You know how I sometimes go into something completely unrelated to the topic before actually getting into the topic?
I’m going to do that again.
The power in my house went out last night and I completely blew off my first appointment (I live by my alarm clocks…that’s right clocks-plural) and as I rushed into the bathroom to take a shower (so as not to miss my second appointment) I stepped in cat poop. Apparently I closed off access to the litter before going to bed last night. If you know anything about cat poop then you are aware that it is probably the most horrible smell ever. At least he pooped in the bathroom.
Okay to resolutions. I’m a fan of resolutions and I know most of them are not kept with but at the very least they can act as reminders of what we would like to change.
There are many reasons why resolutions or the commitments that we make to ourselves to change at any point during the year sometimes fall through; today we’re going to look at one big barrier – motivation. Motivation is a finicky thing – it comes and it goes; the thing that helps it one day can end up hurting it the next. There are a few things you may want to keep in mind when making a commitment to change and seeing it through.
Some folks have a hard time taking responsibility for their actions and life can provide us with ample opportunities to bail out of our commitments. Depression, anxiety, change in routine, bad parents, trauma, finances….all of these things can be reasons why the change is harder but they do not have to act as excuses to give up. We can acknowledge that these hurdles make the journey harder but hurdles are not impenetrable and unlike the Olympics, there really aren’t any hard and fast rules as to how they should be overcome – as long as you don’t damage yourself or others in the process .
Others take on too much responsibility – they feel that everything should be in their control and create unnecessary obstacles to change by trying to take on what isn’t in their power to change. These are usually the same folks that feel that they should be able to do everything on their own.
Being accountable is different than blaming yourself, beating yourself up or figuring everything out on your own – it simply means;
(1) Being aware of what created and continues to perpetuates the problem.
(2) Being honest with yourself about what happens when you get off track so you can avoid making the same mistakes.
(3) Getting additional support when needed.
We all have things we need to fix so there is no shame in asking someone for help. Needing help doesn’t make you a failure or irresponsible, if that were true anyone who takes their car to a mechanic or buys produce from the grocer would fit that label.
All or Nothing Thinking
Another motivation trap is all or nothing thinking. Sometimes when we lapse into an old behavior it’s very easy to catch the “well I already screwed up today so I might as well go all the way” syndrome. This way of thinking assumes that our attempt at change is going to be linear and perfect when most attempts at significant change are incremental, imperfect and messy. I’ve struggled with weight my entire life and I know this is probably my biggest trap. There have been times where I’ve been in phenomenal shape and other times when I’ve been a complete mess. Currently, I’m a bit of a mess. I have to remind myself that walking away from a day where I had one bad thing to eat instead of eating bad most of the time and being unaware of what I eat is a victory because it’s better than where I was. For me, not gaining weight is as important and substantial as losing it. In order for me to be successful I have to think that way because it’s true; the evidence of my experience says so. Not thinking that way has really bad consequences because it allows me to lie myself into bad behaviors.
Process Not Outcome
Goals are important but they can cause us to be impatient; it’s better to focus on strategy, on what you feel you need to do in order to get where you want to be. If you decided to drive somewhere you’ve never been and only focus on the end point of the map instead of the red line leading up to it, you’re eventually going to get lost, frustrated and give up. Instead, think of the change process as more of a long road trip. Make each part of the journey enjoyable – figure out ways to make the journey entertaining; focus less on deprivation and more on what you can add to the trip so it feels less onerous.
For example, if your goal is to be more financially responsible avoid thinking about the millions of dollars you want to save up in the bank and focus your efforts more on the benefits of frugality. Think of simple ways to take vacations; figure out what you needed from the things you used to buy and look for cheaper substitutes or alternatives. Seek to enjoy simplicity vs. focusing on the fact that you’re not where you want to be and it’s already been five minutes.
Goals are end points we can look at periodically to determine whether how we’re going about the change is effective and whether the goals we originally set out for ourselves make sense.
One motivation killer is our negative interpretations of failure and I’m really not afraid of using that word. I’ve failed at a lot of things I’ve tried and I succeeded at a good number of them as a result of the failure. A big part of keeping motivation up is rethinking what failure means and understanding that failure is a necessary part of making something better; it’s not something to be ashamed of – it is a built in aspect of anything that’s worth doing. Failure means you’re trying, that you’re not giving up – in order to fail you have to be a risk taker and no one ever became awesome by avoiding risk. Folks who are averse to risk tend to personalize not meeting goals ; they interpret anything less than what they set out to do as evidence of their character. History is full of folks who have been revered after not only failing once but multiple times; in fact many of them failed at the very last thing they were famous for (Napoleon as an example). People don’t really think about failure in considering a person’s character; we take a look at the big picture, adherence to reasonable virtue and the effort made in pursuit of a goal.
Make Not Changing Less Comfortable
Change can be uncomfortable for two reasons. The first, which we have been talking about, is the work involved with the change. The other side of the coin is the reward we get by not changing. Going to the gym can feel uncomfortable because of the effort involved with getting there, feeling out of place among all the super humans and because if we don’t go it means more time watching Star Trek episodes while eating Little Debbie Snack Cakes. Increasing and sustaining motivation may mean re-working and re-balancing wants and needs while changing the kinds of rewards you give yourself so that they reinforce the change, not the problem. So….
Not going to the gym, eating Little Debbie Snack Cakes and watching Star Trek
can turn into
Going to the Gym and then grabbing a cup of coffee at Barnes and Noble while reading a Sci-Fi magazine, comic or book
Make Change a Part of Your Life …. Not the Whole Thing
Sometimes when we start gaining success we start planning our lives completely around avoiding the triggers that were problematic in the first place in ways that are unreasonable. We go to the other extreme in trying to follow the map – we abandon the little pit stops that made the journey tolerable and decide to try to get there non-stop since we have momentum. More often than not this actually works if timed right but it’s not sustainable. You’ll get to your goal quicker but keeping at it with the same intensity leads to extremes and you’ll either burn out and go back to old patterns because you haven’t really integrated the change or you’ll take the change to an extreme that defeats the original purpose – improved quality of life. When considering change, you want to be clear on short term strategies (things you know you can’t do forever but you need to do now) and long term strategies (things you’ll always have to do and figure out a way to live with comfortably).
Using myself as an example, sugar is a real killer for me. Put a sugar cube in my mouth and I gain 30 pounds and sleep on the couch the whole week. I have achieved huge success with no carb diets but I never reached a way to eat well sustainably. Once I reached my goal weight I started slipping and gained everything back because my entire plan was based on short term strategies. My exercise routines and meals were not enjoyable because they weren’t varied, too time consuming. Eventually I gave it up altogether and found myself back where I started.
Avoid Defining Yourself by the Thing You Want to Change
If career advancement is your goal, walking around all day telling yourself what a crappy employee you are isn’t going to help. You may not have been employee of the month 30 times in a row like your co-worker Brad (it’s always some guy named Brad) but that doesn’t mean you were bad at your job or everything you did was miserable. You are also more than your job, you may be a great parent, wife, volunteer or masked crusader who uses the cover of darkness and a mysterious identity to help lost cats find their homes.
Keeping a balanced view of yourself makes the journey more tolerable and keeps the distortions that lead to relapse at bay. If your attention is constantly on what you believe to be the worst of you, then you may not feel you’re worth the work that’s needed to change. You may also feel deprived during the change process as you’re constantly focused on the thing you don’t have.
So obviously my New Years resolution is to lose weight; I encourage you to figure out what change you want to make and commit to it – we’ll screw it up together along the way but we may get there. Regardless, we’ll be the better for trying.