End of Year Review: Most Popular Psychology and Coaching Posts of 2014

The top ten most visited psychology and coaching posts of 2014 for this blog are a mixture of newer posts and a few classics. The body language myth post is a perennial favourite as is the sex and gender post. Over the past couple of years I have been doing a lot of confidence building training and coaching so it’s good to see a number of those are still in the top ten. Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog and if you have any suggestions for blog post topics please use the form below.

The top ten:

  1. Tips for Handling Compliments and Praise ( – giving, receiving and why it’s important) (2014)
  2. Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule (2009)
  3. Tips for Making Small Talk, Confidently: Why do it and how to do it (2014)
  4. What Does “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it.” Mean? (2011)
  5. Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing! All Gender is a Drag! (2009)
  6. Preventing Mental Fatigue – Good Study Habits (2012)
  7. 3 Techniques to Help You Get Out of Bed Every Day and ‘Rise and Shine’ – Even on a Monday Morning (2014)
  8. 7 Attitudes Towards Human Nature and How They Affect Self-Esteem (2014)
  9. Why There’s No Such Thing as “Too Much Confidence” or “Over-Confidence” (2014)
  10. How to Find a Life Coach (and the questions you need to ask before hiring one) (2014)

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 About Gary Wood

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodDr Gary Wood is a chartered psychologist, life coach and broadcaster specializing in applied social psychology, personal development and life coaching. He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence: Find the Keys to Lasting Change Through The Confidence-Karma Method (Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA ) Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his coaching and training practice and research consultancy.

Bah Humbug. Why It’s Okay to be More Like Scrooge at Christmas

The name Ebenezer Scrooge, the principle character from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has become synonymous for embittered miserliness and especially for someone who does not embrace the ‘spirit of Christmas’. At the start of his journey he cares nothing for people and is only interested in money. By the end of the story Scrooge was a changed man. He discovered the true meaning of Christmas. His name became synonymous with altruism and generosity. He was Mr Christmas.

A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption. It is a tale of values and how to focus on what truly matters in life. It was set in a bleak time of abject poverty and the social injustice of the casualties of the Industrial revolution. The story has resonance with modern-day austerity cuts where the most vulnerable in society have had to pay for the mistakes of the most affluent (. . . steps off soapbox. . .) Back to the main point.

humbugChristmas seems to start earlier every year. Cards and decorations appear in the shops around August. It has little or nothing to do with the values that Scrooge rediscovered by the end of the tale. Modern-day Christmas is driven by the values of the pre-enlightened Scrooge. In a perverse twist and turn around, those who decry commercialism are branded ‘Scrooge’ or ‘Ebenezer’ or chided with the statement ‘bah humbug’.

It’s true that Christmas is a real hugger-mugger of a festival and means different things to different people. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens did a lot to bring together disparate traditions and associations surrounding the Yuletide season. He helped us to re-embrace the pagan and yet at the heart of the story, there is a universal sense of humanity. So we have a pagan festival, hijacked by the Christian Church, in part, unified by Dickens and now hijacked by commercialism. Christmas is something that can now only be purchased and if you don’t have money then you are excluded. No doubt it will continue to evolve and mutate with more ‘traditions’ added. Hopefully, somewhere in the mix there will be space to re-discover what Scrooge discovered: If it’s not about people then it truly is humbug.

Happy People-mas

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching worldwide through Skype. Contact Gary by email to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization. See: Testimonials from former clients.

Dealing with Mental Chatter

We all have mental chatter. It’s often a running commentary on our lives, going on inside our heads. Sometimes it’s a dialogue where a couple of voices argue the rights and wrongs of a situation. Often it would be nice if we could switch off those voices that take us out of the present moment. So what can we do?

There is a simple but effective way of acknowledging the thoughts without allowing them to carry us away into the future or into the past. The first step is to recognise that although thoughts may weigh us down, they don’t actually have a mass. They aren’t real things. One of the common problems people report when trying to meditate is that they can’t clear their minds and switch off their thoughts. However, what if the thoughts occur for a reason? What if they ‘mean well’? What if all we really have to do is acknowledge them.

In psychology despite appearances we aren’t very good at multi-tasking. Our attention is very selective. We can’t process all the information that comes our way, so our attention shifts to the things that have the greatest importance for us or to the things that shout loudest? So what if all of this mental chatter is just a way for our brains to get our attention.

