Motivation Pt 3

In my last post Motivation Pt 2 I talked about clarifying why you want to make a change and reminding yourself of these reasons at the actual moment of making change. Our next step for enhancing your motivation is to set some goals. To be helpful goals need to be:

Specific

Measurable

Actionable

Realistic

Time-limited

We use the acronym SMART to help us remember this.

An example of this type of goal is: to do a 5k run around my block 4 times this week. This specifically sets out what I’m going to do. I can measure it, simply by counting how many times I go for my run. It is all about the action I take – going for a run. With the training and practice I had previously done this became realistic. And it is time limited to the current week.

It is really super-duper important to set yourself realistic goals. If you do not set realistic goals you potentially set yourself up for failure. To go back to my running example, if I’d set the above goal when I first started running I would not / could not have achieved this. This “failure” could have led to a bunch of thoughts such as “I’m hopeless”, “I can’t do it”, “there’s no point”. All of these thoughts would make it more difficult to try again next time, making it more likely I’ll fail to meet my goal again.

By setting realistic goals, which perhaps start small but then build up, you are much more likely to experience “success” in the early phases. This success will lead to more helpful thoughts, like “I can do it!” and “good work!” Therefore you will be more likely to meet your goal again next time. Start from a smaller place and allow yourself to build up from there.

Motivation Pt 2

Our ancestors needed to get the berries before the birds did. In the ancient environment short-term thinking was king.

One way to overcome an initial reluctance for a change is to make sure you are crystal clear about the consequences of that change. To that end, it can be useful to do think about the advantages and the disadvantages of the change. It can also be useful to think about these things from both the short-term and the long-term perspectives. You could use the following matrix to assist with this:

Change I want to make:

Advantages of ChangeDisadvantages of Change
Short-Term Consequences


Long-Term Consequences



By making this stuff as clear as possible you are providing yourself with all the reasons for the change you can.

Now, the problem is that when it comes to actually engaging in the new behaviour all this logical and reasonable stuff disappears from your mind completely. And it gets challenged or replaced by whiny,  can’t be bothered type of thinking – See my struggle to get out for a run in the morning as detailed in my earlier Motivation Pt 1 post. This is a pretty classic human response.

We humans have evolved to value short-term consequences over longer-term consequences any day. In the ancient environment short-term thinking was king. Our ancient ancestors were scratching out their living on the African Savanna. If they were to come across a bush laden with berries which the birds were already eating, they would scare away the birds, help themselves and eat their fill. “Saving some for later” is actually a dumb move in this environment. The birds, or other people will get there first and our ancestor would miss out, a potentially lethal outcome.  Of course, we now live in a completely different setting one of abundance and relative safety. Parts of our brain, however, still think we’re living in the scarcity of the Savanna. You need to engage the more sophisticated bits of your brain to over-ride your short-term thinking.

So, when it comes to the actual moment of change it will pay to have your matrix on hand so you can read it yourself in this tricky moment. Remind your reasonable self of reasons for the change and then get on and do it.

Motivation Pt 1

I spent 18 months getting myself to run around the block.

Our society is very good at telling us what we should do – eat healthy, exercise regularly, sleep, don’t drink too much etc etc. Most of us a pretty clued up on what a healthy lifestyle looks like. Often when I’m working with people my job becomes about helping them find the motivation to do, and keep doing, healthy behaviours. I’d like to share some of my thoughts and expertise in increasing motivation.

Take a moment. Stop and think about the last time you felt really motivated to do something. Notice how it felt in your body. Notice the emotions that went with it. And finally, importantly, notice the things you were telling yourself.

For me, the best-ever example of this was the 18 months I spent trying to get myself to run around the block. I noticed lots of things about how motivation works for me over this time.

On any given morning it would look like this:

6:00:00 am My alarm would go off and I would immediately think: “No!” I then got into a dialogue with myself about whether I was going to go for a run or not:

6:00:01 am “I should!”

6:00:02 am “I can’t be bothered”

6:00:03 am “I said I was going to!”

6:00:04 am “I’m too tired. “

6:00:05 am “It’s my goal to run 4 times this week”!

6:00:06 am “Tomorrow!”

In split seconds my head was full of all the reasons I should and should not go for my run.

