3 Lessons on Building New Habits through Goal Setting

March 21, 2015

8:00 pm

I am a very goal oriented person. Without a goal to work towards, I have no energy. If my life settles into a rhythm and each day is the same as the one before, it makes me anxious and restless. I’m always searching for the next milestone to hit, the next purpose to obsess myself with.

After my startup TappedIn, my big obsession was obtaining an H1B visa and getting a real job. Ever since those two things have fallen in place my next milestone has been to lose the extra 20 pounds I have been carrying around for the last year since I gave birth.

It has been harder than I imagined. Partly because I was so confident when I got pregnant that it would be easy to control my diet, to exercise and lose whatever weight I gained. Because it had been easy in the past. Heading to the gym was no problem. Resisting temptation was challenging but I could pull it off. I had no doubts I’d snap back into shape right after the baby popped out.

But life changed in unexpected ways after my daughter was born. For one, I put on more weight than expected. I was 40 pounds heavier heading into the hospital. Secondly, my day now has major time commitments and the only time I can exercise without feeling guilty about missing play time or work is 5 am. But heading to the gym at 5 am (specially when it is below freezing outside) is unbelievably hard. Additionally, with parents in the home I have had no control over my kitchen for the past 15 months.

All this to say I’m finally getting back on track and have learned some important lessons about changing behaviors, building good habits and sticking to them.

  1. 1. You have to set yourself up for success. Losing weight is 80% about what you eat and 20% about exercise. So you have to control what you eat. And by control I don’t mean measuring portions but choosing what goes on your plate and what doesn’t. This means being intentional about cooking, packing lunches and grocery shopping. It means planning ahead and setting yourself up for success so when hunger pangs hit, you are not reaching for a bag of chips but some carrots and almond butter. This food control has been critical in my recent behavior change. With mom cooking, there was no way to not eat carbs, sugars, fried foods. So it has been liberating to be able to plan meals, pack lunches and consciously grocery shop on my own. I now have a defined meal plan for the week, I have a cheat day (because normal human beings need cake), I have bags of nuts at my desk, I brew a pot of tea in the morning and I always know what I am eating for dinner.
  2. 2. Having deadlines helps a lot. We just booked a week-long summer getaway at the beach with friends. Guess what this means. It means I need to look good in shorts. I have two months to make that happen. Having this deadline has been more powerful than I imagined. I don’t have a number I’m shooting towards and I won’t fool myself into thinking I can fit into pre-baby shorts. The big achievement here will be to get the process right. Having this deadline is helping me build the habit – it is my kickstarter. The goal is to permanently change behavior and stick to good habits for life. The process will be slow and long. But sometimes you need rocket fuel to launch the long, slow journeys. Deadlines can be rocket fuel.
  3. 3. Know how you respond to expectations. This was a big lesson that came from Gretchen Rubin’s new research on building habits. I heard about it on the Good Life Project. I took the quiz and, no surprises, discovered I was an Obliger. This means I love to meet outside expectations but fail miserably to meet inside expectations. So now you know what prevents me from heading to the gym at 5am. It is hard to get out of bed and do it on my own. But if someone is waiting for me to show up – I will jump out of bed and be ready by 4:45am. This is nothing new. We know having a workout buddy will ensure we workout more. The interesting thing is knowing that’s how your brain functions. I consider myself to be a self motivated person. When I set goals I am determined to meet, I find a way to meet them. But some hurdles I just can’t push through. Now I know why.

Building good habits is the key to living well. We all owe it to ourselves to live well. And to live well we must be intentional about it.

Voltaire said: “God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.


Image credit: Flickr/Paxson Woelber

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Zainab loves building digital products. She cofounded and ran TappedIn - a social discovery tool focused on helping people build meaningful relationships - for 3 years and currently heads up the social and mobile suite of products at Fishbowl Marketing. Previously she has managed product design and operations at The College Board, developed enterprise solutions for Capgemini Consulting and worked in ground breaking SAP technology with Satyam Computer Services.

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