The ABCDE method for positive change

The idea of implementing positive change in your life is actually quite simple. Want to lose weight? Start eating healthy and exercising. Want to become a music composer? Start composing music. Want to find a better job? Look for one. The idea of implementing positive change is straightforward. The actual process, however, is not. More often than not, when it comes to implementing positive change, you already know what you need to do. However, despite knowing what you need to do, you often fail to do it. You don’t go to the gym. You don’t start that blog. You continue to waste money on luxuries that you cannot afford.

So what exactly is going on here? We know what we want to do, and we know what we need to do, yet we do not do it. There must be something getting in the way.  More often than not, it’s a mental barrier. Something is wrong with our mental wiring that prevents us from taking action. The good news is that we can rewire our brains and change the way we think, and this can help us turn our thoughts into action.

One method that is used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the ABCDE method. ABCDE is an acronym where “A” stands for activating event, “B” stands for belief, “C” stands for consequence, “D” stands for disputation or distraction, and “E” stands for energization or effect.

“A” stands for Activating Event

Activating event refers to a trigger in the environment or an event that occurs. You get into a fight with your best friend. You cheat on your diet. You bump into an old friend at the grocery store. These are all examples of triggers. As you can tell, the activating event can be positive, negative, or neutral.

B” stands for Belief

The activating event triggers a belief. Our beliefs are derived from past occurrences in our lives, and they are largely automatic and habitual. We may not even be aware of how they influence us. You may hold a belief that to be successful, you need to be perfect or stick to a plan 100% of the time. Alternatively, you may hold a belief that being perfect is unrealistic and that small setbacks are inevitable.

Many of our beliefs are strongly rooted within us and can be stubborn and difficult to change. They’ve been reinforced over and over again by our external environment and then by our internal thoughts. Some of these beliefs are good and constructive, while others are bad and destructive.

C” stands for Consequence

When an activating event occurs, it triggers a belief which causes us to feel a certain way and heavily influences what we do next. It’s the result of when you combine A and B.

ABC Combined

To a large extent, the activating event, the beliefs, and the consequences are all automated. Even if we don’t consciously focus on them, they will still happen. It’s how we are programmed. Below are a few examples of what this looks like. You will notice that the activating event is almost always the same, but based on the belief (positive vs. negative), the consequences are different:

Example 1a:

  1. Activating Event: Your friend hasn’t responded to your text messages in the past two days
  2. Belief: You think that your friend is not interested in talking to you.
  3. Consequence: You get upset and decide to have a few drinks to feel better

Example 1b:

  1. A: Your friend hasn’t responded to your text messages in the past two days
  2. You assume your friend is probably busy.
  3. C: You don’t give it much more thought and go on with your day.

Example 2a:

  1. A: You ask your sister a question, and she responds rudely
  2. B: You think she’s disrespecting you
  3. C: You get angry, yell back at her, and it results in a big fight

Example 2b:

  1. A: You ask your sister a question, and she responds rudely
  2. B: You assume she has had a stressful day
  3. C: You let it pass, give it some time, and ask her how she’s doing later on.

Example 3a:

  1. A: You’re jogging and you trip on something and fall. You sprain your ankle.
  2. B: You assume that you cannot train for the marathon anymore
  3. C: You give up

Example 3b:

  1. A: You’re jogging and you trip on something and fall. You sprain your ankle.
  2. B: You’re not thrilled about the setback, but you acknowledge it was a freak accident
  3. C: You continue to eat healthy, you focus on recovery, and when you get healthy in a few weeks, you continue your training.

How to change your beliefs

As you’ve noticed through these examples, it is our beliefs that influence these consequences (or outcomes). Some of those negative beliefs are stubborn, but the good news is that you can change them. The very first step to changing your beliefs is to become aware of them. Start to identify your ABCs. Similar to how I did above, think of a few activating events you’ve had this past week. What beliefs did you associate with them and how did that influence the consequences (your reaction and behavior after the event occurred)?

