Future Me – Write Yourself a Letter From the You in Six Months Time

I was asked to comment on a lovely project by BBC Coventry and Warwickshire radio which they called ‘Future Me’. They asked five people to write a letter to themselves from their six-months-in-the-future self. The letter contains elements of how they see themselves in six months time and advice they would give to the present-day-me to get them to achieve these future goals.

Knowing yourself as you do. . .

By looking six months into the future you are thinking about medium term goals, so it’s important not to be too ambitious. Goals always need to be realistic and achievable. The nice thing about this letter approach is that it taps into our knowledge of ourselves. In my coaching practice, I often begin questions with ‘Knowing yourself as you do. . . ‘. This helps clients to tap into their own personal expertise in their own lives. It’s typical of the solution-focused coaching approach. It’s all about building on existing strengths and abilities.

Should we always be chasing goals?

If we don’t set our own goals then life will dictate them for us. So it’s good to set your own agenda. However, goal-setting shouldn’t be at the expense of enjoying the present moment. It has become something of a cliché but nevertheless true that the journey is just as important as the destination. So take time to enjoy each step of the process not just the end result. In my life I have studied for quite a few exams but I also approach it from a point of gaining understanding rather than just cramming my head full of facts for the end result. I learn a lot about myself in the process. Sometimes that can be even more valuable than the piece of paper at the end. So with goal-setting it’s important to strike a balance.

Write your own future me letter

Begin by just sketching out some idea of how you want things to be in six months. It should involve thing over which you have some control over in life. Winning the lottery would obviously be great but how do you actually plan to do this short of breaking into Lottery HQ and fiddling with the balls using a complex series of magnets, not that I have actually thought about this!

Once you have an idea of where you want to be, realistically, write a letter to yourself, giving yourself the good advice and encouragement that you might give to someone else. It might be something more tangible like getting a new job or saving money or getting to your ideal weight. It could also be something not quite so measurable such as gaining confidence. Once you have written the letter, read it though then put it in a safe place ready to read it again in six months time.

Now take action on your own advice

As a psychologist and a coach I don’t subscribe to this passive approach of sitting back and waiting for things to happen. My job is to help people to make things happen. This means taking action. The letter is a signal of intention and is a tool to help you to tap into your resources. It’s not an excuse to opt and let the ‘universe’ take care of your wishes. The universe may be very busy! The universe doesn’t offer a life-back guarantee, in that you can’t get the life back that you wasted waiting. A better approach is to begin acting as if the ‘future-me’ is happening and actively help it along. Make the future-me letter a self-fulfilling prophecy. Try it out for yourself.

[Based on a conversation on air with Annie Othen BBC Coventry and Warwickshire radio, 09 August 2013]

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodLinks:

Mental Fatigue, Well Being and Confidence

How we process information has an impact on confidence and self-esteem

In my confidence building workshops and coaching I take a holistic approach. It’s not just about tips and tricks to appear confident. It’s about working from the inside-out too. It’s also about using basic human psychology to unlock inherent abilities.

One of the most visited posts on this blog is aimed at mental fatigue when studying. However the basic message doesn’t just apply to students. Feeling tired mentally will have an impact on how we all process information. This has a knock on effect in terms of confidence and self-esteem. The main ingredients for dealing with mental fatigue are: keep hydrated, exercise, breathing exercises, check your posture, eat healthily and build variety (and novelty) into your life and work schedule.

We’re All Water – Hydration and Mental Fatigue

Professional athletes know the importance of staying hydrated. It’s not just that we need water on a physical level but also at a psychological level. Even if we are dehydrated by a few percent this can have a negative impact on our ability to process information. So why make things more difficult when a humble glass of water can have a positive impact on our cognitive processing abilities? However, don’t over do it. A glass of water on your desk and a few sips might make all the difference. It’s a question of remaining hydrated not drowning in the stuff!

Health body, healthy mind

Tests on various brain training activities have found that the best way to boost memory is to spend just twenty minutes on a running machine rather than hours on a brain training machine. The mind needs time to recuperate and the increase in oxygen uptake is more effective than solving puzzles. Just a break away from your desk and go for a walk will have a positive impact. Perhaps a few sit-ups or squats in your breaks from study. Mental fatigue often occurs because we have created an imbalance by overdoing the mental activity. Taking a holistic approach helps to redress the balance. It’ll also help you get into better shape.

