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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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6 Steps to Overcome Procrastination

Strategies and goals

Struggling with procrastination is common, and it often happens that the longer we put something off, the more awful the idea of facing it seems to feel. Here are a series of simple steps that can be used to overcome procrastination for one task at a time. If you follow them closely, you have a very good chance of finally making progress on whatever you’ve been putting off.

1. Schedule. Begin by scheduling a specific time to work on the task. Choose carefully: make sure it’s a period of time that you’ll actually have available. If distractions or alternatives show up when the time comes, say sorry, you have something to do. It’s important to consider this appointment set in stone in order to accomplish your goal.

2. Remind. Set a reminder to ensure you know when you’re supposed to start and are not busy with something else.

3. Relax. When the time comes to start, begin by sitting down and relaxing. Don’t worry about the task itself for now. Take some deep breaths. Don’t feel rushed: it’s an important thing to do, right? Then it’s worth taking a little time to get into a calm, focused mood. If you meditate, that can be a helpful tactic here.

4. Remember Your Goals. Now think for a moment about what you want to gain from completing this task. Visualize what you hope to accomplish with it, or remind yourself of things you like about it, or explicitly tell yourself why you were interested in it in the first place. If it’s something you don’t like for itself (such as, for instance, doing taxes or cleaning up someone else’s mess), think about what makes you interested in doing that, like having your financial ducks in a row or living up to your own ideals. Another benefit completion of many of these tasks offer is relief from having them hanging over us.

Don’t stop until you’ve latched onto at least one–and ideally several–things that make you want to finish this task, whether goals or positive associations. If you have no reason whatsoever to want to do it, why do you consider it important in the first place? If you really don’t need to do it, resolve not to and cross it off your list permanently. Otherwise, get in touch with your reasons.

5. List. List the first few specific, tiny tasks you’d need to do to get started. If you’re not sure, brainstorm, write, talk to yourself, or borrow someone you can depend and bounce ideas around until you have some idea.

These tiny tasks are not results: they’re really specific, straightforward things to do. For instance, if your goal is to file some insurance paperwork, then your first step probably isn’t “fill out claim forms,” but rather “Find Web site for insurance company so I can download claim forms” or “Gather all bills and documents I’ll need to fill out the claim.” You might even make it more specific than that. The point is to break down the first several steps–say, the first 15 minutes to an hour of work on the task, which for many tasks is all that’s required–into very clear, simple things you can do without a lot of thought.

6. Visualize. Picture yourself taking the first few steps. You don’t have to actually do anything just yet: just do a very good job of imagining yourself starting.

Then … begin!

How it works
Thinking about your reasons for taking the task on, making positive associations and picturing yourself doing the task should help prime your brain to make it easy to slip into starting to do the task. When you do, you’ll have specific, extremely simple steps laid out that you can tackle one after another: let them carry you through. If you run out of steps or have to reorganize, just insert a next step: “come up with more steps,” and use that step to work out the next 15 minutes to 1 hour of activity.

If you need the stronger stuff
If you find that even this process isn’t helping you get over your procrastination, it’s very likely you have broken ideas about it. Perhaps you’re telling yourself that you’re a bad person for not doing it, or that it absolutely needs to be done, or that not having done it yet is awful. These and many kinds of related thoughts can be worked out and made to stop bothering you through idea repair. Write down each negative thought you have about the task and work through the idea repair process with it. At the end you should find fewer obstacles and more motivation to move ahead.

Photo by Esther17

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Tobias Buckell Writing Motivation Interview, Part III: Bouncing Back


Tobias Buckell is the author of numerous short stories and novelettes (many appearing in his collection Tides from the New Worlds); the “caribbean steampunk” novel Crystal Rain and its successors Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose; and the New York Times bestselling Halo novel The Cole Protocol. He is also a well-known blogger, a past Writers of the Future winner, and a fellow member of the Codex writers’ group. Knowing both about his many successes and about the surprising number of difficulties he’s overcome, I asked to interview him about his writing and his motivation through hard times. This is the final installment of that three-part interview.

