Browsing the archives for the mindfulness tag.
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Tools for Feeling Better, Part I

Handling negative emotions

I’ve mentioned in some recent articles that I’m doing my best to remember and make good use of whatever tools I have to make good choices. Some of the most useful tools of this kind are for getting past negative emotions: anger, depression, frustration, anxiety, avoidance, despair, and so on.

Here are five of the best tools I know of for handling bad states of mind. I’ll post another article or two in the near future with more.

Idea repair: Negative emotions that keep going even when no new bad things are happening are usually maintained by specific kinds of thoughts (as talked about, for instance, in Jenefer Robinson’s book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art). Idea repair, called “cognitive restructuring” in psychology circles, is the process of detecting flawed thoughts and reframing them so that they become constructive and stop causing pain.

Mindfulness: A key ingredient in sorting out negative emotions and one of the requirements for idea repair and other positive processes, mindfulness is simply being aware of what’s going on both around and inside us. We can’t be mindful all the time, but there are certainly situations in which we become more sane, happy, focused, and relaxed just by using this one idea.

Meditation: Although some people meditate for spiritual reasons, others do it just for the immediate personal payoff in serenity, self-awareness, and clarity. It’s not difficult to get started.

Understanding schemas: Mental schemas are flawed patterns of thinking and behavior that are usually learned when we are young but stick with us into adulthood, often causing trouble for us on a daily basis. There are a variety of them, including, for example, Abandonment, Mistrust, and Emotional deprivation. If we find any schemas in ourselves, we can learn to understand and overcome those schemas, clearing away a lot of emotional drag and clutter in the process.

Emotional antidotes: Buddhist inquiry into human emotion, which is a time-honored and conscientious tradition, has come up with some kinds of emotional experiences that can be used to reverse negative emotions. I explain something of how this works in my article “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions.”

For more tools, see the follow-up articles: Part II and Part III.

Photo by Michael Flick

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Examples of Broken Ideas (Cognitive Distortions)

Handling negative emotions

A broken idea (called a “cognitive distortion” in the psychological literature) is a thought that creates problems because it’s flawed.

Some examples of broken ideas: “You always interrupt me!” (Always? Every single time?) “People think I look stupid when I dance.” (Everyone does? You can read their minds?) “I look like a mess for this interview! This is a disaster!” (As bad as the Hindenberg or Hurricane Katrina? It’s a disaster and not just an inconvenience?).

Broken ideas tend to play in loops in our minds, and this ongoing commentary often has the effect of causing trouble: disrupting work, encouraging us to act badly, or just making us miserable. I talk elsewhere on the site about how to detect broken ideas and how to repair them and provide an introduction to broken ideas, but a correspondent recently made the very good suggestion of posting examples of each type.

All-or-nothing thinking:
Looking at things as though they’re completely black or white, with no room for neutral or contrary characteristics.
“This job is the worst job I could possibly have. I hate it.”

Overgeneralization:
Taking a few examples and assuming that they describe an absolute pattern.
“My last two relationships ended badly: I must be completely incompetent at love.”

Mental filter:
Ignoring important facts to come up with a faulty conclusion.
“Mom and Dad always paid attention to you and never to me.”

Disqualifying the positive:
Ignoring anything that might get in the way of a negative judgment.
“It doesn’t matter that my boss complimented my work: since I didn’t get the promotion, I’m obviously a failure.”

Fortune telling:
Making assumptions about what will happen in the future.
“All this studying won’t help, and I’ll fail the test.”

Mind reading:
Making assumptions about what other people are thinking.
“Everybody in the audience must think I’m a complete idiot up here.”

Magnification or minimization:
Exaggerating or understating anything about a situation.
“I have to move? This is awful! This will ruin everything I have set up in my life!”

Emotional reasoning:
Assuming that something’s true because it feels like it’s true.
“I know I planned the event carefully, but I know something’s going to go wrong.”

Should statements:
Getting upset because one doesn’t have control or governance over other people’s actions, random events, or basic facts of existence.
“That jerk shouldn’t be driving so slowly in the left lane!”
“I should be able to eat cookies whenever I want to! It’s not fair that my coworkers can do that and not get fat!”

