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?

Strange wisdom

Photo by KT on Unsplash

Lately I’ve been noticing lots of things that seem to be true – and at the same time, completely counterintuitive.

Here are some examples:

  • Being kind to yourself sometimes involves doing things you don’t want to do.
  • When changing your behaviour, it helps to start by accepting yourself exactly as you are right now.
  • In order to have a productive day, there are times when the best thing you can do in the moment is – absolutely nothing.
  • If you want someone to listen to you, the most powerful thing you can do is listen to them.
  • When you’re struggling to solve a problem, the solution often appears when you give up and pay attention to something else instead.
  • Sometimes the best way to help another person is to stop trying to help them.

Having previously had a very rigid way of making sense of the world, I’ve found that the more my psychological health improves, the more I am able to tolerate paradoxes, both-this-and-that-ness, not-knowing.

Perhaps my new-found willingness to be in the presence of confusing and apparently contradictory ideas without demanding that one is right and the other wrong has come from learning about Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. DBT is an approach which can be helpful for people who find it difficult to regulate their emotions, thinking and behaviour (particularly those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, eating disorders or addictions, or at risk of suicide or self-harm).

The dialectic at the heart of DBT is this: we can accept ourselves exactly as we are right now, whilst also committing to doing things differently from this point onwards. It invites us to be gentle with ourselves for the things we are not able to control (for example, what happened to us when we were younger, how we behaved in the past when we didn’t know better) and to step up and take responsibility for improving things in the future (by learning to do things in new and healthier ways).

In life (as in DBT) it seems there is a constant balancing to be done, a strangeness to be embraced, a middle path to be found which is neither-this-nor-that.

Increasingly, what I find to be wise and true cannot be expressed directly in language. It shows up in the spaces between words – an oddly beautiful, indescribable thing.

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.

A behaviour change word-trick

Can we change our own behaviour simply by altering the words we choose?

Research suggests that we can – and that to do so may be simpler than we imagine.

For some time, we have had evidence that the language we encounter can directly influence our behaviour.

For example, when older people are exposed to positive or negative age stereotypes before taking part in a physical or cognitive activities (such as walking, matching items to words or memory tasks), their performance changes. Priming with age-positive words such as ‘wise’ results in faster walking and processing speeds and improved memory performance. Priming with age-negative words such as ‘forgetful’ has the opposite effect.

Throughout life, we mentally squirrel away ideas about what is possible, how we expect to behave and what is likely to happen. These ideas – and the language they are dressed in – shape our experience. Often we have little or no awareness of what’s going on.

So could we make this process more conscious, in order to help ourselves live in ways that work better for us?

It seems that we can. Here’s one simple idea that can help.

When we want to change our behaviour, we can choose to focus either on the activity itself or on our personal identity.

For example, let’s say we decide to start taking more exercise. If we focus on the activity itself, we might say something like, “I should go for a run” or “I’ll go running later”. However, if we instead focus on our sense of identity, we start to think of ourselves “a runner” – and simply by doing that, we make it more likely that we’ll actually get our shoes on and make it out the door.

A 2011 study by Bryan, Walton and Dweck found that people were 13% more likely to vote in an election when they were encouraged to see themselves as ‘voters’ rather than simply asked to vote.

How we feel about the identity in question seems to be significant. In this study, people became less likely to cheat during a test when they received the message “Please don’t be a cheater” than the message “Please don’t cheat”.

It seems that many people are willing to do things they don’t agree with as long as they can mentally separate the behaviour from who they think they are. The moment the behaviour starts to define their identity, that willingness can quickly disappear.

So if there’s something you’d like to be doing but you’re not quite getting around to it, or you keep finding yourself doing things you’d really rather not, why not experiment with the language you choose to describe yourself? It might just be worth a try.

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?

“Too sensitive”

Ever been told you’re “too sensitive”?

Sensitive. It’s a funny word, with a muddle of meanings – some positive, others not so much. Here are a few from the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

  • receptive to sense impressions
  • delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others
  • excessively or abnormally susceptible
  • easily hurt or damaged

If you’re someone who is often told that you’re “too sensitive”, you may have come to see sensitivity as a weakness, something to be overcome.

Over the years, I’ve talked with so many people who have learned to see themselves as flawed, simply because they feel too much. I’ve certainly felt that way for most of my own life.

It’s true that if you’re someone who is acutely tuned in to your senses – which is all the word means, at its root – life can feel like a bombardment at times. So many signals to read and interpret. So much complexity to make sense of. So many sensory stimuli.

It can be exhausting.

Dealing with people can be particularly challenging, not least because – as demonstrated by the word ‘sensitive’ itself – words can mean so many different things. Trying to balance non-verbal perceptions (of body language, expression, tone of voice) with a guess at what the words might be being used to convey, is an extraordinarily complex job.

That we understand one another at all is hard to believe.

Yet for people with heightened sensitivity, there can be an extra layer of confusion. Our sensitivity is sometimes the legacy of life experiences which have left us feeling less-than-safe; a hypervigilance, a watchfulness designed to protect us. Often we have learned to read situations well, yet may not have any real insight into how we do so – which can lead to those awkward moments of absolutely knowing something to be true, whilst having no rational-sounding way of explaining to others how it is that we do.

From a sanity point of view, here be dragons…

The world needs people who feel. Our presence, our listening, our caring, our creativity – these things are precious beyond measure.

And at the same time, we have a responsibility to learn how to take good care of ourselves in order to be able to contribute those things. We need resilience. To learn how to switch off and recharge. To thrive.

For a long time I flinched when the words “too sensitive” appeared in conversation, as sooner or later they inevitably did. I taught myself to respond to them by feeling less-than, by becoming silent. I knew I wasn’t easy to be around and felt ashamed to be the way I was. I didn’t realise that I could be that person and be ok.

I see a different possibility now.

To be sensitive and fully present in the world and, at the same time, grounded, healthy and well-resourced – how can we learn to do that?

It’s time to find out.

Image © Cardigan&Mac

What ‘kind’ of person are you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories this week. Specifically the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

We probably all have them. I’m not sure (never having been anybody else), but I know I do.

The thing is, until very recently, I hadn’t noticed that these stories weren’t real. That they were based on specific interpretations of things that could actually be interpreted in all sorts of other ways.

I was acting as though they were facts, when actually they were possibilities.

This didn’t matter too much when the stories I was telling helped me to be happy and healthy, but many of the stories did quite the opposite. For example, I had all kinds of stories that told me not to try new ways of being or doing things, because I wasn’t that kind of person. And I believed them.

Having started to get my head around the idea that these stories may not all be worth believing, I decided to see how many unhelpful ones I could dismantle and replace with new ones.

Lots of them, it turned out.

And I’m beginning to think: what if there isn’t such a thing as a kind of person? What if it’s ok to hold a little less tightly onto who we think we are and start being a bit more playful, experimental and curious about who we might like to be?

So I’m curious…do you have stories about yourself too?

Who else might you like to be?