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The Science Behind Why Breaking A Bad Habit Is So Hard

Engaging the goal-directed side of your brain can help you override the part that controls your bad habits.

Habits are your brain’s version of autopilot. They allow you to get ready for work, navigate your way to the office, and find your way home without having to reinvent the wheel every day. They save time and energy . . . except when they involve grabbing a candy bar from the vending machine every afternoon at 3 p.m. In cases like this, bad habits can feel like a battle of wills.

To find out why some habits can be hard to make or break, researchers from the University of California performed experiments with mice and found that the brain’s circuits for habit- and goal-directed action compete for control in the area of the brain that makes decisions.

“Neurochemicals called endocannabinoids allow for habit to take over by acting as a sort of brake on the goal-directed circuit,” writes Christina Gremel, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California San Diego who headed up the study that was published in the research journal Neuron.

Endocannabinoids are chemicals that are naturally produced by humans and animals, and receptors are found throughout the body and brain. This system is involved in a variety of physiological processes, such as appetite, pain sensation, mood, and memory.

Earlier studies found that the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is the part of the brain that relays goal-directed information. When researchers increased the output of neurons in the OFC in mice using optogenetics–a technique that involves flashes of light–goal-directed actions also increased. And when they decreased activity in the OFC using chemicals, the mice acted on habit.

A good balance of habitual and goal-directed actions helps with everyday functioning and task management. “We need to be able to make routine actions quickly and efficiently, and habits serve this purpose,” writes Gremel. “However, we also encounter changing circumstances, and need the capacity to ‘break habits’ and perform a goal-directed action based on updated information.”

The brain shifts from habit to goal-directed behavior when we need to drive to a different location, for example. The decision to make or break a habit also relies on goal-directed behavior in the beginning. Healthy mice had no problem shifting from one type to the other, but people with conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction may have a physical problem that inhibits goal-directed action, the study suggests. “It does appear some things we think of as more maladaptive like addiction seem to have a bias toward habit system,” Gremel says. “The goal-directed system is still there, and you can still rescue it. Treatment could be pharmaceutical or might involve behavioral therapy. Further research is needed.”

So what does this mean for that afternoon trip to the vending machine? It’s time to engage the goal-directed side of your brain. If you walk by the vending machine every day on your way back from a meeting, for example, alter your path.

“If you change the context or go about things in a different behavioral pattern, it can help you break out of habit,” says Gremel.

BY STEPHANIE VOZZA        06.20.16
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Why Letting Yourself Make Mistakes Means Making Fewer of Them

Allowing mistakes is the best way to avoid making them.

Think back to the last time your boss assigned you a new project or task at work, or the last time you tried to tackle something really difficult in your personal life.  How did it feel?  I’m guessing scary, right?

While some people seem eager to tackle new challenges, many of us are really just trying to survive without committing any major screw-ups.  Taking on something totally new and unfamiliar is understandably frightening, since the odds of making a mistake are good when you are inexperienced.  Small wonder that we greet new challenges with so little enthusiasm.

How can we learn to see things differently?  How can we shift our thinking, and approach new responsibilities and challenges with more confidence and energy?

The answer is simple, though perhaps a little surprising:  Give yourself permission to screw-up.   Start any new project by saying  “I’m not going to be good at this right away, I’m going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.”

So now you’re probably thinking, “If I take your advice and actually let myself screw up, there will be consequences.  I’m going to pay for it.”  Fair enough.  But you really needn’t worry about that, because studies show that when people are allowed to make mistakes, they are significantly less likely to actually make them!  Let me explain.

We approach most of what we do with one of two types of goals: what I call be-good goals, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and already know what you’re doing, and get-better goals, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning a new skill.  It’s the difference between wanting to show that you are smart vs. wanting to get smarter.

The problem with be-good goals is that they tend to backfire when things get hard.  We quickly start to doubt our ability (“Oh no, maybe I’m not good at this!”), and this creates a lot of anxiety.  Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail.  Countless studies have shown that nothing interferes with your performance quite like anxiety does – it is the goal-killer.

