Don’t rush!

‘Less haste, more speed’ is a well-known and oft-quoted proverb, but how often do we forget the wisdom on which it is based? Modern life tends to be very busy and can be highly pressurised. A common reaction to this is for people to speed up, to try to do things in a rush. However, this is a big, big mistake. Rushing is at the root of many of the problems people experience in life.

This is for a variety of reasons. First, rushing means that we are much more likely to make mistakes – and, at times, those mistakes can have major consequences. Consider, for example, when you have made a mistake or you have been on the receiving end of someone else’s mistake. How often did the mistake arise because the person concerned was rushing, not paying sufficient attention to what they were doing?

Second, one of the key factors in stress is control. People can generally cope with a high level of pressure, provided that they have sufficient control over the demands being made on them, while even a relatively modest amount of pressure can produce a stress reaction if control is lacking. Rushing takes away our sense of control; when we are rushing, we tend to feel that we are losing our grip, that control is slipping away from us. Rushing can therefore be very counterproductive when trying to avoid stress. It can contribute to a vicious circle. The more pressure we are under, the more we rush; the more we rush, the less of a sense of control we have; the less of a sense of control we have, the more stressed we are; and on it goes.

Third, we have to consider what message rushing is giving other people. For example, a sales assistant in a retail context who is rushing in serving a customer is likely to be giving (unwittingly) a message to the effect that they do not have time for the customer, and therefore that the customer is not important (or even that the customer is not welcome). So, next time you are rushing, think carefully about what message you are likely to be giving to other people involved in the situation.

Rushing, despite being highly counterproductive for the reasons outlined here, can easily become the ‘default’ setting for some people. They become so used to rushing that this becomes their normal response to the demands they face. For some people, rushing gives them a sense that what they are doing is important, so important that they can’t hang around and just have to ‘get on with it’. So, they get self-esteem from it. This is highly dangerous, of course, because it means they are unlikely to be thinking carefully about what they do, are doing minimal planning, are not anticipating potential pitfalls and are therefore missing opportunities to be creative and are highly unlikely to be learning or developing.

Avoiding rushing does not, of course, mean going to the other extreme of dawdling or wasting time. It is, rather, a matter of balancing the pace at which we work with the attention the tasks concerned need for us to do them properly.

So, the temptation to rush is one that we very much need to resist. The more pressure we are under, the more we need to be thinking carefully about what we do, about how best to manage those pressures, how best to draw on the support available to us, and so on. Simply trying to get things done at an unnatural pace creates far more problems than it solves. By avoiding rushing, we can become more skilled in managing pressures and more confident in doing so.

Choose wisely

‘I couldn’t help it’, ‘I had no choice’ and ‘It wasn’t my fault’ are commonly heard comments, but how often are they actually true? How often are we unaware of the choices we have been making or are actually trying to disguise the fact that what we did was based on a choice (or set of choices) we made?

Of course, there will often be situations where we don’t have a choice, where things are beyond our control. For example, if we spill water on our lap, we can’t choose whether or not to get wet (although we could choose to try not to get wet by putting a plastic sheet or equivalent across our lap – if we wanted to). But, in general terms we are making choices all the time, even though we may not realise it much of that time. This is partly because so many of our choices are ‘habitualised’ – that is, we have made the same choice so many times that we now more or less do it on automatic pilot, as it were. But, a habitualised choice is still a choice, in the sense that we can choose to behave otherwise. We don’t have to do something just because it is what we normally do. Consider the legal implications of this. If you tend to drive too fast and, as a result of that, you cause an accident in which somebody dies or is seriously injured, you will be held responsible for your actions – saying that it was your habit to drive that fast does not mean that you are not responsible for the choice(s) you make and their consequences.

What also complicates matters is that so-called common sense will often mislead us into thinking that we are not making choices when in fact we are. This takes us back to the ‘I couldn’t help it’ type of response I mentioned earlier. These types of situation are quite common – for example, when someone fails to do something they promised to do and claims it was due to factors beyond their control, when in reality it was down to choices that were made.

What we have to recognise is that, whatever situation we are in, there will always be choices – however limited the range of options due to the circumstances, there will always be options (even if we do not like any of those options). And, of course, the choices we make will always have consequences, sometimes minor, sometimes major.

