How Does It Feel to Have Your To-Do List at Zero?

It’s quite strange. Yesterday, I managed to finish off the last thing on my to-do list for the week. For the first time in a long time, I had nothing that I had to do. Sure, there are some things that I would like to do in the future. However, nothing required me to take any steps towards them until Friday next week. This is definitely the first time that this has been the case in 2021. I’m not even sure if I reached this point at all in 2020.

I feel lighter to have all of these items gone. They are no longer hanging over my head or telling me that I shouldn’t be relaxing when I am. But I also feel a bit lost. Today, I have already done my morning meditation, journaling, Elevate brain training and Duolingo French language training. I then did my daily weight training, hips and balance exercises, followed by going outside and walking 10,000 steps. I shopped for the food I needed at the local supermarket, meal prepped for the next few days, and cleaned up my place.

I then tried to relax and watch some TV and a movie, but both of these activities already feel boring. One of my friend’s said that he had clocked Netflix because of this pandemic. I haven’t, but the returns of these activities are definitely diminishing.

My brain told me that I would feel amazing no longer having anything that I need to do. But I do not. So now, having just eaten half a salad and a tasty Magnum ice-cream, I find myself here at the computer putting down my thoughts into words.

Goals vs Values

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Exactly how I feel now is why I tell my clients not just to live their lives by their goals. Sure, having things to aim for is great. So is hitting these targets and crossing these items off our to-do lists. It gives us a nice little surge of dopamine and fires up the reward pathways in our brain when we achieve something. And our brains feel good for a temporary moment until we start searching for the next target to hit.

But it is never-ending, and generally always future-focused. We think, once I have achieved this, then I will be happy. But then we meet this goal, and our brain says “great… what’s next?” We begin looking again to the future for the imaginary thing that will make us happy and satisfied forever once we achieve it.

Unfortunately, the long-term rewards of this future goal are mostly a mirage. Our brains telling us that it will satisfy us forever helps us not give up pursuing the goal. However, once we have achieved it, the reward is fleeting and less satisfying than we imagined beforehand. This is because dopamine is more about desire than reward.

Imagine if we were forever satisfied after achieving a goal. I doubt that our ancestors would have lasted long enough to reproduce. A slightly unsatisfied person, always craving for more and an ideal future that never comes. Those humans are the ones that will keep moving, growing, meeting and breeding. And now, here we are…

Enjoying the Process vs Desiring a Future Outcome

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Like I have already said, a goal is set for the future. You want to lose weight, buy a house, run a marathon, or climb Mount Everest. As an extension of this, you are saying that you lack something in the present when you set a goal. You are heavier than you want to be. You don’t have the house that you want to be in. You haven’t run the marathon this year, and you are yet to climb the tallest mountain in the world.

Values are different to goals. Values are followed in the present. They are guiding principles for life. You are either living by them at the moment, or you are not.

By clarifying why you want to achieve your specific goals, you can determine if you are living by these values in the present or not. Let’s take the first example. You might want to lose weight because you value looking attractive, but I want to lose weight because I value being healthy. I have lost weight through not eating much, not exercising and taking diet pills. The goal has been achieved, and if it was you, you might even be living by your values. But I am not. Deep down, I would know that I am not healthy, and even if I have lost some weight, I would feel inconsistent rather than consistent with what is most important to me.

You might want to climb Mount Everest because your husband is too and you value doing things together, whereas I am training for it because I value pushing myself to reach my potential. We both head off on the expedition, and we aren’t able to climb beyond base camp because our guide says that the weather is too bad for the next few weeks. Because I am unable to live by my value, I feel disappointed and unhappy. Because you are still consistent with yours, you are happy and don’t mind getting to enjoy your downtime in Nepal with the love of your life.

What Do You Want Your Legacy to Be?

This question needs to be asked more often, in my opinion. I’m not too sure how many people could answer this clearly and succinctly. But if we aren’t clear on what principles or values are most important to us, how are we meant to decide if we are on the right path or not? How will we know if what we are doing is time well spent or just a waste of time?

