Stage One of Personal Empowerment: Avoiding the Things You Dread
Today, I am going to expand on the post I made two weeks ago about creating a coherent framework to achieve your goals.
As I mentioned in the previous post, most of us are pretty bad at meeting the goals that we have set for ourselves. It is not because we are lazy, or didn’t try hard enough but rather the way our psychology operates.
Human decision making takes place upon a spectrum that ranges from pain to pleasure. In fact, the neural pathway for registering pain and pleasure is the same. Neuroscientists believe this to be the case for two reasons:
- The brain is lazy and doesn’t waste resources creating two pathways
- The activation of one sensation suppresses the other so that we can quickly understand the consequences of an action
This makes sense from a simple observational standpoint. No one cries when they eat ice cream. They may consciously know it’s making them fat, but their subconscious mind is lighting up like a Christmas tree because we are wired to gorge on high carbohydrate foods.
With this knowledge in mind let’s look at some of the typical motivational material around goal-setting. Download a free worksheet so that you can write down the things want to escape in your life as you go through the post.
The Standard Narrative on Achieving Goals
If you have an interest in personal development, you have no doubt come across all sorts of material to get you on the right track when it comes to setting and achieving goals.
The advice ranges from creating a massive vision for your future and plotting it out on a vision board. Somehow, the universe will see this vision board and those things will materialize in your life.
The more pragmatic end of the spectrum encourages the creation of S.M.A.R.T goals. These goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound.
For most of us, these systems do not work and what ends up happening is a pattern very much like I’ve illustrated. You make some progress over the first week through sheer willpower. You plateau sometime during the second week and then by the beginning of the third week you’re in a free fall where you end up lower than you started because now your ego has taken a hit because you failed.
The typical response from those people who distribute conventional wisdom about goals is that you need to try harder. You need to just get back up on the horse and keep going.
But what if the horse doesn’t know where it is going? What if the horse isn’t a horse at all?
Excuse my poor attempt at humor but the question still stands: what if your approach is all wrong? No one ever questions the systems that have worked for them, but they hardly stop to think about whether what they did would work for the population at large.
The reason why the illustration above hits so close to home for many of us is that we have all been there. We have all struggled to implement the positive changes in our lives.
The standard advice typically fails because it runs straight into our subconscious mind. It attempts to strong-arm a much more powerful portion of the brain into doing something that it perceives as a threat to survival.
Remember, your subconscious mind is not subject to reason. Rather, it is hardwired to get you to reproductive age. Any move away from what has previously been done is a move towards uncertainty.
Any move towards uncertainty is a potential move away from the habits which have kept you alive. This is interpreted by your subconscious mind as a potential threat to reproductive fitness. Your subconscious mind does not like those sorts of moves.
So if this system fails, how do we achieve our goals?
Using Your Fear as Fuel for Personal Empowerment
What I am about to say flies in the face of all of the happy-go-lucky goal-setting gurus. I want you to think about all of the things that you really want to avoid in life. Work up a good mental image about the things you desperately want to avoid.
Some people will deride what I have said because it starts off from a negative place. I take great issue with that. Understanding what you want to avoid in life is just as important as understanding where you want to go. Additionally, to form an idea of what you want to avoid you need an image of the ideal situation to contrast it to.
So many people want to avoid the dark underbelly of human existence. The fear, insecurities, and troubles we all have on our journeys. I prefer to shine a light on them so they wither before me as I walk rather than have them grasp at my ankles, slowing my progress.
We all have our rough edges. Put them to use in driving you forward because when you construct the image of what you want to avoid you also build the image of your ideal situation. How can you tell if something is bad if you don’t have an ideal standard to compare it to?
The goal of understanding what we are trying to avoid is to push us along the path towards our ideal. That pain avoidance will get us far enough down that path of new habit adoption so that we can pivot to pursue our goals without fear of being sucked back down to our previous ways.
So many people fail in achieving their goals because the whole framework is so weak. Just think about the standard goal someone sets:
- “I want to lose ten pounds by the end of the month so I can fit into my old ”
That goal fulfils every criterion of the S.M.A.R.T. framework, but it does not spur any of us on to action. Compare that to this:
- “I want to lose ten pounds this month because that weight is indicative of poor nutrition, the result of which will lead to a life supported by medication as I age if I am lucky enough not to die suddenly in my 60s”
When your friends are all ordering dessert, which one is going to stop you from joining in?
The goal of this piece is not to scare you to death. It is not to suggest that aspirational goals are not worthwhile.
I want you to achieve all of your aspirational goals. That is why I want you to think about implementing new habits with this system.
You cannot achieve aspirational goals if you can’t even get out of the starting blocks. The purpose of this phase is to identify that which you want to avoid to give you enough momentum to start to create the life you aspire to.