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Dear Dr. Brady,
School’s almost back in session and between the school supply sales and the almost chilly nights I find myself feeling renewed. I am ready to double down on my diet, start my meditation training I have been putting off, and keep my top desk drawer neat and organized. Trouble is that by September 23 it will all go back to being what it was before. Are there any ways to stick with good intentions so that they last longer than one pencil sharpening?
Dear Motivation Hungry,
As a faculty member at a local college I am lucky to enjoy the “back to school” feeling twice a year, each fall and again each January. New courses, new books, new color-coded file systems to keep all things in order. And while I get to enjoy these things twice a year, I, like you, struggle to maintain all that great intentional life change. Most people do. Which is why I recommend not relying on good intention and instead deploying some stealth behavioral science strategies to gently, but consistently, move you towards your goals.
Are you motivated by the idea of “fresh starts?” Research has found that dates and seasonal cycles are predictive of behavior change efforts. You don’t need to read the research on this to know it’s true; have you ever stepped into a gym on January 3? Looks a lot different than it does on February 17, doesn’t it?
What is it about the first day of school, or of the year, that motivates people? Cues for one thing; lots of sale posters now, lots of weight loss commercials then, prime us to begin thinking about what new starts we want to make. In the classic “stages of change” model this helps move people from not thinking about their goals to actively thinking and planning for their desired goal. So brightly colored posters and crayons on sale for 25 cents a pack remind you of your learning goals, or your desire to take your wellness more seriously.
You can leverage this natural tendency by marking your calendar with artificial start dates. Think of the quarters of the year as starts, or the seasonal shift (Fall equinox) as markers. You can start toward a goal now and when that next “start” date happens you can assess your progress and adjust the goal up in intensity or frequency.
But thinking alone won’t lead to the change you want, since most of us can start toward a goal and then find ourselves drifting from it. Most of the time the reason isn’t because we no longer want what we thought, rather we failed to plan for the normal interruptions that occur. I don’t mind eating salads, but it’s a complete PITA for me to shop, clean, prep, and then pack a salad for myself every day on top of the other tasks associated with running my home and work life.
I am a lot more successful as reaching a goal of “eat more salads” when I think about my week ahead and map out which days I will actually eat a salad, and where said salad will originate from. Maybe consuming more greens isn’t your goal, but all of us have the normal stuff that trips up our efforts. Maybe it’s having socks and sneakers handy for a walk anytime, maybe it’s mailing yourself some reminder emails to check on your savings goals for the quarter. Whatever it is, there is probably a simple action you can take before starting your goal that will make it easier to maintain your goal down the road.
Behavioral economists call these “nudges,” simple steps we can do that make the “better” choice automatic and the “worse” choice harder. Think of the difference between making veggies the default side dish rather than a choice from a list of fried starches. In the end some people will still order the fries, but more people will have the veggies. You can nudge yourself in a number of ways. As you think about your goals think of ways you can make the action you want to take more automatic, and ways of making the action you don’t want to take more work. Most of our bad habits are ones born simply of convenience. Making the best choices more convenient than the worse choices takes planning but can pay off.
You probably already know the value of going public with your goal and enlisting a buddy to share the goal journey with. These strategies are tried and true but work wonders. A friend of mine joined forces with her officemates in a healthy weight loss challenge. Each week they weighed in and the “biggest loser” earned a lottery ticket. And while there was a winner and “loser” each week, they all won because they all lost some weight and increased their chances of hitting their personal goal. This combination of social support (office mates joining forces) and contingency management approach (lottery ticket chance) works really well in a variety of settings.
If you are addicted to your smartphone or smartwatch and someone who enjoys games there are dozens of apps that you let you customize your goals and will remind you when it’s time to do them, and provide awards to you for when you do. Prompts can be a huge help in increasing our engagement with a goal.
I applaud your awareness of the changes you want to make in your life. All of us are works in progress and setting goals, even ones we sometimes miss, is a huge part of living a full life. I hope some of these ideas are new and they help. If they don’t or you find yourself feeling frustrated by relapsing to your old ways, I suggest some self compassion for your imperfections. Evidence is clear that understanding and forgiving one’s flaws and how they came to be is more likely to result in change than negative self talk ever will. Be gentle with your imperfections and never be afraid to try again.
– Dr. Loretta Brady
Alright, it’s your turn. I hope you’ll join me in seeking clarity for the shifts you are navigating.
Readers of Manchester Ink Link seek relevant, local, and pragmatic reporting. Carol Robidoux provides layered reports that allow all of us to feel not only part of the story, but partners in resolution. My hope is that this column will serve as a compass for readers seeking clarity in the chaos of their businesses, personal lives, or relationships. From time to time we will have guest columnists offer their insight on a challenge. This information is simply opinion, but I hope you will share your stories so that others can gain clarity for themselves.
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Loretta L.C. Brady owns BDS Insight a culture, crisis, and conflict management firm in Manchester. She is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Saint Anselm College. She, her husband Brian Brady, and their 5 children live and work in Manchester.
The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. This column, its author, the newspaper and publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. Dr. Loretta L.C. Brady, clinical and organizational psychologist, offers her and guest columnist opinions on a variety of current event and reader submitted subjects. She and they are expressing personal and professional opinions and views. Manchester Ink Link and Dr. Loretta L.C. Brady are not responsible for the outcome or results of following the advice of this column in any given situation.
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