We’ve talked about the tools you need, a growth mindset, and busted some myths about making changes. Don’t you think it’s about high time we actually make some changes? It’s sooooo much easier to think about and talk about making changes in our lives than actually doing it. I’ve had a legitimately crazy week with an average of one major crisis per day. Authentically major crises, not some silly hangnail kind of crisis. And this podcast recording is late. Even though I know it’s late, I’ve put it off all day. I’m generally not a procrastinator. But, I’m was having a ton of trouble forcing myself to get to work on this episode. Why? I think it has to do with the fact that I actually have to buckle down and make some changes at this point. It’s much easier to think about it and plan to do it…tomorrow. Or, next week.
Much of what we’re going to talk about in the next two weeks comes from a book published in 2011 called Change Anything. (not an affiliate link, just a great book) The folks that wrote the book describe six outside influences that affect our change-making ability. These six fall into a few categories. Half relate to our motivation and half to our abilities. In each of these two categories, there is a personal, a social and a structural influence. In the toolbox episodes relating to people (here and here), I already talked about the social aspect, so we’re going to focus on the personal motivations and abilities this week and the structural motivations and abilities next week.
When it comes to making changes in our lives, many of us feel like Allie Brosh who says in Hyperbole and a Half
Most people can motivate themselves to do things simply by knowing that those things need to be done. But not me. For me, motivation is this horrible, scary game where I try to make myself do something while I actively avoid doing it. If I win, I have to do something I don't want to do. And if I lose, I'm one step closer to ruining my entire life. And I never know whether I'm going to win or lose until the last second.
I know it’s a book of hyperbole, but she hits pretty close to the mark about how we feel about personal motivation and willpower. Usually, we know what we should do, the question is will we do it? If my son liked doing his homework, the laundry and taking showers, he wouldn’t need external motivation, like my constant insistence, bribes, and threats to get it done. Now, wouldn’t that be a lovely world? If he eagerly tripped off to take a shower and do his laundry? But, I can’t really judge him too harshly, because I have the same issue when it comes to balancing the checkbook and paying bills, choosing the carrots over chocolate, and cleaning pretty much anything.
If the change I need to make is getting my finances under control, I’d better learn to balance my checkbook, control my spending and pay my bills whether I enjoy it or not. If I need to change my eating habits, how can I make myself bypass the chocolate and reach for the carrots? Or, if I want to have a presentable house, how can I convince myself to clean consistently and thoroughly? How can we convince ourselves to do things in the short term we really aren’t eager to do in order to get the long-term results we really do want?
I’m going to give you five strategies today. Grab your pen and notebook, because this is a super practical episode and you are going to want to remember these tactics. Grab this printable worksheet you can use to generate ideas about each of these tactics and apply them to the change you want to make.
My ex-husband is a diabetic and suffering the physical deterioration that uncontrolled diabetes causes. He was recently in the hospital for a few weeks with kidney failure. I’m not in any immediate danger of being diabetic. But, my grandfather was and its always in the back of my mind. I have a serious sugar addiction and I’ve gained a ton of weight in the last several months. Someone you know facing a life-threatening health crisis that is a potential result of one of your behaviors that needs to change is a way to make the future seem very real. Feeling, touching, smelling, visualizing that future - good or bad is a way to help bring it to bear on the decisions you face in the short term. What can you do to make the future seem more realistic? If you need to develop a habit of wearing a motorcycle helmet. Talk to an emergency room nurse. Spend time with people who live in or daily deal with the future you want or want to avoid.
We have a way of conveniently avoiding unpleasant details by glossing over them or using language that sounds polite and less provocative than the truth often is. I noticed myself doing it as I thought about the language I just used a few moments ago in talking about the results of diabetes. I said, “the physical deterioration that uncontrolled diabetes causes.” This is politely sanitized language. Telling you that is one thing. When I’m trying not to eat a half a package of Oreos I need to think of it as, “having parts of my feet amputated, losing my eyesight, missing my son’s life because I’m in the hospital half the time, losing consciousness, kidneys failing, facing death before my boy is grown.” See the difference? Don’t shy away from the whole truth. Visit it in as much detail, vivid language, and gritty realism as you can possibly muster.
