Friday, 28 February 2014

Are smart phones smart?

Just about everyone I know has a smart phone and no doubt they are fantastic gadgets. And if you're reading this blog on yours, thank you very much for taking the time to check me out!

My phone, I think, just about counts as a smart phone, but it's basic pay-as-you-go and I only use it for essential calls and texts. I don't access emails or the web on my phone, preferring to use a laptop or tablet.

I see many people every day, with their head down at that characteristic angle, looking at the screen, often while walking along outdoors, or on the train, or at work, or even during a training session. (BTW, please don't do that, the trainer may feel you're not exactly engaged!)

Therein lies my problem with smart phones. It's an attention issue. Head down in a smart phone, you're going to miss an awful lot of what's going on. And much of that is exactly what makes you feel good... like taking in a lovely day and the interesting cloud formations, sharing a smile, checking out the architecture, watching other people and their interactions, or the nature around you (for me that is a deep pleasure, something I savour).

It's also potentially a stress issue. It's reactive and not mindful. You're always available. And there's that tendency with social media to compare your life unfavourably with others'. And to check out the news, which isn't usually a barrel of laughs either.

Too much smart phone time is not smart. It's good sometimes to pay attention to what's going on, now.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Santa doesn't have an irrational fear of flying

Phobias. Many people have these irrational fears. The two which have affected me most over the years are fear of flying and fear of heights.

Fear of flying has been the one that's had the most impact on my life, causing stress and anxiety. Or perhaps terror was a more appropriate word for what I felt in the early days! It's the fear I have absolutely had to deal with because most of my clients are 500 miles away. So I fly a lot.

If you experience such fears, I'll bet that you, like me, will have been on the receiving end of all sorts of 'helpful' advice... Alan, the pilots just wouldn't fly if it was unsafe.... Don't you realise it's statistically by far the safest form of travel...? Of course, this advice though well-meant is useless, because these are logical, rational explanations and phobia is an irrational fear.

I found that I had to develop my own strategies that worked for me.

One of the worst things is turbulence, that air bumpiness which you can't control. For flying phobics this is frankly terrifying.

This first effective strategy I developed was my counting backwards technique.

Firstly, I close my eyes and sit right back in the seat. Then, I consciously and deliberately slow down my breathing. And this is the most important part; I count backwards slowly from 500. I found the counting backwards to be particularly helpful. It takes more of your attention and concentration to count backwards, so helps distract your thoughts. Also, having a high starting number means you never get even close to zero before the bumpiness passes. I found that reassuring. It gave me a better sense of control. Once I had used this several times, I found I could calm myself down more quickly. In the early days, I used this strategy a lot, for take-off, landing and any bumpy parts in between. Now, I only use this occasionally, but I still find it's helpful.

The second main strategy I developed was my Santa in his sleigh technique.

This is a very different kind of strategy, but I've found it to work very well. Here, when I know it is going to be really bad (e.g. in stormy weather), I pretend I am Santa, taking to his sleigh to deliver presents. I figure Santa wouldn't be the slightest bit perturbed by a bit of uppy and downy air and may indeed revel in it (in a HO, HO, HO kind of way). I kind of take on Santa's persona and characteristics and thereby can ride it out. Although 'I' might get freaked by the storminess, it's all in a day's work for 'Santa'. Besides, my beard is nearly white these days anyway.

Psychology-wise this second approach is a bit like something called Personal Construct Theory pioneered by George Kelly. You adopt a persona which has the characteristics and behaviours you want to embody.

I hope maybe there's something in either of these approaches you can adapt to work for you if you have similar fears. Don't let it put you off trying other approaches or seeking professional help. But there's something deeply satisfying and worthwhile about developing your own strategies. It's that control thing, that self-efficacy, the sense of confidence you get when you know can deal with the stuff that has previously caused you huge stress and anxiety.

One thing I should add. If you fear flying, flying a lot does help. In my case, I had to because my business depended on it. But I'm glad I did. It forced me to face my fears and develop strategies.

I mentioned my other irrational fear was heights. Nowadays, to help me deal with heights I imagine I'm in up a plane!

Floppy shoe disaster - the CBT approach

Shoes. What could possibly go wrong...?

Last week, whilst walking very briskly across Bristol to catch a train to go and deliver another day's training, something didn't feel right.

I looked down and could see most of my socked left foot. Now call me insightful but I realised that something must have gone very wrong in the shoe department. It had. The sole had almost completely parted company from the upper and was hanging on only at the very toe-end and heel-end. The rest was a gaping hole. The right shoe was starting to split too. Great.

Pingoo-like, I flopped along to the station, and later flopped along the mile or so at the other end. In the rain.With increasingly wet feet. The wet feet didn't bother me. Hey, I play golf in the Scottish Winter. You can't let a little discomfort bother you!

