How We Change: Driving You Crazy Or Driving You Well

The easiest way to drive yourself well is to find activities that you love to do, which use your strengths, and deliver quick benefits or reinforce rewards by allowing you to feel better immediately.
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To be human is to be ambivalent about changing something that you have struggled with for years or even decades, whether it's learning how to fully relax, loving to exercise regularly, enjoying veggies as much as ice cream, or listening to someone you care about with undistracted, mindful presence. The amount of energy consumed by this state of chronic contemplative struggle would fuel a small car.

Do I or don't I? Why can't I just get it done? How come it's so easy for some people? Surely someone will invent THE quick fix if I wait long enough. What a loser I am for being unable to overcome this challenge!

You might say that sitting on a fencepost, punctuated by earnest, yet short-lived attempts to change, is driving you crazy. But what if you could find a way to change for good that results in driving you well? Now that sounds appealing. In Dan Pink's new book Drive he talks about the importance of internal or intrinsic motivation as what truly drives or motivates us to choose to change and act on it. When the motivation to change comes from within, based on heartfelt desires, rather than via external sources, like a financial incentive or urging by one's spouse or parent, the likelihood of sustained success is dramatically improved.

"Some doors open only from the inside." -- An ancient Sufi saying

There is a wonderful story in the bestselling book on flow titled The Psychology of Optimal Experience written by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (say Cheek-sent-me-hi a few times to get it down) about a woman with severe schizophrenia in a mental hospital. Her medical team had failed to help her improve. The team decided to follow Czikszentmihalyi's protocol to identify activities where she was motivated, engaged, and felt better. A timer went off throughout her day signaling her to complete a mini-survey on her mood, energy, engagement, etc. Her report showed that her best experience was manicuring her fingernails. So the medical team arranged for her to be trained as a manicurist. She began to offer manicures at the hospital and eventually became well enough to be discharged. She went on to live an independent life as a manicurist.

For this woman, tending to fingernails and toenails drove her well. This is an amazing story of the power of motivation when it is intrinsic: The schizophrenic woman found the task of doing manicures to be enjoyable for its own sake with the immediate reward of a pretty result and a happy customer. It is also likely the task was something she was naturally good at, tending with care to the myriad details of shaping, polishing, and painting nails. By repeating this engaging and enjoyable task over and over, her motivation and confidence grew by leaps and bounds, allowing her to leave the protective cage of the hospital and live a productive and satisfying life on her own.

The easiest way to drive yourself well is to find activities that you love to do, which use your strengths, and deliver quick benefits or reinforce rewards by allowing you to feel better immediately or at least soon afterward. Find the form of moving your body vigorously that you don't want to miss, healthy recipes that you have fun cooking, mindfulness practices that you find engaging, or before-bed relaxation techniques that you're good at and quickly lift the weight of the day. Unfortunately for most of us, the activities that drive us to wellness are not intrinsically rewarding. We may never learn to love to cook healthful dinners or work out in a gym or stick to sparkling water and crudites without dip at a party.

The second most powerful source of motivation that drives human behavior is what the scientific experts, Deci and Ryan, who developed self-determination theory, call "integrated regulation." This type of motivation also comes from within, but relates to doing something because you desire its longer-term outcome, not immediate enjoyment and gratification. You get your workouts done because they help you avoid gaining more weight. You go to the extra effort to cook a healthful dinner to be a role model for your kids. You drink less wine so that you feel more energetic in the morning. You lift weights in order to build stronger bones to avoid the osteoporosis that led your grandmother to stoop.

This second-best form of motivation requires more diligent attention. You have to make a mindful, conscious choice to take the more difficult path at a given moment for a payoff that isn't immediate. The easy choice is beyond tempting. Warming up a pizza rather than cooking a stir-fry from scratch. Skipping the trip to the gym, even if it's in your basement, in favor of sleeping longer. Answering a few more emails even though they aren't life threatening and ignoring the dumbbells next to your desk ready for a set of bicep curls or dead-lifts. You have to shake your brain out of automatic pilot, summon and appreciate a picture of the desired longer-term gain, and consciously choose the healthier path over the immediate craving.

So there's not much point in getting off the fence and making another earnest attempt unless you've packed your motivational bag with activities that you love to do for their own sake, or those you believe are can't-miss investments - leading to positive returns for your health and well-being, and your performance at home and at work.

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