Think laterally

It is Edward de Bono’s name that is most closely associated with the notion of lateral thinking, although the basic idea behind it (the importance of thinking creatively and not getting stuck in tramlines) long predates his work. What de Bono did was to put the ideas across clearly and effectively.

In our day-to-day lives we generally rely on established ways of thinking and behaving. Life would be intolerable if, at every step of the way, we had to think consciously about what we are going to do next or how we are going to do it. Established patterns are needed for dealing with mundane, routine matters. However, the price we pay for this convenience is that there is a danger that we will get stuck in those routines (‘tramlines’, as they are often called) when we need to be thinking more reflectively about the situation we find ourselves in. This is where lateral thinking comes in.

From time to time we will come across situations where our usual ways of operating, our usual problem-solving strategies, are not working – they just don’t fit the situation we are in. We are then faced with two main options:

  1. We can carry on doing what we normally do, even though this is clearly not working (or would be clear if we thought about the situation); or
  2. We can start to think laterally – that is, explore other ways of tackling the situation by thinking creatively and not following our usual tramlines.

It does not take much to work out that Option 2 is likely to be much more fruitful and therefore a much wiser course of action. However, despite this, it is amazing how often people will stick with Option 1. This is no doubt partly because, in a situation where things are not working out, we can become anxious. That anxiety can then lower confidence and discourage us from trying anything new – with the result that we stay within our (now largely ineffective) tramlines. In some situations like this the consequences can be relatively minor. However, in many circumstances the consequences can be quite serious – for example, where someone becomes dependent on alcohol or drugs or engages in other self-destructive behaviours. Their reluctance to go beyond their tramlines can then prove to be highly detrimental over time.

So, how do we break out of those tramlines? A key part of the answer to this is being prepared to try new things – nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the cliché has it. Try the following:

  • Brainstorming This involves writing a list of as many ways forward as you can think of, however crazy, zany or impracticable they may initially seem. Most of them, when you subsequently review the list, will be unworkable. But, having let your creative juices flow, you may well find that there are some gems among the not-so-helpful ideas that give you a fresh insight and some potential ways forward. Many people misunderstand brainstorming; they see it as a straightforward process of making a rational list of possibilities. In this way the creative element and the value it offers are lost.
  • Learning from others How do other people tackle the issues you now face? Is there anything you can learn from them? Different people will often have different problem-solving styles or strategies, and so looking at the diverse range of options available can give you some good ideas at times.
  • Changing perspectives This involves trying to move away from your own preconceptions. It involves imagining that you are approaching the situation from a different perspective, wearing somebody else’s hat, as it were. Think of someone who occupies a different role from yourself. How might they view the situation differently? Does that open up doors to approaching your problem form a different angle? A variation on this theme is to give yourself advice. Imagine someone coming to you with the problem that you now face. What advice might you give them? This technique does not work for everyone, but it can be very effective in some circumstances as it involves moving away from our usual viewpoint.

Lateral thinking can take some time to get used to, but the positive results it can bring make it a very worthwhile investment of time and effort.

Turn weaknesses into strengths

Many years ago, a trusted mentor said to me: ‘Neil, you have a lot of strengths, and you keep playing to them. How will you develop new strengths if you are constantly focusing on what you are already good at?’.  He went on to explain that what I was doing was very common, but it was also a very common way of standing in the way of my own development. What he encouraged me to do was to be clear about what areas I was not so strong in and look at how I could improve in those areas. From this discussion emerged the idea of turning weaknesses into strengths.

It is easy to feel embarrassed about what we are not very good at. The fear of being looked down upon, or even mocked is a strong and understandable one. So, it is not at all surprising that we have a strong attraction to sticking to what we are good at. Our self-esteem can suffer if we stray too far into the territory of ‘I’m not very good at this’. But, if we take it step by step, keep the process manageable and not overwhelming, then we can have a lot of success in ironing out weaknesses and, where possible, actually building them up into strengths.

