Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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This really shouldn't work... but it does!

As any long time reader of this LJ will know, I collect self-help books. By this, I don't mean I have hundreds of the things; a quick count reveals 10.[1] There are lots of very well known books out there that I can tell simply from the reviews will not work for me and could even do a lot of damage. There are also books that worked for me at one stage in my life, but which are no longer useful. I think I would put Feel the fear and do it anyway by Susan Jeffers and Eat that frog by Brian Tracy into that category. I still have them, but there are now just a few points that are worth remembering and I have other books, bought more recently that are much more helpful.

One of the most recent is One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer.

I actually found this book via the blog All Japanese All The Time. One Small Step sounded interesting and much more suited to my personality than some of the other self-help books out there. And indeed it was...

There is a type of self-help book that says, "Just do it!" Feel the fear and do it anyway is one of those. Benny Lewis gives this advice on his blog about learning languages. And I admit that it works for some people at least some of the time. But it only works if taking the plunge results in an enjoyable experience. The lesson learned in that situation is that the fear was out of all proportion to the task and that having done it once will make it easier to do next time.

It does not work when the result is a very stressful time, even if everything actually went well.

As Maurer says, "In dating, networking, and giving presentations, we're told, 'Fake it till you make it.' But imagine a shy person who tries to 'fake it' by attending a cocktail party solo, giving air kisses to strangers and pretending to feel confident and charming. That person is likely to find the experience so excruciating that she goes straight home to bed with a headache, vowing never to do that sort of thing again."

So it doesn't matter whether the other people at the party thought she was charming or that nothing disastrous happened, if the experience is unpleasant, it makes it harder than ever to repeat it.

So what do you do...?

The answer in this situation is to take small actions in the right direction. The book gives lots of examples and I'm using the technique successfully to get the house tidier and cleaner.

We like innovation. We like the one big idea for change. We like the idea that we can buy one new gadget and it will transform the way we do things. Of course sometimes it does and that then brings spectacular results. The story of how a firm scrapped all its old machinery, bought new computer controlled equipment, laid off two thirds of the staff and turned the previous loss making activities into profitable ones makes for a wonderful headline. But radical innovation doesn't always work and I would venture to say that at the personal level, it rarely does.

Innovation in this sense is the New Year resolution to lose weight resulting in a rigorous diet and exercise programme that lasts about three weeks before reverting to old habits. It's the attempt to write a novel at NaNoWriMo speed. Yes, you can do it for four weeks, but is what you have at the end really a novel?

Innovation does sometimes work for some people in some situations -- which is presumably why so many people recommend it. Many years ago, back in the days when just about every adult smoked, my uncle gave up smoking after a health scare, but his motivation was tremendously high and even that doesn't work for everyone. A chap who had been in hospital with him for exactly the same tests lit up a cigarette immediately on leaving the hospital building. Relief at being given the all clear had just reassured him that his smoking was doing no harm.

These days the house is far better than it used to be, but the spell of depression, plus all the study deadlines, that lasted from the New Year into early summer meant that things had slid somewhat and getting the decluttering underway again was proving difficult. So, having read the One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, rather than beating myself up and trying to transform the house by a huge tidying and cleaning purge, I have adopted the daily target of: Tidy 3 things, clean 2 things, and do 1 thing in the garden.

So what's new? Everyone knows about taking "baby steps"[1]. Well, the difference is, it's fine if I don't do these things, but if I do accomplish something useful, I get...


One of the problems with procrastination and depression is that everything sinks into a vague swamp of semi-work and semi-relaxation. People who procrastinate due to depression aren't enjoying anything in life, even the things that are supposed to be fun. I would do tasks, even big tasks like an assignment for the degree course, and not feel any sense of relief and happiness when it was completed -- even though I was getting good marks! So how was I going to get a sense of achievement out of, say, scrubbing the kitchen waste bin?

The answer is a small reward. In these days of huge bankers' bonuses, the section in One Small Step Can Change Your Life about the efficacy of small versus large rewards is interesting reading. Now as I'm trying to watch what I eat in attempt to lose weight (or at least not put back the few pounds I've lost over the summer), I've always thought that using chocolate as a reward was completely out of the question. But Maurer uses Karen Pryor (of clicker training fame) as an example of someone using small rewards of chocolate to get her motivated to attend graduate school classes after a day's work. She broke the journey into stages -- walk to subway station, change trains, walk to classroom -- and when she successfully completed a stage, she allowed herself one square of chocolate.

I've discovered that I can take that even further. I bought a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk and cut each square into 4 tiny cubes. These "treats" live in a container in the fridge, tucked away at the back so that I'm not tempted to eat them except as a reward. Thus even if I do eight reward-worthy things in a day, I'm only eating two squares of chocolate.

Is it working?

It seems to be. I noticed the other day how dusty and cobwebby one room was. Immediately the old litany of depressive thinking began. Oh, there's so much to do. I hate cleaning. I'll never get the house looking good.

At which point another voice chimed in with, "Oooh! Opportunities to earn chocolate!"

As Karen Pryor pointed out, she was using chocolate to associate the journey with pleasurable experiences. After a while, she trained herself to go to the classes perfectly happily without the need for the physical reward.

Now, as Maurer says, chocolate isn't going to work for everyone. It might be ruled out for health reasons. It will also be a disaster if you are unable to have chocolate in the house without eating it all right away! But if chocolate isn't the answer, perhaps there's something else? Five minutes of playing a fun game? A treat made out of something less fattening? Only you know what might work for you.

The thing that interests me though is the way it seems to be possible to use one part of the mind -- the conscious, goal-setting part -- to train the unwilling sulky toddler of an unconscious mind into being more cooperative. As I said above, it sounds as though it shouldn't work, but it does -- at least for me.

[1] OK, I admit that 10 is just personal improvement, getting stuff done, dealing with procrastination etc. type books. I have another 22 How To Write books. :)

[2] Written by a chap who learned Japanese to fluency whilst still living in America and which contains masses of helpful information for learners of any language.

[3] There's actually something about that phrase that sets my teeth on edge. It doesn't really describe the process at all because a baby's first steps are usually a staggering, frantic toddle ending in a fall, and that's not what this is about at all. It's more like taking one step in Tai Chi walking.
Tags: chocolate, decluttering, depression, time management

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