Wednesday, 11 November 2015

3 (Evidenced-Based) Ways to Stay Positive

I am easily inspired.  Whenever I come across a story of someone triumphing in the face of adversity I invariably resolve to live my own life in a more heroic manner.

The problem is, inspiration can be short-lived.  Within a few days my resolve starts to ebb, particularly when I'm confronted by the low-level challenges that we all face on a regular basis.

Here are three tips on how to remain positive in the face of setbacks.  Each of them is supported by carefully-conducted research studies.

1. Give Yourself The Right Type of Praise

Research conducted in the USA into people's mindsets has established that we will be more likely to stay positive, and bounce back from setbacks if we adopt a Growth Mindset rather than a Fixed Mindset.

Growth Mindset
Fixed Mindset
I’ll find a way
I’m great at this
I can learn to do this better
I know I will succeed
I can try different approaches
I am an achiever
The problem with the Fixed Mindset is that it makes us brittle - we become attached to a view of ourselves or a particular outcome and if that view is shown to be inaccurate our belief in ourselves takes a significant knock.  A memorable example of this is so-called 'Bright Girl Syndrome' whereby a girl achieves excellent grades at school, receives lots of praise for this and becomes overly identified with her intelligence.  When she subsequently goes to university and fails an exam, or finds that she is no longer top of the class, she experiences this as an identity-threatening shock rather than a relatively minor setback.

Giving ourselves encouraging 'Growth Mindset' praise makes us more likely to persevere with a difficult challenge.

2. Write Stuff Down

There is now a lot of evidence indicating that writing things down can reinforce our positive intentions and help us be more resilient during stressful times.  In particular, it's worth setting aside 5 minutes each day to set down in writing:

5 things you are grateful for.  Two psychologists, Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, demonstrated that people are signficantly happier and more optimistic about the future if they take a few moments to write down 5 things that they are grateful for in their lives.

3 benefits of setbacks.  A study at the University of Miami found that, following a setback, students were able to feel more positive and move forward from the disappointment if they identified and wrote down 3 benefits of the setback.

Why you love your friend.  Researchers at Arizona University demonstrated that 'affectionate writing' - spending a few minutes writing a paragraph setting out what you appreciate about one of your friends or loved-ones can help you to achieve a marked reduction in stress levels.

3. Adopt a Virtual Kitten

I used to be an avid consumer of news.  I'd wake up to the Today Programme on Radio 4, and check the BBC news website every few hours.

Then I realised that I was subjecting myself to a regular diet of doom (the news was rarely good) and that this was getting me down.  Doing some research into the effects of internet browsing I came across a study which demonstrated that spending some time looking at an image or video which makes us smile can be a significant mood-booster.



Gabriele Oettingen, Thomas A. Wadden, Expectation, Fantasy, And Weight Loss: Is The Impact Of Positive Thinking Always Positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, April 1991, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 167-175

Deborah L. Wells. The Effect Of Videotapes Of Animals On Cardiovascular Responses To Stress. Stress and Health, Volume 21, Issue 3, pages 209–213, August 2005

Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation Of Gratitude And Subjective Well-Being In Daily Life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Feb;84(2):377-89

Kory Floyd, Alan C. Mikkelson, Colin Hesse, Perry M. Pauley. Affectionate Writing Reduces Total Cholesterol: Two Randomized, Controlled Trials. Journal: Human Communication Research, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 119-142, 2007

Dweck, C. S. The Perils and Promises of Praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34–39. 2007

Monday, 6 July 2015

How To Get More Done

A lot of time management advice treats people as if they were machines, ignoring the reality that human beings have temperaments, moods and biorhythms. 

Here are three tips on how to squeeze more productivity out of your busy day.

1. Stop Pretending to Multi-Task

We can't truly multi-task when two activities require conscious attention.  What we actually do is constantly switch attention, and part of our brain (Brodmann Area 10) creates the illusion that we are doing two things at once.  The result is that we pay poor quality attention to both tasks and, over the long term, we find it difficult to focus properly.
Brodmann Area 10

Constantly refocusing attention like this is hugely inefficient.

