Another 5 challenges

In each episode of the Adventures in Behaviour Change podcast, our guest suggests a Little Challenge for others to try. Here are five favourites from the last few months:

Bruce Anderson

Ask the ‘second why’.

“When I’m going to do something that matters to me I always ask myself why I’m doing it – and then I ask myself why I am doing that. Everyone can do the ‘second why’ and it helps you to be grounded when you enter a situation because you know why you’re there. When people really feel grounded they tend to have more courage, they speak more strongly, they sit up in their chair taller, all kinds of things happen… I really dread the idea of public speaking and it takes quite a bit for me to to fly somewhere and do that. I end up quite frequently talking to large rooms of people and I’m just really terrified of doing it. So I really have to do the ‘second why’ right before I walk out on the stage – and I notice when I do that I start breathing slower, I can remember what I need to say, all kinds of things happen to who I am. So it is an immensely simple thing. You could think of it as some kind of pop psychology trick, but it really grounds you in optimism and a hopeful view of yourself in any situation.”

Ghilaine Chan

Close down your day and set an intention for tomorrow.

“End your day and really think about what you’re going to do tomorrow. So reflect back and say, “Have I done everything I wanted to do? No, I haven’t. Right, what am I going to do tomorrow?” And keep that list very short, maybe one, two, three things. But really have a sense of stopping today and having an intention for tomorrow.”

Nir Eyal

‘Surf the urge’ using the 10-minute rule.

“There’s a technique I use all the time called the ’10 minute rule’. Let’s say I want to write and I’m tempted to check email or look at Google or maybe I want to eat something unhealthy that I know is tempting me. So instead of giving in to that temptation right away, I give myself this 10 minute rule of – I can give into that temptation in 10 minutes, but in those 10 minutes I have to write down the distraction. I have to write down the internal trigger (what I’m feeling), and I just have to kind of feel that sensation for just a few minutes. 90% of the time, that sensation just washes over you like a wave. It’s called ‘surfing the urge’.”

Amanda Blainey

Practise ‘memento mori‘.

Imagine – if you had one year left to live, what would you do? What would you change in your life? What would you say to the people that you love? What would be important to you? And it might make you think, “Okay… I’m going to do that”. They don’t have to be big things. It might be saying something to someone: “Oh, I’d better ring my sister and tell her I really love her and I really appreciate her and I’m really proud of her.” People save that stuff and that seems really sad to me. There’s this idea that if you’re terminally ill or you’ve been given a diagnosis that things aren’t looking good and you haven’t got long, people start doing those things. And I always think, why does it take that? Why can’t we say that now? What’s stopping us from saying those really nice things to people? You know what – it makes you feel good too.”

Kristian Brodie

Write ‘morning pages’.

“The challenge that I set myself is to do this exercise that I read about in a book called ‘The Artist’s Way‘. It’s called ‘morning pages’ and literally the very, very first thing you do in the morning before you’ve had breakfast, before you’ve woken up, is to take yourself off somewhere quiet and sit with a notebook and write for just 10 minutes whatever it is that is in your head. It doesn’t have to be good. It’s not meant to be re-read or seen by anybody else. It’s just to get things out of your sleepy brain and into the world. I’ve found that to be hugely, hugely helpful and the most creatively sparking thing I’ve done in recent years, for sure.”

So now I’m curious… If you were to suggest a Little Challenge of your own – what would it be?

The ‘introvert hangover’

I’m currently experiencing what I describe as an ‘introvert hangover’.

After a period of intense social activity, I can often feel a bit out-of-sorts. Nothing terrible, just a bit tired and headachey and conscious that I’m less productive, focused and resourceful than usual.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who experiences this. In fact I’ve talked to lots of people who describe something similar.

For those of us who recharge by spending time alone being quiet, it can be easy to get a little bit overwhelmed by the world. It’s not that we don’t enjoy being out there in it, it’s just that being in stimulating environments with interesting people generates lots of ‘data’ to be processed. All that filing, categorising, making sense of, takes some doing. It’s like updating software on your computer whilst simultaneously trying to carry on with business as usual. Sometimes everything just grinds to a halt for a bit.

