Podcast: The Mental Perks To Setting Goals and Staying Motivated

Jenn talks to Dr. Lisa Coyne about how to build small habits and the importance of setting goals. They also discuss how to stay motivated and how to overcome mental hurdles.

Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital. Dr. Coyne has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters on anxiety, OCD, and parenting, and is the author of “The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years.”

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Episode Transcript

Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.

The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.

Hi, everybody. Thank you so much for joining today. If you’re joining for the first time, the 41st time, anywhere in between, just thanks so much for coming to hang out with us. I would like to officially introduce myself. I’m Jenn Kearney, and I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital.

And today’s session is all about motivation and goals. And since we’re doing it live right around the new year, we figured new year’s resolutions was a really good way to start it. But this is advice that you can carry throughout the time of year no matter whether it’s the 1st of January, the 1st of July, no matter what. And some people know motivations kind of like rolling a boulder downhill, right?

It’s going to be a nightmare to get started. And when you gain a little momentum it’s going to be easier to deal with. And from somebody who is pretty goal oriented they’re really good to have, but it’s better when they’re smart. And I don’t just mean like being reasonable, but actually like the acronym smart, so specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. I was like, I know the last one…

Lisa: I was hoping you remembered all of those. I was thinking, Oh my gosh, what is this? What is that

Jenn: For as much as I like talking about them, it’s sometimes hard to remember the acronym. So we’re going to talk about all of that today and more. So, if you are unfamiliar with Lisa, you are in for a real treat.

Dr. Coyne is a psychologist and senior clinical consultant at The Child and Adolescent OCD Institute, otherwise known as OCDI Jr. at McLean Hospital. And she’s the recent co-author of a book called, ‘Stop Avoiding Stuff.’

I always I’m like, is it stop avoiding or start doing? Because it’s the same exact thing. It’s a miniature sized book. I own it. It’s a miniature book of miniature tasks to help you overcome whatever you’re avoiding and just get it done. And I’m going to endorse it. I think it’s awesome.

Lisa: Thank you.

Jenn: So Lisa, first question, why is it so important for our mental health to actually set a goal?

Lisa: It’s really funny, but my trainer my, I guess, I don’t know what you call it my person that I needed at the gym, which I haven’t met in ages, actually pointed this out to me as well. And it’s funny.

It’s interesting knowing something academically and knowing something from the research. And it completely different to kind of like touch on it experientially and personally. We do better with goals for a lot of reasons.

First of all, it gives us some direction and it gives us some sort of structure. And this is particularly important given that this COVID pandemic era has been so uncertain, filled with so much ambiguity, grief, loss, uncertainty about how to handle it, are we handling it well, just uncertainty about when it’s going to end.

So some of the things that are normally in our days and our weeks and our months that give us structure are no longer there. And it is something that I think people are really noticing and it’s very impactful. And we’re seeing lots of things happen.

Substance use is on the rise, rates of stress, depression, anxiety are increasing in our populations. We have issues like increased even anger, irritability, domestic violence. Kids are struggling, parents are seeing increases in behavior problems in kids at home.

So this is affecting all of us in many, many ways. And one of the things that we’ve been talking about throughout this webinar series has been setting up little structures, whether it’s just few days but for now, we’re going to talk about goal setting.

And it gives you something to strive for. It gives you a direction to work for. And that’s one of the reasons it’s important.

Jenn: So can you talk a little bit about setting what a reasonable goal would be? And I know I talked really briefly about smart goals and we can dive into that a little bit more. But when it comes to like regarding our expectations, how can we create a goal that’s not too lofty?

Lisa: That is the best question. It’s such a good question. And here’s the thing, we as humans are very prone to just thinking, while you’re on the couch watching Netflix, I’m going to run a marathon.

And of course, that’s not, I know, me too. And that’s not a great goal. And here’s why. The number one reason that self-change projects fail is that we choose goals that are too big. We choose things that feel good and inspire us in our hearts but are not really attainable because we’re going from we’re not taking into account of baseline rates of behavior.

So for example, I have not been running, but I had been running prior to the pandemic. And I shaved myself down to a very slow according to like by Jenn’s standards I’m sure I like nine minute mile, which I was super proud of.

Jenn: That’s not slow.

Lisa: Oh, I think it was super, super slow.

Jenn: That’s not slow.

Lisa: But I started it like a 14 minute mile, like walking like a 15 minute mile. Now, if I said, I’m going to go and I’m going to run a nine minute mile, just off the get go, I would stop. And that would be that. And so one way to think about like setting a goal, is you got to get a sense of like what’s your baseline.

So if I’m not running at all, I’m going to start walking. And I’m going to start walking for 10 minutes. Make your goals small and doable. And when you master that smaller goal, that smaller step, then you shift to a larger one. And this is exactly how it works.

And a lot of walk to run programs, for example are, you walk for three minutes, you run for one, and you do that for half an hour. And then the next week you do, you walk for two minutes and then you run for two and it keeps going. Until you’re running for the 30 minutes.

