Language is another example. Perhaps the great human invention, it allows cooperation at scale and turned us from frankly quite puny apes into the planet’s most deadly predators.
Yet at the same time language is a double-edged sword.
Unlike say, wombats, language allows us to ruminate on the past, to worry about the future and to compare ourselves unfavourably to others.
Language allows me to write this post in the conscious certainty that one day I will have to leave everything and everyone I love in this world.
Wombats don’t think like that, or if they do they’re being very stoic about it.
Finally, let’s take modern inventions like smartphones, videoconferencing and social media.
These are all astonishing achievements that bring many benefits. But on balance, would you say these inventions have made us happier necessarily?
When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck.
The point is that our progress as a species has not always been good for us.
And this is why improving mental health is so often about going back to basics…
Five mental health basics
Most of us know this stuff, but the problem with knowing something is that this is not where the battle is won.
Like it or not, humans evolved with a basic set of needs which we need to make happen. And unless we do them, we will not be happy, healthy, or perform at our best.
Here’s the 5 most important:
1. Social relationships. The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness month is loneliness. And quite right – our ancestors simply did not survive without the support of a group.We’re wired for connection, and that’s the real, face-to-face, full-fat kind, not the online, semi-skimmed kind.
2. Daylight. Our internal body clocks require daylight in order to recalibrate each day. Without this daily recalibration from light, we start to slip out of sync with our own biological rhythms and we become less happy and healthy (this is a great 3 min video on the subject).
3. Movement – our ancestors only rarely got stuck at their desks for 10 hours a day. In fact, it is estimated they walked around 15,000 steps a day (according to Fitbit’s early data). We evolved to solve problems on the move, not sitting at a desk. (I like this clip about the perfect anti-learning environment).
5. Set boundaries. Our ancestors weren’t being messaged at 11pm about this amazing berry tree their old school friend just found in Italy. Unless we can find a way to place some boundaries around our working hours or commitments, none of us is going to be happy or healthy.
I know you know this stuff.
But knowing is not where the battle is won.
So now I’m off to take that walk, and I hope to see you there.
These people have undermined the idea that habits are about repetition (“21 days to build a new habit!”) and introduced the more accurate idea that it is how we feel during any given behaviour that creates a habit.
Yet this conversation also misses some key variables.
The first is that how we feel is often not within our control. We are usually better off trying to control the context around a behaviour instead.
The second is that it is sometimes not the habit itself that is key, but the timing and sequencing of a behaviour that matters most.
And this is why I believe what people most need in 2022 is a reset coordinated not by habits, but by high-performance routines.
What is a high-performance routine?
Well, let’s start with the opposite.
At some point in the last 20 months many of us have fallen into routines that we didn’t really choose or design.
For whatever reason, what started off as a sprint became a marathon and we became locked in routines where we worked harder and longer, became more sedentary, and days all blurred into one. To assess your own routine, how many of these bullets resonate?
Everything feels like a priority
You hunker down for hours in front of your screen, taking few breaks
Some days you hardly move from your desk (a good indicator is less than 5,000 steps per day)
You feel constantly distracted, pulled between different priorities
You reach midday and realise you’ve not been outside
Work often bleeds through into the evenings, weekends and holidays
You find it hard to switch off and / or sleep
You often feel tired in the morning
You feel guilty that some areas of your life are being neglected
You worry about the impact of all of the above, but are anxious that if you work less you will feel even more overwhelmed
This is what I call the ‘flat line’ way of working where we work in a continuous, often dysregulated way, without any real structure or boundaries. In this way we ignore our own body’s need for recovery and instead ‘push on through’.
The ‘flat line’ can work for a while, but over the longer term it becomes an insult to high-performance and dangerous to mental health (primarily because it’s a very unnatural way to work).
Worse still, in this context potentially helpful new habits can seem like an extra burden.
For example, imagine telling someone who is overburdened that they need to start doing meditation. Even though meditation might help, in the short term it is likely to feel like another burden; one more thing to do (and possibly fail at).
