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You Change Your Brain; It Changes Back


Long Walk

Some readers may already know that I’m a big fan of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a branch of psychology that deals with changing our emotions, choices, and experiences by changing our thoughts. There are two things I like especially about CBT. First, we can get a lot out of it on our own, without professional intervention (although good cognitive therapists can be worth their weight in iPhones), for instance through learning idea repair. Second, it really makes a difference. CBT has been known to work better than drugs for depression, for example, and works just as well for many other kinds of issues, big and small.

These two advantages are probably why researchers at the University of Chicago launched a study to see if teaching some basic CBT techniques to teens at high risk for committing violent crimes would make a difference in their lives (“Preventing Youth Violence and Dropout: A Randomized Field Experiment,” by Sara Heller, Harold A. Pollack, Roseanna Ander, Jens Ludwig, May 2013).

Did it work? Well, it was hugely successful … and then it was pretty much completely unsuccessful.

By “hugely successful,” I mean that in the first year of the program, incidence of violent crime was reduced by nearly half (44%) among teens who had taken the program–yet as NPR reporter Shankar Vedantam points out (“Therapy Helps Troubled Teens Rethink Crime“), the effects faded to nearly nothing within a year after the program ended. In other words, CBT techniques made a huge difference while they were in use, but the teens in the study seem to have forgotten or rejected the techniques after they had been away from them for a  while.

Unfortunately, this pattern is all too familiar to anyone trying to change habits: we have a behavior we want to change, we fumble around until we find an approach that works, we make a big change, we eventually become very confident and stop working at it so hard, and then often–not always, certainly, but often–we lose all the ground we gained. It certainly has happened to me. Unfortunately, while we can reprogram our brains, overwriting years and years of habit usually requires years and years of new behavior.

But all of this is good news. Why? Because it suggests one obvious, easy explanation for why we fail so often at habit change. It’s not the only reason we fail–habit change is hard–but it’s probably a key one, and it’s that once we see ourselves acting in a new way, it’s easy for us to think that we’ve changed for good and don’t need to do all the hard work any more to keep the change going. Apparently, we do need the hard work. I’m sure that sounds depressing, but think back to a time when you’ve made a positive change in your life, when things were going well. What sticks with you? I can’t speak for your experience, but for me, thinking back on those times, what sticks with me is not that it was a slog, but the happiness at what I was achieving and pride that I was achieving it. Hard work isn’t really so hard when we’re seeing real results, and while we can’t count on great results all the time, any approach that works in our lives is worth sticking with long after it seems to have had its effect. It’s the difference between tasting success and locking it in.

For the teens in the study, tasting success has already made a big difference in their lives. Quite a number of them have avoided imprisonment, injury, and even death just from that one small study. Even if the effects are temporary, the study is worth far more than it cost–but the techniques they’re learning, like the techniques we can learn in our own lives, will mean the most if they and we find ways to stick with them for life.

Photo by JonoTakesPhotos


Sleeping Less Leads to Eating More


Science Daily reported recently that a new study by researchers from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City and Columbia University seems to have found a link between how well we sleep and how badly we eat. In the study, people who were didn’t get enough sleep tended to feel hungry more often, eat more, and gain more weight. While this doesn’t mean we can somehow “sleep away the pounds,” it does suggest that sleeping well makes it noticeably easier to eat well–and we already know that eating well, in turn, helps us sleep better.

In other words, paying special attention to getting enough sleep, which for most of us means making a decision to go to sleep earlier at night, can help us eat better and feel more healthy, which in turn can help us sleep even better: a snowball effect, though I can’t tell you whether the effect would be small or large.

You can read the Science Daily article here, or click on the following link to see the abstract for “Alterations in sleep architecture in response to experimental sleep curtailment are associated with signs of positive energy balance” from the American Physiological Society.

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How Do You Research Characters and Settings So That They Feel Real?