That’s a reasonable way to set goals because it shapes your behavior. And another really important thing is, to practice celebrating meeting those small markers. So making goals small, that’s one way to do it and making them tightly linked to what you’re already doing.

Nothing too big, but something you are willing to commit to doing no matter what. And then making them something that’s positive. It’s much easier to add something than to stop doing something.

So like when I used to teach this class a lot of people would choose goals like, I’m going to stop smoking. I’m going to stop eating junk food. I’m going to stop X, Y, or Z. And that’s great. But what are you going to do instead?

And it’s really important to think about the functions and the maintaining factors of those behaviors. That might be where you want to intervene instead of stopping something. So instead of, I’m going to stop eating junk food, think about I’m going to increase the amount of water I drink a day.

I’m going to increase the amount of vegetables I eat a day or something like that. If it’s, I want to stop smoking, maybe you want to increase your healthy behavior. Maybe you want to spend that money somewhere else.

Maybe you want to take more walks. Maybe you want to work in some chats with your family or your friends on Zoom to connect with them and see if that has an impact on the other behavior that you’re working on.

Jenn: I have to imagine that it would, because even thinking about, like thinking as you were saying it, it’s not so much that you’re depriving yourself of something that you once enjoyed, but that you’re enriching your life by adding more to it.

Lisa: Correct, absolutely. And let yourself set goals and perfectly too. That’s the other thing. Is when you have sort of a black and white idea about how to do something, either it’s right or it’s wrong, you’re more likely to fail.

Do an imperfect, give yourself all sorts of like bandwidth to mess it up, do it messily, do it half-heartedly but do it, do something. Put on your shoes, get out your door. Even if it’s just that, start there. Celebrate that as a win.

Jenn: Which I do have to say, when I started running, I was not the person who was like, “I’m going to do like a couch to 5K program. I went out and I was like, can run this, this is fine.” And I made it maybe a quarter mile and was like running is impossible. And it’s been 14 years since I did that. And I’ve done a whole bunch of races in between but a very hard lesson to learn from the get go. Absolutely.

Which actually teases me up for my next question. Why is it important for us both emotionally and mentally to fail when we’re achieving goals? And if we face failure, how do we dust ourselves off? Because I know that I felt defeated a million times before and my head is just kind of like, “You can quit because it doesn’t matter.”

Lisa: I think we have as a culture has such an unhealthy relationship to failure. Really, to be honest. I think that we need to really make friends. But I think like what does it mean to fail something? That’s an idea in somebody’s head.

Like, let’s say you try something and it doesn’t go well. I mean, failing means, I’m going to quit, take my toys and go home. And that’s also a choice. You can also keep trying and you can also stay in it. And here’s the thing like, if you’re not making mistakes, if you’re not doing things badly, you’re not learning and you’re not growing.

Like to experience what we think of as failure is really a mark of our going outside of our comfort zone and trying things differently, trying things new and stretching our skills and doing things that are hard for us. That’s how we grow as people.

And it’s funny. I wrote a blog about this a while ago about, and it came up because I was talking with a musician friend of mine who actually posted about how hard it was to listen to herself play.

In learning how to play an instrument, you’re supposed to record yourself and listen to it to see how you’re doing. And she was saying, “Oh my God, this is so, I can’t, this is horrible. Does anybody else feel this way?” And lo and behold, like many people chimed in and said, “Me too.”

And when you think about, I wrote a blog about this, about being imperfect. And in order to learn something, you have to be willing to do it badly. You have to be willing to fall down. That’s how kids learn to walk.

I mean, you don’t learn to walk without falling. And so to kind of be afraid of failure, well, that’s being afraid of growth. I think we need to rethink how we think about that as a culture.

Jenn: So how would you prioritize a goal? Because obviously everybody’s got goals that they find to be really important whether it’s personal, emotional, physical, financial, but how do you know which one does get started with?

Lisa: Hmm, that’s a good question too. And aside from sort of what like once you know what it is thinking small, I think from, so many of you guys, if you’ve listened to our webinar before, know that I am a person who teaches and practices acceptance and commitment therapy, both in my life as a person but also as a clinician and as a scientist.

And from that approach, it’s not so much the goal that is important, but it’s the value underneath the goal. So for example, the value is something that you care deeply about in your life.

And one way to think about this is if you had 24 hours on the planet only that was your allotment, how would you spend them? Who would you be with? What would be really important to you? Or another way to think about it could be, if you could make your life be about something, what would that be? What’s really important.

And so those values that we have can organize our goals and they can direct us to goals. So I’ll give you some examples. Sometimes people have, if you’re a parent, if you have children, it may be important to you to be a presence in their life for a very long time. And so, if that’s important, if that’s a value, that’s going to organize behavior like wear your mask.

When you’re out thinking about COVID exercise, eat healthy, keep your body healthy and limber so that you can participate in your kids’ lives as they age and as you age. If you are a person in the service industry, if you’re a healthcare professional, maybe your value is to be of service to others.

