In the world of EPPP test preparation, there’s a familiar story. It goes something like this.
You finished your graduate work, you completed your internship and now you’re all ready to do what you always dreamed of doing—helping people through work as a psychologist. There’s only one problem, you haven’t passed your licensure exam. Compared to the rigors of grad school and the stress of internship, this final hurdle seems comparatively easy. So you order a box of books and other preparation materials that promise to train you for everything you need to know to successfully pass the Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP) and get licensed.
The box of preparation materials arrives. Not wanting to waste a moment and delay your longed-for career, you jump right in and start studying. As you get into the material, it quickly becomes clear that the task is more daunting than you anticipated. You feel overwhelmed, and with good reason: after all, the EPPP is like the bar exam or a medical exam—one of the hardest tests among all the professional disciplines.
Maybe you’re ambitious and so you commit to studying three or four hours every day. However, it quickly becomes clear that not even the rigors of grad school have prepared you for this final challenge. The overwhelming amount of material you’re required to master is staggering and hard to even describe to someone who hasn’t been there.
Pretty soon your initial enthusiasm turns to disappointment and guilt. After a few days, or maybe even a few weeks of rigorous study, you get to a point where you think, “I just can’t do this.” Or maybe you don’t even think that, but normal life just takes over and you’re unable to keep the promises you made yourself of X amount of study every day.
I know what I’m talking about because I know people who have been there. And whether or not you’ve had any experience with the EPPP, we’ve all encountered similar situations before where we begin something with high hopes yet flounder when it comes to long-term perseverance. Somehow, daily life just has a habit of taking over and sabotaging all our good intentions.
Big Steps to Big Goals
Maybe you’ve experienced this same dynamic in other areas, like dieting, exercise, learning a musical instrument, doing yoga or mastering a foreign language. Whatever it is, human beings have a tendency to get excited about something that is potentially life-transforming and in that initial excitement we commit to big goals. We promise to spend X amount of time every day taking big steps to reach this big goal. For example, we might say,
- “I’m going to go to the gym 3 times a week and lose 25 pounds.”
- “I’m going to start getting up half an hour earlier each morning to work on learning Spanish.”
- “I’m going to become healthy again by having a smoothie every morning and no longer eating junk food.”
- “Every day during my lunch break for the rest of the year, I’m going to do half an hour of yoga.”
- “This year I’m only going to have one cup of coffee a day.”
- “I’m going to train my children to be responsible and help with the housework by making them do chores every day.”
- “I’m going to transform myself from being a negative person to someone who radiates peace and contentment. I’m going to achieve this by writing a daily gratitude journal and doing mindfulness meditation every evening.”
We set goals like these all the time. The good thing about big goals is that they get to the heart of what matters to us. We imagine what our life would be like if we achieved something that was really important to us, and inspired by our vision we have the enthusiasm to take the necessary steps to reaching that goal…at least to begin with.
The flip side of big goals is that they are notoriously difficult to follow through on over the long-haul. This means that the things that are the most important to us in life end up being the things that we find the hardest to accomplish. After a week, or a month, or maybe even a year of our new regime, we come to a point of realizing that we just don’t have what it takes to get to where we need to be. Normal life takes over, but this time it’s normal life plus guilt.
Maybe we blame ourselves, our schedule, our family or our lack of will-power. We feel discouraged, maybe even a failure. In a place of guilt and discouragement we are likely to try to compensate by making bigger goals, thereby setting ourselves up for failure again. And so the cycle continues.
Small Steps to Big Goals
There is a simple solution to this problem. In fact, the solution is so simple that it seems counter-intuitive, unbelievable and impossible. I’d like to introduce this solution by sharing a story that Robert Maurer told in his book One Small Step Can Change Your Life.
“Julie sat in the examining room, her eyes cast downward. She had come to UCLA’s medical center for help with high blood pressure and fatigue, but the family practice resident and I could see that much more was going on. Julie was a divorced mother of two, by her own admission a little depressed and more than a little overwhelmed. Her support system was shaky at best, and she was just barely holding on to her job.
The young doctor and I were concerned about Julie’s long-term health. Her weight (she was carrying more than thirty extra pounds) and soaring stress level put her at increased risk for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and deeper depression. It was clear that if Julie did not make some changes, she was headed down a spiral of disease and despair.
We knew a cheap, proven way to help Julie, and it wasn’t a bottle of pills or years in psychotherapy. If you read the papers or watch the news, you can probably guess what I’m talking about: exercise. Regular physical activity could improve nearly all of Julie’s health problems, give her more stamina to sustain her through her grueling days, and boost her spirits.
Once, I might have offered this free and effective treatment with al lthe zeral of a new convert. Go jogging! Ride a bike! Rent an aerobics video! I might have said. Give up your lunch break, wake up an hour earlier if you have to, but just get up and make that commitment to your health five times a week! But when I looked at the dark circles under Julie’s eyes, my heart sank. We’d probably told hundreds of patients to exercise, but very few of them made it a regular habit. They found it too time-consuming, too sweaty, too much effort. I believe that most of them were also afraid of breaking out of their comfortable ruts, although not all of the patients were aware of this fear. And here sat Julie, who worked almost constantly just to keep her kids housed and clean and fed. Her only solace was relaxing for a half-hour or so on the couch most evenings. I could predict what would happen: The doctor would tell he to exercise, Julie would feel both misunderstood (“How am I going to find time to work out? You don’t understand me at all!”) and guilty. The resident physician would feel frustrated to see her advice ignored one more time—and possibly start to become cynical, as so many hopeful young doctors eventually do. What could I do to break this sad cycle?”
