If you’re like me (and I assume you are since you are taking the time to read this post) you have things in your life that you want to change. How many things you want to change, and how strong your desire is to achieve those changes, will vary quite a bit; but we all basically want better for ourselves.
There are a lot of common cases: I want to stop smoking, I want to lose weight, I want to get out of my dead-end career, I want to be more social.. These are things that countless people struggle with.
Sometimes we get so fed up with the way life is going, that we decide that there is no one thing we want to accomplish. Instead, we look at wide array of unsavory habits or lifestyle choices and decide to do away with all of them. We set our sights on the person that we know we can become and rush headlong into the fray.
Sometimes this approach is wildly effective. Especially if you are currently in a position of extreme motivation. More often than not, though, this drive only lasts a short while and before you know it, we’re back to our same old selves. To see examples of this, most of us need look no further than last December’s New Year’s resolutions.
The reason for this urge is pretty straightforward. The idea of becoming this ideal self overnight is incredibly appealing! In our modern world of instant gratification, we desire for self improvement to be no exception. But the thing is, undergoing personal change is one of the hardest things we can do in our lives.
So why do we fail when trying to undergo so many changes at once? The reason is complex and varies from person to person, but it boils down to willpower and our limited supply of it. When you first start to make a change in yourself, each time you choose to work toward that change, a big portion of your will is put into achieving that goal. Perhaps you are trying to start getting into an exercise routine. For the first few weeks, it will often take a great deal of energy to get yourself to pick up that first weight.
This would not be such a bad thing if we had an unlimited supply of willpower. But that is not the case. Every time we must use our will to act against our base desires, we use up a bit of willpower from that day. This is often referred to as decision fatigue. Some decisions (like figuring out what socks to wear) may not drain much of your willpower, but others (like remaining fully engaged at work or school) may take a great deal more. At the end of a long day of effort, we often feel completely drained and unable to exert any further energy. It is during times like these that we start to feel less attached to our new commitments. Why go to the gym when Netflix is right here? Why cook a meal when there’s a McDonalds on the way home?
When we attempt to make too many changes at one time, we tend to find ourselves hitting that decision fatigue wall prematurely. We get to a point where we are so tired that we cannot imagine making another decision. We simply want to relax. It is during times like these that we often back off from one or even all of our new found commitments. When we fail in something we set out to do, we often become overcome with hopelessness. We feel defeated and give in. This can cause a cascade effect that can lead to being right back to the proverbial “square one”.
This is where the analogy of spinning plates comes in. I imagine all of the positive changes I’ve made in my life as plates spinning on the tips of narrow rods. Some of these plates spin effortlessly. They have been spinning for years and years without incident. They sit farther away from me and require very little attention. Other plates are closer. They wobble from time to time and need a bit more care. Then there is the plate I just set on its rod and have begun to spin. It requires a great deal of my concentration to keep it level. I am able to focus my attention on it because the other plates whirr on passively in the background.
Some look at me and see a lot of spinning plates and think “Gee, that must be nice!” or “Wow, he must have a lot of discipline”. But what many don’t realize is how long it has taken me to get all of these plates spinning. At one time, every single one of these plates was like the one I am currently tending. I once stood in an empty room, surrounded by broken plates and cursing myself just to get a single good thing going.
That’s the point. I don’t believe most of us can simply start in an empty room, spin up six or so plates and keep them going. Outside of the aforementioned “extreme motivation”, it’s a noble cause to simply work on one thing at a time. Focus hard on that one thing and eventually, it’ll become easy. It won’t require constant care and you can move on to something new.
With practice, you can get better. With time, you will be able to tackle more than one thing at a time. But that may not be how you start. Be patient with yourself and realize that slow progress is always better than no progress at all.