How and Why Habits Form

how habits form

Episode 3 of 6 in the “Goals and Habits Series.

 

If you missed episodes 1 and 2 in the series, here are the links:

Episode 1: Goal: How to set good ones

Episode 2: Values: Why they matter

In Short:

Although habits are usually unconscious, starting new ones or changing old ones is a conscious process. It is also possible to have conscious or intentional habits – things you do specifically because you know they are useful practices for creating flow in your life and helping you achieve your goals.

Unconscious habits are made up of three parts – cue, routine and reward. These three things get “chunked” together in the subconscious mind. Once that happens, it’s difficult to change a habit but it can be done by paying attention to the cues and rewards. In doing so, you’re able to work out how a specific behaviour is triggered and what you get out of it. When you know these things, it’s easier to choose a substitute routine to replace the old one. 

In Detail:

Everything is a consequence of what you choose to do or not do.

“Mentorbox Memorisation Booklet – The Power of Habit”

The life we have is a product of your habits. By paying attention to the things you do every day, it’s possible to move your life in the direction of our goals and dreams.

This episode is about understanding how habits form and how we can change them if they’re causing more problems than they’re solving.

Habits and the Brain

In the early 1990’s, researchers at MIT studied neural activity in the brains of rats as they learned to navigate a maze to find chocolate. At first, the rats’ behaviour seemed haphazard and sometimes pointless. They would stand still, apparently doing nothing and then move in the wrong direction, double back or stay motionless for long periods of time. What the researchers noticed, however, is that while this haphazard behaviour took place, neural activity spiked. The rats were thinking hard!

The maze was T-shaped and the chocolate was always placed in the same area. Gradually, the rats learned how to naviagate the maze easily. Their movements became purposeful. They were faster and more confident – exactly what you’d expect from an experienced expert. But…neural activity decreased dramatically – almost replicating sleep. They were hardly thinking at all.

They had formed a habit.

Chunking

It is believed that the memories associated with habits are “chunked” – the relevant pieces of information are bundled together and stored as one thing.

I imagine it to be a bit like ingredients of a cake – you have sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder etc. and once you combine those things and bake them together, you end up with a cake – a single thing with all the elements in it.

In the cake example, you can never retrieve the original ingredients so that’s where the analogy falls down a bit. Retrieving and changing the individual ingredients of a habit is difficult, but it can be done.

The ‘ingredients’ of a Habit

According to Duhigg, the “chunks” that make up a habit are comprised of 3 parts:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward
The Cue

This is another word for “trigger”. It’s the thing that starts the chain of events. There are several different types of cues, including:

  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Location
  • Other people
  • Things you experience through your senses
  • Immediately preceding activities
Routine

This is the habitual behaviour – brushing your teeth, having a shower, leaving for work, etc.

Reward

This is what you ‘get’ as a result of running the routine. The reward might be a feeling, a particular result – decreased stress, improved self-esteem, a sugar rush, a nicotine hit, etc.

Changing a Habit

Changing habits is notoriously difficult. Possibly because many of us only look at the routine part of it. We don’t always pay attention to the cues or rewards. Since these are the most valuable parts when it comes to programming the subconscious, we have to pay attention to them in order to change the habit.

By paying attention to the cues that trigger a particular habit, you gather valuable intel about:

  • when to step in and circumvent a ‘bad’ routine
  • which cues to use to promote ‘good’ routines

By paying attention to the rewards, you learn why you’re doing what you’re doing. You might uncover counter intuitive rewards, for example, ‘numbness’ or ‘distraction’ and by paying attention to these and working out why they feel rewarding, you:

  • strengthen your ability to replace the ‘bad’ routine with a ‘good’ one.
  • uncover deep-rooted values you might not have thought about consciously 

Conscious Habits

Until this point, I have focused quite a lot on ‘bad’ habits – the ones that create more problems than they solve. Of course not all habits are like that. We all have plenty of great habits too. Some of those are subconscious and have the same structure as ‘bad’ habits. Others are conscious and intentional.

Arguably, even subconscious habits are conscious to begin with – before they get ‘chunked’. But it’s also possible to have ‘conscious habits – the kind you keep changing up, deliberately so they don’t become unconscious. 

In his book, “High Performance Habits”, Brendan Burchard talks about conscious habits of high performers – the habits they select and deliberately employ in order to perform at the highest level.  To employ these habits in your life, you’re not looking to make them run automatically because the conscious mind responds to different rewards than the subconscious mind.

The conscious mind likes novelty and challenge so it’s good to keep changing things up, inspiring yourself, inching the goal posts forward a little so you have to reach further to get there. It is still possible to use the cue-routine-reward structure but there has to be an added element of conscious reward in the mix.

So What?

This one is kind of a no-brainer. When your habits build resilience, lead to personal growth and cause you to pay attention to the great things in your life, you feel happier.

That’s it. Using this information helps you uproot bad habits and lay down the foundations for good habits, which ultimately create flow in your life and make it easier to achieve your goals and enjoy the process along the way.

