How dry was your January? Are you a slave to habit?

Create resolutions that work for you NOT against you

New year, new you? A cliché perhaps, but each New Year brings excitement and promise to millions, even billions of people across the globe.

New Year’s resolutions date back to Roman times when promises were made at the beginning of the year to the god Janus (after whom the month January is named). The Romans replaced pagan rituals with Christian ones and the concept of New Year pledges has endured in various forms throughout the ages.

A panacea for self-improvement, New Year’s resolutions come in many guises, most commonly health and fitness, financial, charitable and work-related goals. But no matter how good our intentions or how worthy the cause we don’t always achieve what we set out to do.

New Year’s flop

According to a study of 3,000 people by Richard Wiseman (University of Bristol), 88% of those who set New Year resolutions fail, despite the fact that 52% of the study’s participants were confident of success at the beginning.

A great example is fitness goals! Gym memberships soar in the New Year as perhaps the most common resolution is to ‘get fit and lose weight’. Throughout January every class is fully booked and it’s almost impossible to get your turn on the running machine. Come February however it’s business as usual.

The only way to succeed is to “negotiate” a settlement between our logical and emotional brains.

Steve Peters

Get a grip on your emotions

The fundamental problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they are set using our logical brain – the newer, more rational part of our brain that has developed over the last 2 million years.

Our emotional brain on the other hand is 500 million years old. It is responsible for our survival instincts and regularly overrides our logical brain.

So while our logical brain is telling us to get fit, lose weight and go to the gym – our emotional brain will convince us that cake and television are far more rewarding.

Research shows that emotion is five times stronger than logic, so we will never “win” over our emotional brain. Steve Peters, the elite sports psychologist, suggests that the only way to succeed is to “negotiate” a settlement between our logical and emotional brains.

Breaking down barriers

As an example, last year I decided I’d like to include yoga as a regular part of my schedule. I realised that going to weekly one-hour classes would not work for me. There were too many barriers – my busy schedule, business travel and even the thought of a one-hour class was enough to put me off. Instead, I reached an agreement with myself that four minutes of yoga first thing in the morning was a commitment I could achieve wherever I was.

Just a few minutes of yoga every day may seem trivial, but over the course of a year I have reaped benefits. Most importantly, by minimising barriers I have stuck to my resolution.

Make it easy

In his book The Happiness Advantage Shawn Achor suggests ‘activation energy’ is a barrier we need to overcome to achieve goals. He specifically refers to the 20 Second Rule’ – that is, if something takes longer than 20 seconds to activate the chances are we won’t do it. If we are setting out to make a habit we must decrease the activation time. Leaping out of bed in the morning to do yoga takes no activation energy, whereas putting on gym kit and driving to a class takes a lot of activation energy, and is therefore less likely to succeed.

Just don’t forget – when setting those goals, your emotional brain must agree!

Are we happier at home or work? The answer might surprise you!

Where are YOU happiest? It can’t be at work… or can it?!

When I suggest that people are happier at work than at home, the usual response is utter denial. After all: don’t we look forward to our well-earned personal time?

Well yes, we do – but there’s a catch. While at work we’re more often engaged in activities, solving problems and enjoying achievements that result in increased overall fulfilment – and this isn’t necessarily true at home.

Leading psychologist and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a seminal study on happiness. He monitored the mood of thousands of subjects, from a variety of roles and backgrounds, on an hourly basis over the course of a year. His findings were overwhelming: people were happier at work than not.

Csikszentmihalyi asks, ‘What makes a life worth living?’ He suggests that money is not the key to happiness, finding instead that pleasure and satisfaction are achieved from activities that increase our state of ‘flow’. In this state we are fully immersed in what we are doing and experiencing feelings of absorption, engagement, skill and fulfillment.

After a shift at work our brain tends to shut down to conserve energy

During the transition from work to home we often take a dive and lose our sense of achievement. Generally speaking, at home we tend to slip into routines that don’t offer a sense of achievement or that state of flow. Instead we’re sucked into mundane chores of fixing dinner, putting the kids to bed or watching TV.

Why does this happen? Most of us don’t have the same formal process at home as we do at work. We’re more like Alice in Wonderland, drifting aimlessly – as the Cheshire Cat aptly stated: ‘If you don’t know where you want to get to, then it doesn’t matter which way you go’. In other words we amble along – rather than trying to achieve specific satisfying outcomes. But there’s more to it….

