Why goals fail, and how you can ride an elephant to success.

Hustle Fitness

A few weeks ago I ran into a friend at a bar here in Chicago. This particular friend had for a very, very, brief time trained at my studio. She joined last summer, came inconsistently for about 2-3 weeks and then told me she didn’t have the time to commit to working out and couldn’t afford the gym membership. This happens, not everyone is in a place where they can commit to a workout program so I didn’t take it personally. But here she was telling me how she wanted to come back to train at my studio and how she couldn’t afford the membership right now but it was her new years resolution to get in shape and run a marathon this year.

While we were talking she pointed out how she was embarrassed to be eating a plate of cheese sticks in front of me (I would have never noticed) and expressed shame about being in this bar for the last 5 hrs. Now let me say I am not judging this woman. I was in this bar drinking beer and having a good time with other friends watching some playoff football. I’m not a big cheese stick eater but I indulge like everyone else, much less when I have a goal in place or something to work towards (I am taking a vacation to the Dominican in a couple months.)

Maybe this was a cheat day for this woman, maybe she is starting her program the day after we spoke. These are all reasonable explanations. For all I know she could be very dedicated at this point. I haven’t seen her since so I have no idea if she is still pursuing this goal or not. The sad fact is that many people each year set resolutions and never follow-through, or become frustrated and give up. This led me to think about the challenge of motivation. Why some people fall short of their goals and lose sight of what they thought was important while others stick with it and experience success.

7 main reasons why goals fail

I don’t really like the term resolution. I prefer to talk in the term of goals. I have identified several main reasons why goals fail. Pretty much every reason someone sets out to make a positive change and then fails can be grouped into one of these three categories.

1. Your goal is unclear and/or unfocused: Someone might say I want to feel better about myself. But what does that mean to them? They may actually be comfortable if they lost 50lbs but if we don’t set a clear goal (I want to lose 50lbs) it is hard to establish a plan to accomplish this. On the other hand if someone comes in one week and wants to lose 20lbs, then say they want to get bigger arms the next week, the issue is focus. This person has two different goals and will need a different plan to accomplish each. It is imperative to success to have a clear plan and to remain focused.

2. You lack the knowledge to accomplish the goal: Every successful man or woman has people around him or her who are, in some way, greater than themselves. The best businessmen have great advisors. The best athletes have great coaches. If you are trying to lose weight you should seek the advice of an expert who has done the same or has helped others do the same.

3. You lack a support system to see things through till the end: Times get tough. Change is hard. If you want to be successful in any endeavor you will need to be committed for a long period of time. Can you do it alone? Possibly. Would surrounding yourself with positive, like-minded people increase your chance of success? Absolutely!

Riding an elephant as a metaphor for change

In the book “Swith” Dan and Chip Heath explore how change is made when change is hard.  In their research they discover people have two separate systems in their brains, a rational system and an emotional system.  The brothers use a metaphor of an elephant carrying a rider along a path to describe the systems and how they apply to change. The rider is our rational side, the elephant is the emotional or instinctive side, and the path is the environment in which change will occur.  The elephant can be stubborn and will often fight with the rider on which direction to go. Which is why we eat that doughnut for breakfast when we know we shouldn’t or why we wake up with a hangover after staying out all night drinking. The rider is telling us we should go home so we can be productive the next day, the elephant is saying “No man, I want to partayyyyy!”

The rational side of our brain (rider) is responsible for our self control. The problem is the rider is small and he’s trying to control our emotions, which can be hard to control (elephant). This self control has a limit just like your muscles when you are lifting a heavy weight. The rider can control the elephant for only so long and only if the path is clear. They key is to direct the rider. Have a clear path to follow and acquire the knowledge and support to keep on the path. The elephant needs motivation to want to stay on the path. Motivation can come in waves so it is important to find ways to keep going when things get tough. So we must find direction for our rational brain and find ways to keep our emotional brain motivated along the journey.