This is why it is important that we choose wisely. This involves, first of all, being aware of the choices we are making (including the habitualised choices) and not trying to pretend that matters within our control are not our responsibility. This is not about blame, it is about ownership. It is about empowerment.

Once you are aware of the choices, you can consider the various options and the associated consequences that arise from them. Thinking carefully about the respective consequences can then help us make wise choices.

Of course, our choices will often be made on the basis of our feelings, rather than rational thoughts, but it is still the case that being aware of those choices, the options available and the likely consequences can none the less be very helpful when it comes to choosing wisely. Choices rooted in emotional reactions are still choices. We can balance head and heart, especially if we are tuned in to our choice making and don’t play the game of trying to deny that so much of what we do is rooted in the choices we make.

Confront issues without being confrontational

‘I didn’t like to say’ is a comment commonly heard when it emerges that somebody has faced a difficult situation, but preferred not to address it. For example, imagine Person A is stereotyping Person B, but Person B feels uncomfortable about challenging this and therefore chooses to say nothing and accept the negative consequences of being stereotyped. The idea of assertiveness is that an assertive person is someone who tries to achieve win-win outcomes – that is, tries to make sure that each party benefits from the interaction. However, the ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach is actually likely, in many cases at least, to lead to a lose-lose outcome.

Consider this possibility. Person A treats Person B in a stereotypical way (making overgeneralised assumptions on the basis of gender, for example). Person B chooses not to challenge this, preferring the more comfortable option of just letting it go. Person B therefore loses out. Person A remains oblivious to the harm their stereotypical thinking has done – unless, that is, Person C comes along at some point and makes reference to the stereotyping that has been going on. Person A may then feel very contrite and regretful about the unintended harm done, and also therefore lose out. Hence the idea of lose-lose outcomes. Consequently, adopting the ‘I didn’t like to say’ option can mean everyone involved loses out, clearly not a good result.

This is where the idea of confronting issues without being confrontational comes in. ‘I don’t like confrontation’ is another comment often heard, and quite understandably. But, we need to be quite specific about what is meant here. Usually, it is being confrontational (as opposed to the act of confronting) that is what people don’t like – that is, situations where people adopt an aggressive approach. They are aiming for a win-lose outcome (I win, you lose). But, with the rights skills and attitudes, it is perfectly possible to confront issues without being confrontational. For example, if I were to say to someone who is blocking my way: ‘Excuse me please, can I get past? Thank you’, I am confronting the fact that this person is blocking my way, but I am not doing it in a confrontational way; I am not creating any problems or ill-feeling for them. And this is the key: How can I avoid having problems and ill-feeling without creating problems and ill-feeling for the other person (back to win-win outcomes again)?

I mentioned the right skills and attitudes. A key skill is what is known as ‘elegant challenging’. This refers to being able to address issues in a positive and cooperative way, raising important issues sensitively and tactfully in order to minimise the risk of conflict escalating, while maximising the chances of making a positive difference. And, when it comes to attitudes, the key attitude can be characterised as: ‘I will respect you and treat you with dignity, but I will not allow you to treat me without such respect and dignity. I want this to work for both of us’.

So, whenever you are tempted to adopt an ‘I didn’t like to say’ approach, perhaps you should consider whether you like the consequences of letting things pass and risking a lose-lose outcome any better. But, of course, we don’t have to choose between two uncomfortable options. Being prepared to confront issues (that is, address them) without being confrontational can give us a very helpful way forward that is of benefit to all concerned. Adopting that aiming for win-win outcomes and being prepared to develop the skills involved are therefore steps well worth taking.

Have a ‘Not to Do’ list

Having a to do list is a long-established and very wise idea. It is so very easy to forget about something that you need to do. Important things can slip away if we have not made a note of them. One key advantage of having a to do list is that, when it gets too long, it is giving us two important messages:

  1. We may be trying to do too much and thereby be overstretching ourselves, On my Time and Workload Management e-learning course, I talk about four important principles, and one of those is: Too much work is too much – that is, we all have limits to what we can reasonably get through in terms of work or other tasks. Spreading ourselves too thinly is never a wise move and can create a number of significant problems.
  2. We should be thinking about prioritising. If it looks as though we can’t realistically get through all the tasks on the list, then we should at least make sure that we do the most important tasks first. That way, the tasks that don’t get done will be the least important ones. Sadly, it is not uncommon for people under pressure to fail to prioritise and to end up doing less important tasks, while the more important ones don’t get done. As you can imagine, this can be potentially disastrous.

