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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stop failing the first task of the day

Imagine this.

The night before, you set your alarm to go off at 5am. You go to sleep but briefly wake up in the middle of the night. You look at your phone and it says 2:37am. Ah, still over two hours left to sleep! You quickly fall back asleep. Before you know it, that obnoxious sound is ringing loud. The alarm clock. You look at your phone, and unfortunately, it is 5am.

Time to get up? In a few minutes.

You play tag with your alarm clock for a bit as you keep hitting the snooze button every 5-20 minutes. Before you know it, it’s 6:53. 6:53? How did this happen? “I’m late for my workout! I’m late for my morning meditation! I’m late for (insert self-improvement/morning routine task you will likely not end up doing). Scratch that, I don’t have time for it. I’ll have to try again tomorrow.”

Sound familiar?

Maybe tomorrow you should put your alarm clock across the room because it will force you to get up to turn off your alarm. Maybe you should download one of those apps that requires you to do complex math problems to turn off your alarm. Or maybe you can get those fancy alarm clocks that rolls around and moves so you have to chase it around the room to wake up. Sure yeah, that’s definitely it.

Well, not really.

For the most part, those are just gimmicks. The problem is NOT your alarm clock. The real problem is YOU. 

Here’s the problem when you snooze:

  1. You’re setting yourself for failure for the rest of the day. By snoozing, you just failed your first task – waking up. What type of momentum is that setting up for the rest of the day?
  2. When we try to establish an early morning routine, we often have morning rituals or things we want to accomplish before the day starts (e.g., exercise, meditation, etc…). When you snooze, you miss out on the opportunity to do those things which means you likely failed again.
  3. You’re subconsciously setting yourself up for failure for the rest of the day. That’s a very extreme statement, but you’re certainly not setting yourself up for success by snoozing.
  4. Your sleep quality is likely being compromised. According to a Cleveland Clinic article, when you snooze, you’re likely interrupting your REM sleep state (which is synonymous with the restorative sleep state).

So what are some quick things (not gimmicks) that you can do to help you get up early without snoozing?

  1. Make sure you hit your target sleep range. If you’re sleeping less than six hours, you’re going to most likely hit that snooze button. Get enough sleep.
  2. Increase accountability in the morning. I’ve noticed that I’m particularly good at waking up in the morning (even when I’m sleep deprived) when I have some sort of commitment that forces me to get out of bed (e.g., getting up for work, having an early morning meeting, having someone depend on me for something).  If I have to get up because other people are depending on me, I feel an increased urgency to get up. I still might snooze a few minutes, but it’s very short-lived. Ask anyone who has to get up early for work. Ask any parent who has to make breakfast for their kids before they go to school. When someone is depending on them, they will wake up. Start scheduling things early in the morning or start making morning commitments to people. That will force you out of bed.
  3. Don’t schedule difficult tasks, tasks that you dislike, or tasks that require a lot of willpower early in the morning. When I tell myself that I want to get up early so that I can workout, it almost never happens. Why? Because I hate working out and my mind knows it. Sure, it’s good for me, but it’s not like I want to do it. I’d rather sleep. Therefore, it’s better to (a) schedule these tasks for later in the day so you have no excuse for not getting to them, or (b) find a way to increase accountability. I’m very unlikely to wake up in the morning and workout. However, if I have a workout buddy, I’m much more likely to wake up because I know their success depends on me. If accountability is there, it’s easier to wake up to a task you dislike.
  4. If you don’t do number 3 and schedule difficult tasks in the morning anyways, have a backup plan in case you snooze. The reason many of us want to get up early in the morning in the first place is so we can create time to do things for ourselves early in the day before other commitments take priority. Unfortunately, if you have a habit of snoozing and you schedule an early morning workout or yoga session, there’s always a chance that you might snooze and miss your morning session. The best thing to do in this situation is to create a contingency plan in case you are unable to wake up on time. For example, if I’m unable to get up at 5am to do yoga, I’ll do it after work around 6pm instead. This way, even if you fail to wake up, you don’t compromise your other goals that depend on you waking up early.
  5. Be realistic. If it’s 1am and you’re still awake, don’t expect to get up the next morning at 5am. Odds are not in your favor. Set the alarm for 7 am instead and plan accordingly.
  6. Slowly become an early riser. If you usually get up around 8am, don’t expect to magically be able to get up 6am the next morning. The key to developing an early morning routine is to slowly work your way towards it in increments. As I described in another post, it’s better to take baby steps. Start by waking up at 7:45am consistently for a week. Then drop down to 7:30am. Then to 7:15am and so on until you reach your target wake up time. When you take this approach, you gradually regulate your sleep in a way where you start becoming more of an early riser and it becomes habit.