Does Julie’s situation sound familiar? How many times have we come face to face with something we want to change in our life, but we can’t break out of the cycle of normal life to take the steps necessary to facilitate that change? Maurer describes how other doctors had told Julie to exercise, but because she could never keep it up she descending into guilt. So he decided to try something radical with Julie, something so radical that it almost seems crazy:
Julie struck me as the perfect candidate for change in its smallest, least threatening form. I looked on as Julie waited to hear what the resident had to say. As I predicted, the resident talked to Julie about the importance of taking time for herself and of getting some exercise. Just as she was about to tell Julie to spend at least thirty minutes of most days on aerobically challenging exercise-a recommendation that would have likely been met with disbelief and anger—I found myself jumping in.
“How about if you just march in place in front of the television, each day, for one minute?”
The resident shot me an incredulous look.
But Julie brightened a little. She said, “I could give that a try.”
What Maurer implemented with Julie is known as the Kaizen technique. It is based on the principle that the way to reach big goals is to make the steps towards those goals as small as possible.
Hacking the Human Brain
In a future post I’ll explain how the Kaizen technique (i.e. small change over time) was discovered. At the moment, however, I’d like to explain why it works. The Kaizen method is not a concession to human laziness or a way to just make things easier. Rather, it is a recognition of how the human brain works.
Think of the human brain as a constant tug-of-war between two impulses. On the one hand, our brain constantly longs for innovation, for the excitement of newness. On the other hand, we long for stability, for the security of having things stay the same. Scientists who have studied the human brain have discovered that when we commit to change something in our life, it is the impulse for newness and innovation that is operative. Over the long term, however, this is often sabotaged by the part of our brain that longs to keep things normal and which fears change.
Introducing change through tiny steps is a way to overcome our brain’s natural resistance to change. This is because small setps allow change to occur within a context that is not significantly threatening to the status quo. Taking small “Kaizen steps” is a way to hack the human brain. It is a way to navigate around the natural road blocks to change through habituating new behaviors in a way that feels safe to the brain.
Let’s return to the story of Julie. Here is what Maurer shares happened:
“When Julie returned for a follow-up visit, she reported that she’d indeed marched in front of the TV set for one minute each night. Granted, she wasn’t going to get much healthier with just sixty seconds of low-intensity exercise. But during this second visit, I noticed that Julie’s attitude had changed. Instead of coming back discouraged, as so many failed exercisers do, Julie was more animated, with less resistance in her speech and demeanor.
“What else can I do in one minute a day?” she wanted to know.
I was thrilled. A small success, yes, but much better than the all-around discouragement I’d seen so many times. We began to guide Julie slowly toward a healthier life, building up the exercise habit minute by minute. Within a few months, Julie found that her resistance to more a complete fitness program had dissolved. She was now eager to take on full aerobics workouts—which she performed regularly and enthusiastically!”
Reach Goals by Lowering Standards
How do this apply to you?
To start with, I would encourage you to make a list of all the things you’ve committed to do in the past but failed to follow-through on. Then ask yourself this question: “If I had lowered the standards I set for myself, could I have persevered to my goal?”
For example, if your goal is to learn another language, don’t promise yourself that you will study for half an hour or more each day. All you will be doing is setting yourself up for failure. Instead, start small with just five minutes each day. Once the habit is established, you can increase the time.
Or suppose your goal is to make your children start helping with the housework. You put a chore chart on the fridge and relentlessly follow-through to force your kids to habituate the new behavior. The problem is that after a week you just don’t have the energy to keep following-through, especially if it involves stress and resistance. If instead you had started smaller, perhaps by making your children do the dishes for 30 seconds each day, then the habit could easily be established. Once the habit is established, you can increase the time.
I could keep giving examples. If your goal is to do 15 minutes a day of meditation, change it to just five minutes. If your goals is to practice a musical instrument for an hour a day, change it to 10 minutes. If your goal is to give up caffeine, instead of trying to quit completely, just try leaving a little bit of undrunk coffee at the bottom of your cup.
Keep setting goals that are as big as possible, but make the steps to reaching those goals as small as you can at first. I mean, make them really really small – so small that you can’t possibly fail to follow-through. Then, instead of being overwhelmed into inaction, you will be encouraged by your success and gradually you can begin to increase the size of your steps.
Kaizen and Your EPPP Prep
Let’s apply this Kaizen technique (small steps over time) to you and your EPPP prep. When you find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of work required to reach your goal of being a licensed psychologist, it can be tempting to promise to make big steps towards reaching that goal. Consider instead taking some smaller steps. Instead of making promises to yourself that you can’t fulfill and then feeling guilty, or instead of delaying your EPPP prep until a time in the distant future when your life can accommodate the perfect study routine, find out what you can easily do now and then stick to that. Even if it’s just 15 minutes a day, beginning taking those small steps towards your big goal.
At TSM we recognize the importance of taking small steps, which is why our team of technicians have put tools within our platform to enable you to customize your study routine to fit with your schedule. On the TSM website you can set your study program to an hour of study each, half an hour, twenty minutes, or even something as small as 10. You decide and we’ll tailor-make a study program to fit your needs.