One behavior change tactic to put in your toolbox is the imaginary friend. There’s a deep pool of research showing that self-efficacy, or the belief in your own power to achieve something, is connected to better behavior change outcomes. If we think we can do something, we’re more likely to try it, more likely to persist when we run into setbacks, and more likely to tackle the behavior from multiple angles. We also know behavior change is hard and people are likely to slip up many times before achieving the desired outcome. That’s where the imaginary friend comes in.
Say you’re working toward a weight loss goal and specifically trying not to eat sweets. Someone brings donuts into the office and you give in to temptation. You tell yourself you’ll just have a taste, but you find yourself returning to the box until you’ve eaten the entire donut. Now you’re angry at yourself.
This type of negative self-coaching following a slip-up does not, shockingly enough, help build self-efficacy. All it does is make you feel bad and lower your confidence. So why not have your imaginary friend talk to you about that donut instead?
The imaginary friend, who should be based on some of your favorite real-life friends, is not going to be mean to you. This friend, most likely, will tell you to get back on track. So you had a donut. Tonight you’ll eat a healthy dinner, and maybe you can tack some extra minutes onto your workout. Even if you haven’t reached your weight goals, you’re still a great person. Your imaginary friend isn’t going to make excuses for you, but she won’t tear you down, either. She’ll help preserve your self-efficacy.
You can use the imaginary friend proactively, too. Putting yourself in the shoes of someone else who’s looking at you can help you one, clarify a course of action aligned with your goals and two, overcome temptations. Take Gretchen Rubin‘s imaginary manager:
“I imagine myself as the client, a fabulous celebrity–and like all fabulous celebrities, I have a manager. I’m lucky, because my manager understands me completely, and she’s always thinking about my long-term well-being. These days, when I struggle with a habit, I ask myself, ‘What does my manager say?'”
If you had someone like Gretchen’s manager at the time of the donut incident, the manager probably would have warned you away from the donut box entirely, maybe reminding you that even a small taste was just going to leave you wanting more.
You may not want a manager; maybe you want a best friend, a coach, or even a boss. But regardless of who your imaginary person is, taking that perspective to help make decisions can help build self-efficacy and achieve results.