How to Know What Works (and what doesn’t)
In my work as a therapist I see people who have been caught up in the same kinds of unhelpful patterns time and again.
Usually people work very hard at trying to feel good and do well but sometimes despite their best efforts, it seems to backfire.
Sometimes we are well aware of what actually works well for us and what works less well.
Sometimes, though, we can misattribute what is actually working in our favour and sometimes we just get it plain wrong!
- Have you ever said that you work best when you leave something right up until the deadline because the adrenaline fuels you through it?
- Have you ever thought that being harsh or critical towards yourself helps to motivate you?
- Have you ever skipped lunch or breaks because you believe you need to in order to get everything done?
If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these then I will show you a method of analysing whether these things are actually working or not.
Why Do We Do Unhelpful Things?
First of all, let’s look at why we fall into unhelpful patterns in the first place.
Like all animals, we are wired up to learn based on the immediate consequences of our actions.
An example I often use in therapy is that if you are training a dog to do a trick, you would give it a treat straight away when it has performed the trick, right?
This way, the dog associates performing a particular action with a reward.
If you gave the dog a reward half an hour after the trick, it would not associate the action with the reward so it wouldn’t be as likely to do it again.
We learn in just the same way.
If our action produces a reward in the short-term, we are more likely to do it again.
Those of you familiar with psychology will recognise this idea as positive reinforcement.
The same is true if we avoid a negative or gain some kind of relief from discomfort – we are likely to repeat this action.
This is called negative reinforcement.
As humans, we can all recognise that our actions have long-term consequences too. The problem is that we are not wired up to respond to these in the same way.
The good news though, is that we can reflect in a way that can help us to make choices based on the longer term consequences of our actions and get a better outcome as a result.
Let’s take the example of skipping lunch or breaks (or both) to get something done.
Step 1: Identify the aim of the behaviour.
Aim: Let’s say the aim here is to be productive or efficient.
Step 2: Identify the short-term reward or how it removes some form of discomfort in the short-term.
This will tell us what is reinforcing our action.
- We may feel relief of a little pressure because we now have more time.
- We may have the thought that we are being conscientious or diligent
- We may feel a certain amount of pride in the thought that we can work harder than everyone else or that we are determined enough to get it done.
- We may temporarily feel like we are ‘good enough’ as long as we are constantly pushing ourselves.
- If nobody else takes breaks in our workplace, maybe we are pushing through to avoid criticism from our colleagues.
There are many potential short-term rewards (and relief) for this particular action.
So now for the long term consequences…
- The first and most obvious longer term consequence is fatigue.
- If we have actually skipped eating rather than eating while we work at our desk, there will also be the obvious dip in your blood sugar levels (which – by the way – can be an internal trigger for increased symptoms of anxiety).
- Our concentration will undoubtedly suffer and the chance of making mistakes will increase as a result.
- A lack of focus will cause you to take longer in whatever it is you are doing and it will feel harder.
- Then, the pressure increases again and our thoughts may turn to more negative ones: ‘I’ll never get this done’, ‘this is taking too long’, ‘even though I work harder than other people, I don’t do as well’, ‘See, I’m really not good enough’, ‘I’m going to get criticised for not getting this done in time.’
All of our short-term rewards have flown out of the window and the initial aim of being productive or efficient is not being met at all!
How We Attribute What Worked
Let’s imagine you do actually get the job done.
How do you attribute what has worked for you?
I’m willing to bet you would think something along the lines of
‘I would never have got that done if I had taken my lunch or my break.’
THIS IS NONSENSE!
You got it done in spite of hugely disadvantaging yourself!
Now let’s imagine you did not get the job finished.
How do you attribute what didn’t work?
‘I bet you wouldn’t say:
‘it is because I worked all day long without a break.’
Even though this is likely to be the reason you were unable to complete it.
It is much more likely that you would think something along the lines of:
‘It is because I am not as good/fast/efficient/productive as everyone else/as I should be… and next time I will have to try even harder.’
So, the next time a similar situation comes along you skip lunch and breaks again in an attempt to do better.
Hopefully, you can see that if we look at it this way and break down the aim, the short-term consequences and the long-term consequences, you can begin to see if a strategy you are using is actually working or not.
If it doesn’t, then you can make a choice to try something different.
Hopefully it is also clear that even though our unhelpful actions are well intended, they are not things that we would suggest to someone else as a helpful strategy.
Often we already know what the downside of the action is.
I’m sure you all pre-empted the long-terms consequences of this example – we all know that working constantly will ultimately lead you to burn out.
So, take a break, start noticing your aims, your short and long-term consequences to find out what works… and what doesn’t.
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