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The two best presents you can give this Christmas

“So what do you think mummy?”, my eight year old asked me. “What should I go for?”.

His birthday was coming up and he’d been talking to me about what present to ask for. “I can’t decide”. He persisted, with all the urgency of an 8 year old making a very important decision.

“I think ask for what you want.” I said. “You’ve been talking about a camera for ages, so why not go for that?”

“Yes but which one, mum?”. This time his tone was slightly exasperated.

Divided attention

In truth I hadn’t really been listening, I’d been reading an e-mail from a client and checking my WhatsApp messages.

I turned to him and realised that I hadn’t heard the points he’d just made. I guessed they were something about the pros and cons of each camera option. Guiltily, I replied, “Just run it by me again…”, and we had a conversation.

How often do we do this in our lives? Divide our attention between those we’re with and our smartphone or tablet. The great irony of our modern day communications is that they can make it ever more difficult to stay truly connected to the people we’re actually with. We’re constantly distracted by messages and notifications. It’s just too tempting.

Choose your focus

If any of this resonates, it’s not your fault. That smartphone in your hand was designed to be addictive. And most of us have fallen hook, line and sinker. We can take back control though. We still have the choice of where we put our attention, of how we use our time and energy.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A friend recently posted this on Facebook:

“Ok people! I’m signing off all social media until Christmas. We have a couple of busy weeks as a family and I want to be super present for my lovely wife and kids. More time to read and reflect and just be!”

Be with who you’re with

When I was a young child we used to go to my Grannie’s house and have Christmas there most years. She was an amazing host and the meal involved multiple courses.

The thing that I remember loving the most though was after lunch when we’d sit around the table pulling crackers, telling jokes and stories and playing silly games. I loved it because it was the only time when we were all sat down as an extended family without anyone disappearing off.

The jokes were usually awful, there was always someone who didn’t get the game and one of us children stormed off because we didn’t win. It didn’t matter though. The point was that we were there, in it together.

Soon enough, there came a point when one of us -usually an adult – would get up and tidy up or watch TV. The truth was they needed some space. And that was OK too because we’d had that time of connecting.

The greatest gift that we can give to someone else is the gift of our time, our presence, our willingness to be with them and not just physically but with our full attention.

It’s also one of the hardest things to do, particularly with close family. Too often we assume we know what they are about to say because we’re so close to them. We don’t make the effort we would with someone we’d never met before.

The two best presents we can give

Most of us arrive at the Christmas break with a genuine need for some down time.

Give yourself the gift of honouring that need by scheduling in some time for yourself. A few hours to do something you really love. This is your first present – to yourself. When your own cup is full you’re much more able to give to your family when you do spend time together.

The second best present is to put that phone out of reach and just be with those you’re with in person.

So, who’s up for joining me in this?

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How to get unstuck from a conflict

If you’re feeling stuck in a conflict situation it’s not your fault. Sure, you’re part of what’s going on, but you need to know that it’s not all about you.  In this post I share some starting points for getting unstuck and changing the conflict.

Know that’s it not you

The first part to get unstuck is to let go of guilt and stop beating yourself up for being in this situation. Know that being affected by a conflict is in no way a comment on your worth or value as a person. Conflict is normal and inevitable and will happen.

Conflicts between people nearly always connect to bigger systems that need addressing.

They point towards a reality that is being highlighted.

I wish someone had told me this when I started out in the world of work around twenty years ago. I had landed my dream job pioneering a brand new initiative. It was exhilarating and exciting. It was also complicated, unclear and full of tensions.

At the age of 22, my ego told me that I was entirely to blame and what a terrible person I was for not being able to handle it better.

Hindsight tells me that there were cracks in the way the project had been set up from the start. Anyone else would have faced similar issues. I had no clear manager, a totally over-ambitious brief that kept changing, no clear decision-making process and six people advising me from six different perspectives! No wonder I was conflicted.

 

Ask for support

Asking for support is vital. The longer you try to battle on alone, the worse things are likely to get. Many of us have been schooled to prize independence – me included. When it comes to handling tensions, crises and change, we all need support. The kind of support you need most will depend on the nature of the conflict and your exact situation.

