Will Ruth

Last week we talked about false hope syndrome and why, if you’ve struggled to be successful in achieving your goals, it’s likely the fault of your process rather than an inherent personality flaw. Let’s get to fixing your process!

At a time that is practical and motivating for you to make a personal change, here is how to do it. While the timing is convenient for this discussion because of New Years, what follows is advice for achieving any goal, whether self-improvement oriented, health oriented, or for an athletic pursuit. Absorb these articles, let them percolate for a while, then return to them when the time is right for you to make a change.

The whole key to overcoming false hope syndrome is to replace false hope with real action. Set smaller, achievable checkpoints to help you along the path toward realizing your goal in a realistic manner that is designed for long-term success.

#1: Make Your Goals Realistic and S.M.A.R.T.

The first step in conquering false hope is starting off with a realistic goal. Is the goal something you truly want to achieve or is it something you feel you should achieve? “Want” goals are more likely to be intrinsic goals and are more likely to be achieved. “Should” goals are usually the result of peer pressure and are successful less often. The key in taking a “should” goal to a “want” goal is finding what motivates you about that goal. If you’ve been told to lose weight, or quit smoking, or start exercising, what can you find within that goal that you want? What is going to motivate you to achieve that goal? A key to success is finding ways to make your motivation intrinsic.

Once you’ve developed a realistic “want” goal, we can start phrasing that goal. Everyone has heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals, but rarely are they actually applied correctly. Much like “team building” is not as simple as doing a couple trust falls, simply talking about SMART goals doesn’t make them more achievable. Take the time and actually write out your SMART goal using the guidelines outlined in my post here, Overcoming Erg Fear. Take careful note that your goal is realistic, achievable, and something that you intrinsically truly want to accomplish.

S: Specific

Define exactly what your goal is. This should be longer than just a few words. “Lose weight” is not specific.

M: Measurable

How will you measure your success? These don’t have to all be objective measurements, subjective measurements are fine too as long as you can be consistent with them.

A: Action-Oriented

Your goal should be positively worded and based on positive action, not avoidance of something. “Don’t eat junk food” isn’t a good goal. “Eat healthier meals based on X, Y, and Z” is an action-oriented goal.

R: Realistic

It is not realistic to suddenly overhaul an entire part of your life with 100% adherence. Your goal should be realistic and your plan to achieve the goal should be realistic as well. This often means starting out small and progressively increasing.

T: Time-Focused

Add some smaller checkpoints along the way to your bigger goal. This can help keep you motivated along the way and feed in to using your measurable outcomes that you defined a couple steps ago.

#2: Identify Your Barriers

Barriers are situations that make it hard to stick to your goal, often leading to a setback. If this is a goal you have tried and failed before, why did you fail?

While it is important to be aware of what your barriers are, it is also important to think of ways to overcome them.

My main barrier to my goal of regular flossing was simple forgetfulness. After a day of school, work, training, and coaching, I’d go through my pre-bed routine on autopilot only to remember as I drifted off to sleep, “shoot, I forgot to floss.” This was an easy barrier to recognize and seemed even sillier that this was something holding me back from my goal. I often find that just identifying barriers helps me realize how small they are and that they shouldn’t actually be barriers. Rain keeps me back from walking on lunch break? Wait, I have a coat, what’s the problem?

If you never go through the process of identifying barriers, failures and setbacks seem random and impossible to plan around. The reality is that most people can find common barriers that cause their failures and once you identify them, they’re easier to beat.

#3: Plan for Setbacks

Even after identifying your barriers and their solutions, chances are, you won’t be perfect in adhering to your goal on your first attempt. One way to get around this is to allow yourself some wiggle room at first. My latest goal was to take the stairs to work more often. For the first month, my goal was three days per week. This allowed me to skip two days at the start if it was raining really hard or my legs were really sore without feeling like I had failed. This is kind of a trick—if I take the stairs Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I could either reward myself by taking Thursday and Friday off, or I could just do them anyway. Usually I’d end up taking the bonus stairs—after all, I had already done them three days and that wasn’t very hard, what’s another two?

