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Still Not Getting to That Goal? Four Essential Factors



I started this blog about four and a half years ago and started doing energetic research into willpower and habit change two years before that. My belief when I started was that it would be possible to learn how to change nearly any habit, to summon far greater willpower, because it was clear that around the world, there are people who make these changes every day. So, is it true? Does learning about habits and willpower give you willpower and mastery of your habits? The answer is no … and yes.

The further I got into this subject, the more I kept wondering when I would break through. I lost weight, got much more fit, earned a black belt, finished writing books, eliminated some bad habits, improved my relationships, and otherwise made a lot of improvements in my life … but I would still sometimes waste time I needed for more important things, show up late now and then, make bad decisions, or otherwise demonstrate to myself that whatever willpower was, I hadn’t mastered it.

So I sat down the other day and pondered everything I’ve learned since 2007 or so. If learning all about habits and willpower doesn’t give you mastery over them, what does? As near as I can figure it, it comes down to four things that stand between us and change. I think when I describe them, you’ll see why learning alone doesn’t cover it (other than the facts that habit change takes time and that just knowing about something won’t automatically change our behavior).

1. Tools and Knowledge
Here’s an area where what I’ve learned and written about here has been powerful. Mental and emotional tools can cut through a lot of habit difficulties and get us on the right path. For example, we can learn to generate confidence and enthusiasm in place of depression and hopelessness with idea repair; we can clear our minds and let go of things that bother us through meditation; and understanding mental schemas can let us get to some of the root causes of our worst behaviors.

2. Thinking
How we think, what we tell ourselves, and where we put our focus make a huge difference in how we feel and what our lives are like. We can often change our thinking using tools like the ones I mentioned, but whether it occurs naturally or has help through mental tools, our thinking itself is crucial in determining our actions and decisions.

3. Lifestyle
Nutrition, sleep, exercise, friends, social contacts, activity, surroundings, physical tools, responsibilities, family, and many more external factors can influence our internal state. Here too, I’ve learned about many useful improvements through researching and writing about the psychology of habits on this blog, whether it’s a quiet walk in green space, having just the right tool, or keeping company with people who help us become better.

4. Commitment
Here’s the tough one: we have to care. Knowing how to do something or having a theoretical goal generally doesn’t carry us very far unless we’re strongly and consistently motivated by our own emotions.

I’m not just using “commitment” as a substitute for “willpower” here, creating a circular argument. What I’m talking about isn’t making the right decisions or doing the right things, but rather consistently caring about our decisions and what the right ones are.

Commitment can come from many different places, so fortunately we can influence it. It can come from our own emotional difficulties: for instance, a person who craves attention might use that to drive excellence in music, or a person who hates conflict may learn how to be a consummate peacemaker. It can come from thinking and understanding, when we get to know ourselves better and make important connections. (It’s one thing for me to know that doughnuts aren’t good for me, but it helps me more to realize how foods like that contribute to atherosclerosis, drain my energy, and give me a headache). It can be inspired by a role model or a clear picture of the future, be shocked into us through a tragedy, be nurtured by helpful surroundings, or rest on support from friends and family. Commitment is an emotional state in which we yearn toward a goal or state of being. Without it, it doesn’t matter how we can act, because commitment directs how we do act.

Which matters … why?
The point of bringing up these four aspects of willpower or habit change is to create a simple way to look at our goals and see what’s missing.

For example, why did I lose 60 pounds or so and then stop about 15 pounds heavier than my ideal weight? After all, I have the mental tools to lose weight and know how to direct my thinking, and my lifestyle is compatible with fitness and weight loss. What happened, I believe, is that my commitment dried up. Having reached this point, I’m fairly happy (though not ecstatic) with how fit I am, and my health is very good. Losing more weight would make me look better, which would be a fine thing both in terms of my self-image and my romantic relationship, but there’s nothing about it that would affect my life expectancy or my ability to be in my relationship in the first place, whereas my old weight years ago really could affect those kinds of things. To lose more weight, I’d have to find reasons to really, really care. This might involve hanging around with extremely fit people, finding more reasons to lose the extra pounds, or working on increasing my enjoyment of fitness.

In the same way, any of the four things above can be missing in a person’s quest to change. For example, a person might passionately want to quit smoking, might live in an environment that discourages smoking, and might be beautifully focused on the problem, but if that person doesn’t have a good working approach–that is, doesn’t have the right tools–then quitting may fail time and time again.

So I invite you to do in your life what I’m doing in mine these days: if you have an important goal that you’re having trouble reaching, look at it in terms of these four factors. Do you have all the tools and knowledge you need to succeed? Are you thinking thoughts that move you toward your goal? Is your environment helping or hurting you (or both)? Are you deeply and emotionally commited, and does that commitment stay strong even when trouble comes?