One useful tool for doing this is a SWOT analysis. This involves identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This can be done in a helpful and straightforward way by taking a sheet of paper and dividing it into four sections, with Strengths and Weaknesses across the top and Opportunities and Threats across the bottom. Begin with the positives (Strengths and Opportunities), then balance this out with the negatives (Weaknesses and Threats). Once you have completed this your next step can be to look at how you can use elements of the positives to address elements of the weaknesses. For example, if you are good at communicating in writing, but tend to get nervous and tongue tied when communicating face to face, you can start to think about what it is that makes you good at communicating in writing (for example, being clear about what point you are trying to put across) and seeing whether you can adapt that to how you communicate in person.

This is just one example of what can be achieved through a SWOT analysis; there are, of course, many more. It is a case of seeing what works for you. If a SWOT analysis does not appeal to you, then there is no need to use it. You can simply identify what areas you feel you could improve on and see what steps you feel you could take to develop your abilities.

Whether or not you use a SWOT analysis, what can also be helpful is to learn from others. Who do you know who is good at something you struggle with? Watch them carefully. What is it they do that makes them so good? Is there anything you can learn from that? If you know them well enough, and trust them, why not talk to them about what it is they do so well? See if they have any tips or suggestions that may be of value to you.

But, an important rider is that you should not simply copy what they do. What works for them will not necessarily work for you. So, unthinkingly just aping their behaviour may cause you some difficulties. But, if you look more reflectively at what it is they are doing and how they are doing it, there may well be some very important lessons you can learn.

Turning weaknesses into strengths is not compulsory, of course, but it can give you new opportunities, new avenues for making progress and a real sense of achievement.

For more information about SWOT analysis and other useful ‘tools’, see Thompson, N. (2012) The People Solutions Sourcebook, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Magical thinking

The term, ‘magical thinking’ is one generally used to refer to an aspect of child development. It describes a form of wishful thinking that is characteristic of young children. In principle, we grow out of it as we develop through adolescence into adulthood. It relates to situation where results are expected to arise without our making them happen. For example, a young child may believe that if they want a bike for their birthday and really do want it enough, then it might just transpire that they get the bike they desire.

I have said that we grow out of it ‘in principle’, but what I feel is important to recognise is that not everybody does, or at least not completely. Magical thinking in adults is not uncommon (or in some adults at least). An example, I am very familiar with is the assumption that learning will happen by magic. Countless times I have come across people who sit through a full-day training course, for example, without making a single note (they can’t all have photographic memories!), without making much of a contribution to discussion and then return to their place of work without a plan as to how they intend to put the learning gained into practice. And yet, at the end of the course, they will often hand me an evaluation form in which they claim to have learned a great deal and proclaim it to have been an excellent learning experience. I generally make the point on such courses that, unless participants are clear what their plan of action is for putting the learning into practice, the chances are that all the important issues explored will have become a distant memory within a week. So many people seem to expect learning to happen as if by magic, without any effort on their part.

Others may not even bother to attend training courses or engage in other learning activities. They seem to assume that simply by doing their job over time they will get better at it. Magical thinking once again.

But it isn’t just about learning – that is just one example. Often people will have problems and concerns that are causing them considerable difficulties, and yet they may take no steps whatsoever to do anything about their situation. It is as if they are hoping that the problem will just go away by magic. Of course, some problems do go away of their own accord, but having this as a general problem-solving strategy is unlikely to be fruitful for the vast majority of situations.

The same unhelpful strategy can also be applied to relationship difficulties. When a couple, for example, have tensions to deal with, a common, but basically unwise, reaction is to say nothing and do nothing. The lack of (intended) communication then becomes a form of (unintended) communication in its own right – that is, it gives the message to both parties that their partner is doubting whether the relationship is worth the effort involved in resolving the tensions. And, of course, that is much more likely to increase the tensions than to work towards resolution.

