Now there’s a thought…


In the past week in Britain – it seems to have settled down somewhat: for the moment anyway – there has been panic buying of fuel by the public in the light of a possible strike action by fuel tanker drivers (and even if there had been a strike declared there would have been a legally required 7-day notice period before action).

How is it then Britons panicked?

It’s all to do with what psychology calls ‘loss aversion’. Actually, it’s ‘future regret avoidance’ that might more accurately describe it. Since both terms seem laden with jargon!, I will explain what is occurring in our heads.

We have two minds: a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. The conscious mind makes rational decisions, it calculates and it reasons. The unconscious mind controls the millions of chemical and biological actions taking place in our bodies, it constantly monitors the environment to keep us safe and it governs emotions. The two parts of the brain are pretty much in constant communication with each other and the unconscious will stir us to action if we need to wake up in the event of a fire: the fight or flight condition.

What many of us don’t realise is the enormous influence and often greater power that our unconscious mind can have over the conscious mind. The unconscious mind can easily govern our actions leaving the conscious mind asking the question: ‘Why did I do that?!

The survival instinct is at our core and while I personally don’t believe in an evolutionally development for humans from anything I do hold strongly that one of the key roles of the unconscious mind is to keep us safe. It’s rather like a yapping 6-month puppy though. Everything’s a risk, everything’s a danger, everything’s to be investigated. We must fight or flight and stand ready for action at every opportunity.

The rational part of the brain scoffs at such ridiculous notions (and so does every onlooker when commenting from afar on those engaged in panic buying) but unless we’re careful and calm our state the unconscious mind is allowed to dominate and chaos can ensue.

How does this fit in then with ‘future regret avoidance’? The unconscious mind creates and dominates the view in us that we won’t be able to bear the thought – in the future – of being deprived of something and so must have it now. The feelings of ‘future regret’ in not having the fuel when we might need it is sufficient for us to insist on having it now. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ approach goes out of the window and we will do anything that we can to avoid the regret in the future.

Bravo, to all those people who didn’t go out and ‘top up’, let alone ‘jerry can’. That shows that you have a strong control of your unconscious mind (or you just couldn’t be bothered!). Perhaps though, ask yourself if you’ve ever found your emotions in other ways dominating how you behaved: impulse buying is a classic example of this, known only too well by sales people. (I wrote a previous post entitled How come I bought that? Click on the link here to read it.) If we’re honest we have all reacted on the basis of emotion at some stage and not solely reacted on the basis of deduction and reason.

This week has slowly seen garages returning to normal levels of demand from customers. If, and I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, the tanker drivers go on strike you will see panic buying on an enormous scale. It’s little comfort, especially if you’re run out of fuel and need some, but at least now you’ll know the psychology behind the panic buying. I wouldn’t advise going up to the driver and telling them that ‘future regret avoidance’ is a symptom of an uncontrolled unconscious mind and that rational thought and calmness would help alleviate that condition! If you do, prepare to duck!

Image used courtesy of Matt



We start to believe our own lies instead of the evidence before us.

This post and several posts over the next month or so will explore some of the baffling, confusing and counter-intuitive goings-on in our mind. Psychology and beliefs coaching have been accused of ‘stating the obvious’ when it comes to explaining what’s going on in the human psyche. To some degree I would agree with this; there are exceptions, however, and this post will explore one of the most commonly occurring: namely cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is the process by which the brain deals with two apparently contradictory beliefs by altering one of those beliefs to fit better with the other one. We do this a lot!

Morton Hunt has written extensively on this in ‘The Story of Psychology’ and the following example is taken from that study. The excellent Psyblog has also been used as a source for this article among other resources.

There is a famous episode in the American sitcom: Frasier where Frasier and Niles are desperate to join the health club, La Porte D’Argent: Frasier’s nemesis Cam Winston has received an invite to join this club and Frasier is frankly not at all pleased that he hasn’t been invited. Using Cam’s membership invite that Frasier receives in error in his mail post the two brothers attend this exclusive club. The initial membership level brings great pleasure to both of them until they both notice a door that they are told leads to the next level up of membership. Suddenly, the level of satisfaction from their current level of membership diminishes dramatically and only ‘the next level will do’ to satisfy their desires for pampering (see my post on hedonistic habituation for why this rapid dissatisfaction with current experience happens). However, the two brothers can’t gain access! This door is only for even more exclusive members, and they lack the means to join. Frasier, desperate for this even higher level of membership, asks his radio show’s producer Ros to ‘get them in’ because she knows a senator who is a member of that higher echelon.