Take a deep breath and beat mental fatigue

Again top athletes know the value of breathing exercises. When stressed we breathe more shallowly. When relaxed we breathe more deeply. By practicing breathing exercises we take control of our stress response. When we are in a relaxed state we take ourselves out of survival mode. Being relaxed improves our ability to absorb information. By taking control of our breathing, our pattern-seeking brain assumes we are more relaxed too.

Check your posture – boost your attention

Having good posture is associated with confidence and other positive mental states. We we feel ‘down in the dumps’ we slump down in our chair. When something interests us we sit up and take notice! So check you posture for signs of tension. Are you carrying the proverbial weight of the world on your shoulders. Having a break, taking a deep breath, stretching and doing a bit of physical exercise can improve your posture. It will give you a confidence boost and once again send positive signals to the brain. The brain works with congruence and so adds to your positive state.

Food and mood – eat healthily and think healthily

When stressed we often reach for the junk food – the comfort food. This might temporarily give you an emotional boost. However it is more likely to create spikes in your blood sugar followed by the lows. During the lows you may be tempted to hit a bit more junk food. However this creates a vicious cycle. Instead, if you practice all of the things already discussed you are much more likely to boost your cognitive processing. The temptation, when facing a tough deadline, is to go for a quick fix. However it’s a false economy. Quick fixes actually slow us down in the long run.

It’s not just a cliché, variety really is the spice of life

In information terms, variety really is the spice of life and it’s also true that a change is as good as a rest. Fixating on one activity for too long can tire us out mentally. It’s as if we have little power sources attached to each of our senses. Students most commonly pick a strategy for exam revision and stick to it. All this achieves is that it depletes one of the power sources and so mental fatigue occurs. It becomes more of a struggle to retain information. The temptation is to embrace the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy and just press on with more of the same. You won’t break through a mental fatigue barrier. It will only make matters worse. So what do you do?

Instead, I advise students to switch tasks. This taps into different power sources and gives the depleted sources a change to recharge. Use mind maps, draw diagrams, use picture based cue cards. In short anything to create variety and interest in the task. Surprisingly human attention span is only about 20 minutes at full capacity. After that our ability to absorb information reduces quite dramatically. So sitting there for hours without a break is counterproductive. The answer is to take a break or switch task, or better still incorporate both. When I’m studying or writing, I usually do so in intensive 30 minute blocks with short breaks in between.  I also have a proper lunch away from my desk and make sure I go out for a walk in the fresh air.

Positive mental attitude and fatigue

Things are more tiring if we are met with resistance and this can be our own mental resistance. If we resent doing something it adds to the burden. It’s important to be philosophical. We can’t like everything we have to do in life but if we look carefully enough we will find at least something to like about it. It can be as simple as recognizing our own personal resilience and resolve in tackling a task we don’t like!

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodAll of these points taken together create a powerful mental fatigue prevention programme. The reason for the efficacy of these tips is that they work with human psychology rather than work against it thus building confidence in your own inherent abilities.

Links:

Gender Stereotypes and Confidence

Confidence & Media Myths

Our concept of what it means to be confident is sometimes distorted by gender stereotypes. Confidence is often seen as a masculine type trait. This is partly because we confuse confidence with bravado. Some self-help gurus don’t help this assumption. Often the proof that someone has gained confidence is the ability to  engage daredevil stunts. However, stunts such as walking on hot coals or bungee jumping have more to with recklessness than confidence. Reality TV shows are also all about contestants putting on a show. Being brash and ‘making an entrance’ is often equated with confidence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

True, inner confidence

True, inner confidence is more about being comfortable in your own skin. It’s a lot quieter than the over-the-top displays we associate with the traditional ‘blokey’ stereotype. In fact, confidence begins from a position of relaxation. It’s rooted in quietness. The traditional female stereotype is associated with nurturing. This is another aspect of confidence. Truly confident people put others at ease. If someone’s ‘confident display’ makes other people feel uncomfortable or intimidates then it isn’t true confidence.

