In the Groove

Having managed to survive what just might have been the worst month I’ve ever had, I have a couple of things to report about habits and knowing what you want. (To fill in the blanks first, I was over-prescribed an antiarrhythmic medication that has a number of debilitating side-effects and a half-life of 58 days—which means that although I stopped taking it five and a half weeks ago, I still have a few more weeks to go before half of it is out of my system.)

Here’s what I’ve observed during the past couple of months.

The Value of a Compelling Habit

Last year, I wrote about the two sets of four things that I aim to do every day—things I want to do. They can’t be strung together into a routine, so for quite a while I attempted to get them done by putting them on my to-do list. But, as I wrote:

In the moment, at any given time, the unconscious part of the brain, which is focused on immediate gratification, can almost always find something more interesting or enjoyable for me to do.

I solved the problem by rewarding myself with a small star sticker on the calendar in my bathroom each time I completed the four things. My goal was to earn both stars every day. I see this calendar whenever I leave the bathroom, since it hangs above the light switch. Observing the day-by-day accumulation of stars was very satisfying.  And I found that my self-talk, which had been encouraging me to delay or blow off one or more of the activities, turned into a cheerleader encouraging me to do them so I could get the star sticker.

This system has been in place for a while and had been quite successful until this past September, when I stopped being physically able to do two of the things (walking and stretching) twice a day. For a while I just lowered my sights and aimed for one star sticker a day. But more often than not, I couldn’t even aim that high.

But I have been very gradually feeling better and stronger the longer I’m off the medication. And I noticed that the calendar—with or without star stickers—has become a cue for me to resume those activities, which I have now been able to do for 10 consecutive days.

It doesn’t matter whether I look at each of the four things as a separate habit or at the group of them as a single habit. They are united by the star stickers on the calendar as well as in my mind. And not only does doing them make me feel better, resuming doing them is an indicator—in multiple ways—that I am better.

Although I hadn’t been doing the four things regularly for two and a half months, as soon as I was able to do so I got right back on track and my self-talk got right back in line. That’s because this set of habits is very compelling for me. I really, really want to do them. And I did them long enough in the past to create a well-defined track or groove that was easy for me to find and get back into.

The takeaway is that creating a groove is the most important part of developing a habit. If there’s something you want to do every day, first create a groove for doing it once or twice a week. If there’s something you want to do multiple times a day, first create a groove for doing it once a day.

If you try to be perfect out of the gate and fail (which is the most likely outcome), you’ll never gain any traction. You’ll have to continually keep starting over. But if you have a groove, even if it isn’t all you want it to be, it will be so much easier for you to find your place when you lose it. And you will lose it. That’s the nature of things.

The Value of Identifying What’s Most Important to You

There’s a little bit of irony in the fact that I identified vitality as the thing that’s most important to me two months before I was diagnosed last year with multiple heart conditions, including one that results in fatigue and decreased energy. On top of that, one of the most prominent side effects of the antiarrhythmic drug I took recently is insomnia. This is not a recipe for vitality.

But the fact that I can’t have the level of vitality I used to have and that I would much prefer to have doesn’t mean it isn’t still important to me. I haven’t decided to replace it with something else because my circumstances have changed. I’m clear that no matter what, vitality is still what I’m aiming for. That means I have to determine the best actions to take so I can achieve the highest level of vitality possible at any given time.

That makes it hard to feel defeated or powerless. My personal agency may be limited, but I can identify the agency I do have, the actions I can take, the difference I can make. In fact, aiming for as much vitality as I can get makes decision-making a breeze. Instead of basing decisions on what I should do or what I would prefer to do, I simply ask myself if doing or not doing something is likely to increase or decrease my vitality.

The takeaway here is that you may not be in a position to achieve as much of what’s important to you as you would like to achieve. That doesn’t mean you should write it off. (It doesn’t actually mean anything at all.) Don’t sell out. Don’t give up. Don’t let it go. Go after as much of it as you can get at this particular point in time!

Objective Means to Subjective Ends

An objective is…objective. It’s generally specific and quantifiable. A dictionary might define an objective as something you’re working toward, such as a goal or the completion of a project. You may or may not succeed in reaching the goal or completing the project, but you’ll know whether or not you achieved your objective.