The impact from your medical condition on your writing time sounds very disheartening, and I imagine things only got more complicated (although admittedly with compensations) when Calliope and Thalia were born. What got you from being depressed and in disorder with your writing schedule to regaining your focus and getting back on track? Was support from others particularly important, or the experience of the work itself, or other steps you took?

Well, the kids took up some time, but they keep you from focusing on yourself to focusing on them, which was a good thing. It was tough from January to September of 2009, but mainly I kept my eye on the prize. I was alive, I got to write a little bit, and starting in September I’d have enough to go back to mostly writing. And I was grateful that even though I wasn’t getting to write as much as I preferred and loved, I still was a freelancer. This meant I had a life where I could work when I had the strength, and sleep when I needed, which was great for that recovery time. In April, with newborns, I was able to have a flexible schedule and be around my kids as much as I needed.

When September rolled around, it was a case of just being excited to do what I loved the most, even though I knew there was this 11 month or so hole in my career.

As a writer you have to love the work, and being inside the work. And that’s what I turned to as soon as I could. I started work on a young adult novel, which was a new kind of project. And it wasn’t due, so there was no pressure. I just hard to work on it every day. Just being inside a novel and working on it, living in that moment, and figuring out for the first time what my new energy levels were like, was a discovery period.

I also took the time to destress myself. I’d pushed myself too hard in Montreal for Worldcon. I ended up in a Montreal cardiac center. And I ended up getting a doctor who told me my condition was like asthma: potentially life threatening if I ignored it. But if I took things easy and built my life around realizing I had it, and then got on with life, I’d probably die of something else first (which was the case of his older patients who had my same heart condition). He told me I needed to not physically or emotionally stress myself out.

So I had a doctor’s excuse now. I negotiated out of deadlines as best I could, and just started focusing on the writing for its own sake. It would get turned in when I turned it in.

That ended up being remarkably freeing and, oddly enough, made me more productive over the next 9 months than I have been since I first wrote Crystal Rain.

Additionally, I read an article about how Asimov used to work. He used to work on a project on a typewriter, then when he’d get blocked or bored with it, he’d switch to another project on another typewriter. He’d keep hopping from one to the other. I started noticing that I used to have multiple day gaps on large creative projects, so I started to wonder, since I had few ‘golden hours’ in me every day, if I could afford to let these periods persist. So I decided during this time to experiment with the Asimov method. I’d avoided it in favor of writing work sequentially due to the fact that when I was a new writer, I always ran into these people who were perpetually starting something new. And never finishing. So I avoided that out of a desire to succeed at being a writer.

But now that I knew I could write a novel, or novella, or short story, I thought, why not take a risk during this recovery period? Everyone knew I was recovering, I’d negotiated out of my deadlines, my career had this gap of a year and was paused, I couldn’t see things being any more messed up. Now was the time.

I started working on that young adult novel called The All Tree, but I also rotated in a novelette I was writing for called “The Executioness.” At the same time, I worked in my spare time on a non-fiction book about my journey toward becoming a writer, equal parts biography and manual and advice and random thoughts on writing. In eight months, despite having less energy than before I got sick, I’d written the YA novel, drafted it, made progress on an adult novel I owed Tor, written the novelette, finished a draft of the book on writing, and written a novella for Clarkesworld. Enormously productive for me.

I’ve also been thinking about mastery, and creative mastery a lot, and reading about neurophysiology. I’m starting to learn that keeping a sense of play and fun in creative work is really important, and so both getting out of the fear of deadlines and expectations about career, and just living in the work during that first draft process, is real important. Very directly tying money to creativity actually, and this is now shown by research, can have a very detrimental hit to your productivity. So I’m learning to work on projects, then set them aside as I find myself slogging and slowing down. Then I switch to something fresh and fun. After a while it gets sloggy, and I turn back to the project that’s shiny again, that’s gotten shiny again while I was ignoring it.

