Making Good on Your Best Intentions

By Angela Taylor, L.C.S.W., Best Life contributor

Setting a goal for yourself is one of the most important steps to living your best life. But beware: Falling into some common goal-setting traps can leave you more frustrated than when you first started. That's because not only do you not have what you wanted (a slimmer waistline, improved cholesterol, etc.), but you also have to deal with the feelings of failure and disappointment for falling short of your goals.

To break the vicious cycle of setting and then failing to reach your goals, check out four common traps as well as some tips on steering clear of them.

Your goal is too lofty or unrealistic.
As humans, we resist change. Our brains are actually trained to gravitate toward what we know and recognize. So when you set goals and plan for change, don't do anything that's too dramatic. For example, if you'd like to work out but you're currently not doing any exercise, start small: Rather than expecting to exercise an hour a day, five days a week, set an initial goal of exercising 15 minutes just two days a week. Although conservative, this small change will prove more successful over time. As you (and your brain!) adjust to a lifestyle with regular exercise, you can incrementally increase the time and amount. Taking smaller steps will help you permanently adjust to any new changes in life—so you're more likely to stick with it. Try it today: Eat 10 percent more fresh food, exercise 30 minutes more a week or set aside five minutes a day for rest and meditation.

You lack clear motivation
Why are you doing what you're doing? This is a key question that you have to ask yourself—but unfortunately, too often we have only a general idea of why we want to change. For instance, you want to lose weight, be healthier, or get into shape. But these "general ideas" are not going to be enough to battle the tempting pleasure of the instant gratification of sleeping in a little later and missing the workout or having that second serving of cake when you're feeling stressed or bored.

If you want to be able to choose delayed gratification (achieving your goals) over instant pleasure (10 minutes of extra sleep or another slice of cake), you must have clear motivation. Spend a little time now defining and defending your goals. Write out your goals and for each, the top 10 reasons why you want to make these changes. Be specific! If the reasons aren't motivating enough, you're unlikely to be successful. Answer the questions: Why is this change important to me? What makes is it worth all the effort? Keep this list in a visible place as a reminder.

You don't track your progress
It's easy to burn out if you don't see progress, growth or change. And be aware that if you're setting realistic rather than lofty goals and your brain is successfully adjusting to the changes, you're actually more blind to your progress because your brain won't recognize it as change! This is actually a good thing—it's easier to continue making these minor changes when you don't feel them. Just make sure you take a moment to review your progress and reward yourself for your effort to stay motivated. To keep track of your progress, try putting an "X" on your calendar each day you do what you intend (for example, work out for 15 minutes) or spend five minutes one day a week reflecting on your progress for that week. You can rely on a support system: Share your goals with loving and supportive people (rather than making the common mistake of keeping things to yourself and wanting to "present your results"). Not only can they provide you with accountability, but they can often see (and help you celebrate) your subtle progress better than you can alone.

You put off your start date.
This is perhaps one of the most common traps—planning to start…tomorrow, next week, next month. The problem with this is our brain is actually not so good at distinguishing reality from fantasy. Need proof? Just watch someone play a video game. She doesn't sit still in front of the television. Instead, she's flexing, ducking and moving about as if she's actually in the scene on the screen. This is also true with goals: If you "fantasize" about making a change—through planning to start, for instance—your brain feels satisfied. The intention to change alone is enough for your brain—no further action is actually needed. But of course, to see real results (and feel truly satisfied), you have to act. If you want to be successful, you are not finished until you can answer: "What can I do NOW?!" This means, for example, not just planning to start your exercise with a 30-minute session tomorrow, but doing something right now to help achieve that goal. Maybe it's setting out your shoes and work out clothes, going for a 15-minute walk  or starting with some sit-ups or push-ups right now!

For more information on the emotional barriers to weight management or for additional resources, visit Angela's website.