Old Vermont barns like this one were part of my experience I wanted to use in the setting for my novel of curse-keeping in rural Vermont, Family Skulls (see left sidebar)

I try to limit the number of posts I make on the craft of fiction writing, because while I’ve been seeing some great success in my writing, it’s not as though I’ve written the Great American Novel and hit the bestseller lists, so advice on how to write a story seems like something I should be careful not to give out too much of. However, a reader recently wrote to me saying she was concerned that she might not be able to learn enough about her characters and settings to write a novel that feels real, and asking what kind of research I do when writing fiction to make sure that these elements work. Feeling that I had some useful information on the subject, I replied. Here’s what I wrote:

Based on my own experience and on many discussions with other writers, there seem to be a lot of different approaches to researching character and setting. Some of us just dive right in and either stop to do research as necessary or make notes about what we need to research and just keep writing around the blanks. Personally I’m not a fan of putting in a blank and expecting to fill in with research later, because I think good research can weave itself deeply into the story, but I can’t deny that it works for some good writers.

Using research to make a story work well and feel real isn’t especially difficult, but it does take time and effort.

Approaches for characters
I’d suggest taking different approaches for characters and setting. For characters, unless you’re the kind of person who (like me) likes to try to draw characters out while writing the story, I’d suggest putting down some key information about each major character first. Basic life facts and physical information are important, of course–What are their hair colors? How strong or weak, heavy or light are they? What kinds of medical problems have they had to go through? How tall or short are they? What were their families like as children, and who was in those families? What are their family or living situations like now? How do they get along with family members in the present? How far have they gotten in school? How did they do? What job, if any, do they have?

Even more importantly, though, you can delve into what drives them. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to know what a character’s favorite color is or what that character ate for breakfast unless that’s very meaningful to who they are or to the story–though some writers disagree and feel that this kind of extreme detail is worth gathering. For my money, though, what’s important is what the character desires, what they’re afraid of, what their doubts are, what kinds of situations get under their skin, and that kind of thing.

Strengths and schemas
I often use strengths and schemas, at least informally, to flesh out characters. The 36 strengths outlined by Marcus Buckingham, et al. (see ) are one good way to find out what characters are good at. The 18 early maladaptive schemas from schema therapy (see ) can be used to find at least one major personality flaw for each character. Real people have multiple strengths and usually multiple schemas, though some may be milder than others. Characters don’t necessarily have to be fleshed out with a cocktail of five strengths and three schemas, for instance, unless it’s really necessary to get that deep to figure out what they’ll do.

Have reasons for your choices
One piece of this process that seems essential to me (and that I forgot to mention to my correspondent on the first pass) is that I don’t see any point in coming up with arbitrary choices. I’d advise choosing character details because they grab you, because they make the character more interesting and complex, because they’ll drive the story, or because they make an interesting cocktail with other characteristics. If your character creation process contains steps like “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, because I know there are a lot of single moms,” then I suspect you won’t get much juice out of that fact of her upbringing. If you say, though, “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, and the mom was an alcoholic, so my character had to be the parent to her own mom as she was growing up,” or “I guess she’ll have been brought up by a single mom, being told her father was dead, and then in the story her father will show up at some crucial point when she can’t afford to spare any attention to connect with him.” … well, then maybe you’ve got something.

Personally, I tend to try to let characters emerge organically as I write them, and only stop and question myself about them when they’re not already coming alive. However, this approach takes some practice to work well, doesn’t suit everyone, and may not be ideal anyway. My suggestion in regard to how to come up with characters, as with everything else, is to try everything … then spend a few years getting better at the techniques you decided to use and try everything again. Write, grow, repeat.

Approaches for settings
For settings, I’d suggest starting with a place you have easy access to if possible and paying close attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and physical experience of being in that place. If that’s not practical, it’s worth digging up photos, videos, articles, or other materials that give you a lot of physical specifics. Writing comes alive when it’s full of fresh, unusual, accurate sensory details–and ideally not just sight and sound, but all the senses. If you go too far with this, it begins to get overwhelming, but one or two good sensory impressions per page really pack a punch.

The facts about a location are easier: you can use Google Maps or Google Earth to find out how things are laid out, look up construction of houses or how an office is furnished, etc. I tend to do a lot of research looking for images and videos, because they give me much more of a feeling of being in a place than a simple description.

