We should think in terms of achieving goals based on purposeful outcomes and focus on the required behaviour change over goal setting. Despite behaviour change being difficult, if you have a plan to address discomfort you can easily achieve the desired behaviours for a worthy purpose and avoid setting goals based on avoiding discomfort, that ultimately won’t withstand the difficulty of behaviour change and result in inevitable failure.
We are just under a month into the new year and it’s statistically likely that around 75% of all new year’s resolutions will have failed by now and only about 8 – 10% of people will see it through to achieve their desired outcome. Data in general suggests that the average success rate for any goal setting is around 8%. Interestingly, the amount of research and information available has grown immensely over the years, a simple search of google scholar on goal setting related research reveals over 4 million articles. Despite this, there doesn’t appear to be any meaningful improvement on the success rates of personal goal setting.
Although there are several possible explanations, one that is worth considering is the way in which we look at goal setting and the deep underlying emotional motivation. The common method to go about achieving a goal is to follow a set of procedures to help develop a plan to achieve that goal. These can be in the form of, a simple acronym, a step by step guide, a flowchart or any other pattern, often developed from the clinical research and formatted into an appealing marketing concept.
The issue here is that these systems generally provide little guidance on how to develop the behaviour change, how to overcome the inevitable sticking points where difficult behaviour change is required, or the emotional motivation behind the intent of the goal. Considering that the 2 most common goal types are either exercise related or weight loss I will add some context under these themes.
If the goal is weight loss, this is usually quantified through the aim of hitting a certain weight, body measurement or clothing size. Or if its exercise it can often be around hitting certain fitness benchmarks or strength measure or combination to achieve a set body image. From here, there is the design and implementation of a plan to achieve the set outcome. The problem comes when things start to get uncomfortable.
When it gets uncomfortable, the motivation of the goal is tested. Is the real motivation behind the goal based on a desire to achieve a specific level of weight or fitness to improve your current lifestyle, take on a specific challenge or beneficial purpose? Or is it based on avoiding specific situations in which you feel uncomfortable based on your current weight, body image or level of fitness?
If it’s the latter, once discomfort arrives in the form of new allocation of time to exercise, change in dietary choices or general behaviour change, then when you enter a certain level of discomfort or it matches the level you felt that instigated the original goal, you will seek out distraction and comfort. Distraction is a primitive function that we utilise to avoid situations in which we feel uncomfortable and in the modern age distraction has never been easier. For instance, if we are going to change behaviours around training earlier in the morning to provide suitable time, before long the change in circadian rhythm is going to make us fatigued as we adjust to the new rhythm, or the seasons transition into winter and its dark and cold, or it rains, or any other possible factor that causes an increase above your threshold for discomfort. This then creates a desire to avoid the feeling of discomfort and your mind starts to seek out distraction through comfort seeking behaviours over the required behaviour change. Luckily for you, the alarm clock has a snooze function, or your phone is right there (probably because it is your alarm clock) or any other infinite number of possible solutions that can comfort your need for distraction and reward alternative pathways in the brain. Before long the behaviour change has failed and you have returned to your previous lifestyle habits, or worse created a distractive behaviour and reinforced the negative habits that have been already ingrained.
To minimize the impact of the inevitable collision between behaviour change and discomfort try changing the way you do your goal setting.
- Rather than think in terms of quantifiable goals based on simple measures and focus on the outcome, define the behaviours that you need to improve that will lead to the desired outcome. Specific success objectives should not be the measure, but the outcome of the implementation of positive behaviour change.
- Implement behaviour change in small steps, have progress points to work toward to narrow down your focus on the next small thing. If I’m going to successfully achieve a large challenge, I break it down into small components along a simple time line. Working back, I can prioritise the important markers, define the underlying behaviours and the time frames required to meet those specific objectives. Focusing on one foot in front of the other can alleviate concern about the immensity of a large worthwhile challenge.
- Choose a purposeful challenge. If your challenge or goal is based on avoidance of discomfort, then it is going to have no real intrinsic value. Then when things get hard, and any good goal always has solid obstacles, you won’t have the fortitude to endure through the discomfort and make the necessary adjustments to continue on your planned path. It is more likely you feel negative emotional stress because your goals aren’t purposeful enough, than having the distress caused by your concern in your ability to meet a worthy challenge.
