I'm an optimist, always have been. I firmly believe that I can do more in the time I have available than I actually can. I always think it will take less time to get somewhere than it does, that the roads will be traffic-free and a smooth journey awaits. I also believe that I'll be able to get through the list of ten things that I set myself to do each day, and that I'll also fit in two exercise sessions around this, and do the housework, and have time to read my favourite book in the evening.
But I don't.
And I'm not alone. Many of us will take on too many things at once, try to fit a new course in around a busy work schedule, imagine that we'll have time to cook all of our meals for the week ahead on Sunday afternoon, or tell the gym instructor when we join the gym that it'll be no problem to go seven days a week. Stand up if this last one is you. Now sit down again, at least you've got a squat in today even if you haven't quite squeezed in that workout.
Now I'm not saying optimism is a bad thing; we need it to motivate ourselves and research has often found that working towards something positive is more effective than working away from something negative, and that people with a strong belief in themselves are often more likely to achieve. But sometimes we go too far and this can be as problematic as being too negative; what we need instead is to strike a nice balance.
So let's look at why it is in our nature as humans to overload ourselves with things to do and then repeatedly come up short? And after that we'll look at some possibilities to change in future.
Optimism feels good
It takes us to an imaginary place where everything is how we want it to be and that makes us feel good. Because we feel good we decide that's where we'd like to be instead and so we rush to get there, attempting to do everything all in one go. This can lead to a mismatch between our dreams and desires and our current situation and abilities. I'm sure you know it, I call it 'X-Factor Syndrome'. "I want to be the next Mariah Carey." And ok, that's cool, what's sometimes forgotten is how long and hard the journey is to get that far, let's just settle for singing in tune first and go from there; if we still want it, we keep working at it step-by-step, often for a long time to really master it.
Memory is always rose-tinted
If you've ever done something silly like a marathon, or other suitably big challenge, you'll know what I'm talking about here. You finish the race and you say it, you always do...'never again', and you mean it. You feel terrible, exhausted, your whole body hurts and you can't stomach food or drink. But as the days pass these aches and pains become less and you start to think, 'maybe it wasn't that bad?' Within two weeks you're trawling websites looking for future marathons because you're sure you can go faster, and then boom, you've entered!
The same happens here, we forget that we took on too much and it didn't work, or we push it to the back of our minds or assign the failure to maintain our change as down to chance or something beyond our control. It may well have been; what we often don't do though is to look at why it didn't go as planned. What have I really learned? What needs to be different this time for me to get there? These are deep and painful questions sometimes, and we don't like to recognise 'failures' on our own part, although it is helpful to do so and even to look at them not as failures, simply as learning.
We prefer it to feeling 'negative'
Even if we've had a go at something and it hasn't worked out, it's better not to be down about it, right? If we start saying things like 'I can't do that' these days, it's easy to be labelled as a pessimist or just being negative. Society puts a lot of pressure on us to be cheerful and upbeat, when sometimes we don't want to be, and actually, it's not always helpful to be. As with most things, it's about striking the right balance, it's not about saying 'that's impossible' or "I can never achieve things', it's about saying 'what's realistic to do right now given what's going on in life/work/at home.' In the long run, this can help us more than blind faith and endless positivity.
Thinking positively is a start...but it's doing that actually makes things happen
One thing I've discovered over the years is that sometimes we just don't feel very positive. Some days I wake up and think 'I can't be arsed to train today' or 'that plan I have for the business is useless.' I've worked with many clients too who turn up for sessions feeling down or tired or lacking belief they can achieve their goals. We work on the mantra of 'let's just do it anyway.' So we do some exercise or we eat well even if we're not feeling it, and lo and behold, our mood improves and we start to feel a bit more positive about things.
If you struggle with positivity, taking the 'just do it anyway' approach might help. It's certainly better than thinking positively but not doing something about it, that's just praying for luck and whilst sometimes it can happen, what you want becomes much more likely with doing.
Optimism prevents us from examining potential problems, barriers and drawbacks
Being positive and believing things will work out in the end can stop us from examining why we haven't got there already. A reality check allows us to look more deeply at why we've not achieved the goals we set, and most importantly, create an action plan for the future.
So we've established that for many of us, it's in our nature to be overly optimistic and set ourselves up not to achieve. In fact, did you know there are even different types of optimists! Check them out here to see which you are, then come back quickly so we can do something about helping you to achieve lifestyle changes, or whatever else it is you're after.
What can we do about all this?
Firstly, let's state that it really depends on whether you think it's a problem or not. Are you happy as you are and the change you want is just an added bonus, but not that important? Or does it really frustrate you that you can't get to where you want to be? In which case, you must understand the things that bring about change. Change comes when:
1) I am confident that I can do it.
This is our self-belief. If we have high self-belief, sometimes known as self-efficacy (confidence in our ability to do a certain thing) then the likelihood of success increases. As we've been talking about in this article, it's not just about this though. Some X-Factor contestants have very high self-belief, but they lack in the other areas below, namely point 4!
2) There is a reason or reasons for me to do it.
Seeing the values change brings can help us to change. It may be that we'll gain something important from doing so; energy, health, self-esteem, or we lose something by doing it; embarrassment, anxieties, a feeling of worthlessness, a health issue.
3) It is important for me to do it.
This is the motivation bit. Knowing that there are benefits is not enough though; many people know that quitting smoking is good for their health, but they still don't do it. That's often because the thing they get from smoking they value more than their health, or at least equally as much. The change you want to make has to fit in with your values as a person for it be important enough to make the effort to change, or you must at least see how it benefits the things you value in a roundabout way. For example, someone may not value their health, but they may highly value their family and feel it's important to spend quality time with them, so they're driven to change because they know their family are worried about them or they wish to be able to continue to provide for them.
4) I have the skills and resources to be able to do it.
The final piece in the jigsaw is about the things you can actually do, your skills. I can believe that I can win the X-Factor all I want, but if I can't sing there's a fair chance it ain't going to happen (I might still make the final 12 in some years though)! It may well be that I need to develop some skills, or at least consider which ones I'll need to use. I need to think about the resources I have to do the job; do I need time, money or support from someone else with the skills I lack?
Bearing all of this in mind, here's your 5 point change checklist. Try it for me now with a lifestyle goal you're looking to work on; grab a pen and paper and follow these steps:
- Pick a change (remember, less is more, get this one done first and then come back to do the others later)
- Ask yourself how confident you are that you can achieve it on a scale of 0-10. Write down why you chose this number and not a lower one?
- Write down all the good things you'll get from this change.
- Write down why you want to make the change now.
- List the skills and resources you need to make this change. If you don't have any on your list, write next to them how you can get them or who you'll need to help you, there's nothing wrong with asking for help.
A few other pointers for you too; look back at what's gone wrong in the past when you've tried to do this (or something similar if doing it for the first time). Be honest, or better still, ask someone you know to tell you why they think you didn't succeed. Then come up with some ideas for how you can get over this hurdle this time.
And if you're sat there feeling like you can't achieve your goal, you can always change it you know, or change the answers to any of the questions, or just crack on and do it anyway like we said before, as you get closer so will your belief rise.
I'd love to hear how you get on with your goals in the comments box below, or if you have any questions you'd like to ask.