How to Overcome Temptation With The Reframing Technique
Bad Habits and The Reframing Technique
Today I’m going to share with you a brilliant idea that I picked up from Nils and Jonas Salzgeber on their blog NJLifeHacks.com. This idea is a psychological “hack” that helps you subvert temptations that undermine your long-term goals, making them less powerful. It’s a reframing technique that is commonly used in psychotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), but in those contexts it's generally used to overcome things like negative self talk and limiting beliefs. In this post, I’m going to show you how to take that reframing technique and use it in a different way to modify habits that are generally pleasurable, and not necessarily even harmful, but that prevent you from achieving a long-term goal. But before I go there, let’s talk about reality.
What's your reality?
Reality is not an objective thing, unaffected by time, place, circumstances or participants. Instead, “reality” is quite subjective. Everyone has their own version of reality. It is simply your brain’s interpretation of the things you see and the experiences you have in your life, which in turn is affected by personal beliefs and values, expectations, and societal norms. This idea is illustrated by the fact that a group of people can witness the same event, at the very same time, and no two people will have the exact same memory of what happened and what it means. Sometimes the differences are trivial, but it’s not uncommon for them to be significant.
A mountain of psychological research has shown that the things you believe and the way you perceive your world (in other words, your reality) significantly affects your health, relationships, stress level, productivity and your motivation. While the idea that there is no such thing as reality in an objective sense may be unsettling to some people, that fact has one profound implication: you can shape your reality so that it benefits you, simply by choosing how you interpret the things that happen in your life. It is this ability to choose your reality that makes the reframing technique I’m going to discuss here possible.
Before we dive into the psychology of the reframing technique, though, we need to take a brief detour into why you need it in the first place.
Your primal desires
Your brain actively seeks things that it believes will provide pleasure. The thought of your favorite food can make focusing on anything else next to impossible. Brain-candy sites and apps like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest are specifically designed to be pleasurable and even addictive, providing you with a stream of rewards in the form of messages and posts from your friends. The fact that you never know when or from whom those rewards will come is what makes them particularly addictive. This concept is discussed in detail in the excellent book Hooked, by Nir Eyal.
Not only is your brain hard-wired to seek pleasure, it also craves routine, constantly working to turn new and unfamiliar tasks into automatic ones. It has an amazing ability to transform activities that originally feel very awkward and stressful (like driving, learning a new piece of software or playing an instrument) into automatic, almost unconscious routines that you can perform while doing other things. Your brain craves routine primarily for two reasons. First, routines provide certainty and predictability, which generally indicate low risk and low danger. Second, pre-programmed routines (also known as habits) require much less effort than the focused, conscious thought needed to learn a new skill.
But that's not all
But like anything in life, there’s a downside to this ability to automate routines. In this case, it's that your brain constantly seeks opportunities to turn off your energy-guzzling prefrontal cortex (also known as your executive system) and shift into low-energy, “autopilot” mode. This mode (referred to in academic circles as your default mode) is excellent at coming up with creative, novel solutions to complex problems. What it’s not so good at is noticing what’s going on in your environment or even inside your own head. If you’ve ever arrived at work and realized you don't remember much of the drive or stepped out of the shower and realized you can’t remember if you washed your hair, you’ve experienced the environmental blindness of your default mode.
From an energy-management perspective, this ability to switch to your default mode by employing pre-programmed routines is very effective. The unfortunate consequence is that, when your brain is in autopilot and you encounter a cue that triggers a habit you want to change, you are virtually powerless to do anything about it.
These two characteristics of your brain, its instinctive desire for pleasure and its natural tendency to shift into autopilot, is what makes you, and every other human being, exhibit impulsive behavior. Things that are at least moderately pleasurable, that require little effort and that have become pre-programmed routines are a triple-threat, perfect storm of attraction for your brain. Consequently, just the thought of watching TV, eating that unhealthy snack or scrolling through your Facebook feed bathes your brain in the pleasure-seeking hormone, dopamine, making them very difficult to resist.
