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  • Scott Bowman

Getting ourselves to do things: Brute force vs. elegance


So when it comes to change, getting stuck projects moving or actually doing those things we SAY we are committed to (…anyone need to lose 5 pounds? Anyone?) we often find ourselves trying to force ourselves to take action. Let’s take the case of me doing yoga. I used to TEACH yoga. For 15 years I taught yoga. If I had to tell you the one thing to do to improve your life the most, I would say ‘do yoga!’ Am I doing yoga these days? No. Am I not doing yoga because I have decided it is a bad use of my time that will not deliver on my commitments and values? No. Quite the reverse. Physical health, strength and well being are very high-leverage traits for me. I enjoy my life MUCH more when I’m walking around in a body that feels good. Also, yoga is a meditative practice for me. I find it centering, calming and am more resourced to productively and rationally deal with upset and unmet expectations when I have a yoga practice. So why don’t I have a yoga practice? Well… it’s not that I don’t WANT to have a yoga practice right now. I very much want to have one. I try really frequently to have one. I plan to do yoga and then don’t. I berate myself for not doing it later - or even when I’ve planned to do it but aren’t – in the hopes that that will make me more pliable, willing and determined… but it doesn’t. I talk to myself frequently about how good it would be to do – instead of actually doing it. And all the time I remain convinced that any day now I will start. But I don’t. So I plan to do yoga, and then don’t… rinse and repeat. This, I call ‘Trying to Get Myself To Do Stuff.’ Can I get a witness? Any of this sounding familiar to you? Maybe not yoga, but are there things in your life that you just know you’d be better off doing, that you, in fact, want to and try to do, and yet somehow… don’t? That seems like both a perfectly natural human experience that we all have, and also like some bizarre craziness that doesn’t make any sense at all. Who, exactly, is trying to ‘force’ who? With what? It’s like we’re both a really bad dog trainer, and a really bad dog at the same time. I can just picture it in a dog park… a mopey puppy, skulking with its tail tucked between its legs and a really big angry guy, looming over it, shouting “DO YOGA YOU TOSS-POT!!” Somehow, I think that no-one watching that scene would be remotely surprised that the dog is not doing yoga. And you could swap out any age of dog, or any species for the dog and not be surprised that the cat, horse, child …or yoga teacher, is not doing yoga. But everybody watching would then go home and yell at themselves for not cleaning the garage or for eating the ice cream, buying something online, watching Netflix instead of reading or any other ghastly array of good commitments gone bad. What is up with this? Do I want to do this thing? Or not? The strangest part of this to me is this internal division between some part or parts of us, that are committed to doing the thing, and some other part or parts of us that aren’t. That’s interesting. Thinking about Daniel Kahneman’s division of long and short-term memory systems into two distinct selves, the Experiencing Self and the Remembered Self, can help a lot when looking at many of these inner conflicts. The Experiencing Self – our short-term memory system – is the part of you that answers the question “How are you doing?” That’s the part that wants to do or not do things. That’s the part that wants to eat the ice-cream instead of the kale, and watch Netflix instead of cleaning the garage. That’s the part that is focused on the experience of this moment. And when we say this moment… its attention span is about 3 to 6 SECONDS. Your Remembered Self – your long-term memory system – is the part of you that answers the question ‘How have you been lately?’ That’s the part that wants to HAVE DONE things. That wants to have accomplished stuff, that wants to have gone to the gym, that wants to have done yoga, that wants to have lost 20 pounds, that wants to have put a lot of money away in savings. When we look at it this way it’s pretty clear why we frequently have conflicts about a bunch of stuff we are ‘committed’ to doing. Often, we want to HAVE DONE it – but we don’t ever want to BE DOING it. A conundrum. There are many other divisions in the self that end up producing conflicts like this, but this is the most frequent division when we’re trying to force ourselves to do stuff. The Remembered Self is trying to force the Experiencing Self to do something. We can think about this like a misapplication of skills in a company. When the Remembered Self tries to supplant the Experiencing Self and do its job (ie, decide what to do in this moment), it’s kind of like having the CFO of the construction company operating the bulldozer. You don’t want to be anywhere around that when it’s happening. She’s going to get frustrated and make a mess – because she doesn’t like to DO stuff. She likes to REMEMBER having done stuff, and PLANNING to do stuff, so she can remember it later. Your Remembered Self loves to plan. She lives in the past and the future and she likes to create grand visions of what will be, so you can remember them afterward. That’s the part that is planning every moment of your vacation trip, that’s taking pictures of the beautiful sunset for the scrap book, instead of holding your lover’s hand and appreciating the awesome beauty of that moment. She is what keeps us on track, growing, learning and improving. Your Experiencing Self doesn’t understand this at all. She is the part that wants to blow off the hokey 4-hour tourist trap luau photo-op, and lounge in the sun on the sand with nothing to do, nothing to do... She is the part that actually enjoys your life. The Remembered Self makes it possible to live well - but it is the Experiencing Self that actually does the living. Recently I’ve had a really striking success with my To Do list. A few months ago I decided to take my time- and task-management to another level. (Essentially, I decided to do what I was telling everyone else to do – I’m obnoxious like that.) In any case, it worked, and I have never felt as on-top of my life as I do now. And the surprising thing is – it’s really fun. In fact, it sort of has to be – or at least that’s why it’s working. I’ve created time each day, and a big chunk of time each week, not just to plan, but to evaluate how my planning is working and tweak it to make it work better. What I’m finding is that what works best is planning to create moments where my experiencing self finds it really EASY to choose to do what my remembered self wants to move forward. It’s like the CFO at the construction company buying a shiny new bulldozer and having it delivered to the new job site, gassed up with a cushy heated seat and bobble-head doll. My experiencing self is like “Hell yeah I’ll doze that stuff!” (or whatever the proper verb is for bulldozing). I make it easy to choose to do those tasks, and fun to do them. As a consequence, my Experiencing Self gets to have the experience of accomplishment – the very thing my Remembered Self wants. I’ve got them shaking hands instead of arguing about who drives the bulldozer. Try setting some time aside each week to look at the situation you are creating for yourself when you have to choose what to do. How can you make that time A) more fun, B) waaay easier and clearer, and C) heavily weighted to choosing the stuff you most need to move forward. That’s elegant. Remember! The person you’re planning for has a 3-second attention span, and doesn’t understand your plans or goals at all. It’s a totally different person! You are planning a situation for someone with the attention span of a gnat. Think of it as creating an experience for a child to be successful in. And when you do that, you will have the joy of a child doing it. (...next time I'll tell you how I got my yoga practice going!)

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