How Setting Small Goals Can Lead to Big Success!! (Guest Post by Leah!)

Last month I hosted the May Calendar Challenge for those needing a little motivation and accountability.

The idea was to set a realistic goal you can complete daily for the whole month, and every day you do it, you get to put a sticker on the calendar.

Seeing ALL your success -- all those little victories -- added up changes your perception and MOTIVATES you even more.

(I did the same calendar challenge with our VIP meal plan members the month before and it was EPIC!)

After the May challenge ended, Leah sent me a little love note about how seeing all her stickers did such wonderful things for her mood and feelings, which is why I've asked her to share her experience on the blog today :)

Hopefully Leah will inspire you to set your own small goals that will lead to big success!

I'll let Leah take it away...

I've had good intentions several months this year on printing a calendar and checking off healthy behaviors that I want to make into a regular habit. But May is when the idea of a "Sticker Challenge" finally really worked for me. Plus, the stickers are more fun than just checking things off!

I finished April physically and mentally exhausted due to a variety of work-related stresses. Part of it was probably that I wasn't doing enough health-promoting behaviors to counter the stresses. And as I headed into May, I felt really burned out and unhealthy.

May has been a hard month for me for the past few years. My husband passed away in an accident in May of 2008, and I have struggled each year since with PTSD and grief on the anniversaries of the series of events related to it. My strategy in past years was to do whatever it took to just get through it, but this year, I wanted to focus on doing healthy things for myself so I could finally thrive, not just suffer through it and get to June. Also, 3 friends my age lost their husbands this year, and my soul felt heavier than usual as a result of seeing people in my life go through what I've gone through. No one should be a widow in their 30's and 40's.

So I decided to try Lindsay's sticker challenge. The goal was to come up with a few healthy behaviors that I could realistically perform every day for the whole month. I wanted to set challenging goals but ones that were practical. My hope was that it would help my grief and give me something healthy to focus on throughout the month.

Prior to my husband's death, I had started walking half marathons. But I really lost my motivation after he died because he was such a support for me in doing them. I've struggled ever since with getting back in to regular exercise that I enjoy. I walked a marathon distance with one of my best friends in 2012 for a breast cancer charity walk because she asked me to, but after it was over, I couldn't keep the motivation that I used to have for regular exercise. It just didn't stick.

Before the challenge in May, I wasn't exercising regularly - I was inconsistently going to yoga when I felt like it and taking the same few easy walks here and there. I had all kinds of reasons and excuses for not exercising regularly, and I knew I needed to change that.

So I thought that I'd set an exercise-related goal for May. I ended up committing to walking every day for the month. I figured that the increase in exercise would be good for both my physical and mental health. And it would ensure that I left the house every day, even on the hardest days of the month.

I set very minimal requirements for myself because my focus was on consistency more than distance, speed, or intensity. So I committed to walking for a minimum of 30 minutes per day and to add a few new routes in to my routine. As long as I walked every day, I would consider my goal to have been met.

(Daily walks are the heart stickers that I was using up since I figured walking was good for my heart both physically and emotional.)

I didn't feel particularly inspired in the first few days, and it felt like an uphill battle emotionally to get out and walk. I felt frustrated with myself for how out of shape I'd gotten and wasn't feeling the feel-good endorphins that I'd hoped for. I just felt tired, deconditioned, and disappointed in myself. I was committed to following through on the goal I'd set, but I wasn't feeling very excited about it. I was basically just taking walks to not fail at my goal.

Around the 4th day, after a few days of half-hearted walks, something just clicked, and I decided to really hold myself accountable and turn this into an adventure instead of a chore. I wrote a post on my Facebook page letting my friends know that I was committing to 31 walks in 31 days as a way to better handle the anniversary. And I said I was striving to take a different walk each day, even though I wasn't sure that was realistic with my work schedule, etc. I got so much positive feedback from friends who know how difficult May is for me. I felt supported but also kind of nervous that I now had to follow through on this.

After that, this personal challenge took on a life of its own! I really started branching out on where I walked and took photos of all of the interesting things I was seeing on foot that I'd never noticed when I was driving. I started looking forward to seeing new neighborhoods that I didn't know very well (or at all), even after 16 years of living in Seattle. I'm embarrassed at how little I knew about this city after all those years. I had unknowlingly let my world get really small in the years since my husband died.

I had been worried that walking every day for 31 days straight wasn't physically realistic because I remembered back to how tired and sore I used to get after long training walks for the half and full marathons. In those days, I needed the rest days, but now I wouldn't be able to take them. But this time, distance and speed weren't my goals, consistency was all that mattered to me. So I listened to my body and varied my walks each day - some were harder and longer with more hills and stairs and some were shorter and easier and flat. As a result, I was never too sore to walk. To be honest, I'm still kind of surprised by that.