Well, that’s going to involve your own self-care ‘cause we can’t actually care for others without making sure where were we need to be. So I would give some thought to what is it underneath, like what’s really important. And then other things will influence what you do.

Like how much time do you have, et cetera. And like, think about, you’ve probably have all heard of this metaphor of like the jar, and then this idea that you put in the big things first and then you put in the little things.

And think about what stuff can you just let go? What does it matter? ‘Cause sometimes I think really focusing and honing in on those things that we care about helps us jettison some stuff, that’s just bologna that we don’t really need.

Jenn: So how do we combat too much too soon? And I know I’m guilty of this. I’m going to eat healthy. It’s going to be great I’m gonna have salad. I’m going to have my coffee black. And then it turns out that I hate lettuce and I want creamer. So how do we combat doing too much too soon without just quitting altogether?

Lisa: Yeah, I think we sometimes fall victims to wanting change really quickly. And here’s the thing, change never really happens in big jumps. Not really, not unless like something happens in your life that changes everything for you, but mostly it changes incrementally over time in small steps.

And so, the whole idea of new year’s resolutions is one that’s so time limited. ‘Cause like when the new year’s over, in June, you’re not going to be thinking about your new year’s resolutions. A different way to think about it might be, what habits do I want to start to nurture and sustain over time?

And so that’s why to start small. And that’s one of the things that will help you kind of like, you can shoot for big things. It’s just, you have to learn to break them down into little pieces to get there. Like one of my favorite I like, I guess examples of this is trekking in Nepal, which was not something that I ever thought I would have on my plate.

Jenn: You mean you didn’t just like fly to Nepal one day went to…

Lisa: Oh my God. Dear God, no. And it took a lot of like, I had to build like over time over months and months to do this and to think really carefully about how to do this. And like, it was a win. I learned to be very flexible about like, just go to the gym and see what happens.

If that’s all you can do, just go to the gym. In most days, once I got myself there, I could do what I needed to do. And it was really worthwhile. But sustaining that over time, you have to really have that idea and that goal that bigger thing. And a value of mine is seeing the world and experiencing different cultures and being adventurous.

I love that. That makes me feel so alive. And it’s something I want to share with my family and my friends. And so in the service of that, am I willing to get up at like 4:30 in the morning and go on stepper in the gym? Yeah, do I like that? No, it sucks, of course. And I’m willing to do it because I have this value that I want to move towards in my life.

Jenn: So do you have any advice for when you feel like you’re running out of steam, how you can keep up your momentum or even give yourself a pep talk?

Lisa: Hmm, I think that that’s one place where all or none thinking tends to trap us. That once we stop, we’re done. Like once you, if you’re trying to like eat healthy, and then one day you eat half a chocolate cake, seriously, this never happened to me.

Jenn: Oh that sounds-

Lisa: Never mind. And then you think that’s it, forget it. I just can’t do this. I think learning to step back from your mind kind of telling you those stories about how you can’t, and just kind of saying, you know what, tomorrow’s another day, I’m going to jump back into this tomorrow. And just continually making those choices over time.

Every moment you have the opportunity to make a choice, are you going to turn towards this? Are you going to turn away? And slowing yourself down. Like you said, something really I think important at the beginning of this, when you were saying I’m going to slow down and really kind of notice things and appreciate things.

That slowing down and noticing like, what am I up to in this moment? Am I going to choose to step off this train? Or am I going to stay on it, even though it’s hard? Every moment is going to present those little choices. And really noticing that, and really celebrating those choices that you make is important, really important.

Jenn: Yeah, I think the mindfulness part of it, is just such a big deal too. ‘Cause we spend so much of our lives doing things for other people and like getting wrapped up in everything for everyone else.

So for me, my motivation and my goals are a lot of how can I embrace this season of life that I’m in, in a way that serves me, but also doesn’t detract from caring for other people and doing my job well.

Lisa: And you’re making me think there’s a great blog and we should definitely send it out to these guys who are listening by Steve Hayes who was one of the founders of ACT Therapy. It’s called something like, ‘how do you do stuff, hard stuff when you don’t want to?’ And it’s a Psychology Today blog and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing the title. But it’s really great.

And it talks about really slowing down and being mindful of these things. And to be really kind of technical for a second if folks are really thinking like, I want to actually change some stuff. There’s a few things you need to think about. And I want to talk a little bit about how we learn. Is that okay, okay.

Jenn: That actually, that teed really nicely to the next questions, so please take it away.

Lisa: Alright, there you go. So when we learn, we learn. There are three things to remember. And all you have to remember is ABC. And that’s one kind of learning. We call it operant learning. And this is learning to do things differently by choice.

So the A is the trigger for your behavior. It’s called an antecedent. I’ll give examples of these as we go. So for example, I woke up this morning and one of my self-change projects at the moment is, instead of tossing the dogs, one of whom is sleeping behind me out in the backyard in the morning, to actually go and take them for a walk, because A, they like it.

