Discouraged after making resolutions? Four steps to success.

After the initial enthusiasm of a new resolution fades, most people give up. Here's how to keep going.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
People walk and jog at Torrey Pines State Park in San Diego last month. There are ways to keep working toward your goals even after discouragement sets in.

Whenever someone takes on a goal, they tend to go through a few phases.

At first, there’s the honeymoon phase, where the person is enthusiastic about what they’re working on. They’ve got a clear goal, one that they’re sure is going to change their life. The steps to achieve that goal seem fresh and new, and they can often see real results from those steps. Even if those real results are small, they seem wonderful because they’re moving in the right direction.

After the honeymoon phase comes what I call the valley phase. The initial enthusiasm fades and the person begins to see how the small, real results are going to take a long time to add up to the big results that they want. The thrill of making good moves is gone, and the minor drawbacks of those good moves often come to the forefront.

Once you push through the valley, you often come to what I call the ascent phase. The ascent phase comes when a person has truly incorporated most of the changes they need to make to achieve the goal into their lives and the positive progress toward that goal becomes a natural thing. Often, the goal begins to feel inevitable once you reach the ascent phase.

The vast majority of goals people set die in the valley phase.

A person will strive to lose weight, enjoy the thrill of going to the gym and making good dietary choices for the first two weeks, then they hit a weight plateau and they begin to really miss that lazy hour in bed or watching television and they miss their tasty and relatively unhealthy snacks.

A person will strive to build a blog or a video series and they enjoy the thrill of the first handful of hits or video views, but then they hit a plateau where they see how much growth they’re going to need to actually make significant money at this and they see how much time it takes to continually create content, and they miss using that time for more fun things.

A person will elect to get their money in better shape and they’ll get really excited when they take on many of the first and most obvious frugal tactics, such as having a yard sale with the contents of their closet and making a bunch of meals at home. They see more money in their checking account and feel good, but then they start to see the giant pile of debt they still have to take on and realize that the life changes they need to make are taking away a few things that they enjoyed in their life.

If a person persists through the valley, they’ll reach a point where the new behavior becomes a natural thing. The positive results begin to seem easier and easier and, before long, the big goal seems like a foregone conclusion.

How does one get there? How does one dig through that “valley phase”? I’ve found four things that work for me.

Forget the big goal
The big goal that you set at the beginning seems fantastic and life-affirming, but as you move into the valley, that big goal begins to seem impossible. It’s something that can only be reached with stupendous effort.

So, forget about the big goal. It really doesn’t matter anyway.

All a big goal really does is set into place the kinds of moves you need to make in your day-to-day actions. If you set a big weight loss goal, that goal is only achieved through smaller decisions. If you set a big financial goal, that goal only happens if you make smart individual financial moves.

The big goal really doesn’t matter when it comes to achieving these little steps. Your big goal really is nothing but a pile of those little steps.

So, forget the big goal and focus only on the little steps.

The only thing that matters is your next step
Your focus should be entirely on the day-to-day choices you’re making. Are you making a good decision at breakfast? At lunch? Are you making wise choices at the store? At e-commerce? Are you producing content on your prescribed schedule?

It is those individual steps that matter more than anything else, so focus on them and enjoy your success at each of those steps, because that’s where the real success happens.

The goal that matters in the valley is the microgoal – the next step you need to take on that path. The more times you achieve those little microgoals, the easier and more natural they become.

Don’t worry about the score
It is very easy to get disheartened by the fact that each step is only taking you a few more inches along in the journey of a thousand miles. If you keep thinking about the distance, it can be very easy to give up.

Stop worrying about the numbers. Stop worrying about metrics whatsoever. Don’t measure your weight every day. Don’t look at your site statistics every day. Don’t study your savings account balance all the time.

The only metric that matters is whether or not you made a positive step today. That’s all that matters – nothing else. Did you succeed today? Did you get up and hit the gym? Yes or no? Did you keep your wallet in your pocket? Did you write an article or make a video for your website?

Focus on establishing long-term repeatability
It’s often in the “valley phase” that people discover that it’s very hard to maintain a pattern of getting up at 4 AM to hit the gym. This doesn’t mean you should drop the daily pattern of exercise. It means that you need to experiment and find the optimal way to make that daily pattern easier and easier to repeat.

Try different times of the day for exercise. Maybe exercising after work is better. Figure out what time of the day works best for your writing and utilize that period as best you can. Figure out a good brainstorming routine, too. Start evaluating foods to figure out which healthy items you actually enjoy.

What you’re seeking is a routine you can live with and repeat day in and day out for a very long time. Don’t be afraid to tinker with the specifics until you make the day-in-day-out flow of it as smooth as possible.

You will get through the “valley phase” if you stick with it. It takes time and patience and a willingness to focus on the details above all else, but once those details are right, you’ll find yourself heading directly toward the “ascent phase,” and that’s where you find yourself moving inevitably toward your big goals.

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