Keep cool

Left to its own devices, the human brain will find negative uncertainty as stressful as actual negative outcomes. Although the statistical probability of falling prey to the Covid-19 pandemic may be a low number, this will not be enough for an individual person to feel safe. The normal access to social support (for most, an effective stress relief) is currently limited by Social Distancing, adding to the problem.

Assuming that everyone is just a bit more worried than normally, and with days in our own company at hand, now is a good time to train how to get rid of worries and keep calm. The skills are always, and they will remain useful when we return to the anthill of modern working life; to overcome challenges more easily and learn more from them; to collaborate more effectively with people we don’t like; to stay cool in the face of provocations; in sum, to not get bogged down by the unexpected crisis, mistake or unwelcome surprise.

In general, humans have a great ability to adjust to new circumstances and become happy (again). This, too, shall pass – but for those able to mobilize their brain’s “discovery” state, the bouncing back will happen with less effort.

Our brains are constantly scanning the environment for threats and rewards – to avoid/defend against or seek out/discover, respectively. Defensive state is comparable to the knee-jerk reaction causing you to respond to emails (too) quickly or sneer at the colleague cutting the line at the coffee machine. It is also keeping you safe in traffic and around predators. The neurological basis is the familiar fight-or-flight response, automated and very fast but also inflexible and not always useful. Thinking back through the thousands of email responses I have seen; I can’t think of a single one that couldn’t wait 10 minutes. The colleague skipping the line could be someone you’d like to have a favorable impression of you.

Discovery state is engaging your deliberate self, noticing what is going on and letting you connect with your best behaviors, goals and intellect. This engine is slower but more advanced, stimulated by feelings of pleasure and reward. Research shows how we’re able to solve more complex issues (most social issues are complex btw) and make more advanced analysis in discovery state, with our minds not being cluttered by the panicky fight-or-flight neurotransmitters.

Defend or discover? As with most functions of the brain, it’s not an either-or; it’s not even a sliding scale from defend to discover or vice versa. It’s two completely different and separate reaction patterns, present at the same time to deal with different types of situations, but with shifting command over your attention. You may open a call prepared and with all the best intentions, but a comment challenging your professional capability instantly activates a defensive reaction pattern.

Defensive state is not good for business, ever! No sneering at the coffee machine, no snappy email responses (no matter how fast), no surly skype comments, etc etc. Letting off steam should only happen in 100% friendly environments, and only upon prior explicit agreement with everyone involved. Not very likely to be part of anyone’s working environment.

So, back to the training of coolness skills. Evidence-based interventions you can rehearse on your own come in different varieties, and can help you improve how to manage your reaction to a sudden unwelcome surprise, to move on from unpleasant feelings that have been nagging you for a while, and improve your ability to manage uncertainty.

  • Affect labeling is where you label your emotions, call them out clearly by their official name. Clearly articulating the fact that there is a problem will cause the brain to silence its alarm bells. Mind you, this is the exact opposite of “sucking it up”: suppressing negative emotions will cause your physiological stress response to increase. Affect labelling is not pondering endlessly about your negative emotions – this could lead to draining rumination and sleepless nights. It’s merely to acknowledge how you feel, before you start working out what to do next, in writing or verbally with someone you trust.
  • Distancing; here, it’s not about social distance – it’s about making a distance to your own perspective, trying to see your situation from the outside.  You can trick your brain by simply talking to yourself, addressing yourself in second person – in stead of saying “I’m really worried about this meeting tomorrow”, say “You’re really worried about this meeting tomorrow”. Or imagine you’ll be advising a friend about a similar situation.
  • Mobilize your Discovery state by asking yourself reward questions (no, not bonus. You’re looking for reward which materializes much faster, plus it needs to be totally within your own control). Examples are “How have I managed to overcome difficulties like these in the past?”. “What capabilities helped me last time?”. “What can I learn from this?”.  A strong sense of purpose is super-rewarding and will always help mobilize the discovery state, however it can be tricky to process when you’re in a negative state of mind – a reduced version will be to focus on “What’s the most important now?”.
  • Breathe, with your belly! Diaphragmatic breathing – deep, slow breathing for 90 seconds – will instantly reduce your level of stress hormones. And no one will notice (not even when we get back into the office!).