- Have a plan to tackle adversity. We encounter disruption to our path every day and your ability to maintain momentum is heavily reliant on the strength of your contingency plans. If you’re tired – what is your plan, if it rains – what is your plan, if your friends invite you out – what is your plan. Think about the most likely distractions and have a quick plan to enact to avoid any procrastination and potential diversion from your path.
- Lastly, consider your circle of influence, it is reported that you are as high as 60% as likely to develop similar outcomes as those closest to you through passively adopting their behaviours. Both positive and negative. If you want to adopt positive behaviours, spend time with those that already display those behaviours and let the power of influence do its work. In contrast, if you want to change negative behaviours, perhaps you need to do some social pruning and limit your exposure to those displaying the negative behaviours you wish to avoid.
Although this is not an exhaustive list of considerations and different systems and approaches work differently for everyone, try changing the way you look at goal setting and think in bigger terms. To help maximise the chance of success focus on refining the big three first – sleep, exercise and nutrition. This will set you up with the optimal cognitive function to make the right decisions and choices to start achieving what’s important to you. Achieving your full potential isn’t about hitting short term meaningless goals to avoid discomfort, it’s about pushing your limits to achieve powerful changes that you can continue to evolve from and move not from just good to great but become a true outlier!
Before you set yourself any long-term goal the first thing you want to do is set yourself up for success by developing the optimal mental and physical foundation. The number one factor when it comes to maintaining peak physical and mental performance is sleep. Sleep underlies nearly every function of the human body and importantly in this context, provides the much-needed physical and mental recovery from day to day. Physically this will allow you to achieve your best performance in every session and maximise recovery between workouts to show up every day. Mentally it will allow you to push harder, make better decisions and have the willpower and fortitude to weather the storm when things get tough.
Adequate sleep is considered to be consistently obtaining between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night within a consistent routine. Despite this, sleep is often one of the first things sacrificed in an effort to try and achieve more. Self-imposed sleep deprivation has almost become popular by many as a self-martyr tool to illustrate their extreme work ethic, it is reported around two thirds of the population regularly get 6 hours or less and one third is chronically sleep deprived. However, the science behind the impact of lack of sleep would make many reconsider the sacrifice vs gain for what is literally, a form of self-imposed torture.
The impacts of poor sleep will negatively impact across every aspect of your performance and wellbeing with some of the following to be expected;
- Decreased Testosterone profile to that of someone 10yrs older = (compromised recovery)
- Decreased physical performance by up to 30%
- Decreased lactate clearance, decrease lactate threshold and oxygen transport to the working muscle.
- Decreased ability for the body to thermoregulate, reducing performance
- Reduce strength and power output by 10 – 30% with a linear relationship to sleep time.
- Increased injury rate by 2x, with a perfect linear relationship between increased injury rate and decreased sleep time.
- Increased pain sensitivity and reduced tolerance
- Dramatic decrease in glucose absorption, similar profile to being pre diabetic
- Increased eating by 300 extra calories per day
- Reduced self-control over nutritional choices
- Increased weight gain
- For individuals specifically trying to lose weight, 70% of weight loss occurs from muscle
- Increase risk of cancer, through 70% reduction in cancer fighting immune killer cells
- Decreased immunity
- Increase in rates of type 2 diabetes
- Increase in rates of depression
- Decreased fertility
- Appear less attractive
- Reduced life span, poor sleep damages chromosome ends (telomeres) that are predictive of life span.
- Degrades genetic engineering
- Decrease in short term memory
- Increase in risk of Alzheimer’s
- Up to 300% more likely to make serious errors/mistakes/accidents with an exponential increase per-hour of sleep deprivation
- 40% reduction in ability to learn new information / motor patterns
- Reduces problem solving, focus and persistence to resolve difficult tasks
- Reduces decision making ability
- Decreased integrity and increased blame behaviours
- Avoidance of difficult tasks and decisions
- Reduces creativity
- Reduces will power and self-discipline
- Reduced emotional regulation and emotional recognition and awareness in others
- Increased social loafing
- Avoidance of difficult tasks and decisions
- Decreased productivity
- Increased days lost to illness
- Costs the workplace an average of $2000 per person, $3500 for those who are specifically sleep deprived. National equivalent of 2% of a country’s GDP
- USED AS THE GO TO TORTURE TECHNIQUE IN DETAINED INDIVIDUALS AND POW’S.
