After finishing The Gratitude Journal, I haven’t posted much online. I tend to get carried away with New Year’s resolutions and idealize a handful of new routines I want to adopt seamlessly into my pre-existing behaviors. In an effort to avoid making that same habitual mistake, this year I want to take the pressure off. I don’t have to be so rigid with my routine and expectations of self going forward. So these blog posts are just some thoughts, some, more formal and edited than others. Here’s to going with the flow in 2021.
Christopher McCandless, famously known as Alexander Supertramp, or “Alex”, was only 24 when his remains were found in the Fairbanks City 142 bus outside of Alaska’s Denali National Park. Chris (pictured below) fell in love with the idea of self-actualization and freedom through nature thanks to authors like Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, and Leo Tolstoy. Chris spent time hitch-hiking around the United States seeking a deeper understanding of himself and forming genuine relationships along the way. Chris was described as a warm, intellectual, and caring individual by his family and those he connected with on his travels. From South Dakota, to Mexico, to Arizona, and San Diego, he lived simply on his adventure to the great northern unknown. Chris ultimately survived more than 100 days in the Alaskan wilderness, documenting his experiences along the way. McCandless’ story was brought to life in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”, and later made into a popular movie in 2007.
What Krakauer identifies as the most compelling piece of McCandless’ story was a desire to live deliberately and to understand ourselves in a larger context (we’ll come back to this). Chris believed these answers were only available by spending time in nature. Chris possessed an unrelenting desire to let go of comfort and live in harmony with the world around him. Some considered his choices courageous, others naïve. Only the reader can decide for themselves if they believe Chris should be remembered as a soul seeker, a true naturalist, or a misguided and anxious youth. The real question then becomes, what motivated McCandless to live this way? A theory traditionally used in youth sport and exercise can help explain why.
Competence Motivation Theory
Chris McCandless was someone who had an unrelenting motivation to live in alignment with nature. After graduating from Emory College, he left home, changed his name, and adopted a singular goal on a path meant for self-realization. Testimonies from the McCandless family reinforce that Chris sought control in his life, drew confidence from previous experiences traveling, and was emotionally invested in everything he did. These reported behaviors support several key components of Harter’s (1978) Competence Motivation Theory.
Competence Motivation Theory is designed to explain the root and various sources of an individual’s motivation. In traditional sport and exercise applications, youth athletes may derive motivation after positive reinforcement from a parent, constructive feedback from a coach, or the ability to be independent/autonomous. These hypotheticals are all social contributions to three specific areas of Harter’s theory. An athlete’s competence, perception of control, and previous successes or failures, are each influenced by the social context of the situation. We can use a youth athlete practicing free-throws for this example. Let’s say our athlete shoots 80% from the line this season. We can argue that she has high competence, plenty of success to reference from, and a high perception of control. Conversely, if our athlete only shoots 40% from the free-throw line it’s easy to assume the opposite. In Chris McCandless’ situation, it isn’t as black and white. These three factors act as foundations to the underlying affect of an individual and their resulting motivation. Some athletes may find motivation from routine failure if they still believe they have a high perception of control and competence to perform a task. Sport and exercise psychologists can only debate the importance of each factor to explain the resulting motivation of an individual. In the case of McCandless, Competence Motivation Theory maps effectively to Krakauer’s narrative.
“Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer is an inspiring and cautionary tale about the call of the wild. From an early age, McCandless was enamored by nature and restlessly motivated to live a life he chose for himself. Let’s explore where his motivation possibly originated.