But I was definitely perturbed about the prospect of my shoes not lasting out the day, and more to the point by what my client and trainees would think... Look at this guy... Can he not afford a decent pair of shoes?... Imagine turning up to deliver training looking like that... Maybe he is having some major personal problems and has stopped noticing his shoddy appearance... Who hired this guy?... He certainly doesn't create the right impression....

This proved to be excessively pessimistic.

The reality? Nobody seemed to notice. The detailed explanation I had prepared for the dilapidated state of my footwear was not required. The training went well. People seemed pleased and were not put off by seeing more of my feet than anticipated.

Later, I Pingoo'd back through Bristol and out to the airport. Security did not think I was a shoe bomber and allowed me to board the plane to Edinburgh.

The shoes just about hung on and I finally made it home. When my wife picked me up from the train at Stirling, she kindly brought me another pair of shoes. (Wives are good.) My shoe nightmare was over.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Embracing the pleasures of public transport

Recently, I scrapped my old VW Passat diesel. A sad day after more than 10 years of mostly happy and reliable ownership, and it's still strange that it isn't sitting there outside the house. I'd been putting it off (procrastination again), but it was the only sensible thing to do. I just wasn't using the car and the cost of getting into a saleable state didn't add up.

When I first started in business, I drove everywhere, sometimes the length of the country for business meetings and to deliver training. My wife confided recently that she used to fear the knock on the door from the Police. Over the years though, I've driven less and less, and now am a full convert to public transport.

Today's business trip is a typical example. Later today, I will get a lift to Stirling Bus Station to get bus to about a mile and a half from Edinburgh Airport's terminal. From there I'll walk in to the terminal. There I'll check in and wait (you have to accept the waiting, there's a lot of that with public transport), then board a plane to Bristol. From Bristol Airport, which isn't very near Bristol, I will get another bus to Bristol Bus Station, which is next door to my hotel. Once I have checked in I'll walk to the nearest Wetherspoons (a pub chain and the traveller's friend), have a pint and something to eat, then walk back and go to bed.

Tomorrow morning, I'll walk from my hotel to Bristol Temple Meads Station and get a train to near where I am delivering training, then walk the rest of the way. At the end of the day, I'll get a train back to Bristol, walk back across Bristol to my hotel, stopping off at Wetherspoons again. Then I will pick up my case, and get a bus back to the Airport. Then a lot more waiting, which may involve a snooze in one of the big black massage chairs that nobody uses. Then I'll board a flight back to Edinburgh Airport, which isn't very near Edinburgh. From there, I'll get a bus to [Edinburgh] Haymarket Station, then wait for a train to get me back to Stirling, where I'll be picked up and taken home, getting back around midnight.

And that's it for this trip: 4 bus journeys, 4 train journeys, 2 flights, quite a lot of walking and 2 short car journeys either end.

Has my stress reduced by embracing public transport? You might be surprised at this, but it has, absolutely. Once you get your head round it, and accept the waiting, it's way better than driving.

One huge issue is the fatigue - it's a bad and dangerous mix with driving. Doing what I do is demanding. Driving home afterwards when you're knackered and the weather's bad isn't just stressful, it's madness. It's better to relinquish control and accept being driven or flown.

But there are other important benefits of public transport, including:
  • All the waiting gives you opportunities to think, plan and develop stuff (I try to avoid work-work and use travelling for strategic stuff and creative work, it's much more pleasurable)
  • You can connect with people and get into interesting conversations
  • You can people-watch and listen
  • You can rest and even sleep, given enough space and comfort (which is worth paying the extra for)
  • Especially on trains, you can pay attention to where you are, what's going on and watch the world go by - if you're interested in geography or the natural world this can be a pleasure indeed
  • You can read for pleasure or learning or both
  • You'll be more physically active and will certainly walk much more - this will help keep the weight down (if you like food as much as I do this is literally a big benefit!)
I've found that if you can accept the waiting and delays and give up control, it's possible to embrace and even love public transport.

I was sad to see my old car go. But, truth be told, I don't miss it.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Control and stress: do you have a case of 'the Yips'?

This is a tragic account of a stress-related condition, the Yips, that affects golfers (and some other sports where you hit a still ball). But bear with me, there's a stress management lesson here for all of us.

You may not be a golfer, but I can assure you golf is a difficult sport to master. It's physically difficult to master the skills, which often have to be produced under duress (like bad Scottish weather!). Psychologically it's even more demanding. You never completely master it, truth be told.

But the part of golf that causes the most problems is the part that should be the easiest; putting. You've probably tried putting even if you've never set foot on a golf course. How hard can it be? You're on a perfectly manicured green and all you have to do is hit a ball into a hole from a few feet. If you give a putter to a kid, they look at the putt, look at the hole, line it up and knock it into the hole. Easy. Sickeningly, annoyingly easy.