A couple of writing books you might really like, in case you haven’t already read them, are Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint and Stephen King’s On Writing. Between the two of them, they can give you a lot of tools, explanations, and confidence.

Photo by Beth M527

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Breaking Bad Habits by Changing Cues


Here’s an article with some useful points about breaking bad habits, based on the results of studies by psychologists at the University of Southern California: “Obesity and Overeating: How to Break a Bad Habit.” The key points here are 1) that negative behaviors are sometimes driven more by habit than by short-term pleasure, and 2) that changing minor environmental factors can help break bad habits. While there are many situations where these particular concerns don’t apply, they point to some easy and potentially effective methods of breaking bad habits in situations where they do.

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An Infinite Supply of Writing Prompts: Wikipedia Prompt Trails


It occurred to me today that there’s a ready-made tool out there for generating writing prompts, whether for fiction or nonfiction, tailored specifically to the interests and tastes of the writer. It goes like this:

Click this link (or the “Random article” link on the Wikipedia site) to bring up a random article on Wikipedia.

You don’t have to read the article per se: just look through it for any link that interests you, or might interest you, or might lead to a link that interests you. If you find a writing idea in the course of doing this, you’re done. If not, follow the link and repeat.

As simple as this process is, it has some nifty advantages:

* It offers almost a limitless number of possible writing prompt subjects
* Since it runs on what attracts your attention, it’s specifically tailored to your tastes and interests
* If you keep a particular project in mind while doing this, you can generate ideas for that project–which could be a godsend if, for instance, you’re stuck
* It also offers information and pictures that may relate to your writing topic
* It’s free
* It’s available anywhere you have access to the Internet
* It won’t work the same way for any two writers
* It can be surprisingly educational
* You don’t have to pay attention to anything that isn’t interesting to you

I’m usually a bit reluctant about using writing prompts that are offered to a group because of the danger of similarity in stories and because a given prompt may or may not interest me personally. The Wikipedia Prompt Trails approach appeals to me because it offers individually-tailored prompts instead, avoiding both problems.

For example, I clicked the link and got Graeme Lee (a New Zealand politician).

From that short and not particularly fascinating article I followed the link for Leo Shultz (another New Zealand politician), whose name I liked, probably because it reminded me of cartoonist Charles Schulz.

That led me to Hauraki (a New Zealand electoral division), and from there to Coromandel (the new name for Hauraki), both because the names sounded interesting. That led me in turn to the Ngatea (a small town in New Zealand), again because of interest in the name, which turned out to be in the Waikato Region, where I clicked on the link for Invasion of Waikato (part of the wars between the Colonial Government of New Zealand and the native Māori people), because invasions tend to be interesting and the novel I’m writing deals with one.

That brought me to the article on General Sir Duncan Alexander Cameron, who led some of the invading Colonial forces. I found my writing idea on that page, where I read that “One historian at least believes that Cameron deliberately allowed the besieged and surrounded Māori at Orakau to escape. This of course did not please the New Zealand public, who wanted the Māori to be punished …” A general letting a defeated native enemy force escape piques my interest, and offers a frame on which to hang a story (or, if I were inclined, a subject to research for an article or essay).

Total time to get this story idea: about 180 seconds.

Care to share your own Wikipedia Prompt trail?


How Clenching Muscles Can Boost Immediate Willpower

The human mind

Last month I posted about some interesting research being done in the field of embodied cognition–that is, how physical actions affect the way we think. The post, called “Can Just Grabbing a Pen Boost Willpower?” expressed my cautious interest in the idea that contracting muscles–for instance, by holding a pen tightly–could increase a person’s immediate willpower–that is, their ability to choose long-term goals over short-term goals, like losing weight over enjoying a piece of chocolate cake.

Five solid experiments
Since I had only had the opportunity to read an article about the work being done and not the original paper, I could only talk about the subject in a general and very qualified way. After I posted on the subject though, I was pleased to get an e-mail from Dr. Aparna Labroo of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, one of the paper’s co-authors (with Iris Hung), and she very kindly offered to forward me a copy of “From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation.”

