5 Steps to Launching a New Life

Research-based tips for reinvention, starting today.

Posted Jul 01, 2014

Source: Dirima/Shutterstock

Is there a decision you’re putting off, or a change in your life that you want to make but you’re feeling too angsty to make it happen? Do you keep asking everyone for advice that leaves you more confused than ever about what, if anything, you ought to do? 

Maybe it’s time to declare your independence.

I’m not suggesting you go off the grid in a hideout on a mountain. But sometimes, you’ve got to be able to go it alone—for you and by you. If you’re tired of running in circles or feeling stuck, maybe it’s time to take a different tack.

Here are 5 strategies drawn from research to get you going:

1. Know how you’ll react to stress.

When a decision looms and you feel under the gun, which of these statements describes you best?

  • I’m decisive and it’s easy for me to set my sights on the future. I don’t rely on other people’s advice much. I focus on what’s next, I don’t look back, and I deal with emotional and other fallout without much fuss.
  • I’m not great at self-starting and I can get easily derailed. If I’m stressed, I overthink things and end up procrastinating. I have trouble getting over setbacks, and what other people think of me is very important.

If the first statement fits you, you’re “action oriented,” according to a theory called Personality Systems Action (PSI) which focuses on emotional regulation and coping skills. You are likely to initiate action under demanding circumstances—put another way, you're a clutch player. But if the second statement captures you in broad strokes, you are “state-oriented,” and declaring your independence may be a challenge. These people—amounting to roughly half of us—are very reactive to negative cues, have trouble managing their negative emotions, and do best when someone is giving them directives.

But here’s the good news: Once you realize that you're state-oriented, there are pro-active things you can do. Research by Sander L. Koole and Daniel L. Fockenberg suggests that by working consciously to change your emotional context—thinking of a relaxing time in your life when you’re stressed to the max, for example—can help you become as independent and actually more unresponsive to negative cues than action-oriented peers. By seeking the support of those you trust, combined with a conscious awareness of where you ultimately want to end up, you’ll find yourself more capable of decisive action.

2. Take on your own fear of loss.

All human beings are hardwired to be loss aversive; it just comes with the territory, as the Nobel Prize-winning work of Amos Twersky and Daniel Kahneman showed. Among the habits of mind that keep us firmly tethered is the sunk-cost fallacy, which has to be tackled so that you can actually consider your options. The sunk-cost fallacy refers to how we focus exclusively on whatever we have already invested in a job, a situation, or a relationship—time, money, effort—when we think about making a change. But this stance guarantees that we stay put no matter how unhappy it makes us. On the face of it, this kind of thinking—“I’ve already got five years invested in my relationship and all that time will be wasted if I break it up”—isn’t very logical, since it only guarantees that your investment will increase over time, but not that your misery will decrease. Once you recognize the fallacy, you can take steps to actively combat it by thinking of viable alternatives that would deliver more happiness and satisfaction than where you are now, and figuring out a route to your new tomorrow.

3.  Make sure you’re deciding, not sliding.

These terms are taken from a very counterintuitive—trust me, you will be surprised—study on how living together before marriage actually is predictive of future marital problems. Some 50 to 60 percent of all couples cohabit before marriage in the United States; most people see it as a tryout of sorts, a way of seeing whether or not their relationship will be seaworthy in the long run. It turns out, though, that the effect of living together before marriage is actually deleterious—studies have shown that people who cohabited demonstrated lower levels of commitment, less confidence in the relationship, and more negative interactions. Scott M. Stanley and his colleagues have posited that living together actively erodes commitment. While getting engaged and married force you to confront your choices consciously and directly, living together is a much more ambiguous state. 