Examples include:

  • Someone external to facilitate a difficult conversation.

 

  • A meeting with your manager to get more clarity.

 

  • A team conversation with clear guidelines and a skilled chair.

 

  • Pushing for training to develop everyone’s skills.

 

  • An independent mediator to help you have ‘that’ conversation.

 

  • 121 conflict coaching.

 

Trust your judgement about what support you most need.

Talk about it

This sounds so blindingly obvious it almost goes without saying. Except it doesn’t.

People e-mail, text, direct message or simply avoid each other. Often they have stopped talking. Perhaps they tried talking and it went horribly wrong. Or maybe they avoided it altogether for fear of what might come up.

Or one person voted with their feet and decided to leave.

Leaving deals with the immediate issue but what is lost in the process? The opportunity to learn from the conflict, what it wanted to show us or to the organisation as a whole.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I’ve done all of those”, don’t be hard on yourself. Most of us probably have. At the time you were doing the best you could.

If you’re stuck in a conflict situation right now, talking can be one of the hardest things to do. It can also be one of the most transformative things you can try. Talking in a safe and supported context can get things unstuck in a way that you never imagined.

It can open up opportunities to learn about yourself. It can highlight ways in which the organisation needs to change and grow.

And remember you don’t have to go it alone. An independent facilitator, mediator or coach can be worth their weight in gold.

It takes courage, commitment and determination to ask for support and to talk when you’re in a conflict situation. However, these things are key to getting unstuck and moving forward.

Get in touch if this is you and you want that kind of help. You really don’t have to do it alone.

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5 top tips to have difficult conversations better

Would you like to have difficult conversations better? In this post I aim to share my experience of what works and what doesn’t.

 

Most of us avoid difficult conversations because deep down we hope that the need to have them will go away.  Occasionally, this happens and we are proved right for putting it off.

 

The person chooses to leave the organisation and we never see them again. A restructure and we’re given a different project. Or perhaps we move on ourselves and that deals with the issue.

 

In reality though, most of the time the problem does not go away and can even get worse if we don’t find a way to tackle things that are coming up.

 

Over the years of working as a mediator, I’ve learned some top tips  that make it more likely that we’ll get what we want when we have difficult conversations.  Here are my five top tips.

 

 

 

Have the conversation sooner rather than later

 

Many of us wait until things are really difficult before broaching the tricky subject. This makes the conversation more daunting than it needs to be.

 

This is true even in low-level situations where there isn’t really an overt ‘conflict’.

 

Imagine the following situation.

 

You are new to the organisation and your manager gives you a brief on a project that she wants you to work on. After reading it, there are several acronyms and terms that you don’t understand.

 

If you’re totally honest, you’re really not that clear on exactly what it is that you’re being asked to do either. You feel a bit frustrated and annoyed that she didn’t explain it in more detail.

 

However, thinking that you need to prove yourself because you’re new to the job, you get on and give it your best shot.

 

You set up some meetings to get started and at one of the meetings, someone asks for more background information about the project. You have no idea, so you blag your way through but the other person questions some of your answers. You feel mortified. You promise to go away and bring back some answers.

 

Now you know that you really need to have that difficult conversation with you manager and you feel embarrassed because it’s been three weeks and you know that you could have had the conversation three weeks ago.

 

 

 

Have the conversation in person, however hard it may seem

In the example above, the temptation might be to send an e-mail to your manager with a number of questions instead of facing her to ‘fess up’ that you need more clarity.

 

 

However, in my experience as a mediator, 99% of the time having difficult conversations over e-mail only leads to greater confusion and often worse. This is an extremely common trend because it sometimes feels easier.  Take a deep breath and ask for a meeting.

 

 

 

Prepare yourself for the conversation

 

Make some time in your diary to prepare for the conversation.  As you prepare, consider the following questions. What is your intention with this conversation? What do you need to get out of it? How do you want your approach to be with the other person?

Even taking 15 minutes to reflect on these questions will more likely lead to a better outcome.