So now I feel like I get paid to play all day again, and that means there’s a great deal of enthusiasm and happiness in my daily work day, and also means that I’m actually more productive.

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Tobias Buckell Writing Motivation Interview, Part II: Handling Serious Health Problems


Tobias Buckell is the author of numerous short stories and novelettes (many appearing in his collection Tides from the New Worlds); the “caribbean steampunk” novel Crystal Rain and its successors Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose; and the New York Times bestselling Halo novel The Cole Protocol. He is also a well-known blogger, a past Writers of the Future winner, and a fellow member of the Codex writers’ group. Knowing both about his many successes and about the surprising number of difficulties he’s overcome, I asked to interview him about his writing and his motivation through hard times. This is part two of that three-part interview.

 Back in 2008, I was surprised and worried to hear that you’d had a heart attack–while not even 30, I think–due to a congenital condition. Did you have writing plans that were derailed through that period? What effects did the interruption have on your attitude toward your work? And what kinds of things did you do to get back on track: did everything fall more or less easily back into the way it was, or was it more effortful than that?

I actually didn’t have a heart attack, we just discovered that I had a congenital defect with my heart. But the events were certainly as dramatic as a heart attack, and the ER doctor ended up assuming much the same. It turns out I likely have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The quick and dirty is that under duress, my heart fails to fire correctly. I’d been doing some home remodeling, and went to bed exhausted. I woke up four hours later with my pulse still racing madly and having trouble catching my breath. Ended up in a cardiac specialty ward for a week and after they looked at my insides they declared my arteries clean and my heart strong, but that I’d either had pericarditis and the HCM together added up to a dramatic event, or I had just pericarditis, or I had an HCM episode. It’s a somewhat inexact diagnosis, but the best they could offer me. Since my grandfather had HCM, and my mother has it, and they saw very faint signs of the possibility I had it, it’s a good bet I have it!

I was very derailed. I went down for the count in November 2008. And after the event, got a pulmonary embolism (either from lying in the hospital for a week or from the heart cath or something that gave me blood clots) that put me back into the hospital a few days later again for another week. Recovering from both left me exhausted, I didn’t get much done throughout December, January, and February. Between the medical bills and having hardly any energy to work for three months, the financial fallout was really tough.

There were two issues that made it hard to get back on track. One was that some of the medicine I was on really affected me as far as energy. I had maybe two ‘golden hours’ of ability in the day where I was able to work at capacity, down from ten. I really had to plan my entire day around that. And because I only had two hours, I basically had to let a lot of stuff just go. My least paying clients, or freelance gigs, or potential jobs. I just had to let them go and focus on the best paying ones to get through the first half of 2009.

And that meant I got very little writing done, and had to make my peace with it. I wrote a few short stories throughout the year, and worked on the books I wanted to write as best I could. But my highest paying clients were freelance gigs, and I had over ten thousand dollars of deductibles (don’t get sick at the end of a calendar year, right? I had to pay deductibles for two different years at the start of 2009) and then outside bills to pay, plus I’d lost three months of work as I focused on just recovering. It was a pretty rough time.

On top of that, my heart is more sensitive to stress, both physical and emotional, now. So in December, January, and February, I made numerous trips to the ER for chest pain due to the after effects of the pulmonary embolism and events where my heart would go into overdrive. I was also dealing with enormous amounts of depression. I consider myself a pretty physical guy. I like to workout and jog. That was taken from me. I’d been making really good money in 2008 freelancing, and I was struggling to stay afloat. That stress, of course, didn’t help.

But I just kept my head down, tried to pay off bills as I could. I wrote as I could. My wife had twins that April, which, for a month or two, sucked up a great deal of time as we went through the initial newborn phase. But once we fell into a schedule with the twins, and I slowly got better, and inched ahead, I turned more and more toward the writing again. I built up a buffer of cash so that in October, almost a year after the event, I was able to devote most of my day to writing fiction once more, and have been since then.

A number of interesting things have come out of that whole experience. Wouldn’t want to do it again, though!