It’s often said that when we face death, our lives flash before us. One theory is that our brains indiscriminately download everything we know, in the hope that the solution is there somewhere. A similar thing happens when we are stressed. Our brains chatter away like small children trying to get attention, often repeating the same things, over and over again.

The technique for dealing with mental chatter in everyday life is simple. It’s the same as dealing with mental chatter when we are trying to meditate. All we have to do is name the thought. Just acknowledge the thought and say ‘Thought about. . . . ‘. Then bring your attention back to the present moment. It is  a choice to engage with the thought. Often naming it is enough.

Often when trying to solve a problem, the mind will often keep firing off the same thoughts. If naming the thought doesn’t quieten the mental chatter, simple ask ‘Is there anything new here?’ If there is, make a note of it, if there is not say ‘nothing new, got it covered’ then let it go.

This simple practice, quieten the mind, reduce stress and give you a useful list of possible solutions.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching worldwide through Skype. Contact Gary by email to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization. See: Testimonials from former clients.

If You Call Your Customers ‘Punters’, Do You Deserve to Have Any?

Picture: Crossed fingersThe meaning of words evolves. For years many people have complained about the use of ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’, such as ‘I laughed so much I literally died’ or ‘I was literally glued to the TV set’. Thanks to its overuse (incorrectly), Webster’s dictionary has now included ‘literally’ to mean literally its opposite. Another word that is currently being overused (and incorrectly) by TV reporters (especially on BBC) is ‘punter’. I’m finding myself increasingly irritated by it’s routine use to mean ‘customer’ or ‘client’. Recently I have overhead business users using it too. In this post I argue that we should resist the casual shift of meaning from customer to punter.

Punters versus customers

‘Punters’ are people who gamble, make risky investments or place bets.The word became popular in the 1980s. It’s not clear why news outlets insist on using the word ‘punter’. Maybe the think its trendy. Clearly words do come in and out of fashion such as ‘iconic’. Everything these days is iconic according to news reporters, presenters and journalists. The issue is that ‘punters’ and ‘customers’ are two separate things. A customer wants assurances that goods or services will be delivered to an appropriate standard. ‘Punters’ flip a coin!

Although in time ‘punter’ will undoubtedly find its way into the dictionary with an alternative meaning (customer), but the implication will stay. What next? Think of a service you need to visit and ask yourself ‘Do I want to be a punter?’ Are you expecting to ‘just take your changes’? Do you want to be treated like the proverbial fool, easily parted with your money?

Attitudes, Values and Actions

Customer service is one thing that a business cannot afford to short-change its customers on. Customer loyalty is not built on a punt. It’s not just a turn of phrase; it whispers contempt. We are often told to treat people as we would want to be treated. Better still to find out how people want to be treated and treat them that way instead. Our words reveal our attitudes. Our attitudes communicate our values and, in turn, shape our actions. Actions build trust. With trust comes loyalty. Businesses who treat their customers as ‘punters’ can’t really expect any of that, and certainly don’t deserve it.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching worldwide through Skype. His clients have included BBC, Powergen, American Airlines, The Payments Council, first direct amongst others. Contact Gary Wood by email to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization. See: Testimonials from former clients.

Why You Shouldn’t Ask Why? And What Open Questions You Should Use Instead

We are told that to open up conversations we should use open questions, that is, questions that begin with ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. The question is, do ‘why’ questions belong in the same category and are they as useful as the others? Are ‘why’ questions really open questions?  ‘Why’ questions are a favourite of parents, teachers and managers but are they effective in delivering the desired results. Do they really help us to find out why. Often people splutter out, in a panic, the first thing that comes to mind. Rarely, if ever, is that information insightful or useful. In his post I argue (as the title suggests) that we should use the other open question forms (instead of ‘why’) for solution finding. The question is ‘why?’

Why ‘why’ feels instinctual

All children go through the ‘why phase’. Talking with my three and half year old niece and trying to explain something recently, every level of explanation was met with ‘why?’ We might argue that the question ‘why?’ is hardwired into our psyche. It becomes almost instinctual to ask ‘why’ when we want more information or to discover the motives behind actions. In reality, asking ‘why’ is a habit. It’s easy. That’s why young children use it. They may not have acquired the language to paraphrase. What they mean is ‘I don’t understand, please explain’. With our more sophisticated grasp of language, we don’t need to rely on ‘why’.

