Fresh Starts for Different Results

Like New Year’s, the start of each school year brings opportunity – a chance for fresh starts, for promises of better or different habits, and, too often, for back-sliding and regret. What happens to our good intentions? At the core of this puzzle is often a tension between what we want to do and what we feel like doing. I want to eat kale regularly, watch documentaries rather than reality shows, and start all my projects and assignments on time. In reality, I’ll likely feel like eating carbs, channel surfing, and putting off until tomorrow what doesn’t have to be done today.

The dynamic behind the want to do and feel like doing game is complex. There are many forces at play. Temperament, internal and external motivators, a sense of urgency, perseverance, rationalization, and even distractions can all play a part.

Fortunately, we don’t have to understand what produces all these complicated factors in order to change the dynamic. Allow me to offer three ways for altering the balance of how we perform:

  1. Make plans that are informed by past experience — not feverish wishes of best-case scenarios
  2. Make it easy to avoid temptations
  3. Practice self-compassion

Let’s look at each in more detail.

1. Make plans that are informed by past experience — not feverish wishes of best-case scenarios.

As you prepare for each task, reflect on a similar task from the past. For example, the 10th grade research paper is a solid proxy of the 11th grade. How long was it? How many hours did you spend editing it? For how many hours or days in total did you work on it? Were you happy with the results? Unless you took a speed-reading course or increased your typing from 40 to 80 words per minute, you should plan for the same thing this time, and then back up your start time so you’re not leaving two days to do 40 hours of work. Having a clearer plan of what is needed, one based on fact instead of intuition or wishful thinking, will decrease the likelihood of falling into the trap of “best-case scenario” procrastination that so often puts us in a jam.

2. Make it easy to avoid temptations.

 “I came home and really wanted to get going but then got distracted by my phone.” “I tried to stay off it but then got sucked in.” How can we best avoid temptation? One strategy is to avoid it once, not repeatedly. For example, you could put your phone in a drawer, or give it to your parents for a set period of time. Taking the potential distraction out of your hands will make it easier to feel like doing what you want or need to do.

There’s valid science behind this option. Psychologist Roy Baumesiter and colleagues proposed the idea of ego depletion, the idea that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources. As that’s used up, the theory goes, our ability to control ourselves becomes impaired. Each time we take a quick glimpse of our phones and resist the temptation to dive in deeper, we’re just making it harder and harder to resist that temptation the next time it beckons. Solution: turn it off for a while. Focus your willpower where it can do the most good.

3. Practice self-compassion 

Consider your ups and downs and accept that imperfection is part of life. Ask for help when you need it, because challenges are a sure sign of opportunity for growth and change. Being kind and understanding toward yourself is a healthy way to meet the hurdles that are coming your way.

This, too, is backed up by science. In a series of studies, participants who practiced self-compassion were found to be better able to handle negative events, to hear feedback objectively, and to acknowledge their own underperformance without feeling overwhelmed by negative emotions. Not only are all of these valuable traits for handing the ups and downs of school, but they also make us less likely to favor what we feel like doing over what we want (or need) to do. Another study also showed that those practicing self-compassion were also more committed to not repeating their mistakes.

A lot of people think self-compassion is weak, but it’s just the opposite,”says Dr. Kristin Neff, an expert in this field. “When you’re in the trenches, do you want an enemy or an ally?”

Follow her lead and aim to be an ally to yourself. Start working on these tricks now, so that by the time school year is in full swing, they’re just everyday habits. You may find yourself getting better and better at avoiding the call of what you feel like doing, and getting more and more of what you want to do done instead.