Browsing the archives for the mindfulness tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      


Research Suggests Self-Awareness Helps Maintain Willpower

The human mind

I’ve extolled the virtues of mindfulness here on LucReid.com in a number of articles, such as “A Very Clear Example of the Power of Awareness” and “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” A 2011 article  by Hugo Alberts, Carolien Martijn, and Nanne deVries in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (“Fighting self-control failure: Overcoming ego depletion by increasing self-awareness“) offers some insight on why and how mindfulness–specifically self-awareness (which we might also call “mindfulness of self”)–may aid willpower.

You may well have heard the ideas of Dr. Roy Baumeister and others, who describe willpower as being a resource that can be used up. Although this idea is popular, I’m inclined to think it’s off the mark: some of the concerns are described in my article “The Debate Over Whether Willpower Tires Our Brains.” Alberts, et al’s work seems to support the idea that willpower isn’t used up so much as misplaced.

In their study, the authors had participants work at a task that required willpower: holding an exercise handgrip closed for as long as they could. They would test a subject with this task once, then have them perform a slightly tedious task or else a highly annoying task that according to previous research should cause them to have reduced willpower on their next attempt. However, before that second attempt, they had one group unscramble sentences with the word “I” in them and another group unscramble sentences about other people, reasoning that the people who unscrambled the “I” sentences would think more about themselves–i.e., be more self-aware.

What happened? The group that unscrambled sentences about other people, as expected, had reduced willpower on their second attempt in holding the handgrips–the normal result. The group with the “I” sentences, however, did just as well as they had the first time: their willpower wasn’t diminished.

How cool is that? Paying attention to yourself, it appears, can help you maintain willpower. This is good news in situations, like dieting, where exercising willpower repeatedly is essential.

Thanks to Dr. Art Markman, whose post about this study brought it to my attention, and Vince Favilla for tweeting about that post.

Photo by _ado

No Comments

A Very Clear Example of the Power of Awareness

Self-motivation examples

I’m currently reading Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Body, and while it’s too early for me to render any opinion on the book as a whole, he relates a true story that beautifully illustrates the power of simple awareness. It goes something like this:

Phil Libin, who weighed 258 pounds, wanted to get down to 230 pounds in six months–a weight loss goal of about a pound a week. However, he wasn’t enthusiastic about making any lifestyle changes, so he decided to try an experiment to see whether he could accomplish his goal by making just one change: becoming very aware of his weight.

Phil created a spreadsheet with a little graph showing his starting weight at one end and his goal weight at the other end, with a line between the two. Above and below the line he put boundary lines: the plan wasn’t for his weight to follow the line to the goal weight exactly, but to stay between the top and bottom boundary lines so that he would be assured he was proceeding in the right direction at about the right speed. The result looked something like this:

From there, all Phil did was track his weight from day to day and enter it into the spreadsheet. If his weight fell below the bottom line at any point (which did happen), he would eat more. If his weight went above the top line (which didn’t happen), he would eat less.

Weirdly, and importantly, Phil made no other attempt to change his behavior–quite the opposite. He didn’t exercise or try to change his eating habits or consciously do anything about his weight except monitor it. And as you can probably guess by now, he landed exactly where he intended to be at the end of the six months, weighing in at 230 pounds.

I don’t actually recommend Phil’s method on its own. You have to be a real data enthusiast to care so much about a graph that you will be sure to keep it up to date and be so interested in what it has to show you. Further, since there are some really easy things you can do to move toward a goal above and beyond just being aware of where you’re going, it seems wasteful to disregard these other options. At the same time, Phil’s experience, at least anecdotally, makes a strong case for awareness being not only an important prerequisite for other useful changes, but a force for change on its own. Also, it makes a good case for focus: if all you need to think about to achieve your goal is “stay between the lines,” then it’s pretty easy to stay mentally on task.

Ferriss offers a free Excel spreadsheet patterned after Phil’s that you can tailor to your own goals at www.fourhourbody.com/phil .

Other articles on this site that might interest you on the subject of awareness include

2 Comments

Anger: Keeping Your Cool with Preparation and Self-Awareness

Handling negative emotions

This is the second article in a series on anger. The first article was Monday’s “Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

One of the tricky things about dealing with anger is that our immediate mental response system for dealing with threats–run by a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala–doesn’t wait for us to understand what’s going on. This is pretty reasonable: if you’re a primitive human being and you’re being attacked by a Smilodon, you don’t want to be thinking about whether to react or not: you want to be immediately jabbing with your spear or running away (fight or flight). This is why people can be startled even by things that they know intellectually aren’t dangerous, like a loud noise in a carnival haunted house.

