Photo by Sven Mieke
We all understand the concept of physical fitness and have a sense of where we are with that. We know that good physical fitness can help us avoid risk of heart disease, strokes and other chronic illnesses, improve strength and flexibility, help us maintain a lower body weight and lower blood pressure, depression and even dementia.
What we understand less well is the concept of mental fitness. It is a measure of our ability to deal with life’s challenges in a way that allows us to bounce back rather than be knocked over when things don’t go to plan. Unlike physical fitness which relates to muscular strength, mental fitness is about building strong positive, constructive neural pathways that allow us to view the world more objectively and in a more positive light. Mental fitness gives you the ability to silence the negative thoughts and access the bounty of your higher mind, the place where your best thinking and emotional intelligence lives. Like a swimmer who is more powerful in the water than they are on land, we may be mentally strong in some circumstances and less capable in others.
There are three steps to mental fitness:
Sounds easy but it turns out to be very hard to do in the moment because our survival impulses are very powerful and can happen before we have time to really process whats going on.
Positive Intelligence©, a 6-week intensive mental fitness program that came out of Stanford University and is firmly built on neuroscience, cognitive and positive psychology, and performance science offers a simple toolkit that gives you:
The program has been used by hundreds of thousands of people already and has yielded significant measurable results for a number of organisations including*:
Want to know more? Find out about your saboteurs here and then book a call with me and we can talk about your results - in a complimentary session, of course!
* Figures from https://www.positiveintelligence.com/program/
Photo by vitamina poleznova
Time management is so easy to talk about and so hard to do well. There are lots of tools around to help with this. Pebbles in a jar and the Eisenhower Box are two that I use a lot, to help people recognise that they need to make sure they make time for whats important to them and then get clear on what action they need to be taking versus delegating to other people.
The key starting point for time management is to get very clear on your priorities. Our lives are the sum of what we prioritise and sometimes we inadvertently focus on life’s squeaky wheels. Bronnie Ware’s The Top Five Regrets of the Dying is a sobering reminder that life marches on and its up to us to use the time we have as well as we can. According to the book, these are the top 5:
Pebbles in a Jar
With that in mind, using the Pebbles in a Jar approach, we would look at your life (the jar) and what needs to fit into it. If you fillet with sand and pebbles, the rock cannot be squeezed in.
The Eisenhower box
Once we know what is truly important, we can apply an approach like the Eisenhower Box, invented by the 34th president of the USA. He’s famous for saying “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” And his matrix helped him separate the important from the unimportant and the urgent from the not urgent. As you can see, if its not important and its not urgent, you just get rid of it!
Want to live a life with no regrets? You’ll need to make sure you are prioritising whats most important to you and just let go of the unimportant things. Simple but not always so easy!
Photo by Jeff Kingma
I speak to many people each week who suffer from a nagging doubt that they are not fulfilling their destiny. It may show up as a sense of frustration or disappointment in current circumstances, as sense of falling out of love with one’s career or it may be a lingering sense of missing out, that there is more to life if only one knew where to look for it.
As far as I am aware, there are two schools of thought on the subject: the Steve Jobs ‘do what you love” angle, where we are encouraged to believe that firstly, there is a single thing that each of us loves and, secondly, that it is possible to build a life (and income) around it. The other view is that you need to get good at something and the love for it will follow.
What's interesting is that these seemingly opposing pieces of advice are only helpful for people who have something that they know they want to do and don’t offer much in the way of crumbs for people who may have a range of things that they are mildly interested in. The British education system is not designed for what we could refer to as generalists, because it asks us to start homing in on our careers when we are in our mid-teens: first with GCSEs and then more ruthlessly with A-levels. People often make choices based on what they believe they will get good grades at or based on external guidance (parents, teachers, etc) rather than having a strong sense of self-direction.
At some point, many people who have been following this path, chaining from one near-term goal to the next - get good grades, get a degree, get a job, get a promotion, and on and on and on - wake up and wonder where they are and whether they are happy with their lives. This is summed up beautifully in the song Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads which encapsulates the thoughts of someone who has woken up to a life that they made unconsciously. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model helps to explain this: they may have been focusing on the lower parts of the pyramid, addressing their physiological and safety needs and hadn't paid much attention to considering their more sophisticated needs of esteem or self-actualisation.
