Why You Might Want to Talk to Your Dog

Image of large dog with compassionate attentive look

A while back, I realized I needed something to help reinforce my intentions when I didn't seem to be following through on them. For example, I intended to work on a big project, but I found myself doing some little tasks, or taking a longer break than I really wanted or needed.

The problem for me in those situations was that my longstanding "duty" premise kicked in and started chiding me. “You should be working on the big project.” “You shouldn’t be taking an extra-long lunch.” This made the situation unpleasant but didn’t help move me to action. In fact, my duty premise's chidings were counterproductive because the voice of duty had lost all credibility with me, and it instead triggered a contrarian reaction.

I needed a rational, self-respecting way to re-orient.

State your rational intention

I came up with the following: Say, out loud, what my rational intention is. For example, “My intention is to finish the newsletter,” or “My intention is to outline my marketing plan,” or “My intention is to work on next year’s budget.”

If you feel silly, say the words out loud to the dog. Or the cat. Or the phone with no one on the other end. It matters that you say them out loud. This both slows you down and lets you hear the words and consider them. The extra effort to speak the words gently reinforces your rational commitment in action. It's a low-effort, high-impact act that helps you focus on what is important to you. It often is all that you need to get going.

Like any tool, it takes some practice to use it regularly. But once you test-drive it for a while, it is very effective. One of several things happens, all good, all duty-free.

When you hear the words, your subconscious says, "Yes, that's what I want to do." And you go do it.

Or when you hear the words, your subconscious says, "That is not the right thing to do now," and you spend some time thinking about what is right.

Or when you hear the words, your subconscious says, "Yes, that is right, but I am having trouble settling down to do that." Then you know you need to use a more deliberate exercise to activate motivation. The simplest thing you can do is to spell out your reasons for taking this action. Why is this the right thing to do? Work it out until you have identified what's in it for you.

Unearthing motivation

Sometimes this takes several steps. Suppose you are having trouble settling down to work on next year's budget. When you ask yourself why this is the right thing to do, your answer is, "I have a big block of time and I have to get it done so I should just do it now." You need to take a few more steps to see where the values lie:

  • "Big block of time" — you probably want that time to concentrate, so that you can figure out the budget more efficiently, and get the whole thing done at once. This could save you hours by doing it now rather than trying to do it in bits and pieces.
  • "Have to get it done" — it is probably something assigned to you by your supervisor. Well, you need to know the selfish reasons for doing it, too. How does it help your job? Your group? Your department? Your company? Why will it make your life easier if you do it? What will you learn from it? If there's a rational reason to do this task, there is a selfish element to it. There is a reason this is on your plate, not someone else's.
  • "I should just do it now" — this probably means there is some urgency. Why the urgency? If you don't do it now, what will it interfere with? Will doing it now mean you have a better weekend? You figure it out.

Depending on the answers to your questions, you might expand your reason to be: "I want to do the budget now because I have three hours of uninterrupted time. If I do it now, I'll be able to concentrate so I can get it done faster. It's not that hard a job, so a lot of the joy will be in just ticking it off my list. But I will also see whether we can hire that extra team member. I'll have an argument to make to the department head. That would make a lot of things easier around here."

More convincing, isn't it? But only you can figure out those kinds of reasons.

A fourth possibility happened to me one day. I noticed that I wasn't being productive, so I told myself to say out loud my rational intention. What came out was, "I have no idea what the rational thing to do is here." Oops.

This prompted a 25-minute thinking-on-paper session to clarify my priorities. When I finished, I promptly launched into three hours of work to set up a solution to a problem that had been nagging me in the background.

All because I tried to say my rational intention out loud. And couldn't.

Why stating your rational intentions works

There is a world of difference between reminding yourself of your rational intentions and trying to force yourself to do something. When you remind yourself of your rational intentions, you do two things:

First, you show a serious respect for yourself. You don't make these decisions lightly. The fact that you thought about a decision and reached a definite conclusion means something. There is an assertion of "I." To formulate your intention, you use "I" or "me" or "my." "My intention is to finish the newsletter."

Second, you leave open the possibility that something may need to be reconsidered. You are not omniscient. Something may have come up. You may need to do a little re-thinking — but only if there is a new substantive issue to consider.

Over the years, my duty premise has nearly withered away. One means to that end has been stating my rational intentions aloud to make sure I maintain a self-respecting mindset, not a duty-oriented one.

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