Friday, June 29, 2012

Why Affirmations Don't Work

Affirmations can work. Don't get huffy with me just yet. Yes, they can, if they are worded and used in a way your brain accepts.

Ay, there's the rub, as Hamlet said. And that, my friends, is exactly why affirmations usually don't work. Let me explain.

Despite our affirmations, our brains have built-in bull$h!t detectors. We have a really hard time believing the lies we tell ourselves, which is why denial ends up being so bad for us. Telling ourselves the same lie over and over - unless we're all psychotic - tends not to work. And pictures of flowers or rainbows or the cosmos or a cactus aren't going to help, which is why motivational posters so often fail to motivate. And our doubts, the universe, attraction theories, or any secret you have to pay to read won't change any of that, because at the very core it's all about our brains.

A few things get in the way and cause problems:
·         Most people claim to be open-minded, but the reality is, about 4.8% of the population actually is. For the rest of the world, we only accept facts that support what we already believe. Illogical, but there you go. That's problem one. Affirmations, by definition, are simply true statements. And if the facts (truth) don't support what we already believe (not-necessarily-truth), we usually reject it. 
·         We are truly our own worst enemies. The way we think about ourselves - deep down - is nearly always more negative than reality, and we tend to be petty and mean with our self talk. And that self-perception is very strongly connected to our belief system. If those affirmations go against what we believe, we'll be just as unkind to the stupid affirmations.
·         You've heard of cognitive dissonance? That kicks in when what we observe doesn't match what we believe. Actions only speak louder than words when we're being rational. And at this point, since this isn't a rational part of the brain we're dealing with, guess which side we take! Yep, we ignore any facts we need to so we can cling to our beliefs. (Which, by the way, applies to more than just affirmations. It includes politics, religion, and sports.)

So what happens, when you latch onto an affirmation like "All is well in my life" is this:
1.      You already don't believe it, or you wouldn't have chosen the affirmation to try to force yourself to believe it.
2.      Your brain knows this, as well as all the things that are not well in your life.
3.      The more you say it, the more your brain will argue with you about how it's not true.
4.      Your brain will allow that certain things are well. "Your shoes look great with that outfit, oh yes, you have a fabulous sense of style." But it will also point out unwanted things. "Of course your style would look better if you lost 15 pounds. Maybe a different hair cut. Then people would like you more and you'd earn more money." Which, of course, may or may not be true but again, we're dealing with what you actually believe deep down. It may or may not be rational. 
And before it really got off the ground, your affirmation crashed and burned.

To create affirmations that have a fighting chance:
·         Word them in the present tense, but as actively happening now rather than as an achieved state. When you say that something is, and your brain knows better, it rebels, as explained above. Saying "I will ..." is fine with your brain, because someday maybe you will. But that doesn't generate much motivation. Better might be "Today I'm working on ..." or "Such-and-such is constantly improving...."
·         Be truthful. Saying "I am slim and fit" when they took a wall off your house yesterday to get you out isn't truthful. If it's a process, acknowledge it and phrase it that way. "I am becoming more slim and fit." If you took one tiny baby step toward that goal, that makes it true, and your brain will accept it.
·         Be flexible. Saying "I speak and think positively" doesn't give you any room for expressing negative emotions. Denying frustration, sadness, guilt, anger, or whatever can create a lot of stress, and that's not good. Instead, "I strive to see the positive every day" allows for progress while not being so inflexible that it forces you into denial.
·         Be less absolute. If you say "Everyone likes me" to build some self-esteem, what happens when someone doesn't? An alternative would be "I'm likable." It allows for the rare but inevitable exception.
·         Keep yourself in the affirmation. When you say "every problem has a solution," it's in the present tense, it might be technically true, but you also aren't relating it to your life. And once you do, it may cease to be true or general. Maybe you could say "I believe every problem has a solution, and I do my best to find it."

NOTE: there are those who say an affirmation should only be about the end result. For example, if you want to make more money, you should never say "I am getting rich" because it's still perceived as a negative, and you should only say "I am rich now." As an affirmation, it's doomed to fail. BUT, as part as a visualization exercise, it's perfectly fine! That's allowing a more primitive part of your brain to internalize concepts you want it to use and operate with. Visualizing what your goal achievement will be like is a great way to keep yourself working on it. Just don't confuse imagination with affirmation.

By the way, I'm here if you need a coach.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New Habits: How Long Does It Really Take?

Conventional wisdom has been that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. This "wisdom" is based on a few observations. The idea caught on, fueled by popularity and probably wishful thinking. Decide for yourself.

