A few months back, at my weight loss group, I could hear that old song by Desmond Dekker playing..
You can get if you really want, but you must try, try and try, you’ll succeed at last
There’s something about this advice that really irritates me. It goes along with ‘You can be anything you want to be’. So I can be a world class athlete? I think that ship sailed many years ago. Ok, technically I could lose weight, get fit, train to run a marathon, but I’m never going to beat Paula Radcliffe (or whoever the current female world class is now). And to even do that would require lots of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. And yes, if that’s what I really wanted, more than anything in the world, I’d probably try.
What the try, try and try thing doesn’t recognise, is that motivation isn’t as simple as just wanting something and so working towards it will get us there. It doesn’t recognise that our brains are wired to thwart us. It doesn’t recognise that change is difficult to sustain.
But I want three things. I really, really want all three. I want to lose weight so that I’m slim, physically fit and healthy. I want to have a neat, tidy, organised home. And I want to succeed in business. So can I have all three? If I really want?
Well, not easily. It’s a question of focus. All three take a great deal of time and hard work. To lose weight requires me to lead an active life, getting enough exercise, and to plan and cook healthy meals. Also, it takes longer to eat a nice salad than it takes to eat a toasted cheese sandwich. To have a neat, tidy, organised home will take time. (If you know where I’m starting from, you’ll understand. I have a lot of stuff.) To succeed in business requires commitment and hard work. As a sole trader, it also means you have to get to grips with stuff you don’t necessarily understand, like how to create a website, how to keep accounts, or how to raise finance. If you’re a bit further ahead than that, it means you have to know how to recruit awesome staff, and how to be an awesome leader. And again, pulling all that off, takes a great deal of time.
So, that brings us to focus. Should I continue to work on all three at once, or focus on one? Well, before we look at some things that help us to focus, let’s take a look at some of the ways our brains get in our way.
Firstly, according to Daniel Kahneman, we have two thinking systems, fast and slow. The fast thinking is the stuff we do on auto pilot, that we know how to do without consciously thinking about it. Your morning routine, is it the same every day? When you get in the shower, do you always wash in the same order? Do you brush your teeth at the same point in the routine? Do you put your clothes on in the same order every day? Pretty much yes, I’d guess. The slow thinking is the things we need to apply some effort towards. We can drive to our usual place of work without working out the route. But if you have to drive somewhere you’ve never been before, you need to work out how to get there, look on a map, decide which of some alternative routes is the most suitable, how long should you allow for unexpected traffic, how long should you allow to find somewhere to park? (Oh alright, you might have given this sort of thinking up to your satnav. But you get the idea.)
Daniel Goleman calls these top down and bottom up thinking. In fact, lots of scientists, psychologists, writers, all sorts of people, have different names, but share the concept of two types of thinking. I’m going to go with autopilot for the fast thinking, and conscious thinking for the stuff that requires effort. But let’s stick with Goleman for a little. He describes bottom up as faster, involuntary, automatic, intuitive, impulsive and driven by emotions. Top down is slower, voluntary, effortful, able to learn new models, make new plans, and the seat of self control.
Some key clues there. If you’re the kind of person who has bad habits in a specific area – let’s say, eating biscuits when you’re stressed – then the habit, by definition, is an autopilot. You’re tired and stressed, so your impulsive, involuntary, emotional response is to get a cup of coffee and some biscuits, sit and eat them without thinking, that’s your autopilot reaction. If you’re trying to break that habit, it requires you to use top down, or conscious effort, to exercise self control, or replace the bad habit with a different one.
But another problem with the way our brains work, is that the conscious, effortful thinking requires, well… effort. It’s hard work. We can only do so much hard work in a day. Our brains get tired of hard work in the same way our bodies do, and they need rest. One reason so much of what we do is on autopilot – we’d never get through the day if we had to consciously think about everything we do. Another thing this reveals though, is that self control requires that effort. And other research has found that self control (otherwise known as willpower) is a finite resource. If we’ve spent all day at work exercising self control not to lose our tempers with awkward customers or demanding bosses, or we’ve been concentrating on solving a tricky problem, we may have used up our quota of self control for the day. Cue a take away for dinner – we haven’t got the energy or the willpower left to cook that healthy meal we had planned.
Another way our brains can trick us is through something called present bias. David McRaney picked this one up in his book ‘You are not so smart’. There’s now me, and future me. Future me is the one who is going to eat healthy, start exercising and be more organised. Now me is the one ordering take away for dinner. The problem with future me though, is she’s always in the future. Those of us who suffer from this delude ourselves about how good we’re going to be in the future. As McRaney says, present bias explains why we buy lettuce and bananas, only to throw them away later when we forget to eat them.
What we need are good strategies for tricking our brain. We’ll take a look at some of these in the next blog. In the meantime, what bad habits have you got into that you’d like to change?
By the way, I gave up the weight loss group. It wasn’t motivating me to succeed, and was just taking up precious time and money. I’m still working on the good habits.
Daniel Goleman. Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Bloomsbury
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin Book
David McRaney. You are not so smart, Oneworld Publications