Why Values Matter

values

If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.

 

In short:

When you know why you’re doing something, which helps you make sure your ladder is against the right wall. Knowing your ‘why’ makes it easier to stay motivated, resist the temptation to give up or aim for a lesser goal and keeps you focused on what you set out to achieve. Knowing your values can make the difference between living an unsatisfying life and a satisfying, rewarding and happy life, so it’s really worth taking to the time to work out what your values are.

In detail:

Your values shape your decisions, how you choose to motivate yourself and what you’re willing to endure in your efforts to get where you want to go.

There are two kinds of values

When I ask people about their values – and when I first made an effort to uncover mine – the lists include things like “health”, “family”, “happiness”, “authenticity” and so on. These are great – but they’re not values – at least not the kind of values that will help you stay on the path towards your goals when the going gets tough.

There are two reasons for delving deeper, rather than stopping with a list such as this.

  1. These values don’t contain a “why”. For example: I value my health. Why? I value time with my family. Why? There is a reason you value those things and the reason is what you’d need to turn to for motivation when the temptation arises to give up.
  2. More often than not, these are aspirational values rather than actual values. In his book “Uncovering your authentic core values”, Marc Alan Schelske talks about the difference between aspirational core values and authentic core values – with aspirational values being the ones we want to have and authentic values being the ones we actually live by.

Schelske’s book was revelatory for me. My authentic core values – I like to call them my actual values – were far less sexy than my aspirational values. If anything, they felt slightly unpalatable but knowing them has changed how I tackle all kinds of goals in my life and, for the first time, I’m gathering the kind of momentum I’ve been dreaming about for over two decades.

I’d highly recommend reading “Uncovering your authentic core values” but as a way to get started on the journey in the meantime, consider some of the key moments in your life – when you’ve made important decisions or have strong memories about a particular event for one reason or another, things you regret, things you’re proud of etc. Write down as much as you can remember about what happened and why you made the decisions you made. When you review your writing, key themes will emerge. These are your core values – or will point you towards your core values.

Opportunity-Cost is a value decision

When I was studying economics at school, we learned about “opportunity cost” – the loss of all other alternatives once a single alternative is selected. You take one opportunity and it costs you all the others. Our decisions in these situations are based on where we see ourselves gaining the greatest value, but these decisions are often detrimental to our health and long term goals, because we end up placing greater value on something in the ‘here and now’. This is particularly true when we haven’t taken the time to work out what our actual core values are and we’re therefore unable to use them to override those  instant reactions.

Example: One of my parenting goals is to raise my children in a way that makes them feel seen, heard and accepted, no matter what. When I have time and space to consider my reactions, I interact with them in ways that contribute positively to this goal but when I’m in situations where one of my ‘actual’ values is in play, I sometimes make the wrong choice. A few months back, over lunch, I expressed my frustration about my children’s food choices to other adults with my kids right there at the table. My comments were met with laughter and agreement by the other adults who made similar comments and our children sat silently eating their lunch. You see, one of my ‘actual’ values is ‘validation’ and another is ‘belonging’ so when I have an opportunity to gain positive validation in the form of laughter and agreement, I am drawn to that option. When I have the chance to be a part of the group rather than the one on the outside, I am drawn to that option. Awareness makes it possible to catch those moments earlier and make more productive choices.

You can combine aspirational and actual values

When I listened to The Psychology of Performance by Eddie O’Connor, he suggested completing an exercise where you imagine yourself at your retirement dinner, surrounded by all the important people in your life – all the ones who feature in your goals right now. The exercise involved imagining what you’d like them to say about you and using that information to extrapolate your values; your WHY.

I would argue that the speeches you imagine will show you your aspirational values. For me, the speeches featured words such as ‘calm’, ‘patient’, ‘joyful’ and ‘inspiring’. By combining this information with my actual core value list, I have been able to create a realistic plan to get me moving towards my goals and offer really useful processes for keeping going when motivation flags.

Map your goals to your values

In episode 1 of this series, I talked about 3 types of goals:

  1. Outcome
  2. Performance
  3. Process

Outcome goals offer the big picture – what’s the result you’re aiming for. Tying your aspirational values to this is wise. You can grow into them as you go.

Performance goals are about skill development. They are about measuring your progress and keeping track of improvements. It’s ‘you against you’ and these goals help show you how far you’ve come so they’re great for building confidence and boosting motivation.

Process goals involve creating a plan for your skill development. This is where actual values come in. You can use your actual values to create a motivational process for skill development and ultimately for goal achievement.

Example: Since ‘validation’ is one of my actual values, I have a Process Goal to “write one personal blog per day”. In doing this, I develop my writing skills – useful for achieving my business outcome goals – as well as personal skills such as self-reflection and mindfulness – useful for achieving my marriage, parenting and health goals. The ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ spur me on and, since I blog on a daily basis, I get a little motivational boost every day.

So what?

Having goals is a good starting point but goals interact with other things in your life so it’s not always a simple case of setting them and moving forward. Your motivation waxes and wanes, things get in the way and paths to lesser goals emerge and entice you in.

