Start here and now

Sadly, I have known several people who had various things they were keen to do when they retired, but died either before being able to retire or soon after they retired. What I learned from that is that I really must make space for the things I want to do and do them sooner rather than later. Putting all the eggs in the one basket of retirement is a risky strategy.

But it isn’t just about retirement – the issue is broader than that. It is likely, for most of us, that there will be things that we are not putting on hold for retirement, but we are not getting round to them either. This is more than everyday procrastination (which is usually about things we would prefer not to do). These are generally things that we want to do, but, for whatever reason, we are filing them under ‘one day’, rather than under ‘now’.

There can be a whole range of reasons why we do this, different reasons for different people and perhaps different reasons at different times. But, what is common across the board is that there is a very pronounced tendency for people to stand in their own way when it comes to doing things they want to do.

Largely what it comes down to is getting our priorities right. A common mistake when it comes to time and workload management is to allow pressing, but relatively unimportant, matters to ‘jump the queue’ and to get done at the expense of things that are less pressing, but much more important.

This can apply to work-related issues or things that relate to our private lives. Consider these two examples:

• Sam had always wanted to have an article published: ‘It would be great to see my name in print. I would love that. I don’t see myself as having a career as a writer, but I would love to be a published author at some point’. The obvious line of questioning from this is: Why ‘at some point’? Why not now, or soon at least? If it really is something you would love, what is stopping you doing it now? What things that you don’t love are you doing instead of what you would love? What is distorting your priorities and what can you do to stop that happening?

• Chris had been very keen for a long time to spend more time in London: ‘I often go to London on business. I go in on the train and then come home again when the job is done. There are so many things I would love to see in London, but never get chance to when I am there for work reasons. I could afford to do it. I just never get round to it’. Of course the same questions apply here. In both cases, it is a matter of priorities. If this really is something that you are so keen to do, what process is happening that stops it from happening? Maybe there is a genuine and understandable reason why it isn’t happening (perhaps Chris is overwhelmed by the choice of so many things in London that could be part of the proposed trip). But perhaps it is more a case of needing to get priorities clear, take control of the situation and make it happen.

Not only will this mean that, in most cases, at least, we get the benefit of doing what we want to do, but we are also likely to feel good about having taken control of the situation – a positive and empowering experience in its own right.

Celebrate your successes

Some you win, some you lose is a well-known saying. We can’t realistically expect to succeed in everything we do, so we have to learn to take the rough with the smooth, of course. However, my concern is that life can be so pressurised much of the time that we do not take the opportunity to savour those successes; we perhaps feel we are too busy to stop and focus on what has gone well because we are too busy rushing on to the next challenge or dealing with things that aren’t going so well.

This is not just a pity to miss out on the positive feelings associated with success, it’s also a problem in at least two ways:

(i) Success breeds success – doing well can have the very positive effect of boosting motivation and strengthening confidence; this can make us both more efficient and more effective. This can then lead to a virtuous circle – that is, the further success brings further opportunities for celebrating and a further boost to motivation and confidence.

(ii) Keeping things in perspective – sometimes there can be so much pressure at work (as well as in our private lives), so many hassles to deal with that we tend to focus a great deal on the negatives. This can create a vicious circle in which the negativity depresses morale and, in turn low morale can fuel a focus on the negatives, which then has a further adverse effect on morale.

These reasons help us to understand why it is important not to lose sight of the positives and, indeed, to value those positives, to celebrate our successes and to appreciate what we have going for us.

So, what can get in the way of having such a balanced approach to life in general and work in particular? Well, there are various things, not least the following:

  • The influence of others If you find yourself living and/or working with people who do not recognise or celebrate their successes, it may simply be that you find yourself following in their footsteps – it has become the norm, part of the culture. If that is the case, that is easily sorted, as you are not a puppet with your strings being pulled by others. You can decide to go against the grain and show them the value of celebrating success (although that may seem an uncomfortable thing to do at first).
  • Habit Maybe it’s not the habits of others; perhaps it is just your own habit that has developed and led you down that path. If so, your challenge now will be to break that habit by consciously creating time and space to highlight your successes and get the full benefit of doing so. Just as you do not need to be a victim of the culture you operate in, nor do you need to be a passive victim of your own habits – they are your habits, so you can do with them what you will.
  • Anxiety Unfortunately, anxiety, which at heart is a helpful warning system of threat or danger, can often be allowed to become a problem by blocking progress. An anxious person is less likely to be confident, to be creative, to learn or, indeed, to be positive about success – they are more likely to be focusing on potential or actual threats (real or imagined) and therefore miss out.
  • Misplaced modesty Some people I have spoken to about celebrating success have told me they would feel uncomfortable doing so, because they had been brought up to be modest and unassuming. This is understandable, but there is a big difference between being immodest and quietly and calmly celebrating a well-deserved success.

