Working through a rough patch? Tangled in a tough problem? Stuck? One of the most powerful strategies to sort things out is literally at your fingertips.
Numerous social scientists, including Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas and Robert Quinn of the University of Michigan, suggest that our narratives shape our outlook then our outlook shapes our behavior. Our behavior shapes just about everything under our control. These three social scientists, among others, believe that to change our outcomes, we start by changing our stories.
The first step is to get the narrative out of the running dialogue in our heads and into the light by writing it down. If you would like to try, the three exercises included below are a good place to start. There are simple ground rules:
1) Find 20 to 30 minutes in a place where you will not be distracted or interrupted.
2) Do the same exercise for a minimum of four consecutive days.
3) Be honest.
That’s it! You don’t need to show your writing to anyone, don’t need to proof read, don’t need to buy anything. It doesn’t matter if you write or type. The only thing that matters is that you do the exercise consistently for four days. Ready? Read more.
Pennebaker Writing Exercise
James Pennebaker is a psychology professor at the University of Texas and a pioneer in “Writing to Heal.” His research suggests that short-term focused writing provides benefits for those suffering trauma. His results include improved immune systems, better grades and clearer goals. Read more here. His basic instructions for working through nagging “stuff” follow.
Write about your problem in an uninterrupted fashion for at least 15 minutes a day for a minimum of four days. Pennebaker suggests writing at the end of the day. Write in first person about something emotional or important, but deal with topics that you are able to handle right now. Write for yourself: no editing or sanitizing.
Wilson Best Possible Selves Exercise
Timothy Wilson is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. He’s used the Best Possible Selves exercise with a set of students to determine its effect on outlook and optimism. Compared to a control group, the students who completed this exercise reported higher levels of satisfaction and optimism that lasted for weeks, and had significantly fewer visits to the University Health Center. Seem good to you?
Follow these instructions for four consecutive days. (Wilson also suggests evenings).
“Think about your life at a certain point in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Write what you imagine and what you did to make it happen.”
Quinn Lift Exercise
Robert Quinn is an Organizational Behavior professor at the University of Michigan. He is a cogent thinker and prolific writer about creating positive organizations. In his book Lift, he defines “lift” as a psychological state in which we are 1) purpose centered 2) internally directed 3) other focused and 4) open to ways in which we can improve. Quinn makes the case that when we experience these states; we feel uplifted and lift others. In other words, lift begins with us. Start by responding to the four questions below.
- What result do I want to create?
- What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
- How do others feel about this situation? (Emphasis is on feelings of others.)
- What are three (or more) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for this situation?
I am reminded of the Buddhist proverb: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. My intuition tells me there is a reason why I was drawn to writing about writing today. I’m on the second day of the “Best Self” exercise; think it will help me sort out some near term uncertainty.
Have you tried writing to change your stories and your outcomes? What happened?
Wilson, T.D. (2011) Redirect: the Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Quinn, R.W and Quinn, R.E. (2009). Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation.
San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler