In last week’s blog, I talked about how the Three P’s of Failure can lead to “learned pessimism” and cause all kinds of motivational problems–not to mention how they can make your emotional life pretty miserable. Now let’s talk about how to transform that pessimism into an effective “can do” attitude, and a more enjoyable state of mind.
The first step, I think, is to admit that the three assumptions behind “learned pessimism” are just plain wrong. There really isn’t any such thing as a behavior problem that is completely caused by some personal, permanent, and pervasive flaw in you. If that were true, you could never do anything “right.” Even though I used to do this myself, it never ceases to amaze me how people who work hard for hours and hours every day, holding down a job, going to school, taking care of families, and doing who knows what else, can still believe they don’t exercise because they’re “too lazy.” Or overeat because they’re “self-indulgent” or have no will power.
Who do you think makes all those other things you do happen? The Tooth Fairy? Could a lazy, self-indulgent, hopelessly defective person do all the things you do every day?
When it comes to behavior, it always takes two to tango, so to speak. Something “in you” has to react with something or someone “out there” to produce a particular action. You couldn’t give in to (or even have) a craving for ice cream if ice cream didn’t exist, and you wouldn’t be an “emotional eater” if you had been taught other ways of handling your feelings. Those are learned behaviors, not character flaws. And if they don't work for you now, you can change them by learning to do something else that gives you a similar payoff without as many negative consequences. Even when you can’t do much about what’s “in you” (a powerful sweet tooth, for example, or a strong need to comfort or distract yourself in an emotional situation), there will almost always be something you can do about your environment so that it’s less likely to trigger a behavior you’ll regret later.
You just need to give yourself a chance to think about it before it's too late.
The bottom line here is that there is always something that comes between the stimulus and the response. That something is YOU and your ability to direct your attention and thoughts where you want them to go and organize your immediate environment so that it supports your goals. That’s what human consciousness is all about.
You can't make it so that things "out there" never stimulate your natural, biological instincts and desires, and you can't turn yourself into an automaton who can always rationally control your urges and impulses. But you can decide how you will relate to these things--as a proactive manager, or a helpless victim. You’ll never get anywhere you want to go until you take responsibility for what goes on in your own mind. And that starts with saying “No” to learned pessimism.
The Three P’s of Success: Planning, Prediction, and Performance
Like anything else, learning how to stay in that mindful space between the stimulus and the response long enough to really make your own choices takes experience and practice. You have to learn how to consciously use your own experience to guide your way.
That's really the problem with learned pessimism--it makes it impossible for you to learn from your own experience because it forces you to come to a conclusion based on false assumptions. That’s where the Three P’s of Success come into the picture.
Step One. Plan for Success
Obviously, success at changing both thought patterns and behaviors takes more than just believing you can do it. You’re not going to take such beliefs seriously until you see some concrete, positive results. To produce those results, you’ll need to do everything you can in advance to make it easy on yourself when the time comes to actually perform.
One very good way to do this is to stop trying to figure out why you went off track when you slip up, and start trying to figure out what’s going on when things go right. What did you do (or think or feel) differently then, or what was it about that successful situation that made it possible for you to stick to your goals then? How can you make that happen again next time?
So, the next time you slip up and feel your mind drifting towards those Three P’s of Failure, just take a deep breath, remember a recent time or two when things went well, ask yourself why that happened, and figure out how you can make that happen again. If you’re new at this, try writing down the ideas you come up with so you can look at them again later when you need them.
Step Two. Predict Your Way to Success
Once you have a pretty good idea of what helps you be successful, the next step is to train yourself to be very “proactive” about organizing your life so you have what you need when you need it. If you’re like me, and have spent many years being passive or “reactive” instead of proactive, this will be a real challenge—you may feel like an alien in a strange land for a little while.
The best way to work on this that I’ve found is the idea of ending every day by trying to “predict” how your next day is going to go. Start with what you want to do, in terms of your eating and exercise. Then think about all the various obstacles, challenges, temptations, rationalizations, and other things that have frequently knocked you off course in the past, and are likely to come up again tomorrow. Actually assign a number value to each of these things, in terms of the odds that it will knock you off course tomorrow, based on your past performance. For example: there’s a 95% chance that someone will bring donuts to the office tomorrow, and a 50-50 chance I’ll have one.
Next, go through Step One again focusing on this particular problem, pick something you could do to improve your odds of not having that donut, and figure out how to make that happen tomorrow.
Then “recalculate” your odds of not having that donut tomorrow. Come up with a new number that feels right to you. Again, while you’re new to doing this kind of thing, it’s a good idea to write all this stuff down so you can look at it again later on. Be sure to include your actual prediction numbers—they will be how you measure your progress over time. At the end of the day, compare what you actually did to your predictions, and see how accurate they were.
Step Three. Perform Your Way to High Motivation.
Obviously, plans and predictions aren’t worth much if they don’t help you improve your actual performance and get the results you want. But people often make a very basic mistake at this point. They define performance only in terms of the final result—not eating the donut, losing weight, or whatever the goal is.
That’s not what performance is about. That’s merely a side effect of your performance. When it comes to staying motivated, what really counts as performance is what you actually do each time you have an opportunity to make a decision.
Did you give yourself a chance to succeed by saying “no” to the Three P’s of Failure? Did you use Step One and Step Two above (or your own versions of them if you find something that works better for you) to give yourself the best chance for success? Did you check in with yourself in the moment of decision to make sure you weren’t in autopilot mode, and were making a conscious decision? Are you ready and willing to use you own experience, whatever happens, to help yourself do well in the future?
When it comes to maintaining your motivation, these are the things that matter, far more than whether you eat one particular donut or skip one exercise session. It’s perfectly fine to decide that you want to eat that donut today, or skip your exercise session—as long as you actually make that decision. The real motivation killer is convincing yourself you didn’t have any choice—and you never have to do that, because it’s never true.
Are you ready to start taking control of your own motivation, one day at a time? What other ideas/approaches do you think might help you do this?
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