The Power of Reflection

Written for Karren Brady’s blog strongfemaleleadership.com

This week I had an email from a university friend who I haven’t spoken to since I left uni’ (and that’s a long time). One of those people who played a significant role in my life yet also disappeared from it. I’ve caught up with and reconnected with various friends over the years. What seems different this time is that this is someone I knew in my adult life, yet so much of my adult life has happened since I knew them. It made me reflect and then reflect on reflection. 

It’s easy to think of reflection as day dreaming or reminiscing over what has already happened in life, whether that’s yesterday or years ago. Something that may be ‘nice’ to do but that doesn’t really have any consequences.  However, around the turn of the last century American philosopher John Dewey described it as more of a purposeful activity a ‘dynamic and intentional process that profoundly influences one’s experiences’. This point of view has now been backed by decades of research showing that there’s far more to reflection than mere daydreaming and that it significantly improves learning and performance (e.g. Aronson, 2010; Schippers, Homan, and van Krippenberg, 2013). As a result, it’s a very useful, ‘free’ tool when it comes to developing and fulfilling our potential. 

Reflection is more powerful than action

Dewey (1933:78): “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” 

What I found fascinating when I dug a bit deeper into the research is that reflection can actually help us learn and improve our behaviour more than experience itself (if we already have some experience in that area). One research study described the phenomena using the example of a surgeon: 

“Consider for an instance a cardiac surgeon in training. She has completed ten operations under the eye of an instructor. It is in everyone’s interest for the cardiac surgeon to get better as fast as possible. Imagine she was given a choice in planning her agenda for the next two weeks. She could spend that time doing ten additional surgeries, or she could take the same amount of time alternating between a few additional surgeries and time spent reflecting on them to better understand what she did right or wrong.” (Stefano et al., 2014)

While time spent reflecting takes her away from actually ‘doing’ surgery and helping the unit she works in, it is more effective than working the additional hours in the operating theatre to her professional development.  In other words, if we actually pause and take time to consider what we’re doing it improves our performance more quickly than ploughing on and just doing. This, to me, is amazing. It’s an example of slowing down to speed up.  

The brain

Scientists have shown that this works with the way our brain naturally functions. If we engage in deliberate reflection the brain has an enhanced ability to develop our cognitive (i.e. thinking and problem solving) abilities (Immordino-Yang, Christodoulou, and Singh, 2012).  We begin to understand the task better and we also improve our confidence in being able to carry out the task. 

Beyond improved performance there are many other benefits. For example, reflection:  

  • helps us process worries and concerns in a constructive way
  • makes us notice things that are draining us or causing us problems which means we can move away from the toxic things in our life
  • reminds us of what we really want to do and where we want to head
  • helps us to make sense of our own and other people’s actions
  • allows us to work out where we thrive, what we’re good at and what we love most, meaning we can plan to spend more time focussed on them
  • allows us to identify and work through psychological blockers which may be holding us back 
  • enables us to learn from mistakes more effectively helping us not to repeat the same thing again
  • means we can recognise and then celebrate our small successes
  • helps us to keep things in perspective 
  • provides us with a greater level of clarity over who we are and what we’re about

Reflection in practice

If you look into the biography of any of the worlds’ greatest leaders and minds, reflection was part of their daily or at least weekly routine. Take for example Benjamin Franklin who would conclude everyday with reflection or Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Einstein, Tchaikovsky, Maya Angelou to name but a few others. 

What does deliberate reflection look like?

While reflection can be a more passive behaviour (i.e. looking back and realising how much time has passed) the type of reflection needed to boost our capabilities requires more conscious involvement. Researchers have found the most helpful way to reflect in order to learn and improve performance is to ‘attend to our feelings’ (it’s important that this is as an observation of what we felt not an analysis which can take us down an unhelpful introspective route), evaluate the experience and how effectively we think we performed, ask ourself questions and where necessary reframe experiences with the specific purposes of improving how we do things.

How does this work in practice? 

There are a number of different ways of approaching this but really it’s up to you to find what works best for you and your life. Here are a few ideas to get you started.  

Reflection on the go. You may want to incorporate reflection into daily activities when you’re driving, running, taking a shower or even as a distraction when you’re annoyed about something at work. Simple questions to ask yourself when you’re out and about may include ‘What went well in the last day or week? What did not go well in the last day or week and why? What can I do differently?’

Written reflection. You may choose to take time each evening or weekend to write down your thoughts, reflections, feelings. You could do this on a notepad, a computer, tablet or even record your voice. You could even write it into a blog or an Instagram post if that helps. The point is to choose a method that works for you and when reflecting make a conscious effort to find patterns, make connections, think constructively about what has happened and take learnings from it. 

Learning Journal. You may want to capture your reflections in a journal. You can write in free text or if you prefer a bit of structure you may find it helpful to divide the page into two columns, writing the description of what happened in the first column and a more critical reflection in the second e.g. What worked? What didn’t? Why? How did that make me feel? Have I come across this situation before and did I feel the same way? How could I improve or do things differently? What’s stopping me from doing the things I set out to?

Talking about your thoughts and reflections. Sharing them verbally with a friend will help you process them. You can also get feedback from a friend on how you see things as opposed to how they see things. This will help to make sure that you’re not skewing your reflections with an overly positive or negative bias and allow you to think through the actions you might want to take in response to your reflections. 

Whichever approach you use it’s helpful to write out or explain the lessons learnt and plan for how you’re going to do something in the future. Although reflecting is more powerful than doing, you still need to try out what you want to do differently to find out what works and what doesn’t and then adjust your behaviour accordingly (following a little more reflection). 