Meditation – just one more thing to fail at
High-performance routines are different for 3 reasons.
1. Routines create their own rhythm, with one part of the routine enabling the next. Habits are easier to stick to when part of a routine.
2. Individual behaviours become much more powerful when part of a routine. What was an isolated behaviour becomes a meaningful pattern, linked to our biological rhythms as well as our long term values and goals.
3. Routines create a sense of control; of everything having a time and a place. And this creates the positive feelings for change to be sustained.
In the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series of posts on high-performance routines as well as giving away my new e-book on the subject.
In the meantime, I would encourage you to consider what an ideal daily routine would look like for you.
You could start by downloading the template below and seeing if you can identify what your ideal daily routine would look like if you had complete control over each day.
I did this for myself and with many clients last year, and the results were always revealing.
A few years ago in the UK, a Panorama investigation uncovered systematic abuse of elderly care home residents who were being routinely pushed about, belittled and humiliated by their so-called carers.
Worse, when whistleblowers drew attention to the abuse it was they themselves who were disciplined by senior management. Empathy for the victims seemed in short supply as it took a TV investigation for action to be taken.
This is just one example in a long line of depressing stories about toxic leadership. From MPs to journalists, and leaders in organisations from Big Tech to oil, the modern era seems one where empathy, care and values in leadership can be in short supply.
Values and leadership
Theorists like Bruce Avolio have argued that we need a more authentic form of leadership, which connects leaders to what really matters to them. This acts as a kind of compass for leaders, which is especially useful in times of uncertainty (read; now).
Put simply, pursuing our values makes life psychologically harder, not easier. We tend to hurt where we care.
It is much easier to avoid this psychological discomfort – something that psychologists call experiential avoidance. However in the turning away from our discomfort, we often turn away from our values.
This is why experiential avoidance is perhaps the biggest driver of substandard leadership behaviour (as well as in clinical contexts, poorer mental health).
After all it’s far easier to avoid that awkward but important conversation than to have it.
how can we help our leaders live their values in practice?
Many of my organisational clients are introducing this training, not least because psychological flexibility is so practical, and especially effective with difficult situations involving ambiguity or uncertainty – what Todd Kashdan ‘calls the messiness of human life’.
Psychological flexibility is important in leadership for three reasons:
It helps people clarify and understand their values in practice, not just in theory.
It helps people stay more aware of the present moment, which means that they are more likely to notice opportunities to be empathetic and engaged with other people.
It gives leaders the skills to move towards their values and deal with the psychological cost of doing so. By building willingness to have difficult thoughts and emotions, it reduces the natural human tendency to avoid them.
Too many leadership training programmes focus on values and forget to train people in the skills that help them live their values.
Yet unless we do this, leaders will continue to run from the pain that empathy brings them.
This version includes improved ideas for thriving in the age of Coronavirus as well as a new section on parenting in lockdown.
This is from a CEO who’s been using it with his organisation:
Your Covid Marginal Gains booklet has been a great source to help me during this once in a life time roller coaster. It deals with so many layers that we are all going through and gave me confidence in what I was telling my team, give me solace in what I was feeling, and hope for what despair we all go through.
I use the ACT matrix a lot in my workshops and with my coaching clients… and on myself! It is a tool that helps to build mindfulness, self-awareness and valued living. It is based on contextual behavioural science and is very easy to use.
I have made a video explaining how I use it:
You can download a pdf handout of the ACT Matrix here.
Kevin Polk (who is one of the people who developed the ACT matrix) has lots of free resources relating to the ACT matrix at his website.
So many people in ACT are attracted to its focus on values and connecting to what matters that it can be a surprise to learn of its roots in behaviour analysis. After all, isn’t that what they do with rats?
After attending an excellent talk on this subject by David Gillanders, I wanted to write a short series on how behaviour analysis might help in coaching.
In behaviour analysis, “A” refers to the antecedent, or the event or activity that immediately precedes a behavior. The “B” refers to the observed behavior, and “C” refers to the consequence, or the event that immediately follows a response.