Note About Impulsiveness
I’ve talked about the idea of impulsiveness in a few other posts. Specifically I’ve discussed how it can derail your willpower and motivation (Why You Need to Overcome Moral Licensing, Want A Simple Way to Increase Willpower? and Have You Fallen Victim to The “What The Hell” Effect?) if you aren’t aware of your thoughts and how your subconscious mind can influence or even control your behavior (Can This Simple Skill Make You Less Impulsive?, How To Exploit The Power of The Frequency Illusion and The Remarkably Powerful Way to Tame an Elephant). The reframing technique I discuss here uses the impulsive nature of your brain to your advantage.
Your executive brain to the rescue
Your prefrontal cortex allows you to not only be aware of your impulsiveness, but it also allows you to override it. That ability to consider the future and subdue your impulses, to do something that is less pleasant (or even unpleasant) because it supports a long-term objective, is one of the things that has made the human race so successful. Unfortunately, your executive system has to be “online” for its impulse-control powers to work. And, as we’ve seen, it sometimes gets shut down in favor of your low-energy default mode network, often without you even realizing it.
If you want to modify a habit that works against one of your long-term goals, you have two options. You can try to identify the source of the craving (i.e. the psychological need that's driving the behavior) and the cue(s) that trigger the behavior, and then re-engineer your environment to either eliminate the trigger, provide an alternate, more beneficial behavior, or both. This approach does work, and I’ve discussed how to do it in a different post. But there are two downsides to that approach.
First, it may require a fair amount of time and work to engineer a new routine that your brain will latch on to. The second drawback is that, even if you are able to engineer a new, more productive habit, it relies on you recognizing when you're being triggered, so you can consciously choose to follow the alternate routine. This is especially important at the beginning, when the pull of the existing habit is very strong and your new habit has not yet been formed.
But here’s where it get interesting
Your brain craves those automatic routines because it associates them with pleasure. But since your reality is changeable, it means you can alter your brain’s perception of the habit and the reward it provides, making it instinctively less appealing. That is the strategy employed by the reframing technique, and it's your other option for changing a habit.
The reframing technique essentially short-circuits a habit by teaching your mind to associate a negative feeling with the previously pleasurable activity. It’s extremely powerful because it works at the subconscious level of the impulse, changing your brain’s default response to the trigger. Once the impulse itself has been modified, the feeling of attraction generated by your current, pleasurable association with the habit is converted to a neutral or even negative emotional association, which subdues your impulse to perform the habit while the urge is still forming in your subconscious mind. Once you’ve created that new association, it no longer matters whether your brain is in executive or default mode.
So how do you use the reframing technique?
The trick is to take a pleasurable activity that your brain seeks repeatedly, usually on autopilot, and think about all of the ways that activity is actually hurting you or sabotaging your ability to reach your long-term goals. Think about all of the negative consequences that could come from continuing the undesirable behavior. When you come up with your list, don’t just think of direct consequences. Instead, expand your thinking to include less-obvious or indirect consequences as well.
Example 1: inherently unhealthy habit
For example, if you’re trying to avoid eating certain unhealthy foods, your list could include not only the direct health consequences (like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, etc) but also the effect your poor health could have on your financial situation, your relationships, and your overall quality of life. When you use this reframing technique, don’t just think of the consequences in abstract terms either, like “this will cause me to be overweight” or “being overweight will hurt my social life”. Instead, picture yourself at a future time when you are dealing with the negative consequences, and try to imagine what it will be like and, more importantly, what it will feel like to have to deal with those problems.
To continue the unhealthy eating example, imagine sitting in a doctor’s office being told that you have diabetes. Imagine what it will be like to not be able to eat certain foods any more and to have to monitor your blood glucose levels every day. Visualize the sensation of giving yourself insulin injections. Think about all of the additional expenses from doctor’s visits and medical supplies and how it would reduce the money you have to do the things you enjoy.
Imagine what it will feel like to have your vision slowly degrade or to lose one of your limbs to infection or to deal with constant pain from nerve damage or to undergo repeated dialysis treatments. Then think about all of the things you currently enjoy doing and imagine what it will feel like to not be able to do them anymore due to your physical limitations. Think about the way your deteriorating health and increasing financial burden will affect your loved ones.
It’s not a pleasant picture, but that’s the point. Connecting your current actions to your future self in this way improves your future-self continuity, which is a concept I’ve discussed in another post. Having strong future-self continuity makes it much more likely that you will act in ways that consider the effect your actions today will have on future you, rather than satisfying your current, often impulsive, desires at the expense of future you.
