How Mindfulness And Compassion Could Help You Do What Really Matters

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:

Creating a beautiful garden;
spending more time playing with the kids;
travelling to beautiful and exotic places;
learning to play an instrument or speak another language….
What is the goal that calls from your heart?

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.

I want to suggest that mindfulness and compassion might be a better response.

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.

Just notice.

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.

Be mindful and curious.

Turn towards yourself with compassion.

And then notice what happens next.

It may be that you will make a small move towards what matters. It may be that you won’t.

Could you notice that with compassion and curiosity?

Noticing How Desire Can Pull You Away From Your Values

When does desire pull you away from your values?

It might be the impulse to buy more stuff that you don’t really need; watch TV instead of doing some exercise; let work dominate your  life; make poor choices that change your life forever…

In this TEDx talk, Kelly McGonigal explains that the urges provoked by desire (the promise of happiness) have a tendency to overpower current happiness and satisfaction.

Desire for something you don’t have, but would like (in my case, millions of dollars and to write a best selling book!) can create stronger impulses than the feelings of contentment associated with what you do have (for me now: love, health, safety, meaningful work that uses my strengths). Even though what you have now may be much more important to you than what you desire.

When we feel that experience of wanting something, we feel an urge to do something to get that desire met. If we are to handle this tricky emotion wisely then we need to be clear about who we want to be and what we want our life to stand for. We need to have chosen the values we want to live by. But knowing your values isn’t enough.

Last week, Paul suggested that mindfulness helps us to turn our values into action. When desire is moving you away from what really matters, mindfulness can help you to ride out the urges rather than mindlessly chase what you desire .

You can mindfully notice how feelings of wishing and wanting are pulling you in a particular direction and check if that would be a move towards your values. You can become aware when desire is in control of your behaviour, catch yourself and come back to what really matters to you in the long term – love? kindness? connection? your health? security?

I want to be clear here that I am not suggesting that you abandon your ‘big, hairy, audacious goals‘, what I am suggesting is that you also:

1. Compassionately notice when pursuit of those goals feels driven and addictive. Pause and breathe and see if you can ride those impulses like waves rather than act on them.

2. Keep checking in as to how the goals you are currently pursuing fit with your values and life purpose

3. Have the ‘willpower’ to spend some time paying attention to other important areas of your life even though you may feel the addictive pull of the desire for something ‘bigger and better’ calling to you. Your thoughts might whisper, ‘I’ll just send one more email; read/write one more blog post; sign up for that course that promises to make me rich.’ Can you have those thoughts and the feelings associated with them and still spend the afternoon in the garden with your loved ones? Can you have those thoughts and feelings and bring your attention back to this moment now with all its small pleasures and pains?

Kelly McGonigal suggests that the recurring difficulties we experience in handling our desire well is not a sign that there is:

Something uniquely wrong with us – but it is actually part of being human. it is not just you, it is all of us.

Oddly, for me, accepting this makes it easier to deal with. How about you?

[I am running a low cost, one day workshop on ACT at The Relaxation Centre of QLD on  Sun 3rd March.  All proceeds go to the centre. I would love to see you there.]

Closing the intention-behaviour gap

Over Christmas I put on an additional 3kg. I have been getting rid of it ever since and I have realised that losing weight is a fantastic practice in psychological flexibility.  Just about every minute of the day there are opportunities to be mindful of bodily sensations associated with hunger or satiety, and each day there are dozens of opportunities to reconnect with why losing weight is important to me.

This experience also got me thinking about why weight is such an enormous problem. Obesity rates doubled globally between 1980 and 2008.  In 2008, the total annual cost of obesity in Australia, including health system costs, productivity declines and carers’ costs, was estimated at around $58 billion.  In Australia 68% of men and 55% of women were overweight or obese in 2008. Part of the problem here is diminishing physical activity. The World Health Organisation reports “Globally, around 31% of adults aged 15 and over were insufficiently active in 2008 (men 28% and women 34%). Approximately 3.2 million deaths each year are attributable to insufficient physical activity.”  Nobody wants to be obese but people are getting fatter, and everybody knows that they should exercise more than they do.   Clearly there is a disconnect between intentions and actual behaviour. 

