You may have noticed that I am especially interested in the psychology of behavior change.
Why is it so hard to do, and continue doing, some things- even the things we think, and say we want to do? It turns out there are probably many subtle reasons that conspire against us to prevent behavior change, among them, is our mind.
Bestselling author, speaker, and therapist Marisa Peer has an intriguing TED talk on reaching beyond your limits by training your mind. In it, she describes how to achieve your goals and beyond by collaborating with your mind. She states that our brains will only follow through on the things we genuinely want to do. Our minds are hardwired to go towards pleasure and away from pain, toward the familiar and away from the unfamiliar.
So when we start to dread doing something and say to ourselves, this is going to be hard or unpleasant our mind does whatever it can to stop us, like procrastinating. To do those things you want to do but are currently not doing, you need to convince your brain you want to do them.
To do that, because your brain is smart and just telling it you want to do something may not be enough, you should focus on something pleasurable about it and try to make it familiar.
When you tell yourself this is going to be hard or painful your brain thinks you don’t want to do it and will find a way to protect you by stopping you. Instead, when you concentrate on the pleasure or familiar aspects of behavior your brain will work with you to get it done.
I’m trying to do more stuff. Action. Follow through. Nike it. Just do it. Not spend as much time thinking and preparing, just get out there and do.
For some time, I have thought about doing more public speaking. I am a talker, outside of the public speaking space that is, so why is it so hard for me to speak in front of a group? I probably had some traumatic experience as a kid or at least an experience where I was made fun of which equals traumatic as a child.
Thinking back, I have always had a hard time being put on the spot. I never come up with the perfect response to an argument or discussion. Often I can think of one later, but in the moment, forget about it. I struggled with oral exams. I am still surprised and relieved that I was able to pass my oral board exam.
I used to think that public speaking was just not for me. It was one of those things that some people are naturally good at, and I am not, so I will never do it. Cross it off the list. I thought I’m not going to do that because I am not good at it and it terrifies me. I never thought I would willingly agree to do it. Now I know that learning to do those scary things that you are not naturally good at is called personal growth.
You can learn to do things you never thought you would be able to do. So over the last few years, I have willingly taken on a few speaking gigs. I think to myself yes I want to do this, at least I do at first when it is far away. But as the date gets closer, of course, I get more and more anxious about it. So until recently, I wouldn’t tell anyone it was happening.
It turns out you have to tell people that you are doing something if you want anyone to come. The problem for me was that I didn’t want anyone to come. Or at least my brain was telling me I didn’t want anyone to come. Public speaking is scary, and I’m still uncomfortable doing it. My mind is performing its evolutionary function, just like Dr. Peer described, and protecting me. A necessary role when that scary thing is life-threatening but not so crucial when it’s just getting up in front of people to talk.
This past winter, I planned to give a talk, a small presentation in my office. Since it was my event, it was on me to promote it.
As usual, as the event got closer, I started hoping no one would come. So I didn’t tell anyone about it. And, guess what?
No one came.
At first, I was relieved, but then I was disappointed because it is a subject I am fascinated with, and I think others are too. It was also embarrassing to host a party and have no one come. I took a deep breath and decided to try again. This time I told people about it, and just like I thought, people were interested. 20 people came. I then had to do the talk in front of those 20 people which was still intimidating but also exhilarating.
As the talk was approaching, I consciously reminded myself that I wanted to do it. I told myself that the nervous feeling I had was excitement instead of anxiety. I said to myself it would be fun and deeply satisfying to share my knowledge with others. I focused on the pleasure and familiar instead of the pain and anxiety.
So if there are things you want to be doing but have not been able to do. Or you find yourself procrastinating or avoiding something, have a conversation with your brain. Tell it you are excited, instead of nervous.
Tell it you want to do this thing whether it is getting up in front of people to do a talk, getting up out of bed to go exercise, or eating a big bowl of greens instead of a burger and fries. Think about something pleasurable or familiar that you will get out of the experience.
When I start to get nervous about an upcoming event and sense that vaguely nauseous oh-my-god-I-don’t-want-to-do-this feeling coming on, I tell myself that I’m excited, not anxious. Excitement and anxiety cause a similar physiologic response, so as I feel my heart rate rising I and my palms becoming sweaty I say to myself, you’re excited.
Excitement is pleasure; anxiety is pain. When I focus on the pleasure, it helps me to stop those feeling from ramping up and ruining my day.
Let me know how it goes.