Have you ever wondered why, despite your best intentions, the goals you set for yourself just don’t stick? Research over the years has emphasized the power of our intentions in reaching our goals. However, if this is the case then why do you still eat that slice of greasy pizza despite the promise you made to eat healthier? And how can you make real positive changes in your life easily and effectively?

This article provides some ideas as to why sticking with your goals can be challenging, and show you a simple but effective way you can start achieving your long term goals:

Creatures of Habit and The Tempting Environment

As humans, we are memory machines which means that once we are exposed to a situation, for example sharing a decadent chocolate cake on a rainy Sunday afternoon with family, we store this information so we can recall it at a later time. This process occurs through the formation of nonconscious mental concepts and because we are memory machines, the more we encounter the same experience the stronger these nonconscious mental concepts become (Papies, 2016). This results in us becoming creatures of habit.

In fact, research has shown that the presence of even one environmental cue, e.g. a rainy day, a Sunday afternoon with family, or even a picture of a chocolate cake, can trigger our nonconscious habits and impulse behaviours spontaneously which result in engaging in the unhealthy action.

We are so prone towards environmental cues that a study performed by Harris et al. (2009) showed that the presence of a brief TV advert about snack foods could significantly increase snack eating behaviours. A basic premise of marketing companies, but not an ideal environment for those of us with overall health goals.

“When one’s environment repeatedly confronts one with attractive, high-calorie food, successful weight regulation can become quite difficult, and the good intentions of many dieters are not sufficient to actually lead to consistent reductions in body weight.” (Papies & Hamstra, n.d.)

The Goal Conflict Model

The battle between our best intentions and our impulse behaviors is best explained by the goal conflict model.

If we have two conflicting goals, for example, the hedonic short term goal of eating chocolate cake and the long-term goal of weight loss, both cannot be satisfied at the same time and thus create a conflict (Papies, Stroebe, & Aarts, 2008c).

The result being that where there are environmental temptations present, the hedonic short term goal is likely to be spontaneously and nonconsciously activated which results in the conflicting long term weight loss goal being inhibited (Papies & Hamstra, 2010).

Pheww! So our conscious minds aren’t completely responsible for the naughty snacking or drinking that extra glass of wine, it’s mostly nonconscious habitual responses to tempting environments. But that still doesn’t solve the problem.

How do we make a change despite the constant temptations of short-term hedonic goals?

Health Goal Priming

While our environments provide constant triggers for short-term hedonic goal achievement, we are able to use this same phenomenon of non-conscious cueing to create more positive behaviors through health goal priming.  (Papies & Hamstra, n.d.)

“Goal priming refers to the case where the concept activated by the external cue is a goal, and the prime affects behavior in an attempt to pursue the primed goal” (Custers & Aarts, 2005, 2010).

Aarts (2007) showed that priming, through the use of “goal-related words” (i.e. achieve, help others, master) or environmental cues (objects) related to the desired state triggered motivational behaviors towards reaching that goal (Aarts, 2007).

A study performed by Papies (2016) investigated the effect of nonconscious priming within the naturalistic setting of a restaurant through a diet-related poster on the wall. It tested whether people who were dieters, thus already valuing the goal of weight loss, could be unconsciously cued towards dieting through a diet-related poster on the wall whilst in a tempting environment with the smell of roast chicken and free snacks present. The study showed that the poster primed the dieters to consume less of the free snacks available despite the tempting environment, whilst the average person without restrictive eating behaviours was unaffected (Papies, 2016).

Thus the key to effective priming is that there is a goal, and that particular goal is subjectively valued.

This is further shown by Harris et al. (2009)’s study mentioned above researching the impact of TV adverts on eating behaviors. In the second part of this study, it was found that snack food eating was significantly reduced with the presence of non-food related or high nutrition food adverts.

This demonstrates that we can take the power back into our hands when it comes to dealing with goal conflicts and the key to our success is setting goals which are meaningful to us.

An inherent part of meaningful goals is that they give us value as a reward for their achievement (Custers & Aarts, 2005) and that once activated, through priming, we can work towards these goals nonconsciously through automatic, self-regulating behaviours.


So how can you start priming your long term health goals today?

The simplest way to implement these cues in your life is through the use of goal-related words which trigger desired behaviours (Weingarten et al., 2015).

There are few better environmental cues than the intentional art Holstee creates each month to prime recipients towards the universal positive goals of agency, productivity, mindfulness, compassion, and motivation.

Want other examples of health goal priming?

We can increase our automatic self-regulating behaviours by creating structures in our daily lives. These can range from using post-it notes as reminders, repeating affirmations as part of our daily routine or making a dream board.  There are countless creative strategies to incorporate structures into your daily life just remember that they must relate to the goals you have set for yourself.

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This article is part of our series on the theme of Wellness.

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