But Smilodons are extinct these days, and while the fast-track fight or flight response is still useful sometimes, as when we jump out of the way of a falling object, at other times anger and fear responses are very bad news. For instance, if someone is scared or upset and says something ill-considered to us, we may have a hard time not immediately responding in kind and turning a offhand comment into an argument.

Yet we do have the power to override our amygdala-driven gut reactions, and two of our best weapons in this fight are preparation and self-awareness.

Preparation in this case means putting ourselves in a mood to defuse instead of magnify negative feelings. One of the best ways to do this, notes Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, is to look at people toward whom you may be feeling angry “with a more charitable line of thought,” which “tempers anger with mercy, or at least an open mind, short-circuiting the buildup of rage.” In other words, thinking about what circumstances may be driving people to do things we don’t like rather than focusing on our mental condemnation of those people for doing those things creates an opportunity for compassion and keeping our cool.

As for self-awareness, this is an approach I’ve praised in other articles, such as “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” Being aware of our own emotions gives us the opportunity to do something about a situation using our thoughts, for instance by noticing and repairing broken ideas. Lack of self-awareness–that is, acting without considering why we’re acting or what we’re feeling–closes off that option to us completely. When we’re not aware of our own emotions, we are mostly slaves to our own emotional habits.

This series will continue in the next week or two with more information about and strategies for dealing with anger.

Photo by euthman

No Comments

How to Have a Good Day: 6 More Ways to Make the Most of a Morning

Strategies and goals

In a previous article, “How to Have a Good Day: The Night Before,“ I talked about ways to help make a day go well through preparation. In my last article, “How to Have a Good Day: 4 Ways to Make the Most of a Morning,” I continued the discussion by talking about things that can be done in the morning to help improve the rest of the day. This third article offers more strategies to improve a day by handling the morning well.

  • Do one constructive thing early on. Accomplishing something worthwhile, even if it’s a small thing, tends to give a boost in self-confidence and optimism, especially if it’s a task that has been lingering or that has more impact that something its size normally would.
  • Keep an eye out for broken ideas. “Broken ideas” or “cognitive distortions” are patterns of thinking that do more harm than good; you can read about them here. By reminding ourselves to be aware of our own thoughts and being vigilant for broken ideas, we can head off emotional problems and distractions.
  • Be prepared to face trouble. Any day can potentially bring trouble: unexpected expenses, illness, things breaking, people not coming through, and so on. Since trouble can’t be eradicated from our lives, it helps to be of a mind to face it. When we’re distracted, unprepared, or in a bad mood, it’s often difficult to steel ourselves to tackle problems that arise, and instead we may tend to avoid, make bad compromises, give up, or struggle unnecessarily. Reminding ourselves to do our best to take problems in stride will help lower stress and increase our ability to fix issues that come up.
  • Meditate. It’s true, meditation takes time, and it’s not easy, at least at first. But meditation has proven itself valuable again and again in studies and human experience in terms of aiding focus, lowering stress, and increasing happiness–which makes it a very useful practice for first thing in the morning. For more on this, see my article “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation.” Yoga can have similar benefits in the morning, and even beginners can benefit through use of tools like yoga DVDs.
  • Exercise early. Exercise ups metabolism, improves mood, and increases immediate physical well-being (even if you’re a little sore from the workout). It also starts the day off with a constructive accomplishment, which as we’ve already discussed, has its own good impacts.
  • Use music to your advantage. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys adding music to other activities rather than being distracted by it, you can take advantage of music’s ability to make a noticeable impact on mood and emotions. Memories and associations, rhythms, the act of singing along (if you’re inclined), and other aspects of music give it a direct line to the parts of our brains that regulate emotions. For more on this, see “How and Why Music Changes Mood.”

Photo by Roshnii

No Comments

Microgoals, Red X’s, and Unbroken Chains

Resources

A post by Trent Hamm on the Christian Science Monitor site today offers a simple and promising approach to consistent success with one straightforward behavior: put up a calendar and make a mark for every day you successfully do that behavior.