So, there is no doubt that to do lists can be very valuable tools if used properly. But where does having a ‘Not to Do’ list come into the picture? Well, what you will find is that most people will do some things that are either not a useful thing to do or that are actually counterproductive.

There are many potential examples of things that are commonly done that we would be better off without:

  • Doing ourselves down I have run many courses on assertiveness over the years and one of the issues that has always come up has been the danger of, to use the technical term,  ‘self-disempowerment’. The classic example of this is the person who begins a comment with ‘I’m probably wrong, but …or some other self-deprecating statement of this kind.
  • Getting sidetracked Using social media is a major source of this problem. You go online to look up an important piece of information and then find that you have wasted time looking at a whole range of things. But, it isn’t just social media that can contribute to this phenomenon. If you start looking for examples of people getting sidetracked, it won’t take you long before you find them.
  • Ploughing a negative furrow Moaning that produces action can be very productive and a useful step in the process of bringing about positive change. However, if it does not lead to action, it can be a part of a vicious circle of negativity that serves as an obstacle to moving forward.

I could go on giving more and more examples, but I hope I have already illustrated my point, namely that we need to be aware of those things that cause us problems or hold us back. So, what I propose you do is to think very carefully about what should be on your Not to Do list. What are the things that you are prone to doing (mainly out of habit, perhaps, or because they serve as some sort of defence mechanism) that are potentially problematic? Once you have that list you can then start to think about what you can do to reduce the number of items on it or get rid of them altogether. Just think how much better your life would be if you could do that.

Don’t get trapped in a saying

Sayings can be very useful ways of briefly capturing important elements of wisdom. For example, the idea of ‘better safe than sorry’ has no doubt helped many people to avoid making rash decisions or launching into situations unprepared. So, they clearly have an important role to play as elements of whatever culture we are brought up in (different cultures will have different sayings, but there will, of course, be many common themes).

But, it isn’t all good news. This is because, for one thing, sayings can be contradictory. Compare ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ with ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’. Sayings therefore have limitations, and so we need to be careful and critical in how we use them. They are simplified representations of complex realities, so they can easily mislead us if we are not careful.

What can be particularly problematic is when a saying is used to justify unwise or unethical behaviour, and that is what I mean by ‘getting trapped’ in a saying – limiting ourselves to a very simplified understanding. For example, I have come across many occasions where people have used ‘Charity begins at home’ as an excuse for not supporting a worthy cause. Now, of course, we can’t support all the worthy causes out there, so people obviously have the right to choose which charities they support and which they don’t. However, charity begins at home can be used as an excuse not to support any humanitarian efforts at all.

Another example would be ‘Boys will be boys’ being used as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. It also has sexist implications, of course, in implying that there are, or should be, different standards of behaviour between boys and girls. So, we have to be careful to make sure that we don’t allow the very familiarity of certain assumptions to mislead us into thinking that they are therefore valid assumptions.

A further idea expressed in a saying that can be problematic is that of: ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’. This warns us that we should be wary about making changes on the assumption that what we are changing to is better than what we already have. Of course, it is very wise not to get too excited about something until you know more about it and have had chance to weigh up carefully whether it is indeed better than what you already have. But, there is also the danger that adhering too strongly to this saying can make us unduly cautious and conservative, not willing to make changes or try new things. In other words, it can hold us back unnecessarily.

So, what I am definitely not saying is that we should never use sayings, that we should banish them or anything quite so extreme. But, what I am saying is that we have to be careful not to be seduced by the simplicity and familiarity of these adages or allow them to relax our critical faculties and be taken in by ideas that, in certain circumstances at least, can lead us into difficulties. So, when you come across a saying or you find yourself using one, just give a little bit of thought to what assumptions go with that saying and consider whether you are happy to be making those assumptions.

Sayings can be useful as quick summaries of established wisdom, and so they can be very helpful at times. But, we need to be cautious and not give them more credence than they deserve. We have to do our own thinking and not allow a saying to do our thinking for us.