I notice that I can feel a bit anxious about the fact that I’m prone to these ‘hangovers’. I can think that I should be different from how I am. I can be tempted to try and distract myself with food or fidgeting or analysing things. But none of those things really help.

Here are some things that do:

  • Accepting that this just happens sometimes. It’s not wrong or something to be fixed. It just is – and, soon enough, it will pass.
  • Practising radical self-care. Allowing time for silence, rest, eating and drinking healthily, getting outside, breathing deeply, exercising…
  • Explaining to others that it may not be possible to be as productive / communicative / creative or energetic as usual on days like these but that normal service will resume shortly.
  • Taking a shower and enjoying the white noise, the immersive experience and the symbolic value of washing away all the accumulated busy-ness.
  • Doing something distracting and unstressful – like watching or reading something entertaining, doing a puzzle or playing a computer game.

Some people find that it helps to have a cry – not necessarily because they feel sad or that there’s anything wrong – but simply because it can be an effective way of discharging tension in the body. Others find they can physically shake it off. Yet others find that breathing techniques and mindfulness can help them to move through the experience more quickly and easily.

So I’m curious… Do you ever experience this?

And if you do – what do you find helps?

Thinking in colour

It has many names:

  • Black and white thinking
  • Absolutist thinking
  • Dichotomous thinking
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Splitting

Whichever one you choose, the tendency to see things as being all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, all this or all that, is a common type of cognitive distortion.

A cognitive distortion is ‘an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern involved in the onset and perpetuation of psychopathological states’. In other words, an unrealistic way of thinking that interferes with our happiness and psychological health. 

We routinely use thought patterns to conserve time and energy and help us to make sense of the world. We use them to help us predict what will happen, how people will behave, how we will feel – and they often serve us well. But when these patterns are over-simplified, or skewed towards a negative interpretation, we can start to have problems.

A 2018 study found that people who are experiencing anxiety, depression or suicidal thinking are significantly more likely to use ‘absolutist’ language than people who aren’t. Here’s a list of the kind of words the researchers were looking for:

Absolutely – All – Always – Complete – Completely – Constant – Constantly – Definitely – Entire – Ever – Every – Everyone – Everything – Full – Must – Never – Nothing – Totally – Whole

As someone who previously qualified for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and experienced decades of anxiety and depression (conditions which are strongly associated with this kind of language use), I can remember all too well what it felt like to think in these terms. Until a few years ago, if you had climbed inside my head and listened to the inner monologue there, you would have heard a lot of things like:

“It will always be like this.”

“You’ll never get better.”

“They all think so.”

Everything’s gone wrong.”

Nothing helps.”

In fact, at the point when I reached rock bottom, this was all there was to hear. I felt sure I knew how things were and how they always would be. It seems inconceivable now – but at that moment in time, and at many others like it, it felt completely and utterly believable.

So for me, the process of learning to be well has involved learning to think differently. I’ve come to understand that things are rarely as black and white as I used to imagine them to be. I’ve learned to see not just shades of grey, but a whole range of colours that simply weren’t visible before. I’ve found that it takes conscious effort and repeated reinforcement, but little by little, those old patterns of thinking can change.

Occasionally an old pattern will surface – most often when I’m tired or hungry or under a little more pressure than usual – but they rarely hang around for long. Because, as time goes by, I notice that life is infinitely more complex, more changeable, more subtle, more paradoxical, than seemed conceivable before – which makes concepts like ‘always’ and ‘never’ a bit harder to take seriously.

So if you sometimes find yourself imagining that everything is completely, absolutely, entirely and totally a certain way, if you fear that everyone, everywhere is doing something, or that you never, ever will – take a moment, if you can. A moment to stop and breathe and search for some colour in the situation. For some inbetweenness. For some not-quite-this and not-quite-that-ness.

