“I felt more motivated to get things done.”
“After practicing this exercise for a week, my productivity significantly increased.”
“I felt more in control of my life in a fun way that made me feel successful.”
“Every time it increased my mood, confidence and energy levels.”
— Reports by participants after practicing “transforming failure into success”
Putting off something we set out to do can leave us feeling unproductive, drained of energy, and guilty. Procrastination can also contribute to dysphoria, depression, and self-recrimination. When people reflect on their own activity, they often using blaming language such as “I should not have done that,” “That was stupid,” or “What was I thinking.” The challenge is how to change this blaming language — through which the person continues to rehearse how they have failed — to positive and empowering language and images.
For many years, we have taught students a useful daily practice,Transforming Failure into Success, to transform the self-blame into optimizing performance. When the students as well as athletes practices this for a week, they report significant improvement in study habits, dealing with anger, and even sports performance. This year we systematically measured the effect of this practice and compared it to a control group. The students, just as previous athletes and clients, reported a significant decrease in procrastination and increase in productivity and energy as compared to the control group as shown in figure 1.
Figure 1. Change in self-report of procrastination, productivity and energy level. Reprinted from: Peper, E., Harvey, R., Lin, I-M, & Duvvuri, P. (2014). Increase productivity, decrease procrastination and increase energy. Biofeedback, 42(2), 82-87.
When we procrastinate or blame ourselves, we increase our chances of repeating that same behavior. We often forget that our ongoing thoughts and framing of past experiences become the template for our future behavior. It is easy to look back and criticize yourself for not having done something you feel you should have done, or having done something you later regretted doing. Unfortunately, this strategy only strengthens the memory of the mistake. The more you mentally rehearse/imagine yourself performing the desired (or undesired!) behavior, the more likely you will actually perform that behavior.
Thus the first step is to accept that what we actually did was the only thing we could have done given our history, training, maturity, and circumstances. The key is to rehearse what you would like to do or achieve. This practice is illustrated by a golfer who hits a ball into the pond. Instead of cursing himself and constantly repeating, “I should not have hit the ball into the pond,” the golfer acknowledges the problem and then asks , “What was the problem?” He then considers that he might not have hit the ball hard enough or that he might not have accounted for the cross winds. Or, he did not know the cause of the problem and needed to ask a consultant for suggestions. He decides that he did not account for the cross winds and then asks, “How could I have done it differently to get the outcome I wanted?” He then imagines exactly how hard and in what direction to hit the ball. He mentally rehearses the appropriate swing a number of times, each time seeing the ball landing on the green just a short putt away from the fifth hole. As he images this perfect swing, he feels it in his body. Later that day when his golfing partner asks him what happened when his ball went into the pond, he answers, “It went into the pond, and let me now tell you how I would hit it now.” Thus, the past error becomes the cue to rehearse the desired behavior.
Instructions for transforming failure into success
Each time when you observe yourself thinking, “I wish I’d done that differently,” Stop! Give yourself credit that you did the only thing you could have done and that you could NOT have done it any differently given your history, skills, and environmental factors at that moment. Accept what happened and recognize that you are now ready to explore new options. Next, breathe and relax, then ask yourself, “If I could do this over, how would I do it now given the new wisdom I have gained?” Then imagine yourself doing it in the new way.
Each time you observe an action which upon hindsight could have been improved, mentally rewrite how you would like to have behaved. Use the following five-step process:
- Think of a past conflict or area of behavior with which you are dissatisfied.
- Accept that it was the only way you could have done what you did under the circumstances.
- Ask, “Given the wisdom I have now, how could I have done this differently?”
- See yourself in that same situation but behaving differently, using the wisdom you now have (rehearse this step a number of times). When rehearsing, it is important to see and feel yourself completely immersed in the situation. Be very specific, and engage as many of the senses as you can.
- Smile and congratulate yourself for taking charge of programming your own future.
The more senses you invoke in your imagination and visualization, the more real the experience will feel and the more it will be become the new pattern. Imagine every small step, sensation, and thought—everything that would occur when you actually do the task. How you image the task is not important. Some people see it in living color while others only have a sense of it. Just take yourself through the new activity. Rewriting the past takes practice. During the mental rehearsal the old pattern often reasserts itself. Just let it go and practice again. If it continues to recur, ask yourself, “What do I need to learn from this; what is my lesson?”
This practice only applies to one’s own behavior–you can only change yourself. Remember that others have the freedom and the right to react in their own way. In your imagery, see yourself changing. Others may also change in their response to your change; however, they have the right NOT to change.
Finally, there are many settings in which we had no control and, regardless of our behaviors, nothing would be different (e.g., being abused as a young child). In such cases, the adaptive response is to acknowledge what happened, reaffirm that you are no longer the same person as when the experience occurred. Then take a deep breath and relax, and let go while knowing that this personal experience has taught you a set of coping skills that have nurtured your own growth and development.
This blog is adapted from our recent published article, Increase productivity, decrease procrastination and increase energy, which describes the background, methodology and research findings.