With time and practice I figured out if I got up and put my running gear on, went to the loo, had a drink of water, these thoughts about going or not going were often still present.

I could be out the door, walking down my drive way and walking onto the street and still the thoughts were present.

But by this stage it’s obvious I’m going for run and the thoughts about whether I was going to or not starting to leave me alone.

About 10 – 15 mins into running, I was feeling good, strong. My breathing was steady and controlled (and faster!). I was feeling powerful and in control. AND THEN!!! I THINK

6:21:27 am WHEN ELSE CAN I SQUEEZE IN A RUN THIS WEEK?

My motivation to go for a run appeared about 10 – 15 minutes into running.

There are lots of different definitions of motivation and psychology sees it in quite a precise manner – that motivation is the internal stimulus to a behaviour. But my experiences running around the block is typical of how motivation works for us. There is this urban myth that we need the motivation to do stuff before we do it. The reality is our motivation for a behaviour often shows up once we’re doing it, once we can see the benefits and recognise that the perceived costs aren’t that bad.

Over the next couple of posts I’m going to explore some of the techniques you can use to overcome that initial lack of motivation and get moving to give your motivation a chance to show up.

PS: I did eventually get myself up to a 5 k run around the block in the mornings and it felt fantastic!

Book review of Quiet by Susan Cain, 2012

Susan Cain was a Wall Street lawyer who found herself in a job that didn’t quite fit. She began a journey to work out why. She argues that ours is a society that highly values extroverts, people who are gregarious, who move quickly and who are sometimes just plain loud. The flip side of this is that people who are closer to the introvert end of the continuum, those who are more inclined to think deeply and prefer, or indeed, need more solitary time, can be overlooked. Worse, these people can be penalised or labelled as anxious for behaviour that is actually just an individual difference. Susan reminds us that the world needs people at the introvert end of the spectrum every bit as much as people at the other end.

My one caveat when reading this book is to note that these personality types sit on the opposite ends of a continuum. The vast majority of us will sit somewhere between the two extremes.  There will be very few “pure” introverts and likewise, very few “pure” extroverts. This is not a black and white concept. In addition, your position on this continuum is somewhat flexible. You will appear more or less introverted depending on the situation you are in. For example, the glass of wine I have in the pub with my workmates on a Friday night is like me getting a dose of extraversion, making me just that little bit louder, talkative and impulsive.

In addition to the book, Susan has recorded a Ted Talk which nicely summarises her work. I recommend this book and the Ted Talk to people who are anxious, hoping that they may recognise that some of what has been labelled “anxiety” is more accurately a preference for some solitude and time to think deeply about the world. This is not pathology, in fact, the world could do with a bit more of it.

Book Review of The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

This is one of the books I recommend most often. It is a good solid self-help book that can be applied to many difficulties and situations. Russ is an Australian GP turned therapist. His book explores the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and how to use these to assist you to work through whatever issues you may be facing. It talks about the role of thinking in the pain we experience. Equally, it emphasises the importance of living a rich and meaningful life as a means of mitigating pain. This is an easy to read and digest book. Its relatively short chapters allow you to dive in for a bit, think about what you’ve read and do the exercises! Then come back for more when you are ready. Russ has written several other books and his website https://www.actmindfully.com.au contains other helpful resources. This book is a really good place to start.

10 Mindful Moments

In my day to day practice I often use mindfulness-based strategies to help people slow down, identify what’s happening for them and unhook from the unhelpful stuff. A common problem we come across is finding time for people to regularly practice these mindfulness techniques. It was with joy and relief that I read in Dan Harris’ book Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, that when it comes to mindfulness “1 minute counts”. Here, then are my top ten moments when you can squeeze some mindfulness into your busy schedule.

Here are five times you could simply bring your attention to your breath or body:

  1. While you’re stopped at a red traffic light.
  2. Waiting in line at the café / supermarket etc.
  3. For one moment between parking the car and getting out.
  4. In the elevator or on the escalator.
  5. That moment after you drop the kids at school before continuing on with your day – does anyone else take a deep breath at this point? I certainly do!

Here are five times you could practice being mindful by bringing your full attention to simply what you are doing:

  1. Brushing your teeth in the morning and / or at night.
  2. Making yourself a hot drink.
  3. Making the bed.
  4. Washing your hands.
  5. Preparing fruit and veges.