Beware of single cause explanations

As human beings we are very effective information processors. Our senses are exposed to a huge amount of data every minute we are awake. If you don’t believe me, just look around the room that you are in. Look at the colours, the shapes, the textures. Add to that what you can hear, what you can smell and what you can touch. And, of course, the raw data is just the surface – we also need to look below that surface to take account of the meanings we attach to each of those bits of sense data (and how those bits fit together to make a coherent whole).

So, on a daily basis we are processing and filtering a huge amount of information. In order to remain sane we need to be able to work out which bits of information are important to us and discard the rest, or at least put it to one side for now. We do that by processing the information through two sets of filters, rational and emotional. The rational filter tells us which bits of information matter to us in terms of what we are trying to do, whatever activity we are involved in. For example, if we are reading, as you are doing right now, we focus on the text in order to make sense of it and filter out other information – the keyboard if you are reading on a computer, and so on.

The emotional filter will focus on what matters to us in terms of our feelings, giving attention to those things that appeal to us (at one extreme) and those things that threaten us (at the other). For example, as someone who gets great pleasure from music, I will tend to ‘tune in’ to any music I come across, whereas others who are not great music lovers may not even notice there is music in the background.

One of the implications of all this is that we are perpetually simplifying the complex world around us, constantly finding ways of making hugely complex situations intelligible. This is a necessary part of dealing with the information overload we face on a daily basis. So, this is a good thing. However, there is a danger associated with it – namely, we can try to explain very complex situations in very simple ways. This is where single cause explanations (or monocausal explanations, to use the technical term). It is very rare that that things happen for a single reason. It is usually a combination of factors.

The key term here is ‘confluence’. It refers to how different forces come together to produce a single result. For example, imagine a conflict developing between two people. It could easily be explained monocausally by saying simply: ‘Here are two people who don’t get on’. But, if you look at it more closely, that leaves a number of causal factors out of the picture (not least why they do not get on with each other). Consider the timing. If they don’t get on, why did the conflict arise today, rather than yesterday or tomorrow? Why has it arisen at all? Many people who do not get on simply bypass one another and avoid conflict. And so on.

The notion of confluence means that we need to think holistically – that is, to look at the big picture (what is sometimes called helicopter vision – the ability to rise above a situation). Without this, a reliance on monocausal explanations can lead us into all sorts of difficulties because it involves oversimplifying – and therefore distorting – whatever situation we are involved in.


Develop recovery strategies

Perhaps in an ideal world things would never go wrong. But, of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and things will inevitably go wrong from time to time for each and every one of us. We can do our best before we reach that point to try to make sure that any such problems are avoided or, if they do happen, that their impact is kept to a minimum. But, we can never guarantee that something will not go wrong somewhere along the line. Rising to the challenges of things going wrong is an important part of life, of course, and also offers us a significant source of learning.

So, where does that leave us? Well, this is where the idea of ‘recovery strategies’ comes in. A recovery strategy is a means of trying to rectify a situation that has gone awry, a way of putting things right or at least get as close to that as possible. In many situations, sadly, there cannot be a recovery strategy – that is, the situation is irrecoverable (for example, when someone dies).

There is no limit to the number of potential recovery strategies that we could come up with. Examples of such strategies would include:

  • A decision is made that has an adverse effect on you. Can the decision be appealed or blocked in some other way? If not, can you get round it somehow?
  • You have unwittingly annoyed, upset or offended someone. Can you resolve the situation by apologising or otherwise undoing the harm done – for example, by clearing up any misunderstandings?
  • You have failed to achieve something in the way you had planned to – for example, trying to impress someone. Is there another way in which you can achieve it, another way of impressing that person?
  • You have lost someone’s email address and you need to send them a message. Can you get the address from a third party or perhaps phone the person to give them the message instead?

These are fairly straightforward examples, but recovery strategies can also be quite complex at times, depending on the circumstances. None the less, the logic remains the same. It is basically a process of saying to yourself: Something has gone wrong here; what are my options for putting it right as far as possible?

Note that I say options, plural. It is often the case that there will be more than one recovery strategy option available to us. So, this means that, at times, we will need to weigh up carefully the options available to make sure that we are putting ourselves into the strongest position for putting things right. Jumping in to the first one that comes to mind could prove to be very unwise.