The ‘antidote’ to magical thinking is purposive action. This means being clear about what you need to learn, what problems you need to address or what tensions you need to resolve and developing an action plan for taking the steps involved. Of course, things won’t always go smoothly or without any hitches. Sometimes, working these things out can be difficult and complex. There will be obstacles and setbacks from time to time. But, compared with sitting back passively waiting for magic to happen, the chances of significantly improving your situation are considerably higher.

Listen to both sides

Every one of us on the planet is a unique individual, a person in our own right, with our own unique perspective. Of course, there are various things that people can have in common – the influence of culture and upbringing, for example. We will share certain views with particular groups of people because of political affiliation, religious belief, educational experience or whatever, and so there will generally be considerable overlap between, say, my perspective and that of many other people. However, there will not be a single person whose outlook will be exactly like mine. Even identical twins will have significant differences of perspective on certain issues.

One of the implications of this is that conflict is inevitable. By conflict, I do not mean aggression, hostility or violence – these are the consequences of unresolved or mishandled conflicts. Human beings are very effective conflict managers for the most part. We tend to be quite skilled at making sure that we interact peacefully and have a number of strategies and rituals for helping us to do so. For example, a queue is one such strategy, in so far as it enables us to avoid conflicting interests degenerating into a free for all or set of aggressive encounters.

Conflicts often arise from differences of perspective. What to one person was friendly banter was perhaps to another a person a demeaning put down. Much of this stems from cultural expectations (turning down what is regarded in my culture as an invitation that I am free to accept or decline as I see fit may, in someone else’s culture, be regarded as a slight, an offensive refusal to accept the hospitality offered). Cultural differences can be a great source of learning and enrichment, but they can also be the basis for conflict.

Language is also a key factor. However effective we may be at putting our messages across clearly and unambiguously, there is always scope for misunderstanding and misperception, due to the nature of language itself and how it operates. Consider, for example, the word ‘sanction’ which can have opposite meanings depending on the context. It can indicate approval (‘The proposal has been sanctioned by head office’) or disapproval (‘Ian’s failure to attend the meeting is likely to result in sanctions against him’).

When we are called upon to respond to situations involving conflict (between ourselves and another party or between two other parties), it is therefore essential that we take into account the different perspectives involved. ‘There are two sides to every story’ may well be a cliché and an oversimplification of some complex interactions, but it none the less has more than a grain of truth in it.

So, when it comes to managing a situation where two or more people are in conflict it is important not to take sides and try and determine which person (or group) is ‘correct’. What is much more helpful is trying to facilitate the process of people understanding each other’s perspective and thereby reaching an acceptable accommodation – you hear both sides and help them listen to each other too. This is why mediators are trained to remain neutral and support people in resolving their own conflicts, rather than bring their own perspective to bear and thereby just complicate the situation further.

Where you find yourself in direct conflict with one or more parties (individuals or groups), try to understand their perspective to enable you to move towards a resolution. This is not about ‘giving in’ or letting go of your own views, but, rather, trying to find a constructive way forward based on mutual understanding. As well as this being much more effective it has the added bonus that you are likely to earn respect. Win a battle, you generate resentment; lose a battle and you generate contempt; avoid a battle by skilfully negotiating a positive way forward for all concerned and you generate considerable respect (which then puts you in a stronger position for managing any future conflicts).

Look after yourself

Some people cause problems for themselves and for others by simply ‘looking out for number one’ – that is, putting themselves, first, second and last. One of the problems with this approach to life is that it contributes to a vicious circle. The more self-centred people are, the more they contribute to other people feeling shunned, disregarded and even disrespected. While being treated like that may spur some people to be even more considerate to, and supportive of, others to counterbalance the negative experience they have had, that is not always the result. For many people there is a danger that other people’s selfishness and the negative consequences it brings lead them to withdraw into themselves, to adopt the attitude of: ‘Well, if other people are not going to consider my needs, why should I consider theirs? This is an example of a ‘category error’. ‘They’ becomes extended from ‘selfish, inconsiderate people’ (‘they’ don’t consider my needs’) to all people (so I will not consider ‘their’ needs). A specific category (selfish people) has now been extended to include people in general.