Epitaph On Your Gravestone
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Imagine that you have lived your whole life and have recently died. Someone who is really close to you has decided to bury you and they are deciding what will be written on your gravestone. What would you want them to write?

If you aren’t too sure what you would want your legacy to be about, this question can often help. Even though I would prefer to be cremated instead of buried, the main thought that pops into my head when I think of this exercise is:

“Here lies Damon…He tried his best”

Maybe that is cliched or lame, but it highlights that a core value in my life is around effort. I care much less about how much I manage to achieve in my life. I want to know that I gave things a proper go and put in the effort required. That I focused on the process of what I am doing, which is within my control, rather than the outcome, which is often outside of it.

Your 80th Birthday Party

If thinking about after your own death is too morbid an exercise for you, this thought experiment may be more appealing. Imagine that it is your 80th birthday party, and all of your closest family and friend’s are there to celebrate the life you have had so far. Someone close to you stands up and tells everyone in the crowd about the person that you have been from now until your 80th birthday. What would you want to hear them say about you? I’d love to hear my partner’s daughter stand up and say:

“Even though I wasn’t convinced about Damon initially, he’s turned out to be a pretty cool role model as a father figure for me. He’s consistently been there for me and tried his best to be emotionally supportive and understanding of me and what I was going through. Damon’s always wanted the best for me in life, and I could feel this. But he also didn’t care if I won things or where I came as long as I was willing to try and give new things a go. Damon was always willing to do things for me and be there when I needed him to help or listen. But he also didn’t do things for me if he knew that it would be better for me to give something a go and learn how to do it myself. Damon encouraged me to explore the world and not be held back by fear. He also offered a safe space with mum to come back to when I needed comfort, care and support. I’m glad that Damon came into my life, and I am happy about the person I am today partly because of the role that he has played. Above all, I feel loved for who I am by Damon, no matter what, and that is a pretty cool thing to have. So thank you, and happy 80th birthday!”

Your answer to this question should help you clarify what values are most important to you or what you would like your legacy to be about. Based on the above passage, I want to be a good role model as a father, present, supportive, understanding, encouraging, helpful, loving and unconditional. Many people think of their legacy in terms of work, but is that really what you value most in this life?

Are You Travelling in the Right Direction?

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In her excellent post and subsequent book, Bronnie Ware shared her top five regrets of people who were dying. Having worked as a palliative care nurse for a number of years, Bronnie identified them as:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This list highlights that before I had my stroke in January, my life was imbalanced. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was separated from my partner and her daughter back in Vanuatu on March 20th, 2020. I could not see any of my friends or colleagues back there and did not say a proper goodbye to them. Thanks to the months of lockdowns in Melbourne, I could not do a lot of the things I enjoyed or see my friends and family here in Australia that I wanted to either. I was working too much for too long each day, spending too much time on my phone and watching TV, and I wasn’t eating as healthily or being as active as I wanted to be.

What about you?

How Much of the Day Are You Spending in the Way that You Want?

For this exercise, draw a pie chart of what a typical workday looks like for you and another piechart for what a typical day off looks like. It doesn’t matter what time you go to bed or get out of bed or start and finish work, because the whole pie represents 24 hours.

When you are drawing your two pie charts, think about:

  • How much time are you just in the moment vs trying to do things for a better future?
  • How much are you socialising and connecting with others, including family and friends?
  • How much time are you spending inside vs outside in nature?
  • How much are you dedicating towards being physically fit or exercising?
  • How much time are you resting, sleeping and relaxing?
  • How much are you dedicating towards doing creative or fun vs passive hobbies?
  • How much time are you working and doing tasks related to work?

Above is an example pie chart that I drew up in less than five minutes, so it really doesn’t have to take a long time. For some people, their workdays and non-workdays are very similar. For others, their weekend’s are spent very differently. There are no right or wrong answers. The key is to draw down what is typical for you.