One objective may be a single step in the process of completing a larger objective. Maybe you undertake to read a particular book in order to successfully complete a class that is part of your goal of obtaining some type of certification or qualification. You’ll know whether or not you finished reading the book, successfully completed the class, and obtained the certification.

But why are you working toward that certification? What aspects of your status quo are you aiming to change? The objective change is obvious: you will have the certification or qualification you didn’t have before. However, the subjective change—your desired outcome—is likely to be much less clearly defined, if even considered.

This isn’t to say you don’t have an explanation for why you want to do something—or at least why you think you want to do it. Explaining ourselves to ourselves comes naturally to humans. You may also be clear about the potential benefits of succeeding with your objective. But having good reasons and being aware of the benefits are not the same as identifying your desired outcome.

Why (to) Ask Why

You could be going on a job interview because you hope to get hired or because you’re thinking about quitting your current job and are testing the waters or because a relative hooked you up and you feel obligated…or…or…or. Those are some reasons you might have for keeping the appointment for that interview.

Assuming you hope to get hired, why? Maybe it’s simply to earn enough to pay your bills. Or maybe you want to move up into a more challenging or more prestigious position. You might be seeking a congenial group of co-workers to expand your circle of friends. Or you might want a calmer work environment with less stress than you now have. Or you’d like a more stimulating environment. It could be a combination of factors.

If you’re clear about what you hope will happen as a result of getting the job, you’ll be better able to evaluate whether or not to take it if it’s offered to you. At the interview itself, you’ll be able to ask more informed questions and pay attention to things that are relevant to your concerns. Knowing the desired outcome you’re looking for is pretty important since it increases your chances of getting it.

But if you accept the job offer without having identified your desired outcome, you set yourself up for the possibility of being disappointed. Maybe the money’s good and the work is interesting but you wouldn’t get to interact with very many other people—and it turns out the social aspect is really important to you. In fact, you realize you would be willing to earn less in exchange for having more interpersonal interaction.

Reality Check

In addition to changing jobs, we get into or out of relationships, take up hobbies, move from one part of the country to another, decide to go back to school (or drop out), sign up for a gym membership, start a diet, buy a complete new wardrobe—or a set of patio furniture or an expensive camera or a car. We not only fail to identify our desired outcome, we also fail to identify potential obstacles we’re likely to face along the path to getting it.

Included in the “Reality Check” exercise my clients complete when filling out a Goal Action Plan are these three questions.

  1. Imagine a positive vision (fantasy) of achieving your desired outcome and describe it. How will your status quo be changed?
  2. Describe your current reality in regard to your desired outcome.
  3. Compare your positive vision of success with your current reality.

It’s important to remember that if all you do is generate and focus on a positive vision of your desired outcome without doing anything else, you are less likely to be successful in achieving it because you will have tricked your brain into thinking you’ve already got it.

Answering all three questions is a form of mental contrasting that can help you see your situation more realistically and identify the obstacles to achieving your desired outcome. If you know the obstacles you’re likely to face, you can figure out how to deal with them ahead of time instead of being blind-sided by them. Or you may realize there’s an obstacle big enough to be a deal-breaker, at least for now.

When we perform mental contrasting, we gain energy to take action. And when we go on to specify the actions we intend to take as obstacles arise, we energize ourselves even further.Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking

Evaluate and Motivate

The more clearly you can visualize your desired outcome the better you’ll be able to evaluate how likely it is that the action you’re contemplating is the best path to getting there. If it is, great! That clarity can be highly motivating. If it isn’t, that’s great, too, because you can change or revise your plan and save yourself the time, energy, and effort of going off on a wild goose chase.

The more time, energy, or effort it will take to attain your objective, the more imperative it is that you identify your desired outcome. The unconscious part of your brain is hooked on instant gratification, but changing the status quo tends to be gradual, mundane, repetitious, and tedious. Being able to remind yourself not only what you’re aiming for (the objective means) but also why it’s important to you (the subjective end) will go a long way to keeping you focused and on track.