Equal measures of stretch and support keeps our brain in peak condition for optimal performance – in essence, achieving this balance is what good leadership is all about!

Flex your brain muscle

The brain is extremely energy hungry. Despite accounting for just 2% of our body weight it consumes a massive 20% of our entire energy consumption

Homo sapiens evolved at a time when food was a scarce resource, so our brain is designed to conserve energy by switching to autopilot, or ‘standby’ mode whenever it can (for example at the weekend).

At work, a good manager will be skilled at keeping the brain awake by ensuring employees are in the ‘flow zone’ – sufficiently stretching them to stay challenged. However, there is a delicate balance – too much stretch causes stress or anxiety and can severely reduce the brain’s operating potential. Not enough stretch and we quickly become bored or disengaged.

Get in the flow zone

Equal measures of stretch and support keeps our brain in peak condition for optimal performance – in essence, achieving this balance is what good leadership is all about!

The minute we clock off work our brain tends to automatically shut down to conserve energy, and we don’t have an “achievement” mindset or focus.

We justify this by saying to ourselves “I just need some chill-out time”. This is all well and good, however there’s a fine line between chilling out and boredom. All too often, well-deserved chill-out time turns into passivity, for example slumping down in front of the TV for hours at a time. This can breed feelings of dissatisfaction, despondency and even self-condemnation.

As we’ve seen, without a specific challenge, our default setting is ‘minimise effort’. Some people overcome this by engaging a coach. Left to our own devices we don’t stretch ourselves, our brain switches to autopilot and ultimately, we don’t achieve fulfilment and happiness. A good coach will provide stretch and support in equal measure – striking the balance between work and life contentment.


Bend it like Beckham… or net it like Neymar?

World Cup winning teams show that practice really does make perfect!

Brazil is considered to be among the best of football nations in the world. This is often incorrectly attributed to aspiring youngsters honing their skills on Copacabana beach, but the Brazilians have a very different trick up their sleeves – Futsal.

Futsal (Portuguese for indoor football) evolved from the slums or favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where there was no place for lush soccer pitches, just small patches of barren ground. During a game of Futsal, players come into contact with the ball six times more frequently than soccer, which effectively means six times more practice. Because Futsal is played with a smaller, heavier ball, players need to be more skilful in passing and ball handling.  It’s not until the age of 14 that young Brazilians graduate from Futsal to football.

Last year, the FA kick-started a futsal revolution to create England players of the future.  Michael Skubala, head futsal coach of the England team says “Until we start doing futsal properly, we probably aren’t going to win a football World Cup like Spain and Brazil.”

Purposeful practice

Futsal is renowned for developing the skills that make turbo-charged decision-makers on a football pitch – the sort of abilities England’s elite footballers are often accused of lacking with every passing tournament debacle.

The Futsal story is a perfect example of purposeful practice, demonstrating that skill levels are directly related to the amount of practice.  Not any old practice, but deliberate, conscious practice.

But what about natural talent?

All the research shows that the overriding factor in any skill acquisition is purposeful practice, not natural talent.  The first research study to discover this was undertaken at the prestigious Berlin Academy of Music, where researchers wanted to discover what made a virtuoso violinist rather than just a good one.  After collecting and analysing mountains of information including psychographics, demographics and family background data, the research findings were as follows: virtuoso soloist violinists practiced 6 hours per day, good violinists practiced 4 hours per day, and average violinists practiced 2 hour per day.

The researchers were so astonished by these results, that they (and others) replicated the experiment in different fields such as sports, chess etc.  Every time the results painted the same picture.  Skill in any field is directly proportional to the amount of purposeful practice.  More recent research has shown that for certain sports physical characteristics are also critical, for example elite baseball players have better visual acuity than average – so laser eye surgery is now prevalent amongst top players!

Business leaders should consider what mechanisms they are putting in place to develop their own teams and raise skill levels, to give their organisations a real competitive edge.

How does this translate to the workplace?

