Achieve Your Goals With Two Brilliant (and Slightly Insane) Tricks to Boost Self Control

Call me paranoid, but I suspect the comfy couch, TV and high-speed internet access in our living rooms are deliberate safeguards of the status quo. Why worry about changing anything when you can sink into the cushions and ignore your true desires?

The downside is that when you think a goal is worth pursuing or a bad habit is worth changing, then you feel guilty and wistful when you ignore it. You find yourself wondering, “What if I could beat myself into submission long enough to achieve this? How would my life be better, and what am I missing?”

Bottom line: It’s frustrating to lust after a goal when the willpower to persevere doesn’t materialize.

Let’s stop wishing and get down to business. I use my own weight loss efforts as the main example in this article, but you can have any goal whatsoever in mind, and the rules still apply.

Introducing the Motivating Tricks and Tools

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the steely willpower of a robot. If you’re reading this, then you’re not a robot either. To change a habit or achieve a goal, it requires the self discipline and motivation to make tough decisions consistently over time. Tricks and tools keep me motivated when forever stretches ahead of me and I just want to sink back into that couch.

To stick to your goal, all you have to do is 1) focus on “four day wins” and 2) track your long-term progress.

I’ve read about both of these concepts before, and separately, I couldn’t get them to work for me. Combined simultaneously, operating together, they do. It worked for me this week, and as a result, I’ve lost four pounds.

Let me be clear – for me to stick to a healthy diet for a full week is a miracle. Once I can get over that hump, I feel the benefits and I don’t want to go back to eating and feeling like garbage. Don’t discount the value of a full week on your plan towards your goal, whatever it may be. I you do slip up (and you will) you’ll have a weeklong model of success you can turn to and make repeatable.

My Torture This Week

I was only a smidge into my diet this past week, but it felt like I had been dieting fooooorrrreeeeever. All of those minute-by-minute decisions were making me crazy and wearing me down. From my cup of coffee in the morning (you can’t have the vanilla creamer, there’s sugar in that) to my lunch (no, you can’t have a tortilla the size of your torso) to snack landmines and dinner booby traps, I felt like I’d been saying “no” to myself constantly. It was exhausting.

I won’t lie. I was eyeballing the Ben & Jerry’s. I didn’t touch it, but I certainly considered it. I thought to myself, “This is hopeless. I’ll never lose the weight. I’ve been dieting for a million years with no results! I might as well give up. I have no self control anyway.”  How many times do we choose that as a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I was ready to give up, but tracking my progress combined with four day wins saved my heinie.

Step One: Decide What to Track

In Tim Ferris’ book The Four Hour Body, he gets pretty excited about how tracking weight loss results over time works wonders for a lot of people. So I figured, what the heck. I have OCD. This is right up my alley. I am going to track myself out the wazoo with several tracking methods.

Tim’s excitement got me to download this Excel spreadsheet that a man used to track his own weight loss that I customized to use for myself, which I keep open on my computer. I also track inches lost and my body fat percentage.

Of course, depending on your goal, you can track whatever you want. It could be how many days in a row you stuck to a habit, or a weekly or monthly representation depending on what it is you want to achieve and how often you need to take steps to get there.

Step Two: Decide How to Track it, and Make it Fun

I followed Tim’s advice and took my measurements. I made a graph so that I can measure myself each week and ooh and aah over a graphical representation of the inches melting away. I printed out the chart and taped it to my bathroom mirror.

Then I made another chart to track my weight and body fat percentage and taped that up next to my inches chart. I pulled out some pretty pink and green markers so that each day I can fill in the square that represents my current weight and body fat percentage.

Choose any physical representation of the steps you’ll take to reach your goal, but make it something fun that you’ll look forward to playing with. Once I made a paper chain out of construction paper – the kind that kids use to count down the days until a special event. I wrote one step on each part of the chain and got a thrill out of removing each link when I completed a step. When my goal was completed, the chain was gone. It was an amusing way to watch my progress.

I’ve heard of people using charm bracelets and adding a charm for each milestone. You can take two vases and move poker chips, coins or wads of colorful tissue paper from one to the other to mark achieved objectives. Try more than one method to see what’s more entertaining.

Step Three: Decide How and Where to Display it

This part is key: Display your tracking method so that you will see it and be reminded of your goal throughout the day. Exhibiting your tracking in a visible location will not only make other people afraid of your serial killer behavior, it will help you stay on track for longer, and help you get back on track after slip-ups.  Being able to see my progress at a glance keeps me feeling in charge, even after I make a mistake. A mistake becomes a mere blip on the big picture, rather than a reason to trash the whole project.

How Did all this Freaky-Deaky Tracking Come in Handy?

