Is It a Good Idea to Act Authentically?

Well, it depends how you define authenticity.

Authenticity can be problematic when we define it as freely expressing our thoughts and feelings. I have made this mistake many times in the past. I believed that it was wrong to hide my true feelings, that it was important for me to be ‘honest’ with others. The problems with this approach were:

  • It involved treating my thoughts and feelings as if they were true. I have since come to realise that sometimes they don’t reflect the reality of a situation!
  • It meant that my thoughts and feelings had control of my behaviour.
  • It meant other people had to deal with my ‘stuff’ – sometimes that was helpful, at others, frankly, it wasn’t.

A better definition of authenticity is when:

  • Behaviour, goals and values are aligned.
  • Values are freely chosen rather than imposed by others. They feel like an expression of my best self. The person I really want to be. Working out authentic values can take some time. We have to cut through what we have been taught is good and proper and get to the heart of what is important to us. There are some tips on how to do this here.
  • I am honest with myself about my thoughts and feelings and then choose what to communicate with others. Hiding from thoughts and feelings leads to behaviour that feels inauthentic to others.

This way of behaving is associated with a number of positive outcomes:

  1. I feel like my behaviour is an expression of my true self – which feels important.
  2. Mindfully noticing my thoughts and feelings and then choosing which ones to act upon provides opportunity for growth.
  3. I will tend to put more effort into pursuing self concordant goals that align with my values.
  4. I feel more satisfaction when I achieve self-concordant goals.
  5. Others are more likely to trust someone whose behaviour is both predictable and transparent. Choosing behaviour based on a consistent set of values leads to more consistency than being pushed around by whatever thoughts and feelings show up at any particular moment.
So, yes it is a good idea to act authentically – as long as that means acting in accordance with deeply held values.

For further reading on the research relating to authenticity:
Chapter 11, Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman

The Cult of Busyness

Are you busy?

It feels almost unnatural to think of answering ‘no’, and it is this which Ian Price, a former telecoms CEO and now business psychologist, explores in his excellent book called The Activity Illusion.

Ian’s main thesis is that we are driving ourselves to distraction through technology, and that this is hitting productivity.  I agree, but would go much further.  I think distraction impacts mental health too.

Which further impacts performance.

I have been speaking to Ian about ACT, and how I think it’s essential to help people cope with information overload.  Without some means of dealing with intrusive thoughts and the uncomfortable emotions they can provoke, all we are left with is a bunch of time management strategies and some vague promises not to copy too many people into our e-mails.  Oh and the perennial favourite, employee engagement.

Ian is interested.  He is even showing interest in including elements of ACT it in his training.  Another sign that the business world is beginning to see the extent of the opportunity here.

To give you a flavour of his style, have a look at his talk at the Ted x Granta event earlier this year.

The Benefits of Everyday Mindfulness

Everyday mindfulness is about maintaining an ‘open, accepting, present focus of attention during day-to-day life.’  There is increasing research suggesting that this stance is good for us:
This paper finds something interesting – being ‘good’ at formal mindfulness meditation doesn’t correlate with being mindful in everyday life.
I think this is very freeing. Although I know that mindfulness meditation is very good for me, I find it hard to find time for sitting meditation in my busy life. Everyday mindfulness means that each moment I can make a decision to be open and present. And it looks like that has some serious benefits.

ACT in the Workplace

So many leadership courses are based on the idea that to improve performance we must firstly sort our thinking out.  So we focus on motivation, confidence, self-belief or ways of controlling or removing anxiety and stress.  Sounds logical enough.

The problem is whilst this approach makes such intuitive sense, the evidence does not support it.  Our minds are expert problem solving machines which evolved to scan the environment for threat, propose hypotheses, and then prompt action to avoid, control or get rid of any threats. But when we try to apply the same techniques to our own thoughts, beliefs and emotional states, the evidence is that we make the problem worse, not better.

As Paul Flaxman said at a recent BABCP event, what works outside the skin does not always work inside the skin.

This may sound like a small distinction, but it has profound implications for the way we learn, teach and improve performance  in the workplace.  In short, the evidence suggests that focusing on trying to alter, control or avoid emotional and cognitive states as the means to improving performance is flawed.