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Mindfulness and Deer Flies

States of mind

One early morning recently I went running with a friend. The sun shone out of a blue sky onto woods and meadows showing twenty shades of green, the air was mild, and the breeze was soft. We jogged up a hilly dirt road between open fields, counting our blessings and waiting for our bodies to wake up and provide the power that we’d need as the slope began to rise more steeply a little further into the run. Then the deer flies came, in little, hovering groups of six or eight or ten.

Stand or panic?
Now, I’m usually a pretty calm guy. While I have my better and worse days, usually my reaction to trouble, perhaps after an initial few seconds of cussing, is “OK, what do I need to do?” Sometimes I even skip the cussing. But where groups of biting insects are concerned, I tend to lose my cool. I don’t want to get bitten, so I hop around and slap at any least sensation on my skin (real or imagined) and turn in circles to try to catch the little beasts in the act. It’s difficult to get running done under these circumstances, and with the flies circling and dodging, it’s also difficult to swat them.

My friend has a different approach. When she realized that the flies weren’t going to leave her alone, she stopped and waited. If one came very close she would sometimes clap her hands together (sometimes getting it, often not), but most of the time she stood there and held up her arms. The deer flies buzzed around her, but after a moment or two one would alight on her arm, getting ready to bite, and then she would swat it–and hold up her arms for the next one. Using this approach, and helping each other by watching for the flies that landed on backs or ears, we could wipe out a whole group of deer flies in just a couple of minutes–even though the first few times we did this, I did more hopping around than effective swatting.

We probably had to stop four or five times during our run to take care of deer flies, but as my paranoia about being bitten gradually relaxed, I found I was able to enjoy the run despite the insects.

Swatting worries
Using mindfulness to settle annoyances and figure things out is a lot like swatting deer flies. If, like me with the deer flies, you’re so worried about being being bitten that you spend all of your time flailing at circling troubles, you’re not likely to actually get rid of many of them, even with an occasional lucky clap. But if when you first notice that problems are circling, you wait for them to settle and watch them–that is, if instead of getting carried away with the worry you allow yourself to relax and see what it really is–then as the problems settle, you can take care of each individual one, then let the next settle.

It’s easier with a friend to watch your back and ears, but even alone, you can catch more flies by watching than you can by flapping your arms and turning in circles. And when you’re done, you can turn back to the road and focus once again on ascending that hill.

Photo by net_efekt

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part III: Willingness

Strategies and goals

The first article in this series talks about the difference between distraction and lack of focus or enthusiasm as well as the problem of not believing your goal can be achieved. The second article touches on how much the goal matters and whether or not it’s possible to track progress. This article will tackle another essential of being committed to a goal: willingness.

The question of willingness came up as a side note in my article the other day about whether our willpower gets used up on a daily basis. The idea was that people seem to usually be less willing to keep doing things that require self-control the more of them they’re asked to do. Repeated demands are one reason a person might find she or he isn’t willing to exercise willpower. Others include

  • Feeling anger or resentment about having to do the thing in the first place, or being unhappy about some expected result–for instance if a person avoided cleaning an area up because they didn’t make the mess (even if they knew the mess-maker wasn’t going to clean it up), or if they were to hold off on doing certain work because they strongly suspected someone else would be getting the credit.
  • Being uncomfortable with success, for instance when a person is scared of the life changes a new job would cause.
  • Having a broken idea that someone else should be doing whatever it is, that whatever it is shouldn’t be necessary, etc.
  • Focusing on short-term discomfort or interruption of pleasure, like not wanting to pull a splinter out due to anticipating that being painful.
  • Feeling as though you don’t deserve to achieve your goal, for instance because of impostor syndrome.

Those are a few samples. The key point is that even when we have a desire to do something and recognize that it would be a good thing to do, we often still have conflicting feelings about moving ahead. To say that we simply want something or don’t want it is to imagine our minds being much simpler than they are. For instance, a person might desperately want to lose weight for reasons of both health and appearance, but also might want to feel free to indulge in eating as they like, might be worried about the discomfort of regular exercise, might feel protected in some ways by being overweight, etc.

