3 Tips for Minimizing Holiday Weight Gain

The holidays are a difficult time for those of us who both enjoy eating and worry about our waistlines.  Chances are good that if you overindulged a bit at Thanksgiving, you are now looking ahead to the month of December with a wary eye – only too aware of the minefield of cookie platters, holiday parties, family dinners, and gift baskets that you will have to somehow navigate.

You know from experience that you cannot get through these trying times on willpower alone.  So here are three very simple and proven-effective motivational strategies for remaining in your current pant size.

Tip 1:  Acknowledge That You Probably Can’t Have Just One. According to the laws of physics, bodies in motion tend to stay in motion, unless something acts to stop them.  Well, the same thing can be said about human behavior, too - including eating.

Your actions have a kind of inertia – once you start doing something, it often takes more self-control to stop than it does to just avoid doing it in the first place.  And it gets harder to stop the longer the behavior goes on.  So it’s easier to be abstinent if you stop at the first kiss, rather than letting things get hot and heavy.  And it’s a lot easier to pass on the potato chips entirely, rather than just eat one or two.

Stopping before you start is an excellent strategy to keep your need for willpower to a minimum.  Consider cutting out all between-meal snacking over the holidays.  The fewer times you start eating each day, the less you’ll have to worry about stopping.

Tip 2:  Set VERY Specific Limits. Before you get anywhere near the cookie platter, the fruit cake, or the cheese plate, think about how much you can afford to eat without over-indulging.  Decide, in advance, exactly how much of any particular holiday treat you will allow yourself for dessert, or at the Christmas party.

The problem with most plans, including diet plans, is that they are not nearly specific enough.  We plan to “be good,” or “not eat too much,” but what does that mean, exactly?  When will I know if I’ve had too much?  When you are staring at a table overflowing with delicious snacks, you are not going to be a good judge of what “too much” is.

An effective plan is one that is made before you stare temptation in the face, and that allows no wiggle room.   Studies show that when people plan out exactly what they will do when temptation arises (e.g., I will have no more than 3 cookies and nothing else), are 2-3 times more likely to achieve their dietary goals.

Tip 3:  Savor.   Savoring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences.  Taking time to experience the subtle flavors in a piece of dark chocolate, the pungency of a full-flavored cheese, the buttery goodness of a Christmas cookie - these are all acts of savoring, and they help us to squeeze every bit of joy out of the good things that happen to us.

Avoid eating anything in one bite – you get all the calories, but only a fraction of the taste. Also, try not to eat while you are socializing.  When you are focused on conversation, odds are good that you will barely even register what you are putting in your mouth.

Eating slowly and mindfully, taking small bites instead of swallowing that bacon-wrapped scallop or stuffed mushroom whole, not only satisfies your hunger, but actually leaves you feeling happier. 

And that, ideally, is what holiday feasting is all about.


Your Misery Has Company

The holidays can be really, really hard.    We struggle to find the right gifts, and to find the money in our budgets to pay for them.  All the preparation – decorating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning - takes time and effort, and it’s not as if you can put the rest of your life on hold to get it all done.

And then there are the guests.  Playing host to family and friends may be the most difficult part of all, particularly when there is so much pressure to make the experience a joyous one.  (And if you are the guest rather than the host, holiday travel is no picnic, either.)

It’s not at all unusual for people to feel more anxious, exhausted, frustrated, or depressed at this time of year than they typically do.  As if that’s not bad enough, many of us routinely add insult to injury by feeling guilty or ashamed that we aren’t bursting with happiness like we “should” be.  After all, isn’t this the season to be jolly?

And what’s more, we feel like we are alone in our unhappiness – as if everyone else is making merry while we are making misery.  This common misperception only adds to our pain.

So why don’t we notice that other people are struggling as we are?  New research suggests that the answer is fairly straightforward: People are, generally speaking, more private when it comes to their negative emotions.

As a society, we are taught (often implicitly) to be embarrassed by feelings like sadness and anxiety, which suggest vulnerability.  Consequently, we are more likely to try to keep them hidden – the net result being that others assume us to be happier than we really are, even when they know us well.

