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Effort alone isn’t enough

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When you decide to become somebody who goes running three days a week, your first real test will probably be when one of your running days lands on a rainy day.

This is where the running newbie begins bargaining. He bumps the commitment to the next day, with a vow to give it an extra special effort. Then it rains that day too, and he’s essentially back to non-runner status until he decides to start again.

Meanwhile, to veteran runners it’s just another day, because they’re runners, not wanna-be runners.

But this creates a bit of a paradox when it comes to getting from beginner to veteran, in running or anything else. You want to develop enough discipline that you can run when you don’t particularly feel like it — but to do that, you have to run when you don’t particularly feel like it.

This is what makes major changes so difficult to pull off — every new pursuit seems to be at its most “uphill” at the beginning, when you have fewer skills and less confidence than you’re likely to have for the entire rest of the path (assuming you make it anywhere.)

The traditional approach is the “baby steps” philosophy, where each time, you do a little bit more than feels comfortable and natural to you, and gradually, what was once difficult and intimidating becomes manageable.

Most people who are already good at something will tell you that baby steps is how they got there. But this approach still takes a considerable level of discipline at the outset — you have to consistently draw more from yourself than feels natural. It requires you to find willpower every time you look for it, and doing that probably requires some unseen luck.

The real difference-maker

Two equally talented, equally motivated friends living in different cities decide on the same day to begin a running regimen. (Apologies for the running theme if it isn’t your thing — substitute anything you like.) A year later, Friend A has become an experienced runner, and Friend B has reverted to couch potato, and is about try to “get on the wagon” again. The difference was only that Friend B began his endeavor when his city was experiencing a brutal cold snap, and therefore much more willpower was required of him than was ever required of Friend A, in order to get to cruising altitude.

Meanwhile, both of them now believe B is just intrinsically lazy, and that A “has what it takes.” Both are unaware that circumstances ultimately made the difference in this case, because they had the same capacity for effort. Friend A goes on to run marathons. Friend B goes on to build a Blu-Ray collection. 

The real key to Friend A’s success is that, for whatever reason, he reached a place where he felt like a runner before any additional adversity derailed him. By the time he had his first day of bad weather, he already self-identified as somebody who runs, and so it felt natural for him to go out anyway even though it’s chilly.

We often regard the “baby steps” explanation as being the complete story, because we presume that success is more-or less just a matter of effort. But there’s something more important at play that we often miss, which is the change in self-image that always comes along with a successful change in habit or behavior. In every pursuit, it aids the established people and hinders the novice.

If you go from couch potato to morning runner, however you did it, you can’t help but feel like a different person. Lazing around all morning will no longer be attractive to you. You’ll relate to everything in your life differently — food, television, your couch, the outdoors, successful people, unsuccessful people, free time, and your expectations of the future, because your moment-to-moment sense of who you are is different.

This sense is the thing that makes the real difference in any personal change. It makes the effort happen or not happen. The actual efforts involved in our goals — as in the miles we run or the pushups we do — are often less like choices and more like reactions to who we feel like we are in relation to those efforts. If you always self-identify as someone who isn’t cut out for exercise, every workout will feel like self-spite, and it is.

Look at every hill from its top

We tend to think of these identity changes as being involuntary consequences, or rewards, that come after the behavior change. You did the running, and because of the running and resulting fitness, your self-esteem and relationship to the world changed.

But it’s two-way relationship. This new identity, if you could somehow access it beforehand, would have made the running a hell of a lot easier. It would feel downhill rather than uphill. It would feel like an obvious and inviting thing to do, rather than a solemn self-sacrifice.

Personal development geeks have been exploiting this two-way effect for a long time. You can actually cultivate the new identity before or during your efforts, and this makes the behavior part a completely different experience. It energizes you rather than drains you.

With some basic creative visualization, you can consciously envision living life as the person who has already achieved those goals, and experience the reinforcing effect immediately. If you spend ten or twenty minutes envisioning what your present moment would be like if you already were in the habit of running at dawn every morning — including the consequences to your physique, sense of self-worth and confidence — you’ll find getting the shoes on and getting out the door dramatically easier.

But the effects are broader and longer-lasting than that just getting you out the door. If you make a point of locating that identity frequently, you’ll naturally find yourself grocery shopping differently, planning your day differently, and entertaining yourself differently. You’ll begin to find it more natural to do the things that will create and sustain a fitness habit, and you’ll find it less natural to do the things that sabotage it, like eating bad food and lazing around.

This isn’t a matter of “Fake it until you make it.” You aren’t trying to fool anyone, just to cultivate, as often as possible, a present moment sense of what right now feels like when you’re the person who’s already doing what you want to do.