And B, it’s good for me, “COVID 10.” Get rid of that “COVID 10” that we have acquired. So the antecedent, the trigger when I got out of bed was, I don’t want to, I had this thought, I don’t feel like it, it’s too cold. I want coffee instead. Coffee would be so nice.

Do you really want to like get all those like winter clothes on and go out? Oh right? All of that was going on in my head. That’s a trigger. The behavior, the B of the ABC is your behavior. So what do you do? So if I wasn’t mindful, that trigger would have led me to just simply avoid and go make a cup of coffee and toss the dogs out in the back. And that’s where mindfulness comes in.

Noticing your triggers or your A, antecedent. And when you notice, that gives you the opportunity to choose. Now, happily, we also have a third term in our little equation and that’s the C, the consequence. And the consequences, what do we get when we engage in this behavior?

You do, you get, and that’s in that book that Jenn just talked about. The habit, ‘Stop Avoiding Stuff.’ So what happened for me, was I went out and I took the dogs for a walk and it was beautiful. And I walked down by the sea and I could see the waves and it was sunny and the dogs met other dogs and had a great walk.

And it was just beautiful. And that was really reinforcing. That made me want to go again tomorrow. Now I’m sure tomorrow I’m going to wake up again and the same triggers going to happen. I’m going to want a cup of coffee instead.

Jenn: Every day until May--

Lisa: Every single day forever. And again, that’s where the mindfulness comes in. So it’s stopping me noticing. So in order to really manage your own behavior, you have to start getting curious about what is the feeling, the thought, the sensation I had in my body that happened right before I did this thing?

And after I did this thing, what did I get? Did it give me something that’s going to make me do it again? Did it take away some unpleasant thing to make me continue that behavior? So to think about what we call the triggers and the consequences maintaining factors for our behavior.

So had I given in to my trigger and avoided, and had that cup of coffee, that probably would have been reinforced too. I love coffee. But then I probably would notice, I would have felt more down and I would have felt like a failure. And I would have had that thought like, Oh, see, I can’t do it.

So we get stuck in these cycles and really slowing down and paying attention is key to hacking them. Just keep it really simple. Make your goals small, make them smart, as Jenn said earlier. And keep, just remember every moment’s a new choice. There’s no all or none here.

Jenn: That reminds me a lot of, I’m working my way through the book, Atomic Habits, by James Clear. Have you heard of that?

Lisa: No, is it good?

Jenn: So, it is. It’s really good. So the concept is that an atom is super, super small. So by making super, super small changes, that accumulate to like 1% a day, you end up making, I think he said a 37% increase in behavior changes by the end of the year, if you commit to 1% a day. So it’s those like really small shifts that make a really big difference.

Lisa: Same principle, I love that. That sounds great. You should stick that up and give the audience that too.

Jenn: I will. That is, I highly recommend it so far. It’s been really easy to digest too. So that’s been, it’s been really good but--

Lisa: So guys, think about that. Like if you’re listening, think about like, what is something that’s atomic for you that you make a promise to yourself that you will do no matter what. And as you think about that, really listen to yourself.

And if the answer is yes, go for it. But if you’re arguing with yourself, you’re already choosing not to. That means it’s too big. And that’s something to really, again pay attention to and see. But make that commitment.

And no matter what means, whether you’re tired, whether you’re unmotivated, whether you have a headache, whether you really want to, whether you really don’t want to, under any condition, you will do this thing, period. And that’s just what happens.

And we do those things all the time in different areas of our lives. We just need to bring it to bear when we want to learn new stuff too.

Jenn: Which we did have a couple of attendees say that the blog is called, ‘How To Take Action When You Don’t Want to.’

Lisa: Thank you.

Jenn: Thank you for that clarification. And thanks for doing the research for us in real time.

Lisa: It’s a really great little blog. I really love that blog.

Jenn: So keeping on the track of like the theme of learning. If a goal is to be a better student, how do we train ourselves to better retain information or even just focus on that one thing that’s in front of us?

Lisa: Hmm, that’s a good one. And it really depends on, what are the things that are getting in the way of you being a good student? So it’s a very useful thing to talk to people who were good students and say, “How do you study? Like, what do you do?” So that’s one way to start learning.

Another thing is to listen to yourself. So for example, if you, so many of us have, me included, executive functioning deficits. And this is something I learned to write out over having them for many years. Unmedicated or anything like that. It’s important to take breaks. It’s important to move around.

And if you go in thinking, Oh my God, I got to study for six hours, which is the case a lot in grad school or any other higher learning, that’s great, but that’s also not going to happen. So thinking about paying attention to yourself and going, “How long can I study before I start to get really antsy?” And then schedule breaks for yourself. That’s one thing.

Attention to detail is another one. Like repetition reversal. I’m a huge fan of like three by five cards. That’s pretty much how I got through grad school. Just learning them and studying like learning every scrap of information I could.