After reading the paper, I’m able to express much better-informed enthusiasm for the idea. It details the methods and results of five studies conducted by the paper’s authors, each one examining a different aspect of how contracting muscles might affect willpower. The studies appeared to me (a well-informed layperson, but a layperson, so take my assessments with skepticism as needed) to be very well-designed psychological studies intended to provide meaningful, measurable data that tease apart the many questions this issue brings up.

How it works
To summarize the findings briefly, here are some high points:

  • Contracting a muscle when attempting a task seemed to boost willpower consistently in a variety of situations.
  • Which muscles were contracted didn’t seem to matter much: hand, leg, and arm muscles all seemed to work equally well.
  • The boost was only to immediate willpower with something being attempted at that moment, and it only worked if the person really cared about the long-term goal involved. For instance, contracting a muscle didn’t help people buy healthier snacks when they didn’t care whether or not their snacks were healthy; it only did so with health-minded individuals.
  • The willpower boost helped with a variety of situations, including helping others even when it was uncomfortable to do so, enduring discomfort, making healthier choices, and persisting with an unpleasant but beneficial task.
  • There wasn’t any indication that contracting muscles did anything to aid long-term willpower; the help seemed to come only at the moment it was being done.
  • The person benefiting from the willpower boost doesn’t have to know what’s going on for the effect to be realized.
  • Relaxing muscles or didn’t have any significant impact on willpower in either direction.
  • Most or all of the observed willpower boost seemed to come by way of self-talk. For instance, a person clenching a pen might think more positive or encouraging things than a person who was holding a pen loosely.
  • Simply knowing about a connection between clenching muscles and improved willpower seemed to help subjects in one situation exercise more self-control, presumably because they tried the idea out.

Of the many things we can do to boost willpower, this may well be the easiest I’ve yet seen, and while it appears to be effective for only short periods of time, very often that’s all we need. As Dr. Labroo has said, “this is no self-control magic pill.” However, it does seem like a useful tool to sometimes push things in the right direction just when a push is needed.

Photo by davco9200

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How to Believe

States of mind

Accomplishing new goals in our lives usually means changing our habits, and changing habits requires commitment to a goal. Underneath that commitment, though, there has to be faith. There’s a goodly amount of research out there to support the idea that if we don’t believe we can do something difficult, we won’t make a very good attempt at it.

Why belief is important to success
Belief’s importance makes a lot of sense: after all, accomplishing something difficult means putting in effort and attention over time, and as human beings, we tend to be very bad at putting time and effort into something when we don’t believe we’ll succeed–and rightly so! It doesn’t make much sense to expend our efforts in areas where we expect to fail.

But a problem comes up when something that we really can do feels impossible. We might want very much to do that thing and know exactly what steps we should be taking, but if we have trouble picturing success, eventually resolve tends to falter. We stop putting in effort because we have a crisis of faith, and that interruption causes our effort to fail, which reinforces the idea that what we wanted to do was impossible in the first place.

While fortunately we human beings tend to compensate for this sometimes with bull-headedness and unrealistic expectations (and I really do think that’s fortunate–otherwise we’d be like movie studios that only produce copycat movies for fear that something original will flop), more often, lack of belief leads to failure.

So sometimes, the reason you don’t believe you can earn a degree and get a better job is just that you’ve never had a better job, or the reason you can’t really believe you’ll lose weight is because you haven’t done it successfully before. Yet both of these things, for example, are achievable by almost anyone.

Building belief
So how can we help ourselves believe in our goals? Here are some ways to make that happen:

  • Talk to or research someone else who’s done it. Seeing is very close to believing.
  • Learn about how things work. For instance, learning about the relationship between building new muscle and increasing metabolism can provide more reason to be optimistic that exercise will lead to weight loss.
  • Root out broken ideas. It’s common to tell ourselves “facts” that don’t really hold up on examination. The page “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair” provides resources to learn how to repair broken ideas.
  • Track your progress. Every step toward your goal provides evidence that you can get closer. Be aware of your successes to bolster your confidence and your missteps to know where you need to be cautious. For more on this, see “How Feedback Loops Maintain Self-Motivation.”
  • Revisit past successes. If you’ve quit smoking for a couple of months in the past, or if you’ve been caught up with all of your correspondence at other times in your life, remind yourself of what you did and what you were able to accomplish.
  • Visualize success. Imagining a situation vividly enough helps it feel more real. Visualization is a way to get motivation from our own potential future successes.
  • Talk it out with someone supportive. Finding someone who wants to encourage you toward your goals can make a real difference (see “How Supporters and Partners Help Motivate Us“). Sympathetic friends or family members may not have the same blind spots we often have about ourselves, and a little encouragement can go a long way.