None of these obstacles is insurmountable, so the scope for taking the necessary steps to get the benefits of recognising and celebrating success is quite significant.


Use mind maps

There are many occasions when it is useful, if not essential, to have a record of our thoughts and/or the events to which they relate. Some people seem never to make notes; they simply rely on their memory, which, of course, is not a wise strategy, as it involves leaving to chance what is recalled and what is not. Other people, I’m aware, make copious notes, but never refer to them again – they just file them away as if having them somewhere to hand will be of value. Yet others have no filing system, so their chances of finding any notes they may have taken are relatively slim anyway.

So, when it comes to making notes, there is no shortage of practices that are not very effective and thus do not serve us well. However, it is also fair to say that there are limitations to traditional note-taking practices, even when well used. This is because, by their very nature, traditional notes are ‘linear’ – that is, they follow a straightforward structure from point one to point two and so on. But life isn’t linear, and nor is the way our minds work. What can therefore be helpful is s process of note taking that more fully reflects our thinking processes. This is where ‘mind maps’ come in.

A mind map is constructed by putting the topic in question (whatever it is you want to make notes about) in a box in the centre of the page. From this central focus you can have other boxes (or lines) that emanate from it with subtopics, issues or reflections that relate to the central focus. From each of these secondary boxes or lines you can develop further subtopics, issues or whatever. This enables the note taker to explore different avenues, different lines of thought, while considering the topic. This makes the notes multidimensional, and this allows us to be more creative in our thinking and more holistic (by giving us an overview of a topic or theme). The example below gives a sense of what is involved.





This one was produced using mind mapping software, and there are various software options available, ranging from free to expensive (depending on the additional facilities available within the package concerned). However, software is not needed, as perfectly good mind maps can be produced with pen and paper.

Mind maps can be very useful for getting a sense of structure and control in relation to the topic in hand. In addition, its visual nature means that their contents are more likely to be recalled at any future point. So, there are quite a few benefits to using this tool.

Some people take to mind maps straight away and quickly become quite proficient in using them. Others may struggle at first to produce a useful mind map because they are so used to adopting the linear approach to note taking. For this latter group there is much to be gained from being persistent. The skills can be developed with practice and can, in due course, be taken to quite a high level of competence, if not actual expertise.

When used well, mind maps can be a great aid to understanding – for example, in highlighting interconnections and patterns that would probably not have emerged from a linear approach. They can also be useful in presenting a more coherent picture to be presented to others than conventional notes would afford. They can also be added to at a later date as circumstances change or our thoughts and understanding develop.

All in all, then, mind maps offer very real potential for a valuable and effective approach to information storage to inform our thoughts, understanding and action.


Let go – even if you can’t forgive

‘It’s important to forgive and forget’ is a widely used piece of folk wisdom. However, it’s not that simple. For someone to feel under pressure to forgive, they must have been hurt, betrayed or abused in some way. It is therefore questionable how realistic it is to expect someone to be able to find forgiveness in those circumstances. It can be not only unrealistic, but also unfair. To put someone under pressure to forgive when they are wrestling with the pain and insecurity they are experiencing can be seen as unhelpful and even as cruel. When they are already feeling ‘wronged’, they can then be made to feel that they are ‘in the wrong’ for continuing to hold feelings of resentment towards the person(s) who brought about the problem in the first place.

It also assumes that there can be no action or attitude that is unforgivable, that whatever happens can (and should) be forgiven. This is a very big assumption to make and a highly problematic one. The bland advice that we should forgive and forget is therefore not one that should be accepted uncritically.