Labeling:
Describing something in a way that prevents it from being clearly seen and often makes it seem much worse than it is.
“I’m a coward and loser, and nothing’s going to change that.”

Personalization:
Assuming that a situation or event says something about oneself personally when it doesn’t.
“I didn’t win this contest–they must think I’m a terrible writer.”

Photo by 1Sock

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Everything Sucks. Reboot? Y/N

Handling negative emotions

Every once in a while, I have a day where enough seems to have gone wrong that I’m lodged deep in a lousy mood. Sometimes I’m not clever enough to be aware of this right away, so it persists until mindfulness finally kicks in with something to the effect of “You’re in a bad mood, and there is no reason for it unless it’s somehow helping you. Is it helping?”

It generally isn not helping. So I try to find my way out of that lousy mood using one of the techniques in this post.

The human brain is not very much like a computer. It changes its own structure constantly, stores information in locations scattered throughout the brain, and even runs two different systems (one neural and mostly cognitive, the other chemical and mostly emotional) at the same time. There’s more on this in my article about science fiction and the human brain at Clarkesworld.

But even though the brain doesn’t work the way computers do in many respects, it is capable of reboots: shutting down everything that’s currently running–including bad moods–and starting from scratch. However, reboots are not always easy. There are at least two things that get in the way.

The first is called “mood congruity”: this is the tendency of human beings to have trouble really imagining any emotional situation other than the one they’re already in. If you’re in a bad mood and you picture enjoying a nice walk outside, chances are it will be difficult for you to believe in your gut that the walk will be enjoyable–even if you have every reason to think it will be, and even if it generally has been under similar circumstances in the past. Whatever mood we’re in, we tend to imagine the future fitting the same mood. This is one reason the advice “Cheer up! Things will get better” often sounds so hollow. Mood congruity can be overcome, but it’s helpful to realize that the way our brians work, they’re a little limited at imagining an emotion while experiencing a contrary emotion.

Another barrier is that generally speaking, any mental control we have over our emotions happens by thinking (cognition), but cognition can change much more quickly than emotion, because so much of emotion has to do with chemicals like dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin, adrenaline, and others. The chemical states that influence our brains aren’t capable of changing nearly as quickly as our thoughts. We can go from thinking about a horrible tragedy to thinking about a really funny joke and back all within seconds, but our emotional state would not be able to keep up. This means that any mental effort to change mood needs to be kept up for a minute or two at least to allow emotions to catch up with cognition. It also means that idea repair doesn’t have its full effect right away, a subject I’ll be tackling in another article soon.

Knowing the obstacles, what are the techniques we can use to reboot our brains? Well, computers can go through a “warm boot” (rebooting through software only) or a “cold boot” (physically restarting the computer), and the same is true of our brains. A mental cold boot can be accomplished with techniques that completely clear out what’s going on in our minds. Two excellent approaches for this are meditation (which narrows focus to a very specific subject while letting everything else kind of float away) and exercise (which creates a physiological state that tends to help us cut back to a minimum of thinking).

Techniques for warm boots change attention, immediate experience, and/or thinking. Idea repair is one very useful means to do a warm boot. Other methods include emotional antidotes; visualization; and getting into a flow state (or at least distracted by something interesting for a bit).

Regardless of which method you use, rebooting takes attention, effort, and a little time. However, it often doesn’t take any more than that, and while not every bad mood can be banished in minutes, many of them can.

Photo by rofreg

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Self-Control: So Simple, a Five-Year-Old Can Learn It

Handling negative emotions

A few weeks ago, I made lentil stew. My lentils were in a bag on a top shelf, so I reached up and tugged the bag out toward me–not realizing that the twist tie had come undone. Lentils showered down on my kitchen. You’ll be happy to hear that I responded to the situation with a cheerful and accepting attitude.