Exclusivity aside, cognitive dissonance is rife in this episode. Frasier, renown for his fiercely principled actions and faith in people’s honesty, throws this out of the window’ since he believes that he should be in the exclusive club, La Porte D’Argent, if Cam is a member. Rather than return the invite to its rightful owner, Frasier uses it himself. What happened to Frasier’s wish for integrity, honesty and always telling the truth? Frasier’s cognitive dissonance bent the ‘truth’ to fit his more powerful belief that he should be a member. Something like, “The truth is, I should be a member! I’ll use his membership!” is probably what he thought.

Membership clubs know this desire for exclusivity only too well. They often make it deliberately hard to join let alone ascend the ranks of exclusivity. Rather than us deciding it’s just too exclusive, not for us and certainly not worth what’s involved with joining, we are predisposed to want it even more. The Scarcity Principle demonstrates this to a tee. The rarer something is perceived to be the more we value and want it. Worse yet, the quality of the exclusive product we end up with doesn’t actually have to be that good! The dissonance that exists between exclusivity and mere averageness is resolved in our mind by: you’ve guessed it, making the product seem better than it really is, not the exclusivity isn’t worth it in the first place.

Before you jump to challenge this counter-intuitive effect ask yourself: ‘Have I ever made something seem better than it really was?’. I have. That is cognitive dissonance at work. A world-famous experiment demonstrated this and you can read about it here in more detail: Festinger and Carlsmith carried out the research experiment in 1959. The gist of it is as follows.

Unbeknown to those taking part they were actually part of a much bigger experiment. Students, originally told a task that they would be doing would be boring (and indeed it was boring!) were paid 1 dollar to tell the next group to do the same task that they would find the task interesting! Unbeknown to the first group, this second group were paid the princely sum of 20 dollars to lie to another group and say that the task was enjoyable.

In summary, one group was paid 1 dollar to lie to others that the task was enjoyable (not enough money to justify the lie, even in 1959) and the second group was paid 20 dollars to lie to another group that the task was enjoyable (in those days for students: a lot of money!)

What happened? Low and behold, when interviewed by the researchers, the people who did the task that they were told would be interesting and were paid 1 dollar reported that they found the task ‘mildly interesting‘ – what they had been paid to tell others; yet, the other group, when interviewed, said, ‘The task was boring!’ – not what they had been paid to tell others!

What was going on? The group paid 1 dollar to lie faced a mental dilemma. And the sort of thoughts that ran through their mind might have gone a little like this:

“It was boring! [Belief 1.] I was paid 1 dollar to say the task would be interesting to the next group. But it wasn’t interesting at all! But I’ve been told to say it was interesting. I was only paid a dollar! Umm…  Am I a liar? No, I don’t go around lying! [Belief 2.] How am I going to square this? May be it was more interesting after all. [Modifying belief 1 to better fit with the more deeply held belief 2]. May be it was even quite fun….” [Now, we’re just looking for even more ways to account for the dissonance!]

What was group 2 thinking? Something like: “$20! Wow! That’s ok. I can lie for $20! That task was boring! I don’t care what I was told to say!”

In other words, paying people less money helped them find greater satisfaction in the task in-hand! How counter-intuitive is that?!

To us looking on through rose-coloured spectacles this can seem extraordinary. This famous study and countless studies subsequently confirm cognitive dissonance. If two contradictory beliefs occupy our mind we will change one to more easily fit the other. And it might shock us to discover just how much we do that. 

Once you start to think about it, the list of situations where people resolve cognitive dissonance through rationalisation becomes ever longer and longer. If you’re honest with yourself, I’m sure you can think of many times when you’ve done it yourself. I know I can. Here’s one such dissonance I experienced when young with the thoughts running through my mind:

“Those times when I was a teenager that I used to spend in the amusement arcade enjoying the atmosphere, watching others shoot aliens and playing Defender wasn’t a waste of money and time at all. I don’t waste time do I? It was an education. I learnt so much! Just look at my scores!”

And that is perhaps one of the most serious consequences of cognitive dissonance: we start to believe our own lies instead of the evidence before us. There’s a thought…

In the first part of Overcome Presentation Fears we explored three strategies to use. You can read about them in detail by clicking or tapping here but in summary they were:

The audience is on your side
Know your material / know its contents
Practise in front of an audience

The next three that I’m going to explore are:
4. Remember to breathe!
5. Never do these things
6. Focus on the audience and not yourself

The remaining three will be in the next post: How to Overcome Presentation Fears – Part Three. Back to today’s post; let’s continue:

4. Remember to breathe!

Few, if anyone, would doubt the merits of breathing! However, if we’re nervous our breathing can fail to get enough oxygen into our bodies and just as importantly enough carbon dioxide out of our bodies. If you’ve experienced hyperventilation before then you will understand what I mean.