All you need to do is pick one of these times and commit to using this time or activity to be mindful. Give it a try and see what happens.

Book review of Smart Mothering: What science says about caring for your baby and yourself by Dr Natalie Flynn 2019

How many parenting books did I read before the birth of my children?

Zip, Zero, Nada.

Based on my belief that parents have been having babies and raising children for generations and that I what I was bringing to the table was probably going to be “good enough”.

However, I love this book and so wish I had had it on my bookshelf when I was a new Mum.

Dr Natalie Flynn is a New Zealand based Registered Clinical Psychologist and contributes to the WowMama blog https://wowmama.com/.

In this book Natalie approaches those really sticky, big emotion, button pushing issues faced by new parents – should I leave my baby to cry themself to sleep? Breast or bottle? To immunise or not? And many others. She presents the research and in some cases, the lack of research around these issues. She does this in an informative, respectful way, allowing the reader to form their own conclusions and then make decisions for themselves and their baby accordingly.

In doing so, Natalie manages to take out a lot of the emotional push and pull that can weigh so much on new (sleep-deprived!) parents. She gives power and autonomy back to parents to make decisions which work for them and their families.

Nigel Latta describes it as “the one book every new parent actually needs” and I agree.

Book review of Supernormal: Childhood adversity and the untold story of resilience by Meg Jay, 2018.

This book took my understanding of “adversity” and tipped it on its head. I love when books do that.

Meg Jay is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Virginia, USA. Her beautifully written book takes the form of a series of short stories, or case histories, if you will. Stories of people who have experienced some form of adversity during childhood, such as violence or drug use in the home or the loss of a parent. Meg details what they did to cope with those things, coping methods which to grown-up eyes can look “unhelpful” but which speak to the very human drive to survive.

My job puts me in the very privileged position of hearing stories of adversity from everyday, ordinary looking people. I’d gotten used to – too used to – seeing these adversity stories as “risk factors” that leave people vulnerable for a range of mental health issues and a bunch of other stuff.

This book presented an alternative: That right alongside adversity is resilience. That for every person who sits in my office, yes, there is adversity. But there is also strength, courage and probably several other factors which means they have been able to survive, get through and continue to be.

Right alongside adversity, is resilience.

Biosphere Trees: A metaphor for human resilience

Inside the Biosphere trees grew until they collapsed under their own weight

Trees need wind, rain, and storms for healthy development. So do people.

Biosphere 2 is a research facility in Arizona, USA built in the 1980’s. The goal was to develop a completely enclosed environment capable of supporting human life with the idea that perhaps one day Biosphere 1 – that’s the earth – would not be able to support human life. Or, perhaps relatedly, humans would try to colonise another planet. The technology developed inside Biosphere 2 could be used in either case. Long story short, this research project failed. “Biosphere 1” is a highly complex and inter-connected system which the researchers could not replicate. Many unanticipated challenges occurred, one of which involved the vegetation inside Biosphere 2.

A wide range of vegetation was planted inside Biosphere 2. The trees grew more quickly than in the outside world but would then die off and collapse. It was thought that the weather patterns inside Biosphere 2 were important. Biosphere 2 could produce a gentle breeze but could not generate more extreme wind, rain or storms. It turns out that winds and storms are necessary to a young trees development. During such weather trees stretch and bend and develop a structure called “stress wood” which allows for further bending and stretching. This stretching and bending it turns out, is vital for a trees healthy growth and development.

This story got me thinking about how what happens in the garden. Initially a seed is planted, it is kept in a hot house, in a propagator tray. It is watered daily and possibly given specific nutrients. As the seed begins to grow, the seedling is moved to progressively larger pots, giving it the room to grow, while keeping it inside the hothouse. As the sapling grows it may be placed outside for some time each day to “harden off” or get used to the elements outside the hothouse. When the tree is ready, it is planted in its permanent position. At this stage, wise gardeners place two stakes on either side of the young tree and tether the tree to it. This will provide some protection as the young tree experiences its first winter storms and spring gales. Eventually those stakes in the ground will rot and fall away and a healthy strong tree is left which can withstand all but the most extreme weather events.

