There are people, many in fact, who despite knowing how important exercise is to their well-being, will struggle to remain focused on their health and fitness for long periods of time. This is due largely to how the human brain organizes and perceives the importance of goals and rewards based on time-frames.
The human brain, like the rest of the body, functions to protect and keep us safe. Objects or events (like a waist size or a race) that are far away are not as significant to us as objects that are near to us and because these events are in the future, they don’t present an immediate risk and therefore do not demand our attention.
A similar phenomenon occurs with rewards and time – a reward that we will receive sooner, is perceived as greater than one that will happen further on down the track. This makes even more sense when the rewards are identical, because not having to wait for something is more satisfying than having to wait for the exact same thing.
Consider the case of lottery winners. There have been many studies in which participants have opted to collect significantly smaller amounts of money immediately, rather than wait to be rewarded with much larger sums. Often, we too make the same error of attributing too much value to an immediate reward when it comes to decisions about health and fitness. For example, having a burger and fries now, even though it is not in line with our nutrition goals, is more immediately rewarding than dropping a pant size over the next two months. Staying in bed and sleeping in is more immediately rewarding than getting up earlier ~ particularly when it’s dark outside ~ and working out to attain results that we won’t see for many months.
Therefore, it makes perfect sense and illustrates the importance of celebrating small successes in route to long term goals. Micro-goals and regular check-ins help keep us focused and committed to our larger picture. This means, for example, that if your goal is to drop three sizes before your daughter’s wedding, but you are new to training, then the long-term goal of the three-size drop needs to be broken down. This is where micro-goals such as not missing any training sessions, sticking to a healthy and balanced diet for an entire weekend and other smaller goals that you can constantly work towards will help keep you focused. These smaller goals can be regularly achieved, which allows for consistent celebrations of the little wins.
Finally, always be thinking ahead. When you’re approaching the completion of a goal then that is the time to start setting the next one. Take the time to celebrate the completion of the goal, but ensure you have the next goal in sight. The absence of a next step can be enough to knock you off the wagon, as having no direction can prompt a regression to old habits. As they say, failing to plan is planning to fail. Don’t do it.
Angie Ferguson is an exercise physiologist from Fort Myers, Florida.
She is a USA Triathlon Advanced Level 2 coach, USA Cycling coach and has a Specialty in Sports Nutrition certification.