Before you do any further reading, please hold your breath for 20 minutes. A silly proposition, right? You cannot do it for two reasons. One is that holding your breath is simply pointless – it serves no larger purpose that you may have. Second, the goal is inconsistent with who you fundamentally are. As a human being, your nature requires you to take at minimum a few breaths every minute. You can certainly attempt the pointless goal of holding your breath for 20 minutes through applying willpower; however you access it, with the result being both painful and energy depleting. In fact, trying to accomplish any goal that fundamentally conflicts with your true nature will wear you down both emotionally and physically.
We fail to hold our breath for 20 minutes because each of us has a Biological Incentive System (BIS) [William B. Irvine PH.D.: On Desire – 2006] that reminds us – and requires us – to breathe on a regular basis. Yet a human’s BIS does more than facilitate regular breathing. Our BIS works by motivating us towards actions that make us feel good, such as sex, eating, and helping others while simultaneously keeping us away from actions that make us feel bad, which in this context can be defined as actions that deplete our energy, rather than release free energy. Through our evolutional past, this BIS has been critical to both our survival and ability to reproduce our gene pool.
The hard drive of our BIS is made up of 16 intrinsic, hard-wired motives or desires [Steven Reiss, PH.D.: Who am I?- 2002]. What makes the structure or architecture of our BIS personal is the unique combinations of different strengths and weaknesses in strivings contained within each of these 16 motives or desires. For example, one individual may have strong strivings toward exploring new ideas, whereas another may prefer to use proven ideas and methodologies. Neither preference is right or wrong; it’s simply that an affinity towards one practice or the other is a reflection of how each individual’s BIS directs their preferences and actions. While one person may find satisfaction and happiness from going through the creative process of exploring an idea or concept that may not necessarily have an immediate purpose, another may be more driven by the practicality of ideas, and consequently only explore a new idea when he or she feels it has a relevant application.
Most of us are familiar with the folly of espousing corporate values and goals that are fundamentally in conflict with the “Organizational Incentive System” (OIS). The OIS is that structure of existing management and Human Resource systems that are there to incent a particular set of behaviours in the organization. What happens when you try to change the desired behaviours to promote, for example, better teamwork or a longer term strategic focus, when the majority of the behaviours promoted within the current OIS foster individual and short term performance?
For change to happen within a corporation, a corporate culture must be fostered, through being enabled by the careful consideration of the design and application of the OIS that will motivate individual and collective behaviour that supports the strategy or change agenda.
The requirements for personal change do not differ greatly from the requirements for organizational change; however when we address personal change we rarely look at the influence our particular Biological Incentive Systems (BIS) will have on our personal development goals. Just like in the organizational example, our personal development goals must be aligned with our unique and personal BIS. We are not ‘blank slates’ and we cannot impose whatever change we want on ourselves. While we are malleable to a certain extent, we all have personal limitations and we come into this world uniquely “organized in advance of experience” [Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind-2012].
For change to happen, our personal development goals and BIS have to cooperate with each other or our good intentions to change won’t bear fruit in a sustainable way. We know that we have a finite amount of willpower to draw on in order to sustain and maintain behavioural change [Willpower: Baumeister & Tierney]. When the use of willpower conflicts with our BIS, we are pushing too hard uphill, and the willpower muscle will tire quickly, returning us to our old habits. Recall the example of holding your breath indefinitely. This goal was fundamentally contrary to our nature or BIS, and therefore our willpower was depleted very soon. For willpower to be able to sustain its application for lasting personal change, it needs to work in harmony with our BIS.
Let me share with you a practical example of how this plays out. Earlier I talked about the basis of this BIS, which is our personal and unique intrinsic motive structure – or, as Dr. Steven Reiss has formulated, “the 16 basic desires” (See figure 1 below). Satisfying our personal motive structure makes us feel good temporarily and allows us to feel energized. When we are not satisfying our basic desires, we feel bad and/or depleted energetically.
Figure 1 (The Reiss Motive Profile)
An example from my own motive structure is exercise. I am hardwired to have “strong strivings” toward exercise and consequently, I feel good when I exercise and bad when I don’t. However I also have to apply some willpower to my exercise regime. The push required by accessing willpower is aided by the pull of satisfying my inborn natural desire to exercise. On the other hand, I have a friend and colleague, who has been told by his doctor that “he needs to exercise regularly”. Within my friend’s BIS (unique motive structure), there is little natural motivation for him to physically exercise. He has “weak strivings” for physical exercise (see figure 1 above) and exercise does not naturally make him feel good or energized. Instead, he feels self-indulgent and guilty for wasting time that he feels should be applied toward tasks that fulfill his other desires, and are in greater alignment with his larger purpose in life. He also has very weak strivings to be around people and would often rather be alone. Being with people for an extended period of time requires the push of willpower, but without any of the compensating pull from his personal motive structure. Consequently, prolonged social engagements can leave him feeling de-energized. While his BIS may prevent him from enjoying the gym or social situations, it serves him greatly in other ways. Within his unique BIS, he is motivated to both; spend time alone as well as explore and develop new ideas and concepts. He reaps great enjoyment from being alone in a room reading, thinking, and developing new ideas for practical application.
Therefore, establishing the goal to, “Exercise four times a week” would be an inappropriate use of my friend’s limited reserves of willpower, as there would be limited desire to pull him toward the goal, as well as little pleasure derived from its achievement. This was just too much of an uphill battle. However, taking into consideration how important it is for him to apply his energy toward the problems of the world (consistent with his larger purpose in life), as well as doing things that make him feel good or satisfy his intrinsic desires, the goal can be reframed as, “Go for an hour long solo walk four times a week, plugged into his audio books.” This new goal allows him to exercise in a way that serves his BIS because he can simultaneously listen to lectures and essays on the topics that support his larger purpose and are fun for him to explore. When my friend acted on this goal, the required willpower to incorporate this new habit was easy to sustain, as this goal was very consistent with his BIS. Therefore, willpower required limited energy to sustain the desired changes. He was no longer pushing up a steep hill. Also, after a six month period, his blood pressure and cholesterol moved toward normal. Was he exercising regularly? Yes, but other motives than physical exercise were accessed to improve his health indicators.
Figure 2 (Framework for Sustaining Happiness and Success)
In conclusion, when creating goals for personal development, ask yourself the following question: Are you starting with your particular BIS or inborn motive structure in mind? Doing so will help you frame your larger purpose and personal development goals in a way that are consistent with who you are. You have a limited amount of willpower, so be careful not to use it inappropriately. Access your pull strategies through satisfying personal motives, to minimize the required uphill push of willpower. You can sustain your use of willpower as long as your development strategy is freeing up more energy than it is depleting.