From workplace stress to task concentration, innovation, learning, anxiety and even chronic pain management, all are showing that attempting to regulate our own internal states IS the problem.

In contrast, the alternative – psychological flexibility – gives people control over their lives, ironically by letting go of the struggle of trying to control their emotional states.  It is the ability to focus on task-relevant stimuli whilst feeling negative emotions that drives better performance and reduces distress (see Gardner and Moore, 2008).

One recent participant said to me that defusing from his thoughts – treating them with a degree of distance – had been the single most effective change he has made in attempting to build a safety culture in his team.

Rather than more rules and regulations to live by, ACT can help people get unstuck from where they are, and take control of their working lives.  If ACT can reach more people in organisations, it could benefit us all.

That’s ‘Un Oeuf’! – The New Time Management System for the Time Poor

Although this makes me sound like a massive geek, I am very interested in using mindfulness and focusing techniques in time management.  I have written on my personal blog about the Pomodoro technique.  But whilst the pomodoro technique is good, it is not scientific enough, in my view.  For example, I have found for most people 25 minutes is slightly too long to focus.

After a lot of research and some earnest experimentation myself, I can now offer a more scientifically validated time management technique which anyone can easily implement.

I have named this revolutionary system: ‘That’s Un Oeuf!’ (TM).

The ‘That’s Un Oeuf!’ system is guaranteed to boost your productivity and increase your wellbeing through the simple expedient of a kitchen timer shaped like an egg.

Here’s how it works:

1. Buy your Oeuf-shaped kitchen timer.  It MUST be shaped like an egg to have any effect.  This is scientific fact.

2. Set the timer for 22 minutes.

3. In the minute of your Un Oeuf (pronounced, ‘Enough’), identify a clear objective which you want to achieve and be clear about the value you are working towards.

4. Start working through your Un Oeuf without any distractions – turn all other applications off.

5. If you become distracted, simply notice that distraction and bring your attention back to the present moment and to your objective.

6. Once the timer sounds, point at the kitchen timer and say the words:

“That’s Un Oeuf.”


7. It is critical to move at this point, and to attend to whatever it was the distracted you.  Get a cup of tea, do some cleaning, write an item for your to do list down, do 10 press ups, walk to the printer.  Whatever.  You’ve got 5 minutes’ break.  Then, go again.

I recommend doing blocks of 3-4 Un Oeufs at any one time, then taking a longer break.  In this more extended break, make sure you move around.   I often do household chores in this period if I’m working from home (live the dream), or I go and have a chat with someone if I’m in the office.  You may also want to catch up on e-mail or Facebook etc.

I recommend doing 12 Un Oeufs a day, and the rest of the time should be doing e-mail or calls, meetings and more relaxed or creative tasks.

Incidentally, if using a kitchen timer is not an option (for example, in an open plan office or the ‘quiet’ coach of a Virgin train) then use this very handy online timer.

The science behind this approach is overwhelming, but if you want some primary sources here goes:

Please let me know how you get on with the revolutionary ‘That’s Un Oeuf!’ Time Management System, I would love to hear your experiences.

But for now, That really is ‘Un Oeuf’.

Don’ Think That Thought!

Dan Wegner is one of my favourite psychologists.  One of his central findings is that it is difficult – impossible – to not think certain thoughts.

One of his famous experiements is to ask participants not to think about a white bear.






How did you get on?

In this experiment, particpants were asked to hold a pendulum steady.  In the first condition, people were told ‘don’t move!’.

This was the result:








In the second condition, people were told ‘don’t move this way!’ (i.e. up and down).

This was the result:








This is what Wegner calls the ironic effects of the brain:

When we think, “Don’t spill this” as we carry a full cup, for example, we may trigger the very spill we wish to avoid.  When we near a precipice, in turn, and think not to fall, we often teeter toward the brink. And we are likewise vexed in sports when we find that the error we most want to overcome seems to happen recurrently.

In turn this shows the futility of trying to control our thoughts.  The act of controlling makes them more – not less – likely to occur.