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One heartbreaking thing about addiction is that people can – for example – do the work to decide not to do drugs anymore, actually stop using, detox, stay clean for awhile –
And then an old friend calls unexpectedly, and they relapse back into using.
Someone in recovery doesn’t typically just wake up and decide “okay, I’m going to go do drugs now.”
Usually, there was a set of people, things, or circumstances that went along with the habit – and these become triggers for relapse.
Maybe you have a group of friends, and someone always brought drugs when you got together, and one thing would lead to another.
Or maybe every time you smoked, you’d sit on a certain green couch by the back window in your house. So every time you see that couch, you have the urge to sit down and smoke.
Or perhaps you had a stressful job with a terrible boss. So every time your boss yelled at you, you’d get through it by going home to drink and unwind, which turned into a binge.
A funny thing about behavior: We don’t make a conscious choice every time we do something.
We unwittingly build – or at least allow – a whole external structure of support around each behavior we engage in. We actually make relatively few deliberate decisions every day about how we behave. To a surprising degree, we simply respond to things around us.
So if you stop drinking, and you go to work and your boss yells at you again, you can go home and grit your teeth and say “I will not drink, I will not drink, I will not drink…”
But chances are, there could be a day when you’re tired, you’re hungry, your car broke down, and you just plain run out of grit and willpower. So you say “Well, just one isn’t so bad.”
Permanent change IS NOT accomplished only by altering the behavior you want to stop or start.
You need to dismantle all the things that support that behavior and made it comfortable.
You need to address the group of friends, the emotions, the green couch, and perhaps even the terrible boss. Consider and plan for the things that actively supported and created the conditions for that behavior.
So: A less successful goal typically focuses on the behavior:
“I want to stop smoking.”
A more successful goal acknowledges the behavior and everything that supported it.
“My major goal: Stop smoking. Along with that goal, here are some smaller goals to achieve: Get rid of my green couch, rearrange the furniture, find a new route home from work so I don’t pass that convenience store anymore, and ask Nancy if she will eat lunch with me away from the back break room.”
I’m not intending to sit and pick on smoking, drinking, or drugs here.
In fact, society tends to look down its nose at substance use even as it engages in pretty similar patterns in other areas:
Let’s say you take upon yourself the ever-present goal to “eat healthier.”
But maybe every time you drive past McDonalds on your way home, you get a craving for french fries. And so every day becomes this torture of “do I stop or not…don’t stop, don’t stop, awwww heck….I’ll just get some today.”
The McDonalds is your green couch in this case, and you need to get rid of it. You’d have a lot more success if you actually just found a new route home. Once the cue and convenience is gone, the craving lessens too.
(We’re not comparing addiction to french fries to make light of addiction here – rather, to point out that this pattern is simply a human one, and it’s found everywhere.)
I’ve been using lifestyle examples because most of us intuitively understand them.
But the same idea applies to your business and creative work.
Current habits always have an external structure of triggers and support. In pretty much all areas, successful goals take this into account.
We just have to fill in three blanks:
- Here is what I am trying to change (or: Here is what I keep doing instead of the thing I want to do):
- What supports what’s currently happening?
- Here’s how I can expand the description of my goal to address these things:
Original goal: Watch all the CreativeLIVE educational videos I paid for and haven’t watched.
1. Here is what I am trying to change (or: Here is what I’m doing instead of what I want to do):
I spend my evenings wasting time on Facebook/Netflix instead of learning.
2. What supports what’s currently happening?
Well, for one thing, I am tired and feel like I need and deserve a break at the end of the day. Watching Netflix lets me zone out and I don’t have to think anymore. Facebook is the same, it’s just sort of mindless and it doesn’t demand anything from me.
Keep going: What supports the tiredness?
Well, I get going on Netflix, and I stay up late. Then I have to get up early, and by the time I finish dinner, I’m too tired to learn. It’s sort of a cycle.
3. Here’s how I can expand the description of my goal to address these things:
My goal is to finish watching two CreativeLIVE courses. To do that, I’m going to set a firm bedtime of 10pm every night, and I’ll set an alarm for 9:40 to remind me that it’s time to get ready for bed. I’m roping off Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights for watching CreativeLive. Wednesdays, Fridays, and weekends are totally up to me.
Before dinner on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, I’m also going to set my laundry basket on the couch in front of the TV so I can’t plop down. I’ll open my office door, turn on my computer, log into CreativeLIVE – so that all I have to do is sit in my chair and hit play.
So, instead of trying to force yourself to rely on willpower to sit and learn at night –
– which let’s be honest, might last about two or three nights – you recognize what prevents you from doing it, and build in rest and downtime to look forward to.
You’re also giving yourself a seemingly-silly but important reminder by setting a laundry basket on the couch.
Go ahead and roll your eyes, but if you’re used to just flopping down on the couch, you might be tired the first few nights and say “I’ll just sit down for a minute.” Then, on comes Netflix. Finding a way to actually block yourself from doing that, and easing the path to your office until you get into this new habit can make a big difference.
As you set your goals, business or personal, be sure the goal itself includes a structure to support your new behavior.
A couple other quick examples, just so you get the hang of this way of thinking:
Want to spend more time doing personal creative work? Well, what’s supporting your current pattern of pushing it off?
Are you scared to reach out to people because you hate talking to strangers? Make that an explicit part of your goal: “My goal is to get started on doing personal work by asking my best friend to pretend to be a stranger so I can practice talking with her, and then have her sit with me while I make three phone calls.”
Want to change your eating habits so you don’t feel so sluggish while you work? That’s hard to do with a pantry full of the same old stuff. A change in eating is a change in shopping. A successful goal isn’t “I’m going to eat less sugar.” That sets you up to stare longingly into your pantry.
A successful goal is “I’m going to find five vegetable-based recipes that sound delicious, put all the ingredients on my shopping list, and not allow myself to buy anything that’s not on the list.”
This takes the triggers out of your pantry and creates structure to support the new habit.
Whatever your goal: Make it more comfortable to achieve it – and less comfortable to keep doing what you’re doing.
Does reading this twist your stomach with anxiety? Or are you frustrated figuring out how to apply it?
I’ll be replying to every comment that comes in between now and Friday. If you have a hard time seeing how you can apply this to a goal, or just need someone to cheer you on – leave me a note.
I’ll be waiting to hear from you.
Last time we uncovered the crucial thing most people forget to do before they set goals.
Next time? We’re covering what to do when you set a goal – then realize you’re terrified you’ll actually achieve it.
Yep. We’re going there.
Need a reminder to come back? Hop on my email list. I’ll send you a note when it’s ready. Plus, I’ll shoot over a free copy of How Clients Make Decisions About Money to enjoy in the meantime.