Developing the habit of identifying your desired outcome is useful in all kinds of every-day situations, such as responding to a social media post, attending a staff meeting, choosing a book to read, or planning a vacation. It’s a truism because it’s true: it’s considerably easier to get what you want if you know what that is.


Adapted from a previous post, D Is for Desired Outcome.

5 Reasons to Study the Enneagram

We move through this world under the impression—some would say the illusion—that we’re consciously choosing all of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But most of the time we’re operating on autopilot, stuck on the hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, in spite of our best intentions.

The Enneagram provides a window into our habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. The result is that the more we know, the less we’re at the effect of the programs that are usually running us.

As a system for describing our basic temperament or personality, the Enneagram is comprehensive, multifaceted, and accurate. It requires a bit of effort to fully grasp, so if you’re wondering why you should bother–what’s in it for you–here are five good reasons to learn more about the Enneagram:

1. You’ll Be Able to Let Yourself Off the Hook.

A surprising amount of what we perceive of as our own individual quirks, flaws, and shortcomings are not the result of our upbringing or personal experiences—or the fact that we’re stubborn, wrongheaded, or lack any semblance of willpower. It’s just the way we’re wired. That means we don’t need to continue expending time and energy trying to figure out why we’re that way or attempting to fix ourselves. The Enneagram offers a short-cut to self-awareness and self-acceptance, which is very powerful ground to stand on.

2. Other People Will Make You Less Crazy.

Even when you don’t know what someone else’s type is, just being aware of the fundamentally different perspectives and attitudes of each type can be eye-opening. That awareness makes it a lot easier to cut the other people in your life some slack and stop expecting them to be who they’re not. It also makes it less likely they’ll be able to push your buttons as often and as easily. Our differences don’t always have to be frustrating or divisive. They can be a source of humor and even a way to connect.

3. You Can Stop Banging Your Head Against the Wall.

Do you ever feel like your life is the one Narcotics Anonymous was referring to when they defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? If so, take heart. The Enneagram explains how we get into our particular ruts of behaving, thinking, and feeling—and then offers a range of alternatives to try out from among the other types. Knowing your type is also extremely helpful—maybe even essential—if you are in the process of attempting to change your behavior.

4. It’ll Make You Smarter, Improve Your Memory and Mood, and Keep Your Brain Healthy.

Learning about the Enneagram may not add measurable points to your I.Q., but brains crave challenge and stimulation in order to maintain their plasticity. Learning something new actually changes your brain physically by not only increasing synaptic connections, but also growing new neurons—no matter how old you are. That’s one of the main ways to keep your mind sharp and flexible and your memory intact. These neuronal interconnections in our brains affect our behavior, thoughts, and feelings on a daily basis. You can definitely nurture your neurons by learning about the Enneagram.

5. It Has What You’re Looking For.

On the psychological level, the Enneagram is a great tool for anyone who’s on a journey of personal exploration or wants to change old, outmoded patterns of behavior. On the interpersonal level, it can help you deepen your relationship with your partner or develop clearer communication with friends and family members. At work, it can help you get along better with your co-workers, understand your boss, and become more effective. What you take from it depends on how you come at it and what it is you’re looking for.

I learned about the Enneagram 20 years ago when I was working as a substance abuse counselor and trained to become a Certified Enneagram Instructor. Not only did the Enneagram help me get a handle on some of my own automatic (System 1) behavior, it was the single most effective tool I ever found for working with my clients.

The work I do now is based on the most recent understanding of the mind and brain that neuroscience and psychology can provide. And once again I have found the Enneagram to be an invaluable tool, in this case for identifying my clients’ automatic behavior and tendencies.

Many of us want to increase our self-awareness, but we can’t pay attention to everything. The Enneagram points us in a direction that allows us to see how we tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways and in negative and sometimes destructive ways. It’s one way to find out some of what’s in our particular mental model. Since the contents of our mental model are not directly accessible, I see the Enneagram as a short-cut to self-awareness.

X Is for eXpectations

Life is an ongoing series of experiences, one after another after another. When you’re in the midst of one of them, you experience it. After it’s over, you explain it, meaning you remember it and tell a story about it, incorporating it into your ongoing narration.

But before anything even occurs, you have an expectation about what will or won’t happen, what should or shouldn’t happen, or how events will unfold and the consequences that are likely to ensue.

