Yearly, monthly, weekly, and even daily we think about things that we want to accomplish in our lives. I want to drink less soda… I want to run a marathon… I want to smile more… I want to go on a vacation to the beach… I want to lose weight and be healthier… We create resolutions, but then don’t show the resolve to complete those goals. We create a sense of failure in ourselves that buries the sense of anticipation that was felt when the thought of doing or being something more was dreamed of.
It is at this time that we often blame ourselves and make excuses for why we may have been inadequate. I am not tough enough… I can’t control my cravings… Maybe it is not that important to me… I can do that whenever I want… I don’t have all the things I need to do it… Maybe there is something wrong with me…
The question I ask you then is, what if you are not the weak link? What if you have all the tools and abilities needed to achieve your goal? What if it was the goal that was the problem? In an article titled, If at First You Don’t Succeed False Hopes of Self Change written by Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman, the authors describe a repeated cycle of starting an effort followed by failure. They term this the “false hope syndrome”. They describe how it is common for individuals to choose a difficult, but potentially rewarding self-change task. They embark on their journey of change and may initially see progression toward their goal, but in then end, only achieve failure. People then take the interpretation of their failure and determine that after making a few changes they will be successful and that making another attempt will be rewarding. After making this determination, they embark on another attempt at change, only to be followed by repeated failure. The authors state that this cycle may continue indefinitely.
The authors determine four main factors as to why the person and their goals may fail. These are listed as the amount, the speed, the ease, and the effects on other aspects of one’s life. The amount relates to how much change is desired. For example, when choosing weight loss goals, most people think about the ideal weight they would like to weigh. That weight may be determined by social/media influence, what they weighed in high school, or so on. Take a guy who currently weighs 270 lbs. who sets a goal of losing weight and being healthier. If his healthy weight is 190 lbs. then one could imagine the potential for failure. Losing the first 10 pounds may be easy, but then magnitude of the work that has to be performed to achieve the full 80 lbs. sets in and failure follows. The expectation of how quickly we believe we can achieve a certain goal can contribute to failure. We often think that we can get the results we want much quicker than is appropriate. What if it is holiday time and our 270 lb. man decides that he wants to achieve his goal of weight loss and health by the beginning of summer? What would his chances of success be then?
We often think that we can make the changes we want at whatever time we would like to make the change. Our 270 lb. man tells himself, I will just enjoy myself over the holidays because it will be easy to just start working on my goal after the holidays and be ready by the summer time. It won’t be that hard, I can just change my diet and do some exercise and reach my goal in no time. He then thinks, once I get to 190 lbs., I will feel better. My wife will be more attracted to me. Once I get down to 190 lbs. it will be easier to stay healthy and I won’t have to worry as much about what I eat because I will be able to exercise and do more. The inflated thoughts of how our lives will be after the change can lead to failure during the process of change and failure even when the goal is achieved due to lack of satisfaction in the overall results.
We can decrease our likelihood of falling into this cycle of false hope by following better guidelines when making goals. We can make S.M.A.R.T. goals. S.M.A.R.T. goals are specific, measureable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Using our above example, we take the general goal of wanting to lose weight and be healthier and change it to: I would like to lose 80 pounds in 1 year. I am going to eat 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. I am going to exercise at least 3 days a week for 45 min. Each of those goals is easily attainable and each one gets us closer to the goals of overall health.
Each of us still needs to understand that we are ultimately responsible for following through with the lifestyle choices that we make, but each of us is capable of achieving improved health and higher levels of performance. Sometimes it takes a change of perspective that allows us to free ourselves from the feelings of failure. Often what we need to do is set S.M.A.R.T. goals.
Polivy J, Herman CP. If at first you don’t succeed false hopes of self-change. American Psychologist. 2002;57(9):677-689.