Helping people make sense of who they are and what their purpose is, is is something I do a lot of. I work with people when they feel that change is needed at work, either because it’s being imposed on them, due to a restructure maybe or because they feel like they are trapped. One of the key activities we do is to explore their purpose. I have already shared my preferred tools for this, which are the IKIGAI and Simon Sinek’s “What, How, Why”.
Finding your purpose is like finding your true self, the person trapped under all the weight of cultural expectations, undamaged by life's challenges, the person you were born to be. Be careful because once you meet them, your life will never be the same. You will have a glimpse of your future and there is no going back from there. Are you ready to meet the real you?
Photo by Dimitri Houtteman
We’ve all used the expressions “follow your heart” and “gut instinct” but we tend to assume that all our thinking happens in the brain. But it turns out that is not correct. Neuroscience has exposed to us that we, in fact, have two other powerful brains that guide us:
We need our brains to be working in unison. In fact, when you find that you aren’t acting in what you think is your best interests, its worth checking that your head, heart and gut are fully aligned. Given that the gut is responsible for action, procrastination’s often a sign of the brains not all being in agreement.
One way to correct this is to examine a situation you feel misaligned on from each of these perspectives:
When I first started coaching, I wanted to do it part time and get another part time job. So far, so sensible. But my heart and gut had their own plans. Every time I spoke to a recruiter about finding work in my old career, I would hear myself saying “all I really want to do is coach” and of course, that would scupper all my chances of getting work. I eventually gave up fighting it and threw myself 100% in to coaching, which I have never regretted!
When was the last time your brains were not aligned? Was you heart not in it? Did your gut tell you no? How did it go?
Something that comes up a lot in client conversations is out of the blue experiences, where people think everything was ticking along nicely and it turns out that wasn’t the case. I had a boss once who, for over a year, reassured me when I frequently asked if there was anything I should be doing that I wasn’t doing that I was doing a great job - only to recount in granular detail every error I had made (including not being charismatic enough) during my exit interview when it was impossible for me to do anything about it in that organisation.
I am also haunted by the memory of giving unexpected end of year feedback to a colleague who wholeheartedly believed they were doing a great job, so I am not holding myself up as being a model for getting any of this right. However, I would like to assure you that I was very careful not to make that particular error again.
We are all really hesitant about giving bad feedback to others and often either avoid it altogether or soften the blow so much the message gets lost. What we are doing by not giving feedback is not allowing that person to learn and grow. Humans learn by trial and error and if you break the feedback loop, you are in fact denying them them the chance to become better.
There are many ways of giving feedback and we need to find our own style. Here are a few techniques you can try (and one to avoid!)
This is an approach from Marshall Goldsmith, who suggests that you couch the information is terms of “what might be great to try in the future” rather than what wen’t wrong in the past. It implies that you believe they can change and that you want the best for them. Its a great technique!
This is more of a generalised approach rather than a technique. Its good to start with checking in with the other person - what do they think is going well and whats not going so well? In my experience, most people have doubts and just need a safe environment to air them. That neatly segues into the opportunity to explore alternative ways of tackling a problem.
5 Word Review
This was a method created by one of the founders of of Kayak.com. You solicit feedback from a colleagues or your manager but their contribution is limited to 5 words and they need to cover what you are doing well and what could benefit from improvement. You meet to talk about it for an hour, ideally. Nothing is written down, so its not on anyone’s record. Repeat multiple times.
The DESC technique is a nice structure to support you when you give feedback:
Tell a story
Telling a story about yourself or another person who had a similar experience that led to a happy outcome is a technique that works for people of all ages to illustrate a better approach to a common set of circumstances. It also helps them to recognise that they are not alone in misjudging a situation, which helps to reduce the natural tendency to become defensive. I leave it up to you to decide how grounded the story has to be in reality, but do remember people have a sixth sense for deception!
And the one to avoid? Its the feedback sandwich - where you offer praise then tuck in the criticism and follow up with more praise. It is very popular (having been recommended for years now) but super confusing for the receiver. They either just hear the positives or they brace themselves for the second punch and let the good sentiments fly past unheard.
I hope this inspires you to give feedback more often. And to see it as a gift rather than as a negative experience for you and for the recipient. Instead, look upon it as something that helps them grow better and stronger, like fertiliser for the soul.