 

Taking our example above, you decide that your intention is to admit that you’re not sure about the project and you need a bit more support getting to grips with it.

 

In terms of what you need to get out of it, you need some clarity on what the various terms mean and also on your role. You also need to know who is the best person to call on for future support and questions – your manager or someone else.

 

Finally you need to be heard and for your manager to understand that you need a bit more direction and support as someone totally new to the company.

 

You decide you want to be open, honest and to make an apology for not asking sooner.

 

 

Go in there with the intention to listen first rather than waiting to be heard

 

If you go in there with an intention to really listen, you’ll build rapport and be much more likely to get your concerns and needs heard.

 

 

A simple tip here is to reflect back some of the key things that the other person says. This is an extremely effective communication tool that has several purposes. It builds connection. It lets the other person know that you have heard them. You act like a mirror to their words and that means that they can correct anything that you may have misunderstood.  It creates much clearer communication. It’s about reflecting back the most important points.

 

 

 

In our example, let’s say that your manager tells you what the terms mean and a bit more about your role. You say to her, “so can I just check I’m getting this? You’re saying that IGP means the ideas generation project and that you want me to coordinate this project by focusing on building key partnerships and coming up with ideas for how to integrate these new technologies? So it’s an ideas generating role mainly?”.

 

 

 

However, you’re still left unclear about who to go to for support and reporting back. Your manager seems too senior but you’re not sure who else to go to.

 

 

Be clear, open and direct with your communication

 

 

It can take time to get clear. Don’t give up! If you still don’t understand what’s been said or think that they haven’t heard your perspective, you can state your point of view clearly, respectfully and directly. In this process, aim to communicate what your main need is.

 

 

“OK I think I’m much clearer on my role. I’m still not quite clear on who I report back to once I’ve done this initial scoping work on the IGP? Where does it go from there? I really need to know who to report to and also who I can go to if I still have questions.”

 

What would your top tip for having difficult conversations better be?

 

 

I’d love to hear!

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Some reflections on how to talk to children about war and peace

It was one of those bedtime moments when there’s a choice as a parent. Do I say ‘not now’ or do I engage in the topic? It was a chance to talk to my children about war. Understandably, not one I relished, but then I’d rather they hear it from me than somewhere else.

 

To give some context, my made-up bedtime story had included a fundraiser for refugees. We ended up talking about a friend from Iraq who is seeking asylum here and I explained that he’d come to the UK to escape a war in his country. So really, I had invited the discussion.

 

What’s war like?

 

 

What’s war like? My 8 year old asked me. It’s horrible, I said. I mean I want to know what it’s like, he persisted. Is it like two teams where people shoot at each other? I think he had laser quest in his head as he said this. What happens mum?

I could see that he wasn’t going to let it go. I was in a dilemma. I didn’t want to fob them off. Children know when you’re doing that. And I didn’t want to get too graphic either. My four year old was also listening attentively and waiting for my response. How could I talk to my children about war?

 

How to talk to my children about war?

 

 

I gathered myself and tried to explain some of the edited reality of war. I told them about drones and what a bomb is and how innocent people get injured or killed. I explained that our friend had lost his family. I talked about feelings of grief and sadness.

I explained how lucky we are not to have experience of war. I reassured them that there is no war in our country. I sang them to sleep. I was worried that they would have nightmares or wake up in the night afraid.

 

 

An interesting response

 

Thankfully, they both slept very well and the next morning my son came to me to excitedly show me a picture he’d drawn. It was a series of hand drawn emoji pictures with feeling descriptors next to them.

What’s that? I asked. It’s my feelings team. Is that something you’ve been doing at school? No I just made it up, I’m going to make a comic.

 

In the weeks since then we’ve had the summer holidays and the chance to talk about our beliefs about violence and peace. I studied these things when I did my Masters. As a result, I believe that most violence comes about when basic human needs are not met, needs for food or shelter, or for the chance to contribute through meaningful work or respect.

 

The link to climate change

 

 

As I write this, the international day of peace is imminent and the focus is the climate crisis. We also prepare to take our children out of school for a day for a global climate strike. We’ve tried our best to explain the implications of climate change. We’ve talked through the value of protesting nonviolently. My son is nonplussed, he hates any conflict and my daughter is delighted as she loves to try anything new and is not averse to confrontation!