A common obstacle to the use of recovery strategies is defeatism, the tendency for people to respond to something going wrong in a negative way, to moan about it and rail against it, rather than to seek to rectify the situation. This reaction will often prove problematic, as it means wrongs that could have been put right remain untouched.

Much of my work in various capacities over the years has involved helping people to recognise, develop and make full use of recovery strategies. Often, the possibility of drawing on one or more recovery strategies was being hampered by a sense of shock (ranging from mild to severe) as a result of whatever it was that had gone wrong. So, it is a valuable lesson to bear in mind that, whenever something does go wrong, we need to include a consideration of recovery strategies in our response to the situation we face.

Beware of cynicism

The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for dog, so to be cynical literally means to be dog like, in the sense of not caring, of being happy to let the world pass you by. It involves not making an emotional investment, of being detached and disengaged.

For many people cynicism is an emotional coping mechanism – if you don’t put your heart into something, you are much less likely to get hurt by it. And, without that emotional engagement, the result is likely to be negativity and defeatism. You can’t succeed at something if you don’t engage with it. But, equally, you can’t fail, which is a big part of the appeal of cynicism as a coping method – it is a protective mechanism.

Of course, you are highly unlikely to convince a cynic of this, as they will just dismiss the idea, not engage with it and, that way, be safe from it (or at least feel safe from it). Cynicism can be as a result of burnout, of emotional exhaustion – for example, as a result of work overload or being exposed to very stressful circumstances. But, we should not make the mistake of equating cynicism with burnout – many people have cynical tendencies without being even the slightest bit burnt out.

It can be helpful to think of cynicism as one extreme of a continuum, with a naïve idealism at the other extreme. In between the two is the healthy balance of scepticism. A sceptic is someone who questions, who does not take things at face value (which is what a naïve idealist would do), but who does not dismiss things as a matter of course (which, of course, is what a cynic is likely to do). A person adopting a sceptical approach avoids these two unhealthy extremes. By avoiding naïve idealism we are less open to being exploited by ruthless people who will seek to take advantage of any such naivety. And, by avoiding cynicism we avoid wallowing in negativity and the tendency to give up without trying.

Cynicism can be contagious, in the sense that just one cynical person can poison the atmosphere with negativity across a whole group of people. For example, I have come across many situations in which one person’s temporary absence can immediately contribute to a higher level of motivation and morale, while their presence normally undermines such things. We therefore have to be wary of not only any tendency towards cynicism we may have ourselves, but also the danger of being adversely affected by someone else’s cynicism.

In a sense, cynicism is a form of (negative) leadership. If we bear in mind that a key part of leadership is the ability to shape the culture in which they are operating, it is often the case that a cynic is dragging the culture down, contributing to negativity, defeatism and an unduly pessimistic outlook. Consequently, what is often required as a counterbalance to cynicism is positive leadership, the ability (and willingness) of one or more people to take the ethos or ‘mood’ in a more positive direction. This will free people up to be more motivated, more creative, more productive, more open to learning and, in all likelihood, happier.

There is no simple ‘cure’ or easy answer when it comes to cynicism, but there are things that can be done to guard against it, not least keeping the healthy balance of scepticism in mind. If in doubt, we can ask: is this a positive, constructive questioning stance that is being adopted, or does it cross the line into negative and dismissive cynicism?

Be proactive: Make things happen

Throughout my career I have come across people time and time again who are unhappy about one or more aspects of their lives who, when I ask them what they are doing to address those issues, respond with a shrug of the shoulders or the verbal equivalent. It is as if they feel overwhelmed by the situation and therefore adopt a passive approach to it.

I have sometimes felt a bit of a fraud because it has often been the case that my saying: ‘So, what are you going to do about it?’ and helping them to formulate some meaningful answers to that question have been enough to free them up to take some positive steps. The ensuing progress – often very significant progress once they shook off that passivity – would then lead them to tell me how I had worked miracles for them and inspired them. Of course, I may have inspired them to a certain extent, but there were certainly no miracles involved – just a straightforward process of being proactive, of making happen the things that needed to happen.

A key part of what leads to that passivity is that, when people are feeling low, under pressure or otherwise feeling at well below their best, they can feel anxious and unconfident – as if taking the risk of any further pressure leads them to settle for their current unhappy situation (better to be unhappy but coping than to risk trying to improve things and end up not able to cope).