Getting clear on your aspirational values gives you a map to your future. Getting clear on your actual values gives you the tools you need right now to get you moving – and also exposes how and why you might sabotage yourself on the way to your big outcome goals.  Armed with this knowledge, you stand a much better chance of achieving those big goals and creating your big happy life.

Earlier Episodes in this Series:

  1. Goal Setting
 

Goals Setting for High Performance

This podcast episode is the first in the “Goals and Habits Series”

It’s that time of year again. Most of us have fresh goals and great hopes for achieving them.

I have set myself some lofty goals and am using the process described here to give myself the best shot at success.

In short:

  • Set 3 levels of goals:
  1. Outcome goals – the big idea
  2. Performance goals – developing the skills required to achieve the big idea
  3. Process goals – creating opportunities to develop the necessary skills

A great goal is made up of an outcome goal, supported by one or more performance and process goals.

In detail:

Set three levels of goals.

  1. Outcome goals

These goals describe the outcome you’d like to achieve. If you’ve ever heard of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound), these are outcome goals.

Examples:

  • To lose 20 pounds by 1 April 2019
  • To finish writing my novel by 1 April 2019
  • To run the London Marathon in 6 hours or less

(In case you’re wondering, these are not my goals. They are merely examples of Outcome goals)

Having goals like these is one of the best ways to create a clear vision of what you’re aiming for and many people find this level of goal setting enough to set them on the path to success.

The field of sports psychology, which tasks itself with peak performance, adds two further dimensions to goal setting. Adding these dimensions to our goals in other areas of life adds a useful set of concrete goals that help us think about the daily requirements for achieving our outcome goals.

2. Performance Goals

In order to achieve your outcome goals, you’ll require specific skills and knowledge so it stands to reason that the more you build your knowledge and develop your skills, the better your outcomes will be.

Performance goals require you to define the skills required to achieve your outcome goals and set specific goals for developing those skills.

3. Process Goals

These are about the processes you have in place for ensuring you get enough practice. How are you going to create opportunities for improving your performance?

In summary:

Outcome goals offer a single layer target. Adding performance and process goals provides a layer of specificity that allows you to make conscious choices about your habits and daily practices in your efforts to achieve your outcome goals.

This type of multi-level goal setting is particularly important if you’re aiming to be within the top 1-5% of people who do what you do. It is also really useful when your goals involve the acquisition of several skills and multiple development areas.

An example from my life:

Outcome goal: Create my first online course and sell it to at least 100 people at a price of £100.

(If you’re wondering why I haven’t used my 100 day alcohol sabbatical as the goal example, it’s because I’ll talk about that in later podcasts when I talk about habit loops and aligning with your values)

To achieve this goal, I need to identify the performance goals that feed into it and then identify the process goals that feed into the performance goals – so it ends up looking something like this:

screen shot 2019-01-02 at 17.12.49

(To make it easier to see what’s going on, I’ve only shown the process goals for “Create professional looking videos”)

So What?

Setting goals this way allows for greater clarity and helps determine where to place your focus and what to prioritise in order to get moving, gather momentum and move towards your goals.

Using outcome goals alone, it’s easy to lose sight of the little, day to day things we’re doing that drive us away from our goals, making our goals more difficult to achieve.  Setting up smaller, more specific goals that shape daily habits and practices, we stand a much better chance of creating flow and momentum in the direction of success.

Resources referenced:

The Psychology of Performance – Eddie O’Connor Ph.D. 

High Performance Habits – Brendon Burchard or click here to access the audiobook for free in iTunes

 

 

Are there Good and Bad Decisions?

Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

In short:

  1. The actions you take after making the decision are more important than the decision itself. (More in this in Episode 12)
  2. It’s possible for things to go wrong even when you make a good choice and take all the ‘right’ actions. Not everything is in your control. (More on this in episode 13)
  3. Information is going to come to light after you’ve made the decision. The hindsight bias will make you think you could have predicted the outcome using the information you had available at the time of making the decision. This is a fallacy. Don’t evaluate the quality of your decisions based on the outcomes. Evaluate the quality of your decisions based on the process you undertook to make them.
  4. Encountering problems isn’t an indicator of a poor choice.
  5. Big decisions are not big decisions. They are a series of tiny decisions made over a period of time.

 

In detail:

1. Actions are more important than the decision

Our biggest decisions often push us out of our comfort zones and this can make us fearful so we end up failing to take the necessary actions to make the decision work. We then mistakenly think we’ve made a poor choice when in fact we’ve taken poor quality actions. In Episode 12, we’ll explore how our decisions – and the actions we take afterwards – are affected when primed by fear.

2. Beware the Hindsight Bias

Bad decisions and bad outcomes are not the same thing. The hindsight bias causes us to re-evaluate the information we had available at the time of making the decision and re-shape it using our knowledge of the outcome. We mistakenly think information was “obvious” and that we failed to interpret it correctly. This is rarely the case. At the time of making the decision, multiple outcomes were possible and we had to make the choice on this basis. One an outcome has emerged, there is no longer any doubt. These were not the conditions under which you made the choice.