However, if we are talking about basic human needs this issue feels too important to ignore. This is our future, this is their future. As I’ve learned time and again in my work with people in conflict, if we ignore an issue it doesn’t go away.

 

 

I, for one, want to learn how to talk to my children about war. And climate change. And all the other topics that are sometimes easier for me to avoid.

 

How have you talked to your children about war, peace or climate change? I’d love to hear your experiences.

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A lesson in preparing for conflict – from a 9 year old 

When I explain to people what I do, they’re often surprised and ask me, “so what kind of organisations call you in to do conflict resolution training for them?”.

It’s a great question.

 

What’s behind it is usually some level of disbelief along the lines of, “who has enough conflict that they’d need training in how to handle it?”. Or even, “who would need an external mediator?”

 

Sometimes, it will be followed up with, “That’s so interesting. I’m really lucky though, we don’t have much conflict at our place.”

 

I’m not denying that this is probably accurate for them. Right now.

 

 

Conflict is inevitable

 

However, conflicts will happen. It is more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if’. The beautiful diversity of us as people is that we have different perspectives, life experiences, stories, values and viewpoints. It’s quite possible to go weeks, months or sometimes even years without much tension with others.

 

Then there is a change of some sort and suddenly all hell breaks loose!

 

A restructure and new appointments are made. A new boss and suddenly you’re being micro-managed. A new member of staff on the team who has a different way of working to others and quickly gets labelled as ‘difficult’. A troubled pupil starts at the school from a very ‘challenging’ background.

 

Often we feel that we should be better a handling these situations.

 

I think we can cut ourselves some slack here though. Let’s face it, how many of us had lessons at school in this? And even as adults, it’s only a lucky few who’ve had any high quality training in how to handle difficult situations.

 

 

Training in handling conflict well

 

 

It’s exactly that kind of conflict resolution training that can pay for itself many times over. Research has shown that just being able to identify and name our feelings makes us feel better.  This is true even when the trigger for the stress is still there.

 

Imagine then what is possible if we offer staff outstanding created-for-you conflict resolution training? Training that will really help when tensions arise and persist.

 

Creating an open culture around handling conflict can pay off many times over. It’s an investment well worth making. If you’re considering getting some specialist training, but not sure if it’s worth it, consider this: what will happen if you don’t do it?

 

 

Changing a culture

 

 

Take a school I’ve worked with over the past couple of years, for example. The headteacher needed support because conflict on the playground was escalating and some children were on the edge of being excluded. We worked with her to bring about a culture change around handling tensions.  We trained both staff and pupils in working effectively with conflict.

 

A group of twenty children were selected to be peer mediators. One of these boys I’ll call Luke*. Luke came into the training and I was ‘warned’ about him. “He’s on his last chance”, the Head told me.

 

I expected to work hard at managing his behaviour but he sat there as quiet as a mouse that first day, taking it all in and fully engaged.

 

By the end of the training, he had come out of his shell and was one of our star mediators. The teachers were amazed. “I can’t believe Luke”, they said in whispered tones at lunchtime. “He’s doing so well.”

 

At the evaluation six months later, the Headteacher told me, “Luke has completely turned his behaviour around. He has taken his role really seriously and has become a role model for others. All the children look up to the peer mediators and want to be like them.”

 

I spoke to her again yesterday, as we approach the end of the school term and she said, “We’ve got involved in a lot of initiatives but we’re letting go of some of them as it’s a bit much. This one, though, we want to keep doing as it’s making such a difference. The year 4 and 5 teachers have commented on what a difference it’s made in their end of year reports.”

 

What might have happened if they’d decided it was just too much time, effort and money to invest in the peer mediation programme?

 

Have you invested in any kind of conflict resolution training? If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts below on what kind of impact it made.

 

*Not his real name.

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A lesson in humility and empathy

This week I had a lesson in humility from my eight year old and four year old.

