What a German Princess from NYU can teach you about breaking bad habits at work.

What a German Princess from NYU can teach you about breaking bad habits at work.

Goal setting is our bread and butter at OHNO. Everything we do is about getting teams a little bit closer to where they want to be. But bad habits slow us down more than anything else.

So when we started building OHNO, we wanted to make sure we reviewed as much scientific information about goal setting as possible, and we came across a remarkable behavioural performance technique which shows real results in helping in the following areas.

  • Improved academic performance, specifically higher scores on a quiz,
  • Improved health, prompting more exercise and less snacking,
  • Increased help-seeking and help-giving behaviour,
  • and increased the likelihood of taking steps to stop smoking.

In essence, if it’s bad, and you want to stop, this technique is for you. So we thought we’d share this technique. It only takes 2 or 3 minutes to do.

It’s easy to think of the workplace as a place to focus on things to accomplish. But the idea of Anti-goals has appeared over the last few years. And there are probably lots of things you wish you stopped doing, right?

  • Interrupting people
  • Looking at your phone so much
  • Not being able to focus on a work task for more than 20 seconds because you can’t stop reading reddit.

So how can you break habits easily?

Gabriele Oettingen is a professor at NYU and also happens to be the a member of the German princely House of Oettingen-Spielberg. She’s a psychologist who pioneered a behavioural training technique known as mental contrasting.

Mental contrasting works like this.

Step 1.

Write down several positive aspects associated with completing the goal. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, maybe you’ll be able to climb stairs easier. Play with your kids longer. Look great naked, whatever.

Step 2.

Select the most positiveaspects of all the options, narrow them down to 1 maybe. Then, take a few moments to visualise those benefits, the more time you spend and the more detail you go into, the better. Set aside 5 minutes and try it. Go on, i’ll wait.

[let’s assume you really did it. Nice work]

Step 3.

Next, write down several obstacles in the way of completing your goal. What could derail you.

Step 4.

Now really focus on the largest and most menacing of the obstacles you wrote down. The longer you focus on this, the better.

That’s it. That’s mental contrasting.


Yes. That’s it.

They say you want to try using the technique at least once a day while you’re trying to accomplish the objective.

How & why this works

Mental contrasting works because the mind has a very short-time horizon. It acts mostly on emotions and doesn’t really think about how to get things done over the long term. The reason it’s hard to get motivated on longer term issues is because your brain doesn’t really give a shit. It just wants to eat chocolate and watch game of thrones.

The way to achieve things is to convince your subconscious that overcoming hard stuff is good for it, but your subconscious is crazy lazy. It wants to get shredded at the gym, it just doesn’t want to get up at 4.00am to work out because it can’t really see how those events correlate.

Mental contrasting helps your subconscious understand the cause and effects of getting over the hurdles. Left to its own devices, it simply doesn’t get emotionally invested in working on the barriers.

So you need to manipulate it, like getting a 9 year old kid to eat carrots. You can’t just cut them and put it on a plate. You have to get inventive.

Mostly your subconscious mind responds to images, which is why visualising the good and bad elements is a kind of ‘training’ for your mind, prepping it to overcome the obstacles. You are speaking the same language as your subconscious, so it understands what it has to do. Think of it like brain-washing your subconscious into going to the gym.

What’s cool about OHNO is we’re constantly asking our users to highlight the barriers, and go through them as a team. We’re using elements of mental contrasting regularly to train the teams to identify barriers to achieving their goals, bringing that front of mind, and trying to reduce as much friction as possible in getting you to do the ‘visualisation’ bit. We come to you and ask you, “hey buddy, so tell me about those barriers you have going on today?”

You can read more about mental contrasting here.

If you want a simpler way of getting mental contrasting in your life, you could always just try OHNO out. It’ll help your teams reflect on the barriers to progress, and get them to create real actions that get them closer to their goals. Give it a try.

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