A simple technique to practise in the moments before you go on stage or when you find yourself feeling nervous and your breathing is becoming erratic is to do the following:
Breathe in to a count of four and out to a count of seven or eight. The breathe out rate is deliberately longer than the breathe in rate.

This has the desired effect of not only expelling excess carbon dioxide but helping to calm our nerves. The breaths, whether out or in, should be taken in a slow, deep breath way.

Not only must you breathe!, but your presentation must breathe as well. There is no ‘hard and fast’ rule but experts generally believe that a pause every 7-9 words is a good strategy to adopt. Quite possibly, this will be at the end of every sentence or phrase. Insufficient presenters understand the difference between presentation and conversation. A pause that might seem like an age to someone you’re conversing with will seem natural to a room full of people. So, remember, you are not conversing with someone: you are presenting to someone. Pauses are vital to give your audience the time that they need to understand the points that we are making.

There are few more highly gifted in explaining the difference between conversation and presentation than Professor Max Atkinson in his book, Lend Me Your Ears. I highly recommend it. In it he says:

Things like hesitations, pace, volume and intonation combine in a style of delivery that makes such speakers come across as though they are merely ‘chatting’ their way through the presentation… But when you’re in front of an audience, speaking in conversation mode is unlikely to do much to help them with the problems of attentiveness and understanding discussed… (p 47 Lend Me Your Ears.)

I cannot underestimate the difference between conversation and presentation enough. Allow your presentation to breathe and give enough time for your meaning to reach all of your audience. This is essential if we are to stand the best chance of getting our meaning across as effectively as possible.

5. Never do these things

A list of ‘nevers’ can seem a strange thing to record. Further, isn’t it counter-intuitive to not tell the audience these things? Surely, that would put the audience on ‘our side’? Evidence supports the argument that keeping schtum is in fact the best policy to adopt. One such article advocating the general decision to not apologise can be read here.

Let’s explore those areas for where apology is unwise in more detail.

Never apologise for nerves!

Surely, it makes sense to apologise for feeling nervous? It’s a hard lesson to learn but you did choose to present didn’t you?! Since you decided to present to your audience, your audience expects a degree of self-assurance and will recognise your expertise in what you’re saying or doing (as long as you’re well prepared – see last time’s post). Yes, you might well feel nervous but apologising openly for it will make your audience nervous for you. It will stop them focusing on what you’re saying or doing and make them focus on you. That is not your intention but it will happen if you say so.

A similar scenario can occur, by the way, if you tell your audience why you’re doing something such as explaining why you’re showing a photo or justifying why you’re doing something. I’m not questioning the decision to use something; I’m questioning the decision of thinking that you need to justify that decision to use something. You don’t need to justify it: you are presenting and your audience would expect you to do whatever is necessary to make your presentation as good as it can be. If you justify it you can give the impression that you are apologising for it (apology has its root meaning in arguing and defending). To repeat: you don’t need to justify your decisions and if you do you will generate unnecessary anxiety in your audience.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t be nervous? Certainly not! Of course you might be nervous. Just don’t tell your audience that you are. After all, have you ever attended a First Night at a theatre performance and had every actor come on the stage and apologise for feeling nervous on their first occasion of performing this play or musical?! Then neither should you.

– Never apologise for what you thought was a mistake

This point is a little more contentious but I still argue that you shouldn’t apologise for mistakes; mistakes that you have made, that is. They might not have noticed!
– Never share your mistakes. Again, they might not have noticed! Technology will fail at some stage. And you can be sure that it will fail just when you need it to work! What was your back-up plan in the event of technology failure? You did have a back-up plan didn’t you?

In this instance it is acceptable to apologise; don’t dwell on the apology though. Apologise quickly, but sincerely, and then deliver the solution with confidence. Remember, fail to plan: plan to fail. Contingency plans are more important today in our ever-increasing reliance on technology.

So, should I apologise for things that were ‘mistakes’ such as ‘slips of the tongue’ or errors in your performance? No. Assuming you thoroughly planned your ‘mistakes’ will probably only be noticed by your No. 1 Critic: namely you. Research constantly reinforces the point that others don’t notice our mistakes; yet, we of course do. Apologising for those ‘mistakes’ will create anxiety in your audience and they might even start listening out for the next ‘mistake’ in the same vane that repeatedly ‘umm-ing and ahh-ing’ in presentations can cause the same response in your audience.