Expectation is

  • A belief about what should happen or the way things should be.
  • An estimate or forecast of a future situation based on present or past experiences.
  • Anticipation: looking forward to something, whether hopefully or fearfully.

Experience is:

  • The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind.
  • An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
  • Direct personal participation or observation.

Explanation is:

  • A story about how or why something happened or turned out the way it did.
  • Rationalization, justification, and/or judgment about the experience.
  • The cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason.

There’s some degree of conscious (System 2) involvement in all three phases of an experience. But there’s even more unconscious (System 1) involvement in them.

The Way Things Should Be

According to Andy Clark, philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh:

Our primary contact with the world…is via our expectations about what we are about to see or experience. 

Your expectations are constrained not only by what has already happened (your past experiences), but also—and even more significantly—by the stories (and explanations) you’ve constructed about them. Your expectations, arising from your mental model of the world, determine much of what you make of your experiences.

It’s worth remembering that your experience of what’s going on in your mind and in the world is not the same as what is actually going on in either your mind or in the world.

In addition to helping you navigate the terrain you inhabit, your mental model gives rise to your sense of the way things should be. It generates expectations that are either confirmed or denied, as well as assumptions, biases, etc., that determine what you pay attention to, what you perceive (even what you are able to perceive), how you interpret and respond to what you perceive, and the meaning you assign to it.

Who I am is the habit of what I always was and who I’ll be is the result. —Louise Erdrich

Although it doesn’t have to be, the cycle of expectation/experience/
explanation can be a vicious one that narrows your perspective—and your world.

Generating expectations isn’t something you are doing; it’s something your brain is doing. You may have come across advice to do away with expectations because they are either “self-defeating” or nothing but a prelude to disappointment. (Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and Sylvia Plath are just a few who have linked expectations with disappointment.) The advice to eliminate them is based on a belief that expectations are consciously created, which gives us control over them.

Your Brain is Predictive, not Reactive.

Your felt experience may be that something happens and you react to it, but the reality is that your brain is not reactive but predictive. It is always doing its best to anticipate what’s going to happen next, as if it were playing a never-ending game of chess, continuously anticipating and preparing you for your next move.

Your brain generates multiple possible representations of what to expect in the environment. The representation with the smallest prediction error is selected. However the generation of representations is constrained by what is stored in memory and by the sampling of the environmentDirk De RidderJan Verplaetse, and Sven Vanneste, Frontiers in Psychology

You’re only aware of what your brain thinks you need to know, when you need to know it. Although your reactions and responses feel spontaneous and freely chosen, most of the time they are neither.

The unconscious is always several steps ahead of the conscious part of your brain. As neuroscientists have pointed out, this is what makes activities such as sports possible. If the brain was merely reactive, it wouldn’t operate fast enough to enable you to hit a baseball or block a goal. A reactive brain wouldn’t have helped Michael Phelps win his 10th gold medal while swimming blind after his goggles filled with water. All of his previous practice, experience, and knowledge gave his brain a solid basis for predicting what to expect and what he needed to do in order to win.

Because your brain is predictive:

  • You are not constantly surprised.
  • You don’t always have a choice.
  • You are able to engage in activities that require quick and accurate responses.
  • You are capable of learning from your experiences.
  • You don’t have to think about every little thing you do in the course of a day.
  • You find it difficult to change undesirable habits.
  • You may be tricked by various types of illusions.
  • You are unaware of your visual blind spot.

Your predictive brain—and the expectations it creates—can be a major obstacle when it comes to behavior change if you don’t take it into account. The neurons in your brain are constantly firing, interacting, and stimulating each other at various rates. If you stick to the belief that you always have a choice and try to use willpower to override your brain’s wiring, you will make things much harder for yourself than they need to be.

Not only can you not stop your brain from generating expectations, but doing so would be self-defeating. What you can do is become more aware of what those expectations are, check how closely they match reality, and evaluate how well they work for you in creating a satisfying and meaningful life.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

V Is for Vampire

More accurately, V is for choosing whether or not to become a vampire. (Stay with me.) It’s an example offered by philosophy professor L.A. Paul to describe the difficulty of making certain kinds of decisions—decisions that will, literally, transform you in some way. She asks, how could you make an informed choice about whether or not to become a vampire?

