Decision Diary

An exercise I use with clients, for a power boost to achieve their goals, is the Decision Diary. After we identify a specific goal where greater willpower will help them to succeed, I ask them to keep track of each choice they make related to that goal, for one day or more.

One way is to keep a pen and paper handy and jot down (super briefly) the two choices, and place a tick next to the option that they chose – that’s an ideal approach. Another way is simply to mentally notice each decision.

The self-awareness you gain is valuable, but there is more. As one client reported, “I did the diary today but by some miracle I’m happy with all my decisions! I was quite productive today!” By being more aware of you decisions, you are more likely to make decisions that you’re happy with.

Kelly McGonigal describes the practice in her excellent book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It:

To have more self-control, you first need to develop more self-awareness. A good first step is to notice when you are making choices related to your willpower challenge. Some will be more obvious, such as, “Do I go to the gym after work?” The impact of other decisions might not be clear until later in the day, when you see their full consequences. For example, did you choose to pack your gym bag so you wouldn’t have to go home first? (Smart! You’ll be less likely to make excuses.) Did you get caught up in a phone call until you were too hungry to go straight to the gym? (Oops! You’ll be less likely to exercise if you have to stop for dinner first.) For at least one day , track your choices. At the end of the day, look back and try to analyze when decisions were made that either supported or undermined your goals. Trying to keep track of your choices will also reduce the number of decisions you make while distracted – a guaranteed way to boost your willpower.

(One important note: Willpower is a valuable resource, but when you set up your goals, it’s best to assume you won’t have any. Create default behaviours that minimise any need for willpower while taking you closer to your goal, and they’ll become easy as you do them day after day. That way, even when you’re tired, emotional or busy, you can still be working towards your goal.)

How to Avoid the Resolution Traps

(This was originally published on my main blog in January 2014.)

Today we look at the common traps that prevent people from forming new habits and keeping resolutions. While we are focusing on exercise goals here, the lessons apply in all aspects of your life. Do not go for your regular run the first weekend of a new year. The resolutionists will outnumber you. It's dangerous.

There is a time to push yourself hard – if you’re working on your fitness, that’s likely to be when you’ve been in training, you’re in good condition and you know you can do it safely. A trained athlete has to deal with psychological limits, the brain screaming “Stop! Fatigue! You’re going to break! There are no more resources!” – long before you’re actually in danger of injury or running out of resources.

But here is the key: what is true for the trained athlete may be bad advice for the novice, risking both injury and failed goals.

Three kinds of over-exertion can defeat your commitment to a resolution. From doing zero exercise, you start exercising 30 minutes a day. Your body isn’t ready, and then you’ve got:

1. Physical overexertion. By the time you recover from the strain, life has happened, and your resolution has become a vague intention. Vague intentions don’t achieve goals.

2. Psychological overexertion. Maybe your body held up, but it was an unpleasant experience. Your subconscious mind will offer endless distractions to avoid repeating the ordeal.

3. Planning overexertion. It takes mental effort to plan and make time. The more time you commit upfront, the bigger the impact on your schedule.

Start Small. Persist.

For most people and most new resolutions, I advise starting small and being consistent. Push yourself within your own safe limits, and enjoy the energy you get from your new exertions. Build from there.

  • Want to start running? Perhaps a 5 minute walk mixed with gentle jogging is the right way to start.
  • Want to lift weights? Start with your own weight – do some pushups and bodyweight squats – a small enough number that you can maintain good form throughout.

The key to follow through is to make planning easy. Your first goal can be a small habit, done consistently. Just 5 minutes – even 2 minutes – but every day. When that’s strong, slowly build on it – exercise more intensely, and go a little longer. And by the way, if you’re unfit and just starting, skipping for 2 minutes is a good workout.

Apply these principles to any resolution, for a new year, or a new month.

And of course, take your own needs into account, and talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program… for your own sake, of course, but your doctor might also appreciate the inspiration.

Next Time Will Be Different

When you came to a point where you suffered for your procrastination, you may have told yourself “Next time will be different!”

Like me in the past, you may have come to this point many times, making the same declaration each time. Perhaps you added, or at least felt, “This time I mean it!”

This can be a turning point, or it can be a warning of failure to come, and here is the difference: If your whole strategy consists of “This time I mean it!” that is a major red flag. If you’re blaming yourself, and thinking that you must stop being bad (lazy, disorganised) and start being good (hard-working, well-organised), that is also a red flag. Which is a great start, because once you’ve identified what hasn’t worked for you, you can look for something that does work.

If your “Next time will be different!” involves taking an entirely different approach, then we’re getting somewhere. If you’ve decided it’s time to understand the psychology of procrastination and effectiveness, and look for strategies that work for you, excellent. If you’re ready to try things, ready to fail as well as succeed, and happy to try and fail before you succeed, we’re on the same path.

Blame and guilt aren’t needed where we’re going. We’ll be looking at solutions to procrastination that are right for you, where you are now.

Stay tuned.

Credit: some of the perspective and phrasing in this post come from a discussion with CFAR staff and alumni. Their approaches to overcoming procrastination will feature in future posts.