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Many Thanks January: How to adopt an Attitude of Gratitude in 2017!

  • 6th January 2017 4:24 pm

So 2017 has finally descended upon us and in the immortal words of iconic 1970’s rock band Pilot: ‘January, sick and tired, you’ve been hanging on me!!’ Poor January it certainly gets some bad press! This month is renowned for the commonly-named January Blues following a season of partying, excesses and all the glitz and the glamour of New Year’s eve; which can sometimes lead to us to feel a little deflated as its back to work and the usual routines!

We view January as the month of cut-backs and restrictive resolutions that are so often unrealistic and unachievable and can further enhance the ‘fed up factor’ when it comes to this time of year! But what about if we were to put down those well-intentioned yet constricting New Year’s Resolutions for a minute and re-frame this time of year in a positive way? Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson observes that the brain is unfortunately primed to be like ‘Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good!’. So with this in mind, at the beginning of this year we could instead take this opportunity to try and work on capturing some positive experiences, and ultimately boost our happiness and wellbeing!

Our brains are set up to absorb the negative as this was pretty helpful for our prehistoric ancestors i.e. attend to threat = don’t get eaten! However, it is important that we help ourselves correct the Prehistoric Bug in our brains and concentrate on taking in the good! We must try to resist setting rigid and uncompromising New Year’s Resolutions, such as visiting the gym umpteen times a week, eating smoothie marathons, or knitting ourselves a new wardrobe; that will feed into the negative bias in our brains. Instead we can focus on literally rewiring our brains to be happier and more resilient through practicing gratitude by writing a daily Gratitude Journal – quite simply recalling three things each day that you are grateful for!

This process of taking in the good stuff can effectively change the structure of our brains – pretty neat eh?! By reflecting on three things you are thankful for each day, you are weaving resources into the fibres of your cerebral matter and priming your brain to be happier and more resilient and as they say ‘neurons that fire together wire together!’. The science behind this stacks up as demonstrated in the case of London taxi cab drivers who, after their intensive training programme, actually change the make-up of their brains through memorising the many streets of the Big Smoke; and Gratitude Practice works in pretty much the same way! By taking in the good on a regular basis you are training the brain to focus more readily on the upbeat aspects of life and boosting grey matter and neural pathways helping to light up positive experiences! Martin Seligman the founder of Positive Psychology, completed a study showing that doing this simple gratitude exercise can actually enhance self-reported happiness levels by a whopping 10% – now that would be a Christmas present worth talking about!

Your ‘Three Good Things’ can be as obvious or as subtle as you like – I am grateful for the flowers I can see on the way to work, I am grateful for my new niece, I am grateful for the fact that I am healthy and go for a run/jog/ fast walk (following Christmas excesses!!)…. Just give it a go and see what comes up – Seligman found that once people tried this out for a week they were hooked as it is a naturally reinforcing activity! For me I’m not so ‘sick and tired’ of January after writing this blog as I am grateful that I can spread the word on the power of being grateful!! So that’s number one on my list and I am now signing out to reflect on my other two…

If you would like to know more about how you can grow an ‘attitude of gratitude’ in your company or use other cutting-edge psychological techniques to increase your employees’ wellbeing and productivity then please get in touch with Wise Self Wellbeing on 07739003259 or wiseselftherapy@gmail.com.

Get into ‘The Zone’: 5 Practices Olympic Athletes employ that can be used to boost Productivity!

  • 17th August 2016 5:21 pm

So the Olympic Games are upon us once again, and from the comfort of our homes and TV sets, we can witness the epic feats and sporting achievements of elite athletes from across the globe. These extraordinary humans perform at the highest of standards, not only at a physical level but also in regards to their mental state. As it currently stands, our very own Team GB are boasting a record number of medals, and continue to go from strength to strength in Rio!

So is it possible to consider our demanding work schedules, with the expectations to attend meetings, liaise with colleagues on crucial issues, problem solve contentious concerns and make tough decisions on a daily basis; similar to the challenges faced by these athletes?! We are required to perform at an unrelenting pace in our workplaces and are often asked to demonstrate high levels of endurance and resilience; so in some ways we could view ourselves as ‘Elite Business Athletes!’ It is therefore essential that we train our brains to enable us to meet challenges and obstacles with resourcefulness and vigour. In order to accomplish this, we can learn a great deal from the following habits adopted by our favourite Olympic Athletes, and utilise these in the workplace to maximise productivity:

1. Concentration – essentially the practice of being mindful and being in a ‘state of flow’. Mindfulness is about the ability to focus and cultivate attention and concentration skills, so that we can immerse ourselves in the task at hand, whatever that might be. Simone Biles, the American gymnast who boasts 4 gold medals, is renowned for her concentration and ability to switch her focus ‘on and off like a light switch’. Like Simone we can also use the skill of mindful awareness, to focus deeply on critical activities in the workplace; calming the verbal chatter of our minds and enhancing our performance.