But many of us enjoy multi-tasking and find it hard to stop.  Like many of life's temptations the trick to overcoming it is to remove the temptation itself.  This means using Switch Busters.  A Switch Buster is something that stops you switching your attention.  Here are some examples:
  • turn off your computer monitor when you are making a phone call.
  • switch off your mobile phone and put it in your bag during meetings.
  • change your email settings so that automatic retrieval is disabled (or pull out your network cable if you can't stop yourself manually checking - some of us are addicted to the dopamine hit stimulated by the arrival of a new message).

2. Make Fewer Decisions

Making decisions, even small ones such as how to respond to an email, can be mentally tiring.  View your mental energy as a precious resource that needs to be preserved and used judiciously during the day.  One way of reducing the time you spend taking decisions is to only check your email at particular times during the day.

3. Manage Your Elephant

Think of yourself as a rider on an elephant.  Your rider is full of good intentions and wants to maximise his or her productivity.  Your elephant, however....
  • is alert at some times of day (typically the morning) and sluggish at others (mid-afternoon)
  • likes sugary snacks and coffee
  • is inclined to spend time cyberloafing (browsing the internet) if it didn't get enough sleep last night
The elephant is powerful and won't be pushed around by the rider.  The trick is to work with your elephant rather than fighting it.  In practice this means:

Using your Prime Time (the part of the day when you have most mental energy) to maximum advantage.  If you are at your best first thing in the morning, hit the ground running as soon as you arrive: tackle a mentally demanding task rather than chatting to colleagues, putting the kettle on and looking at your emails.

Making sugar and caffeine work for you.  They are stimulants, which can give you a short-lived boost when you need it.  Get into the habit of using them in a way that helps you to be productive (eg, when you hit your mid-afternoon slump).

Going to bed earlier.  Getting an early night has improved my productivity more than any other strategy. Flogging a tired elephant is no fun.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Managing Difficult Relationships Part 2: How to Handle Different Monkeys (and what they think of you)

Rapport is easier if you can identify the kind of person that you're dealing with.

In my last blog post I described the different kinds of primates that we encounter in the workplace, and how to spot them.  This post will show you how to tailor your approach to each type of monkey.

If you're dealing with a Chimp you'll know because they will want to focus on the task in hand, they'll use debate as a way of getting to the truth (which can come across as argumentative) and they will be conscious of power relationships.

If you're dealing with a Bonobo you'll know because they are responsive and smiley when you talk to them, they'll appear relaxed and friendly, and their primary focus will seem to be on the relationship - forming a connection with you.

If you tend to be a Chimp and you're dealing with a Chimp, then it's normally pretty straightforward - you 'get' each other.  Similarly, Bonobos recognise one another and can rely on their preferred way of working.

But if you're a Chimp and you have to work with a Bonobo (or vice versa) then you need to adapt your approach.

How a Chimp Views a Bonobo
The Chimp misinterprets the Bonobo's friendliness as weakness.

How a Bonobo Views a Chimp
The Bonobo misinterprets the Chimp's strongly task-focused approach as an attempt to dominate and bully.

Whether you're a Bonobo or a Chimp, if you are facing a difficult conversation and  you want to avoid being misread here are three tips to help you handle the situation:

Tip 1  Pay Careful Attention to Etiquette.
Small things matter.  If you are a Chimp, be very polite and solicitous (Bonobos place great emphasis on courtesy).  If you are a Bonobo, show respect for the other person and their environment but without demeaning yourself (Chimps get very agitated if their physical, organisational or psychological territory is threatened).

Tip 2  Use 'Safe Phrases'
The following phrases press the right buttons whether you are dealing with a Chimp or a Bonobo (they convey the message 'we are in the same troop'):

'We can handle this'
'We'll sort this'
'We'll get through this'

Tip 3  Get a Grip on Your Inner Primate
Recognise that we tend to act instinctively most of the time, and that this includes becoming defensive when we feel threatened (eg in a difficult conversation).  If you have the chance, make up your mind before the encounter in terms of:
  • How you want to behave
  • What you are going to say
  • How you will respond if the other party behaves in a certain way.