Setting goals for the new year can blunt motivation. Here’s why: It’s after Christmas, maybe you’re feeling guilty about holiday indulgences, and the tendency is to feel you like you need to clamp down with discipline and hard work. Not exactly a good recipe for the spirited motivation that will see you through to realising your 2021 goals. In other words, rather than a year long slog (that most people bail on early), what’s a way to make chasing your goals more of a joy ride than a tiresome plod?
Any list of top authorities with expertise in the ‘how’ of staying motivated and achieving demanding goals includes Dr. Eric Potterat, Ph.D. Dr. Potterat, a passionate trail runner and human performance expert, knows what makes people tick when it comes to motivation.
In recent years he’s worked with everyone from 150 Red Bull athletes, to the 2019 U.S.A. Women’s Soccer Team (winners of the World Cup), to the 2021 Major League Baseball Champions. Before focusing on sports, Dr. Potterat had the unique distinction as a psychologist serving in the U.S. Navy, a commander working as the Head Psychologist for the U.S. Navy SEALs, a special forces group known for some of the toughest military training in the world.
Dr. Potterat emphasises that the motivational tools and tactics that work for elite performers are available to all. “The irony is that all of the skills necessary for great success are skills that are learned. It’s not like elite athletes or business stars or top professionals of any sort are born with them. They are learnable, teachable skills.”
In fact, Dr. Potterat says, the same mental skills that an elite runner uses to achieve success are the same skills used to be successful in the classroom, the boardroom, or on the race course. “Performance is performance,” Dr. Potterat adds. “The stakes and consequences may be different, but the skills required for success are the same.”
With this principle in mind, he says that no matter what your starting point, talents or current abilities, you and I can learn a great deal from how the elites do what they do – and apply them toward making 2021 a great year.
Now for the tactics, here are three of the key tips Dr. Potterat advocates:-
Break Your Goal Down
One way to undercut your motivation is to think about a big project in its entirety. Think about how long it’s going to take, how much you’ll need to do, and how hard it’s going to be, and you can go from energised to enervated in an instant.
The goal seems so overwhelming that an alternative to getting started – like sinking into the couch and distracting yourself with a beer and Netflix binge – exerts a seductive pull. You can prevent this problem with segmenting. Dr. Potterat uses a popular new year’s resolution as an example.
“This time of year, a lot of people set a goal to lose weight like, ‘I want to lose 20 pounds.’ When you think about the difficulty of losing 20 pounds, it can be really daunting.”
What you want to do is to break the goal down into manageable pieces, he says. By organising the weight loss goal into easy-to-accomplish segments, like losing one pound per week, it becomes easier to believe it can be done. Then it’s easier to initiate the daily, doable actions necessary to ascend the first stepping stone toward a long-term goal. Check out Tough Mudder Challenges for ready made Milestones to work towards.
“As you segment your goal into controllable pieces and think about them and do them one-by-one, you build both confidence and momentum.” This confidence keeps your state of motivation energised for the long haul. “You’re eating the proverbial elephant one bite at a time,” Dr. Potterat says.
The same tactic of segmenting can be applied in an endurance event: “You break your 10k or 10-mile event or marathon into pieces and narrow your focus to one piece at a time. Maybe you break it down to one obstacle at a time. Or one quarter-mile at a time.” The key is to deal with the immediate task in front of you and avoid any despairing stress that comes from thinking about the magnitude of the whole thing.
Get a handle on your self-talk
In keynote speeches and his consultant work, Dr. Potterat emphasises that the voice inside our head can either keep us going or sink us down. An illustrative quote he likes is from the second act of Hamlet:
“There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
The impact of self-talk, Dr. Potterat says, is vividly apparent in adverse situations. When it comes to difficult things happening in the course of an activity, the one place we have control is the voice in our head. Do we dwell on the negative and the things we can’t control? Or do we focus our thoughts on the positive, talking ourselves through the situation?
“Those who have been successful in high-pressure situations have navigated adversity at some stage of their lives,” he explains. Self-talk is a tactic that can offer a pathway through stress. He offers the example of a beginning runner encountering feelings of fatigue in the depths of a first long distance race. “You’re that runner and during a rough patch you start thinking: ‘I must be hitting the wall.” This negative reaction feeds into one another, amplifying feelings of fatigue. More negative self-talk follows, and it can make for a rough day.
Potterat says you can counter this problem by doing what elite performers do. When negative thoughts surface, consciously redirect your thinking from the negative to the positive and talk yourself through the problem. In conjunction with the right preparation, positive thoughts will keep you charged up with motivation and performing at the level you are capable of.
Positive self-talk bleeds into a third tactic Dr. Potterat recommends; making sure you work through your goal with the right frame of mind.
Adopt a challenge mindset
Let’s say you’ve set a goal that elicits a mixture of excitement and fear. It’s a goal that’s going to demand you push through a barrier into new, uncomfortable territory. You go after this goal and the obstacles and tests start cropping up. What’s your mindset?
“The mindset piece is really important,” Dr. Potterat says. “It’s a piece a lot of people ignore. The question is, do you view an obstacle as a challenge or a threat?” A real motivation-killer is perceiving an obstacle as a threat.
“A threat to your reputation, for example. Or if you’re in the business world, it may be a threat to the bottom-line. Or maybe the threat of failing in front of others – a threat to the ego.”
The threat mindset can leave you feeling like it’s too much of a risk, draining your motivation and commitment to the goal. Instead, it’s more effective (not to mention more fun) to adopt what Dr. Potterat calls a challenge mindset: “When you adopt a challenge mindset, you think of the obstacle as nothing more than a challenge; a challenge that I’m going to give my best effort to accomplish.”
Dr. Potterat says that children at play provides an excellent example of the challenge mindset. “Kids are very good in the way they approach a barrier or obstacle. Like puzzles or Legos. It’s nothing more than a puzzle to solve and they go at it fearlessly.” This changes when kids start getting involved in competitive sports. “When kids get socialised, they tend to veer into a threat mindset,” Dr. Potterat says. “But before this socialisation process, the challenge mindset is natural to them.”
The good news is you can rewire your mindset back to the challenge mindset, allowing you to have fun in the pursuit of your goals and letting go of the fear of failure.
Now Chase those Goals
Breaking a big goal up into bite-sized pieces, talking yourself through the rough spots, and replacing the threat mindset with a challenge mindset. If you’re looking for a place to start try our free training plans.
The mindset you create can be the driving force that keeps you motivated for the long haul: “The challenge mindset is the umbrella over everything”. Tools and tactics like segmenting and self-talk, and others like breathing and visualisation, are going to do a lot to help you towards this.
“You want the overarching mindset of: ‘Hey look, this is a challenge and it isn’t a threat, and I want to go beyond my comfort zone just a little bit. So I’ll think of each approaching obstacle as a challenge – and an opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and see what I can do.’ That’s it.”
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