You’ve heard the statistics: Most people fail when it comes to New Year’s fitness goals. Surveys report that 80 percent of people have given up by February 1st. Successful long-term weight loss is even less likely: Only 5 percent of people who lose weight are able to maintain that weight loss for three years.
What sets the successful few apart from the masses?
Research shows it’s the mental game that makes all the difference. The biggest reason you fall short of your goals is because you’re focusing on the wrong things and not putting in the mental effort required to establish lasting changes that go against your ingrained habits. After all, your body won't do what your mind doesn't tell it.
The good news is that building mental toughness doesn’t require some all-consuming life overhaul. You can do it with a few powerful actions that will yield instant payoff to help you get kickstarted on your road to successful New Year’s change. The key is to adopt a positive approach that allows you to limit the habits that lead to unhealthy behaviors.
#1: Use Positive Self Talk
Manifesting change is almost always harder than we expect it to be. Because we’re trying something new that we don’t have success with (and have probably failed at before), we allow our pessimism to open the door to self-doubt and all our resolve and good intentions come crumbling down.
To develop and maintain the kind of mental toughness that success requires, it's crucial that you keep your thoughts and self-talk positive and avoid the habits that lead to negativity. Positive self-talk is more complex than simply telling yourself: “I can do it!”
Research has identified tools for getting the most out of self-talk. First, use concrete coaching cues to guide your performance. If you’re adapting to a low-carb ketogenic diet and feel like you’ve got the low-carb flu, tell yourself that this is a temporary state during which your body is adapting to be able to burn fat—an essential step in losing body fat and repairing your metabolic health.
Remind yourself that in a few days, you’ll be back to normal—and don’t forget that you have a cheat meal coming up on Friday!
Finally, if you find yourself getting the munchies in between meals, question whether you’re really hungry and reassure yourself that you have a healthy meal coming up. Soon enough, you’ll be able to eat all the vegetables and high-quality protein you want, so this desire to nosh is a temporary (and necessary) state that builds mental strength and will allow you to reach your goals.
Second, instead of talking to yourself in the first person with the pronoun “I”, speak to yourself the same way you’d speak to a trusted friend. Be kind, supportive, and encouraging, addressing yourself by your name. Doing so creates emotional distance, but it also has been shown to stimulate diverse regions of the brain that are involved in self-control and confidence.
For example, if you’re nervous about making it to your after-work training session because you’re overwhelmed with an important project, and you’ve previously skipped out, go ahead and speak to yourself in the third person, giving coaching cues about what you are and aren’t going to do.
Say your name is Amber, then you’d say, “Ok, Amber, you’ve got an important training session today after work. You may be a little tired and stressed from this project, but you know that you’ll feel better once you get your workout in. Sure, it seems easier to just keep plugging away and maybe go train after you finish, but that’s not the commitment you made with yourself, Amber. Making it to the gym and doing a killer session builds your mental toughness and will fuel your creativity. You’ll better able to complete your project after your session. Let’s do this, Amber!!”
#2: Envision Success
Motivation is interesting. When we don’t have it, it becomes this elusive thing that we’d do anything to acquire. When we’ve got it, obstacles fall out of our way and we feel like we could conquer the world.
The great thing about motivation is that it is a skill that can improve with training. One way to increase your motivation is to mentally rehearse areas in which you are challenged. Consider if you’ve had the goal of going to the gym in the morning before work as part of a larger goal to lose 10 pounds of fat. Every night you set your alarm at 7 a.m. and every morning you hit the snooze button, sleeping through your workout. Visualizing a successful scenario can help you turn things around and make it happen.
Take a few moments to imaging the sound of the alarm at 7 a.m. and what it feels like to sit up, get your feet on the floor, and turn off the alarm. Run through all the steps it takes to get you to the gym: Drinking water, going to the bathroom, getting dressed, grabbing your gym bag, getting in the car, driving to the gym, walking through the gym, putting your bag away, starting your warm-up, running through your dynamic stretches, and setting up your first lift of the day.
Why are visualizations so powerful?
Visualizations solidify your commitment to an action. They also impact how your brain approaches a new habit. Mental imagery is actually a form of practice. By practicing a new skill, sport, or habit, you forge new electrical pathways in the brain, which makes it easier to complete that task the next time you try it. Visualizations also increase levels of endorphins like dopamine that stimulate the reward center of the brain, making us more likely to seek out that feel good sensation we get from completing a goal oriented task.
#3: Cultivate Endurance In The Face of Failure
There will always be hard days, whether you’re trying to lose 10 pounds or set a new squat PR. Those are the days that make all the difference. Even when you go off your diet, sleep through your workout, or just don’t perform up to your standards, if you view failure as an opportunity to grow and improve, then you are still in the game. A lot of times, people are too attached to the end result and they give up if they make one little mistake. Instead, approach the low days as a reason not to give up. Have tenacity and be willing to keep trying until you get it right.
#4: Make It An Ethical Issue
People often start to waver when embarking on new training and nutrition habits when progress is slow. Changing your body never happens as quickly as you’d like, and after a few days without measurable results, most people throw in the towel in misery. Humans are amazingly good at rationalizing against our best interests and it’s easy to lose motivation.
One solution is to make it about something bigger than fitness or weight loss. For example, people have a lot of trouble sticking with diets geared at losing body fat, however, when someone becomes a vegetarian for ethical reasons or has dietary restrictions due to their religion, they rarely stray. Moral motivation goes a long way in overcoming cravings and hunger.
Framing your nutrition and training goals around a moral commitment to taking care of your body and health can shore up your defenses against the doubt and annoyance that making change requires.
#5: Do The Little Things
Grand goals make it easy to lose sight of the details. Here are a few simple actions that will go a long way:
Write Down Your Goals—Goal setting is closely linked to motivation because it provides a target for your efforts. You know where you’re going and you have a road map for getting there.
Establish Consistency— Mental strength isn’t something that you magically acquire. You build it through practice and effort, day after day. Obstacles come up and difficulties arise, but by being relentless with your efforts, you overcome roadblocks.
Track Your Progress—Evaluating how consistent you are is important. A simple trick: Track your consistency by writing down the time spent working towards your goal and then tallying up your efforts every week or month. Hours logged in mindful effort = success in terms of pounds lost, weight lifted, or work completed.
Keep A Wide Perspective—It’s easy to get tunnel vision on little annoyances, social slights, and minor problems, but being mentally strong lets you rise above these insignificant obstacles and keep your eyes on the prize of what you need to accomplish.
Cultivate Emotional Stability—People who are mentally weak suffer a deep emotional dive when things go wrong. If you can maintain objectivity, it’s possible to avoid having negative feelings overwhelm your ability to troubleshoot and you can avoid costly mistakes.
Manage Your Intensity—Many people approach resolutions with guns blazing. Behavior change, especially the kind required to transform your body, takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You need to moderate your intensity so that the when the going gets tough, you’re still in the game.
Final Words: Sometimes making change is simply about learning to get out of your own way and let things happen. Give yourself permission to be the person you secretly long to be but maybe don’t feel you’re allowed to be.
Gucciardi, D. Mental Toughness: Progress and Prospects. Current Opinions In Psychology. 2017. 16:17-23.
Mistretta, E., et al. Collegiate Athletes' Expectations and Experiences with Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 2017. 11(3):201-221.
Sarlio-Lahteenkorva, S., et al. A descriptive study of weight loss maintenance: 6 and 15 year follow-up of initially overweight adults. International Journal of Obesity. 2000. 24, 116-125.