5 ways to trick your brain into finishing what you start

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5115357756_15b545de28_mIt’s the end of January. Do you know where your new year’s resolutions are?

Maybe all’s well and you’re still eating healthy, exercising regularly, you haven’t had a soda or a cigarette, and you’re still on track to read two books a month. That’s great. But what if things haven’t gone so smoothly? You could just forget about it and move on. Life happens after all. Nobody’s going to blame you. You’re busy. You’re stressed. Maybe it’s best to just try again next year.

Or perhaps you’re not yet ready to hoist the white flag and admit defeat. Or perhaps you’re still hanging in there, but you’re also beginning to realize that sustaining your new year’s resolution is going to be a lot tougher than you’d thought. What do you do?

First, realize you’re not alone. Motivation, persistence, and good old fashioned stick-to-it-ness, is a universal issue. Here’s a great example. Never in our history has learning been made so available. Certainly the Internet has made accessing information easier than ever. Add to that, massive open online courses, or MOOCs as they’ve come to be known, are real, often free, courses offered by elite universities such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Ohio State. They’ve become so popular that online education companies are beginning to pop up that make searching and signing up for these kinds of courses super easy. Coursera.org, launched last August, has already drawn over two million users—a faster and more popular launch than either Facebook or Twitter.

So what does all this have to do with your struggle to follow through on your new years resolutions? Well, as it turns out, according to a recent article in the New York Times, less than 10 percent of all MOOC students finish the courses they sign up for.

As a teacher, I find that statistic fascinating. What it tells me is that most people, left to their own devices, lack the ability to stick with their goals and follow them through to the end. Motivation is important. Persistence is important. We know this. Yet, as it turns out, most people are unable to harness the psychological skills of intrinsic motivation that will allow them to direct their own lives.

So what to do? Here are a few tips:

  • Write it down. I know it sounds silly, but studies have actually shown that goals that have been written down are significantly more likely to be accomplished.
  • Share your goal with a friend. Or better yet. Make a public announcement. There’s nothing like a public commitment to hold you accountable.
  • Just start. In their book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduce an interesting concept they call, “choice architecture.” Take a look at the choices you must make to keep your goal going. Often it’s not the big obstacles that are stopping us. As Thaler and Sunstein point out, “small and apparently insignificant details can have major impacts on people’s behavior.” Sometimes just getting over that initial hump is all you need. So fill out that application, call for that appointment, or put that step class on your calendar.
  • Harness the power of inertia. Thaler and Sunstein also say, “Never underestimate the power of inertia.” Try building a new habit by committing to it for only thirty days. Often, by the end of that time inertia has kicked in, making sustaining the habit much easier.
  • Use data as a motivational tool. Often we get discouraged because we can’t see the progress we are making. Keeping a record helps make achievement visible. Put numbers to your efforts—hours practiced, words written, pages read, minutes exercised. It’s also helpful to turn those numbers into visually motivating graphs or charts.

As an added bonus, that trick of turning your data into a visual graphic is also particularly useful whenever some smart alec says to you, “It’s the middle of January. Do you know where your new year’s resolutions are?” Now, not only will you be able to tell him. You can show him. A picture, as it turns out, may be worth more than a thousand words in this case. It may also represent the successful achievement of your goals.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org

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