While it’s easy to have the best of intentions when it comes to changing behaviour, sticking at it can be tough.
Sue hates flying. She commonly feels fearful from the moment she is seated on the plane and doesn’t fully relax until the moment the plane touches down at the other end. Because of her fear, she typically doesn’t travel by plane. When she heard of her brother’s plans to get married in England she was dismayed, but all the family from New Zealand were going. Sues values of love (to act lovingly to others) and courage (to be courageous in the face of fear or difficulty) meant that although she had many thoughts about not going, she still planned to attend. Importantly, when she thought about what really mattered to her, she was willing to experience the fear in order to live the life she wanted and connect to the people who mattered to her. She started working on ways to manage her fears on the flight in therapy and ended up completing the trip.
For 10 years I have been working with people on changing their behaviour. Changing habits, changing addictive behaviours, changing eating patterns, changing patterns in relationships, changing perspectives; these and more are the bread and butter of the practice I run. In the early days I was a big believer in goals, I used the SMART goal framework (specific, realistic, achievable, measurable, time limited) and there’s no doubt it’s a useful framework which can lead to success with a number of people.
FINDING MEANING BEHIND BEHAVIOUR
But this way of working misses out something crucial that I now believe taps into our deepest motivation. And I’m not alone in noticing this. Research has shown that across individuals, teams and companies, spending time figuring out values helps people work out their purpose. A sense of purpose gives people meaning and is central to well being. This fires them up.
The key to any change in behaviour is answering the question, “why?” As Victor Frankl, the concentration camp survivor and author of “Mans’ search for meaning” said “he who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how”. And yet, society’s focus on goal orientation is about identifying what needs to change. This is an important step, but as Stephen Covey (author of the seven habits of highly effective people) has said “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster”. In other words, we might be successful in our goals, only to figure out later in life that what we worked so hard for, actually ends up feeling hollow and meaningless.
Motivation comes from the question why. If we know why we are doing something, we can frequently summon the strength to go through all sorts of difficulty. Of course the next step is to take action based on ones values.
HOW DO I IDENTIFY MY VALUES?
According to Dr Russ Harris, a leader in the field of values based behaviour and mindfulness, values can be thought of as how we want to behave on an ongoing basis, how we want to be remembered, and what qualities we want to bring to our lives and relationships. For example, what kind of parent do you want to be? What kind of friend? What kind of boss? Will you be focussed on caring and connection or adventure and assertiveness? Values can also be used in intimate relationships and even in business. Again the focus is how we behave; and can guide where we invest our time and money and who we choose to spend time with. I find that values provide people with hope because in any moment, you can turn toward your values and start behaving in alignment with them.
Frequently when I ask clients to narrow down their most important values from a list of values of 60 to 6, they often report they have had trouble with the task, saying they are not used to thinking in this way. We are typically so focussed on the next thing we have to do, we don’t have time to figure out how it relates to our overall life plan and how we want to behave generally. It reminds me a little of the attention we typically pay to every detail of our wedding day, with nowhere near the same regard for the multiple days after (i.e., the rest of our lives!) Or the time we take going to antenatal classes which teach us all about how to give birth, and very little about how to parent. We get so caught up in the urgent, we forget to focus on the important.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VALUES AND GOALS?
A common query is how we tell the difference between values and goals. As stated in Russ Harris’s book “The happiness Trap,” goals focus on the outcome, values focus on how we while working towards that outcome. Getting married is a goal, acting lovingly is a value. Gaining new friends is a goal, acting in a friendly and generous way is a value. In any area of life, whether we succeed or fail in reaching our goals, we can act according to our values, and thus act meaningfully. This can take the sting out of not reaching goals. In an ideal world we’d be using both values and goals as motivators; values for the big picture and goals to narrow down specific targets to reach.
MYTHS OF MOTIVATION
Even when values have been identified, some interesting beliefs can get in the way of action.
For example, consider the following examples from my practice:
I can’t go to the gym because I’m too depressed
I can’t go out walking because I’m overweight
I can’t do that presentation because I’ll get too nervous
I’d like to be more assertive, but I would feel too guilty about disappointing people.
These examples are all based on the assumption that in order to do something you have to feel like it. This is the first myth of motivation. If we wait until we feel like doing the activity, we’ll be waiting a long time. However if values are clear from the outset e.g., a value of fitness and improving health might motivate a 30 minute walk in the first and second examples; while a value of contribution, connection or courage might motivate the presentation and the ability to speak up. In the moments of being at the gym, I’m acting on my value of improving health, regardless of my success in losing weight or toning my arms (which are both goals).
A second myth I often hear is the notion that motivation will be constant once you decide on something. In actuality it tends to wax and wane and we have to keep reminding ourselves of the reason we decided to do it, and then recommit over and over again. If we expect to have to do this, it’s no big deal. A question I find useful to ask people is, how will you support the most exhausted version of yourself, when you feel like it’s all too hard and involves too much effort? Having thought through this obstacle, you are better prepared when it happens. This also has the benefit of not relying on sheer willpower to overcome obstacles.
Another common myth is if I’m motivated it should come easily. This idea seems to be a hangover from positive thinking movement, the notion that you “just visualize it and it will happen”. Unfortunately research is very clear that merely visualising success is not enough to lead to goal attainment, what’s more helpful is visualising the obstacles in the path and how you might overcome them.
Similarly, many people are disillusioned when they feel uncomfortable feelings (like confusion or anxiety or feeling low) or experience negative thoughts, assuming that if they were motivated these thoughts wouldn’t appear. From a values perspective, motivation involves making room for discomfort. It’s about being willing to feel uncomfortable, because the larger purpose is worth it.
DO NEGATIVE MOTIVATIONS WORK?
Finally there is the myth that “negative” motivations will spur forward movement. Consider the following examples:
-The doctor tells me I’m one stage away from diabetes, so I need to eat better and exercise more
-I’ve put a photo of myself at my heaviest on the fridge door to remind me not to eat
-I’d feel too bad pulling out now so I’ll go on the school camp and just get through it.
While these ideas might have intuitive appeal as motivations, research tells us they are likely not to be successful, as they are based on fear (of illness, of weight gain and guilt respectively). They are energy draining, and tend to feel inauthentic, not intrinsic to the person involved.
An alternative is to figure out what to focus on for that particular person, and how they want to be when things don’t go their way. The final example shows how awareness of values can lead to a different way of treating yourself.
Amanda has a habit of stopping at the diary on the way to work to buy chocolate bars for the afternoon “to get through the day” as she hates her work. One of the characteristics of a habit is that it is performed mindlessly, without awareness of thoughts and feelings. She identified a value of self-development and used the daily stop off at the diary to get curious about what was going on in order for her to sabotage her other value of self-care (to look after health and wellbeing) and continue to put on weight. She has identified a thought pattern of “I deserve it” and gives herself credit for effectiveness at work (showing up and getting work done in a tough environment) by eating the chocolate bar. Currently her self-development value is helping her stay curious rather than judgemental about how she gets pulled into this self-destructive behaviour. While there remains much work to be done, there is an openness and curiosity about the behaviour, and she is already living her values.
The final word comes from Russ Harris, a leader in the field of values based behaviour and mindfulness: “If you want to break any self-defeating habit or any type of behavioural pattern that is destructive to yourself or others, you need some inspiration and you need some motivation; your values will give you both.”