It is better to evaluate the quality of your decision based on the quality of the process you followed than it is to evaluate based on the outcome.

3. Problems are inevitable

Even when things go perfectly, you’re going to encounter problems. In fact they’re often the first sign that things are going exactly as they should. Even winning the lottery has its downsides! When weighing up your options, consider the problems you’ll face, even if everything goes perfectly.

Use a “yes if” approach when considering the problems. “Yes, I can do that if I do…” This is more powerful than “No, because”, which ultimately shuts off your options without considering whether or not there’s a way you could make them work.

4. Big decisions are really a series of small decisions

This one fits in quite well with 1. Many of us agonise over the big decisions we have to make without realising how many dozens or even hundreds of smaller decisions go into the situation that led to the big decision – or how many more decisions will be made afterwards, determining the outcome of the decision.

For example, Matthew is 29 and hates his office job. He wants to work somewhere funky like a gaming company or Google but he has never studied IT and isn’t up to speed with latest technologies. He goes to work every day, comes home every evening, has dinner and possibly goes out with friends. Every day, without necessarily realising it, he is making tiny decisions to keep himself in the same place. Once he starts thinking about all the tiny decisions he makes each day about how he spends his time, he is in a position to make decisions that will eventually lead him to a place where he has a big decision to make about where he wants to work. The opportunity to make the big decision is unlikely to present itself until he changes his everyday decisions to start moving in that direction.

Related Podcasts:

Where do beliefs come from?

How to challenge a belief

Books mentioned in this week’s podcast:

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Start now, Get Perfect Later by Rob Moore

 

 

Decisions and Actions – How are you Motivated?

One of the most common mistakes we make in the decision making process is that we fail to see the connection between our goals, the big decision leading to the goal and the tiny little choices and actions it’ll take to implement the big decision and achieve the goal. One of the best ways to combat this is to identify the goal with enough clarity to think through the actions we have to take and problems we’re likely to face along the way, even if things go perfectly.

In this week’s episode, I explore the difference between being motivated towards a particular goal or away from a particular pain point and how this affects choices and actions as your options unfold. Although on the face of it, the difference between ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ motivation doesn’t look like it should matter that much, our clarity is dramatically affected depending on the motivational direction and this has an enormous impact on our decisions and subsequent actions.

In short:

Motivation away from something means you are motivated to get away from or change some negative aspect of your life. For example, you might change jobs because you don’t get along with your boss.

Motivation towards something means you have a clear goal in mind and you’re making decisions and taking actions to move you closer to that desired outcome. You might still dislike your boss but this time, you get clear about what you’re moving towards if you decide to leave. You envisage a specific future for yourself and start taking the necessary steps to help you move towards that future.

In one case, any decision that takes you away from the problem relationship is a good one. In the other case, only decisions that lead you towards the envisaged future are good ones. Clarity is greater, priorities are clearer and it’s easier to work out what to do.

In detail:

When we’re motivated away from something, we don’t usually spend as much time working out what we want instead and, more importantly, why we want it. This can lead to a lack of clarity so decisions become more difficult to make because we don’t know exactly what we’re trying to achieve.

In the case of changing jobs to get away from your boss, you might end up taking a less satisfying job because your main objective was to get away from him/her. You’re so relieved to get out of that situation that you don’t think as clearly about the long term prospects of the new job and potentially end up equally dissatisfied after a few months.

When we’re motivated towards something, we’re more likely to consider exactly what we want and why we want it. This makes decisions easier to make because options can be more easily ruled out or prioritised based on how well they fit with the vision.

The direction of our motivation also plays a part in determining the emotions that drive or ‘prime’ our choices.

Priming

Priming basically determines how you perceive information, what you pay attention to and what you decide to do. In psychological experiments, the researcher often primes the participant to feel a particular emotion and then assesses how this priming changes the course of their decisions and actions.

Primed for Fear or Primed for Hope?

‘Away from’ motivation tends to prime us in different ways than ‘towards’ motivation does. Imagine a footballer having to take a penalty, thinking ‘don’t fail!’ versus thinking “score an amazing goal!” As the ‘don’t fail’ footballer steps forward, he is likely to imagine previous years’ failures, the scathing tabloid headlines if he misses and the crowd’s agonising disappointment. None of these thought processes prime his mind or body to deliver their best performance. His focus is reduced and the chances of success are also reduced.

The “score an amazing goal” footballer might envisage the post-match interviews, the cheering crowds and the glowing headlines the following day. He stands a much better chance of performing at his best and although there are other factors that contribute to his chances of success or failure, performing at his best is vital if he wishes to maximise his chances of scoring a goal.

Since ‘Away from’ motivation is almost always driven by more negative emotions such as fear or anger, taking the right actions and performing at your peak becomes much more challenging. These emotions cloud judgement and can also cause you to second-guess the original decision and avoid taking the necessary actions to implement it.

