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Good Intentions Are Fine, But They’re Not the Same as Commitment

States of mind

Over time I’ve noticed a clear difference between the goals I consistently follow through on and the ones I don’t: commitment. I might have the same intention to repot my long-suffering ficus as I do to wash the dishes, for instance, but my dishes get washed while my ficus languishes uncomplainingly (though if potted plants could talk, I imagine I’d get quite an earful). The difference is that I’ve faced the question of living in a house full of filthy dishes and decided absolutely that I don’t want to do it, while I haven’t made the same commitment to my ficus.

Here’s what I mean by committing to something instead of just intending to do it:

  • If I’m committed to something, I’m willing to hold off on other things in order to get it done. Many of us have a lot more we’d like to do in a day than 24 hours can actually hold, so if we don’t make a special effort not to try to do everything, then the things that are most important to us can be lost in the shuffle.
  • If I’m committed to something that isn’t a habit yet, I’ll think about it practically every day and find time to work on it regularly–not just in big pushes every once in a while.
  • Being committed to a goal means that I’ve decided to look for ways to do more toward that goal rather than excuses to not do it. For instance, if I’m committed to exercising, then when I go on vacation I’ll think “What are some special opportunities I’ll have to exercise?” and not “Well, this is going to totally disrupt my exercise routine–I guess I’ll just start up again when I get back.”
  • Being committed means that I’ll want to pay attention when it’s time to make choices about my goal. If an opportunity to make a choice comes up, I’ll want to take the extra time to be mindful of what’s going on and to use all of the abilities at my disposal to make a good choice.
  • If I’m committed to building a habit, then that means I’ve decided ahead of time that I’m OK working on that habit virtually every day for a couple of months or longer. Factors like how complicated the behavior is and whether I’ll be doing it in about same environment every day can make the period of time longer or shorter until the habit develops. (See How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?)
  • Finally, a commitment means that I’m willing to at least some of the time to prioritize my goal over things like relaxation, entertainment, and less important tasks (even if those less important tasks are right in my face and insisting on being done right away). I don’t have to give up all enjoyment, but I do have to get comfortable with the idea that pursuing my goal may not always be convenient.

These thoughts and practices aren’t all that complicated, but it’s easy to come up with an intention and not think through what it would really mean to commit to it. Pursuing a goal takes time, effort, and attention. Yes following through in this way with a well-chosen goal can make an enormous difference in our happiness, self-confidence, and success.

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How to Stop in Mid-Fail

States of mind

When we make bad decisions, where’s the real point of no return?

Let’s say Meg decides she really want to go to Sweden, and she plans an incredible 3-week vacation there: great hotels, tours, plane tickets, the whole shebang. As she’s making these reservations, she thinks to herself “I probably can’t afford this–but I’ve always wanted to go to Sweden, and who knows when I’ll have the chance next?” Everything’s set. Once the reservations are made, is it too late for her to change her mind?

Two weeks before the trip she looks briefly at her finances and begins to worry about what will happen to her credit card debt if she goes. Is she really going to be able to pay all that money off? It turns out she doesn’t have it in savings, as she was kind of hoping she would. Now is it too late?

The day before she leaves, the anxiety is too much for her, and she sits down and runs the numbers. It turns out that the trip isn’t just a little out of her reach: it’s going to cause havoc to her whole budget–she might even run out of money while on the trip! And she hadn’t realized the hotel was going to cost that much, and should she really have booked the more expensive flight so that she didn’t have to leave at 5:30 in the morning? Is it too late now?

It may feel too late. When you’re driving away from the fast food restaurant or about to drop that angry letter in the mailbox or standing at the counter while the sales clerk rings up your purchases, it may feel as though you’re committed to the bad choice you’ve made, even if you now realize it’s a bad choice. For some of us (and this is completely typical of the old eating habits I’ve been painstakingly overcoming for years), you may be halfway through eating something, realize you’re not enjoying it at all, and still finish it because oh well, you already bought it and started eating it, and you don’t want it to go to waste, right? Because making you unhappy and contributing to your ill health is much less going to waste than throwing it away … uh, right?

Yet it’s never actually too late until it’s literally impossible to take whatever it is back. Even if it would take a lot of effort to backtrack, or if you lose money by changing your plans, or if you have to do something that seems random and embarrasses you, it’s better to reverse a bad choice at the last minute than to never reverse it at all. The day before Meg’s trip, she can say to herself “This is ridiculous: I can’t afford this, and I won’t even be able to enjoy the trip because I’ll be worrying about money the whole time.” Then she can call the airline and see if she can get a refund or credit for the flight, call the hotels and tours and cancel her reservations, and so on. If she’s past the deadline for getting much money back from the trip–for instance, if she got non-refundable plane tickets and the airline won’t give her credit toward future travel–then maybe it is too late, but if she just has to take a hit of a few hundred dollars instead of spending thousands she doesn’t have, then canceling (or scaling back to much cheaper arrangements) is still the right decision for her.