We don’t do what we say we will do

Many studies have examined the relationship between intentions and behaviour and, somewhat surprisingly, the correlation between the two is not all that high.  Have you ever had the experience of setting strong goals to exercise or eat well and then not followed through?  Timothy Wilson wrote a fascinating book called “Strangers to Ourselves” outlining all the evidence for unconscious, automatic influences upon our behaviour.  Meta-analyses have revealed:

“… intentions account for a weighted average of only 30% of the variance in social behavior (Armitage & Conner, 2001; Hagger et al., 2002), mainly because people with strong intentions fail to act on them (Orbell & Sheeran, 1998).”  (Chatzisarantis & Hagger, 2007).

Why might this be the case?  One reason people fail to act on strong intentions is because they simply forget to start the behaviour.  Have you ever said something like “This week I will exercise three times” and then before you know it, the week is over and you haven’t exercised at all?  This is why setting specific goals and thinking about contextual reminders is so important.  In the literature, this sort of planning is called “implementation intentions”.

But another reason why people fail to act on their intentions is because their responding has become habitual and automatic.  When we don’t reflect on our moment to moment behaviour we are very likely to do what we have always done in the past.

Mindfulness helps us act on our intentions

From one point of view, this might be a bit of a problem for the ACT model.  If our behaviour is relatively independent of our intentions, then what is the point on getting clear on our values when we might just act out of our habits and unreflected impulses anyway?  This is where mindfulness becomes really important.  Values clarification on its own is of little use unless we bring awareness to what we are doing and we have the self-regulatory skills to enact new behaviours.

But is there any evidence that mindfulness can help us do what we want to do?  Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) explored how mindfulness affects the relationship between people’s intentions to engage in vigorous physical exercise and their actual behaviour.

First they confirmed that people’s intentions to exercise didn’t actually predict whether people exercised or not. But the really interesting finding was that more mindful people were more likely to act on their intentions than those who are less mindful, even controlling for the physical exercise was already a habit for the participant.  So mindful people, but not non-mindful people, were more likely to do what they said they would do!  Isn’t that just the coolest reason for learning to be mindful?  “Learn mindfulness and you will do what you say you will do!”

Why does mindfulness help us act on our intentions?

The authors then went on to explore reasons why mindfulness might strengthen the relationship between behaviours and intentions. Before we go any further, what do you think? Why might mindfulness increase the tendency to act on intentions?

Got something?

Perhaps mindfulness increases awareness of goals in each moment and therefore reduces the tendency to forget what we said we would do. Or perhaps mindfulness improves our self-regulatory skills so that we are more likely to be able to manage the difficult emotions that arise when we do something new or challenging. Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007) tested a third possibility, that mindfulness helps us control counter-intentional behaviours, in this case binge drinking.   They reasoned that binge-drinking probably interferes with doing vigorous physical activity (is it just me or do you too have an image of lying on a couch with a pillow over your head?), and that mindfulness might reduce the extent to which habitual binge-drinking interferes with intentions to exercise.

And this is what they found:

C and H 07 Fig 2b 3

Let me step you through this diagram.  Start with the dotted line first. What this says is that people who are NOT mindful and who habitually engage in binge-drinking are LESS likely to engage in physical exercise. That is, habitual binge-drinking decreases the likelihood of engaging in physical activity. So far so good, this confirms the idea that binge-drinking ain’t great for getting up in the morning and going for a run!  But look at the solid line. For this group, even if they did engage in habitual binge-drinking they were still just as likely to engage in exercise as those who did not habitually binge drink. So some mindful folk still go out on the town, but they don’t let this interfere with their intentions to exercise.  In the words of Chatzisarantis and Hagger (2007: 672):

“These results, therefore, corroborate the view that greater awareness of and attention to internal states and behavioral routines helps mindful individuals shield good intentions from unhealthy habits and thus can play a key role in fostering effective self-regulation. In contrast, diminished attention and awareness of counterintentional routines and habits is likely to prevent individuals acting less mindfully from engaging in effective self-regulation, as the negative relationship between habitual binge-drinking and physical exercise suggests (see Figures 2a and 2b).”

