How to set yourself up to achieve your goals

Buddhism and behavioral economics can help

I skipped the gym this weekend. Not going made me feel bad, and I knew it would. But I did it anyway. And I’m not alone. Again and again, despite our best intentions, we choose ice cream over exercise, screen time over sleep, and French fries over green beans.

It becomes easier to stick to our good intentions if we change how we think about our actions. In the West, we tend to assume that it’s all about the agent. I make a resolution and then I act on it. If I fail to follow through, I need to try harder next time so that I can succeed.

Buddhism offers a different account: Like everything that happens, our actions have many causes. Our willpower (or lack of it!) is one of them; I decided to ignore my resolutions and stay at home. But outside factors were involved as well: I was tired and hungry, it was raining, I couldn’t find all my exercise stuff, I remembered that last time, the gym was too crowded, and my husband wanted me to do something else.

So how does shifting focus away from the self in this way help?

If we focus on the self, there’s only one way of getting the job done: We need to make our will stronger so that it can overcome the rest of the self. And that’s hard! We’re likely to fail and when we do, we’ll beat ourselves up for not being strong enough. This is a problem especially for us perfectionist types who do that too often already.

The Buddhist view is more realistic because it highlights how external factors influence our choices all the time, even when we don’t notice. Cool research in behavioral economics supports this view. Some examples:

· People are more likely to save for retirement if they’re automatically enrolled in savings programs (and allowed to opt out) and not just invited to enroll.

· Kids make better food choices in cafeterias if the salad bar is in a good location and if they have to pay cash for sweets instead of charging it.

· We eat less if the food is served on a smaller plate.

· My personal favorite: We’re more likely to pay for our coffee at work if there’s a picture of an eye over the money jar.

The situation influences our actions in both subtle and dramatic ways. So let’s use this to our advantage!

If my failure to get to the gym is about the situation and not just about my willpower, I don’t have to figure out how to develop more willpower (how does one do that anyway?). Instead, I can make small simple changes to the situation which then help nudge me in the right direction:

· Pack my gym bag the night before

· Have a snack on hand (because I won’t go if I am hungry)

· Schedule a time to go when the gym isn’t so busy and when I tend to be less tired. (‘I’m going to the weight class Saturday morning at 9’)

· Talk to my husband about my plans so that he’ll help instead of hinder.

Of course, there’ll be aspects of the situation that push us in the wrong direction and which we can’t do anything about. It may rain next weekend too! And figuring out what changes to make takes trial and error. Even then, it’s not a miracle cure (remember, I didn’t go last weekend!). But focusing on the situation rather than on my willpower helps me do the right thing more often, and I’m doing it without working harder. Sometimes I fail but, when I do, I blame myself less and instead ask how I might tweak the situation for next time.