Imagine that you have a one-time-only chance to become a vampire. With one swift, painless bite, you’ll be permanently transformed into an elegant and fabulous creature of the night. As a member of the Undead, your life will be completely different. You’ll experience a range of intense new sense experiences, you’ll gain immortal strength, speed and power, and you’ll look fantastic in everything you wear.

So far, so good. However…

You’ll also need to drink animal blood (but not human blood) and avoid sunlight.

Paul goes on to say that all your friends and family have already become vampires and they are crazy about it. They encourage you to become a vampire, too. When you ask for more information, they tell you that, as a human, you can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a vampire until you become one.

High Stakes (no pun intended)

Paul refers to such decisions as high-stakes transformative decisions. Once you take the plunge, there’s no turning back. High-stakes transformative decisions definitely alter your status quo, for better or for worse. Other examples are:

  • Becoming a parent for the first time
  • Being born deaf and getting a cochlear implant
  • Being in a war
  • Seeing color for the first time

Normally, Paul argues, experience helps us develop the conceptual or imaginative abilities we need to imagine things or situations that don’t currently exist. (It’s easy enough to imagine a vampire, especially these days, but it’s not so easy to imagine being a vampire.) When we go about trying to decide if we should take path A or path B or stay right where we are, the right kinds of experiences allow us to project ourselves into the future so we can make a rational decision about how to proceed. If we lack such experience, we have no basis for making a rational decision.

We Are Not so Rational

Paul says:

There’s a lot of value in introspecting. It’s important for us to try to think about who we are and who we want to become when we make these big decisions.

Of course that’s true for all kinds of decisions. And there are no guarantees that even the most rational of decisions will produce the results you want or hope for. Whether the stakes are high or low, even if you think you know yourself pretty well, and you think you know who you want to become in the future, and you have suitable previous experience, and you attempt to include all the relevant information, you can still end up choosing something that leaves you disappointed or far from where you thought you’d be.

Besides that, the vast majority of choices we make are non-rational (System 1, unconscious) choices. Rational decision-making isn’t even the norm for most high-stakes transformative choices.

Affective Forecasting

When we project ourselves into the future, trying out various potential outcomes, we may be weighing (consciously or unconsciously) numerous factors. But a primary consideration for most of us is how we’re going to feel as a result of a particular outcome. This is called affective forecasting—and we tend to be really, really bad at it.

In order to predict how we’re likely to feel about something, we need to be able to imagine the event. As Paul says, that’s easier to do if we’ve experienced it or something similar in the past. If we’ve been to a lot of parties, we can imagine—in general—how we’ll feel about attending a party on Saturday. If we’ve cleaned out the garage before, we can imagine how we’ll feel about doing that on Saturday, too. But if we haven’t experienced something, what we imagine or expect may not bear much resemblance to the actuality. Thinking we can predict the future leads us to believe in the veracity of what we imagine.

Even if we’re able to imagine an event because we’ve experienced it before, our memory of it—and how we felt at the time—may be faulty simply because it’s the nature of memory to be faulty. And the feelings we experience when remembering an experience from the past are not necessarily the same feelings we had at the time of the experience. (Daniel Kahnaman claims the experiencing self and the remembering self have very different agendas.) Additionally, when we don’t recall actual details of something, we may come to rely instead on our beliefs or theories about how that thing will make us feel in the future.

The Future Will Not Be the Same as the Present

There are many other variables that influence the way we make decisions, including how we’re feeling at the time, both physically and emotionally. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes how our attempts to imagine the future are based in our experiences in the present:

We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.

He adds:

We fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.

And our future world won’t be identical to our present world, either.

So if you want to improve the odds of having your decisions lead to positive outcomes rather than negative outcomes, you need to identify what’s really important to you and focus most of your attention on going after those things. Feelings are fleeting, but the things that are most important to you are also likely to be the most constant.

Trying to decide whether or not to become a vampire isn’t really so different from actual decisions you face. Making high-stakes transformative decisions will lead to unexpected results and unintended consequences.

So will not making them.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.