When considering initial social contributions, Chris was described as having a poor relationship with his parents. His father, Walt, routinely criticized and negatively reinforced Chris’ efforts to travel and live freely. After Chris took a cross country road-trip, his father questioned his decision making and further strained the relationship between the pair. Although it was not a direct intention, this may have only emphasized Chris’ idea of independence. Again, we know that everyone draws motivation from these sources differently. So although the social context may not be positive, that might only push Chris further to accomplish his goals. Next, we look to understand Chris’ competence, his successes and failures, and his perception of control. Krakauer does his best to fairly highlight the criticisms of McCandless’ approach to living off the land in his writing. Many Alaskan natives and self-described naturalists wrote to Krakauer after the story was first published. People said McCandless must have had a death wish after failing to adequately prepare for a life in the wild. I will defer to those more experienced and agree with their assessments after reading “Into the Wild” and reinforce, Chris could have been more prepared. His previous experiences as a youth with his Uncle Travis in the woods don’t seem to constitute the blind faith McCandless had in himself throughout his journey. These successes may seem minor to the outside observer, but to Chris, we can only speculate they gave him the confidence to live off the land indefinitely. Finally, his perception of control. Growing up, Chris seemed to like things a certain way. He was self-assured in his methods and approach according to his sister Carine and moved headstrong in that direction. A potentially significant contribution to Chris’ lasting affect and resulting motivation. Based on Chris’ personal journal, photographs, and passing relationships he formed on his way to Alaska, one could argue Chris held a positive affect. He was not only excited to live in nature, but he felt like it was indeed his greater purpose. Can affect alone propel an individual’s motivation? It’s hard to say. What is certain is that Chris was described as a kind person with a positive disposition on life. Using Harter’s (1978) Competence Motivation Theory, we can begin to understand what may have motivated Chris to live a life untethered.
Like McCandless, I can personally understand the intoxicating desire of seeking answers in nature. It’s as if an understanding of self can only be achieved by letting go of everything else. I too have rushed off on solo trips into the woods, made brash decisions about relationships, and demanded answers when face to face with starry nights and expansive landscapes. All in an effort to discover a version of myself that exudes confidence and dismisses doubt upon my return. McCandless wasn’t interested in easy or comfortable. Unfortunately, he had this absolute belief in his ideals that lead to his death. As of writing this, I am 26 years old. And although I am still intrigued by thoughts of solitude that bring me deep into the woods of Maine or the mountains of Colorado, I believe there must be a balance.
For there are people who discover what was always close at hand only after a long and painful journey, and they remain under the impression that the most awkward road was the only road.Alan Watts, “Become What You Are”
I’m not sure where my choices or career may take me but I don’t think that’s the point. I think what Chris discovered, the intention to “live deliberately”, is what I want to ultimately determine my motivation. I’m working on accepting things for how they are and in this process, I know that everything changes. I don’t have to fantasize about escaping to the wild, or rather living a happy life, to know that intentional choices may still one day bring me closer to this reality.
If you’re like me, and that most likely explains why you’re reading a blog post about improving habitual behavior, you like to set goals. Flashback to January 1, 2020. This is not only the start of a new year but a new decade! I personally spent hours writing and deciding on resolutions, goals, and dreams that would act as landmarks for the next 10 years of my life. You can imagine my disappointment when everything went to shit. 2020 became a year of the unexpected as people still deal with the lasting effects of a global pandemic, environmental disasters, and so much more. What I now realize about the goals and intentions I set a year ago, is that they weren’t based on anything other than superficial interests and expectations for the future. It didn’t take long for me to come up with excuses as to why my new year’s resolutions in 2020 were no longer viable and how I was already behind on my goals for the decade. Sound familiar? My mother openly admits to never setting new year’s resolutions anymore because she hates feeling disappointed when they don’t last. Setting goals for an entire calendar year can be a daunting task. This post will explain why new year’s resolutions never seem to work and how we can combat this by forming habits backed by science.
New Year, New You? Not Really.
I probably won’t be the first person to point out that just because the calendar changes, this doesn’t make you a new or better person than a day prior. It is the choices we make in the present that define who we are. Undoubtedly, it is exciting to set new goals and intentions and what better time to start than a new month or a new year? This gives us a reason to start or to change but that 30 day green-juice-only cleanse you’re trying out probably won’t last. Inevitably, you’re going to run into the same challenges and use the same excuses to explain away why these new habits just won’t stick. You find yourself in the same spot you were last year and suddenly our new year’s resolutions fall by the wayside. Triandis (1980) suggests that deliberate intentions may become irrelevant in guiding behavior when the behavior has been performed repeatedly in the past and has become habitual. These behaviors are influenced by a number of factors including our physical environment, our social support, our personal beliefs, and more. What are some physical, social, or personal factors that hold you back from achieving your goals? How can you eliminate this barrier?
