“Take the time to deliberate, but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”
The ability to think affords us the opportunity to develop great insights into the ways we can improve our lives. As people develop a better understanding of their values and goals, a common frustration emerges: “How do I put this knowledge into action?” Phrases like “just do it” quickly enter the mind and likely contribute to the frustration. Such statements imply that action should occur with great ease, yet the absence of behavior in the presence of thoughts like “just do it” seem to suggest otherwise.
Prochaska & DiClemente discussed five stages of change which can be helpful in understanding your position in the process:
a. Pre-Contemplation – no intent to change (not ready, denial,
b. Contemplation – think about and intend to
c. Preparation - developing a plan for change with the intention to
d. Action – enacting the plan
e. Maintenance – work to continue moving in the proposed
Problems can arise at any stage; at any point, a person can simply move away from change and fall back into old patterns. Recognizing and accepting the stage at which you stand can allow for patience to develop as you determine appropriate steps toward a value-based life.
People can get stuck in the process and have difficulty moving into the action stage of change. In part, the stagnation may represent a lack of readiness, but at other times it can relate to something else. Four different obstacles that often hinder a person’s movement toward a value-based life include: (a) knowing what you want and how you want it, (b) remembering to do it, (c) identifying and defying obstacles, and (d) constantly committing to it.
Determining values and goals generally occur at the contemplation stage in which people think about the change they wish to institute. Part of “knowing what you want” may include a data collection phase in which curious self-observation can occur. To explain, self-observation involves the simple act of noticing internal experiences (i.e., thoughts, feelings, urges, etc.) and can entail an assessment of whether they connect to external cues. For instance, a woman may notice that she taps her foot nervously as she overhears a man lecture his son on driving. She could also observe the feeling of anxiety that arises and may even connect it to her own personal history. When collecting data, nothing more needs to be done with the observation other than an objective description of what is being noticed.
As mentioned in previous entries, values do not equate to goals; instead “goals are the things you can obtain while walking a valued path” (Hayes, 2005, pp. 159). Another way to distinguish the two may be that goals generally encompass “whats” whereas values often refer to “hows.” Values can often be defined by answering the question “what do you want your life to be about” and the answer that arises generally points to an underlying “how.”
Consider an adolescent aiming to get the leading role in the school play. The values of that teen would reflect how he approaches the audition. Does he attempt to feed upon the insecurities of his peers? Does he encourage others to try their best as he does the same? Does he work diligently to engage in the audition by focusing attention on the process? All approaches could result in goal achievement, but they each reflect a different value: success at the expense of others, encouragement based in community, or mindful engagement in the audition process. What might you choose “the audition to be about” if you were this adolescent?
Over the years, I have become more and more aware that people have trouble remembering to practice the activities and approaches they identify as important in their lives. While “remembering to do it” could fit as a subcategory under “identifying and defying obstacles,” it seems notable enough to highlight as its own category.
People often forget to follow through on the things they say they will practice. Some examples include responding to situations rather than immediately reacting, increasing awareness of the present moment, committing to uncomfortable yet possibly rewarding actions, stopping to make conscious choices about life directions, etc. It requires a certain degree of mental training to develop such self-awareness, let alone commit to making significant changes in life.
An important part of mental training may include determining an effective method that serves to regularly remind a person to make value-based choices. Internal, as well as external, reminders certainly work well. For instance, phones offer an easy way to set reminders to complete a task. The same technology could work to remind you to reflect on a particular value, take inventory of your thoughts as well as feelings, or connect with the present moment.
Reid Wilson has recommended that people suffering from generalized anxiety place small stickers in their home and work environments as a reminder to take deep breaths. Writing down goals and values can also be a worthwhile experience. In addition, some people use these writings as reminders to act by posting them in visible places.
Internal stimuli like habitual thoughts (i.e., “I can’t handle this”) can serve as a reminder to practice choosing your life direction rather than allowing your thoughts to drive your behaviors. In another example, Jon Kabat-Zinn has reflected on the language we use when stressed (i.e., “I can’t catch my breath”) to suggest that such sensations or thoughts could act as a cue to breath and/or connect to the present moment.
Integral to the preparation stage of pursuing change, identifying internal and external obstacles allow you to plan ways to overcome barriers. Common external obstacles include money, physical limitations, life circumstances, etc.; whereas internal barriers may involve self-defeating beliefs, maladaptive thoughts or urges, unpleasant feelings, etc. Both forms of obstacles can hinder movement toward a goal and can seem to challenge a value-based life. These obstacles can be challenged and changed, or accepted.
As previously mentioned, remembering to notice and identify obstacles in a descriptive manner is important. Obstacles can be identified through exercises such as answering the following question:
If wasn’t such a problem,
I would .
Generally, the first blank represents the obstacle. For instance, “if money wasn’t such a problem, I would be happy.” We have now identified money as an obstacle to either change or accept. We can also use the exercise work toward challenging self-defeating thoughts and/or clarifying values. Thinking in questions can help challenge thoughts such as the one mentioned above. What do you need to be happy? How can you move in that direction in your current financial situation? Entire books have been written on the pursuit of happiness, so for the purposes of the current entry we will leave the “what do you need to be happy” question for another day.
A note on challenging questions: while thinking in questions can be helpful, phrasing useful questions can be difficult. Some questions can get you stuck in a loop, while others can lead you on the journey you seek. Consider the question “why can’t I handle this?” in contrast to “what can I do to hand this?” or even “what is keeping me from handling this?” The prior tends to perpetuate loop of helplessness, self-doubt, and unpleasant feelings. The second two questions seem to move in a more hopeful direction.
Much like the way many external obstacles cannot change (i.e., your boss’ response to you asking for a raise), many internal obstacles arise even when you wish them away. Consequently, growth encompasses a combination of changing the changeable and accepting the unchangeable. Frankly, because I have found mindfulness-based therapies to produce the most long-lasting effects, I tend to lean toward the acceptance-oriented approach to thoughts.
Jon Kabat-Zinn summarized acceptance by referring to a poster he once saw: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Mindfulness-based approaches treat thoughts, feelings, pain, urges, etc. as uncontrollable as waves. By accepting their existence and moving in a chosen life direction in their presence, we learn to surf the natural waves of the mind rather than engage in frustratingly fruitless efforts to alter our thoughts. Eventually, maladaptive thoughts do change, but only as a by-product of mindfulness.
The maintenance stage of change involves a constant commitment to pursue a value-based life and/or work toward goals. Because our habitual minds consistently pull us away from change (i.e., into “the comfort zone”), we must put forth deliberate attention and effort toward pursuing values as well as goals on a daily basis. It is most helpful when a large part of the commitment includes practicing patience as you move your focus to engaging in the process rather than simply concentrating on the results.
“Stop Thinking & Go In”
The above suggestions merely skim the surface of ways to approach each potential problem area and a more detail explanation of each idea would likely provide greater clarity. As it stands, this blog entry is rather long, so we will leave the longer more detailed descriptions for another day!
For now, a good place to start might include answering the following questions: What is “it” that you want in life? How do you want to pursue “it”? What’s keeping you from doing “it” or at least moving in that direction? How can you remember to do “it” on a daily basis? How can you overcome the obstacles that hinder your growth? What can you do right now to start moving toward a value-based life?
Harris, R. (2008). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Trumpeter: Boston, MA.
Hayes, S. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland, CA.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Bantum Dell: New York, NY.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go there you are. Hyperion: New York, NY.
Wilson, R. (2009). Don't panic third edition: Take control of anxiety attacks. Harper Paperbacks: New York, NY.