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?

On To Do (and Today) lists

What generally happens when I make a To Do list…

I start out with the best of intentions, clean sheet of paper in hand, confident that it’s all going to be achievable this time. Oddly, as I write things down, I can notice the confidence diminishing ever so slightly. However, it’s OK, because I’m making a To Do list and To Do lists are the answer to everything, aren’t they?

Once I’ve written down all the things I can think of and sat and looked at my list for a while, trying not to feel alarmed, I decide to start ticking things off. Some easy jobs first — just to make inroads into it.

Yes! I’ve done three things. I’m on a roll! It doesn’t matter that those were three of the things that I would have done anyway and that I’m studiously avoiding the other things in the murky bottom bit of the list. No, I’ve done three things out of my 107 things to do and therefore I’m making progress.

Then the phone rings and someone asks if I’d mind doing something for them and of course I wouldn’t, so I say yes and then, once I’ve put the phone down, I add that thing to the list and it’s now 108 things, but that’s ok because I’ve done three and…

Maybe now is a good time for a cup of tea. However, whilst I’m making a cup of tea, I notice that I really need to descale the kettle, because I’m tired of having crunchy tea, so I add that to the list — and now it’s 109 things and I’m feeling a bit less deserving of a celebratory “I’ve done three things!” teabreak.

My To Do list is starting to feel a bit less like the answer to everything and a bit more like a reproachful, slightly neglected pet.

My actual (frequently reproachful though not-at-all-neglected) pets.

What I now tell myself to do instead…

Take an enormous piece of paper. Write everything on it. All of the things that are cluttering up your mind, waking you up at night and generally making life a bit un-fun. This is your To Do list.

Now get a little piece of paper and use this for your Today list. Read through your massive, enormous To Do list and choose a very small number of things. Maybe three. Maybe five. Only you can decide, but the rule is — you can only put things on your Today list that you are committing to do today.

So if you think it would be nice to get around to looking at that corner of the kitchen where everyone seems to deposit things no matter how many times you ask them not to, but know deep down that there isn’t a hope of you actually doing it, DON’T put that on the list.

If, by contrast, you’ve noticed that your house plants are looking horribly dehydrated and you think you could probably water them whilst waiting for the kettle to boil a bit later on, then DO put ‘water plants’ on the list.

It might seem as though you have ridiculously low expectations if you only put a very few things on the list and they’re pretty small ones at that, but here’s the thing…


Don’t analyse. Don’t judge. Don’t beat yourself up. Just DO THEM.

When new things come to your attention and you need to add them to your To Do list, go right ahead. Just don’t put them on your Today list — unless you are willing to absolutely promise yourself that they’re going to be done by the end of the day.

You’re not ever going to clear your To Do list completely — that’s not how To Do lists work. But if you get into the habit of checking your To Do list each day, choosing just a tiny number of things from it to put on your Today list and then actually doing them, you will always know what needs doing, you will be making a steady impact, and you can go to bed at night knowing that you’ve done what you said you were going to do — which is worth a lot.

To Do, Today or something else entirely – what works for you?

Little Challenges 1 to 5

It’s the end of series 1 of Adventures in Behaviour Change: the Little Challenges podcast and I’m taking a little time out to reflect on all the wonderful conversations there have been so far.

At the end of each episode, I invite our guest for the day to suggest their own Little Challenge that people can try for themselves. There have been all sorts of different ideas of tiny, practical things that can help to make life just a little bit easier, happier or more meaningful.

Here are the first 5 Little Challenges our guests shared:

Episode 1: Sharon Danzger

Use a guided meditation app such as Insight Timer to help you meditate for just a few minutes a day.

“When I first started a mindfulness practice a little over five years ago, I had read a book and it was suggested 10 or 20 minutes a day and I thought to myself, “That’s just way too long – I can’t sit that long!” And so the way I approached it was I said to myself, “What is the smallest amount of time where at the end of the day, I can’t say to myself, I was too busy, I didn’t have time for that even though it’s really important to me?” And so I came up with two minutes. And so for two and a half years I meditated for two minutes every single day. Now I meditate a minimum of 10 minutes a day, but even the two minutes a day for those two and a half years, really had an impact on my ability to react to stress differently, because it gives you that skill to just pause instead of be very reactive.”

Episode 2: Rob Moore

Choose a task or an activity you’ve been meaning to do but putting off. Now ask:

  • Is there a barrier that’s stopping me from doing it? If so, what is it?
  • How can I adjust my routine or environment to make it easier to do it?
  • How can I remind myself to do it when it’s the right time, right place?
  • How can I make a public commitment to doing it?

“I think everybody will have something that they have been wanting to do but haven’t quite got there yet. A ‘Little Challenge’ could be recognising that thing and first working out, “Is there a barrier, or is there friction to me doing that thing?” And, if there is, then looking at ways to get rid of that barrier or reduce that friction. Then thinking about, “How could I make it more obvious for myself to to do this thing?” It might be if you’re taking some pills and you keep forgetting, you know, “Where can I put them so I’m not going to miss them?” Thirdly, thinking about the right time, right place. So actually I may be thinking about this behaviour quite consciously now because I’m doing the ‘Little Challenge’, but when it comes to actually doing it, I may not be, so what is the perfect time and place to nudge myself to do this behaviour? And then finally, the commitment piece, so, “Can I find a way to externalise my commitment to myself to do this thing? Can I physically write something down, sign something, could I make that public in some way? Could I tell somebody, put on a website? Can I write about in my blog?” And so, so maybe just thinking about whatever it is that you’re not doing and try to follow through those steps.”

Episode 3: James Sills

Breathe in through your nose and breathe out, slowly, for a longer amount of time than you breathe in.

“My ‘Little Challenge’ would be to create a bit of space for yourself in the day. Just breathe and be really conscious of your breathing. In particular breathe in through your nose and breathe out, slowly, for a longer amount of time than you breathe in – so you could maybe breathe in for two counts and breathe out for, say, eight counts, which will slow you down. It’ll oxygenate your blood, it’ll bring you into the moment. You know, particularly at times if you’re stressed or you’re anxious, this is when you need it most.”

Episode 4: Sally Foley-Lewis

Make a daily appointment on your calendar to do something that’s just for you.

I think we’ve forgotten how to make serious appointments with ourselves and put ourselves first so that we’ve actually got a full tank to be of service to others. And so I want people to get their calendars out and put something in their calendar every single day that’s for themselves. Maybe it’s five minutes of just sitting on a chair staring out a window and just being mindful for five minutes and it’s your five minutes. And it could be doing some gratitude journalling or it could be five minutes of pulling out your favourite recipe book and finding a recipe. It doesn’t matter what it is, but every single day, something just for you that is scheduled. It’s non negotiable. It’s for you. The interesting thing about using your calendar is that it feels kind of counterintuitive, that if you fill your calendar up, you don’t have freedom, but the opposite happens. The more you’ve actually scheduled your day to account for you, the work you need to do, the people you want to be with, the activities you want in your day, and the more they’re scheduled in, they become guiding posts for you. You’ll actually have that freedom because you built it in.”

Episode 5: SK Shlomo

Share a little bit of honesty with another human being.

“My ‘Little Challenge’ would be to create a truth, something honest that you’re going through or that is affecting you, and share that with another human being. It doesn’t have to be something big and horrible, but just a bit of honesty. If you’re not using social media, then you can do it in real life, or you could write a letter. We’re evolved to be in a tribe, in a village, and our modern society doesn’t really work in the same way with us looking out for each other, so we can create a virtual village by doing that using the internet or using analogue means to share some truth. So that’s what I would suggest to people: think of a truth and share that with someone.”

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.