Photo by CDC
It appears that viruses are a lot smarter than we might give them credit for. And they are remarkably singleminded: their whole lifecycle and survival strategy is focussed on making as many people ill as possible. A fascinating tactic they employ is one where they are able to manipulate the behaviour of their hosts in order to further their own interests. There is now evidence that people become measurably more social when they are first infected and most contagious and this significantly helps the virus achieve its goal of infecting as many people as possible.
They are cleverly good at taking advantage of the fact that humans are ecosystems, with millions of microorganisms, many of which live in our gut. We are vastly outnumbered by them - possibly as many as three times more than what we might consider to be our human selves. This vast collection of microbiota is largely made up of bacteria, fungi and even viruses that symbiotically help our bodies to function efficiently.
Viruses have a lot in common with our internal saboteur thoughts: they too are parasites and are acting in their own best interests and not ours. They often are so good at persuading us that they are our own thoughts that we assume they are. They are 100% focussed on winning now and have no interest in the long term, so they egg us on to do and say things that feel satisfying in the moment: lose our tempers, over eat, make a clever but barbed comment but they have no care, like all parasites, about the long term prospects of their hosts.
Saboteur thoughts come from the part of our brain that is less evolved (brainstem) that deals with self preservation and reacts at lighting speed to handle any perceived threats. It takes a short term view and is totally focussed on keeping us alive. Our saboteur thoughts are the strategies that we developed as small children that kept us safe when we were tiny and the world seemed very threatening even if we grew up in kind loving households. These childish rules of thumb - the ones that encourage us to say yes when we ought to say no or letting a desire for doing everything perfectly (or not at all) stops you getting anything done - are not fit for purpose in the adult lives we end up leading and they end up undermining us.
To break free of them, we need to recognised them as being good ideas who have outlived their sell by date who now reside in our minds and masquerade as our own thoughts which should be coming from our higher brain (neo cortex). Fortunately, like getting a vaccine, there is something you can do:
Want to know more about silencing your saboteurs? Take the saboteur assessment and then let's talk about how we can work together using the Positive Intelligence method to silence your saboteurs for good.
Mahatma Ghandi, a man many of us see as an incredible leader and role model, is credited with challenging us to the "be the change you want to see in the world". Apparently, he was never heard to have used that phrase, but as it is very aligned with what he could have said, its a helpful inspiring sentiment for us all to remember.
What he did say was: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
People come to work with me because something in their work-life isn't working for them, their efforts are not yielding the rewards they were expecting. This applies to groups as well as individuals. The conversations often start of with identifying poor attitudes, habits or behaviours in others. There is normally a lot of "evidence" to suggest that if these other people behaved differently, the world would be a better place, for my clients and often for others. If only the other person/people listened more, or was less of a control freak or whatever.
This ties in with Stephen Covey's concept of the circles of influence and concern, where he advises us to focus on the things we have direct control over and step away from fretting about the things we have no control over.
Be the change you want to see is a call to focus on the difference you can make to the one thing you have a lot of control over: yourself. If we want our colleagues to listen to us, we can start by listening to them. And if we want our leaders to trust us, we need to demonstrate that we are willing to reciprocate and trust them. It takes courage to take the first step, to be vulnerable and to be generous without having any certainty that we will see any benefits.
My challenge for all of us is to be the change you want to see, because if you are different, people will notice and respond to you differently. You may get a variety of reactions, some good and some less good, but you will be able to stay confident and strong, knowing that you are the best role model for whats important to you.
Covey, S, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Simon Schuster Ltd Uk, 1990.
On a walk in Peckham Rye recently I saw this tremendous tree, with a fence that it had absorbed at some point in its long life. It reminded me of how resilient all living things can be. The tree, if it could share its thoughts, would confirm that it would have much preferred to not have had any contact with a fence, I am sure, but it has been able to incorporate it into its existence and thrive magnificently. And thats a wonderful example to us all of the resilience we can aspire to have in our lives.
I have yet to meet an adult who has not experienced a setback or challenge of one kind or another. I'd say, by the time most people leave school, they will have had a setback of one kind or another: a failed exam, a broken heart, a loss of some kind.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross exposed to the world how grief works: There are 5 stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Its not a linear experience and each person experiences if very uniquely. Its possible to cycle through all of the stages in a day or stay in one one for months. Her final stage was acceptance, which is when the person accepts that the change has happened and there is no going back to how things used to be. Recently, one of her collaborators, David Kessler, through his experience of a devastating personal loss, was able to discover a 6th stage: the ability to find something meaningful in the grief, a phoenix from the ashes of loss.
