As anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or keep a New Year's resolution can tell you, short-term change is easy. Long-term change is very, very hard. 

Whether you're trying to improve your health, revamp your mornings, or get started with some new productivity or happiness-boosting habit, enthusiasm for a new project often easily carries us to our initial goal. But once you've dropped those 10 pounds or gotten up every day at 5 a.m. for a week, excitement wanes and life tends to drag you back to your old ways of behaving. 

Is there any way to turn a short-term burst of enthusiasm into a real, long-lasting life change? A new study suggests one simple mindset shift that might be able to help. 

Don't reach a goal. Complete a journey. 

Say you've read up on the benefits of mediation and decided to start a daily practice. You set yourself the modest goal of 10 minutes of mindfulness every day for a month. Once 30 days are up and you've successfully met your target, how should you respond? 

To investigate this question Stanford's  Szu-Chi Huang and Jennifer Aaker designed a series of six experiments that asked more than 1,600 participants who had recently met various health and personal goals to think about their experience in one of two ways. Either they were told to do the traditional thing and simply pat themselves on the back for reaching their target or they were instructed to tweak their thinking and reconceive of their recent success as "completing a journey" or "reaching a destination."

The results of the research were recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, but the headline takeaway was highlighted by The British Psychological Society Research Digest blog. Here it is: 

"Those who viewed the goal as the completion of a journey not only expressed stronger intentions to continue the goal-related behaviors, but actually did so (the fitness journey group were more likely to sign up for an ongoing fitness program, for example)," notes BPS. 

Metaphors matter. 

That's a simple but powerful finding. Just by re-imagining meeting your short-term goal as completing a journey, you can significantly increase your chances of sticking with the change for the long haul. How can switching up your metaphors have such an impact? 

The researchers believe more research is needed on the effects of mindset on goal completion, but in the meantime, they have an interesting theory. 

"Thinking about a goal as the completion of a journey might prompt people to reflect on how they had been at the start, and all the ups and downs along the way. This might make them feel that they had changed to be the kind of person who engages in these specific behaviors, and make them more likely to maintain them," explains BPS. 

Or, in other words, the journey metaphor focuses your attention on all you've weathered to reach a goal, reminding you of your own strength, which then helps you carry on in the face of future challenges. 

If all it takes to be a little more resilient and stick with helpful changes is a new mental image, then I think most of us would sign up to give this dead easy intervention a try.

Published on: Sep 23, 2019
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