In addition, the researchers found that people routinely underestimate how often their peers are faced with the negative experiences they themselves endure.  In one study, undergraduates underestimated how frequently their fellow students were rejected by a romantic interest, received a low grade, or felt homesick for distant friends and families by 10-30%.

They also overestimated the frequency of others’ enjoyable experiences, like going out with friends or attending parties, by 10-20%!  So not only do we think other people are happier than we are, but we assume their lives are better, too.

Our ignorance has serious consequences.  Research shows that the more you underestimate the emotional pain of others, the more isolated and lonely you feel. You are also more likely to brood and ruminate on your bad experiences, and feel less satisfied with your life.  When our perceptions of other people’s lives are distorted, we may feel sorrier for ourselves than we really should, and ashamed of our anxiety and sadness when we really needn’t be.

They say that misery loves company, and there’s good reason for it.  There is comfort, and wisdom, in knowing that other people share our difficulties and understand our experiences.  If you can’t take all the headache and stress out of your holidays (and I’ve yet to meet the person who could), then you can at least do yourself a favor this year, and embrace the very real truth that you are not alone.


Nine Ways Successful People Defeat Stress

From my HBR blog:

Feeling stressed?  Of course you are. You have too much on your plate, deadlines are looming, people are counting on you, and to top it all off, you still have holiday shopping to do.  You are under a lot of pressure – so much that at times, you suspect the quality of your work suffers for it.  You find yourself forgetting things, your thinking lacks clarity, and your creative juices refuse to flow.

This is life in the modern workplace.  It is more or less impossible to be any kind of professional these days and not experience frequent bouts of intense stress.   The difference between those who are successful and those who aren’t is not whether or not you suffer from stress, but how you deal with it when you do.  In the spirit of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, here are nine scientifically-proven strategies for defeating stress whenever it strikes.

1.  Have self-compassion

Self-compassion is, in essence, cutting yourself some slack.  It’s being willing to look at your mistakes or failures with kindness and understanding – without harsh criticism or defensiveness.  Studies show that people who are self-compassionate are happier, more optimistic, and less anxious and depressed.  That’s probably not surprising.  But here’s the kicker: they are more successful, too.   Most of us believe that we need to be hard on ourselves to perform at our best, but it turns out that’s 100 percent wrong.  A dose of self-compassion when things are at their most difficult can reduce your stress and improve your performance, by making it easier for you to learn from your mistakes.  So remember that to err is human, and give yourself a break.

2. Think about the “Big Picture”

Anything you need or want to do can be thought of in more than one way.  For instance, “exercising” can be described in Big Picture terms, like “getting healthier” – the why of exercising – or it can be described in more concrete terms, like “running two miles” – the how of exercising.   Thinking Big Picture about the work you do can be very energizing in the face of stress and challenge, because you are linking one particular, often small action to a greater meaning or purpose.  Something that may not seem important or valuable on its own gets cast in a whole new light.  So when staying that extra hour at work at the end of an exhausting day is thought of as “helping my career” rather than “answering emails for 60 more minutes,” you’ll be much more likely to want to stay put and work hard.

3. Rely on routines 

            If I ask you to name the major causes of stress in your work life, you would probably say things like deadlines, a heavy workload, bureaucracy, or your terrible boss.  You probably wouldn’t say “having to make so many decisions,” because most people aren’t aware that this is a powerful and pervasive cause of stress in their lives.  Every time you make a decision - whether it’s about hiring a new employee, about when to schedule a meeting with your supervisor, or about choosing rye or whole wheat for your egg salad - you create a state of mental tension that is, in fact, stressful.  (This is why shopping is so exhausting – it’s not the horrible concrete floors, it’s all that deciding.)

            The solution is to reduce the number of decisions you need to make, by utilizing routines. If there’s something you need to do every day, do it at the same time every day.  Have a routine for preparing for your day in the morning, and packing up to go home at night. Simple routines can dramatically reduce your experience of stress.  In fact, President Obama, who assuredly knows a great deal about stress, mentioned using this strategy himself in a recent interview:

You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their dayYou’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.
                                                - President Obama, Vanity Fair

4. Take five (or ten) minutes to do something you find interesting

If there were something you could add to your car’s engine, so that after driving it a hundred miles, you’d end up with more gas in the tank than you started with, wouldn’t you use it?  Even if nothing like that exists for your car just yet, there is something you can do for yourself that will have the same effect… something interesting.  It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it interests you.  Recent research shows that interest doesn’t just keep you going despite fatigue, it actually replenishes your energy.   And then that replenished energy flows into whatever you do next. 
            Keep these two very important points in mind:  First, interesting is not the same thing as pleasant, fun, or relaxing (though they are certainly not mutually exclusive.) Taking a lunch break might be relaxing, and if the food is good it will probably be pleasant.  But unless you are eating at the hot new molecular gastronomy restaurant, it probably won’t be interesting.  So it won’t replenish your energy.
            Second, interesting does not have to mean effortless.  The same studies that showed that interest replenished energy showed that it did so even when the interesting task was difficult and required effort.  So you actually don’t have to “take it easy” to refill your tank.

5.  Add where and when to your To Do List

Do you have a To Do list?  (If you have a “Task” bar on the side of your calendar, and you use it, then the answer is “yes.”)  And do you find that a day or a week (or sometimes longer) will frequently pass by without a single item getting checked off?   Stressful, isn’t it?  What you need is a way to get the things done that you set out to do in a timely manner.  What you need is if-then planning (or what psychologists call implementation intentions).
 This particular form of planning is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal.  Nearly 200 studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will complete a task (e.g., If it is 4pm, then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances of actually doing it.  
So take the tasks on your To Do list, and add a specific when and where to each.  For example, “Remember to call Bob” becomes “If it is Tuesday after lunch, then I’ll call Bob.”  Now that you’ve created an if-then plan for calling Bob, your unconscious brain will start scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan.  This enables you to seize the critical moment and make the call, even when you are busy doing other things.  And what better way is there to cut down on your stress than crossing things off your To Do list?

6.      Use if-thens for positive self-talk

Another way to combat stress using if-then plans is to direct them at the experience of stress itself, rather than at its causes.  Recent studies show that if-then plans can help us to control our emotional responses to situations in which we feel fear, sadness, fatigue, self-doubt, or even disgust.  Simply decide what kind of response you would like to have instead of feeling stress, and make a plan that links your desired response to the situations that tend to raise your blood pressure.  For instance, If I see lots of emails in my Inbox, then I will stay calm and relaxed, or, If a deadline is approaching, then I will keep a cool head.

7.  See your work in terms of progress, not perfection

We all approach the goals we pursue with one of two mindsets: what I call the Be-Good mindset, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and that you already know what you’re doing, and the Get-Better mindset, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning new skills.  You can think of it as the difference between wanting to show that you are smart versus wanting to get smarter.
When you have a Be-Good mindset, you expect to be able to everything perfectly right out of the gate, and you constantly (often unconsciously) compare yourself to other people, to see how you “size up.”  You quickly start to doubt your ability when things don’t go smoothly, and this creates a lot of stress and anxiety.  Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail. 

A Get-Better mindset, on the other hand, leads instead to self-comparison and a concern with making progress– how well are you doing today, compared with how you did yesterday, last month, or last year?  When you think about what you are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that you may make some mistakes along the way, you experience far less stress, and you stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur. 

8.  Think about the progress that you’ve already made

“ Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”  This is what Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer refer to as the Progress Principle – the idea is that it’s the “small wins” that keep us going, particularly in the face of stressors. 
Psychologically, it’s often not whether we’ve reached our goal, but the rate at which we are closing the gap between where we are now and where we want to end up that determines how we feel.  It can be enormously helpful to take a moment and reflect on what you’ve accomplished so far before turning your attention to the challenges that remain ahead.

9. Know whether optimism or defensive pessimism works for you

For many of us, it’s hard to stay positive when we’ve got assignments up to our eyeballs.  For others, it isn’t just hard – it feels wrong.  And as it turns out, they are perfectly correct – optimism doesn’t work for them. 
It is stressful enough to try to juggle as many projects and goals as we do, but we add a layer of stress without realizing it when we try to reach them using strategies that don’t feel right – that don’t mesh with our own motivational style.  So what’s your motivational style, and is “staying positive” right for you?
Some people think of their jobs as opportunities for achievement and accomplishment – they have what psychologists call a promotion focus.  In the language of economics, promotion focus is all about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities.   For others, doing a job well is about security, about not losing the positions they’ve worked so hard for.  This prevention focus places the emphasis on avoiding danger, fulfilling responsibilities, and doing what feel you ought to do.  In economic terms, it’s about minimizing losses, trying to hang on to what you’ve got.

Understanding promotion and prevention motivation helps us understand why people can work so differently to reach the same goal.  Promotion motivation feels like eagerness – the desire to really go for it – and this eagerness is sustained and enhanced by optimism.  Believing that everything is going to work out great is essential for promotion-focused performance.  Prevention motivation, on the other hand, feels like vigilance – the need to keep danger at bay – and it is sustained not by optimism, but by a kind of defensive pessimism.  In other words, the prevention-minded actually work best when they think about what might go wrong, and what they can do to keep that from happening.
So, do you spend your life pursuing accomplishments and accolades, reaching for the stars? Or are you busy fulfilling your duties and responsibilities – being the person everyone can count on? Start by identifying your focus, and then embrace either the sunny outlook or the hearty skepticism that will reduce your stress and keep you performing at your best.

Put some or all of these strategies for fighting stress, and you will see real changes not only in the workplace, but in every area of your life.  With the holidays around the corner, you might want to work on creating a few if-thens for dealing with the relatives, too.  If I’m about to lose my mind, then I’ll have some more eggnog works wonders for me.

The Bias Against Creatives

From my 99u blog:

Two candidates are being interviewed for a leadership position in your company.  Both have strong resumes, but while one seems to be bursting with new and daring ideas, the other comes across as decidedly less creative (though clearly still a smart cookie).  Who gets the job?

The answer, unfortunately, is usually the less creative candidate.  This fact may or may not surprise you – you yourself may have been the creative candidate who got the shaft.  But what you’re probably wondering is, why?

After all, it’s quite clear who should be getting the job. Studies show that leaders who are more creative are in fact better able to effect positive change in their organizations, and are better at inspiring others to follow their lead.

And yet, according to recent research there is good reason to believe that the people with the most creativity aren’t given the opportunity to lead, because of a process that occurs (on a completely unconscious level) in the mind of everyone who has ever evaluated an applicant for a leadership position.

The problem, put simply, is this: our idea of what a prototypical “creative person” is like is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical  “effective leader.”

Creativity is associated with nonconformity, unorthodoxy, and unconventionality.  It conjures visions of the artist, the musician, the misunderstood poet.   In other words, not the sort of people you usually put in charge of large organizations. Effective leaders, it would seem, should provide order, rather than tossing it out the window. 

Unconsciously, we assume that someone who is creative can’t be a good leader, and as a result, any evidence of creativity can diminish a candidate’s perceived leadership potential.

In one study conducted by organizational psychologists Jennifer Mueller, Jack Goncalo, and Dishan Kamdar, employees rated the responses of nearly 300 of their (unidentified) coworkers to a problem-solving task for both creativity (the extent to which their ideas were novel and useful) and as evidence of leadership potential.  They found that creativity and leadership potential were strongly negatively correlated – the more creative the response, the less effective a leader the responder appeared.

The good news is, the bias can be wiped out – in fact, reversed - if evaluators have a charismatic leader (i.e., someone known for their uniqueness and individualism, like a Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Carly Fiorina) rather than an effective but non-charismatic leader in mind.   In the airline-revenue study, when evaluators were asked to list five qualities of a “charismatic leader” prior to the idea pitch, the participants with creative solutions were instead perceived as having the most leadership potential.

