Making changes stick by starting with emotion, then everything else

December 11, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Tips

If you like my blog, check out Josh Thompson’s blog, “The implementation of change.” His comment on my blog led me to read his and I found a lot of similar topics but from a different perspective. I couldn’t help commenting on some of his posts. Then I found some things I wrote there relevant here, so I’m copying what I wrote there here.

To his post, “Preparing to adopt a habit“, I responded

I find the key to making any behavioral change stick is the emotion you expect to bring from it. If you only change your environment, like changing jobs or buying a new car or house; or change your behavior with willpower, like creating a New Year’s resolution; or change your thoughts, like the Secret, you might get lucky and find something you like, but in the general case you don’t know if the new thing will make you happy. If it doesn’t make you happy you’ll eventually stop doing it in favor of something else.

But if you identify what emotional reward it will bring and figure out how to create it, when you get it, you’ll keep at it. Your emotional system will motivate you to keep getting that reward, no pushing required. You might need physical pushing, but not emotional.

I wrote this up on my post about starting daily burpees with joy, or at least an example of it.

I forgot to mention there but will add here that forcing yourself to start with emotions forces you to think about and understand the meaning and value of the activity for you. Saying you will go to the gym twice a week for the next year doesn’t give meaning or value to anything, it just imposes on your willpower. Different people get different meaning and value from similar activities. Do you want to go to the gym to lose fat, gain muscle, impose discipline on yourself, join a team, impress the opposite sex, regain your lost youth, or what? Each of these reasons means different things. If you take advice for someone who went for one reason and you go for another, you can expect a disconnect.

Understanding your motivation still doesn’t get you all the way to a behavior that will stick. Say you want to put on muscle. That’s not an end in itself. You reach the end and understand your motivation when you hit an emotion everyone understands. We all have the same emotional systems, so our interactions with the outside world, however different our environments, lead to the same emotions.

Ultimately you end with joy, satisfaction, excitement, calm, or something like that. If you have friends who go to the gym to play some team sport their and you want to experience the excitement that they do, know that before you start. Then you can create that excitement for yourself by choosing appropriate environments, beliefs, and behaviors. Just forcing yourself to go to the gym won’t guarantee you that excitement.

If you want satisfaction, you’ll create a different plan. And so on.

The more accurately you know your goal, the more likely you’ll reach it. When you reach a goal you like and gives you emotional reward, your emotional system will motivate you to continue. If your goal doesn’t include emotions you enjoy and emotional reward, you can only hope to get lucky and fall into something you didn’t plan or you’ll forever have to push against your emotional system. When you give up, as you inevitably will because your emotions never stop motivating you while whatever alternative you’re using like willpower or forcing beliefs, you’ll conclude you just can’t do it, undermining your original goal.

So start with emotion.

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