The bad news: We all face powerful mental blocks that stop us when we’re trying to achieve our goals. The good news: We can outwit them. Here’s how, according to cognitive psychologist Amanda Crowell.
This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
Think about the last time you said you wanted to do something. Maybe you wanted to eat healthier, write every day in a journal, or declutter your home. But despite your sincere desire to achieve the goal, you’ve gotten no further than a few steps along the path. Why not?
While you might be tempted to say it’s because of laziness or a lack of willpower, New York City cognitive psychologist and coach Amanda Crowell has another name for this phenomenon: defensive failure.
Crowell offers an example from her own life to illustrate. Growing up, she loathed exercising; she was fond of saying “I will run when a bear is chasing me and never before then.” This aversion “went on for another 34 years,” she says in a TEDxHarrisburg talk, “until I woke up one day with an infant … and a back that hurt all the time.” If she wanted to be the kind of mom she aspired to be — “a mother who can chase around her kids at the park or pick her kids up and swing them around,” as she put it — she needed to get in shape.
One Sunday, she told her husband that starting that week, she’d go to the gym regularly. Monday came and went without her making it there. Then days, weeks and months flew by and Crowell hadn’t set foot inside the building. She says, “I meant to go to the gym, I intended to go to the gym, so why am I not going to the gym!?”
To answer the question, Crowell did three years of research. “Defensive failure” is the term she came up with to encapsulate what occurs when we want to achieve something and we think about it constantly but we don’t do it. She says, “I found that there are three powerful mindset blocks that are keeping you locked in a cycle of defensive failure.” Below, she explains what they are and how to beat them.
Block #1: “I just don’t think I can do this.”
After her need-to-exercise epiphany, Crowell decided to take up running. One day, she put on her running shoes and went for a jog. However, she did so while wearing baggy yoga pants that had no place to put her phone — which she needed, for the 5K app she was using. She was “a mess,” she recalls. “I’m running holding up my pants with one hand and my phone is in the other.”
For many of us, experiencing such a shaky start would be enough to deter us from going any further. “You think somewhere in your heart that you just can’t do it,” she says. “You think that some people have the talent or the genetics to do this thing, and you don’t.” As she says, “If you believe that at the core of success is talent and genetics, then this rookie mistake matters a lot; it’s the proof you need that you didn’t have what it takes.” (Crowell didn’t let her shaky start hinder her — she eventually completed a triathlon and a half-marathon.)
How to outsmart it: Try to think of each failure as just another step on the road to progress by developing what Stanford University’s Carol Dweck (watch her TED talk) and other psychology researchers call a “growth mindset.” When you cultivate this kind of mindset, Crowell says, “these rookie mistakes lose their significance. They are no longer proof that you never should have tried. They’re opportunities to learn, because you know that at the heart of success is not talent; it’s effort over time that produces accomplishments.” The next time you feel like you’ve fallen short, tell yourself: “This is putting me one tiny step closer to my goal.”
Block #2: “People like me aren’t good at this.”
Through years of action, experimentation and intense reflection upon who we are, where we came from, and who we want to be, we carve out our own identities. For many of us, it’s a hardwon process. And while our identities can give us a sense of meaning and a place in the world, sometimes they can get in our way when we’re attempting new things.
When Crowell first became certified as a coach, she struggled to sell herself and find clients. She made plans to attend different networking events, but when the dates approached, she’d invariably decide she was too busy. After researching “defensive failure,” she realized that she was resisting blowing her own horn because it went against her identity. This is a common feeling; many of us will avoid doing anything that threatens our sense of self, Crowell says. In her case, she thought of herself as a “heart-centered helper type,” and, she says, “promoting myself and selling my services felt very inauthentic — it felt really pushy.”
How to outsmart it: The answer is simple. “Find people like you doing things like this, and share your concerns with them,” says Crowell. She says, “I had to find a heart-centered helper type who was great at promoting her business and learn from her.” This peer showed her ways that she could sell her business without feeling like she was selling out. The closer you can bring your goal or activity to your identity, the easier it will be for you to move forward.
Block #3: “I feel like I have to do this thing, but I don’t really want to do it.”
Or, as Crowell puts, “Secretly, you don’t want to do it; you just think you should want to do it. Basically, you value it for the wrong reasons.” She says that there are generally two reasons why we want things. “On the one hand, you can value them for what we refer to as intrinsic reasons — reasons that come from inside of you, your interests, your curiosity, or … your long-term hopes and dreams.” On the other hand, she adds, there are the “extrinsic reasons, like ‘All the cool people do it’ or ‘My mom would be proud’ or ‘Boy, would I like to be admired.”
Let’s say you’re trying to stick to a budget, says Crowell. You’ve found that lunch is your biggest expense, so you vow to brown-bag it. One day, you forget your lunch and your coworker asks you to go out with her. You face a choice: Do you eat with her and spend $25 on a meal, or do you buy a $2 protein bar from the vending machine? Well, if you’re saving for intrinsic reasons — you just got engaged and you’re socking away money for a house and kids — you’re more likely to stick with your resolution, says Crowell. But if you’re doing it for extrinsic reasons — you want to out-save your sister — you’re more likely to dine out, she says. “It’s not enough to counterbalance the urge, the desire in the moment, to go to a restaurant with your friend. And this works for anything that you’re struggling with.”
How to outsmart it: Think of your intrinsic reason — the motivation behind why you’re doing what you say you want to do — as your own personal energy source. It’s there for you to tap into whenever you need it. And you will need it. Crowell says, “If the work you want to do is hard, there will be urges in the moment to quit, and it is intrinsic interest that keeps you focused on the steps you need to take.”
If you’re only coming up with extrinsic reasons for your activity or goal, you may decide that it’s not worth pursuing. But if you feel in your heart of hearts that it is, she says, “you must draw the bright line between the thing you want to do and your long-term hopes and dreams.” After you figure out that underlying inspiration, write it down on a scrap of paper and tuck it into your wallet. Crowell says, “When the moment comes that you want to get out or give up, you have to take that piece of paper out.” Read it, and let it recharge you.
Watch her TEDxHarrisburg talk now: