I wasn’t going to write a new year-themed post this year.
Let’s face it – the whole “new year, new you” thing is so overdone these days that it’s tempting to dismiss it as a marketing gimmick, much like Valentine's Day.
But then something happened on New Year’s Day that changed my mind…
I did my first parkrun.
If you’re a seasoned runner, that might not sound like much of an achievement. After all, it’s just a 5km community run that occurs in numerous locations around the world every Saturday morning – and, in this case, on New Year’s Day. No big deal.
But, for me, it was a pretty big deal.
Not just because it involved waking up early-ish on New Year’s Day. Not just because I was one of the least athletic people at my school (the whole school!) and did not discover the benefits of running until my thirties. And not just because it had been over seven years since my last organised run.
It was a big deal because I motivated myself to do it without using resolutions or goals.
This might sound slightly blasphemous coming from a coach, but I’m not particularly motivated by goals. I find traditional goal-setting to be quite tedious – it kills my natural enthusiasm and turns my big dreams into dreary obligations (more on that below).
So how did I motivate myself to go running at 8am on New Year's with a bunch of strangers without using a resolution or goal?
I used a story.
The power of stories
In the business world, people are learning to harness the power of stories to influence others. For leaders, stories are a powerful way to inspire and engage their teams, while companies are using storytelling to build brand recognition.
One of the reasons that stories are so powerful is that they allow us to infuse data and logic with emotions. While we might like to think of ourselves as rational beings, it turns out that emotions play a critical role in our decision-making – so much so that people who have lost their neurological capacity for emotion find it difficult (if not impossible) to make decisions.
So clearly stories are powerful when it comes to influencing others. But have you ever thought about how you could use stories to influence yourself?
Our lives are made up of stories. For example:
Life stories: the way we make sense of the significant events in our lives and communicate this to others
Cultural narratives: the stories we have been born into, or absorbed, based on our ethnicity and/or nationality, as well as our gender, generation, profession, and so on
Opinions: the micro-stories that we tell ourselves and others, often unconsciously, about how we perceive the events, people and circumstances around us
While many of us are not consciously aware of these stories, they are playing out every day - in our self-talk. That’s right – we are constantly telling ourselves stories.
Do any of these sound familiar?
“I’m not a morning person.”
“I’m not creative.”
“I’m an introvert.”
Now these stories are not in themselves problematic until you consider how you are using them. For example:
“I can’t exercise before work because I’m not a morning person.”
“I won’t share my ideas with my colleagues because I’m not creative.”
“I don't do networking because I’m an introvert.”
Our stories are important because they represent our beliefs about what is possible for us and subtly (or not so subtly) influence our behaviour – that is, the actions we’re willing to take to create the life that we want. Thankfully, stories are not set in stone and can be changed using a process known as self-authoring.
(Side note: One of the most debilitating stories I hear as a leadership coach is "I am not a leader." This too is a story that can be changed. It's a huge topic that deserves a separate post, so please subscribe to my blog if you'd like to learn more about this.)
So what was the story that motivated me to run?
You might expect that it had something to do with improving my fitness or losing weight. But it wasn’t – I’d been trying to motivate myself to get back into running for months and those stories hadn’t worked for me.
Instead, it was this: “I like trying new and unusual things.”
If you're surprised that this story could be so effective, well – so was I! But it ties into a key element of my identity - my story - which relates to curiosity and adventure.
I love learning new things, I love taking on new challenges, and I love doing things that are slightly differently from the norm. While running 5km was not a new experience for me, running first thing on New Year’s Day had enough novelty in it to align with my identity as someone who enjoys trying new and unusual things. (On the other hand, fitness and weight loss are not central to my identity, and didn't motivate me at all.)
Once I saw the alignment between the action of running and my story, I felt a sense of determination that I rarely feel when I set goals. It became a matter of honour!
The importance of knowing what motivates you
I subsequently connected my experience with the motivation styles model developed by Gretchen Rubin and described in her book, The Four Tendencies.
This model suggests that some people are more motivated by outer expectations (their commitments to others) while others are more motivated by inner expectations (their commitments to themselves). On the other hand, some people - referred to as “Rebels” - generally aren’t motivated by expectations, whether outer or inner. For these people (and apparently I am one of them), they are most motivated when something is aligned with their identity. Then the action becomes a matter of self-expression - of being true to themselves.
Now, you may or may not identify as a “Rebel”. But if you are struggling to stick to your resolutions or goals – or if you avoid them altogether – it may be worth trying this strategy.
(By the way, my initial story was only good for the first parkrun. The following Saturday, I used a different story - “I am a creature of habit” - to motivate myself to run again.)
So what is it about a story that makes it effective?
I’ve identified four elements that make a story effective as a motivational tool.
Your story needs to be:
Simple: Unlike the stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves require no embellishment. A simple story that begins with the words “I am…” will be more memorable than one that is long and complicated.
Credible: Your story must be believable to you, even if it isn’t “true” (in the sense of being objectively provable). When we use our past achievements as a yardstick for what is possible in the future, there's a risk that we may limit ourselves to what we've done before. One of the most powerful ways to craft a credible story that inspires us beyond our past achievements is to use a learning-oriented story. For example, "I am willing to learn how to run again and accept that it will be uncomfortable to begin with" would be more credible to a new or lapsed runner than "I am a fit and healthy runner". This is all about using a growth mindset to stretch the boundaries of possibility.
Aligned: If your story is not aligned with your values, it could create an internal conflict that leads to indecision and self-sabotage. The key here is to be really honest with yourself about what your values are – not what you think they should be. And be aware that your values can change over time, shaped by your significant life experiences.
Action-oriented: Stories that don’t inspire action are merely entertainment (which is why I don't have Netflix!). Does your story inspire you to do something different or is it simply justifying an old pattern of behaviour? It may take some investigation and creativity to find a story that works for you.
Now so far I’ve been assuming that you can connect your desired action to an existing story. But what if you want to do something that you currently believe is “impossible”? Something that isn't grounded in your current reality? Something you are not immediately capable of?
You can write a new story.
It takes courage to write a new story and a degree of effort to practise it into your way of being so that it becomes habitual, but it is also a sign of maturity that you are willing to do so. This is where coaching can be incredibly useful - to help you to challenge your existing stories and create new ones that are aligned with your ideal future, and then provide the accountability and support needed to integrate the new story into your way of being.
The C-B-As of this strategy
Clarity: Identify what motivates YOU. If goals and resolutions work for you, fantastic - keep working with them. If not, it doesn't mean you're a flawed human being - you're just motivated differently. Either way, become more observant about what motivates you to take action and be creative in applying those strategies in new and different contexts.
Belief: Align your desired change with a personal story that inspires you and that you feel is credible. But don't limit yourself to what you've done before. If your new behaviour is not supported by an existing story, write a new one!
Action: Transformation happens when we do something different. While the story strategy is intended to shift your way of being, it's important to translate this from your imagination into action so that your mind can expand its sense of what is possible.
"If you're going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all." ~Joseph Campbell
Chyonne Kreltszheim is an ontological coach and facilitator who helps people to align their "way of being" to unlock their energy, leadership and creativity. She is the founder of Being: the Change.
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Change Your Mind ~ Change Your Life ~ Change Your World