Feeling conflicted is a natural result of being a complex human being, but when these kinds of conflicts prevent us from committing whole-heartedly to our goals, it’s time to address them and move past them. Broken ideas (including ideas about what should happen or what a person deserves) can be repaired, conflicting needs can be compared so that the highest-priority need can take precedence, discomfort can be faced in light of the greater happiness it will lead to, and so on. In the end, most barriers to willingness can be sorted out–and starting that process only takes asking ourselves this question:

“Am I really willing to succeed?”

Photo by Gavatron

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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part I: Plausibility

Strategies and goals

This is the first in a set of Willpower Engine articles on focus and enthusiasm.

Distraction or Enthusiasm?
If you’re having trouble focusing on a goal, there are at least two possible problems. One is that you’re getting distracted. If this is the real issue, then handling the distractions is all that’s needed to get on track. I’ve had a chance to talk about distractions in depth in the following four articles, so if that’s the subject of most interest to you, try these out:

The other possibility when it gets difficult to focus is that there isn’t enough enthusiasm, drive, or commitment toward the goal. For instance, someone who wants to learn Spanish but doesn’t take out the materials very often and isn’t very energetic about studying might not have the short-term enthusiasm about learning Spanish that would be needed to really make it happen–but at the same time, it might be honestly important to that person to learn Spanish. Unfortunately, importance doesn’t always translate to a sense of urgency and enthusiasm. Bridging that gap is what this and the articles that come after it are about.

Can it be done?
If you find yourself wanting to do something but not driven or enthusiastic to do it, a good approach early on is to ask yourself a few frank questions. There have been some very useful psychological studies in recent years that spell out some of the things a person needs in order to feel committed to a goal.

If your goal doesn’t feel realistic, or if it feels realistic for someone else but not for you, then it’s very difficult to feel enthusiastic about chasing it. After all, if you don’t believe you can do it then on some level you’re constantly telling yourself that you’re wasting your effort and heading for failure and disappointment.

It may seem like simple common sense to make sure a goal feels possible before pursuing it, but realistically, many of the best goals really don’t seem like they’ll ever happen until they do. For instance, a person who has received dozens of rejections on novels may not have much confidence about sending out a new book, but statistically is much more likely to succeed than someone who has never tried. Someone who wants to lose 100 pounds may be completely incapable of imagining a body that much fitter, yet every pound that comes off is proof that it is possible to lose the weight.

Convincing yourself
If you have a goal that logically seems like it should be possible but that doesn’t feel possible, the first thing to do is to make sure that you believe in that goal for good reasons. For instance, when I was a teenager I had a goal of becoming conversant in enough languages to speak at least a little to the majority of the world’s population. Learning those dozen or more languages might be possible in theory, but not unless I devoted all my efforts to it–and while I like languages, I wouldn’t want to do nothing but learn languages day in and day out!

If you conclude that your goal is realistic, the next thing is to prove it to yourself in a way you can understand on a gut level. Calculating that something can be done doesn’t always translate to confidence that we’ll really do that thing. Here are some ways to get from here to there:

  • Think about things you’ve achieved in your life so far. Is any of them similar in important ways to what you’re trying to achieve? If so, go back and remind yourself of that experience in detail.
  • Find role models, whether through magazine articles, documentaries, interviews, news reports, blogs, looking among the people you already know, or elsewhere. My conviction that I could lose weight and get fit came in large part from seeing my sister do just that (60 pounds later, my conviction proved to be right).
  • Look at the exact requirements and think about how you’ll tackle each one. If your goal is to get a much better job, research job descriptions for those positions and even ask companies that hire for them what they look for in a candidate. Then map out a specific plan to getting as many of those qualifications as possible. When you have a very precise plan and know what you need to achieve, it’s much easier to feel confident.
  • Plan or do your first step. If the end goal is hard to picture, just picture what it would look like to move a little bit toward that. For instance, if you want to get your whole house organized, concentrate on only one very small area and organize that. If you can do that effectively, then organizing the rest of the house is mainly a matter of repeating something you’ve already done successfully.
  • Visualize what it will be like to accomplish your goal. Get a very clear, vivid picture in your mind of what you want to achieve, and daydream about that situation often–daily or more if you can, the more often the better!

