Music lessons

Years ago, whilst working as piano teacher, I noticed that many beginner students seemed to struggle with one particular thing. Focusing so hard on playing the notes on the page, they would rush from one to the next without allowing them to last their full length, often ignoring the rests altogether. It was as if the notes were all that mattered. It generally took a little while of learning and a bit more confidence for the person to become as comfortable about not-playing as playing. For a recognition to emerge that it was only through allowing everything to take the exact amount of time it needed – even if that meant waiting in silence* – that the piece of music could come alive.

Over the years I’ve noticed a similar tendency showing up in all sorts of other places. The sneaking suspicion that if we’re not doing something, we should be. The inclination to rush from one event from the next, as if it is only when conscious effort is involved that progress is being made.

Through playing eQuoo – The Emotional Fitness Game (created by recent podcast guest, Silja Litvin), I discovered that there’s a name for this tendency to think that doing something is better than doing nothing: the Action Bias.

Whether the pressure to act comes from within ourselves – as an attempt to escape uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty – or from others – like the goalkeeper who chooses to jump right or left in the face of a penalty shoot-out (despite the fact that statistically-speaking it would be better to stand still) simply because ‘doing something’ is expected – it can be hard to resist. And yet, it is so often from times of not-doing that good things emerge.

So here’s to allowing. To silence. To patience. To a willingness to tolerate uncertainty. Here’s to sitting through discomfort. To trusting the process. To planting a seed and allowing it to grow (without feeling the need to dig it up repeatedly, just to check that something’s happening). Not that I’ve ever done that, of course…

*Oh go on then. I can’t help resist linking to this. The ultimate in musical silence. (Some of the YouTube comments are pretty entertaining too…)

The pleasant list

Image © Cardigan&Mac

In our recent interview, behavioural scientist Aline Holzwarth introduced me to the concept of the ‘Pleasant Events Schedule’ – a list of simple, widely-enjoyed activities – used in clinical psychology. 

I was curious to find out more, so this week I’ve been doing some reading… 

The idea is simple: that doing things we enjoy (however small or apparently insignificant), can improve our mood and our perceived quality of life. In the early 1970s, researchers compiled a list of hundreds of pleasurable activities (as suggested by a diverse range of people) – which you can find towards the end of this document.

With an eclectic mix of entries ranging from ‘breathing clean air’, ‘caring for houseplants’ and ‘doing artwork’ to ‘being stubborn’, ‘scratching myself’ and ‘shoplifting’, it’s an entertaining read if you have a few moments to spare.

It seems that we tend to feel happier when we regularly include our favourite ‘Pleasant Events’ in our daily lives, however we often neglect to do this when life gets tough. For this reason, the ‘Pleasant Events Schedule’ is often recommended as a tool for easing symptoms of depression and improving quality of life amongst carers and people living with chronic illnesses.

Inspired by all I’ve read, I’ve started making a list of my own. It includes many items taken from the original document, including:

  • taking a nap
  • playing basketball
  • smiling at people
  • learning to do something new

However I’ve thought up several new ones I want to include too:

  • talking to guinea pigs
  • looking at colourful things
  • making up nonsense songs with my teenage son
  • going for walks in the pouring rain, just for the joy of getting warm and dry again afterwards

I haven’t started using it yet, but simply compiling the list seems to be a cheering activity in its own right. I can recommend it.

So if you were to create a list, what would you include?

An afternoon ‘reboot’

Image ©Cardigan&Mac .

When I was growing up, my parents always napped after lunch. Each day at 1:30pm they were to be found fast asleep in their respective armchairs, rugs upon their knees and the television murmuring quietly in the background. At the time I didn’t realise that they were unusual in doing so – that most people didn’t work from home and couldn’t nap even if they wanted to – and it came as quite a surprise to discover that napping wasn’t a universal practice.

Like many people I went through a phase of wanting to do everything as differently from my parents as possible, so for a while I was a determined non-napper, using caffeine, sugar and sheer obstinacy to help me through the saggy bit of the afternoon. However, in recent years my behaviour has started to change – largely because I can’t help but notice that a brief period of sleep has the most extraordinarily restorative effect on me. It’s like an afternoon ‘reboot’. In just the same way I might try turning electronic devices off and on again when they start malfunctioning, I find that I think better, feel happier and am more creative and resourceful after just a few minutes of switched-off-ness. And it seems I’m not alone…

It seems that the length of nap is all important. In this study, researchers found that the optimum nap length is 10 minutes. Much shorter and the associated benefits (improved cognitive ability, increased vigour and reduced fatigue) don’t show up. Much longer and there’s a risk of experiencing ‘sleep inertia’ – waking in a state of confusion, mental fogginess and exhaustion. 

