Monday, October 26, 2015

Don't be good. Be "good for . . .".

So why did I treat myself to cheesecake the other day after I used the treadmill?  I consumed twice as many calories in that cheesecake as I had burned off on the machine.  The book The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, makes it clear that we often give ourselves "license to sin" after we perceive ourselves to have done good.  She cites many studies in which test subjects were far more likely to lie or cheat or indulge themselves after they do something they perceive as good behavior.

Does this mean I'm doomed?  If I make good choices about exercise, about diet, about helping my family or my community, will I necessarily follow these good choices with bad ones that cancel out whatever I've accomplished?

Not necessarily.  McGonigal says that the key is to stop moralizing your actions.  Get on the treadmill, but stop kidding yourself that you are being "good".  A treadmill is not a path to sainthood.

Most of our daily decisions are neither sinful nor heroic.  They are just either harmful or beneficial.  We choose between a donut and a salad more often than we choose between stealing and charity.  For almost every good choice you make, instead of  thinking that you are "doing good", reflect on what your behavior is "good for".  Think about the benefits to your health, you happiness, your loved ones, society, the environment, or whatever.  This keeps your attention on your goals and values.  It engages and strengthens your prefrontal cortex--the part of your brain that reasons, plans, sets goals, and tracks progress against those goals.

If, instead, you focus on the morality of your good choices, you turn all your attention toward your internal battle between good and evil.  When you think of exercise as being "good", you are emphasizing that part of you would rather sit on the couch and eat cookies.  When you commend yourself for having just one or two drinks in an evening, you are implying that part of you wanted to polish off a six-pack.  When you pat yourself on the back for eating a salad, you are implying that part of you wanted to eat Twinkies.  Your attention turns to your worst impulses and your struggles to overcome those impulses.  Putting all this attention on inner conflict almost guarantees that, after the "good" in you has a small success, you will feel compelled to give the "bad" in you a chance to even the score.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Cheesecake and the Treadmill

Why did I have to start reading a book on willpower now?  Why now?

So I'm reading and blogging about the book The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, and I'm feeling pretty psyched about how I'm suddenly going to eat right, drink in moderation, and exercise like an Olympian.  I just started a business trip in Georgia today.  I use Google Maps to find the fitness room of a hotel I've stayed at 100 times.  I spend 20 minutes on the treadmill, lift a few weights, and I'm feeling unstoppable.  I have dinner and then the waitress says, "Nobody's ordered dessert tonight.  You can't let that happen to me!  You've got to get the chocolate lava cake, the key lime pie, or the cheesecake!"  I order the cheesecake.

Delicious.  But then I go to my room and open The Willpower Instinct,  I'm just starting the chapter "License to Sin".  It's all about how, when we do something we think is good, we give ourselves permission to be bad.  Oops.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Will-power and Won't-power

In her book The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal describes three aspects of willpower:  willpower, won'tpower, and wantpower.  Willpower involves motivation to DO something, such as get off the couch and exercise.  Won'tpower is the motivation to NOT DO something, such as not having another drink or a cookie.  Wantpower is the motivation to move toward long term goals.  I like McGonigal's threefold view of willpower because it seems that the strategies needed to motivate myself are totally different depending on whether I'm trying to resist ice cream, get on a treadmill, or develop a long term savings plan.

Early in the book, McGonigal describes research relating willpower and meditation.  Studies show that even relatively new meditators gain measurable improvements in attention, self control, self awareness, and even increased gray matter in areas of the brain related to self awareness and self control.  Why?  McGonigal thinks it is because meditation exercises both willpower and won'tpower.

She describes what happens if you sit cross legged and try to focus on your breathing.  Your mind wanders, and you bring it back to the breath.  Wanders again and again and again, dozens of times in a 20 minute session.  Each time you notice this, you redirect your attention to your breath.  You have now exercised willpower several dozen times in 20 minutes.  Being "bad" at meditation might even make it a more effective practice for building willpower.  Meditation also builds won'tpower.  This doesn't work as well if you try to meditate in an Easy Boy recliner.  But if you try to sit still, cross legged, back straight, and head held high, you will probably feel many urges to scratch, fidget, stiffen up, or slouch.  If you resist all these urges and maintain a relaxed, erect posture, the you exercise your won'tpower.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Getting a Gratitude Attitude

Psychologists agree that, if you want to be happier in life, it helps to cultivate a feeling of gratitude. For example, see this video regarding Sony Lyubormirsky's research into the impact on happiness of writing in gratitude journals: Lyubormirsky on You Tube.  One of the surprising things about this research is that writing down what you are grateful for has a much bigger impact on happiness for most people if you only do it once per week versus the group that did it 3 times per week or the control group that didn't do it at all.  Why?  The professor concludes that if you do it too often, it becomes a chore.  You don't feel energized.  