As golfers get older and stronger, they get better and more consistent at hitting longer shots. At the same time though they often get worse at putting. Sometimes much worse. They can develop the Yips.

It typically happens with short putts, sometimes very short putts; the ones we feel we should get into the hole (long putts are usually unaffected because we don't assume we should hole them all). Instead of smoothly, naturally, stroking the ball into the hole, the stroke becomes an ugly, twitchy jab. The ball dives off, to the left or right, and sometimes way past the hole. Those afflicted get very stressed on the golf course and have nightmares about putting off it. It can ruin the pleasure of playing.

Some personalities are more prone, but the basic problem is one of expectation (and associated anxiety and stress) and control. The more we feel we should hole the putt, the worse it gets. Of course, the shorter the putt, the more we feel should hole it.

We pile pressure on ourselves to hole the putt (the outcome). We can become obsessed with that outcome.

I must hole it, surely. I mean, how can I possibly miss it from there??. (But we fear we will miss it, increasing the anxiety.) I'm going to miss it and lose a shot. Such a stupid shot to lose, and so costly. How could I be so stupid? And I'll look like an idiot and let people down. Inevitably, psychological stress increases, increasing physical tension. And extreme tension and smoothly putting a ball into a hole don't mix. Hence the twitchy, jabby stroke... the Yips.

The best golf book I ever read was a book about putting called "Putting Out Of Your Mind" by Sports Psychologist, Bob Rotella. It had very little to say about the physical aspects but a lot to say about the psychology of putting. One of Bob's tips stood out: you gain control by giving up control. It seems strange, contradictory even, but it's perhaps the best single piece of stress management advice I've ever come across, weather or not you're having problems on the greens!

With putting, there are so many things that influence the whether or not the ball actually goes into the hole; the slope, the grain of the green, the way the hole is cut that day, a gust of cross-wind. Ultimately, we can't control the outcome. All we can do is to control ourselves and try to hit a good putt in the right direction. Lining the putt up and a good, smooth putting stroke will help. Mental relaxation and a good mental routine will help. More effort generally won't.

The less we worry about the outcome, the less tense we will be, and the more likely we are to hole the putt.

Control is a huge issue in stress management and resilience generally, maybe the biggest. A sense of control over what happens in your life, known as an internal locus of control, is definitely worth striving for. It will make you more resilient and better able to cope with adversity when it comes along.

But where does that sense of control come from? Not it transpires from trying to control outcomes, because often we can't control them - it's better to accept them. It comes more from focussing on the process; what we think and do. It's well worth investing time in improving our skills, behaviours and our attitudes.

Remember, the most stressed people in the world ever are control freaks.

Rules and the problem of naked joggers

I'm not and have never been a great one for 'following the rules'. The label for this in 'non-conformist'.

Some rules are good, even for non-conformists like me. Laws for instance. They are (mainly) good rules, worked out, tried and tested, over a long period of time (so-called Common Law). Some social rules or norms, like wearing your clothes in public make sense too. Though why anyone would want take off any layers in the British climate beats me (it's not just the cold, it's the midges).
I was delivering training near Bristol recently when a delegate said she saw some naked joggers (male) while she was on her way to work. It turned out many others had seen them too. Now I like my personal freedoms but is naked jogging ever OK? I don't think so. It was cold and I'm sure there wasn't much to see(!) but that's not the point. And if they caused a fatal accident, wouldn't that be manslaughter?
But there are also those unwritten rules related to other people's expectations of us that can cause problems. The word which comes to mind is 'should'. Should-rules are psychologically dangerous, potentially leading to unhappiness, anxiety and stress. Examples include: "We should go to my in-laws this Christmas because we went to my parents' last year" and "I should master PowerPoint transitions so I can deliver the sales presentation in the slick way my boss does".

A good thing is to think about and develop your own set of rules to live and work by. Simple stuff like:

Treat all people well
Live within your means
Don't try to control everything
Present in the way that suits you
Travel light
Take opportunities to connect
Pay attention to what's going on now
See your friends regularly

What would your rules be?

Monday, 17 February 2014

Just Start...

I have proved that I can procrastinate with the best of them. I was going to start this blog in early January and here we are in February, well past Valentines Day...

In my mind I've come up with several excuses for not starting, none of which are really legitimate. The real reason? I know to make a blog a success (which for me would be to have people interested in what I've got to say, get a following, and maybe even have people do something as a result) takes a lot of work. Ongoing commitment over the longer term is required.

I have a good feeling for the size of the task. It was the same with running events. To get results, you have to run a lot of them in a lot of different locations, and events are very hard work. Especially when you are the organizer and the main entertainment.

If you want to get anywhere, or build anything worthwhile, or make a change, you have to start.

So, here we are, the first blog post. I've started. Finally.

Just start. (Then keep going. And see what happens.)