The key to taking control and setting new fitness habits

The key to directing your rider is to establish new habits to help you move in the right direction. Habits are what will separate the person who can accomplish anything from the person who keeps repeating the same cycle over and over again and never gets results. Creating habits will lead to productivity. But creating these habits and sticking with them can be hard. In the book “the power of less” Leo Babauta lists a step by step approach to establish new habits.

1. Start small and set limits: Set a limit on what you will do each day. Setting limits can help you be more effective and productive with your time. If your goal is to lose weight and you want to start working out you may try to commit to a workout program that is unrealistic. Instead try spending 15 min every morning going for a walk. This is easy to accomplish because it’s a small commitment (15 min.) Will this help you lose weight? Of course. Will you have to do more eventually to keep losing weight? Yes. But you can always build upon this habit.

2. Eliminate what stands in the way of your goal: If you are trying to lose weight and you have a fridge full of ice cream and beer get rid of it. Fill it with healthy foods. If you cant work out because you have pain in your knee, get it checked out and start working out. If you have friends that are toxic find new friends. Some of these may take time and patience to fully eliminate, and they may not need to be entirely eliminated, but start by setting limits as above and make progress each day to eliminate what is holding you back and replace it with something that will build you up.

3. Focus: This is the most important aspect. Stay focused on your goal. Whatever it is make time each day to focus only on this one goal. It is best to focus on 1 goal at a time for 1 month at a time. If you want to focus on eating better focus on building one habit. Eat 1 vegetable with each meal. And focus on only this aspect for one month. Focus also relates to what is in front of you. Focusing on one thing at a time allows you to be more productive and get more done. While writing this blog I eliminated the distractions around me so I can focus soley on this writing. If I was watching Game of Thrones while typing you probably wouldn’t be reading this.

4. Write it down: Post on an online forum, blog, social media, somewhere where people will see it. This not only holds you accountable it helps reinforce the commitment to yourself. Be honest about your struggles and successes. There is someone out there who can relate and encourage you. When people respond positively to your posts this can help reinforce your desire for achievement. These interactions help keep you motivated.

The secret behind staying motivated

The elephant, our emotional side, needs to stay motivated along the path for us to experience success.  The best motivators are things we can be really passionate about. The things we look forward to. The things that make us get out of bed in the morning.  Ask yourself why this goal is important to you? If your goal is to lose weight why does that matter to you? Wedding? Vacation? Are you sick of what you see when you look in the mirror? Did someone you love die from a lifestyle related disease and you don’t want that for yourself? Its important to explore what really motivates you and understand it. If you can’t maintain the same level of passion throughout the process you will fall off track. It’s important to really know your true motivations and go back to it when the going gets tough. Sometimes things get in the way and you find it hard to get back on track. Shit happens! How do you ignite the passion again?

Leo Babauta has a few helpful tips:

  • Stay accountable to a group of people who can help you find motivation when the going gets tough.
  • Replace negative thoughts with positive. Recognize when you are going into negative self-talk and replace it with positive vibes. “You can do it!”
  • Focus on the benefits. If your goal is working out focus on how good you feel after the workout and how much better your day is when you complete it.
  • Remember what made you passionate about change in the first place.
  • Set small goals along the way.  They are less intimidating and more manageable than one big goal.
  • Increase your knowledge base. If you want to lose weight read about weight loss. It will help you focus and inspire you.
  • Find like-minded friends. You will encourage each other to success.
  • Celebrate success! Every little milestone is a success! Reward yourself. If the goal is to lose weight, take a cruise when you reach your weight loss goal.
  • Get through the low points. Remember motivation comes like a wave. There will be highs and lows. Stay committed.
  • Get help from a professional. We all know people who are experts. Find someone who can help you see the goal through till the end.
  • Do not let yourself fall off the wagon for more than one day. One day off is understandable. Everyone slips up from time to time. Don’t let it happen two days in a row.
  • Visualize success. Visualize a clear picture of what you want and how you will get it and how good it will feel. Do this every day.
  • Be aware of the urges to quit and have a plan to overcome them. What will you focus on when you want to quit? What will you do? Instead of having that desert go for a walk, or play a game of cards with a friend.
  • Find the fun. Find the fun in the things that are good for you, the things that will help you accomplish your goal.