It’s easy to overcomplicate this. Close your eyes, take ten minutes, or even five, and imagine your present-moment reality as if you’re already living the way you’re trying to live. Steve Pavlina has written volumes on this if you need more instruction.

This kind of practice is another frequent victim of kookiness-by-association. It has obvious real-life benefits to anyone who’s tried it, but it’s often regarded as schlock because so many advocates attribute its effectiveness to universe-bending magic or ancient prophecies.

But it’s totally rational. Who you feel like you are determines, at every moment, what actions feel reasonable and unreasonable, doable and not doable, natural and contrived, uphill and downhill. If you can see, even for a moment, what the path looks like from the top of the hill, no part of it looks treacherous, at least for you.


Photo by Drewski Mac

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eddy June 17, 2014 at 1:22 am

It is “fake it till you make it” in a sense, but you have to do it not to fool others but in a way to fool yourself. Neil Gaiman in that famous commencement address says that you should be wise and if you can’t be wise then pretend that you are someone who’s wise and then just behave like they would.

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 9:13 am

I agree with Gaiman, but I’m talking about something a little different here. “Fake it until you make it” in my mind refers to embodying the outward behaviors of a particular role, even while internally you don’t feel like it fits you, and then eventually you will.

In this case I’m talking about taking the time to explore what it would actually feel like if you already lived this way, in order to cultivate that feeling of comfort and naturalness first, so that when you do the behaviors they don’t clash with your internal feelings the way they would if you were just faking it.

Ebouros June 17, 2014 at 11:32 am

So it’s more like “feel it till you become it” then?

Eddieographer June 17, 2014 at 12:10 pm

To me its more like
“Become it and thats what you are”

David Cain June 18, 2014 at 9:17 am

More like “imagine it on a regular basis so that the identity that is conducive to creating it in real life is familiar to you.”

Sandra Pawula June 17, 2014 at 1:30 am

That’s fascinating, David. I have no doubt this really works and am grateful to know that. I think there’s many factors involved with willpower and change, even our sugar level. And, I think have a community of support can really help as well. But, of course, have simple tricks like this make it far easier.

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 9:15 am

I would like to write more about how to actually do this practice, but I didn’t want the article to be too long. This is a good one by another blogger:


Sandra Pawula June 23, 2014 at 3:00 am

Thanks! That is a very inspiring and helpful article.

Linda June 17, 2014 at 2:57 am

Great article, David. The whole time I was reading it I was relating it to the journey to sobriety and it is very resonant. I am a member of an online support group/website based in the UK but with members worldwide called Soberistas. It has been started by a lady called Lucy Rocca, who was a working mum who had made that journey by herself but felt that there was a need for a social-network type support for those with alcohol problems. It has been extremely popular and now has thousands of members within a couple of years of start-up.
I thought your article would be fantastic motivation for members on the site and they are happy for people to contribute content such as this. Here is the link or perhaps I could mention your blog to the site controllers:
P.S. Lucy, and many other members, took up running as part of helping to overcome their addictions so I’m sure it will doubly resonate in that regard.

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 9:23 am

Being able to see onerself on the other side of a goal really helps you become the person who can do it, and might even be essential in some cases. Sobriety or overcoming addiction seems like an especially good place to apply this.

I remember being part of a conversation at work years ago between two employees, one who had quit smoking and the other who was always talking about quitting smoking. The former smoker basically said, “You’ll never quit until you can clearly see yourself as a non-smoker.”

Richard Boys June 17, 2014 at 4:13 am

This is very helpful information. I have found that when I establish a goal, my reason to change can’t be focused just on my ego needs. I am working on making the gym a regular habit, so I key on how increased strength and stamina will allow me to be more aware in this moment, how it will allow for longer meditations, how having better self-esteem will lessen self-doubt, etc.. Yes, I think of how I will look better, etc., but I try to focus on the “higher” rewards and stay away from merely ego benefits (my looks or how others will like me more). Thanks for the great post, David.

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 9:42 am

One thing I found interesting about visualization is that you often come up with incentives that really move you, which wouldn’t have occurred to you under your normal self-image. If you tell yourself you want reach strength goals because you’ll feel great or look great, that’s one thing. But when you sit down and visualize yourself as having accomplished these things, the more subtle incentives emerge.

Say you envisioned having triple your current income, and what your life would actually, realistically feel like then. In that vision it might occur to you that you would finally feel free to take a university course just for the educational aspect of it. This idea really excites you, because it had never for a moment felt practical to study what you really want to study in university, because your thoughts about education had always been constrained by the apparent senselessness of getting a degree that wouldn’t pay off financially. So you couldn’t truly consider it as a possibility from your current self-image. Even if we never adopt the goal of tripling our income, the visualization practice allows us to explore possibilities for ourselves that we are blind to because of our current self-image.

