Boring! That's how most of us would describe the unglamorous work of building a single new behavior. We find it exciting to pledge ourselves ambitious goals but boring to practice the everyday behaviors required to attain them. Now new research is demonstrating that our ability to succeed at a task may well depend on how exciting and valuable we expect that task to be.
In a recent study just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers gave students a word puzzle to solve. Prior to beginning the puzzle, students were asked to say whether or not they believed their task would be exciting or enjoyable. The students were then given a document containing a statement about the puzzles. Half the students read a statement that framed the word puzzle work as personally beneficial while the rest of the students read a statement that described the puzzle task in neutral terms.
The students who read the "positive" statement and who had predicted that the puzzles would be exciting and enjoyable solved more puzzles and exhibited better concentration than the students who read the "neutral" statement and who had shown less interest in their task. Moreover, the "interested" students were significantly less fatigued at the conclusion of their work, despite the fact that they had completed more puzzles.
In a similar study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, half the students in a science class were asked over the course of a semester to write reflections on the value of science to their lives, while the other students wrote papers summarizing what they had learned. The students who reflected on the personal benefits of science achieved significantly better grades than the students who merely recapped what they had studied in class.
What can we learn about self-improvement from research findings that demonstrate that interest boosts performance and stamina? Plenty.
When we resolve to improve ourselves, we pledge "to be thin," "to be organized," "to be neat" -- results that we judge to be personally valuable. But our motivation wanes when we find that to reach our goal we must practice behaviors that we find uninteresting, even boring. Being "organized" is interesting, but filing is boring; a buff bod is exciting, but push ups are boring; arriving on time for work is critical, but preparing the night before is boring. Thus do we devalue the very actions that would help us reach our goals, viewing them as elements in a tiresome regime we're forced to follow in order to achieve our broader aims. And as the studies cited here demonstrate, what we expect to be boring we can also expect to be difficult and fatiguing.
The very language that we use to frame our personal goals can contribute to an "interest deficit" that ultimately dooms our efforts. We frame our commitments in terms of ambitious results, not specific behavioral changes. We resolve "to get promoted" not to "seek out feedback." We vow "to be svelte by summer," not "to stand on the morning commute." We resolve "to save more money," not "to walk the extra five blocks to the inexpensive supermarket." But what would happen if we focused our excitement on practicing a positive behavior rather than on the ultimate state we dream of achieving? What would the results be if we thought about each new activity as exciting and enjoyable on its own terms?
It's All Good
Instead of telling yourself that riding your bike for 15 minutes every Saturday morning is too modest an activity to get you ripped by summer (and you'd rather read the paper anyway), why not flip that attitude by whispering to yourself about the joys of whizzing around in the fresh morning air and taking in the glories of the season? Spark your interest by talking to yourself about the metabolic boost, elevated mood, increased strength, improved muscle tone, and good night's sleep that just 15 minutes of spinning can provide.
Want to improve your on-time record but find the prospect of laying out your clothes the night before tiresome? Talk to yourself about how relaxing and speedy it will be to step out of the shower and into clothes that you know will be issue free because you prepared them the night before. You might actually sleep better just knowing that you won't have to crawl under the bed tomorrow morning looking for a wayward shoe. Such positive framing puts the focus on the intrinsic value of the activities themselves, rather than thinking of them as mundane, irksome requirements you have to suck up in order to meet a loftier goal. In other words, if you learn to see your new behavior as exciting and valuable on its own terms, you have a much better chance of following through and achieving real progress.
Reaching personal improvement goals requires building and sustaining new behaviors and attitudes. Framing a new habit as exciting and valuable boosts your chances of success and shifts your focus from gratification "someday" to gratification right now. The extra excitement and enjoyment you create for yourself may prove to be the difference between real personal progress and wishful thinking.
Talk yourself into it!
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