Modern Dilemmas: Small steps will bring the big changes if you stick to exercise plan

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Dear Alex, I want to get fitter and start before the excess of Christmas kicks in. I’m just hoping I can stick to it and make the changes significant and long lasting. Any guidance on how I can do this?

Most of the time, for anything worthwhile, slow progress is what we’ll all be making. We have a myth of overnight success and a habit of instant satisfaction, but one reason so many people never achieve much is that big things take time. Whether you’re building muscle or losing fat, growing a business or developing a relationship, preparing for a big competition or writing a book, significant achievements are going to come slowly. Most people, when they discover that, give up. Here are my tips on how to change slowly but surely.

Commit to the long haul. If you go in expecting big things right away, that’s going to be a revolving door. You’ll be out again as soon as you realise it’s not going to happen. In particular, anything that requires your body to change is going to take time, because your body is very well defended against change – it’s good at maintaining the status quo. So is your mind, actually.

Make working on your goal part of your routine. Long-term goals are very easy to lose sight of because daily routine goes on around them and if you’re not careful, covers them up and pushes them to the side.

Don’t obsess. When change is slow, we can get tied up in knots about it. Before we know it, we’re spending more time on measuring our progress than on doing things that will create that progress. If you’re doing something towards your goal every day, don’t necessarily measure your progress every day. Measure it once a week, or even once a month.

Take small actions that will have a big cumulative effect. When we hear people talk about their success, they often talk about the big moments, the ones where everything changed. But behind each of those moments are thousands of small, regular actions that add up to something big. The product was the culmination of purposeful action after purposeful action, trial and error, day in, day out.

Check up periodically. I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth a point by itself. You have to be tracking your progress. Not obsessively or too frequently, but regularly. Tracking progress serves two purposes. If the progress is good, it serves to encourage you that you are actually headed towards your goal, that the actions you’re taking are working. If your progress is not good, or if you’re going backwards, that’s a signal that you need to change your approach.

And don’t forget to celebrate your success, no matter how small.