The next article in these series will pick up with more questions that are important to ask if you want to be fully committed to a goal.

Photo by Omara Enero


Is Willpower Just a Matter of Caring Enough?

States of mind

Some people give the following advice about willpower:

“You have to care about what you want to achieve, a lot. If you care a lot, it’s in the bag. If you don’t, you might as well give up.”

Since I think this is lousy advice, I’m not going to mention where it came from, but I do want to say why it’s lousy advice.

Why caring alone isn’t enough
First of all, a person can care desperately about something and still not be able to make it happen. For example, Melissa might feel completely oppressed by her messy and cluttered house every day and want nothing more than to clean it up. However, she won’t be able to do that if she doesn’t believe she’s capable of making the change, if she doesn’t know how to start, if she can’t organize her efforts, if she strongly wants something else that’s in conflict with the clean-up effort, or if every time she thinks about cleaning up she gets distracted, blocked, or hung up on emotional issues.

Why not caring doesn’t necessarily prevent self-motivation
Similarly, if she has systematically forced herself to ignore her house for years and doesn’t really care very much, but she still knows on some level how good for her it would be to have a clean, happy home–for instance, if she’s in love with someone who wouldn’t be able to overlook the mess–then she can still create the self-motivation to clean up, and even to come up with organizational ideas, deflect distractions, overcome obstacles, and get past emotional issues.

Caring as a source of motivation
Of course, caring deeply about something is nonetheless a powerful source of motivation, and if there aren’t other things in your way, it can sometimes be plenty by itself. For example, one summer when I was in college, I met a French exchange student who spoke hardly any English. She was very pretty, and I immediately decided I wanted to be able to speak to her in French. I probably learned more French in those two weeks than I have in all the rest of my life put together. I knew I could do it, having already become conversant in Spanish; I didn’t feel any emotional conflicts with learning French; I knew how to go about studying the language; I had the books … in other words, caring pushed me forward, and there didn’t happen to be anything major in the way. Under these kinds of circumstances, caring makes a real difference.

How to become motivated even when you have mixed feelings
Let’s say I’m in a situation where I recognize that something is very important–starting an exercise regime, for instance, or completing some difficult repairs on my house–but I don’t really care about it on a gut level. How can I motivate myself?

First of all, it helps for me to connect to the benefits. If possible, I’ll want to visualize and spend time thinking about the results I’m seeking–the increased value of my house when I sell it and what I could do with that money or the boost in energy I would get from exercising, for instance. These kinds of exercises help me care more, which as we’ve established isn’t strictly necessary, but which will help make things easier.

Second, I have to be willing to prioritize the thing I’m trying to achieve above every other kind of self-motivation. We are really only capable of working on one major life change at a time: this is one of the reasons people so often fail at changing their habits, because they try to fix everything at once, which means changing many kinds of habits. But changing habits requires a lot of focus and attention–too much to allow attention to be divided among a lot of different goals. So while changing in more than one major way at once is possible, it’s extremely difficult and usually fails. So if Melissa wants to declutter her house, she’s better off not trying to start a weight loss regime or a novel at the same time.

Motivation creating caring
The flip side of this is that our attention, our consciousness and awareness and focus, is so useful and valuable that if we direct it energetically at any one thing, we have a very good chance of achieving that thing if it can be achieved at all. If Melissa spends a lot of time thinking about how she’ll clean up her house, and reads books on decluttering, and talks with friends about the problem, and learns some of the strategies on this site to deal with the difficult emotions that can come up in that kind of process, then even if cleaning up her house starts out as something that doesn’t really mean much to her, it becomes something that she gets better and better at and cares more and more about.