– Never be overly critical

We are our No. 1 Critic, as we were just saying. We notice and log in the failure column every error, miscalculation, mistake and flaw in our performance. We are very good at being our No. 1 Critic. Strange how we are seldom our No. 1 Fan! What would that be like if we were? It’s not that being critical (as in objectively analysing, not slaying and condemning) isn’t helpful. Rather, it’s seldom balanced by assessing the successes. Before you criticise yourself find two or three things that went well. Then, consider how you could make those ‘mistakes’ even better next time.

It’s easy to forget that your audience is only too delighted it’s you standing there and not them! Further, they’ve come to see you perform or present. Practise objective assessment of your performance. Here’s how:

Identify more successes (What Went Well’s) than opportunities for improvements next time (Even Better If’s). Celebrate the successes; commit to the opportunities for improvement. And finish with giving yourself a ‘pat on the back’.

6. Focus on the audience and not yourself

The presentation is not about you. That is a hard lesson for some of us to learn. You are performing for the audience; they have come to see you. Amazingly, when we make what psychologists call reframing, the emphasis is shifted from ourselves and to someone else. It’s as if the pressure has been lifted off our shoulders. Taking the pressure off ourselves and focusing on our audience simply helps us feel less stressful and nervous.

Looking up(wards) is a highly effective technique to relieve anxiety. And, by the way, this also relieves sadness as well. It’s no wonder that the phase “Looking down” means feeling sad. We literally look downwards to the ground. This triggers a chain reaction in our bodies and the sadness gets reinforced. Looking up does the reverse. It triggers a more positive mindset and it actually becomes increasingly more difficult to feel sad. Or feel nervous.

So, look up at your audience, remember that they are there because they want to see and hear you perform and you will feel the nerves easing and your confidence rising.

Some of you might not believe me though. If that’s you I want to encourage you to contact me for a free and informal 15-minute chat. You might only need a coaching session or two after that and your confidence in presenting in front of an audience will be changed for the better.

Do let me know in the comments section below if you practise some of these techniques and you notice a positive difference in your performance.

Until next time, when we’ll explore the last three techniques in how to overcome presentation fears.

The strategies in the next three posts have come from training sessions that I have led, courses that I have attended and material that I have gleaned from books. Possibly, not all the strategies here will work for you; we’re all different after all. However, I am confident that you will find a number of strategies that will work for you. Please do let me know what you tried and how you got on!

While the title might indicate that this post is primarily for those presenting in front of an audience the strategies here will also work for any person performing such as those singing or playing in a concert or exam and no doubt many other situations too.

I am going to present the strategies over the next three posts. Today’s post will focus on the first three.

What are the first three strategies?

1. The audience is on your side
2. Know your material / know its contents
3. Practise in front of an audience

1. The audience is on your side

In fairness this might not always be the case and certainly won’t be if you’re a politician attempting to persuade doubting voters to vote for you! The reality though is that few of us will face situations where the audience is quite so hostile. And if you do, point 2 becomes even more important!

In the majority of cases the audience is on your side. They may well have paid to hear you, you may be their relative or friend and they may well be genuinely interested in what you’re saying or doing. Audiences are vastly more forgiving than we think, don’t notice what we do and want us to do our best. Focus on the audience working for you. Take due diligence of point 2 (and 6 in the next post) in particular though otherwise they might stop being on your side!

2. Know your material / know its contents

Fail to plan; plan to fail. It’s as simple as that. There are an incredibly small number of people who can perform on stage without rehearsing. In my opinion no one should do this, however good they are. Steve Jobs, one of the best presenters in history and someone sadly missed by many including me, rehearsed and rehearsed until he not only knew the material in terms of fully comprehending it but barely if at all needed notes when actually presenting it. He knew not only what slide was coming next but crucially its content too. It’s essential that you not only comprehend what you’re going to be saying or performing but you have a good grasp of what’s coming next in your presentation.

Too many presenters or performers have learnt this lesson the hard way. There’s only so much that you can control; IT in the form of laptops, projectors and memory sticks has a funny habit of failing just when we need it most. Just think how impressed your already on your side audience will be when you can carry on without the slides! Remember, you are presenting, not your slides. Far too many people rely on PowerPoint to do the presenting when the audience came to hear you present. Practise your presentation, or recital!, without your material several times at least. OK, it might not be flawless but if it’s ‘pretty much there’ you know that you grasp and can present your material as well as manage an effective solution if software, hardware or other failures occur.

3. Practise in front of an audience

There’s one thing being able to perform it in front of yourself; it’s quite another when it comes to performing to the audience. If I had a pound (dollar) for the number of times I’ve heard, “I was fine when I practised on my own but when I performed in front of others it all went wrong!” I’d be a rich man. We can do little about failing technology; we can do a lot about failing nerves. Simply practising in front of an audience (it’s highly likely that they will probably be in the last performance audience as well, smiling away – see point 1) will help give you the feel of what it will be like on the day. Notice, like, it won’t be exactly the same. However, we need to start somewhere and practising in this way will help you develop and control your nerves.

