather than what’s not working. In ‘Switch’, Chip and Dan Heath talk about following and amplifying the Bright Spots. This is all about analysing and learning from the things that are driving positive results, rather than spending lots of time probing the problem areas. Make sure you understand what is having the most positive impact for you, and focus on doing that more often.
  5. Work hard on embedding successful habits. Our health and success in life are ultimately the outcome of small choices we make every single day. When we make healthy behaviour habitual, by building certain actions into our daily routines, we make it much easier to create long-lasting improvements. This might be as simple as doing 20 press ups as soon as we get up in the morning, or writing down three things we’re grateful for every evening before going to bed. In the ‘Power of Less’, Leo Babauta suggests embedding just one habit a month, writing down the action you will take every day, doing it at the same time every day so that it becomes part of your routine, sharing this with a group of supportive people (which could be friends, family or a Facebook group for example) and reporting back to them on progress. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people aiming to achieve the same goal can be hugely beneficial in keeping you on track when times get tough, helping you to feel accountable, as well as providing an external source of encouragement.

Let’s face it, behavioural change can be hard. It typically takes between 3 weeks and 3 months to embed a new habit, and it’s inevitable that you will have some wobbles along the way.  If you accept that setbacks are all part of the process, resolve to learn from these rather than dwell on them, stay kind to yourself throughout the journey and try the tips in this blog, you may be surprised at how much you can achieve.