If You Set the Right Goals, Then You're More Likely to Follow Through

I recently read bits and pieces of The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control by Walter Mischel, PhD (give me a break, I have a baby, it’s hard to finish a whole book). I picked it up because I’m always interested in learning about how we form and stick with good habits, especially when it comes to health behaviors, so when I saw this book on the shelf at the public library, it jumped out at me.

One thing that I learned that is very pertinent to someone who wants to start eating better and exercising more is that our brain has some different systems and parts that control our behaviors. One of them is the limbic system, and Mischel describes this part of our brain as “hot.”

No, it doesn’t mean this part is sweatin’ to the oldies up there, it means that it’s very reactive and primitive; basically, it’s the thing that makes you react quickly. That was good back in the day when mastodons were likely to trample your home or attack your kids, but these days it sets you up for trouble by causing you to choose the TV over the treadmill or the sundae over the sautéed greens.

Luckily, our brain also has a “cool” system, which allows us to think further down the line and keep our hot system in check. This cool system developed later and is mostly in the prefrontal cortex.

It’s great that you’ve got this cool system, but the secret to making it work for you is learning how to activate it when temptation is right in front of you. According to Mischel, you can access your cool system with greater ease if you do one simple thing: come up with if-then scenarios.

What does that mean? It means you decide that if one thing happens, then you’ll take a particular action. It helps in situations where you really want to just eat the whole half gallon of ice cream (because your “hot” system is running the show). Instead, say “If I want to eat more ice cream, then I have to go for a thirty minute walk first” to give your “cool” system a chance to win the brain battle.

Here are some other ideas and tips to put this knowledge into action.

Be specific

You can’t just add “if” and “then” to any statement and expect yourself to stick to it. For instance, saying “if I have time, then I’ll exercise more.” Pretty vague, right? Instead, try “if I get out of class by 4pm, I will get my sneakers on and walk briskly for 25 minutes.” Or maybe “if I get to work by 8 am, I’ll take the stairs.”

Be reasonable

Saying “if I wake up at six am, then I’ll run ten miles” is probably going to be a tad on the overwhelming side. As always, choose goals that are attainable and work your way up to more challenging accomplishments. In addition, try adding if-then statements to one or two areas of your life at a time—you want to have a chance at sticking with these changes; no need to overhaul everything from how organized your closet is to what your food choices are.

Tweak it

If you aren’t successful at your attempts to modify your behavior, then adjust your goals (ha, see what I did there?) Basically, if you aren’t actually able to stick with the if-then statements you’re making, perhaps you haven’t been as specific as you need to be or you’re setting some unreasonable goals. Tweak them and try again.

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