So, will I ever master willpower and habits? Somehow I suspect not, but it continues to be worth trying, and I continue to push hard. Maybe in another six and a half years. Who knows? It could happen. Check back with me then.

Photo by foxypar4

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Don’t Know, Don’t Believe, or Just Don’t Care?

Strategies and goals

hanging onWhy do we so often have trouble following through with the way we want to be and act? Unfortunately for me, I face this question all the time. Having made a study of habits and motivation, I have an almost endless supply of tools and tricks to get myself out of a bad mood, figure out what to do next, or get on track–yet even though these tools and tricks have made a huge positive impact in my life, I still manage to be far from perfect. Sometimes I’m late despite knowing exactly how not to be late; sometimes I become disorganized despite having terrific organizational systems at my disposal; and sometimes I fall short on goals or fail to change in the way I’d like to. Why? It seems to come down to three kinds of problems: not knowing, not believing, or not caring.

Here’s an example: recently I’ve been doing some reading that brings me to believe that the advice we’ve been given for decades about how to fend off heart attacks and strokes and all of that is completely wrong (see my recent article “Wait–Eating Lots of Fat Is GOOD for Your Heart?“). Once I’ve decided that what I’ve read is compelling enough to act on, why wouldn’t I become instantly and completely compliant with all of the new guidelines I’ve learned? After all, it could be literally a matter of life and death.

Don’t know: Before I started reading up on the “fats good, sugars bad” perspective, I had lots of misinformation that was fed to me–and that continues to be fed to me–by mostly well-meaning nutritionists, government officials, and doctors. If I don’t have good information, I can’t very well act on it. It’s very hard to change a habit, for instance, without knowing how habits work (by the way, this site has a number of clear, specific, and carefully researched articles on that subject).

Don’t believe: There are different versions of the belief problem, but one example is plain old doubt. For instance, I might find Dr. Peter Attia’s posts about fat very compelling, but still be nervous to switch to a fat-driven diet because I have a hard time believing that almost all of the information I’d received on the subject in the past was wrong.

Worse, and perhaps even more common, is lack of belief in ourselves. If I don’t believe I can make a change in my life, then all of my efforts in that direction will begin to seem pointless, and it will be very hard to keep myself going.

My belief might be from old information I’m having trouble letting go of, or new and conflicting information, even if it’s from the same old sources or if I know the information I already have is better. Maybe I have friends, family members, coworkers, teachers, colleagues, or role models who don’t believe what I believe, and that’s making sticking to my guns harder.

Don’t care: Perhaps worst of all is when I know what to do and I believe it will make a difference, but I just don’t care at that point. Maybe I’ve had a rough day or a bad night’s sleep and don’t feel as though I can put the effort into one more thing. Maybe I’m concentrating on the things I don’t like about what I’m doing or on things that I can’t or shouldn’t do if I want to pursue that goal instead of on what I can be doing next or on what inspires me. Sometimes I might just not be able to get up any enthusiasm for working on a goal that might never be realized, or that would only have an effect in the distant future. Or it could be that I’m just distracted, preoccupied with other things and not able to spare the attention and interest.

Regardless of which of these problems I have, realizing that I’m faced with a problem in knowledge, belief, or caring makes an instant improvement. Asking myself what I don’t know can lead me to the information I need, and realizing I’m having trouble believing or caring can lead me back to whatever inspired me to believe or care in the first place. When these kinds of obstacles are addressed, then the problem vanishes as if by magic, and suddenly I’m back on track.

Photo by Sharon Morrow.

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Knowing It Isn’t the Same as Doing It


Here’s an error I’ve made a lot over the years: thinking that just because I know how to deal with something, I have that thing taken care of.

For instance, I know how to use idea repair to deal with negative emotions, and I’ve practiced it so much that a lot of the time, I catch broken ideas as they’re emerging and nip them in the bud. But when I don’t do that, it becomes necessary to take further steps: I would need to sit down and very deliberately go through the process, following the steps:

  1. What am I telling myself?
  2. Are there broken ideas in that?
  3. What kinds of broken ideas are they?
  4. How do I restate them, repaired?

And do I do that? Do I go through all those steps? Sometimes, absolutely. Other times, if I’m not paying attention, I might brush it off, saying to myself “Well, I know a lot about this kind of thing, so I can surely handle it.”

Uh … I can? Without actually doing anything about it? Not really.

