How to do more of the hard but good things: Read/exercise/(insert unpleasant but beneficial task here) better

I love goals.  And I love talking about goals.


It's funny.  New Year's never was a big deal for my family growing up, but I'm discovering a new love for the holiday.  Sure, instead of saving your resolutions for January 1, you could set new goals and begin forming new habits any time of year (and I do), but it does not hurt to have a non-negotiable start date already established.  I made a few changes back around the beginning of the school year, but I am ready to tack on a few more goals.  Want to join me?


Here are some strategies I found helpful in my quest to read, write, and strength train more.  I shared the list with Dan, my husband, who is trying to make it to the gym more often this year, and I thought it might be fun to share here too.  (My goal this year?  Finally make the waking up early at the same time each day streak stick).  There are millions of these lists floating around on the internet right now, but these are the tactics that I have found work for me.


  • Figure out why you want it. Whatever your goal, determine why you think it is important. If you don’t believe on a deep internal level that it is worth your time and sacrifice, you will not be successful for long. It is not enough to work out or read or volunteer because you think you should. You need to figure out why your resolution matters. Do you want to exercise to build your self-esteem? Improve your health? Run a sub-seven minute mile? Fit into your jeans from two years ago? Do you want to read because you want to expand your worldview? Stretch your mind? Improve your writing? Do you want to begin to volunteer to get to know your community? Learn about the world? Give back? What are your whys?


  • Anticipate your excuses. You may be excited about your new goal or resolution at first, but you will eventually lose your resolve and find a million reasons why you should not get on the elliptical or start on Moby Dick. Plan for that. Write down some of your most common justifications (It’s too cold to go out to the gym tonight. I need to clean the house instead right now.) and some counter-arguments (I can do a workout at home. The house will be waiting for me in thirty minutes after I have finished writing these letters).


  • Brainstorm options. Always have a running list of books you want to read, workouts that you will try, or volunteer opportunities that you would like to investigate. Do not get stuck in the land of not knowing what to do. Being excited about new possibilities will make it easier to get started.


  • Plan for the action. You’ve heard this one before: put it on your calendar. If you want to work out regularly, do not leave it at that. Set a goal number of days per week and schedule the workouts. Similarly, if you want to read more, figure out when that can happen. Before bed? When you wake up in the morning? In the car while you’re waiting at carpool?


  • Set minimums and be specific. Rarely will anything come of vague promises to do something more or better. How do you measure that? What does it mean? You will not read more, but you will read at least two chapters every night before bed. You will not strength train better, but you will go to at least one gym class every week. Minimums are especially important when it comes to the harder parts of your goals. It may be effortless to fly through chick lit, but if you want to read some American classic literature (and it’s really not your thing), you will need to plan for it--otherwise, you will always reach for something else on the shelf.


  • Incorporate variety. I always have multiple books going at once, and I do not do the same workouts over and over. For one thing, boredom leads to lack of motivation, so the variety keeps me engaged and entertained. I can switch things up constantly. For another thing, variety actually enhances our progress and self-development. We are better readers when we read widely, better athletes when we cross-train, and better people when we seek out experiences outside of our comfort zone.


  • Create a list of fall-backs. There will be days when we feel lazy. Instead of resorting to an all-or-nothing mentality, make it possible to take it easy on yourself. If you resolved to write a letter to a loved one each week, but this week you really are faltering, do not try to craft a letter to the relative to whom you find it the most difficult to relate. Instead, choose your best friend. You obviously cannot take this tactic every time, but keeping a rhythm is important. Are you not wanting to go on a five mile run? Have a list of easy alternatives that you can substitute from time to time. Maybe you go for a walk with your favorite podcast or do ten minutes on the spin bike. Who knows? You might be in the mood to do more once you get started.


  • Track your progress. Visual signals can be powerful. Make a log of every time you finish a book, complete a workout, wake up early, or otherwise act on your resolution. This may take the form of a written journal or something as simple as an “X” on calendar every day you are successful. You may opt to use social media (Goodreads, for instance, is a great book tracker). Find what works for you. When you see sustained progress, you will likely want to continue your streak.


  • Change your mentality. Do not plan to fail. Some people swear by mantras. I am not a mantra person myself, but I am a big believer in the power of habits. It does you no good to say “I never make good on my goals, so of course this time will be no different. I am not someone who is fit and athletic.” Rather, you should think: “I am the kind of person who goes to the gym five days a week.” This logic is circular, but our internal dialogs and habits feed off of each other. The more you do something, the more you will think it is true, and the more you think something, the more you will do it.


  • Establish rewards. I am someone who does well with rules. I don’t tend to cheat on budgets or limits I set for myself because I feel incredibly guilty after the fact. That said, this approach will not work for everyone, but I find it helpful. Make your unpleasant task rewarding. Hopefully it is already rewarding on a deeper level, but giving yourself small bribes or incentives only helps. You may make the task itself more pleasant (save your favorite guilty pleasure TV shows to enjoy when exercising, light a scented candle while writing, brew high-end coffee to enjoy on mornings when you get up with your alarm) or you may reward yourself after the fact (treat yourself to a new workout outfit after completing 10 workouts, buy new books after reading your stash, go to a movie or get a manicure after writing outlining a chapter for your book proposal).


Happy 2015!  Here's to a great year!


Do you set resolutions?  If so, what are your goals this year?  If not, how do you approach goal setting?


Emily Rowell Brownhabit, tips