A Whole9 guest post by James Murphy, amateur-adventurer and curious thinker, currently living in New Zealand.
Thinking about the future can motivate you to creatively imagine who you can become. You get to choose. This gives you a chance to try new things, declare new goals, and change your life. It’s inspiring.
Often when we do this, we come up with something big, something hard to achieve. Losing 10kg, deadlifting 3x our bodyweight, running a marathon, or changing the world. When we humour the idea of succeeding at these goals, it feels good. Really good. And we want that. You want that.
So because of how good it feels to imagine the success, you decide that you’ll do whatever it takes to get there. You’ll work hard long hours, pushing through stress, discomfort, anger, complacency, and even pain in order to get there. Because once you do, you’ll be happy, right? It will have been worth it. You’ll finally feel the way you want to. You’ll give it everything you’ve got.
But, what happens when you fail?
What if the journey is so tough that you give up and you don’t actually make it to the end? How do you feel now? Probably not like you had planned to when you set out to achieve your goal. What association do you now have with pursuing goals, with making change, or with trying to do something big? After experiencing this feeling of failure one too many times, that association will be negative. You’ll be less likely to have the desire to try something like that again in the future.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
You Can’t Predict the Future
Looking far into the future and wanting to feel good then doesn’t necessarily change the way you feel now. You’re looking at a map, plotting the big X, and hoping that there’s treasure under there. But if you look for treasure on the way to finding X, there’s a greater chance that you’ll actually have treasure! Okay, lame example. But deciding on an outcome you think you’d enjoy and then working toward it at all costs is putting all your stock into hoping that the end will justify the means. You’re pretending you can see the future. You can’t.
Instead of trying to obtain pleasure and satisfaction from the outcome, you should be building it into the journey.
Building long-lasting, sustainable behaviour change requires you to focus on enjoying the process of change, instead of hoping you’ll enjoy the outcome enough to maintain the habits that were required to get you there.
How do you go about doing this? Build a positive feedback loop into what you’re doing. This is what we do at my workplace with the tracksuit-inc® workplace wellness programmes. The majority of programmes we run are designed to reward the process of adopting wellness-improving behaviours without a focus on any outcome (aside from the completion of the programmes). This results in incredible success!
Positive Feedback Loop
A positive feedback loop goes something like this: X causes Y, which then causes more of X. Pretty simple. So let’s pretend X is ‘a healthy behaviour’, and Y is ‘feeling good, happy, or motivated’.
We have a system built into our biology to work based on this premise. Biological reward systems are in place to reinforce certain behaviours. We do something that’s beneficial, and we are rewarded with feel-good neurochemicals. This is done to help ensure we continue to pursue activities and behaviours that are helpful for our survival.
When you’re working really hard to achieve something that won’t happen until the distant future, this means you’re not going to achieve your positive feedback until the distant future. If the hard work isn’t rewarding in and of itself, and the reward isn’t going to come until the distant future, you’re not associating the work itself with a positive outcome. This means the behaviour isn’t being positively reinforced, which can reduce the likelihood that you’ll continue to engage in it.
It’s okay to be motivated by an outcome; but it’s more helpful to figure out why that outcome motivates you and then attempt to satisfy that along the way to reaching your goal as well. Create more wins along the way. It makes roadblocks easier to overcome, and helps you to realise you’re consistently making progress.
Do something now that will yield positive feedback now. Not something now that you hope will pay off in the in 60 days, months, or years. If the energy you’re expending to do something is worse than the positive feedback you get from it, you won’t want to continue doing it.
Putting It Into Practice
Of course you should pay attention to the big picture. That’s the long-term goal you want to achieve. However, along the way you need to make sure you’re achieving other smaller goals and hitting other checkpoints as well — some of which may not directly relate to the big goal you have planned at the end of the journey.
Break down your big picture goal into smaller goals. Then apply those goals to your life in a way that fits who you are so that you enjoy the process. You need macro-goals and micro-goals.
If your goal was to lose 5kg of body fat, your macro- or micro-goals don’t necessarily have to relate to checkpoints in body-fat-loss. If one of the behaviours you’ve decided to adopt in order to lose body fat was to be more physically active, you could set the goal to go for a walk in the morning 3 times per week. If you enjoy walking alone, do that; if you enjoy walking with others, find someone to walk with you. You’ll also have to track your progress toward this goal.
For example, you could create a calendar on a piece of paper that says, “Morning Walks” at the top, with columns down the page listing the date at the beginning of each week. Mark on your calendar a big happy face for every day you go for a walk. If your micro goal was to increase your walking time to 60 minutes, you can incrementally increase the duration of your walks in the same manner. Then, tally up the number of weeks where you achieved your goal, and talk with someone to discuss how successful you’ve been with your goal this month.
