A look at popular self-help literature shows we have a penchant for positive imaging: we want to believe that we can manifest a different reality by visualizing it fervently. Unfortunately, research on motivation and goal achievement demonstrates that strong positive intentions alone are almost never enough to assure success in behavior change. Not surprisingly, a simple determination to rid ourselves of negative habits is just as ineffective.
The good news is that demonstrably effective processes for changing our behavior are not a whole lot more complicated to implement than the Rosy Outlook formula.
Studies in the field of goal fulfillment over the past several decades suggest that the most successful strategy for effecting “motivated behavior change” is what researchers have come to call “mental contrasting,” used along with “implementation intentions” (MCII)*.
That is, two linked mental processes are required in order to accomplish motivated behavior change successfully:
First, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge the contrast between the aspiration and the challenges you know you face (mental contrasting). Acknowledge and describe what the moment of challenge – the red flag moment – looks and feels like.
Second, pair the red flag moment with a new, different, more desirable behavior … one that you are confident is feasible on a one time basis (implementation intention). You are not aiming to do 100 pushups every day for the rest of your life. Rather, you are deciding that every time you get ready to sit down to watch TV, you will do three pushups first.
Developing and verbalizing a strong, intentional and explicit connection between the challenge and the desired behavior creates an unconscious association that, over time, promotes the automaticity of the desired behavior.
E … Evaluate your work, your activities, your situation.
N … Name where and how you want to grow. (Identify an attribute in which you’d like to grow or improve.)
A … Aspire (Imagine and describe to yourself, in detail, how things will be – how you will be … how others will respond to you … when you’ve grown in that attribute.)
C … Contrast (with Challenges): Contrast your Aspiration with the Challenges you know you will face. (That is: What stands in your way? Anticipate, identify, and “own” the things you know about yourself – the attitudes and habits you have that are likely to interfere with your efforts to achieve your goal. Those are your Challenges.)
T … Tie those Challenges to concrete and specific new and constructive behaviors you know you can commit to. (Use a “When … then … ” format to create a simple, memorable “Tie Phrase” that you can repeat almost like a mantra until the behavior becomes automatic, e.g.: “When I find myself drifting aimlessly, then I will pull out my “Things I want to work on” List.)
Tie Phrases will have similarity to the already popular SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Sensitive), but, crucially, they find their point of origin in the mental contrasting of the aspiration with anticipated hindrances … rendering the individual’s unique and self-identified hindrance, ultimately, the moment of opportunity to implement the intended behavior.
* See: Oettingen, G. and Gollwitzer, P. M. (2010). Strategies of Setting and Implementing Goals. In J. E. Maddux & J. P. Tangney (Eds.) Social psychological foundations of clinical psychology. New York, The Guilford Press.