Reflection could be considered a dying art given the fast paced and immediate world we live in, but given the richness it provides us with and the opportunity to perform more optimally, it really is worth making the time and space for it in your life. 

References – to come

Photo – pexels.com

Guest Blog – In Memory of Ann Elizabeth Hemmings

My dear friend Liz who I met when I did my undergrad at Warwick University wrote this piece about her Mum. She (Liz) doesn’t remember but I stayed with her at her home one holiday sharing her bed because she was struggling so much with not sleeping and missing her Mum. The reason she doesn’t remember is because that’s how painful grief is. This piece is by her in tribute to her Mum on what would have been the month of a special birthday. She was only 45 when she died. The rest – is from Liz……

This February would have been my mum’s 70th birthday. When I imagine her as a 70 year old, I’m certain there would be little difference; for one thing her hair would still be a new colour each month! I want to mark the birthday that should have been, to express the pain and joy that thinking of her brings. I wrote this piece seven years ago, and the journey brought me great comfort. For all those who have felt the desolation of bereavement, I hope it brings you comfort too.

I was eighteen when my mum died. Before her funeral my step-dad gave away everything she owned. His crushing grief was of course responsible for what he did, but the cause could not alter the result: all that remained of her was gone. There was nothing left for me to see, touch or smell. Even the bowl of her nick naks, kept by the telephone for years, was donated to the charity shop. As with the contents of that small bowl, which I can no longer recollect, memories of my mother’s image and more profoundly of who she was and how we were together, have begun to fade into my subconscious over the years, as if they were disappearing into quicksand. 

That there has been no one to share my grief has added to my struggle to truly remember my mum. With the exception of my step dad and my dad (my parents divorced when I was three), no one in my present life ever knew her, and neither of my dads finds themselves able to talk much about her. She had no siblings, same as me. There is no one to remember my mum with, to laugh or to cry over that beloved life. My paternal grandmother, almost one hundred years old and now insensible to the present, often asks me how she is. This one small acknowledgment of my mum once owning a life and creating my own, temporarily warms the cold corners of my body created by her absence. This is the only time she is mentioned or remembered and it is not enough. How is it possible to remember her true likeness then; her absolute essence, when there is nothing left but the whispers of a treasured past buried deep under desolate grief?  

The answer may have now presented itself, finally after eighteen years. In an attempt to distract my grandmother from her illness with memories of a happy past, I discovered, with the thrill of serendipity, boxes of old photographs containing the life of my mother. This discovery has come just in time. My mother has been gone almost as long as I knew her. I find that I can’t even dream about her. I only remember a handful of dreams and in them there is always something dark and portentous; death is waiting in the room with us. The pain of my prolonged bereavement, caused I am sure by the solitude of my grief, is responsible for this I think. So I must take some action, before she fades too far from my memory and I lose the essence of her completely. Perhaps through the discovery of these photographs, and so the rediscovery of her image, I will find a peace that lets me find her again in my dreams; how she truly was and not with the shadow of what is to come darkening every moment of light.

I may not have many of her actual belongings but, like history itself, belongings are perishable. Once they are dislocated from the owner, they can inflict pain when seen and touched in such disassociation. Yet, viewing them in a photograph, in their rightful context, allows the scene to come alive again and so too the person within that scene. If I want to rebuild her life, our life together, then I can use these photographs to rediscover what she wore, the activities she liked, the perfume she wore and so how she smelled even. Remembered objects are no longer dislocated but reclassified through the photographic scene; I am able to take back control of my memories and she is returned to me in a richer form. Her facial expressions are telling of an incomparable personality. These, coupled with the clothes she wore and the objects she owned, spark the memory of occasions from my early life when I saw these things and felt that love first hand. 

The writer, Roland Barthes, describes such emotionally loaded details within an image as the punctum. The punctum attracts you and stays with you; it bruises you. It is not always seen consciously but when it is, it fills the entire picture. Experiencing the punctum is like being wounded. Barthes says, it is, “an element that shoots out of the image like an arrow and pierces me. My delight and my pain.”I experience all of these things as I gaze at an image of my mother standing next to a horse when she was about eight years old. The shape and light of her eyes and the curve of her lips; everything about that expression, even on such a young face, possessing no comprehension of future motherhood, brings her back to me so completely that her presence fills my body like a warm, dancing flame. 

Interestingly, I found that I could not bear to reproduce that photograph here. Somehow the details became lost in the reproduction as I attempted to scan it on to the page. But as I looked at the original image I started to wonder; would the image have ever reproduced truly? I then recalled Barthes having the same feelings when considering the photograph of his mother in the winter garden and to my surprise I found his feelings to be completely valid. As the punctum is essentially personal it can only wound the individual experiencing it. Therefore, the image of my mother with the horse, will only wound me,as it exists only for me. 

As I examined more and more of these old photographs, I realized that I hadn’t known my mother as completely as I’d previously thought. Such images of her before I ever knew her, before she was even a mother, reinforced how history separated us. She had a life before I existed, and not just that, but even after I was born she had an identity other than simply, ‘mother’.

While history often divides us, it can also offer a glimpse of something previously unknown. I only ever saw my mum through a child’s eyes, but looking through these old photographs has allowed me to discover the woman I had never known. The knowledge that I never was, and never will be, an adult with her, with neither of us experiencing that deepened relationship, I began to realise that these images of her other lifewere exactly the clues I needed to piece together who she truly was; to build an understanding of her as a whole individual with a past, present and future, however short the latter turned out to be. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a woman. Through this new ‘knowing’, perhaps I could, at least in part, reconstruct the adult relationship denied to us both by her premature death.

Photography therefore has served a multi faceted purpose in this journey of rediscovering my mum. In the photographs of the woman I knew, I am pricked through the memories they release. I recognise her in them, just as I recognise her in myself when I catch an expression of hers on my own face in the mirror. And in the images that existed before me, I am again reminded of her through traits, which I recognise, and am also delighted by new revelations about her. For it is the punctum again, which allows the viewer to define the life outside of the image. Barthes describes it as a kind of subtle beyond, taking the spectator outside of the photograph’s frame, to the life beyond the moment and identity captured in that particular image. 

Photography then, is capable of so much. It permits consciousness and memory and in my case has begun the vital exploration process of reclaiming the memory of my mum; to prevent her from fading under a blanket of grief that I was unable to work through, as the physical proof of her existence diminished every day. To this has been added the chance to discover, and so to remember, her, in a more complete version. Through exploring these photographs I have accompanied my mum on the journey of her life, and through this journey she has been brought back to the foreground of my memory, almost as if I had pointed a camera’s lens toward my own heart and re focused her presence there.

Ann Elizabeth Hemmings, February 21st1949 – March 7th1994

Groundhog Day

When flicking through Linkedin and twitter do you ever get the feeling that you are being bombarded with the same message over and over again? I do. It struck me first when I was doing my business masters many years ago. I felt like the theories were repeating themselves while being vaguely morphed and renamed to suit the current context. The fact that philosophers such as Lao Tzu uttered words regarding leadership thousands of years ago (e.g. 600BC) that have stood the test of time is case in point:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

A few years later when I did my MSc in psychology I got the same feeling. While the theories we were learning were adapted and updated the words that resonated centuries before still make sense. Take for example:

 “Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.” Plato

 “Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Pericles

 And the one perhaps most relevant to today:

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

It makes sense that these still make sense. After all people are people and the human brain has evolved very little (if at all) over the centuries, so the fundamentals of good leadership, behaviour, citizenship remain largely unchanged. What threatened people centuries ago will threaten today, what motivated then will motivate today. The difference in 2019 is the environment we live in. The rate of change itself  and the volume of data we have to deal with is increasing exponentially. As a result those fundamentals of behaviour once central to people’s way of life are getting lost in an onslaught of fads and surface level demands

What the 21st century also brings is the ability to research what works and what doesn’t, an improving capability to look at the brain (which often helpfully confirms what we have thought to be true and dismisses the theories sitting on the peripheries) and centuries of experience on which to draw. And yet we don’t.

Surely we should return to those fundamentals that have been uttered over thousands of years, resisting the need to continually rename and reframe which simply leads to  concepts becoming diluted into a myriad of un-actionable ideas. Shouldn’t we instead refine and build on what has been ‘evidenced’ to be true, adapting only in order to meet the demands of the world we live in. It’s a bit like remodelling a house to keep it up to date, rather than knocking it down and building it from scratch every few years. When it comes to behaviour taking this approach would allow us to advance our understanding both as individuals in order to really leverage our potential, and as a society.

What could you do to help this and to help yourself?

  • Check your sources. Is the information you’re taking on board from a well-meaning idea junky or something that’s properly tried and tested through either the passage of time or scientific research. What do I mean? Well take meditation – a technique that has been passed down through generations with benefits now backed by scientific research. Today we have hundreds of mindfulness apps to choose from. Some are based on proper research and knowledge (e.g. Headspace) which help people to actually learn how to meditate and progress their mental robustness.  Others are just nice to listen to but really don’t do much. It’s really important to find out whether what you are using works otherwise it’s just like throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.

 

  • Understand what’s core to who you are as a human (i.e. here the same philosophical texts and the functioning of the brain is true for all of us). Everyone is trying to come up with something new, a different angle to try and get themselves heard – but if you capture the key principles, you can filter the information coming at you. This will allow you to pull out what is truly useful (using the techniques above), what is actually new and what will really help underpin a positive life.

 

  • Capture what’s core to you as a unique individual. While your preferences, goals, and areas for growth will morph and evolve through your life – your values, personality, natural strengths, narrative and purpose will remain more stable and consistent. So, it’s worth capturing these. You may think that they’re obvious but we forget them and without having them front of mind it’s easy to lose our way and impossible to perform at our best.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Image source: petponder.com

The Sisters

I was recently asked to write for ‘The Sisters’ magazine by the wonderful and truly amazing around the world rower Roz Savage. Here’s what I said…..

Over the course of my career I’ve worked as a psychologist with leaders from all walks of life. I love my work, and I’ve always had a deep-seated desire to share what I’ve learnt with a wider audience which has become a large part of my life’s mission. My starting point was writing Defining You, a book which shares the tools and insights I’ve gained from my work and garnered from psychologists across the world with people across the world. In this article, I wanted to share with you a snapshot of what makes female leaders successful and how that could help you.

As a psychologist, I’m often asked if I see differences between the sexes. What I’ve observed is that women, more or less without exception, have higher levels of self-doubt than men. Yet female leaders also tend to be the feistiest of their peer group. Hearing the life stories of hundreds of women, I’ve learnt of exceptional grit: the girl who at school stood up against the bully in spite of the repercussions on her own life or the girl who refused to let dire circumstances prevent her from fulfilling her intellectual capability. Many of these gutsy and spirited girls go on to make it to the top of their field as women. Women who, nevertheless, still have a lower self-esteem than men. So, where does that leave the rest of us? How do we fulfil our potential?  Do we have to develop a cast-iron sense of will and capability to stand up against the odds?

