Wednesday, April 22, 2009

30-Day Persistence Challenge: Motivating Yourself to Move Forward

On my way back from the Association of Health Care Journalists Conference this past weekend, I picked up a copy of Scientific American Mind, and, specifically, an article about how irrational behavior is hardwired into us. In a Q&A, professor Peter A. Ubel, author of Free Market Madness, made the following observation:
One reason we humans do not always behave rationally is that we have limited willpower. We understand that junk food is bad. But we cannot follow through on our rational desires. We plan to run for 30 minutes, but after 10, we get off the treadmill and convince ourselves we are a bit stiff today. We try to cut down on empty calories and then grab a handful of M&Ms from a candy bowl, almost unaware of our actions. No single M&M caused anyone to have diabetes. No one experienced a heart attack because he was 20 minutes short of his exercise goal. And yet our lives, or waistlines even, are the result of thousands of such decisions and behaviors.
Anyone who's ever dieted knows what he's talking about. Not that the desire is bad, or that a single outcome is bad. It's just the chasm between intention and action on a regular basis that undermines persistence. To develop persistence, and get the rewards from being persistent, you have to do the things you plan to do even if you don't feel like doing them. Something has to motivate you.

But where do you get the motivation? Here's what Ubel told Scientific American Mind:
To improve ourselves, we have to act as if each M&M matters, as if each decision has important consequences. To do this, it helps to make rules and follow them. Commit yourselves to no candy, no desserts, and you will become more mindful of M&M bowls. Run outside, rather than inside on a treadmill, and you will be forced to finish your running loop. Tell a friend you will walk with her for 30 minutes this afternoon, and you will be forced to show up. Do you want to save money? Have some money automatically deposited into a savings account that you cannot access easily through ATMs, debit cards or checkbooks. Sometimes the best way to behave better when you are weak is to impost martial law on yourself when you feel strong.
How does this sound to you? Do you like the idea of "imposing martial law," as Ubel puts it?

Unlikely. But Ubel does have a point. Structure is the key to persistence. If I tell myself (as I have) that I don't eat sugar, a red flag waves frantically when someone puts a baby tart in front of me, as they did several times at the conference last week. But for me, that's as far as structure goes: It just creates the red flag. How I cope from there is another matter.

Ubel hints at ways to make persistence work, though. This week, I'll lay out three ways to firm up your boundaries--with yourself--and keep on your persistence goals. Today, we'll start with...

I know I don't eat sugar. I have the experience of not eating it for five years now.* And I have the experience of not dying--of embarrassment or cravings--from any single instance of passing the dessert back to the waiter. I also have the experience of ease that comes with not eating it. It's not hard for me usually. People say they can't do it. But I think what they mean is they don't want to, that there's always an escape plan, an exception to their rule about dessert, etc. What Ubel is talking about is a hard-and-fast rule. A "no matter what" rule.

Take a look at your rules around your persistence topics (querying, decluttering, invoicing, etc.). Is your rule;
  • "I will do three queries this week no matter what?"
  • "I'll do three as long as I'm not too busy with paying work."
  • "I'll send three queries, but only if I don't feel too panicked at the time about it."
Don't judge. Just become aware of what your rules are for yourself. Then, at another time, look at them again and ask yourself a few more questions:
  • Do they work for you?
  • Are you getting the results you want or need, or are they feeding into bad habits that sap your energy and your serenity?
Once you've done that, you can take a leap of faith: Try doing the thing you know you should do everyday--even when you don't want to. How does it feel? Is it unbearable? Do you feel better or worse afterward? But a warning: Just like no single handful of M&M is going to undermine your diet, no single act of querying is going to quash your disdain for it. You have to do it over and over again, sometimes for months or years, before you start to have the experience of it being okay to feel uncomfortable and do it anyway.

and you find a few personal rules that don't work for you, you can apply tools we'll talk about tomorrow and Friday.

Photo by Phunkstarr.

*Please no attagirls. If I could eat it like a lady, I wouldn't have to eschew it entirely.

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