A lot of the things that would truly make us happy are things that would never occur to us without exploring beyond the bounds of what seems practical to our current self-image. Does that make sense?

Ilknur June 17, 2014 at 4:42 am

Great article David.
I just subscribed few days ago. Now I am so happy to say that `really good that I subscribed`. Mostly I am `friend A`and I am together with a `friend B`. Sometimes it is hard to find a nice way to explain this to him in a nice and motivational way. I will use this article to explain it better. Thank you for it.

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 9:42 am

I’m glad you subscribed too Ilknur. Welcome.

Thomas June 17, 2014 at 6:28 am

This sounds sort of like positive visualization, which you should be careful with. Studies have shown that this can have the opposite effect of what you want to achieve: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2011/06/08/visualize-success-if-you-want-to-fail/

Mike June 17, 2014 at 9:43 am

When speaking with a rather pessimistic uncle of mine about positive visualization, he brought up this very article. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this David.

I feel like the point of the article relates to how sharing your goals and progress with others can hinder your work ethic. I know that if I have a meeting with my boss and we discuss all the projects and progress that I’m making/going to make, the rest of the day I basically become useless. I feel as though I’ve accomplished something great even though I haven’t done any tangible work yet. I believe the point of positive visualization is to make yourself believe that you CAN achieve your goals and that you’re well on your way so that it gives you the encouragement to start. But that is walking a thin line in some cases and I can’t put my finger on what separate the two. Great article for an opposing view!

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 10:00 am

Hi Thomas. We’re using visualization for a very specific purpose here, which is to discover a semblance of the self-image you might have after achieving a goal, so that it’s no longer so foreign to you. I suspect this is not what the people in the study were doing.

This kind of article happens a lot with magazines like Forbes. A study suggests something counterintuitive about some aspect of something well-known. They present it in an article with an attention grabbing headline like “Visualize Success if You Want to Fail,” as if it has we can now be assured that visualization (or polyunsaturated fat, or post-workout stretching) is suddenly bad when we thought it was good, when obviously it can be both and neither, depending on what you’re doing with it and how you define it.

Tracy June 17, 2014 at 3:39 pm

It seems to me that the visualization you’re talking about is not really about goals, but process. It’s about thinking of yourself as a runner, as one who shows up consistently. “This is who I am now, and this is what I do,” even if your limit is currently two blocks.

In the earlier stages, it’s hugely important to stay away from people who want to ridicule and compare, the ones who say things like, “Huh! You’re no runner. My brother runs 25 miles before breakfast every single day!” That stuff is toxic.

David Cain June 18, 2014 at 9:12 am

You’re right, it’s not specifically about goals. You don’t even have to visualize specific goals, just details of a life that turns you on. It’s more about finding the feelings that these visions generate, because those feelings allow you to relate to your goals and aspirations differently. If you’re poor and want to be wealthy, it’s likely that you won’t feel like someone for whom wealth is going to enter your life, unless you’ve spent time having some semblance of an experience in which you are wealthy in the present.

BrownVagabonder June 17, 2014 at 6:32 am

I find this article really interesting as it didn’t espouse the same old fake it till you make it theory. It’s all about getting into that mindset of being an experienced whatever. If you already think of yourself as an expert you will be less likely to quit when it becomes harder. Quitting isn’t something experts do frequently. You have already put too much time into it to quit.

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 10:07 am

I want to stress that you probably won’t be able to just up and decide to feel like an expert. It’s really about creating a scenario in your mind where you are presently an expert (or otherwise having achieved a goal), in as much detail as possible so that you can have even a fleeting experience of such a life. That way, “expert status” (or whatever) becomes much less foreign, and in certain situations it will feel natural to embody the behaviors that would move you towards that goal. Once it’s familiar enough, you can take it with you throughout your day, walking down the street with the consciousness of an expert, or even with a genuine expectation that you are becoming one.

Lee June 17, 2014 at 6:59 am

Thank you, David. You make such an important point and distinction … and science I have been learning recently is now proving that the small steps create sustainability and that it takes the brain 2-3 months of repeated action to create the physical neural pathways that could support a new habit (book: Mindsight). You post, for me, is a winning argument that like Einstein said: imagination is (or can be) more important than knowledge.

Free To Pursue June 17, 2014 at 7:16 am

Lee, you might also like “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle.

There is new research surfacing regarding the positive (or negative) impact of repeating movement and behaviour and how this changes the nerves themselves, their permanence and speed of transmission via thickening of the myelin sheath surrounding nerves. It makes that month or two of continuous, frustrating practice more palatable.