Emotions associated with ‘towards’ motivation often include, hope, pride, excitement and other emotions associated with happiness. There may still be fear involved but the clarity of goal and the presence of the other, more positive emotions means you’re often able to power through and take a leap out of your comfort zone.

So What?

When you’re taking big leaps, it’s useful to have as many things going for you as possible. Making a conscious decision to gain clarity around your goal and motivate yourself to move towards it means you options are clearer as you go along and you have a greater chance of staying focused and feeling resilient in the face of challenge.

 

Planning for Action

Photo by Emma Matthews on Unsplash

When most of us think about planning for success, we think about to-do lists and task lists. What we often fail to plan for is our change in mindset and the natural ebb and flow of motivation and energy.

This podcast episode is about planning for those things so that you’re motivated enough to keep working through your to-do list and get the necessary tasks completed.

In Short

The goals associated with big decisions are often difficult to achieve. Taking the actions necessary to to achieve these goals requires stamina and resilience. If we plan our path so that we can build those things in – or make things a little easier for ourselves along the way – we’re more likely to succeed.

We can do this by:

  1. Minimising Decision Fatigue – The more decisions you make each day, the more tired your brain becomes. If you reduce the number of decisions you have to make, you conserve energy for the decisions that matter most. Planning reduces the number of “on-the-spot” decisions you have to make so you’re more likely to be at “full capacity” when those out-of-the-blue situations arise and you have to decide how to proceed.
  2. Shaping your environment so that it primes your mind to take the right actions. Everything around you has an impact on your thoughts. Deliberate and conscious shaping of your environment allows you to remove things that will take you off-track and add things that will keep you on-track. It also allows you to recognise when your environment is sapping your energy or derailing your progress.

In Detail

When you first make a decision to do something, you’re full of hope, positive feelings and positive intentions. It feels absolutely possible to achieve the goal you’ve decided to achieve. What many of us fail to plan for is the fading of these feelings, the re-emergence of our old habits and the surfacing of our fears, doubts and insecurities. These feelings and the beliefs behind them can derail us quickly and cause us to make poor choices in our efforts to achieve the original goal. They can also cause us to prioritise the wrong things and take actions that ultimately lead us away from the goal we set out to achieve.

It is natural for motivation to wax and wane in the process of achieving a big goal. One of the things that causes motivation to wane is fatigue. When you’re tired, it’s hard to feel motivated. Most of us notice the signs of physical tiredness quite easily but we often fail to notice the signs of mental fatigue until it’s too late.

Decision Fatigue

Decision fatigue is a form of mental tiredness. Every time you make a choice, you use a little bit of mental energy. The more decisions you make, the faster you use this energy and the more likely you are to experience decision fatigue.

Once decision fatigue sets in, your conscious mind ‘outsources’ decisions to the subconscious/ unconscious mind – where your habits reside. So if your goal requires you to break an old habit, you’re less likely to succeed in the face of decision fatigue.

When you plan, you’re able to make decisions while you feel alert and strong. Then, when it comes to taking the necessary actions, part of the thinking is already done. For example, if you’ve decided to eat healthily and you have a fridge full of food but you haven’t planned for how to use it, you’re less likely to stick to the healthy regime because every time you open the fridge, you have multiple decisions to make. If you have a plan, you open the fridge, take out the food you planned to eat for that meal and prepare it accordingly. It’s much easier and you spend less time questioning yourself or talking yourself out of the original decision.

(Decision fatigue is the subject of Episode 15 – release date 20 December)

Planning for Mistakes

When you’re in new territory or your goal involves breaking an old habit, there are likely to be setbacks along the way. It is a good idea to plan how you intend to handle those.

One of the most common mistakes we make in the pursuit of achieving our goals is that we label our mistakes as failures or see them as signs that we “can’t change”. Instead, it’s wise to prepare for how you intend to keep going in the face of mistakes. How do you plan to make the most of the learning opportunity? What does it show you about yourself, how you think and what keeps you going or stops you in your tracks? How can you use that information next time?

These moments give us incredibly valuable data and it’s worth using them wisely. More on this in Episode 14 – out next week.

Planning to use your network

We become like the 5 people we spend the most time with” – Jim Rohn

When you’re doing big things, it’s worth having people by your side who believe in you and who are also doing big things. They can help you take the right actions, stay resilient when you experience set backs and keep you moving towards your goal.

Shape your Environment

Few of us realise the effect our surroundings have on our thinking. For a clear head, have a clear work space. If you find yourself unable to think clearly and focus on the task, change your environment to see if that unlocks something – head to a different room or different location or change something about the space you’re using – tidy up, move the furniture so things feel more spacious or more compact – any change that allows you to experience the space differently  – and see what that does to your thinking.

You can also shape your environment by including helpful things and removing unhelpful things. For example, if you’re planning to eat more healthily, remove unhealthy foods and avoid buying those foods so you don’t have to keep fighting against yourself to stay away from them. If you’ve got goals you’re working towards, put visual reminders in your environment to keep you on track and motivated. When you stop noticing them, change them so you’re interested in looking at them again.