But I think, again, it’s the same principle working small. Like you’re going to want to shoot for like I want an A right now, but think about what are the behaviors that you need to shape and nurture that are small, that can grow over time.

And don’t forget, we’re not so good at celebrating successes when they’re not like, perfect. So making sure you acknowledge your efforts and that you acknowledge the hard work you’re putting into this and the steps along the way. That is actually a behavior that is critical ‘cause what you’re doing is you’re creating your own consequence for taking action.

One of the things that I used to do, whenever I taught this class, I would take on self-change projects. I never did one for studying, ‘cause I was a professor at that point but there were many other things. And working in small immediate rewards for doing something that’s hard, is really, really essential.

And so I used to give myself tiny rewards like half an hour of Netflix or whatever after I worked every day. And then at the end of the week, if I met my goal, then I got something bigger. And that was really great.

I actually paid myself a certain amount of money for losing every five pounds. And I bought myself really nice leather jacket because I did that. It was great, after another five pounds.

Jenn: Yup, and I know that there’s even apps that are out there too that have a monetary value behind you sticking to a goal. And I know one of them is fitness specific, because if you don’t actually stick to the goal, you have to pay into it. And it’s like a crowd-sourced thing where if people hit their goals, you end up essentially chipping in like $5 to whatever they ended up accomplishing. Yeah.

Lisa: Wow.

Jenn: Pretty interesting.

Lisa: Yeah, so small immediate rewards and then bigger ones if you hit your milestones, that’s one way to do it. So like for every, you can think about pages read math problems, practice, et cetera. And another thing too is, we tend to shy away from the things that are uncomfortable for us.

So most of us have peaks and valleys in terms of what we’re good at academically. I was much more a writer than a math person and I still love math. I just found it harder and not as fluent.

And so it was harder for me to stay in practicing something that made me feel dumb all the time. And so increasing your willingness to be uncomfortable while you’re practicing something difficult is essential. Same with anything, music, sports, academics, you name it.

Jenn: So how do I help encourage others to start setting goals? And I know people who do this as a New Year’s Eve activity with their spouse, and that’s really cute. But I know my partner’s not going to sit down and be like, “Oh yeah, we’ll have champagne and talk about what we’re doing next year.”

Lisa: So encourage others in your family in your practice or all of the above.

Jenn: So I would say, because it was a pretty vague question, I would say probably people in your close circle, does that help?

Lisa: Yeah, I think I always let others lead with that. So I don’t, I mean, I don’t know if I try to impose views about what people should change, but more, I’m very curious about the things that really matter to them and things that they wish for that they’re not doing.

And I would start there. And I think I would encourage people to scale back big things like to dream big, but act small. Like really dream big, act small, celebrate the small wins. And that’s kind of how I would think about that. And the other thing too is be a cheerleader when you see people really struggling with things, praise the effort, not the outcome.

There’s a lot of perfectionists out there that if they can’t do something right or perfectly immediately, they’ll stop. And there’s plenty of data behind this. When you think about kids and intelligence, it’s much more important to praise the effort than the outcome.

And so I think if you’re going to help someone change it doesn’t necessarily help them choose goals, but it will certainly help them along the way of maintaining those behaviors that will lead them to their goals.

Jenn: So what happens if when you set a goal it doesn’t align with the goals that your family might have.

Lisa: Hmm, that’s a big question. And I guess it’s going to depend on different family members. And I think that if you set a goal for yourself with authenticity that’s genuinely you, making a space for your family if you live with them, to disagree with you and being willing to accept the discomfort of that really, I think that that’s a tough one and it’s really hard.

On the other hand, maybe your family is trying to say something that’s important. Like lots of times people may, we’re not good observers of our own behavior. And sometimes families can see things that we don’t in ourselves.

So being open to what they’re saying, if you value I guess your relationship with your family and kind of just listening to it not responding right away and taking it to heart and kind of just considering what is the impact of my behavior on my family? And is that important to me? And should I consider maybe compromising in some way?

And again, like these are very different answers but I don’t know the specific situation. And I would say, think about what matters most. One of the things that gets people in trouble with families and friends who have different views is the attachment to being right.

The attachment to, I have to win the argument. I have to be the correct person. I have to prove other people wrong. And I don’t know if that’s what’s going on here. Maybe, maybe not. But that is something that we actually write about in Stop Avoiding Stuff as well. And we all get caught up in it. Like I have a right way of seeing the world, you are wrong and I’m just not going to listen.

And I think part of living together especially if you’re cooped up together in a pandemic, is going to be about acknowledging that feeling and that urgency, and thinking about is that really the most important thing here? Or is there something more important that I want?

Jenn: So as somebody who does not have children but has seen the plight of many children during the pandemic, when it comes to screen time and healing burnout and overwhelmed, how can you encourage your kids if you are a parent to be more motivated?

Lisa: That’s a really good question. And again, I’m going to say motivated to what? And I think that, I think making a space for things to not feel so motivated is going to be more important than motivating.

