Achieving goals, changing habits, or reaching sales objectives has more to do with memory than will power
"I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my destiny" wrote Henry Ford. You may not hanker after his fame or even his fortune, yet to have made a difference; to have left a trail; a legacy for people to remember us by. Isn't this a worthwhile purpose?
To steer our ship we must have a destination and an idea of how to get there. You will have heard about setting goals and breaking them up into objectives. If the objectives are too big to be overcome by will power, we are to break them up into tasks.
Theory says if you plan every step then take each step, you will eventually reach your goal. You just put one foot in front of the other. The smaller the steps, the less will power needed. No matter how small each step, it takes you closer to accomplishing what you set out to. The difficulties associated with achieving goals lie not in knowing how, nor in obstacles set in our path. Sometimes ones feet become rooted among the obstrutions we set out to cross. "The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken." wrote Samuel Johnson.
We need a greater force than will power to break the chains of habit. Some decades ago I gave up smoking. As stories go it lacks drama but illustrates both the substance and illusionary nature of the obstacles. Like many would be non-smokers I had faced the difficulties of this particular trail many times. Speaking from experience, one of the challenges stemmed from the size of the obstacles. They are so small. They are more like scree on a steep slope than boulders on the path. The likelihood of backsliding makes one loath to announce the effort.
This time it IS different. How many times have you heard that before, or even said it to yourself as you clamber over the first of your most daunting boulders? When I finally gave up in 1998, it really was different. There weren't any boulders or even scree! Looking back, I can see the path clearly. The rocks and boulders were never on the path in the first place.
The obstacles to giving up smoking are roughly similar to changing any habit that we have allowed to become established. None of them have any real substance and anyone who doesn’t share your habit will tell you so. Lets consider some habits that appear less damaging. Many people grapple with eating and drinking sensibly. These days most people in western society eat and drink for pleasure rather than to stay alive. Putting yourself in charge of what goes in, or comes out, of your mouth is more difficult than it sounds. Don’t you always know when you are consuming too much of something? Don’t you almost always know when you are saying the wrong thing?
It's less obvious when the problem is doing too little of something, like sales prospecting. Failure to achieve sales objectives happens early in the effort, when we let ourselves off lightly. Our abdication is much easier to ignore yet it is still within awareness for those who pay attention.
The most common and recognisable habit involves breaking commitments to our self. One sure way of avoiding the associated guilt and stress is to avoid making any commitments at all. I envy people who are satisfied with this. Some people feel no need to put their hand on the tiller and are happy to go were fortune and others take them. Most of the people I know want more life in their lives, in one form or another. Suppose that you could completely eradicate the habit of breaking commitments you make to yourself. What might you accomplish? What would you decide to do? The possibilities would be almost unlimited. Nothing short of death could stop you achieving goals or accomplishing almost anything.
Let’s consider the things that stand in our way. What are the obstacles that cause people to fail themselves by not doing what they decide to do? Imagine that you have decided to exercise three times a week for at least thirty minutes. You kept to your commitment for a couple of weeks but now you have let things slip and you are struggling to exercise once a week. What went wrong? Here are some common responses:
- Thinking about the unpleasant bits
- It became too difficult to find the time
- Other tasks became more urgent
- Other tasks seemed more interesting
- Interruptions and crisis used up the time
- I became afraid of failing on other projects
You can probably find other ways to express the excuses we make for ourselves, but one thing should be clear from thinking about this: None of these reasons have intrinsic substance. The obstacles that keep us from meeting commitments too ourselves are born and powered by ideas in our own minds.
Who is truly master, our intellect or our automatic response system? Much of what we are, say, and do is automatic, based on the emotion attached to our memories. We cannot take full conscious control. If we could, we might forget to breathe. If this is true, how is it possible to choose and behave as one intends? It all depends on how we remember what happens to us. The way we record events is automatic. The memory has to be there before we can think about it. What we think about an event in the past changes the flavour of the memory. We can reinforce the feelings that went with it or begin to change them.
With a little effort we can change how we remember any event. The real value of thought is not as a means of self-control but as a method of adjusting our automatic response to what happens to us. How we experience moments of decision and therefore how we decide, depends on how we remember the consequences of similar decisions. If you are struggling to meet your commitments to yourself, examine those memories that support your resolve and those that resist it. Examine your values, convictions and beliefs to recognise how they support or undermine promises you make to yourself.
Sometimes the choice is between overturning deeply held values or abandoning a commitment. Sometimes it is simply a matter of perceiving the same thing differently. Freedom has always been important to me. It is a deeply held value for many in our society. My addiction to cigarettes had a lot to do with defending my freedom. It took me several months to throw the switch and connect freedom to not smoking. Then will power wasn't necessary. Now I don’t have to furtively hide the habit from my children. Instead of scuttling off to the garden or my study for a smoke, I can relax in any room of my house. I am free to enjoy all the places barred to smokers. I am free from the prison of my addiction.
Once I changed the circuit and connected freedom with abstention, the obstacles disappeared.
Article by Clive Miller
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