True confidence is the mark of a well-rounded human being

The masculine stereotype could be characterized as ‘assertive’ and the traditional female stereotype as ‘nurturing’. So true confidence is a blend of these two qualities.  If your develop your ability to relax and your skills at putting others at ease, these provide the perfect platform for assertiveness. If you’re stressed and angry and just think about yourself then the result is aggression. True confidence is the mark of a  balanced, well-rounded human being. It’s positively contagious, so pass it on.

Links:

If I Don’t Try Then I Can’t Fail – Putting Your Goals on Hold?

Better the Devil You Know?

‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ is a common theme in counselling, therapy and coaching. People may be stuck in a rut but it’s a familiar and comfortable. It’s the same as the old adage ‘Better the devil you know’. It’s basically a fear of the unknown and has its origin in the messages we picked up in childhood from teachers, parents and other authority figures. ‘If I don’t try then I won’t fail’ is part of our self-defeating inner dialogue.

Re-running Negative Scripts

One of the things parents worry about is protecting their children from failure, disappointment and hurt. They often try to discourage their offspring from taking on new challenges. However consider the basic process of learning to walk. That’s all about failure, disappointment and falling over a lot. Playing a computer game is all about failure and disappointment. Think of early computer games systems that took ages to load and crashed frequently. It didn’t seem to dent their popularity. It’s amazing what people will put up with when they focus on the outcome (the pay off). Failure and disappointment are key parts of the learning process. It’s clear that we tackle many challenges without engaging the ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ script. It’s clear that in some instances we think of disappointment and failure in different ways. Disappointment is a recognition that a goal means something to you. It taps into your values in some way. Failure is more often just feedback in the learning process.  However if you keep running that protective-parent script then you trade-off your goals and ambitions for the ‘comfort of misery’.

Putting ”If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ to the Test

This is where I get blunt. I want you to apply the ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ test to a few mundane tasks:

  • Getting out of bed: If you don’t try to get out of bed in the morning you can’t fail to get out of bed. True or false? If you’re still in bed, then you failed. If you just get out of bed and get straight back in, then you have succeeded.
  • Getting a glass of water: If you don’t try to get a glass of water then you can’t fail to be thirsty! Keep up with this strategy and you won’t have to stop trying. Nature will take care of that for you.
  • Going to the toilet: If you don’t try to go to the toilet then you will probably crap yourself! That’s not many people’s definition of success or even protecting oneself from disappointment.

It’s clear that the ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ is only valid in circumstances where there is more at stake than getting out of bed, dying of thirst or rolling around in your own faeces, namely your goals and ambitions.

What’s Really Important to You?

The ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach offers you an opportunity to test how important something is to you. It’s an opportunity check out your values. If moving away from disappointment and a fear failure are strong motivators, then what do you want instead? Understanding how your values inform your decision-making has a major impact on goal achievement. Many people risk the loss of a small amount of money every week against the chance of winning a jackpot lottery. On a rollover week people often double their stake against potential increased rewards. What if the same approach was applied to goals? Somewhere along the way, our goals and ambitions have become bigger than a jackpot lottery. So consider what are your core values in life and what goal would you link to these values. What would you need to do to not look back on a life of regret?

Emotion-Focused Coping

At the heart of the ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach is emotion-focused coping. Instead of tackling the cause of problems people often address the ‘symptoms’, namely the unpleasant emotions. Emotion-focused coping is a short-term approach. A slice of cake, chocolate or alcohol may dull the discomfort of painful emotions right now. However, this approach won’t be any help in getting to the root of the problem. The ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach is about anticipating negative emotions so that you won’t have to resort to cake. That’s as far as it goes. What is more beneficial is working out a series of small, calculated risks and taking action.

Small Steps to Confidence

In one of my confidence building workshops we offered funded places which means that people just had to sign up. They could attend a one-day workshop and lunch. On the face of it, there was such as thing as a free lunch. However, the people who signed up really had to put themselves out there. For some of them it may have seemed like a daunting prospect – a big risk. Many of my achievements came with a lot of pacing up and down and agonizing over decisions. However, on the day of the workshop, the sun was shining brightly and a some people didn’t turn up to the workshop. Instead, some of them went off to a theme park for the day and posted pictures on Facebook! Now these people knew that there was a waiting list to get on the workshop and so deprived others of the opportunity. The people who did make the effort to turn up were really annoyed by this and couldn’t let it go. It was a theme that would recur throughout the day. Eventually, I turned it around by asking ‘What’s the last thing you set out to do and achieved?’ People offered examples from the past when they ‘had more confidence’. I asked ‘What about this week?’ No one offered anything. I asked ‘What about today?’ Again blank looks. So I asked ‘What about getting to this work shop because clearly, as you have pointed out, quite a few people didn’t make it’. The whole room erupted with laughter. We then worked through the process by how they all go here including the decision-making and the practical planning.

