It all started with a journal. All crisp, fresh pages, soft supple leather cover, ribbon bookmarks, encouraging inscription from a friend. The works. I’ve been an avid collector of beautiful journals for a very long time. I think I may have even written an entry or two in the last ten years. But somehow it never stuck. And now I know why.
Even as I type these words my mind is elsewhere. On the incomplete sentences above. And this incomplete sentence. My desire to make my writing, and many other aspects of my life, perfect even when it is not shared publicly has kept me from completing, persisting at, and often even trying things that could have added to my life.
Newly unemployed for the first time since my fourteenth birthday and home alone in a foreign country raising a 6-month old charmer, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. Time to think and time to really face myself. It turns out my notoriously poor memory, tendency toward anxiety, indecisiveness and rampant procrastination have a lot to do with avoiding this stand off. So I need to be better – authentic. For myself and for my daughter.
I finally sat down with a pen and, without my usual deliberation and ceremony, just started writing. It didn’t take long before I decided I needed to be more like a Stephen King novel. Awesome, yes. But also more about indulging in the journey and not so focused on the ending. Many of the goals I wrote down involved changes in my life that will never truly be accomplished. These goals were about persistence, self-control, mindfulness, patience, and cultivating good habits. No quick payoff here.
In order to make progress toward this authentic, rather than idealized and unobtainable, self, I needed a plan. In the past I’ve made many plans for progress. Nap schedules, health and exercise plans, to do lists, etc. Anything involving research, planning and, bonus, charts and/or colour coding, was fine by me. But dwelling in the planning stage until everything was just perfect and failure seemed impossible (my specialty) was no longer an option. I needed a plan, yes, but I really needed action.
So I did some research. I always love this part. Actually changing can happen later. Let’s do research! I did my best to be quick and focus only on what would be truly useful and practical to take small, manageable steps to make progress toward my goals.
I came across a list of common excuses debunked and prepared rebuttals for myself in advance. Some of my old standbys: #4 Life is meant to be enjoyed, #7 I can do it later, #8 One time won’t hurt, #11 I deserve a reward/break, and maybe the most insidious, #13 The result I’m going for isn’t important.
I told my close friends what I was up to so I would feel more accountable to make changes. I felt a bit stupid doing this as it seemed pretty self-centered to make grandiose announcements about my plans to change myself, but I was pleasantly surprised. Everyone was really encouraging and some even joined me in some of my practical steps.
I found some support in the form of a podcast to learn more about effecting change and to provide a continual reminder of my goals. Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl, associate professor of psychology and director of the Procrastination Research Group (Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada) keeps me motivated and fulfills my need to learn why I am the way I am while still encouraging action and self-forgiveness in a lighthearted way.
The podcast isn’t just about procrastination, but explores the root, or sprawling system of roots, that are the cause of this behaviour. Dr. Pychyl also discusses “1) irrational delay that sabotages personal productivity, 2) personality attributes that contribute to self-defeating behaviours, and 3) situational factors that undermine our ability to take or sustain action. Drawing on the research literature, topics include: self-handicapping, anxiety, self-regulation, perfectionism, will power, coping styles, effects on health and well-being, impulsivity, temporal discounting, motivation and even purpose in life.”* He also writes on this topic at Psychology Today if you prefer the blog format.
I wrote down my implementation intentions. This is the biggie. Everything above is a useful foundation, but implementation intentions have been the most practical tool for progress. An implementation intention sets out in advance when, where and how I will achieve a specific goal in the form of “When…I will…” statements. For example, one of the steps I decided to take toward practicing self-regulation and persistence is to do pushups every day. I’ve actually done this before and it worked well for a time. Eventually though I sometimes forgot or just got lazy and the practice fell by the wayside. This time around, I wrote down an implementation intention: Before I go into the bathroom each day, I will do one more pushup than I did the day before. Now this morning as I approached the bathroom door I remembered my goal, and dropped and gave myself 17. Each week I will be adding another implementation intention to my roster and checking it off in the aforementioned pink owl journal.
For the first time in a long history of goal-setting, I feel relaxed about achieving my goals. It doesn’t feel like some kind of rabid marathon but a calm, consistent practice that can be incorporated into my life rather than overtaking it. I know to some this seems overcomplicated, and to you, I am envious of your self-discipline. For the rest of us, I hope this helps.