However, referring to this as a category error gives the impression that it is a rational matter, an error in thinking. In reality, though, it is more of an emotional response. It is more about feelings than thoughts. Being self-centred can be seen as a form of emotional protection: if I don’t get involved in other people’s concerns, they can’t hurt me. This is similar to the emotional ‘thick skin’ that people develop when they become burnt out, when they shut themselves off emotionally.

The other side of the coin, though, is when people are not self-centred enough, when they neglect their own needs – perhaps because they are anxious about being seen as selfish or inconsiderate. The technical term for this is being ‘other directed’ – that is, you focus first and foremost on other people’s needs. While in many ways this is a noble and positive thing to do, it is not without risks.

If we put other people’s needs first and last, we may end up neglecting our own needs. History is full of examples of people who created major problems for themselves (and for others) by not ensuring that their own needs were met. For example, I have met parents who have made themselves ill by sacrificing their own needs for the needs of their children – but their children then suffer as a result of one of both of their parents being ill.

What it boils down to, then, is that you will be ill-equipped to help others meet their needs if you are not attending to your own needs. I had a colleague once who gave up her job because she could no longer sustain the pressure of addressing other people’s needs while paying no attention to her own. The longer she remained in the job, the more convinced she was that she was heading for a ‘breakdown’. In addition, when I was a manager I had to work closely with one team member to make sure that she did not burn out because she had developed a dangerous habit of ignoring her own needs.

Looking after yourself is not about being selfish. Being selfish is a matter of focusing on your own needs at the expense of other people’s needs; looking after yourself is about making sure that you are in a strong, safe and healthy position to help others. The two things are entirely different, so we need to make sure that we are not falling into the (sadly all-too-common) trap of shying away from our own needs because we are falsely equating focusing on our own needs with being selfish. At times the price we can pay for making this mistake can be very high indeed.

Don’t disempower yourself

There are some people who can be so insensitive, dismissive and even abusive towards others that they have the effect of disempowering them, by which I mean putting them down, taking the wind out of their sails and undermining their confidence. This is bad enough, but what I have also noticed over the years is that there are just as many people – if not more – who do that to themselves. And that is what I mean by ‘self-disempowerment’. There appears to be no shortage of people who disparage themselves and undermine themselves (for example, through what is known as ‘negative self-talk’, such as telling yourself: ‘I can’t’ before you have even tried).

Sometimes this can be linked to depression. For example, people who are depressed are often unduly harsh towards themselves. Many times in my career I have found myself having a discussion with someone struggling with depression that involved basically trying to get the message across that, if they were being as harsh on other people as they are on themselves, they would consider themselves to be quite an unpleasant person. It is as if they are turning their frustrations inwards upon themselves.

Sometimes it can be linked to anxiety. If I tell myself I can’t do something, I don’t have to face up to the possibility of failure – or so it may seem. In reality, I am guaranteeing failure by not trying, but if I tell myself I can’t do it, then I don’t have to take the risk. In a way, it’s a form of bad faith, trying to deceive ourselves into seeing the situation in a way that appears less risky or threatening.

But very often it has nothing to do with either depression or anxiety – it is just a pattern of behaviour (and thought and feeling) that we have developed. This may be a response to how other people treat us – if enough people tell us we can’t, we soon start believing we can’t. Or there may be 101 other reason for how this state of affairs has come about. One thing that is likely to be common across the board, though, is negativity – self-disempowerment is characterised by a tendency towards negativity, defeatism and even cynicism.