Stripping the ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach right back to basics helps us to take stock of our skills and strengths. Tackling any goal however daunting is often about taking small, significant steps in the right direction using the very skills that get you out of bed in the morning. It’s not earth-shattering profound, but it does work. Confidence is built in small, meaningful steps!

Formula for Change

Begin by challenging negative self-talk, particularly the ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ script. Challenge it by seeing ‘failure’ as feedback and set low risk goals and assess the results. Assess what skills and strengths you have in everyday life (however seemingly mundane) and how they can be used in achieving your goals. Instead of focusing on the emotions spend more time picturing the end result, your future desired outcome. Focus on what values you meet by your everyday actions.

In reality there is never an ideal time to take action on a personal challenge. All we can do is start here and now with what we have, move forward and build on each step. If you stick to the ‘If I don’t try then I can’t fail’ approach then the thing you most succeed at is regret. If that is one of your core values then that’s fine. If not then change the script.

Thanks to Sharon Hinsull for suggesting the theme for this blog post.

More posts by Gary Wood on the themes on failure, self-talk, regret, values and goals:

Studying, Highlighter Pens, Defacing Books and Learning

Scribbling on Books

Picture: Highlighting Books is NOT an active learning strategy

Highlighting books is NOT an active learning strategy

One of my pet hates is seeing books covered in fluorescent highlighter pen. On one occasion I lent a student a pristine, personal copy of a book that was in high demand in the library. My reward? It came back defaced in highlighter pen!  I was not pleased and the student didn’t seem to see it as a problem. I recently found out that one of my favourite writers, Oscar Wilde, would routinely scribble in the margins of his personal books. For some people it’s part of an active learning process. Hopefully, most would agree that it’s unacceptable to daub library books and other people’s books with your own personal thoughts (and ‘pretty’ colours). However, is the practice of daubing a book with highlighter pen a good learning technique?

Annotating Books: A Good Learning Technique?

As much as I disapprove of both, there is a fundamental difference in terms of learning between writing notes on books and daubing fluorescent highlighter pen on books. The Wildean approach is all about engaging with the material at a deeper level. Highlighting bits of a book is surface response ‘Ooh that looks as if it might be interesting’. Recognizing that something might be useful is at much shallower level than adding your own thoughts about the material.

Deep versus Shallow Learning

Students often engage in shallow learning techniques such as repeatedly (but passively) reading through notes (and using highlighter pens). Another favourite is recording lectures. There’s also photocopying. All of them require some form of action and some a great deal of effort. The problem is that they create the illusion of learning rather than actually learning. It’s important to engage with the material on a deeper level. Reader through notes only aids recognition not recall. You recognize the material when you see it which is not much use in an exam. You need to be able to recall it, spontaneously. Highlight falls into the same category, for the reasons described above. Recording lectures allows you to put in less effort at processing the information during the lecture. Often people don’t actually listen to their recordings or if they do, it’s only passively. Unless you have a sensory impairment you would be much better off paying attention in lectures and focus on trying to get the gist of the material. It’s more helpful to write down questions that occur during the lectures. These questions will help to guide and shape your reading after the lecture. The lecture is the starting point of your learning, not the be-all-and-end-all!

Students seem to have an almost passionate affair with the photocopier and copy much more material than copyright laws allow and much more than they can usually read. There’s no point in copying material if you are not going to read it. The knowledge will not be transmitted by a form of osmosis! It’s probably a much better strategy to spend time in the library, read the passage and make your own notes, not on the book, in your note pad! Of course some universities wantonly profiteer from photocopying and arguably turn a blind eye to breaches of copyright law (despite the notices). Surely you have noticed how much more expensive it is to photocopy on campus than at a local shop? You are just topping up your fees and you’re not necessarily learning. Owning a pile of paper is not the same as knowledge.

