Energizing Seligman’s ABCs by Doing and Experimenting

Having the energy to cope with adversity is hard…

Our functional beliefs can drain us or empower us as we encounter adversity. Approaches such as Martin Seligman’s ABCs pattern in Learned Optimism can help us guide and retrain our habitually unhealthy beliefs. 

Here’s a brief recap of Seligman’s ABCs:

  • A=for Adversity 
  • B=for Belief
  • C=for Consequences of beliefs
  • D=for Disputation of false and unhealthy beliefs
  • E=for Energization

For the most part, when we think well, we handle life well. Our habitual thoughts/cognitions, beliefs, and other features of our inner worlds help us survive or even thrive in adverse conditions. 

By applying healthy thinking patterns through a difficult time, we can have a sense of confidence and efficacy as we look back on the challenges and our successes–and even our failures to some extent. That sense of confidence and efficacy helps us face new challenges well: We have resilience. When we’re in healthy modes of functioning, we don’t need to work much on the “D” for disputation, and we tend to experience the “E” of energization as we do things throughout the day.

However, we don’t always think well, and we therefore don’t always handle life well. That’s where the sense of (gentle) disputation comes in. By practicing mindful disputation, we find ways to recognize and dismiss the influence of “automatic thoughts” (Seligman’s term) or “cognitive distortions” (the term from like-minded colleagues). With time, effort, and experimentation, we can learn to grow through adversity rather than just groan about how bad things are for us.  

Tackling Procrastination with the ABCs: Brief Autobiographical Samples

Here’s an ABC-patterned reflection on some of my (mostly) past struggles with procrastination when I’d try to work on grades at the end of the week for my students.

  • Adversity: The work of assessing and posting weekly grades for the daily work the students have (or have not) completed. 
  • Beliefs: Grading is endlessly painful. It’s never totally accurate. Students don’t seem to care. Adults don’t seem to care. Adults don’t do their homework, so why should I be surprised? I shouldn’t have to do this. I always have too much to do at school. I don’t feel like doing this. I can start once I feel like it. We should abolish grades altogether, etc
  • Consequences: I tended to avoid the task until I felt like starting. I’d try to work up the feeling to get started. I felt more anxiety than I should have. I’d have anxiety about having anxiety. I’d resort to informal and formal labeling of myself based on my procrastination. I’d wait for the pressure of clock- or calendar-time to motivate me. I’d be cranky around my wife and others, often acting like I’m way to busy for mere relationships. I’d feel quite stupid once I finally got it done and realized it wasn’t so bad and didn’t need to take as much time as I had imagined.

Using reflective cognitive approaches over the years, I have become more aware of my dysfunctional belief patterns. With that awareness, I’ve gotten better at effectively disputing the related thoughts and feelings.

Distortions related to Seligman’s 3 Ps of permanence, pervasiveness, or personalization especially needed to be disputed. 

  • Disputation of Beliefs: It’s not endlessly painful, just brief pain at the start. Of course it’s not totally accurate; grading is shorthand notation for what we notice students doing and learning. Some adults don’t do their homework, but some adults do and they are typically a delight to work with because they’re better prepared to collaborate and contribute. It’s not about “shoulds” and “have to’s,” it’s about what I “get to” do. It’s not that important to feel like doing something; it’s about doing something to help others. I’ll feel better having done something. I can get better at this. Calling myself names really doesn’t help. 

The disputations helped me redirect and retrain my beliefs–not perfectly but much better. It’s a messy, recursive, ongoing process. It’s also helped to talk out the struggles and the strategies with others. There are also a few more complementary strategies to include.

Infusing CBT and Other Insights: Timers, Frogs, and Celebrations  

An ABC approach becomes even more effective with the use of action intervention strategies like those found in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology (CBT). Correspondingly, one of the founders of CBT, Aaron T. Beck has a cognitive model that looks similar to Seligman’s understanding of how beliefs direct behaviors. But CBT also focuses on how behaviors influence beliefs. Doing various “behavioral experiments” can further work to challenge and retrain problematic beliefs. The strategic behaviors work as arguments-in-action against the unhelpful beliefs.

Over more recent years, I’ve come across many strategies that qualify as CBT experiments for tackling tasks, such as grading, even when I wasn’t feeling like it. Here’s a sampling of some of the most helpful: 

  • Proactive Weekly Time Scheduling: I’d try to schedule the grading work as early as possible on the weekend so that I clear my schedule for deep work, unforeseen activities, and rest. The more I made Sunday a day totally free of work, the better. Saturday has been increasingly freed up for deep work, recreation, and socializing. 
  • Timers: For each task, set a timer for 30 minutes and see how I feel once I’ve gotten that far. (Most of the time I find myself wanting to continue.)
  • Eat the Frog First: Do the least pleasant activity first. (The late philosopher and educator Dallas Willard called this the Stoic’s secret to a good day: Eat a live frog for breakfast and everything is better after that.)
  • Strategic Celebrations: Schedule the enjoyable things for breaks and for the completion of tasks. (For the breaks, just don’t make it too enjoyable or too long so that you don’t drift off into distractions you can’t return from.) 

I learned later that elements of the timer and celebration strategies are key parts of the “The Pomodoro Technique.” 

My procrastination challenge with weekly grading is a minor example of how cognitive strategies can help improve our lives and relationships. The procrastination example serves as a touch-point to many applications. (I have other hang-ups and habits that this sort of approach has helped but that’s for another time.) As we enter April, I can recall the uneasiness in my childhood in a small-business family as tax season approached. My dad could get especially surly this time of year as he tried to catch up on accumulated financial paperwork. Likewise, I hear from different professionals in different fields who share that learning to be productive, to overcome procrastination, and to resist bad attitudes about the nitty-gritty, daily work experiences all contribute to better experiences and relationships–not to mention, better business.

Deconstructing Senioritis? 

I launched my blog site and my first post with some reflections on senioritis based on my time as a senior English teacher. One of the leading symptoms of the pseudo-condition called senioritis is actually procrastination. Basically, the senioritis label just distracts from strategies and interventions that could help a a young person get more done, feel more hopeful, and develop resiliency. Coaching students to self-assess and to use cognitive strategies throughout their school years for challenges like procrastination could help them thrive more and make excuses less. 

The potential for integrating cognitive psychology insights and strategies as part of our academic, parenting, mentoring work has great potential for helping students become more resilient and more ready to flourish as adults. There are some challenges in working out appropriate, responsible, and skillful uses of such approaches, and these challenges invite further study and ongoing discussion. 

It’s also likely that students need to develop stronger visions of long-term flourishing to help them work through the ordinary and extraordinary adversities that they encounter. Come to think of it, “F” for flourishing sounds like a good focus for an upcoming blog post.  

Invitation to Reflect: 

  1. What beliefs do you have that give you energy in the face of adversity? What beliefs tend to drain your energy?
  2. Do you tend to get more stuck from overthinking your responses to adversity or from not thinking enough about them? When is it time to take a walk or exercise? When is it time to make a list and try a strategy or two? 
  3. How well do you deal with procrastination? What strategies might help you or others get better at being a little more productive and a little more at ease with your tasks?
  4. How might we appropriately integrate cognitive psychology strategies into our lessons and mentoring relationships with young people so that they can get more resilient as an aid to long-term flourishing? 

For Further Reading, Reflection, Study, or Training: 

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