With these suggestions, keep in mind that they’re intended for those who snooze habitually but want to stop doing so. The tips above are to help you get started and develop a consist routine of waking up at the time that you want to wake up. Once you break the cycle and develop a habit of NOT snoozing, you can start experimenting with these suggestions to further optimize your productivity in the morning.

Final words…

When we snooze in the morning, we are failing the very first task of the day. The occasional snooze is perfectly okay if you have no agenda for the morning and just want to catch up on some sleep. However, more often than not, we aim to get up at a certain time every morning for a reason. Maybe it’s work, maybe it’s for the kids, maybe it’s to focus on personal development/health, or maybe you just want to ease yourself into the day. Whatever the reason may be, when you become a habitual snoozer, you’re doing yourself a disservice. In addition to compromising your sleep, you’re likely delaying the inevitable.

Whether it’s 5am or 6am, you have to get up to get things done. The difference is that if you snooze, you often wake up feeling slightly disappointed because (a) you didn’t get up at the time you planned, (b) your morning is a bit more rushed than you would like, and/or (c) you may have failed other goals, such as exercise or meditation, that were dependent on you waking up on time. Alternatively, if you do not snooze, everything is reversed. You succeeded at your first task, you can ease into the morning, and you have time to complete your morning goals.

Optimism wins

Way too many people out there have this belief that optimism is synonymous with delusion and/or being unrealistic. I hear it all the time that optimists are just sunshine, rainbows, and flowers. They don’t see or acknowledge the hurt and pain that’s out there in the world. They are optimistic because their life is good. Their reality is distorted. One individual on Fox News went so far to say that optimism was at fault for why a US soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians because “soldiers are actually taught to deny stress and trauma, and false bravado is actually encouraged.”

But did you ever stop to think that maybe optimists are the realists? Maybe their life is good BECAUSE they are optimistic? The truth is that optimism and positivity wins. A mild dose of pessimism has its utility, and extremism of anything is unhealthy, but by and large, optimism wins. According to the research shared in Martin Seligman’s book on optimism, on average, optimists have better physical and mental health, and they are better achievers than pessimists. It’s just a fact.

That being said, optimism is not necessarily what you’ve been fed by other people. It’s not just turning everything negative into something positive, and nor is it something you can experience by just having a positive pep talk with yourself while standing in front of a mirror. Ultimately, the way you distinguish an optimist from a pessimist is based on how an individual explains to themselves the bad things that happen to them in their life.

Optimists vs. Pessimists:

When something bad happens, an optimist WILL feel bad. Of course they will. They’re human. It’s not just that their glass is half full. They’re not delusional. However, the difference between them and the pessimist is that the optimists’ feelings of helplessness are temporary and they are more likely to contextualize the bad event. The pessimist, on the other hand, views bad events as more permanent and a general occurrence in their life that is inevitable and unavoidable.

The pessimist is very passive and helpless. The pessimist accepts the inevitable doom of his or her life, and a bad event is just a reflection of that. The pessimist feels they cannot really do anything about the situation. The optimist is also passive and helpless, but that’s very short lived. Soon the optimist realizes that:

  • The bad event is not a reflection of my life; it happened because of X, Y, and Z. Maybe I can’t do anything about this situation, but I can do A, B, and C to move forward.
  • Bad things happen, and they suck, but that will not stop me from growing, getting better, and achieving my goals. Just because I feel bad about this doesn’t mean I need to feel terrible about my entire life.
  • I have the power to move on and not feel terrible anymore.