Photo by ornellaswouldgo

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Can Just Grabbing a Pen Boost Willpower?

The human mind

I just read a kind of strange article here, and I honestly don’t know quite what to make of it. The piece is a brief interview with Aparna Labroo, an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Labroo publishes in the field of consumer psychology, and her PhD is in marketing. This makes me want to be careful concluding much from the results, because I frankly have no idea what kind of work goes into marketing doctorates and don’t know whether we should take research in the field of marketing just as seriously as research in the field of psychology when we’re talking about general human behavior. Tentatively, though, the conclusion seems very interesting.

What Labroo’s studies suggest is that people can increase their self-control simply by grabbing something. The idea seems to be that the physiological response to contracting muscles has some effect on willpower for immediate situations.

For instance, in one study, Labroo had subjects stick one hand in a bucket of ice water and see how long they could keep it there, a difficult but not harmful task. Some of the subjects held a pen loosely in the other hand, some tightly, and others were given no instructions about the pen. The ones who held the pen tightly, Labroo reports, had a significantly higher ability to keep their hand in the cold water.

One limitation I would point out here is that although the popular idea of willpower seems to be that of a struggle between something we want to do and something we “should” do, in fact people who are successful with willpower over the long term seem to be doing much less of that and much more of redirecting their thoughts. In other words, the ability to stand doing something unpleasant is useful for willpower, but not nearly as useful as the ability to refocus attention: see my article “Resistance Really Is Useless: Why Willpower Isn’t About Fighting Ourselves” for more on this.

Photo by timhulmephotography

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When Self-Help Goes Wrong: Red Flags and Bad Advice


Some self-help materials are worth their weight in gold at the very least, not just for ourselves, but because improving our own lives tends to help people around us (see “How self-help helps everyone else” and “How Other People’s Happiness Affects Our Own“). Self-help is important because most of our behaviors are learned: no one comes into the world understanding how to make the best of what they have, be happy in difficult circumstances, untangle conflicts, follow a healthy path, and otherwise create an ideal life–and I’m skeptical that it’s possible to learn all of these things without at least a little help from resources or mentors.

But while it’s tremendously fortunate that there’s so much help available out there, some of that help is flawed, some is useless, and some is actually harmful (see “Telling Bad Advice from Good Advice“). Here are some things to watch out for in self-help and personal growth books, shows, CD’s, DVD’s, talks, and seminars:

