This post is part of my series on Heidi Grant Halvorson’s 9 Things Successful People Do Differently and my experiences with her advice.
Thing #9: Focus on What You Will Do, Not What You Won’t Do
It should come as no surprise that thought suppression doesn’t work. Just try not thinking about dancing wheels of cheese. Every time you encounter something that reminds you of the concept you’re trying not to think about — in this case, dairy products, round objects, or moving rhythmically to music — it’s going to come back. The harder you try not to think about it, the more you can’t escape it. And the more you think about something you’re not supposed to do, the more likely you are to succumb. (This is another good reason to plan your way around sources of temptation.)
So, given that willpower can be worn down over time, and you can’t always avoid problematic situations, what’s the best way to keep from giving in? Remember those “if-then” plans we talked about back in Thing #2? You use them, with one trick: You can’t suppress your thoughts, but you can replace them. Figure out whatever it is you’re supposed to avoid doing, and come up with something to do instead of it whenever you’re tempted to do it. Things like “If I get excited about a project at a convention, I will think about it for at least a week instead of committing to it right away” or “If I read an email that makes me angry, I will wait for five minutes instead of replying right away.”
My biggest success with eating healthier came by focusing on what I would eat, instead of what I wouldn’t. I’ve got a list of things I need to have every day: fruit, nuts, whole grains, leafy greens, brightly colored vegetables, and green tea. When I look at a menu, I’m trying to find things that will help me tick boxes off my checklist. I hardly notice the things I’m not supposed to have. Once I’ve gotten my daily quota of each of things I’m trying to eat, I’m generally full enough that I’m not really interested in anything else. There is a list of things that I’m supposed to avoid, but because I’ve been consciously replacing those things with healthier alternatives, I rarely crave them anymore. And I hardly ever think of dancing wheels of cheese.