This study suggests that early afternoon is the best time for a nap and that napping regularly works better than occasionally.

It’s also worth knowing that very frequent or long-lasting daytime naps can be associated with reduced mental and physical health (more here).

In Daniel Pink’s excellent book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing he explores the subject in detail, including a description of how to take the perfect ‘nappuccino’ – a coffee/snooze combination that seems to bring the greatest benefits of any type of nap.

So, after all these years, I’m beginning to think that my parents were onto something with their little siesta. How amused they’d be to hear me say that…

A whole six months!

The Ideas Community Wednesday email is six months old today and I’m celebrating! Thank you for being there, for reading and, in many cases, replying. It’s always a joy to hear from you and I am so very grateful for the ideas, experiences and encouragement you share.

Over the last few days I’ve been doing an unusual amount of listening. The new Adventures in Behaviour Change podcast is preparing to launch, which means there’s been a lot of interviewing, transcribing and editing to do – all listening-orientated activities.

Although I’ve done a certain amount of audio editing in my former life as a musician, I’ve never spent quite so much time simply listening to voices. And in the process I’ve noticed something interesting, closely related to what I wrote about last week in The smiling tree. It’s this…

When I listen to the conversations, I can hear smiles.

And when I hear smiles, I can’t help but smile back.

I wasn’t sure if this involuntary smile response was an individual peculiarity or not. “Perhaps it’s just me?”, I thought, so I looked it up.

It’s not just me.

It turns out that there are at least 50 different types of smile and we can recognise many of them by sound alone (read more here). Not only that, but when we hear someone smiling, even if we don’t consciously realise that they are, our facial muscles prepare themselves to smile back (more here).

So it’s not really surprising that I’ve been sitting here at my mixing software grinning to myself. After all, I’ve been editing things like this short video trailer for episode 1 of the podcast, in which I chat with Sharon Danzger, founder of Control Chaos and author of Super-Productive: 120 Strategies to Do More and Stress Less.

Wishing you a happy, celebratory* week ahead.

*Can’t think of anything to celebrate? This website is always a good source of ideas – you can even create your own!

The smiling tree

Out walking in the woods the other day, I was greeted by an unexpected smile.

I couldn’t help but smile back. In fact, after continuing along the path for a little while, I stopped and retraced my steps so that I could take a photograph of it. I thought I might like to smile at it again later. Here it is:


I don’t know who drew the smile but I wish I could thank them. You see, before I found it I was immersed in an episode of Unnecessary Seriousness in which all sorts of not-important things had suddenly become very important. (I don’t know if you are susceptible to Unnecessary Seriousness too, but if you are, you’ll know that it isn’t a lot of fun.)

The smiling tree interrupted all that and left me with a much better sense of perspective again. 

This experience got me thinking about the benefits of smiling, so when I arrived home, I decided to do some reading on the subject.

It turns out that there have been all sorts of experiments to find out if our expression affects our emotional state – a concept known as the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. For example:

  • this one, in which participants were instructed to hold a pencil in their mouths in specific ways to elicit a range of expressions, and then monitored whilst being shown a selection of video clips designed to provoke a positive or negative response.
  • this one, in which participants were told to do something similar using a chopstick, whilst engaging in physically or mentally stressful activities.
  • or this one, in which participants were asked to mimic a range of positive and negative facial expressions they were shown, either with or without being able to see themselves a mirror.

Overall, it would appear that smiling (even if we’re not feeling very smily at the time) can help us to feel happier, make funny things seem funnier and even support our cardiovascular system in recovering from stressful experiences. If we see ourselves smiling, the effects can be even more pronounced. 

Of course, if we do something that makes someone else smile, we can experience a whole range of extra social benefits as a result. In fact, there’s a suggestion that people whose names include sounds which use the same facial muscles as a smile (‘eeee’, for example) may find that others are more likely to help them than those whose names don’t. 

So, in those stressful, not-much-fun moments that crop up from time to time, it might be worth experimenting. A quick smile at yourself in the mirror when you pass by might make the rest of the day feel just a little bit easier. 

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Oh the irony…

In last week’s exploration of our tendency to say ‘yes’ to future commitments only to later wish we hadn’t,  I promised that this week we’d look at ways of making it easier to say ‘no’. 

Amusingly, a week later, exactly the thing I had been writing about happened to me: namely, an undertaking that seemed like a great idea when I committed to it started to feel like a less great idea once the time to do it arrived. 


