How to Develop Habits that Increase Resilience

Ultimately, resilience training should result in new habits that make you more resistant to stress.

We have pointed out a number of times that listening to a lecture or reading an article on coping with stress is not likely to be enough to result in more resilient habits. You may get useful information, maybe even inspiration, both of which can be valuable, but that is not enough to produce new habits.

Usually we recommend “practice, practice, practice”. We also described “mental contrasting”, a method that asks you to imagine yourself as you are now, and to alternate that with imagining yourself after you have developed a new resilience habit. This differs from a widely used method of simply imagining yourself as having achieved the desired goal. The latter method has proven to be ineffective.

Research shows that mental contrasting improves results. For example, see Amit Amin’s paper here. Details of how to practice mental contrasting were published in the Harvard Business Review here.

We now have the concept of the habit loop, which can act as a guide on how to develop new habits. This model of habit change contrasts with a long familiar approach of just giving yourself rewards when you engage in the behavior you want to make habitual. Instead, it focuses heavily on turning attention to the cues or triggers that elicit the behavior.

The power of cues is striking. We had a friend (now deceased) who never smoked in front of his parents. For a long time, he could not quit smoking. But when he visited his parents, often for long periods, he told us that he never felt an urge to smoke. The cue or cues were missing, so the urge never appeared.

It is important to look for the cues that trigger your behaviors because, by manipulating the cues you can control habits.

It is also important to develop cues to trigger habits you are trying to develop. Shawn Achor provided a very good illustration of effectively developing a cue to trigger practicing on his guitar.

Achor wanted to learn to play the guitar. At first he put the guitar in a closet. He could get it out in a matter of seconds. Yet, after some time he noted that he had not practiced guitar at all! So he took it out of the closet and placed it in the living room. Then, the guitar acted as a cue for him to practice, and soon he had developed a well-cued habit.

Several writers who wanted to develop a steady habit of exercising have put exercise clothing next to the bed. The clothing triggers a response of dressing for the workout and then doing it.

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