While not as effective as performing to an audience (see the quote above), if there’s no one to practise with, performing in front of a mirror will help you to control your anxieties. A mirror also allows you to see what the audience sees (facial expressions and your body language in general) and could give valuable feedback of things that you can change for the better.

Next post will explore three more techniques for overcoming presentation fear. Let me know what happens when you try these techniques by posting comments below. Until next time!


If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t you’re right!

Closed and Growth Mindset
Carol Dweck is a psychologist at Stamford University. Her interest in all things to do with the mind began at school. Her teacher arranged the children’s seating in the classroom in terms of their IQ; Dweck finding herself at the front of the class since she possessed the highest IQ in her class.

This post is not about the somewhat dubious educational strategy of organising your class by IQ; rather, it’s about what this sparked in Dweck in terms of her thinking and what would eventually become a passion in her to help people view their mindset not as pre-determined and fixed but something that could be changed.

It was psychologist, Dweck who also coined the phrase Growth Mindset. This post will explain what that is and what you can do to change your mind.

Growth Mindset
Dweck’s studies revealed an interesting discovery. She found that people tended to fall into one of two groups: those who believed that their talents and abilities were pre-determined and were unable to change (Dweck called this a fixed mindset) and those who believed that they could constantly improve their skills and abilities (what Dweck called a growth mindset). Those who fell into the fixed mindset saw failure as defining who they were so life’s constant challenges generated constant failure and low self-worth. The net effect was that future challenges were shied away from.

Those who fell into the growth mindset saw ‘failure’ as opportunity to do better next time. ‘Failure’ was simply a learning opportunity for skills to improve next time. And, as you can see from the speech marks used, ‘failure’ was not a word that growth mindset people accept as defining them.

Dweck is quoted as saying, “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch… The fixed mindset doesn’t allow people the luxury of becoming [someone or something better]. They have to already be.”

Simply put, growth mindset says that your mind can grow and improve. It will take practice and determination but it’s something that you can do.

Techniques that work
What follows are some useful techniques that encourage a growth mindset approach not just in yourself but in those around you.

You personally

If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t you’re right!

This is a very powerful quote. Deciding that you can do something is half the battle. Now, I’m not talking about things that are clearly beyond your present skill-set; I’m referring to things that given different circumstances you can do; yet, for various reasons you find yourself saying, “I can’t!”

This can be particularly the case in performance circumstances. The point is: if you can do it, you can do it! What’s preventing you thinking that you can? Identify what that is and your half way there to changing your mind! Actually resolving what it was that was preventing you might take a little longer but it can be done. If you need help doing this please contact me.

You can, you know! My mum, a very wise lady, used to tell me what she was taught at school. ‘There’s no such thing as can’t. Take off the ‘t’ and it’s can!” How can you lose the ‘t’ today? Let me know; I’d love to hear your stories.

For others
Firstly, giving praise for effort is a vital self-esteem and therefore growth mindset per-requisite. Those lacking in self-esteem may well be so for two reasons: 1) they never received any or enough praise 2) what was praised was their ability or intelligence and not their effort. Point 2) needs some explanation.

If we praise ability and intelligence: “You are such a clever person for solving that…” we reinforce that intelligence is defined by solving the problem. The issue comes when someone faces something they are unable to solve. Praising intelligence and not effort means that the person unable to complete the task has it reinforced that they are now not clever. What then tends to happen is that the person won’t accept and take on new challenges. In effect their mindset becomes fixed. Incidentally, this is particularly significant for those who are naturally successful in what they do. A praise culture that rewards ability and not effort becomes unstuck when the ‘successful’ person meets something they are unable to do. Rapidly, their mindset closes.

What we should always praise is effort. Comments such as, “You’ve worked so hard on that, well done!” clearly focuses on the effort involved. Effort is a growth mindset word and countless research from Dweck and many other psychologists validate praising effort as the key to a life of continuous improvement.

No one’s a mind reader!
We might wish that they were but they’re not. If we expect them to be we’ve adopted a closed mindset: we’re assuming that they can’t be anything else other than what we think they are. They shouldn’t be expected to mind read. If they can so much the better, just don’t expect them to be! What would it be like if you just told them? And: “What would it be like if you made the effort to notice what the other person might need in the first place?!”

In summary, commit today to a growth mindset. To a mindset that says: “I’m going to give this a go!” No, you might not reach your goal. But remember, what you do is what you do, it’s not who you are. You might reach your goal too! If so, reward yourself for the effort that you employed.

