Ignore Your Willpower
Dr. S begins to answer the questions about motivation and changing behavior.
Dr. S: Behavior change can be thought of in two phases: making the initial change and maintaining the change once established. I’ll talk now about making the initial change.
People tend to believe that making a change in behavior, such as starting to exercise regularly is a matter of “buckling down and just doing it,” or the willpower explanation. Willpower is the capacity to keep doing shit you hate, don’t value, don’t believe will move you to your goals and are fundamentally disinterested in.
Surprisingly, as much as it is valued, it is not a factor responsible for creating or maintaining behavior change in any realm of our lives. It just makes us feel like crap when we set a goal and do not reach it. Banish the concept of willpower.
Introducing: motivation/interest and ability!
We make positive behavior change when we are motivated to engage in the behavior and see the outcome and can do the behavior. For the purpose of this piece, the behavior change is increasing exercise, or adding joyful movement into each day. The motivation is increased cardiovascular fitness so you can more often successfully chase down the mailman to give him the letter you finally found the stamp for.
But remember, motivation is only part of the equation. The other part is setting yourself up for success; setting goals that you can accomplish. Not goals your neighbor who runs 10 miles a day and juices an invigorating kale-ginger shot of foul righteousness each morning would set, but your goals.
Start making small changes by building tiny habits (coincidentally, the name of a book by BJ Fogg, about behavior change). If you’re a morning exerciser, start by getting up early enough that you can accomplish the workout you’d ultimately like to do, and putting on the exercise clothes you set immediately outside your bedroom door. You are building an association between waking up and prepping for movement. Next might be adding a five-minute walk, and so forth, until waking up means getting outside and moving.
Perhaps you find your motivation flagging, as it gets colder and hoped for results are slow to appear. Remind (or inform, if you didn’t already know) that everything you are doing is cumulative. Down the driveway and back is better than no movement. And keep the long view in mind. You might not catch the mailman tomorrow as a result of putting your sneakers on today, but as you hardwire these changes, you are investing in a future infused with movement.
In addition to the above behavioral strategies to build new habits and introduce the goal behavior into your life, remember to have compassion for yourself.
In any given moment you are the sum of all the moments you’ve had–the conversations, meals, nights’ sleep, grades, fender benders–and all of that influences the moment you are in. So, if you’ve had a streak of meeting your goals for two weeks and then have a day that it is harder than typical to pull yourself out of bed, remember to be kind. Assume there is a reason (because there is) that is knowable, and figure-out-able at some point that day.
If you get out of bed, but don’t make it as far into your routine as is typical, all is not lost. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and remind yourself that in those moments your effort was what you could do. Later in the day, try and reflect on what might have been different; were you up late, was it snowing out, did your boss say something that affected you? Learn from it and move on. No one’s 100% effort looks the same every day.
MG: Dr. S, I like lists. So I read your rules as:
- Choose a behavior that you can enjoy (on some level).
- Set a goal that is easily accomplished.
- Start by changing tiny habits that will help you reach your goal.
- Be kind to yourself when you hit a wall or experience temporary failure.
In fitness world coaches often use the acronym SMART for goals:
Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound.
We will get into these later.