Last updated on 15th May 2019
"Be regular & orderly in your life so that you may be violent & original in your work." Gustave Flaubert
"Fall down seven times. get up eight." Japanese proverb
These are notes on the third evening of the ten-session "How to live well - a shared exploration" training. Notes on the second meeting can be found at "How to live well: 2nd meeting - mindset, motivation, positive emotions, exercise & sleep".
key points of the third meeting: At this third session we underlined the importance of the cluster of overlapping qualities described by terms like Willpower, Grit, Conscientiousness, Self-Regulation & Self-Control. We spoke too about WOOPing ... Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan ... as a tool for achieving goals more effectively. And we added a focus on Diet & Dependencies/Addictions to last week's look at Exercise & Sleep. These four foundational lifestyle practices are hugely important for physical health, psychological resilience and for high levels of Wellbeing, Positive Emotions & Life Satisfaction. Here's a link to the slides that we used at this meeting.
Last week we discussed how Carol Dweck & other researchers have demonstrated the great benefits of having a Growth rather than a Fixed Mindset - understanding that people don't simply have fixed abilities & talents, but that we can (typically with hard work) develop and grow our abilities. Similarly we introduced Self-Determination Theory's (S-DT's) emphasis on the value of Autonomous rather than Controlled Motivation - with all the benefits of increased determination, persistence & enjoyment that come with Autonomously chosen projects. This week we add a third link in this sequence with discussion of Willpower - see the diagram below:
The Oxford English Dictionary defines Willpower as "Control exerted to do something or restrain impulses", while the Collins English Dictionary defines Willpower even more neatly as "The ability to control oneself and determine one's actions". The ability to "determine one's actions" certainly sounds pretty useful! Other terms used to describe overlapping aspects of the general territory covered by the word Willpower include Conscientiousness, Emotion Regulation, Grit and Self-Control. Research study after research study has demonstrated the huge value of having strong Willpower and I've written about this extensively on this blog - see, for example "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - whatever word you use, it's sure important to have it", "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit ... more on the many benefits", "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit ... how do you measure it?", "Building willpower: it's like strengthening & nourishing a muscle", "Building willpower: the eight pillars" and "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - possible adverse effects". There are also plenty of good books on this topic - for example, "The marshmallow test: understanding self-control and how to master it", "Willpower: why self-control is the secret to success" and "Grit: why passion and resilience are the secrets to success".
Now, at this stage of our 10-week training, a major theme is on healthy Self-Care behaviours like Exercise, Sleep, Diet & Dependencies. It's deeply fascinating (and encouraging) that working regularly on these healthy lifestyle behaviours can itself be a powerful way of building Self-Control & Willpower. I've described a variety of studies that show this in the post "Building willpower: it's like strengthening & nourishing a muscle" and highlighting just one of these papers - "Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise" - the authors, Oaten & Cheng, reported "The purpose of the present study was to test whether the repeated practice of self-regulation could improve regulatory strength over time ... Following a 2-month control phase, participants entered a 2-month self-regulation programme designed to increase regulatory strength: a programme of regular physical exercise. Results: Relative to the control phase, participants who exercised showed significant improvement in self-regulatory capacity ... participants also reported significant decreases in ... smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, emotional control, maintenance of household chores, attendance to commitments, monitoring of spending and an improvement in study habits ... Conclusions: The uptake and maintenance of an exercise programme over a 2-month period produced significant improvements in a wide range of regulatory behaviours. Nearly every major personal and social problem has some degree of regulatory failure. The idea that the capacity for self-regulation can be improved is therefore of vast practical importance."
We talked too about WOOPing - Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. WOOPing is a development of the extensively researched Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intention techniques for increasing motivation, identifying & problem-solving likely obstacles, and more effectively achieving challenging goals. Again I have written a good deal about these areas - see "WOOPing along: an excellent way of helping us achieve our goals", "How to WOOP" , "Mental contrasting: a way to boost our commitment to goals we care about", "Implementation intentions & reaching our goals more successfully" and even the related "Goal renewal boosts wellbeing" sequence. This is powerful change technology that it would be worth familiarising ourselves with ... especially as it is part of stage 2 of the 12-breath mini-meditation practice that we're aiming to use three times daily over this next week. And last, but not at all least, we talked about Diet & Dependencies:
We've known for ages that getting these four foundational lifestyle practices pretty much right makes a major difference to our physical health - see, for example a couple of posts I wrote 10 years ago "Would you like to be 14 years younger - it's largely a matter of choice!" and "Vegged out & fruitless: lifestyle & health". More recently there's been a wealth of emerging research on diet & psychological health - for example, "Emerging research on diet suggests it's startlingly important in the prevention of anxiety & depression" and "New study highlights potential value of dietary change in depression treatment". And more recently still there's fascinating work on diet and wellbeing - see "Fruit and vegetable intake predicts positive affect (emotion)" and "Bidirectional associations between psychosocial well-being and adherence to healthy dietary guidelines in European children". So, in addition to last week's focus on Exercise & Sleep, this week we add in attention to Diet & Dependencies. Participants were asked to complete the Mediterranean diet questionnaire and track their Intake of fruit & vegetables. One can take issue with some questions in the former, but it's clear that the Mediterranean and other high fruit & veg, low processed food diets are associated with much better health. There was also an opportunity to make more personalised intentions about both Diet and also Dependencies. The latter term was used to cover alcohol use, smoking, sugar, and legal & illegal drugs. For Dependencies involving smoking & illegal drugs, the general advice is "Don't". For sugar & prescribed/legal drugs, advice is be cautious. For alcohol, the best recent research suggests we should be reducing or stopping - see the post "Alcohol: it's more damaging than we realised". Time was when smoking was considered a relatively harmless habit that a majority of people indulged in. Those days are long gone. Maybe there's an over-slow trend to see alcohol in the way we now see smoking. As Schopenhauer put it "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident" and Kenneth Galbraith "The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking."