Palm trees bend and flex during a hurricane

It strikes me that growing people is much the same. When our babies are small, we hold them very close, provide all that they need and protect them from as much of outside as we can. As our children grow, we slowly, bit by bit allow them out into the world, and allow them to experience some of the “stormy weather” out there.  Eventually, our children are ready to be out there full time but we don’t just let them get on with it. Parents remain, like the two stakes in the ground as a support. And I’ll stop the metaphor there before it gets too dark.

All of us have been out there in life’s weather and experiencing life’s stressors. We have therefore, developed skills and resources to assist us to be resilient in the face of stressors. We have discovered our own internal resources for coping, things like being flexible, persistent, or patient. We have learnt skills for managing stress, like problem-solving or making hard decisions. We have gained resources like healthy relationships which will see them through tough times.  Alternatively, if we try to avoid or deny these metaphorical storms, we do not discover our personal attributes which make us resilient. Neither do we learn strategies that add to our natural resilience. Likewise, if we try to protect others, such as our children, from life’s storms, we are denying them the opportunity to develop their own resilience.

It is stress that allows us to discover and build resilience.

A brief (and selected) history of psychotherapy

Is the stereotype of therapy still “lie down on my couch and tell me about your childhood / mother / dreams”? If so, we’ve come a long way from Freud at the end of the 19th century. I’d like to explain some of the body of research that sits behind what I do everyday in my office.

In the first few decades of the 20th century psychological research and therapy focused on behavioural psychology. With ideas about training behaviour – think Pavlov and his dogs – being applied to human behaviour.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s Psychologists such as Aaron Beck said: hey, we humans also do this thing we call thinking. This led to the development of the cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) model which states that way we interpret situations (our thinking) influences how we feel and behave. Initially this model was applied to the treatment of depression (Beck et al, 1979). Since then this model has been applied to a wide range of mental health disorders and other behaviours and research has shown CBT to be a significant improvement on previous therapeutic approaches (Butler et al., 2006).

CBT is vastly different from the earlier models of psychotherapy in several ways. It is focused in the present, on what the problem is today. It is collaborative, with the emphasis being on the client and therapist working together, on mutually agreed goals. It is active, absolutely no lying down on a couch! You are far more likely to be writing, practicing strategies, role-playing and coming up with stuff to do between the therapy sessions which will help move you towards your goals.

Since the conceptualisation of CBT psychologists have continue to think about and explore other avenues for helping people. This led to many newer therapies which still use these characteristics of CBT although have different models. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT, Linehan, 1993) focuses on the importance of regulating your emotions. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, Hayes et al. 2002) has its base in language acquisition and processing and emphasises the importance of engaging in meaningful activities. Metacognitive Therapy (MCT, Wells, 2009) explores our thinking about thinking. Each of these models also includes a mindfulness component. Research has shown us that these new models are about as effective as traditional CBT (Dimijdjian, 2016). Meanwhile, there are other factors at play which determine the effectiveness of therapy, such as characteristics of the therapist (Novotney, 2013) and the relationship formed between therapist and client (Horvath, 2001).

So, what does this mean when I work with someone? Following an assessment, I provide you some sort of explanatory model for what’s happening for you, based on one of these therapy types. The model will talk about the interaction between your thinking, emotions and behaviour. Equally important though, is how we work together through therapy. To be effective, therapy needs to be an active process set in a warm and collaborative relationship.

References

Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., Emery G. (1979) Cognitive Therapy of Depression . The Guildford Press.

Butler, A. C., Chapman, J. E., Forman, E. M. & Beck, A. T. (2006) The empirical status of cognitive behaviour therapy: a review of meta-analyses. Clinical Psychology Review, 26.

Dimidjian, S., Arch, J. J., Schneider, R. L., Desormeau, P., Felder, J. N., & Segal, Z. V. (2016) Considering meta-analysis, meaning and metaphor: A systematic review and critical examination of “third wave” cognitive and behavioural therapies. Behavior Therapy 47 (6).  

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., Wilson, K. G. (2002) Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change. The Guildford Press.

Horvath, A. O. (2001) The Alliance Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 38(4),  365-372.

Linehan, M. M. (1993) Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. The Guildford Press.

Novotney, A. (2013) The Therapist Effect. Monitor on Psychology Vol 44, No. 2.

Wells, A. (2009) Metacognitive Therapy for Anxiety and Depression. The Guildford Press.