All Over It: How to Eliminate Goal-Blocking Obstacles for Good

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Is your resolve dissolving in the midst of setbacks and challenges? Here’s how to spot the obstacles blocking your way — and then put them behind you.

An old friend shows up to brunch slimmer and glowing, and you want some of what she’s got. You catch an episode of Oprah in which some inspiring expert makes it sound like getting your finances in order is no big whoop, and you promise to take a harder look at your economic future. Or you pass by a rocking church service one Sunday and decide you need more spiritual exuberance in your life. We’ve all experienced moments when we, once and for all, resolve to change something we’ve been dancing around for years.

And then, for one reason or another, all that resolve just seems to fizzle. In its place, obstacles and inertia take root.

For example, you have to put in more hours at work because of a big, new account, so your gym plans go out the window. You try meditating, as your friend suggested, but your feet go numb. Your husband gets laid off, throwing a wrench into your financial planning. And church just starts so early!

Don’t worry. If you’ve experienced this sort of resolution dissolution in the past, that just means you’re normal — and you’re not beaten yet.

Change presents all kinds of challenges,  especially when it involves ingrained behaviors, complex relationships, and both subconscious and conscious emotions.

And yet regular folks — the kind with overworked spouses, dirty laundry, debt and kids with peanut allergies — still do manage to overcome the obstacles to change.

The question is, how do they do it? And how can you follow their example?

‘Out There’ vs. ‘In Here’

Most experts agree that external factors are rarely the source of our obstacles. In fact, Thomas Downes, an expert in both Zen Buddhism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, believes that so-called external factors don’t really exist (he’ll grant just one, actually: death).

Of course, events like illness and job loss can waylay our plans, but in most cases, it’s how we think, feel and react to these experiences (and not the actual experiences themselves) that tends to hold us back.

By refocusing our choices, reconnecting with our core motivations, and coming to grips with our thoughts and fears, we can pick up the trail of our goals wherever we left off — and start changing our life for the better.

Obstacle No. 1 – Time Limitations

A perceived lack of time or problems with time management are often the first things that frustrated resolution-breakers point to as the causes of their failure. Susan Ford Collins, author of The Joy of Success: 10 Essential Skills for Getting the Success You Want (William Morrow, 2003), has been coaching people toward their dreams for more than 30 years, and, in the process, she’s encountered plenty of time-based excuses.

“I’ve heard ’em all,” she says: “‘I don’t have time.’ ‘I have meetings.’ ‘I have to take my kids somewhere.’” For most of us, peeling back the layers of our own excuses is one of the first steps toward getting back on track.

Beneath the almost universal complaint that there just isn’t enough time is a universal truth — we control our time. Time management is really about self-control and a thoughtful approach to logistical obstacles. It also helps to have reasonable expectations about exactly how much time is needed to reach your goals.

You’ve probably heard about the importance of setting “SMART” goals — the kind that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable and Time-Based. Well, many goal-setting experts suggest that it’s the “time-based” requirement that’s the real key to success. This means defining your goal in terms of “by when” and also in terms of how much time you will commit to fulfilling that goal daily, weekly or monthly; how often you will check in with your progress; and what you will do if, by a prescribed check-in date, you’re not where you’d planned to be.

In other words, instead of just stating as a goal that you really want to get in shape, decide where you want to be three months from now. Then decide how much time you will need to spend working out between now and then. Decide when, exactly, those workout sessions will take place and what other time commitments will have to give.

But wait, you’re not done yet. Now comes the time-tracking part. You might decide that you’ll check in at the end of each week, and if at the end of week one you’re not fulfilling your appointments or time-based commitments to yourself, you’ll connect with a workout buddy, sign up for a fitness class or build some other form of accountability into your plan.

Or, if you’re keeping your commitments but find after a month or so that they just aren’t delivering results, you might decide to hire a trainer who can help you revise your approach (even if affording one means you have to stop eating out).

Obstacle No. 2—Unconscious Decision-Making

Prior to becoming a life coach, Collins shadowed highly successful people — like celebrated visionary and inventor Buckminster Fuller — to discover what set apart those who reach their goals from those who don’t.

