Jan 04

“The Procrastination Equation” By Piers Steel: Don’t Put It Off

In short, as Norcross wrote, “Successful resolvers were also found to report employing significantly more behavioral strategies and less self-blame and wishful thinking than unsuccessful resolvers.” Piers Steel, The Procrastination Equation

Resolutions are made to be broken, they say. What do we give up on? According to Goskills.com, the most common annual resolutions are the following:

  1. Exercise more
  2. Lose weight
  3. Get organized
  4. Learn a new skill or hobby
  5. Live life to the fullest
  6. Save more money / spend less money
  7. Quit smoking
  8. Spend more time with family and friends
  9. Travel more
  10. Read more

Although this year 8 and 9 may be out of reach for most of us due to COVID-19, the others will still pertain.

What’s one of the main reasons we give up, though? It’s procrastination. Oh, we meant well. We just weren’t ready for the follow-through. Which could also be why this year we had the same old resolutions as last year and the year before and….

Psychologist Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation (2010), knows a thing or two about putting things off—he apparently began early in life. But he got over it, and now he’s extensively studied the subject and has expertise of a different kind.

What do reviewers think of Steel’s book? A couple examples:

Kirkus Reviews: “Everything you ever wanted to know about procrastination but never got around to reading.”

David Pitt, Booklist: “A useful, eye-opening book. Now, if only the people who most need to read it could find the time to do so.”

They jest, of course.

What is procrastination, as defined by Steel? Irrational delay.

So, as Steel says right there in the title of the book, he has an equation, which, according to Kirkus Reviews, is Expectancy x Value / Impulsiveness x Delay = Motivation. “Simply put, the equation means that the motivation to perform a particular task declines when the expectancy or value of a task’s reward declines or when there is an increase in impulsivity or in the delay of the task’s reward.”

Or not so simply put. More simply is something like, we’re not as committed as we’d like to be, it feels hard, we want what we want now, and besides, other stuff gets in the way. (If my paraphrasing is lacking, my apologies to Steel.)

Steel believes about 95 percent of us procrastinate, though not as many do it chronically—maybe 25 percent fall into this category.

Want to take the procrastination survey developed by Steel? Go to his site, procrastinus.com. (Go right now if you really want to do get it done.) (Well, finish reading this first.) (One of our problems? Too many distractions.)

Procrastination is actually a brain thing, having to do with the limbic system overruling the prefrontal cortex. Evolution has played a part, and in today’s world, computers and TV are two of the main things that distract us a lot from the tasks at hand and thus contribute to procrastination in a big way.

For future reference, Steel reports (Psychology Today) that making a New Year’s resolution does help toward achieving wanted change. In other words, at least it’s more effective than not resolving.

What works best, then, toward keeping those resolutions next time around?

What turns out to be the most useful is a combination of ‘inside/outside’ strategies. Use your willpower, your sense of agency and choice. Focus on how this is your life and you choose how to live it. However, don’t rely on willpower exclusively; you need to change your environment as well. Try to engineer a world for yourself where you rely on your willpower as little as possible by keeping temptation at a distance and keeping reminders of why you should not give in.

Oct 02

“Good Habits, Bad Habits” by Expert Wendy Wood

On average, it takes us sixty-six days of repeating a simple health behavior until it becomes automatic. In other words, identify a new behavior, do it repeatedly for two months and a week, and it will become a habit. Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits (on Twitter)

Want to change a habit? Psychology professor Wendy Wood‘s Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick  just came out. Author Adam Grant calls Wood, a long-time researcher on this subject, “the world’s leading expert on habits.”

Everyone’s had at least one habit, and I’d presume to say that everyone’s tried to change at least one. Often repeatedly. Often unsuccessfully. Turns out we can’t rely on willpower alone. According to the book’s publisher:

We spend a shocking 43 percent of our day doing things without thinking about them. That means that almost half of our actions aren’t conscious choices but the result of our non-conscious mind nudging our body to act along learned behaviors. How we respond to the people around us; the way we conduct ourselves in a meeting; what we buy; when and how we exercise, eat, and drink―a truly remarkable number of things we do every day, regardless of their complexity, operate outside of our awareness. We do them automatically. We do them by habit. And yet, whenever we want to change something about ourselves, we rely on willpower. We keep turning to our conscious selves, hoping that our determination and intention will be enough to effect positive change. And that is why almost all of us fail.

The Kirkus Reviews summary states, Wood “notes that the same learning mechanisms responsible for bad habits also control good ones.” An example given: exercising and cigarette smoking. How one winds up choosing either activity and how one engages in either repeatedly is also the key to how to produce change.

More on this from Publishers Weekly:

Wood contends that the way to create new behavioral patterns that will eventually become second nature is to engage in habitual, repetitive action. Wood acknowledges research that shows that some people might possess innate powers of self-control that defy the norm, but she argues that these supposedly high levels of self-control should really be understood as efficient habit formation…She also offers strategies for stopping undesirable habits by disrupting the contexts that enable them, and shares real-life examples of habit change. For instance, she demonstrates how laws banning smoking in public spaces forced a widespread change of habits and led to a national decline in smoking . Her insightful, data-driven advice includes tactics such as ‘stacking’—grouping desired behaviors together with already-established behavioral patterns to incorporate actions into routines. Wood’s research and perspective on the malleability of habits will bring hope to any reader looking to create long-term behavioral change.

