Every time I teach my social psychology class, I begin by asking students to engage in a fairly powerful exercise adopted from cognitive and behavioral psychology and neuro-linguistic programing (NLP).
I essentially ask them to identify one aspect of themselves that they’d like to make a change in – be it their diet, their relationship status, their study habits, their relationship with God, their status as a smoker, a cutter, a purger, etc. I let them pick the topic, the process remains the same.
I begin by asking them to get really clear on what the desired change is and – in particular – how it relates to how they see themselves. I then ask them to put it in an identity statement, stated in the positive: I am a healthy person, I am a regular exerciser, I am an organized student, I am someone who loves and cares for my body.
In order to tap into the full range of motivation, I also ask them to get real on why they want that change to happen. I ask them: How much better could things possibly get if this actually occurred? I also ask: how bad could things possibly get if it doesn’t?
We then think of all of their objections to making the change and create affirmations that will help counter those objections.
One common objection is: I don’t have time to...[you fill in the blank].
To counter that, I have them say – every day – “I am [insert desired future identity, here] and I have all the time in the world.”
Once they understand their desired outcome (that is, their future self), their leverage, and the affirmations that were designed specifically to counter their conscious and subconscious objections, I let them go from class.
During the course of the term, I check in and see how things are going; but I don’t hassle them about it. Assuming I am doing it with them, I may report on my own progress.
One term, when I was suffering from a severe case of professional procrastination, one my personal mantras was: “I am a published textbook author and it is fun!”
Their final paper assignment, due some ten weeks later, is simply to tell me how they did. They must take four or five of the social psychological theories that we discussed in class – affect control theory, status expectations states, reference group theory, etc., – or some concept – role strain, role conflict, stigma, etc. – and explain their results.
Whether they succeeded or failed in their personal goal – in creating their future self – is irrelevant. Indeed, some of the best papers come from students who failed miserably, but, who in the course of their failure, understood why. Undoubtedly these students, perhaps even more so than those who “succeeded” end up knowing that they will need to do in the future in order to make that desired, future self, a realized part of their day to day identity.
Having run this course exercise this a number of times, here are the six biggest reasons why people fail to realize their desired future selves:
Self-change is hard. It’s hard because there are psychological mechanisms in place – identity-level mechanisms – that privilege consistency over change, not to mention pleasure over pain. There are also social mechanisms in place, such as our obligations to and our relationships with others. In order to increase the likelihood of creating change that lasts – to create that desired future self and have it stick – it’s vitally important to deal with both.
I often receive emails from former students who, for all intents and purposes, “failed” in creating the change that they desired. Without exception, these messages contain new tales of success and the understanding that the time they took to reflect on their prior “failure” had turned into a resource for their ability to create change in the present.
Because, as humans, we are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain, we tend to run from our failures. We try something, we fail, and we never look back. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, try, fail, look back, and take notes. That way, when you try again (or when you try something else) you’ll have a much better idea of what went wrong, and what really needs to change in order to move forward.