Setting Yourself up for Success
After filling our heads full of great theoretical ideas to promote well-being, Professor Laurie Santos starts priming us for full implementation. As we have already learned, happiness is not derived from a one-time pill. Those of you who watched “Brain Candy” featuring Canada’s beloved Kids in the Hall will remember the perils of “Gleemonex”. Hmm, an R-rated Canadian film from 25 years ago that did a whopping $2.6 million at the box office? I think I need to start updating my cultural references.
The environment we create can influence our actions greatly. First of all, we need to fix our bad environments. I will use potato chips as my example. They are both evil and delicious. Bad idea: put them in a bowl and leave them out where I can pass by and take “just a few” (flash forward to weeping man on floor, wiping crumbs out of empty bowl with finger, love handles expanding under straining t-shirt fabric as the camera zooms in on waistline). Best idea: keep potato chips out of the house. You have to put pants on to walk over to the corner store, or so I am told.
Promoting a healthy environment is the flip side of this concept. Just like we can alter the location of our chips, we can move healthier items like a bowl of fruit closer to us and keep it in plain sight. A wise teacher once told me: “if you aren’t hungry enough for an apple you aren’t hungry”. So wise and annoying when all you want is potato chips. Or we can park our car at the far end of the parking lot to squeeze in more daily steps as we hoof it to the office door.
Getting involved with a group with similar objectives, like a running group can help. You can also enlist “accountability partners”. If you are committing to write ten pages per week, make a deal with your friend that if you fall short you will give $50 to his preferred political party (which happens to fall on the “other” end of the political spectrum). That will give you some motivation.
Now that the stage is set, it is a matter of creating goals and plans to help you move toward the overall objective.
In terms of goal setting, specifics are a critical element. The brain loves wishy-washy wording (think typical New Year’s resolutions). Your brain loves to weasel out of commitments when you are feeling low on willpower. “I’m going to get in shape” is not very specific. “I will do a mix of cardio and weight training for a half hour at the gym next to my office, 10:00 am Monday, Wednesday and Friday”. That’s pretty specific.
Mental contrasting is a strategy to strengthen your goals. It involves picturing a positive outcome, then envisioning the obstacle that stands between you and that outcome. It is most important that the brain sees the positive outcome first, and “seizes on it” before the obstacle is considered. This creates more of a feeling of power, rather than hopelessness.
When it comes to implementation, setting a clear “if-then plan” is three times more effective in the achievement of harder to achieve goals. When trying to eat healthy, you might say “if birthday cake is served in the breakroom, then I will pop over to the café next door for a fruit salad”.
If you do happen to take the course, you might be as fascinated as I was by the video featuring Gabriele Oettingen. Oettingen describes a technique known simply as “WOOP”. It sounds like a magical way to trick the subconscious into doing more of the work of change for you. I will definitely be trying it out and will report back.
WOOP incorporates both mental contrasting and if-then planning. In WOOP, you identify a challenging but feasible wish, like control of your debt. Then you identify the ideal outcome, such as the relief you will feel with freedom from debt. You sit and really bask in the thought of that ideal situation. After that, you consider the main internal obstacle preventing you from fulfilling the wish. Perhaps it is the feeling of futility – because you can’t pay your debts off quickly. You make an if-then plan of action to overcome the obstacle. While it makes more financial sense to pay off higher interest rate debt first, some personal finance experts suggest it is best to go for the small wins like paying off your smallest debt first. So maybe you say: “If I am feeling it is futile, then I will put make an extra payment on my smallest debt.”
The week six rewirement was easy… a week off! The students were encouraged to take advantage of their newfound time affluence. In the interest of continuity I kept up most of my practices. It is far easier to keep momentum than to try and build it up again. This dovetails into the week seven plan which is to choose a well-being intervention and stick to it through week ten. As I have had such a tough time with the concept of meditation, I intend to shackle my brain to a meditation practice. With shackles of kindness, of course.