It was the end of the day and I’d been in on-line meetings all day and had also battled with some frustrating run-ins with technology. We’d just eaten dinner together as a family and that had gone remarkably well.

I knew I needed to get out and get some exercise.

As it had finally stopped raining I suggested to my eight year old son that we go out for a walk-run. We walk for a minute, run for a minute for ten to fifteen minutes. He likes it because he enjoys timing us and is much fitter than me. I always struggle to keep up with him for the running part which he finds funny.

At the last minute my four year old decided she wanted to come along too, instead of hanging out with her dad, and she grabbed her scooter. We headed out to the park and all was well. At first.

However, as we went through the park my daughter saw the skateboard ramp at the edge of the playground in the distance and wanted to go there to scoot. I said no. She protested. I continued to say no, that this was a short trip to the park for a walk-run, not a playground trip.

In truth, it was heading towards her bedtime and I was calculating how much I wanted to get them both to bed and have some time to myself.

I held my ground and we were in a full-on standoff. We made it home but we were both furious. As soon as we got in the door I shouted at her that I was really angry and I didn’t want to take her again next time if she’s going to yell and scream when we don’t do what she wants (oh, the irony!). She stormed off to her bedroom in tears of rage. I went and locked myself in the bathroom to calm down.

My son ran upstairs and I didn’t try to stop him.

Having taken some deep breaths, I felt calmer and when I came out of the bathroom, both of them were stood there waiting. She looked both bashful and cross and immediately blurted out, “Sorry mummy”. I thanked her for saying sorry.

I could tell she was still angry though as she wouldn’t look at me.

So, I gathered myself and asked, “Were you disappointed and frustrated when I said you couldn’t go to the playground?”. She nodded. “Did you really want to go?”. She nodded again and fresh tears came.

I said that I understood she really wanted to go and at the same time this was a short trip to the park just to do a walk- run. I explained that I felt frustrated when she didn’t accept that.

Next, I asked her, “how did you feel when I said I didn’t want to take you again?”. “Sad”, she said. “I didn’t mean it.”, I replied. “I was feeling cross myself and I said something I didn’t mean. I’m sorry. I would like us all to go to the park together again and maybe one time we can all go to the playground and another time we can just do a walk-run. What do you think?”

She looked me in the eyes and a big grin spread across her face.

“Shall we go and have pudding now?”, I asked. “Yeeeesss!” she yelled and raced back downstairs.

I said to my son, “You superstar! What did you do to calm her down?”. He looked very pleased with himself and told me, “I listened to her and got her to do rocket breath* and she did it funnily and we both laughed so she did it four times and she calmed down. Then I asked her if she wanted to say sorry to you and she said yes.”  I gave him a big hug, thanked him and we headed downstairs.

I was in awe of this boy who hates it when people get angry and shout.

He had the wisdom and kindness to see what his sister needed and to help her out. And he’d come to my help when I’d run out of emotional resources. I felt hugely grateful.

This morning I was still feeling guilty so when my daughter came in, I apologised to her again for the unkind thing I said and she replied, “It’s OK mummy I know you didn’t mean it, you’re still a child of God.”

 

*Rocket breath is a breathing technique we learned on a parenting course that helps young children to calm down.

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A revelation about working in teams

All of us have a preferred way of operating at work, our default mode, if you will. Mostly it is unconscious.

Often we make the mistake of thinking that everyone else sees things the same way that we do and this is where we can hit problems.

In my work training people to handle difficult situations, I use an excellent profiling tool that helps people to understand their natural communication and working style, especially when they experience a bit of tension.

Take the way a project is managed for example.

What is your starting point? One person will start out with building the relationships and gathering a strong network of people. Another might do a lot of background research on other similar projects, the history of the context or the latest research around the topic. A third person would start by getting down on paper the vision, strategy, goals, concrete outcomes and timescale. A fourth person might look at the core values and purpose and work on bringing together a team to work on building the project collaboratively.

You probably found yourself nodding at one of these examples and thinking, “well of course that’s the way to do it. Isn’t that obvious?!”. In reality, all of these approaches are valid and have different strengths to them.