A Better Strategy for Learning

If you spend time writing stuff in your notepad you already engage more cognitive processes. If you read a passage in a book don’t just copy it out. Pause, think about it and write it down in your own words. The idea is that you condense the material rather than faithfully reproduce it.

If you photocopy material then go though it and make your own notes in the margins. Add some of your own thoughts. Make connections to other areas of knowledge. Write down some questions and then research them.

If you record your lectures (and assuming you have permission from lecturers to make recordings) then review the material afterwards. Make a written summary of the recording. You don’t need a word by word account. Personally, I wouldn’t bother recording on a routine basis. It encourages laziness. Better to engage fully at the time.

Being an Active Learning and Building Confidence

Active learning is much more likely to lead to understanding than is the passive, daub-on-it-record-it-photocopy-it approach. Passive learning is also very boring.  Just putting in time is not studying. Just being there is not enough! You have to participate more fully in the learning experience. The extra effort in actively engaging with learning will save you time in the end and help you to achieve better grades. Active learning is also more likely to build confidence in your abilities as you understand what you are learning and are able to recall it more readily and make connections.

So please stop daubing over your books and other people’s books. If you want to colour something in, then buy a colouring book.

Check out these posts on study skills:

Body Language for Confidence?

True inner confidence

I’m often asked the question ‘how can I use body language to more appear confident’. This is based on the ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to confidence building. It’s what comes of watching too many reality TV shows where the phoney ‘put on a show’ approach prevails. This is anything but real! Confident people aren’t those who walk into a room and say ‘look at me, look at me’. Confidence is about being comfortable in your own skin and that doesn’t have to be loud and ‘in your face’. True inner confidence is a quiet confidence. Outer displays of brash bravado are primarily based on deceit.

The Opposite of Stress

The ‘fake it to make it’ approach is about creating a false display to mask feelings of anxiety and stress. This is nothing but a cover up! Stress triggers the fight or flight response and narrows our focus to physical and mental (cognitive) processes associated with survival. Putting on a show is a survival strategy. It’s a subtle way of putting up a fight. Inner confidence comes from a different place, that is, the breadth of emotions and experience than are more than just mere survival. To tap into the breadth of human experience, we need the opposite of mere survival and stress. That is, we need to tap into the emotional, physical and mental state in which you will flourish.

Relax and Use Your Strengths

In my confidence building workshops I ask people when they feel most confident. invariably the answers reveal two themes: (i) when doing something relaxing (ii) when using skills and strengths. So rather than consider fake, up-tight, survival driven displays, instead consider what it feels like in your body to be relaxed and ‘laid-back’. Top athletes begin by controlling their own stress/relaxation response. That’s the basis of elite performance. It’s also the basis of true confidence.

Get in Touch With Your Body

The ‘fake it’ approach is about covering up how you truly feel. This is rather like dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. Instead we need to take a deeper (longer term) view, such as taking yoga or Pilates classes, going to the gym, meditation, dance or Zumba classes. Try out a range of things to find something you enjoy. Try acting or improvisation classes. All of these activities will get you more in touch with your body and your feelings. People often say they ‘feel good about themselves’ after these activities. That’s confidence! All of these activities will all help to improve good posture which has positive impact of your general health. Get outside regularly for walks. Research has shown the regular walks in nature boost self-esteem.

Practise deep breathing techniques which help to oxygenate the blood and keep hydrated. Football trainers teach that even if we are dehydrated by a few per cent, it can adversely affect cognitive functioning, that is how we process information. On top of these take a hobby or spend time practising your existing skills (playing to your strengths). Do something you are good at and relish the time you spend doing it.

Body Language Will Take Care of Itself

Decide which of these suggestions you try.  It’s important to give them a good chance to work so try things out as personal experiments for a month or two. It needs something that you do regularly and frequently. At the end of the trial period review the impact on you and your life. When you hit on the thing that’s right for you, the confident body language will take care of itself. As a bonus, you’ll also probably feel a lot fitter too!

Links:

Being Happy: Memories and Goals

In a recent radio interview I was asked about the process by which we recall happy moments in our lives whilst less happy times tend to fade. Of course, it’s not the same for all everyone. Some people are adept at recalling past events as reasons for not engaging with the present or the future. I’m not referring here to recalling serious trauma but more the refusal to move on in the coaching context.