This doesn't have much to do with your habits. Unless you're this guy.

First, Dr. Maxwell Maltz observed amputees and found that it took (on average) 21 days for them to stop feeling phantom sensations in the missing limb. It took another 21 days to develop a new habit. This was huge in 1960, when his book Psycho-Cybernetics was published. Problems:
1. This was 1960. Over half a century ago, folks. I'd like to think we've learned a few things since then.
2. This wasn't even lab research. It was casual observations, based on physical healing from major trauma. And the subjects weren't "regular" people - they were recovering from ... yes, again, major trauma.
3. There wasn't any significant follow-up with the few subjects. Were they still maintaining their new habits years later? We'll never know.

This doesn't have much to do with your habits, either. Unless you're a chemist.

Second, a lot of lab research has found that rats and other critters are able to develop certain habits based on drug trials. Most of the habits formed at about the 21-day mark. Problems:
1. Clinical trials on animals are not the same as behavioral habits (sans drugs) of humans. We may as well say, well, it only takes once for a monkey to form a heroin addiction, so you should be able to form a new habit by doing something once. See the lack of logic?
2. Lots of these trials are 4 weeks long. So how impressive is it that by the third week, the animals acclimate?
3. Again with the follow-up. Since plenty of behaviors could be side-effects of drugs, it stands to reason that when the drugs stopped, at least some of the behaviors did, too.

It's time to toss this "21-day wisdom" out the window, because all it does is put unrealistic pressure on people.

Recent research (Lally, 2010) studied actual people doing actual behaviors with the intention of learning about creating new habits. Her study lasted 12 weeks. She found that the average amount of time it takes for people to form a habit is 66 days.

But that's not the whole story!

It depends on the behavior, first of all. Obviously some are simpler than others. People who chose to create an exercise habit took 1.5 times longer to make it a habit, compared to people who chose to make eating fruit at lunch a new habit. Most people, regardless of behavior, hit a plateau at some point. So even if you've jump-started a habit into high gear by day 21, it's entirely possible that on day 22, you're not going to be one day better at getting that new habit more strongly rooted. 

Also, it depends on the timeline. If people missed a day once in a while, it didn't have any real effect. So it's probably not worth beating yourself up if you don't do your yoga or drink your water or whatever once or twice a week. That doesn't mean you can skip it for three days in a row! So maybe you've been good at getting up and jogging every morning for 21 days, and it's sort of a habit, but your car is in the shop and you're carpooling, so you have to leave for work earlier and you don't have time to jog. You get your car back on day 25. Habit destroyed. 

What's this mean for you?

If you want to make a change, you have to allow realistic time for it. For small, simple changes to become habit, 21 days may turn out to be adequate. If you want a life-changing habit, prepare to invest at least a couple months before you think about slacking off.

Oh, and, if you're thinking about this kind of change, keep in mind that the first half the year is GONE at the end of the week. How are you doing on all those New Year's Resolutions? If you haven't achieved them, or you aren't at least halfway there, maybe it's time to think about a coach. Let's get some habits in place!

Lally, Phillippa,  van Jaarsveld, H., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Let. It. Go.

It's Saturday, June 23. Let It Go Day. 

Do we really need a day to remind us to let things go? Apparently at least some of us do. But what are we supposed to let go of? And why?

Really, now, you need me to answer that?

Let go of the negativity that clutters up your emotions and gets in the way of rational thought: judgment (which is usually some kind of fear in disguise), anxiety, frustration, shame, and anger. And for the hundredth time, it's okay to have those feelings, but the point is to experience them and then - you guessed it - let them go. Keeping them around simply isn't healthy.

But, the actual letting-go process - how complicated is it?

It depends. How complicated is it to let go of a wad of paper? Write down a bit about whatever you want to let go of on a sheet of paper. Crumple it up. Let it go, out of your hand and into the trash. Goodbye, garbage.

Or try something else:
  • Learn a new coping skill instead of relying on a dysfunctional one.
  • Have yourself a good cry and release built-up chemicals that are cluttering your system.
  • Whatever negative stuff you're telling yourself, start using a cartoon voice for it.
  • Do something positive right away to mentally shift gears.
  • Imagine a box in your head labeled "False Expectations." Every time you start to think shoulda/coulda/woulda, put it in the box and put the box up on a shelf.
  • Spend energy on something you can actually control. Clean up a little physical clutter. This increases your sense of control, decreases your stress, and is productive, all at the same time.
  • Take a step back and remember that by continuing to emotionally invest, you're living up to the definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.
  • Take personal responsibility. Maybe a situation occurred that was not in your control, but your response is. Own it. Focus on what you could have done better to improve the outcome.
  • Incorporate a new stress management technique into your daily routine.
  • Laugh. Laughter soothes tension, eases pain, and improves your immune system. Plus, a good comedy is distracting and allows you to shift your focus.
  • If you just can't let it go, try a different means to a similar end. Letting something go doesn't mean you must forget all about it and never think of it again. It's like telling yourself "Don't think of a pink elephant." And having read that, what did you just think of? Right. That's not what letting go is. If it helps, change the words to "Let it be." It already is or has been, and none of your reaction is going to change that. So let it exist as it happened, but without maintaining your emotional connection.