Insight from Behaviour Analysis:
If an event (Antecedent) leads to a Behaviour whose immediate Consequence is less negative than alternatives, the chain is strengthened.
Clients who are really stuck.
Brief Example Completely Unrelated to Me:
OK so let’s imagine that someone feels anxious before going to a party. This someone always fears being judged and found wanting by those around me them.
To be clear, this never actually happens to me, but let’s go ahead and imagine anyway. And let’s get behavioural and call this the antecedent…
*Pause to high-five my bad inner behaviour analyst self*
This person then decides to stay in and watch Netflix instead (House of Cards since you ask). This is the behaviour.
The consequence is immediate feelings of relief – no more anxiety – and this therefore acts as a reinforcer of the behaviour, making the chain stronger.
Another example – Duncan – had been experiencing career paralysis for a few years. His work in finance brought acute feelings of meaninglessness. At the end of the week he consoled himself by going out and getting hammered. This was reinforcing because 1) he had a great time with his friends and 2) he forgot about his job.
Whilst there was plenty of good stuff going on (Duncan was popular) he was also anaesthetising himself from his feelings of meaninglessness. As the chain got stronger he also started to drink during the week, especially if he’d had a bad day.
In the short term this meant he could solider on whilst ‘living for the weekend’. But in the long term this pattern was reinforcing his stuckness, eroding his spirit, and draining his energy.
Helping to Unravel Clients who Feel Stuck
By viewing stuck patterns through the lens of behaviour analysis, clients can make more sense of their experience and see how avoidance behaviours provide immediate, short term reinforcement that easily become entrenched into habit.
Another client, Mia, has been stuck in her law career for over 5 years. She’s seen many coaches in her time with always the same pattern: initial hope and excitement, followed by lots of research and analysis, but then slowly tailing away. This she puts down to ‘laziness’.
In this case we see that antecedents, behaviours and consequences can take some teasing apart – but that it can be revealing to do so:
Mia feels like a ‘cog in a machine’ at work. Her feelings are most acute when she reads articles about people working for themselves and when she meets her friend Katherine who seems to have loads of autonomy as a freelance graphic designer.
Mia’s behavioural pattern then is to research alternative careers – from yoga teacher, to charity worker and in-house lawyer. This phase feels rich with possibility which is highly reinforcing.
However, as she then moves further into analysis mode, she begins to find problems with each option…. Yoga teacher? No proper pension. Charity sector? Badly paid and badly run. In-house lawyer? Same lack of autonomy.
Each option is analysed and rejected.
The consequence is that she begins to experience acute disappointment and loss of hope. This acts as another antecedent, which cues a period of plunging herself back into her work, trying to forget how miserable she feels.
Teasing out the antecedent from the behaviour (and exploring the consequences in each case) helps clients make sense of seemingly ingrained or embedded patterns of behaviour that are keeping them stuck.
This approach can also help coaches make more accurate case conceptualisations, and to track interventions more accurately from moment to moment.
I want to highly recommend this podcast to you.
Trent Codd talking with Anthony Biglan about creating nurturing environments.
Key points for me:
There are now many randomised controlled trials of family and community interventions that have been shown to make a significant difference to the development of children and adolescents. We now have the science to impact on problems that we used to think were intractable.
Helping parents let go of harsh, critical or coercive approaches and become more nurturing, supportive, loving and caring is important.
If we want to build well being then we need to create environments that:
– are richly reinforcing of pro-social behaviour
– limit opportunities and cues for damaging behaviour
– encourage psychological flexibility
Dr Biglan goes on to talk about a range of approaches that have been shown to help to create these environments.
His suggestions are highly relevant for organisations.
What would it be like if leaders decided they were going to create nurturing environments at work?
I suspect that problems with employee retention, absenteeism and engagement would significantly improve.