The contrast, she discovered, was not so much a matter of external demands but of internal decisions: “The people who are achieving their goals have the same obstacles all the rest of us do — time, money, family responsibility — but they are making different choices around them,” she says.

Collins explains that one of the most critical choices successful people make is not to do certain things — like habitually watch TV or surf the Web. “The truth is that if you look at what you’re doing instead of what you want to do, it gets pretty clear what you’re committed to,” she says.

Are you overwhelmed by what it might take to reach your goal or by trying to make a dramatic shift in your daily behavior? Try identifying and making some small steps toward the larger goal.

For example, if you’re committed to improving your health and wellness, but it seems too vast a goal to imagine, simply think about one thing you can do every day — bring your own healthy lunch to work, take 15 minutes for yourself to reflect and recharge, take a walk around the block every evening — to bring you even a little closer to your goal.

Or commit to building just one new healthy skill each month: One month you might focus on learning to prepare a selection of plant-based dishes; the next you might learn to use a heart-rate monitor or pedometer or master the art of gradually winding down before bed.

Taking even a small first step is often enough to create a mind-shift that will carry you through the next steps (see “Small Victories”).

If you find you’re not even taking small steps, begin paying close attention to the patterns getting in the way. Each time you plan to do something, but don’t, take a moment to write in your journal about what stopped you. Chances are good you’ll soon begin to see a pattern.

Some of the most common patterns leading to unconscious decision-making include allowing your energy and resources to be sapped by others, resistance to scheduling or budgeting, feeling that you “deserve” to indulge in something that runs counter to your plan, double scheduling yourself or underestimating time demands, bombarding yourself with negative thoughts or self-talk, losing track of original motivations and values, and allowing relatively small barriers or inconveniences to become excuses. That brings us to the somewhat-related Obstacle No. 3.

Obstacle No. 3—Mindless Patterns and Attitudes

In her book Making a Change for Good: A Guide to Compassionate Self-Discipline (Shambhala, 2007), Zen teacher Cheri Huber explains that each of us has many “sub-personalities,” emotionally no older than 3 or 4 years old, that talk to us (“I don’t want to. I don’t know how!” “I’ve been good. I deserve ice cream!” “This is too hard.”) as we travel the path toward our goals.

“It is not helpful to believe these negative thoughts,” Huber explains. Instead, we can observe them through mindfulness and begin to learn from them. From there, extracting ourselves from their influence becomes easier.

“When we step back from these parts of ourselves and begin witnessing them instead of reacting to them,” she explains, “we begin to realize that the real ‘I’ here is not the upset, resistant child, but the conscious, compassionate awareness that can see all of this drama unfold and still choose to make a conscious choice.”

Huber believes that the most direct way to develop mindfulness is through daily meditation. By practicing being present and aware of what is going on inside our hearts and heads, she attests, we will improve our self-awareness under stress. (For more on developing a meditation practice, see “Learning to Sit Still” in the December 2007 archives .)

“If I’m in a conversation about how hard things are at work and I don’t notice that stress is building, I might go unconscious and eat a half-gallon of ice cream,” she explains.

“In this situation, the problem is not that I ate a half-gallon of ice cream. Yes, that may be unhealthy, but I can’t solve my problem simply by not eating ice cream. I can only solve my problem by dealing with the internal conversation that led to my eating it,” says Huber.

Journaling these internal conversations and your observations about them can also be helpful in identifying the patterns and voices that tend to emerge in certain situations.

In addition to tracking any troublesome patterns and voices, you may also find it helpful to begin noticing the internal conversations that typically precede positive behaviors and choices.

In other words, when your plans do work, why? When you do go to the gym (or deposit money into savings, turn off the TV, choose healthy foods or spend scheduled time working on that novel), what’s going on then? Look for ways to use these positive patterns to your advantage, and you’ll be well on your way to creating new successes.

Obstacle No. 4—Fear

Even as we are consciously longing for and working for a certain kind of change, we may be unconsciously apprehensive — or even terrified — about how that desired change might affect us or our lives.

Jentana Lee Dabbs, a board-certified biomedical nutritionist, reports that the most prevalent obstacle she sees for those straining to reach a goal is a deep fear of what that achievement would actually bring.

