The approach is called ‘Getting Things Done®’. Some of those ‘things’ happen quickly and easily. Some are difficult and take much more patience and persistence. This two-part piece is about how to motivate yourself to go from twinkle in the eye to consistent progress on hard things, where ‘done’ takes a long time.
Back at the beginning of the year, I did a piece on the most often made – and least successfully implemented – annual resolution of our age. In it, I suggested that poor goal formulation and insufficient planning would kill most people’s efforts on that resolution before the month was out. My previous article in December was on why such attempts to change fail so consistently: our overestimation of our ability to unpick a lifetime of habit and outplay millennia of human psychological development with continuous conscious effort. To recap, more willpower and discipline probably won’t have you succeed with the changes you have in mind.
Whatever change you have chosen this year, you really, really don’t want to try to make it happen with your willpower. At least not in the way most people think about that: digging deep, grinding it out, forcing yourself to do that thing you really don’t want to do. Most people have limited success with that approach. But a great use of willpower is to employ it to get ahead of those moments when you won’t have any. You need to do things way ahead of time that clear the path for when you just aren’t feeling it. Days ahead. Weeks even. Because if you are looking for your willpower on a cold, dark, rainy February morning, you’ll look for so long you might not get to the gym. But if you’ve used your willpower when you have it to prepare for when you don’t, something as simple as an e-mail (to fix an appointment with a friend for a workout) can move you to do something that you might otherwise have ducked.
Here are some tactics that work to counter the inevitable dips in motivation that show up when moving toward challenging long-term goals:
- Harness your interests. Watch, read, talk ‘obsessively’ about the new thing you want more of in your life. The quotation marks are there because it may feel – or look – obsessive, but that is not the truth. Often it is simply what it takes to get – and stay – in action for long enough with a particular thing to see the needle move. Learning a language? Buy the papers in your new language. Better still, if you are mad keen about the outdoors, subscribe to the Italian (or Arabic, or Chinese) rag that reports in breathless detail about wilderness camping in that area, in that language.
- Find a community. It is super-helpful to hang around with people who are living the change you are wanting to make. If you are wanting to get in shape, you want to harness the ‘normality’ distortion field that a community can provide, not have it work against you. Put simply, you can join your mates in the pub, or the ones over at the local Crossfit box. If you are trying to get in shape and everyone you know thinks a workout is a short walk to do lager curls at the local boozer, you might need some new friends. Not because the old ones are bad humans, but because of the kind of feedback you’ll get from them about going to the gym. They may express admiration, but intimate that it is somehow not normal, all that working out. A bit obsessive. You want some friends for whom it is totally normal.
- Reduce friction. In our work, one of the central questions is ‘what’s the next action’. As in, what is the next physical, visible thing you’ll do about a particular outcome you want. Being clear on the next action is a sine qua non of anything actually happening. If you don’t know what the next action is then it can’t happen; you have to have thought of it to be able to do it. Once you understand the power of that idea, you can refine it. What is the next action that attracts me? Or, if the next action is somehow repellent, what is the fraction of that action that I can grease the skids on? Don’t want to go for a run most mornings? How about putting your running stuff on the dresser, ready to go? Which leads us on to…
- Lower the threshold for success. Some say you need to eat the frog. Start with the hard thing, and then it gets easy from that point onward. Maybe. I’m more of a tadpole kind of guy. I start with something easy, which – once completed – has changed my state so that the next – harder – thing seems easier. If I stay at that all morning, by early afternoon I am lashing down platefuls of frogs. Seinfeld famously committed to writing a joke a day. A friend – who’s published multiple books – calls it a successful day if he writes one sentence. Obviously neither stopped after hitting their self-imposed target, but the easy-access target got them moving. It’s way easier to stay in motion than to get moving, so find the lowest possible threshold to get into action, then build on it.
- Get a buddy. Setting a challenging goal to be achieved with someone else – preferably someone you’d prefer not to let down – is another great way to shift behaviours. Working towards a challenging long-term goal is tough. Having someone around to push you when you don’t want to do the next action – the next rep, the next run – can be invaluable. And it works both ways. Next time you’re the one who is feeling fit and motivated, and you drag them along to the gym. There is something alchemical that happens in the relationship that means that the motivation available to two people pursuing the same goal is much larger than the sum of what each party brings to the table.
- Extend ‘Streaks’. As humans, we like completeness. Once you establish the rhythm of your practice, there is energy in simply doing the thing again. And again. And again. One of the only reasons I stretch every week is that I’ve done it for 5 years now. I’m pretty sure nothing bad will happen if I let that slip, but I also don’t want to find out. That pattern is set, it works, and when I’m thinking of not stretching it gives me a nudge; such a shame to break the streak after all this time! Finding a way to make this visual (a wall calendar that you see daily with ticks on days you’ve stretched or exercised, for instance) will totally engage this particular aspect of human psychology.
There are more, but in a spirit of not overwhelming with possibilities, I’ll stop there. Next time: designing rewards, stacking and strings, and harnessing our environment for motivation.