Because it’s really the other way around: caring doesn’t cause us to make changes in our lives as reliably as making changes in our lives causes us to care. The more thought and effort I put into accomplishing a goal, the more I begin to identify with that goal, most of the time. As much as what we care about makes us who we are, in fact who we are changes throughout our lives, and caring about different things, shifting our own priorities, is a lot of what makes that change happen.

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How Do You Keep a Good Thing Going?

Strategies and goals

I’ve been corresponding with someone who has recently become more productive, and this person brought up a very useful question: once you start doing well with something, how do you make sure it continues? Some of the material I’ve dug up in the course of writing for this site offers some answers.

Use feedback loops
First, take a little time to figure out what you’re doing right. The best ways I know of to do this are to talk the situation through with someone sympathetic to your success or to write down your thoughts. What kinds of things do you think about before and during a successful experience? What kinds of thoughts are keeping you on track? Have you made any changes to your schedule, organizing, etc. that might be helping? The more you know about what’s going right now, the more likely you are to be able to keep it going or do it again in the future.

Build a Habit
Second, if you’re not doing it already, you may want to try to get into a habit of doing things at the same time and place each day. By repeating the successful behavior in the same context again and again, you can encourage it to become a habit over time, so that eventually you find yourself getting into the successful behavior automatically.

Third, keep a sharp eye out for obstacles. If you start to feel avoidant or negative, that’s not necessarily a problem: we all have our ups and downs. But it can become a problem if the feelings aren’t recognized, understood, and worked through, so it helps to pay special attention to exactly what your thoughts are and use idea repair as needed–the earlier, the better.

Photo by K2D2vaca

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Why Lousy Is a Great Place to Start

Handling negative emotions

I’m reading a book called Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, about meditation, coming to terms with suffering (our own and others’), and connecting to the world in a compassionate way. Much of the book is about meditative and partly spiritual practices that I won’t go into here, but there’s one particular section where she says something very striking that applies equally well to any process of self-improvement:

Start where you are. This is very important. [Meditation practice] is not about later, when you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect. You may be the most violent person in the world–that’s a fine place to start. That’s a very rich place to start–juicy, smelly. You might be the most depressed person in the world, the most addicted person in the world, the most jealous person in the world. You might think that there are no others on the planet who hate themselves as much as you do. All of that is a good place to start. Just where you are—that’s the place to start.

And later, she continues:

Suppose you are involved in a horrific relationship: every time you think of a particular person you get furious. That is very useful for tonglen [the practice the book describes]! Or perhaps you feel depressed. It was all you could do to get out of bed today. You’re so depressed that you want to stay in bed for the rest of your life; you have considered hiding under your bed. That is very useful for tonglen practice. The specific fixation should be real, just like that.

She goes on to describe how to harness these emotions in meditation, but the point I’d like to make is that they’re essential to any process of improving your life through changing the way you think. There are a few reasons for this. First, feelings like this that go unacknowledged tend to continue to torment us, because if we don’t take them in and really pay attention to how we’re experiencing them, we only have our habitual ways of responding to them, which won’t change anything (by definition, because habits are what we automatically do already). Second, if I’m going to improve my life, why should I wait for a time when I feel better? If I’m feeling bad now, then now is when improvement would be the most welcome, and there’s nothing preventing me from improving more when I feel better some other time too. And third, as Chödrön points out, strong negative emotions have a lot of juice. Someone who doesn’t feel excited (in a good or a bad way) about anything much at the moment doesn’t have a strong emotional incentive to change their lives. Someone who’s feeling something strong, whether it’s delight or love or anger or despair, has an immediate emotional reason to change things for the better.

Chödrön has specific recommendations for using negative emotions in meditation practice, and for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation, I strongly suggest the book for that purpose. For our intentions here, though, there are also specific ways we can harness negative emotions. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about how to use pain and trouble to repair broken ideas.

Photo by Pensiero

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