Results of the WOL: Self-Care experiment

Exactly a year ago, I wrote that I was working on a new practice called WOL: Self-Care (or WOL: SC), and a few months later we began a pilot with one hundred people. Just this past month I compiled survey results.

Here’s what happened.

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The Why & How of WOL: SC

My intention was to create a new practice that people could join after their WOL Circle ended. It would be comprised of five different kinds of mindfulness practices spread over six months. You would still be part of a peer support group, but with some important differences.

You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. 

Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

The survey results

Whether or not the experiment was a success depends on your perspective. Fewer than half of the WOL:SC groups finished, which is disappointing. And yet there were clear themes about how to improve the practice, so I learned a lot:

  • Change the timing of the meetings to be closer together

  • Include more interaction between members

  • Make the material more engaging, perhaps with videos and/or a journal

Regarding the exercises, most liked them and a few even called them “life-changing.” But a significant percentage felt they were too personal, too similar to things they’ve already done, or not suitable for WOL or the workplace. 

What’s next

The last question I asked in the survey was, “If you were me, would you keep working on WOL: Self-Care?” 

The responses were (mostly) positive and encouraging, and yet even if they weren’t I would keep working on WOL: SC. As I wrote about a year ago, the needs for putting these ideas into practice are greater than ever, and we have a tremendous opportunity because of how WOL has spread.

Hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves. What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

As a next step, I will redesign WOL: Self-Care, employing a different structure, different media, and different exercises. I will also create alternative practices so those who finish WOL Circles have multiple options for continuing their development.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the pilot as well as those who offered ideas and opinions along the way. I greatly appreciate your support and contributions.

Perfect just the way you are. And...

That’s the thing about Zen masters. You never really know when they’re joking.

Shunryu Suzuki is best known for founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia and one of the most influential Zen organizations in the US. In the late 1960s, he was giving a lecture on “non-gaining mind” in which he was emphasizing practice for its own sake, as opposed to some benefit in the future. The striving and clinging to expectations not only distorted your practice but could also leave you miserable. 

“You become very idealistic with some notion or ideal set up by yourself and you strive for attaining or fulfilling that notion or goal. But as I always say this is very absurd because when you become idealistic in your practice you have gaining idea within yourself, so by the time you attain some stage your gaining idea will create another ideal…Because your attainment is always ahead of you, you are always sacrificing yourself for some ideal. So this is very absurd. “

A student asked Suzuki to clarify what he meant, so he simplified it.

“You are perfect just the way you are. And there’s room for improvement!”

Although I’m not sure if Suzuki was kidding, something clicked for me when I read that. I had always thought that being content with the way things are would be a sign of laziness, something not to be tolerated. My way to motivate myself has been to keep focusing on the improvement, the thing to be fixed or made better.

But as I get older, I see it only leads to a life of never-good-enough. You race towards a finish line that doesn’t exist, unable to complete the simple declaration: “I will be happy when…”

What if you could tap into all the benefits of getting better without the stress and drama? What if you accepted yourself exactly as you are - and others exactly as they are - and still remained open and curious about further development?

An example of kintsugi, or making art from damaged pottery - Photo credit: June’s Child

The Gratitude Letter

Martin Seligman is a professor, author, and one of the founders of positive psychology. Stumped for an assignment during one of his courses, he asked students for ideas. Someone suggested “Gratitude Night.” 

The proposal was that members of the class would “bring a guest who had been important in their lives, but whom they had never properly thanked.” The guests wouldn’t know the exact purpose of the event. Students would prepare a testimonial ahead of time, and read it aloud to the guest during class. Seligman related what happened next in his book, Authentic Happiness.

“And so it was that one month later, on a Friday evening, with some cheese and a wine, the class assembled along with seven guests - three mothers, two close friends, one roommate, and one younger sister - from around the country.”

Students talked about things their guests did that shaped their lives, about the qualities that inspired them, about the affection and admiration they felt. Reading the letters tapped into deep emotions for everyone present. 

“There was literally not a dry eye in the room. The givers, receivers, and observers all cried. When I started to cry, I didn’t even know why I was crying.” 

In course evaluations at the end of the semester, a typical comment was, “it was one of the greatest nights of my life.” 

Now it’s your turn. But instead of “Gratitude Night” and an in-person event, I suggest you do something simpler, something you can do now: write a “Gratitude Letter.”

  1. First, pick someone “who has made a major positive difference in your life, and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks.” It could be someone living or deceased. It could be a family member, friend, or anyone who you are grateful to have had in your life.