She recalls one client who was resistant to improving her health because being sick “was all she knew. To get rid of [her illness] would mean a loss of control in her life. It meant taking that frightening leap into the unknown.”

In some cases we may fear that giving up old habits will be too painful or disruptive for us to endure. In other cases, we may fear that the energy required to complete a goal in one area of our life may cause us to underserve or undermine another. In still others, as Dabbs notes, some aspect of our identity may feel disrupted by the impending change.

Whatever the reason, if fear is stopping you in your tracks, you may want to seek some help in working through it. At the very least, spend some time talking with a trusted friend or journaling about it.

Once you’ve gotten your fears down on paper, consider crafting a fear-abatement program for yourself. For example, you might first identify any negative outcomes that are making you apprehensive, then identify how (in terms of warning signals or symptoms) you would know if they were actually happening. From there, develop simple if/then plans that will give you a clear course to follow in the event you start seeing troublesome signals.

For example, if your fear is that your new workout schedule will take away too much time from your kids, identify what the telltale signals would likely be, and then commit that if you see those signals, you’ll make some specific adjustments (like extending bedtime snuggle-and-story time, or moving one morning workout to the weekend).

When you run into problems and risks that scare you, recruit your inner coach, not your inner judge, to help you handle them from a positive, pragmatic perspective, suggests clinical psychologist Cheri Anisman, PhD. Don’t let your fears beat you up. “If you continue to have an inner critic rather than an inner supporter, you’ll find it more of a struggle to create successes for yourself…primarily because you’ll be less convinced that you are worth it.”

Instead, ask yourself: What kind of person would it take to overcome these challenges and achieve this goal? Then tell yourself: “I choose to do those things and to be that kind of person.” As your focus shifts from your fear to the opportunity you have to become your best self, you’re likely to encounter a rush of energy and purpose-centered determination you hadn’t previously tapped.

Obstacle No. 5—Lack of Support

Although a healthy internal dialogue is paramount when it comes to making good on your goals, external support is key as well. To borrow an Einstein quote: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

Engaging a coach, counselor, trainer or other professional support person can be enormously helpful in this respect, Anisman notes, and may be well worth the short-term expense, particularly if you’ve been feeling stuck for a while.

You needn’t spend a fortune, but if you’ve resisted investing even a little money toward getting the support and resources you need to achieve your goal, it’s worthwhile to examine why. Give some thought to where this priority ranks in your life and if your investment in it to date feels appropriate in relation to your income and other expenses.

“Even if hiring an outside resource is not financially or logistically possible for you,” Anisman says, ”you can still have others support you by keeping you focused and accountable and by cheering you on. Finding a support group of peers who are trying to affect the same changes in their lives can be really helpful.”

Collins agrees, and she suggests that those struggling to reach a goal identify a few key “co-dreamers” who can help them stay accountable to their dreams along the way.

“Unfortunately, the right co-dreamer is probably not the person you’d like it to be — your husband or your best friend,” Collins says. The trouble, she notes, is that the people in these roles either “tend to have similar limits as us” or are just too close and invested to remain objective.

“A lot of people are stuck in relationships that corral them into their fears,” Collins explains. “So often it turns out that our biggest external obstacles are actually the people who love us most.”

Want an effective co-dreamer? Look for someone who can set his or her personal interests aside and champion you every step of the way, Collins suggests. You want someone who will remind you of your initial intention when you stray, brainstorm strategies to help you get back on track and celebrate with you when you reach your final destination.

No Stopping You Now

While no single solution is a guaranteed silver bullet for any one obstacle, when taken in combination, strategies like these can blast you past a surprising variety of stopping points, particularly if you regularly adjust your approach without judging yourself for “failing” along the way.

Instead, celebrate what you’re discovering and the real progress you’re making. As Huber puts it, “We have a choice in life — to live in conversation about what’s wrong and how we’re failing, or to practice living in the moment, where, in fact, there isn’t anything wrong. Getting out of that conversation about what’s wrong with me, with you, with them, with the world, and getting into this moment and this body right now, is no less than the choice between a miserable life and a happy one.”

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body (Free Press, 2007).

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