So obvious, even a fool could understand it
May 4, 2012 12:42 PM   Subscribe

How does one internalize advice that is an enumerated collection of pithy platitudes?

Consider the following list of phrases typically found in self-help books and blog posts:
  1. Be fearless. Rid yourself of your anxieties.
  2. Be more spontaneous.
  3. Motivate yourself (spend 5 minutes here, then revert to your previous apathetic self 10 minutes after roaring "This is Spartaaaa!!!")
  4. Observe everything. Observe body language, observe motives, observe environmental cues.
  5. Be curious
And so on. One generally reads such lists, nods in approval, vows to do all of the above, then unwittingly goes back to exactly the way they were before they stumbled upon said lists. The reader's old self gradually returns to reclaim its psychological territory, even though the reader (sometimes desperately) wants to be more motivated, curious, etc.

Reading alone doesn't change one's behavioural patterns. It must be paired with something else. But what? Why is it so difficult to internalize quotes of wisdom (e.g. "be the change you want to see in the world")? Does one also need to be vigilant in intercepting undesirable thoughts and behaviour as they happen subconsciously? If I lose my cool in traffic, observe that I'm getting flustered, and think back to what I read a few days ago, have I truly become a naturally calm person or have I merely imposed a normative structure on my prior self?

Succinctly, how does one derive the most out of lists?
posted by identitymap to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Try putting them in places where you read them constantly, and then do some body ritual associated with reading them, like tapping the page with your finger, or saying them aloud.
posted by spunweb at 12:46 PM on May 4, 2012

You are talking about the difference between outlook and behavior. Those lists are about outlook, but what you really want is changed behavior. Changing behavior is hard, but not impossible, and it's easiest when you set goals and measure your progress toward those goals. Goals which are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) are the best way to make sure you know how you are proceeding toward meeting them. You can easily imagine a SMART goal for each of the above pieces of advice.
posted by OmieWise at 12:48 PM on May 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Personally, I try to find the few that are "easiest" to accomplish, throw myself at them, and then when they become second nature, I move on to more challenging ones.

In your list above, 5--be curious--seems pretty amorphous to me, so I might start with 4 and 2. Maybe work in a little 1--try something new! Say what's secretly on your mind! Etc.

It's accretive and aspriational. No one really expects to see a 30-point list of improvements and then accomplish them all simultaneously. Like the old chestnut goes, journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:49 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's belief. Belief is the secret ingredient that you're missing.

You're right - reading these lists doesn't change anything in a person. How could they? They're just words, and there are no magic spells in life.

Until one day, when that person reads that same old list, and choose to believe in it. They don't have to read all of it, they might even disagree with other parts, but some bit resonates in them as having validity in a more true sense of life.

The next time that person is faced with a situation, they remember that they believe they can change and be better by doing a different thing than what they've done in the past, and they make a change. They become the change they wish to see, as you quote.

When people believe in themselves, they will change their ways. Strong belief warps your perspective: the losses/failures seem minimized, the wins/gains seem greater and more significant. You reframe your mental image of the world, and magically, the world changes to conform.

Yes I know this sounds all woo-woo, but from what I've seen from my scientific perspective, this is the value you are trying to put your finger on.

To answer one of your specific questions, "Does one also need to be vigilant in intercepting undesirable thoughts and behaviour as they happen subconsciously?"..."have I truly become a naturally calm person or have I merely imposed a normative structure on my prior self?" My opinion is that you are the person you design yourself to be, thus by listening to your internal monologue and taking steps to change it, you have improved yourself beyond that which most people consciously know how to do. There is no "natural calm person", there's simply a person who knows how to control their internal monologue versus one who remains enslaved to it. You became a calm person, and thus are now a calm person, so long as you choose to remain vigilant. Congrats!
posted by Meagan at 12:57 PM on May 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Succinctly, how does one derive the most out of lists?

Perhaps daily reviewing the maxims and writing, in a journal in the morning, how you intend to enact them; and in the evening, journaling again to review your success?
posted by jayder at 1:03 PM on May 4, 2012

By actually applying these general principles to specific situations.

