Many things lend themselves to quick fixes. People who deny that — “It justcan’t be that easy!” — are uninformed or afraid to take responsibility for their lives.
Headspace helps us meditate, Runkeeper motivates us to exercise, QualityTimetracks our screen time and various food-track apps monitor our calorie intake. For productivity, start your day ‘unplugged’ with a cold shower and a glass of water, light breakfast, black coffee, and deep work. And so on.
For physical habits, these straightforward strategies about what (not) to do work. In such domains, good techniques give you 80% of the benefits for 20% of the toil.
As Mark Manson observes, “There seems to be a bias in the human circuitry that … overestimates the effort required to take on … small goals.”
It’s the same bias causes people to underestimate what it takes to accomplish big goals.
Affirmations as a habit
Many self-help gurus advocate similar quick fixes for mental habits. That’s problematic.
The most famous trick in the bag is that of ‘affirmations’. According to the first hit on Google:
“Affirmations are simple messages. Repeated over-and-over, they begin to worm their way into your mind. Slowly changing both your thinking and your reality.”
Tellingly, this strategy is advocated by a website called DevelopGoodHabits.
The idea is, when you say something to yourself often enough — “I’m a goddamit fa-bu-lous public speaker!” — the message will trickle down and your beliefs about your presentation skills will actually change, without any miserable public speaking experiences whatsoever. It’s all in the head!
“Sounds good,” I thought, so during my life, I’ve affirmated the shit out of myself. Under the shower, cycling and whenever, I’d fill empty moments by uttering to myself: “You can do it! You can do it! You’re the best!”
Just writing that makes me squirm.
Here’s the thing. Perhaps beliefs about yourself that were formed using this method can withstand run-off-the-mill, low-pressure tests. But when push comes to shove, in high-pressure, high-performance situations, when you’re up for that first conference talk, you see through the mirage. The house of cards collapses.
The problem is that the belief doesn’t trickle down. Standing in front of a mirror and doing affirmations is easy, and it’s not enough. For true confidence, there’s no quick fix. You can’t skip the embarrassments and failures.
Affirmations are a coping mechanism, perhaps an instigator, but not a confidence builder.
Two types of confidence
There’s a difference between, under the shower, thinking I’m OK at something, on the one hand, and genuinely believing so, on the other hand. It’s a lack of this fundamental self-reliance that shines through in the heated moments.
‘Verbal’ and ‘behavioral’ confidence aren’t the same thing. The problem with affirmations is that they drive a wedge between what you tell yourself and what you believe in your core.
Repeated success is the only way for confidence to trickle down. Otherwise the belief is baseless, fake. And deep down, you know it is.
Because your heart knows there’s something amiss — it senses the discrepancy — this belief-forming method is a one-way ticket to the Impostor syndrome: a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. I wonder whether there’s a connection between the rise of that cognitive condition and the popularity of affirmations.
Confidence must be earned. Not created.
Confidence is overrated
Is it just me, or are most (over)confident people kind of annoying?
To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. Instead of convincing yourself that “You can do it!”, it’s better to be honest with yourself: “I don’t how I’ll do — I’m new at this.” Contrary to what people tell you, it’s totally OK to feel that way.
That you’re not fully confident, doesn’t mean you have a lack of confidence. Rather than as high as possible, your confidence level ought to be realistic: proportional to your track record.
Trust yourself because you’ve seen yourself in action, not because you’ve talked yourself into it. Words are too thin of a foundation.
Confidence doesn’t turn you into an overnight superhero. If your skills don’t match up, you can be as self-assured as you like, to no avail. It will make you look stupid — not smart.
Confidence is not something you begin with, but something that comes gradually with repeated attempts at doing something successfully, the byproduct of prior performance. It comes after, not before.
To take that first step, you need courage. That’s much more important than confidence.