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These simple steps can increase your chances of making your goals happen

As we enter the dreary month of January following the festivities of the Christmas period, most of us have probably set ourselves some new goals or targets to aspire to in 2019.

Whether these goals have been part of an overly ambitious New Year’s Resolution to change your life or be a new you – or even part of a less ambitious aim of having a ‘dry’ January – we all know that very often we never actually achieve our goals.

Whilst we may have the best of intentions to change something in our lives, we know from the field of health psychology that our intentions do not always lead to the actual behaviour being carried out. For instance, how many of us have fully intended to go to the gym on the way home from work and yet end up in our snazzy tracksuit bottoms on the sofa instead?

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Dr Ceri Phelps, registered Health Psychologist and Academic Director of Psychology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, draws upon her expertise to share the following relatively simple steps that we can all take in our daily lives to increase our chances of actually making our goals happen.

1. Make a plan

It sounds obvious, but most of us only form broad plans or intentions – to maybe lose a stone in weight, to go to the gym more often, to drink less alcohol – and fail to actually think about planning the small little steps that will actually help us get there. These small steps can form “implementation intentions” – a specific plan of HOW we enable ourselves to get to the gym more often. These could range from identifying a gym near to your home; sticking to specific days of the week so that you don’t double book yourself or deciding in advance your non-alcoholic drink of choice.

Set yourself weekly targets that break down your overall goal into small steps and importantly, think about the competing goals or intentions and how you will deal with anything that may end up preventing you from completing your specific goal that day.

2. Surround yourself with people with similar goals or with people who will support you in trying to achieve your goals.

Social support is recognised in psychology as being a highly motivational factor that can make us more likely to succeed in our goals. Choose to be around positive people who support you rather than negative people who put negative peer pressure on you to NOT do the things you want to do.
The field of behavioural psychology tells us that positive reinforcement and feedback continues to keep people motivated. This is why so many health apps provide you with “well done” comments and data on your progress – allowing for virtual positive reinforcement and social support as well as actual or face-to-face encouragement.

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3. Control your urges

Studies have shown that one of the biggest challenges we face as human beings attempting to control or change our behaviour is that we do not always act like rational or logical decision-makers. Rather, our immediate behaviour is often driven by the emotions, urges and impulses we feel at that time – such as the feeling we get when waiting for our Skinny Latte to be lovingly crafted whilst battling with the urge to scoff the delicious piece of chocolate brownie that is just sitting on the counter in front of us.

Behavioural economics or “Nudge Theory” tells us we live in a world designed to tempt or “nudge” us towards certain choices or behaviours that are not necessarily healthy for us. Whilst this is starting to change – for example, we can now have a small fruit snack in place of a packet of crisps in our meal deals – being aware of the urges that we tend to give in to can help us identify ways to help us say “no” more often.

4. Be Human

Finally, remember that the road to achieving our goals, and hopefully sustaining them longer term, is to recognise that we are only human – and being human means learning to deal, accept, and reflect on both our successes and our frustrations in life. Having not managed to get to the gym during a particularly stressful week, or succumbing to that cheeky little glass of wine on a Friday night, does not make us a failure. Taking a humanistic approach to our endeavours, being kind to ourselves and embracing these little moments of human-kindness, is how perhaps we enable ourselves to succeed in the long run.

Dr Ceri Phelps is a chartered member of the British Psychological Society and is registered by the Health Care Professions Council as a Practicing Psychologist. She is an active researcher in the field of health psychology and psycho-oncology and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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