Some of these tactics require a bit of time and thinking, which is why I am suggesting you practice them now, in the safe harbor of your home office. Others, like the breathing exercise, is a response that will help instantly and only requires you to remember that you have it at your disposal. This is harder than it sounds, and requires willpower (which can also be trained, check out this previous post for more about how to do that).

Wishing everyone less worries and more discovery.

Findings in this post are sourced from the brilliant book “How to have a good day” by economist and former McKinsey Partner Caroline Webb.

Online with a human touch

Many of us are working from home for at least a few weeks, spending hours every day in isolation.

Modern life on a “normal day” is filled with social distractions from the buzz of co-workers in large office spaces. We are social beings with a constant impulse to connect – but for a while, the social buzz will be silenced, and we’re having to seek social interaction online.

Online meetings are safe and hygienic replacements for real human interaction. However, it takes focus to bring out the human qualities of communication in the somewhat unidimensional web meeting. But with effort and planning, maintaining your social exchange creates a feeling of security and normality (and is also an effective way to reduce anxiety and stress).

Advice is everywhere on how to run productive online meetings – how to plan agendas, which tools to use for whiteboarding etc. Allow me therefore to only make a few suggestions on how to make online meetings more human, helping to maintain the friendships at work that are so critical to our engagement:

  • Make it a deliberate priority in your team to have human online meetings, at least for as long as the current isolation is in force.
  • Take turns to do the thoughtful planning of this, eg to formulate a non-work question for all participants to answer at the start of the meeting. Make sure everyone gets time before the meeting to prepare.
  • Turn on the video. This improves the focus from all participants and introduces the option to have a bit of fun. Why not show your co-workers around the house? Compare coffee machines? Introduce family pets?
  • Make sure your voice is clearly associated with your full name, and that both are known to all participants. “Ghosts” in the call will prohibit everyone else from being open. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of proper introduction in online meetings.
  • For corporate video content, organize Movie Nights (or rather, afternoons) to view them together instead of streaming individually.
  • Finish your agenda 5-8 minutes before the meeting ends, to have time for “watercooler talk”. The kind of informal evaluation that would normally happen in the corridors after a face-to-face meeting. This can be solicited with a question: “Does anyone disagree with the conclusions we just made?”.

Would you consider using any of these ideas? If yes how did it go? As you can imagine I’m isolated and hungry for comments.

The human level of crabbiness

I was recently made aware of a so-called “crab analogy”:  A fishmonger cannot be bothered to keep a lid on a bucket of crabs. Even though many of them will be able to climb over the edge and escape, the other crabs will make sure to pull this potential escapist back into the bucket (ultimately securing the demise of the whole gang, but let’s focus on the “pulling back” for now).

In the analogy to humans, the way of thinking can best be described as “if I can’t have it, neither can you”. Allegedly, we like to see friends get ahead, but not too far ahead. People, driven by envy or spite, will work hard to block your success.

I’m not subscribing to this analogy. My view of human beings remains positive, and I keep seeing evidence of empathy and support. Our ability as social beings to connect, care and support, is hardwired in our DNA.

It’s even visible as a certain quality of stress response, known as “tend-and-befriend”: in stressful times, we may become trusting, generous and prepared to risk our own well-being, all to be able to protect others (: our offspring). Tend-and-befriend is designed to overrule our own survival instincts: we feel fearless, and feel that our actions really matter. Stimulated by the brain’s  release of oxytocin, dopamine and  serotonin, our fear is reduced and we are more social, brave and smart. A gift from evolution to our kids.