This, in the Positive Intelligence framework is the 'gift of inspiration'. The ability to find meaning from loss and disappointment. The skill of looking back on a broken heart and know that it was something that needed to happen, a life lesson that helped shape a better future. Or a less-than-ideal exam result turning out to be a great wakeup call for improving one's focus on study. David Kessler was able to find a way to process the loss of his adult son was through acknowledging that his son "was proud of what I did, and he’d be pleased that my work has found a new dimension because of him,”. It is my deepest hope that none of us are exposed to experience that test our resilience so deeply.
Life is full of ups and downs, some are bigger and more important that others and each of them takes their own time for us to work through them. I invite you to consider this lovely tree in Peckham Rye (in fact there are a couple of them) and consider how you can take the setbacks you have experienced and weave them into your life so that you continue to grow into your confident, strong, wonderful self.
Need some help with getting your bounce back? Get in touch and lets talk about it!
Moorhead, J (2021) "Finding meaning in the life of a loved one who dies is part of grief", The Guardian, 17 Jan
More about David Kessler on his website Grief.com
3 tools to help you decide what’s best for you right now
You are in a job you’ve had for a while. Some things are going well, you might love your team or the work that you do or the location, but something isn’t quite right. You try to ignore the niggles because there is so much that you like about the job that it seems ungrateful to even think about the downsides. Every so often, especially in the middle of the night, you try to weigh up your options and make a decision only to flip back into uncertainty minutes/hours/days later. Sound familiar?
I have a few tools that can help you make up your mind:
1. Pros and cons
This is an old favourite but don’t let that put you off because it works. List out what is great and what is not good about each option. Try and be as thorough as you can be, so that you tease out all the genuinely good and bad things about your current place of work versus going elsewhere.
2. Ask your future self for advice
Imagine you could speak to your older, wiser self and ask their advice on this dilemma. What would he/she say? Sit down in a nice quiet spot, take a few slow deep breaths and imagine travelling in time to visit yourself in your later years. Take your time and enjoy the journey and try to take note of the detail of your future life. Ask your elder self to advise you on what you should do now. You may be surprised with the advice you get!
3. Cartesian questions
René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Aside from his famous pronouncement “I think, therefore I am” he also invented a method of deductive reasoning that consists of four rules: (1) accept nothing as true that is not self-evident, (2) divide problems into their simplest parts, (3) solve problems by proceeding from simple to complex, and (4) recheck the reasoning.
You can use that logic to ask yourself the following questions about each side of your dilemma:
The questions are designed to go from straightforward to totally confounding, which helps flip a mental switch and moves people into a much more creative state of mind.
I hope you find these tools useful. I often use them myself or with clients. I'd love to hear your experiences of using them!
I have always had mixed feelings about agile product development. Agile is sold as being the way to “increase success rates in software development, improve quality and speed to market, and boost the motivation and productivity of IT teams” (HBR, 2016). Its not that I am in any way a fan of the “waterfall” method, its just that I am dubious about an approach that is largely dictated by rituals. I have seen many teams follow all the routines and deliver diabolically poor outcomes, because the process in and of itself can never control the output if the foundational thinking is either absent or flawed in the first place.
I am also dubious about a way of working that mimics team harmony without having a good understanding of what makes a great team and how to grow one. My experience of working in high performing teams naturally followed a lot of the agile processes: regular updates with other team members to make sure we all knew what each of us was doing (and not doing) and a good rhythm of planning and examining progress. So far, so agile, but what I believe a significant amount of agile teams lack are the emotional elements that contribute to great team performance
In the Google team study (2015), they found that there were five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams:
Agile only really focusses on the 3rd element - structure & clarity - and treats the others as optional whereas Google noted that the psychological safety to be the most critical and influential element of all. And that is why I think Agile is not the answer: its an element but relying on it as the way to get to great outcomes is like hoping a car chassis will be all you need to make a 100 mile journey - without the wheels and the engine, you are not going to succeed!
The other four elements of high performing teams need to be acknowledged as being key contributors of good outcomes and good, skilled team coaching can build the environment that is needed for them to grow. Currently team coaches are hired purely based on their agile qualifications. No certificate? No job! Any checks on team building capabilities? A “nice to have” at best.
I say its time to talk about all the elements of team building and not just focus on 1/5th of it. Who is with me?
User-centred. Digital Transformation. Coach.