It’s 8 a.m. and your alarm goes off. This alarm was set roughly six hours ago when you remembered a resolution you made to go to yoga once a week. Or perhaps you wanted to start reading for your afternoon seminar. Or pack yourself a lunch so you don’t have to overdraft your debit card (again) at Sweetgreen.
You also intended to take a shower, pick out some clothes that look halfway decent and leave your room early enough to grab coffee.
If what happens next is that you actually get out of bed and do everything you meant to do with relatively little difficulty: a) you probably don’t need to keep reading, b) I don’t get you and c) congratulations.
There is probably a very nice investment banking firm in New York just dying to hire you. They will pay you a significant amount of money to keep doing what you’re doing but in a little blue cubicle. Maybe they’ll even give you an ergonomic chair. That would be pretty sweet.
If, on the other hand, the next chapter of your morning saga involves some snoozing, six more alarms, general confusion, zero sun salutations and (if you are exceptionally lucky) a high point in which you find a clean t-shirt, this is for you.
I know your life: You are not alone and you are not doomed for a lifetime of inadequacy. You just have yet to discover the power of the micro-goal.
But before we explore the micro-goal, let’s take a quick look at what happened this morning. External factors aside (sleep deprivation, poor diet, etc.), you probably suffered from a textbook lapse in willpower. You wanted to accomplish something and had the means to do so, but you didn’t. Why?
In her book, “The Willpower Instinct,” Stanford University professor Kelly McGonigal explains that such lapses often result from a disconnect between our present selves and the way we perceive our ideal, future selves.
Have you ever rationalized starting a new spinning class next week because “you’ll have more free time then?” Ever put off a difficult reading or problem set until tomorrow because “you won’t be as distracted?”
Most of us have. And most of us were wrong every time.
We tend to attribute more wisdom, time and energy to our future selves. In her book, McGonigal cites brain-imaging studies that show we think of our future selves in the same locations in our brain in which we think about other people.
This means that when you set your alarm for 8 a.m. with the intention of getting up to go to yoga, you were setting your alarm for another person. A stronger, more determined person. But when you woke up, you were still just … well, you.
So how can you deal with this? The easiest solution here is to accept and constantly plan for the laziest, dumbest, most tired and most unmotivated version of yourself. In other words: who you really are.
The most straightforward way to do that is to break down what you’re trying to accomplish into the smallest possible tasks and goals, or “micro-goals.” Trying to get on top of your schoolwork? Take your books out. You don’t have to read them. Just open them up. Trying to catch up on email? Respond to one. See what happens.
There is no goal too small to be an effective micro-goal. If it gets you closer to the person you want to be, it’s golden. My good friend, a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has perfectly mastered this concept.
He used to wake up every morning intending to go for a run, but rarely did.
Enter: micro-goals. He started saying to himself, “Tell you what, man, just put on pants, you can go to bed after, just put on pants for now.”
Some days, he just put the pants on and went right back to sleep — it’s important to the integrity of the micro-goal that he allowed himself to do that.
Most of the time, however, once his pants were on, the run happened. Tiny goal, massive progress.
Micro-goals can be stepping-stones on a larger path to self-improvement, a strategy for academic and career success or simply a way of getting through the day.
But most importantly, they are a way for us to accept our shortcomings without perpetuating a cycle of chronic defeat.
So today (just today), let go of your pride, let go of that future self and do something real small.
Lauren Agresti is a College senior from Fulton, Md. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @lagresti. “Piece of Mind” appears every Thursday.
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