Lee June 18, 2014 at 4:46 am

Thank you F2P!! I’ll check the link out. What you’ve written about … It makes that month or two of continuous, frustrating practice more palatable … that was my thought about using imagination … providing the “why” when you’re asking yourself “why bother” :)

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 10:08 am

Einstein was so smart :)

Karen J June 18, 2014 at 12:09 pm

:) Wasn’t ol’ Albert also the one who said “You can’t change a system from the same mindset that created the system”? (severely paraphrased!)
Seems that’s what you’re addressing here…

David Cain June 18, 2014 at 12:14 pm

Yes that’s right! I guess that’s exactly what we’re doing here

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Free To Pursue June 17, 2014 at 7:08 am

This post brings up three themes for me:

1. Perception = reality
2. Comfort zone expansion
3. Grit

I believe all three have some merit and success might be a combination of the three.

1. Covered in great detail in your post so I won’t add to it other than to say that this quote sums it up for me: “You can actually cultivate the new identity before or during your efforts, and this makes the behavior part a completely different experience. It energizes you rather than drains you.”

2. The more personal transformation/growth we experience, the easier it is to move to a new state. Once someone’s comfort zone is expanded in one area, it cannot recede. Further, it makes it easier to try other new and different things, or change a habit, based on a history of success with other endeavours.

3. There is something else, other than visualization or feeling you have “arrived”, that some individuals have more than others: grit. Grit is the dogged determination some people have to see a project or goal through to completion and it appears that it may not be situational. “Gritty” people tend to apply it serially.

You gave us a lot to chew on with this one David.

BTW: Thanks for my new word of the day: schlock

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 10:12 am

There is still a question about how much of the “grit” people exhibit is something intrinsic (i.e. some people have more of it than others) or whether it’s a function of how they feel about themselves at a given moment. It is maybe impossible to distinguish this. But I can tell you that I exhibit different quantities of grit depending on my expectations of myself, which vary as self-image varies.

George June 18, 2014 at 5:12 am

Grit – I’ve started thinking of this as being the strength of the feeling. The more completely I feel that I am the person who will achieve a goal, the more that occasional setbacks just feel like details along the way; the occasional meteor collision here and there doesn’t knock Planet Earth off course. You need to keep re-summoning the feeling.

I’ve also found that doing a quick morning exercise to feel ‘grounded’ before leaving for the day is beneficial. Even standing for ten minutes and deliberately ensuring you are fully ‘in your body’ and released and that you can feel yourself being supported by the ground gives you a general strength for the day.

Ragnar June 17, 2014 at 7:10 am

Interesting take David. I am in the camp that used to self-identify as useless and lazy, and still struggle to cast off the shackles of the latter term. I recently saw a study that showed people who have struggled with depression tend to blame their character almost as an instinct when something bad happens, so maybe it’s time to add visualization to my toolbox when i make the final dash to freedom, haha.

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 10:17 am

Whether we attribute our successes and failures to intrinsic qualities or circumstances makes a huge difference. It was a big revelation to me when I learned that children who are praised for their innate talents (rather than their efforts) frequently become underachievers, because they see their successes and failures as depending on intrinsic qualities rather than their chosen approach. They feel like there’s something wrong with themselves when they fail, while others just feel like there’s something wrong with the method they tried.

I wrote about it here:


Karen J June 18, 2014 at 12:17 pm

Thanks for elaborating on that point (“They feel like there’s something wrong with themselves when they fail, while others just feel like there’s something wrong with the method they tried.” David!
I’ve “known” that about myself – it’ll be interesting to experience what difference a shift of real awareness makes…

Gemma June 18, 2014 at 9:00 pm

Wow! Big light bulb!

Thank you David!

Amanda June 17, 2014 at 7:15 am

Thanks for another great article David. This post was perfect timing into my inbox this afternoon. Like another commentator above I am working on developing healthier habits including twice weekly personal training sessions (plus twice weekly bike rides). When I got started a couple of weeks ago I signalled my intention to some of my friends and asked them to egg me on. Today I was in a meeting with one of them when I received a text from my trainer saying that he was sick and I could either reschedule my session or he could find another trainer for me. Instead of going automatically with my automatic easy (beginner’s answer) to reschedule, I asked my friend and she pointed out that my schedule is pretty full. She suggested I should go. She intervened just at that critical moment when I wasn’t expert enough to overcome the obstacle. Your article arrived in my inbox just as I was leaving for the gym and reinforced my decision to go. It’s excellent to make some of these thinking processes and challenges explicit. I love your blog. I share it with my friends and colleagues on a regular basis!