Learn about yourself

When you know yourself well you’re better able to plan your route to success. What are your core values? How do you feel rewarded? What makes you feel good? How do you experience enjoyment? What makes you feel stronger and more resilient?

Knowing the answers to these questions helps you plan a path towards your goal that will be easier and more enjoyable than the path you’d take without a plan.

One of the best ways to learn about yourself and prepare to achieve your big goals is to ask yourself some great questions. Click here for a list of questions to help get you started.

Join the Big Happy Life Facebook group here if you’d like help answering the questions or you’d like any tips or advice for achieving your big goals.

 

 

 

 

Gaining Value from Experiences

Photo by Joanjo Pavon on Unsplash

This episode is the final instalment in the “Planning and Decision Making” Series. Links to earlier podcasts can be found at the bottom of the page.

In Short:

Big decision are rarely big decisions. They’re a series of micro-decisions leading you towards a big one, followed by a series of micro-decisions leading you to achieve the goal associated with the ‘big’ decision.

Every time you make a micro-decision and take the actions associated with it, something happens and every time something happens, you get more information. Learning how to use that information to make future decisions easier is a great way to move towards creating your ‘big happy life’

In this episode, we explore 3 ‘rules’ for using this information.

  1. Pay attention
  2. Never let a mistake go unused
  3. Be honest with yourself (but put down the stick)

In Detail:

Every little decision makes a difference on the way to making big things happen in our lives. Some make a big difference, others make very little difference but they all have some effect. Our ability to use each experience as productively as possible increases the likelihood of success but, possibly more importantly, makes the actual process more interesting, valuable and enjoyable.

In this episode, I explore 3 ways to use your experiences as well as possible.

  1. Pay Attention

Most of us think we pay attention to all the information available to us but we simply haven’t got the capacity to pay attention to everything so we pay selective attention.

When we’re making decisions that alter the course of our lives in some way (arguably, all decisions do this but let’s not get too philosophical!) the things we notice will be determined by our beliefs, fears, hopes – things generated within us – but we’re often charting new territory when we make big decisions so we have to learn to pay attention to things that challenge our beliefs, help us move past our fears and help us work out how best to proceed.

The most valuable trait to develop at this stage is curiosity. Since curiosity and judgement can’t direct your thoughts simultaneously, being curious helps you ask great questions instead of passing judgement on what/who is good or bad. Curiosity allows you to explore things as they are and question what to do with that information.

For example:

When do you do your best thinking? When are you most productive? What makes it possible for you to do that? How are your hopes and fears impacting your choices? Which is stronger – hopes or fears? What actions get the best results? What actions get the worst results? What are the differences?

More curiosity = more questions = better quality information = stronger basis for next decision on the road towards your goal.

What effect do emotions have on attention?

Emotions play an enormous role in our ability to pay attention – so much so that a podcast series devoted to this subject will follow early next year. Two main things happen to attention when strong emotions are at play.

They reduce our ability to pay attention and they change our perception of those things we pay attention to.

Our ability to pay attention – in such a way that we can make conscious use of the information available to us – is reduced. Imagine a car alarm going off outside your house at 3am. All you notice is the car alarm. You don’t notice the dog barking a few houses away or the sound of your footsteps on the floor as you make your way to the window. The same happens with big emotions. They create so much noise they drown out a lot of what’s happening around you. When you’re taking actions that heighten your fear, cause you stress or make you euphoric or excited, be aware that your attention will be narrowed. In these cases, it’s a good idea to make a conscious effort to notice as much of what’s happening as possible – without judgement. Avoid making decisions during these times, just observe. When the emotion has passed, consider your observations and how you might interpret this information.

It is useful to record your observations on a video or in a journal so you can refer back to them as your memory of the events may change as time passes.

Simply observing and recording information allows you to review it from a different vantage point later and notice how your perception has changed. This often helps inform the next decision you need to make.

2. Never let a mistake go unused

We’re hard-wired to feel the effects of our mistakes more dramatically than we feel the effects of our successes. As a result, we tend to protect ourselves against making mistakes and, when things inevitably go wrong, our instinct is to work out a way to avoid such a thing ever happening again.

Rarely do we sit down, completely open minded and think, “Huh. That’s really interesting. What part did I play in ending up here? What part did others play? What were the ‘good intentions’ behind our actions? (Every action is achieving something – even though it may be counter-intuitive) What’s the best way for me to use this experience to shape my next choice?

This is particularly important in situations where you’ve risked something important to you and it hasn’t worked out. The ability to make sense of the whole situation in all its messy glory provides much more value than taking a protective stance or getting stuck in loops where revisit the old situation and berate yourself or others for the outcome.

3. Be honest with yourself but put down the stick

Most big goals are a lot more difficult to achieve than we originally think they will be and it’s easy to judge ourselves when we lose momentum, get stuck or do something that doesn’t work in our favour.

In much the same way as we explore our mistakes, it’s useful to take a reflective approach to understanding ourselves and our motivations for doing certain things.