People end up living together for a multitude of reasons that have nothing to do with commitment, like convenience and saving money. And so a large proportion of people tend to “slide” into marriage rather than actively deciding to wed. This is a function of relationship inertia; while it takes real work to break up with someone you’re already living with—dealing with a joint lease, shared belongings, a pet, etc.—it’s easy enough to just slide into marriage “as the next logical step.” I’ll bet you can name at least one couple in your social circle who slid into marriage in this way. The problem is that sliding doesn’t raise your level of commitment, either to your partner or the institution of marriage.

Inertia and the phenomenon of sliding can apply to other parts of your life as well. It’s easy enough to take a job and slide into one promotion after another without asking yourself whether you really want to be there in the first place. The takeaway lesson is to remain alert and sensitive to your decision-making processes, and to review them often and carefully to stay independent.

4.  Plan it out.

Thinking about your future isn’t nearly as effective as writing down your goals. The success born of mapping out your goals turns out not to be an urban legend, as a study done at McGill and Toronto Universities showed. And given the recent study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer showing that using a laptop to take notes encouraged more shallow thinking than writing by hand, you should probably do your planning with pen and paper. 

Divide your goals into two columns, one devoted to short-term goals and the other to long-term goals. Aligning them in this way will help you determine whether any are in conflict, and permit you to think about what that conflict means in real terms. For example, if your goal is to make more money and get promoted at company, how will you reconcile that with another goal of spending more time with family and friends?

Review the columns and ask yourself how many of your goals are extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic goals are those which are means to other ends (like making money); may have been imposed on you by the expectations of others (such as parents or spouses); or are aimed at garnering social position and recognition. Intrinsic goals are central to your sense of self. They define you; are valuable and satisfying in and of themselves; and contribute to a sense of meaning in your life. Science recognizes that the healthiest, happiest people are those with largely intrinsic goals and aspirations.

5.  Be sure you’re in it to win it.

In her book, Commit To Win, psychology professor (and fellow Psychology Today blogger) Heidi Reeder suggests the following formula:

(Treasures - Troubles) + Contributions - Choices = Level of Commitment

I think it’s a fresh way of looking at commitment. Let me offer a brief explanation based on Reeder's work:

Treasures are the rewards you derive from an activity, and they may be intrinsic or extrinsic. Troubles are the prices you pay for those rewards—your long commute which has you miss all your kid's recitals, or your boss' unfortunate habit of springing last-minute deadlines so that you're always canceling plans. This part of the equation has you looking at benefits versus costs.

Contributions are the actions you take in pursuit of a goal. Reeder breaks them down into four categories—time, talent, tenderness, and tangibles. Time and talent are self-explanatory; tenderness refers to your emotional investment. Tangibles include money and material resources.

In Reeder’s equation, your contributions—what you are actively putting in now—are balanced by the choices or alternatives you might be pursuing instead. That, in turn, will lead to figuring your level of commitment.

The truth is that imagining those alternatives is difficult for many of us and requires some independent, out-of-the-box thinking. It’s here that the sunk-cost fallacy and other biases often stop us in our tracks as we wrack our brains to figure out where we could be instead of where we find ourselves.

Declaring personal independence isn’t always easy nor is making a change in your life. But it can be done.

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Read Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work

Read Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt

  • Koole, Sander L. and Nils B. Jostmann, “Getting A Grip on Your Feelings: Effects of Action Orientation on Intrusion Affect Regulation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, no. 6 (2004), 974-990. 
  • Stanley, Scott M., Galena Kline Rhoades, and Howard J. Markman, “Sliding Versus Decuding: Inertia and the Premaritial Cohabitation Effect,” Family Relations 55 ()ctober 2006), 499-509.
  • Morisano, Dominque, Jacob B. Hirsh, Jordan B. Peterson, Robert O. Pihl, and Bruc M. Shore, “ Setting, Elaborating, and Reflecting on Personal Goals Improves Academic Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, no.2, (2010), 255-264.
  • Mueller, Pam S. and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking, “ Psychological Science (April 23,2014) DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581
  • Reeder, Heidi.  Commit to Win. New York: Hudson Street Press, 2014.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2014