So, am I suggesting that forgiveness is over-rated and is not something we should bother with? No, that is not the case at all. There are certainly many situations where forgiveness is quite appropriate and to be encouraged. The problem comes when this idea is overgeneralised, when it is assumed that forgiveness is in all cases the appropriate response.

So, does this mean that brooding resentment should be the order of the day because forgiveness is not a realistic expectation in the circumstances? No, that is not what I am suggesting either. This is where the idea of ‘letting go’ comes in. What this refers to is the ability to (and desirability of) putting the hurts behind us when we are ready. The ‘when we are ready’ bit is important, as the more hurtful the experience has been, the longer it is likely to be before we can readily countenance the idea of putting it behind us. Trying to do this too soon is unlikely to be helpful, and putting people under pressure to do so before they are ready can be counterproductive, and even positively harmful.

I was once fortunate enough to be in the audience when former athlete and TV presenter, Kriss Akabusi, was giving an inspiring speech about his troubled childhood and how he not only survived it, but managed to thrive. One important point he made about his childhood was that ‘the past is somewhere to visit, not somewhere to live’. In other words, he had managed to put those hurts behind him. That would not have happened straight away, of course, and anyone trying to pressurise him into achieving this before he was ready would have been more of a hindrance than a help.

Letting go means not allowing the hurt to control us, to undermine us or to disempower us. It means acknowledging that what was done was done (no denial), recognising the extent and severity of the hurt that was caused (no minimising or playing down), but not keeping that hurt alive by feeding the flames of resentment. It means letting those flames cool down at their own rate and then, when it is safe and reasonably comfortable to do so, to translate them from current hurts to past experiences – that is, to put them behind us, with or without forgiveness. This enables us to move on, to face new challenges and not be held back by what has gone before. That way we can be freed up to focus on the present and future, while learning the lessons from the past.

Be graceful

‘Grace’ has two main definitions. It can refer to elegance and poise. But it can also mean decency or honour. Both of these aspects can be helpful to us, especially the latter. Let’s consider each in turn.

A graceful person, in the first sense, is one who is unruffled, someone who can deal with trials and tribulations without breaking step. This can be a distinct advantage in relating to other people. It can help put them at their ease and help them have confidence in us and what we are trying to do. Having the poise of inner calmness can also work wonders for our blood pressure, our ability to cope with pressure and thus keep stress at bay. It therefore has benefits all round. Some may see it as a quality that some people are born with, while others have to learn how to do without. However, in reality, it is a skill (or set of behavioural skills) that can be developed over time. There is no reason why people cannot learn to develop poise and grace if they are prepared to make the effort and to develop the self-awareness involved.

Think about the range of people you know. Think about the extremes – that is: who do you see among them who are particularly graceful? At the other end of the spectrum, who are the people you would regard as far from graceful? What distinguishes the first group from the second? In other words, what makes the graceful people graceful and the not so graceful people not so graceful? What can you learn from this analysis that can help you optimise your ‘gracefulness quotient’?

The first sense of ‘grace’ is therefore a matter of skills. The second meaning, by contrast, is a matter of values. Being graceful, in our second sense, is about committing ourselves to a value position that involves being respectful, treating people with dignity and thereby being a decent and honourable person. Of course, much of this derives from our upbringing, the ways in which we are taught right and wrong and other aspects of our culture. But, while cultures are very influential, each of us has our own role to play in shaping how we behave and how we treat one another. We need to take ownership of our ‘grace’.

Values are often seen as abstract issues, but in reality they are very concrete, in the sense that they are very influential in shaping our, thoughts, feelings and actions. It would therefore be very unwise to dismiss them as ‘abstract’, as if that means they make no difference to our concrete reality. That would be far from the truth.

To develop grace in this second sense, we can undertake a parallel exercise to the one outlined above: Who are the people we know that we regard as particularly decent and honourable? Who are the ones we would see as lacking grace? What distinguishes the first group from the second? What can such an analysis teach you about making grace an important feature of your value base?

What is particularly interesting is that, if we look closely enough, we can see important links between these two different meanings of ’being graceful’. The more poise we have, the more confident and self-assured we can be, and therefore be in a stronger position to treat others with dignity and respect, as we will have less baggage of our own to get in the way. Similarly, the more we treat people with dignity and respect, the fewer problems we will have and the more respect we will get in return. That will then put us in a stronger position to adopt an elegant and self-assured approach to our lives, to have the poise that comes with grace.


