So, it’s about the third week in January that we can fall off the bandwagon in terms of following new habits or setting ourselves goals for the year.
Because three-weeks in, momentum has slowed (back to everyday life), reality hits (the party’s over, folks), the weather is lousy, payday hasn’t arrived but your Christmas bills have, and your tax return is due…
You tell yourself: blow it, new habits are boring, I haven’t really lost weight/walked everyday/done my 50 push-ups and my gym/yoga attendance is already waning. You’ve forgone alcohol or chocolate, forced yourself to run, breathed so deeply you had a nosebleed and fasted every day except on those with an ‘s’ in it.
But the real reason? With all this effort, you feel you should have lost more weight, felt like a superhero or developed those abs by now… Plus it just feels like punishment. I mean, where’s the fun anymore?
If this is you, these two suggestions might help you stay focused on your goals:
1. Be Realistic with yourself. Start from where you truly are at this moment, not from where you were ten years ago or where you think you should be.
Let me give you an example. I have run and competed in numerous ultra-distance running races all over the world, and I’ve won quite a few. I am now 56, recovering from two years of niggling injuries, worn down from over 20 years of long-distance parental care and reeling from two recent, close family bereavements. And my tax bill is due.
At the moment, I am not a competitive athlete, by any stretch of the imagination. However, the key phrase is ‘at the moment’: my aim for this year, is to see if I can be that competitive athlete once again.
So - Being Realistic no1) - I decided to see if I could run five miles non-stop.
Sounds easy for someone who can run 3-4 hours off-road without breaking sweat (well, almost). But fell running includes stopping to climb over stiles, go through gates and cross minor roads – it’s not non-stop. And, I find road running boring, so I normally try to do it as quickly as possible. This means I fail on most attempts: my ego thinks I can run as fast as I used to despite the lack of training, so I set off too fast, get flustered, and then make up an excuse to stop: I’m too hot, my jacket needs to come off, my achilles is niggling, I need to stretch. I see people faster than me who I try to chase down because I used to be faster. I basically have a miserable time, feel a failure and tell myself I’ll never achieve my goal.
So, back to Being Realistic no1), my aim was to run my five miles as slowly as needed, so I wouldn’t stop, I didn’t feel under pressure and make excuses to walk, and so I could achieve my goal – no matter how small it might be at the moment.
And I did just that. I actually enjoyed it. Okay, I didn’t enjoy swallowing my pride and becoming ‘a middle-aged jogger’, although most of those ‘middle-aged joggers’ ran past me at a pace I certainly couldn’t sustain (so humbling!). But I didn’t chase them. I did my own thing and said “hello” to the walkers and runners who I’d have previously scowled at as I ‘raced’ through my training programme.
And when I finished, I patted myself on the back for sticking to my plan and achieving the goal set. Job done, I can build from here.
2. Be Realistic with your context. This weekend, I’d planned to run 15 miles non-stop (following Be Realistic no1, I’ve built on my achievements from the original goal of 5 miles). But after a busy week at work (let’s face it, every week – thankfully - is busy so that’s no excuse), I travelled on an over-crowded train to look after my father for the weekend, and planned to run along the Thames towpath on Sunday morning – you know, taking time out, getting into nature, having some ‘me’ time, etc. etc.
So, I schlepped through London, caught a tube, another train and walked a mile up hill to my father’s house, with a heavy rucksack carrying my laptop, work papers (I work on the train) and my running kit. Once there, I chatted to him, did some personal care, made him lunch and endless cups of tea, chatted some more, swept and mopped the kitchen floor, hoovered the house, did some laundry, checked his care product inventory with his carers, unpacked his food delivery and started to sort through my late Mum’s clothing. After making Dad supper and yet more tea, I finally sat down to eat and go through his care contributions with all his itemised receipts for 2023. By the time I got to bed I was shattered, dehydrated and underfed. Not the best prep for a 15-mile run at 7am the next morning.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t sleep well (too much technology too close to bed), so started my run late. I also felt a bit guilty that I was leaving Dad for a few hours. I knew it would take me longer than I might have wanted (remember, Be Realistic no1), which meant I’d be rushed and more stressed with Dad. Plus, I’d just had notification that my return train was cancelled. So, what do you do? Plough on, head down, feet frantically shuffling in an attempt to stick to the plan? Or, Be Realistic no2)? My legs were already heavy, I hadn’t eaten breakfast, I was still dehydrated; I was never going to get my 15 miles in AND do what I needed to do with Dad, AND not feel overwhelmed with everything, including getting home at a decent time, before starting work again on Monday morning.
So, I made a decision which was realistic in this context: I would not run 15 miles. I’d run for one hour, which would energise me. I’d then have time to look after Dad, rebook my train, not increase my stress load, get home at a decent time and be better prepared to run 15 miles later in the week.
Now, some might think I’ve failed, as I didn’t get the run done that day. I’d put it off, ‘copped out’, made excuses. But during that hour’s run, I felt the pressure lift off me, I enjoyed the run and then had more time with my Dad, got 'stuff' done and arrived home happier and ready for the week ahead. I also calculated when I could do my 15 miles: Monday or Tuesday, when I have the headspace and time to go as slowly as I can, so I don't stop, enjoy it and get it done. It’ll just be done a day or two later than planned, but I’ll have stuck to my intention to do it. And I will do it.
So, if you’ve set yourself a goal this year, whether it’s a new way of eating, additional exercise or taking up a new skill, remember you’ve still got over eleven months to achieve it. This doesn’t mean putting it off, it means taking your time, starting small and being flexible when other things in life get in the way. Because that’s just life, isn’t it?
Be Realistic: small changes, made every week can be built on, and are more likely to be sustained and therefore achieved.
Focus on what you want, be flexible in approach, acknowledge the small wins, and keep your eye on your goal. You’re more than a match for it.