So that’s the problem. Sometimes it feels like knowing how to deal with something makes it unnecessary to do the grunt work to actually deal with it–and that just ain’t so. Ironically, as a good illustration, knowing this (see “Knowing Isn’t Enough: The 4 Steps Between Knowledge and Action“) hasn’t necessarily kept me focusing on the steps I need to take for the knowledge to work rather than just relying on having the knowledge.

So what will I do differently going forward? I’ll put more attention on cultivating awareness of how well I’m following through on what I know. Interestingly, while just having knowledge doesn’t necessarily solve any problems, awareness–being mindful, that is–sometimes does automatically solve problems. If we are aware of our goals, have the knowledge to pursue them, and notice when it’s time to put that knowledge into action, we often take that action, barring other kinds of obstacles or hang-ups. So just knowing how to use idea repair won’t help me, but being aware of when it’s time to put it into use and of the necessity to take the specific steps will get me using it. (For instance, see “A Very Clear Example of the Power of Awareness.”)

For the next little while, the slogan I’ll focus on (seriously: I just taped it to the wall and am rehearsing it in my head) will be “Are you taking the steps?

Photo by Joe Gatling

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Great Expectations Alone Won’t Cut It

Handling negative emotions

I’ve been reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, and there’s a lot for me to like in it. The thing I like the least, I’ve been thinking, is how some characters persist miserably in behavior that isn’t any good for them. Miss Havisham wallows for decade after decade in her anger and disappointment at being a jilted bride, and as she drifts ghost-like through her house in the rags of her wedding dress, I mentally shout at her, “What are you doing? Is this really what’s going to make you happy?”

And Pip, the main character, is worse: after being elevated to wealth by an unknown benefactor, he torments himself by pursuing a beautiful woman who makes him miserable, stops visiting the people who love him and make him happy because they’re beneath his station, and uses his wealth to run up huge debts by living beyond even his newly extravagant means. It makes me want to take him by the shoulders, shake him, and shout “Wake up! Why are you making yourself miserable?”

At least, it does until I realize how much I do the same things sometimes: maintaining a negative emotion because of having become attached to it, or spending huge effort pursuing an unworthy goal, or looking away from the difficult but ultimately more satisfying choices.

These are the patterns of most of our miseries, and there are five things we need to get through to go from there to a happier life:

  1. Awareness. We can’t do anything about our problems before we admit that they’re problems–which presumably is why admitting you have a problem is the foundational first step in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  2. Belief. Pip believes there’s nothing he can do about his attraction to Estella, but in fact we have enormous influence over our own beliefs, preferences, and drives. Believing that our problems can be changed is more or less essential to purposely making that change.
  3. Knowledge. It doesn’t help to want to change if we don’t know what we want to stop doing and what we need to start doing instead. Understanding what success looks like, and how that differs from what we’re doing now, gets us from just wanting to change to being able to see what that change would be.
  4. Habit. Many of our behaviors are ingrained and will stay with us unless disrupted by accident or on purpose. Even if we know how we want to change our actions, we won’t act that way automatically: we need to build new habits and disrupt old ones. (Note: this long, hard-work phase is often skipped in novels and other stories, in which the realizations alone are sometimes portrayed as being enough. In real life, not so much.)
  5. Time and attention. Our resources are limited, including our time, strength, attention, and focus. Some of these resources need to be dedicated to making a change if a change is desired, and that generally means that they have to come from somewhere else.

Dickens being Dickens, I have a hard time imagining that Pip will come to a bad end. If he does win out in the end, I’ll be interested to see how he gets through these five steps (or at least the first three) to find his real strength.

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When Self-Help Goes Wrong: Red Flags and Bad Advice


Some self-help materials are worth their weight in gold at the very least, not just for ourselves, but because improving our own lives tends to help people around us (see “How self-help helps everyone else” and “How Other People’s Happiness Affects Our Own“). Self-help is important because most of our behaviors are learned: no one comes into the world understanding how to make the best of what they have, be happy in difficult circumstances, untangle conflicts, follow a healthy path, and otherwise create an ideal life–and I’m skeptical that it’s possible to learn all of these things without at least a little help from resources or mentors.

