Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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202-331-1566

2440 M Street, NW
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Washington, DC 20037

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Why Counting Streaks May Not be a Good Idea When Building Habits

By Lynne Gots, posted on March 4th, 2018.

I’ve been meditating daily for over three years, half of that time with the popular app, Headspace. But recently,thrown off by jet lag following a trip to the West Coast, I unaccountably forgot to meditate one day and broke my streak.

I was upset by my lapse and tried, as any good CBT practitioner would, to challenge my all-or-nothing thinking. One day out of over a thousand is no big deal. Less than a drop in the bucket. It didn’t negate my progress.

But Headspace didn’t see it that way. It reset my stats back to Day 1. Even more aggravating, it started sending me motivational messages like: “A 3-day run streak is a great start to your practice! Next stop 5!” And, after 5 days: “Nice job. This is precisely how you build a solid meditation practice. Think you can make it 10?” At 10 days, they told me: “Your consistency is outstanding. You’re starting to build a lasting, healthy habit.” And today, 15 days into my new streak, I got: “Great work. Maybe everything changes except your commitment to meditation.”

I decided I needed to say something. Here’s an excerpt from the email I wrote to Headspace:

I had over 450 consecutive days of Headspace under my belt until a few weeks ago, when travel to the West Coast threw me off schedule and I somehow forgot to meditate one day. I was upset to have broken my “streak,” but I tried to practice what I preach to the many perfectionists I work with by forgiving myself for the brief, and ultimately insignificant, lapse.

But Headspace is making it harder for me to let go of my mistake! It reset my progress back to zero and is giving me motivational messages after three, five, ten, fifteen days of consecutive practice to tell me I’m on my way to a solid practice and a commitment to meditation. I suppose I could use those statements as a mindfulness exercise, treating them as if they were just random thoughts of my own creation, but coming from the “experts,” they are not at all helpful.

I have continued to use the app but now am having second thoughts. I’m not sure whether such a quantitative, competitive (albeit only with myself) approach is really how I want to frame my meditation practice. And I certainly will be less enthusiastic in recommending it to my perfectionistic patients.

You might want to pass this feedback onto your software engineers to see if there could be a way turning off the streak function, or sending out messages of self-compassion to those who’ve accrued a lot of hours but miss a day here and there.

I’ll let you know what they say.

 

 

 




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Posted in Behavior Change, mindfulness, Perfectionism |

Why You Don’t Need Willpower to Change a Habit

By Lynne Gots, posted on December 27th, 2017.

There’s no shortage of advice this time of year about eating clean and getting ripped. And while the prospect of a new you in the new year can be seductive, especially after a month of overindulgence, I’m not a fan of restrictive diets or New Year’s resolutions. They simply don’t work over the long haul.

Any rigid regimen carries with it the whiff of deprivation, of restraint, of saying “no” when your mind wants you to say “yes.” The key, we’re told, is willpower.

Just say no. Just do it.

Let’s be real. If it were so easy to turn away from that donut or force yourself out the door on a dark, frigid January morning to go to spinning class, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

We know from research that willpower is a limited resource. Over time, with repeated use, it becomes depleted, just like any energy source. And the moments when we most need it—say, after a stressful workday at happy hour when the margaritas are $5 and the queso and chips beckon—it’s gone.

So I suggest changing the narrative. It’s too easy to throw in the towel when you tell yourself, “I don’t have any willpower.” Those words render you powerless in the face of overwhelming forces beyond your control.

Instead of recruiting willpower to help you pursue your goals, consider building willingness power.

Willingness starts with motivation. Begin by looking at the costs and benefits of the behavior you want to change. If you want to improve your diet, for instance (notice I didn’t say “eat clean”), pay particular attention to what you get from the undesired habit. The costs will be readily apparent to you. But the benefits? Not so much.

To get you started, here are some real-life examples of the benefits of overeating (continuing to eat past the point of satiety or even to discomfort) I’ve heard over the years:

  • It relaxes me.
  • I enjoy the taste of food.
  • It keeps me from feeling bored/ lonely.
  • It’s social.
  • I don’t like rules.
  • I deserve a reward.
  • It passes the time.

Then look at the costs (I’ll bet you won’t have any trouble coming up with a long list) and review them daily or more frequently if necessary. Remind yourself why it’s worth it to forego all the positive associations with the behavior you want to change in order to achieve your goal.

In a nutshell, willingness means being open to feeling short-term discomfort for long-term gain. It’s a useful skill to cultivate, and not just for sticking with a diet or exercise plan but for all the challenges life brings.

So in 2018, ditch the idea of willpower and practice willingness power. You’ll be laying a more solid foundation for success.




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Posted in Goals, Motivation, Techniques |

Get Started on Dealing with Procrastination Now!

By Lynne Gots, posted on September 4th, 2013.

Ok, enough putting it off. No more checking Facebook for status updates of people I don’t remember from high school but can’t unfriend because I’m afraid of offending them. No more binge-watching Orange is the New Black. No more scrolling through the App Store to find the perfect habit tracker. No more games of Words with Friends. I have to stop procrastinating and write a blog post on procrastination.

The beginning of September brings out the inner student in all of us, even if it’s been decades since we last smelled the intoxicating possibilities contained in a brand-new box of Crayola crayons. A new school year is a blank slate—a chance to start over with pristine notebooks and no overdue assignments.

Unfortunately, life isn’t quite like school. Time isn’t measured in semesters. There are always endless projects to complete and opportunities to avoid them.

Dealing with procrastination requires a tough love approach. No excuses. No second chances. Just do it. Now.

Easier said than done, of course. It calls for a major cognitive overhaul. New rules.

Memorize, and repeat often:

1)    Later isn’t a better time.

2)    You’re fooling yourself.

3)    There is no better time.

4)    You don’t have to feel like it to do it.

You can work on your capacity to follow through with a plan by practicing just one small behavior every day. Meditation is a good choice because it can help you sit with uncomfortable feelings. Over time, it may actually strengthen the part of the brain involved in organization and planning.

But any behavior (preferably one that doesn’t take more than a few minutes) will do. You can decide you’ll sweep the kitchen floor every night at 8 pm, or empty your in-box at the end of each workday. The point is to choose an activity and carry it out, no matter what.

Procrastinators also should practice resisting the overwhelming impulse to give into avoidance. One way to power through the urge to avoid is by not hitting the Snooze button when your alarm goes off. You’ll be working on ignoring the self-sabotaging messages your brain is sending you. And as an added bonus, you’ll be starting the morning with a sense of accomplishment that can boost your motivation to take care of business throughout the rest of the day.

No matter how long your To Do list, crossing off even one item can help you break through the inertia of procrastination. I feel so much better already! But I’m just getting started. I’ll have more tips on how to deal with this irksome problem in future posts.

 

 




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Posted in Behavior Change, Motivation, procrastination, Techniques |

This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

Contact Dr. Gots

202-331-1566

2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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If you don't receive a response to an email from Dr. Gots in 48 hours, please call the office and leave a voicemail message.

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© 2008-2018 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.