Working with mature students there have been numerous examples of people who have held on to the callous remarks of (poor) teachers. It took some of them 30 years to go back into the classroom. It wasn’t that they had suddenly found the confidence to do so, it’s just that the ‘pain’ and regret of not doing so became greater. As well as teach the syllabus it was also my job to convince them that it was the right decision. These students are the main reason I got into (life) coaching.

Social Media and Memories

A recent research study at Portsmouth University by Alice Good and Claire Wilson suggests that we use social media like Facebook, not just to interact with others but also to interact with our former selves. Some people spend a great deal of time looking through the old photographs the post on networking sights. The process of looking back can create have an emotional buffering effect especially during tough times. It can create a sense of well-being and optimism to help us to deal with present challenges and to face the future.

Constructed Memories

The human memory is not an infallible storage device. Cognitive psychologist  Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in the 1930s that memories are highly constructed. When things don’t make sense or when there is missing information, we fill in the gaps based on memory default values based on our experiences of likelihood, Often our memories bear little relation to what actually happened, which is why the accuracy and reliability of eye-witness testimony (in the justice system) has been challenged by psychology, most notably by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In cognitive-behavioural therapy questioning techniques centre on cognitive distortions, most often on black-and-while, absolutist thinking. Similarly by exploring exceptions to negative evaluations, in the solution-focused approach, we can reveal small nuggets of possibility to build upon. In classic psychoanalysis we have he concept of defence mechanisms, where sometimes memories of painful experiences are blocked at an unconscious level in order to protect us emotionally and psychologically. Often memories seem to have a life of their own.

Being Happy

Happiness is no longer just in the realm of pop psychology, it has become a legitimate topic in academic psychology led by pioneering Positive psychologist Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For Seligman, happiness is about living our lives according to our values and strengths. For Csikszentmihalyi happiness is about setting goals that stretch us and put us into a state of flow. ‘Flow’ is that state of total engagement in what we are doing, when we are totally ‘in the present moment’ and lose a sense of time and of ourselves. We can actively do something about our own happiness. Along with confidence-building it is one of the main motivations for seeking (life) coaching.

The Past-Present-Future Balance

As with all aspects of life, balance is key. It’s good to reminisce and look back and be reminded of the good times. The best times in our lives are often when we most in tune with our strengths and values. For some people the past has a powerful lure, so much so that it taints the present and the future. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said that ‘History is an angel blown backward through time’.  It means that, essentially, we walk backwards into the future. We cannot help but look back but still need to move forward. It’s important to value the past for its lessons, for uncovering our strengths and for providing us happy memories to see us through challenging times. Perhaps it’s greatest value is to help propel us into the future. There lie new opportunities to live according to our values, to use our skills and strengths and more opportunities to experience a sense of flow, those moments where time appears to stand still. Over the past few years there has been an explosion of interest in mindfulness – the ability to live in the present moment for what it is without letting it get crowded out by the past or the future. It’s all a delicate balance that becomes a whole lot easier when we take a few moments out of our day to settle our minds and take a few, long, slow deep breaths. Taking control of our stress/relaxation is the first step to confidence and happiness.

(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 21/3/13 )

Links:

Mental Preparation: Look for What Sparkles

As a coaching psychologist I’m often asked for tips on mental preparation for interviews, exams or presentations. Recently I was asked for help on something that didn’t really fit any of those categories and so I used a technique that I used in coaching, called ‘looking for what sparkles’.

Personal Resourcefulness

At the beginning of the first coaching session I spend a little time finding about about how you like to spend your time. It’s not idle chit-chat. What I’m looking for is a topic where you come alive more. So that might be flower arranging, baking, horse-riding or what ever else ‘floats your boat’. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s somewhere or doing something where you lose sense of yourself and feel more resourceful. Once you have discovered what sparkles in your life, you can transfer it to another less resourceful area or task.

Learning by Association

We learn by making associations between concepts, ideas, thoughts and events (classical conditioning). Think about Pavlov’s somewhat cruel experiments with dogs at feeding time. The dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food and eventually would salivate over the mere sounding of the bell. One of the most evocative aromas in British culture is the small of fish and chips. We can’t help pass a chip shop and have positive memories flooding back of family holidays and so on. We can use this innate ability to make associations to prepare for new challenges.