But while it’s tremendously fortunate that there’s so much help available out there, some of that help is flawed, some is useless, and some is actually harmful (see “Telling Bad Advice from Good Advice“). Here are some things to watch out for in self-help and personal growth books, shows, CD’s, DVD’s, talks, and seminars:

  • Common knowledge. When someone says “everyone knows that this is true, and therefore …”, there’s always the danger that the thing that everyone “knows” isn’t actually accurate at all. An example: the “common knowledge” that it takes 21 days (or 28 days, etc.) to form a habit is utterly wrong (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“).
  • Reasoning by analogy. When someone tries to prove something by describing something else, they’re actually not proving anything at all. If I were to start talking about the stomach as a fuel tank and make suggestions about how to eat based on car engines, the information I’d be giving wouldn’t be based on a real understanding of how our bodies work, but on something else that isn’t even directly related. Analogies are often helpful for making a point clearer, but by themselves they don’t prove anything.
  • Reasoning by wordplay. Using puns and similar-sounding words can be a good way to help people remember points, but like analogies, wordplay doesn’t prove anything. Watch out for people who try to make their point through clever word usage instead of through facts.
  • Where a word comes from is not what it means. It surprises me how many self-help gurus and motivational speakers don’t know the difference between where a word comes from and what it actually means. Meanings of words have to do with how we understand those words today, not with the words and phrases they came from centuries back. The word “company,” for instance, originally meant “a group of friends,” yet that doesn’t mean that anyone employed at a business establishment today is working among buddies. Word derivations like this are also often used to “prove” points in some kinds of self-help material, but they’re just another form of non-factual wordplay.
  • Iffy science. It’s easy to make claims or declarations about one study that may later turn out to be flawed, or to misunderstand what is or isn’t really being demonstrated in a scientific study. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to know whether or not someone is misusing scientific research without referring to the original source. The more-reliable sources tend to describe exactly what happened in the studies they’re talking about, while the less-reliable ones more often just say that science has proved one thing or another. And technically, science doesn’t prove anything: it’s just a way of gathering more information. Any conclusions anyone makes from a scientific study are only theories to explain what happened in the study, not unquestionable truths.
  • Mountains out of molehills. Even good scientific conclusions can sometimes be misused if they’re magnified inappropriately. For instance, there are many foods and practices that can contribute in a small way to weight loss, but some of these are seized on and described as miracle foods or fat-melting secrets when the real impact they’ll have isn’t even likely to be noticeable.
  • Unhealed physicians. If I take advice from someone, ideally I’d like to be taking it from someone who has demonstrated that the advice works. True, it’s possible to pass along useful information without always being able to take full advantage of that information (see “Knowing Isn’t Enough: The 4 Steps Between Knowledge and Action”), but be wary of people who say they are authorities on something without having done it themselves, like people who say they know how to make money but have only ever done so by telling other people how to make money. One example comes to mind of a doctor who gives weight loss, health, and habit change advice while having been noticeably overweight for most of his life.

Despite all of the not-so-helpful self-help “experts” who give advice that may not be helpful to anyone, there are also any number of people out there in the world with real experience and understanding of living a well-directed, meaningful life. The more we seek out and listen to those people and not their flashier, less-informed colleagues, the better off we’ll be.

Photo by virtualreality

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Learn It Again, Sam

The human mind

If you’ve read many articles on this site, you’ve probably noticed that every once in a while I come back to talk about the same subject from a different perspective. There are a few reasons for this, and they’re the same reasons that learning the same thing more than once can be valuable in almost any situation where you really want it to sink it.

First, effective learning usually requires repetition over time, as I discuss in Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning, delving briefly into points brought up by neuropsychologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules.

Second, getting a new look at something heard before offers a new perspective to facilitate understanding it.

Third, that same new perspective (as well as the new situation in which you’re learning) makes it possible to develop more and different neural connections to that idea, increasing mental mastery of it.

Fourth, revisiting a useful piece of knowledge creates a reminder that the knowledge is available and increases the chance that we’ll use it. And as also discussed in my learning article mentioned above, using knowledge is one of the most effective ways to fix it in memory.

That extra opportunity to use the idea is particularly important because knowledge alone is not enough to reap us the benefits of an idea, even an idea about our own behavior. It’s easy to pick up a new piece of knowledge and imagine that it will be life-changing, only to have it fade away without ever having made an impact. The impact, of course, comes only from actively using the idea–for learning purposes, the more often the better.

Photo by khowaga1

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The Six Basic Requirements of Self-Motivation

Strategies and goals

building blocksIf you’re a regular reader of The Willpower Engine, you may be wondering by now what purpose it’s supposed to serve to keep reading new ways to break down self-motivation into one simple concept or another. In one article, I say that willpower is exactly like owning a dog. In another, I say that willpower is a matter of thinking more of the right things and less of the wrong things. And so on.

There is a point to these different perspectives, even though each is a simplification, because each one comes at motivation from a different perspective. The point is that it’s much easier to find and fix the problems with our self-motivation if we keep examining it from different angles. So for today’s article, here’s another way to look at self-motivation: do your self-motivation efforts have all six of these basic requirements?