When I was going to lose my mind this week and attack the ice cream like a comet was heading for Earth, I was able to pull back for a moment when I caught sight of my crazy charts in the bathroom. I noticed two things upon witnessing my madness. First of all, yes, my weight was headed in a downward trajectory … and second, I had only been dieting for two days. TWO DAYS!? Why did I think it was an eternity? Why was I being such a wimp?

When I saw that I’d hardly put myself through the ringer with a mere two days of restraint, and that I was actually making progress, my mindset changed. I thought, “I can do this. I just have to get to four days, and it will get easier.”

Why Four Days? What the Heck Is a Four Day Win?

In Martha Beck’s book The Four Day Win: End Your Diet War and Achieve Thinner Peace, she writes that people who have lost a ton of weight and kept it off said the hardest part for them lasted about four days. Beck says four days is about the length of time it takes for the body to adjust to new habits that affect circadian rhythms (such as sleeping and eating. Logically, this four-day theory could extend to caffeine intake, sweets and exercise.)

Beck urges that four days of victory can break a barrier for any type of goal whatsoever, not just dieting. After four days, changes stop feeling torturous. If you can stick with a habit that long, it will begin to feel natural and the momentum will pull you forward, if you let it.

If you’re white knuckling it past four days or you fail completely, then you might need to take a step back and commit to a smaller change for your first four day win. If you continue to flounder, then keep committing to smaller goals until you achieve a four day win. Then proceed with a slightly larger goal for the next win, and so on.

The Four Day Win and the Lure of Short-Term Focus

The four day win strategy by itself in the absence of long-term tracking didn’t work for me in past. The smallness of four days didn’t thrill me. I loooooove to focus on the big picture, the finish line, the major triumph. Focusing on the big picture is fun because that’s where the juiciest payoff lies. The smaller butt, the pile of money, the fancy ladies or whatever the heck your goal is.

However, while we’re focused on the end zone, we’re not present in the moment-to-moment to decide how to tackle the very next obstacle that’s right in front of us. When we’re staring so far ahead into the future, it’s easy to ignore the impact of the small decisions that are right in front of us.

It’s those small decisions, strung together moment to moment and day after day, that actually make a difference and pave the road to our success or failure. A four day win helps bring the short-term into focus so that we can take pleasure in the smaller accomplishments.

Using a four day win, I resisted the Ben & Jerry’s, which confirms once and for all that I actually do possess self control after all. Success begets success. If I resisted the ice cream, that means I can also resist the chocolate. If I can beat that craving, then I sure as heck can pass on the mashed potatoes at dinner.  And so on and so forth. I’m not even thinking about the size of my butt in a month. I’m thinking about the unfortunate size of my butt right now when I’m good at the very next meal.

Combine Long-Term Tracking With Four Day Wins for Max Effect

Even though I appreciate the benefits of focusing on the short-term, still, there’s a delicious allure for me to daydream about my final goal of weighing less than 120 pounds. The energy I have, the way my clothes fit, how much better I feel about myself…there’s no doubt that my final goal holds a certain sway over me. It’s why I decided to diet in the first place.

However, I don’t want to start thinking about how far away my goal is or how much work I have to do to get there. That’s not productive. Besides, I want my diet and exercise routine to be sustainable forever. This isn’t a crash diet or some crazy race to get skinny. This is a lifestyle I’m after, so bemoaning the time it will take to lose weight is counterproductive. All I need to know is that I will get there eventually, as long as I continue to be consistent.

So that’s where my four day wins come in, although they aren’t always four days long. This week, as I gleefully stepped across my first four day win finish line, it occurred to me that I only needed to go three more days to get to my cheat day. Every Saturday is a free day where I get to indulge all of the cravings I’ve had all week, should I choose to do so. I consider it the pressure release valve. I don’t have to think, “I can never have ice cream again.” I can just think, “No biggie. I can’t have ice cream on Saturday, if I still want it.”

Small Choices Over Time Add up to Big Results

Motivation to achieve a goal involves constant focusing and refocusing between the long-term payoff and short-term decisions. When you look at your tracking method, you will be able to see the long-term trajectory of your big picture, and the minutiae of your day-to-day and how that’s affecting your outcome.

At the end of the day, all I ever need to do is to make smart choices at the next meal. That’s all I need to think about. In moments of weakness, at times of mental conflict, when I refer to my nutty tracking documents, I’m clearly reminded where I’ve been and where I’m going so that I don’t lose the plot.

When I wonder why I’m avoiding vanilla creamer, I can think of my long-term goal for inspiration. And I can also think about how Saturday, my cheat day, is never more than a week away.