2. Commitment – achieved through daily practice and the setting of manageable goals and adherence to them! We often talk about the ‘law of little things’ and it brings to mind the famous quote by Vincent Van Gough ‘Great things are accomplished by a series of smaller things’. A wonderful example of this can be seen in our very own GB cycling team who are dominating the Games, by utilising the practice of ‘marginal gains’. The idea is that by making incremental improvements to a whole host of areas i.e. diet, environment etc. that the cumulative effects overall will be far greater. We can adopt this process in our own lives by looking at the small changes we can make in different areas of our work i.e. structuring our time more effectively, prioritising emails, so that we make small adaptations leading to continuous overall improvements!

3. Confidence – involving recognising anxiety-producing situations and validating the feelings associated with these, whilst retaining composure. It is important to realise that nerves are unavoidable and rather than trying to resist or block these feelings, we can actually engage with them. Tom Daley was very open about his problems with confidence and anxiety following a difficult dive in 2012, however he was able to conquer these difficulties, process the emotions and move forward to win bronze in this year’s Olympics! It is possible for any of us to experience nerves when approaching a challenging experience, such as giving an important presentation or attending a difficult meeting, or pitching in front of a demanding audience! It is vital that we accept these emotions and process them – recognising that they are a part of life and we can use them to our advantage to spur us on when needed!

4. Rest and recuperation periods. If we look at Usain Bolt’s schedule we might expect his regime to include high intensity workouts and high-octane sporting rituals. However, in addition to this a crucial part of his plan includes rest and relaxation periods, to ensure that he can perform at his peak. Active rest and recovery periods are vital in the workplace and although they may feel counter-intuitive, they ensure that rather than working when we are tired, we can take short intervals that will revitalise us and therefore make us more productive. By managing our energy levels as an elite athlete would, we can enhance our concentration and engagement followed by mindful recovery periods, followed by a return to full capacity. It’s all about achieving balance to maximise performance!

5. Framing outcomes as learning points rather than failures. A theme that is recurring again and again in these Olympics is around the idea that it is ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. Gymnast Amy Tinkler showed how despite some disappointing results over in America earlier this year, she could put what she had learnt into practice and secure a bronze medal for the GB team! We can use this idea in the workplace by not being frightened to make mistakes and seeing ourselves as being in a constant state of evolution – learning and improving as we advance in our chosen field, whilst enhancing our skills and expertise!

We have witnessed some phenomenal and inspiring moments executed by a number of athletes during these Olympic Games. It is evident that paying attention to our minds and conditioning them as we would do our bodies can assist peak performance; boosting not only achievements in the sporting arena but also in the workplace. We can learn a lot from our favourite athletes by following their practices and if you would like to find out more about how you may incorporate these habits into a working day for yourself or your colleagues please contact Wise Self Wellbeing Consultancy on 07739003259 or email wiseselftherapy@gmail.com . Wise Self runs workshops and one to one sessions teaching Psychological Resilience skills as required. Taster Workshops are also offered – please get in touch for more details.

Let’s get creative: How Mindfulness can help your company excel in 2016

  • 5th January 2016 10:38 am

So that time of year is upon us again, when fuelled by the season of excess, we set numerous resolutions in both personal and work life: ‘I must eat healthier’, ‘I must work harder’ etc, etc. Pledges comprising of juicing rituals and ridiculous numbers of visits to the gym, have often faded by the end of January; however when it comes to work many of us seem to fail to recognise our unrealistic expectations, continuing to work longer and longer hours.

Despite this, UK productivity is lagging behind its European counterparts, having been termed as the ‘challenge of our time’ by George Osborne. A recent report by the Enterprise Research Centre, exploring the issue of productivity, found that SME’s in this country were struggling to innovate and as a result this was negatively affecting output per worker. Innovation is the process within organisations whereby new concepts are transformed into viable merchandise and services and without this companies would stagnate. So if this is so important for our economy, how do we go about fostering innovative behaviours? Perhaps the answer lies in the relationship between innovation and creativity. Creativity represents an eagerness to explore new territory and access novel concepts and relinquish old approaches and traditions. It is therefore the first essential stage in achieving innovation and in our current fast-paced occupational environment, it is crucial for organisations in retaining their competitive edge.

Our current work practices however, appear to be inadvertently stifling our creativity and our ability to produce new ideas and solutions. UK working culture dictates that people should be working longer hours, often from home, with the people exercising realistic boundaries by leaving at appropriate times, often vilified by their colleagues. When people work too hard or for too long they become stressed, and Paul Gilbert (2009) found that when a person feels under a great deal of pressure their internal threat system is activated – effectively causing the mind to ‘shut down’. Rather than being open to new possibilities and taking risks, they stick to what they see as being comfortable; their usual habits and routines and thinking patterns. By simply working harder and harder we are unintentionally shutting down the creative part of our minds and our ability to engage with new solutions.

