You know that moment when the thought crosses your mind, or someone asks you, “Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?” Part of you has a momentary thought about the things you would like to change this year. But your mind, and your answer quickly go to “Resolutions don’t work. So why set them?”
After prior years of disappointment, your mind naturally rushes to the assumption that setting an expectation for yourself is a recipe for disappointment. But the fact of the matter is there are forces, often outside your awareness, which influence your behavior and likelihood of success!
Setting an Intention Can Work
As we have discussed in prior blogs, our habits have a powerful effect in driving our behavior, despite our best intentions. So, your instinct to believe that resolutions are pointless makes sense. However, recent research has shown that intentions can influence behavior despite having habits.
The Four Forces of Behavior Change
The answer to why sometimes intentions can override habit, and sometimes they do not, lays in understanding the four invisible forces which are constantly acting on us to drive our behavior. Becoming aware of these forces in your life is the first step in successfully activating your intentions. Using the Dashboard form from the “How to Hack your Habits” blog will help you become more aware of how these forces influence your behavior.
Imagine a football player making his way down the field towards the goal post. Like your New Year’s resolutions, there are four invisible forces pushing him towards his goal.
- Beliefs (thoughts, ideas, images, predictions, intentions!)
Once we set the intention to aim for a goal, it is also essential that we believe we can reach our goal. Our hypothetical football player will do better if he has had past experiences obtaining his goal, or knows he has trained well for the game. He has surveyed the opposition to be incapable of blocking him, etc. and so he believes in his ability to achieve the goal.
When you think about the goal you would like to achieve this year, do you believe you can achieve it? Are past disappointments getting in the way of making a commitment? In the case of goal setting, Henry Ford was correct:
“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.”
Emotions are perhaps the most powerful driver of motivation to action. In fact, our emotions are evolutionarily hardwired to get our butts in gear when it’s most critical. The football player will need approach-driven emotions, such as aggression (beating the opponent) to motivate his push down the field. In contrast, if he is experiencing fear (which motivates avoidance) or sadness (which motivates withdrawal), he will have more difficulty.
Take a moment right now, really pause, and allow yourself to bring to mind a goal you would like to achieve this year. . . . Check in with yourself as you really get a crystal clear image of something you want to achieve.
Often times, as much as we really truly want something, we experience some anxiety, or doubt, or even a smidgen of awkward embarrassment related to the wanting. You might even feel some sadness that you have not yet achieved your desire.
These uncomfortable emotions can trigger unconscious avoidance. Outside your awareness you are likely to automatically shift your attention and actions away from the goal you desire.
Together with the internal forces (thinking and emotions), there are always external forces pushing and pulling at our best intentions for behavior change and commitment. Contingencies are the external reinforcers that either punish or reward our actions.
The reward of the cheering crowd in a home game will contribute to the success of our football player, while the “boos” of an away game will be punishing, thus make things more challenging.
Oftentimes there are forces in our environment that make it very difficult to maintain our commitment to change. Are there forces in your environment that make your goal more difficult to achieve? Are there still holiday cookies in the cabinet making your weight loss goals more challenging? Are there people around you who influence your decisions? Is there something you can do to minimize these influences?
The good news is we can all build our skillfulness for tackling difficulties created by the other forces! The skill of our football player can overcome all of the obstacles of beliefs, emotions, and environment. By maintaining his discipline of regular practice and building his skill, he can still win the game!
What goal would you like to achieve this year? Do you need to build your skill in this area? Just as our football player did not start off as a pro, building skill begins with small behaviors, which lead to the ultimate goal.
Successful goal-setting starts with identifying small movements in the right direction, and most importantly, rewarding yourself for even the smallest movement. In particular, when just beginning towards a goal, it is essential that you congratulate yourself for small achievements rather than judge yourself for not reaching perfection.
- When initiating moving towards a goal, say “I can” rather than “I can’t” when it gets difficult.
- When it gets uncomfortable, know this is a sign you are building your skillfulness, and stay with it.
- Make needed changes in your environment to reward small victories and support your success!
Learn to identify the forces influencing your performance by practicing with the Dashboard form. Whether you are tackling the playing field and other players, or an ominous New Year’s resolution, building your mindfulness and self-awareness of the four forces of behavior can boost your success!