I think I’m a big fan of meeting people where they’re at and helping them take a step from where they are, rather than where we think they need to be. So if I were a kiddo and I had a parent who was nagging me to be motivated, that would probably make me go in the opposite direction.

But if I had a parent who sat down and said, “You know what, I’m unmotivated too. Doesn’t it suck, Oh my God. Let’s hang out for a few minutes and do something. And then maybe we can go back to doing our work now.”

So there might be something underneath that issue with motivation, ‘cause it is so hard. Like think about what we’re asking kids to do. Sit still in front of a screen for all this time. And yes, many of them are abusing it. I totally know that. I have teenagers too. Or I have a teenager and a young adult now. I see it.

I mean, I don’t think any of this is going to be perfect for anybody. But it’s really tough. And just keep in mind that, a lot of these guys are grieving the loss of the normalcy in their lives. My 15 year old keeps asking me, “Mom, can I go to the field and play soccer with my friends? And they’re very safe, they were masks.”

But the answer has been no, because our infection rate in the community is above 5%. I can’t risk it. We have elderly people in our lives and we want to protect them, we want to keep them safe. And my heart is breaking every time I say no. And I know how hard it is and how disconnecting it is.

You feel like if you’re a middle schooler or a teenager, you may feel unmoored from your social circle. Especially if other kids are doing things that are less conservative or less careful. So just keep in mind that there’s probably a lot of stuff underneath that lack of motivation.

And I would open with empathy and again help them take a step from where they’re at. This is hard for all of us. And there’s no perfect way through this for kids or parents.

Jenn: So we have someone write in who said, “As somebody who works in the mental health field, I sometimes find it difficult to practice what I preach when it comes to motivation.” So how do you cope with having an understanding of self-care and motivation, but you don’t always prioritize it yourself?

Lisa: When you find the answer tell me. No, but yeah. I think we all struggle with this one. And I think again, one way to think about this is, if you’re trying to talk to yourself into it, you’re probably not going to do it. And a different way to think about it is, can you make a promise to yourself to do one small act of self-kindness?

Even if it’s like, a five minute break, a pause reading a few pages of that novel that’s been sitting by your bedside table. Planning a vacation for a year from now when we get out of this mess. And I think that sometimes we can use pretty ineffective ways of motivating ourselves.

And one of them is to try and kind of beat ourselves up because we’re not doing the thing we think we should be doing. That is generally and you guys can try this yourselves and see, but that’s generally an unhelpful way to do it.

But instead, slowing down, making a space for whatever you’re feeling, noticing what your mind is telling you about all this stuff, stepping back from that. And then in that space, making a choice. Make a commitment to yourself that you will do this one small thing.

Then if you’re a mental health practitioner, these are really useful practices. Because if you are trying to do something for yourself, you’re starting to learn what it is like for your clients when you ask them to step up and do this in their lives.

And so for those of us who are in the field, I think it’s essential to try and practice this just to see if for no other reason, to see how hard it is to actually change our own behavior. It gives us a whole new understanding of what the folks that we work with are struggling with.

And it also emphasizes that, it’s not like a we’re mental health people and we have all the answers and our clients do not. We’re the same. We struggle with the same stuff. And the shape of it might be different but we have the same issues that our clients have as well.

Jenn: Going along that vein, I know you had mentioned previously sometimes major changes are imposed on somebody rather than being a choice. And the first thing that comes to mind is the pandemic.

We’re all going through the same struggle regardless of socioeconomic structure, class, et cetera. How do you break out of the mindset of not being able to think beyond, I don’t want this, I want my money back. I’d like my money back on 2020. Thank you very much.

Lisa: I would want to get on this ride. I would like a refund. Yeah, I think that we spent an awful lot of time trying to avoid things that are unavoidable. And so one thing to notice is, what parts of this are under our control and what parts of it are not.

And it’s not going to fix it but it will be less effortful to sort of put down the things that are beyond our control and focus on things that are. So that’s one thing. And the other thing is, to make sure that we practice gratitude. And noticing an appreciation of the things that we do have.

We had some very sad news in our scientific community this week. A couple of days ago, a very young colleague of mine named, Leon Harris passed away. She was very young. She was a leader in our community. And she was such a generous spirit. And it was an unexpected health issue. And she passed within two days of having it.

And things are fleeting and things are fragile. It’s really important to slow ourselves down and be mindful of the things that we have. Not just the things that we want, that we don’t have, the things we have lost, but the things that are here now.

And to communicate that appreciation to the people around us when we have that. I think those are the things that are markers of where we’re at our best. And those are the things that are going to help us get through this pandemic.

Jenn: Do you have advice for supporting people that encounter new types of failure as part of learning? And the person who asked this question said, “I’m thinking of our medical students who are so accomplished and so impressive, but are always embarking into new things where they may not be super successful right away, or even at all.”

Lisa: Yeah, I think again, it has to do with changing our relationship to failure. I think if I’m remembering correctly, there’s a whole museum devoted to failure in Sweden.

