Want to improve your life? Perhaps lose weight, find your perfect partner, or obtain your dream job? Try this simple exercise...
Close your eyes and imagine the new you. Think how great you would look in those close fitting designer jeans, dating Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, sitting in a luxurious leather chair at the top of the corporate ladder, or sipping a piña colada as the warm waves of the Caribbean gently lap at your feet.
The good news is that this type of exercise has been recommended by many in the self-industry for years. The bad news is that a large body of research now suggests that such exercises are, at best, ineffective, and at worst, harmful. Although asking you to imagine your perfect self may make you feel better, engaging in such mental escapism can also have the unfortunate side effect of leaving you unprepared for the difficulties that crop up on the rocky road to success, thus increasing the chances that you'll falter at the first hurdle rather than persist in the face of failure.
Then there is the infamous "Yale Goal Study." According to some writers, in 1953 a team of researchers interviewed Yale's graduating seniors, asking them whether they had written down the specific goals that they wanted to achieve in life. Twenty years later the researchers tracked down the same cohort and found that the 3% of people who had specific goals all those years before had accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97% of their classmates combined. It is a great story, and frequently cited in self-help books and seminars to illustrate the power of goal-setting. There is just one small problem — as far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place. For years, self-help gurus have been happy to describe a study apparently without checking their facts.
The public has bought into these modern-day mind myths for years and, in so doing, may have significantly decreased the likelihood of achieving their aims and ambitions. So is it all doom and gloom, or are there any scientifically supported techniques that really do make an impact? A few years ago I carefully searched through endless journals containing research papers from many different areas of psychology in an attempt to answer that question. As I examined the work, a promising pattern emerged, with researchers working in quite different fields developing techniques that help people achieve their aims and ambitions in minutes not months. I collected together hundreds of these studies drawn from many different areas of the behavioral sciences. Together they represent a new science of rapid change.
Take, for example, the age-old problem of healthy eating. For years a large percentage of the public have struggled with time consuming and complicated diets. However, work conducted by Stacey Sentyrz and Brad Bushman from Iowa State University suggests that simply placing a mirror in a kitchen makes people more aware of their bodies and significantly reduces unhealthy eating.
Or how about that other old chestnut, happiness. Many people believe that retail therapy is a good way of cheering themselves up, but is that really the case? Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia gave participants $20 and then asked one group to spend the money on themselves and the other group to spend their unexpected windfall on a present for a friend or family member. Participants who spent the money on their friends and family felt significantly happier than those who treated themselves to luxury gifts. Similarly, happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky arranged for participants to perform five non-financial acts of kindness each week for six weeks (e.g., writing a thank-you note, giving blood, or helping out a friend). Those who carried out all such acts increased their happiness by an incredible 40%. When it comes to happiness, it really is much better to give than receive.
And motivation? At the start of the article I noted that research suggests that visualizing your perfect self can hinder those trying to change their lives. However, the same research shows that a small change in the exercise can have a powerful and positive effect. Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor from the University of California had one group of students visualize themselves as A-grade students whilst those in another group were asked to spend a few moments each day imagining the process of revision by visualizing when, where, and how they intended to study. A third group of students acted as a control, and carried out no exercises at all. Compared to the control group and to the group who were visualizing A-grade success, the students who imagined themselves going through the process of studying spent significantly more time revising and eventually obtained higher exam grades. Visualizing the process of study proved especially effective at reducing exam-related anxiety and helped students better plan and manage their workload. Subsequent research has shown that the same effect occurs in several different areas with, example, tennis players and golfers benefiting far more from imagining themselves training than winning.
There is a very old story, often told to fill time during training courses, involving a man trying to fix his broken boiler. Despite his best efforts over many months, he simply can't mend it. Eventually, he gives in and decides to call in an expert repair man. The engineer arrives, gives one gentle tap on the side of the boiler, and stands back as it erupts into life. The engineer presents the man with a bill, and the man argues that he should only pay a small fee as the job only took the engineer a few moments. The engineer quietly explains that the man is not paying for the time he took to tap the boiler, but rather the years of experience involved in knowing exactly where to tap. Just like the expert engineer tapping the boiler, the techniques that I have uncovered demonstrate that effective change does not have to be time consuming. In fact, from mood to memory, persuasion to procrastination, resilience to relationships, it can take less than a minute and is often simply a question of knowing exactly where to tap.