  • Common knowledge. When someone says “everyone knows that this is true, and therefore …”, there’s always the danger that the thing that everyone “knows” isn’t actually accurate at all. An example: the “common knowledge” that it takes 21 days (or 28 days, etc.) to form a habit is utterly wrong (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“).
  • Reasoning by analogy. When someone tries to prove something by describing something else, they’re actually not proving anything at all. If I were to start talking about the stomach as a fuel tank and make suggestions about how to eat based on car engines, the information I’d be giving wouldn’t be based on a real understanding of how our bodies work, but on something else that isn’t even directly related. Analogies are often helpful for making a point clearer, but by themselves they don’t prove anything.
  • Reasoning by wordplay. Using puns and similar-sounding words can be a good way to help people remember points, but like analogies, wordplay doesn’t prove anything. Watch out for people who try to make their point through clever word usage instead of through facts.
  • Where a word comes from is not what it means. It surprises me how many self-help gurus and motivational speakers don’t know the difference between where a word comes from and what it actually means. Meanings of words have to do with how we understand those words today, not with the words and phrases they came from centuries back. The word “company,” for instance, originally meant “a group of friends,” yet that doesn’t mean that anyone employed at a business establishment today is working among buddies. Word derivations like this are also often used to “prove” points in some kinds of self-help material, but they’re just another form of non-factual wordplay.
  • Iffy science. It’s easy to make claims or declarations about one study that may later turn out to be flawed, or to misunderstand what is or isn’t really being demonstrated in a scientific study. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to know whether or not someone is misusing scientific research without referring to the original source. The more-reliable sources tend to describe exactly what happened in the studies they’re talking about, while the less-reliable ones more often just say that science has proved one thing or another. And technically, science doesn’t prove anything: it’s just a way of gathering more information. Any conclusions anyone makes from a scientific study are only theories to explain what happened in the study, not unquestionable truths.
  • Mountains out of molehills. Even good scientific conclusions can sometimes be misused if they’re magnified inappropriately. For instance, there are many foods and practices that can contribute in a small way to weight loss, but some of these are seized on and described as miracle foods or fat-melting secrets when the real impact they’ll have isn’t even likely to be noticeable.
  • Unhealed physicians. If I take advice from someone, ideally I’d like to be taking it from someone who has demonstrated that the advice works. True, it’s possible to pass along useful information without always being able to take full advantage of that information (see “Knowing Isn’t Enough: The 4 Steps Between Knowledge and Action”), but be wary of people who say they are authorities on something without having done it themselves, like people who say they know how to make money but have only ever done so by telling other people how to make money. One example comes to mind of a doctor who gives weight loss, health, and habit change advice while having been noticeably overweight for most of his life.

Despite all of the not-so-helpful self-help “experts” who give advice that may not be helpful to anyone, there are also any number of people out there in the world with real experience and understanding of living a well-directed, meaningful life. The more we seek out and listen to those people and not their flashier, less-informed colleagues, the better off we’ll be.

Photo by virtualreality

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When Confidence Suckers Us In

States of mind

An article this month on the British Psychological Society blog had this to say about confidence: it can make us into suckers if we’re not careful.

The article was based on a recent paper by Loran F. Nordgren, Frenk van Harreveld, and Joop van der Pligt, which examined four studies of confidence and self-control. The process of falling prey to overconfidence goes something like this:

How to be overconfident, step by step
1. Something happens to make a person (let’s call him Daryl) feel confident about how much self-control he has in a particular area. For instance, maybe Daryl is told he’s been very diplomatic in a difficult conversation, or he has some reason to think he’s done more studying for an upcoming exam than his classmates.

2. Daryl is presented with a choice that offers different levels of temptation: for instance, as a smoker who just quit, he might have the chance to sit around talking with other smokers or to avoid them when they’re smoking; or if he’s watching what he eats, he might have the option of bringing either cookies or salad to a pot luck.

3. Feeling confident of his self-control, Daryl takes the path with more temptation. Why should he care, since he has such great self-control?

4. Taking the path of more temptation, not surprisingly, Daryl’s more than likely to succumb to temptation. By being more confident, he’s overstressed his self-control.

Willpower is something we do, not something we have
The reason that Daryl’s situation and the research that the British Psychological Society cites shouldn’t surprise us has to do with a basic misunderstanding our culture tends to have about willpower. We talk about having willpower, as though it were a basic, unchangeable trait, probably inborn or at the very least set in early childhood. If a person has had self-control in one area, the thinking goes, then they should always have self-control in other areas, too.

The problem is that willpower isn’t a basic trait at all: it’s a skill. Some elements of that skill can be applied to many situations, but many other elements are specific to each area where they apply, and they only work when used. For instance, maybe Daryl got in more studying than his classmates because he planned more time for studying in advance than most of them did. If this is the case, then the best way to get in more studying is not to be Daryl, but to plan the way Daryl planned. If Daryl mistakenly thinks he’s just the kind of guy who always gets in more studying and consequently plans less time to study than he would have otherwise, he’s setting himself up for failure by thinking of himself as a success.

How to avoid the trap of overconfidence
The practical idea we can take away from this is this: any time we’re successful at something that involves willpower, we will get the most out of that success if we reflect on it and figure out what it was we did that helped. If that success gives us more confidence, that can be helpful as long as we remember that the success was tied to doing things a particular way, and that repeating that success will require the same or comparable tactics.

Photo by swannman

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