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 10:23 am

Ah, nice move! If it were a move in chess notation it would deserve an exclamation mark. There are those moments when we surprise ourselves by doing the out-of-character thing that moves us beyond our default response (but which might be normal to certain go-getters in our lives.) Visualizing gives you a way of experiencing those events in which we exceed our normal expectations much more frequently, which reduces our resistance to doing these things in real life.

Rose LaLuz June 17, 2014 at 8:41 am

Thank you for being a superb communicator.
I have followed your blog for a few years.
This topic has a very interesting perspective in the books written by Neale Donald Walsch. A trilogy titled “Conversations with God”.

David Cain June 17, 2014 at 10:24 am

Thanks Rose. I have heard good things about Conversations With God.

Michael Eisbrener June 17, 2014 at 9:00 am

It is called a structure for fulfilment. Maybe it is burning the boats so there is no escape. Maybe it is a dog that won’t let you rest until after her morning walk/run. Design a structure from a future of your choosing, not the one that appears by chance or commercials.

Kendra June 17, 2014 at 10:32 am

Great article. My family is well aware of how uptight I can be, especially in social situations, so I started joking, “Oh you know me, I just go with the flow”, immediately everyone smiles and so do I. Soon I found myself saying it automatically…inside, when things go screwy. Kind of along the lines of what you were saying.

John June 17, 2014 at 10:41 am

Great stuff, as always David. Any change has to come from within first. If we don’t ever see ourselves as a runner, or writer, or musician, we will never be these things. I once attended a webinar with Jon Morrow and he was describing his initial struggles with making a career out of writing and blogging. He was having trouble paying for medical bills and he told himself he had to envision (for five years) what it would be like to have a sustainable life and income off his chosen career. Five years to think about and tell himself it was possible and that someday, this is what it would look like. Pretty awesome.

David Cain June 18, 2014 at 9:23 am

Well he sure hit it out of the park, didn’t he? I think he is a millionaire now.

Susurrus June 17, 2014 at 11:22 am

Thanks David. Your article helps define my recent experience. Stepping outside my miserable self last Feb. I signed up at a gym and hired a trainer. I pictured myself as a lithe gramma, calm and available. Now 30 lbs lighter and much stronger I do not recoginize myself, where did this person come from and what did she do with the other me? I’ve worked hard and suffered the aches and pains but it’s as if that happened to someone else. At first, IT WAS putting one foot in front of the other, but now, though not an “expert” by any means, I am an exercising, jogging and biking gramma. This is the most surreal experience I have ever had.

“Everything changes once we identify with being the witness to the story, instead of the actor in it.” Ram Dass

David Cain June 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

This is a wonderful part of the fitness process. I’m experiencing it now that I’m into the running and kettlebelling habit. I’m actually becoming a fit person, and it makes almost every aspect of life better, far beyond the fat loss and increased energy levels. When I leave the house, I am leaving as a fit person. When I go to bed, I go to bed as a fit person.

Most of the time we only experience this after we’ve done the work, and so bridging the gap between the beginning phases and the new identity is hard. I’m sure you remember what it was like going to the gym for the first time :)

James June 17, 2014 at 12:07 pm

“Who you feel like you are determines, at every moment, what actions feel reasonable and unreasonable, doable and not doable, natural and contrived, uphill and downhill.” Couldn’t agree more. The stories and identities we setup for ourselves are important.

More broadly, I’m a huge believer in the power of narrative, which this article reminds me a lot of. For example this article (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html) talks about how families with a more unifying narrative had happier and more resilient children. And then there is this article (http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2013/03/4-steps-meaningful-life/) that touches on how personal narratives can combat depression, amongst other thing. I have more examples, but needless to say, I think it is very important, and I’m glad to have another article to add to my running collection :)

Jan Berry June 17, 2014 at 3:27 pm

I’ve been a fan of yours for years…. I love your blog. Your writing always enlightens and the ideas you so generously share expand my comfort zone and illuminate my choices. And, like a friend, you provide tools and tricks to make the inner and outer me communicate better…. Thank you.

I love “visualization” techniques, but as you said, you can’t just suddenly imagine yourself as an expert and then immediately feel the attributes of one. As another commenter said, it takes a certain amount of time to thoroughly convince the inner you, outer you, and the voice in your head that you mean business or to convincingly assume the roll of expert.