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof.  When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur.

Just to give you an example, in one study I conducted a few years ago with my graduate student, Laura Gelety, we found that people who were trying to be good (i.e., trying to show how smart they were) performed very poorly on a test of problem-solving when I made the test more difficult (either by interrupting them frequently while they were working, or by throwing in a few additional unsolvable problems).

The amazing thing was, the people who were trying to get better (i.e., who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new problem-solving skill) were completely unaffected by any of my dirty tricks.  No matter how hard I made it for them, students focused on getting better stayed motivated and did well.

Too often, when the boss gives us an assignment, we expect to be able to do the work flawlessly, no matter how challenging it might be.  The focus is all about being good, and the prospect becomes terrifying.  Even when we are assigning ourselves a new task, we take the same approach – expecting way too much too soon.

The irony is that all this pressure to be good results in many more mistakes, and far inferior performance, than would a focus on getting better.

How can you reframe your goals in terms of getting better? Here are the three steps:

Step 1:  Start by embracing the fact that when something is difficult and unfamiliar, you will need some time to really get a handle on it.  You may make some mistakes, and that’s ok.

Step 2:  Remember to ask for help when you run into trouble.  Needing help doesn’t mean you aren’t capable – in fact, the opposite is true.  Only the very foolish believe they can do everything on their own.

Step 3: Try not to compare yourself to other people – instead, compare your performance today to your performance yesterday.  Focusing on getting better means always thinking in terms of progress, not perfection.

Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.   The Science of Success    Feb 01, 2011


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How Trying Something Outside Your Comfort Zone Can Pull You Out of a Mental Rut

“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” – Brian Tracy

Have you ever come to a crossroad in your life?

You know something needs to change, but you have more than one option—and it feels like there’s a lot of pressure on you to make the right choice.

That was me a few months ago.

I was stressed, overworked, and in what you would probably call a rut. Fatigued and struggling to get things done, I initially thought that all I needed was a break. But I soon realized that that wasn’t the case.

What had happened was that being tired had driven me to get stuck in a messy cycle of negative thoughts, and every time I tried to untangle little problems, things seemed to get worse.

Everyone around me was telling me to take a rest. But intuitively, I didn’t think a rest was what I needed. I’m generally a confident guy, but if you spend enough time in your own head, doubt will always begin to plant its seeds.

What I needed wasn’t a break—it was a confidence boost.

So what was my cure for the escalating stress?

What was my grand plan to beat this anxiety?

I thought I’d try stand-up comedy.

Yep. I thought I would do one of the most stressful things most people can imagine. I would get up in front of a crowd and try to make them laugh. So I did.

In the lead up to the night of my set, all the anxiety that I had been feeling was amplified.

As I sat behind the curtain waiting to go on stage, my palms sweaty, leg tapping furiously, I tried to breathe slowly to calm myself down, but my thoughts raced so quickly I couldn’t even make them out. Why was I doing this? Should I just get up and leave right now? Who would knowingly put themselves through something like this?

It was too late. My name was called, I stood up, opened the curtain, and….

It actually went really well.

Don’t get me wrong. It was every bit as scary as I expected, but as I predicted, it shook my brain up enough to break free of the mental rut I was in.

And while it didn’t solve everything overnight, it did set off a chain reaction of renewed attitudes and choices, which left me with more energy, vitality, and positivity than I had had for months.

So without further ado,
here are five ways pushing your comfort zone can pull you out of a mental rut

1. It gives you a reference experience for future challenges.

When it’s been a long time since you really pushed yourself, a new challenge can seem incredibly daunting. Your first response is usually “How on earth am I going to do that?”

If, on the other hand, you’ve done something difficult relatively recently, your brain will immediately look to that reference experience as an example.

Since the night of the comedy, I’ve been fortunate to achieve quite a lot in a short amount of time. That’s because every time I face a difficult task, I try to think, “Well, could be hard, but if I could do stand-up comedy, I can definitely do this.”