  2. Write your letter. Take your time, and savor it. Reflect on special moments and qualities that made a difference for you. Relive the feelings you felt. In your letter, address the person directly - you’re writing to them, not about them.

  3. Finally, deliver your letter in some way. You could choose to read it in person like Seligman’s students, or deliver it via mail. If the person is no longer alive, you might store the letter in a special place, perhaps where there’s a memorial or photo.

I already have several people in mind - my mother, my sister, a teacher who influenced me. The more I think about it, the more letters I want to write. To help me actually do it, I included the Gratitude Letter as an exercise in the second month of the WOL-SC experiment that’s underway now.

Take a moment now to think about your own letter. Who has made a difference in your life? Who will you thank?

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“The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”

What if, instead of constantly trying to fight against some of our cognitive and behavioral weaknesses, we could use them to our advantage?

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Hidden persuaders

The title of this post is taken from the last line of Mindless Eating, by food researcher Brian Wansink. In the book, he writes that we make over 200 food decisions each day, and that we aren’t aware of most of them. The result is that what we eat and how much we eat are determined by an astounding array of “hidden persuaders.” Here are a few of them:

  • size of the plate or container

  • shape of the glass

  • distance to the food/convenience of accessing it

  • variety of food

  • number of people you’re eating with

  • distractions present (tv, radio, phone, reading, etc.)

  • labels/descriptions of the food

  • presentation of the food

The most famous example might be the popcorn study. Wansink gave people a free bucket of popcorn at a movie theater. Some had a medium bucket and some had a large bucket, though each was big enough that no one could finish all of it. Importantly, all of the popcorn was stale, having sat in sterile conditions for five days. Despite patrons saying, “It was like eating Styrofoam peanuts,” people with large buckets ate 53% more - an average of 21 more handfuls (or 173 extra calories). 

Study after study show the impact of hidden persuaders. If you eat with one person you’ll eat 35% more, and up to 96% more when you eat with a group of seven. If you’re given a half-pound bag of M&Ms you’ll eat an average of 71, but you’ll eat 137 (or 264 more calories) from a one-pound bag. Even experienced bartenders mistakenly pour 37% more alcohol into short, wide glasses than into tall, skinny ones.

How to avoid a lifetime of suffering

If you’re like me, you may believe you’re not fooled by such things, that you’re in control of your own choices. Alas, two decades of Wansink’s research shows that everyone thinks this way.

“We all think we’re too smart to be tricked by packages, lighting, or plates. We might acknowledge that others could be tricked, but not us. That is what makes mindless eating so dangerous. We are almost never aware that it is happening to us.”

Instead of fighting with yourself to become more disciplined, Wansink suggests you adopt simple “reengineering strategies” that make it easier for you to choose what you believe is in your own best interests. Want to eat more vegetables? Serve them family style or on larger plates. Want to drink a bit less wine? Serve it in taller, thinner glasses and keep the empties on the table.

“As all of our research suggests, we can eat about 20 percent more or 20 percent less without really being aware of it. You can eat too much without knowing, and you can also eat less without knowing it. The goal is to make small changes in our environment so it works with us rather than against us.”

Beyond popcorn

Reading Mindless Eating has already inspired me to change my environment when it comes to food. But the core idea applies to all sorts of things - from how much we use our phones to what kinds of media we consume.

Yes, our innate human tendency for doing things in a mindless, habitual way can lead to unhealthy choices - choices that may well be driven by external influences and the interests of others. But a short period of making mindful adjustments to your environment can help you create a kind of “positive mindlessness,” one that leads to choices that serve you well.

The next time you overindulge on popcorn or social media, don’t waste time berating yourself. Think instead of how the things around you may have led to that behavior. Choose to control your environment rather than have it control you.

The first WOL-SC Circles are ready to start in September

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hit “publish” last week, asking for volunteers to test a new kind of Circle, so I kept my expectations low. 

When the first response arrived nine minutes later, I breathed a small sigh of relief. Then more and more emails kept trickling in. Within 24 hours, I realized I had a good problem: I would have far more volunteers than I could accommodate in the first test of the new materials.

The diversity of those who responded is remarkable. Some work in big companies like Bosch and Daimler, and others in governmental and non-profit organizations related to healthcare, training, and education. Some are coaches or work in small consulting firms. There’s even someone who has their own “small fashion brand.” Respondents wrote to me from 16 different countries.