So maybe next Christmas I will be better at mindfully saying no to that Christmas pudding!

How Believing You Will Be Successful Leads to Success..or Not

If, like me, you watch ‘The Voice’ or ‘Dragon’s Den’ or ‘(Insert Country you live in here) Idol’ or any similarly painful and joyful reality TV show, you will have heard competitors proclaiming that they won because they had ‘absolute faith’ that they would win.

Ben Gulak after being given $1.25 Million by the Dragons said, ‘If you really believe in something, keep going after it. If you want it badly enough there is always a way. You can make your dreams come true’

But if you watch a few of these shows you might also notice that there are hundreds of people with ‘absolute faith’ that they would win and most of them don’t end up the winner.

(Be warned  – this clip is painful to watch. Mary Roach who said ‘I want this so bad, there is no way I am not going to get it‘ and then gets a dose of reality.)

and sometimes it is actually the person who is a bit doubtful about how good they are who wins:

(The deeply vulnerable Karise Eden, winner of The Voice Australia, singing with her mentor, Seal.)

So what does this mean?

Believing you will succeed can help you to set challenging goals and persist in the face of difficulty which does increase your chances of success. But if you fuse with the belief that you will succeed and treat it as the absolute truth then you aren’t open to feedback. You don’t even notice subtle feedback and you respond to more direct feedback with defensiveness and anger. Which means that you can’t learn, improve or change tack. So you are actually less likely to succeed.

What is a better plan?

  1. Be clear about what values you want to express as you go after your goal. Notice the moments when the desire to win pulls you away from being the person you want to be. Then pause and breathe and come back to living your values. For Karise it looks like she has some deeply held values around singing from her heart; opening herself to the vulnerability of connecting with her own pain as she sings.
  2. Make a plan that gives you the best shot at success. Do some research. Have other people succeeded at something similar? What did they do?
  3. As you progress seek feedback and adjust your plan as you get more information.
  4. Have some clear ideas about how long you will persist. What sacrifices are you willing to make and what sacrifices aren’t you willing to make? What will you use as a marker to tell you it is time to quit and move on to something else or that it is worth persisting some more?

And remember, the goals that are most likely to lead to emotional wellbeing are about connection, curiosity and kindness.  So perhaps you don’t have to win ‘The Voice’?

Effective Decision Making

Sometimes we have to make important decisions where the ‘right’ answer is unclear. I would like to suggest this process for making for those tricker decisions:

1. Which of your values are relevant in this situation?

2. What are the key facts? In this step aim to see the world the way it really is rather than as your mind tells you it is.

3. What is the relationship between the facts – how do they interact?

4. Focus in depth on different parts of the problem (whilst keeping the whole in mind). Take different perspectives – how would others view this problem? How will you view this problem in 5 years time?

5. Consider that there may be a better alternative that you haven’t thought of. Ask for advice. Do some research. Brainstorm. Consider trialling different options and observing how they turn out.

6. Be prepared to sit either with the discomfort of not deciding or with the discomfort of deciding and possibly making the wrong decision. See if it possible to have those difficult thoughts and feelings without them pushing you around. 

7. Make a decision and then check it against your values – is this a move towards what you want your life to be about?

6. Observe the outcome and be prepared to make incremental adjustments. Again, work to see the world as it really is – rather than how your mind tells you it is.

This process draws on Roger Martin’s work on Integrative Thinking

I think he has developed a great model and adding in connection to values, defusion, perspective taking and acceptance make it that bit better!

Rob wrote a great post on the costs of making decisions without any connection to values.

Jumping Off A Piece Of Paper

Do you have something important that you need to do but even the thought of it makes you feel so uncomfortable that you just avoid it?

It might be risking rejection; doing something boring; risking looking stupid…..

In this great podcast, DJ Moran talks about slicing these challenges up really thinly. Finding the point where you have made it small enough that you will take action. He uses the metaphor of jumping off a piece of paper. Even though the jump is really, really tiny; you are still jumping and that is very different to not jumping at all.

