Why is it so hard to get ourselves to do the things that we genuinely want to do? One reason is that we have a limited amount of will power.1 In other words, we only have so much energy to expend on controlling our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. The good news is that habitual behaviors don’t require will power. When we have a hard time getting ourselves to do something we want to do it’s probably because we’re out of willpower. So the trick is making these tasks a habit or at least more habitual. Essentially, you want to limit the amount of work that your brain has to do. Planning and mental simulation are two powerful ways to help carry out your goal.
STRATEGY: Make a PLAN and mentally SIMULATE it!
Mentally simulating where, when and how you plan to implement a goal reduces the amount of willpower required to carry out that goal.2 Notice that I’m referring specifically to process simulation not outcome simulation. For example, if you’re goal is to cook a meal then you’ll want simulate making your grocery list, preparing the vegetables and so on rather than simply imagining yourself eating the meal.
This strategy is so powerful because it facilitates the planning process by allowing you to identify obstacles that may stand in your way and actually provides a form of rehearsal (the key to habit-making). According to the theory of functional equivalence3, simulating an action plan is equivalent to actually carrying it out because the same parts of the brain are activated.4
So give this a try before bed some time or while you’re sitting on the subway and remember to be compassionate with yourself. Goal striving always involve failure.
What goal are you working on? What do you think is getting in your way?
1. Baumeister, R. F. (2002). Ego depletion and self-control failure: an energy model of the self’s executive function. Psychology Press.
2. Pham, L. B. & Taylor, S. E. (1999). From thought to action: Effects of process-versus outcome-based mental simulations on performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 250–260.
3. Murphy, S., Nordin, S. M., & Cumming, J. (2012). Imagery in sport, exercise and dance. In T. Horn (Ed.), Advances in sport and exercise psychology (3rd ed.). Champagne, IL: Human Kinetics.
4. Hall, C. (2001). Imagery in sport and exercise. In R. N. Singer, H. Hausenblas, & C. M. Janelle (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (2nd ed., pp. 529-549). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.