Have you committed to a new habit—exercising, let’s say—but keep falling off the wagon? Do you give up when the going gets tough? Does this whole “pursuing goals” idea seem really daunting? You may have low self-efficacy. But don’t worry: self-efficacy is something that you can build with practice.
What is self-efficacy?
Self-efficacy is related to the idea of confidence, but it’s not just being cocky for no reason. It’s also related to determination and, a bit more distantly, to discipline and motivation.
When you have high self-efficacy, you believe that you can do the thing. Whatever that thing may be. Maybe you’re just getting started on a long journey, but you know you’ll make it to the end. You see the obstacles in your path as speed bumps, not barriers. If you run into a problem, you’ll find a way to solve it. You just know you will.
These beliefs aren’t something you’re born with or something you get from luck or miracles. You build them over time, with practice and experience.
How to build self-efficacy
At the heart of self-efficacy is the idea that you can control what you do, and that you can control at least some of the things around you in your life. If there’s a snowstorm on the day you were going to go to the gym, for example, you don’t just give up on exercise for the week. You might rearrange your schedule so you can go another day, or you might do a home workout, or you might just remind yourself that your routine will survive a missed day and that your long-term plan is still on track.
Here are some of the ways that psychologists say we can build self-efficacy:
Congratulate yourself for small wins
Past successes are fuel for future success. This applies to tiny things like habits: if you managed to make it to the gym once, it’s a lot easier to show up on day two.
It also applies to bigger projects. If you did a beginner running program and “graduated” by running a five-kilometer race, that’s huge. You learned that you can follow a program. You learned that you can run farther than you ever thought you could. You learned what it feels like to go out for a run when you’re tired, but finish anyway. You learned what that finish-line glow of accomplishment really feels like. And you can harness all of that, all over again, when you start working on a new goal.
Another thing I like to do, especially when I haven’t seen success in something lately, is to look for things I can be proud of in the process. I didn’t lift the 140 pound log at my last strongman meet, but I hit 127 pounds in training, which is a hell of a lot more than I could do when I started.
Watch people doing the thing you want to do
The second-best thing to reflecting your own past experiences is to vicariously experience others’ success. You’ll want to choose your role models carefully; pay attention to who really inspires you.
For some people, looking up to a world-class athlete can inspire them in the gym. For others, it can be helpful to look at somebody who is closer to you in skill level or experience. When your buddy hits a new deadlift PR, you’ll cheer for them, right? Even though you weren’t the person walking up to the bar, you’ve still experienced a taste the whole rollercoaster of emotions from being nervous at the attempt to celebrating the success.
Seek out people who encourage you
Believing in yourself doesn’t have to be a solo project. Just as you can cheer on a gym buddy, your buddy can cheer you on as well. Also, make an effort to seek out instructors, coaches, and mentors who make you feel unstoppable. If somebody you trust thinks that you can do something, you’ll start to believe it too.
Visualize success (and failure)
When you’re trying to stay on a path, it helps to know where that path leads. What will it look like to make it to your goal? How will you feel when you cross that finish line, when you lift that goal weight, when you’ve been eating vegetables with your meals for a whole year?
While you’re at it—if you’re ready for this—also imagine scenarios where you’re trying to do the thing and you momentarily can’t. How will you feel if you get injured, if a vacation knocks you off track, or if your gym buddy stops being able to come with you on deadlift day? Your plan is big enough to survive these obstacles, but it will help to think them through ahead of time and plan out how you will handle them. Then, when the time comes, you won’t hesitate to execute your plan.
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