But even the best visualizations and the easiest accomplishments are difficult if you have no self worth or don’t like yourself. Self esteem is a product of realistic parental nurturing as a child. I don’t think there is a more important task as a parent than instilling self love in your children. Unfortunately adolescence and puberty do strange things to your self image but a solid foundation goes a long way towards a fulfilling life. some of us are unaware of the undermining potential of an unhappy inner-self; we live in ignorant bliss until a trick or visualization lets us hear the negativity. Realizing the problem goes a long way toward finding the worthy one that was there all the time.

Decades ago I read a simple little book called “Lazy Man’s Way to Riches.” It recommended that user’s write about 10 or so very detailed positive affirmation statements such as “I have a Classic Blue 57 Thunderbird Convertible with white interior” “I have publised 2 children’s books,” “I easily run 5 miles a day”. Repeat twice daily at a time when you can fully visualize yourself there and soon the brain begins to make you that individual so that those very specific goals feel certain. As you said about being a runner, it changes the way you live and the daily choices you make which then molds your life and accomplishment into certainty. That feeling of accomplishment gives you more confidence, focus, etc. I was very successful practicing this for a year, but big life changes happened and pushed my program into the background.

While trying to get back into it I thought of another technique that might be helpful to someone. If you can take the time to fully visualize/”become” the person you want to be but you find difficulty deciding the direction to go now at the many crossroads you encounter, try working your way backward on the “path” to see how you “got there”. For example, you will somehow know which class you must have taken to get there, or which job choice you would have made. At the very least, you will be sure of what won’t get you there!

Another tidbit to share: perfection does not make you love yourself, heart does. Be kind to the “spoiled brat” or the “abandoned waif” inside that makes you unhappy and start working together toward a better life. Love yourself unconditionally and there will be no limits.

Thank you again, David!

David Cain June 18, 2014 at 9:16 am

Thanks Jan. Affirmations are popular in the personal development crowd, but they never did much for me because they don’t lead me to the feeling that they’re true. But visualizing present-moment details of an ideal life does. So I think they’re all pointing to the same identity-cultivating process, but different techniques will work for different people.

Interesting that the author of Lazy Man’s Way to Riches is named Richard Nixon.

George June 18, 2014 at 5:04 am

It’s interesting that you talk about summoning the feeling of being who you want to be – I think that is indeed key. You can visualise and repeat phrases as much as you like, but these are not effective in themselves, only to the extent at which they generate the feeling of – not just being that person, but being that person in that situation. It’s the resultant feeling which means your imagery has been successful. Your actions then flow spontaneously from the ‘feeling-posture’ that this produces – e.g. you no longer need to use effort to overcome your cowering, nervous posture once you’ve mastered standing up straight, confidently. You stop pulling in two directions at once, and step boldly.

As regards the “magickal” aspects, this may come from the fact that people tend to notice helpful events and Jung-style synchronicities arising once they are ‘aligned’ in this way. It’s as if the ‘action-events’ that subsequently arise are not just limited and localised to those of your thoughts and your bodily movements, but extend to the environment around you, as if the world were part of your ‘purposeful body’ also, with everything moving together as one. Now, the mechanism for this may be simply that your attention is now fully focused and filtering accordingly, and you are noticing opportunities helpful to your cause because you are subconsciously scanning for them, but subjectively it tends to feel more meaningful. So I think that’s where the “magickal” interpretations come from, regardless of how this really works behind the scenes: you can seem to be affecting the world at large to move in a desired direction.

Some writers of the New Thought movement captured this, but particularly Neville Goddard in his book (worth a read, free) The Power of Awareness. Relevant quote (my emphasis):

The first step in the “renewing of the mind” is desire. You must want to be different [and intend to be] before you can begin to change yourself. Then you must make your future dream a present fact. You do this by assuming the feeling of your wish fulfilled.

By desiring to be other than what you are, you can create an ideal of the person you want to be and assume that you are already that person. If this assumption is persisted in until it becomes your dominant feeling, the attainment of your ideal is inevitable.

Captures what you were saying quite well perhaps. He focuses on using this to change oneself – he then extends it to the more esoteric notion that “the world you experience is yourself pushed out”, that what’s happening around you tends to have a consistency with the person you have made yourself (as if it was not divided), in a way that can’t be completely accounted for by direct interaction. But I think you can discard the second part and still get value from the first, according to taste.

David Cain June 18, 2014 at 9:07 am

You’ve really nailed it here George. The feeling is the crucial part. I guess this is why affirmations work for some people and for other they’re ridiculous. For some people they generate the feeling of having assumed the new identity and for others it’s just parroting. I’m looking forward to checking out Neville Goddard. Thanks for the link.

he then extends it to the more esoteric notion that “the world you experience is yourself pushed out”, that what’s happening around you tends to have a consistency with the person you have made yourself (as if it was not divided), in a way that can’t be completely accounted for by direct interaction.