Now that these pie charts have been drawn up, reflect and ask yourself:

  • Are there things that you would like to do more of?
  • Are there things that you would like to do less of?
  • What’s making it hard or stopping you from making these changes?

Once you have identified what you want to change and why the most important thing is getting out there and starting. Behavioural change is hard, especially at the start. But as Zig Ziglar says, “no one just walks around and finds themselves atop Mount Everest“. If you try something new and get stuck, my next blog post will give you a few tips and tricks to overcome these barriers.

The best thing about living by our values instead of just chasing after goals is that this can happen at any chosen moment. It doesn’t have to be New Years Day, and it doesn’t have to take a long time. I want to be more creative and more present and connect more with those that I care most about starting now. I don’t want work, focusing on the future or distractions on my phone or TV to get in the way.

What about you?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

A Stroke of Insight

Back on the 2nd of January, 2021, I suffered a stroke. I was in the sauna at the time and I felt something “go wrong” in my brain. All of a sudden, I experienced severe balance issues and felt nauseous. I hopped out of the sauna and went outside to lie down, but it didn’t seem to be getting any better.

I then tried to relocate upstairs back to my room eleven floors up, but my balance was still off. I managed to get there eventually, falling into and touching the side walls as I went. Even standing up straight was incredibly difficult, and walking without falling sideways was impossible. I called the emergency hotline in Australia – 000 and informed the person on the other end that I was having a stroke and I needed someone to come over as soon as possible.

Two paramedics came over to my place. By that time, I had already thrown up multiple times into the bathroom sink. They assessed me for a stroke using the acronym FAST, and determined that I didn’t meet many of the typical symptoms that they would look for in someone who was suffering from a stroke.

The acronym F.A.S.T. stood for:

F = Face: Check their face. Has their mouth drooped? Mine had not.

A = Arms: Can they lift both arms? I could lift both of my arms.

S = Speech: Is their speech slurred? Do they understand you? I could understand them and my speech was not slurred.

T = Time: Time is critical. If you see any of these signs, call 000 now. I had none of these signs, but I did call 000.

Even though it is important to get to the hospital as immediately as possible following a stroke, I did not exhibit any of the general signs that people look for following a stroke. As my stroke occurred in my cerebellum, none of these symptoms were present, and I was told that it was unlikely that I was having a stroke. The paramedics said that they could take me to the hospital, but because I was uninsured, it would cost me a few thousand dollars.

Instead, they encouraged me to get a medical appointment booked that day to see a GP so that they could follow up on how I was doing before they left. The first GP clinic was all booked out for Saturday morning, so I called 13SICK, which is the national home doctor service in Australia. They said that they could come that afternoon at 3 pm, and with that, the paramedics were satisfied and left my apartment.

My parents then called as I said that I couldn’t talk to my brother because of my current health concerns. My mum told me to call healthdirect to speak to a registered nurse about what was going on if I was concerned. I called 1800 022 222, and the female nurse agreed with the paramedics that I was not suffering from a stroke. She thought that I was experiencing vertigo or a migraine, and recommended bed rest and medication to assist with the headaches and nausea that I was experiencing.

I called my parents again and informed my mum that I felt scared and I wanted dad to come over. As mum had broken her leg playing tennis in 2020 and was still in a moon boot, I thought that dad coming over and spending the night was a better way to ensure that he could help me if I needed it.

At 7pm, 4 hours after he was scheduled to come visit in person, the doctor called. Following his brief assessment, he agreed with the paramedics and nurse that I was not having a stroke and was instead suffering from vertigo or a migraine. Medication was suggested to my father, who went and bought this from a pharmacy for me. My sister had also ordered paracetamol for me by this stage and had it ubered to my apartment complex and delivered upstairs by a concierge at the place where I lived.

The night of sleep was horrible, and I kept waking up with a severe headache, vertigo, and frequent nausea that resulted in me vomiting multiple times. By early the next morning, I told my father, who was asleep on the couch, that I needed him to take me to hospital, as things seemed to be getting worse rather than better.