Say an employee needs to develop a particular skill, for instance, sales skills. An environment of “purposeful practice” would accept that the first attempts will be far from perfect, but through practice, learning from mistakes, role-play and feedback, the employee will develop and improve over time. This requires a certain organisational tolerance of failure, and a genuine investment in people to ensure staff are both encouraged and challenged in equal measures. This requires both an individual and organisational growth mindset.

Just as Brazil has built a reputation for focused team development, business leaders should consider what mechanisms they are putting in place to develop their own teams and raise skill levels, to give their organisations a real competitive edge.

Coaching has one of the highest returns on investment – some studies report 800% – so it’s not surprising that once your managers adopt a coaching approach, you can expect breakthrough results for your entire organisation.


The inner game of work – creating an engagement culture

Timothy Gallwey, regarded by many as the father of coaching, wrote The Inner Game of Tennis in 1974.  He later demonstrated how the same fundamentals apply to getting the best out of people at work, publishing The Inner Game of Work in 2000.

Gallwey’s central tenet is that we consist of two parts, Self 1 and Self 2

Self 1 is conscious, rational and thinking. Self 2 is our unconscious, intuitive self that largely works on autopilot.

Interestingly, since 1974 many of his findings have been backed up by neuroscience.  Self 1 can be equated to the logical brain (pre-frontal cortex), and Self 2 to the emotional brain (limbic system).

The pre-frontal cortex is the newest part of our brain, representing just 4% of its total mass. It gives us our rational abilities but is limited in processing capability, is very energy hungry and shuts down under stress. Neuroscientists use the analogy that if our logical brain represents our pocket-change, the limbic system represents the global economy!  In short, our limbic system stores our total life experience.

Gallwey says that what gets in the way of top performance is our (logical) Self 1’s critical and judgemental chatter. In tennis, or any other sport, if we hit a bad shot, we reprimand ourselves, instructing ourselves what we should have done differently.  Others are also very keen to give us corrective advice. Gallwey says this is like a pocket calculator giving instructions to a super computer!

I’d no longer see a ball, but a threat flying through the air.

I remember my grandfather teaching me cricket as a little boy. Every time I missed he’d tell me: keep your eye on the ball. I’d be so concerned about following his instructions, and pressurised to do well that I’d end up missing even more shots. I’d no longer see a ball, but a threat flying through the air. From a young age I’d defined myself as no good at cricket. This cycle was perpetuated through school – I was always last to get chosen for the cricket team, and this identity was now firmly in place.

Avoid threatening questions

Far better to ask non-judgemental, descriptive questions. For instance, when teaching tennis Gallwey suggests asking questions such as which direction is the ball spinning as it approaches youIs it rising or falling on contact with the racket?

Such questions create an awareness of the ball and its movement.  As the student becomes absorbed in noticing the flight of the ball, Self 1 is distracted from trying to control the shot, and Self 2 is left to learn how to play the shot free from interference. Invariably learning happens much faster and more naturally when threat and judgement are removed.

Gallwey summarises this in the formula: Performance = Potential – Interference (threat and judgement).

The impact of interference can be seen in the Stroop effect. Say the following colours aloud row by row:

Say the following colours aloud row by row

Easy! Now say the colour of the ink of each of the words below:

Say the colour of the ink of each of the words below:

Very confusing – we have to focus on suppressing our desire to read the word. This invokes the inhibition circuitry of our logical brain, which slows the whole process down, making it jerky, unnatural and hard work.

This is similar to what happens to our performance either on the sports field or at work when we are over-instructed, rather than allowed to learn for ourselves.

The default way to manage others in the workplace is by giving instructions and corrective advice. Hopefully it will now be apparent that coaching by asking non-judgemental questions might be a better way to achieve long-term change and improved performance in both yourself and those you manage.

Allowing others to find out for themselves, rather than telling them, not only creates enduring change, but also a more engaged, learning culture.

If you want to

  • Reduce blame and fear in the workplace to create a fertile environment that encourages best efforts, creative thinking and problem solving
  • Generate confidence and self belief in your workforce; instilling a desire to succeed and push boundaries
  • Coach your people and hold them accountable to deliver the goods
  • Give others ownership for their results, allowing them to learn from their own mistakes
  • Demand people’s best efforts – and celebrate their success


Use our sophisticated technology to identify traits that differentiate high performers from average. Coach individuals in the behaviours that are more productive.