As an example, I am currently working to turn Big Happy Life into a business offering amazing content to people who want to take their lives to the next level. To get this kind of business off the ground, many would argue I need to work 20 hour days and, even then, I’m looking at years to get it moving. Yet I often find myself sitting in front of the TV by 9pm and going to bed by 10pm. If I start saying “I’m so lazy. I procrastinate all the time” and other similar things, I gain very little. Instead I could benefit from considering:

  • Do I want to change this behaviour?
  • If yes, what is the reason?
  • If no, what is the reason?
  • What am I gaining by sitting in front of the TV for the last hour of the evening?
  • What am I losing by sitting in front of the TV for the last hour of the evening?

Once we realise there aren’t “right” and “wrong” answers and that the most important thing is to figure out what works for us and why, we end up creating habits and practices that serve us really well and make the process of achieving our goals far more enjoyable.

So What?

Better quality thinking leads to better quality actions. Our actions shape our habits and outcomes so there’s massive benefit to be had from using every experience as productively as possible to inform your next choice and action.

It’s also massively freeing to accept that things go wrong and you can still move forward.

An Opportunity

If you’re someone with big ambitions and a desire to take your life to the next level but you’re not always sure how to do that, read on.

In preparation for the launch of the Big Happy Life 2019 Masterclass launch, I’m offering 8 people the opportunity to have one-to-one calls with me to discuss your goals and aspirations, the challenges your experiencing and what you’d love advice or help with. From there, I’ll create the 2019 Masterclass content and enlist experts to share their advice with you.

To be considered for one of the 8 places, click here to leave your details.

Everyone who applies will receive a voucher for a free Masterclass in 2019. You’ll be able to select any one of the 12 courses (a new course launches each month) and access all the amazing content within it for free!

The window of opportunity is short on this one – you only have until 31 December to apply so do it now if you’d like the chance to have a free coaching call, a masterclass created especially to answer your questions and a chance to access that masterclass for free. Here’s that link again: Make me a Masterclass.

Earlier Podcasts in the Decision and Planning Series:

Episode 11 – Are there good and bad decisions?

Episode 12 – How your motivation determines your actions

Episode 13 – Planning for Success

 

 

Are you image driven or reality driven?

What’s happening in your mind when you’re in the grip of negative emotions and how do you make the best use of those situations so you can learn from them and feel better the next time you end up in a similar situation?

According to Dr Nick Hall, we don’t react to reality. We react to images or interpretations of reality.

 

He describes how an artist uses her surroundings to create an image but doesn’t create the image based completely on reality. She uses only what she needs to suit the image she’s creating and also adds things into the image that may not be present in reality. He suggests we do the same with the images we create in our minds. We leave things out, add things in and distort things and this process is shaped by our beliefs. This is neither positive nor negative but can have positive or negative effects on our wellbeing, health and happiness. In this podcast, I’m looking specifically at image driven behaviour that has a detrimental effect.

Although this post is titled “Are you Image driven or Reality driven”, the likelihood is that you’re both. Most of us switch between the two, depending on the situation, the beliefs and the emotional triggers involved.

How to tell if you’re image driven

  1. You will ignore or refute information that doesn’t fit with the image
  2. The negative feelings that result from the situation don’t eventually lead to something positive – such as self-reflection or making a change for the better
  3. You experience similar situations the same way over and over, making them a possible source of stress or anxiety

How to tell if you’re reality driven

  1. You seek additional information that doesn’t necessarily fit with your image. You ask questions, listen, look around to see what’s happening, test your assumptions etc.
  2. You consider your emotions with curiosity rather than trying to shut them down or experience something else.
  3. You willingly try new things to see what happens to the image and your subsequent experiences. This may involve seeking counselling or coaching, talking about the situation with the person or people involved, experimenting with different approaches to see what happens etc.

So what?

When you find yourself regularly repeating the same patterns in your life – fights with a spouse or housemate, shouting at your kids, withdrawing at work etc. – it’s worth examining the images you’ve created in your mind related to these people and events.

  • What beliefs do you hold about what should / shouldn’t ‘t be happening?
  • What are you labelling as “good” or “bad”? Could these be challenged?
  • What are you ignoring within these situations?
  • What are you embellishing or adding to your image in relation to these situations?
  • What useful information is your reaction giving you about yourself and what you value?
  • What can you do with this new information to help you manage these situations in ways that feel more productive for you and the other person / people involved?

Keeping a journal, reflecting on your experiences and asking yourself questions such as those listed here will help you make sense of how your images shape your feelings and reactions. This knowledge is useful if you decide you want to make a change as it helps you work out how best to do that.

Related podcasts

The experiencing self versus the remembering self

Where do beliefs come from?

How to challenge a belief

Disclaimer:

I am not a psychologist. The information in this blog and the accompanying podcast is based on my experience and learning and should not be taken as therapeutic advice.

When and how to challenge a belief

In brief:

When beliefs are not serving you well – when they’re causing you unnecessary anxiety or making you “less you”, it’s worth examining them to determine where they came from and whether or not they hold up against more objective criteria.