And a gift that can keep on giving: you can actually trick your brain into activating tend-and-befriend. It’s very simple: help others. Helping others is indeed a surprisingly, even counter-intuitively, effective relief against stress. If you are in a period of feeling overwhelmed, look for a way to help others, it will help you. You’ll be able to register the same effect by pursuing goals bigger than your “own”. If you see your own job in the bigger picture: how is my contribution viewed in the perspective of what it contributes to users, clients, leadership, the company mission? Exploring your “why” is bound to improve job satisfaction.

So, what’s the limitation here? Tend-and-befriend is not the only possible response in stressful times, sometimes we get angry, even crabby. But the way we think is critical to our experience, not as in ”thinking positively” about a traumatic event. But as awareness of our biology’s potential to help. And – importantly – as the awareness that isolation and loneliness will block your well-being and recovery.

Remind yourself, that feeling challenged and overwhelmed, at least some of the time, is a universal experience. And that one of the greatest sources of resilience is to engage with others, not to stay away for fear of crabbiness.

By the way: I hear the reason the crabs are pulling each other down is simply that they are trying to escape, pulling on everything they can lay their delicious claws on. The poor thing has been taken out of its natural liquid environment and will do anything to get back. Another case of instincts trying to help.

Come off autopilot – press “pause”

I was recently reminded by a colleague, of Daniel Kahneman’s classic – the amazing: Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), summarizing research conducted over decades; cognitive biases, happiness and prospect theory among other things. Daniel Kahneman is recognized globally as a true leader in the field of psychology, and the list of honors bestowed upon him is long and glorious, with the Nobel Prize in Economics (the only non-Economist ever to receive this) sitting prominently in 2002.

A favorite, inspirational for a lot of people including me, recognized for his ability to transcend his own field of research and for his determination to make the science of psychology relevant and useful to everyone.

Kahneman talks about our thinking to occur in two brain systems: the deliberate, sophisticated handling of self-control, forward thinking, abstractions, anything unfamiliar. This system is brilliant and creative, but slow; and it has a bottleneck: working memory, consuming loads and loads of energy and getting worn-out and tired through use.

And then the automatic, short-cutting, spam-filtering fast processing system, relieving the slow deliberate system of its hard work but inevitably, also leaving you with blind spots: it needs to base its processing on what is known as heuristics, mental shortcuts or rules-of-thumb.

Heuristics will be individual and learned over time. Your personal autopilot, driving you safely to work following a complex route which you don’t have to even think about. Helping you get on and off the escalator without falling over, without pausing to look for the steps. Opening doors with your primary hand. This is true for all human beings; we are all experiencing the world through the lens of our learned heuristics, nobody is “filter-free”. Reality is subjective, and the good news is that no matter how hard a situation seems, there is always a different perspective.

We learn through the “Slow” system, spending all the time and effort, and once the learning becomes automated, it is managed and perpetually reinforced by the “Fast” system. Very efficient!

But, be aware of the impact of this design on decision-making; in the eyes of the Fast system, the most obvious option is always the best option. And the most obvious option may be a behavioral feature of yourself you’d like to change: a bad habit you’d like to stop, a new behavior you’d like to learn.

To change – whether it’s something you will, you won’t, or you want – means disrupting your heuristics and slowing down the fast system. Otherwise it will drag you around, like the tail wagging the dog. Choosing which kind of restaurant, you want to go to for lunch may be ok to automate; choosing which country to expand your business into may not. Your brain will want to automate both (“Italy!”), since it’s really more convenient.

The very simple, fail-safe method to intervene in your brain’s auto-piloting is: to pause.

A pause, if only for a second or one breath, will bring you off autopilot and mobilize your slow, deliberate brain. You will be able to think, to remember your goals and positive motivation. If pausing is a challenge in itself (and it is, for everyone, don’t be shy), this is a skill in its own right, meaning it can be trained.

Try the following simple “power-pausing workout”: for the rest of today, open all doors with your left hand. (or, right hand if you are left-handed like me). This tiny little change will stop your fast system in its tracks, forcing you to think about why you’re doing this.

