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Write down exactly what you are going to do

July 8, 2015

When I posed the question ‘Can writing help me lose weight?‘ in a post quite recently, I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question.  And I’m still not, because I’ve not made the time nor had the discipline to test that theory.  However, I have read something of great interest to make me think that yes, it will certainly help.

I mentioned in that previous post that I was reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  Having finished this thoroughly insightful and encouraging read, I’ve reached the conclusion that to conquer this personal goal and lose my three stone in weight I need to do three things:

1. Focus on changing one ‘keystone’ habit – something that will act like a chain reaction, enabling me to concentrate on one thing whilst in reality changing a whole chain of habits.  Having spent some time analysing and reflecting on my habitual practices, I think slowing down the pace I eat and paying close attention to the experience could be that keystone habit.

2. Actually doing as I first suggested and using this blog space to describe my journey.  Often writing things down gives great clarity and opportunity for learning. How often have you had things going round and round in your head and it’s only when you’ve written them down that merry-go-round stops?

3. Writing down exactly what I’m planning to do each day to get closer to achieving my goals.  This excerpt from The Power of Habit explains why I think that will help:

In 1992, a British psychologist walked into two of Scotland’s busiest orthopedic hospitals and recruited five-dozen patients for an experiment she hoped would explain how to boost the willpower of people exceptionally resistant to change.

The patients, on average, were sixty-eight years old.  Most of them earned less than $10,000 a year and didn’t have more than a high school degree.  All of them had recently undergone hip or knee re-placement surgeries, but because they were relatively poor and uneducated, many had waited years for their operations.  They were retirees, elderly mechanics, and store clerks.  They were in life’s final chapters, and most had no desire to pick up a new book.

Recovering from a hip or knee surgery is incredibly arduous.  The operation involves severing joint muscles and sawing through bones.  While recovering, the smallest movements – shifting in bed or flexing a joint – can be excruciating.  However, it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they wake from surgery. They must begin moving their legs and hips before the muscles and skin have healed, or scar tissue will clog the joint, destroying its flexibility.  In addition, if patients don’t start exercising, they risk developing blood clots.  But the agony is so extreme that it’s not unusual for people to skip out on rehab sessions.  Patients, particularly elderly ones, often refuse to comply with doctor’s orders.

The Scottish study’s participants were the types of people most likely to fail at rehabilitation.  The scientist conducting the experiment wanted to see if it was possible to help them harness their willpower.  She gave each patient a booklet after their surgeries that detailed their rehab schedule, and in the back were thirteen additional pages – one for each week – with blank spaces and instructions: “My goals for this week are __________? Write down exactly what you are going to do.  For example, if you are going to go for a walk this week, write down where and when you are going to walk.”  She asked patients to fill in each of those pages with specific plans.  Then she compared the recoveries of those who wrote out goals with those of patients who had received the same booklets, but didn’t write anything.

It seems absurd to think that giving people a few pieces of blank paper might make a difference in how quickly they can recover from surgery.  But when the researcher visited the patients three months later, she found a striking difference between the two groups.  The patients who had written plans in their booklets had started walking almost twice as fast as the ones who had not.  They had started getting in and out of their chairs, unassisted, almost three times as fast.  They were putting on their shoes, doing their laundry, and making themselves meals quicker than the patients who hadn’t scribbled out goals ahead of time.

The psychologist wanted to understand why.  She examined the booklets, and discovered that most of the blank pages had been filled in with specific, detailed plans about the most mundane aspects of recovery.  One patient, for example, had written, “I will walk to the bus stop tomorrow to meet my wife from work,” and then noted what time he would leave, the route he would walk, what he would wear, which coat he would bring if it was raining, and what pills he would take if the pain became too much.  Another patient, in a similar study, wrote a series of very specific schedules regarding the exercises he would do each time he went to the bathroom.  A third wrote a minute-by-minute itinerary for walking around the block.

As the psychologist scrutinised the booklets, she saw that many of the plans had something in common: they focused on how patients would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain.  The man who exercised on the way to the bathroom, for instance, knew that each time he stood up from the couch, the ache was excruciating.  So he wrote a plan for dealing with it: Automatically take the first step, right away, so he wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again.  The patient who met his wife at the bus stop dreaded the afternoons, because the stroll was the longest and most painful each day.  So he detailed every obstacle he might confront, and came up with a solution ahead of time.

Put another way, the patients’ plans were built around inflection points when they knew their plan – and thus the temptation to quit – would be strongest.  The patients were telling themselves how they were going to make it over the hump.

So the moral of this story is that if you want achieve a goal or change a habit that you know is going to be a tough challenge, and maybe one that you’ve given up on before, write down your intentions – in lots of detail.  Plan for the bits that you know are likely to prove your weakness.  Think it through in advance and plan for success. Write down exactly what you are going to do.

Then go ahead and do it.

Have you ever tried anything like this before?  I’d love to hear about your experiences if you have.

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