When I sat down and started researching interesting ‘no’ techniques, I discovered there are LOADS of them. There are great articles like this one, not to mention many books on the subject:

  • The Art of Saying No
  • How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty, Horrible, Selfish, Mean or Bad  (bookmarked that one)
  • The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes (yes? I thought we were moving away from yes?) 
  • How to Say NO Coloring Book (Really?)

I had completely underestimated how many ideas there would be to choose from and I felt swamped and out of time. (Oh the irony. Last week I was writing about the planning fallacy. This week I’m living it.) 

The recovering perfectionist in me popped up and started grumbling. Which, combined with all the swamped, out-of-time feelings made the prospect of keeping last week’s promise rather less fun than I had imagined it would be.

But right in the middle of that experience, I noticed something interesting about the relationship between yes and no: in order to say yes to what matters to me (in this case, doing what I promised to do) I have to say no to a lot of other things (like including every good every idea I find, or doing things ‘perfectly’).

Because every yes is a no to something else. 

And every no creates the possibility of a yes.

I used to say yes fairly indiscriminately, wanting to be helpful, liked, indispensable. I thought time would stretch to accommodate all the yes-es. But it didn’t. All those not very important yes-es ended up forcing me into some no-s that I never would have consciously chosen: to time with people I love, to sleep, to good health, to keeping promises I’d made.

So, despite the fact that I’d hoped to share a whole host of ideas about ways to make it easier to say no in this email, I actually only have one to offer right now.

Think of the things you love. The things that makes you feel most fully yourself. The ones you want and need to say yes to. And remember them, each time you’re tempted to say yes to something else.

That’s it. It’s only a little idea. But it might just make some of the no-s just a bit clearer and easier to say.

On saying yes (and Sesame Street)

One of the most enjoyable sections to write in last week’s A to Z of Behaviour Change was the letter Y.

I was up to my elbows in Yoga and Yodelling and really not getting very far at all when I stumbled across the “Yes….Damn!” Effect. 

I’d never heard of it before but when I read this passage on ‘dynamic inconsistency’ in Wikipedia I recognised it immediately:

People display a consistent bias to believe that they will have more time in the future than they have today. Specifically, there is a persistent belief among people that they are “unusually busy in the immediate future, but will become less busy shortly”. However, the amount of time you have this week is generally representative of the time you have in future weeks. When people are estimating their time and when deciding if they will make a commitment, they anticipate more “time slack” in future weeks than the present week. Experiments by Zauberman & Lynch (2005) on this topic showed that people tend to discount investments of time more than money. They nicknamed this the “Yes…Damn!” effect…

In combination with the ‘planning fallacy’ – our tendency to underestimate how long tasks will actually take to complete – this can cause us problems. 

So if, like me, you often find yourself doing both of these things, here are some ideas that might help:

  • Imagine that the thing you are committing to will actually take twice as long as you imagine. Would you still say yes?
  • Imagine that it is taking place later this week, instead of further in the future. Would you still say yes?
  • Give yourself a day to consider before responding. Do you still say yes?

Of course, if you decide to say no – particularly if you find saying no uncomfortable – that can bring challenges of its own. I’ll write a little about that next week.

p.s. As someone who received much of their early education from Sesame Street, I couldn’t help but wonder how they introduced the letter Y. Turns out ‘Y’ was having time management problems of his own. A classic.

Jólabókaflóð , anyone?

I love the idea of Jólabókaflóð. It’s an Icelandic tradition (roughly translated as ‘Yule book flood’), in which people give one another books on 24th December and then curl up in cosy places to read them whilst drinking hot chocolate or jólabland. The practice began during World War II; paper was one of the few commodities that wasn’t rationed, which meant that books became a popular gift choice.

I’d like to do a bit of Jólabókaflóðið-ing myself this year, so I’ve been thinking about the books I’d like to give (and, if lucky, receive).

As a big fan of physical books, I can’t help but notice that there are only so many one can physically accommodate and/or afford to buy. (Big sigh……..) As a result, I’ve been looking for ways to sift through the extraordinary number of books out there to decide which ones to choose. 

Here are a few of the resources I’m finding helpful:


Blinkist is an app and a website where you can get “key ideas from bestselling nonfiction distilled by experts into bitesize text and audio”. I use it to help me understand what a given book is about and whether or not it’s of interest. Sometimes just reading the ‘blinks’ is enough information. Often it inspires me to get the book itself and read it thoroughly. A useful selection tool. There’s a 7-day free trial available via the website if you’d like to try it out.


Scribd is a library of audiobooks, ebooks, magazines and documents. In return for a monthly subscription (similar to the cost of buying one new paperback a month) you can access unlimited books and articles. Great if you like to read widely and dip into lots of sources without having to buy them all. There’s a 30-day free trial available here if you’d like to find out more.