Exercise every day for a week, and your ability to pause will have improved massively, to be leveraged across any autopilot function you’d like to disrupt. Pressing send on emails too quickly? Forgetting to say “please” to the staff at the canteen? Having a second glass of wine for dinner? Wanting to be more intentional about meeting planning?

There is no limit, really, so don’t be perfectionist about it. Smaller objectives are always better; it’s the way we learn.

Feeling stress in a meaningful life

This post is not to deny the massive surge of stress as a cause of real and serious illness, or to make people go and look for more stress. But below findings are also real. The way we think and talk about stress should not ignore its upsides. There is a very strong link between feeling stressed and having a meaningful life. Not the link you may expect – would an absence of stress create the mental space to pursue meaning?

In fact, it’s the other way around: high levels of stress are associated with good public health, national happiness and good economy. Gallup World Poll researchers are keeping an eye on the global levels of happiness in their Global Emotions Report. In a 2005-6 survey of 125.000 people residing in 121 countries, they asked this question: Did you feel a great deal of stress yesterday? The worldwide average was 35% – with values from 67% to 5%. How well did this national variance correspond with other indexes of well-being? The higher a nation’s stress-index, the higher its wellbeing, life expectancy and GDP. With high levels of stress, more people are more satisfied with their life, health, work, standard of living.

Diving deeper into this surprising finding, the researchers discovered a “timing” factor: on the very day a person had felt stressed, that person was also more likely to have felt sad, worried, angry or depressed (like you would expect, right?). But these same people would report overall higher levels of joy, love and laughter on a previous day. So, stress is associated with distress (and a host of other problems) but also with well-being. A happy life is not stress-free, and a stress-free life is no guarantee for happiness. Nations reporting very low stress-levels, also reported high levels of shame and anger, and low levels of joy.

Clearly a controversial and surprising finding, the Stress Paradox: high levels of stress are associated with distress as well as well-being. To understand the underlying links between these seemingly contradictory findings, look to the concept of meaning. Among the best predictors of a meaningful life, stress ranks highly. People with a high number of stressful experiences in their past, will consider their life more meaningful. Time spent worrying about the future is considered meaningful. People with very meaningful lives will worry more and have more stress. Stress seems to be an inevitable consequence of committing yourself to goals and roles that will feed your sense of purpose.

Stress is a by-product of pursuing important and difficult objectives.

The way we talk about stress is not supporting our well-being. We talk about our struggles but not so much about what we learn from them. We reinforce the illusion of a stress-free life, but this would indeed come at a high cost. Avoiding stress can be isolating and a reduced sense of concentration and physical energy. Indeed, avoiding stress can be creating more sources of stress while drying up the resources that should be supporting you. Avoidant coping strategies, to keep yourself away from stressful situations or escape your own feelings, is likely to drive you towards a life without depth, meaning and community.

Understanding what gives meaning to your life will help you live with the unpleasantness of this “by-product”. People who see themselves as someone who overcomes difficulties, will be better able to cope with everyday stress. When you reflect on your values, the mindset you have about stress shifts and you see yourself as someone strong, able to grow from adversity. You’ll be more likely to seek challenges than to avoid them, and to see the meaning in difficult circumstances.

In some situations, avoiding the stress isn’t possible and denying its existence isn’t helpful. Remembering your values can transform your experience – from something happening to you against your will, to something that is a result of your priorities. Feeling stressed can feel like a sign you are inadequate. If you were strong enough, smart enough, you wouldn’t be stressed? Try to think like this instead: stress is not a sign of failure but evidence you are human. You can learn from it. Even in moments of frustration, stress and meaning are connected in the bigger picture of your life.

Findings quoted in this post are from Kelly McGonigal, 2015: “The Upside of Stress”

Will team dinners improve performance? The short answer is “No”

Business borrowed the term “team” from the world of sports, to label an interim group of people mobilized to deliver towards a common goal (product, project). We’re hoping the team will inherit the glory and sense of purpose glowing from National Teams, along with the motivation to train hard to be amongst the prospects; to actually get selected; and to fight like a champion once you’ve made it “all the way”.