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The Next Day

We drove to the Alfred Hospital nearby. My dad assisted me to the car from the apartment and to the hospital’s emergency department. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was not allowed inside to wait with me at the emergency department. Being early on a Sunday morning, there were very few people waiting, and I was called to move to another waiting room in the hospital soon. I remember walking there and sitting down, but I don’t remember anything else for a few weeks until I woke up in a ward of the Alfred Hospital.

I later found out that my condition was treated conservatively initially, but then deteriorated quickly. My blood pressure spiked, and my stroke had worsened. I required surgery to remove the majority of my left cerebellum and I woke up a few weeks later with a number of tubes and stitches at the back of my head. My head hurt a lot, both in the middle and at the back. They had me on a lot of medication to assist with my blood pressure, cholesterol, pain, and bowel movements. I wasn’t allowed to move out of my hospital bed at all because of my high risk of falls.

Before I realized that I was back in the Alfred Hospital, I thought that I was in Nepal on a hiking expedition, in New Zealand, or somehow in an NBA JAM game back from the 1990s. It also felt like I was in an old exercise contraption with tubes up my nose and all over my face. Eventually, I came to and realized that I was back in the hospital that I had arrived at. Still, everything seemed so surreal.

My family kept coming by, especially my parents, even though they were limited in how much time that they could spend with me due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of my closest friends, who is also a Neuropsychologist, decided to start up a chat group to let as many people as possible know how I was doing and whatever the latest update was. My mum tried to get a few people to send video messages to me but was told not to do this by the hospital staff as my brain needed to recover. Watching the videos would be too stimulating.

I remember feeling so uncomfortable with the tubes coming out of my face and head that I kept trying to pull them out. I was fed up with some of the nurses and their inconsistent rules for what I was meant to do or not do every day. Eventually, they tied my hands down or together so that I didn’t keep pulling at all of the new things that were attached to my head.

Even going to the toilet or having a shower was a massive ordeal. I wanted to be able to do it myself, but they kept telling me that I needed to buzz the nurses before moving anywhere. I remember waking up once during the night and trying to move to the toilet by myself. I fell down on the ground as soon as I tried to move by myself in the dark, only barely saving myself from a hard fall by holding onto the edge of the bed as I went down.

After a month in the Alfred, I moved to Caulfield Rehabilitation Hospital to continue my recovery. After 10 days in there, I was back to trying to continue my rehabilitation at home.

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A Big Challenge

One of the hardest things was being away from my partner and her daughter back in Vanuatu. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t easily see them either, but after about three weeks, I was slowly able to talk to them via an audio or video chat again.

Knowing that I had some life-saving surgeries and was in intensive care for a few weeks, this really did feel like a near-death experience for me. Not being able to see my partner and her daughter, who I had been separated from since the 20th of March, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, really did hit hard. Luckily, my partner agreed to come and visit for 2 weeks at the end of March/start of April 2021.

I am so grateful that she was willing to quarantine for two weeks before seeing me in Australia, and for another two weeks once she returned back home to Port Vila. Having those two weeks together definitely helped with my recovery. It also helped me a little bit with overcoming my disappointment at the medical insurance company delaying my return to volunteering.

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How Things Are Now

It has been nearly five months since my stroke, and things feel like they are returning somewhat to normal. I am back riding my bike and running, and I have even tried to shoot some hoops and play some doubles in tennis. Of course, things are not the same as they were before the stroke, especially with my high-end balance and coordination, but I am doing everything that I can to do most of the things that I could do before the stroke.

One of the biggest changes is how much work has decreased in my overall priorities since suffering the stroke. Instead, spending time with friends and family has become much more important, and I try to fully give my time and attention to whoever I am with, instead of thinking at the back of my head all the other things I need to do.

Yes, working hard for the future is great, especially financially. But it should not occur at the point of hurting my health or saying no to connecting with the people that mean the most to me in my life. I hope that I can keep this insight in my mind going forward so that I can earn enough to have a good future, but not at the expense of the quality or quantity of life that I have left.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Are the Virtues and Faults of Your Personality Style?