This Can Go One Of Two Ways
If it makes you feel better, some of these habits are reinforced subconsciously and have been for a long time. This is known as Dual Processing. Daniel Kahneman explores this behavioral dynamic in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Kahneman outlines two directions of thought in System 1 (S1) and System 2 (S2). S1 is an automatic response, totally error prone, and largely instinctive. S2 is your high level critical thinking, uses far more energy, and is logic based. Tim Gallwey describes the same phenomenon in his book, “The Inner Game of Tennis” by similarly describing Self 1 and Self 2. So consider this, you just finish a long day of work and you’ve been meaning to get a workout in. In the past, you might procrastinate this by scrolling through social media instead of putting on sweats and sneakers for a run. S1 prompts this behavior because its instinctive and requires little to no energy. Essentially, our brain says, “been there done that”. When the social media behavior is positively reinforced by feelings of comfort or lethargy, the behavioral pattern becomes deeply ingrained (automatic). S2 may recognize we have a new year’s resolution to workout more, we’re well aware of the benefits of exercise, but can still be difficult to act upon. Shifting from S1 to S2 can require energy and intentionality. Maybe we find we don’t have the motivation that day. Maybe we’re not being mindful of obtrusive habits. Whatever the cause, when we’re setting goals and expectations for a new year be aware you’re not only fighting to form new habits but you’re also fighting to end old ones too. Which of your existing habits get in the way of new habits?
Habits of Thought
Often times, we think of habits like routines or physical acts that resemble brushing our teeth after waking up in the morning. These are easier to identify but when considering patterns of behavior that are reinforced by our subconscious, we need to go deeper. Hutchinson (2020) outlines the following habits of thought that explain how our new year’s resolutions run into mental challenges:
- The Fortune Telling Habit – frames irrational thoughts as bad habits
- The Mind Reading Habit – frames projected feelings as bad habits
- The Emotional Reasoning Habit – uses how we feel to interpret the situation
- The Awfulising Habit – taking one instance and assuming everything is awful
- The Must and Should Habit – projecting insecurities
- All or Nothing Thinking – projecting absolutes
These habits of thought can be detrimental to behavior change and for good reason. It’s hard enough to curb a bad habit like smoking or nail biting, now we have to consider the mental side too. How do you choose to be mindful of your behavior? How might you be able to increase your perspective in various areas of your life? Which of these habits of thought give you trouble?
How To Cultivate Sustainable Change
All of this is to say, change isn’t easy. We know there are so many factors working against us and the additional pressure of maintaining a new habit for an entire year is difficult. Some of the barriers that have prevented behavior change in the past, may still be affecting us. Below you can find a helpful graphic outlining how to reinforce good habits and get rid of bad habits (Hutchinson, 2020).
Whether your goals in 2021 are to form new habits or get rid of old habits, habit stacking is a popular way to approach this intention. Habit stacking takes a series of small changes and builds rituals you follow on a daily basis. Each habit is triggered by the completion of the one that preceded it. What this means is if you’re trying to start meditating for five minutes in the morning, before you start driving to work or open your computer you sit down to practice. This leads to sustainable behavior change because we’re building on something we’ve already included in our routines. You might run into difficulty on the weekend when you don’t have the structure of work to reinforce this habit but below are some helpful systems of support that can also contribute to sustainable changes in the new year.
- Helping Relationships: Getting social support and using significant others to effect change
- Reinforcement Management: Being rewarded by the self or others for engaging in positive behavior
- Social Liberation: Taking advantage of social situations that encourage the positive behavior
- Stimulus Control: Using cues as a catalyst for the positive behavior
- Self-Liberation: Becoming committed to the positive behavior
Ultimately, we have to find what works for each of us as individuals. You might find success joining virtual running groups or going on vegetarian diet with a significant other. Long lasting habitual change doesn’t happen automatically. It takes a daily dose of intentionality. James Clear in “Atomic Habits” writes about getting 1% better every day. This regular practice of positive behavior change is far from easy but unequivocally worth it in the long run.
Goodreads names 4 Books to Help You Build New Habits that I believe are wonderful resources for those interested in additional reading. I hope you take comfort in knowing that change is constant. It might not always feel like we’re making progress, especially when we’re looking at changes within the self, but every moment is different than the last. I encourage you to track your progress. Start a journal, film a vlog, check in with a friend. Be open about your good days and your bad days. Habitual change is a product of several factors so don’t be hard on yourself if you make a mistake or if you don’t get the outcome you were expecting. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be patient.
Hutchinson, J. (2020, October 1). Habits: Building the good & breaking the bad [Slides]. Brightspace. https://springfieldcollege.brightspace.com/d2l/le/content/30489/viewContent/739250/View
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Triandis, H. C. (1980). Reflections on Trends in Cross-Cultural Research. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 11(1), 35–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022180111003