The end of one year and the beginning of another is often an opportunity to torment ourselves with difficult questions: Did I give enough energy to the things that really matter to me? Did I give too much energy to things that aren’t important in the long term? Did I live my values? (To get a visual picture of this, you might fill out Tobias Lundgren’s Values Bulls Eye.)
When you review the previous year, it is likely that you have done well in some areas of your life and have some regrets about others. We often don’t devote as much time and energy as we would like, to what really matters . We often don’t live our values as consistently as we want. We frequently waste time and energy on things that, it turns out, don’t really matter in the long run.
When you consider the aspects of life you neglected last year, you may notice that some are very familiar to you. They will have shown up for you many times over the course of your life. Perhaps there is some aspiration that is important to you, that just keeps being put to one side?
To give you an example.
Since I was 11, I have wanted to be a writer. I love reading and I wanted to be like the authors I admired. I wanted to be one of those people, the people that befriend strangers by sharing their thoughts in a book.
I have started many books but, despite this deep desire to be an author, I have never finished writing a book. This desire to write seems to matter a lot to me but each year goes by and I still don’t accomplish my goal.
A couple of years ago, I turned 50 and I realised that time was running out. If I really want to be an author, I need to knuckle down and actually write a book. So I started another book. It is on a topic that matters to me (Meaningful Success). Sitting at my Mac trying to express my ideas with honesty and courage is hard and scary and wonderful. Two years later and I am still wading through this project. Trying to create something useful. Something that isn’t rubbish. In the process, I am discovering that this writing lark is harder than it looks!
But even though this matters deeply to me. Even though I love writing. Even though every thing I read about how to become a good writer starts with the advice – just write.
I often don’t write. My days are filled with other stuff. Stuff that isn’t writing.
How about you? What are the goals that really matter to you? The goals that year after year, you don’t quite manage to give enough time and energy to? It could be:
And …what gets in the way of you pursuing that goal?
There are lots of reasons why we don’t pursue these important goals with the necessary energy and passion. One reason that seems increasingly common is, ‘I am too busy.’
So what are we too busy doing?
If you analyse what you are too busy doing, you can divide your actions into: 1. Things that were genuinely, at that moment, a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
For example: spending time with the people you love; caring for your fragile human body; doing meaningful work; earning enough money to pay the bills; volunteering for causes that matter to you…
These choices are valued actions. You are being the person you want to be. Life is full of conflicting priorities, can you notice these choices and be gentle to yourself about them?
2. Things that, at that moment, felt like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task but they actually weren’t.
For example: trying to impress or please people; trying to earn more money than you need; doing things just to get prestige or recognition; doing things to avoid unwanted feelings.
This is a recurring problem for many of us. I certainly keep getting hooked by these activities. I look back on my life and I have spent too much time focussing on things that seemed important at the time, but actually, from the perspective of a few months or years later, I realise didn’t really matter.
3. Things that, at that moment, didn’t even feel like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
This is basically all the things we do to procrastinate and avoid the harder stuff. It might be: watching inane TV or silly YouTube clips; checking in on Facebook; going shopping. (NB These activities can also be acts of self care – in which case they are category one activities – only you can decide this.)
At this point I could just tell you to make sure you focus your energy on the right things. But I don’t think that advice is very helpful. I know it doesn’t work for me.
So I want to encourage you to do something different. To start gently.
Just start by noticing with curiosity what you are doing. In real time. Notice which category your behaviour is in. You might also notice if you tend to berate yourself for spending time on the ‘wrong’ things. How effective has this harshness been for you? What would happen if, instead, you responded with compassionate understanding of your human failings?
Instead of harshness, could you notice how each behaviour feels? Notice how it feels in your body as you take these various actions? What emotions are you feeling? Notice which circumstances seem to encourage you to do which types of behaviour. Are there any common themes?
For me the ‘category two’ activities – the ones that seem important at the time but actually aren’t important- are often associated with a scrabbly feeling, like I am desperately trying to get something. At those times, if I pause and notice what is going on inside me; I realise that I am often hooked by thoughts that I am not good enough in some way and/or there isn’t enough of what I think I need. The best response to this seems to be to pause and breathe. To turn to myself in kindness. To be willing to be with myself and the thoughts that I am not adequate or the world is not the way I want it to be.