The five factor personality model has been researched and written about extensively. If you have never taken a Big Five Aspects Scale before, you can find out what your results are for under $10 at the Understand Myself website. A free version called the IPIP-NEO can also be found here.

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My Big Five Results

All of the below descriptions are taken from my Understand Myself test that I completed on the 7th of September, 2020. This was in the middle of a Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was stuck in a one-bedroom apartment by myself, so this may have influenced my results a little bit.

EXTRAVERSION: 40th Percentile = Typical or Average

You are average in extraversion, which is the primary dimension of positive emotion in the Big Five personality trait scientific model. Extraversion is a measure of general sensitivity to positive emotions such as hope, joy, anticipation and approach, particularly in social situations. Women are slightly more extraverted than men.

Extraversion has two aspects: Enthusiasm and Assertiveness.

ENTHUSIASM: 30th Percentile = Moderately Low

Individuals who are moderately low in enthusiasm are rarely excitable, not particularly easy to get to know, and not known for their talkative nature. When they do talk, it tends only to be about things in which they find particular interest. They do not easily open up to people, particularly in larger social gatherings or parties. They laugh more rarely than others. They tend to prefer solitude, although they can enjoy themselves around other people, in moderation. They are more private people, and are not particularly positive or optimistic. They do not crave the spotlight and, if creative, may find performing less desirable.

ASSERTIVENESS: 52nd Percentile = Typical or Average

People of average assertiveness will sometimes take charge, spontaneously, but often let others step in first. They can put forward their own opinions but do not feel compelled to do so. They are not particularly dominant and do not generally strive to control social situations. At times, they can act in an influential or captivating manner, but it is not habitual. They can act, in ambiguous situations, but will often let others lead the way. They tend not to be particularly impulsive, and tend not to act without thinking.

AGREEABLENESS: 77th Percentile = High

You are high in agreeableness, which is the primary dimension of Interpersonal interaction in the Big Five personality trait scientific model. People high in agreeableness are nice: compliant, nurturing, kind, naively trusting and conciliatory. However, because of their tendency to avoid conflict, they often dissemble and hide what they think. People low in agreeableness are not so nice: stubborn, dominant, harsh, skeptical, competitive and, in the extreme, even predatory. However, they tend to be straightforward, even blunt, so you know where they stand. Women are higher in agreeableness than men.

Agreeableness has two aspects: Compassion and Politeness.

COMPASSION: 88th Percentile = High

Highly compassionate people are much interested in the problems of other people, and other living things, particularly if they are young or helpless. They are quite concerned about helping other people avoid negative emotion. They make more time and do more kind things for others, even when doing so may interfere with fulfilling their own needs and interests. They have a markedly soft side. Other people consider them sympathetic and nice, and will turn to them often for a listening ear. They are highly empathetic and caring. However, because they are so other-oriented, they may find it difficult to negotiate on their own behalf, and may not get what they deserve (for their hard work, for example). This can lead to resentment.

POLITENESS: 52nd Percentile = Typical or Average

Typically polite people can be deferential to authority, but can also be challenging, when necessary. They are not particularly obedient. They can be respectful, but will also push back if pushed. They are not made uncomfortable by the necessity of standing up to other people. Typically polite people will avoid conflict, reasonably, but are not completely averse to confrontation.

CONSCIENTIOUSNESS: 80th Percentile = High

You are high in conscientiousness, which is the primary dimension of dutiful achievement in the Big Five personality trait scientific model. Conscientiousness is a measure of obligation, attention to detail, hard work, persistence, cleanliness, efficiency and adherence to rules, standards and processes. Conscientious people implement their plans and establish and maintain order. Women are slightly more conscientious than men

Conscientiousness has two aspects: Industriousness and Orderliness.

