Most of us make New Year’s resolutions but fail to keep them. We describe some vague change we want but the resolution is soon forgotten, and come March or April no action is taken. A lack of clarity about what the resolution will look, sound and feel like is just part of the problem.
One of the real issues is that we’re hardwired for inertia. As research from the field of neuroscience suggests, our brain is hardwired by two key drivers — preserving our safety and conserving our energy. So, we become lazy and we create barriers.
I’ve listed below some of the most common reasons people fail to motivate themselves, and with each ‘barrier’, I’ve a written a short solution…
Barrier 1: We pose our goal in the negative, so we put ourselves in a negative mind frame from the outset
For many of us, we focus on and frame our problems in the negative. I remember throughout my rugby career of over 20 years being told time and time again by coaches, some of them highly qualified, ‘Don’t miss tackles!’. Well, pink elephants is all I have to say to that. Achieving a negative is hardly very motivating.
Solution: Frame it in the positive
A much better motivator would have been ‘make really hard tackles and turn defence into attack!’ You need to give yourself an image of you succeeding in your goal (making a tackle) not failing it in (missing a tackle).
If you want to lose weight, don’t think about not eating chocolate – think about eating healthy foods and what it feels and looks like to be thinner and fitter. So your goal, for instance, is ‘I will eat more fruit and vegetables at every meal’.
Barrier 2: Hoping we’ll get motivated while holding firm to being our safe, current/old self
When we try to motivate ourselves to change, we try to do things which aren’t congruent with who we believe we are, so we inevitably fail. To avoid cognitive dissonance, we seek to act in accordance with our beliefs. Any effort to be someone we find it hard to identify with and we’ll self sabotage through self handicapping.
So, we might want to improve our presentation technique, but the day before we’re due to present to our boss we find ourselves overdoing it in the pub or we turn up underprepared. This way we get to blame the booze or the lack of preparation time – not our inability to change who we need to be to become a great presenter.
Many of my clients exclaim “I can’t change – it’s who I am”. To which I say “Fine, but who you are are isn’t getting the results you want, so unless you change then expect the same results”.
Solution – Become a different person!
German psychologist Erich Fromm’s classic Be-Do-Have model illustrates how we should arrange our lives, although few do. To develop this mindset, you need to know what’s important to you – why you’re showing up at work.
But many of us orientate our lives around the model in the wrong order: Have-Do-Be. We fall into the classic “When I have… them I’ll be” trap. We think, “When I have enough time, then I’ll do the things I’ve always wanted to, and then I’ll be happy.”
Or maybe we are Do-Have-Be people. We think that if we work really hard, Doing stuff, the more we’ll Have, we think, “When I do really well at my career, then I’ll have money, and when I have money, then I’ll be fulfilled” — so the model reappears, but this time we are defined by what we do, so we become goal-orientated, driven and over-committed. Once again we may achieve our goals but the fulfilment is short-lived.
By building our lives around the cornerstones of a strong sense of self, by knowing what our values and beliefs are, our actions and what we subsequently gain – the “have” – leads on from what we are and what we do.
(The author Simon Sinek was inspired by Fromm’s concept and has popularised it online. He uses “why” instead of “be”, and this “why” should be the basis for your goal-setting in work and all aspects of your life.)
So, if you want to be good at presenting, you might ask yourself: ‘Why am I turning up at work and who do I need to be to become a great presenter?’. And you need to start by working out what a great presenter, in your eyes, does and how you can use your strengths to be that person. You also need to identify what core beliefs and assumptions you hold that are currently standing in the way. And this is where good coaching and our online courses, particularly ‘How to Develop Unbreakable Confidence’ can really help.
Barrier 3: We wait until the ‘right moment’… but it never comes
We also have a tendency to wait around for the perfect moment, the right environment, which never materialises. And we ensure it doesn’t materialise because we either don’t proactively go out to find the opportunity or more commonly, we subconsiously remove ourselves from the possibility of the right circumstance ever happening. Then hey presto, we can say we’ve never failed because we’ve never been ‘given the opportunity’.
For example, we want to great at presentations but rather than push ourselves forward to lead a pitch, we sit back and allow others to take front stage then tell ourselves we weren’t given a chance to shine.
Solution: “Just do it” or acting ‘as if’
Nike’s advertising slogan— Just do it — holds an empowering secret: action often precedes motivation. To get fit, as Nike would encourage, rather than waiting for the feelings of motivation to arrive, which may never happen, you kickstart by taking action. You go for a walk, a swim, and once you are doing it the endorphins, our feel good hormones, kick in. Our brains want consistency between our actions and beliefs, it wants to avoid the fuzzy feeling in our head bought on by cognitive dissonance.
This may seem counterintuitive to be authentic so it’s important to point out that acting ‘as if’ is very different to faking it. Acting ‘as if’ is about consciously improving yourself and overcoming your fears – faking it is about deceiving others to achieve a specific result; it’s used for short-term gain with no behavioural change.
In coaching we sometimes encourage acting ‘as if’ to create positive behavioural change. To consciously try out a new behaviour, and notice how this affects your feelings, is to act ‘as if’ you were a certain way or had a certain trait – it’s a favourite tool for many NLP practitioners. Even when a belief or emotion doesn’t really feel right, you act as if you had the belief and let that lead your actions. It can be really powerful. It’s a bit like going to the gym. You usually don’t feel like it, but once you get started and get into it the time flies by and you even stay for longer than you planned! (Of course this can be misinterpreted. So people who want to believe that they deserve money, may act as if they already had lots of money and spend money they don’t have. Instead, think like a wealthy person… starting with their beliefs – not their bank balance!)
Change is hard
Doing something new will feel unfamiliar and trigger discomfort, and often it’s at this point that people give up saying ‘it doesn’t feel right’. But think about learning a skill – it feels uncomfortable before it can feel comfortable.
Try giving up sugar in your tea. To start with the tea tastes horrible but after a few weeks, once your test buds have been retuned, you can actually taste the tea leaves as the tea growers intended, and then of you were to add in sugar it would taste too sweet.
As Hugh Prather says, “Being myself includes taking risks with myself, taking risks on new behaviour, trying new ways of ‘being myself’, so that I can see who it is I want to be”.
Happy 2019, and may your resolutions come true!
Peter Willis, Unchainyourbrain.org co-founder and tutor