Micro-Goals for Motivation Success

We all know that exercise can help us feel good, but that first step can be a challenge even for people in the best of health. It’s even harder when you carry the burden of obesity, depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, or chronic fatigue. These conditions sap your strength, crush your motivation, and turn your thoughts pessimistic.

But micro-goals can help you outsmart those symptoms. I used this particular set of micro-goals to start walking when I was sick and depressed. Perhaps they’ll inspire you to take your first steps.

Micro-Goals for Exercising

You can use the micro-goal approach however you like, but I experienced dramatic results with walking. Experts may say you should get 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise, but to me that sounds like a massive commitment. Sometimes I struggle to motivate myself to spend 5 minutes unloading the dishwasher, much less getting dressed in workout gear to sweat, huff, and puff for 30 minutes.

So when my doctor recommended walking to ease my depression, I wanted to try it but I couldn’t imagine pulling off the daily exercise. Then a physical therapist advised me to start with 5 minutes per day. His advice sounded realistic. Do-able.

I won’t lie—those first few days were miserable and hard. But soon it got better, and so did I. It all started with that first micro-goal: 5 minutes of walking. Here are some of the micro-goal strategies that worked for me:

Put One Foot on the Floor

With depression, even getting out of bed or off the couch can seem like too much. If getting up is a challenge, don’t even think about exercise. Instead, think of the smallest possible first step: putting one foot on the floor. That tiny movement can jump-start your momentum.

Get into Gear

Literally: put on your walking clothes and shoes. Do it first thing when you wake up or get home from work. This strategy prepares you to take advantage of the slightest hint of motivation when it strikes. If motivation doesn’t come, that’s okay. But if it does, you’re ready.

Feel Terrible… and Do It Anyway

It sounds simplistic, but this mental trick lies at the heart of motivation success. Exercise novices can’t fake the feeling of energy and eagerness that comes naturally to advanced fitness enthusiasts. So go ahead and acknowledge that you feel awful and don’t want to walk; I sometimes say it out loud in an exaggerated, whiny voice: “I don’t WANT to go out!” Saying it aloud makes a thought real, and thus less powerful; and the whiny tone helps me recognize my stubbornness while the silliness factor helps me laugh at myself.

Once you let go of your resistance to negative thoughts and accept that you feel terrible and unmotivated, those thoughts
become less powerful and overwhelming. As long as your physician gives you the okay, it can’t hurt to walk out that door despite whatever excuses your body and mind throw at you.

Remember: It’s Only Five Minutes

Don’t worry about long-term commitment or some “30-minutes-a-day” nonsense. A short walk to the end of the street and back was the perfect start for me because I could remind yourself that it was only five minutes—and I could even see my destination from the front door. If that still sounds overwhelming, your first walk objective could be walking for one minute around your living room. Whatever your comfort level, make your first goal one that you can accomplish.

Celebrate Success

One way to transform depression’s negative thought patterns is to increase positive thinking. When you accomplish any of these steps—even just getting one foot on the floor—praise yourself for that effort and achievement! It’s easy to get in the habit of discounting our accomplishments. We think “it’s no big deal,” or “I should’ve/could’ve done it sooner/longer/better.” Banish these kinds of thoughts. You must be your own best advocate. Instead, try thoughts like, “I got moving… that’s a great start” or simply: “I’m awesome.”

Step by Step

Walking is an ideal place to start when it comes to exercise. It’s something almost anyone can do. It requires nothing other than mobility, comfortable shoes, and stepping out the door. Plus, somehow “taking a walk” sounds more mundane and convenient than “exercise” or “working out.” While it’s just a matter of terminology, every little bit of psychological edge helps.

Motivation to Momentum

With micro-goals, don’t even worry about long-term commitment or how you’ll work up to longer, more frequent sessions. Those things will take care of themselves when the time comes. Just use micro-goals to break the process down into the smallest possible increments. Tiny steps get you moving; then you can build momentum from that initial success.

Try these strategies to achieve the hardest part: getting started. Realize micro-goals with small, manageable steps. And as you build momentum, strength, and stamina you’ll be on your way to better physical and mental health. For now, it’s just about putting one foot in front of the other.


Difference Does Not Equal Disability

Here’s what “disability” looks like: a pigtailed 3-year-old girl holds a baby doll and smiles; a teenage boy sinks yet another three-pointer on the basketball court. Now adjust your mental image: the little girl holds the doll between her chin and chest because she has no arms; the teenage boy’s left arm ends at his ribcage level and doesn’t have any fingers.

These are only a couple of examples of the adaptation and ability that characterized my weekend at “Hand Camp.” Hand Camp is Hands to Love’s annual retreat for families of children with congenital upper limb differences. In other words, these kids were born with arms or hands that are somehow different than the norm. Yet they can do most everything that I can. In many cases (such as my fellow basketball player), they do it better.

This was my fourth year at camp, which takes place at Camp Crystal Lake in Keystone Heights, Florida. I host support groups and workshops where parents reflect, connect, and share solutions with each other. Parenting is universally challenging; it’s even more so when your family contends with frequent doctor visits, multiple surgeries, and the stigma and stares that people with a physical difference often encounter.

Hands to Love’s mission is to “[bring] together children with congenital hand differences and their families to create a safe haven in which these families can try new activities, share experiences and develop a support network.” And that support network is strong; founded and run by a doctor and occupational therapists, this year’s volunteers included adaptive equipment experts, occupational therapists, physical therapists, a clinical psychologist, college students, and adults with upper limb differences (a.k.a. “AULDs”) from a variety of fields.

These volunteers join forces with campers and families to network, adapt, achieve, and thrive. But the true power of Hand Camp lies in the challenge and celebration that camp activities provide for the kids. Camp Crystal Lake features rock climbing, kayaking, arts and crafts, swimming, a ropes course, and archery—all in a safe environment.

I emphasize safety in the standard sense of trained staff that ensures no one gets hurt; but safe, too, in the emotional sense. For these kids, it’s easier to take risks and be themselves without the interference of onlookers who assume they can’t perform an activity—or, worse, won’t even let them try.

In each activity, volunteers are there to help; but it’s common for kids with limb differences to work out how to do things on their own—just turn around and they’ve devised a new way to hold a fork or tie shoelaces. The more physical pursuits might necessitate special adaptations (a strap or stand to hold a bow and arrow, for example), but everyone works together to find a way for campers to experience success.

While much is possible for these children, life with a limb difference isn’t always such fun. In addition to physical challenges, discomfort and injury can arise from pointed stares, rude questions, teasing, and bullying. [See this LIFE Center article to learn more about these challenges.]

That’s why Hand Camp is so important. One weekend a year, these kids get the opportunity to be themselves in a context that doesn’t single them out. Instead, they’re surrounded by people who, like them, prefer to focus on strengths and ability. Campers make new friends, learn new skills—even practice new dance moves. They also get to interact with older kids and AULDs, who are living proof of the unlimited possibilities for the future.

It’s hard to describe the support and positive energy that electrifies the air of Hand Camp each year, but I know that I leave feeling better than when I arrived. Being a part of the Hands to Love mission infuses me with hope and motivates me to try more, expect more, and be more. It inspires me to sustain the attitude—the conviction—that anything is possible.

Ever feel self-conscious or unsure when interacting with someone with a disability or difference? Check out LIFE Center’s Straight Talk about Disability.

Or, click these links to read more about the
Hands to Love organization, Hand Camp 2009 (news article), and awesome AULD Wendy Stoeker.