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How to Use 'Design Thinking' to Achieve Your Goals

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There's something missing from your goal-setting strategy, and it could mean the difference between meeting that goal and falling short. Stanford professor Bernard Roth, Ph.D., created the "design thinking" philosophy, which says you should approach goals in every aspect of your life (health related and otherwise) the same way designers approach real-world design problems. That's right, it's time to think like a designer.

Dani Singer, CEO and director of Fit2Go Personal Training and an advisor to the Personal Trainer Development Center, subscribes to this philosophy too, and calls it "program design." The idea is the same: By identifying the problem you're trying to overcome and articulating the deep-down reason for your goal, you open yourself up to more creative solutions—the kind you'll stick with for years rather than ditch before the end of the month. (P.S. Now is a great time to rethink your New Year's resolutions.)

To nail down the real problem, Singer asks his clients to do some self-exploration. "It starts off awkward, but that's needed to really get into why they actually care about losing weight or getting healthy," he says. "We'll go through their fitness goals and what they want to accomplish, and then we take a step back and look at the bigger picture."

Think into the future—six months or a year from now or whatever time frame you have in mind to hit your goal. Maybe you lost 10 pounds or you lowered your body fat percentage to a number you're proud of. "Bigger than those facts themselves, try to get yourself into that mindset of how that will affect other areas of your life," Singer says. "That's when people hit on what really matters. It's this uncomfortable thing they know deep down but they've never verbalized before."

By digging deeper, you'll find that the goal probably isn't as body focused as it seems on the surface. "I want to lose 10 pounds just because" becomes "I want to lose 10 pounds because I want to boost my self-esteem" or "I want to lose 10 pounds so I have more energy to do the things I love." "You already know this [is your goal], but you need to bring it to the surface so you can push through," Singer says. So let's say your real goal is to have more energy. Suddenly, you've opened up a new world of healthy solutions that don't involve deprivation diets and workouts you hate. Instead, you'll start doing exciting things that, well, energize you. 

If you're unsure of the problem, sit down and write why you care (with your iPhone out of sight so it's not distracting you, Singer suggests). How is not being healthy currently affecting your life? How will your life change once you solve this problem? The more personal you get, the better. Because at the end of the day you have to do it for you. "If someone else is telling you to do something and you think, 'Oh, I should do this,' but you don't get any immediate reward, you're probably going to give up," says Catherine Shanahan, M.D., who runs a metabolic health clinic in Colorado and recently wrote Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. (Here's why you should stop doing things you hate.)

A common motive for weight loss is a desire to boost confidence, and design thinking invites you to think of out-of-the-box ways to get there. So instead of assuming you'll need to swear off sweets and hit the gym for an hour every morning, brainstorm other possible ways you can live healthier and feel better about yourself. We bet it doesn't involve punishing your body until you hit an arbitrary number on the scale.  

But if you love to dance, taking up weekly dance classes does the double whammy of building your confidence and helping you get in shape. "That's going to last long term," Singer says. "You're not looking at it as a chore that you're doing." As you focus on adding in habits that will make you feel good about yourself, you'll also steer yourself away from the things that don't make you feel good (adios, happy hour nachos and 3 p.m. vending machine runs that make you feel sluggish). Now those are some long-term lifestyle habits that match up with your long-term goals.

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