It’s one thing to daydream about speaking fluent French or dutifully saving 20 percent of every paycheck and another to actually pursue and attain those ideals. Achieving long-term goals requires willpower and tenacity, which are oftentimes woefully lacking after a long day at the office or in the overwhelming presence of Anthropologie’s new autumn collection. Following a few simple but effective strategies can dramatically increase your odds of success. Whether that means resisting an afternoon cupcake break, running a marathon or breaking an irksome habit, you'll be amazed at what you're capable of.
Lose weight, and keep it off. A one-time goal of shedding 15 pounds to squeeze into a bridal gown or to look svelte for a high school reunion requires a finite amount of self-control. But consistently working to keep that weight from creeping back is a different beast entirely. For long-term weight maintenance, setting a specific goal of “lose 5 pounds,” research shows, is a less effective strategy for continued pursuit of weight loss than giving yourself some leeway, such as “lose 3 to 8 pounds.” Researchers refer to this latter strategy as a high-low range goal, or one characterized by a range of possibilities for success, from easily attainable to challenging.
Individuals pursuing high-low range goals “perceive those goals as being both attainable and challenging, which is needed for people to experience a sense of accomplishment,” says Maura Scott, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at Florida State University. “It’s that feeling of accomplishment that emerges that makes people want to continue.”
This psychological strategy can be used for more than just keeping your waistline in check. “Regardless of whether your goal is related to health or weight loss or saving money, taking a straight-forward step like setting the goal in the form of a range can lead to more interest in re-engaging with that goal in the future,” Scott says.
Save money. When it comes to spending versus saving money, not all shoppers are created equal. Researchers have found that people who are naturally inclined to think about future outcomes are more likely to hold off on impulse spending. Those of us who don’t automatically pause to consider our 401(k) plan before swiping our credit card can fake that kind of conscientiousness. Simply forcing yourself to stop and think about which is more important, that $350 pair of shoes or having enough money in your savings account to take a trip next year, can fortify you with a natural saver’s resolve, says Gergana Nenkov, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing at Boston College.
In another study still in progress, Nenkov and her colleagues found that there are nuances in how to best motivate yourself toward your money-saving goal. Specifically, people have more luck transcending spending temptations by thinking about the big-picture benefits, such as, “I’ll be happier if I have enough money to retire.” On the other hand, vast, abstract negatives—“I don’t want to be broke”—aren’t as effective as putting your worries in discrete, immediate terms—“I won’t be able to pay my bills this month if I buy this Gucci handbag.”
Do a pull-up. Even exercise-conscious women tend to slack off when it comes to upper body strength, often assuming that pull-ups are beyond their grasp. Targeted practice, however, can destroy the myth that women cannot do pull-ups. To prove the statistics wrong, first create a timeline for yourself. For a reasonably fit woman with no prior upper body experience, around three months of hard work should be sufficient for landing your first chest-to-bar pull-up, says Keith Wittenstein, owner and founder of Crossfit Virtuosity in Brooklyn. “One pull-up is certainly an achievement,” he says. “I wouldn’t discount having a single one as a goal.”
Wittenstein suggests three strategies for transforming from limp-fish-hanging-on-for-dear-life to pull-up boss. Find a pair of low hanging rings at the gym. They should hit you at about chest height. Grab one in each hand, take a couple steps back, flex your body in plank position and extend your arms, leaning backward until your arms are straight. Then pull yourself all the way up. When you can get 10 to 15 unbroken reps, practice at increasingly challenging angles by stepping closer to (and eventually past) the rings. “Banded pull-ups” involve a thick elastic band that loops over the bar and under your feet, supporting some of your weight. You can start with pull-ups this way, moving to lighter and lighter bands over time. The assisted pull-up machine does the same thing; set the weight to 20 pounds less than you weigh. Finally, spend time simply hanging onto the bar for as long as possible. Wittenstein recommends a workout schedule of three days on, one day off.
Already got a pull-up down pat? To increase your reps, try doing one or two pull-ups every minute for as long as you can. Challenge yourself to get one more set of reps in each time you do this, which will ensure you build strength. “The important thing is not just working out, but trying to improve a little bit every day,” Wittenstein says. “The hard part is creating a habit of following that routine until it just becomes part of your identity.”
Speak another language. Learning a foreign language doesn’t require studying for a certain amount of time or memorizing X-number of words, says Benny Lewis, founder of the language site Fluent in 3 Months. Rather than aiming to “know” Spanish, Arabic or Vietnamese, aspiring polyglots should set out simply to be conversational in their acquired tongue. To do this, says Lewis, begin speaking from day one, “That eliminates the whole problem of ‘When am I ready?’ ” Learn a phrase or two, then walk up to someone and start a conversation if you’re in a foreign country, or jump on Skype to find a willing language partner. “Don’t think, ‘What will I say?’ or ‘What’s the right word?’ just blurt out the first thing that comes to you,” he continues. “And avoid grammar like the plague. Saying things incorrectly is OK. People will understand. Grammar’s purpose is to speak correctly, but it doesn’t help you communicate.” To get over that fear of saying something wrong, Lewis encourages language learners to strive to make 200 mistakes per day in their new language, gaining valuable practice along the way. Realistically, most learners won’t be able to manage the hours of practice needed to meet this daily goal, but Lewis’ point is that new speakers should aim beyond what they think is possible, and to banish their fear of failure from the very first “bonjour” or “konnichiwa.”
Break a bad habit. We all have our quirks, but sometimes habits—nail biting, hair pulling, tics—can become distressing and even interfere with our lives. Breaking these habits cold turkey usually proves difficult, says Patricia Farrell, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and self-help author in New Jersey. Instead of setting an unattainable goal, she advises, work in increments, at your own pace. “Give yourself a very small goal that you have to work towards, like stopping the habit just once a day,” Farrell says. “Allow yourself some leeway and don’t demand perfection so you’re not setting yourself up for failure.” Once you’ve mastered stopping yourself once a day, bump it up to three times a day, then every time. It gets easier with every step. Keep it up for four weeks—that’s how long experts say it takes to change (end or start) a habit.
Some strategies can help. When you notice yourself engaging in the habit, stop and try to identify the cause—oftentimes anxiety—that triggered it. If stress is to blame, breathing techniques can help alleviate tension and promote calmness. Instituting a small punishment system, like flicking yourself with a rubber band around your wrist each time you notice yourself reverting to the habit, can also help discourage and make you more aware of your actions. If it helps, you could set up a reward system for yourself, setting conditions such as “If I don’t pick at my skin for a full week, I will allow myself to buy a new pair of heels.” If you feel comfortable, you can also enlist friends or a signficiant other to help, though they will need to offer support in a kind, unobtrusive way. For example, screaming “Stop!” at a crowded restaurant when you start to twirl your hair would be less preferable than a gentle touch or subtle signal to alert you that you’re engaging in your habit. If you still cannot extinguish the habit, working with a therapist is always an option. “Getting help is fine, people have to understand that,” Farrell says. “We can’t do everything on our own.”
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