As for this part, I’m open minded. It’s hard to understand how that would work in an objective universe, but I’m not married to the belief that the universe is objective. Anyway, can’t wait to read more, thank you.

George June 18, 2014 at 10:54 am

Be curious in how you get along with it. He has some ideas in other writings that are “interesting if nothing else” (e.g. that the Bible is largely a set of stories that illustrate how the world, how this ‘adopting/intending’ process works, how to live by this view.) Treat as “thought-provoking”.

Perhaps the universe can be better viewed as “a summation of subjective experiences”, since the idea of an objective viewpoint is an imaginary ideal. Lots of traditions have us inquire as to what “I am”, and lead to notion – no, the experience – that the “me-other” boundary is pretty arbitrary, although hard to shake.

All of which leads to some areas for experimentation to discover for oneself. Do our ‘feeling-intentions’ affect our world as a whole, rather than just our personal behaviour? It’s a fun idea to play with.

For me, it leads to this idea, which is independent of belief: It simply makes one more attentive. One should treat all events and experiences has having some personal significance or message for one’s path. Approach your life as if all of what happens is meaningful. Not in terms of “esoteric secret messages”; just in terms of simple, “it’s all your life, so it’s all relevant”.

I don’t think you can really go wrong with that approach.

George June 18, 2014 at 1:26 pm

And take therefore complete responsibility for your situation.

Joe June 18, 2014 at 8:15 pm

This definitely isn’t “fake it until you make it” stuff. It’s believing in yourself and the path you are on. I tried several times to start running. I gave up every time. IT wasn’t until I worked through my lack of belief in myself that the running bug caught on with me. I went on to run a half marathon and full marathon. Now, running is part of my daily habits. It’s just there. But, it didn’t stick until I believed I could become that person. It’s no coincidence that alot of cool things started happening in my life once I started down that road.

Maureen June 19, 2014 at 6:50 am

I enjoyed this a lot. What I kept thinking as I read this was making a list of “I’m the kind of person who…” – just as an exercise. Sometimes I feel like I have a longing to do things and haven’t specifically figured out what those are. Hard to envision the fulfillment when I’m not sure of the big picture.

Gia June 19, 2014 at 12:37 pm

I love this article! You wrote it just when I needed it. I’ve been actually thinking a lot about why it’s so hard for me to be motivated to do things that I want to do. I’ve been wanting to try out street photography, yet I’ve been having trouble getting out the door and actually taking pictures. I make excuses like, ‘the city is too far, it will take an hour to get there.’ But also, I sometimes wonder if I can actually picture myself as a photographer. I’d have to go up to people and ask if I can take their pictures in city streets and sometimes bad areas. I question myself, can I do that, maybe I’m in over my head. But I can’t stop thinking about doing it, so maybe it’s also fear that I won’t be good enough and live up to my expectations. But I think you were on point that if we take the time to imagine ourselves doing that activity, then we become that person who does that activity or it’s easier to do so.
So after reading this article, I actually went out to the city and took a few pictures. But I didn’t take too many or go to the sketchier parts of town. I just walked around with my camera and took everything in. It helped to imagine myself as someone who does photography instead of going out their for the first time, trying to get really good results. Maybe the next few times, I’ll focus on just walking around with my camera in the city and whether or not I take any pictures. I’ll mainly try to picture myself as someone a pursues photography and see if I can actually do this.

Luke June 20, 2014 at 10:57 am

This relates to some interesting cognitive science research: A study showed that its much harder to change habits when you’re distracted, tired, or uncomfortable (like during the workweek, especially during the mornings). A good example they used is the idea that now its fairly well-known that car commuting to work is a huge drain on money, time, health, etc. But even people who know this, and would like to start commuting by bike in the morning, usually don’t make that change because they have to make the real-time behavioral adjustment in the morning, when they’re tired and groggy. I think this directly relates to your example of trying to begin a running regiment in the middle of a cold snap.

The neurological mechanism behind that phenomenon is fairly straightforward and intuitive: substantially and intentionally changing a part of your own fundamental behavior requires a lot of electrical energy, relative to most neurological action, and a lot of time (the average time it takes to form a new habit to the point of it being generally automatic is, according to one study, around 66 days). In other words, you have to regularly increase the amount of electricity pumping through your brain on a daily basis for about two months to reinforce the new behavior to the point where it becomes a reflexive part of your identity.

Your body has a limited energy supply (and if you’re sleep-deprived or inadequately nourished, it has even less), and your brain burns about 20% of the calories you consume in a day just to stay alive and maintain itself in its current state. So if you have to spend energy on other things like maintaining conditions of survival, fulfilling professional obligations, maintaining your own physical and mental equilibrium, dealing with stress, etc.

