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28/12/2011 – Moving a boulder with a toothpick by Sensei Ryan Nicholls

Its the start of a new year which inevitably leads us into a period of reflection and often prompts us to ask – “what exactly did I achieve last year?” Last year at this time you probably made a number of resolutions that you were determined you were going to stick to, but how many did you actually achieve? If you achieved one of your resolutions from last year, then you are in the minority, as most people will have given up on their New Year’s Resolutions before the end of January. I read a statistic that said that only 30% of resolutions get achieved. The problem with this is that it is not 30% spread across the population, this number is skewed upwards by those small percentage of people who set themselves ten or twenty new years resolutions and achieve them all. How is it that they can achieve so many when most of us can’t even achieve one?

The key to understanding why we give up so easy on our resolutions is in understanding human nature. Humans like consistency. It is a fundamental part of human nature that most of us like things to stay the same. Routine creates comfort and reduces stress. The problem with routine is that the results will never be different if we keep doing the same thing. In other words, if we want a different outcome, change is necessary.

The second aspect of human nature that sabotages our resolution efforts is that humans are procrastinators. By nature we will generally not do something today unless we have to do it, as it is far easier to think about doing it tomorrow… or the day after… or even next week. How many times have you put off doing something important by sitting on the couch and saying “I’ll do it tomorrow.” The problem is tomorrow it will become next week, and next week it will become next month, and before you know it a year has gone by and it never happened. Now this is fine if you like things the way they are; the problem is if you liked things the way they are you wouldn’t be making resolutions to change them in the first place!

So how do we get around our inherent nature when making resolutions? The simple answer is to make it easy for us to stick to. Studies into the psycho-social benefits of martial arts have shown that martial arts practitioners tend to show an increased goal orientation and goal completion mind set which extends beyond their training and into their everyday lives. So what is it about the martial arts that we can borrow when trying to achieve our own goals?

Martial arts by their very nature are structured in terms of short term, medium term and long term goals. When you first start training that black belt seems impossible to achieve but its the long term goal that almost every person starting martial arts has in mind. The steps to achieving that black belt are broken up into a number of short term and medium term goals. At every belt level you learn a number of techniques. Each individual technique represents a mini-goal to be achieved, and achieving each of these mini-goals is a small step to achieving the medium term goal, that of belt promotion to the next level. This constant orientation towards achievement in the short and medium term provides focus on an achievable goal rather than looking at something that seems almost unattainable. So how can we apply this to our resolutions?

First, set your major goal. A good goal should be realistic, measurable, have a deadline and be written down. “I want to lose 10 kilos by my wedding on the 30th of September” – this would seem to represent a good goal, assuming you have 10 kilos to lose; its unrealistic to lose 10kg in any time frame if you are already a healthy weight for your height, so make sure your goal is something achievable. Writing it down helps you to focus on your goal – an unwritten goal is nothing more than a wish.

Next, break down your goal into smaller goals. Now when I break down my major goal into smaller goals I usually make it so that the sum of the smaller goals is actually greater than the major goal. For example if my major goal was to save $1000 by the end of the year that would equate to saving $19.23 each week, but I would at least round that to $20 per week, and probably try to extend myself and set my weekly goal at $25 – that way achieving my goal week after week will provide a buffer for that one week where something unexpected happens and I am unable to meet my weekly goal. It is easier to install a buffer into your goal up front than it is to have to adjust all your smaller goals to achieve a short fall.

Next, make a list of everything that you can do to achieve your goals. Articulating the things you can do provides a mental prompt to actually do them. For example, if your goal is weight loss related you could park further away from the door at work or the shops and walk, you could take the stairs rather than the lift, you could have an apple rather than that chocolate bar for a snack, you could choose a salad over McDonalds for lunch, you could wake up early and go for a walk, you could go for a walk when you get home etc. Basically your list should be extensive because it is the sum of the smaller things that help you achieve your goal.

Take the list of everything you can do and plan which ones you are going to do and when you are going to do it. It may be a change that you make every day (taking the stairs instead of the lift) or it may be something you need to schedule in (taking a Fighting Fit Cardio class). Most importantly, once you’ve made your plan, execute it! The single biggest killer is that people won’t even take the small step necessary to achieve their larger goal. As an exercise, review your plan every day and if you failed to achieve something on your plan, write down why – and don’t lie to yourself either, the major excuse you’ll find is “I was lazy” or “I couldn’t be bothered”. Each day, make sure you have achieved at least one thing that moves you towards your goal.

Finally, measure your results against your goal. If you don’t achieve your goal don’t be too hard on yourself. Ask yourself this (and be honest with yourself) – “did I do everything I could have to achieve my goal?” If you can honestly say “yes I did”, then perhaps your goal was a little unrealistic, if you could have done more, then that is a learning for next time. Importantly, if you don’t achieve your goal, focus on what you did achieve – if my goal was to lose 10kg by a certain date and I only lost 5kg, well I’ve lost 5kg which is a good achievement not something to get down on myself about. You want to make the process of achieving your goals a positive one. So by following these simple steps you too can have the goal orientation of a black belt.

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