How are your resolutions?
A different approach to goals
If you have been successful and consistent in setting your goals and executing them, here is a bunch of ideas you will not want to look into. If, however, you have been struggling, please read on.
For five years, I have been guiding my clients on their way to making a change in their lives. First, we discussed all the potential benefits. Then I helped them design and implement a method based on the tiny steps methodology where you focus on small actions done regularly and consistently (BJ Fogg).
It worked fine in many cases, but sometimes it didn’t work. Even if someone was consistent, there were no visible results to justify further involvement. Simply put, Fogg’s idea that “the size of the success doesn’t seem to matter very much” did not work very well. And if we switched to a more demanding program, resistance to change would manifest its full strength.
“Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow morning, by some stroke of magic, every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff. Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now, a still, small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times before, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I’m crazy, you’re no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you.” Steven Pressfield
If you are still reading, I guess you also read the full quote, even it’s quite a long one. It lasted about three mindful breaths or five situps, and yet you managed. If the length in time is similar, what’s different between these activities? One thing is that it is a one-time activity. It’s also probably more interesting. We will return to these ideas toward the end of the piece.
I am coming back to the resistance now. Why is it so overwhelming and so automatic?
The simple truth is that by telling ourselves we should do something, we create yet another task on our list. A task that is like so many others that we already need to do. The difference that we generate this task ourselves makes no difference at all.
Our rational mind behind all those grandiose plans stands no chance of confronting our emotional mind interested in food, sex, and conserving energy to cut the long evolutionary story short. Delayed gratification is an abstract term for us.
Julius Kuhl explains this from the angle of explicit and implicit processes in his article in a chapter entitled “The procrastination paradox: Focusing on a goal may interfere with enacting the goal”:
“Volitional inhibition is associated with a strong focus on goals and uncompleted intentions when this focus involves explicit rather than implicit processing; when explicit goals or intentions strongly control behavior, implicit self-determination literally deteriorates.”
And yet somehow, we feel OK. Because now, the rational mind switches the role to be the defender of the emotional mind and will do all kinds of tricks to make us feel good. Good here and now that is. Tomorrow is another day blah blah.
One of the tricks is to make us think that it will be easy for us to continue because we have done so many meditations or visits to the gym. Our optimism is rising, but our execution sometimes drops to zero.
Here’s the more accurate explanation from Schürholz: “When the maximum motivation is reached, the magnitude of resources allocated (time, energy, etc.) drops from its high at this point of discontinuity to lower levels as higher self-efficacy beliefs lead one to anticipate fewer resource needs, and thus the motivation and desired behavior collapses.”
However, the long-term result will probably be that it will be even more challenging to get back on track. “Millions of people have tried to lose weight so many times in so many ways. Their history clearly shows that they want to change, but after repeated failures, they are feeling demoralized and uncertain about their abilities to change. Perhaps it is their fear of failure or what they link their failure to that is the cause of their demoralization.” James Prochaska
What can we do?
The first thing would be to give adequate attention to both options: setting a chosen goal or sticking to the status quo. Because you see, if you haven’t done something for some time, I think this deserves some contemplation too.
“Ambivalence is simultaneously wanting and not wanting something, or wanting both of two incompatible things. It has been human nature since the dawn of time.” William R. Miller
Then, instead of visualizing the outcome, we need to visualize the process — all the weeks when we will be doing our exercises, meditations, or other wicked activities.
And then, once we begin our project, we may invite some curiosity about how we will perform and a tone of compassion toward ourselves. I am curious about how this one time I practice will be different because it is a one-time activity.
The compassion we can steal from mindfulness. During meditation, when we are carried away by the train of thought, we usually either listen or say to ourselves, “Gently turn your attention back to the breath.” Similarly, when we are in the process of establishing a new habit, and there’s a break in the streak, we can say to ourselves: “that’s what happened, so now gently return your attention to your project and start where you left off.”
The other idea would concern controlling temptations — like in meditations, if something distracts you, e.g., itching or a sound, see how you can let it be and return your attention to the breath or your other anchor of choice — Marta writes about this attitude here.
The funniest thing is that once you realize that you may do the activity or not, a warm feeling of acceptance may overwhelm you. You may decide that it is OK the way it is. That you don’t really need all those foreign languages or those impressive muscles or all those enlightenments. You will already become enlightened in a way. You will be in peace.
“When someone is seeking,” said Siddartha, “It happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking because he has a goal because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.” Hermann Hesse
I stand at the crossroad of habit formation and mindfulness. That was the theoretical piece. I volunteer to help you bridge the gap between theory and making it happen.