Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Grossman Motivation Series Part 8

These are great motivation pieces written by a great runner, Eric Grossman. I had to copy these from Running Times just for my own record in case this is ever removed from the site. LOVE IT! You can find it by clicking here or just read below.

The energy in the dorm would just be ramping up when it was time for me to trek across campus to the Blue Room. Every Saturday night, I donned my apron and stood behind the counter, mixing frappes for the slow trickle of customers until close. I maintained this trade-off throughout college; I gave up socializing on Saturday nights. In exchange, I gained a small amount of money, but, more importantly, I was always up for the Sunday morning long run. To be fair, all of my teammates made the run as well. The difference was that, on occasion, some of them felt a lot worse than I did.

College students, even serious athletes, occasionally succumb to the temptations readily available on weekend nights. When I was in college, Saturday morning races meant we retired early on Friday night. Saturday nights were more negotiable. In the balance? We all knew about the workout for the next day: It would be the time honored Sunday morning over-distance run. Early on Saturday evening, a runner might well decide to lay off the alcohol and turn in before the wee hours of the morning, knowing that the quality of the next day's run would be higher. The calculus changes, however, with the developing circumstances of the evening: more friends arriving, better music playing, a girl lingering.

We attributed a weakness of willpower to those who fell prey to such temptations and would show up in less-than-optimal condition on Sunday morning. We imagined that temptation stood, like the devil, on one shoulder and outmaneuvered the angel on the opposite shoulder. “Poor sucker!” we'd think, “If only he had listened to the angel!” He could have been cruising through the relatively easy 6:30 per-mile pace. Instead, he’d grit his teeth and barely cling to the back of the group. He may have even expressed regret for his lack of restraint. If the run was bad enough, he may have remembered it well enough for his little angel to bring it up the next time. “Hey dummy,” the angel would say, “You remember what happened last time!”

This raises an important question: If the angel prevails the next time, will our runner be any less of a sucker? Isn’t he still just doing what he is told and obeying the immediate pros and cons as best presented to him? I want to convince you that responding to the angel takes no more strength of will than responding to the devil.

The bottom line is that any choice is ultimately a calculation that pits the pros and cons against each other. Every decision has its reasons. We may think a particular decision ill-considered, but who are we to say? If the Sunday run is important enough to trump Saturday night festivities, then it will. We let the angel and the devil duke it out, and side with the most convincing.

This dynamic implies an existential and practical problem for runners. Like G.W. Bush, we want to be “the decider.” We want credit for our accomplishments. Before the season, we want to set goals for what we can do and afterward, we want to reflect on what we did. If every decision was simply a cost-benefit analysis that depended only on the circumstances at the time, we really can't take credit for any of it. Worse, much of what we want to take credit for is our effort. If our decisions to exert ourselves are really out of our hands (and in the hands of talking critters) then how can we claim that effort as our own? Any autonomous motivation seems doomed to dry up before we even get started.

You may like to think that you really are like the president and can exercise veto power over your little critter advisers. Well, suppose that I grant you veto power? You get to decide now between that next drink and going home early. What sways you? Some reason, right? You didn’t just make the answer up, did you? In that case, you might just as well have rolled the dice or consulted a random answer generator. You can’t then turn around and claim credit for that decision! So while I don't think we can escape the immediate calculus that goes into our decisions, I would like to explore the sliver of light that gives us some leverage over our decisions.

We think of decisions like they happen on the spot, when we have to provide the answer to the perennial question: “Should I stay or should I go now?” This is thankfully false. Your ray of light is that you can make decisions over time that build a long perspective to deal with the question. The trick is to stack the negotiation so that the best answer is the one that is supplied by your critters.

There are a lot of ways to stack your decisions. I’ll provide three that I think provide potent examples:

1. Set the default to "run." Suppose the devil and the angel provide equally compelling cases. Instead of a “jump ball,” have a possession arrow and keep it pointed on the same team. The angel always wins the ball. So, the weather’s really bad, but you skipped the last one and you really need this workout. The scales are about even. Check the arrow: It says “run.”

2. Invert the incentives. Hard workouts can be uncomfortable. Your devil critter can use this against you. “You’ll suffer if you try these hill repeats,” he’ll say. You can, over time, make the discomfort its own reward, like training for a hot race by turning on the heat in the car during the summer. By continuously reprogramming your own responses to dreaded stimuli, you can make them feel positive. “Bring on the heat,” you’ll say. Likewise, late on Saturday night, you can embrace your monastic celibacy.

3. Raise the stakes. Think of the runner who stops at a port-a-potty, and, fiddling with his running shorts, accidentally drops his keys into the froth. He bangs open the door, takes off his wedding ring and throws it in after the keys. His buddy, waiting outside, exclaims “What are you doing?” to which the runner retorts, “You didn’t think I was going in just for the keys, did you?!” Similarly, you can give your runs epochal significance by making them seem disproportionately important. You can imagine that missing a run or even being less than ready to do one well, will set you back compared to your competition. While it may not, strictly speaking, be true, the motivation to put running first may indeed serve to keep you ahead of your nearest competitors. And that motivation is increased by stacking the negotiation.

Eric Grossman is a member of the Montrail ultrarunning team. At age 40, Grossman won the 2008 USATF 50-mile national championship. Check back next week for more of Grossman's motivational tips.

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