It’s a common problem: You have goals and plan how to achieve them. But when it comes time to implement your plan, somehow things go wrong. What happened?
Bad habits, interruptions, competing priorities, or any number of other obstacles can derail the best-laid plans. Luckily, recent psychological research has revealed insights that can be helpful in breaking through this frustrating challenge. Here are two approaches you can start applying today to get yourself back on track with your studies.
Strategy #1: Self-Compassion for Bad Habits
Are you a chronic procrastinator? Perhaps organizational skills just aren’t your forte? We all have bad habits —whether related to academics or not. We pay the price for them, and swear we’ll change our ways — and yet often end up back in the same situation. This strategy is a great approach to take for those frustrating habits you’ve tried to change without success.
What is it?
Self-compassion is exactly what it sounds like: instead of beating yourself up over a bad habit, as we often do, try treating yourself with compassion instead. If you were to write down the things you say to yourself in those moments of frustration, would you consider speaking to a friend that way?
We think if we punish ourselves enough, we will change our behavior for the better. However, research shows that harsh and judgmental attitudes can lead to depression, which can lead to inaction. For some problems, like coping with obesity, negative emotions like shame and stigma backfire and cause more of the problem behavior, like overeating. By contrast, adopting a compassionate mindset after a slip-up is actually associated with better behavior, not worse. Furthermore, it is associated with general wellbeing.
How does it work?
Treating yourself with compassion does not mean lowering your standards or turning a blind eye to failings. Self-compassion allows you to focus on solving the problem instead of being distracted by feelings of anger, frustration, shame, or defensiveness. As a result, research suggests that it is associated with seeing failures as learning opportunities. Self-compassion means encouraging action with gentleness and patience, instead of harsh language, as many of us tend to do.
How do I do it?
When you fall into a bad habit again, instead of beating yourself up, try this…
- Be aware of your discomfort and distress, instead of dwelling in negative emotion or distracting yourself from it. This is called mindfulness and there are a number of ways that you can become more mindful in your life.
- Remember: you’re human. We all make mistakes. You’re not the first person to make this mistake, you won’t be the last, so you’re not alone with this struggle.
- Talk to yourself like you would a good friend going through a tough time: soothing, comforting, and encouraging. No need to be harsh.
You can learn more about self-compassion here.
Strategy 2: Use Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions
This technique is a great way of dealing with any number of obstacles that keep you from being productive, as well as meeting other goals in your life that you want to achieve related to academics, health, finances, or other areas. You can apply this to both big and small goals.
What is it?
Mental contrasting is the technical term for a specific method of motivating yourself. In a nutshell, you compare your goal or wish to your current reality, considering the obstacles that stand between you and your goal. Implementation intentions are specific plans that detail when, where, and how exactly you will take action to achieve a goal. These specific plans are written out as “If…then…” statements.
How does it work?
Mental contrasting has been found to be a strong motivator. It is unique because it allows you to think about your goal as well as the obstacles that you must overcome, giving you a plan of action. Implementation intentions help you specifically articulate how you will respond to a given situation, making your response quicker, easier, and more automatic.
Combining mental contrasting and implementation intentions is remarkably powerful. In a study on increasing physical activity, for four months after a single session of practicing this approach, women consistently exercised twice as much as those who just received information about being active. In another study on a healthy diet, after a single exercise of using this approach, participants continued to eat healthier diets two years later compared to the group who just received information about a healthy diet. Another study showed college students who received training in this approach improved their time management skills as well as other areas of their lives. It’s also been shown to help adolescents and low-income children in school.
How do I do it?
There are four basic steps. You can apply these steps to big, semester-long goals, medium-sized goals over the next few weeks, short-term goals over the next 24 hours, or a combination. (For example, in the studies on physical activity and healthy diet, participants selected four goals: two goals in the coming weeks and two goals in the next two hours. They were also encouraged to go through these steps on a regular basis for new and ongoing goals.)
Think through each of the following:
- What is your most important current goal? This can be related to academics or another area in your life. For example, it might be: “Write the research paper for my sociology class.”
- What is the most positive outcome for reaching that goal? What are the events and experiences that you associate with that positive outcome? In relation to the previous example, you might write: “Feeling less stressed” or “Rewarding myself with an afternoon in the park.”
- What is the most critical obstacle, along with the events and experiences that you associate with that obstacle? For example, you might write “Lack of energy to work on it after I get home from work.”
- Write out three implementation intentions with the following questions. Remember to write them as “If…then…” statements:
- When and where does the obstacle occur, and what can I do to overcome or circumvent it? For example: “If I am not needed at home right away, then I will stay at the office to work on my paper while I still have energy instead of waiting until I go home.”
- When and where is an opportunity to prevent it from occurring and what can I do to prevent it from occurring? For example, “If I am at the grocery store, then I will get healthy snacks to give me sustained energy during the day so that I will not be so tired after work.”
- When and where is a good opportunity for me to act on my wish and what would this action be? For example, “If I have at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time ahead of me, then I will do at least a little bit of work on my paper to keep forward momentum.”
An easy way to remember this approach is WOOP: wish – outcome – obstacle – plan.
As with any new habit, incorporating mental contrasting and implementation intentions will take a little time to build a routine. However, this approach is a very powerful tool that can be applied to nearly any area in your life.
Give these strategies a try, and be sure to share them with others if they help you! What other ways have you found to get yourself back on track? Let us know in the comments below.