Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Listen to your hesitations if you want to modify your behavior
Stress for Success
August 25, 2009

What’s the most difficult change you’ve ever attempted? Losing weight, quitting drinking or smoking? It’s tough. If change were easy we wouldn’t continue to have 20% of American adults smoking, more than 30% being significantly overweight and about 15% binge drinking.

Whether you’re trying to change your jealous ways or accomplish a New Year’s resolution you may assume any failure is because of your stubborn, self-sabotaging or addictive ways. But in “Ambivalence in Psychotherapy” authors David Angola and Hal Arkowitz argue that dealing with ambivalence is vital to paving the way to change.

People who want to change but can’t (won’t) are pulled in two competing directions by opposite motivations: to change and to stay the same. The balance between these predicts who changes and who doesn’t

Ambivalence is fed by:
* The status quo being familiar and predictable, albeit possibly uncomfortable, and change being unpredictable and anxiety producing;
* The fear of feeling even worse if you fail in your efforts;
* Others pushing you to change so you may resist because your independence feels threatened;
* Faulty beliefs, like “I can’t socialize unless I’ve had a few drinks;”
* The clinging to the undesirable behavior because it serves and important function, like the alcoholic who finds that drinking relieves stress and depression – temporarily; changing (stopping drinking) may eliminate their only way to deal with this distress.

Of course, to help someone change it’s important that they want to change. Pressuring them is likely to backfire. Researchers at the University of New Mexico found that for problem drinkers, directive-confrontational therapy led to significantly more resistance and poorer outcomes one year later than more supportive approaches.

One of these researchers, William Miller and another, psychologist Stephen Rollnick of the Cardiff University School of Medicine in Wales, developed the therapeutic approach, “motivational interviewing.” This attempts to improve the client’s natural motivation to change by exploring and resolving his ambivalence. The goal is to put the client (rather than the therapist) into the driver’s seat for change. The therapist – or loved one - sees a client’s resistance to change as ambivalence to be understood rather than opposed.

To help resolve ambivalence the therapist is supportive and points out the client’s statements that reflect conflict between his behavior and values. E.g., “So you value exercise but your smoking makes it difficult.” Awareness of such inconsistencies creates discomfort with the status quo therefore increases motivation to change. To help resolve ambivalence the therapist focuses more on the client’s words about changing versus their unwillingness to change. Once those uncertainties are dealt with, behavioral change is more likely to occur. In fact, University of Arizona researchers found a 51% improvement rate for motivational interviewing compared with 37% for other interventions or no treatment at all.

You can use this same approach to help yourself or a loved one transform. Listening to and understanding your hesitations to change versus pressuring yourself to change can tip the balance in favor of taking the plunge and actually making the change.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is a speaker and a Stress Coach. Her new book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, is now available at www.letyourbodywin.com. Go to her blog, http://stressforsuccess.blogspot.com for past articles.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Procrastination seldom pays off
Personality traits add to propensity to delay
Stress for Success
August 18, 2009

When you have an unpleasant task that’s tedious, distasteful, or daunting do you put it off? Do you exaggerate its unpleasantness by avoiding it instead of reaping the rewards for acting now? If so, you likely allow other activities to distract you while you promise you’ll get to it tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, you probably find another excuse.

University of Calgary economist Piers Steel defines procrastination as “voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.” Fifteen to 20% of adults routinely delay activities that would be better accomplished now. His 2007 meta-analysis found 80 - 95% of college students procrastinate regularly!

But postponement takes its toll:
* Financial: how many Baby Boomers put off saving for retirement?
* Job loss: chronic procrastinators could make their jobs vulnerable due to being inefficient;
* Endangering health: a 2006 study by psychologist Fuschia Sirois of the University of Windsor in Ontario found that procrastinators had more stress and acute health problems than those who were more timely.

Certain genetic characteristics increase the likelihood that you’ll pick up this habit, such as these “five big personality traits”:
* Conscientiousness
* Agreeableness
* Neuroticism
* Openness
* Extroversion

The extent to which a person exhibits each of these traits influences their likelihood to procrastinate. The characteristic most strongly linked to procrastination is the lack of conscientiousness. A highly conscientious person is responsible, action-oriented and productive so less likely to dilly-dally.

Impulsive people are also at risk for procrastination due to their more spontaneous approach to life and responsibilities.

Anyone is likely to dawdle over something they have an uneasy feeling about and stalling allows them to avoid the discomfort. The most common drivers of procrastination include:
* Anxiety such as fear of failure (anxiety being an offshoot of neuroticism): for example, not studying for a test after which you console yourself by thinking, “If I’d studied harder I would have done better.”
* Avoidance of discomfort: like avoiding confronting a conflict;
* Indecision: can’t make up your mind about executing a task so you resist until enough time passes that there’s no reason to do the task you’re avoiding.
* Arousal: you claim you work best under pressure and love the high of your own adrenaline but it’s just an excuse to rationalize dragging your feet.

Recognizing your procrastination drivers can help you overcome them. Regardless of the reasons, the most common advice to limit procrastination is to:
* Replace your automatic tendency to postpone with specific goals, action steps and deadlines. For example, instead of setting vague goals like, “I’ll market myself,” be more specific, “I’ll spend 9 – 11:00 a.m. daily in promotional activities.”
* Just get started. Do any step, even if only a tiny one. Any impetus is good.

Typically, negative anticipation of any given task is worse than jumping in and getting it done. So go for a twofer: get something done on time and reduce your stress! Just do it! (Now I’m off to do my marketing.)