Research has shown that it can be simply be the way that we view a given task that effects how creative we are. If we feel exhausted, stressed and over-worked and start to view challenges as threats, this activates the ‘aversion’ systems in our brains; thus narrowing our focus and reducing flexibility and innovation. A study completed by Friedman and Forster (2001) observed the above in a group of students whom they asked to complete a puzzle. Those who completed the task under the threat of a negative outcome, in comparison to those who worked towards achieving a reward, performed significantly worse on a subsequent test of creativity. They were more anxious and therefore more avoidant and less willing to engage with new experiences and take risks.

So how can we adopt an open curious stance that encourages us to take a step back and allow our minds to engage with and generate new ideas? One way of achieving this is by practising Mindfulness – put simply paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental manner; involving calming and quietening the mind through, for example, the act of mindful meditation. By focussing on the breath we can become more aware of our thoughts, feelings and sensations and resist becoming bogged down in old patterns of thinking and ‘mental ruts’ that can keep us stuck. Although this sounds pretty straightforward on paper, the actual practice of Mindfulness presents many more difficulties. Often people who are submerged in an environment of over-working, as mentioned above, feel that they might be being passive or lazy to take a step back and recalibrate, as this feels at odds with typical view of working harder and harder. However studies have shown that Mindfulness actually makes us more creative, better problems solvers and enhances our cognitive ability (Ostafin & Kassman 2012).

Perhaps the greatest challenge is incorporating mindful practice into our day-to-day lives and in order to do this it is crucial that we become creative with our mindful activities! It is about experimenting with what works for you: whether that is meditation, a walk in the park where you are mindfully aware of your surroundings, painting, yoga – the choice is yours. In essence Mindfulness is merely a way of reconnecting with the here and now and opening up your mind, so that you can become more creative and let go of the old mental ruts that you may have become accustomed to; ultimately increasing your innovation and your competitive edge in the workplace.

For more ideas as to how you might incorporate Mindfulness in your life and get creative, please contact Wise Self.

References

Friedman Forster (2001) The effects of promotion and prevention cues on creativity, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81.

Gilbert, P (2005) Compassion, Routledge.

Ostafin BD, Kassman KT. Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem-solving Consciousness and Cognition. 2012;21:1031-1036.

All work and less productivity: Should Junior Doctors really be working around the clock in the NHS?!

  • 1st December 2015 3:22 pm

The first strike by NHS Junior Doctors was originally planned for today, 1 December. Their grievances were around a proposed contract that they feared would have resulted in them having to work longer, and more unsociable hours. As it stands the strike is no longer going ahead and talks between medics and the government are ongoing. However it provokes an important question: Does simply ‘rolling one’s sleeves up’ and working longer and harder equate to greater productivity, or is this something that the public sector needs to re-evaluate?!

Our public services could in fact learn a lot from the private sector. Interestingly, the corporate lot have cottoned onto the fact that over-working is unhelpful, coining the term ‘Presenteeism’; to describe when working longer hours become detrimental to employees’ wellbeing and ultimately their productivity. It is widely-agreed that working for longer does not equate to greater efficiency, and that it is crucial employees have a work life balance and look after their wellbeing. Forward-thinking organisations including Johnson & Johnson, Google and Goldman Sachs have all introduced schemes in order to help people attend to their psychological and physical wellbeing and to prevent over-working.

In 2007 Google pioneered their Mindfulness programmes based on meditative practice; encouraging one to pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental manner by calming and quietening the mind. Rather than fostering an environment where people were working too many hours and feeling stressed, they wanted to ensure that people took the time they needed to become a more perceptive version of themselves. Taking time out to engage in a ten-minute meditation may seem controversial; however the evidence base for Mindful practice in the workplace is persuasive. Recent studies showing that even short practices of mindfulness can improve memory and decision making skills and problem solving ability (Zeidan et al 2010, Ostafin et al 2012). When we are stressed and overworked our decision making ability is impaired, and for Doctors in particular, the ability to make good decisions is of paramount importance to the health of their patients. Many medics, when interviewed on the subject of longer working hours, are claiming it is very difficult to provide a quality service when people are tired and overworked.

The negotiations that will take place over the coming days will determine what the new contract will look like; however it may be worth both parties familiarising themselves with the Mindful UK report, discussed in parliament last month. Recommendations made by this report advocate the benefits of the practice, suggesting its dissemination across workplaces in the UK. Perhaps an organisation that is in the business of looking after the wellbeing of others, could use the findings from this report to help maintain the wellbeing of its staff. Furthermore rather than suggesting that Doctors work longer and longer hours, it may be wise for the Government to look at initiatives incorporating mindfulness or other psychological approaches; to boost productivity and prevent the ever-growing culture of presenteeism in the NHS and its associated detrimental effects.

References

Zeidan F, Johnson SK, Diamond BJ, David Z, Goolkasian P. Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition. 2010; 19(2):597-605.

Ostafin BD, Kassman KT. Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem-solving Consciousness and Cognition. 2012;21:1031-1036.

Next week I will be exploring how engaging the creative part of our mind can make us more productive in the workplace..

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  • 6th October 2015 9:59 pm

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