In your quest for self-improvement, you’ll likely encounter moments of despair where your current self isn’t anywhere near the ideal self you’ve created in your head.
Maybe your ideal self is 50 pounds lighter than your current self. You’ve started working out and watching what you eat, but after three months, you’re only down 10 pounds, and you’ve plateaued. You start thinking that you’ll never achieve your goal. 40 pounds is a lot of weight.
Or maybe your ideal self doesn’t drink every night before he goes to bed. You’ve gotten on the wagon several times but have only managed to stay on it for two weeks at a stretch.
Or maybe your ideal self has no debt and more money in the bank. You’ve started a debt repayment plan and are sticking to it, but after a year of scrimping and saving, you still have a long way to go. It feels like you’ll always be broke.
Research in goal achievement shows that if a goal seems distant or impossible to attain, we reduce our effort in reaching it. Runners do this in races. If a runner sets a desired finish time for a race, but that finish time seems to become unviable at any point during the race, the athlete is likely to back off his effort.
If you have a big audacious goal to lose a lot of weight, and you focus on how much you have left to shed, your goal will seem out of reach, and you’re likely to give up. Same with trying to quit booze or paying off large amounts of debt.
This tendency toward resignation and despair only gets amplified with more nebulous self-improvement goals: “I want to be less angry.” “I want more confidence.” “I want to be a better dad.”
With these more abstract goals, it’s hard to even know how much farther you need to go to become your ideal self, which ratchets up the angst of feeling like your goal is too distant to achieve.
Focus on Your Foundation
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
—Henry David Thoreau
Fortunately, there’s an easy mental trick you can use to overcome the despair of not yet being your ideal self: Instead of focusing on how far you’ve got to go, focus on the progress you’ve made toward your aim.
Researchers have found that individuals who focus on the progress they’ve made with a goal have more motivation than those who focus on how far they have left to go in achieving a goal. A sense of accomplishment and progress, however small, gives people the juice to keep going.
Your ideal is to lose fifty pounds, and you’ve only lost ten pounds in three months. Instead of focusing on the forty pounds you have left to lose, focus on the ten pounds you have lost. Moreover, you’ve likely developed healthier habits. You’ve started to exercise regularly and eat better. You’ve come a long way, baby!
Maybe you still have a ton of debt after a year of working hard to pay it off. But you’ve whittled that debt down significantly in a year! What’s more, in the process, you’ve learned a ton about personal finance and have even picked up a new hobby of cooking delicious, low-cost meals. If you had asked yourself a year ago if you’d be in that position, you’d have said, “No way.”
You’ve put some concrete foundations beneath the mental castle of your ideal self. Take some time to appreciate this foundation. Touch it. Do a jig on it. It’s real. The fact that you’ve made some progress means you’re capable of more. And the fact that you’ve already built a firm foundation makes it easier to continue to add onto it.
It’s okay if you backslide a little in this construction process. Some days you may add tier after tier towards your goal; other weeks, you won’t make any gains at all, and may even knock off some blocks that were previously set.
Measure Your Foundation
Whatever your goals are in life, remember to concentrate on your progress and not on what you still lack. Instead of focusing on how big your castle in the air is, focus on measuring the foundation you’ve built beneath it.
You can be intentional about this by setting up some measuring times for yourself.
At the end of the year, write down ten big wins you’ve made during the previous twelve months.
At the end of every quarter, write down how you’ve improved in the past ninety days.
At the end of every month, write down your accomplishments. Be specific. How many times did you work out? How many books did you read? How much debt did you pay off?
At the end of every day, write down three wins that happened in the past 24 hours. Maybe you didn’t lose your temper with your kids. Maybe you went an entire day without drinking. Maybe you made your bed. Count the big wins and the small.
Not only will this practice help you see the progress you’ve made, generate confidence, and motivate you to keep on keeping on, but it will also help you be more grateful for the good things you have in your life.
As a result, measuring your foundation can help rewire your brain for happiness. If you’re tired of feeling like a jaded Eeyore, focus on your wins and really soak them in.
Besides regularly reflecting on your progress in the past year, quarter, month, and day, take time now and then to look back on the entirety of your life to see how much you’ve accomplished. Look at that scrapbook or old yearbook. Browse through pictures from years gone by. You’ve likely had some success in the past.
All those past successes contain the seeds for more of the same fruit.
So as the lyrics go in the Killers’ song “Lightning Fields of Love”: “Don’t beat yourself up; you’ve laid good ground.”