‘Category three’ activities – the ones where I know I am frittering time away – sometimes feel to me like I am hiding out. Trying not to think about the scary task I am avoiding. At other times these activities are accompanied by a whiny voice – ‘I don’t want to…I am too tired…I deserve a break…It is too hard…’ It feels like when I was a kid and I used to put my fingers in my ears and loudly say ‘I can’t hear you…LA…LA…LA…I can’t hear you’.
If I am courageous enough to pause and check in. I notice the thoughts and feelings I am trying to avoid. Can I turn towards these feelings with compassion, knowing they are part of being human?
I want to encourage you to do the same. Instead of trying to get it right. Instead of fighting with yourself.
Notice whether what you are doing is moving you towards your values; towards what matters to you or whether it is taking you away.
Notice what is going on inside you at those moments.
It was like he was performing some form of magic. He seemed to knows how to structure his questions and interactions in a way that freed people up. As I watched, I could tell that he was doing something extraordinary but I couldn’t work out how he was doing it. This was my first experience of Kelly Wilson. It was 2008 and I was at a workshop Kelly was running on applying mindfulness to psychotherapy. Kelly is a Professor of Psychology and an extraordinary therapist. He wrote the first ACT book with Steve Hayes and Kirk Strosahl.
As I watched Kelly, it was clear that he was incredibly compassionate and caring. That he was truly present in his interactions with people. That he was open to what turned up. You knew you could tell Kelly your deepest darkest secret and he would turn to you with kindness and understanding.
And he was doing something more than that.
Something I didn’t understand.
When Kelly asked a question it was as though he was selecting the exact words and phrases deliberately, like a master chef who knows that the dish needs just a tiny pinch of nutmeg to turn pleasant into exquisite.I had no idea how he chose which words were the right ones but I wanted to discover what he was doing. I wanted to use those skills to help my coaching clients.
That desire took me on a long and arduous journey.
It was hard.
I felt lost a lot of the time. I felt stupid. But I knew that there was something important here. Over time, I saw other people doing the same extraordinary thing as Kelly.
Sitting in the cool marble foyer of a hotel in Parma, Italy in 2011, Jonathan Kanter said one sentence to me. When I heard it, pain that I had held tight since childhood simply unravelled. Years of therapy had barely dented this pain but Jonathan says this one sentence and it melts, never to return again (more on that in another post).
A few months later, I had a 1:1 Skype session with Benji Schoendorff. This kind Frenchman asked me a few simple questions and the anxiety I feel when I give a presentation changed from something bad to something that now makes me smile.
I was impressed. I wanted to be able to do what these people could do. To be able to use language to do magic.
Step by step, I discovered that what makes these people so extraordinarily effective is a deep understanding of something very nerdy and scientific – contextual behavioural science, in general and relational frame theory, in particular. (You can read the research support for this approach here.)
The reason contextual behavioural scientists can use words with the same precision a master chef uses spices is that they understand the impact each person’s learning history has on their current behaviour. They understand how everything we do is an attempt to get something – even if that something is just avoiding the voice inside that says, ‘You aren’t good enough’. Contextual behavioural scientists understand how metaphors work and why they are so powerful. They understand how each new piece of information we are given slots into the network of what we have learnt in the past. They know that ideas don’t stand alone, they are inextricably linked to thousands of other thoughts and memories.
Kelly, Benji, Jonathan and thousands of other ACT therapists and coaches use that knowledge to help people to move towards flourishing. Bit by bit I am slowly getting a sense of how to do this. These theories are very complex. We touch on them over and over again in this blog. So, in this post I just want to give you a bite sized portion.
I want to describe how ‘transformation of stimulus functions’ can help people to grow.
