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Write your way to enhanced wellbeing

One evening recently whilst I was chilling in front of the TV, glass of wine in hand, reflecting on the past challenging week and feeling relieved it was finally the weekend, a Facebook message suddenly popped up. A friend had included me in a Facebook group as she had news to share, news which she warned would knock us for six. She had cancer!  My heart sank and the tears rolled.

A lovely woman, in a fabulous marriage, with a doting daughter, and a great career. My head was racing. What a terrible blow to them all.  How would she cope? How would she get through the awful journey ahead of her – chemo sessions and hair loss (that was what mainly prompted her message – to warn us of her newly acquired bald status).

The next morning I awoke to another message. She hoped I didn’t mind, but she had added me to a Facebook page, which she was going to use as a blog of her cancer journey. She said she wanted positive people around her, and she wanted to act in a positive, constructive way. She wanted somewhere safe to download her feelings, her progress and any setbacks. I was incredibly touched and also instantly relieved. She was going to reflect on it all as it unfolded and write it all down. I knew she was going to be ok.

Some months back I was lucky to have a breakfast meeting with a hero of mine, Professor Jamie Pennebaker from the US. He was giving a keynote at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference, where I was also presenting my work. For a number of decades he has studied and written about the many benefits of expressive writing on stress and psychological and physical wellbeing.

I, too, have been working with the power of the written word, which, when coupled with specific, challenging goals, can have far-reaching and life-changing consequences. For 15 years I have worked with goal setters, from all industry sectors as well as our final year undergraduate students. Many choose to focus on stress and wellbeing goals, which once written about in an on-going and reflective way, lead to fantastic results. The combination of writing things down and giving these written reflections a goal focus, is incredibly powerful.

At one extreme, people have claimed that this process, which I call ‘Reflective Goal Setting’ (see diagram below), has stopped them embarking on another suicide attempt, has helped them manage OCD, and anxiety and depression via a range of suitable, far-reaching goals. At the other end of the wellbeing spectrum, reflective goal setters report increasing their positivity, optimism and happiness, as well as reducing (or indeed banishing) unhealthy habits and enhancing their mental and physical fitness.

Reflective Goal Setting: Dr Travers’ 5-Stage Model:

The key to success appears to be the process of, and commitment to, writing about our goals and our reflections on them.

For example, I was recently training some high-pressured senior leaders from a finance company. Two of them were conscious that their stress levels were being further affected by their overall fitness – they had both got out of shape, and were feeling tetchy, anxious and lethargic. They both set a goal to improve their fitness and returned a month later for a follow up.  Updates revealed that one leader was overwhelmingly thrilled that his goal to exercise for at least 30 minutes, four times a week, had been surpassed and he was now working out every day.  He reported experiencing enhanced wellbeing and an improved ability to manage stress and pressure.  The face of the other leader, with the same fitness goal, visibly dropped. He had failed miserably, and had done one 30-minute run the first day, then nothing since.

We started to unpack the possible reasons why and one thing was overwhelmingly obvious – this second fitness-seeker had not bothered to write it down, whereas the fitness-achiever had gone away, written out his specific goal statement and used a diary to log his thoughts and feelings on his goal attempts and progress over the last month. Powerful stuff, and findings that are being replicated around the world by associate scholars of mine.

I have many examples of the impact of Reflective Goal Setting on enhanced physical and psychological wellbeing and would like to share elements of my five-stage model (see diagram above) as it relates to this.

Before you begin, get yourself a nice journal to write in:

Stage 1 – Consider your own wellbeing capability and capacity. How are things going for you? How do you react to pressure and stress? What do others feedback to you about your coping?  Are you keeping your head above water? What do you think contributes to your (lack of) well-being? What is your consistent well-being story? Write these findings down.

Stage 2 – Select a suitable, specific and challenging well-being goal. From your self-reflections and enhanced self-awareness, what do you think would be the most useful and impactful goal for you to try? Ask for feedback from others if you are not sure. Write these ideas down.

Stage 3 – Visualise yourself acting out this goal behaviour. Can you see yourself behaving in a fitter way, making wiser well-being choices and reaping the benefits? What would this healthier behaviour actually look like in action?  Identify role models whose healthy behaviour you could emulate. Write this all down and especially ways that you will measure your goal progress and any concerns you may have about the goal.

Stage 4 – Write out your detailed goal statement. Take the time to write down exactly what you are going to do, how you will do it, in what situations and exactly how you  will monitor and measure progress.

Stage 5 – Put it into practice. Actively seek out opportunities to practice your goal behaviour and regularly write down your progress and reactions to the goal. Reflect on and record any negative feelings as well as positive reactions and advances you make. Adjust your goal if necessary.

So, the key is to write reflectively throughout the entire process.

This Blog post was written by Dr Cheryl Travers, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management and a member of the Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour discipline group. Cheryl can be reached on C.Travers@lboro.ac.uk