Because somewhere, amidst the messiness and the blurred distinctions, there is relief, I think. The relief of discovering that things are often so much more than we allow them to be.

Pick and mix

Thanks so much to everyone who wrote and called in with “Things I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self” for  last week’s radio show

There were some gems. From the deeply pragmatic:

  • “Eat less sweet stuff”
  • “Get a haircut”
  • “Avoid credit cards”
  • “Take that trip to New Zealand”
  • “Learn to drive”
  • “Make sure you wear ear defenders”

to the reassuring:

  • “Forget trying to impress everybody else and just do what you want”
  • “Mistakes are fertile learning ground, so don’t be afraid to make them”
  • “Don’t worry – there’s no such thing as normal”
  • “Getting things wrong probably makes people like you more, not less”
  • “Don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way”
  • “You are, most definitely, enough”
  • “Don’t spend time worrying that you don’t know what you want to ‘be’ –  just make the most of any opportunities, explore them and accept each step as it comes”

and the inspiring:

  • “Every day give some attention to what gets your creative juices flowing”
  • “Dream bigger”
  • “Don’t look back at yesterday and say, I wish I’d done that. Look back at yesterday and say, well, I gave it a shot…”
  • “Anything is possible – say yes to every opportunity and make it happen rather than listening to the fear”

Finally, there was this, from Jane, who said:
“If I could go back to my 18 year old self I would play her Sunscreen by Baz Luhrmann. Job done.”

So for anyone, like me, who hadn’t come across this before, I’m sharing it here. Enjoy…

The show’s available online for a few weeks longer – if you’d like to listen, you can find it here.

(With special thanks to Dave, Pavo, Mike, Tina, Simon, Brenda, Ceri, Liz, Mim, Amanda, Catriona, Grace, Maxine, Jim, Vicky and Jane for sharing these and to everyone whose messages I read out in the show.)

Time travelling

In just a few days my eldest son will turn 18.

It’s got me wondering…

If I could go back in time and talk to my 18 year old self, what would I want to say?

I’m gathering some thoughts, a few at a time. Things I think I ‘know’. Things I wish I’d known.

Not so much for him, because I know that his experience will be different from mine. But for me – a little reminder of things that can help.

Here are the first few…


There is no rule that things ought to be a certain way. If you find yourself feeling cross or indignant, ask yourself what you think should be different. I’m willing to bet you’ll find a ‘should’ in there somewhere – a sense of entitlement to something, a sense that things should be other than they actually are. That ‘should’ is the source of the discomfort, not the situation itself. Life is messy and unpredictable. There are no ‘shoulds’.


Some things you can control, others you can’t. 

What you say, what you do, what you make things mean – you get to control those. Other people’s behaviour, the weather, sports results – those aren’t yours, sorry.

Learning to focus on the things you can control and let go of the ones you can’t saves a lot of time, energy and suffering. Sounds simple. Takes practice.


That normal life, normal appearance, normal experience you may be imagining – it doesn’t exist. Generally speaking, people are a bit odd. Most of us feel like outsiders sometimes. We can all imagine that everyone else knows what they’re doing. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Forget trying to be normal. Go do something fun instead.


Figuring out how to do new things is messy. You will end up feeling (and looking) silly sometimes. There will be a lot of mistakes. This is ok. That old saying about omelettes and eggs is true. Things will break from time to time. You will break from time to time. That’s just how it works. Keep going. On the other side of all the brokenness is something worth having. You may just not be able to see it quite yet. 


Human beings are natural storytellers. We tell stories in our minds all the time. Learning to recognise the difference between facts and stories is really helpful. When we get them confused we can cause ourselves and others a lot of heartache. Watch out for the word ‘because’. It’s often a helpful indicator that a story is about to begin.

More to follow. In the meantime, I’m curious…

What do you wish you’d known at 18?