Another factor can be that, when we are under pressure, and especially if we are feeling anxious, it can be difficult to think clearly; we can easily get muddled and feel unsure of ourselves. This can lead to a vicious circle in which anxiety leads to a lack of clear thinking and then struggling to think clearly can make us feel more anxious – and round and round it goes.

But, life does not have to be like this. We can break out of this circle by asking ourselves: So, what are we going to do about it? As I have found myself saying time and time again throughout my career, there are no situations where we have complete control and none where we have no control – there is always something we can do to affect the circumstances we find ourselves in.

First of all, we need to make it clear: What exactly is it that is causing us to feel unhappy? This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but in reality it is very commonly the case that we are not sure what it is that ails us, especially if it is a combination of factors working in tandem.

It can then be helpful to think in terms of three levels of reaction to each of these problems:

  1. Solving the problem Is there any way we can solve the problem, whether in the short, middle or long term, with or without support? Is there anyone who can help us with this or support us through the process?
  2. Alleviating the problem If we can’t solve the problem and thereby remove it altogether, what can we do to minimise it, reduce its impact and/or steer clear of it as much as possible? Some problems cannot be solved but they can be effectively managed.
  3. Accommodating to the problem If you cannot solve the problem, and how far you can alleviate it is fairly limited, what can you do to try to stop the problem from, in effect, ruining your happiness? How can you be reasonably happy despite the problem?

But, remember that we can’t do any of this if we are not clear what the problem(s) are, so get thinking carefully about what exactly the source of the malaise is.

Balance stability and change

If life never changed, if everything was the same over and over again, we would be very unhappy, bored and far from contented. Same old same old is not a recipe for a life well lived. However, if everything was constantly changing, we would feel very insecure. Imagine getting up each morning and there is little or nothing you can count on to be the same as it was yesterday. We would no doubt feel disorientated.

People often say that the only thing that remains constant is change, as I have argued many times, that is not true. Life is a mixture of changes and constants, but we tend to focus mainly on the changes. This is for three reasons. First, as biological organisms we tend to respond to changes in our environment and will soon learn to take for granted those aspects that remain the same. This is partly a defence mechanism, in the sense that tuning in to changes in our environment helps to alert us to potential threats. In this respect, it is s survival mechanism. Second, changes in our environment bring not only threats, but also opportunities, situations that we can enjoy and benefit from. Third, the mass media, such a powerful influence on behaviour and feelings in this day and age, tend to focus on changes (it is no coincidence that we have the ‘new’ in news and newspapers (oldspapers would not have the same appeal).

So, what we are encountering once again is a need for balance. Too much change will overwhelm us, but too little change will underwhelm us. Of course, when it comes to change, much is beyond our control, but we should not underestimate how much control we do have, in terms of both what changes (or does not) and our reaction to any such changes.

What can be helpful is to think about what we would want to change and what we would want not to change (what we would want to safeguard or preserve). If you are happy with the (relatively)  stable situation you are in, is it safe to do nothing or do you need to take steps to make sure it stays that way (by anticipating what could change the situation in a direction you do not want to go in and ‘heading them off at the pass’)? If you are not happy with a (relatively) stable situation, what can you do to change it? What steps can you take? Who do you need to enlist to support you?

Similarly, if you are happy with the changes you are going through, is there anything you need to do to keep those changes on track and to get maximum benefit from them? And, if you are not happy with changes you are going through, what can you do to either prevent the changes or lessen the impact?

The key to this is what the textbooks call ‘self-efficacy’. It relates to how good (or not so good) we are at managing our lives and achieving what we need to. One of the major obstacles to self-efficacy is underestimating how much control we have over certain circumstances. Of course, there are many things we have no control over and a lot more that we can control only to a limited extent, but that should not prevent us from realising just how much we do have control over. The framework I have presented here can be summarised as:

  • if you are happy with the degree of stability you have, safeguard it; if you aren’t, make some changes.
  • If you are happy with the degree of change, keep any such changes on track. If you aren’t, do what you can to ameliorate the situation.

The framework is not a panacea, but it is a useful tool for working towards a helpful balance between stability and change.