Ultimately, you have three options: accept the situation gracefully (this doesn't mean huffing around saying "ok, but I still don't like it"), change the situation by being proactive, or - again, you guessed it - let it go.

Remember the monkey bars? At some point, you have to let go so you can move forward.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Really Lazy, Or Working Like Crazy?

Apparently, you can't judge activity by outward evidence.

Intuitively, it makes sense that we're willing to wait and do nothing than do something for no reason - it conserves energy. So sure, it's human nature to be lazy, unless there's a good reason to be active.

Imagine you're entering the line for a cool new ride at the amusement park. The line moves fast so you spend five minutes walking back and forth until you get to the ride. When you get there, you have to wait one minute for the cars to return to the station. How impatient do you feel as you wait, first in line to board? Not very, right? You've been active, making progress, and you have a pretty short wait. No big deal.

Now contrast that with this: you're entering the line for a cool new ride. Hardly anyone is there and it only takes a minute to get to the front of the line. But then you have to stand there waiting five minutes while a ride engineer checks a safety strap on a car that isn't being used. How impatient are you? You're stuck doing nothing, and you're a little irritated.

As it turns out, if time is available, we love to fill it with activity. Parkinson's Law (1955) says that "work expands so as to fill the time available for it's completion." But even at the oddest of times, when our bodies can't be active, our brains still are. During sleep, for example. 

Long ago in the dark ages (pretty much anything before the 70's or 80's), brain imaging showed that human brains weren't as active when their people were asleep as when they were awake. Well, those early studies weren't very extensive or accurate, as it turns out. Now we have fMRI. And with that, and EEG, we now know two things. First, the old stuff is true, sometimes. About five or six times a night, specifically. Our brains are indeed less active during REM sleep (when we're dreaming) than when we're awake. But second, our brains are more active during non-REM sleep - in several areas. (Cerebellum activity is highlighted in the above photo.)

These periods of brain activity are really busy. In fact, the level of activity is nearly the same as when we're awake and actively involved in some task. And it's during this time that our brains sort out garbage from important stuff, and file away the important stuff in long-term memory.

And how busy is busy? You can't accurately compare the human brain to a computer, in terms of processing speed, but this will give you some idea. The brain can process about ten one-million-point images per second from one retina. The brain itself has the neurons to handle 100,000 times that much information, so that works out to be roughly 100 million MIPS (Million computer Instructions Per Second). That's about like a 168,000 MHz  Pentium processor - or more than 20 times my quad core. Of course this is a rough comparison

Is this meeting really boring or really productive?

Mind working overtime? Maybe not.

Uh, never mind.

You know those mornings when you wake up and feel even more tired than when you went to bed? Maybe your brain had an incredibly busy night. Call work, tell them you'll be late, and go back to bed. I'll write you a note. :)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Want To Be Happier? Breathe Deep & Don't Frown!

Has anyone ever tried to cheer you up and told you to turn that frown upside down?


Bear with me for a quick anatomy lesson. Your nervous system has three main parts. One, your parasympathetic nervous system, mostly handles normal, everyday tasks. Your sympathetic system hangs around, waiting for the tap out in times of stress or even danger. (It's the system that runs the whole "fight or flight" thing.) The third system is your autopilot, making sure you blink and digest food and stuff.

Now, if you're under chronic stress, your sympathetic nervous system gets a good workout - and gets over-stimulated to the point that you start to develop actual physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of stress. It gets stuck in the ON position, in other words.

We need to re-boot the system once in a while, and there are two easy ways to do that.

1.  Breathe!
Slow, mindful, deep breathing allows your brain to produce certain neurohormones. These counteract the stress-producing hormones your sympathetic nervous system has been demanding. Your parasympathetic nervous system starts to take over again. It decreases blood pressure and heart rate, so you can (finally) physically relax. Breathing exercises can be done any time, any place. Just sitting up straight and taking a slow, deep breath every so often through the day is good for you.