(A side note is that ever since I switched to a plant-based diet (which I officially did when I trained for the marathon in 2012), my body recovers noticeably faster after exercise. Even after completing that marathon distance, I was tired, but my joints were not actually sore. I have struggled with back pain for most of my life and even when I was at my most fit, I walked most of the time in pain. But once I wasn't eating animal-based foods, my body just started bouncing back more quickly after intense exercise. That's not to say that I live a pain free life, but I just don't have as much pain and inflammation as I used to, even though I weigh more now than when I was in better shape.)

As the month went on, I found that I was walking longer distances each day and looking to make my walks more challenging. Seattle is pretty hilly, so I had to seek out flat walks more than I had to seek out hills to climb. Somewhere in the second week, I started to feel like my body was becoming used to the increase in physical activity, and I felt more efficient when I walked. I had a glimpse of the ease my body used to have when I walked regularly. I started feeling like my old self, the one that was fit and not saddled with grief and lack of motivation. That's not to say that I didn't have days where I really struggled to get motivated to take a walk, but something just changed in me, and I started to crave a challenging walk more days than not.

I was lucky to only have 2 days of rain for the whole month. The first time, I sucked it up and walked in the rain for about 45 minutes, and it was pretty miserable. The next day, when it rained all day again, I knew that I had to come up with an alternate plan, so I went to the local mall and just walked indoors. I was actually surprised by how many other people I saw doing the same thing (and not senior citizen mall walkers). Fortunately, the rest of the month was warm and sunny.

The biggest surprise for me in all of this is that I've developed a newfound love of stair climbing. I had no idea prior to this challenge, but Seattle has a whole system of hidden public staircases all over the city. I used to dread stairs, but for some reason, this time around, I started to seek them out because I couldn't avoid them if I wanted to explore many of the older neighborhoods. Continued repetition has made them a little less difficult. It's literally gotten to the point where if I see a staircase, I can't not climb it because I want to see what's at the top! And who cares if I'm breathing heavier at the top - so is everyone else!

I'm proud to say that I met my May daily walking goal 100%! I walked for 30 minutes or more every day and a new route every day. I drive a lot locally for work, so I figured out how to take advantage of that and find walking opportunities before or after work during the week when necessary. I wore a Fitbit all month, and according to it, I walked about 150 miles in May! That's 347,000 steps for me and the equivalent of just under 6 marathons. I far exceeded my original goal, and I've seen so many new neighborhoods and parks and gardens and beautiful views. I still dealt with grief and sadness throughout the month, but my mood was more steady, and my focus was so much on daily walks that I didn't have any days where I was completely paralyzed by grief. I've fallen in love with Seattle in a completely new way and feel more fit than I have in a long time.

What I realized is that these walks have unleashed a curiosity in me - to get to know the city that I've lived in for years but had gotten in to a rut in, to find out what I can see on foot that I'd miss if I was driving, to learn alternate routes to get around, to appreciate the beautiful gardens and parks and architecture of Seattle neighborhoods. These walks have unintentionally become a walking meditation for me, an exercise in mindfulness. I'm paying more attention to the world around me, even when I drive. I feel more myself now than I have in years, and I feel more fit and strong than I have in a long time. I'm out of my rut.

But to be fair, completing this challenge wasn't a completely easy journey. I wasn't confident I could do it in the beginning, and several well-intentioned people in my life gently suggested that I could take some days off if I needed to. But I was stubbornly committed to not missing any days because I didn't want to lose my momentum and/or be disappointed in myself by not meeting my goal. There were days when I came home exhausted, but I am usually emotionally exhausted anyway in May - at least this was because of exercise. I was diagnosed with asthma last year, and I've been struggling to manage it with a combination of medication and lifestyle factors. Walking that much (and climbing that many stairs and hills) was challenging to my breathing at times, but I just took my time (and made peace with needing an inhaler pre-exercise). I like to say that in my walks, I'm not necessarily always fast, but I'm persistent.

At the end of May, I started to feel sad that the challenge was almost over (which I would never have expected). So I decided to set a goal for June to continue my daily walks, keep exploring new neighborhoods, and seek out more challenging routes. I did take two rest days at the beginning of the month, and I've been taking one day off per week this month because I can tell that my body needs it. I've also returned to yoga class once a week, and consistency with that has started to pay off because I can tell that my body is becoming more efficient at that again too.

My advice: Set a realistic goal that you're pretty sure you can accomplish but that still intimidates you a little, be curious about what you'll learn or how you'll change as a result of the process, and let yourself prove yourself wrong about what you think you can accomplish!

Thank you Lindsay for providing me with a method back to a healthier body and mind!