We are not always logical so don’t know ‘why’

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodManagers often use ‘why’ as a coded way to say ‘explain yourself’. It is often finger-pointingly accusative and a thinly-veiled put-down. It usually means ‘that was a dumb thing to do’. The ‘why’ question assumes that human beings are totally logical, like the Vulcans in Star Trek. The problem is, why are not. We often hold competing values and attitudes about ourselves, the world and other people. Sometimes we just do stuff without thinking it through. Sometimes we don’t know why. So when things haven’t gone to plan, just barking ‘why did you do that?’ to someone isn’t likely to yield much useful information.

When I was writing Unlock Your Confidence I carefully worded prompt questions so that I didn’t ask ‘why’. This mirrors the same approach I use in coaching. A couple of the editors didn’t ask why. They just changed the questions to the snappier ‘why’. My questions sometimes seem odd. However they are supposed to. I want people to think about things in a different way. I want to shake up perceptions and assumptions. ‘Why’ questions won’t do that. They just lock us into the problem whereas I want to focus on the solutions. So if we accept that people don’t always know why, let’s find a way of focusing on what they do know. To do this let’s analyze the key words for open questions.

‘Who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘how’

If we examine the other ‘W’ words ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, there’s a common theme. They all relate to something concrete. When constructing experiments we declare the concrete ingredients before describing the ‘how’. We define the apparatus before detailing the method. It’s the same with a recipe. Ingredients before step-by-step procedure. Okay you may protest that when you are pressed for time ‘why’ is just damn quicker. The problem is, that ‘why’ never got your caked baked. That’s mainly down to ‘how’. Even if we do manage to get an answer to ‘why’ question, this may inaccurately frame (or bias) subsequent insights from the other open questions. Sometimes the manager won’t even use the ‘why’ information. It’s just left hanging there without resolution. Instead the manager or teacher will just tell staff what do to right next time, rather than ask them. ‘Why’ questions can really close down learning because they take us backwards. They are past-oriented questions. ‘Why’ tends to be more abstract and ambiguous. It taps into motivations, attitudes and values. ‘Why’ is philosophical. So, when we are pressed for time, do we really want a philosophical discussion? Why would you want to do that?

Can we never use ‘Why’?

My research supervisor early in my career challenged me about my fondness for exclamation marks. I thought it made me sound engaging, dynamic and passionate. He said it was like laughing at my own jokes. ‘Why’ like exclamation marks should be used sparingly – the equivalent of ‘to really make a point’. In coaching, I rarely use it and if I do, I use it more as a device to get a reality check to be able to shift to different way of thinking about an issue. In any one coaching session with a client, we spend 20% of the time describing the problem and 80% of the time focusing on solutions. To this end, ‘why’ isn’t very useful at all.

What to use instead of ‘why’

In solution focused skills training instead of ‘why’ we use ‘how come?’. It’s rather casual and some might argue that it’s a bit ambiguous or clumsy. However it appeals to the other person’s insights in a non-threatening way. So if someone is considering making a life-change, asking ‘why’ is often a way of communicating disbelief, implying that it’s the wrong decision. However people become more invested in declensions if they are allowed to think them through and own them. They may come to realize that the time is not right to make a change. However, it will be their decision. They won’t always be wondering ‘what if?’ So instead of ‘why’ you might ask:

  • ‘What is it that attracts you to this option at this time?’
  • ‘How did you arrive at this decision?’
  • ‘Where might you get further information?’
  • ‘Who else might you ask?’
  • ‘What tells you that now is a good time to make this change?’
  • ‘What other options have you explored?’

All of these questions open out the issue in a way that ‘why’ never will. ‘Why’ may reduce people to the appearance of blithering idiots who don’t appear to know their proverbial arses from their elbows. By substituting ‘why’ with the other open questions, you help draw out a person’s inner resources. ‘Why’ may be quick, but the other open questions, especially ‘how’ promote concrete action. ‘Why’ may often trigger a stress response which puts us into a state of survival (the classic ‘fight or flight’ response) where we are only able to access a limited range of cognitive responses, namely those related to survival. ‘How come?’ is a more relaxed approach which is more likely to enable us to evoke a broaden range of cognitive and emotional responses on which we can build.

So that is why you should use ‘why’ sparingly and opt for a broaden range of open questions to tap into a richer source of practical information that helps people learn and move forward.

Finally, as if really need to emphasize the point, here’s a scene in the cult 60s TV series The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) where he challenges the Orwellian super-computer. The protagonist inputs his question and and you can see the results here. No prizes for guess what the question was.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching worldwide through Skype. Contact Gary Wood by email to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

 

A Simple Technique for Dealing with Overwhelming Negative Thoughts and Feelings

Sometimes feelings and thoughts can overwhelm us. We might feel totally consumed by an emotion. The way we describe and give an account of these thoughts and emotions are important. However language is imprecise and doesn’t always do justice to the way we think or feel. In this post I offer a simple technique (that I use in my coaching practice) that may help when we feel encompassed by our thoughts and feelings. It’s based on appealing to the different parts of you. It won’t effect a miracle but it may help to usher in a little hope.

Broaden and Build

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn times of stress we think in terms of absolutes. In the classic ‘fight or flight’ survival mode we draw on a limited range of options. If it feels like an emergency we don’t have time to consider all options. By contrast when we are more relaxed we are able to access a broader range of cognitions. This is the essence of Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions. In everyday life we speak about ‘taking a deep breath’ before tackling a challenging task. This is the basis of meditations and mindfulness techniques that abound and something I discuss in greater depth in my book Unlock Your Confidence. However, I am concerned with linguistic techniques here.

Partitioning the emotion

One technique I use with my coaching clients, I borrowed from the theory and practice of focusing, initially created by Eugene Gendlin (and developed by Ann Weiser Cornellsee link below for her book). It’s a form of body-mind therapy that has the individual look inwards to listen to the messages the body gives us. Through the process, people describe the feeling and basically free associate. Part of the process involves naming the part of the body from which the feeling appears to emanate and use the phrase  ‘part of me’. So instead of ‘I’m angry’, you would say ‘part of me is angry’. This seems an accurate representation of what we often do when experiencing mixed emotions, especially in relation to relationships with loved ones. Yes we love them but part of us is sometimes infuriated by them.

Once you have partitioned the feeling, it immediately invites you to consider the part or parts of you that are not feeling a particular way.  In coaching sessions it helps the client consider their issues from a broader range of internal perspectives. Invariably the dialogue follows the pattern ‘You know, yes part of my is angry and rightly so and secretly part of me is relieved or delighted’ and so on. Using ‘part of me’ acknowledges that we are multi-faceted beings and that cannot be reduced to black and white, either-or states. It doesn’t deny the feeling. It acknowledges it  in a way that allows other aspects of your experience to have a voice too. It helps to provide a useful platform from which you can move forward. Together with other solution-focused principles it can help break the stronghold of overwhelm. As with any technique, it becomes more effective if you make it a habit, not use it when you need it. It’s a way in which our language shape our thoughts and build our confidence (and esteem) by revealing all aspects of ourselves.

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  • If you want to find out more about focusing, check out Ann Weiser Cornell’s excellent book: The Power of Focusing (see on Amazon UK or Amazon.com

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching through Skype. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Combining Business with Pleasure: A Cup of Coffee as a Measure of Confidence

I was delighted to contribute a blog post to Coffee Birmingham. The site is dedicated to raising the profile of Birmingham’s independent coffee shops. The post is entitled Confidence, Coaching and a Cup of Coffee. Essentially it’s about how a simple thing such as visiting a coffee show can be a measure of confidence. It was great fun writing it as I managed to combine a few of my passions and link them to my coaching practice. Please check it out: http://coffeebirmingham.co.uk/coaching/ and do leave at comment and share with your friends and colleagues.

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and (life) coaching practice and research consultancy. He is fan of great coffee and wrote most of his book  Unlock Your Confidence over innumerable flat whites. Use the form below to contact Gary to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization. Meeting up over a coffee is a distinct possibility!

A Short Exercise in Self-Belief (and banishing self-doubt)

Most people at some time are plagued by self-doubt. Many people struggle to accept compliments and praise. A key factor is practice. Certainly, in Britain there’s a saying that self-praise is no praise at all. I’d like to counter that with the adage that ‘charity begins at home’ and offer a short exercise in self-belief.