2.  Stop Frowning!
Recent studies (cited below) confirmed the idea that if you don't frown, you can't actually experience negative emotions. Actually, the studies found that Botox injections - which cause people to be unable to express emotion on their faces - kept people from feeling much emotion in the first place. Assuming you haven't had a Botox treatment lately and are capable of expressing emotion, the science still stands: if you don't do it, you don't feel it. So smile instead (since you can), and since your facial muscles are tied to your emotions, you'll pull your emotions into line with your expression!

Davis, Joshua Ian, Senghas, A., Brandt, F., & Ochsner, K. (2010). The effects of BOTOX injections on emotional experience. Emotion, 10(3), 433-440.
Havas, D. A., Glenberg, A. M., Gutowski, K. A., Lucarelli, M. J., & Davidson, R. J. (2010). Cosmetic use of botulinum toxin-A affects processing of emotional language. Psychological Science, 21(7), 895-900.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Consider The Audience: Color Psychology Depends on Culture, Context.

In other words, colors mean different things to different people in different situations.

From a business standpoint, this is one area where it really pays off to know your target customers, so you can understand what your color choices will mean to them. From your brick-and-mortar lobby to your website to your business cards, the wrong color choice could be an expensive mistake.

Sure, there's the whole "color psychology" thing, where red is stimulating and blue is calming, blah blah blah. But now that we've done actual research, we know that a) the effects of colors have been exaggerated, b) the effects are temporary, c) sometimes, long term effects are the negative extremes of what was intended, and d) the effects and meanings vary according to context and culture.

Let me address a, b, and c together by way of example. A blue room is supposed to be calming. And it is, compared to a more stimulating room, but not compared to an otherwise similar white room (the white one is more relaxing). If you just came from a more visually stimulating room, the moderate calming effect of the blue may last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours. After a few months of daily exposure, that blue tends to sink from simply "calming" to somewhere between "de-motivating" and downright "depressing" because of the lack of visual energy.

Takeaway: if you run a funeral home, a somber blue might be calming and ideal for viewings and eulogies, but - I can't resist - deadening in your office. On the other hand, the nearly cliche red-and-yellow theme of the nearest fast food joint is designed to be mildly irritating, so people eat and run, allowing for more customers. But it's also chronically irritating to the employees; is it any wonder they bicker and the drink station is always a mess?

Now, to discuss context, culture and color.

Traditionally, in many parts of Europe and North America, brides wear white as a symbol of purity. You're probably aware that in parts of Asia, white is the color of death! If you're considering colors in the context of global business, you obviously want to be cautious!

Gold is understood globally as a color of wealth and status. But the nouveau riche are much more likely to respond to it than people from "old money", who will consider excessive use as tacky, pretentious, and cheap. It may work in L.A., but limit it to an accent color in New England.

Green is often psychologically linked with money, which might stimulate spending. It's also psychologically linked to mold and toxins, which might not go over well in a restaurant. On the other hand, people may connect green to conservation, freshness and health. If you're designing a logo for a pest control company using organic products, your customers may perceive green as environmentally aware, or as highly toxic. The right hue might be a win-win.

And then there's black. In most Anglo-based cultures, black can be psychologically linked to evil and/or death (the ultimate in serious). Too much, the wrong way, can actually lead people to aggression, passive or otherwise. But when you add an equal share of fluorescent lime green, orange, or pink, you've turned it on its head and made it a fun, edgy, hip color.

Takeaway: even the right color can be wrong in certain contexts or cultures. This is one of those areas where it pays to really know your audience. Before you invest in a graphic designer, website developer, brick-and-mortar decorator, business cards, and company logo polo shirts, consider the cost if your color choice is misunderstood.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

To Stereotype is Human

categorizing an individual as a member of a certain group,
and inferring that the individual
shares the general characteristics of the group.

Did you ever watch Sesame Street as a kid? The whole "one of these things is not like the others" concept was designed to help young children notice differences and learn to organize.

Babies and young toddlers who are still learning words haven't grasped the finer points of categorizing and organizing yet. They know "cat" and think of "cat" in terms of "fur-covered, four-legged animal." That's it. And adults think it's cute when Babykins points to a cow or a dog and proudly declares, "Cat!" (Oh, come on, it is pretty cute.) And it shows the earliest of this kind of brain development.

If we don't already have a mental category for something, we'll create our own new one. We use our mental pigeon-holes, or schemas, as mental shortcuts when we have to deal with large amounts of information. (If you've been following along with this blog, you'll recall a few posts back when I mentioned that we can only handle about 128 bits of information at a time. A simple bit of small-talk can require as much as a third of that. Obviously "large" is a relative term!) Schemas help us make sense of what's going on so we don't get overwhelmed, but they also help us relate new information to stuff we already know. Doing that helps us remember better and retrieve the information from memory later. So schemas are incredibly handy brain processes.

By definition, stereotypes are schemas in action. Remember how Babykins called a cow a cat? If we don't intentionally interfere with the process, our brains prefer to be accurate (and it's worth a few mistakes to learn more). It's a natural human process.

Don't get the idea that forming schemas is a simple task! Remember that memory formation is affected by emotion. (Which is why aromatherapy can be effective - we form schemas that link certain smells with certain emotions.) This is where things get tricky.

When we're in a good mood, we're not as worried about accuracy, so we're more likely to rely on stereotypes. Mostly that's okay. As it turns out, ANY strong emotion keeps us from spending brain power on rational thought and making us more reliant on our schemas. That's mostly okay, too. In a crisis or a tragedy, there's a lot more to worry about. 

But here's where it gets tricky: if we form schemas about a certain group of people, for example, and along with the relatively small bit of information, we store the emotional context of when we gained that information, then the entire schema is biased from the beginning.

So if a schema is formed with an emotional atmosphere that's hostile or fearful, the schema is going to be negatively biased. On the other hand, if the schema is formed with a proud or joyful emotional atmosphere, the schema will be positively biased. Neither one is especially objectively accurate, both are prejudices. And not to nitpick or be a semantics cop, but prejudice is what's socially unacceptable and offensive, not schemas.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Can Your Company Afford Burnout?

(I've been reminded that I've been neglecting the corporate consulting topics. So, here.)

Managers, CEOs - this is your wake-up call.

Every business is different, so unless I'm working with you, I can't tell you what employee burnout is costing your company. I'm going out on a limb and guessing that if you're upper-level management, a) you don't really want to know, and b) it's more than you think. But I can guarantee it's costing you something.

Here are the ways burnout costs organizations:
  • Loss of productivity
  • Decrease in performance (especially for front-line workers)
  • Turnover and absenteeism (In March of this year, over 2 million U.S. employees quit their jobs. Yes, quit. Voluntarily. In fact, that number has been steadily increasing since June of 2009.)
  • Risk of substance abuse (Alcoholism costs U.S. employers about $20 billion per year.)
  • Stress and depression (Stress costs more than $300 billion every year, between the decrease in performance, absenteeism, turnover, medical and insurance costs, work-related accidents and worker's comp claims, legal fees, and PR damage control when things go really badly.)
  • Physical illness (as a result of stress) and higher insurance premiums
  • Decreased organizational commitment
  • Incompetent or unethical behavior (including the occasional case of corporate sabotage)
  • Major mental health compromises (threats, stalking, "going postal" in your office)
What causes burnout? Quite simply, your organization.

Plain old life stress seems to have hit an all-time high in the past four years. Stress is a vampire, and we're only human. We have a finite amount of resources to get through the day. On top of the stressors of daily life, there's an entire set of work-related stressors:
  • Some people are seriously underemployed and never given the opportunity to prove themselves.
  • Many people, worried about their jobs, have taken on too much responsibility and willingly spent too much time at work, and have been taken unfair advantage of.
  • Plenty of people take vacation so they can actually relax and replenish energy, but they feel guilty because their employers see vacation as a sign of lacking commitment.
  • Micro-management is a critical hit. Big Brother thinks it knows when people might need to stretch or go to the bathroom, and punishes unscheduled breaks.
  • Crowding and noise distractions keep people from focusing, which means lower performance, which they are keenly aware of.
  • Conflicting KPIs - a recurring issue - are also contributors to worker stress and burnout. But employees can't question them, because the organization's unspoken attitude is that if the worker can't figure it out, maybe it's not the right career path.
  • Hostile work environments are brutal. Everybody is under more stress, and some people get snarky or even downright sneaky, backstabby, and abusive. Something else employees don't dare mention, for fear that they'll be told to quit worrying about their social lives and focus on work.
  • Finally, being nickel-and-dimed or written up for time off to attend to family needs forces workers to choose only one. The corporate attitude seems to be "if family is so important, maybe you should just quit."
And valuable workers do just that. They leave. Maybe high turnover rates are the standard for your industry. But which costs more: tweaking the work environment or losing a golden goose? More to the point, can you afford to be wrong?

It's not just me saying this. Read these recent articles for more:


And read this older page, too about personal and organization responsibility for burnout: