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Tackle big changes by checking off small goals daily, says a Carolina expert on motivation and behaviors.

Close up over shoulder view of young african american woman pin weekly planning sticker on mood board at home office. Girl put many sticky note memo on noticeboard to organize life and work concept
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For many, it’s time for New Year’s resolutions, mostly created to accomplish a single goal such as losing weight or taking piano lessons.

What if your overall goal is to improve your health and live longer or to play piano for the rest of your life? To achieve such larger, life-changing goals Paschal Sheeran, professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ psychology and neuroscience department, recommends several proven methods that check off smaller goals along the way.

1. Really want it

When you know it’s time for a change, Sheeran said, ask two key questions.

  • Am I making this resolution because I feel I should or because I want to? “Research shows that people are not good at following through on ‘shoulds.’ If you can put more ‘want’ with your ‘should’ when planning the short-term consequences of behavior you want to change, then your odds improve,” he said. Sheeran has published two studies demonstrating that the more you want to achieve a goal for intrinsic reasons, the more likely it is that you will succeed.
  • Will I realistically do this? “If you set a goal and in advance think, It’s really unlikely in the cold light of day that I will do this, then maybe that’s not a goal to set. People can set ambitious goals because it makes them feel good about themselves. But if it’s truly not likely, it’s best to either scale back the goal or abandon it,” Sheeran said.

2. Change your context

Sheeran conducts experiments to discover how small changes in someone’s life will ultimately lead to a larger change in behavior. “Research separates psychologists from life coaches who never do the experiments,” he said.

  • Don’t overestimate your willpower. “Willpower is a limited resource. For instance, some people want to use social media less and think, I must not open Facebook or Instagram or Twitter,” he said. “You can resist the first five times, but when it comes to the sixth time, you open it.”
  • Change the context. To help students devise ways to change their behavior, Sheeran assigns a “context change project.” He asks them to change something in their daily lives to make it easy to do things they want to do or hard to do things they don’t want to do. “One student had a lovely one,” Sheeran said. “She was tired of using her phone too much. She altered her passcode to 25 digits so that while logging into her phone, she had time to pause and decide, Do I really want to do this? It introduces enough friction for her to change her mind at the key moment. She now uses her phone about an hour and a half less each day.”

3. Practice if-then planning

“If-then plans specify what you will do at a particular time in a particular place, or when you encounter a particular thought or feeling,” Sheeran said. He recommends if-then planning for accomplishing specific tasks as well as tasks that fit together to accomplish a larger goal. A short-term goal could be to take medication on schedule or to exercise, actions aiding a long-term goal of improved health.

  • Find a cue to help you do things. In a study of patients with epilepsy who have problems remembering intentions such as locking a door or turning off a stove, Sh
    Headshot of Paschal Sheeran in front of a chalkboard
    Paschal Sheeran (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

    eeran helped them form if-then plans. “If it is 8 a.m., and I’m in the bathroom, and I’ve brushed my teeth, then I take my first pill. It’s a specific context that cues taking one’s meds,” he said. “The nice thing is, people choose a situation that works for them.” The study found dramatic increases in medication adherence using if-then plans.

  • Use thoughts and feelings as cues. If-then plans can help someone who is often overcome by worry or other feelings, Sheeran said. “You can make a plan like, ‘If I feel overwhelmed, then I take five deep breaths and say, I can do this. I’ve done this before!’ It’s instant help, and you use it when you most need it.” In a study with patients with generalized anxiety disorder, Sheeran’s team taught patients a breathing exercise to use whenever they felt the onset of a panic attack, which greatly reduced anxiety symptoms.

4. Overcome setbacks

For life goals such as finishing graduate school or improving your health, Sheeran advises breaking down the larger goal into steps. Then, plan how you will accomplish each one and what to do if you have a setback.

  • Respond to a lapse. Your response to a lapse in your quest to lost weight or stop smoking, for instance, is crucial to success. If you stray from your goal, it’s not a case of being weak or failing. “Instead, tell yourself, It’s just a lapse. I got off track, but now I’m back on track. Anytime you lapse in your behavior, just wake up the next day and simply start again,” Sheeran said.

5. Monitor your attention

As you progress toward a goal, feelings such as sadness, boredom or anger may throw you off track. Plan how to respond to unwanted feelings with strategies that may not spontaneously come to mind when you’re in the moment, having the feeling, Sheeran said.

  • Use an if-then plan. For instance, “If I feel down, I will tell myself, Well, I feel down now, but good things may still happen today, or I’ll look at the situation as if I was someone else and see it’s not as bad as I think it is.”
  • Deal with distractions. When a task is not enjoyable, you may turn to a pleasant diversion, which will hamper progress toward a goal. One way to avoid distraction is monitoring your attention so you can react. A plan could be, If I have the urge to do something else, then I will ignore the feeling and continue what I’m doing. Another way is to make the task more enjoyable by rewarding its completion: If I start to get bored, then I remember I’ll have a pastry and a cup of coffee as soon as I’m done. Sheeran said, “Many people who are good at getting things done spontaneously use self-rewards. Those who are not great at doing this can use the strategy more deliberately.”

You can personalize any of these strategies to help you succeed. “You don’t need to be a psychologist to decide what your self-reward should be or to work out a strategy such as an if-then plan to respond in the moment to a feeling or situation,” Sheeran said.

By Scott Jared, The Well

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