There are some research-justified advantages to this approach. First, it brings the goal into awareness regularly, which is essential. Have you ever started on some new habit you wanted to acquire, then realized at a certain point that you had forgotten about it and stopped doing it? Then you know what I mean–and perhaps can see where a big, visual reminder could help.

Second, it emphasizes doing the thing daily, which is of key importance for habit formation (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“). Behaviors that aren’t done daily only form habits after a long time, if ever. Daily behaviors are much more likely to form habits.

Third, it associates something positive with whatever it is you want to do, even if that positive thing is just extending a chain of red X’s on the calendar on your wall. Those red X’s can be a source of pride, satisfaction, and bragging rights, and thinking about those kinds of things is much more motivating than thinking about the reasons you don’t want to do whatever it is.

I should note that this approach seems useful only for very specific, easily judged behaviors. “Eat four servings of fruit a day” can work with this system. “Eat healthily” can’t unless you’ve defined very precisely what you mean by “healthily.” There has to be an easy way to say “Yes, I did that” or “No, I didn’t do that”–though some kind of rating system (zero to four gold stars for the day, for instance) might work out (though perhaps not as easily) for something that’s more flexible.

I also suspect that this would not be effective for multiple goals at once. Having multiple goals running would tend to create conflicting priorities. Still, it seems possible that in some cases having two or three chains of different colors going might be workable if you’ve got some attention to focus on the matter.

Once you’ve got your goal, your red pen, and your calendar (or whatever your system will be), then all you have to do is follow Jerry Seinfeld‘s advice and “Don’t break the chain.”

Photo by wdecora

No Comments

Great Expectations Alone Won’t Cut It

Handling negative emotions

I’ve been reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, and there’s a lot for me to like in it. The thing I like the least, I’ve been thinking, is how some characters persist miserably in behavior that isn’t any good for them. Miss Havisham wallows for decade after decade in her anger and disappointment at being a jilted bride, and as she drifts ghost-like through her house in the rags of her wedding dress, I mentally shout at her, “What are you doing? Is this really what’s going to make you happy?”

And Pip, the main character, is worse: after being elevated to wealth by an unknown benefactor, he torments himself by pursuing a beautiful woman who makes him miserable, stops visiting the people who love him and make him happy because they’re beneath his station, and uses his wealth to run up huge debts by living beyond even his newly extravagant means. It makes me want to take him by the shoulders, shake him, and shout “Wake up! Why are you making yourself miserable?”

At least, it does until I realize how much I do the same things sometimes: maintaining a negative emotion because of having become attached to it, or spending huge effort pursuing an unworthy goal, or looking away from the difficult but ultimately more satisfying choices.

These are the patterns of most of our miseries, and there are five things we need to get through to go from there to a happier life:

  1. Awareness. We can’t do anything about our problems before we admit that they’re problems–which presumably is why admitting you have a problem is the foundational first step in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  2. Belief. Pip believes there’s nothing he can do about his attraction to Estella, but in fact we have enormous influence over our own beliefs, preferences, and drives. Believing that our problems can be changed is more or less essential to purposely making that change.
  3. Knowledge. It doesn’t help to want to change if we don’t know what we want to stop doing and what we need to start doing instead. Understanding what success looks like, and how that differs from what we’re doing now, gets us from just wanting to change to being able to see what that change would be.
  4. Habit. Many of our behaviors are ingrained and will stay with us unless disrupted by accident or on purpose. Even if we know how we want to change our actions, we won’t act that way automatically: we need to build new habits and disrupt old ones. (Note: this long, hard-work phase is often skipped in novels and other stories, in which the realizations alone are sometimes portrayed as being enough. In real life, not so much.)
  5. Time and attention. Our resources are limited, including our time, strength, attention, and focus. Some of these resources need to be dedicated to making a change if a change is desired, and that generally means that they have to come from somewhere else.

Dickens being Dickens, I have a hard time imagining that Pip will come to a bad end. If he does win out in the end, I’ll be interested to see how he gets through these five steps (or at least the first three) to find his real strength.

No Comments

Mental Schemas #12: Subjugation

Handling negative emotions

This is the twelfth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

A person with a subjugation schema feels an overpowering obligation to submit to another person’s will, to be told what to do and be judged by someone else. Often such a person will believe in their heart that they need to do what another person says in order to be loved, valuable, etc., and/or will be afraid that they will be judged harshly or punished if they don’t fall in line.