Little Challenges 6 to 10

Following on from the first five Little Challenges shared by guests on the Adventures in Behaviour Change podcast which I featured here a couple of weeks ago, here are the next five…

Episode 6: Emma J Bell

Ask yourself, what single habit would I like to create in my daily routine? Now ask, why?

“If you want to be calmer, if you want to be able to respond rather than react, meditation’s a great habit. If you want to get fitter, then your habit might be to walk for half an hour three or four times a week, the same time of day on designated days during the week. Or it could be reading poetry or it could be having a phone call with someone who makes you feel good regularly; reaching out in some way. Whatever the habit is, start today, but be clear on your why. What’s it going to give you? How will it improve your life? How will it create better, deeper connections? Because it’s the why that is instrumental in motivating us towards the behaviour we want to create every day… So many people want to change half a dozen things, which is overwhelming so they don’t start. Don’t worry, just choose one. That’s it.”

Episode 7: Hilary Gallo

Look at people you pass in the street and silently wish them well.

“I look people in the face and wish them well for their day. Just in my own mind and my own thoughts, I wish them well – I don’t voice it. Wishing good on other people, particularly people who look troubled, I find incredibly powerful and energising. It helps me. I mean I kind of believe that we’re more connected than we believe we are, that we’re not all just these separate individuals. And if you think of it like that, if we’re connected, it’s kind of wishing well upon the system of which we are a part. And ultimately by doing good to others, you’re doing good for yourself. So I just have this practice that I find really helpful of ‘wishing well’. In a kind, gentle way, just doing that to 5 or 10 people as you walk along the street, I find really powerful.”

Episode 8: Aline Holzwarth

Take a few moments during your lunch break to practise yoga.

Lunch yoga is the Little Challenge that I’d like to offer you. Not eating lunch while doing yoga (although maybe I shouldn’t knock it until I’ve tried it). Lunch yoga is simply doing yoga during your lunch break. There are a million videos on YouTube iff you want to just follow along with someone, One thing that I’ve done, not that I’m brand loyal or anything, but I’ve used the Nike Training Club App. They have a lot of exercises. You can just filter by yoga, pick one that fits the amount of time that you have and you’re good to go.”

Episode 9: Andy Smallman

Choose a small object that has meaning for you that you haven’t thought about for a while. Put it somewhere obvious. Each time you notice it, pause and notice the thoughts that come up.

‘Three Simple Steps To Find Meaning From A Personal Object’.

“Here’s what you do. Find something wherever you live that’s kind of small, something you’ve had it in some place for so long that you’ve really stopped noticing it, but it’s important to you. It might be something you picked up on a vacation or a gift that you were given at some point, but you put it initially in a spot and it had meaning for you, but now it’s been there so long that you’ve kind of lost track of that meaning. Take it and put it somewhere else. A conspicuous spot where you’re going to see it and then, each day, when you come across it, just pause for a split second and see what comes up in your mind. Pay attention to what happens and just take note of that. It could be, now you’re thinking of this person who gave this to you. Or you’re thinking of the vacation that you got it or whatever the case may be. That could be enough right there, but if you really want to extend it, take a minute to jot that down. Write down what feelings, emotions, people that this is evoking and then act on one thing if you want to go a little bit further. You could jot someone a little note and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you”. If it’s a memory that that triggers, maybe you’ve got a photo or two that you want to share or maybe you were on that trip with somebody and you want to talk to them about it.”

Episode 10: Silja Litvin

When you’re in a stressful situation, pause for a moment and think of three things you’re grateful for.

“When you get really anxious or mad or unhappy with something – let’s say you’re in traffic jam and you’re getting really riled up and you can feel your heart beating and your temperature rising – you’re locked in an emotion, a stress reaction that is really hard to get out of. And that’s kind of like the lizard brain has taken over, and that can be quite harmful because you’re producing a lot of stress hormones. When you’re in a situation like that, find three things you’re grateful for. Because two things are happening. First of all, you are forcing your brain to use a different part of the brain. So it’s interrupting the stress response because you’re having to think for things that you’re grateful for. And the second thing is that you’re rewiring your brain to become more sensitive to positive things. And it can be something really silly like, “The sun’s shining”, “The car smells good”, or, “I like the way my hair looks today”! Whatever it is, every time you feel yourself getting into that spot of darkness, just come up with three things you’re grateful for and you will see yourself immediately calm down. Over a period of time, within two weeks, you can actually find yourself being a happier person.”

