Updated: Jun 24, 2019
When people find out I will be attempting to run the entire length of the UK's three peaks challenge from Scotland to Wales (some 450 miles) on foot, in a little under 8 days, they tell me I am mad, which I can’t exactly argue with. However, their looks of surprise turn to disbelief when I explain that this is the second time that I will be attempting such madness. The first attempt ended 150 miles shy of our target in October 2015, having conquered all three peaks and (only) 310 miles.
People struggle to fathom what might have motivated me to commit to such a mindboggling endeavour once, let alone twice. Shame on me. Yet, there are some neat cognitive tricks any of us can deploy to help overcome our fear of the seemingly impossible. Why you would want to deploy those tricks to make yourself run 450 miles is another matter altogether. Self-determination theory has much to say on this topic and I thought it might be worth sharing a few insights in this blog.
Connecting the dots
No doubt even Simon Sinek would be asking me ‘why’ on earth I would choose to undertake such madness. ‘Why’ is probably a good place to start. Identifying how what we do relates to something bigger than ourselves, can prove a powerful motivator beyond the usual carrot and stick approach to motivation. For me, it is about inspiring others to believe in redefining what they believe might be possible. Having attended one of the worst secondary schools in the country growing up (we had a GCSE pass rate under 30%, which is pretty terrible), I am acutely aware of the privileges I was afforded that others were not.
Had it not been for the love and support of friends and family, I would not have developed the grit, drive and determination I have today. The drive that saw me obtain an M.Sci in Chemistry from King's College London, saw me qualify as a lawyer from one of the UK's leading employement law firms and work as an Business Partner, before setting up my own consultancy three yesars ago. I believe that we are all capable of truly incredible things. The problem is, the main differentiator, is that some less fortunate people have never been encouraged to believe in themselves. It’s the main reason I was so keen to raise funds for the Prince’s Trust (together with Great Ormond St), who do such amazing work with young people, instilling the confidence they never had the opportunity to develop growing up, through no fault of their own other than they didn’t have a supportive family environment. An environment that most of us take for granted.
For me, my why is about making a lasting positive contribution to people’s lives, no matter what thei background. Many of you reading this may be scratching your heads at the idea of finding purpose in the work that you do, but connecting the dots to something more meaningful, can have a tangible positive influence on your overall energy, motivation and mental health. Why not challenge yourself to find how what you do has a positive impact on others? You might be surprised.
The second element of self-determination theory is self-direction and having an overall sense of control. By owning our own story, we let our brain know that we are the master of our own destiny. As soon as doubt starts to creep in and as soon as we start to question whether this is truly a path that we have chosen, fear will engulf us, together with a sense of being overwhelmed and of lacking control.
We are the author of our own story, whether we realise it or not. We have the ultimate power to change the script that we have written, if the one we are living is making us feel helpless. Having a sense of control over our lives is vital for positive mental health, so if you struggle to own your own narrative and find yourself more often than not a victim of circumstance, you should seek to speak to someone such as a counsellor or a friend. You should also ensure you are getting sufficient sleep and undertaking enough exercise to help boost your self-esteem and overall mental health.
As for the challenge, I am taking full control of my inner narrative. I am in no doubt that it is something that I have chosen to do. I am focussed on all of the positives that the adventure will bring and readying myself for the challenges that will no doubt test my resolve along the way. Where we focus our attention plays a significant role in how we feel about something, so coaxing our brain to focus its attention on the positives can be hugely empowering in creating a bold and empowering inner narrative.
Breaking it down
The final element of self-determination theory is mastery and the idea that we are making progress towards our goals. If a challenge appears too overwhelming or the stakes too high, our brain is unlikely to mobilise our internal resources towards it. If you have ever been curious about what motivation looks like in your brain, it’s essentially a bunch of dopamine neurotransmitters firing strongly. Without dopamine, we would have very little motivation to do anything much at all.
So how can you make something overwhelming, such as attempting to run 450 miles, into something your brain actually wants to engage with? One of the key cognitive tricks I use with such big challenges is to break the challenge down into smaller, more manageable chunks. I don’t think to myself 'I need to run from Scotland to Wales'. Once I set the overall goal, I almost immediately make myself forget about it. In fact, when I set off on 29 April with my two friends, I will not be thinking about the fact that I have to run 55 miles that day. Instead, I will be focussed on the first 6 miles to the base of Ben Nevis, followed by the climb up and then down Nevis, and after that, the next pit stop six miles later and so on and so forth.
By breaking tasks down into manageable chunks that our brain can comprehend, we maximise our chances of releasing dopamine, which will keep us moving forwards more effortlessly. Without it, we will have to engage our willpower (a finite resource), which will make the task feel a whole lot less enjoyable. The key is to ensure you celebrate each milestone to help your brain recognise the progress you are making and keep it engaged over the long-haul.
Bringing it all together
You may still be asking yourself how, given the blisters, lost toe nails, unbearable pain and failure of the first attempt, I could even contemplate doing it all again. Another cognitive trick resides in the way our brain encodes emotional memories. It doesn’t encode the whole emotional memory of every pain inducing step that I took. It tends to remember the worst bit and how the I felt at the very end. When we arrived in Caernarfon last time, I felt the most overwhelming sense of achievement (or possibly relief) that I have ever felt. It was such a powerful emotion, that it may well have overwritten all the other stuff associated with the challenge (including the hours of pain I endured). Believe it or not, I actually have really fond memories of the whole experience… unless I make myself to remember how I felt setting off each morning in excruciating pain, waiting for my endorphins to kick-in.
But therein lies another lesson. Our memory is very rarely representative of our experiences. If we become defined by our past, we run the risk of not living our life to its full potential. Just because our brain has encoded painful emotional memories, it doesn’t make them an accurate reflection of what actually happened. More importantly, it is no indication of what will happen in the future, unless we let the memory define us.
When we manage to successfully harness the three elements of self-determination theory, work no longer feels like work. We become one of those irritating people who gloats at the fact that they don’t really class their work as work, because they enjoy it so much (sorry, I promise to stop gloating quite so much). While harnessing all three elements can prove elusive at times, even looking at ways to reframe the narrative you have created, can have tangible positive effects on your energy, motivation and wellbeing.
As we're here, it would be rude not to plug the fact that I am endangering my toe nails and my sanity for two great causes: the Prince's Trust and Great Ormond Street Hospital. If you would like to sponsor us, you can happily do so here: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Team/8Ultra