But, what is most important is that we should recognise that it doesn’t have to be this way. What has been learned can be unlearned, anxieties can be conquered and depression can be relieved in the right circumstances. Self-esteem is a concept that is often overused and oversimplified, but this is a situation in which it is very relevant. If we don’t have at least a basic level of self-worth and self-respect, we will struggle to get past negativity.

This does not mean that there are easy answers or magic solutions, but it does mean that, if you are prone to self-disempowering tendencies there are steps you can take – you don’t have to resign yourself to it and write yourself off by saying ‘I can’t help it; it’s the way I am’ or ‘It’s my nature’. These are just other ways of disempowering ourselves. Similarly, if you are involved in supporting others who are prone to self-disempowerment, you can take heart in knowing that it is not an impossible task.

Some people oversimplify the matter by just urging people to ‘Be positive’. To someone who has developed self-disempowering ways of operating, that’s not likely to mean much to them. What can be more helpful is recognising what can be controlled and taking steps to control it. That way, you can try to move from ‘I can’t’ to ‘Oh, I did!’. The concept of tentative confidence can be helpful. ‘Consolidated‘ confidence is when you are able to say to yourself: ‘I know I can do this’, because you know you have done it before – your confidence comes from learning from experience. To reach this stage we need to start by saying: ‘I don’t know whether I can do this, but I’m going to have a damn good try!’. In that way tentative confidence can be a stepping stone to consolidated confidence – we can go from strength to strength, provided that we don’t write ourselves off before we even start.


Read and write

There has been some scaremongering going on that involves suggesting that reading and writing are dying out, in their present form at least. I’m not so sure that I would go that far, but things are certainly changing. Let’s start with reading.

The traditional idea was that much learning was done by reading and subsequently applying the knowledge gained to situations you encounter. The more reading you did, the better equipped you were to deal, in an intelligent, informed way, with the challenges life threw up for you, whether at work or in your private life. However, a very clear pattern that I have noticed is that many people now are not reading to anywhere near the extent they used to. A common way of learning now goes something like this: I want to learn how to do x, so I put into Google: ‘How to do x’. What then comes up will be either a short set of written instructions or, increasingly a ‘how to’ video. While this can be a really useful and effective way of learning very practical things, it has a lot of limitations.

Learning by reading exposes us to a wide range of idea and perspectives and that then gives us a basis for comparing and contrasting, developing our own critical perspective, rather than just taking what one person sets before us at face value. Such reading will also stimulate new ideas, new avenues of exploration and study. It encourages us to develop our own perspective, to synthesise ideas from different sources and approaches.

There is much more to learning than just finding a guide on ‘how to do x’. Practical skills are important, but the ability to explore and critically examine ideas and form your own views is an essential basis for more sophisticated forms of learning – for example, the learning needed for the type of complex situations you will encounter if your work involves having to influence other people in some way (whether you are trying to help them, manage, them educate them or sell to them in some way).

And what about writing? One of the reasons I wrote my Effective Writing e-book is that I was very aware that a lot of people struggle with getting their message across in writing. This is partly because of changes in technology – text speak, for one thing, and trying to express everything in an abbreviated form in emails for another. But, I believe it also partly relates to the fact that fewer people seem to be reading these days. The less you read, the less exposed you are to different writing styles, different devices for getting your message across clearly and effectively. And the less confident you will be with spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Writing is important not only for communicating successfully, but also for (i) impressing people; and (ii) consolidating and extending your learning and understanding. Poor spelling, poor or non-existent punctuation and dodgy grammar may not be the end of the world in the overall scheme of things, but if you are trying to impress someone for whatever reason, not being able to write well will stand in your way to a great extent. I have some sympathy with the argument that things like spelling shouldn’t matter as long as you get your message across, but the fact remains that they do matter – they will give people a bad impression.

Writing also helps you think through your understanding. Trying to explain something to someone else (in a letter, report or essay, for example) can help to deepen and/or extend your own understanding. This is why schools, colleges and universities ask students to write essays – not just for assessment purposes, but also to consolidate learning.