Not at all. While those women who do ‘succeed’ in leadership may not fit the norm, they don’t necessarily tower above other women in terms of confidence. What they do have is an accurate level of self-awareness. I say accurate because this is something we women tend to get wrong, focussing more on our weaknesses than our strengths. While it may seem counterintuitive to know your strengths and not be self-confident, they are separate entities. So, it’s worth understanding yourself better as it can help you get to wherever it is you want to go.

Reflecting on our strengths can feel uncomfortable and is an area that women often struggle with. When we’re good at something, there is a tendency for it to just feel like it’s ‘something we do’ – that there’s nothing special about it. Because it comes easily to us, we don’t realise that it’s not something that everyone can do. We also often move away from these things, focussing on what we’re not doing well or even what we don’t like or enjoy, rather than celebrating what we’re good at. As a result, we don’t make the most of our strengths and can end up going down the wrong path.

As a personal example, I loved psychology and studied it at university. I also had an interest in business, so I did a business Masters. Then I made the mistake of doing what I thought was the ‘best next step’ – joining a business consultancy, which didn’t make use of my natural strengths or interests. As I gradually became more miserable, I realised I had to leave. I went back to university to become a Chartered Psychologist. Now I love what I do and although I have self-doubts, if I hadn’t pursued this career, I wouldn’t have been able to help all the people I have, I wouldn’t have written a book that I hope will help even more people, and I wouldn’t have been able to focus on giving back. Instead I would have been a ‘reasonable’ management consultant, not an exceptional one, not fully making use my natural strengths, and not very happy. I don’t hold myself up as a gleaming example, but this gives you a flavour of what I mean.

Of course, it’s important to know what we’re not so good at, where we can grow and develop, and what to watch out for in terms of tendencies that can trip us up. But that doesn’t mean we throw ourselves headlong into something that goes totally against the grain. When it comes to ‘weaknesses’ it’s important to initially identify the things we need to be aware of and that may never change. For example, I have a tendency to burst with ideas when I’m talking to people. Consequently, I often butt in or speak over others in my excitement. This for me is a crucial behaviour that I need to be aware of. I’ve tried to change it, but I can’t, so I accept it as part of who I am and am very conscious of managing it. Next, it’s about looking at which expertise to develop in order to do what we love. For example, to do psychology I had to go back to university. Then, and this can be the hardest part, it’s knowing what to leave behind. For me that was trying to be a good management consultant which was just never going to fit with who I truly am.

Some of these questions may help you think through your own passions and strengths, and help you identify areas for development:

  • Do you still love doing the same things that you got lost in for hours in as a child? Maybe you haven’t engaged with those things for years or you could use them in different ways now.

  • Which jobs and responsibilities have you most loved and most hated?

  • What is working well for you in your current life and career? What do you find fulfilling, meaningful, enjoyable, and important? What drains you, makes you stressed and anxious, or wastes your time?

  • What are the tendencies you have that you don’t think will ever change? How can you be more aware of them and stop them from getting in your way?

  • What do you need to develop in order to do what you want? How will you do that?

Talking to a friend to explore who you are may help. Be open-minded, curious, and enjoy. Choose your path, leverage your strengths, and reach for the stars!

 

Links:

https://www.thesisters.global/single-post/2019/01/25/Leveraging-Your-Strengths

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

 

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Photo Credit: Pexels.com

Why make new year’s resolutions? – you’ll never do them!

New year’s resolutions should be no different to the goals we make at any time of year in order to move closer to who we want to be, how we want to operate and what we want to achieve. The problem is, as soon as its new year we all go a bit mad and create a long list of things that we feel will appease us from the sins of Christmas and New Year. Inevitably we then fail and feel rubbish about ourselves as a result. The reason is, making goals at any time needs to fulfil certain behavioural considerations. I hate the term but they really do need to be ‘SMART’ otherwise they just won’t work. So, for those who are making resolutions, I thought this extract from my book may help. Good luck and happy 2019!!

Key points to consider before you start:

  • Don’t try to change too many behaviors at once. It just won’t work, and the sense of failure you will inevitably feel as a result could prevent you from living out your purpose effectively.
  • The changes you are aiming to make should take you out of your comfort zone and stretch you, but shouldn’t push you to extreme discomfort. It’s better to take smaller, successful steps than a giant leap.
  • Pick the things that you feel intrinsically motivated to work on (as opposed to doing it because you feel you ought to or someone else has told you to).

The headings below are the areas you should consider with each resolution you set. The italics provide an example of what sort of thing you may want to write.

Goal: Becoming more empathic.

The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to fill out the remainder of the plan so this may be expanded to:

I’m going to work on my empathy to become better at relating to other people when I’m feeling stressed and under pressure.

What will success look like and what will the positive outcomes be?
Becoming a more effective influencer and forming more positive relationships.

What obstacles may I come up against and what can I do about them?
Internal obstacles e.g., feeling demotivated, having self-doubt, fear, anger, anxiety. Frustration and impatience. Action to overcome: create a trigger that reminds me to take a step back

External obstacles e.g. lack of money, lack of time, lack of skills, health constraints.
Need to gain skills in the area of communicating more effectively.

Which strengths can I make use of to help me?

Interest in other people
Ability to listen
Desire to grow as a person

Action and by when? How can I break down my goal into smaller steps, how can I action those steps, and when by?
Take the overall area for goal and make it into something that you can carry out a step at a time. It’s very important to make your actions ‘time-bound,’ setting a day, date, and even a time for each of them where you can.

  1. Make sure that I am consciously listening to people at least once a day. Start doing this in my first meeting of the day from tomorrow and continue for two months, until March 3rd.
  2. Show empathic curiosity, really try to understand what the other person is saying and putting myself in their shoes. Continue doing step 1 and from March 3rdbuild in step 2 once a day for two months, until May 3rd.
  3. Go on a communication and influencing course by July 2019.
  4. Bring the understanding I get from the course into my everyday communications—continue with steps 1 and 2 and build the information into the company presentations I’m doing on August 31, thinking through how best to get the message across so that people can connect with it.

What will my review mechanism be?

You need to know how you’re doing against your specific goals, otherwise you don’t know how close or far away you are from achieving them. Measuring behavior change can be tricky, but there are some simple methods you can use, like rating yourself, asking for feedback, and logging progress.

  • Check I’ve completed the actions above by the specified date.
  • Ask for feedback from people who work with me.
  • Make a log in my diary of the interactions I have every day.
  • Rate myself out of 10 in terms of how I think I’m progressing.

 

TIPS TO HELP

  • Create reminders: reminder for your specific actions somewhere that you will see frequently, e.g., on your daily to-do list, in your diary, an alarm on your phone. This is a small but critical step – the difference between making something happen and just thinking about it.
  • Create a cue: tie the actions into something you do every day, e.g., if your goal is to start flossing your teeth, use brushing your teeth as a reminder.
  • Reward yourself: every time you achieve success, however small. The reward should be something that will really provide you with personal satisfaction.
  • Enlist social support: ask a friend, relation, colleague, or even a member of the community to encourage and support you.
  • Persist: repetition is key to making a behavior stick. Research has shown that it can take from 15 to 254 days to truly form a new habit.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Photo Credit: Brooke Lark Unsplash

 

I just don’t have time to…..

In the summer of 2017 I was writing my book to a very tight deadline amidst being a parent, keeping my business running and life in general (which tends to be busier today for all of us than ever before). As an outlet to help me think and stop me going completely bonkers I decided that I needed to run every day. This was great until one day I made the very bonkers decision to take the dog with me. She pulled me over, it hurt but I didn’t think much more of it. I didn’t after all have time. Although it kept hurting, I kept running every day – strapping my ankle tighter and tighter.

After a few weeks I had no choice but to see my physio on the fourth session announced that I needed to see a specialist. This required an appointment with the GP, the specialist himself, further appointments to have x-rays and MRI and yet another appointment to find out the results. By this time, it was October of 2017.

The consultant said that I’d snapped a ligament and needed surgery which would be followed by a ‘long slow recovery’. But – you guessed it, I didn’t have time for that. So instead I continued with life, went on two snowboarding trips and continued to try to exercise on and off. Still in pain by April 2018 I realised that maybe I should get something done. I found the best specialist in London thinking he may give me a different opinion – but a snapped ligament is a snapped ligament. Alas – I still needed surgery and “should expect a long slow recovery”.

This however I really didn’t have time for. I was told that the first 6 weeks I’d been in a cast and not able to drive.  So, once again I put it off.  By October 2018 I conceded that something needed to be done.  By then the damage was worse – the surgeon had to reconstruct muscles and tendons around my ankle, the long slow recovery was, because of my ‘busyness’ going to be even longer and slower.

The lesson learnt may seem obvious but it’s so important to make time. Make time for getting things checked and sorted otherwise you a) waste even more time b) make things much harder for yourself and those around you and c) worst of all risk your health.

The same is true for so many things. We just don’t have time to….

  • go for a run
  • read a book
  • go to the gym
  • cook healthy meals
  • meet a friend for lunch
  • see relatives
  • have a nap when we’re exhausted
  • start a new hobby
  • reflect on personal development
  • go for a walk and, and, and………

But we should. This is self-care and self-care is critical.

I was recently asked to comment on an article for Vitality headed ‘Self-Care beyond the bath bomb’. The article points out that self-care typically conjures up images of self-indulgence, spa days, candles around the bath, time locked away from reality etc., but that’s not what self-care is about. The NHS take self-care seriously but the angle differs quite significantly from the stereotype:

Self-care is about keeping fit and healthy, understanding when you can look after yourself, when a pharmacist can help, and when to get advice from your GP or another health professional. If you have a long-term condition, self-care is about understanding that condition and how to live with it.’  NHS England

This is much more about our overall health (which includes mental health) and points to exactly what I didn’t do. I didn’t make time. It’s a difficult shift because for our parents’ generation (assuming you’re my age) were led to believe that you just got on with things like ‘pulling yourself together’ if you’re depressed or struggling on without seeing the doctor if you’re ill. Today we know that it’s not a healthy approach but the ‘way of doing things’ has seeped into the way we see the world.

How often do you put off seeing the doctor, having your eyes tested or other personally important matter because you just don’t have time? But what would happen if for example you missed the indicators for cancer because you put off an appointment? It’s not just you who is impacted, it’s your family, friends, employer, colleagues. Especially if something that could be dealt with earlier on then becomes more serious and takes longer to recover from (my ankle is point in case) or worse still. We need to try and shake the JFDI attitude that we’ve been brought up and start to take care of ourselves.

What are you too busy to do?

  • It could be helpful to write a list and then prioritise the things that really need to be dealt with.
  • Commit to doing something on the list every day (starting with the most important to your physical and mental health) that you would normally say ‘I don’t have time to’ and do it for a week or two.

I’d love to hear what happens….

N.B. Whilst dispelling the myths of self-care your most important thing may well be having a bath with a bath bomb thrown in – if that’s what helps you to feel good.

I’d recommend adidas global ambassador Adreinne’s new podcast The Power Hour (and not just because I’m an upcoming guest but because she’s awesome) where various busy people (e.g. Ella of Deliciously Ella) tell Adrienne how they make more time for the things that matter.

 

Links:

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/power-hour/id1443615779?mt=2

http://magazine.vitality.co.uk/the-importance-of-self-care/

https://www.england.nhs.uk/blog/what-does-self-care-mean-and-how-can-it-help/

 

Image: pixabay.com

 

Do You Judge A Book By Its Cover?

Rightly or wrongly, a young slim female is seen as more pleasing than an older bigger woman. As women we chase this while arguably men and society perpetuate our need to. Beauty promises the fulfilment of many of our deep-seated psychological drivers: a need to be judged as attractive, to have sex, to remain in a relationship and to feel validated by our social groups. This desire to be attractive is startling when measured in economic terms.

– Globally, our investment in appearance totals over £122 billion a year with spending on everything from make-up, clothes, shampoo to facials, manicures, hair styling and dental work.

– Research published by the AS Watson group in 2013 showed that women, over a lifetime, spend an average of £18,000 on products for their face. In the same year, the average income for women in the UK was £23,100.

– In 2012, when the UK was in recession, cosmetic surgery procedures totalled 43,162 with women accounting for 90.5% of the figure (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons).

This all stems from a primitive driver which our rational brain may view as superficial or insignificant. So why can’t we just rise above these more primitive instincts? In large part because it’s biological, but also because it’s become ingrained in our culture.

Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, is someone we’d expect to be celebrated for her intellectual capability. In 2012, Beard wrote and presented the BBC 2 documentary Meet the Romans which helped make Roman history more accessible and received accolades for Beard became who became one of the few intellectuals able to entertain and educate at the same time.

However, critics focused not on her subject matter, which she so skilfully brought to life, but her appearance.

“For someone who looks this closely at the past, it is strange she hasn’t had a closer look at herself before stepping in front of the camera. Beard coos over corpses’ teeth without apparently noticing she is wearing them. The hair is a disaster, the outfit an embarrassment.”

This scathing review shows our tangled attitudes towards beauty and appearance.  Tweets included: ‘she looks like a human scarecrow’, ‘Can’t she brush her hair?’, ‘Did she try to look so haggard?’ and ‘Shouldn’t she be sexing herself up a bit?’ And it wasn’t just men, TV producer Samantha Brick said: ‘Ms Beard is too ugly for TV … The greatest tragedy isn’t Ms Beard’s wild hair, ungainly posture or make-up free face: it’s the fact that the BBC didn’t offer her guidance on her appearance in the first place.’

Unfortunately, attractiveness often supersedes what a woman can offer to the world beyond her sexual worth. Despite this advanced civilisation we live in, with our apparent respect for sophisticated meaning-driven values, the male brain still harbours primitive impulses that override the best intentions and society gets caught up in this way of thinking.

Australian psychologists Ronay and von Hippel did an experiment to look at what’s happening at a biological level. They set up in a skateboard park in Brisbane to observe 96 male skateboarders, with an average age of 22. They asked the boarders to choose one easy trick (one they could do well on most attempts) and one difficult trick (one they were still learning and they could do well approximately 50% of the time). They did each trick 10 times whilst being filmed by a male researcher. Following a break, they were then asked to make ten more attempts of both tricks again. Some of the skateboarders did them for the male researcher, while the others did them in front of an attractive 18-year-old female (who had been rated as attractive using widely recognized scientific criteria).

The skateboarders took far greater risks on the difficult trick when the girl was watching and testosterone levels were significantly higher among the guys who skateboarded in front of the attractive girl than the ones who skateboarded in front of the male researcher. This experiment shows that young men will risk physical injury to impress an attractive young female.

The critique of Beard – scorning her for not matching up to idealised standards of female beauty – is the flipside of the same impulse. It’s where the idea of the beautiful young princess and ugly old ‘witch’ which permeates fairy tales has come from; arguably a primitive and unhealthy attitude to attraction.

The reality is that Mary Beard may look pleasant to some people and unattractive to others. The serious concern is that her appearance apparently disqualified her from doing her job even though she was fronting a serious documentary about Roman culture, not presenting a game show. It shows how our survival-driven approval of youth and beauty has a nasty flipside: disrespect towards those who are seen to embody unattractiveness, disfigurement or age. However, as the backlash against the critiques faced by Beard, the public support that ensued also demonstrates that some people are able to override these impulses. After all, a lot of us pride ourselves on ‘not judging a book by its cover’.

 

What did you think when you saw the photo on this blog? Little girl or little boy? It’s a girl called Sky Brown who’s one of the youngest professional skateboarders in the world.  You may not have, but we do tend to quickly judge and often incorrectly based on societal expectations and primitive responses.

 

16Jan_Defining You_demy_hb copy

 

I like my book cover  (I didn’t design it) – but what about the contents? Find out for yourself –

Defining You is on offer in the USA and Canada for $3.99 from 19th November to 3rd December with all major eBook retailers.

In the UK it’s available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Also available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Photo: http://www.thesupermaniak.com/blog/2018/4/22/sky-brown

Climate Change – What’s Psychology Got to Do With It?

Last summer we drove from Yosemite to Santa Monica through acres and acres of smouldering forest, the smell of charcoal and smoke filling the air, the landscape black and barren. This week fires have raged through Northern and Southern California, killing 44 as I write, with an expectation of the death toll rising. But sadly, California is not alone – Somalia, Kenya, and other East African countries have experienced below average rainfall since the late 1990s, contributing to a 30% reduction in crop yields and famines. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of hurricanes and destructive weather events across the world. Even the UK is having longer hotter summers. The UN recently issued a report warning that we only have 12 years to stop the ‘irreversible damage to the Earth.’ We should surely be harnessing any means possible to prevent this furious catastrophe from happening, yet psychology is often overlooked.