On average, both the optimist and the pessimist experience the same bad events. Furthermore, they feel equally as bad when bad things happen to them. However, the difference is that soon after, the pessimist enables the helplessness whereas the optimist suppresses it. The pessimist feels a lack of control while the optimist takes control. The pessimist becomes passive while the optimist becomes active. Optimists forgive themselves and the negative events in their lives whereas pessimists hold a grudge.

When it comes to how we perceive the good things that happen to ourselves in life, we see almost the exact opposite thing happen. Optimists view the good events as more permanent and a general occurrence of their life whereas pessimists view good events as more temporary and are more likely to contextualize or think it is a fluke. An optimist takes a good event, savors it, and then is motivated to replicate the good event (they feel a sense of control). A pessimist, on the other hand, sours some of the good feelings by thinking this occurrence is not sustainable and is a result of luck or chance.

Final words…

Both optimism and pessimism are habits. The good news is that optimism can be learned and pessimism can be unlearned. Again, it’s not to say that all optimism is good and all pessimism is bad (that’s a conversations for another day). Also, it  doesn’t mean that optimists can’t have pessimistic moments or vice versa. A bad event is a bad event and everyone is going to feel bad about it. The difference, however, as Seligman states in his book, is that “in optimists, a failure produces only brief demoralization” (p.76). It’s short-lived. Optimists rebound faster and take control of their situation. This is why they are generally healthier, happier, and higher-achievers.

Optimism wins.

 

 

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.

Find your ideal self

In Positive Psychology, there is a concept called the “ideal self” or “best possible self” which refers to creating a picture or visualizing yourself at your best. Many research studies have found that when you visualize your ideal self, it increases your mood, increases optimism, and is associated with decreased illness.

This makes sense.

It promotes a positive mindset. Rather than worrying about the future, you focus on the potential for your future to be better than your present. Also, similar to visualizing yourself cross the finish line, it gives you a temporary boost of motivation and encourages you to work towards achieving your goals.

If you want to try the formal intervention that has been developed and validated by researchers, here is how you do it.

Best Possible Self Exercise:

  1. Start off by brainstorming and writing down some sentences that describe what your ideal self looks like in the future. Focus on attainable goals and try starting the sentences with “In the future, I will…” Organize your brainstorming by writing about these three domains of your life:
    1. Personal (how your ideal self is physically, spiritually, and psychologically)
    2. Professional (how your ideal self is in terms of position, accomplishments, level of expertise, occupation, skills, etc…)
    3. Relational (how your ideal self is in regards to relationships and contact with loved ones, friends, colleagues, etc…)
  2. Using what you created in number one, write a detailed and coherent personal story. It does not have to be super long, but it should be realistic and make sense.
  3. Perform a 5-minute imagery exercise where you imagine the story you wrote. Perform this imagery exercise once a day for as little as four days or as much as two weeks.

In this exercise, you are generally given about 20 minutes to complete steps 1 and 2. Here are some excerpts from the prompt that is given to participants:

Your best possible self means imagining yourself in a future in which everything has turned out as good as possible. You have worked hard and you have managed to realize all your life goals. You can envision it as satisfying all your life dreams and development of all your best possible potentials… think of and write down your goals, skills, and desires you would like to achieve in the far future for each of the three domains, and finally merge these into a personal story like a diary.

The problem with this exercise (and its solution):

Before I discuss the problem with this exercise, I would like to highly encourage you to give this exercise a try. You don’t have to follow all the steps, but I would recommend at least spending a few minutes to perform the imagery exercise and imagine your ideal self. Go out for a walk, put on a nice soundtrack in the background, and visualize. It’s a form of introspection and helps to put things into perspective in terms of where you are now and where you want to be in the future.

However, there is just one problem with this exercise — it gives you a high and a taste of a positive future, but it does not bring you any closer to it. Don’t get content with the momentary positive feelings it gives you. If you want my opinion, here are the three steps you should take for this exercise to be successful:

  1. Visualize your ideal-self
  2. Use the positive emotions and temporary motivation it gives you to create an action plan to achieve that ideal future
  3. Execute the plan