I would love to hear about your stories of closed and growth mindset as well as stories of challenges undertaken focussing on effort. Write your comments below. If you want to know more about Growth Mindset and how you can change your mind contact me here or by using the links on the homepage for a free, informal chat.

I’ve just come away from the march and rally against pension reform in Hertford, UK. Now, please stay with me with this post because his is not a political point-pushing (one reason I left the rally before its culmination was the broadened political agenda being made by some people’s unions).

The point of this post is short and simple: what do you stand up for? What has angered, frustrated or just plain annoyed you so much that you want to do something about it? I want to encourage you to ‘Go for it!’. There will be many who don’t agree with your actions. But if you’re clear of your motives and can hold your head up high – as well as keep it:

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs’ – Kipling

then you know integrity and what you
value remains integral to the way you live your life.

I’m sure many of you ‘practise what you preach’. I know though that there have been times when I could have stood up more for things I or others close value.

Today, more than ever, people are looking for boundaries to help them live their lives by. What you believe in will provide you with those boundaries. If they’re the boundaries that you want carry on using them. They have served you well and will continue to do so. If one or two of those boundaries aren’t working the way you want them to you can do something about it. How about contacting me for an informal and free 15 minute chat? Let’s see what we can change. You might be quite delighted!

Ahhhgghhhhhhh!” – it’s been taken, again!!

Ah, my beloved Costa (other coffee house establishments are likewise endorsed)

Humans are creatures of habit. We like things the same. Even those of us who like ‘different’ are heavily influenced by things remaining the same around us and if we’re honest quite like too. Do you really want to come down each morning to find the fridge in a different place?!

So, my “Ahhhgghhhhhhh!” moment was induced by my favourite seat in Costa being occupied by someone else, again. You see, I like sitting there. No other seat feels quite the same. THAT seat is like a well-worn pair of slippers: it’s comfortable, welcoming and just feels right.

Now you might say that I’m waxing lyrical here, even going over the top and in many respects I am. What interests me is what happens to us when what we expect doesn’t occur. Or for that matter what we don’t expect to happen does happen. How do we react? How do we cope?

Ian Newby-Clarke from Psychology Today among many others has written about situations like this and you can read about it here:

He makes the point that habits serve us because our response to them is largely automatic.

They require little if any conscious decision-making allowing us to commit conscious thought processes to those tasks that need it.

There are two sides to every coin though. When the habits serve us well things are hunky dory. We carry on doing them without wasting brain power and this allows us to concentrate on other tasks. The other side of the coin is when the habits we show are not helpful to us such as compulsive behaviour patterns. Anyone who’s witnessed someone, let alone been the person, who must wash their hands every five minutes throughout the day knows how utterly destructive and damaging such a habit can be. And how hard a habit that is to break.

Our unconscious (call it that; it’s far from being a sub-conscious) is designed to keep us safe. It constantly monitors for signs of danger, regulates millions of processes in our bodies and handles emotions among countless other things. It’s designed to work with the conscious mind in an incredibly complex way. It can take over though. As we presently understand it, the unconscious has no ability to rationalise; that’s the role of the neocortex in the conscious part of the mind. The unconscious keeps us ticking over and it does an excellent job of it. As long as it is kept a tight hold of. Allow your unconscious to constantly dictate what happens in your life and suddenly what should serve you know starts controlling you in ways that you don’t want.

What to do

Ask most people what it was like when they gave up smoking , compulsive shopping sprees (that’s similar to the psychological equivalent of giving up an illegal drug according to Donald Black and Professor Whybrow although not everyone such as Professor Calton agrees with this statement) or alcohol addiction and they will tell you that it was hell to break the habit. So in-ground was the habit let alone the chemical addiction caused by the substance that it needed every ounce of their will-power, resources and support from friends and family to break the habit.

All these strategies are important. Together, they are a powerful force. For less crippling habits that you want to break a question to ask yourself is this: What would happen if I didn’t do [whatever it is]?

In the grand scheme of things – whatever I might utter under my breath – the world won’t collapse if I don’t sit in my normal seat in Costa. After all what I do is what I do. Sitting somewhere else doesn’t make any difference to who I am. And that’s the point. What we do is what we do; it doesn’t define who we are. I might not want to do what I’m doing but if I do slip into the habit I’m going to forgive myself and do something different to give me a better chance avoiding doing it again. Does it matter that I do the habit I want to break? Yes. Does it define me? Absolutely not.

I strongly believe that there are many people in this world who haven’t made the separation and are trapped: in stalemate. So, they keep doing the same things and of course keep getting the same outcomes. Separate what you do from who you are. If you take nothing else from today take that message away with you and see what happens.