Manage your inhibitions

I have always had my doubts about the psychological notions of introversion and extroversion, as if we can simply pigeonhole people into one category or the other. Sociology teaches us that people will generally behave differently in different circumstances. Someone who may appear quite introverted and uncomfortable at a party, may come across as very extroverted when performing on stage for their local amateur dramatic society. Likewise, someone who is the life and soul of the party may be very self-contained and appear introverted when dealing with someone who is distressed. Different people have different comfort zones.

However, what the introversion-extroversion axis revolves around is how we manage our inhibitions. We have bodily systems that will serve to protect us when we feel we may be in danger, including the fight or flight mechanism of adrenaline being pumped into the blood stream. In many situations where we feel threatened, we will withdraw, we will become inhibited for the benefit of our safety and self-preservation. This can include withdrawing from physical threats, but also from psychological ones, such as losing face or being humiliated.

So, I agree with the psychological idea that different people will have different ‘thresholds’ for when their inhibitions kick in, some people doing so much more readily than others. However, we need to counterbalance this with the sociological idea that different social settings will spur different reactions. Just attaching an ‘introvert’ or ‘extrovert’ label is therefore an oversimplification. To get an adequate understanding of what is happening, we need to take account of the psychological and sociological insights.

What does that mean for each of us? Well, at the very least, it means that we can benefit from knowing two things about ourselves:

  1. Am I someone whose inhibitions and defences kick in easily or not so easily?
  2. In what circumstances am I more or less likely to become inhibited?

It is important to know the answers to these two questions, as this knowledge could help us to become more skilled at managing our inhibitions. Why do we need to manage our inhibitions? The short answer is that it can be an empowering process that gives us greater control over how we react in difficult situations.

For example, if we have a tendency to hold back very easily, we may be denying ourselves important opportunities. In such circumstances we may also come across as unconfident and unassertive, thereby putting ourselves at a disadvantage in terms of our interactions with others. If, by contrast, we are too slow to allow our inhibitions to kick in, we may find that we are placing ourselves at unnecessary risk – whether physical risk (aggression) or emotional risk (embarrassing ourselves and possibly others). Similarly, if we are aware of what our potential ‘trigger’ situations are, we can be better equipped to control our reactions. For example, if we know that we struggle to deal with situations involving conflict, we may be better prepared to handle such interactions when called upon to do so. In effect, managing our inhibitions can be seen as an important aspect of self-awareness.

So, what it comes down to is two things. The first is clarifying whether you need to take a little longer before you allow your defensive inhibitions to kick in or do you perhaps need to implement them sooner? Only you can answer those questions, but people who know you well will no doubt be able to offer an opinion if you venture to ask them. Second, you need to be aware of what type of situation is potentially problematic for you: What are the circumstances where you may be prone to be nervous and thereby run the risk of activating your inhibitions too soon, and/or what are the circumstances where you feel very relaxed and comfortable and may therefore risk being overconfident and not activating your inhibitions too late? Important food for thought.

Do something you don’t want to do

At the end of my first year at university, my tutor said to me: ‘Neil, you have a lot of strengths, but the trouble is that you are always playing to them’. He went on to explain that what he meant was that I was well aware of what I was good at and what I was not so good at, and I always headed straight for what I knew I could do well and steered clear of anything I wasn’t so sure of. The problem with that approach, he said, is that you will never develop, never extend your repertoire. And he was right. I was quite happy to stay in my comfort zone, and he helped me realise that would hold me back.

So, after that, I started trying out new things, doing things I didn’t want to do. While, at first, I didn’t like it and was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his advice, it wasn’t long before I was seeing the fruits of this new approach. I began to realise that it doesn’t take long to get used to new, unfamiliar territory and that there was a lot to be gained from doing so, not least a sense of achievement and progress.

Of course, I came across things that were beyond me, challenges that were a step too far. But even that was a positive thing as it helped me recognise my limitations. No one can be good at everything, but if you stick to what you know you are good at, there may be things that you can become good at that you will never know about, because you are not prepared to venture that far. This experience made me realise that what had been holding me back was a fear of failure – by sticking to my strengths, I knew that failure was unlikely. What I have learned since then is that failure is nothing to fear. As I have said before and will no doubt say again, failure is not the opposite of success, it is a component of success – you can’t succeed without trying and you can’t realistically expect to succeed every time you try.

