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The Frequency Illusion

Have you ever noticed the more you think about a certain subject, the more it appears in your life? For example, last spring I was in the market for a new car. I had been driving a Saturn Ion since I was 16, and it was on it’s very last legs. For some reason, I decided I really wanted a Ford F-150. Immediately, I started seeing Ford F-150’s everywhere I looked. Did everyone on the street start buying these trucks? No, of course not. What was going on is something which Stanford professor Arnold Zwicky has termed the Frequency Illusion.

What is the Frequency Illusion?

The Frequency Illusion is basically the theory that you will see more of that which you have on your mind. Going back to the Ford truck example above, the reason I saw so many more F-150’s is because I was THINKING about Ford F-150’s often. This will happen in other, more important areas in your life, as well.

Let’s take this to the professional arena. Let’s say every single Monday morning you wake up, and your first thought centers on how much you hate your job. You get into the car, and you get into a traffic jam on your commute. Immediately, you think about how you wouldn’t be on this stupid commute, in this stupid traffic jam, if you just didn’t have this terrible job. Then, you get to work, and you spill coffee on yourself. Back to the stupid job things. Even emails which normally wouldn’t bother you, you look for the worst parts. All day you spend upset because you’re seeing all the bad parts of your job, and none of the good ones. Does this mean things got abundantly worse over the weekend? Of course not. Does this mean your job has no good sides? Of course not. You’re simply falling for the Frequency Illusion. Again.

How does the Frequency Illusion apply to your health?

Just like the example with your job, what you focus on with your health and fitness will greatly impact your overall well-being and outlook. We’ve talked before, in a competitive setting, about how important mindset is to your daily performance. How many times have you walked into your box, looked at the whiteboard, and had your mind say, “I can’t do that workout.”

Frequency Illusion in the gym:

Right from the start, you’ve already taken a big step in the wrong direction. Before class even begins, you’re already telling yourself you can’t do the workout. Now you’ll be looking for reasons to verify this during the warm up, the stretching, and your strength or skill preparation. This happens a lot when one of the movements is something you’re not good at. For example, maybe you can’t do pull-ups yet, and the workout has pull-ups as part of an AMRAP. The negative mindset will have you focusing on how bad this workout will be for you, all because of the pull-ups. A more useful outlook would be to think about where you can excel in the workout, or perhaps how much BETTER you’ll be at pull-ups after class is over.

Frequency Illusion in your nutrition:

The same thing applies to nutrition, especially when you first start your journey toward a healthier lifestyle. If you’re used to eating lots of processed food and desserts, it is going to be tough to start to cut those things out of your daily eating habits. However, you’ll make it even tougher on yourself if you focus on what you’re NOT having, rather than the new, delicious foods you are consuming. Instead of the chocolate chip cookie, maybe you’re having a serving of oatmeal with nut butter for a snack. Focus on how good you feel after eating this snack, or on how good the food tastes, rather than the fact it is not a sugar-filled chocolate chip cookie. Additionally, as you keep focusing on whole foods, you’ll eventually stop seeing so many desserts because of our good friend, the Frequency Illusion.

Make the Frequency Illusion work FOR you.

The Frequency Illusion can be your friend, or it can be your foe. The truth is it depends on your outlook, and what you’re putting into your mind. If all you focus on is the chocolate chip cookie you’re NOT eating, you’ll keep being tempted by desserts. If all you think about is the challenging movement in the workout you can’t do right now, rather than how much better you’ll get at it today, you’ll never progress. Start focusing on reasons you WILL succeed, rather than reasons you won’t.

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