In the above situation, some of the positive feedback comes from seeing that you’ve accomplished a goal. It also comes from receiving recognition that you’ve completed an objective, and possibly with praise for having done so.
The point is to make your macro- and micro-goals intrinsically rewarding. Combine your micro goals with things you know you enjoy already, social interaction or alone time, nature or competition. That which is rewarding to one person may not be to another – you’ll have to personalise this aspect.
Instead of toughing it out in order to reach a goal, hoping that once the goal is achieved it will feel good enough that you will want to maintain what it took to get there, build the positive feedback into what it takes to achieve the goal, so that you’ll be inclined to keep up what it takes to achieve the goal in the first place.
Try it. Pick one of the 9 factors that you feel has a scarce presence in your life. Decide on a big picture goal you have for the future that relates to this factor. Now come up with some macro- and micro- goals, starting with things that you can do now, easily, that relate to the goal you’ve created. How many times next week will you be able to do this? With whom or when? Who will you tell when you’ve achieved it? How will you ensure they’re rewarding?
Tell us in the comments what you’ve tried in the past or what you want to try this week to create a positive feedback loop for your own habit changes.
James works on the team at tracksuit-inc®, a workplace wellness programme based upon ancestral health principles which is designed to create lasting behaviour change for participants both inside and outside of their workplace. He is also a member of the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand. He writes at evolvedhuman.com. Follow him on Instagram: @PrimalRush
(Runners photo credit: anthony_goto / cc)
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Great thoughts James – wisdom beyond your years. Sounds like you have valuable mentors about you!
Periodically in life you have the opportunity to really examine who you are and what you truly value. I recently had that opportunity and instead of letting it pass me by, I was fortunate enough to be able to enrol in a JOLT Challenge programme ‘http://www.joltchallenge.com/’ through my workplace. One of my goals of the programme was to increase my personal resilience, this being in the face of new family commitments, changing work environment, and generally increased demands of me and a desire to thrive vs survive. Any goal achievement though had to align with my values and ultimately with what I see as my purpose in life. There was an abundance of tools and exercises through the programme that equipped me to ensure that.
Now, as a goal ‘increasing resilience’ is a pretty nebulous concept, particularly when you want to undertake some action to achieve such. For my purposes I loosely defined it as being able to approach challenging situations with an open mind, willingness to experience some discomfort, adapting to changing circumstances while maintaining some desired outcome or direction. There are any number of challenges that I could have undertaken to increase my resilience but I decided to use exposure to cold water as the mechanism. It was accessible in a number of forms, I had complete control over it, and choice whether I engaged with it or even continued with it.
I decided to shower with only cold water. The first few were really challenging. I have actively participated in outdoor pursuits and got cold and wet in the process, to extreme at times. But taking away a hot shower, a comfort we come to expect, was different and difficult. The first week was sustained on willpower. There were not really any positive benefits that I could identify. But then there was a change where I became aware of the exhilaration afterward. Done – there was my feedback loop. And that allowed a change in mindset such that I would look forward to my showers. Some 5 months on I haven’t had anything but a cold shower and wouldn’t contemplate anything but.
Enter 2015 and I wanted to shift things up a bit, hence today on the way to work I had my 35th swim of target 40 consecutive days of swimming in the sea (without wetsuit). While the weather has kindly played its hand, some of the early swims involved willpower, but the feedback loop on each swim again supported the process of getting into the sea. These swims have ranged from literally 5 minutes due to cold (seriously the south coast of wellington in a southerly is icy cold) or time constraints through to several hours of swimming, relaxing and playing at the beach.
So the point of that rather lengthy account? To illustrate with a practical example how behaviour change can be put into practice. If I had just started with a goal of being more resilient in 6 months, all other things being equal, I would still have that as a goal. I chunked it down and built a process with daily feedback loops. The mechanism had a low entry barrier and it was solely up to me to participate. It was scalable so that I could increase the challenge. I purposely didn’t define it as ‘shower for 5 months in cold water’, I stayed away from the future, focused on the now, knowing that the process would take me to my goal.
Did it work, absolutely but having regard to the length of this comment I wont expand. Other than to say that in all 3 areas of health, wealth and relationships (reference JOLT) I made advances.
And for anyone wanting to know more about how to cope in an increasingly challenging and urban oriented world, and can get to it, check out http://ancestralhealthnz.org/2015/01/28/ahsnz-wellington-conference-surviving-the-urban-jungle/.
Keep up the good work James.