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThe feedback I’ve had from a number of people in my workshops is that they find the self-compliment exercise from my book (Unlock Your Confidence) is particularly hard to do. All I ask that you look in the mirror, look yourself in the eye pay yourself a compliment. I consider this to be a litmus test of confidence and esteem. And true, it also transgresses the social more of never having anything nice to say about yourself.

What kind of a rule is that? It’s certainly not a basis for greater self-assurance or self-efficacy – the sense that we are effective agents in the world.

Instead, try this:

  • Recently, I’ve adapted this idea and ask people to set a stopwatch for just 60 seconds.
  • Close your eyes and compliment yourself against the clock. See how many compliments and things to praise yourself about that you can cram in to 60 seconds. It does matter if you repeat yourself, just keep going for the full minute.
  • When you’ve mastered that, try it for two minutes and work your way up to three minutes.
  • Now try 60 seconds in front of a mirror with eyes open.

As with any skill, you get better as your practice, so build it into part of your daily routine. Before you get out of bed each morning, close your eyes and praise yourself for 60 seconds. Use the technique before challenging tasks too.

This technique helps to balance out the cultural bias towards negative self-talk. In my confidence building workshops people describe themselves as feeling ‘lighter’, ‘more energized’ and ‘more optimistic’. Of course I’ve tried it out myself, and indeed there is a shift in my energy and posture. So try it yourself (for a month) and let me know how you get on. What impact does it have on self-doubt, self-belief and self-efficacy?

Combine this with my Getting the Gratitude Attitude Exercise ( with Free PDF Diary Sheet)

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Has mindfulness become a dirty word? And why it’s just really about connecting more fully with everyday life

Is mindfulness becoming a dirty word? Has it become the most over-used concept since Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Judging from some of the comments I hear in coaching consultations and training, for some people it has taken on all the baggage that goes with the idea of meditation. It’s the idea that it’s all very impractical ‘head in the clouds, aerie-faerie nonsense’ that lacks meaning or relevance for everyday life. In this post I challenge some of these negative misconceptions by offering some down-to-earth examples of mindfulness in action.

How we define a concept shapes our attitudes towards it. Sometimes mindfulness is presented as something we need to add to our already-busy lives. However, it’s really just about ‘present moment awareness’. When you watch a sunrise or a sunset, your full attention is on the present.That’s mindfulness. When you become totally absorbed in your hobby (or goals), that’s mindfulness.

There are many things we do on ‘auto-pilot’. When we first learn a new skill we have to pay attention to the details. When the skill becomes automatic our minds can wonder. You might listen to two singers or musicians of equal technical ability both perform a piece and prefer one over the other. One you might describe as ‘really feeling it’ and the other as ‘just going through the motions’ or ‘phoning in the performance’.

Examples of everyday mindfulness

Food

Research has shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on the more mundane pleasures in life such as eating. This is a particular ‘hobby of mine and it’s been said that I’m often far too vocal about my appreciation of a good meal (although I stop short of a ‘When Harry Met Sally’ mment). When we really pay attention and appreciate the food we tend to eat fewer calories than when slumped in front of the TV shovelling in the food on autopilot. Think how much popcorn we consume at the cinema when our attention is elsewhere. So any healthy eating could start with actually making a conscious attempt to pay attention to the food. Food is best served with the lights on and the TV off.

Taking Up A Hobby

Who can forget the sight of Ozzy Osbourne sitting in his kitchen colouring-in (in the first season of The Osbournes reality TV show)? However recent research suggests that the ‘prince of darkness’ was on to something. Colouring-in can be good for us. In effect it puts us in a state of mindfulness as pay attention to the task of ‘not going over the lines’. Research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, found that people who pursue creative activities outside the workplace deal with stress better and performance improves at work, even humble ‘colouring-in’.

In book Unlock Your Confidence I mention how a simple walk in nature can boost feelings of self-esteem. According to writer Richard Louw connecting with nature boosts creativity and health. Not surprisingly, research also shows that spending time gardening can also increase feelings of well-being. They ground us in the present moment.

This all fits in with the concept of ‘flow’ in positive psychology. Put simply ‘flow’ is the state of total absorption in a task or activity when we appear to lose all sense of time. According to positive psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced ‘Chick-sent-me-high’).spending time in ‘flow’ is a definition of happiness.