If you are trying to implement positive changes, but have been unable to do so, try to figure out why through the ABC framework. Keep in mind that an activating event can also be something that did not occur or something you did not do (e.g., not going to the gym, not waking up on time). Once you’ve mapped out a few of these ABCs from your past week, I’d encourage you to do that at least 1-2 times a day for the next few days. Get into the habit of trying to transition from ‘automatic’ mode to ‘manual’ mode.

Once you’ve become aware of your thought process, you’ll start to identify patterns and problems in your thinking that you want to resolve. That’s where the “D” and “E” part of ABCDE comes in.

“D” stands for Disputation

Disputation is when you identify a belief that you want to change and you attack it. You dispute it. Counter the pessimistic and/or irrational belief with a more optimistic and rational one. In his book on learned optimism, Martin Seligman states that there are four tactics that you can use to dispute your beliefs:

  1. Evidence – Show to yourself how your belief is factually incorrect. More often than not, you will realize that you are blowing things out of proportion. When possible, try to quantify the evidence to make it more impactful. For example, let’s say I cheated on my diet one day and consumed 1,000 more calories than I wanted to. My belief might be that I’ve broken my diet or failed, but in actuality, 1,000 calories equates to less than 1/3 of a pound gained. When looking at it that way, one singular day did very little to undo the progress I have made over a week or a month.
  2. Alternatives – Identify alternative explanations to justify the activating event. There can be multiple causes for the event. For example, if your friend hasn’t responded to your messages in two days, it’s easy to think they don’t want to talk to you. However, maybe they broke their phone. Maybe they’re working overtime this week at work and then coming home and taking care of the kids. Maybe they saw your message when they were in a meeting, but then forgot about it afterwards. There are a million other possible reasons.
  3. Implications – What if the negative belief that you have is correct? For example, what if you failed an exam and you know it is your fault because you deciding to hang out with friends all of last week rather than studying? When you know the belief is accurate, the best thing you can do is to focus on implications. For example, one failed exam does not mean you’re stupid. It doesn’t mean that it’ll keep you from getting accepted into graduate school or from getting a job. When you think about it, many negative occurrences that happen on a day-to-day basis have very little implications in the long run. Take for example the SATs. Think about how important they felt when we were in high school. However, now, years removed from high school, we look back and smile in amusement at how those were the simple days and how that exam had a very little impact on our lives.
  4. Usefulness – The last tactic you can use is to determine whether or not the belief is constructive or destructive. Maybe you hold a negative belief that is true, and the implications are also big. If that is the case, you need to ask yourself if the belief is constructive or destructive. In other words, is it useful? In his book, Seligman provides an example of a technician doing a bomb demolition who comes to the realization that the bomb could go off in any minute and kill everyone around him. The belief is true and the implications are huge. However, that added pressure on him is not necessarily useful especially if it leads to increased nervousness and decreases focus in that situation. In this situation, it is better to (a) focus on what you can do, and (b) consider having that internal dialogue later when the situation (or your emotions) are not as severe. Even if the situation is not as severe, you can still try to focus on what you can do and have the internal dialogue later when you’re calmer.

“E” stands for Energization

Energization refers to reflecting on having successfully dealt with negative beliefs. Therefore, when you have a negative belief that you were able to successfully dispute, you reflect on the implications and how that resulted in a more positive outcome. This reinforces this idea of disputing negative beliefs, and it also energizes you.

Final Words…

The key to the ABCDE method is to (a) become aware of your destructive thoughts, (b) challenge them, and (c) replace them with more constructive thoughts. You could use this same approach to stop negative behaviors and/or implement positive ones (more on that another day).