2. It makes you feel alive again.

A mental rut will depress your emotions and that means you will feel less of the good stuff. The longer this goes on, the easier it is for your body to forget what vitality feels like.

By having a huge rush of neurochemicals like adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin, you immediately remember just how great it can feel to be alive.

3. It can redefine your self-image.

After having spent some time in a mental rut, I started to lose confidence. When I thought about who I was and what I was capable of, I started to constantly reflect on what I hadn’t been able to achieve.

However, when I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, I started to again think of myself as the person who could do difficult things.

Our self-image is such a vague and always changing idea in our minds, but it is one that unavoidably has a big impact on our lives. By doing things that allow you to have a positive self-image, you gather the momentum to pull yourself out of tough times.

4. It will inspire others.

Inspiring other people around you, by pushing your comfort zone, has a number of benefits.

For one, it will change how they perceive you and how they act toward you, and in doing so alter the perception that you have of yourself.

But maybe even more importantly, inspiring people around you can encourage them to push their own comfort zones, and their actions will in turn inspire you. When you spend more and more time around people who are helping each other grow, you’ll all benefit from each other’s positivity, and the boundaries of what you believe is possible will expand.

5. It reminds you that emotions will come and go.

For the last few years, I’ve made a big effort to try and embrace one of the fundamental truths in both eastern spirituality and western psychology: that emotions will come and go; they are just experiences and do not define you.

But I’m only human. So like everyone else I’m constantly forgetting and re-remembering of this truth. Sometimes it’s as simple as noticing the differences in your mood change between morning and evening, and sometimes it’s more profound, such as doing something you never thought possible.

So what does this mean about you?

If you’re going through a mental rut or even a period of depression, and you don’t think it’s simply a matter of needing a rest, try doing something that takes you out of your comfort zone.

I’ve heard of countless experiences of someone doing something new, whether it be surfing, jumping out of a plane, or even traveling to a new place, and it’s completely changed their situation. If you decide to do so, at the very least you’ll have a wonderful new experience to refer to.

Remember that if you’re in a mental rut, you’re not alone. Everyone goes through it at one stage or another, and reaching out to others is important.


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6 Ways to Set Goals You’ll Actually Achieve

By Anne Harding  Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD   10/2/2015

Explore the psychology behind goal setting and learn how to make it work for you.

Once you set your goal, use implementation intentions to help you grab opportunities to reach it, and overcome or sidestep obstacles that could keep you from achieving it.

Want to make big or small changes in your life?

It may seem like a simple idea, but setting goals is a great first step — and understanding the psychology behind setting and reaching goals will greatly increase your chances of achieving them.

“It’s important to know what you want to do, but it’s even more important to know how you want to get there,” says Peter Gollwitzer, PhD, a professor of psychology at New York University in New York City. Dr. Gollwitzer developed the concept of “implementation intentions,” which are “if … then …” plans designed to help people achieve goals.

Extensive research shows that using this strategy helps people achieve goals ranging from getting more exercise, to expressing themselves more effectively.

Forming implementation intentions makes achieving goals easier because it allows you to anticipate opportunities to move toward your goal, and to recognize potential obstacles and distractions.

For example, if your goal intention is to eat more vegetables, an implementation intention for eating in a restaurant could be, “If the waiter approaches the table, then I will ask him what vegetables they have today.” Another might be, “If I get hungry between meals, then I will snack on carrots and celery.” The second implementation intention (snacking on carrots and celery) requires you to do a little planning and preparation by making sure you have veggies cut up and ready to eat in your fridge.

“For all of these critical situations, you can make plans, and these plans are best when made in an ‘if…then …’ format,” Gollwitzer says. “It’s a different kind of action control: It’s not top down by your good intentions, it’s bottom up from your opportunity. You don’t have to think.”