If you want to "be fearless," (for example) then you have to seek out opportunities to do things that you're otherwise afraid of: stand up for yourself in a meeting, try out public speaking, submit your writing or artwork to the review and criticism of others, introduce yourself to people you don't know, ask people out on dates, etc.
posted by MoonOrb at 1:16 PM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two ideas:

Say these things out loud. It helps to internalise the message. This works for cults, why shouldn't it work for you?

Turn the statements into questions:

1. What's the worst that could happen? Is there a good reason not to?
2. Why not?
4. What's that?
5. Why? How exactly?

I've found a combination of these helps to frame and focus on whatever I'm trying to do.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:17 PM on May 4, 2012

Though phrased as instructions, the best they can offer is a perspective. "Be fearless!" doesn't make sense when, say, you're crossing the street and a car is coming. But if you routinely feel afraid of things, it's worth remembering that it might be more an emotional habit than an appraisal of the situation.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:20 PM on May 4, 2012

Goals are pretty useless unless you can break them down into actionable steps. I think you can affect your attitude by becoming mindful day-to-day about the thing that you would like to change in a non-judgmental way, and building habits that encourage the state of mind you want to foster.

Below are some suggestions, but you should think carefully about the goals and decide what action steps makes sense for your life.

Do not try to do everything at once. They say it takes 20 days to build a habit, so a month is a pretty good timeframe. Working on more than one habit at a time dilutes your effort. So pick one habit / practice / experiment do add each month. At the end of the month, assess which ones are working. Move on to a new goal if you're satisfied with your progress. If you feel like the habit isn't working, tweak it.

1. Be fearless. Rid yourself of your anxieties.
Actionable steps:
- Carry a journal and make note you are afraid, worried, etc. Don't judge yourself or beat yourself up about it, just make a brief note of what's going on, what you're worried about, how you feel. Act like a scientist or an anthropologist. "Hmm, that's interesting." At the end of the each week, review these and think about how you can reduce or eliminate them.
- Get a referral to a therapist to assess the degrees to which your anxieties are interfering with how you lead your life.
- [Blackbelt level: realize that it's normal and healthy to be fearful and anxious about some things, and accept these feelings, but don't let them stop you from doing cool things.]

2. Be more spontaneous.
- Do one unplanned thing every day or week (or whatever time interval feels right to you.) Put gold star or a big X or a checkmark a calendar when you do it.
- Brainstorm ways that you can encourage spontaneity (make sure you have enough cash on hand or in the bank to do cool things on a moment's notice, eliminate things that you don't like doing from your life so you have time to do cool things, etc.)

3. Motivate yourself (spend 5 minutes here, then revert to your previous apathetic self 10 minutes after roaring "This is Spartaaaa!!!")
- Brainstorm a list of things you find genuinely motivating, and figure out how to find time to do it.
- Make a schedule for watching / reading / listening to things you find motivating. Put a gold star, a check mark, etc. next to each scheduled time when you follow through.
- Set up one of them many browser extensions that will pop up a website of your choice at a certain time as a reminder.

4. Observe everything. Observe body language, observe motives, observe environmental cues.
- Identify opportunities to do this (meetings, social gatherings, walks in nature, etc.)
- Schedule 10 minutes a day to sit and people-watch.
- Keep a journal (or blog?) where you record your observations, make predictions, and work out strategies for observing and interpreting what you see around you.
- Identify books, websites, etc. on reading body language, or sites the encourage attention to detail. (Regularly reading Photoshop Disasters, for example, has forever changed the way I look at pictures.)

5. Be curious
- Brainstorm a list of things you want to know more about, then identify sources of information (websites, books, documentaries, classes, experts you can consult, etc.)
- Keep a list of things that pop into your head that you want to follow up on.
- Schedule time every day to spend researching.
posted by BrashTech at 5:15 AM on May 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

This sounds disturbingly like neuro-linguistic programming to me.

People who believe in and advocate NLP believe that repeating such phrases will actually rewire your brain at the subconscious level. I am not a believer.

An instance of NLP that will seem absolutely ridiculous to non-believers is NLP guru John La Pietra's Words That Inspire Your Soul (website and book; you have to buy the self-published book from his site)
posted by bad grammar at 2:17 PM on May 5, 2012

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