I wouldn’t say it’s feasible to do this for an extended period of time, but at least for a few days, I would encourage you to actually write down your ABCDEs. If you find yourself thinking destructively or struggling to implement a positive change, open up a memo and answer these questions:

  1. Activating Event: What happened (or what did not happen) that has me feeling negatively?
  2. Belief: What internal beliefs are causing me to feel/act this way?
  3. Consequence: What resulted from this activating event and belief?
  4. Disputation: How can I counter my beliefs? What would disprove my beliefs?
  5. Energization: What has resulted from me disproving my destructive beliefs? How do I feel? How am I acting?

Do this a few times a day for 2, 3, or 5 days. If you have the discipline to do it longer, do it longer. You’ll notice that after some time, you begin to do this automatically in your head. The ABC are automated as usual, but the “D” and “E” also become automated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eradicate Self-Doubt

Regardless of who you are and how successful you might be, there will always be times when you start to doubt yourself. Am I making the right decision? Do I really belong here? What if I’m wrong? Am I just wasting my time? Sometimes it is a larger issue where you doubt who you are and are struggling with confidence, while other times it is a smaller issue where you’re doubting a decision you may or may not have made. Either way, the feeling sucks and it’s not productive.

Here are some suggestions on what you can do to eradicate self-doubt:

1. Positive Logical Reasoning

This idea is based on the concept of ‘cognitive reframing’ where you identify negative and irrational thoughts and you adjust your thinking to counteract those thoughts. It’s where you look at things from a different perspective. My method of ‘positive logical reasoning’ takes a similar approach where the goal is to try to logically illustrate why your situation is actually positive rather than negative.

For example, when I was blogging yesterday, I was questioning my ability to get this blog to generate a nice following. I was thinking to myself “I spent hours researching and writing a blog post and yet I got 7 views? 5 likes? I know I’m just starting out here, but how will I get to 500 views? How will I get to 5,000 or 50,000? It will take forever and it might not even happen.” A few hours later, I thought about positive logical reasoning. I said to myself “Look at this, though. 7 views and 5 likes. That’s about 71% of people liking my blog? One of those views was probably mine too so 5/6 would be 83.3% of viewers liked it? That means there must be something good about my content. If my content is liked, even by a small sample size, I just need to produce more of it and keep trying to get my stuff out there. I haven’t even started posting on social media yet or haven’t even really interacted with other bloggers. Plus, I have 30+ followers. That seems like very few, and it is. But if you think about it, that’s a high school classroom full of people who made the conscious decision to click ‘follow’ because they thought I was adding some value to their lives”

So you see what I did there. I changed my perception. The 7 views and 5 likes which were negative became positive. The 30+ followers also became positive. Also, I used logic to make it positive. I acknowledged I haven’t really shared my blog yet to anyone, but the few people that came upon it seemed to like it. So when you’re struggling with self-doubt, you need to ask yourself this – how do I use logical reasoning to prove to myself that my negative thinking is actually unjustified and wrong and that I should feel good about my current situation?

2. Take some time off. Do something active. Objectively analyze what is going on.

The thing about self-doubt, especially when it’s just that you’re doubting a decision you made and not who you are as a person, is that it has an expiration date. It’s often a ‘heat of the moment’ type of emotion that just goes away and you move on. That being said, the one thing that can make it worse is if you keep thinking about it. It’s liking poking a bear. You’re aggravating it and it will retaliate. The worst thing you can do when you are having self-doubt is to go down the rabbit hole of negativity because when you do that, you’ve extended the shelf life of self-doubt. Rather than that, I would recommend taking a break. Get out of your head.

Distract yourself with something active. If you do something passive like watch TV, you risk thinking about it (since your mind can easily get distracted from TV). If you do something active like exercising, both your physical and mental resources are tapped and you really don’t have the ability to focus on that self-doubt.  Also, when I say ‘do something active’, I don’t mean you have to exercise. You could draw, garden, or even cook. Just do something that requires you to invest most to all of your psychological resources so that you really don’t have the bandwidth to focus on the doubt.