Here’s more about how you can use the science of motivation and goal setting to achieve your own aspirations:

1. Accentuate the Positive

Before you can implement your intentions, you must set your goals. And the way you set them is important, says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at the Montefiore Medical Center and associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “It’s better to set a goal on something positive that you do want, rather than something negative that you don’t want,” Dr. Rego says. “Sometimes people get caught in the trap of focusing too heavily on the negatives in their lives.”

So for example, if you want to lose weight, rather than having “I want to stop eating junk food” as your goal, it could be, “I want to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.”

“It’s just turning from what’s there that I’m unhappy with to what I want to strive for that would enhance my life in some way,” Rego explains.

goals
Align your goals with your values.
If your goals are in line with who you are
— and who you want to be —
they’re easier to achieve.

2. Be SMART

Goals should also be “SMART,” Rego and other experts on motivation say. This acronym, borrowed from the business world, stands for “specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based.” A non-SMART goal could be, “I want to weigh what I did in high school.” The SMART version could be, “Over the next month, I want to lose 2 pounds per week.”

A key strategy for building SMART goals is to break a large goal into smaller pieces. “By doing that and setting smaller targets, the goal is within reach, and yet it’s still a challenge,” Rego says. And achieving smaller goals can help push you forward to the next step. “If you can set a goal and achieve it, you get a boost in your motivation, and a general good feeling about yourself and the world you’re living in,” he adds. “If you set a goal and you blow it, it saps your strength.”

3. Align Your Goals With Your Values

Know why a goal is meaningful for you. “It’s important to ask yourself, ‘How does this fit into the bigger picture in my life, why am I doing this, is it really a goal that’s based on a value I have, or is it something I feel I should or must do?’” Rego says.

Ensuring that your goals are in line with who you are — and, especially, who you want to be — makes it much easier to stay committed to these goals, and to ultimately achieve them, says Lateefah Watford, MD, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Jonesboro, Georgia. “Goal-setting has to be a very personal thing. You can’t align your goals with those of your mom or your best friend or your cousins,” Dr. Watford says. “You have to do what works for you.”

4. Be Kind to Yourself

There will almost certainly be slips or missteps on the path to achieving your goals, and the important thing is to not beat yourself up about them. “We all have that inner voice that comments on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Rego says.

View any bumps along the way as chances to reassess and readjust your plans. “Maybe you do need to tweak the goal a little bit, but you also need to look at the failure as a learning opportunity,” Watford says.

5. Just Do It

Don’t wait for motivation to strike, or that thing you want to do may never get done. “Rather than waiting until you feel like doing it, the magic is to start doing it and then see how you feel,” Rego says.

So if you’re struggling with a writing project, for example, tell yourself you’ll sit down at the computer and write for five minutes. “Often, people are thinking, ‘I can’t do that.’ It may be that their bar, or their standard, or their goal is too high or big. Just keep reducing it until you say, ‘That I can do right now,’ and do it,” says Rego.

6. Keep Your Goals to Yourself — or Not

If a goal is strongly tied to your identity — say, for example, you want to be fit and attractive, and you set the goal of hitting the gym every day for an hour — you may be setting yourself up for failure if you tell other people about it, Gollwitzer’s research shows.

By “showing off” your goals, he explains, “You feel that you’re already there and that you’ve reached the goal, so you can slack off a little. What we find is that when people announce their identity-related goals, they feel they’ve reached them. There’s a sense of goal attainment or goal completion.”

But Rego and others argue that the benefits of letting other people know about your goals outweigh the downsides — as long as you choose the right people to tell. “By sharing goals and reaching out for assistance, and asking people for support, you not only learn how to do it [work towards goals] more effectively, but you also gain a support team that can help you in achieving these wonderful goals you’ve set,” Watford says.

And here, implementation intention can help. Gollwitzer’s research shows that using this strategy erases any negative effects of publicizing your goals.


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Singletasking: 6 Keys To A Peaceful, Productive and Prosperous Life

Do you attempt to accomplish more by doing several things at once? In our culture of multitaskers, you’re unquestionably not alone.