Now, about that seat in Costa. It’s been free for the past half an hour. And it remains free because I am still sitting where I started writing this blog post. I don’t need to sit there. This seat will do perfectly well, thank you. Well, for this week anyway…

Lots of little things give us more pleasure than one great big thing

"One lump and the other lump later or both of them at the same time, madam?"

Which, do you think, gives more pleasure: a 20 minute continuous massage or two massages with a short break in between where the whole time taken (including the short break from the massage) is 20 minutes?

If, like me, you thought that the continuous massage would give more pleasure than 2 massages with a break in between than evidence from research indicates otherwise.

I read with interest an article published on this site by Nelson and Meyvis that indicates that not only is it a good idea to interrupt pleasurable experience with a short break but it’s a good idea to not interrupt undesired experience with a short break. I wrote about hedonistic habituation before (the process by which we rapidly adapt to the experience and so need a greater stimulus next time) and it applies neatly here. It seems that we grow accustomed to continual experience very quickly and the stimulus of the experience (whatever it is) loses its impact just as quickly.

What can we do?

The key is to vary the stimulus if you can but failing that prevent the stimulus being continuous by inserting short breaks. Whoever said, ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’ was right. Get too much continuous feelings of ‘what you fancy’ and the effect can soon wear off; we might even become bored (not sure how that could be the case with massage but hey!). Adaptation is the arch-enemy to our feeling long-term benefit from the pleasurable experience so defeat adaptation by introducing short breaks.

The other point I made was in regard to facing those experiences we don’t like. Again, whoever coined the phrase, ‘Just get it over with’ was right. If it’s an undesired experience evidence supports putting up with it and just getting it over with and not chunking the unpleasant experience into bite-sized pieces with rests from it in between.

So, I’m off for that (imaginary) massage with mini-breaks in between when I’ll continue reading. How good is that?!

I’m writing this in my favourite store: The Apple Store. May be you share my love of Apple too. If you don’t please do read on; I think you might find this post useful.

I’ve just come from being in Selfridges, London where I was in the stationery department: the department that I love the most! In there I took part in a wonderful activity that I want to tell you about.

Rachel Newsome, a graphic designer, was giving people the opportunity to rubber-stamp with their own choice of words, characters and pictures their very own message on the Moleskine cahier notebook cover. Ah, Moleskine, a product brand that I love! Are you seeing a pattern here?! If you’re interested in the website on Selfridges’s website please click the link here:

What was also so fantastic was that it didn’t cost me any money to take away the Moleskine cahier notebook once I had finished my rubber-stamped message. The designers there were fascinated in the process of message creation, not particularly in the outcome. In return for me taking away the notebook with my own created message for no charge they merely wanted to take my photo while I was in the process of creating my message. Now, that’s what I call a win, win!

Where I believe Powerchange who I work for is so strong is that we operate on a triple win or win, win, win basis. The difference here is that not only do you and I both win but the people that you are connected with will win as well through the powerful, permanent changes that will occur in you as a result of your coaching by a Powerchange Gold coach like me.

Curious about what I wrote as my message on my Moleskine cahier notebook? Curious about what you might rubber-stamp if you had been me? I’m curious too. How about writing a comment below with what you’d stamp. It tends to work well if you can do this in ten words or fewer. It was interesting to listen to the comments of those around me who were often expressing that they didn’t know what to write.

Out of interest what do you stand for that would go on your front cover? What would you say about yourself? How would you promote yourself or your business? And: what might someone say about you? I’d love to know!

Image published courtesy of Photostock

But out of limitations comes creativity

Debbie Allen

Defining what actually makes someone creative has shown itself to be one of the ‘Holy Grails’ for psychologists. In many cases creative geniuses just do not know what makes them so creative and so can’t share their wisdom with others. This represented a challenge to psychologists who, as a result, set about resolving the mystery of creativity by tackling it from a different angle. If creative people find it so difficult to show what makes them creative perhaps replicating the circumstances and situations (factors) where creativity is shown might let ‘lesser mortals’ produce those factors and thereby boost their own creativity. After several years of research the factors that most benefit creativity have been identified. Over the next two posts I will name what those six factors are and briefly explain how they can be used to boost creativity. Please do try them out for yourselves and let me know what happens. Here, are the first three, with the next post containing the remaining three:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Constraint
  3. Emotion
1. Knowledge

I wrote about this in last week’s post so I’m not going to say very much here. The important thing to remember, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, is that too much knowledge can invoke a tendency to go down the same, ‘tried and trusted route’ when creativity is desired. Over-reliance on the same-each-time method of problem-solving results in a lack of creative flexibility. Put simply: ‘When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail’.

