Looking for an alternative to those lofty New Year’s resolutions you always abandon long before Valentine’s Day rolls around?
Try self-trickery. It often works for me.
Here’s the dilemma: I know I need to change (something). I’m also aware I don’t want to do the work that seems to be required, or I would have changed already. Escaping an established habit or routine feels uncomfortable, and I’m likely to slip back into the comfortable, well-worn grooves of habit.
The kind of trickery I’m suggesting is entirely intentional and stays intentional throughout the change process--the opposite of magical thinking, self-deception, self-sabotage, delusion, and denial (though self-trickery can easily slip into one of those pits and derail an intention).
Everyone, no matter how smart, rich, beautiful, or well educated, struggles with making and sustaining changes that protect their own or others’ health and well-being. The tricks are equally available to all and don’t cost anything but a moment of two of mindful attention.
For me, self-trickery has three essential requirements:
- The initial insight l that I need to change something. Lacking the insight, there’s no motivation to change.
- The acknowledgment that my mind has a powerful propensity to forget or ignore almost immediately any decision to change.
- A concrete, intentional act in the direction of the desired change.
I find change especially difficult when it looms as a big change. I’m most likely to move meaningfully in the direction of change when the act is small and immediate. Big changes feel abstract, far off, and impossible. Easy to put off until tomorrow.
So, self-trickery is the strategy. Here are a few of the tactics that work for me:
Negotiate. Negotiating between and among my various selves is one of my favorite ways to initiate, and especially to maintain, a change. It’s reliable, and anyone who’s worked with children and/or adolescents already has a sense of the nuances involved. Say I don’t feel like exercising today. I’d hoped to walk three miles. I’ve dressed to go, but I just don’t want to. So, I start the negotiation:
“Okay, what about I walk for 10 minutes. Then I’ll I’ll come back, sink down into my armchair, have a snack, and start that delicious novel.” When even 10 minutes seems too long, I’ll knock it back to five, or maybe a specific distance--from here to the sawmill road, or half a dozen telephone poles. Once I’ve set out to fulfill the bargain we’ve all agreed to, I’m generally able keep it going until I meet my original goal of three miles.
Do the hard stuff first. This simple tactic is analogous to the trick we play with the-year-olds: Eat your veggies before you get dessert. It’s actually a form of negotiation.
Just do it! I love that old Nike slogan. It fits well with my rural Vermont upbringing: just summon the courage, and step up, in the moment. Let’s say I need to apologize for a rude, insensitive, sarcastic, or patronizing remark I made to someone. For my emotional well-being, I need to do it, but I cringe at the thought of it. If I can Just do it! --say I’m sorry. That sarcastic remark was insensitive and hurtful, and I shouldn’t have made it. I’ll feel better. I may be more likely to hesitate the next time one of my inner saboteurs gets ready to sling a caustic remark.
Surprise yourself. The element of surprise is a time-honored strategy in war, romance, marketing--and self-transformation. Why? Because it jolts the mind from its grooves of habit, a requirement for change. I’ve written before about how I slept in my clothes--shoes and all--for several weeks the summer I started a regular exercise program. I didn’t trust myself not to get too “busy” to move my bones that day. So I’d pajama up in my exercise clothes, rise with the sun, swing my legs over the bed, gulp a swig or two of coffee, and get right out for my long walk, which later became a run. I eventually outgrew the need to sleep in my shoes, but the whole time I did, I felt a secret thrill of delight at how successful I’d been at tricking myself.
Defy yourself. This tactic involves facing down the bullies and naysayers within: It involves summoning the courage to say, “Hey, you’ve pushed me around long enough. I won’t do what you tell me to do. Here’s what I am going to do.” Then quickly perform a small, positive act in the direction of the change you want to make.
- Stop! That's right. Just stop. Stop moving. Hold still. Let your gaze rest on whatever lies before your eyes. Don’t think about anything. I find this tactic most useful when my mind is racing around in one of those negative feedback loops, and everything seems impossible. After a short pause, I find it useful to get up and move around vigorously for a few seconds (or minutes). Exercise does wonders to clam the chattering mind.
There are many more such tricks (some of which involve buddying up with others committed to their own self-health). But note that each one of them stops working if repeated too often. So mix, match, combine, and come up with a few of your own.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.