No, that’s a lie. I cursed a blue streak and got really upset for about 30 seconds before recognizing that for the love of Pete, it was just some lentils and no reason to lose my cool. A little self-monitoring and self-talk brought me back in line, and the whole situation inspired me to try to catch unhelpful reactions earlier in the game.

In this department, a group of kindergartners through third graders who took part in a study called the Rochester Resilience Project may have the jump on me. These were kids who showed early signs of behavior problems in school, and they were given 25-minute lessons once a week for 14 weeks to help them become more aware of their own feelings (mindfulness) and to use thoughts to improve their moods when something went wrong (idea repair).

The results were impressive. Compared to the control group, in which kids didn’t get the training, trained kids had just over half as many discipline problems over the course of the study.

In other words, techniques like being aware of our own emotions and talking ourselves down from negative emotional extremes can be made so easy, a five-year-old can learn and apply them–and do so well enough to make a big difference in school life. If that’s the case, how much more easily are we adults likely to be able to learn and use these things if we’re willing to give them real and focused attention?

The study was documented in the article Reducing Classroom Problems By Teaching Kids Self-Control on the PsychCentral.com Web site.

Photo by Scott Vanderchijs

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Black belt

Self-motivation examples

I’ve always been interested in the martial arts, ever since I lingered over ads offering the secrets of judo in the backs of comic books I read as a kid. There’s a kind of promise in martial arts that it’s possible to do things with our bodies that are very nearly magical. This is the same reason I’ve been drawn to the psychology of self-motivation, because just as I’ve been learning and practicing the basic skills of Taekwondo (stances, blocks, kicks, sparring techniques, etc.), over the past several years, in that same period I’ve also been learning and practicing the basic skills of self-motivation (feedback loops, idea repair, visualization, reframing techniques, etc.). And it turns out that training in self-motivation can achieve things that are also very nearly magical.

Friday night, in Burlington, Vermont, I tested successfully for my first dan black belt in Taekwondo Chung Do Kwan at the Blue Wave Taekwondo Association‘s Winter Camp. This was a big win for both my Taekwondo training and my self-motivation training.

In some ways it seems as though my self-motivation training was completely unnecessary: as I describe in this post, I love training in Taekwondo even though it’s effortful, sometimes inconvenient, and occasionally painful. Since I love to do it, why would self-motivation be necessary?

But that’s a trick question: the key to self-motivation is to love what you do, whether that thing is getting your personal records in order, writing about the psychology of self-motivation, crafting a novel, or doing the dishes. This sounds both simple and useless: sure, we get things done when we love to do them, but if we don’t love to do them, we’re out of luck, right?

But of course my sense of things is that we’re not out of luck at all. It took a conscious shift in attitude every time I dragged my tired butt up the steps to the third floor Taekwondo gym after a long day at work over the past few years, changing my thinking from “I’m too tired to work out” to “I work out whether I feel tired or not.” And it’s been improved by mindfulness, like when I had begun my testing Friday night and consciously brought myself to realize that while there was definitely pressure to do well (especially from myself), I was having the time of my life. I had told people before testing that I wasn’t nervous yet, but that I thought I would be at testing. As it turns out, I wasn’t nervous. I screwed some things up (though fortunately not badly enough to threaten my succeeding), but when something did go wrong, I just did my best to collect myself and move forward. I may have been a little hyper, and my attention was certainly scattered at times, but I wasn’t nervous: I was profoundly content.

The secret about learning to love doing something–like testing for black belt or starting a workout when you’re really tired–is that even things that seem unappealing to us at first, if they’re really furthering goals we care about, tend to become more interesting and enjoyable once we resign ourselves to doing them and get started. Loving to do something sometimes comes naturally, sure, but a lot of the time it takes work, which comes in the form of using the skills and practices I talk about on this site: idea repair, feedback loops, visualization, identifying mental schemas, and so on.

The phrase “black belt” is often used to mean mastery, but in Taekwondo at least, becoming a black belt is just the beginning. As my instructor, Master White (who is profiled here and who also tested on Friday–incredibly, for his seventh dan black belt) says, “black belt” means that you’ve gotten down the basics and are ready for the real fun to begin. And although I think the real fun began long ago, I am definitely ready.