When you revisit the issue causing your self-doubt, you will have a fresher and more positive mindset. At this point, hopefully you are not at flight risk when it comes to going down the rabbit hole of negativity. Try to detach yourself from the situation and ask yourself what really is the root cause of what is going on. Going back to my blog example, I realized that I was having self-doubt because I currently am dealing with a major change in my life (leaving a job) and that has created a lot of uncertainty with regards to how I should be effectively using my time off. “Should I be looking for jobs even more? Should I be trying to self-educate? Should I revise my resume? Should I blog? Or is blogging wasting valuable time that I can be using to do something else?” Ah okay, there it was. I identified it. First, I was disorganized in terms of how I should spend my free time. Second, because I’m feeling pressured to find another job soon, I was concerned that maybe blogging wasn’t worth the investment because I have not seen the ROI on blogging yet. However, when I thought about it deeper, I reminded myself that I didn’t start blogging to get popular or make money. I started blogging because I liked it, and I was tired of thinking about blogging but not actually doing it. So, technically, if I am enjoying the process of blogging, then THAT is the ROI (not the number of views or likes I get). Everything else is just a bonus.

As you see there, from a more objective mindset, you can figure out what really is triggering this feeling of doubt. When you identify the cause of it and address it mentally, the self-doubt expires, or at least it goes away for a while (which is evidenced by the fact that I’m blogging the very next day).

3. Develop a Growth Mindset.

As I mentioned in a previous post, researcher and author Carol Dweck outlines two types of mindsets – a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is when you think that things such as intelligence, personality, and talent are mostly fixed and unchangeable. Because you think this way, you feel pressured to prove to yourself and to others that you are intelligent, talented, and have a good personality. The problem is that you’re going to constantly compare yourself to others and are going to be very self-critical which will lead to self-doubt and issues regarding self-esteem and self-confidence.

Alternatively, when you adopt a growth mindset, you acknowledge and believe that things such as intelligence, personality, and talent are things that you can develop. They’re not fixed, and therefore, you have a degree of control. As a result, you’re focused less on proving yourself and more on developing yourself. You just want to be better today than you were yesterday. When you think like that, you’re not really as concerned about what others are saying, and therefore, self-doubt is not as prominent of an issue. It’s not to say that self-doubt won’t occur. It still will from time to time. For example, you might question your effort and commitment, or you might question your progress. However, when you have a growth mindset, it’s generally easier to get out of the self-doubt because all you really have to do is remind yourself of the progress you have made. If you haven’t made much progress, you can get out of self-doubt by being forward-thinking. You can create and then execute a plan to slowly grow and develop which will get rid of the self-doubt.

Final Words…

As with many things, self-doubt is largely a mental game. It’s about reminding yourself that doubt and worry are not really productive and then adjusting your thinking to something that is more positive, constructive, and logical. Once you manage to do that, the next step is to create the conditions and circumstances necessary to keep self-doubt at bay.

 

 

 

 

The Formula for Success

There’s no doubt that luck plays a role in our success (and failure). To succeed, you have to be in the right place at the right time. As much as we’d like to think that we have full control over that, we don’t. For example, we cannot control where we’re born, the people we meet, or the physical and psychological environments that we are raised in. Therefore, obviously, luck is involved in achieving your goals.

That being said, let’s also not delude ourselves into thinking that luck is the only factor or the deciding factor when it comes to success. A lot of times we’ll look at others, such as athletes, and we will attribute their success to ‘natural ability.’ Or we’ll look at successful entrepreneurs and call them successful only because they came from a wealthy family and had parents who could fund their efforts. Or we’ll look at the Einsteins and the Picassos of the world and say they were gifted. I’m sure there is some degree of truth to that, however, there are many people who are 6’10” who do not make it to the NBA, many people who find a way to turn $10,000 in debt into $10 million of profit, and many who have insanely high IQs yet accomplish nothing noteworthy in their lives.

So what is it? Why are some disadvantaged people so successful while some advantaged people are unsuccessful?

