If you watched the recent Winter Olympics, then perhaps you noticed the striking rituals of the world class athletes as they prepared to perform. Whether they don headphones, stare in to space, shake and stretch, or check their gear – the athletes often have fierce and focused looks on their faces. The last several years of strenuous work and have all built up to an incredibly pressure filled moment. In the face of such high stakes, athletes are increasingly turning to psychologists to help them become more mentally tough and focused.
Perhaps in your own life, you are facing similar high stakes situations that demand your best performance. Maybe you need to make major changes to your food choices, sleep quality, or exercise routines. Perhaps you need to address problematic behaviors like overeating, drinking, or smoking. Or maybe it is time to really get your anxiety or hot temper under control. Like the Olympic athletes, you would likely benefit from utilizing psychologically informed principles and skills to increase the odds of your success.
Just getting psyched is not enough. Both commitment and skills are necessary to make changes and follow through on them. Naturally, the first step is to really nail down your goal and expectations. Your goal should be clear and measurable and realistic – not drop 30lbs in a month or stop being angry with your children. With regard to expectations, people do not magically change overnight, so plan to spend a few months of focused effort to create lasting change. Goals that focus on stopping a behavior are harder to achieve than goals focused on increasing a healthy alternate behavior. So set up reasonable, clearly defined, long-term, and health promoting goals.
Like the athletes whose lives are dominated by scores and time clocks, you too need a system of measurement. If you are not able to closely track variation in your target behaviors, then you will not see the trends. I often hear patients bemoan the latest setback as proof that they are not making progress. Usually their attitude changes when we look at the big picture, compare the present to their baseline, and look at the ratio of steps forward to steps backwards. We are all biased and inaccurate observers of ourselves. It is much easier for me to see my patients’ progress than for them to see it themselves. This is why a system of tracking is so valuable. Whether it’s a simple sheet of paper in your wallet, a star-laden chart on the fridge, or a new app on your phone, there are many tools available for tracking.
Finally, it is essential to clarify and build motivation for your change. Arousing emotion is a fundamental aspect of building motivation. Sure, it is helpful to anticipate the benefits you will enjoy from making the change. However, focusing on the wonderful future is not enough. You should also make sure to focus on the pain and struggle that you wish to leave behind. What are the fearful and frustrating things you are trying to escape? This way, we can cultivate two different fuels for change. The excitement and anticipation of success can pull you ahead, and the pain and discomfort of the status quo can push you forward as well.
While it probably warrants a whole article on its own, I want to finish by emphasizing the need to prepare for mistakes, regrets, losing momentum, and falling off the wagon. While Olympic athletes may focus on performing flawlessly, much of their preparation centers on how to recover from a mistake, recalibrate, and then return to the task at hand. They anticipate potential stumbles and practice how to respond so that such stumbles don’t become full-on face plants. So make sure to spend time considering the strategies and reminders for how you will get back on track when times get tough. There are many ways to approach these contingency plans, but one key element is not blowing the fall out of proportion. It is unfortunately all too common that people make a mistake and then decide that they are back at square one. “Its all for naught, so why bother continuing”? This mindset is incredibly self-defeating. However, if the stumble is a previously anticipated and planned for complication, then its just another part of the process. In addition, if you have been measuring progress all along, then it is less likely that you will sabotage yourself with blanket assumptions like “its not working at all”.
While this has been a very quick course in behavior change, hopefully it clarifies some ways to feel more empowered to make desired changes in your life. Those astounding Olympic athletes do not get to the podium by being nonchalant. Take a page from their playbook and make sure that you are mentally prepared, well equipped, and know how to put on your Game Face, so that you can hit your marks on your health goals.