I‘ve been amazed, time and time again, at the power of what I call “names and frames.”
Basically, what you name a problem, and how you frame it, can radically change how you feel about it, and how you work on solving it.
For most of Sarah’s and my married life, money’s been very tight. And one of our perpetual arguments has been about whether we should put any extra into retirement or towards some sort of vacation fund. I, being boring and practical, said “retirement”; my wife, lively and fun, said “vacation.”
On the plus side, the argument didn’t come up a ton, as there wasn’t often a lot left over after planning for the month, but, on the minus side, when there was money available, the conversation was more intense than normal because the stakes were higher.
Despite many, many conversations over the years, we couldn’t get on the same page. She felt like I didn’t value our family’s work/life balance. I felt like she didn’t value our long-term stability. We both had expectations about what was reasonable, and felt like the other person was falling short.
A few months ago, though, I had a revelation: Vacations are about getting away, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, and not having to worry too much about either work or the bills you have to pay.
And guess what? Retirement is about getting away, relaxing, spending time with family and friends, and not having to worry about either work or the bills you have to pay — just later on in life. They might not be the exact same thing, but they’re at least related.
So I made a decision. “Starting right now,” I said, “we aren’t calling retirement ‘retirement’ any longer.”
“From now on, we’re calling retirement ‘Future Vacation’!”
Sarah was in. Sweet. Since then, two upsides: we’ve fought less about the vacation / retirement split, and we’ve been able to actually make a plan about how we can put more money towards both.
Names and Frames
When you put a nice frame around a piece of art — even just something your kid made at school — it completely changes how people see it. That same idea works in other situations as well.
Think of the mini basketball hoop you could put on a laundry basket that turns the chore of picking up dirty laundry into a game. That reframes the challenge (dirty clothes around the room) into an opportunity (can you make all of the shots?).
There are three ways that I see reframing helping in my own day to day.
Reframe the problem
Seth Godin commented that those warning about climate change made their own jobs tougher by originally calling it “global warming”. “Global” sounds pretty good, right? And everyone likes to be “warm”.
So when people hear fuzzy terms like “global warming”, and they hear that the effects are going to impact us over a long period of time, they aren’t motivated to change their behavior.
Instead, he says, if they wanted to provoke changes in attitudes and actions, they should have named it something more intense, like Atmosphere Cancer. That’s far more compelling, and immediate.
Reframe the goal
Just like changing the name of our retirement account to “Future Vacation” changed how Sarah and I look at that goal, finding a new way to think of your goal can have a profound effect on your actions.
I’ve heard that new (and unmotivated) runners are often given the challenge: Your goal isn’t to go running. It’s to be wearing your running clothes, standing outside your door. Once you do that, you’ve satisfied your goal for the day, and you can decide whether you want to go running or not.
By reframing the goal, that gives the runner the freedom from guilt they’d otherwise have, and allows them to make the choice to go running. And, of course, putting on running clothes and going out the front door is pretty easy, and by the time you’ve done that, there’s literally nothing stopping you from going running.
Reframe the path you’ll take
Last summer, I helped one of my best friends drive his family’s moving truck from Toronto, to Edmonton, to Victoria (for those of you in the US, it was about the same distance as Boston to Seattle). I was anxious about this journey. The truck (Bessie) wasn’t in the best shape. We didn’t have mobile phones or GPS. There were just two of us, and it was a long drive. Plenty that could go wrong.
But before we started the trip, my friend prayed, and in the prayer itself, rejected the common request for “a safe trip”, and, instead, asked for “opportunities for adventure.” He reframed the entire trip, with just a few words, and it radically changed how I looked at it.
The things that we could have looked back on as problems — getting lost, running late, almost dying in a freak storm at the top of Whistler’s Mountain — in the end, they were all opportunities for adventure. And, indeed, I look back at what could have been a long, arduous journey as one of the highlights of my life.
Look for a new set of frames in your life
So the next time you have a situation where you disagree with someone (your spouse, your kids, your own conflicted mind), try to reframe the problem, or the goal, or the path you’ll try taking.
Take a step back. Or closer. Or to the side.