Psychologists On The Self-Motivation Tips That Will Change Your Life

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Only 1 in 10 of us achieve the personal goals we set for ourselves at the start of each year. And, on average we attempt the same goal a total of 10 times before we eventually give up. Find out why we fail, and how to summon the self-motivation to succeed...

Why do we fail to achieve our goals? 

1. Overconfidence

According to motivational psychology experts Drs. Janet Polivy and Peter Herman, overconfidence is the number one reason self-changers fail. We tend to predict that changes will happen more quickly and easily than is feasible, and that, once achieved, these changes will have a greater impact on our lives "than can reasonably be expected" (e.g. believing that losing weight will automatically net us a new job or partner).

When we fail to progress as quickly as we had hoped, or to experience the kinds of fringe benefits we were counting on, it's all too easy to lose the motivation to continue. Psychologists have even linked the attempt to attain an unattainable goal to depression. "Depressive mood states are maintained by unrealistic objectives that claim mental capacity needed to enact new, fulfillable intentions," say Polivy and Herman. 

2. Doing it for the wrong reasons

Be honest with yourself, and take a minute to consider why you've really set yourself the goal you have. Why do you want to lose weight? Because you set yourself the same goal every year? Because you want all eyes on you at next year's Christmas party? Because your doctor told you to? Or just because, for some unaccountable reason, you can't escape the feeling that you 'should'?

"We don't like to be forced to do things, even by a voice in our own head that says, 'You'll feel guilty if you don't,'" says Edward Deci, co-founder of Self-Determination Theory. "Don't do it for somebody else. Don't do it because someone else wants you to. Do it because you think it's really important for you. If you can get to the place in yourself that you really want to do it because it's meaningful and valuable for you, then you're likely to be quite successful." Try to reframe your motivations. Perhaps losing weight will give you more years with your children and grandchildren, or the confidence to try that swing dancing class you've always wanted to take?

3. Setting the wrong goal

Framing a goal negatively (i.e. "I will not...") sets you up for failure, according to Polivy and Herman, who say that each breach of such a goal is seen as a failure and consequently "contributes to the likelihood that the diet (or other effort) will collapse altogether". Psychologists Cochran and Tesser suggest framing your goal more positively, e.g. "I will eat two portions of vegetables with my dinner every night".

Whilst you should strive to avoid the temptation to set unattainable goals, we often fail to value that which comes too easy. You may be more likely to procrastinate over tasks which are easily accomplished, according to psychologists. Aim to set goals which lie just within reach, given adequate support. For example, if your ultimate goal is to run a marathon, set an initial sub-goal of running for, say 1 mile, if you are currently able to do this given adequate pit-stops and water-breaks. Work on slowly decreasing the level of support (in this case, number and duration of breaks) necessary to accomplish this goal, until you are able to achieve it without support. Then it's onto mile two...

Ensure your goals are SMART, warns behavioural psychologist Dr. Paul Marciano (that's specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound). Vague, overarching goals like "lose weight" or "get fit" are overwhelming and all too easy to abandon. Targets such as "lose 7lbs by 1st July" or "run 10k on 1st May", however, are tougher to wriggle out of, and provide a better starting point from which to plan and set sub-goals.

4. Lack of willpower

Do you eat healthily all morning, only to succumb to the mid-afternoon munchies? Studies suggest that, much like a muscle, willpower can be strengthened over time. Overuse it on a short-term basis, however, and it will get tired... And yes, that does mean that if you've spent the past hour avoiding the temptation to check Facebook, you'll be less likely to say no when the biccie tin comes your way... Feeling depleted? Paradoxically, eating or drinking a sugary snack appears to top up your reserves. On a health kick? Swilling and spitting has the same effect (assuming you can summon up the willpower to follow through on the second part, of course). 

Assuming yours isn't quite as finely tuned as you'd like, though, you'd be advised to bypass the need to exercise it where possible. "Manage the environment in ways that support you rather than ways that interfere with your goals," says Deci. Buy your groceries online, book and pay for exercise classes in advance and, if you can't resist popping into Starbucks on your way to work, plot a new route. Determined to make a start on that novel? Clear out the shed - and don't install WiFi. Evidence suggests that those highest in self-control choose to work in a distraction-free environment as opposed to a more distracting (yet more appealing) one. 

