How framing can make or break your progress

No matter who you are, what you do, or where you live in the last 12 months you have seen some change.  For some of us, it could have changed for the worse ways imaginable and some people will even have seen positives or maybe even massive life changing positives.  Out of the 7,844,095,298 (www.worldpopulationreview.com) people who inhabit the planet there are going to be a wide range in experience in how the last 10-12 months have affected them physically, emotionally, financially and in pretty much every conceivable way.  I think pretty much the only constant we have seen during the past year has been change.

During that change, we have been taken in directions outside of our control and we have been able to make decisions that are totally inside our own control and we might be very happy, indifferent, or disappointed with our own choices.  The point of this article is to discuss how you think about the things that you can control and the things you can’t control. But how the way you talk to yourself about those changes can materialize itself in real world outcomes like your feelings and actions.

Circles of control

I first came across this concept in the moderately good book “how to win friends and influence people” where they are discussed in terms of how you can use them to influence people directly or to use your influence to indirectly move them towards your way of thinking.  In the context of this article it is important we understand this concept before we go into how your self-talk can affect your actions and ultimately it is your actions you want to influence and leverage.

Are you in control? When thinking about a topic or something you are maybe looking at addressing or changing you need to first ask this question.  It’s a simple yes or no answer. No flowery talk or wooly thinking.  Can you change it through your own thought and action, yes or no?  If you answer yes it is in your circle of control.  If you answer no it’s not in your circle of control it’s that simple.

Can you influence it? The next question is to ask if you can influence it either through your own actions or conversations/discussions with others.  This one is definitely on a spectrum where your direct circle of control is pretty much a binary yes or no. Your influence is either large or small depending on your relationship with the person/thing/group you want to change or influence.  You could be the CEO or director of a company and be able to have more or less direct control through exercising your influence or you could be the Janitor in the same company, your abilities to affect change are going to differ based on who you are and where you sit in the hierarchy of the organisation or situation you want to change.  As thus you need to think about where you sit on the spectrum of control and see how you can exercise your influence.  

Are you not in control? No matter how hard you try, no matter how much kicking and screaming, posting on facebook or signing fucking petitions you do you can’t realistically or with in reason exercise control on an outcome. Then it lies outwith of your circles of control.  In some instances you can organise with others to exercise collective control on an issue in an extreme instance you could organise armed insurrection to topple a government or in a less extreme and more constitutional manner you could organise and protest to advocate for or show opposition towards something.  However for the purposes of this article we won’t be considering these viable options unless you plan on starting an armed resistance against your own inability to get up early in the morning.

What do I mean when I say framing

This is core to the rest of the article and it is important for your understanding and also your ability to leverage this to help you achieve what you want to achieve or to change what you want to achieve.  I am just going to copypasta the Wikipedia definition of the framing effect as it’s a pretty good and succinct version and better than what I would waffle out in any case.

“The framing effect is a cognitive bias where people decide on options based on whether the options are presented with positive or negative connotations; e.g. as a loss or as a gain.[1]

People tend to avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented.[2] Gain and loss are defined in the scenario as descriptions of outcomes (e.g., lives lost or saved, disease patients treated and not treated, etc.).

Prospect theory shows that a loss is more significant than the equivalent gain,[2] that a sure gain (certainty effect and pseudocertainty effect) is favored over a probabilistic gain,[3] and that a probabilistic loss is preferred to a definite loss.[2] One of the dangers of framing effects is that people are often provided with options within the context of only one of the two frames.[4]

The concept helps to develop an understanding of frame analysis within social movements, and also in the formation of political opinion where spin plays a large role in political opinion polls that are framed to encourage a response beneficial to the organization that has commissioned the poll. It has been suggested that the use of the technique is discrediting political polls themselves.[5] The effect is reduced, or even eliminated, if ample credible information is provided to people.[5]

Just like most ideas worth discussing or anything with even a remote connotation to politics yes minister has already done a better job of explaining it than either I or wikipedia could ever do –

When I am talking about framing in the context of this article I am first asking you to be aware of the fact that the way you talk to yourself and the way you view things is inside of your realm of control.  Of course, there are those who have problems with how they view the world which is completely outside of their realm of control. Those people should seek the help of health care professionals. I am not aiming this article at you if you struggle with your own mental health.  Strength coaches, influencers, and personal trainers ARE NOT health care professionals if you are one of these people offering advice on this topic please stop, if you are someone who suffers from these problems please seek help from someone who is qualified to give you the help you need. I am not qualified to speak on such matters.

Defining what you control

The first thing I want you to do is to take a piece of paper and title it with whatever the behaviors or goals you want to work towards or you want to train for example if you want to lose weight title the page with weight loss, if you want to get stronger title the page with getting stronger.  Draw three circles and label them 

  • Things I control
  • Things I can influence
  • Things I do not control

Then put a stopwatch on your phone or a timer set for 5 minutes and then just brain dump into the circles using the definitions of circles of controls from above.  Don’t think about it just go off your gut and what pops into your head, things you control, things you can influence and things you can not control.