What’s psychology got to do with it?

Dr Gifford at the University of Victoria B.C. is among psychologists beginning to shout louder about the potential of the field when it comes to mitigating these issues saying:

“Climate change is a human problem. It’s the result of 7.6 billion people making decisions every single day.” But we don’t fully realise that “makes it a psychological problem.”

It really is that straight forward. This month’s Monitor on Psychology published by the APA (American Psychological Association) talks about the part psychology should be playing and how it has to date been applied in a patchy and ad hoc manner. The cynic in me would say that our use of ‘applied psychology’ is focussed more heavily on how to get consumers to buy things and engage with tech. Ironically the job of psychologists is made harder from the intensity of the technology in our environment and the human disconnect with the natural world. Put most simply – when we have our head stuck in answering e-mails, we’re unlikely to remember to turn the light off.

Here are just a few of the ways in which psychology can be used:

  • Help organisations to help employees. Organisations are a direct route to making hugely impactful changes, in part because of the number of people in employment. Making strategic use of knowledge when it comes to human drivers e.g. competition and peer pressure, can help us to foster sustainable behaviour even beyond the office. For example, one U.S. non-profit (Cool Choices) created a contest where teams of employees competed for points by engaging in sustainable behaviours at home. Simple activities such as installing low-flow showers and swapping bulbs for low energy LEDs. The results were analysed to find that employees reduced their household electricity use even 6 months after the ‘game’ had ended. This one small example shows the impacts of understanding psychology on sustainability both during and after the study took place (due to habituation).

 

  • Work with cities. Cities are another hub through which large and effective interventions can be introduced. Work with local policy makers and city councils can help leaders to understand how to reduce carbon footprint through using psychology. This may for example take on the form of educating people and then making it clear who else in communities understand the issues. What does this do? Engages peoples’ need to adhere to social norms – they then use what they’ve learnt and it becomes part of their everyday behaviour and a societal norm.

 

  • Carry out more research into when and why people engage in sustainable behaviour. Psychologist Dr. Suzanne Holt Ballard is co-founder of Future Cities Lab which collaborates with cities worldwide on issues relating to sustainability, citizen health and well-being. They are analysing data relating to air pollution, climate and human activity patterns in cities such as New York and Paris. They will then map the connections between urban design, human mobility and health research to allow future ‘smart cities’ to not only reduce the output of fossil fules but also encourage citizens to make healthy personal choices.

 

  • When and why they don’t –take for example the role of ‘fast fashion’. The BBC recently aired a documentary featuring presenter Stacey Dooley which highlighted the impact on the environment of, most surprisingly to me, cotton production. The huge volumes of water used to process cotton dry up local water sources and the pesticides damage ecosystems. Yet, when my daughter wants to get that t-shirt from H&M I will be as guilty as the next person of saying ‘OK’ rather than suggesting a more expensive and sustainable product. Why? Well that’s complicated and for another blog….

 

  • Use tech and AI –while on the one hand tech is part of the problem, leveraging psychological knowledge in the development of tech and AI could enable hugely impactful solutions. At the individual end of the scale simple there’s home tech like the ‘smart’ thermometers which can reduce energy usage. At the other end of the scale using ‘big data’ should allow psychologists to analyse far richer sets of information, collecting data at a scale and volume that without technology would just not be feasible. The outputs of this will help to generate more insightful and accurate answers on what works, for whom, where and why in order to focus on behaviour change interventions that really work.

The UN are beginning to understand the role of psychologists play enlisting their help writing the next report for 2021 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). But we tend to forget how central the role of psychology and in this area which is in such dramatic need of attention it can only be a good thing.  Psychology seems to simple, so common sense but the subtleties involved really require people who are trained to understand in order to optimise their use. Psychology really can and should have a lot to do with addressing climate change. 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References and links:

BBC 3 – Stacey Dooley’s ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bn6034

Henderson, R. M., Reinert, S. A., Dekhtyar, P., & Migdal, A. (2015). Climate Change in 2018: Implications for Business. risk1.

Ro, M., Brauer, M., Kuntz, K., Shukla, R., & Bensch, I. (2017). Making Cool Choices for sustainability: Testing the effectiveness of a game-based approach to promoting pro-environmental behaviors. Journal of Environmental Psychology53, 20-30.

Weir, K. (2018) Building a Sustainable Future, 49 (5) 48. 

Weir, K (2018) Climate Change is Our Call to Acton, 49 (10) 43.

Photo taken in Mariposa, California

 

 

Happiness – Mental Health 5 A Day

Having just spoken to a journalist about mental health 5 a day and also raising it on a podcast last week I wanted to re-share this post – it’s a great reminder for us all. It’s not my idea – it was the NHS who came up with it but it’s such a simple and helpful concept. Yet it’s not ‘getting out there’ so here’s my contribution…..

As a society we’re well aware of how important our physical health is but tend to brush our mental health aside. Yet at any given time one in six adults have a mental health problem, amounting to an economic cost of £77 billion a year.

We all strive to be happy and want the same for others; yet we tend to cower at the mention of anything to do with mental health. Why is that? In my experience it’s because:

– we’re scared to look too closely – we don’t know what we’ll uncover so we keep things shut away

– we misunderstand mental health – society encourages us to ‘be strong’, not to admit to feeling fear, sorrow or anything negative (which when you know how the brain works, is actually extremely unhelpful)

– we de-prioritize mental health – thinking “I’ll get to it tomorrow, it doesn’t impact my job, life, health as much as other immediate concerns”

we think it’s common sense so doesn’t need our attention – but on the other hand we don’t know how to behave in a way that’s helpful.

