Why We Struggle To Do Things That Are Good For Us

I spend a lot of time talking about wellness to lawyers and other professionals. I talk about the importance of self-care, including sufficient sleep, exercise, eating more fruits/vegetables, less sugar/salt, having strong and fulfilling connections with others, etc. These are not earth-shattering suggestions, and in fact, they are completely obvious. However, when I survey the room and ask, “Raise your hand if you’ve exercised three or more times in the past week,” only a small portion of hands are raised. Similarly, when I ask about getting a sufficient amount of sleep, I notice a lot of people in the audience sheepishly grinning.

Why is there a disconnect between knowing the things that are good for us and actually doing it? Why is it that I’m so often tempted by that glazed donut sitting in the cafeteria but overlook the apple? Why do I continually hit the snooze button instead of going to the yoga class in the morning?

To answer some of these questions, I turned to Clayton R. Cook, Ph.D. He is an associate professor in the school psychology program at the College of Education and Human Development at University of Minnesota. He has an excellent program over at edX, titled Becoming a Resilient Person – The Science of Stress Management.

Why Do People Work Against Their Own Well-Being? 

Reason #1: Lack of Awareness

According to Cook, some people don’t engage in behaviors that promote well-being because they are “simply unaware of their unhealthy habits and the resilience practices.” For this group, education is key. “Simply raising awareness and providing alternatives can inspire change.”

Reason #2: Lack of Permission

There is the second group, who are aware of the healthy behaviors but have difficulties making the change. Cook says, “We live in a culture that inundates us with unhealthy messages (eating unhealthy food, spending lots of money on things we may not need, etc.) and values working long hours, often at the expense of a person’s well-being.”

Working around the clock and not having a way to diffuse stress can leave many people feeling as though they don’t have the time or the energy to practice self-care.Give yourself permission to take care of yourself first in order to be maximally effective at work and personal life. Many studies indicate that organizations can contribute to the health and well-being of their employees. Even making small shifts such as offering healthier snacks can make a significant difference in encouraging self-care. Cook says:

Organizations that promote the development of healthy habits and give their employees the permission to take care of themselves first, are able to increase the number of people who intentionally engage in practices to cultivate their well-being.

Reason #3: Obstacles Or Roadblocks

The third reason why people may not engage in healthy practices are roadblocks. Their motivation and willpower isn’t sufficient enough to actually make the changes. Cook suggests that “for these individuals, it is important to support them with effective behavior change techniques that enable them to get over the metaphorical hurdle (i.e., increase their intrinsic motivation to do it).”

There may be hidden roadblocks to implementing changes. For example, I know that getting regular exercise is not only good for the body but also good for the mind. Therefore, I signed up for a 5:30 AM yoga class. The first morning, the alarm clock goes off at 4:45 AM and I smash the snooze button as hard as possible. When I look more closely at why I wasn’t able to go to the 5:30 AM class, I start to notice those hidden roadblocks. Not getting to bed early enough to get a sufficient amount of sleep, having an easy-to-make breakfast ready so that I can quickly grab a bite, having my yoga clothes ready to go (rather than having to hunt for it in the very bottom drawer) and so on. Not having these basics down can make it feel like a Herculean effort.

Cook emphasizes that poor sleep and stress sap one’s willpower,  so some people need to be more closely supported to make changes in those lifestyle habits.

Using WOOP To Increase Motivation

In order to make any behavioral change, it’s important to increase motivation and use tools to build resilience. One way to do this is through a scientifically validated enhanced goal setting called WOOP.

Mental Contrasting [WOOP, which stands for wish, outcome, obstacle and plan] is a visualization technique… It helps people to gain insight into their wishes and to clearly identify the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing these wishes. WOOP is an evidence-based self-regulatory strategy that people can use effectively on their own to change their behavior across everyday life (e.g., health, school, work, play, relationships) and across the life cycle (e.g., from childhood to old age).

WOOP involves four steps.

  • First, you must get clear about the specific wish or desire. In my example, I want to make it to morning yoga everyday so that I can have more energy, reduce stress, be more resilient and have a healthier body.
  • Second, visualize the outcomes as if the wish were to come true. If I make it to yoga everyday, my mind will feel clearer, I’ll have more defined muscle tone and I’ll have more energy.
  • Third, identify the obstacles that will serve as barriers to achieving the wish. The obstacles may be internal or external. Internal obstacle may be the inner chatter that tells me I should watch another episode of House of Cards instead of getting to bed. External obstacles may be the family dinner that’s full of fatty foods followed by high-sugar dessert.
  • Finally, the last step is to develop a plan. Cook suggests having “plans [in place] to overcome the obstacles when they emerge in everyday life.” It’s important to connect with your core values. For example, “A woman who values her relationships with others both in professional and private life sees the resilience work as enabling her to better cultivate and maintain meaningful relationships with others, rather than see it as being selfish.”

This article was first featured on Forbes.

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