While talking and thinking about your behaviors and habits, obsess about the why behind the actions. Constantly associate your behavior with the values driving the change. Since I started with the health example and it’s where I need to change right now, I’ll just stick with it. When I think about making a choice, I need to remind myself that I’m choosing family. I’m choosing longevity. I’m choosing the ability to run, play and hike with my grandkids rather than watch them from a recliner. I’m choosing real lasting joy over temporary pleasure. I’m choosing to be responsible and healthy. I’m choosing to be a good example for my son. These values that I can associate with choices help me see a bigger picture, a “why” that helps overpower immediate gratification.
One of the biggest recent trends in marketing meets personal motivation. Turn your change-making into a game. There are three keys to doing this…limited time, chunked down challenges and meaningful scores. Whole30 works because it's a limited time, the rules are clear and the scorekeeping is how you feel. I track habits I’m trying to form because there’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing those x’s on the page and something motivating about not wanting to break a streak. There’s a story about a man struggling to complete his doctoral thesis that illustrates this point. He gave himself 90 days. That’s the limited time. He created a task of writing 2 pages a day - that’s an easily doable chunked down challenge. And here’s the part I love most about this particular story…the clever scoring. He borrowed doctoral robes, took a photo of himself in them and cut it into 90 pieces. As he completed his 2 pages a day, he added a piece of the photo and he began building the picture of himself as a doctoral candidate.
Develop a short sentence or two that you can repeat to yourself when faced with a choice that will put the choice in perspective. It could paint the picture of your default future, it could talk about what kind of person you want to be. It should be full of value words and it must be personally motivating to you. Commit to repeating this statement to yourself before making choices relating to the change you want to make. As I’m thinking about this for myself, I’m going to test out, “I’m the kind of person that makes healthy, responsible choices that mean I’ll live to play with my grandkids.” Yours could be, “I’m responsible with my money because I take care of those I love.”
Those are five tactics for increasing your personal motivation. Add them to your personal “why” and the five commandments we developed at the end of last year and you’ll have a set of strategies that help tilt the odds in your favor for making short-term choices that lead to long-term change.
That covers the motivation side of the personal influences, but what about the abilities? We tend to have blind spots when it comes to what we know and don’t know. For example, if I want my son to make good food choices, I might need to educate him about those choices. Is yogurt a healthy food? What about granola? Are the Clif bars he loves a good choice? I don’t have Coke in the house, so he’s not faced with that choice daily, but what about wanting one every time we’re out? What if I taught him that a daily sweetened soft drink can add 15 lbs a year to his weight. And over five years that’s 75 lbs. What if I see the 35 lbs I should lose as constantly carrying everywhere I go an extra bag of the dog food I dread carrying down my stairway every month. What if I have to buckle down and wade through current health data, or find new recipes or learn a new way to cook? What if I need to develop new skills in the grocery store: reading and interpreting labels, not shopping when I’m hungry, distracting myself when I’m prone to snacking, identifying when I’m stress eating and developing other coping mechanisms. What skills or abilities do you need to make your change possible? Relationship skills? Budgeting skills? You may need to ask a partner or friend because we often don’t see exactly where we’re lacking.
After you’ve identified those skills, start developing them. Get help, take a class, learn to use deliberate practice to acquire a new ability. It’s an intentional learning strategy.
Also, be aware that willpower can be an acquired skill. We don’t think of it that way, but be encouraged, because it can be practiced and improved, just like other skills. Start small. Practice intentionally. Recruit a coach or a helper. Increase your skill level.
I threw a lot of tactics at you today - this week and next will be tactic heavy. Super practical. So if you have that thing you want to change in your life. Take these tactics and start applying them. Recruit a friend to help you brainstorm ideas, hold you accountable and help you practice.
Remember that change is a process and you’re approaching it with the attitude of a research scientist. Try these tactics and evaluate the results. What worked? What needs changing? Your motivational statement isn’t motivating? Try a new one. Your “why” isn’t powerful enough? What would be?