So what’s the answer?

If you follow my blog (and general ranting) you’ll know that my main aim in life is to find answers, unfortunately there’s no quick solution. However, last week a friend and fellow psychologist Louise Jones introduced me to the Mental Health 5 a Day. It isn’t a magic bullet, but it does effectively pull together fundamental aspects of keeping our head healthy.

What is our Mental Health 5 a Day?

  1. Connect

Our brain hasn’t evolved for 50,000 years and a fundamental need of our ancient brains is to belong. When we are isolated from other people it has a hugely negative impact on our brains dramatically undermining our well-being. However extensive research shows that social support can dramatically improve our mental health.

What you can do:

  • Make a continued effort with your closest friends and family
  • Listen and be in the moment with people rather than thinking of what you’re going to say next
  • Pick up the phone rather than sending an e-mail
  • Speak to someone you may normally rush away from

 

  1. Be Active

In 2006 I did a study (Bunce & Murden, 2006) which showed the impact of continued physical activity on protecting the frontal lobe of the brain, the bit that helps us to plan and organize and more importantly to regulate our emotions. Exercise has also been shown to ward off depression, decrease anxiety and rebalance the hormones in our bodies.

What you can do:

  • Use the stairs, park your car further away from your destination, get up and move every 45 minutes
  • Find an activity which you genuinely enjoy instead of forcing yourself to do something you hate – if you like gardening do that rather than going for a run, and remember that a little everyday is more effective than one big burst
  • Set yourself a goal to train for – I recently met an inspiring mum who is doing a ‘white collar boxing match’ to raise money for the mental health charity Mind. Creating a goal that benefits others or even just sets a deadline for ourselves makes it much easier to get active
  • Get a fitbit (or similar devise) to raise awareness of how much you’re moving
  1. Be Mindful

Mindfulness is about connecting with what’s going on around us, taking notice of sounds, scents, sensations and our breathing. Doing this quietens the constant chatter created by the interaction of our ancient brain and the modern world.

Neuroscience has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness, from emotional regulation to body awareness, emotional resilience, pain tolerance, reduction in anxiety, improved focus and heightened cognitive performance (Fox et al., 2014) and enhanced creativity (Colzato et al., 2012). See – more about mindfulness.

What you can do:

  • Practice yoga
  • Use the headspace app
  • Breathe
  • Make an effort to notice the sight, sound, smell and tastes you encounter in everyday activities. For example as you’re taking a shower feel the sensation of water on your skin, listen to the sound of the water washing away, feel your feet on the shower floor. You can do this when you’re eating, walking, sitting on the train, cleaning your teeth etc.
  • Notice what time frame your mind is in – if you’re thinking about the past or future gently bring your mind back to the present (it’s critical that you are gentle – our mind doesn’t respond well to force).
  1. Keep Learning

We evolved to be curious beings; it’s one of the things that kept our ancient ancestors alive. Today continued adult learning has been shown to positively impact confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, life-satisfaction, capacity to cope and general well-being (Field, 2012). Learning also helps us to develop social skills, ultimately extending social networks, and promoting tolerance of other people (Schuller et al 2004).

What you can do:

  • Watch a Ted Talk
  • Ask people about their lives and really listen to what they tell you
  • Try a new sport
  • Take up a musical instrument
  • Learn a new language
  • Read, read and read some more or if you don’t like reading try watching and reflecting on everyday life – play the detective to keep your mind mentally agile
  1. Give to others

While we may seem like a selfish species researchers have found that altruism is ‘hard wired’ into our brain, just not supported by our modern world. Selflessness is closely linked to our well-being triggering the reward mechanisms in the brain. That’s why people such as Bill Gates are so philanthropic – because all the money in the world can’t buy happiness – happiness comes from giving to others.

What you can do:

  • Compliment someone
  • Say thank you
  • Smile at someone you don’t know
  • Offer to help
  • Do something for charity or get involved in community service
  • Let someone in front when you’re driving in busy traffic
  • Stand up for someone if others are being unkind or negative
  • Include the person who’s always left out

You may find it useful to write down your mental health 5 a day. And remember, although the general principles are globally applicable we’re all different, the individual aspects need to be tailored to what works best for you.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References and links:

Photo courtesy of Liz Waight Photography http://www.elizabethwaight.com

www.headspace.com

https://fionamurden.com/2016/07/31/mindfulness-mindful-what/

http://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve-mental-wellbeing.aspx

https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

Bunce, D & Murden, F. (2006). Age, aerobic fitness, executive function, and episodic memory. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18(2), 221–233

Colzato, L., Ozturk, A. & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking. Front. Psychology. 3, 116 18 April

Fox KC, Nijeboer S, Dixon ML, Floman JL, Ellamil M, Rumak SP, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. (2014) Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. Jun;43:48-73

Field, J. (2012) Is lifelong learning making a difference? Research-based evidence on the impact of adult learning John Field. Pages 887-897 in David Aspin, Judith Chapman, Karen Evans and Richard Bagnall (eds.) Second International Handbook of Lifelong Learning. Springer, Dordrecht, 2012

Schuller, T., Preston, J., Hammond, C., Bassett-Grundy, A., and Bynner, J. (2004). The Benefits of Learning: the impacts of formal and informal education on social capital, health and family life, London, Routledge