On the surface, this kind of reversal looks stupid: you go to a lot of trouble to arrange something, then you go to a lot of trouble to cancel it, and lose money in the bargain. The important thing to realize is that the value Meg was trying to get at the beginning was an illusion: the trip was not really something she wanted on those terms. If she took it, she would be less happy and less empowered than if she didn’t. Once she realized this, the value of the trip as she understood it changed. It’s as though you made arrangements to buy a nice car and then found out the car was a lemon. Would you still buy the car (and for the same amount) just because it seemed like it was worth more before you knew better?

There are two benefits to reversing a bad decision even after the bad decision has already cost you something. The first is that the bad decision hurts you less if you don’t follow all the way through with it. The second is that you give yourself a memorable and meaningful lesson. The canceled trip will, we hope, really stick in Meg’s memory, so that the next time she tries to buy something that she can’t afford, she can reflect on it and say “Remember when I almost bankrupted myself on that trip to Sweden I wanted? This is like that. Why don’t I steer clear this time?”

Is it ever too late to get a little smarter?

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How to Make Self-Motivation Easier, Part I

Strategies and goals

Piece of cake

Changing habits, making good choices, or really pushing hard toward a goal can get very difficult when it comes time to act. Probably you’ve had experiences, like I have, where good intentions beforehand weren’t enough to force a good choice when the time came. Continuing to try despite not always succeeding is key in developing good habits, but it’s not the only way to be more successful with self-motivation. In fact, there are a lot of things we can do to make self-motivation easier. While you might already know some of these ways, especially if you’ve been reading this site, the reason for this article is to ask the question, “Are you doing everything you can to make progress toward your goal easier?”

To help provide a good answer to that question (and to offer some areas to look at in case the answer is “no”), here’s a list of many ways to make willpower and self-motivation easier. After all, making the task easier usually means getting better results for less effort: it falls into the category of the time-worn advice “Work smarter, not harder.” There are limits to how much willpower we can summon up on a moment’s notice, but there may not be limits to the advantages we can stack up beforehand.

Decide what to do and make plans
Probably the single most important thing any of us can do to facilitate good choices is to understand what those choices should be ahead of time. If the task is studying, then how much studying needs to be done, and when should it happen? If the task is some kind of daily upkeep, like following up on e-mails within the day or keeping the dishes from piling up, what’s the exact plan for how these things will be handled?

Anticipate problems
If you ever find yourself explaining away self-motivation problems by saying “I was going to ____, but ____,” this may be a sign that you need to work on anticipating problems. Someone who’s trying to eat more healthily will be much more successful if they figure out what the options and dangers are before they walk into a party or a restaurant, for instance. Someone who’s self-employed and is trying to get in more work time will want to figure out ground rules for situations like when friends visit from out of town or for how much time–if any–it’s OK to spend doing things like volunteering or socializing during the work day.

Improve your tools and environment
In other posts I’ve gone into some detail about the value of choosing the best tools and setting up an encouraging environment for work on your goal. For example, a more welcoming environment can help a writer write more; having the right software or paper system can help another person organize much more easily.

It can help sometimes if we think of ourselves as our own assistants. We have large, important goals, but often moving toward those goals is much easier when we do some grunt work ahead of time. To help facilitate a study session later in the day, try laying out books and other study materials on a table or desk so that starting requires just sitting down. To eat better, shop better.

On Monday I’ll continue with Part II and five more ways to make self-motivation easier.

Photo by Somewhat Frank

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How Making Rules Can Improve Willpower

Strategies and goals


A recent article on the Psychology Today site by psychologist Kelly McGonigal, “The Self-Control Costs of Moral Flexibility,” talks about research that seems to show that it’s easier to make good choices when we make a rule of them. For instance, it’s easier to choose to do the dishes after dinner if you’ve made a pact with yourself to always do the dishes after dinner.

In the article, McGonigal says “What’s the best strategy, then, for making moral decisions or sticking to a behavior change? Take a principled stance that sets automatic restrictions on your behavior. Weighing the risks and benefits in each situation may seem like the more logical approach, but it’s more effective for most people to commit broadly and then not reflect on each opportunity.”

So creating rules to follow can be powerful, but there are pitfalls: using rules too much or without thinking it through carefully can cause them to fail or even backfire.

First, keep in mind that we have a limited amount of focus, attention, and effort to spare, and that learning to follow rules (even if they’re terrific rules that we’re coming up with on our own) requires all of these resources. If we try to add on a bunch of rules at once–or even two at once–we may be dooming ourselves to failure. As with new goals, it’s often most effective to get used to new rules one at a time.

Second, watch out for unintended consequences. If you make a rule to eat only at specific times throughout the day, are you piling on extra food at the end of each of those meal or snacktimes because of a fear of going hungry? If you decide to study every weeknight at 7:00, does that mean you’ll pass up a golden opportunity to study at another time because you “don’t have to?” Of course, one way to deal with these problems is to try the rules out, then evaluate how they’re working once or twice a week to see if you might be “gaming” them. Don’t try to reevaluate the rule when it’s time to follow it: by doing that you’d be second-guessing yourself at every step and giving up the whole “no struggle” advantage of rules.