Example 2: inherently neutral habit
To use a less morbid example, you may want to stop spending so much time scrolling through Facebook or watching TV. Those habits are good examples because there is nothing inherently bad or unhealthy about them, but you want to eliminate or at least minimize them because continuing those behaviors may prevent you from achieving things that are important to you. For example, maybe you've thought about taking online classes to get a certification or degree that would enable you to earn a promotion or a better-paying job at a different company. Or perhaps you want to do something creative like write a book or get really good at painting or playing an instrument because you find true joy and fulfillment in doing them.
When you use the reframing technique on these examples, you would again visualize what your life would be like in the future if you continue your current behavior pattern. But instead of experiencing the negative things that will happen to you, you would instead imagine what your life will be like if you do not accomplish the things you desire. You would mentally experience the feelings of regret and sadness at having wasted several years of your life without making any progress on those goals.
Imagine the feelings of frustration, disappointment and envy when you see your peers move on to better jobs and positions while you stay in your current one. Think about all of the places on your “bucket list” that you won’t be able to visit because you won’t have the financial resources to do so. Alternatively, you could immerse yourself in the feelings of pride, joy and admiration of others that come from producing a beautiful painting or playing an instrument well, and then quickly strip that feeling away because you never learned how to do it.
So why does it work?
Many studies have shown that, from a neurological perspective, mentally immersing yourself in a situation by visualizing it in detail is virtually the same as experiencing it in reality. Your subconscious mind forms the same kind of “memories” and emotional associations as it would if you actually experienced it. That’s what makes this reframing technique so powerful. Elite athletes have been applying this research finding for years, enhancing their physical training by performing “mental repetitions” that re-wire the brain in the same way that physical repetitions do.
When you use this reframing technique to associate negative feelings with your currently-pleasant habits, those habits start to evoke different emotions when you encounter situations that normally cue the behavior. Now, instead of being a pleasant way to spend your free time, Facebook or TV would evoke, at the very least, a conflicted set of emotions that causes you to stop and reconsider whether your time would be better spent elsewhere. Similarly, in the unhealthy eating example, the comfort food that normally puts your salivary glands into overdrive now induces an awareness and visceral feeling of the long-term consequences that you must consciously decide to ignore.
Here's the key, though
The reframing technique actually re-wires your brain to associate negative, or at least neutral feelings with something that it currently only associates positive ones. When you go through the process, it’s very important that you feel the negative consequences of your behaviors, not just list or acknowledge them at a conscious, rational level. That’s because your brain is so fast at performing pre-programmed behaviors that you often don’t even realize what’s happening at a conscious level until you’re already doing it, if you even notice at all. Assuming you do notice, it’s much easier to prevent a habit from starting than to stop it once the wheels are in motion.
Depending on how thoroughly you visualize and experience the negative consequences, the reframing technique can even suppress the impulse before it reaches your conscious awareness, or change an impulse from attraction to repulsion. Based on the circumstances, such an extreme response may not be necessary or even desired, but it is possible.
Be part of the conversation
For most people, the impact of their behavior on their long-term goals never even rises to the level of conscious awareness when they decide to turn on the TV or open their Facebook app. But when you use this reframing technique, it gives your prefrontal cortex the opportunity to be involved in decisions about what to do with your time when you get triggered by a habit cue. It’s a similar concept to subconscious priming, which I’ve discussed in a couple of other posts (How to Get Motivated With Implementation Intentions and How To Exploit The Power of The Frequency Illusion), in that you train your subconscious mind to do something automatically. With priming you train it to notice something in your environment and flag it to your conscious awareness, whereas with this reframing technique, you train it to elicit a different emotional response to the same environmental trigger.
I’ve recently started using this technique to reduce my cravings for sweets, particularly chocolate. In my experience, I’ve found that I need to do the visualization more than once to really cement the new, negative association. However, I can say that it definitely makes me more aware of my habitual behavior before I actually engage in it, and I’ve even noticed a small shift in my desire for chocolate. I’m looking forward to seeing how my ability to modify the habit improves over time.
I’d love to hear what you think of this idea, and whether you’ve had success applying it in your life. Like any knowledge, it’s useless if you don’t do anything with it, so take action today!
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