And once you have gotten moving, you might tackle jumping off the phone book next!

Listening to The Future You

When you have to make a difficult decision (Shall I eat another chocolate almond? Shall I buy the $15 wine or the $50? Should I apply for that job?) considering how you would view that decision in 10 years time leads to wiser decision-making.

Daniel Goldstein explains how to better connect to the future you in this TED talk.

 

Myths and Mistakes in Goal Setting

I have recently come across some highly competent professionals who say they have become reluctant to set goals.  They don’t think that goal setting really works.

I am interested in this. I wonder if they have run into problems with goal setting because they have adopted some common, counter-productive goal setting myths. So here are some problematic but common goal setting ideas.

  1. Spend a lot of time visualising success.  A mistake.  This can actually decrease motivation –for those of us who are upbeat, imagining the wonderful outcome in detail may trick us into feeling like we have actually experienced the positive outcome, so we don’t need to do it in real life.  Or the visualisation can trigger a cynical response from our mind: ‘Yeh, Like that would happen!’ or ‘Won’t it be terrible if I don’t achieve this’. Instead, spend time making an action plan. Run through the plan in your mind to see if you can identify any likely problems that you need to deal with.
  2. Spend a lot of time getting your thinking right. Another mistake. Having confidence that you will achieve the outcome is very helpful as it encourages persistence – but this confidence only really comes from experiences of success in the real world rather than trying to persuade yourself that you will succeedwithout any meaningful evidence to back up the belief.  Instead,
    • Accept that if you move out of your comfort zone your mind is likely to start to chatter. Thank your mind for this and gently carry on.
    • Divide the steps up into bite sized manageable chunks – as you experience success your confidence will grow. And, accept that each time you move forward, your mind is likely to start chattering again.
  3. Rewarding yourself for progress – this is kind of odd.  As if you are in two parts – the part that doles out a reward and the part that does the task.  Think back – how many times do you actually follow through on this?  Do you really, genuinely only allow yourself to watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’ once the ironing is done? Does this strategy really work for you?  Are you genuinely more likely to do the ironing because you know that then you will be ‘allowed’ to watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’?  I think that this is a tiny bit psychotic (sorry)! Most of us think we will follow through with our plans to ‘reward’ ourselves but then we either just give ourselves the reward anyway (and justify it with ‘Well I have had a hard day at work and I am sure I will do the ironing later’) or we do the task and don’t give ourselves the reward (‘When I lose 5kg I will treat myself to a massage’ – Yeh right, I bet you will!). Instead, link your goals to your values. Ask yourself: What is important about this?  How does taking this action move me towards being who I want to be in the world?
  4. ‘Rewarding’* others for progress – e.g. giving a bonus. This may work in the short term but it is often ultimately de -motivating.  If an external reward is attached to something I would have done anyway, (e.g. doing my best at work) then,
    • Doing my best can start to feel like something I ‘have to do’ rather than ‘choose to do’ which is a punishing feeling
    • I stop doing my best if the ‘reward’ isn’t available
    • The ‘reward’ has to keep getting bigger for it to feel like a reward  and if it doesn’t then I will tend to stop doing my best
    • If I don’t get the ‘reward’, I feel punished

Instead, start from the assumption that your employees want to do a good job.  If possible, pay them a little over the market rate so they don’t feel taken for granted. Manage them and the organisation well, so it is easy and intrinsically rewarding for them to do a good job.  (More on this in other posts)

5. Setting challenging goals. For some personality types this works well. People who enjoy risk are motivated by ‘audacious’ goals.  These folk have a tendency to climb Mount Everest and then become motivational speakers who want to teach us ‘how to climb your inner Mount Everest’. Ignore them if you don’t have the same love of risk. Instead, set goals that feel achievable and meaningful to you.

Coming soon – more tips on effective goal setting

* A note on rewards – In this post I am using the term ‘reward’ in the way it is commonly used i.e. giving someone something external (like money or praise) when they do what you want. From the perspective of behavioural science this isn’t an accurate use of the word. There is an excellent discussion of this here