Find out more about the line-up of guests for Series 2 of Adventures in Behaviour Change HERE.

Two types of perfectionism

Learning to do things differently is a funny old business.

I imagine it’s slightly different for all of us, but here’s how I think it works:

  1. Make conscious effort to change behaviour
  2. Make progress
  3. Think you’ve cracked it
  4. Out of the blue, old behaviour sneaks up when you’re looking in the other direction and hijacks things for a bit
  5. Enter Vale of Despond
  6. Lick wounds and return to 1
  7. Notice that actually you’ve made lots of progress – it was just a blip
  8. Laugh at the ridiculousness of it all

It’s happened so many times now that I’m beginning to recognise the pattern much quicker than before, which makes it a great deal easier to manage. Even so – old behaviour still takes me by surprise on a pretty regular basis.

This week it happened with perfectionism. There I was, happily imagining that I didn’t do ‘perfectionism’ any more. Skipping along cheerily.

And, exactly on cue, like a wily cartoon villain tiptoeing up behind me, came a debilitating attack. Kapow.

It was only when I found myself sitting in the Vale of Despond, thinking that I would never do anything again because it wouldn’t be ‘good enough’, that I realised.

I’ve been here before.

I know this feeling.

And I know not to trust it.

At which point, the feeling seemed to evaporate. On turning around, there was no cartoon villain. Just a cloud of dust.

So rather than never doing anything again because it won’t be ‘good enough’, I decided to do a bit of reading about perfectionism.

I discovered that it’s on the rise. That there are two types: adaptive (or excellence-seeking) and maladaptive (or failure-avoiding). That, if you’re going to be a perfectionist of either kind, the former is the one to go for – but that neither kind actually results in better performance.

It can be tempting to use perfectionism as a badge of honour – a sign of how hard we’re trying, how much we care – but research suggests that it doesn’t actually help us do things better. More often, it simply slows us down and leaves us burned-out and miserable. On reflection, I’m not sure that’s a badge worth wearing.

So, having done enough wound-licking for now, I’m back off to learn a bit more. Laughing – definitely laughing – at the ridiculousness of it all…

This is a great article, if you’d like to explore the subject further…

(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

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?

Do your best. Let go.

One of the most challenging things about openly sharing one’s personal story – in my experience at least – is trying to keep steady on the inside, no matter how that story is received.

The talk I gave at the Do Lectures 2018
(originally entitled: The Problem with Big, Amazing Things)

I found taking part in the 2018 Do Lectures an enormously positive experience. It demanded that I think deeply about the ups and downs of my life, find some kind of meaning there and then try to articulate that meaning to others. It required me to have conversations (particularly with my two sons) that I hadn’t dared to have before. It opened up new discussions about the common struggles we go through in our attempts to feel ‘good enough’. It was an opportunity to make peace with a peculiarly painful period of my life and move on. An extraordinary process and one for which I will always be grateful.

Now that the talk has been published online, I am noticing how easy it is to feel vulnerable knowing that it can be seen and responded to by others; people who will inevitably have their own judgements, experiences and sensitivities around the subject matter. At times it can feel scary to have spoken out and to have been so honest and unguarded in sharing a story which, previously, was held private and safe.

However, as I’m gradually learning to do, I’ve found my way back to the writings of much older and wiser people. In particular, to these words by Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching (translated by Stephen Mitchell):

“Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”

What I love about this is the reminder to do one’s best and then let go.

A simple thought, yet such a comforting one.

So I’m curious…

How do you keep steady?