Photo by Mr. Lloyd Blake, via Mrs. Carrie Blake

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Mental Schemas #5: Alienation

Handling negative emotions

This is the fifth 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.

I went to a dance club late last year, not because I’m a good dancer or used to going to clubs, but because it seemed like it would be fun. I paid the ridiculous fee (I don’t remember the exact amount, but I think it was more than the total value of everything I was wearing) and walked into the big, trendy, excitingly-architected room to discover that I had come on … Lebanese Night. Lots of Lebanese guys in nice shirts were standing around with drinks, looking cool not dancing while small knots of Lebanese women danced on the floor, probably talking about how men are always too chicken to dance.

Not being Lebanese, a good dancer, or even a resident of the city I was in, I felt more than a little out of place.

Usually I find a way to connect in any group I’m in, but this was a clear exception. I was apart: they were them and I was me, and I didn’t see any way to change that. People with the “social isolation” or “alienation” schema feel this way all the time.

Social isolation isn’t entirely a bad thing. From outside the group, it’s sometimes possible to get a novel perspective, for instance. A lot of very good science fiction has been written from the point of view of someone who’s used to being completely different.

But alienation can also be lonely, painful, and obstructive. Sometimes you need to connect with a group to be able to accomplish something, to feel safe, or just to feel fully human. A child who feels very different from everyone else or who comes from a family that feels very different from other families, can grow up with a sense that no community will welcome them, that they’re not a part of anything.

A person with an alienation schema might join a group but not really get involved, or act out in a group in a way that will tend to encourage rejection, or avoid groups entirely.

Getting past an alienation schema–or any schema–takes time and effort, and it’s accomplished by paying attention to problem thoughts and attitudes, then deliberately coming up with more constructive ones. For instance, a person with this schema might arrive at a party and think “I didn’t dress up enough. Everyone here must think I’m a slob.” This kind of broken idea is known as “mind reading”–presuming to know other people’s thoughts and then acting as though those thoughts were an established fact. Repairing broken ideas that lead to feelings of alienation usually means understanding that it is possible to to genuinely be accepted into a group, and at the same time being OK with that fact that not every group accepts every person–that rejection from one group isn’t the same as proof that the rejected person doesn’t belong anywhere.

Whether or not this thinking would do me any good on Lebanese night when I don’t even know the difference between mawared and mazaher … well, that may be another thing entirely.

Photo by Steve White

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Shouldn’t We Just Do What Comes Naturally?

Habits

Last week I was helping teach a newer student at Taekwondo class, and was showing her a stance she hadn’t done before, in which the body faces in one direction and the feet point in two other directions. “If it feels weird,” I found myself saying, “then you’re doing it right.”

There’s a reason for this: the muscles that help a person stand like that aren’t ones that get much use, so it takes some time and some practice before the new position becomes comfortable. But this stance is very useful in Taekwondo, and what feels weird at first gradually becomes comfortable and habitual.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often heard advice like “just listen to your body,” with the assumption that if we just do what comes “naturally,” we’ll get the best possible result. And there are advantages to that kind of approach sometimes. First mindfulness and self-knowledge are key components of self-motivation. And second, if nothing gets in the way, often our bodies send us useful signals.

But there’s also a serious problem with just doing what comes naturally: what feels “natural” to us is a combination of instinct plus habit, and habit can transform all kinds of behaviors. Our eating cycles, our romantic preferences, the way we do our work and interact with other people, and pretty much every other complex behavior we have is built on natural inclinations, but only under layers and layers of past experiences and accustomed behaviors.

This is due to our “neural plasticity,” which means that the brain is constantly rewiring itself so that repeated behaviors and experiences feel more and more natural and come more and more easily. This means that if I eat doughnuts every morning, eating doughnuts is likely to start feeling very comfortable, normal, and necessary for me–even if it’s completely out of synch with what my body actually needs. And if I get used to taking a run every day after work, then that will get increasingly easier and more comfortable. The same is true for returning phone calls, doing homework, getting into arguments, watching TV, meditating, or any other good, bad, or netural habit. How long will that take for a habit to form? According to this study, it varies a lot, but something that’s done daily will be likely to turn into a habit some time between 1 and 7 months after we start. (If it’s not done daily, it will take much, much longer.)