The Luxury of Learning

Having taken a fair few exams one of the importance of the context of learning was perhaps the most important thing I learned. In academic coaching I work with students who haven’t yet made the connection between attitude and knowledge retention. They resent the time spent revising for exams when they could be out enjoying life’s many luxuries. I suggest that learning is a luxury. Everything above basic survival is a luxury.  We then discuss ways to make studying more enjoyable. Now for me that was getting in some great coffee and biscuits and creating a really comfortable place to learn. Resentment acts as a barrier to learning. If you let go of the resentment and realize that learning is a luxury and will lead to further luxuries, this positive mental attitude makes learning easier. If you remove the block to learning then ironically you don’t have to spend so much time and working so hard to force the new information in. Context is a vital component of learning. The positive attitude and the positive environment become encoding with the information.

Preparing for New Challenges

One of the main techniques I use for exam preparation  is active rehearsal of the material. I don’t just sit down with the books and try to cram the knowledge in. Not only is it more passive it’s usually quite boring. Instead, I give lectures or presentations to an empty room! I pretend I have an audience and with just a handful of flash-cards or a few brief notes, I stand up and talk to my imaginary group for 20 minutes. If I struggle I can look at my notes but I can’t stop until the 20 minutes is up. What this does is put me under a mild amount of stress and forces me ‘think on my feet’. As new connections occur spontaneously they are added to existing information. Understanding deepens and it becomes more memorable.

Another way it which we can prepare mentally, is to learn the material while we are doing something we love doing. So if you’re preparing for an interview and you love baking, then combine the two. If you’ve got a presentation, rehearse it on horseback. Or it may be something as simple as going for a walk in nature. This is a great way to generate new ideas, connections and associations. Research has shown that a humble walk in the park can help to boost self-esteem (and confidence). You achieve the same by combining learning with something that you love doing.

The new information takes on a positive association with what sparkles in your life and so is easier to recall. Then once you have worked everything out in your head, you can take a more formal approach of dressing up as you would for the presentation, interview or exam and use the ‘lecture to an empty room approach’ and talk for 20 minutes.

Finally, when studying or preparing for anything, never underestimate the effects of a relaxation.

The Importance of Relaxation

When we are stressed we switch to survival mode which tends to narrow our range of thoughts and behaviours. When we are relaxed, that range is broadened. The effects of working with what sparkles in your life is that you are more likely to be in a relaxed state and are able to tap into a broader range of emotions and cognitions. In short, you are more resourceful. So never underestimate the benefits of taking two minutes out of your busy schedule to take a few, long, slow deep breaths. It will give you a physical, emotional and mental boost.

So there you have it. Mental preparation is about exploiting a few key, innate learning abilities. Relax, adopt a positive mental attitude and use the associations of what sparkles in your life to create positive context for new learning.

Links:

One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp

One’s reach should exceed one’s grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

One's reach should exceed one's grasp or what's a heaven for? - Robert BrowmingBased* on a quotation by Robert Browning the sentiments expressed are important for personal growth and happiness. Heaven doesn’t necessarily need to have a religious connotation. We can just take it to mean ‘higher purpose’ or ‘fulfilment of values’. As a coach, one of the things I do is to help people complete MBA application forms. For the top business schools, candidates are required to write a number of short essays relating to themselves. Some people are bewildered by the numerous questions and all the nuances of wording. However, invariably when we break it down, there are often three main questions: (i) What are your goals, (ii) What are your values, and (iii) What’s the relationship between your goals and values.

At the heart of this Browning quotation is the relationship between goals and values. Now happiness may be one of your core values. There’s a strong connection with goals, happiness, and personal growth. Goals need to stretch us. If we make goals too easy, we become bored and lose motivation. If we make them too tough, then we give up and lose confidence. So we need to reach for something we can’t presently grasp but is still within sight. Computer games succeed or fail on this principle. If a game is too easy, it will be cast aside in no time. If it’s too difficult, players simply give up. Getting the balance just right is what makes people coming back to a game. There’s enough progress to maintain motivation.

A common experience of computer game player is becoming so engrossed in a game that we lose all sense of time. In psychological terms this is known as ‘being in flow‘. I’ve mentioned this concept in earlier posts. Coined by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, he regards it as a key to happiness. That is, we set goals that stretch us in areas that interest us and usually support our values. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman refers to our strengths as ‘values in action. According to him, this living to our strengths and values leads to Authentic Happiness.

