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How You See Your Challenges Influences How Hard They Are

Replace all-or-nothing thinking with a learning mindset.

Key points

  • How we frame any task determines how we experience it: Replace all-or-nothing thinking with a playful, low-stakes learning mindset.
  • When you face a challenge with your eating or exercise plans, consider how you might break it up to make some part workable.
  • When your self-care plan faces a challenge, do something rather than nothing. That enables you to maintain momentum, which consitutes success.

Most folks embrace changing their exercise and eating behaviors with eager, open arms, only to stumble after the first few steps. This happens over and over again because what we are really doing with behavior change isn’t actually changing our behavior—it’s changing a mindset we’ve lived with all of our lives. And that’s not as easy as we’d like it to be!

I was recently participating in a virtual book club that had selected The Joy Choice as their summer read. About halfway into our conversation, a reader said of one of my techniques, “I understand how POP! as an acronym is easy to remember—pause, open up your options and play, pick the Joy Choice. But I think the ‘Opening up’ step is too hard to expect most people to be able to do, especially given how jam-packed our minds already are with things to remember and do.”

I’m not a fan of criticism (who is?), but I do love this kind of constructive feedback. Because unless I know the challenges some folks face, I can’t help people address them. I also enjoy this type of problem-solving because it pushes me to think more deeply and communicate more clearly.

As I delved into her comment, I saw two main concerns: The POP! concept is “too hard,” and it just “adds to the cognitive overload.” Let's look at those now.

1. "POP! is too hard to work for me": Replace the need for perfection with the grace of a growth mindset.

If we’ve been working within a perfection-based mindset for eating and exercise, adopting a new way of thinking—a growth mindset supporting perfectly imperfect options—can be challenging at first. The key is to begin this learning process by giving ourselves permission to be in "POP! kindergarten" and let ourselves enjoy playing with this new tool and technique.

An effective and kind way to begin to learn new things is to frame them as true learning projects. Start with no expectations other than to just feel out the process and experiment with ideas for readjusting eating or exercise plans when they become unworkable (because for most of us, they frequently do).

It can take practice getting mindful at choice points so we are able to pause. The question is, are you framing this task as "hard" or "something I can learn with practice"? If you find using POP! hard, ask yourself if you are approaching it in high-stake ways and using all-or-nothing thinking. (e.g., If I can't do it "right" immediately, it's not worth doing at all) or simply need a little more practice?

The science is clear: how we frame any task determines how we experience doing it. So, let's politely show the relentless all-or-nothing dragon out the door and invite in the spirited and curious octopus to help us reframe the POP! process, embracing perfectly imperfect alternatives in low-stakes and playful ways.

In addition, the following questions can help make the task of opening up your options more manageable when you are just starting out. Ask yourself:

What else might work? (portion size, food choice, exercise activity)

Is changing the time possible? (rework the dinner menu to accommodate unwelcomed lunch eating needs, and exercise at a different time)

Can I compromise on the amount? (eat one-third of the piece of surprise cake instead of the whole slice? Move for 12 minutes if you can't fit in your planned 45?)

2. "My cognitive load is too high to even think about my options, let alone identify more of them!": Remember that doing something toward your goal is better than doing nothing.

Believe me when I say I personally understand the feeling of cognitive overload. But popping bubbles is fun! And picking the Joy Choice, the perfectly imperfect option—no matter how small or seemingly insignificant—gives us grace and permits us to stay on the self-care path, even in the midst of challenges.

In this alternative world, something is better than nothing. And that essential idea is so beautifully simple it can cut through and calm the mental noise instead of adding to it—if we let it.

More from Michelle Segar Ph.D.
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