So if we want to change a behavior, to redefine what comes naturally, there are two key steps we can take.

1. Work out the broken ideas we might have that are getting in our way, a process cognitive psychologists call “cognitive restructuring,” and

2. Deliberately set up and practice behaviors that feel weird at first.

Photo by crowolf

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Mental Schemas #3: Emotional Deprivation (with help from Holden Caulfield)

Handling negative emotions

The Emotional Deprivation Schema
A few quotes from J.D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye can help explain what this schema is about.

“Sometimes I act a lot older than I am–I really do– but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

“She bought me the wrong kind of skates–I wanted racing skates and she bought hockey–but it made me sad anyway. Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.”

Occasionally feeling like other people don’t understand, don’t care, and/or couldn’t do anything about it even if they did seems to be a normal part of the human experience. Feeling like this every day and all, though, can be emotionally debilitating as hell.

I’m not suggesting that everything that goes on with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is part of an emotional deprivation schema. As real human beings, our motivations are too complex to be meaningfully explained by any one concept, and to Salinger’s credit, Holden feels like a real human being to many readers. But Holden does us a favor in helping to show the emotional deprivation schema and some of its effects.

A person with an emotional deprivation schema might choose relationships with people who aren’t very capable of giving care, understanding, or support, and might act in ways that make it harder for even people who are capable to give these things. Such a person might provoke others or try to keep people at a distance (on the assumption that they wouldn’t really be able to get close anyway).

Overcoming an Emotional Deprivation Schema
Making progress with this schema first requires understanding how it’s working in one’s life: taking note of behaviors and choices that come from these beliefs and that can affect relationships. Techniques like journaling, talk therapy, and mindfulness practices can help bring these ideas out.

One way to tackle an emotional deprivation schema–or any schema–is to identify broken ideas and then repair them. Schemas express themselves as broken ideas, and repairing these ideas helps make progress in taking down the schema.

Since an emotional deprivation schema is a lack of faith in receiving attention, care, and understanding from other people, any experience that demonstrates people actually providing these things is worth paying attention to and building on. Even small gestures, when recognized as real caring or support, show the inherent flaw in the line of thinking that this schema promotes, and focusing on these gestures widens the cracks in this kind of mistaken belief in a way that can eventually break it apart.

Holden himself seems to have come up with a way to feel better about other people caring about him, which is to care about other people:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Unfortunately, this particular way of demonstrating that people can care for each other is a little impractical. Yet right at the end of the book, Holden finds a simpler, more practical way, which is just watching his little sister on a merry-go-round.

“I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”

Photo by Fozzman

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The Problem of Living One Minute in the Future

States of mind

I recently noticed that I have the habit, sometimes, of living approximately one minute in the future. This is a problem. I’ll explain:

Of all the focus and motivation-related skills I could be developing, the one that helps me the most when I practice it and causes the most harm when it’s missing is mindfulness. When I take time to be aware of what’s going on around me, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking about what I’m doing, what’s really important to me, and from all that what choices suit me the best, I make some terrific choices. When I lose track of too many of these things for too long … not so much.

The question of how well mindfulness works has a lot to do with how much effort and attention go into it, so the problems come for me mainly when I let my attention be taken up too much by other things.

Recently I was doing my best to apply mindfulness to how I eat. This probably sounds like a relatively unimportant, navel-gazing exercise, but since eating is one of the things that in the past I’ve done least mindfully, for me it’s something that I benefit from working on regularly.

What I noticed about myself was that while I was eating something I enjoyed, I wasn’t paying the most attention to the bite I was actually eating. I wasn’t even paying attention to the next bite: no, the bite I was focusing on was the one two bites ahead. Somewhere deep down I seem to still have a concern that the food will all just run out all of a sudden. And who knows? Someday I may live in a time and place where there’s a famine and there isn’t enough food. For an adequately employed American in 2010, though, that attitude is ridiculous.

And yet, I began to notice that whenever I was on my next-to-last bite, I stopped enjoying what I was eating and felt as though I had no food left. This is while I’m still chewing and have another bite to go, mind you. I was living two bites in the future, and even when there was still food two bites away, it wasn’t food I was eating–all I was enjoying then was the fact that there was still food available.

I don’t eat like this all the time, or even necessarily most of the time. But when I’m not paying attention and letting my least useful long-term eating habits get the best of me, there’s a disconnect between me and my food–which may explain why until the last couple of years, while I ate healthy food, I didn’t have a good sense of how much I should eat or when. That’s changed with effort and practice, fortunately, but some of the attitudes that gave rise to the problem in the first place are still present, even though they’re diminished.

The problem of living a little bit in the future can crop up anywhere: watching the clock during the work day and not being willing to be happy until it’s time to leave; working on a project and not allowing a sense of any accomplishment until the project is done (if then); and so on. If you find you’re having trouble enjoying something, it can be useful to pay attention for a moment to where your focus is: is it on what’s going on now, or is it on some imagined payoff, deadline, beginning, or end?

That’s not to say we should always live in the moment: always doing that is neither wise nor practical, and I talk about the reasons this is true in this article. But living slightly out of kilter with the moment often isn’t a good strategy either, and sometimes all it takes to be happier and reduce stress is to set the clock back a minute or so.

Photo by rockmixer

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Want to Be More Mindful of Your Moods? Try on an Idiot Hat!

States of mind

My yurt-dwelling, goat-raising, kid-celebrating, writer friend Maya has a daughter named Sophie, and Sophie has developed a new mindfulness tool that I expect may be showing up and getting some use in our house soon, and I don’t mean for my son. It’s called an “Idiot Hat.”

I’ll leave it to Maya to fully explain the origin and use of the Idiot Hat in her post, “the idiot hat, or, sophie has had enough“: the short version is that when someone is being grumpy, they put on the Idiot Hat and wear it until they do something nice. (“But what if I want to be grumpy sometimes?” you may ask. “Are you telling me I can’t be grumpy?” This is an excellent point, and if grumpiness isn’t something that you personally feel no need to work on, I say grump away. Still, there might be other uses for the hat in your house.)

As playful as the Idiot Hat idea is, I have to say that it exemplifies what I consider extremely practical thinking about mindfulness. After all, if I want to change a habit (like grumpiness, which is the specific vice the Idiot Hat is designed to cure, although I think the hat’s potential uses are legion), I’m going to need to 1) catch myself in the act whenever the habit comes up and 2) change my behavior. And I’ll need to do that consistently until it becomes a habit. The Idiot Hat catches the behavior when it occurs and leaves a visible reminder until change occurs. For extra points, it also offers an immediate change of perspective, distancing both grumper and grumpee(s) from the negative emotion, and provides an emotional antidote through humor–as long as the grumper is in the mood to take a little ribbing.

The basic idea behind this–using something physical as an aid to mindfulness in changing habits or behaviors–is a pretty impressive one. By definition, the tricky thing about mindfulness is paying attention to the right thing at the right time. Having a physical reminder of that thing makes keeping attention on it strongly enough and for long enough to make a difference more likely. Having a physical reminder that doesn’t go away until you’ve taken some compensating action gives you something to actually accomplish and a constant reminder to accomplish it.

Examples: an ugly statue you set on your desk whenever you miss a deadline you’ve set for yourself, a little meditation waterfall you turn on whenever you’re feeling stressed until you feel better, or something you carry with you to a restaurant to remind yourself that you plan to eat mindfully when you’re there.

A note: I don’t mean to be posting two articles close together with the word “Idiot” in their title, since just last week I posted “How to Form a Habit: It’s Like Training a Friendly Idiot.” It just happened that there was this idiot hat thing that came up and needed to be blogged about. I promise to underuse the word for the next little while.

Illustration by Ethan Reid, age 13. Ethan also did a cartoon on the subject.

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