Environmental Reinforcement of Your Goals

Daily affirmations are something you’ll commonly see recommended in pop-psychology books. Each day you verbally affirm your goals as if they’re already accomplished. However, you usually won’t get any results at all with this approach — in most cases it’s an utter waste of time.

Why is this? Because every thought is an affirmation. If you spend 5 minutes a day saying to yourself, “I am a nonsmoker,” but 100 other minutes include thoughts that re-affirm your identity as a smoker, such as periodically lighting up and seeing the smoke rise in front of your face, you just won’t make a dent.

The basic idea of trying to condition yourself to think in new ways is sound, but verbal affirmations for a few minutes each day are a lousy way to accomplish that.

If you want to make some big changes in your life, you’ll need to shift your identity and your habitual way of thinking. In previous posts I discussed behavioral conditioning, which focused on shifting your behavior, assuming your thoughts will follow. Now I’ll tackle a different approach, which is that changing your habitual thoughts can lead to a change in your behavior.

Chances are if you’ve been stuck in your current situation and have been unsuccessful in your attempts to grow into a new role that you really want to achieve, your daily thoughts are continuing to reinforce your old role. Many people who want to take this leap can’t seem to do it, and one reason is that they spend too many hours per week reinforcing their old identity while investing much less time thinking about their new identity. So if you want to start your own business, but your full-time job causes you to spend 40+ hours per week thinking of yourself as an employee, it will be tough to make the shift.

Let’s bring this concept down to earth with a real-life example. One of my goals for this year was to shift my career from game publishing to writing and speaking. But of course I have an existing business which reinforces my old identity in the games business. In order to successfully make this shift, I have to change my thoughts and my behaviors. I have to stop thinking about selling games and put more thought and energy into writing and speaking. Duh.

But what happened when I tried to make this shift initially? I started out my day as usual and got caught up in the mindset of game publishing. I worked in the same office, communicated with the same people, visited the same forums, had to deal with the same kinds of emails, and so on, and after several weeks I was still on the old track. My environment was reinforcing my old identity, my old thoughts, and my old behaviors. For a few hours here and there I’d work on the new path, but very quickly I’d get sucked back into game publishing work.

I had to change my environment to stop reinforcing my old identity and start reinforcing my new one. So I joined Toastmasters and started attending weekly meetings. I shut down the popular game developer forums I was running and worked to transfer the community to another site, and then I stopped reading those forums completely. I automated my games business as much as possible, so it doesn’t require much maintenance at all. I decided not to renew my Association of Shareware Professionals membership for 2005, even though I’ve been a member since 1996. I declined an invitation to speak at the Game Developers Conference in 2005, even though I moderated a popular roundtable there for several years. I altered my office to reinforce my new role. I cleared out the top drawer of my filing cabinet to make room for speaking and writing files. I removed all programming-related shortcuts from my Windows desktop and rearranged my web browser favorites to add links to speaker sites while cutting game-related links. I stopped reading game and shareware blogs and found new speaking and personal development blogs to subscribe to. I cut back dramatically on the amount of game-related email I handle. I switched around the people I communicate with most frequently, such that now I spend more time talking to people who think of me as a speaker in training vs. a shareware or game publisher. I started going to new seminars and workshops on speaking. I started this blog. I discussed the change at length with my wife, so we’d both be prepared for what to expect. And so on.

Some of these may seem like drastic steps; most are minor adjustments. But the net result has been that I’ve been able to flow through this transition to where I now think of myself 90% as a speaker/writer and only 10% as a game publisher. My environment is now reinforcing my new role instead of my old one. The momentum is building in a new direction to the point where it would be hard for me to go back.

All of these adjustments create new thought affirmations. By removing most of the links to my old identity, I remove those triggers that would cause me to think in the old ways. And on top of that I’ve added new triggers to affirm my new career path. And these new thoughts affect my actions; my daily routine is now very different than it used to be. A year from now things will be even more different as the results begin to accumulate.

I must say it was hard making some of these changes initially. What helped me was to start with the small changes, like rearranging my office. Then after a week or two, I was better able to make the medium changes. And after some time, I was able to commit to bigger changes. Now my sense of identity has shifted so much that when I run into something that would reinforce my old role, it’s a lot easier to say no.

I recently popped into an old games forum I stopped reading months ago just to see what my perspective on it would be now. It was a strange experience; the discussions seemed familiar but also alien. I got a sense of just how different my thinking is today than it was six months ago. It’s like the feeling of going back to an old class reunion, when you realize that the people you knew back then are totally different people today.

I think this process can work with many other kinds of changes too. If your environment is reinforcing an identity you’re ready to shed, how can you change it? A few little changes won’t be enough to overcome inertia. But if you can keep building those changes so that you shift more and more of your environment to your new role, that probably will work. You’ll shift the balance of your thoughts from affirming your new identity only 5% to pushing it to 50% and beyond. Many people get started on this process, but they don’t take it far enough to see results.

Look around your home and ask yourself objectively, “What kind of person lives here?” If I didn’t know who lived here, what would I conclude about the inhabitant? Do the same for your office: “What kind of person would work here?” Then make a list of the six people with whom you spend the most time, and ask, “What kind of person would associate with these people?” Are your answers to these objective questions congruent with the kind of person you want to be? If not, then what kind of environment would that person have? What kind of friends? And how can you begin gradually shifting your environment towards the new one? Maybe you can’t immediately get a whole new house or a new job, but what little things can you change right now — today — that would start you moving in that direction?