The Success Formula

According to researcher Angela Duckworth, one of the main predictors of success is grit, a combination of passion and perseverance for long-term goals. This is what distinguishes the high-achievers from the rest. In her book, Grit, Duckworth shares two formulas that describe the relationship between grit and success.

Formula 1: Talent x Effort = Skill

Talent generally is used to sum up a person’s capabilities. However, with the way Duckworth uses it, it means the rate at which a person improves in skill. In other words, if person A puts in the same amount of time and energy as person B to learn something, but person A learns it better, it can be said that person A is more talented. They can more easily pick up on a skill. To a large extent, talent is what we cannot control.

To convert a raw talent into skill, you need to nurture that talent. The way you nurture it is through effort and practice. Intuitively, this makes sense.

Formula 2: Skill x Effort = Achievement

When you develop a skill, what determines whether or not you will be successful and achieve something is also effort. Intuitively, this also makes sense. Think of it this way– to become a skilled soccer player, I need to put in effort. Once I become a skilled soccer player, what determines how successful I will be is also effort. The more effort I invest, the more successful I will be.

Combining the formulas: (Talent x Effort) x Effort = Achievement

One thing you notice when you combine the formulas is that effort counts twice. According to Duckworth, effort matters twice as much as talent or skill when it comes to achieving your goals.

Grit and Effort

So what’s the relationship between effort and grit? Are they synonymous? Simply put, grit is something that allows you to put in continued effort. When you’re passionate about something and are able to persevere through challenges, you will be able to put in continued effort. Grit is all about long-term. It’s not about sprinting, but about having stamina. Gritty people can endure and persist during both the high and low moments.

The Missing Variable

In Duckworth’s equations, there is one missing component that I think is undeniable – opportunity. This is what I was referring to as ‘luck’ or being in the right place at the right time. I do not think you can omit it from the equation. You can put in as much effort as you want or be the most skilled person in the universe, but if you’re not placed in the right circumstances, you may not succeed. Unfortunately, you cannot control what you cannot control. You may never be given the right opportunity. However, given that, I will say three things:

  1. If you continue to persist and put in effort, chances are that you will be able to create your own opportunities.
  2. The more effort you put in, the less relevant opportunity will be as a factor in determining your success. Sure, you might not be the next Jeff Bezos, but you can still be pretty darn successful.
  3. If you succumb to the idea that you were just dealt a bad hand or are an unlucky person, then you will certainly NOT succeed.

Mindset

I want to go a bit deeper into #3 which targets your mindset. If you’re of the mindset that intelligence and ability are fixed and that you were just dealt a bad hand, you’re likely adopting what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” In her book, Mindset, Dweck states that those with a fixed mindset believe that things like intelligence, personality, and other traits are fixed. As a result, their motivation is always about proving themselves. As Dweck says in her book, “If you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics” (p. 6).

Unfortunately, when you have a fixed mindset, you’re likely to either (a) be successful but unhappy because you don’t feel successful, or (b) be unsuccessful and unhappy. The problem is that you’re constantly seeking to “one-up” yourself or someone else to prove your worth, or you succumb to the mindset of ‘why bother’ because it’s not like you can do anything anyways, right? Might as well just accept your fate.

Dweck states that you should instead try to develop what she calls a “growth mindset” which focuses more on the idea that basic qualities (such as intelligence) can be developed through effort, approach, and help from others. It focuses more on learning and getting better and less on the fact that you can’t control everything. Those with a growth mindset don’t believe that everyone can be Einstein or Picasso, but they believe that one’s true potential or peak is unknowable and not already decided for them. Therefore, their focus is on continuing to grow and develop to get better because maybe they can’t be a Picasso, but they can certainly be better than what they are now. You could argue that those with the growth mindset are also trying to “one-up” themselves, but the difference is the mindset.