Taking responsibility for the things you can control

After you have gone through the exercise you will now have down on paper in your own opinion (the only opinion that matters for this article or these exercises) what you can control, what you can influence and what you can’t control.  Now we are going to begin to break down how to use this information and how to engineer your mental framing to work in your favor so you can be on team you instead of being your single biggest critic which is where most people are at.

You control your actions.

Two excellent books I suggest your read on this topic are

  • The chimp paradox discusses how your brain is structured and how you can game it so you use this knowledge to help you take the right actions on triggers and inputs.
  • Extreme ownership is more tilted towards leadership but has an excellent core message which is to take responsibility for your own decisions and actions. 

It’s not enough to try and rationalize this away or to look for excuses when it comes down to it you control yourself.  To go forward and to start the messy and long process of changing your outlook you need to take responsibility for your circle of control.  It was you who wrote out what you control.  You need to own it and to ensure you are taking steps towards making decisions and taking actions that are geared towards the outcomes you want.  Without you taking responsibility for your own actions and your own decisions the rest of this article is a waste of your time.  Without action and taking responsibility all of this is just mental masturbation.  Take responsibility for your own circle.  

How you speak to yourself and how you frame your thoughts will influence your actions and ultimately decide upon your outcomes.

As a nation the British reval in the failure of people, we love to see the big guy with mud on their face and we love to see the underdog getting one over on the favorite (I don’t think this is particular to the British but it certainly is prevalent in this country) we lampoon the proud and we question the confident.  We view the American mindset as being naive and like to think of ourselves as somehow more worldly or more in tune with how the world works.

However, what we don’t consider is how these thoughts and ideals negatively influence our actions and how we go about our day-to-day life.  If you don’t believe you are going to stick to the diet well I don’t need to tell you how it’s going to pan out for you and your diet.  Self-belief isn’t something we are born with it is something that is instilled in us.

  • Kids who are talented and never have to really work for anything or who are told they are wonderful, talented, gifted, and will sail through life tend to give up when they fail or when the going gets tough.
  • Kids who are told they need to work for what they want, that success comes with persistence and hard work tend to stick with tasks through thick and thin and on a long enough time frame end up being successful.
  • Kids who are told they aren’t talented and that there is no point in trying will not even bother trying in the first place.

Your external environment has a lot of influence on this however if you revert back to your circles of control you can’t control the thoughts and opinions of others so there isn’t any point in worrying about this.  You can’t change the past and you can’t control other people however you can stop hanging out with people who suck the life out of you or you can try and find people who give you energy or multiply your own rather than sucking it away from you.

What we can take away from the above is that you might not be able to change the past but what you can do is make a conscious effort to change how you act in the present with the hope of positively affecting the future by controlling the controllable in a direction you want to grow and develop towards.

Self talk

What we want to reinforce

  • We will take actions 
  • We will try our best 
  • We are in it for the long haul 
  • We don’t expect quick or instant returns
  • We believe ultimately we will be rewarded for the aggregate of our actions and trust in the process.
  • We know the process is solid because we have set it out and understand how it works as a system of inflows, outflows, and stock.
  • We accept we will deviate from intended actions and that is okay
  • We will have bad days and good days it’s all part of the process
  • Our emotions will change both good and bad, it’s okay and it doesn’t affect the process or the outcomes.  Emotions might lead us to poor choices but it is only one moment in time.  One action, one-time frame it doesn’t change our path or alter the process.  We can accept responsibility, maybe review but ultimately move on.
  • Every second, every minute, every hour, and every day is an opportunity to take action and to make movement in the direction of travel we want to move in.
  • What we did in the past does not matter or have any effect on the present or the future.  We can choose to review and learn but we will not dwell.
  • We will ask ourselves if our future selves will benefit from our current or planned actions and if we are happy to make the trade-off.

What we want to stop or reduce

  • We won’t postpone action, rather than compilation and planning we will take action in the moment.
  • We won’t indulge in hindsight bias.  We won’t entertain what-ifs and if only we had done this differently in the past.  We didn’t and we probably acted in best faith with the information available.
  • We won’t chase after immediate gratification.  Short sharp gains lead to short-lived results.
  • We won’t compare ourselves with others or obsessed over the progress of others.  We can acknowledge the gains of others and use it as inspiration or to help motivate us to take action to work towards our own goals and targets.
  • We won’t take pleasure in the failure of others.  We won’t be crabs in a bucket we should acknowledge and if we can’t at the very least be happy for others we can at least ignore it. 
  • We won’t obsess or dwell on poor choices we have made, we can choose to learn from them or we can simply move on. We won’t drag ourselves through the mud for no reason.
  • We will try and be more kind to ourselves and others, everyone makes mistakes and there is no point punishing ourselves or them for being human.
  • We will stop looking down on our past selves and thinking of what we could have done differently. What’s done is done.  We can acknowledge where we could have made better choices but only if we are going to use it as a data point or we are going to learn from it and use it to help us make better decisions going forward.

Working backwards from where we want to be.

Outside of how we think we can also provide some structure to our goals.  It is one thing to say you want something it is a strategy that has been popularized in one of the many snake oil self help books which push manifesting as determined by google

7 Steps to Manifest Anything You Want — Including Money

Step 1: Get clear on what you want.

Step 2: Ask the universe.

Ask the universe for what you want once a day makes your requests clearer and clearer. Step 3: Work toward your goals.

Step 4: Trust the process.

Step 5: Receive and acknowledge what you get.

Step 6: Keep Your Vibration High.

Step 7: Clear your resistance.

I don’t think we need to have the keenest rational mind to realise that the above is a lot of nonsense and nothing more than wishful thinking and hot air.  What we need to do once we have identified a plan or something we want to pursue we need to think of what it will be like after we have achieved the goal.  From that vantage point, we then think back through the steps that helped us to achieve the goal.  This way of thinking can be termed as reverse engineering.  Other good ways of doing it would be to talk to people who have achieved what you want to achieve or something similar and to what you want to achieve and ask them the steps they took to get to where they have gotten.

Whilst positivity and a can do attitude are something we want to develop and use we aren’t looking to be overly positive morons who don’t grasp reality.  We want to have optimism on our side but we want to be optimistic because we have a plan and a process we are using to work towards whatever the end goal might be. 

Imagining a future where we have failed

It’s one thing having a positive outlook and a plan and process on how you are going to get to your final destination.  However, there are other outcomes than success there is qualified success and anything up to and including an outright failure.  Humans are likely to perceive a loss to be twice as painful as they are to find a gain of the same magnitude to be appealing.  As such the fear of loss and the possibility of failure are actually more powerful motivators than the thought of success.  Thinking of success and wondering what it’s going to be like after you have achieved your goal is going to put you in the mindset where you have achieved your goal and will lull you into a sense of having plenty of time and reduced urgency.

If you foresee futures where you have failed to achieve your goal it not only provides you with a bigger sense of urgency making you more likely to take action now when it is most useful but it will also allow you to see futures where you have failed and why you may have failed.  For example, if your goal is to lose 30kg and you have given yourself the timeline of achieving the first 7kg of weight loss in the first 6 weeks.  If you begin the process by imagining a world where you have gained 7kg in those 6 weeks instead of losing them because you postponed working out to the point where postponing it day to day was your habit and where you overate at night because you were hungry from undereating all day.  You will be more likely to be motivated to exercise when you are meant to and to eat healthily through the day and not overeat at night.

By imagining futures where you have failed you are more likely to envision the pitfalls and by envisioning the pitfalls you will be more likely to avoid them and if you should fall prey to them you are more likely to have a plan of how to rectify the situation or mitigate the damage. 

Scenario planning and Ulysses contracts

Finally, we should use our time goal setting and imagining futures where we are successful, working back, and also imaging futures where we fail to reach our goals and to use them to plan ahead.  We should be using scenarios where we are going to be presented with a decision and we need to be thinking in that moment which decision would benefit our future self more.

An example of this sort of scenario planning are Ulysses contracts which get their name from the Odyssey where the captain of the ship Ulysses ordered the crew of his ship to fill their ears with beeswax and to tie him to the mast so he could listen to the sirens call and not be able to do anything to steer the ship to the rocks. While his crew wouldn’t be able to hear their call or be tempted to steer towards them.  He ordered his crew that no matter what orders he would try to give they were to ignore him.

This is an example of scenario planning where we think of a negative outcome or a scenario and as our present selves, we do something to make the correct choice easier or inevitable for our future selves.  This is what is known as a Ulysses contract.

Going back to our weight loss example where we envisioned the over eating at night when we were hungry.  We could throw out all of the snack foods in our house and make it so we would have to order food in, go to the shop or cook a real meal if we were hungry thus raising the barrier to entry if we are wanting to make the less advantageous decision.  This doesn’t mean we will always make the correct choice. It is still possible to go out of our way to make the wrong choice and to over eat however raising the barrier to entry makes it more difficult and a more obvious act of self sabotage.

The plan is not just to have a plan for when things go right but to have a plan a, b, c, d, e, f…. For when things don’t go right and how we can best act in the moment to ensure we keep our best interests firmly at the fore-front.


Achieving goals doesn’t happen by accident, being organised and prepared for the future certainly doesn’t happen through luck alone however luck has a big part to play in it. 

To give ourselves the best chance going forward we need to make sure at the very minimum we if no one else is on our own side a task easier said than done.

Further reading 


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