But here’s a news flash if you haven’t already heard: Multitasking doesn’t work. In fact, it decreases your productivity by as much as 40%. Additionally, it lowers your IQ and shrinks your brain — reducing density in the region responsible for cognitive and emotional control.

Singletask your way to success.

Skeptical? Don’t be. Acclaimed researchers and neuroscientists around the world, including those at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of London, have plenty of proof.

Likewise, consider the personal, economic, and social toll of distracted driving. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31% of U.S. drivers ages 18-64 report they had read or sent text or email messages while driving within the last 30 days. Worse, a whopping 69% report they had talked on their cellphone.

So what’s our stressed-out society to do? Simple: singletask.

By singletasking you’ll be more productive and present. Plus like any other skill, singletasking can be learned or relearned over time. Soon enough you’ll be singletasking your way to success and sanity in your life, career, and relationships.

Here are six ways to get started:

1. Recognize that multitasking doesn’t exist.

Your brain is incapable of simultaneously processing separate streams of information from multiple tasks. That’s because there’s “interference” between the two tasks, says MIT’s Dr. Earl Miller. So, in actuality, multitasking is a myth. What you’re really doing is task-switching — moving rapidly and ineffectively between tasks.

multitasking

2. Develop a disciplined brain.

How often do you meet someone and instantly forget her name? Your mind was distracted, preoccupied with something else entirely. The inability to concentrate on a name or conversation is evidence of what I deem SBS — Scattered Brain Syndrome.

Singletasking isn’t only about getting things done. It’s also about developing focus and discipline. Living in the present will affect the very essence of everything that matters to you.

3. Create a distraction-free zone.

It’s up to you to control your environment — to “build fences” to keep potential distractions, such as noise and pop-ups, at bay. Rather than blame your technology or family, take control of your space and gadgets. For example, before a call with a loved one, close the door to the room you’re in, and mute all notification pings on your text messages and social media messaging.

4. Pick a place to park extraneous thoughts.

Singletasking doesn’t require you to discard distracting thoughts. Instead, it provides simple systems to set them aside until you can redirect your mind. One technique is to “park” other ideas in a designated spot, such as a notes page on your smartphone, and then quickly return to the current endeavor.

5. Do related tasks in clusters.

Does reading and replying to texts, emails, and social media messages lure you away from bigger, more important projects? Then practice clustertasking — a technique whereby you bunch related tasks into specific segments during the day. At the office, for instance, you could cluster your emailing to three segments daily — into arrival, lunch, and departure times.

6. Carve out regular quiet time.

In a noisy world with 24/7 news, you’re bombarded by distractions as, unfortunately, your brain becomes trained to avoid quiet reflection.

So next time you’re “busy” surfing the Web, ask yourself if you’re really just sidestepping solitude or introspection. And if that’s the case, resist that avoidance, and carve out a little time each day to be left alone with your thoughts.

Finally, singletasking obliges you to do one thing at a time, excluding any other demands at that moment. You can manage your next task after working on the existing one. You don’t have to complete every task all at once, just the current period of time dedicated to it. In other words, choose one task — and commit!


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6 Things You Must Release In Order to Move Forward

One aspect of being a productive, happy person is growth – both personal and professional. We strive to create new opportunities for a few different reasons: ambition, money, influence, career growth, new challenges, and etcetera. It’s natural to seek opportunities and circumstances that challenge us and force us to be our best.

While most of us know the things that we need to do in order to be successful – hard work, long hours, more responsibility – less attention is paid to the things that must stop doing in order to realize this success. You’ll notice that most of these self-damaging behaviors and habits are a result of your thinking, which is perhaps your important asset in achieving success, and one that can give you a tremendous advantage…or disadvantage.

Here are 6 things that you must release
to move forward achieve success

1. Release the desire to make everyone happy.

Everyone has an opinion about everyone they know, accurate or inaccurate. Unfortunately, many of us focus too much on what others think about us. This is only natural, as we want to be accepted, liked, and appreciated.