Or a person may have the schema and act out because of it, accusing others of trying to be controlling when this isn’t the intention, or rebelling against other’s wishes regardless of the individual’s own feelings.

As a result, having the subjugation schema means burying or ignoring one’s own needs, desires, inclinations, judgments, and beliefs–whether this is happening due to giving in to others or to being preoccupied with rebelling against others, as in both cases the person with the subjugation schema is reacting to others’ needs, desires, and actions instead of their own.

A person with this schema may also assume other people are trying to take control or may tend to put them in positions of control even if they don’t want to be. Another common pattern with this schema is first complying with what someone else wants, then resenting “having to” do that thing. A person with this schema may have an overwhelming feeling of being trapped.

A typical way for a subjugation schema is to develop is through an overly controlling parent.

Overcoming a subjugation schema
As with other schemas, idea repair can be a key tool in overcoming a subjugation schema. Statements like “I have to do ____” or “I should do ___” are usually variations of “should statements,” which make it seem like something is necessary when it’s really only one of the available options. Thoughts about what will happen if a person doesn’t comply with what another wants are often fraught with magnification and fortune telling instead of being a true assessment of the likely results. Other kinds of broken ideas can also apply to this schema.

Communication is another a key skill for dealing with these issues. If a person wants to become more assertive without being destructive, it’s important to understand how to express one’s own thoughts and emotions without running over those of others. Two excellent books for learning how to resolve conflicts through communication are Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

Mindfulness is an important and powerful tool in overcoming subjugation schemas. In order to act on one’s own thoughts and emotions, it’s important to be in touch with those thoughts and emotions. This is also something that’s needed as a basis for idea repair.

Over time, the goal in overcoming a subjugation schema is to learn to recognize, value, and respond to one’s own thoughts, emotions, and needs, so any progress is becoming more aware of one’s own feelings, getting perspective, being constructive assertive, or communicating better will help.

Photo by Grufnik

No Comments

How Getting a Little Distance Can Help Willpower

The human mind

Maybe you’ve had the experience–I know I have–of doing something that at the time seems overwhelmingly important or irresistable but that later just seems … stupid. Or at least unnecessary and a bad idea. It doesn’t matter whether it’s spending a whole afternoon at work searching for an e-mail that will prove a point you’re trying to make, or heading out to the couch with a spoon and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s that will never be seen or heard from again, or staying up all night watching the Gilligan’s Island marathon instead of studying: our judgment of what to do in the moment often doesn’t agreewith what we’ll later decide we would like to have done.

So if we want to try to bring those two perspectives closer–that is, to be more comfortable doing things we’ll still approve of later–one key skill is getting a little distance. I’ll be more specific: when I say “distance,” I’m talking about three separate things: awareness, perspective, and mental separation.

Awareness
Being aware of–mindful of–what’s going on in our own brains is not automatic. It’s entirely possible–even easy–to think about something without paying much attention to the fact that we’re thinking about it. Thinking about thinking (“metacognition”) is a conscious process that we do more of when we encourage the habit and less of if we don’t make an effort.

Without noticing what we’re thinking about, we’re fairly powerless to change our thoughts. But when we pay attention to what our minds are doing, we have options: we can refocus attention elsewhere, think through consequences, distract ourselves, surrender ourselves, or take other steps to be more practical, consistent, serene, constructive, or however else we want to be in those moments.

Perspective
Perspective is the difference between “I’m going to die if I don’t get those shoes” and “I’d enjoy those shoes, but I’d rather spend the $200 on groceries.” Lack of perspective makes things that will detract from our happiness more attractive and makes things that will make us happier down the road seem dull and un-hip.

One way to get perspective is to think about all of the consequences of an action, not just the appealing ones. Another one, which helps me sometimes, is self-mockery. Mentally (or even out loud, if you can’t be heard or don’t mind) saying “Oh yes, I’m going to be in absolute torture every moment of my life if I don’t get an iPad!” (for instance) wakes up our critical thinking and often yields a “wait–I really don’t want that” effect.

