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Making a permanent change in your life requires stepping out of your comfort zone. It demands effort and sacrifice that come not only from your willingness to put in the work, but also from specific skills, such as self-discipline and perseverance. Your goal is within your reach. Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc, Ph.D., psychologist, from SWPS University, explains how to achieve it.

There might be times in your life, when you are miserable, lack energy and feel discouraged, but you are unable to pinpoint the cause of this state of mind. Finally, you diagnose the problem and you notice that your life is not going the way you have planned. You have not realized your goals. You feel stuck and there is no way out, but then you decide that it is high time to do something about it. You make resolutions, cross the “psychological Rubicon” and start on the journey to become the new you. Unfortunately, at this moment it often turns out that good intentions are not enough.

Why is it so hard to keep your resolutions?

“I want change” and “I want to make changes” are two different statements. Often people want change, but they do not want to put in the work required to make it happen. Meanwhile, the road to success is difficult and requires stepping out of the comfort zone.

The motivation process comprises of four parts: the start of the project, direction setting, maintenance and project completion. To achieve your goal, you must go through all four stages of the process and be vigilant during the maintenance phase.

First Make a Realistic Plan

People often formulate their intentions in the future tense and make them very general, for example: “I will exercise”, “I will go on a diet”, and “I will eat healthy”, while effective plans should be outlined in the form of implications.

If “x” happens, I will do “y”. For example: “When I get home, I will go to the gym” or “When I wake up, I will make a healthy breakfast”. If you specify where, when and how you will make steps towards your goal, you increase your chances for achieving it.

Overcoming Excuses

Sometimes, when you are about to take action, you begin to wonder and keep finding excuses. It is related to two mechanisms of self-management, i.e. self-control that keeps you on track to achieve your goals and self-regulation that makes you feel good. You need to ensure that a balance between these two is maintained. If you give in to the “feel-good” mechanism, it will make you happy temporarily, but after the initial pleasure, you will realize that you did not stick to your plan and that you are not effective. Every challenge and every failure on the way to your goal will lower your self-esteem.

For example, if you formulated your goal as an implication: “When I get home, I will go to the gym”, but once you get home you begin to look for excuses, open a box of chocolates (you give in to self-regulation), then despite the initial happiness boost, you will soon feel unhappy. You will again feel inefficient and guilty that you have not completed the plan set out for that day. But if you motivate yourself to begin and you overcome the fleeting discomfort, you will feel proud of yourself. You will think: “Now I can do anyting!” Your struggle with your weaknesses is priceless, because it strengthens your high self-esteem.

Gradual Change or Revolution? What is Better?

The pace of change depends on your personality. Some people prefer to do the total overhaul of their life, which is often motivated by negative life events. A serious illness or a divorce may lead to a positive disintegration (a process that leads to change). Negative events break down the existing framework and although at first it seems that the they make things worse, after a while they may prove to be positive life-changing experiences.

However, it is common for the change to happen gradually. One good habit or one small step can spark positive changes in other areas of your life. Research shows that people who begin a fitness routine feel happier, stick to a healthy diet, are less irritable, stop smoking, watch less television, sleep better, improve their relationships with the loved ones and even brush their teeth more frequently. One small change begins a domino effect of a positive transformation.

How to cope with failures?

One small failure may start a serious of harmful consequences. People deal with failure in different ways. Some get discouraged, while others are determined even more to achieve their goal. Carol Dweck, American social psychologist, claims that this difference depends on the mindset of an individual. Individuals with a fixed mindset, which assumes that people and their attitudes do not change, understand a failure as a proof of their low effectiveness.

Individuals with a growth mindset on the other hand, who assume that people change all the time (which is closer to the truth), treat each failure as feedback on their past efforts. Perhaps the direction was wrong or the means insufficient? Or you did not put enough effort to achieve the goal? If you fail, you need to find answers to these questions and modify your course of action.

How to Keep the Momentum?

You need approximately three months to form a habit. Research conducted by Gabriele Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer indicates that the period right after those three months is critical for maintaining the momentum. At this point, it is common to abandon your resolutions. You begin to assume that you deserve a small break and can relax a bit, since you have worked so hard for the past several weeks. Additionally, your motivation that had originally pushed you to action subsides around this time. Therefore, you need to be vigilant, at this 3-month point. Tools such as implementation intentions and mental simulations of the process may be very helpful on this stage. You need to visualize the road to success and all the steps that must be taken to achieve your goal. Do not concentrate on the success itself, because such a vision at this point will only give you a false sense of achievement, as if you have already won and it will make you rest on your laurels. To remain on the road to success, you must continue to put a lot of effort into achieving it.

Process simulation makes this effort easier. There is no easy recipe for effectiveness and perseverance. For sure, imagining and celebrating the success, before you actually achieve it, will not motivate you to keep going. What can help you is focusing on the road to success and on the process itself. Visualization of the consecutive steps that must be taken to achieve your goal helps you notice the links between the stages of the process and allows you to create a cohesive action plan. It can also help you to foresee potential roadblocks that can slow you down and spur you on to prepare a “plan B”.

The key to success is the road that you must travel to achieve the goal. If you keep going and stay effective, the success will only be a “by-product” of the whole process.


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About the author

Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc, Ph.D. – is a psychologist interested in the psychology of motivation, effectiveness, perseverance and in mental simulations. At SWPS University, she teaches psychology of emotions, psychology of motivation, psychology of individual differences, behavioral health, as well as the development of personal and social competencies. She is also a master’s thesis advisor. In her work she combines theoretical knowledge with practical experience that she has gained while working in a business environment. She brings over 10 years of research experience in a variety of fields, including academic, market and public opinion projects. She gained practical experience at market research companies, such as AC Nielsen and Grupa IQS.