Imagine an activity that would give you a strong sense of well-being. Maybe it's getting together regularly with a close group of friends, getting your diabetes under control, spending more time in nature, completing a half-marathon or being able to easily walk a few miles. How does it feel? Let yourself dream.
Now consider what it will take to get to that happy place. What actions would you need to take? The shift from thinking about what you want to actually taking action on your goals is a process called mental contrasting. You use the positive feelings you have when you imagine your success to push yourself into action.
This starts with setting goals. Much like a road map, goals provide direction to help you achieve what you want. The key to success is making your goals as specific as possible. That way, you can create a clear picture of the action steps you need to take.
Be realistic about the journey
Setting out to accomplish a goal is like taking a road trip. There are bound to be some ups and downs along the way. You have a destination in mind — say, losing 30 pounds. Your route to get there is diet and exercise. What happens if you hit road construction along the way — for example, you quit going to the gym for several weeks? On an actual road trip, you would find an alternate route and keep going. But when it comes to reaching health goals, many people give up as soon as they hit a "road closed" sign.
Detours, stall-outs and roadblocks will inevitably occur on your wellness journey. Here are some strategies to help navigate them.
- Think of your goals as experiments. Approach your goals with curiosity and exploration. Try to adopt a mindset of "Let's try this and see what happens." This puts less pressure on you to get it exactly right the first time. Any type of behavior change requires several attempts. To stick with it, try to have a little compassion for yourself and also see things objectively.
- Make a plan for possible detours. Anticipate challenges that are likely to arise, and have some alternatives in mind. For example: If your work meeting runs late and you miss your yoga class, you could do a workout DVD after dinner. This builds your resilience for the times when you run into potholes you didn't see coming.
- Be an observer. If you fell short of your goal, notice what worked and what didn't. This is easier if you track your behaviors — by logging details of your exercise and diet, for example. Ask yourself, "What did I learn when I did it this way?" You may learn that you love to exercise in the morning rather than the evening, or you don't like exercising with too many people around. Then you can tweak your plan by finding a quieter time or a new location to exercise.
- Reframe failure. When you don't meet a goal, if you can learn from the experience, it's not a failure. Use what you're learning to prepare for the next time. This also helps reduce feelings of shame or guilt when things don't go as planned.
Envisioning your goals is a great way to push yourself forward into action. Just remember that there will inevitably be setbacks. Staying realistic will help you reroute your plan so that you can still reach your final destination.
- Be an observer. Practice self-awareness when implementing your goals. Throughout the week, ask yourself questions such as, "Did I set myself up for success? Were my goals realistic? What could I have done differently?"
- Anticipate challenges. Think through your day or week ahead and devise an "if-then" plan. For example: If my work meeting runs late and I miss my yoga class, then I will do a workout DVD after dinner.
- Practice self-compassion. When you experience a setback this week, view it as a learning opportunity and move on by telling yourself, "This is just one step in my journey. I will have more chances to make good choices."