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Reaching your goals one step at a time

 In January, it’s natural to look back over the past year, reflecting on what went well and what areas of life need some attention.  At this time many strive toward self-improvement, feeling the hope of a clean slate as we welcome in a New Year.

Chances are you have set some goals, intentions or resolutions for this New Year. We take the time to determine what’s necessary or desirable in our lives…and set out towards our destinations with optimism and conviction.

Unfortunately, what is also common is to set too many goals, take on too much, and have unrealistic expectations. This sets us up for failure rather than success. Often we start out with a bang but then, for one reason or another, find ourselves back at our baseline.

How to overcome this pattern of disappointment?  Our challenge is to keep focused and consistent as we work towards desired outcomes.  A three-fold plan may help:

  • The first step is to set goals that are self-congruent, which simply means goals that we want or choose to work towards. Studies have shown we have more success when we are working towards something rather than avoiding something.  For example, if you want to lose weight, try stating the goal in a positive way:  Rather than “I want to lose 20 pounds,” you might say, “I want to make healthier food choices and eat smaller quantities.”  Reframing in this way helps make your goal more desirable with specific positive steps.
  • Once you have a goal that has meaning for you… consider Kaizen, the Japanese word for continuous improvement. Its root Kai means “change,” and Zen means “good”… so together, “change for the better.” Kaizen is a long-term approach to improvement that seeks to achieve small, incremental changes to reach goals.

The word came into mainstream vocabulary with the 1986 book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, by Masaski Imai. The concept was first introduced in the manufacturing field as a method towards improvement through team effort, and we now know this approach is ideally suited to help us achieve our personal goals.

The most notable features of kaizen are that big results come from many small changes accumulated over time. We don’t master anything or change anything overnight. For example, learning to walk was a process that continued over time, requiring small actions with repeated effort and attempts.  We all fell, got up, and tried again… and again, and again.  Persistence and small steps lead to big change—that’s kaizen!

  • A third tip for success when working towards a goal or sticking to a resolution is to find an accountability buddy. As the name implies, this person helps keep you on task by holding you accountable.  He or she does not have to be a good friend; however, they must be someone who supports your effort, will be consistent with assessing/following your progress and will hold you accountable if you slip a bit.

I’m sure you can recall times when you didn’t want to go somewhere or do something, yet since you had committed to someone else you showed up.  The approach is the same with working towards changes/goals.  This check-in can be as simple as a weekly text or phone call to give a status update and discuss what’s working or what’s presenting challenges for you.

Studies have shown success increases by almost 70% if we have accountability! 

Putting It All Together

Let’s explore what this approach to change looks like in real life if we set a meaningful goal and practice kaizen with an accountability buddy to get there.

Imagine you are 25 pounds overweight with little endurance for extended walking, and you have an opportunity to join your family on a vacation in 5 months that will involve daily walks and some easy hiking. You really want to go, but you know you won’t be able to keep up unless you lose weight and get in better shape.

This happens to be a real life scenario for my brother, who will be joining us on a two-week vacation in May. Of course, losing 25 pounds and embarking on an exercise routine is daunting.  Let’s see what his plan might look like if he follows the 3 tips presented above.

  • His positive goal could be: “I want to feel well enough to travel with my family and participate in all the activities.”
  • Next step is a plan. He is starting from ground zero when it comes to exercising, so beginning with small changes is the key to success… sounds like kaizen.

He can begin by walking outside or on a treadmill 10 minutes a day for a week, then 12 minutes a day for a week, then 15 minutes a day for a week… you get the idea.  With daily practice, we are much more likely to turn a new behavior into a habit.  And when it comes to creating a healthy lifestyle, healthy habits are key.

At the same time he can choose to eliminate one poor food choice each day… the can of soda, the nighttime bowl of ice cream, the garlic bread, etc.  By increasing activity and reducing daily calories a bit he will lose weight.

  • To increase his chances for success, my brother should find an accountability buddy. He is very involved in social events within his apartment building, so he has several friends and acquaintances he could ask.  As mentioned above, in some ways it’s better if the person isn’t a good friend so they won’t readily accept excuses or support you regardless of your actions.

There will be days he won’t want to walk or will eat his usual amounts, but knowing he will be checking in with his buddy will help him get back on track.

On the way to success

By keeping our goals small and manageable, each day can have a sense of accomplishment and progress.  Be kind to yourself when determining where you want to go and how to get there, yet be accountable too.

Remember: You have the power to change one small step at a time…

It’s a cinch by the inch.