You described this phenomenon incredibly well, as I remember, in your post “your lifestyle has already been designed”. After all of those occurring daily obligations, its dubious that a person will have enough leftover energy stored each day for the 66 days (give or take) to actually form the new, intentional habit. Its partially a matter of resource allocation, which is the “effort” part, but also of having the resources available to allocate in the first place.

That said, I’m not sure how science would explain the “look at every hill from its top” strategy… from what I understand, it actually seems like that might have the potential to backfire:

There’s quite a lot of research that indicates pretty clearly that human beings have a general tendency to not let the facts get in the way of self-identifying in the way they want to self-identify. So for example, if someone manages to adopt the “identity” of a being a “runner”, and that identifying as a “runner” makes their brain feel good about itself, the brain may end up just clinging to the identity and intuitively confabulate around the fact that they don’t actually, you know, run.

Every moment that its awake and conscious, the brain gets a steady stream of feelings from its sense of identity. If the sense of identity is positive, those feelings are good, and if the sense of identity is negative, those feelings are bad. Because the brain wants to feel good, it has a vested interest in cultivating and maintaining a positive sense of identity. Which would be a completely good thing, except for that brains are phenomenally good at rationalizing, confabulating, and otherwise subtly distorting perceptions, so they don’t have to ground its sense of identity in actual outward behavior. And if its easier just to distort reality than to make behavioral changes, the brain will usually take the easier path.

Because of this flaw in our basic cognitive design, it seems to me that developing a pleasurable sense of identity without carefully grounding it in, and reinforcing it with real-time behavior seems like it could be potentially risky. If you start viewing yourself from the hilltop before you actually get there, your brain might like how that feels, and then decide that its easier to just trick you into thinking you’re already there than it would be to actually making you climb the hill.

Penni June 23, 2014 at 4:29 am

I love the title of this post! It is so true – my belief is that effort alone is a waste of time :D but that’s another discussion :)

If I could turn a popular saying on it’s head and make it more true to our times – believing is seeing. And that is a crucial component for actualizing visualizations – if you will pardon that phrasing :)

Case in point – when I was in a service industry I absolutely hated and was champing at the bit to make a change, but no avenue for it, a friend of mine said – “Well, do you see yourself serving coffee and tea for all eternity or do you see yourself in a business suit, with a briefcase, having doors opened for you.”

The latter image captured my imagination and longing – and 2 years later it was reality.

So – a combination of belief and burning desire to create a vivid picture. For me that’s visualization that works :):)

If we can conceive it, we can achieve it…

Tony H June 24, 2014 at 9:19 pm

Great post David, I completely agree while effort is important you need a lot more to make your dreams reality. Thanks for sharing!

Deb June 27, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Thank you for this. I’m trying to get established as a freelance illustrator, so I do practice this kind of thing – I imagine myself as already successful and enjoying a nice boss-free, work-for-myself kind of life, in between projects and needing to do some self-promotion to get more work, like I’ve done it a thousand times and know exactly what I’m doing. It actually does help. I had a few gigs but then I took on a full-time job (which ended a month ago), so I’m getting back into freelancing. I don’t always know what I’m doing, but by putting myself in that frame of mind, I feel more confident. I give myself editorial assignments and pretend they’re from a paying client. It makes me feel a little less panicky and helpless about getting laid off.

Geraldine June 28, 2014 at 1:33 am

When negative thoughts enters, like what if it’s going to rain or what I’ll fail, then you develop self-doubt. I like the idea of creative visualization too.

Ektor June 30, 2014 at 8:49 am

This is so true, even if I bet lots of people who could benefit from this visualization won’t do it, afraid of appearing ridicule in front of themselves. But i would like n’ hope to be wrong on that!!!

What’s interesting is that it resembles something i thought a few days ago.

I am a young guy, really underweight and i have always envied big strong looking men. I even tried some gym a few times but never dured long, because even if i got a little stronger i still looked like a thelephone pole compared to all those big-gyms.

One day, walking in the streets, i looked at my self image mirrored in a car window. Car window glasses are curved.
There it was!!! ME! How i wanted to be!!
I saw a though looking full of muscles version of myself, i got a Big smile and started to do all those weird macho moves men do, then I thought:
If I could get or build in some way a curved mirror, I could often have a look at it to remind myself how it feels to look fit and masculine and while I go on working out, I can keep my motivation high!

I don’t know how easy is to get a mirror like that, but (Idea of the moment!) I can go look at my car window image as much as I want!

So the principle is the same, Let me know how you would elaborate the idea!!!!

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