Struggling with motivation or constantly finding yourself hitting a plateau? It could be to do with cognitive appraisal. In other words, the way your brain interprets situations.
You’d be forgiven for having no idea what cognitive appraisal means (we had no idea). Luckily, Chartered Psychologist, Kimberley Wilson, is on hand to bring you the facts about psychology and mental health, and demystify all the weird stuff our brains do.
We all know that goal-setting is a smart approach to help you achieve your ambitions. Goals are your compass; goal-setting is a smart approach to help you achieve your own abitions whilst also enabling you to view your progress.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE JOURNEY?
In between the smaller goals is a lot of hard work, and often that work is repetitive, boring or uncomfortable. The thing is that humans have a tendency to avoid discomfort, which means you’ll need more than hope to keep you committed to your goals when the going gets tough.
This is where your psychology comes in.
People with the most self-control use the following strategies to increase their chances of success with difficult tasks:
Focus on the positive outcomes of the task
Think of the near finish
Let’s take a closer look at emotion regulation and exercise. Last year, researchers in the US compared emotion regulation strategies in regular runners (all had done a nine-mile run in the previous week).
The first thing they found was that there was really no benefit to trying to distract yourself from the discomfort. Trying to distract yourself uses up energy and gets increasingly difficult the longer the task goes on.
However, a technique called ‘cognitive appraisal’ made the runners feel less emotionally stressed and even made the run feel physically easier.
WHAT’S THE DEAL?
Cognitive appraisal is the way you interpret a situation.
Broadly, you can interpret anything that happens to you in a helpful or an unhelpful way. Let’s say you fail your driving test; an unhelpful appraisal might be:
Oh my god, I’m so useless. And I told everyone I was sitting my test and now everyone will know I’m a failure.
You can see that this kind of interpretation is likely to make you feel worse about yourself and increase the pressure you’ll feel the next time you sit your test. In turn, this additional pressure could undermine your performance, making you more nervous and increase the likelihood that you’ll fail again.
Here’s an alternative interpretation:
Oh my god, that’s disappointing Well, now I know what to expect, I guess. At least that will help me to be more prepared for the next time. We’ll just call that one a practice run.
The facts of the situation haven’t changed (you still failed, friend) but the effect is completely different. The important thing to remember is that facts are neutral. What makes a situation like this positive or negative is your interpretation of it and how you respond.
Let’s apply this to a long run. At some stage during the run, you’re going to hit the point where it starts to hurt. An unhelpful appraisal of that sensation might be:
Man, this HURTS SO MUCH. I hate running. I hate running so much. My chest hurts. And my legs are tired. This is the worst.
On the other hand, a more helpful appraisal might be something like:
This is the point when I have to start pushing myself. It’s uncomfortable but I know I’m strong enough to do the last mile. And if I can complete it, then I will be that little bit stronger the next time.
In the study I mentioned, to help with their cognitive appraisals, the runners were told to ‘try to think about your running experience as if you were a scientist who examines running objectively. Or, you can think about your running as if you were a journalist reporting on running.’ So, they were encouraged to think about the experience from a more objective position.
They found that the people using this technique experienced lower levels of emotional distress and perceived exertion (i.e. it felt easier) during the run.
You can build on this by remembering your motives for running and reminding yourself that you are in control:
I want to be a better runner, and this is how you get better. And no one is making me do this so I know I could stop if I really wanted to.
These strategies can help enhance your self-control and push you to give that little bit more when you’re most tempted to quit. The great thing is, this technique can be applied to any difficult task – whether that’s revision, chores or dealing with difficult people.
TAKE A MOMENT TO STEP BACK, SHIFT YOUR PERSPECTIVE AND SMASH YOUR GOALS!