Jenn: It’s not the museum I was thinking of. There’s a museum, there’s a museum, and I think it’s like right outside Boston called The Museum Of Bad Art where they actually celebrate people’s inability to draw or anything.

Lisa: Oh God, I got to go.

Jenn: And they give them like a full-blown art exhibit.

Lisa: That’s awesome.

Jenn: And I thought that’s what you’re talking about. I’m sorry.

Lisa: That sounds great. When are we going?

Jenn: When the pandemic ends, we can go to The Museum Of Bad Art. I’m sorry, please continue here.

Lisa: Ah, it’s okay. I mean, the fact of life is that, we fail way more than we’re ever going to succeed. And you know, again, there is no real failure. That’s an idea, but we’re going to fall down a whole lot. And I think making a space for falling down is essential.

Especially if you’re a medical student. Especially if you’re a young psychologist. And like when I mentor my students, we make a huge space for this. This is how we learn. We learn from trial and error not figuring out how to do it perfectly. And then just doing that.

Nobody does that. And I think asking yourself the question have the students ask themselves the question like, “Am I willing to make a space for failing in the service of being an exceptional doctor? Am I willing to give myself permission to fall down?”

If it means I will gain from that experience and better serve people. And to listen for the answer there. Are you willing to be humble, to be small, to sit at the feet of the people who can teach you?

Those are all important questions and essential I think if we’re going to be growing. And I think the pandemic asks these questions of us all the time. ‘Cause this is a learn as you go kind of situation for all of us really.

And if we’re not willing to get it wrong, I mean, there’s no perfect here. There’s no manual, there’s no map. There’s only putting one foot in front of the other. And when the stray off the path, getting back on it.

Jenn: We had somebody write in asking, “What would you say to somebody who says that they can’t use a reward system due to feeling like they could just quote, watch Netflix now without actually doing the thing?”

Lisa: Right, and that would be yes. And that would be not a useful way to use a reward system. And I think that’s your data. Like I think to use it, is not to feel ready, get comfortable, it’s to choose, and to choose to do something hard and defer.

First you do, then you get really simple principle. And if you’re like, ah, but I’ll just watch Netflix now and say, Oh, the reward system didn’t work. That’s kind of not really how it works. And so what I would say is, think about what are you willing to do, and are you willing to be uncomfortable while you do it and then reward yourself for that thing later.

Jenn: Good advice.

Lisa: Yeah, yeah. And by the way, we all do that. I too watch Netflix before I do the hard stuff sometimes, so you’re not alone.

Jenn: I made the grave mistake of getting HBO Max a few weeks ago.

Lisa: All the worst, yeah.

Jenn: And I love the TV show, Friends. So since it’s on there I’ve now forced myself in by like 80th rewatch that I have to sit on my stationary bike. So if I’m going to watch it I’m going to be doing 22 minutes cycling while I -

Lisa: You know what?

Jenn: So it’s my own reward system.

Lisa: Since we’re talking about failure and TV watching, I watched a really fun show that I want to recommend about this very thing. And it’s called Chef. And it is really funny and warm and all about what happens when you crash and burn. And then you choose to get back in the ring.

Jenn: Is that with Jon Favreau?

Lisa: It is with Jon Favreau have you seen it?

Jenn: Yes, I stopped. My partner watched most of it and I kept popping in and out…

Lisa: What are my favorite things.

Jenn: Which is my love language. So yes, I can get behind that.

Lisa: So highly recommend that one. And that was like, just a fun thing to watch over the holidays.

Jenn: So is there a relationship between resilience and motivation?

Lisa: Hm, that’s a good question. I don’t have like a study booting up in my mind that I can quote it here. But what I would say is, resilience means when you fall down... “choosing.” And I think we have a story about having to be motivated to do things. I don’t know if I agree with that.

Like I think it’s helpful. And also one thing that we can think about is, how do you practice doing things even when you’re unmotivated? Because there’s plenty of times we don’t want to go to work. We don’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. We don’t really do the hard thing. We don’t want to do the dishes. We don’t want to walk the dog, plenty.

And we can sit there working hard to feel the right way, so that we do the thing. Or we can choose, we can notice how we’re feeling and not be bossed around by it and just choose. And some of the hardest things I think that we do, end up being that. They end up being that ladder.

So I think it’s important to kind of notice what’s your story that you have around, what do I need in order to do this thing? And what if that, and notice that as a story. And notice that at any given time, you can choose to do hard things.

And will they feel good? Not always, sometimes not at all. But sometimes they will bring you to where you want to go. And so I think I would say, hold onto that notion of needing the motivation lightly.

And see if you can practice choosing under any conditions no matter how you’re feeling. And again, make the things that you choose small steps such that you’re willing to do them no matter what.

Jenn: Do you have any advice for dealing with the resistance that comes along with changing a habit? The person that wrote in says, “Sometimes I find it difficult to make the choice that is good for me in the long run.”

And as someone who has eaten a lot of salad I can totally relate to this. That moment generally does come with a lot of resistance. So any advice?

Lisa: Yeah, I’m just thinking about, there’s a few more things that we didn’t mention that are super helpful in changing habit or developing habits or changing habits. And they are to think about your context.

So think about what can you do to make it harder to engage in the sorts of behaviors you don’t want to be engaging in and easier to engage in the sorts of things you do. So for example, if your house is full of sweets and you want to start eating salad, that’s not going to be very helpful.

So think about maybe buy more salad and you put a donation in a little bucket for the money you would have used to buy your cookies and save it for something else. That’s one example. Another thing is to build a team who can help you and keep you honest.

So lots of times when we are changing habits, like say for example, you want to quit smoking or reduce it. Let’s say you want to reduce your drinking. Since drinking has been on the rise during the pandemic. If you’re hanging out with a group of people who drink heavily, that’s going to be really challenging for you to change.

See if you can get them on board or shift how much time you’re spending. Do something else with them other than something drinking related. Think about making a team of people who can hold you accountable when you fall back.

So if they see you pulling that cigarette out of the pack they might say something to you. Or have a buddy if you want to start exercising. Have somebody who will walk with you. So making a team of people who can hold you accountable and be models and also reinforce you for doing the things that you say are important, that’s critical. I think that that’s something that’s really useful.

Jenn: So one thing that we have encountered a lot of at least in the last year, we’ve come to acknowledge it a lot more, burn out. How do we maintain motivation even when we’re burnt out?

Lisa: So I think, there is the rub, isn’t it? And I think that trying to be motivated when you’re burned out, is probably an unhelpful thing to do. I think letting yourself, just meet yourself where you are, and acknowledge how you’re feeling.

We spent so much time trying to run away from what we’re feeling and kind of push it down and push it away and just get through it. That causes more trouble than simply acknowledging, like I’m burned out, this stinks. This is uncharacteristic of me where I don’t want to do my job. I feel like dialing it in. I just feel really stuck.

And letting yourself be where you are and practicing some self-care and some self-kindness in that space that you find yourself in. And then finally, even if you’re burned out, if your work is important to you, then turning back towards it in small ways and making sure you celebrate the small successes.

Give yourself plenty of bandwidth for failure because one of the predictors of burnout is feeling like you have to do things perfectly. And being all or none about. So making sure that you are really acknowledging the efforts that you’re putting in. And just letting yourself notice it’s hard, getting some support, getting some help, talking to someone.

If you have an employee assistance program, that’s really helpful. If you’re burned out as a parent we’ve done lots of webinars on that. Really not beating yourself up for feeling the way you’re feeling. But noticing it as this is a space where a lot of us are hurting right now during this pandemic.

Jenn: Do you have any insight into what the behavioral steps are that are before action and motivation and how can we tap into that, to actually start moving and take action?

Lisa: Sure, I think the first thing is to think about what is important to you. Then set a goal that’s consistent with that value. And then if that goal is really big, that’s wonderful. But break it down into smaller steps. Like what are the first things you need to do?

Like, let’s say you want to write a novel. Well, the first thing you need to do is open up that document and type. Give yourself permission to type 25 words, and see how it goes. Then you can build from there you can make your goals that small.

So I think that those are the pieces. For one is, think about like, what do you really care about? Like why are you wanting to change this or develop this? Is this for you or for someone else? What does it take from you not being able to do this thing what’s the cost of it?

And then breaking it down to small, small goals and being systematic about it and rewarding yourself as you do those small steps. And then when you master those small steps, making them bigger and tracking those and rewarding. And I think that that’s how it happens.

Jenn: So, last question, but certainly not the least. If a goal that I have is to be more mindful and serene, how can I incorporate more peace into my life?

Lisa: Hmm, that would be lovely, wouldn’t it? So I think that mindfulness is something that is separate from sometimes serenity and peace. And it starts with just the simple practice of paying attention. And I think one part of peace is being in the present moment.

And so noticing that like when you’re practicing, paying attention on purpose. Noticing is your mind kind of in the future thinking about all the stuff you have to do, or is it in the past ruminating about things that you didn’t do, and gently bringing it back to just the present and keeping your awareness with your five senses.

And starting with that and just letting whatever is in that moment with you be there, whether it’s serene or not. And I think the serenity and the peace comes from just that practice of shaping that awareness.

Jenn: I know you said you weren’t ready to run a marathon but we basically just did one in an hour anyway. So Lisa, I cannot thank you enough for all of the information that you’ve shared. This was so much fun. You make my job so fun. So thank you-

Lisa: It was great to see you.

Jenn: So much. It was great to see you too. And seriously, thank you for all of the valuable information you provided us today. And to you joining us, thank you so much for joining this ends the session.

Until next time, be nice to each other, be nice to yourselves. And remember, set some smart goals. So thank you so much. Take care everyone.

Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.

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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.

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