In order to motivate ourselves, we need to decide what exactly to motivate ourselves toward. That is, we have to have a clear, attainable goal that tells us what we want to achieve.

Once we see where we want to get, it’s essential to understand what steps are needed to get there. Someone who’s trying to organize needs to learn organization techniques. Someone who’s trying to lose weight needs to learn how much they should be eating each day and how to exercise effectively. Someone who’s trying to renovate a house needs to know how to put up wallboard.

We are very, very unlikely to be successful in achieving goals we don’t care about, for fairly obvious reasons. It is possible to start caring about a goal (for instance, by carefully considering the benefits), but the self-motivation machine groans to a halt when it runs out of passion.

Pursuing a goal means devoting time to it, and if a person hasn’t been pursuing that goal already, the time needs to come from some other activity. In order to pursue a goal successfully, therefore, it’s essential to carve out time to do that and to know what to do less of in order to free up that time.

Even if we have a goal, know what needs to be done to achieve it, desire the goal, and set aside time for it, it will not do itself. At a certain point it’s necessary to make a decision to put out effort. Sometimes this is easy, especially if desire has been stoked up. At other times it requires a conscious resolution, saying to ourselves, “OK, now it’s time to put on my sneakers and run.” or “That pile of papers isn’t going to file itself! Let’s get started.”

Lastly, like a plant that withers and dies without water, goals weaken and get forgotten if they’re not regularly showered with attention. All this means is making a resolution to turn the mind to the goal on a regular basis. One very effective approach to regular attention is a feedback loop. An even more powerful (but more labor-intensive) approach is decision logging.

And that’s it. The reason there’s so much information on this site is that none of these six requirements is always simple. Sometimes it’s hard to choose the right goal, or to know the best way to pursue it once chosen, or to find the time or ignite the desire or to make the effort or to focus the attention. Yet anyone who does all six of these things will make meaningful progress toward their goals: there’s no inborn talent for motivation, no secret ingredient, and no insurmountable barrier. Which is a good thing: just doing these six things takes work enough!

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Knowing Isn’t Enough: The 4 Steps Between Knowledge and Action

Strategies and goals

crossingKelly McGonigal recently Tweeted about a British Psychological Society post in which psychologists talk about things they still don’t understand about themselves. It’s really interesting reading, but the particular thing that I connected with was University of Texas psychologist David Buss saying “One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases … One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. But they don’t.”

I know why Buss sometimes fails to act according to things he knows perfectly well, and yet I do the same thing myself, for instance a couple of weeks ago when I had a serious communication breakdown that I later saw wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d  used all of the communication skills I’d been learning for years (see Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High or Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life). Actually, that’s the whole point of this post: just knowing something about how our minds work is not the same thing as using that knowledge.

So what’s the gap between knowing and doing? There are actually four gaps. Lucky for us, none of them is very wide.

1. Noticing opportunities to use the knowledge
The first step is a kind of mindfulness: in order to use, say, a communication skill, I need to be thinking about my communication as I’m doing it so that I can notice, “Hey, here’s a great opportunity to summarize my friend’s concerns!” Mindfulness can be improved with tools like meditation, feedback loops, and decision logging.

2. Understanding how to apply the knowledge
It’s good for me to know that I should try to summarize a person’s concerns back to them, but I need to know more than that abstract idea: I need to know how I go about it, perhaps having a step-by-step method I can use to apply the information I have, or some test I can use on my intended behavior to see if it would fit the information.

3. Surrendering objections
By definition habits are hard to change, and if you’re trying to act a different way, you’re trying to change a habit. Changing habits usually means giving something up, for example pride, less-than-ideal strategies you’ve been using for years, or defensiveness. In my case, if I want to make sure the person I’m talking to knows they’ve been heard and understood, I have to give up the impulse to do a critique of what they just said and instead be willing to understand first, react second. People are much more comfortable hearing someone else’s ideas when they know for sure that their own ideas have already made it across.

4. Making the effort
Putting a piece of knowledge into play requires conscious effort: there’s usually nothing automatic about it. Effort means a decision to devote at least a little bit of time and attention at the right moments to using the knowledge.

In an article on learning and the brain, I talk about how acting on knowledge helps us learn it better. For this article or any piece of knowledge you gain that might be useful, it can make all the difference to use it as soon as possible, several times, both in order to get used to the specific skill and to fix it in your brain. If we don’t go out of our way to bridge the four gaps between information and action–noticing opportunities, understanding how, surrendering objections, and making the effort–then the knowledge isn’t any more useful in our heads than it is left on the page, unread.

Photo by magnusfranklin


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