Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #4: Change Context

There is no doubt that when we change the physical configuration of our body, there is a corresponding psychological change. Earlier I posted about smiling making you happier, even when you’re feeling down. Another example is non-verbal communication, the complex signaling that happens between people based entirely on posture, hand gestures, vocal tonality, and many other cues. Just in case you think I am overstating the power of this effect, it turns out that people systematically underestimate guesses when leaning to the left. That one even blew me away!

In addition to the position of our body, our environment also plays a very large role on our mental state. The color red has connotations of danger, and this has deep evolutionary roots. The difference in energy level between a bright room and a dark room is profound – find a dimmer switch and try this for yourself! Thanks to our incredibly plastic brains, we can build up associations between any two phenomena over time, and this includes places and mental states too. For example, one common piece of productivity advice is to have a separate work space and non-work space.

I am sure you see where this is going. When you want to change your behavior you need to change your mind, and you can always change your mind by changing either your body or the environment! Are you working on a laptop right now? Pick it up and move to another location! If you find yourself stuck in an unhelpful mental state, stand up immediately and go take a walk around the block. Focus on the sensations of your face and body, notice any tension you are holding there, and consciously relax all of those muscles until you are limp. When you are about to make a habitual decision – like opening that internet browser again – do something immediately to interrupt the usual pattern. Sit on the edge of your chair with your back straight to focus yourself on the task at hand.

The power of this technique is both immense and incredibly subtle. The smallest changes in your body can affect your mind, and on the margin this can make all the difference. Learn how your body responds and keep trying different interventions!

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #3: Connect with your Reasons

Here you are, locked up with internal conflict, unable to work and yet unable to play guilt-free.  Remember the old saying, it takes two to tango.  This conflict is inside of you, which means you are in the unique position to understand both sides of the argument – how often do we get that opportunity to help resolve a conflict??  The truth is, all of your parts have a positive intent for you (whether the other parts want to believe that or not).  Each of them are trying to get you something that is important to you, so keep this view in mind when you talk to both parties in this conflict.

First connect with the part of you that doesn’t want to be doing work.  What does this part want for you?  Allow the very first thought to come into your mind, whatever that thought is let it be.  The answer may surprise you.  Some parts want you to be happy, to play and have fun.  Some parts are trying to protect you: maybe they are worried you will do the task incorrectly, or maybe they think the task will not accomplish your goals.  Acknowledge what that part says and why that perspective is important to your life.  Maybe you can find a way to address this part’s concerns right there in the moment!

Now connect with the part of you that thinks you should be working.  There is some reason you want to complete this task, after all, and you will know you have gotten to that underlying reason when you express it using positive language.  For example, you might be tempted to say, “I need to work because otherwise my boss will fire me!”  While this may be true, it is hiding the implicit fact that you value something about having your job.  Instead this could look like, “I choose to work because I want to provide for myself and my family.”

Once you have identified the ultimate reason behind your actions, remember what connecting with that feels like: the picture you see in your head, any words you hear, the wonderful sensations in your body.  When you are finding yourself struggling to stay motivated, I want you to remember that place in full vivid detail, to remind yourself what it is that you care about and why you are doing this thing that seems difficult.  When you act from that place, your positive motivation flows naturally from your goals into your actions, and you will find the energy to do what needs to be done.

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #2: Cultivate Positive Mind-States

Once we start to get upset, these negative feelings can become self-perpetuating until it seems like we have never felt and could never feel any other way!  The more intense the build-up becomes, the harder and harder it is to break out of those beliefs.  The best way to escape this cycle is to interrupt the pattern before it even begins – with positive emotions.

It turns out that one of the most powerful emotions is gratitude.  There has been a volume of research showing that gratitude is correlated with greater subjective well being – people are happier, more productive, sleep better, have more control over themselves and their environment, and grow through challenges when they experience more gratitude.  The effect is so strong that interventions have been done where people keep a journal and write down three things every day they are grateful for – try it for yourself and see!  When you find yourself avoiding work, take a moment and think about the person you are most grateful towards.  Then think about what you are most grateful about in your own life.

Another powerful emotion is self-compassion.  Consider yourself from an outside perspective for a moment: not only is that person suffering because of his internal conflict about work, but on top of that he is feeling shame, guilt, fear, anger and/or self-judgment too!  Don’t you want to reach out and comfort that person?  Don’t you wish you could do something to help?  Remember that what you are going through is part of the shared human experience, and feel some compassion for yourself and your struggles – you will feel a lot better afterwards.

I will leave you with one further note: try laughing!  The situation may not be very funny at the time, so remember a recent situation or your favorite comedy routine, maybe even sneak away quickly to listen to it.  If you can, laugh at how ridiculous the situation is!  Everything will look a little bit brighter in that light.

Ten Ways to Change Your Behavior Immediately #1: Take a Deep Breath

Have you ever completed a really big project, or had a difficult conversation with someone you care about, and literally sighed with relief at the end?  You subconsciously used that sigh to release the tension you had been storing up in your body, and return you to a state of calm curiosity.  It turns out that this technique – like smiling to become happier – works even if you do it intentionally.

One effect of taking a deep breath is to oxygenate your blood, which leaves you feeling invigorated and ready to go.  To get the largest amount of air into your lungs, you need to breathe from your diaphragm.  Practice this by lying down on your back, and resting one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.  Breathe slowly from the bottom of your lungs up, so that you feel your stomach hand rise into the air first.  Do this several times, and try letting yourself breath normally, to feel the difference.  You will quickly get the hang of it.

So the next time you hit a block, before getting frustrated and conditioning yourself to dislike work even more, take a deep breath and relax!  Afterwards, take another look at your work with a set of fresh eyes.

Summary of Nonviolent Communication


Nonviolent Communication is a communication and conflict-resolution process developed by the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. The book focuses on how to express ourselves in a way that inspires empathy in others, and how to listen to them empathically in turn. This system radically changed my understanding of human interactions, and using these techniques with myself greatly reduced my own level of self-judgment. I highly recommend this book.

[Read more…]

Summary of How to Win Friends and Influence People


How to Win Friends and Influence People is a classic book by Dale Carnegie with a pretty self-explanatory title. I read this book recently, and was surprised to find that it epitomized a lot of the wisdom I had already picked up from a variety of other sources. Note that this summary is from the revised 1981 edition, which removed the sections on writing good business letters and achieving marital satisfaction.

[Read more…]

Summary of Eat That Frog


Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy is an excellent synthesis of much of the existing productivity literature to date, achieving about 80% of the total benefits from time management.  My summary here attempts to condense the book into a few pages of critical insights, organized into four primary sections: organization, efficiency, identifying your strengths, and optimizing yourself.  Implementing even a small number of these techniques will result in greatly increased effectiveness.

[Read more…]