Ask yourself:

  1. Where did this belief come from – as explored in Episode 6, beliefs come from a variety of sources and we often internalise beliefs we gathered from others.
  2. What other beliefs do I need to subscribe to in order to hold this belief in place?

In detail:

Beliefs are shaped by our experiences and then go on to shape our experiences. This means your version of reality can literally be altered by your beliefs. Think of the differences between someone with a fear of heights and someone exhilarated by them. Stand them side by side on the top of a building. Same situation. Different beliefs. Different experiences.

Someone with a fear of heights might benefit from working out what the belief is that underpins the fear, the “central belief” about heights.

Where did it come from? An experience? Someone else’s fear? An association with something else? etc.

Imagine the central belief to be the centre of a spider web. It needs an infrastructure – the rest of the web – to support it. Central beliefs can’t stand on their own.  They need other, satellite beliefs to support them and hold them in place. Often the central belief feels too difficult to tackle head on so the satellite beliefs can provide a great starting point.

In the podcast, I use an example based on my own experience but here, let’s stick with the fear of heights. Let’s say your father was afraid of heights and you internalised that fear and the corresponding central belief.

What other beliefs might be required to hold the fear in place?

  • My dad is right about everything?
  • If my dad was scared, I must be scared too?
  • I use my dad’s experiences to shape my own? etc.

Whatever the satellite beliefs, they’re usually blatantly flawed and therefore far easier to challenge.

If you can’t subscribe to the satellite beliefs, you weaken the structure of the central belief and can start challenging it more consciously.

So what?

Not all beliefs need to be examined and challenged. When elements of your life feel misaligned, you feel overly anxious or chronically stressed, it’s likely there is benefit in examining the beliefs driving your choices and behaviour.

By challenging – and possibly changing – the belief, you’ll notice new choices become available to you, in terms of what is true and not true, what is possible for you and what might happen if you take a particular course of action. These could shape your experiences in new ways and lead to greater alignment with your values and stronger feelings of satisfaction.

Disclaimer:

I am not a psychologist. The information in this blog and the accompanying podcast is based on my experience and learning and should not be taken as therapeutic advice.

 

 

 

 

 

What does it take to be OK with not being OK?

I read Is it really OK not to be OK yesterday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  I’m working on a podcast series about beliefs and how they shape our thoughts and actions so I  find myself wondering about the beliefs that surround “negative” emotions or being “not OK”. What are those beliefs? Where have they come from? How well are they serving us?

These aren’t questions I’m able to answer in a single blog – not when I’ve got half an hour while the kids watch Saturday morning TV! (Though, I doubt they’re questions I could answer completely even if I had all the time in the world)

What do we mean when we talk about not being ok? If I’m not ok, does it say something about me or my situation? Are my emotions the cause or merely a symptom of a problem? Are my emotions a problem at all or are they valuable clues I could use to better effect? These are questions we’d all answer differently, depending on our beliefs.

We seem to be totally ok with negative emotions in situations where they feel “justified” and, for the most part, we seem to cope with those fairly well. Death, illness and disaster can unite people in their grief and there’s something quite positive about the sense of belonging one can experience in a group going through something big together. But what happens when you’ve been sad for too long or your too sad? What happens when you can’t let go? What happens when you feel differently than others?

I wonder whether part of the difficulty we have in working out how to be OK with not being OK is that we still divide emotions into two camps – positive and negative, OK and not OK. Then we have to force ourselves to believe that negative emotions are ok but really, deep down, they’re emotions we don’t want to come into contact with and when we do, we naturally make efforts to dispense with them as quickly as possible.

For my money, if we’re going to be ok with not being ok, we have to change our underlying beliefs about emotions – maybe instead of “it’s ok not to be ok” we say “all emotions are ok” or even “All emotions have something to say. Listen.”

That has been one of the fundamental lessons I’ve had to learn in my aspirations to have a “Big Happy Life”. It isn’t always happy and that’s part of what makes the happy times happy. They have to differentiate from something in order to be experienced fully. I’m not always happy, nor would I wish to be. I learn about myself every time the dark times loom and every time I descend into them.

This week was one of my most challenging. I don’t have words to describe the emotions I felt. I’m still trying to process them. All I can tell you is that an important figure in my daughter’s life shared some information with me about how she sees me and it triggered feelings in me that I associate with childhood but can’t quite grasp or link to concrete memories. This is exactly the kind of thing that could have sparked months of depression for me but one of the lessons of Big Happy Life is to accept all that comes my way and open myself up to what my emotions are telling me. This time, instead of descending into darkness, I am writing, thinking, talking, making sense of what these emotions have to say.

In truth, I’m quite enjoying the process because I’ve wondered for a long time about some of my challenges around failure and lack of confidence and I think this situation has handed me a key to unlock some of that. It’s quite exciting!

So now I’m out of time and my children’s eyes will turn square if I don’t get them away from the TV and get active. I’m going to need to revisit this topic as there are so many additional layers and levels to consider but in the meantime, I’d love to know your thoughts.