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Study Identifies Effective Mental Strategies for Aversive Challenges (bps.org.uk)
128 points by Dowwie on Jan 18, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 18 comments

I'm surprised that one of the most effective strategies I've ever come across is not on the list.

The most effective strategy I have come across is to "change your identity". If you identify as an athlete, and you talk to yourself and others with that expectation, then that is much more effective than "I need to get in better shape".

When you identify with something it compels your actions, almost by default, much more than willpower alone.

Similarly, if you want to give up e.g. soda, don't say "I can't drink soda". That's just some arbitrary restriction imposed on you. Instead, say "I don't drink soda". That's part of who you are now- you're a person that doesn't drink soda.

I am not sure if you are much interested in philosophy but I came across an introductory lecture given outside of an academic context which introduced me to the Japanese term jikaku, which can translate as self-awareness but can also be used to refer to an element of identity in adopting a role.[0]

So in your given example, another way of referring to what you are doing is to say that you are adopting the jikaku of an athlete. In a sense, adopting the role of athlete is more effective because it is ascribing both an outer and inner identity element to yourself.

Perhaps you will be curious. I found it to be an interesting overlap with what you've discovered on your own.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJfsMDPcLBc

Personal experience, Re: Treadmill task + "thinking the end is near" strategy. Personally I do the opposite, and pretend I actually have 20 miles to run when in fact it is only 2. That helps me get into the mindset of running for a long period of time and I settle in for the long haul. That way, 2 miles is done before I seem to think much time has passed relative to the whole journey.

Conversely, if I focus on the 2 mile mark (for example) and glance at the meter to see that I've only traveled 0.6 miles, it's quite frustrating. Each successive glance shows a marginal increase towards the goal, adding to fatigue. Better not to watch the clock at all.

My own experience confirms that article's point (for myself, at least) as a negative example. I tend to, maybe because of my academic background, view the end of a project as always on the horizon, never near. That subtlety in my mindset I think affects the way I approach work. I constantly want to reactor, rebuild, and extend the functionality of projects rather than focusing on just wrapping up the damn things and moving on. I recognized this earlier, but dont think I fully appreciated its impact until I read this article.

"...greater use of effective strategies did not explain the persistence of the grittier types"

"however...the greater use of these two effective strategies did not explain why these high trait self-control individuals tended to enjoy greater success at aversive challenges"

So, in fact, this study identified which strategies were effective in people who were (self-reportedly) already effective at handling aversive tasks.

This is an excellent list of strategies, really good breakdown that maybe be useful in facilitating behavioral change.

What I find surprising is the lack of mindfulness on the list, i.e. employing mindful awareness to an activity as a way to deal with it.

I think that was "Adopting a process focus" on the list. (Which is something that works well for me too.)

Hm. I interpreted it as being aware of where i am in activity, how I do parts of it, kind of trying to do it well and recognizing where i am in the process.

Mindfulness to me would be just To continually bring awareness to whatever I feel, sense, think, without connection to a process.

If there are averse conditions, running away from what we feel is the opposite of mindfulness and any directed way of distracting/framing the situation would be going away from mindful appreciation of the very aversive situation.

What would be a concrete example of utilizing mindfulness?

Intentionally focusing conscious attention on the immediate actions you’re taking, preferably the immediate physical actions. Breathing, typing, moving papers, whatever it is.

The premise being that a lot of stress is produced by the mental process of prediction and thinking into the future or the past, and by redirecting attention the the areas where you are taking immediate action, you produce emotional reactions to the sensation of progress, instead of emotionally predicting the potential outcomes of the hypothetical future.

Note that this applies even if you are resting or relaxing — “all I have to do now is breathe”.


You could also focus on emotions and thoughts i e Just notice wgat you feel or think without trying to change it.

Strange that they didn't give all test subjects a Big Five trait assessment and figure out if their conscientiousness score explained their effectiveness more than the strategies they used. I guess if you're trying to push papers out the door you'll not do proper things like this so that your own ideas seem more important.

Agreed, these strategies might help people who already possess a certain level of conscientiousness and these are merely the strategies they use to maximize their results.

At an even deeper level, it ignores the deep motivations that drive people. Especially for people who are low in conscientiousness like myself, they need a deep existential reason for pursuing their goals. Merely setting up a goal I think I want and then working toward it isn't sufficient to drive me.

It has to be tied to a sense of meaningfulness toward my life (e.g. I'm not depressed or nihilistic), actively policing my negative self-talk, questioning my sense of paranoia or bad intentions in others, feelings of gratitude, etc.

I find if these drivers of my behavior/psychology are fixed, the other stuff just "snaps" into place.

I wasn't aware that it was generally accepted those trait assessments are actually grounded in reality.

Is there a standardized test for conscientiousness or is it more just an abstract concept?

Go look up studies done about the Big Five trait model. It's very standardized and reliable between different assessments on the same individual and across cultures.

Here is the actual study it is referring to: [Doing despite disliking - http://images.transcontinentalmedia.com/LAF/lacom/disliking....

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