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Using mental scripts to shape your behavior

How changing what we tell ourselves can help change our habits

By Business Rules for LifePublished 2 years ago 3 min read
Using mental scripts to shape your behavior
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Our mental scripts are the repeating narratives we tell ourselves. They are typically not a rational voice, based on evidence and circumstance, but a kind of automated self-commentary. They are the first, knee-jerk places that your thoughts jump to in response to a situation, and can be very negative, even toxic.

Something goes wrong with a project - you blame yourself unnecessarily. Management bring in a new process - you start looking for reasons not to adopt it. Someone gives you feedback on your work - you get defensive.

Negative scripts are built on our deepest insecurities and worries. They are based on a negative self-image or justify negative behaviors. And they are not just common in the workplace, we adopt them when we are challenged in our personal life as well.

But it is possible to re-write your mental scripts, make them positive, and use them to change your behavior. If we can identify them and recognise the underlying lie we are telling ourselves, we can re-write our scripts to help them serve us.

Here are a few of my negative mental scripts that I've been trying to re-write.

When I skip a work-out, to work late

My negative mental script justifies skipping the habit I'm trying to form.

"I need to stay back and get this piece of work done instead of going to the gym, because I need to prioritise my career."

I'm telling myself I don't have time to work out because I'm making a conscious choice to put my work ahead of my health. This is a lie, because when I've been strategically thinking about my life I've said that health and wellbeing is my priority for 2021. It's also a lie that putting in an extra hour or so at work will help my career. There are times when there is a tight deadline, but 99% of the time it won't make any difference.

I tried putting a new mental script in place that not only addresses these self-deceptions but also adds a positive short-term effect associated with the habit:

"My priority is my health and wellbeing. This work can wait until tomorrow, and I'll be better able to complete it having gone to the gym."

When I get take-away because I feel too tired to cook

My negative self script justifies a poor choice.

"Overall, I eat much better than most people so this doesn't really matter."

I'm justifying my bad food choice by comparing myself to my perception of the average person's diet, and lowering my standard. I'm also telling myself that it's a one-off and this KFC won't lead to multiple takeaways, even though that's a behavior that I know I easily slip into. If I'm going to have a treat I should be honest with myself and acknowledge that it is not the norm for how I want to eat. My new mental script is:

"This is not part of my normal, nutritious diet. I will feel more tired because of it and my mood and performance will suffer."

When I spend more than I had planned to on eating out

My negative mental script brand me as a failure.

"I've blown my budget already. This fortnight is a write-off so I'll start again next pay-day."

I'm letting the perfection of a pay-day cycle get in the way of making any kind of progress. Writing off this mistake won't erase it and I won't learn anything from it if I don't acknowledge it. I have to accept that I can't go back and un-spend the money, but I can still make good choices for the rest of the fortnight. My new mental script is:

"This was a mistake, but I accept it, learn from it and will remember it next time I'm in this situation."

At first, the new mental scripts won't come naturally. You might need to write them down and practice saying them, but eventually they will start coming to mind before the negative ones do.

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Business Rules for Life

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