We’re setting the highest standards for team performance, and we understand that teams don’t just go to work. They need to be built! Some will look to Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development to understand the relationship-dynamics in teams, starting off as a loosely connected group of individuals, evolving in four clearly identifiable stages: Forming, Storming, Norming – and finally: Performing.  Others may believe teams will flourish if the individual personalities are sourced and joined in certain ways, using tools such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Or other approaches, or a mix over time, as teams are continuously built and re-built.

As a team leader, in your day-to-day work you will typically nurture two types of coherence: task and social coherence, maybe sometimes stimulating the latter to improve the former. Meaning: team dinners or “outings” to improve performance.

However, the task/social coherence presents a classical chicken-and-egg problem: will a team with coherent and logically interdependent task also enjoy a great social life, or vice versa – a team having fun socially will make an extra effort to work together well? Research points to task-coherence as the decisive factor.

To understand task coherence, let’s borrow some more from the world of sports:

  • A team of single-sculler rowers will have a low task cohesion. Although the athletes may be part of the same delegation, they don’t have to work together but will each be in their own boat;
  • A relay team of swimmers or runners will be acting serially, one will prepare the action for the next to complete in a pro-act/re-act chain – you could argue such a team has medium task coherence;
  • A football team has high task coherence, each athlete continuously working with the others – passing the ball, maintaining a position, coordinating attacks

In terms of performance, social coherence is irrelevant for the task – only task coherence is needed (in some contexts, social coherence can even be detrimental to performance, diluting competition between team members). The sense of doing everything for the team is documented to be greater in teams that require extensive interaction, coordination and cooperation.

Social cohesion may increase as a result of success. Everyone loves winning, and winning may lead us to see teammates in a more favorable light.  At the other end of the social cohesion spectrum, the notion of being stuck with a group of people you really don’t like, or where the level of competition is excessive, is not very attractive. Social cohesion doesn’t hurt, spending time with people you like is endlessly more pleasant.

However, it’s imperative for performance to stay on-task. If you come across a team with an amazing social life, but little task cohesion, it’s time to refocus on the set goals (even at the expense of the good vibes). As a team leader wanting to promote team success, pay attention to the way the team collaborates, look out for the effects of competition and collaboration, and also have a keen eye for individual goals.

Pleasant and fun as they surely often are, social events will stimulate many things – company loyalty, family support, employer brand, etc. But in terms of performance, team dinners are really only dinners with the team.

The hazards of winning at all cost

A TedTalk by ex-Head Coach of the UCLA Gymnastics Team Valerie K. Field recently showed up in my feed. Miss Val is considered one of finest coaches of all times, and her TedTalk message is: When we want to win at all cost, we break human beings.  If we want to generate success as leaders (parents, coaches), we must look beyond creating “winners”, and instead focus on stimulating resilience and confidence through the use of respectful honesty. Not blame/ shame/force, since this can drive even the greatest talents to stop wanting to be great.

Success is more than winning, and blindly focusing on results, “winning at all cost”, may not only take away the joy of competing, but can cause lasting damage. A single-minded pursuit of victory can undermine long-time performance. What are then the hazards of a win-at-all cost culture? Research within sports psychology shows how aggression plays a role.

Win-at-all-cost cultures are associated with high, even intense, levels of arousal. This can in turn lead to increased anxiety levels – “what if I fail”? Anxiety can misdirect attention from the task at hand, ie from task-relevant to task-irrelevant cues, typically more concerned with social evaluation – “How do I look”? Some examples: the young consultant worried about the boss’ negative frown if the report is not completed on time, rather than just focusing on completing the report. Or the student worried about parent disappointment if an exam fails, rather than preparing for the actual exam.

Behavior seen to be increasingly task-irrelevant is associated with higher levels of aggression.  Whereas a little aggression can lead to small gains in performance, it will at a certain point be associated with so high levels of arousal that performance suffers. Ie, the pursuit of victory that often leads to aggression, can get in the way of good performance.

This is not applicable to what could be called instrumental aggression – where aggression is used as a means to an end, eg a tactical foul in basketball at the end of the game. Here, aggression is used deliberately and precisely. On the other hand, toxic or hostile aggression is emotionally generated, and is an end rather than a means, contributing nothing.

This type of aggression diverts attention from task completion. The more substantial an athlete’s deviation from optimal arousal is in competition, the higher the probability of impaired task performance and deviations from rules and normative behavior. An athlete’s performance is expected to be assertive but not inappropriately aggressive. Aggressive transgressions indicate a high probability of what is known as a performance crisis – a far-from-optimal performance.

In a business context, aggressive thoughts or behavior will rarely lead to direct physical violence, as can sometimes be seen in sports. But aggression will still impact performance. Overly aroused people can find it very hard to get back to what’s important.

Understanding what lies behind behavioral violations will help to avoid problems before they become too serious. Recognize when or why you experience aggression and try to compensate or regulate your state of mind, to get back to focusing on the task at hand. Focusing on motivation and on your task, working to fulfil your potential, constantly improving yourself and doing your best will drive better results in the long term. You will win more.

Stimulate the motivation rather than the ego, encourage learning and a preference for challenging tasks, demonstrate a positive attitude and be the living example of how effort leads to success.

For more sports psychology research, check Michael Bar-Eli’s book “Boost!”

Who’s the boss?

Work has two faces: 1: it is a means for living, enabling us to pay the bills and 2: it gives identity and a sense of purpose. As a mental model the “two faces of work” remind us that it’s more than mechanics of effort-reward. Work is also a social experience and a lifelong education process.

Traditionally, getting work assignments was largely depending on the line manager; a patriarch (M/F) assuming fatherly responsibility for everyone’s tasks and workload, as well as personal growth, promotions (or not!), quality assurance processes, annual appraisals etc etc. This is changing, middle managers are becoming feeding-and-watering stations people turn to infrequently and for formal alignment, eg for changes to employment contract.

The day-to-day work experience is happening in teams for most people. Teams are becoming the core social structure of working life; the point of delivery for many corporations; the most important “work home”. The team is where the rubber meets the road, the engine room. To thrive and grow in teamwork and to get the great assignments, you need to know what you’re good at, your values, wants and needs.

Don’t expect any of this to come from “above”, this is about your identity and purpose. Jobs are becoming roles; roles are becoming essential, with clearly articulated value-adds and accountability. The workforce (an antiquated term), especially the younger generations, are confidently embracing the new world order, looking for impact and meaning.

Building a team is to match carefully branded individuals with optimized team structures, and teams only existing for the duration of their useful life, ie as long as they deliver against defined objectives (developing a new product, winning a deal, etc). Teams are great, accelerating skills utilization, productivity and opportunity for the individual.

When the job is done, each person is evaluated and returned to the feeding-and-watering station until next project. The “Gig economy” exists as an employment arrangement, but also as an internal assignment principle: this is a highly dynamic and competitive exercise, a reflection of the speed and agility with which people and companies are aligning with market changes.

Back in the day, line managers would have laid out a plan for each person; some employers still provide their employees with some form of guidance, now typically automated as portal-based career roadmaps. Even with the supplement of internal career advisory service or counseling, this will typically lack everyday proximity to each person’s achievements, strengths and development potential. The need for a personal brand, once a thing for executive leadership profiles, is spreading to all team workers.

Reflecting on these matters is worth the effort. You’re unique, and only your own clarity will get you where you want to be. So be your own boss when it comes to your development and career. Whether you’re out to secure the next steady job, a pay raise, or to change your behavioral patterns or assignments towards better alignment with your personal values, there’s no avoiding the facts: don’t sit around waiting for direction – you own this! You also own the feedback you get along the way. It’s not the responsibility of your team leader (plus, he/she is likely very busy). Your line manager probably won’t know you very well. Team workers, take charge and lead: set goals for yourself, clarify your values and strengths, learn new skills, build your brand.

Connect with your goals

Will-power is an amazingly accurate predictor of academic success, a flourishing career, effective leadership, a long life, even a happy marriage. We’re all struggling with temptation, addiction, distraction and procrastination as a part of human life. But for some, the bias towards doing “the harder thing” appears to be more consistent and natural, they seem to be sticking to their plan in the face of every challenge.

Your willpower is supported – or not, as the case may be – by your brain, via its powers to bias you to DO certain things (“I Will” – exercise more?) and REFRAIN from other things (“I Won’t” – check emails constantly?). Both of those will-power elements flow from your long term-goals and desires: “I Want”.

However, when you are tired or distracted, your behavior tends to run on autopilot and the decision-making becomes disconnected from your goals. As an example, one study asked people how many food-related decisions they had made in one day. Average response was 14. On careful tracking, the result turned out to be 227!

It’s like we have more than one mind, each with its own point of view on what’s the best behavior. To stay true to your plan, you’ll need to mobilize the “I Want-power”: to make conscious decisions based on your goals, not fly on autopilot where you don’t even realize the consequences of your actions.  

And more: It’s not enough to identify what you want to change, you need to know how, when and why you’ll be likely to fail. If you cannot predict when you will give in, you will expose yourself to more temptation, be likely to be surprised by setbacks and give up on your goals in the face of difficulties.

This means, you will need to understand the impulse you’re giving in to, to be able to flex your “I Wan’t” brain-muscle, activate your goals and remember your original objective. This impulse may be very different from what you thought.

One email-addict wanted to cut back on checking emails but was finding it hard to reach her goal. Although she really wanted to not pick up her phone so often, she didn’t even realize what happened before she was already scrolling down the screen (the autopilot was doing the flying). She needed to stop herself sooner! On careful analysis, she discovered that the impulse to check emails felt almost like an itch, a tension that was relieved when she checked her email. Don’t think this is any different from other forms of addiction! By understanding when she was likely to fail, she was able to mobilize her will-power already on the impulse – a first important step towards “owning up” to the behavior.

Active management of your thoughts is an energy-consuming activity that shouldn’t be overdone; it makes no sense to try to exercise your willpower every minute of the day. Still, it’s real work to be pulling thoughts back to where you (really) want them, doing “the harder thing”. It just feels easier to give in to unwanted impulses (being online, losing your temper, drinking too much, yelling at the kids) or to put off work you really had an intention of completing (preparing for an important meeting, cleaning up your emails, upskilling – you name it).

Meditation specifically trains the willpower and is scientifically evidenced to increase the grey matter (I.e. brain cells) in your prefrontal cortex – your Executive Brain, home of “I Will”, “I Won’t” and “I Want”. Meditation works even without spiritual add-ons and if you’re new to this, there are loads of options available for guided practice.

For a great review of scientific research on will-power, packed with “easy-to-do on your own” exercises, read “The Willpower Instinct” by Health Psychologist, Stanford PhD Kelly McGonigal.

On thinking and training

“To the extent that people can regulate what they think, they can influence how they feel and behave”. The Albert Bandura quote nicely sums up my perspective.

We are who we are. But we’re influenced by our environment, and the ever-increasing speed of change is putting pressure on our mental coping abilities. A global working environment driving changes in technology, social support, skills requirement, culture and leadership practice, can give a feeling of being overwhelmed or losing control (familiar?).

Rather than pulling out “the plug” (wireless, obviously) here’s an alternative: To own your personal world with all its opportunities and challenges, not succumb to become collateral damage. To do that you need to really feel like the owner.

And to change how we feel, we need to regulate what we think. This thinking skill, like any skill, can be trained.  Develop your own training program (resources are everywhere, go google!) or work with someone you trust.