‘The transformation of stimulus functions is said to occur when the functions of one stimulus alter or transform the functions of another stimulus in accordance with the derived relation between the two, without additional training.’ Dymond & Rehfelt 2000
What does transformation of stimulus functions mean in practical language? A stimulus is an event that influences behaviour. A stimulus can serve a range of functions, which means that it can make certain behaviours (both in our body and our mind) more or less likely.
Our environment and the people around us teach us many of these responses (i.e. we learn the function a stimulus has in a particular situation). Once you have learnt a particular response it is very difficult to unlearn it, but you can change your response to the stimulus by linking it to something that has a different function. (for RFT folk reading this and judging me, I know this is a ridiculous oversimplification but you didn’t really expect me to explain this, did you?)
For example, when I stand in front of a group to give a presentation I often feel very anxious. That anxiety then triggers an urge to make myself small and stay safe by sticking to dry clever theory. I have discovered that if I give in to those urges then my speech tends to become boring!
In our Skype session, Benji, asked me some questions about the anxiety I feel when I give a speech. As we talked, I started to see how the anxiety turns up because I care deeply about being genuinely helpful to the people in the room. This sounds obvious but noticing that connection between my anxiety and what matters to me has meant that the stimulus of anxiety now acts as a reminder that I care very much about what I am doing. It tells me that now is the moment to speak from my heart, risking rejection and judgement because I genuinely care about the impact of my session. I find myself smiling with the joy of knowing that right here, right now I can do something meaningful. When I do that my speeches tend to become more interesting!
Benji used language to create something that felt like magic to me. The function of my anxiety changed, it was now linked to my values. Transformation happened!
I want to walk you through an example of how you could transform your relationship with a tricky stimulus in your life.
Using Words to Weave Your Own Magic
Firstly, consider what tends to trigger you to be safe and boring rather than courageous and impactful?
When you are in the grip of that trigger, exactly how do you feel? What thoughts tend to be there for you? How does it feel in your body?
Really sink into that question. How does it feel to be inside your skin at that moment?
Once you have got a sense of what is important to you here, ask yourself – If I was being the person I want to be, how would I respond to that trigger?
Next time you notice that trigger and the associated thoughts and feelings, ask yourself:
Am I willing to take a small step towards being the person I want to be?
What would that look like?
And how would it feel?
I hope that for at least some of you, the trigger now acts to remind you to live your values.
If you are interested in learning how Benji uses RFT to transform people’s relationship with painful emotions then watch this presentation. (I particularly enjoy his gorgeous French accent and the cooing of his baby in the background)
If you want to know how Kelly weaves his magic then read this book and if you want to understand what Jonathan does then read this book.
And, if you are interested in learning how to apply ACT and RFT to workplace coaching and you are in Australia then check out this workshop. It would be great to see you there.
A reader wrote to us about a problem she encountered when she moved from a hostile, aggressive environment to a much more harmonious workplace.
She was really happy in her new job and was doing well but she was given feedback that her communication skills needed work. This hadn’t been a problem for her in previous workplaces. She realised that she had learnt some unhelpful habits in her last role. Now she needed to relearn how to interact in more workable ways. She was worried that she didn’t know how to bring about this change.
So how do you let go of problematic interpersonal behaviour and start to behave in ways that work? Here are some tips:
1. Start with self-compassion. The less you beat yourself up for your failings, the more you will be able to notice the times when your behaviour isn’t working.
3. Do a self-assessment and get feedback from people you trust. There are some good questions about interpersonal functioning here that you could adapt to the workplace.
4. Don’t just change as a reaction to what others want. Spend some time thinking deeply about your values. Who do you want to be at work? How do you want others to experience you? Changing your behaviour is a hard slog, linking the change to your values will help you to keep going.
6. Get really present in your interactions with people. Notice the impact of your behaviour on others. See if you can get out of your head and into this moment now.
7. Accept that when you feel threatened you are likely to revert to self-protective and unhelpful behaviours. Consider what might trigger that in you and make a plan to be particularly mindful and self-compassionate at those moment. Hold those feelings gently.