Chelsea Moore, MS, CN, CHC
The month of January is coming to an end. For those of you who made New Year’s resolutions, now is the perfect time to check your progress. If you’re on track and feeling great – congratulations! If not, don’t give up. You might have fallen into a goal-setting trap and I want to help you get out.
Trap 1: You’re not motivated
When patients tell me they want to improve their health, one of the first things I ask is: why? The answer seems obvious. Patients want to recover. They want to get off their medications and stop feeling sick. But, it’s not that simple. Without the right motivation, we end up stuck and unable to reach our goals.
Here are some things I hear patients say:
I know I need to lose weight, but I can’t.
My doctor told me I need to change the way I eat.
Staying active is important to me as I get older.
Statements like these can reveal deeper truths about motivation. For example:
I don’t value or have control over my health.
I have to make changes or I’ll disappoint others.
I want to make changes for me.
One goal of lifestyle education is to help patients cultivate intrinsic motivation. In other words, motivation that comes from within. This is an important first step in healing. If you’re already failing at your New Year’s Resolutions, ask yourself:
Why is this goal important to me?
How will my life change when I reach this goal?
If I do nothing, what’s the worst case scenario?
Trap 2: You didn’t assess your ability
Do you set goals and later realize you have no idea where to start? What begins as excitement can quickly turn into defeat. If this sounds familiar, you may have over-estimated your ability to reach your goals. Ability generally takes two forms: knowledge and skills. For example:
Do you know how to select healthy foods?
Do you have basic cooking skills?
Do you know how to use exercise equipment?
Most behavior changes require some level of knowledge and skill. Even highly motivated people fail to reach their goals when ability is low. That’s why it’s important to assess your abilities before you set goals.
If your ability is low:
Find a functional medicine practice that offers lifestyle education as standard care. Lifestyle educators partner with physicians to help patients overcome illness and achieve their wellness goals.
Work with a health coach or personal trainer. These wellness professionals can provide in-person demonstrations that build skills in cooking and exercise.
Take advantage of free resources on the internet. Only use information from sources you trust.
If your ability is high, but you lack self-confidence:
Get some easy “wins” before tackling larger goals.
Embrace being a beginner. Practice makes perfect.
Think about how you’ll overcome obstacles if they arise.
Trap 3: You forgot
Many of us lead busy lives. Between work, school, family, and friends, there’s not much time left to focus on the things we should do to improve our health. Perhaps you set New Year’s resolutions with the best of intentions. You were highly motivated and had the ability to achieve your goals. But, four weeks later, you’re still at square one wondering what happened.
Dr. BJ Fogg, founder of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, stresses the importance of prompts when tackling behavior change. Prompts are cues or triggers that remind us to take action. For example, we can:
Set an alarm.
Leave a note on the fridge.
Put our running shoes near the front door.
According to Fogg’s Behavior Model, behavior change won’t occur if prompts are missing. The other two elements required for change are motivation and ability (we discussed those traps earlier). However, prompts only work when:
Motivation is high, even if the task is difficult.
Ability is high, even if we lack motivation.
We have a baseline level of both motivation and ability.
What kind of prompts will encourage you to take action?
Trap 4: Your goals aren’t clear
The most important part of your health journey is goal setting. Without clear goals, you’re doomed to fail. Goals help us focus on what we want to achieve and the steps we need to take to get there. They bridge the gap between our intentions and our actions.
Planning ahead can also increase commitment, make decisions easier, and create a sense of satisfaction when we stay on track.
Here are some tips for setting SMART goals:
Is your goal specific? Provide as much detail as possible including: what, where, and how much.
Is your goal measurable? A well-written goal helps you determine whether it has been achieved.
Is your goal achievable? Goals should challenge, but not exceed, your abilities.
Is your goal relevant and realistic? Goals should address what’s most important given your life situation.
Is your goal time-bound? Determine when and for how long you will take action.
When all else fails, ask yourself this: what is the very next thing I need to do to achieve this goal? And the thing after that? Someone starting a new exercise routine might create the following list:
Search for running shoes online.
Purchase running shoes.
Decide when and where to run.
Invite a friend.
Pack a gym bag the night before.
Set an alarm.
Remember: health is a journey. Goal setting is designed to break action into manageable steps. No matter how small the step, take comfort in knowing that you’re headed in the right direction.
The bottom line
Change is difficult, so it’s important to set yourself up for success. First, check in with yourself. Think about why your goals are important to you. When motivation comes from within, you’re more likely to succeed. Second, acquire the knowledge and skills you need to take action. This could mean working with a wellness professional or engaging in self-study. Third, remind yourself to take action by creating a prompt. Last, set clear and manageable goals. You’ll know when you’re ready because your goals will inspire change.
Stay tuned for our next article on readiness to change!
Chelsea Moore, MS, CN, CHC is a Certified Nutritionist and Health Coach. She graduated from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and completed her Master of Science in Applied Nutrition at Northeastern University.
Chelsea is passionate about lifestyle education and women's health issues. She is a member of the International Association for Health Coaches and the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Contento IR. Nutrition Education: Linking Research, Theory, and Practice. 3rd ed. Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2016.
Fogg BJ. Prompts tell people to “do it now!” Fogg Behavior Model. (n.d.).