Failing can be painful, but if you expect to be able to succeed every time, then you are making any failures that do crop up all the more difficult to bear – or you are doing what I used to do, namely constantly playing to your strengths and thereby denying yourself the opportunity to turn weaknesses into strengths.

 Another tutor used to say: ‘Attitude is everything’, and while I think that the ‘everything’ bit is an exaggeration, I would certainly agree that our attitude, the way we approach a situation and the mindset we adopt in doing so, is very important. While some people create problems for themselves by approaching situations with an attitude of ‘I am going to fail’ (which makes it much more likely that they will), others can create problems by having an attitude of ‘I must not fail’ which creates all sorts of unnecessary difficulties.

By following my tutor’s advice to look beyond what I was already good at, I have since become good at things I would never have dreamed of doing well, while also learning that there are things that I am just not cut out for. These insights have been an important part of self-awareness and have stood me in good stead over the years.

So, why not give it a try? There’s no need to set yourself up to fail by trying something that you know to be beyond you, but there will be very many things you are not keen to try that could open doors for you – and those could be an important part of your personal and professional development.

Connect with people and places that matter to you

I have been involved in studying (and tackling) stress for decades. A number of things have stood out for me from my activity in this area. One important one is that there is a danger that, when pressures start to mount, people have a tendency to stop doing things that normally help them cope and keep pressures within manageable limits (and thereby avoid stress). Ironically, this then has the effect of making stress more likely: just as pressures are mounting, we start doing less of the things that counteract stress. For example, the person who really benefits from going to the gym regularly and is able to use that to keep pressures under control may reach the point, once pressures start to multiply, of not bothering to go to the gym – they don’t feel up to it. The person who gets a lot of benefit from talking over problems with trusted friends and colleagues may keep their own counsel and not say anything when the pressures reach a certain level – they don’t feel comfortable talking about it any more. People who cope with pressures through humour don’t think it is funny any more and withdraw into themselves, switching off the humour, thereby putting themselves in a situation where they feel the pressures more acutely.

Different people can experience this general trend in different ways. However, what my experience has taught me is that a recurring theme is the tendency to cut ourselves off from the people and places that matter to us. It is as if it is a self-protective mechanism. Once pressures start to bother us, we need to be spending more time with the people who matter to us, more time at the places that matter to us, but, in reality, what so often happens is that we do the opposite. Perhaps it is because we feel vulnerable and so want to withdraw into our shell, in the hope that we will feel safer that way. But, whatever the reason, the result is the same: at the very time we need the benefits of supportive people and the reassuring familiarity of places we know and love, we may choose to move away from them.

This has (at least) two sets of implications. First, it is important for ourselves. We need to be aware of this danger and be prepared to counteract it in any reasonable way we can. That is, we need to be prepared to fight the tendency to disconnect ourselves at the very time we would benefit from connecting. There is no set way of doing this, no guaranteed formula. However, there are plenty of options to explore. Think carefully about what might work for you. One possibility is to make two lists. List one: think about the people who matter to you. Who are the people whose company offers you something positive? Who are the people who help you recharge your batteries and feel good about yourself? List two: think about the places you have positive associations with. What are the places that give you a positive sense of well-being and comfort? Places can be important, because, if you are so tense that you can’t face spending time with people, there are still places that can have a renewing effect.

Second, we can – gently, sensitively, supportively – encourage others (without pressurising them) to connect more to their important people and places if we notice that this disempowering process is happening to them. We have to be very careful to make sure that this does not amount to kicking them when they are down – gently does it, and be prepared to back off quickly if it is clearly not what they want or is not something they are ready for yet.

So, connecting with people and places that matter to us is something we should not lose sight of, however much or little pressure we are under.

Get perspective – Look up at the stars

These days so many people seem to lead very busy, pressurised lives. One of the results of that can be a narrow focus on the last mistake, the next deadline and so on. It can so easily become the case that all we see is the pressure and the potential problems. This can especially be the case when work pressures combine with pressures at home (and, indeed, they can reinforce each other).