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is a speaker and a Stress Coach. Her new book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, IS NOW available at www.letyourbodywin.com. Go to her blog, http://stressforsuccess.blogspot.com for past articles.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Perfectionism causes more stress than it’s worth
Put more time in your life and don’t sweat it
Stress for Success
August 11, 2009

Do you need life to be perfect? What happens when it isn’t? Are you perceived as imperfect yourself? Is that what worries you?

Here’s a perfect (forgive the pun) definition of a perfectionist: “One who takes great pains and gives them to others.” Source unknown.

For example, when you have guests coming for dinner, do you exhaust yourself obsessively cleaning and cooking for them so that preparation becomes more important than your guests? Is preparation truly your top priority for the evening?

Part of the problem with perfectionists is that they tend to see things as white and black: either you prepare perfectly or not at all. So the perfectionist knocks herself out and ends up yawning over dinner.

Women more than men have been socialized to be perfect: perfectly nice, to NEVER hurt anyone’s feelings, to always be clean and smell good (your homes, too), and not to lose your temper – it’s very unladylike.

I’ve known a few male perfectionists but far more women.

Part of the problem for any perfectionist, male or female, is that we judge others by our own impossible standards. Who can live up to them? And when they don’t, we become judgmental of them leading to more conflict and stress.

To decrease your perfectionist expectations of others start with this rule (be careful how you read this): “I won’t should on you if you won’t should on me.” Source unknown.

When someone disappoints you, listen for the “should” in your assessment of what they’re doing “wrong.”

For example, your boss didn’t give you any positive feedback on your recent project that was widely praised by others. Your reaction was, “If I were the boss I’d compliment employees’ good work.” You’re shoulding on him. The implied should is, “He should give positive feedback.”

No doubt employees’ good work should be praised. But has your boss complimented you historically? If not, what leads you to expect him to change?

The problem is that through your perfectionist (and judgmental) eyes, you think it’s perfectly realistic to expect that he will. But that’s where most of your stress is coming from – your unrealistic expectations that someone beyond your control will change. Your stress is far less from his actual lack of approval.

To reduce at least some of your perfectionism follow additional advice, some of which is from “How to Put More Time into Your Life” by Dr. Dru Scott:
* Strive for excellence not perfection.
* Get comfortable with “good enough” for lesser priorities.
* Use headlines in books and magazines to choose what to read.
* Prioritize your responsibilities. Ask if the time required to accomplish unimportant tasks would be better spend on something that’s a higher priority.
* Each day, do at least one thing imperfectly.

Take it from a recovering perfectionist, perfectionism causes far more stress than it’s worth

Life really does go on when you reduce some of your too-high expectations of yourself and others. Plus, more realistic expectations lead to lower stress.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is a speaker and a Stress Coach. Her new book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, IS NOW available at www.letyourbodywin.com. Go to her blog, http://stressforsuccess.blogspot.com for past articles.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Put more time in your life
Habits can be wasting your most precious resource
Stress for Success
August 4, 2009

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” Benjamin Franklin.

Yet every day virtually everyone squanders time. Some of the most common ways are explained through Dr. Dru Scott’s five habitual, compulsive time habits from her excellent time management book, “How to Put More Time into Your Life”. She estimates that 50 – 90% of one’s time is spent unproductively chained to the behaviors implicit in these patterns.

To maximize your time the first step is to become conscious of your present time use. Decide if any of the following four styles of time misuse describe you (I’ll cover perfectionism next week). If so, her advice can help you move beyond your habitual choices:

Hurry Up! Always in a hurry:
* Get enough excitement/stimulation in your life so you don’t have to depend upon your last-minute-adrenaline-rush to get it;
* Do central (the most important) priorities first;
* Precede planning with SMART (specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and timely) goals;
* Keep your personal calendar/pda up-to-date and use it faithfully;
* Slow down many things you do: your driving by 5 m.p.h., brushing your teeth, eating, etc.

Like Me! Wasting time trying to please others by saying “yes” when you’d rather say “no”: Assertiveness training is strongly advised, plus:
* Rate others’ requests according to your own priorities (as covered in last week’s article): Are they Central (most important), Secondary (what you have to do but these tasks don’t lead to important goals) or Marginal (the unimportant) to you reaching your own goals;
* Practice saying “no” in advance to requests that distract you from your own priorities;
* Assertively tell others what you want in situations;
* Daily identify your priorities and do something toward the most important ones;
* Use written “to-do” lists and stick to them;

Good Student! Try hard even when it’s for low priority concerns:
* Clarify the day’s objectives before deciding what to do;
* Give the appropriate amount of time to each activity based on its importance;
* Divide big projects into smaller pieces;
* Ask, “What’s an easier way to accomplish this?”
* Use technology to increase efficiency;

Rock of Gibraltar! Always disciplined and rational:
* Consider the negative consequences to others and to you of letting them lean on you too much;
* Develop people around you by delegating effectively; train them where necessary;
* Learn to trust others as they prove themselves to you;
* Minimize your negative judgments of others who do things differently;
* Make time for R & R;
* Set realistic deadlines for yourself and for others through effective scheduling;

Everyone has reasons for neurotically engaging in one or more of these five compulsive habits. I know from experience that you can significantly decrease the hold these largely unconscious beliefs have over you. Lower your time stress through mindful attention to discover why you make your automatic time choices (e.g., “I’ll upset him if I say ‘no’,”) and to change them.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is a speaker and a Stress Coach. Her new book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, will soon be available at www.letyourbodywin.com. Go to her blog, http://stressforsuccess.blogspot.com for past articles.