Ryan Holiday Reading List

I love this list. Each month, Ryan shares information about the best fiction and non-fiction books he’s read over the last few weeks. He covers a huge range of subjects and has switched me on to all sorts of gems over the last year or two. Free to subscribe – just follow this link.

Do Lectures: 100 Must-Read Books of 2018

Each year in Iceland, newly published books are listed in a catalogue that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November during the Reykjavik Book Fair. People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas. Not living in Iceland myself, I was grateful to come across this list from the lovely people at the Do Lectures. Would recommend a look.

A night-time anxiety trick

For many years I would wake up and worry at 4am pretty much every day.

If I was lucky I’d eventually get a bit more sleep before my alarm went off, although it was generally the kind of sleep that left me feeling fuzzier and more tired than if I’d just stayed awake.

As habits go, it wasn’t a great one. You can probably imagine.

Anyway, I hadn’t done it for a long time…until this week. It was a surprise to experience it again after a good couple of years of not doing it at all.

I was briefly worried about the worrying. “What if it’s back for good?”, I thought – compounding the anxiety I was already feeling. And then I remembered that worrying about worrying definitely doesn’t help.

Fortunately, I remembered something that can.

Scheduling a better time to think. 

The problem with night-time worrying is that it tends to be exhausting and unlikely to result in a creative solution. I don’t know about you, but lying in bed in the dark feeling anxious and miserable is not where I do my best thinking.

Things that are really important deserve a better quality of problem solving. And things that aren’t that important generally reveal themselves as such in the daylight. So either way, it doesn’t make sense to try and worry your way to a solution at 4am.

However if you’ve ever tried telling yourself to stop worrying because it ‘doesn’t make sense’, you may have found that it doesn’t help much.

That’s because our brains are cleverly set up to keep reminding us of unresolved tasks to make sure they don’t get overlooked. There’s even an impressive-sounding name for the phenomenon. Once upon a time, the Zeigarnik effect probably helped us to avoid getting eaten or suffering hypothermia, but these days its little reminders are less likely to be life-preserving.

Anyway, one thing you can do is trick your mind into believing that a task has been resolved, so that it lets you stop thinking about it. You can do this by scheduling a specific time to take care of it later.

So that’s what I did. I promised myself some dedicated worry time later on (which in the light of day actually feels more like ‘creative thinking time’) so that I could look at the situation in detail. And I’m not sure what happened next, because I must have fallen asleep.

As with everything, different things work for different people. But if you ever find yourself doing night-time worrying, you might like to give this a try:

  • Make an appointment with yourself to think at a time that suits you better
  • Reassure yourself that the issue will be addressed fully then
  • Give yourself permission to let it go for now

As ever, I’m curious…do you have ways of managing worry too?

If so, what works for you?

Metaphor hunting

Whilst reading this week, I’ve noticed a trend emerging amongst authors whose work I admire. Being in the process of writing a book myself, I’m thinking it might be good to follow their example. Nothing like a good bandwagon to jump on, after all.

I noticed the trend first in Atomic Habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones by James Clear. (It’s a great book on the subject of all things habit-related, by the way. Would recommend if you like that kind of thing.)

Early in the book, Clear talks about about the process of learning new behaviours – specifically the tendency for our progress not to follow a clear, predictable trajectory. He describes it as being like compound interest, in that the outcomes appear small at first but grow more dramatically the longer we continue. As a result of this slow start, there’s a bit near the beginning of the process where we may feel disheartened because the amount of effort we’re putting in doesn’t appear to be paying off. He describes this phase as the ‘Valley of Disappointment’.

“…habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere. It’s a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed.”

Then, whilst reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything by Joshua Foer, I noticed another example.

Foer introduces the concept of the ‘OK plateau’:

“…the point we reach when we decide we’re good enough at a task, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.”

So I’m thinking – in order to be a proper non-fiction author, I should probably come up with a geographically-themed metaphor of my own. However, apart from a few bits about glaciation, I don’t remember a great deal from school. (Which is concerning on all sorts of levels, but that’s another discussion.)

Anyway, it’s ok. I’ve discovered the Wikipedia Glossary of geography terms page. It lists so many things I’ve never even heard of – cryoturbation, inselbergs and monadnocks, the pole of inaccessibility – it’s been a wonderful rabbit hole to explore. (Rabbit hole isn’t in the glossary, just in case you were wondering.)

So if in a week or two I mention that recording interviews for the new Adventures in Behaviour Change podcast has led me to a ‘hillock of delight’, please just bear with me. It might take a little while to get the hang of learning this stuff. Progress isn’t linear, after all.