Selected quotes, via Wood’s Twitter page, on the process of changing habits:

Though we routinely do it, educating people about the benefits of a behavior does not translate to changing habits. With habits, we learn not by learning, but by doing.

For those of us who want to develop a new habit, it’s key to establish a routine. Doing something at the same location or time of day (like putting on sunscreen before you leave the house every morning) makes a huge difference.

Vacations have many benefits. One you may not have considered: a chance to change unwanted behaviors. When you travel, you are not constrained by the habit cues in your everyday environment. You have a chance to try new things. What would you change?

Jan 01

Willpower: The Key to Keeping Those Resolutions?

Psychology has just really found two traits that predict success across a broad range of occupations, and activities. One is intelligence, and the other is self-control. The key difference to me is that it’s very difficult to improve intelligence. Co-author of Willpower Roy F. Baumeister, as told to Eric Barker (www.bakadesuvo.com)

Whereas, in other words, it’s more likely that one can improve willpower.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011), psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and science writer John Tierney review the studies on this topic. As the publisher states: “Drawing on cutting-edge research and the wisdom of real-life experts, Willpower shares lessons on how to focus our strength, resist temptation, and redirect our lives. It shows readers how to be realistic when setting goals, monitor their progress, and how to keep faith when they falter.”

Some people claim they have no willpower, others have it in spades—it’s never infinite, however, say Baumeister and Tierney. Using dieting as an example, deprive yourself for too long and you’ll pay for it later—you’re likely to rebel. Also, because willpower is like energy, the effort you put into dieting will limit the effort you can apply to other things.

One of these things? Decision-making. “…(A)fter making a lot of decisions, your self control is lower and conversely, after exerting self control, your capacity for making decisions is lower. As you make a bunch of decisions, you gradually deplete the energy you have available and subsequent decisions are more passive and tend to go with the default option,” Baumeister tells Maia Szalavitz, Time.

Avoid making heavy decisions on Fridays if that’s the end of your work week, he advises.

How has President Obama utilized this “decision fatigue” research? Apparently at some point he chose to limit his apparel choices to just two colors, theoretically freeing up energy for more important things.

In addition, make a decision under the wrong circumstances and it could turn out overly simplistic and/or faulty in other ways. About depleted decision-makers, Baumeister states in an interview with Eric Barker (www.bakadesuvo.com): “They pick things that are more indulgent. They don’t compromise. A compromise is a mentally complex decision…Also, there are some kinds of irrational bias that creep into the decision process more if people are depleted.”

On the positive side, the more you exercise willpower, as you would a muscle, the stronger your ability to control yourself becomes.

Ways to boost one’s ability to exert self-control in the short-term include the following, says Baumeister:

  • Thinking about somebody else who has good self-control, who sets a good example.
  • Taking responsibility. We found if we randomly assigned people to be the boss that they don’t show that depletion effect as fast. It’s postponed.
  • Believing that you have lots of willpower seems to help.
  • Motivation. If something’s important, suddenly people can perform well again even though they’re depleted.

Both eating healthily and getting proper rest also help boost willpower and recharge it. And, in the long run, physical exercise helps too.

How can this research play into the development of your New Year’s resolutions? Baumeister suggests the following:

Instead of making them all at once, make them in sequence and start with the easiest one. If swearing is the easiest, then do that one first because that will strengthen your willpower and increase your capacity when you move onto the harder ones. If you make this resolution and you actually keep it, your body gets used to exerting self-control and it becomes stronger and more ready to take on another challenge.

Dec 15

Understanding the Brain: It’s Harder For Some of Us

I’ve been wanting to write about the brain for a while—but my brain keeps getting in the way. I mean, it’s The Brain. Understanding the brain is hard. And what can you say about it that people with better brains haven’t already said?

The thing is, it’s important as a therapist to understand how the brain works and how it affects mental health issues and treatment. More and more professional workshops have been offered recently on this very topic. I’ve been attending some of them.

The two most recent:

  • Brain-Based Therapy: Evidence-Based Mental Health Treatment from Neuroscience and Attachment Theory (John Arden, Ph.D.)
  • How the Brain Forms New Habits: Why Willpower Isn’t Enough (Bill M. Kelley, Ph.D.)

Even workshops I’ve attended that haven’t specifically been about understanding the brain—for example, on the topics of ADHD, PTSD, Severe Psychiatric Disorders, etc.—have involved significant lessons regarding the brain’s involvement in these conditions.

All good, interesting topics. Then, why oh why, when focusing so much of my therapist-like attention on these informative speakers, is something like this John Cleese lecture the only thing I tend to hear?

In all fairness, Dr. Kelley, the presenter of one of the aforementioned workshops on understanding the brain, told us right off the bat—before starting in on the parts of the brain and what they do—that we didn’t really have to get it. Or even try to get it. Get what all the parts are, that is, and what they’re responsible for. I appreciated that he got that we don’t tend to get it. Something about the way his brain works.

He wanted us to learn other things about brain functioning, like “why willpower isn’t enough to form new habits.” And I did learn some stuff. Like the answer, by the way, to that specific question, which was…

Well, I’m pretty sure it had something to do with neurotransmitters, and the basal ganglia, and the frontal lobes, and…you know—stuff like that. Because I learned about those things. And there were a lot of those things.

And one other of those things that I think I definitely now know for sure—I didn’t really get it.