Whenever we set out to change a behavior or improve our habits, it’s tempting to give into the allure of setting incredibly ambitious goals and hoping that our initial motivation will last.
Think back to a time you wanted to make a positive change in your life. Perhaps you wanted to do more focused work with less distractions, or read more on a regular basis. Maybe you’ve even had some success in the past.
You start out strong, only for progress to slow, and you quickly become discouraged.
While being excited about the positive changes you’re trying to make can be a good thing, it can also be a double edged sword.
When our motivation clouds our judgement, it’s easy to bite off more than we can chew, which can have harmful long term effects.
In this article we’ll explore why choosing a pace you can sustain is critical to long term behavior change and offer a few tips on how to set yourself up for success.
The cost of burn out
Setting unrealistic goals is not only ineffective in the long run, it can be detrimental to your progress and morale.
The problem with setting overly challenging goals, is that more often than not we’ll come up short. And when we do, that failure can prevent us from trying again.
We say we’re going to read a book a week, but only end up finishing a few books.
We say we’re going to have six hours of focused work a day, but can only consistently do two.
And what do we do in most cases? We beat ourselves up. We start to tell ourselves positive change is not possible.
As Darren Hardy shared in his incredible book the Compound Effect:
“When you start thinking about slacking off on your routines and rhythms, consider the massive cost of inconsistency. It is not the loss of the single action and tiny results it creates; it is the utter collapse and loss of momentum your entire progress will suffer.”
When choosing which behaviors to work on, it’s critical to consciously scale back and choose behaviors that you can do sustainably over time.
Continuing to build momentum is essential for making changes long term. Doing too much, too soon, can lead to burnout and stall your progress.
Use your ambition as a guide, then consciously scale back
When choosing which positive behaviors you want to build, take note of your ambition and excitement, then purposefully dial back. Fight the urge to try to do too much, especially if you haven’t had much luck in the past.
An excellent article on 99u backed by the latest research, suggests framing your goals in terms of “micro quotas” and “macro goals.”
“Your goals should be the big picture items that you wish to someday accomplish, but your quotas, are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make the bigger goal a reality. Quotas make each day approachable, and your goals become achievable because of this.”
While we don’t believe you have to do your desired behaviors every day to be successful, you should aim to define and clarify the actions you can take consistently that will help you reach your goals.
If you’re wanting to get in the habit of exercising regularly, you may initially consider working out five times a day. But is that sustainable? Only you will know. That said, always keep the long term in mind.
Hardy further expands on this idea in his book:
“You have to build a program that you can do for fifty years, not five weeks, or five months. It’s okay if you go strong for a while, but you’ve got to see light at the end of the tunnel where you can start scaling it back. You can always find forty-five minutes to an hour a few times a week, but to find two hours, five days a week, to make your routine work, that’ll never happen. Remember, consistency is a critical component of success.”
Resist the urge to be superhuman in the moment, and focus on the long term.
Ingredients of building sustainable behaviors
So how do you go about actually choosing sustainable goals and behaviors? Let’s take a look.
Avoid the urge to sprint
While short term sprints can be helpful in some cases, a thought out and sustainable goal will almost always be the best choice in the long run.
Certainly there are times when short intense bursts of focus can be beneficial. For example, working hard for a week on an important presentation for a big client is manageable. Trying to eat healthy and exercising a few months before your wedding or vacation can also be pulled off.
But in general, taking small steps daily rather than sprints will help you build behaviors you can sustain.
It’s far better to run a few times a week than not run at all. It’s far better to have productive mornings than trying to be productive every second of the day and coming up short.
We’ve previously written about the importance of setting small goals before, but it’s so important, we’ll make the point again. Small goals allow you to build momentum, confidence, and are more importantly realistic to do consistently.
Ignore the noise that says you have to do everything at once, or to “go big or go home.” Don’t underestimate the benefits of meditating for just two minutes a day, or going for a brisk walk around the block after work. Small wins add up.
Consider your current commitments
Part of choosing a sustainable pace for your behaviors is taking an honest assessment of your current commitments.
Are you overly stressed at work? Are you already doing more than you think you can handle? If for example, you know your mornings are busy, that might not be the best time to try and workout.
Focus on one or two behaviors that fit into your current routine, and scale as your momentum builds.
Ultimately, if you’re wanting to make significant changes in your life, choosing a pace you can sustain is a must.
If you want to build positive behaviors for the long-term, do your best to choose behaviors you can sustain. Simple. But difficult.