  1. Argentina
  2. Australia
  3. Austria
  4. Belgium
  5. Brazil
  6. Canada
  7. China
  8. Germany
  9. India
  10. Italy
  11. Netherlands
  12. New Zealand
  13. Poland
  14. Switzerland
  15. Turkey
  16. USA

I was going to form just three Circles so I could be sure to support each one and make use of their feedback. But I quickly decided to expand the experiment to 15 Circles to accommodate more volunteers. Still, I had to ask many people to wait for the next version of the guides before trying WOL-SC. I expect to publish them on workingoutloud.com in early 2019, after the experiment is complete and I’ve made improvements and adjustments to the method.

When people wrote to me, some said they hoped they would “make the cut” and some sent me their qualifications to be included. For those of you who could not join, please know this was not meant to be a contest of any kind. In selecting volunteers, I aimed simply for diversity, attempting to have a healthy mix of different countries, organizations, genders, and jobs.

In the next few days, I’ll be sending out emails to everyone who responded. I want to thank every single person for their support, and for their willingness to try something new and to offer their feedback. It is encouraging and inspiring, and i greatly appreciate it. 

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Introducing a new kind of Circle: WOL-SC

For people who have participated in a WOL Circle, a common question is, ”What comes next?” Many people want to keep going, so some join another Circle with new members. Others just continue to meet every so often, updating and supporting each other. 

Now there’s another option. It’s a new way to deepen the insights and practice you began developing in your WOL Circle, and it’s called WOL-SC.

 

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What is WOL-SC?

The “SC” in “WOL-SC” can stand for many things: “Self-Care,” “Self-Compassion,” “SuperCharge,” or whatever other label you can come up with that expresses a sense of investing in yourself and and developing important skills. In many ways, a WOL-SC Circle can be thought of as a prequel to a WOL Circle. Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

WOL-SC is comprised of five discrete practices that you experiment with one after the other. Without exaggeration, these practices have changed my life. When I compare my current self to myself in years past, I am happier and calmer. I act with more confidence and clarity. I am a better father, husband, and friend. WOL-SC is an attempt to distill what I’ve learned from years of experiments aimed at improving my own work and life. It is not meant as a prescription that will work for everyone, or to presume that anyone should do what I do. Rather, it's offered in the spirit of “this helped me, and I hope you find it useful too.”

The main ideas are not new. The WOL-SC Circle Guides are all based on ancient wisdom, much of it thousands of years old and increasingly supported by scientific research. My intended contribution is to make it easier for anyone to apply these fundamentally good practices till they become habits, so more people can realize the many well-documented benefits.

How does it compare to a WOL Circle?

If you have already been in a WOL Circle, then certain aspects of WOL-SC will be familiar to you. You will meet as a group of four or five. It will be a psychologically safe, confidential space without judgment or competition. Your Circle can meet in person or via video across locations, and there will be guides with instructions on what to do in those meetings.

Beyond that, there are several important differences. You will meet only once a month for six months. You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. The reason for the Circle meetings is that the structure, shared accountability, and support can help each person make progress. Also, reflecting on and exchanging experiences each month can advance your learning. 

Better for you. Better for your organization.

The personal benefits of the five practices in WOL-SC have been thoroughly studied and documented, and the new Circle Guides include resources to help you explore further and learn more. But there are benefits for organizations, too. Companies clearly recognize the need to do more to help employees handle the strains of work and life. Every company I've met with, for example, has a Wellness at Work or Mindfulness program. And hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves.

What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

If you would like to be the first to try it…

I’ve been toying with this idea for a few years. While staying in Japan this summer, I finally drafted a set of guides that are ready to test, but not yet ready to publish. For the first experiment, I’d like to form 3 Circles, comprised of people I don’t know well and all of whom have been in at least one WOL Circle. We will start in September.

  • Circle #1 would meet in person in New York City, and I would be a member. So I would need four volunteers who live in or near NYC.
  • Circle #2 would meet via video and would span timezones. I would be a member of this Circle too, so I would need four volunteers from different countries.
  • Circle #3 would not include me. This will help me understand if the new guides are self-explanatory and what changes I may need to make. For this Circle, I would need five volunteers who would meet via video (unless five people in the same location volunteer as a group).

If you would like to volunteer for the WOL-SC experiment, send me an email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com and let me know if you have a preference for which Circle you’d like to join. This is version 1.0 of something that may take many iterations to get right, but I am committed to working on it and to making the guides available for free. I appreciate your interest and support.