Some people may require more motivation or more intentional planning for setbacks. What happens if you get sick? What happens if there’s a family emergency or something that prevents you from achieving your goal? Have a plan to get back on the wagon. If you miss a meal on your better diet goal, having a plan for setbacks avoids turning one missed meal into an all-out free-for-all. If you miss a workout for your new exercise program, having a plan for setbacks prevents that one missed workout from becoming a whole week off. This is a crucial step for long-term adherence, because this is what successful people are doing all the time. The reality of daily life is that no one can keep a routine 100% intact day after day. People who are successful in their goals have just mastered how to plan for setbacks and work around barriers without letting those setbacks turn into total failures.

Positive motivation will almost always be more effective than negative motivation. There is so much negative emotion with diet and exercise that it is really easy to go down the rabbit hole of bad feelings after one setback and trash the whole goal. A missed workout in the gym should not be punished by an even harder workout the next time—that’s not a successful plan for a setback, that’s a step in the false hope syndrome (redoubling efforts after a setback).

Remember, mistakes are really only mistakes when you repeat them. If you plan for setbacks, learn from your setback, and then defeat that barrier next time, that wasn’t a mistake—it was just part of the learning process. Successful people aren’t afraid of making mistakes because they know how to always learn something from them.

#4: Stay Quiet About Your Goals

Helping relationships such as a workout partner, friend, or family member also trying to make a personal change can be a great resource. They don’t have to be the same change—someone trying to be a regular flosser can help someone trying to drink more water just by being “accountability buddies” who help each other stick to their goals. Outside of a partner though, keep things to yourself. Focus on the intrinsic value of your goal and stay out of the extrinsic feedback loop of announcing your goals.

#5: Tune in to the IMMEDIATE Intrinsic Benefits

This was a great tip I got when trying to become a regular flosser and it seems small, but is huge in the greater picture of making a goal behavior a habit. After flossing, I’d take a few seconds to run my tongue around my teeth and take note of how much cleaner they felt. At first, I had to fake it. It’s easy to brush it off, but taking a few seconds to think, “you know, I DO feel better after taking the stairs to work in the morning,” or “I DO have more energy when I drink more water” helps remind yourself of the intrinsic benefit of your goal—feeling better. If it’s a goal you are intrinsically motivated to achieve, it must make you feel better in some way. Identify that, pay attention to it, and revel in your success!

#6: Stimulus Control

My main barrier to achieving my goal of becoming a regular flosser was that I would simply forget to do it. My stimulus control was to put up a sign on my bathroom mirror that simply said, “FLOSS,” and had a mini calendar printout under it so I could keep track of the days I flossed. This visual reminder and extra motivation to check off another day on my calendar was just what I needed. Stimulus control is all about making it easier to achieve your goals through obvious reminders. A few more examples of stimulus control include:

Barrier: I forgot my gym bag at home, so I don’t go to the gym

Control: I leave my gym bag by the door so I don’t forget it

Barrier: I get caught up in my day and forget to drink water

Control: I put a sticky note on my computer frame that says “drink water” as a reminder

Barrier: That still doesn’t work. I forget to look at the sticky note

Control: Set an electronic reminder on your computer to pop up every 10-20 minutes

Ditch the New Years Resolutions. At a time that you are motivated to make a change, come back to this article and consider these tools. It takes at least six weeks for most people to form a habit, so block out the time and plan for long-term success. Identify your barriers, plan for setbacks, and come up with a solution-based approach to achieving your goal. Just stay quiet about it while you do 🙂


Polivy and Herman, “False Hopes of Self-Change.” University of Toronto, 2002.http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1063339.files/falsehopesofselfchange%20copy.pdf

Weinberg and Gould, “Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology,” 5th ed, 2010


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