January 29, 2018

How to stay in the driver's seat of your life

Even though we’re far enough into the new year for some people’s resolutions to have already gone by the wayside, the reality is that it is never too late to commit to making positive changes.

When you decide it’s time to bring about changes in your life, a little bit of preparation and planning will help keep you on track toward your goals even while others have resolved to do better next year.

UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain said there’s no secret to success. But committing to change, and identifying a few simple strategies can certainly make a big difference.

“Often we think life just happens to us,” she said. “But when we set our intentions, take action and navigate roadblocks that naturally occur, we can feel more in the driver’s seat.”

"Success is where preparation and opportunity meet." - Bobby Unser

Mirgain said that feeling like we’re in the driver’s seat is actually an important element in achieving our goals. Often we slip back into old habits when we’re experiencing stress, negative emotions or feeling a lack of personal control. But it’s also important to remember that we all have slip ups.

“Approximately 70 percent of individuals who succeeded in achieving their goals actually slipped a month after they began working toward those goals. The difference is that they just didn’t give up,” she said.

While there are numerous articles offering tips for achieving lasting change, Mirgain points to a few key steps.

Set intentions as your road map

She explains that setting specific intentions is like activating a GPS when driving – they become the roadmap to the destination. To help get a sense of what those intentions are, Mirgain suggests thinking about the future.

“When we are thinking about making lifestyle changes, it can help to think about our future selves – who do we want to be? What does it feel like to be this future self? Once we get in touch with that future version, we can begin to plot how to get there,” she said.

To being to reach out to that future self, Mirgain suggests making a list of what accomplishments we’d like to achieve over the year. And take time to reflect on what didn’t get accomplished over the last year. Then think about the why – why are these accomplishments meaningful and is the thought of them exciting? If so, those are more likely to be the intentions we pursue rather than when we feel obligated to make change.

Plan for the pit stops

Once we have the destination in mind – where we’d like to end up – it’s time to plan the route.

“We’re successful when we work toward small action steps consistently over a period of time,” said Mirgain. “And this is where SMART goals come in: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Based.” 

 Watch Dr. Mirgain explain how to make SMART goals

She recommends evaluating progress every month so when a pit stop is needed, it is easier to get back on the road.

“It’s important to pause and reflect on where we’re at and whether we are moving toward our destination,” she said. “Writing out a plan for how we will work toward our goals every month can help maintain momentum.”

Another strategy she recommends is keeping reminders of our intentions around as visual cues to remind us of the dream - pictures, reminders in your smart phone, talking about it with people, etc.. “These reminders can act as incentives – helping us keep our dreams in the forefront of our thinking,” she said.

Anticipate road blocks

As with any journey, there will be times when we take a wrong turn, miss a sign or maybe end up on an entirely different and unanticipated path. And that’s okay. It’s what happens when we set goals for change.

“We don’t have to be perfect, we just have to learn how to get back on the road, and there are things that can help,” she said.

Think about it like setting up roadside assistance – something, or someone, we can turn to when we need help.

Create a support team

Mirgain suggests that a support team can include a variety of people – those who have accomplished similar goals, others we find inspirational and those friends and family that can pull us out of any ruts we might fall into.

“Get ‘goal-getting groupies,' " said Mirgain. “People who will create a sense of accountability and keep us on track.”

Get a tune-up

Just like we wouldn’t set out on a journey without ensuring our car was in good condition, we need to take some time to check our own engines, or in this case – our thought processes.

“Sometimes we get in our own way and sabotage progress because of the thoughts and habits we may not even realize we have,” said Mirgain.

She uses the example of shopping when we’re hungry, or purchasing something on impulse – if we’re working to lose weight or pay off our debt, these actions can undermine our progress. So the first step is to become aware of our habits. Once we recognize how our actions might work against our progress, we can work to change them.

Our inner critics can also make things challenging. If we have a slip up, the inner critic often starts with negative self-talk. To help stop the critic, Mirgain suggests reframing the thought. Instead of “I’ll never lose weight,” she suggests thinking in the present tense “I am working hard to take care of my health” – shifting the way we think can help us stay positive and keep us moving forward.

Think of the journey, not the destination

While it’s important to keep the end goal in mind, it can also be overwhelming. One technique based on research found that focusing on a smaller step helped keep people more motivated.

“When we focus on how much is left, it can be daunting,” said Mirgain. “By focusing on what we’ve already achieved, it can help encourage us to keep going.”

An example she uses is running 5 miles – if we finish 1 mile and think about the remaining four, it may feel impossible. Instead, she suggests thinking about the mile we’ve already run and then think in terms of doubling it. Just a small change can shift our perception.

“We do much better with positive reinforcement, focusing on the positive steps we are taking and being encouraging of ourselves,” she said. “It’s never too late to find and follow our dreams and remember to be kind to ourselves along the journey.”