Mindfulness is about engaging more fully with life

Mindfulness doesn’t have to feel like an alien activity. You can connect with the present moment in very ordinary ways that support your everyday life. The difference is that you connect more fully with your life.

So next time you hear the world mindfulness in a training course, in a magazine, book or on TV, just take it as a prompt to ask ‘where’s my attention now? Is it on the activity in hand? If not, take it is a signal to reconnect and engage with what you are doing.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Displacement Activities: How We Use Them to Maintain Confidence and How to Use Them for Problem Solving

Displacement activities are things we choose to do instead of doing the things we are supposed to be doing. Many of us have at sometime succumbed to the lure of de-scaling the kettle over the call of a pressing deadline. When I was writing Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come in Swim Out to Meet It  I was struggling with one chapter and woke up one morning with the bright idea that the bathroom needed redecorating. Of course I justified it because of the water connection: bathrooms and ships are quite similar, and I did use a bit of blue paint to create a nautical theme. In this post, we’ll look at the reasons for choosing displacement activities as well as how they can actually be useful in problem solving.

We engage in displacement activity when tasks seem overwhelming, boring, or when we resent having to do them at all (negative attitude). Sometimes we do them when we feel stuck, figuring that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Sometimes we’ll defend ourselves by arguing that what we are doing is essential to the main task.

Feeling overwhelmed, so doing something else instead

Overwhelming tasks and goals affect our confidence. When things seem too daunting the temptation is to do something else instead. Self-efficacy is the sense of how effectively we operate in the world. Choosing a simpler more manageable task helps maintain our sense that we can get things done, even though these tasks may have nothing to do with our main goals. The cornerstone of goal-setting is to break big goals down into smaller manageable chunks.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Over the years of working with students, the ‘study timetable’ seems like essential preparation but often becomes a displacement activity. I’ve seen study time tables so beautifully illustrated it would put the illuminations of medieval monks to shame with the intricacy and sophistication of the designs. The timetables are often laminated although I have no idea why they need to be splash proof! Yes it’s important to prepare but it should not displace the main goal.

To prepare effectively for a task we first need to know what the task entails and what we are going to need to complete it. A good metaphor for goal setting is a recipe (or a scientific experiment). We need to clearly state what ingredients we need and the step-by-step procedure to get an end result.

How attitudes can move us forward or hold us back

When we judge a task to be boring, we’ll pretty much do anything else to avoid it. It’s another key theme I use in academic coaching with students. Sometimes we get a sense of overwhelm when the task ahead appears monotonous. Some students protest that studying for exams is plain boring. However, this is their choice. By finding more interesting ways to study and by incorporating all of our senses, we can take away some of the sense of overwhelm and change our attitude to the task. We process information more effectively if we approach the task with a positive attitude. After all if we have to do something then resenting it only makes it more painful. By finding a way to make a task more manageable and more interesting we can boost our sense of self efficacy.

Displacement activities and problem solving

Sometimes when trying to solve a problem we just get stuck. In this case, a bit of displacement (more accurately ‘distraction’) might actually help. Have you ever noticed when you have hit a block with a problem that the solution just seems to pop into your head when you’re doing something else? This is a recognised phenomenon in psychology. Our brains continue to work on the problem in the background. It’s known as incubation or as I call it ‘putting things in my cognitive slow cooker’. It works best when you have really tried to solve a problem as hard as you can. In essence you’ve already given it your best shot. Now admittedly my ‘decorating the bathroom’ was a bit extreme. However, I had been working on the book for more than fourteen hours a day for over a week. It got to the point where I just needed to do something else. So to get the most out of this psychological phenomenon pick something that uses a different set of skills to the main task, that is, create some variety/balance. Alternatively, just go for a walk in the park. Taking a break gives our brains a chance to absorb the information.

In Summary

When we are drawn to displacement activities at the start of a task it is the sign that we need to change our attitude, look for redeemable qualities in the task, use more of your skills and senses to make the task more interesting, break the task down into smaller milestones and just take action.

The sense of self-efficacy gained from displacement activities is just a quick fix. It deals with the negative emotions associated by the sense of overwhelm but it is by taking control of the situation that leads to lasting confidence.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

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