The rub comes when two people with vastly different approaches are working together on a project, often for the first time. Add in different experiences, potentially different cultural backgrounds, workload pressures, diverse ways of communicating and handling disagreement and it’s no wonder that it can be a minefield.

If you’re in this exact situation and you’re thinking, “It’s me. There’s something wrong with me, I just can’t work with him/her,” I’m here to tell you that it’s not you. That bears repeating. It’s not you.

You probably just have vastly different styles to one or more of the others in your team, and you’ve probably never been taught the skills to handle those differences. Let’s face it, most of us haven’t.

It’s possible to work with people with very different styles to ours and to get on well. In fact, having diverse styles in a team setting is both a challenge and a huge potential goldmine. She will see things that you never would. He will stop you from wasting a lot of time (and therefore money) going down a rabbit hole. She will have the key connection that makes the programme fly. And so on.

For most of the people I’ve worked with, this is a complete revelation.

So what’s the difference between teams that manage to hold this diversity and make it work and those that crumble under the challenge? In my experience, there are three key pieces, self-awareness, skill and a commitment to work at differences. Where you have a team of highly self-aware and skilled people who are dedicated to sticking it out, style differences won’t lead to destructive conflict.

The good news is that all three elements can be learned.

People can grow in both self-awareness and their skill level with the right support, i.e. high quality training and ongoing coaching. Commitment to work through differences can be encouraged through developing an organisational culture that sees conflict as an opportunity for learning, growth and change.

How strong are these three pillars in your organisation? I’d love to hear!

Need help to build skills, self-awareness and confidence in handling differences?

Check out the Courses page of my website and look for Team Profiling here:

Courses

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The power of a true apology – and why is it so hard to do?

The mediation session between Sarah* and Sandra* had gone well so far, but there hadn’t been quite the breakthrough that I’d hoped for. Sarah had admitted posting some things on social media about her work situation and had apologised to Sandra for this and for not talking to her directly. These were encouraging signs.

However, Sandra had not acknowledged the apology and I was starting to feel tired with the effort of encouraging them to hear one another more fully. I decided to call a coffee break and then check in with each of them individually. Privately, I asked them how they felt it was going, and reminded them of what they had said they wanted to get out of the joint session when we’d met previously.

Both agreed that they wanted to continue.

When I restarted the joint meeting, Sandra turned to Sarah and issued a whole-hearted and unqualified apology. Immediately, the tension began to dissolve and the conversation between them opened up.

They both shared openly what had happened and I was able to gradually guide them towards thinking about the future and how they wanted to move forwards. They reached a workable agreement and when I contacted them again a year later, they were happily working together.

In reflecting on this case, I was struck by the power of a true apology and also how rare it is. Courageously, Sarah had taken the first steps. Because it was genuine, it had the effect of transforming the situation once Sandra was able to hear it. So what makes a true apology?

These are some of the key elements. You can tell a genuine apology when it:

  • Comes from the heart, not from the head. This is hard to quantify but you know it when you see it and hear it.

  • Acknowledges the harm done to the other person or people.

  • Accepts and acknowledges your part in the situation – not necessarily taking full responsibility but admitting that you had a part to play.

  • Has no qualifications or justifications attached to it.

  • Comes with a willingness to hear the other person’s perspective. Again this is hard to quantify but it will emerge in the conversation whether or not this willingness is present.

  • Is offered voluntarily, never ‘required’.

The reverse is also true, you can recognise an apology that is not genuine when:

  • The body language betrays a lack of respect, such as arms folded, rolling eyes, tone of voice, tutting, despite the person ‘saying the right thing’.

  • There is no acknowledgement of harm.

  • The person does not accept the part they played in the situation.

  • They say things like, “I’m sorry if you felt that way…”, “I’m sorry it’s come to this but….” . These phrases are usually followed by an explanation, justification or qualification about why they behaved the way they did.

  • There is a lack of willingness to really hear the other’s perspective.

I also started to reflect on why saying sorry is so hard for most of us and I think there are a number of reasons for this.

We operate in a society that values expressions of strength and apologising is often seen as admitting failure.