INDUSTRIOUSNESS: 88th Percentile = High

Highly industrious people are likely to believe that people fail because they don’t apply themselves or work hard enough. They feel guilty, rapidly, if they do not do their duty. However, because they typically stay on or ahead of schedule and accept their responsibilities, they rarely experience actual guilt.

ORDERLINESS: 60th Percentile = Moderately High

Moderately orderly people would rather keep everything tidy and organized. They tend both to make and stick to schedules. They like everything where it should be—and are happier if it stays where it should be. They are somewhat detail-oriented but tend not to be obsessive. They are generally aware of social rules and tend to abide by them. They like routine and prefer the predictable. They can be good at ensuring that complex, sensitive processes are managed properly and carefully.

NEUROTICISM: 5th Percentile = Very Low

You are very low in neuroticism, which is the primary dimension of negative emotion in the Big Five personality trait scientific model. Neuroticism is a measure of general sensitivity to negative emotions such as pain, sadness, irritable or defensive anger, fear and anxiety. Females tend to be higher in Neuroticism than males.

Neuroticism has two aspects: Withdrawal and Volatility.

WITHDRAWAL: 19th Percentile = Low

Individuals low in withdrawal rarely suffer from or are impeded by anticipatory anxiety. They can handle new, uncertain, unexpected, threatening or complex situations well. They are substantially less likely to avoid or withdraw in the face of the unknown and unexpected.

VOLATILITY: 1st Percentile = Exceptionally Low

Individuals exceptionally low in volatility are extraordinarily stable and predictable in their moods. They are virtually never irritable, and very rarely experience disappointment, frustration, pain and loneliness. People find them extremely easy and calming. They very infrequently express their frustration, disappointment and irritability and appear remarkably reasonable when they do so. Even on those unusually infrequent occasions where they become stirred up, upset, angry or irritated, they calm down almost immediately. They are not at all argumentative and almost never lose their composure.

OPENNESS TO EXPERIENCE: 95th Percentile = Very High

You are very high in openness to experience, which is the primary dimension of creativity, artistic interest and intelligence (particularly verbal intelligence) in the Big Five personality trait scientific model. Openness to experience is a measure of interest in novelty, art, literature, abstract thinking, philosophy as well as sensitivity to aesthetic emotions and beauty. Men and women differ very little in openness to experience.

Openness to experience has two aspects: Intellect and Openness.

INTELLECT: 94th percentile = Very High

People very high in intellect find complex, rapidly changing occupations necessary and will generally excel at them (particularly if they are also high in conscientiousness and low in neuroticism). However, they are very much less well-suited to stable, straightforward and more traditional occupations, where the rules don’t change, and will experience frequent periods of boredom and intolerable levels of frustration in such positions.

OPENNESS: 87th Percentile = High

Highly open, creative people can be impractical and flighty (particularly if low in conscientiousness). It can be extremely difficult to transform creativity into money, or into a career. High levels of openness are, furthermore, necessary for entrepreneurial success, and often prove useful at the top of hierarchies, even in very conservative occupations such as banking, accounting and law, which need creative people in leadership positions to provide new vision and direction.

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Main Findings Based on the Five-Factor Personality Model

Judge, Heller & Mount (2002) found that highly conscientious people are most satisfied with their job (.26 correlation), followed by highly extraverted people (.25 correlation), then highly agreeable people (.17 correlation), then those who are high on openness to experience (.02 correlation) People high on neuroticism were negatively correlated with job satisfaction (-.29 correlation). My introversion is the only aspect that may negatively impact how much I enjoy a job.

For academic performance, Poropat (2009) found that agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience correlate significantly to academic performance. Conscientiousness was related to academic performance in a way that was largely independent of intelligence. My personality style likely helped me to do well in school and complete eight years of university studies.

For intimate relationship satisfaction, Malouff, Thorsteinsson, Schutte, Bhullar and Rooke (2009) found that low neuroticism, high agreeableness, high conscientiousness and high extraversion were all correlated with greater relationship satisfaction. These variables did not vary significantly from men to women or from unmarried to married individuals. Unfortunately, my introversion and low enthusiasm in particular make it a bit harder for me to be satisfied in intimate relationships.