Here are the "Home practice" requests for this third week:
1.) Usually people habituate to reminder signals, so I suggest not using reminder quotations & images this week (we'll come back to them soon). Please however continue to use a 12-breath practice. This week we move on to the second stage of this mini-meditation. Here is a link to a 9-minute description of what the new practice involves. As with the first stage, this recording is simply to remind you of the structure of the exercise. When you're doing the practice on your own, link it to 12 of your own breaths. Aim to make time for three practices daily, with one of them being a bit longer - see 2.) below.
2.) Try once a day to make the meditation practice a little longer - approximately 6 minutes for a twice-through or approximately 9 minutes for a thrice-through practice. If you would like to increase the challenge in this training a little further, then start to notice if your mind wanders significantly & restart the practice section you're on if this happens. So this week the first six breaths involve a three-breath body scan, a one-breath naming, and a breath each for Spine & Heart. When we run through this first six breaths, at least three types of focus may happen. One possibility is that we will maintain clear attention on the six breath sequence with hardly any other mental content appearing in our minds. It's very usual however for this not to be the case. At the other extreme of focus quality, we start to go through the six breaths but we become completely distracted. So for some moments our minds are off on some other mix of thoughts, memories, images, and so on. If this happens, one training response is simply to go back to the beginning of the six breath sequence & start again. If it happens again, start again ... and so on. With the second Wooping six breath section of this week's meditation, we use the same process - returning to the beginning of the Wooping sequence if our minds become distracted. It's like going to the gym to give our attentional processes some exercise - we know we are literally growing sections of our brains (like strengthening a muscle). Obviously you need to limit how long you give to this somewhat longer meditation (for example 10, 15 or 20 minutes). With the mind wandering a good deal, even a simple twice-through intention can take quite a lot longer if we're returning to the start of each six breath section every time our minds wander significantly. The third type of focus, you may experience, is between clear maintained attention and complete distraction. In this intermediate level of focus, other thoughts/images/memories/etc run through our minds, but as a backdrop to our continued attention to the breath sequence. This is fine. Don't go back to the start of the section if only this back-stage mental activity is going on at the same time as the front-stage breath focus.
3.) Please would you also pay more attention to posture this week. This is especially so during our meditation practices - sitting tall & open, with Spine & Heart. But try to remember many times a day ... when sitting, standing & walking ... to move tall, open & easy. Our mind-states affect how we hold our bodies ... and it's two-way ... how we hold our bodies affects our mind-states. Maybe ask yourself something like "How would I like my mind-body state to be right now?" and then shift position & adjust movement to bring your body into line with that wished-for state. It's fascinating to notice how these movement changes then shift back to affect how we think & feel.
4.) We introduced WOOPing. We're practising this Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan sequence as the second half of each 12-breath mini-meditation. Please explore the components that make up WOOPing a little more fully as well ... this is potentially interesting & helpful in its own right ... and can also help the cut-down 6-breath WOOPing sequence become more practised & effective. So you have Mental Contrasting sheets in your handouts. Do take a few minutes to do a longer written version of this exercise ... possibly about how you would like to be if you were ticking the four foundational practices (Exercise, Sleep, Diet & Dependencies) boxes exceptionally well.
5.) We all came up with intentions for Diet & Dependencies at this meeting. These run alongside our intentions for Exercise & Sleep. Do make sure you've written down what you want to achieve during this coming week in these four areas ... make it stretching but achievable.
6.) Finally, please glance back over the 12-page handout you were given at this third meeting and on the last page "Week three reflection sheet", jot down how you found the evening ... especially what felt most interesting or important or useful for you.
Remember we're all in different life situations as well as having differing abilities to make changes. Set yourself a level of challenge in the Home practices that is stretching but not unrealistic. If we don't get out of our comfort zones, it's unlikely we'll benefit much from this course ... but at the same time, if we set ourselves unrealistic goals we'll stretch ourselves too much. See too the next post in this sequence - "How to live well: 4th meeting - coping with difficulties, the mindbus, compassion, mindfulness & reappraisal".