Shift Your Perception—Positive Reappraisal3 min read

To address temptations, distractions and similar challenges, you can use the Shift Your Focus technique to reframe how you think about them. Or you can use the Shift Your Perception technique and change how you feel about them. 

Yes, you can change how you feel about something—through self-talk and how you focus your attention. Stoics philosopher and Buddhist monks have done this for centuries, and modern psychology calls it cognitive reappraisal. It works in both directions: negative and positive.

The logic is simple: when you consider something to be attractive, you’ll desire it; when you consider it repulsive, it repels you. Attractiveness and repulsiveness are subjective and can be changed intentionally.

This technique relies on your abilities to visualize, imagine, and believe your thoughts into reality. The more you improve these, the more effective this technique will be for you.

Negative reappraisal helps us avoid behaviors we don’t want. Positive reappraisal encourages us to do things that, in theory, we want to do but that we don’t feel like doing in that moment. Things such as: 

  • eating a healthy food item that we just don’t enjoy
  • doing hard physical exercise
  • having a difficult conversation with our partner
  • doing boring work that we have been procrastinating
  • waking up early when we feel like snoozing
  • drinking water instead of sugary drinks

Euripedes, a stoic philosopher, said it best: “Do not consider painful what is good for you.” And it works. Studies show that individuals who were asked to focus on the vitamins and minerals in healthy food items, and how that will make them strong, ended up eating more healthy food and less junk food.

So how do we program our mind to find a particular effort or experience attractive and delightful? Here are the four methods: 

Contemplate the qualities: Are you feeling too lazy to go for a run? Think how energized, light, and alive you’ll feel after a few minutes of running; and how good you’ll feel later in the day.

Focus on the positive consequences: Are you procrastinating on boring tasks at work? Focus on the positive consequences of getting that work done; feel the sense of accomplishment and relief of ticking off those tasks; think about how it will increase the likelihood of you being promoted.

Create a state of desire: Do you resist drinking water because it’s tasteless, and instead go for soda? Imagine that you are feeling very thirsty, and that only water can quench your thirst. Think how cool and refreshing a cup of water will taste, for your mouth and your whole body. 

Associate pleasant sensations: Do you find it hard to stop “snoozing” and wake up on time? Associate getting up on time with a comforting cup of your favorite. Create a rule that you can only have that special coffee if you wake up on time, without snoozing. 

When you have the option to use both negative and positive reappraisal, which should you go for? While there is research indicating that positive appraisals may be more effective, at the end of the day you have to use what works for you. You are the judge.

Positive reappraisal is a powerful tool to help you engage in your goal-promoting activities in a sustainable way. Make use of it regularly, until it becomes second nature, and self-discipline will become much easier for you.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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