When you make a conscious effort to achieve success in your life, there are going to be people who don’t want you to get ahead for various reasons out of envy, bitterness, fear, or something else. Success can bring out these feelings because not everyone has the drive to better the circumstances in their life. It is important to remember that this is their problem, not yours. It is not your job to make these people happy, only to make yourself happy in what you choose to do with your own life.

2. Release excuses while being accountable for your actions.

There are truly intelligent and gifted people that will never achieve success in their life because they can’t or won’t stop making excuses and blaming others. When an opportunity presents itself, you must seize that opportunity to the fullest and remember that only you can make it happen. Blaming others for your problems and making excuses will never yield positive outcomes…ever.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we innately know that we’ve been guilty at this at one time or another. The problem with this is that we disempower ourselves from what can become ours if we take ownership of what needs to be done. Work hard, own up, and have the resolve to drive forward without making excuses or shifting blame onto other people.

3. Release big mistakes and failures of the past.

We’ve all made mistakes and failed at some point in our lives, some more often than others. It bears repeating: there is absolutely nothing that can be done about these past failures…what’s done is done. The belief that “You can judge a person’s future by their past” is a false one that can be accepted as truth if we are not careful.

Walt Disney is a tremendous American success story who created a multi-billion dollar entertainment empire. He also was a notorious failure and mistake-maker at one point, being fired by a news editor and bankrupting his first animation company.

Richard Branson, the billionaire communications mogul, lost hundreds of millions of dollars before creating one of the largest communication brands in the entire world.

Steven Spielberg was rejected twice by the University of Southern California and went to a much less-prestigious college… before becoming perhaps the most famous film directors in history.

Does anyone ever mention these people’s mistakes and failures? No. It’s what you choose to make out of your life despite failing that defines you.

forward

4. Release past pain and trauma.

Sometimes the word “difficulty” does not truly do justice to things we’ve experienced in the past. Some of us have experienced significant pain and even trauma from things that have happened to us.

The inherent problem in reliving pain and trauma is that it can derail the efforts to better your life. You’ll never fully embrace the present or future possibilities without relieving yourself of these psychologically-damaging thoughts. While you may never forget what has happened, you can still lead a successful, abundant life despite of having gone through tremendous difficulty.

Kevin Spacey, the outstanding Emmy and Oscar award-winning actor epitomizes success while facing past pain and trauma. His father was a full-time Nazi party member and pornographer who reportedly sexually abused his own children. Understandably, Spacey experienced severe mental and emotional damage by this. He was so distraught by his father’s actions that he took his mother’s maiden name as his own, forever cutting off any ties to his father.

While certainly an extreme example, it shows that resolve in the face of pain or trauma can overcome anything.

5. Release insecurity.

As with most other deeply rooted beliefs, insecurity can be tough to overcome, but it can be overcome. That being said, don’t worry about what others think of you. Again, this is their problem, not yours. Anyways, most people are far too encumbered with their own lives to really think about you much.

If you believe that you’re a strong, capable person of immense value, nothing that anyone else thinks can change that…unless you let them. Insecurity is a state of mind, but so is boldness and confidence. Hold your head high, believe in yourself, and others are more likely to hold you in high regard.

6. Release jealousy and resentment.

Who, at one point or another, has held feelings of jealousy or resentment? (Raises hand). Yes, jealousy and resentment are common human emotions, but ones that are disempowering and energy-sapping.

Further, jealousy and resentment are irrational, unproductive thoughts that do absolutely nothing positive for us. This is especially true when attempting to achieve any type of goal of measure of success. Resenting someone else because of their success or accomplishment is weak thinking and counterproductive. Instead, try to appreciate that they achieved success through hard work, determination and sacrifice, which they most likely did.

We can all learn from people that have been successful instead of harboring negative feelings. Try to build a relationship with and build your social circle around such people. Success breeds success, and you’ll likely find a good person that will provide some motivation and encouragement for you to achieve your goals.