Tie Me Up: Resist The Irresistible

Before his voyage home, Ulysses is warned about the irresistible and deadly call of the Sirens. Countless sailors before him had fallen prey to their seductive song and drowned as a result. Recognizing he won’t be able to control himself in the face of such temptation, Ulysses instructs his men to bind him to the mast of the ship. Behavioral science research suggests that Ulysses was onto something. By tying himself to the mast, he was utilizing what researchers call a “commitment device.” A commitment device is something that prevents one from making impulsive decisions when temptation beckons. Commitment devices require an awareness that behavior and goals do not always go hand in hand. For example, even though I may wake up with the best intention to eat healthy, I know I cannot resist buying a croissant as I pass the bakery on the way to work. I can channel Ulysses by deciding to take a different route and avoid the temptation altogether. Studies show that taking steps now to limit choices in the future is an effective strategy. Best of all, it bypasses the need to use self-control which is in limited supply anyway. Commitment devices are powerful tools. They can help people quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more, and save money. Here are a few examples of ways to use commitment devices to your advantage:

Use Small Plates

If the goal is to eat less, eating off of smaller plates will reduce how much you eat.

Schedule Workouts With An Exercise Partner

If the goal is to exercise more, knowing a friend is waiting for you will get you out the door.

Direct Deposit Into Savings Account

If the goal is to save money, designate a fixed amount of your paycheck for savings so it happens automatically. You will be less tempted to spend it.

Order Groceries Online

If the goal is to eat healthier, avoid the temptation of going to the supermarket.

Place Money In A Deposit Contract

If the goal is to quit smoking or lose weight in the next two months, commit to forfeiting the money if you don’t reach it.

Block Internet Access

If the goal is to block digital distractions, download a program like Freedom, which disables Internet access for up to eight hours. Turning my phone off and placing it in the bottom of my bag is a strategy is a commitment device that prevents me from becoming a texting zombie. Knowing it is off and out of reach prevents me from succumbing to the temptation to check it while walking around. So that is my version of binding myself to the mast. What is yours?

Your Antidote To Burnout

One of the greatest challenges I face is convincing my patients to make their own wellbeing a priority. Women are especially resistant—they pride themselves on being able to prioritize the wellbeing of others. Focusing on themselves feels self-centered and uncomfortable. It only clicks when they recognize that they will be better at everything they do, including becoming a better mother and wife, when they pay attention to their own needs.

At 25, I was a medical student, working my tail off, studying non-stop and rarely sleeping. Among my fellow med school colleagues, there was glory in pulling an all-nighter. The circles under our respective eyes were badges of honor—symbols of hard work and commitment. Following graduation from medical school and the start of our internships, the lack of sleep and stress intensified. Doctors often invoke military terms to describe their internship year: “boot camp” and being “in the trenches” sum it up precisely as working all-night became second nature. The culture of working ourselves to the bone was so pervasive that we were wary of anyone who didn’t look haggard or worn down. By definition, a successful intern was sleep-deprived, stressed out and fueled by a diet of Coke and cold pizza.

As we worked all day and night taking care of patients, it never even occurred to us to consider our own wellbeing. Moreover, we had no idea that paying attention to our well-being would benefit patients. The irony of self-neglect in the name of patient care only became apparent to me years later when I began studying Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Of course, the glorification of self-sacrifice isn’t confined to medicine. It is everywhere—in teaching, politics, law, business, journalism, and many service-related fields. As a psychiatrist, I meet a lot of people who are burned out. It often presents as depression or anxiety, and self-neglect is often at the heart of it.

The bottom line is this: make your wellbeing a priority. You won’t do anyone any good when you’re stuck in bed sick or worse.

5 Ways to Sandwich Your Anger

Venting may feel good in the moment but studies show it often does more harm than good. As a patient bluntly explained to me one day:
"I hate coming to your office. All I do is complain about my life. All the bitching makes me feel worse."
My patient was not wrong. Dwelling on one’s problems can make you feel worse. Psychology professor Jeffrey Lohr points out the downside of being a Debbie Downer all the time:
"Venting anger is an emotional expression. It’s similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it’s dead wrong."
Research shows that girls who talk extensively about their problems with friends are more likely to become anxious and depressed. It takes an emotional toll, leading to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.Related studies illustrate the negative effects of venting online. Internet rants have been shown to make people even angrier. Those who vent are more likely to engage in physical and verbal fights and to drive recklessly. Letting off steam often ends up backfiring. It actually fuels the fire.

