Will Power Alone is not Enough

Summary of The Secrets of Self-Improvement by Marina Krakovsky

A study published in Psychological Science, 2009 showed that “participants with the highest opinion of their self restraint were the most likely to give into temptation.  Those with the most modest, realistic assessment of their own abilities fared best.” This article points out that both self-awareness and self-motivation are key components of successful change.

Most of the time, people make significant changes on their own without the help of doctors or programs. Based on some of the latest neuroscientific research, this article highlights some of the key steps for making changes – long beyond the week after New Year’s Eve.  In summary they are:

  1. Maintaining realistic expectations
  2. Aligning with your deep motivators
  3. Taking baby steps
  4. Formulating Action Plans

According to Perth based psychologist, Martin Hegger, it’s easier to justify our actions and much harder to align our actions with our thoughts. Habits being hard to break is what makes them useful, so it’s not easy to change.  For instance, being in places aligned with a habit will have a big impact on our unconscious processing, making old habits easy to fall in to.  Ex-smokers know this when they go to an old pub, or house where they used to smoke.

Some pointers to keep in mind when forming new habits…

  • Lapses Are Normal. Don’t treat them as failure, just make adjustments to get back on track as soon as possible.
  • Mental Contrasting. There are two ways that mental imaging can help you break old habits The images to contrast are:
  1. A picture of the successful result.
  2. The specific obstacles that can get in the way.

For example, when resolving to save money, it helps to a) imagine the larger bank balance and b) wrestling with the decision to join friends on an expensive dinner.  This mental contrasting can help you “procrastinate less and tackle challenges more enthusiastically.”

  • Engage Your Autopilot. Imagine yourself taking steps to support your new habit in simple practical terms.  Seeing yourself stopping at the shop on the way home to buy three kinds of vegetables will help make the change easier.  This planning backfires when we attach rationale statements like “because I want to lose weight.”  Such rationalisations involve the thinking mind and the opportunity for doubt and old habitual mental processes can hijack the change process.  Using positive language, “will” as opposed to “will not,” is also key.
  • Find Your Own Why.  “Should do’s” without a link to personal values are hard to sustain.  When looking at new habits, ensure they are aligned with your psychological needs – such as those posited in humanist theory such as competence, contribution, closeness and autonomy. People who spent time finding their own personal motivations were far more successful than those incentivised by external motivators, such as financial gain.
  • Take Baby Steps. If completing the task you set is questionable, then it’s not a good start.  Breaking down goals into small achievable steps can help both give quicker wins and reduce the impact of setbacks. Developing coping skills such as effective scheduling and realistic goal setting are two key ways to support change.

Finally, remember that change is never easy and not all these steps will work for everyone or every habit.  This latest research suggests that the most important thing is to find your own way, and particularly ensuring these changes are aligned with your own values.  It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is never the wrong time to start taking steps toward a better life. Enjoy!

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