Finally, only make rules for things you want to be doing pretty much all the time. Don’t make a rule that you will sit down for ten minutes at the beginning of every workday to review what you accomplished the day before if you know that at least a couple of times a week, there will be more urgent, important things to attend to as soon as you walk in the door. But this kind of rule problem, too, can be fixed with a little bit of reflection once or twice a week to see how you’re doing.

The idea of making rules about your own behavior may be offputting; if so, it may be more productive to think about taking, as McGonigal puts it, a “principled stance.” Regardless, use this technique to make use of your good thinking now to make good choices in advance and free yourself from some unnecessary indecision.

Photo by Monoglot.

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Hidden urgency: goals and the ticking clock

States of mind


In writing, there’s a useful suspense technique called the “ticking clock.” You’re probably familiar with it: the hero has some desperately important thing that she or he has to accomplish, and suddenly it’s made much worse because it turns out there’s only a short time to get it done before all is lost. We have ticking clocks of our own, at least for little things, in our own lives: work that has to be done before a deadline to grab an opportunity or stave off disaster, a place you have to get before it closes, a medical emergency … and in all of these cases, we naturally become much more engaged and focused in doing what needs to be done.

This is going to seem like a completely different subject for a moment, but let’s turn our attention to people who expect to die and miraculously survive–people whose inoperable cancer goes into remission, or people who through incredible luck live through accidents or disasters that they expected to be fatal. It seems to be common for people like this to come away with specific revelations: that our lives are precious, that little problems don’t mean that much, and that it’s important to make the most of what time we have. Yawning yet? This is kind of standard inspirational fare. “Yes, life is miraculous, we’re alive, isn’t it amazing? Sure, we should make our lives meaningful, enjoy every day, yadda yadda yadda …”

So let’s bring together that ticking clock technique and that boring old “our time is precious” saw. The way they fit together is this: we have a limited lifespan; eventually we’ll die. We have an even more limited window of enjoyment or benefit for certain things, like learning to be better parents (once the kids have grown up and moved on, the most important parts of parenting are over) or enjoying an activity or opportunity that might not be available forever.

That means that for most things of importance, every day we delay in reaching a goal is a day less that reaching that goal can benefit us. If you’re working on good financial management, the longer it takes you to get around to really focusing on it, the shorter the portion of your life where you have your finances really under control will be. If you want to write and direct your own movie, every delay in doing that shortens your total time as a maker of movies, which determines how many projects you can do, how good you’ll get, and how much enjoyment you’ll experience.

If this kind of talk makes you feel a little anxious, that’s good, because you can harness that to drive yourself energetically toward your goals–but hold onto it for a moment before you go very far with it. We need to distinguish between unnecessary delays on the one hand and the amount of time it realistically takes to do things well on the other. If you’re not making movies because you’re busy focusing on making yourself healthier, and if health is a higher priority for you, the movies can wait: it’s hard enough to really focus on one major goal at a time, and two or more is usually enough to cause crashing and burning of all of the goals. We have a limited amount of time and attention in our lives. It’s not only OK to use it on just one major project at once, it’s downright clever.

And reaching goals–especially goals that require changing habits–takes time. You have to do a lot of writing to become a really good writer, and to turn down a lot of bags of chips to become the kind of person who automatically and enthusiastically eats a healthy diet. Our brains do change and rewire themselves, but it always takes time, whether we’re talking about good quality practice to acquire a new skill or changing our habits to modify our outlook and behavior.

The exception to the “single goal” approach is our day-to-day decisions. We can always try to keep in mind how beneficial it is to make better choices, so if each time a meaningful decision comes up we take an extra moment to see if we can’t get ourselves to take the high road, that’s a moment well spent.

So you may want to take a moment right now to think about your goal–not all of your goals, but the one most important current goal in your life–and apply that ticking clock. Are you working on that goal with focus, every day, or are you putting it off, telling yourself it’s not urgent, that there’s plenty of time? If it doesn’t feel urgent, you could spend a little time thinking about what you might be losing by your delay. How much more could be gained by doing it today instead of tomorrow? One less day of having to wait for the wonderful results you want to achieve? One day of increased income before retirement? One day of being better at relationships, and therefore one more day of greater happiness for other people in your life?

And if you are applying yourself every day, I hope you can take a moment to pat yourself on the back. There are a lot of things that can make the important goals in our lives look like they can wait, so if you’re pushing ahead despite all that, you’re in an uncommon and enviable class of people, even if the pushing ahead itself is difficult or unpleasant. Keep on keeping on!

And if you’re not applying yourself every day, please come back to this post next week when you are and read yourself that congratulatory paragraph. You will have earned it.

Photo by gnijil_lijing.

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