By no means is this list exhaustive, there is a continuous growing body of evidence that demonstrates the negative impacts of sleep on every facet of our lives, health, wellbeing, performance and success. It’s not only limited to self-imposed deprivation, shift workers and those with irregular sleep patterns experience similar impacts. This is due to the importance of maintaining a regular circadian rhythm, which is our internal body clock cycle and regulates almost all of biological functions.
This body clock is reset every 24 hours by our initial morning exposure to natural light. This cycle also dictates the times when we are capable of peak performance and understanding our profile can positively inform when we do our best work and when we need to be aware that our performance might be compromised. These profiles, or circadian phenotypes sit along a continuum from early morning to late night. Indications are that 40% of the population are early risers, 30% are more productive late in the day and 30% sit somewhere in between. Understanding your phenotype can determine when you should optimally set your sleep routine and when you should schedule your periods for peak performance. The circadian rhythm itself flows in a wave like fashion, with performance peaks around mid-morning and again mid-afternoon with a trough just after lunch as illustrated in the below figure.
Modified from Fatigue science
With consistent routine your rhythm should maintain this pattern allowing optimal human performance. Through reducing sleep this pattern shifts down ward and continues to slide into state of highly compromised function. A theoretical model of this can be seen below.
Modified from Fatigue science
Recovery from this state can take weeks to months, experience working within special operations showed the decrease from a night of 4 or less hours sleep reduced the individual performance by over 30% and could take up to 4 days to return to normal, a period of 24 hours without sleep was even worse and took up to a week to recover from.
Even disrupting this routine by as little as an hour can have significant impact, waking an hour earlier can decrease physical and mental performance by up to 30% and increase cardiovascular stress. It’s reported that moving forward an hour for daylight savings time increases heart attacks by up to 24%, with similar increases in car accident rates. The relationship between wake time and peak performance for different phenotypes is illustrated in the following figure.
Figure 1; Represents the relationship between % of peak performance time and wake time.
Here we can see clear differences between time of day and performance in different circadian phenotypes. Understanding when you do your best work is key for scheduling important periods of your day and understanding when your physical and mental output is sub-optimal.
For peak performance you should be aiming to set a regular sleep time that doesn’t vary by more than around 30 minutes either side and definitely no longer than an hour, with a sleep duration of around 7 and half hours per night. This will get you into a consistent circadian rhythm and keep you in a state of optimal function. If you miss a night here or there or have a bad sleep, don’t dwell on the fact. Acknowledge you may need to make some modifications that day, understand the impacts and make the most of what you have for the day and understand when to do the most important work both physically and mentally.
There are a number of daily habits that you can modify, remove or introduce that will help you achieve regular good sleep. Here are 12 recommended by Dr Mathew Walker;
12 Recommendations for good Sleep Hygiene
- Get a good sleep schedule – go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. This is the most critical habit you can implement to improve every facet of your life.
- Avoid exercise late in the day – at least 2-3 hours prior to bed time. This allows for neural dampening to occur and reduction in body temp.
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine – these act as stimulants; caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours so try and avoid it late in the day. Consider what’s in your pre work if you train in the evening.
- Avoid alcohol prior to bed – alcohol might help you get to sleep but it destroys your REM sleep later in the night decreasing the total quality of sleep.
- Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
- Avoid medicines that disrupt sleep (where possible).
- Don’t nap after 3p.m.
- Leave time to relax prior to bed, avoid anything that increases emotional arousal), (work emails, social media…etc)
- Take a hot bath before bed.
- Have a dark, cool (19-20°c), gadget free room
- Having your phone in your room increases your emotional arousal and interferes with sleep.
- Even the habit of checking your phone/emails immediately after you wake can create increases in anxiety during early morning sleep, disrupting the quality of your overall sleep. Try and make you r first interaction with a real human or go through a morning routine that primes you for the day prior to checking social/emails
- Get at least 30 mins per day of sunlight exposure
- Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep – get up and do something relaxing until you feel tired again