Fixed mindset individuals are focused on proving themselves (more focused on self-worth and self-esteem) whereas growth mindset individuals are just focused on growth and development. They’re focused on growing for the sake of growing and are more intrinsically motivated. When you are intrinsically motivated, you’re more likely to do something even if there is no guaranteed tangible positive outcomes, and even when things start to get tough.

Interestingly, in her Ted talk, Duckworth states that the one thing you can do to increase grit is to adopt a growth mindset

Final words…

You can’t control the hand you’ve been dealt and nor can you control opportunity, to a large extent. Honestly, you can’t even control the outcome to a large extent. You can study hard for an exam, but you still might get a bad grade. You might work hard and still have an unhappy boss. You can’t control it, and it sucks. However, because you can’t control it, you can do just two things:

  1. Worry about it and be unhappy
  2. Stop worrying about it and focus on what you can control.

Here’s what you can control — effort and mindset. Fortunately, effort and mindset happen to be two of the more powerful variables when it comes to predicting success. Have a growth mindset, put in effort, and focus on the process instead of the outcome. Do all that and you’re off to a pretty good start.

 

 

 

 

 

The most effective way to reduce stress

Before I talk about how to reduce stress, I want to start off by stating that stress is not necessarily bad for you. As many of you already know, stress can actually be a good thing. From an evolutionary perspective, it can help you escape a dangerous situation (i.e., fight or flight), and from an everyday standpoint, it can help you get work done.

The Yerkes-Dodson law (see the illustration below) suggests that a moderate amount of stress leads to a state of ‘optimal arousal’ which leads to high performance. Conversely, less stress is associated with fatigue or sleepiness (low performance), and too much stress is associated with anxiety and impaired performance:

Illustration of Yerkes-Dodson law [1]. 

Furthermore, in addition to enhancing performance, a moderate amount of stress helps you get stronger both physically and mentally. In his talk, Tal Ben-Shahar provides us with an example and says that when you go to the gym and workout, what are you doing with your muscles? You are stressing them. So when you go to the gym regularly and repeatedly stress your muscles, they become stronger.

If you’ve read my previous blog post on flow, you know that to reach a state of flow, or optimal experience, you need to be optimally aroused. In other words, when engaged in an activity, the challenge of the activity needs to match the level of skill you have. Too easy and you’ll be bored, and if the activity is too difficult, you’ll feel anxious. See the example below:

Image result for flow csikszentmihalyi

As you see, multiple psychological theories support this idea that stress is not bad. That being said, stress becomes a problem when it persists for long periods of time or exceeds healthy levels. So what can we do in these situations to reduce our stress or prevent us from feeling overly stressed in the first place?

The most effective way to reduce stress:

Exercising, meditating, talking to a friend, taking a nap, journaling… these are all examples of things you can do to reduce stress. However, they often only address the symptoms of stress, not the cause of it. While there are some causes of stress that are outside of our control (e.g., the loss of a loved one), we can control most things that cause stress.

So for those things that we can control, what is the most effective way to reduce stress? Take action.

Stressed about your upcoming exam? Study. Stressed about a project at work? Finish it. Stressed about a stupid argument that you got into with your spouse? Talk with your spouse and apologize. Stressed about your poor health? Eat better and start exercising. Stressed that you lost your job? Start applying for new jobs.

Think about it. If you’re stressing about an upcoming exam, there’s only one thing you can do to help you prepare for your exam – study. As you study, you’ll start feeling more prepared, and as a result, you’ll feel less stressed. If you are anxious that maybe you’ll develop high blood pressure or diabetes, then start eating healthier and start exercising. It’s not fun and it is not easy. However, over time, as you get healthier, you will start stressing less and less about your health.

Taking action is often the best way to reduce stress. The next best thing you can do to reduce stress is to focus on the process and on what you can control, and stop focusing on the outcome and what you cannot control. You can control how hard you work on an assignment, but not how well it is received by your boss (only your boss can control that).

Once you learn to take action and focus on the process instead of the outcome, stress will become your ally.