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January 17, 2020

3 Steps to Make Change Stick

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This is the time of year where we are filled with new found vigor and ready to make some positive change in our life. The time for New Year’s Resolutions. People want to exercise more, eat healthier, drop poor habits, or put the clean clothes away immediately after folding them (that’s mine). Unfortunately, we often hear about how quickly people drop these resolutions. Why? Well… it’s because change is tough. The good news: there are 3 steps that can make you tougher.

Over time we build habits or comfort in one way of operating, and to operate outside of that habit takes willpower. Willpower is defined by Google as “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses”.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an infinite supply of willpower throughout our day. Think of willpower as a gas tank. Each decision we make withdraws from the tank. The easy decisions and our normal habits don’t take much willpower at all, but the hard decisions can leave our willpower on empty.

In 1998, Roy Baumeister conducted a study that set participants in a room with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. One group was allowed to eat the chocolate chip cookies, but the experimental group was only allowed to eat radishes. As the researchers left the room, the radish group had to exhibit self-control. Conversely, the cookie group was allowed to eat the much sweeter option. After being stuck in that room with the cookies, both groups were asked to do the same unsolvable puzzles.  The researchers wanted to see how long each group would keep trying the puzzle before they gave up. The cookie group tried for an average of 19 minute before quitting. However, the radish group quit after only 8 minutes. Why? Because they drained their willpower gas tank before they even started the puzzle.

What does this mean for you?

This study tells us that willpower is not a personality trait. We’re not born with it or without it. Willpower is more of a muscle, and just like a muscle it has to grow to become stronger. Now that we know that willpower is an exhaustible resource, what can we do to create change? Be specific. Start small. Celebrate success.

Reach Your Goals in 3 Simple Steps

We created this FREE print-ready PDF to help you get started!

1. Be Specific

It’s hard to achieve a vague goal. When a goal isn’t specific it’s hard to know what target you’re shooting for. If my goal is to “eat healthy”, how do I measure that? That would be hard to measure over time. If I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, my willpower gas tank will run low, and I’m more likely to give up. If my goal is to “stop putting sugar in my coffee”, then I’ve made my goal much more specific and it’s easier to measure my success. It is also a much smaller goal that leads to point #2.

2. Start Small

When I meet with a new adult fitness client, they are excited to get moving and motivation is high to get started. I often ask the question, “how many days a week would they like to exercise?” I’m not sure if it’s the excitement or if they feel pressured that I’m sitting right there, but they always aim high. At that moment, they may feel like they could do 5 to 6 days a week, but in my experience that is not often the case. Remember, willpower is exhaustible and as soon as the willpower tank runs low the new habit is the first to go. 

When working with them I like to get them to train 2 or 3 days a week. If they want to walk or run on their off days then that’s a bonus. They don’t feel like they’re failing if they miss those days though. Then, as the new habit is formed we can look to add more training days. If our goals are too large in scope, it’s easy to become exhausted by looking at all the work that has to be done. Alternatively, we can string together some small victories and it actually adds fuel to the gas tank. Which leads to the last point.

3. Celebrate Success

Change is tough. When you achieve your goal, you should feel accomplished. I’ve talked about the things that can empty the willpower tank, but this is the area that fills our tank. We often analyze in detail what we need to solve problems. We focus on the negative. We focus on the things we need to fix. What would our lives look like if we started trying to recreate success. What are you doing well? How can you build on that? Can that translate into other areas of life? 

I truly believe people want to make changes at the start of a new year. I don’t think people are inherently lazy. I believe change is hard and it can be exhausting to build a new habit. Giving ourselves clarity with specific goals, and starting with small goals that allow us to achieve some success allows us to keep our willpower tank full. 

Reach Your Goals in 3 Simple Steps

We created this FREE print-ready PDF to help you get started!

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3 Steps to Make Change Stick, Athletes' Training Center