By: Spencer Greenberg
Cross-posted at SpencerGreenberg.com
One of the big challenges to self-improvement is getting yourself to try a new strategy instead of the same thing over and over again. If you already experimented with calorie counting diets four times, only to gain the weight back after a few months, you’ll be very likely to gain the weight back again next time you try this type of diet. If you tried to get yourself to exercise by buying a monthly gym membership, but barely used the gym in six months, the fact that you have a gym membership probably won’t help much this month either. If using your willpower to quit smoking cigarettes has failed for the last ten days, it will probably fail today as well.
Suppose that you know a friend who always eats chocolate cake when he has the opportunity, even when he forcefully wills himself not to. Naturally, you would predict that this person would eat chocolate cake the next time he has the opportunity. But we often fail to apply this sort of simple reasoning when assessing our own behavior. We believe that we have “free will”, and are in control of our decisions. So on issues of willpower, we believe that our past behavior does not determine our present or future behavior. We say to ourselves, “It didn’t work before, but this time I will simply choose not to eat the cake,” or “I’ll just exert more willpower this time.” But unless you or your motivation have changed significantly since your past chocolate cake encounter, why should you expect yourself to behave any differently now than you did before? If you previously had good reason not to eat the cake, and you ate it anyway, why should that same reason stop you from eating it next time? If there is nothing substantially different about you, your motivation, your willpower, or the situation in which you are being placed, then there is no good reason why you will behave differently this time.
If resisting the cake is obviously the correct action to take in the future, it is natural to expect oneself to be capable of making that correct choice. From the current vantage point, that is, one without cake in sight, it is easy to see that you should not eat lots of empty cake calories. The problem occurs though when the cake is in front of you, and you are salivating. Now, it is difficult to remember why you shouldn’t eat the cake. When you are planning ahead, you are not quite the same person as you are in front of cake. You are wrong to assume that you would make the same decisions in front of the cake that you had planned to make before encountering it. If a certain strategy for solving our problems has never worked before, and we still believe it might work, we may be failing to model ourselves accurately.
The big danger of viewing ourselves as being too much in control of our actions, or not being subject to our past decisions, is that we tend to try the same thing over and over again. We think, “Next time I’ll just choose to do things differently,” or “Next time I will try harder,” ignoring the fact that we never seem to be able to actually do that. We fall into a routine, trying to solve the same problem using the same method, and continue with that method long after it becomes clear that it is not helping us. We continue trying this method merely because we are used to trying it, or because we keep thinking, “Maybe now I can get it to work for me,” even when there is no indication that anything has changed since the last attempt.
If you have been trying to will yourself out of depression for the past year, it’s time to try something else. If you have been in psychotherapy for your anxiety for two years, with no noticeable improvement, it’s time to find a new type of therapy or explore other methods. If you have not been able to meet someone you’d like to date in more than a year, you should start meeting different kinds of people in different ways. If you keep trying the same old thing, you will most likely get the same old results.
In light of these considerations, one particularly helpful strategy for self-improvement is to spend a couple of hours coming up with a list of new self-improvement methods you are going to try. After you’ve given one item on the list a fair trial, move onto the next one. Make the list long enough that you won’t get to the end of it easily. Keep working until you’ve achieved your goal. The fact that there are many things on your list that you have not tried yet can be motivating, as it reminds you that, even if a few potential solutions to your problems don’t work out, there are lots of things left to try. Hopefully you will not have to go through the entire list, but only work through it progressively until you see sufficient improvement. At that point, you are ready to move on and improve a different area of your life.
Here are some sample lists of things to try to help achieve some common self-improvement goals:
1. Read When Panic Attacks.
2. For eight weeks, spend 15 minutes a day trying exercises from the book (for instance, as soon as you wake up each morning).
3. Read The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety.
4. Read The Worry Cure (if your anxiety comes in the form of frequent worrying).
5. Find a cognitive behavioral therapist in your area, and begin weekly sessions with him or her. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most evidence-based treatment for anxiety.)
6. For eight weeks, make a routine to exercise for 20 minutes every morning.
7. For two weeks, practice doing diaphragmatic breathing for 5 minutes each morning, Then, for six weeks, practice immediately doing this sort of breathing whenever you notice your anxiety level rising.
8. Setup an appointment with a psychiatrist to discuss anti-anxiety medication.
9. Sign up for local meditation classes and go for eight weeks. During this period, meditate for 15 minutes each morning just after you get out of bed.
1. Read Feeling Good (skipping the section on medication, which is a bit out of date).
2. Read The Happiness Trap.
3. For eight weeks, spend 15 minutes a day trying exercises from the book (for instance, as soon as you wake up each morning).
4. Read Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time.
5. For eight weeks, spend 15 minutes a day trying suggestions from the book (for instance, as soon as you wake up each morning).
6. Find a cognitive behavioral therapist in your area, and begin weekly sessions with him or her. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most evidence-based treatment for depression.)
7. For eight weeks, make it a routine to exercise for 20 minutes every morning.
8. Each morning, make a list of three things you are grateful for. Ideally, get a friend to do the same, and email each other these lists each morning. Try to vary the list from day-to-day.
9. Each morning, make a list of three things you are looking forward to. If you can't think of three things, then immediately try to schedule some things to look forward to so that you can complete the list every day.
10. Setup an appointment with a psychiatrist, and discuss anti-depression medication.
Difficulty finding someone you'd like to date
1. Sign up for an online dating website, such as OKCupid. As you write your profile, remember that it is an advertisement trying to attract people you'd like to get to know.
2. Ask your friends (of the attractive gender) for feedback on your profile, to see if they think it is likely to attract the sort of people you'd like to meet.
3. Schedule at least an hour each week to search for new people on the site and send messages to the people you find.
4. Ask fashionable friends how you could change your appearance to be more attractive, and implement those changes.
5. Ask your most socially savvy friends (and people you used to date, if possible) if they can pinpoint any behaviors you have that others might find unattractive, and particularly attractive features that you could work to highlight. Make a list of such behaviors, and work actively on correcting them. Review this list of corrections for 5 minutes each morning for 6 weeks.
6. Read How to Win Friends and Influence People.
7. Sign up for speed dating in your area, and attend sessions once a month. Speed dating events are often themed, so try to select events that will be likely to attract the type of people you are interested in meeting.
8. Ask a few of your friends if they can set you up with someone they think you might like. Repeat this process as often as you can without becoming a nuisance.
9. Join groups, take classes, or do activities in your area where you are likely to meet many new people. Choose these groups and activities strategically: think about which activities will also attract people you may like.
10. Make an effort to attend every social gathering you can where there are likely to be people you don’t know. At each of these events, make sure that you speak to every attractive person for at least a few minutes.
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