So, reading and writing are tools that can be really useful for us in so many ways. We can use them, sharpen them and get the best results from them, or we can leave them gathering dust in our toolbox, just using them to the bare minimum when we have to.


Thompson, N. (2013) Effective Writing, an e-book published by Avenue Media Solutions and available on Kindle and other e-book platforms.

See also: Thompson, N. (2011) Effective Communication: A Guide for the People Professions, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.


If it doesn’t work, stop doing it. If it works, do it more

We are well aware, of course, that if something doesn’t work, we should stop doing it – although that knowledge doesn’t necessarily prevent quite a few people from pressing on regardless with tactics that just don’t deliver the required results. Part of the problems is the power of habit (particularly when such habits have become ingrained in the culture and become part of the expected norms of the workplace concerned. So often people get into an established way of working that they feel comfortable with and stick with it, whether or not it actually works. Much of the time they don’t even know whether or not it is working. So embedded are they in this standardised way of working that they do not take time out to gauge whether what they are doing is making a positive difference. In some cases it may actually be making the situation worse.

I have spoken to many groups of people (on training courses, at conferences or in consultancy projects) about the importance of evaluating our efforts. I have highlighted the dangers of pressing on regardless, without having a clear picture of whether what we are doing is actually helping us to move forward. Huge amounts of time, effort, energy and scarce resources can be wasted through working practices that have not been evaluated. This is not only inefficient, but can also have an adverse effect in terms of morale. Ineffective practices are unlikely to generate much job satisfaction or opportunities for creativity and learning, so unquestioned habitual practices are bad news all round.

However, there are two common responses I have encountered and have had to deal with when raising the issue of evaluating working practices. The first is the ’We don’t have time’ response. I am then faced with the challenge of trying to get across – tactfully and constructively – the message: So, you have got time to waste on ineffective and inefficient practices that undermine morale and block progress, but you haven’t got time to look at whether what you are doing is actually worth doing? It’s a question of using time to save time.

The second common response goes along the lines of: ‘We don’t have the expertise to evaluate our work’. This displays a confusion between formal, research-type evaluation carried out by experts (an activity that can have an important role to play in many circumstances) and day-to-day evaluation processes. What evaluation boils down to is being clear and focused about: (i) what you are trying to achieve; and (ii) whether or not you are achieving it. Often the problem lies with either: (i) a failure to establish in the first place what was to be achieved (that is, the goal-setting phase has been omitted from the work process); or (ii) objectives have been developed that are too vague, making it difficult to establish whether or not they have been achieved.

Evaluating our work efforts is not rocket science, and it gets easier with practice. The key, as I have already suggested, is clarity – particularly clarity of focus. Habit and unquestioned cultural norms tend to act as a fog, serving as a barrier to clarity and generating a lack of focus. Consequently, we need to understand evaluation as part of reflective practice – being prepared to think about (and think through) what we are doing and not just rely on habit and routine to get us through the day.

By making evaluation a part of our working lives, we are in a strong position to know what doesn’t work, so that we can stop doing it, and appreciate what does work, so that we can do more of it.

Be lucky

I’ve never given any credence to the idea that you ‘make your own luck’, as if chance in life can be ruled out in some way. But there is a very real sense in which we can affect the luck we have. We can’t stop chance occurrences from happening, but there is much we can do about how such matters affect us.

The Ancient Greeks spoke of the constant tension in life between Cosmos (order) and Chaos (disorder). Many things happen along straightforward lines. They are regular, predictable and orderly – natural processes, for example. But that is only half the story. There are also things that happen at random, in unpredictable, disorderly ways. For a long time there was a scientific orthodoxy that assumed that everything in the universe followed predictable patterns. Those things that appeared to be random were following patterns that science was yet to discover and understand. As Einstein famously said: God does not play dice with the Universe. However, quantum science, as it has come to be known, is now challenging that orthodoxy and helping us to understand that there are indeed random elements in the Universe – chance is real and not just an illusion that scientists have yet to dispel.