Here are 5 ways to complain strategically:

1. Count to 10 and back again

Anger dissipates more quickly when you focus on your breath.

2. Take a walk

Spending time outdoors helps put anger in perspective.

3. Pick your battles

Only complain when it serves a purpose. Stick to facts and logic and know what you want and how you can make it happen. Choose when to complain and to whom.

4. Give it a name

Studies show that putting your feelings into words reduces their impact. Acknowledging you are upset or angry dampens the emotional toll. Writing about it in a journal that you don’t share can help you better understand your feelings and feel more in control.

5. Make a “complaint sandwich”

If you are complaining to someone about their behavior, “sandwich” the complaint between two positive statements. By positively packaging your complaint, the person on the receiving end will be less defensive and more motivated to make a change.

Bottom Line: If you need to complain, please do it with purpose.

J.J. Martin

The journalist and founder of La DoubleJ is a lover of beautiful things, including finding peace in life’s hardest and most chaotic moments.
Shark Week

How To Conquer Fear From A Man Who Swims With Sharks

William Winram is a record-holding free diver (no cage, no breathing apparatus) and a chance encounter with a shark over 25 years ago changed his life for the better. He was spearfishing for his dinner 800 meters offshore when he felt something to his right. That something was a tiger shark, and he was petrified with fear — tiger sharks are notoriously aggressive and known to take bites out of divers. However, the shark he met that day didn’t behave at all like a shark in horror movies. Winram recalls the meeting in an Australian newspaper:"My experience was to the contrary. I got a shy and curious predator who was scared off when I lunged to pick up my spear. When I was swimming back to shore I could see the shark swimming beside me but at a set distance. If I swam towards her she would swim away, if I swam away she would come closer again but she would always maintain the safe distance between us."The experience made him re-think everything he thought he knew about sharks.  Since then he has been working as a conservationist and educator, committed to rehabilitating the shark’s image. He regularly free dives with Great White sharks and has learned a number of lessons along the way that translate into human life lessons:

1. Replace Fear with Knowledge

By closely observing and watching sharks, Winram has learned to literally swim with sharks. Rather than panicking and swimming away or being paralyzed with fear, he faces the shark head on. “If you don’t act like prey, they won’t treat you like prey.” He recommends a counter-intuitive approach if a shark is coming toward you – swimming right at the shark. The shark, like all things we are afraid of, is de-fanged when approached with greater knowledge and less fear.

2. Make Eye Contact

Winram recommends keeping eye contact with the shark at all times. "Once we make eye contact, the shark knows we have seen them and therefore taken their advantage away. This generally gives us the advantage and keeps them from slipping into an instinctual mode.”

3. (Mental) Preparation

Contrary to what people think, the most important breath is not the last breath free divers takes before diving. According to Winram, the most important breathing is the breathing he does "in the six to eight minutes leading up to the dive that’s oxygenating your blood and your tissues … You need to be able to go into that kind of Zen place where you’re completely relaxed, but with a wide open focus.” Controlled breathing promotes calmness and enhances focus (thereby keeping fear at bay). Being aware of one’s mind and body — and taking good care of them — are priorities, in free-diving and in life.

4. Pay Attention

"When we’re around sharks we need to be 100 percent focused.  As soon as you’re less than 100 percent focused, that’s when they begin sneaking in and seizing the advantage.” Free divers are never on autopilot because a moment of inattention could have disastrous consequences. A vigilant focus when swimming with sharks is essential for survival. Paying attention to what matters in life is essential too — part of this is recognizing that first impressions aren’t always correct.

5. Never Swim Alone

Winram always free dives with at least two others, and they all watch each other’s back. In addition to constantly being on the lookout for sharks, diving with others is essential because a risk of diving is blacking out. Survival depends on his connection to his team. There’s no more literal metaphor for life.

6. Enjoy the Beauty

Winram thinks of swimming with sharks as a privilege. He is in awe of their majestic beauty and grace and has tremendous respect for the creature he has learned so much about and that has taught him so much about himself. Through knowledge and experience, it is possible to reframe perceptions. What was initially scary to Winram became a positive, life-altering calling.

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J.J. Martin


The journalist and founder of La DoubleJ is a lover of beautiful things, including finding peace in life’s hardest and most chaotic moments.

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