So, the Browning quotation is a useful motto for personal growth. Yes it’s something to be passed on Facebook and Twitter for daily inspiration. It’s also a great principle to live by and work towards.

*Note: The original Browning quotation is ‘Ah! Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ I’ve just de-gendered it.

Links:

Life, Fun, Gratitude and Regret… a call to action

Sometimes life gets us down. We get stuck in a routine, become overwhelmed by circumstances or paralyzed  by fear. We claim not to know what we want except we know that we don’t want more of ‘this’. Knowing that you do not want more of the same is a start. Describing what we want to move away from is the first step in describing what we want to move towards. It also helps to take stock of what we already have. It’s often described in self-help speak as acquiring the attitude of gratitude. Simply be focusing on what we are thankful for (however small), helps to retune our perceptions to potential positive opportunities. It’s become a key strategy in my confidence building approach (See Unlock Your Confidence).

I saw ‘International Fun Smuggler’ Mrs Barbara Nice’s show at Edinburgh Fringe. Mrs Nice takes great delight in celebrating the small things in life (and it’s difficult to come away from her shows feeling anything but uplifted). In the show she also touched on the regrets in life. These provide clues to what we might do to escape ‘more of the same’. Bronnie Ware, palliative nurse recorded the top five regrets of dying patients and at first glance seemed all rather un-sensational. However they provide a recipe for living without regret. Here are our biggest regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Consider how you allow the expectation of others to limit your choices and perpetuate more of the same. Consider what small thing you could do today that brings you a tiny bit closer to your idea of your true self. It could be starting a new hobby or attending an evening class. Start with a small thing to build your confidence and create momentum. Do it today.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Consider how you can create a little balance in your life. What do you do to relax? What small things can you let go to make time for yourself? When I run confidence building workshops I ask about the moments when people have more confidence invariably they report times when they are relaxing and having fun. In Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In…Swim Out to Meet It, I wrote that a melody consists not just of the notes, but also of the rests in between the notes. Taking time out can improve efficiency at work and can have a knock on effect in other areas of your life. What will you do today to create some moments of fun or relaxation?

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Often bottled up feelings can lead to resentment and bitterness and sometimes people turn those feelings in on themselves. Many people spend years in work meetings saying nothing until one day they speak up. At that time it didn’t matter if anyone else agreed, it was just enough for them to ‘say my piece’. Like anything else, if you have little practice at expressing your feelings (saying your piece) then start small, with something almost inconsequential, as long as it’s a first step. Expressing our feelings will engage others in feedback. Sometimes they will agree and sometimes they won’t. Either way the act of speaking up and dealing with the feedback is a way of building self-esteem. Of course, it can be positive expressions of feelings such as gratitude to another person.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Sometimes we take friendships for granted and let other aspects of our lives get in the way. The same applies to family members. We just assume that they will always be there. They become part of our ‘psychological furniture’ rather than real people. There have never been so many ways to communicate as there are today. A group text message to all of your contacts is not staying in touch. It’s going through the motions. When looking back over our lives we realize that all the things in life that, at the time, mattered more than people, don’t. Forget Facebook (for a while) and focus on facial expressions and vocal inflections with real people, off line. So who can you reconnect with, voice to voice, face to face?

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Getting the ‘gratitude attitude’ helps to create a foundation for happiness as does making time to have fun. It’s interesting that the regret here is ‘let myself’. This implies that the opportunities were there but not seized. A key way of finding more happiness to set goals that stretch in areas of life that interest us. In his classic book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) offers a simple message. To be happier we just need to spend more time ‘in flow’. These are the moments when we become so totally engrossed in what we are doing that we lose all sense of time. We set goals to improve our personal best and develop skills, engaging blissfully in the present moment. So what would that be for you? What start can you make today?

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodNothing here requires massive life changes. All that it takes is small affirmative steps. In my coaching practice, the emphasis is on creating small, shifts in perception and action. It has always amazed that clients do far more between coaching sessions that we agreed or that either of us expected. It’s not bungee jumping or fire walking that transform lives, but small steps of persistent action in the desired direction.

What will you do today, to build happiness and regret-proof your life?

Links: