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15 May

An old memory motivates you to work more structured


Datum: 2017-05-15 13:23

Even if we have cre­at­ed a tru­ly depend­able and good struc­ture, we might still trip and fall back into old habits of work­ing despite of hav­ing devel­oped new meth­ods we were deter­mined to fol­low. When we are faced with too many tasks at once, when we have too many emails to process before the end of the day, and as we are head­ing to yet anoth­er meet­ing, out of breath and stressed, we feel tempt­ed to skip a step in the struc­ture we have set for our­selves since it takes less time or appears eas­i­er since we are more used to our old ways.

We neglect writ­ing some­thing we have to do down because we assume that we will remem­ber it lat­er any­way; we fail to lat­er remem­ber hav­ing promised some­one that we would find an indi­vid­ual solu­tion to a task (since we did not make note of it — it felt so obvi­ous right after the meet­ing); we mark a few emails with red flags and tell our­selves that is it just tem­po­rary, in spite of know­ing that we ought to imme­di­ate­ly cre­ate to-do-tasks out of them instead.

Bit­ing your own tail

But soon enough we will be painful­ly remind­ed of why we had deter­mined to work accord­ing to the new and improved method. We for­get to make a call we promised to make, we make a mis­take in the con­fir­ma­tion sent to the client, and sud­den­ly there is a whole infor­mal to-do-list com­prised of red flagged emails par­al­lell to the actu­al list, and we acci­den­tal­ly pri­or­i­tize an email marked with a red flag instead of choos­ing what to do from the to-do-list and hence miss­ing tasks that were actu­al­ly much more impor­tant and urgent.

Pos­i­tive recollection

Is there a way to moti­vate our­selves to do that small, extra effort need­ed to estab­lish and stick to the struc­ture habit we are not yet accus­tomed to? There is research sug­gest­ing that there is.

In a some­what recent study made at the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Hamp­shire, the researchers Bion­do­lil­lo and Pille­mer found that the per­son who rec­ol­lects the pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence of hav­ing done some­thing they wish to do more of (the study con­cerned phys­i­cal exer­cise), will in the end do more of the activ­i­ty in ques­tion. The par­tic­i­pants were divid­ed into two groups and asked to answer ques­tions regard­ing their reg­u­lar exer­cis­ing habits and their ambi­tions con­cern­ing phys­i­cal exer­cise in the near future. The first group was also encour­aged to describe either a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive mem­o­ry of an expe­ri­ence they’d had while exer­cis­ing which they believed would moti­vate them to exer­cise more. The sec­ond group were not asked to rec­ol­lect a pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence, but were only asked to answer the oth­er questions.

When the par­tic­i­pants were asked how much exer­cise they had done eight days lat­er, the peo­ple who had remind­ed them­selves of a pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence they’d had when exer­cis­ing, had in fact exer­cised sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than the rest. The researchers con­clud­ed that remind­ing your­self of a pos­i­tive, moti­vat­ing mem­o­ry will have a sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive influ­ence on how much you per­form the activ­i­ty in ques­tion after recall­ing your pre­vi­ous success.

Worth its while

We can assume that the same rea­son­ing applies to our struc­ture. Because in a way, our habits regard­ing struc­ture resem­ble those of phys­i­cal exer­cise. We are aware of that we deep down want to fol­low the rou­tine or meth­ods we believe will enable the accom­plish­ment of our goal, for instance work out or abide by some struc­tur­al habit or not yet com­plete­ly com­fort­able work­ing method, but some­how it tends to be so much eas­i­er to act accord­ing to old habits or remain seat­ed at home in the sofa, rather than go for a run in the win­tery darkness.

Do this

If you want to ben­e­fit from the New Hamp­shire researchers’ find­ings, try this:

  • Describe a sit­u­a­tion in which you act­ed in an exem­plary way when it comes to the struc­ture you wish to uphold and main­tain. The more spe­cif­ic, vivid­ly descrip­tive and con­crete you are when recount­ing the sit­u­a­tion, the more it will help you to remain on course. It need not be elab­o­rate. I have for exam­ple sim­ply writ­ten a few lines start­ing with This is what happened:…”
  • Decide in which sit­u­a­tions you want to remind your­self of the sit­u­a­tion you just described. It could for instance be part of a dai­ly morn­ing rou­tine and a good way to start the day.
  • Think of a way to remind your­self of the sit­u­a­tion with­out hav­ing to remem­ber it. Per­haps you fol­low my lead and add read­ing your descrip­tion of that one time when you real­ly act­ed the way you want­ed to, to your morn­ing routine.
  • If you feel moti­vat­ed to do so, try this for a week or two, and then reflect on if and how this method makes you apply your­self to any new habits of struc­ture that you have set for your­self. Did it have a pos­i­tive effect on your behav­ior and choic­es? Could this be rel­e­vant to any more areas of your life? Or per­haps it did not influ­ence you at all? Could you then lim­it your scope and just focus on one par­tic­u­lar struc­ture trap you tend to fall into?

Mak­ing what you desire into the norm

If the results of Biondolillo’s and Pillemer’s study are valid in the con­text of struc­ture as well, you will find it eas­i­er to estab­lish any habits you wish to abide by if you remind your­self fre­quent­ly of a pre­vi­ous occa­sion when you suc­cess­ful­ly man­aged to work accord­ing to your set rou­tine, habit or method. You will expe­ri­ence feel­ing suc­cess­ful in terms of doing what you deter­mined you would more fre­quent­ly, and even­tu­al­ly you no longer have to rec­ol­lect that hap­py mem­o­ry to moti­vate your actions — the new habit will sim­ply become your new way of working.

What do you recommend?

How do you main­tain the good struc­ture when you in the midst of intense peri­ods risk falling back into old tracks and let go of your new habits? Leave a com­ment below!

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