…Some Like it Seven Days Old

In an experiment designed to research the influence of environmental cues on our behavior, two groups of participants got popcorn in a movie theater. One group got  fresh popcorn. The other group got popcorn that was seven days old.

They ate the same amount.

When presented with fresh and stale popcorn in a different environment, a conference room, the two groups did not exhibit the same mindless eating.

The moral is that when you try to change habits, pay close attention to environmental cues and plan ahead,  rather than trying to rely on will power alone.

More about effective ways to change habits later.

Adapted from Neal & all  (2011): The pull of the past: When do Habits Persist despite conflict with Motives. In: Personality and social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (11) 1428-1439




A New Approach to Stress Management

Stress is often portrayed in the media as the bane of modern life, a source of many of our ills and difficulties. There is no doubt that excessive stress is not good for us and can affect both our mental and physical well-being.

Stress management is a set of skills used to reduce stress in our daily life.  A recent study by Dr. Epstein sheds new light on this concept.

Dr. Epstein looked at different skill sets associated with stress management. These skills are commonly taught in courses, coaching or psychotherapy. Dr. Epstein looked at three broad sets of skills.

1 .Preventing and managing the sources of stress. This includes proper organization of home and work space, good time management, and effective prioritization and planning of tasks.

Some of these skills are reactive, for example, I have just noticed how stressful overstuffed and disorganized my filing cabinet is. Some skills are proactive such as buying Christmas presents early thus avoiding last minute stress and long lines.

2. Relaxation skills. These skills are what many of us tend to think about as stress management tools. These include practices such as meditation Yoga and guided imagery

3. Cognitive coping skills. These include Reframing situations and control of irrational thought patterns.

To the surprise of the investigator, the most useful coping skills were those mentioned in the first category. Good organization, planning, and time management had the most benefit. The second category, of relaxation techniques, although useful, had less of an impact. Cognitive coping skills ranked last. Cognitive skills are very helpful when coping with depression but apparently less effective when dealing with stress.

Dr Epstein’s study shows that while it is nice to do yoga, meditation and other relaxation techniques, if you really want to manage your stress,  go back to basics. Organizing your physical environment, managing your time and prioritizing your tasks are all straightforward tools to reduce stress.

Managing your physical environment means that the pile of papers on your desk, the one next to the three coffee cups needs to go. You need adequate storage for you papers and other things.

Better management of time entails making realistic estimates of what you can and cannot do, so you will not stress yourself later.

Managing priorities can best be done with a good old “to do list”.  The list can be High-Tech or simple low-Tech pen and paper, as long as it lists all your tasks, and assigns priority to each. If you do your tasks according to their priorities, you will get ahead in your work. Plan your day in the morning. This way you will be more productive. Try and plan ahead for a week, a month, even a year.

After you have done all of these, you will probably have a time to do yoga. (And I am all for it…)

People that report better stress management skills, report feeling lower levels of stress, being happier, and being more productive and successful professionally. The good news is that these skills can be learned.

Adapted from Scientific American Mind October 2011, 31-35

Dr Epstein actually defined four types of stress management skills. Since two of them overlap to a large degree, I grouped them under one heading.