Possible solution

Try something different, however counter-intuitive it is to you. You may well have to ‘fight’ your training and all your knowledge acquired; perhaps even your colleagues! Alexander Pope (in his Essay on Criticism, 1709) wrote that ‘a little knowledge was a dangerous thing’; a lot of knowledge can be your worst enemy too. If your knowledge is getting you nowhere think ‘outside the box’ – and every other cliché you can think of that exists! – when stuck. Perhaps ask yourself, “If I didn’t know what I know what might I suggest?” or “What might [name of person] suggest in this situation?”. You might be quite surprised with the outcome.

2. Constraint

Some constraints have been shown to actually boost creativity. (See also the quotation that heads this post from Debbie Allen.) The constraints that we impose on ourselves can in fact be the very catalyst that we need for creativity.

Possible solutions

There are several strategies that can be employed here. One is to do with the art of questioning. There are several powerful questions that can ask yourself. One such question to ask yourself is: ‘What would happen if…?’ The intention here is to impose restrictions and create a more restrictive boundary. When you have fewer choices you’re compelled to be more creative with what you’ve got. So, discard something that’s ‘needed’. You might find that not only are you more creative at finding a solution but that it wan’t ‘needed’ anyway.

There are other questions too.

Some of the most creative solutions come about when we ask, ‘What if…?’ This is known by psychologists as a ‘counterfactual’ question: an alternative to the reality if nothing was to change in what I was doing. Psychologists such as Ruth M.J. Byrne (2005) have argued that cognitive processes underlying alternatives to reality are similar to those that underlie the cognitive processes of the present reality. Therefore, there is great power in such questioning when a ‘dead end’ is faced. Powerchange has developed a powerful tool called ‘Questions that Change Your Mind’. Effective coaching is all about asking powerful questions and waiting for the answer. If you want to know more please contact me.

Another strategy is to give yourself time too to fully grasp the problem, whatever it is. ‘Gut-feeling’, instinctive-behaving people might not agree with this, as their gut feelings have served them well. If this has been the case: great! If it hasn’t there may well be an opportunity to try something new. Getzels J.W. & Csikszentmihalyi (1976) published a paper called Problem Solving Strategies that Distinguish Creative Arts . They discovered that artists who spent longer analysing the challenge they faced to come up with original, more creative, solutions actually produced more original solutions compared with others who didn’t do this strategy and somewhat ‘rushed in’.

Finally, use the Doublethink strategy, as well as pay due diligence to problems to overcome and how you’re going to do that. You can read all about Doublethink in a former post that I made by clicking here.

3. Emotion

Using emotion to increase creativity on face value seems like a good idea. When our mood is happy and we’re ‘full of the joys of spring’ then surely ‘creative juices would be flowing’ and solutions left, right and centre would be found? True. However, what’s it like to hear that, counter-intuitively, sad moods can also help us? Read on…

Possible solutions

I want a broad approach. I want to see an overview. What should I do?

In this instance creativity comes from, perhaps not surprisingly, happy moods. They help create a more ‘cavalier’ approach to creativity and support us in generating an effective overview of the situation. By ‘cavalier’ I mean more likely to discard ‘in the way’ ideas – and be more open to include suggestions from others as well. Further, “Let’s give it a go!” tends to be more of the mantra uttered by people, as well as the asking of, “What if…?” counterfactual questions.

I need to critique this article and I’m having trouble concentrating and finding ways through this. What can I do?

While happy moods might obviously lend themselves to creativity there are times and places where a more melancholic atmosphere may be conducive to problem solving. Karen Gasper (2003) wrote a paper called When Necessity is The Mother of Invention: Mood and Problem Solving. In her research she noticed that sad moods helped people notice failings and errors in their work and were also more likely to correct them; they became more critical. (She also noticed that when the atmosphere was happy errors were more likely to be unnoticed, and uncorrected if they were!).

Therefore, do you want a broad approach to a problem? The solution may well be to generate a happy atmosphere. Do you want to proof-read a document or find a creative solution in your written content to express yourself more coherently? If so a more reflective, melancholic atmosphere may well be the answer to generate a creative analysis.

Be aware though of very high (extreme anger) and very low (depression) arousal emotions. One makes us want to sort the world out; the other, cower from it. An excess of either emotional stimulation is not conducive to creativity because the key emotional influence (whether happy or sad) and their respective benefits is that we need to be transported into an active mood state. Emotionally stretched to extreme through either our heightened state or emotionally numb state is not what we want; here the mood state generated in both cases is passive; we do nothing. There are other undesired knock-on effects too.

So, these are three of the six principal factors that boost creativity. Next post, I will share and discuss the remaining three factors.

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