As children, many of us were forced to apologise to our siblings or to friends before we were ready and before we were given a chance to tell our story. This was done with the best of intentions, usually to teach us social skills, and yet for many of us it felt deeply unfair because what we really needed was to be heard and acknowledged ourselves. The ‘sorry’ was probably needed, but later on when we’d had a chance to calm down and been listened to.

Finally, many of us have a deep rooted fear that in some way we are ‘wrong’, a failure, not good enough, an imposter and so on. At a subconscious level, we confuse admitting that we’ve made a mistake and done something we regret, with admitting that we’re fundamentally wrong as a person, something that deep-down many of us fear anyway. 

A true apology comes from a place of strength and it takes tremendous courage and discipline. Never doubt the power it can have to transform a relationship.

 

*Not their real names. Names and some other details have been changed to protect identity.

Middle age mature active and healthy Asian woman exercising weight loss body workout jogging running in park path autumn forest. Middle aged lifestyle. Lady in her 50s.

Why routine is key to achieving your goals in 2019

It’s a funny thing at this time of year how many of us automatically go into the mode of setting hugely ambitious goals for the coming year.

I’m sure you know the kind of thing, ‘I will wake up at 5.30am and exercise for 40 minutes every day from now on’. Or is it just me?

One of the questions I had in my mind for years and years was about whether it is more effective to do something for longer – say an hour once a week – or to do something every day for just ten minutes. Take exercise for example. I’m an all or nothing person and I reasoned, surely it would be more effective to go on a really decent run once a week or so, instead of ten or fifteen minutes running each day. This was the approach I adopted for years.

It turns out that I was wrong. The science of behaviour change tells us that the most consistently practiced behaviours are the ones that we do automatically, every day. And the reason is somewhat intriguing.

Research has found that process of decision making takes willpower, and willpower is a limited resource that can quickly get depleted if we rely too heavily on it. Habits, however, use up much less mental energy.

Very little, in fact, because we’re travelling down well worn paths that are familiar and so we barely use any brain power to complete them.

Once I started to think about this, it made sense. I’ve never needed to think ‘when will I brush my teeth today?’, because it’s such an ingrained habit that I’ve been doing – or someone did for me when I was very young – twice a day, morning and evening for as long as I can remember. And even on the nights when I’m totally exhausted and just want to crash into bed, I never miss brushing my teeth because it would feel so wrong. It’s so much part of my routine that I don’t give myself a choice, I just do it. I reasoned that although it’s hard to set up good habits, it’s probably worth it.

So in 2018 after learning this new information I experimented with a very simple idea- do a little of something every day, at the same time each day, in the same order and after some time it will become a habit. 

Even better if I can attach it to a habit I already have in place. Then it is much easier to do that ‘thing’ for longer, whether it is exercising, meditating, cooking from scratch, spending time with a loved one, or whatever.

For some people, this kind of pattern comes very naturally, but for me it didn’t at all. It was a long, hard slog, because on the planning versus spontaneity spectrum I am very firmly at the latter end.

‘Routine’ to me smacked of boredom, lack of novelty and generally something to be avoided.

What I found, though, was a revelation.

For the first time in my life I was consistently achieving the goals that I set myself. By easing myself into new habits ever so gently it was like I was tricking myself into a new behaviour. And this had an extremely motivating effect, a bit like a runner’s high, I wanted more and was able to build on the earlier goals by expanding them. One example – I wanted to do some basic morning strength exercises so I started with setting myself the target of doing these for three minutes immediately after my meditation practice. Five months on and I’m consistently doing twelve minutes of strength training each day.

For years I was down on myself because I never managed to achieve my targets. I would set myself big, visionary goals and then a couple of months on feel really disappointed with myself for not achieving them. I could do well for a few days, sometimes even a couple of weeks, but it would soon start to feel too much, too exhausting.  With this new method I was achieving more and using less energy at the same time.

Which is why I am a convert to the power of establishing habits and making them a part of a daily routine.

These are my mantras for this coming year.

Break it down. Start small. Build a habit.

I’d love to hear from you. What are your top tips to achieve your goals?

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