Do you follow your own advice? Here’s how…

This article was originally published on the Change Tribune.

Do you follow your own advice? At any given time, there may be a multitude of thoughts running through your head. There’s a voice suggesting you sit down and grind out that overdue expense report, another urging you give in to a Netflix binge session (plus popcorn… definitely popcorn), and yet another telling you to finally clean out the garage.

Is this what going crazy feels like? It turns out, this multiplicity of voices and urges is natural.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”— Walt Whitman

The thoughts we listen to defines our character. The thought we act on draws the line between us reaching for our highest goals and wallowing in the mud of procrastination and addiction.

“Wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow your own advice.”— Sam Harris, Waking Up

Developing wisdom is a lifelong pursuit, but you need not wait for any ultimate realizations to begin taking your own advice more seriously. What follows is a practical framework, based on behavioral science, cognitive science, and contemplative traditions. Use it to follow your own advice today.

How to Follow Your Own Advice

Many video games have a third-person perspective. In The Sims, your viewpoint is above and behind your player, controlling their actions.

Imagine for a moment looking down on yourself in the third-person. Imagine having all the information available: feelings, thoughts, long-term goals. From above, you are able to direct your actions from a cool, detached state of mind. Discomfort, hunger, anger… you can notice it all, but are still able to act in whatever way you’d like.

Would you gobble that last cookie, or direct yourself to head to the gym? Complete that report, or spend the next two hours wandering YouTube?

How can we create a world in which we can reliably ‘stand above ourselves’, and direct our actions with a level of remove? A world in which we listen to our own advice?

Let’s explore some actionable strategies: Planning, Pre-Commitment, Awareness, and Dealing with Discomfort.

1. Planning

The first step is to truly explore what your goals are. What do you care about most? What behaviors would move you towards your best self? What actions can you take that will have the most positive impact in the world?

I won’t delve deeply into planning, but rather point you to the best resources I have found on the topic: Start With Why, Getting Things Done, and The Advantage. These resources tackle planning primarily in a professional sphere, but can be extrapolated to any set of goals you may have personally.

I’ll skip lightly over planning for a reason: it’s important to have a plan, but most of you may fail to actually follow through.

2. Pre-Commitment

Once you understand how your highest-self would act, you can use pre-commitment to stack the deck in favor of desired behaviors.

The key to understanding pre-commitment is to imagine your day split up into two mind-states:

  • “Cold” — Your everyday self in a reasonably relaxed state of mind
  • “Hot” — Experiencing visceral impulses like hunger, fatigue, or physical pain

When you’re in a “cold” state, it’s really tough to predict how you will act in a “hot” state. You’re unable to empathize with your stressed self and you consistently underestimate just how powerfully a visceral impulse will affect your behavior.

With this in mind, you can lock yourself into a pre-determined future action while in a cold state. Specifically, you can use an implementation intention (see the work of Peter Gollwitzer at NYU [1]:

“Implementation intentions are if-then plans that spell out in advance how one wants to strive for a set goal.”— Peter Gollwitzer

Implementation intentions go beyond just stating a goal, and dive into how we will respond to certain situations and setbacks. Here are some examples that support a goal to ‘workout 3 times per week’:

  • IF a workout is on my schedule, THEN I will be home a half-hour in advance to put my gym gear together.
  • IF I’m not feeling energetic when I’m supposed to work out, THEN I’ll have a piece of fruit, a handful of almonds, a cup of coffee, and put on my workout clothing.
  • IF a schedule change forces me to cancel a workout, THEN I’ll immediately re-schedule the workout within 36 hours of the original.

You can strengthen an implementation intention further by placing rewards and/or penalties in place during pre-commitment. I regularly make bets (if I miss a workout, I owe a friend $25), but rewarding yourself, temptation bundling (I’ll only listen to this awesome audiobook while exercising), or social pressure can work just as well.

3. Awareness

Once an implementation intention is set, you’ll need awareness to stick with your plan. Without knowing what’s going on, right now, in your body and mind, it’s easy to wander away from our implementation intentions.

The first challenge is simply remembering. It is easy to blow by subtle implementation intentions (IF I feel an urge to check Facebook, THEN I’ll work for 5 minutes first) on auto-pilot. Our brains can also trick us into believing that we are, indeed, following a path of wisdom. We really deserve a break. If we don’t have another snack we’ll run out of energy. This paper isn’t due until Thursday, so what’s the harm in another break. Being aware of these thoughts and capable of discerning when they are excuses is crucial.

Developing awareness can be achieved using mindfulness meditation. Sit and focus on the breath. Whenever your mind inevitably wanders, bring your attention back to the breath. Meditation is simple, but not easy. Over time this training in awareness lets you see your excuses for what they are, and opens up the option of choosing wisely.

4. Being Comfortable with Discomfort

So you’ve built a plan, pre-committed to action, and are aware in the moment of the advice you’ve given yourself. You’ve stacked the deck in favor of wisdom.

But you haven’t guaranteed yet that you will follow our own advice. You are still, and always will be, a multiplicity of competing agendas. You’ve strengthened the voice you’d like to follow, but you’re other side may still be screaming for popcorn, Netflix, a glass of red wine, and a nap.

The last obstacle to overcome is the discomfort involved with ignoring those competing multiplicities. This discomfort can seem unbearable, and you can decide to seek immediate relief despite an implementation intention and full knowledge of the situation.

It turns out that we can train our capacity to hold ourselves in an uncomfortable state. In the same way that stressing our muscles at the gym causes adaptation, we can adapt to discomfort. The trick is to expose yourself to a challenging, yet tolerable, level of discomfort. Then push through, and repeat.

Cold showers are a simple example. A cold shower is unpleasant, but not harmful. By forcing yourself to remain under the stream for a few minutes, you create a visceral understanding that being uncomfortable generally isn’t harmful, and build your capacity to ensure.

Additional practices for building your ability to push through discomfort include high-intensity exercise, psychotherapy, meditation (again), and rejection therapy. Pick a discomfort training system that works for you, and notice how your capacity increases over time.

This article was originally published on the Change Tribune. Change Collective is a behavior change course platform that includes expert-led daily lessons and personal coaching to help you improve your fitness, productivity, mindfulness, and more.

Authored by Ben Rubin

Ben Rubin is Co-Founder and CEO of Change Collective. His change path has taken him through diverse topics: Vipassana meditation, Paleo, Crossfit, GTD, and many more. He previously co-founded Zeo — a pioneer in quantified self that helped people sleep. When kicking back you’ll find Ben skiing or hiking with his Berner, Lyra.

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