So what can you do in an interview to fight the creativity bias?  You have some options:

1.    Be armed with evidence of your leadership abilities.  Bias is most powerful when there is nothing else concrete to go on – that’s when our brains (unconsciously) fill in the blanks.

2.    Don’t just focus on your past experience.  Talk about what you see as your leadership potential – the kind of leader you see yourself becoming.  Studies show that interviewers are drawn to candidates described as having potential (often more than actual achievement.)  They’ll spend more time thinking about you, and that extra thinking results in more accuracy and less bias.

3.    Try to counteract the bias subtly by talking about the charismatic, creative leaders who have been role models for you in the past.

4.    Tackle the bias head on by acknowledging that creative types aren’t often chosen for leadership positions, while arguing (nicely) that your ability to offer fresh and innovative solutions to problems is essential to effective leadership, rather than at odds with it.


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Never Look Insecure Again

You know you shouldn’t do it.  You know that if you keep calling and leaving messages he’s going to think you are needy, or pathetic, or just plain crazy.  You know that if you keep asking her if she’s seen her ex-boyfriend, she’s going to think you are insecure, or jealous, or maybe even controlling.

It’s not unusual to feel some insecurity in a relationship – particularly a new one.  But showing that insecurity to your partner can be a major turn-off.  Looking through their phone log, checking their email, stalking their Facebook page, quizzing them on where they’ve been and who they’ve been with, demanding frequent proof of their love and commitment – these are the kinds of behaviors that smell of desperation, and can easily drive a wedge in an otherwise healthy relationship.

You know you’ve got to stop – but when you act out of insecurity, trying to stop means tackling a powerful psychological force head on.  After all, if it were easy, you would have done it by now.

Fortunately, there is a scientifically-proven technique you can use to put an end to your relationship-sabotaging ways.  Recent research by Sylviane Houssais, Gabriele Oettingen, and Doris Mayer, shows that two strategies, when used together, create a particularly potent combination for bad habit-fighting: mental contrasting and if-then planning.

Mental contrasting, in a nutshell, involves thinking positively about how it will be when you achieve your goal, while thinking realistically about what it will take to get there.  First, you imagine how you will feel attaining your goal (e.g., to stop acting out of insecurity) and then you reflect on the obstacles that stand in your way.  For instance, if you want to stop calling your partner constantly, you would start by imagining the sense of calmness you would feel if you could stop giving in to the impulse, and how your self-respect and confidence would grow.  You would then spend about five minutes writing down a description of the thoughts and feelings you imagine having.

Next, you would think about what will make not calling difficult – the feelings of neediness, fear, or jealousy that sometimes plague you.  Spend another five minutes writing about these challenges. 

Studies show that mentally contrasting your goal and the obstacles you’ll face in this way is energizing, and that it helps bring into focus what you need to do to be successful.  

Finally, you need to create an if-then plan for overcoming your obstacle.  If-then plans spell out exactly when, where, and how you will do it:  If I am in this situation, then I will take this action.  In their study, the researchers asked participants to create plans that would keep them focused on whatever it is that they are currently doing, rather than focusing on the feelings of jealousy or neediness that generate the impulse to call.

If I am feeling jealous, then I will continue with my ongoing activities.

It’s that simple.  If you are feeling needy while you are working, plan to just keep working.  If you are feeling jealous when you are out to dinner with your friends and he’s out with his, plan to just focus on enjoying your own meal.

But does it work?  Yes - brilliantly.  People who used this strategy for a week reported giving in to insecure impulses only about half as often as they had before.    And while the control group (who did not use the technique) reported a drop in relationship commitment after two months, those who used mental contrasting with if-then planning reported that their relationships had become more committed.

So you really don’t need to be a victim of your own insecurities – you can learn to control how they are expressed with this very simple but powerful technique.  Of course, it’s also a very good idea to work on the source of your insecurity itself – but in the meantime you can keep it from sabotaging your happiness.