This story originally appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of Scouting magazine.
Whatever your New Year’s resolutions might be — losing weight, getting fit, saving money, getting organized, recruiting more Scouts, delegating more tasks to troop committee members … whatever — just thinking that you can is not enough to get you there. Thoughts are fleeting, and it’s easy to think negatively about lack of progress.
No wonder that of the nearly 50% of Americans who make January resolutions, only 8% achieve their goals, according to a University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Some experts believe at least two factors undermine our best intentions: We choose to resolve during January, typically one of the busiest work periods of the year, and resolution makers are often unrealistic about how long it takes to establish sustainable habits.
To buck the trend, you need a plan of action with a proven track record. Most motivation gurus advise breaking your lofty goals into “process goals” that give you constant positive feedback to keep your motivation level high.
Model the behavior of elite athletes and other professionals who function at a high level to make your dreams of change a reality. Here are eight ways to do just that:
- Cultivate a champion’s mindset.Don’t just think about your goals; write them down and visualize yourself accomplishing them. “Most great athletes describe their ability to visualize the outcome they desire in a competition,” says Lewis Howes, a former pro football player and author of The School of Greatness (Rodale Books, 2015). “Seeing the possibility of greatness is as much a part of their process as any aspect of their training.”
- Take three steps forward.Scouting leaders are in a great position to model goal-setting for youth. Effective goal-setting is a three-step process, says Neil Fiore, Ph.D., author of The Now Habit (Tarcher, 2007). The process includes setting specific and realistic goals, developing and committing to a clear path that leads toward each goal, and creating a functional goal that tells you exactly where to start today and what to do on the path to reaching your goal.
- Shift your attitude.Recognize the power of your own thoughts on your success. For example, if you want to lose weight and you say to yourself, “I have to eat this broccoli” or “I have to run 5 miles today,” your choice of language suggests you are required to do these things, and you’ll tend to avoid them. Instead, make a subtle change in word choice: “I choose to eat broccoli” and “I want to exercise today.” Fiore says this shifts your attitude into one of control and authority.
- Develop mental toughness.This is having the ability to stay positive and continue striving ahead when faced with setbacks. All elite athletes possess mental toughness, says sports psychologist Jim Afremow, Ph.D., author of The Champion’s Mind (Rodale Books, 2015). Just as you can train your muscles to get bigger, you can build up your mental muscles. How? Practice being positive and staying focused after making a mistake. “Seek out challenges and then get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Afremow says.
- Use a carrot.If you want to lead a mule out of a corral, hold a fresh carrot in front of its snout. What works for stubborn mules also works for lazy humans. Studies have shown that financial incentives can motivate people to reach their goals. For example, in a Mayo Clinic study, researchers put subjects on four weight-loss programs. In two of the programs, participants who met their weight-loss goals received $20 every month. Those who failed to lose weight paid $20 into a bonus pool. The result? Sixty-two percent of the financially motivated subjects completed the program versus just 26% of those who were not incentivized to drop pounds. Do this experiment with your own weight-loss goals, or join a weight-loss challenge like DietBet.com or Healthywage.com, in which you can win money by losing weight. “Competition is another great motivational tool for sticking with an exercise program,” says Jim Cotta, a former strength coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and author of Men’s Health Workout War (Rodale Books, 2015).
- Be patient and practice.How many years does it take to reach mastery of a skill like painting? Joseph Csatari, who has made paintings and drawings for the Boy Scouts of America for more than 60 years, is often asked that question. (Full disclosure: He’s my dad.) “It’s not the number of years, but the individual hours spent practicing over and over again until it’s no longer practice, but part of who you are,” Csatari says. The 86-year-old illustrator points out another key requirement: faith. “When you believe that God is there to support you, you can achieve anything in your heart of hearts.”
- Do your homework.To save unproductive effort, research what works and what doesn’t. Take, for example, weight loss, the No. 1 resolution in the New Year. Eighty percent of people who try losing weight in January fail by March. Why? Crash diets almost always end in failure, says Laura Cipullo, a nutritionist and author of The Women’s Health Body Clock Diet (Rodale Books, 2015). Instead, focus on eating every 3 to 4 hours to keep blood sugar stable and cravings at bay. “Create a pattern of healthy eating as your goal, and you’ll reach a healthy weight,” Cipullo says.
- Engage the buddy system.We humans are social animals. So it’s not surprising that research has found we are more likely to reach our goals, such as sticking to an exercise routine or completing a major service project, if we tackle them with others. For one, it’s more fun than working (or working out) alone. And it adds an element of accountability. It’s harder to blow off a run or a service day if your buddies are expecting you to show up.