Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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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 |

The Only New Year’s Resolution You’ll Need to Make to Improve Your Well-Being

By Lynne Gots, posted on December 31st, 2015.

Here’s an interesting statistic: 45% of Americans will kick off the New Year tomorrow with a list of resolutions for self-improvement. Only 8% will succeed, and their chance of success will go down with every decade past 30.

By far the most popular resolution (45%) is to lose weight and get fitter. Others in the top ten include getting organized, being happier, learning something new, quitting smoking or drinking, finding love, and spending more time with family and friends.

I’m all for setting goals. But most people fail to achieve them because they go about it all wrong. Instead of focusing on the process of living in a way that’s compatible with what’s really important to them—according to what they most value—they’re fixated on a specific vision of an end point that may or may not be achievable.

Take losing weight. There are countless plans for the dieter to choose from, all claiming to take off 10 or 20 pounds or more in a month. Just 30 days! And they all probably work, more or less, but only for a short time (or why would there be so many diet recidivists come January 1?).

A more effective and sustainable approach would be to consider why you want to lose weight. And if you can tie in the goal of weight loss with your other resolutions, even better. Is it to have more energy so you can get organized, learn something new, and spend more time with the important people in your life? Is it to prevent or control a chronic health problem so you can enjoy your family into old age? Is it to be more attractive so you can feel more confident and find love? Is it to feel more in control of your life so you can get organized and look for a more satisfying job?

If you’re taking steps—“committed actions”—leading you in the direction of what you truly value, you don’t have to wait for a month, or two, or six to fulfill your resolution. And you can work on several at once. Feeling a sense of accomplishment along the way will help head off the inevitable frustration causing so many to abandon their best intentions by Valentine’s Day.

So my advice is to make only one resolution this year: let your values guide your actions.



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Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Week 2: Finding the Time

By Lynne Gots, posted on April 22nd, 2014.

I signed up for an MBSR group because I wanted to deepen my personal meditation practice and enhance my professional use of mindfulness. I’m finding it eye-opening on both fronts.

Every week we leave with exercises for “home practice”—a term I, too, adopted some time ago to replace the traditional CBT “homework” assignments. It’s hard enough to do the exercises without adding the negative associations and guilt (when the assignments don’t get done) attached to the concept of homework.

But as Shakespeare said, what’s in a name? That which we call homework by any other name would still be homework.

And so it is with home practice. The biggest challenge so far for me has been finding the time, especially since the demands have been expanding exponentially. And it’s only the second week.

After the first session, we were instructed to practice a Body Scan meditation for 30 minutes a day. Piece of cake! For someone new to meditation, starting with 30 minutes would be hard. But I’d already extended my practice to 20-30 minutes each day, so I didn’t have any trouble working in the Body Scan.

I shouldn’t have felt so smug. Because this week our assignment was to continue with the Body Scan daily along with adding a 15-minute Mindfulness of the Breath meditation and a 15-minute Loving Kindness meditation. You can do the math. That’s an hour of meditating each day.

Along with the formal meditations, we’re also practicing mindfulness informally by being fully attentive while engaging in one ordinary activity—such as washing the dishes, showering, brushing teeth, cleaning—each day. And we’re noting one pleasant event daily.

I’ve used all these exercises in the mindfulness groups I’ve conducted, with one variation. I suggest the participants ease into the meditation practice by committing to only five minutes a day. My rationale (and other CBT practitioners would concur) is that consistency is more important than duration when trying to develop a new habit.

There’s something to be said, though, for the total immersion approach. If you sign up for an MBSR program, you know up front you’ll be making an extensive time commitment, at least for the duration of the group sessions. And, although even five minutes a day of meditation can be beneficial, extra time on the cushion can produce even more immediate and dramatic effects.

Finding the time in a tight schedule for any valued pursuit isn’t as hard as it might seem. But it does take a certain mindset, as I’ve discovered. You need to be highly invested in the activity, you need to plan ahead, and you need to be flexible.

It can be challenging, as it was for me today when I had appointments from 8 am to 7 pm booked back to back. But I planned ahead and reminded myself I didn’t need to stick rigidly to the prescribed 30-minutes, which allowed me to work in an abbreviated (20-minute) Body Scan before starting the day.

You don’t have to be a super hero to fit a valued activity into your life. Take the marathoner I know who manages to put in his miles despite being a full-time grad student with a three-hour, round trip commute from his apartment in Brooklyn to his program at Rutgers. Or my neighbor who sets out at four am for an hour’s drive hour to a farm in Leesburg, Virginia to train her four Border Collies for sheepherding competitions before going to her job in Maryland. Or the law firm partner who gets home at 6 pm and starts cooking a full dinner from scratch because it’s important for her to feed her kids right, then logs back onto her work computer after the kids are in bed to finish a brief.

Those people get tired, just like the rest of us.  But their strong investment in the actions they’re pursuing keeps them going in spite of how they might be feeling in the moment.

We all have the same number of hours available to us in a day. Being mindful about how we choose to use them is the most critical step in finding the time for what’s important to us.

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Posted in Acceptance and Mindfulness, Motivation |

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.

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© 2008-2024 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.