Mental separation
Mental separation is the process of changing focus to another subject or another aspect of the current subject. If I’m being tempted to procrastinate on important work by reading a novel instead, mental separation means leaving off thinking about the novel for the moment and instead focusing on something more constructive, like what it will be like to present the project I’m working on to an appreciative audience, or how much I love my paycheck. As long as our focus remains unchanged, it’s difficult to change our minds about what we want to do, although perspective can help. When we let go of a slightly obsessive line of thought in favor of some other subject, the dangerous line of thought ceases to have nearly as much sway over us, and in fact it would take work to get back into that same way of thinking. (See “How to Multitask, and When Not To” for information about how changing what we’re thinking about requires us to reorganize our brains.)

Getting a little distance from overly eager thoughts about underly good things is an important component of being able to exercise willpower. Willpower is making good choices, and our choices are driven in large part by how we feel about the options. Switching to a healthier kind of thinking makes healthier options seem more appealing, and with no more effort than that move, we can improve our chances of going down the paths we really want to follow.

Photo by loungerie

No Comments

Heading off a Bad Day

Handling negative emotions

Here’s part of a novel opening I’ve admired since I first read it, the fifth paragraph of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash:

The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.

One of the things that always resonated with me in that confident, attitude-laden bit of writing was the phrase “starts like a bad day.” Maybe you know the experience, the feeling that just waking up in the morning, things are already stacked against you, that the day has chosen to be a mess without ever asking you what you thought of the idea. If so, you may have begun immediately reacting to that sense that things were going wrong, giving in to irritability or anxiety or depression out of a sense that a bad day was unavoidable.

I’ve certainly had that experience, but in the past year or so, with the topics from this site so often on my mind, I’ve realized the opportunity that those first moments of the day offer me. If I can use one of the many tools at my disposal to turn the day around right from the beginning, then the world seems to transform to a much kinder place. I may wake up feel harassed sometimes, but by the time I eat breakfast I usually feel serene or enthusiastic or cheerful. Here are some of the ways I’ve been able to take control of my mood first thing in the morning.

  • Meditation. If we’re am uselessly dwelling on bad experiences or concerns we can’t affect, some types of meditation can help us relax, let go, and find some peace of mind.
  • Emotional antidotes. Negative emotions can often be washed away by deliberately conjuring up memories or ideas that make us feel love, hope, joy, etc.
  • Mindfulness. Moods like anxiety and irritability often feel like they’re coming from nowhere when they’re really reactions to some specific situation or worry. Reflecting on what our biggest worries of the moment can often bring those worries right into focus. Simply acknowledging those concerns can be a relief: the bad mood no longer seems to be coming from nowhere, and in being understood has done its job of bringing our attention to the problem. If more effort is needed to make headway against the reaction to a particular thought, idea repair can be very helpful.
  • Journaling. Writing out thoughts, feelings and hopes for the day can help improve awareness of what’s going on with us while providing direction and helping make emotional reactions more understandable and manageable.

For more on turning difficult times around, see “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“. You may also be interested in reading my article “How emotions work“.

Photo by tombothetominator.

1 Comment

Two Top Tools for Reducing Stress

Handling negative emotions

 

The ridiculously cheery song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” offers advice that may be a little hard to follow sometimes. Sometimes we’re not prepared to let go of fears and anxieties, feeling that we need them–occasionally, we may even be right. But even when we’re ready to stop worrying and be happy, letting go of stress is easier said than done.

To help reduce stress, there are many useful approaches described on this site, including meditation, mindfulness, emotional antidotes, a brief walk in a natural setting, and more. However, there are two especially effective, immediate approaches that have both been shown to greatly reduce stress, although both take some effort.

One is social time: if you’re spending most of your time alone (or perhaps with people it’s hard to be with), spending a lot more time with people you like can help enormously: see “Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time.” E-mailing, time on the phone, and even time working with others in the course of your job can “count” toward your total. People who get in at least six hours of some kind of social time per day report being happy and relatively free of stress. See the article for more details.

The other option is idea repair: noticing and fixing thoughts of yours that encourage you to feel anxiety or frustration over time. By learning to recognize and remake these thoughts, you can make immediate, dramatic changes in your stress level. The thoughts are likely to come back again soon, but then you just repair them again, and over time they stop coming back as much until they go away completely. I recently posted an article covering the most useful idea repair articles on this site, which may be a good place to start if you’d like to take this approach.

Of course, you could work on both social time and idea repair, but people tend to be much more successful when they focus on just one thing at a time. Trying to add too much to your obligations at once can be a little overwhelming, and the last thing most of us need is something else to stress about.

No Comments
« Older Posts


%d bloggers like this: