Thursday, January 13, 2011

It all boils down to self-efficacy

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

For much of my life I have thought that growth, development, and change all depend on a single element: self-discipline.  On January 6, 2009, as I was sitting at the dining-room table reading The New York Times page on “Health," in an article by Tara Parker-Pope entitled, “If You Find the Motivation, Exercise Follows,” I discovered the underlying key to self-discipline. It revealed itself, and I was astounded I hadn’t thought of it much sooner.  It all boils down to self-efficacy.

Parker-Pope discusses the purchase of exercise machines — so common at this time of year, and in the essay, she says, “...having home equipment is not the most important factor.  What matters more is ‘self-efficacy’ — a deep-seated belief that we really do have the power to achieve our goals” (p. D5).

It is, indeed, self-efficacy that secures “your confidence in your ability to stick to your exercise program when you’re on vacation, when you’re not feeling well, when you’re busy.”  Because I exercise early in the morning (before it gets light outside), I must get up between 3 and 4 a.m.  Inevitably the question becomes, “Do I really want to leave the warmth, softness, and comfort of this wonderful bed to stretch my sleepy body, push my muscles to their limit, and jog three miles in sub-freezing cold?”  It’s true that I, just as inevitably, answer the question positively each time it arises, but the question I seldom ask is, “What is it that causes me to answer this way?”  I have always thought it was self-discipline, but clearly it is something rooted much deeper — a belief in my own ability to do whatever it is that I set out to do.  It is self-efficacy.

There are four main factors that affect the self-efficacy that I demonstrate, according to an essay, “The Importance of Self-Efficacy,” by Shannon Clark at HubPages.  They include 1) actual experience, 2) vicarious experience, 3) verbal persuasion, and 4) the emotional and physiological states I find myself in.

With respect to my actual experience, I have to admit that I am a creature of habit.  I have written about how my habit of writing developed in my essay, “On Being a Writer — An Irresistible Compulsion!."   When it comes to self-efficacy it is just such experiences that determine your ability at any given time.  Do you persevere in the face of challenges, or do you give up?  Do you consistently find yourself determined to fulfill your resolutions, or do you forget about them?

Vicarious experience plays a role as well.  What do you see others doing?  For example, if you surround yourself with successful dieters, the chances for your success increase.  If you have friends who exercise regularly, chances are you will, too, especially if you accompany each other.  Vicarious experiences can be absorbed from the programs you watch on television or the books you read as well.  What you must remember, however, is doing the best you can given your own circumstances and limitations — and not judging yourself based on standards others use.

Verbal persuasion is a combination of all the talk that goes on around you when you are dieting, exercising, and completing projects.  As a writer, I remember the positive things people would say after reading an article, chapter, essay, or book, and their comments served as verbal persuasion to continue what I was doing.  I have often heard others remark on my ability to maintain my workouts, and there is no doubt they further enhance my motivation.

The emotional and physiological states I find myself in have an effect on my self-efficacy, too.  One element that continually pushes me toward the completion of my goals is my feeling of self-control over situations.  I not only want to be in control, but of most situations I encounter, I feel I am in control.  When I feel as though I am absolutely starving, and I am trying to maintain a diet, I think about how important it is to maintain my weight.  I don’t like it when my clothes feel tight, and I don’t like my doctor recording a weight with which I am unhappy.  Diet, weight, exercise, and writing are all processes important to me and over which I exert control.

It is my belief in self-efficacy that gives me control of the events that affect my life!  It is what determines how I feel, think, and behave.  It makes me feel better about myself, more powerful, and in control.

It is self-efficacy that helps us manage illnesses.  Illness is a challenge to be mastered not a threat to be avoided.  It is self-efficacy that allows us not just to set goals, but to stay committed to them and not give up if we make mistakes.  It is self-efficacy that assists us in bouncing back from failures.  It is self-efficacy that permits us to overcome our own weaknesses and provides the confidence that we can eventually succeed.  When we don’t give up, and when we begin to feel a sense of our own power and control, that is when self-efficacy is most noticeable.

In Thomas Creer’s essay, “The Importance of Self-Efficacy,” at the website, Manage Your Illness, he underscores the same four ways to develop self-efficacy that Clark writes about.  First, engage in mastery experiences.  “Successes,” writes Creer, “build a belief in your personal efficacy.  Failures undermine it, especially if they occur before we have established a sense of efficacy.”  Once you are convinced you have what it takes to succeed, you will persevere in the face of adversity and rebound from setbacks.  Second, says Creer, observe others.  Find models similar to yourself.  “The greater the similarity between models and ourselves,” he writes, “the more persuasive their successes and failures are to us.”  Third, Creer writes, is social persuasion.  “To the extent that persuasion leads us to try to succeed, it promotes the development of skills and a sense of personal efficacy.”  A valuable aspect of social persuasion is structuring situations in ways that will bring success and avoiding situations where failure is likely.

The fourth and final method for developing self-efficacy is reliance on your gut feelings and emotional states in judging your capabilities.  For example, can you interpret your own stress reactions and tension as signs you may perform poorly?  Can you read the signals of fatigue, aches, and pains as signs of physical weakness?  Do you have positive feelings regarding a potentially challenging situation?  “People with a high sense of efficacy,” Creer writes, “are likely to view arousal as a facilitator of performance.”

The point of this essay is to demonstrate how to develop self-efficacy.  Since it is so important, I wrote about the same four methods from the point of view of two writers.  Of course, it is easier said than done, however, awareness of how to achieve it is the first stage of developing it.  People who are successful have self-efficacy.
This essay entitled “Self-efficacy,” is written by P. A. Heslin and U. C. Klehe, in 2006, and it can be found in the Encyclopedia of Industrial/Organizational Psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 705-708), and is published by Sage.  I mention it here because the authors first explain its nature, how it affects performance and well-being, how it is measured, sources of self-efficacy, how it can be undermined, and what happens when there is too much of a good thing.

At website, the essay by Felicia Saffold is entitled, “Increasing self-efficacy through mentoring.,” in which she reports the results of a study: “This study focuses on the benefits for eight teacher mentors in an urban school district. Results indicate that the mentors' self-efficacy grew stronger as they interacted with new teachers.”  This study is simply one more piece of evidence that supports the value of self-efficacy: “Teachers' self-efficacy beliefs strongly influence their teaching. The stronger the sense of efficacy that a teacher has, the greater the effort, persistence, and resilience  he will demonstrate in his teaching.”
Copyright January, 2011, by And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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