One of the dangers in situations like this is that we lose perspective, we lose sight of the bigger picture. We can easily start to think that all there is to life is pressure and problems. That can create a sense of defeatism and even cynicism and things can start to crowd in on us.

We can then get into an escalation situation. Problems seem to be greater than they really are. Solutions seem out of reach. Confidence goes down and a sense of foreboding gets greater. We can become trapped in a cocoon of negativity.

Although at times it can be more easily said than done, what can be a useful antidote to this is to look up at the stars, appreciate how big the universe and therefore how minor our concerns are by comparison.  The French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, made the famous comment that the vastness of the universe and its ‘eternal silences’ frightened him. I’m not sure about it being frightening, but perhaps unnerving. But, on a more positive note, it can help us put our own trials and tribulations in perspective.

There are billions of stars in a galaxy and more galaxies in the universe than there are grains of sand on the earth, so that should help to show just how small our pressures are in the overall scheme of things. This is not to belittle the importance of our concerns, but, rather to balance them out, to see them in perspective. That perspective should make us feel less pressurised and give us more strength to do what we need to do to move forward positively.

It is easy to understand how readily we can find ourselves in that situation where we feel surrounded by problems and challenges, perhaps wondering if there will be a more relaxed time. But, that does not alter the fact that it is not a good place to be or that there isn’t a better, more balanced way of looking at things.

So, it can be important to ask yourself whether your life is balanced in terms of its focus. Are you seeing your life and its pressures in perspective? Or is there a danger that your focus is too narrow and too negative? Also, what is happening in terms of the people around you? Are they influencing you in the direction of a narrow focus, or perhaps that is what you are doing to them?

There is no simple way to get a sense of perspective, but it is certainly worth the effort of trying to do so. It might be helpful to think about who wold be well placed to support you in this. Who do you know who has that knack of keeping a clear focus on their problems and pressures, but also seeing them as art of a wider picture? How might they help you do the same?

Be clear about your goals

When I undertook my management training many years ago we were taught the importance of a ‘strategic’ approach, which meant at all times being clear about what we were trying to achieve – that is, what our strategic goals are. Our strategy, then, is the plan for achieving these goals, hence the term ‘strategic’. At that point I had been a practising social worker for a number of years and, to me, having clarity about what we were trying to achieve was second nature. So, I was surprised when so many of the other students on the course seemed to think that this ideas of a ‘strategic’ approach was something new and exciting.

Since then I have learned that I should not have been surprised by this. I have come to realise that it is not uncommon for people to lack clarity about their goals or how they are going to achieve them. This is because, whether at work or in our private lives, it is so easy to get bogged down with ‘getting on with it’. At home, it can be about making sure the bills get paid and so on – just the day-to-day chores of earning a living and keeping a household going can take up not just a lot of time and effort, but also space in our head. Similarly, at work, just getting through the day and the demands made on us – especially if you work somewhere where demands come at you from different angles – can be enough to fill your diary and your head. This can be especially the case in workplaces cultures that are characterised by a ‘heads down, get on with it’ culture, with little or no room for reflective practice.

While this state of affairs is understandable, it is far from desirable. As the old saying goes, ‘if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there’. If you are not sure what you are trying to achieve, how do you make informed choices about how to move forward? How do you know whether your time, effort or other resources are being used to best effect? How do you know whether you are wasting your time?

Also, if you are not clear where you are trying to get to, you may well be prey to one or more unscrupulous people manoeuvring you into helping them get where they want to be – that is, they use you by capitalising on your lack of a sense of direction.

There is also the issue of confidence to consider. If we are clear about what we are trying to achieve and this is apparent to the people around us, they are more likely to trust us and have confidence in us – in other words, our credibility will be higher. By contrast, if people get the impression we are drifting, unclear about what we are doing and where we are going, they are likely to have much less faith in us and therefore a lower level of confidence. If we become aware that people have less confidence in us, that can mean that we have less confidence in ourselves and a vicious circle can be created. Contrast that with the confidence boost we can have if we are aware that we have a good level of credibility and people have confidence in us because they know we are clear about where we are trying to get to and how we are going to get there.

And, finally, there is the question of leadership. An effective leader is someone who helps people to understand where they are trying to get to and supports them and inspires them in trying to get there. Having clarity about our own goals, then, can be seen as a feature of ‘self-leadership’ and all the benefits that brings.