Imagine if there was another way to cultivate gratitude, a method that you could use every day and always feel deep emotional appreciation for the blessings you are counting.  How to do this?  One option is to apply the methods of the ancient Stoics--the Greek and Roman philosophers whose philosophy thrived between 350 BC and 200 AD (Stoicism-Wikipedia).   I recently read "A Guide to the Good Life (the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy)", by William Irvine.  The author is a professor at Wright State University who is convinced that many of the practices of the Stoics can be applied to modern life.  He feels that the common view of Stoics as serious and unemotional is wrong and that they actually had practical advice on how to cultivate deep appreciation every day for what you have.  In other words, the Stoics developed methods to cultivate a gratitude attitude.

Their key method for this is now described as "negative visualization".  Here is a link describing it: negative visualization.  The idea is to recognize that you never know when you could lose something around you that you cherish.  There are no guarantees that your dog will be here tomorrow, or your house, or your family, or your job, or the nice weather outside, or your health, or your life.  The idea isn't to dwell on these thoughts morbidly, just to quickly acknowledge the fact that these things are not necessarily permanent.  This sounds depressing, but the result--according to the Stoics--is great joy.  A few minutes a day of this practice, applied to a few things around you, can cause you to take nothing for granted.  You cherish what could perish, and when you recognize the reality of change and impermanence, you are more likely to care deeply about what you already have.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Some or Nothing

Psychologists describe various common thinking errors--thoughts that cause us to fall short of what we would otherwise accomplish or enjoy.  One of the most common of these, and maybe the biggest faulty thinking error that I suffer from, is "all or nothing thinking".

"Either this blog post has to be perfect or it's not worth writing."  Is this the thought that has led me to not write for 4 months in this blog?  Yes, I've been traveling far more on business than ever.  But I feel bad when I don't blog for months.

When I succumb to "all or nothing" thinking, I tend to go overboard and neglect my family if I pursue my personal interests.  That is not OK.  But could I have it all if I was willing to be satisfied with less?  If I change from "all or nothing" to "some or nothing", can I do everything my family needs AND satisfy my interests?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Getting Ready to Serve

Great tennis players go through highly personal rituals to help them concentrate before they serve.  Baseball players do the same before they step up to the plate to face the pitcher.  Competitors in all sports use routines to center themselves.  Would we all benefit from similar routines before we step up to the plate in our homes and our offices?

I listened to a great podcast from "".  The episode for "Instant Confidence" takes you through a long hypnosis intended to create a ritual that--unlike bouncing a tennis ball or kissing a baseball bat--is something you can do in any environment without getting noticed.  You choose your ritual early in the podcast.  The ritual is called an "anchor".  The anchor includes your choice of a subtle hand gesture, an image of someone--a hero--who you feel epitomizes confidence, and a word you say to yourself such as "strong" or the name of your hero.  Then you are guided in the podcast to recall a time in your life in which you felt totally in command of the situation, felt you were on a roll, at your best.  You then "fire your anchor"--your hand gesture, image, and the word you say to yourself.  You are guided to repeat this several more times during the hypnosis session, recalling different wonderful times in your life when you felt in total control.  At the end of the session, you now have a tool you can use in any situation to generate a sense of confidence and ease.

I have been using this technique for a week now and find it so simple yet so powerful.  In meetings, at home, in almost any situation, if I notice some stress I slyly, secretly "fire my anchor" and I always seem to feel more in command of the situation.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Slicing up Time

I recently read a book on improving one's productivity called "Work Simply" by Carson Tate.  I thought the most unique part of her book was that she believes that individuals will be more productive if they use work planning methods that are aligned to what she calls their "Personal Productivity Style".  In her past research, she developed a very short assessment tool for identifying your "Personal Productivity Style".  Everyone in my family took the test and the results matched how we perceived ourselves and perceived each other.  She writes that you can find the tool on her website,, but I haven't been able to find it there yet.

In different chapters of "Work Simply", Carson describes what works best for "Prioritizers", "Planners", "Arrangers", and "Visualizers" in different areas:  managing emails, making To Do lists, managing their calendars, setting up their workspaces, running meetings, and working with teams.  One common theme seems to be how finely people with these different productivity styles will carve up time or projects.  On one end of the spectrum, "Prioritizers" book their calendars in detail, with 20 minutes of answering emails followed by 15 minutes up making phone calls followed by 30 minutes each on 4 projects.  They also quickly divide projects into small tasks, set priorities, and plunge through from one to the next without hesitation.  On other end of the spectrum, "Visualizers" have "theme days":  Mondays are for Marketing, Tuesdays are for networking, Wednesdays for strategizing, and so on.  Of course they will be flexible enough to react to urgent needs, but they feel best when the whole day has a unifying theme and priority.  And, when it comes to projects, they spend more time with the big picture and dread working the details.

I like Carson's attitude that no one set of planning tools will work for everyone.  She does recognize that there are some things that will help anyone be productive such as a calendar and a task list.  But she encourages people identify their own productivity style by using her assessment tool and then to ask themselves whether they'd be happier and more productive if they took their personal productivity style into account and rearrange their desks, block out their calendars differently, and or change the time horizon and detail in their To-Do Lists.  A little experimenting doesn't hurt either.  Based on the Assessment Tool, I'm a Planner first and Prioritizer second but sometimes I find that the occasional "Theme Day" gives me a break from overwhelming detail.