I know I’m not the only one out there who does this: I make a plan that I love and I’m feeling fired up about it. And then when it comes time to actually follow through, my brain freaks out. It wants to do anything else except what is on my calendar for that time. It’s highly creative in coming up with other things that seem suddenly more urgent and important.
I know that I’m not alone because I hear this from my clients all the time. A client who wants to write a book commits to spending two hours a day writing. But when she sits down to write, her first thought is “Oh! I got an email about a sale at my favorite store – I should look at that right now before I forget!” And in that instant, it’s as if nothing else matters more than the sale.
We’re all confounded by the conflict created within our own brains. How can we want the results so badly but not be willing to do the work to get them?
What’s Working Against Us
Humans have evolved to be motivated by three things: (1) seeking pleasure, (2) avoiding pain, and (3) reducing effort by doing the thing that is most comfortable or familiar. So, when we’re trying to create new results by taking new, unfamiliar actions, our brains are far from motivated. They are actually highly motivated to do anything but the task we have planned.
For example, say you don’t like your current job and have the goal of finding a new one. As soon as you sit down at your desk, you remember that you have chocolate in the pantry. You think “having some chocolate would help my job search.” (You’re not sure how, but it sounds logical enough at the time.)
You go to the pantry to get some chocolate and then you notice that there is a bag of stale chips there, and suddenly it occurs to you that there might be other stale food in the pantry and the floor needs to be swept.
Before you know it, you’re going through your entire pantry and vacuuming the entire kitchen. It feels so “productive” because you’re telling yourself you needed to do it anyway, but the truth is, you’ve just successfully (1) sought pleasure (chocolate), (2) avoided pain (by not writing), and (3) reduced effort (by doing something that required much less mental effort than writing).
The problem is that you’ve broken your commitment to yourself. You said you were going to do something, you didn’t do it, and so your trust in yourself is lost. You use that failure to follow through as evidence that you’re not a person who follows through or gets things done, so you begin to believe that this is true. As in, you believe it’s just a fact. And that thought keeps you stuck in downward spiral of inaction.
How To Change
Change is not easy. The old, familiar neural pathways in our brains beckon us to do what’s comfortable. But even though it’s not easy, change certainly is possible. I watch my clients do it all the time. I’ve done it myself. It involves reprogramming your brain to help you take action and honor your commitment to yourself. Here’s how:
Look At What You’re Telling Yourself
Look at the thoughts you’re telling yourself about your ability to follow through. If you have thoughts like “I’m just not a person who can follow through,” or “I never finish anything,” you might be believing them as if they were 100% factual and you might have a lot of evidence from your past to support those thoughts. But those are thoughts, not facts. Even if you can come up with evidence to support them, you can also come up with evidence to support the opposite thought: What are the ways in which you are a person who follows through? List 3 things that you have finished. Even if it’s hard to find, allow the space in your mind to consider that the story you’ve been telling yourself is not 100% true. That is the first step to telling a new story.
If you’ve been practicing thoughts like the ones above, you’re not likely to believe that you have the ability to follow through. So start small. Commit to a goal that you know for sure you can achieve. If you ultimately want to exercise 3 times a week, commit to working out for just 5 minutes, once a week. After a few weeks of that, increase to 5 minutes twice a week. You may end up working out more than that once you get started, but by having a small, bite-sized commitment, you allow yourself to create evidence for a new belief: That you are a person who works out and honors your commitment to yourself.
Realize that change is hard. And you can do hard.
We want the good results without the discomfort, but that is just not the way the world works. If you look at anyone who is showing up as the best version of herself, I guarantee she’s felt discomfort on the way there. For some reason, we sometimes expect that the actions we’ve never taken before should be easy. It’s like we show up to a marathon thinking it’s going to be another 5k. That kind of thinking sets us up for failure.
Accepting ahead of time that, frankly, this is going to be incredibly hard, can help you mentally prepare for what you’re up against.
And part of that mental preparation requires thinking the thought “I can do hard things.” Make a list of all the challenges that you’ve overcome in your life. Things like getting your degrees. Giving birth. Getting up every two hours to feed the baby. Breastfeeding! (A great example of something we expect to be super easy and then it’s excruciating!) Practice the thought “I can do hard things” daily. Put it on post-it notes at your computer or reminders on your phone.
As I discussed previously, when we feel negative emotion, such as discomfort, we instinctually want to resist it, react to it, or avoid it. But doing those things does not bring you closer to your goals. What does bring you closer to your goals is allowing and embracing the discomfort that you feel when you try something new.
To allow the emotion, first become aware of it and name it. “Hi, Discomfort. I notice you’re here.” Feel where it shows up in your body and notice what it feels like. Is it a tightness? Or is it an energy that moves or spins? Breathe into the emotion and sit with it for a few minutes. But just a few minutes.
Because then, you’ve got to go to work.
Even if the discomfort remains, you still take the action you said you would take. Discomfort is supposed to be there when you’re doing something new. Keep going anyway and honor your commitment to yourself as if it were an appointment with your greatest hero. If you keep doing that consistently and taking action toward your goals, you’re going to start to trust yourself. And when you trust yourself, you know there is nothing that you truly want that you can’t achieve.
Serious athletes never train for anything without a coach. If you’re serious about going out and getting the results, you shouldn’t either. Find a good cognitive coach with whom you can connect and watch yourself transform before your eyes. Hiring a coach helped me get clarity, get unstuck, take massive action: I got certified as a coach, left my big firm job, moved with my family to Spain, and am launching a business. With my coach’s help, I started honoring my commitments to myself and in doing that, I became a better version of my prior self.
When you commit to honoring your commitments to yourself, you’ll set yourself up for success. It’s a game changer.
Go forth, grow, and bloom.