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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 ChangeHERE.
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, becauseI’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.
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…
DO THEM ANYWAY.
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?
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:
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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:
Make conscious effort to change behaviour
Think you’ve cracked it
Out of the blue, old behaviour sneaks up when you’re looking in the other direction and hijacks things for a bit
Enter Vale of Despond
Lick wounds and return to 1
Notice that actually you’ve made lots of progress – it was just a blip
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…
I was unloading the dishwasher with my son the other day.
Ok, I’ll be honest. I was ‘encouraging’ him to unload it.
And somewhere in the midst of the cheery disagreement about whose turn it was to do it, he told me about the ‘Uno reverse’ meme.
The idea is that you carry a ‘reverse’ card from the Uno game in your pocket and then, when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do or says something you want to turn back on them, you produce it.
Apparently there’s a similar one involving a Monopoly ‘get out of jail free’ card. One of his friends has even been known to carry an ‘advance to Mayfair’ card which seems to work for him in all sorts of situations. (I guess he must own Mayfair, since it wouldn’t make sense if someone else had a hotel on it…)
Anyway, as it happened my son didn’t have a reverse card handy (ha!), so he unloaded the dishwasher anyway – but the conversation got me thinking.
I started wondering what it would be like if there were other types of cards we could carry and ‘play’ in real life. Cards that could act as shorthand for all sorts of things that can be tricky to say directly – particularly when we’re not feeling at our best. For example:
I really like talking with you, but right now I need to be quiet and not talk with anybody
I’m hungry and I need to eat something right away (before I start saying all sorts of things I’ll regret)
Do you have a spare hug?
I really appreciate the invitation and I don’t want to cause offence by saying no – but no
If I happen to cry, please don’t take it personally – it’s just that kind of a day
Talking about big important stuff is unlikely to go well right now – please could we schedule it for another time?
There is such power in the act of standing alongside someone:
in acknowledging their experience
in accepting them as they are, without judgement
in believing in them
Such simple things, so easily overlooked.
Yet, the times when people in my life have chosen to stand alongside me – to listen, to acknowledge, to accept and believe in me, even when I scarcely knew how to do those things for myself – have been the times I will never forget.
To be accompanied, when we feel afraid or alone or doubt ourselves, by others -who through their words or their actions reassure us, “You got this”- is a precious thing indeed.
I started trying to list some of those moments to include here and as I did so, I realised how many of them there have been. How many times people have chosen to be kind, when they didn’t need to be. And how the fact that I am here today, happily doing what I do, is a direct result of that kindness.
So, to the various friends who:
came to my mum’s funeral, simply to be with me, even when it was completely impractical and difficult to do so;
brought flowers and took me for walks when I was on a secure psych ward, unable to go out alone;
made a point of thinking of me when they knew I was doing something I was apprehensive about, and emailed to let me know;
shared what they had, even when they had little for themselves;
listened, accepted, encouraged, waited patiently, showed up, sat quietly, cheered loudly, gave lifts, boiled kettles, made food, offered hugs and smiles and handkerchiefs and company, and so much more…
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?
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…)
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
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?