5. Failing to plan

Tweaking your environment in order to give yourself your best shot at success requires a bit of advance planning, but so does managing your schedule. "Give some real consideration to how you're going to integrate your resolution into your life," says Deci. "If you make a resolution to exercise for an hour a day, then where are you going to get that hour?" Figure out where you're going to find that time to exercise, write or paint, put it in your diary and treat it as you would any other meeting or appointment.

It can take months for behaviours to become habitual, but you can help the process along. 'Implementation intentions' are simple action plans which link intended behaviours with the cues you encounter in your day-to-day life, e.g."As soon as I get home from work, I will get changed and go for a 10 minute jog," "Before I serve dinner, I will turn my phone and computer off," or "As soon as I have finished dinner, I will make a healthy salad to take to work the next day." This strategy has been scientifically proven to increase physical activity, ramp up fruit, vegetable and supplement consumption, decrease alcohol consumption and even boost school grades.

Psychologists also recommend formulating ‘if, then' implementation intentions in preparation for difficult situations and ‘worst-case scenarios', e.g. "If it is raining, I will do a 15-minute workout at home using a YouTube video", "If I go out with friends, I will alternate alcoholic drinks with sparkling water", or "If I am offered unhealthy snacks, I will have a handful of dried fruit and nuts instead."

6. Lack of support

When it comes to maintaining motivation, social support can make or break you. Research suggests that publicising your goals or resolutions, rendering you accountable for their success or failure and encouraging those around you to engage in supportive behaviour (like keeping the chocolate box out of your face), can make you more likely to achieve them. However, if the support of your friends or family is of a more controlling, coercive or directive bent, it could be counterproductive, so it's worth having a good think about whether your goals are best kept to yourself!

Whether or not you're going it alone, consider keeping a journal to support and track your progress, or co-opting a bit of technological support. If your aim is to walk or run more, for instance, you might like to use a step tracking app or Fitbit.

7. All-or-nothing thinking

Don't have an hour a day to exercise, write, draw, paint, learn to code or whatever it is you want to do? If you have 20 minutes, do what you can in 20 minutes. If you have 10 minutes, do what you can in 10 minutes. If you have 5... you get the idea. Anything is better than nothing. Break your ultimate goal down into a series of small, attainable sub-goals. "Remember, it is not the extent of the change that matters, but rather the act of recognising that lifestyle change is important and working toward it, one step at a time," says psychologist Lynn Bufka.

Equally, remember that "most people who make resolutions are going to fail at times," says Edward Deci. "There will be a day when you were going to exercise, and you just didn't do it. Don't beat yourself up for it. Acknowledge that you failed, and then recommit. Move through the little slip-ups." Whether it's a sneaky G&T (or four), a slice of double chocolate fudge cake (or two) or a missed salsa class (or three), a ‘lapse' doesn't have to become a ‘relapse'. To err is human, after all...

8. Viewing your actions in isolation

Whilst you shouldn't beat yourself up over the odd lapse, it's equally important to avoid falling into the "one won't hurt..." trap too often. According to psychologist George Ainslie, we tend to see our immediate choices as predictive of our future choices, "bundling" them together. He suggests that we should view the choices we make now in the context of the kinds of choices we want to make in the future. Pick the apple today, and you'll be more likely to swerve the Krispy Kremes tomorrow.

9. Not believing in yourself

Overconfidence can be a dangerous thing, but lacking faith in your ability to achieve your goals could be equally detrimental, according to psychologists. In scientific studies, more confident participants tend to outperform those of similar ability who score lower on self-efficacy (i.e. the belief that they can complete a task successfully). Visualisation and positive self-talk can help.

Read our top tips on harnessing the power of positive thinking to achieve your goals.

10. Not holding yourself accountable

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If you haven't made a public commitment to your goal, blocked time out on your calendar, or even gone as far as writing it down, you're making it far too easy for yourself to wriggle out of... Make a real commitment using an app like Stikk. Fail to stick to your resolution and you'll be fined a pre-set amount. Pact users who achieve their fitness goals can actually earn cash, paid for by the fines of those who don't!

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