I recently heard a popular media doctor talking on the radio about making dietary and exercise changes to promote optimal health. He gave some sound advice.
“Write down your goals. Think about why you want to lose weight and get more fit.”
So far, so good. But then he added a suggestion which flies in the face of what we psychologists know about behavior change: “Thinking about what you want to avoid is the best way to motivate yourself.” He went on to explain that a family history of diabetes keeps him on the straight and narrow. In other words, he’s motivated by fear.
Maybe this approach works for him ( though given his success, I suspect he’s more disciplined naturally than most of us anyway, so he probably doesn’t need much of a motivational boost). But it’s not the most effective way for most people to stick with a diet or exercise plan.
If scare tactics worked, wouldn’t those gruesome, anti-smoking PSAs impel more smokers to quit? Knowing something isn’t good for us—potentially fatal, even—usually isn’t enough to make us stop.
Thinking about what we want to achieve is much more motivating than envisioning the dire consequences of unhealthy habits. So if you want to get in shape, don’t imagine yourself in ten years, three sizes larger and insulin-dependent. Instead, picture yourself six months from now, crossing the finish line of your first 5K.
If you point yourself in the direction of where you want to go, you’ll get there faster than if you run the other way.
If you’re like me, you have no shortage of ideas about how to improve yourself. Eat more vegetables. Cut down on sweets. Meditate. Get more sleep. Lift weights. Drink more water. Learn to cook Thai food. Practice the piano. Brush up on conversational French. [Insert your own favorites here.]
And if you’re like me, and many others, you also may have trouble following through with your plans.
Why is it so easy for us to think of all the ways we’d like to create newer, better versions of ourselves and so hard for us to make the changes happen?
I think it’s because we don’t just set out to develop healthier habits or find new creative outlets. We imagine no less than a total transformation and deem anything short of a complete makeover as insufficient—not worth the effort.
Take a writer I know. She lives alone. She works from home and can follow any schedule that suits her. She’s a night owl and has a surge of energy after 10 pm, often staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning when her creative juices are flowing. As a result, she usually sleeps until noon unless she’s scheduled a morning meeting. But she always sets her alarm for 8 because she views herself as lazy for spending half a conventional workday in bed. She starts every morning with the fantasy of getting up when she “should” and always winds up hitting Snooze five times before she turns off the alarm in disgust and goes back to sleep. When she finally does drag herself out of bed, never fully rested due to the interrupted sleep, she feels upset with herself. Not the best way to start the day.
Yet when I suggested she just face the fact that she’s not a morning person and set the alarm for a more realistic time (say, 11:30), when she actually might be able to get up, she looked aghast.
“I couldn’t possibly do that. That’s so late!”
Sure she’d like to bound out of bed at 8. But right now she’s not starting her day until noon. So why wouldn’t it make sense to try rising just a half hour earlier?
Because she’s letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Seems silly, doesn’t it? But when it comes to ourselves, we often can’t see as clearly how our visions of The Perfect keep us from even beginning to make a dent in the patterns we’d like to change.
Think about one of those self-improvement ideas you’ve had for a while but never seem to carry out. If the undertaking seems overwhelming, you might just be letting your vision of the perfect you block your path forward. So instead of focusing on where you want to be (which may seem impossibly distant), look at where you are right now, and start by taking just one ridiculously small step in the right direction.
In my last post I came clean about my word game addiction. I’m pleased to say I’ve taken steps to detox, and although I still have some work to do, I’ve made progress. I’ve been road-testing some research-proven techniques for habit change and have found a few particularly helpful.
1. Doing a cost-benefit analysis of the habit I wanted to change boosted my motivation at the outset and has gotten me back on track when I’ve slipped. Writing down the costs and benefits is critical even if you think you’re fully aware of them. In a moment of weakness, it’s too easy to rationalize away the costs. Having them in front of you in black and white, to review when your resolve falters, not only can strengthen your determination but also can help you delay the impulse to give into temptation, allowing the urge time to dissipate.
Don’t be too quick to downplay the benefits of a bad habit or even an addiction—the rewards keep a behavior going. Most of the benefits I listed are common to most self-soothing activities that backfire when done to excess, such as eating or drinking: they’re fun, pass time, and are relaxing.Two additional positive aspects of playing word games make it unlikely I’ll relinquish them completely: they’re mentally challenging and build brain power.
On the cost side, I came up with the following: they give me headaches, cause me to lose sleep, detract from more productive pursuits, interfere with conversation, make me feel guilty for wasting time, and annoy my husband.
So I set a goal I thought would be reasonable and achievable: to limit the time I spend playing word games and make the activity a conscious choice I can control rather than a mindless time-filler.
2. Tracking the habit provided me with useful, albeit disturbing, information about it. I could easily fool myself into believing my game-playing wasn’t excessive until I started recording the time. Twenty or thirty minutes? Think again. The first day I logged an appalling two hours—five minutes here and ten minutes there can add up before you know it. The next day, motivated by embarrassment at my sloth, I cut my time in half.
3. Identifying the triggers, both external and internal, helped keep me from mindlessly clicking on Word Scramble. The kitchen table is a bad place for me to sit after dinner because that’s where I usually play (and snack—another mindless habit I’d like to break). Also, I’m tired at night and have depleted my daily store of willpower, so I’m more apt to succumb to habits without thinking.
4. Building willpower daily by doing one or two brief exercises to practice initiating activities and resisting impulses gave me another boost. Think of willpower as a muscle you need to exercise. I applied a strategy drawn from the social psychology research. A substantial body of evidence shows that consistently practicing self-control exercises—even small, arbitrary ones such as throwing away the junk mail or refraining from swearing—can help develop the willpower you’ll need for bigger challenges.
I chose a task I hate doing but takes less than five minutes: brushing my dog Freddie. He hates it, too, so I always put it off until he’s badly matted. Now every day when we come in from our walk—while he’s still on the leash and can’t run away from me—I spend a few minutes grooming him. I still feel a powerful urge to forego the brief ordeal, especially when I’m pressed for time, but I’ve managed to do it anyway.
Being able to “do it anyway” is the key here. If you can remind yourself that not wanting to tackle a chore is just a feeling you can push through, you’ll be in better shape to resist those willpower-depleting urges.
(For more on the subject of willpower and lots of useful tips on how to cultivate it, check out The Willpower Instinct by psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD.)
5. Finding a substitute that is equally satisfying but more easily contained also helps. I’m not talking about eating a 60-calorie Fudgsicle when you’re really craving a piece of chocolate triple layer cake. That trick never worked for me. But replacing Word Scramble with a page-turner detective novel really fit the bill. The book served equally well if not better as a way to relax and put off doing chores—so effectively, in fact, that I spent an entire Saturday reading and getting nothing else done.
My son, who was also hooked on Word Scramble thanks to me, found another way to break his habit. He beat the game so many times—scoring over 2000 points and causing the app repeatedly to shut down—he no longer found it at all challenging. He was done.
But I’m not likely to outplay the game any time soon. So I’ll just have to keep plugging away, building my willpower one small step at a time.
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