So, if we have to accept that we are all subject to chance, how can we make sure that we can ‘be lucky’? Well, it all depends on our reaction to chance events, how we respond to them. So, we can’t stop certain things from happening, but we can control what we do about them. We can be negative and defeatist and just moan about some untoward event that has happened. Or, we can cast off any such cynicism and look closely at what we can do positively about the situation we are in. It comes down to something I have discussed with many, many groups of people over the years (on training courses, at conferences, when being a guest speaker at a university and so on): when we encounter a situation we are not happy with we have two main choices: on the one hand we can spend our time complaining about has happened and bemoaning our fate, thereby contributing to low morale (hence making a bad situation worse). Or, on the other hand, we can pull together and support one another in doing the best we can in difficult circumstances (and thereby make a contribution to boosting morale, rather than lowering it).

So, we don’t make our own luck if by that we mean we can prevent or counteract all chance happenings – that simply isn’t realistic. There are so many things that will happen that we can neither control nor influence. However, we can ‘be lucky’ by making the most of the opportunities chance throws up for us – capitalising on the positives, making the best of the negatives – rather than allowing ourselves to be trapped in a vicious circle of disempowering negativity.

Luck and chance are about opportunities. Chance happenings will close off certain opportunities, but will open the door to certain others. If we see luck as something we just have to learn to live with, we will be missing the opportunities that are presented by chance events, whether those events are positive or negative, welcome or unwelcome. It’s what we do with them that counts.

Don’t procrastinate

Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off to the day after?, as the old joke goes. But the price we pay for procrastination is no laughing matter. We have known for a long time that one of the key elements that contributes to stress is not having a sense of control. The more out of control we feel, the more stressed we are likely to get, and that can then have all sorts of detrimental effects.

A common reason for procrastinating in the first place is anxiety – for example, putting things off that we don’t feel comfortable or confident about doing (the things we do feel comfortable and confident about are likely to be the things we do first). So, what can easily happen is that our anxiety leads to procrastination, procrastination reduces our sense of control, which creates stress, and that, in turn, increases our anxiety. So, a vicious circle has been established. And, as is so often the case with vicious circles, once they start they can be really difficult to get out of.

Now consider the alternative. We plan our work, we establish our priorities and work our way methodically through them, so that anything that gets left until tomorrow is the least important (not what we feel least comfortable or confident about – which may well be very important stuff). As a result of this, we are likely to have a greater sense of control and therefore feel less stressed, which should then make us feel less anxious. We will then have fewer things that we feel uncomfortable and unconfident about – so it is good news all round! What we have done is take a vicious circle (negative and destructive and a significant source of problems) and developed it into a virtuous circle (positive and constructive and a significant source of confidence and motivation).

I have had the opportunity to speak to a large number of groups of people about this, on training courses, for example. A common response is words to the effect of: ‘That sounds a good plan, I will try to do that’, to which I would normally reply: ‘Why are you saying you will try to do this? Why aren’t you saying that you will do this? It’s 100% within your control’. The ensuing discussion gets them thinking about what they need to do to make the changes in approach. It helps them to realise that saying that they will ‘try’ cedes a degree of control – so they are already falling foul of the problem they are trying to solve.

Of course, the irony here is that the ‘I will try’ approach can easily become a form of procrastination in itself. That is, they go away from the course with the intention of giving it a go, but they soon get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of their normal workplace routines, and before long, the idea has disappeared, left for ‘another day’.


So, if you are going to get the benefit of this more positive and effective approach, you need to grasp the nettle and make it happen. If you don’t, you are back onto the slippery slope of procrastination. It’s in your own hands. Take control and make it happen or let the control slip from your hands. Empower yourself or disempower yourself: the choice is yours.