For citizenship, Chiaburu, Oh, Berry, Li, and Gardner (2011) found that people that are low in neuroticism, high in extraversion and high in openness to experience are more likely to engage in more individual, organization and change-oriented citizenship. Again, not being too extraverted and enthusiastic holds me back a little here.

For occupational type, Barrick, Mount and Gupta (2006) found that extraverts are most likely to enter an enterprising career (.41 correlation). People that are high on openness to experience are most likely to enter an artistic career (.39 correlation). Some say therapy is more art than science, which may indicate why I have chosen this over a career in research.

For clinical disorders, Malouff, Thorsteinsson and Schutte (2004) found that psychological disorders are more closely linked with high neuroticism, low conscientiousness, low agreeableness and low extraversion. Healthy populations in comparison to clinical populations show higher levels of extraversion and lower levels of neuroticism. Again, my introversion puts me at a greater risk.

For alcohol abuse, Malouff, Thorsteinsson, Rooke and Schutte (2007) found that people that are low on conscientiousness, low on agreeableness and high on neuroticism are more likely to have difficulties with alcohol. These individuals are less likely to improve through treatment. Another meta-analytic finding by Malouff, Thorsteinsson and Schutte (2006) found that these three factors are also significantly related to smoking prevalence. Never smoked, but have drunk more than I should have at times. If I want to cut down, my personality style should help me.

For physical activity, Sutin and colleagues (2016) found that lower neuroticism and higher conscientiousness is associated with more physical activity and less sedentary behaviour. Higher extraversion and more openness to experience is also associated with more physical activity ,and that these variables don’t change much based on age or sex. Consequently, being a bit introverted is the only factor that lets me down.

For workplace harassment, highly neurotic people are most likely to be exposed to workplace harassment (.25 correlation), with highly extraverted and conscientious people least likely to be harassed (.10 correlation). I thought Susan Cain said it was good to be an introvert in her book ‘Quiet’, but there doesn’t seem to be much that is positively linked with Introversion?

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What About Individual Faults and Virtues?

Even though across the population as a whole there seems to be benefits to being extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, open to experience and not neurotic, there are advantages and disadvantages to each trait, particularly at the extremes.

Extremely sociable, extraverted people can be dominant and impulsive, while introverted, quiet people can easily become isolated and depressed.

Extremely open people can be scattered and overwhelmed by their own thoughts and ideas, while closed-minded people may become narrow and inflexible.

Exceptionally conscientious people can be obsessive about order, judgmental and rigid, while their more carefree counterparts may be messy, undisciplined and careless.

People very high in emotional stability may engage in risky, dangerous behaviour, while those who are more neurotic can become so preoccupied by anxiety and pain that they are unable to function.

Finally, extremely agreeable people may never stand up for themselves, while those who are too disagreeable can be aggressive, callous and bullying.

To find out your individual faults and virtues on each of the five personality factors, the Self Authoring program can help you to clarify your own personal traits and help you to clarify what you would like to strengthen and improve. Below are my results:

Extraversion/Introversion Faults

  • Can spend too much money
  • Keep in the background
  • Lose opportunities because I am too isolated
  • Am too quiet around strangers
  • Find it difficult to approach others
  • Bottle up my feelings
  • Feel drained by social interactions
  • Have a social circle that is too small

Extraversion/Introversion Virtues

  • Feel comfortable around people
  • Don’t mind being the center of attention
  • Can take charge and lead
  • Am skilled in handling social situations
  • Am often happy
  • Can listen well
  • Do not always talk about myself
  • Enjoy time in natural surroundings
  • Let other people have the spotlight
  • Think before I act

Agreeable/Assertive Faults

  • Avoid conflict even when it is necessary
  • Will sacrifice my own feelings for the comfort of others
  • Can bottle up my feelings until I become resentful
  • Am polite to a fault
  • Trust people too easily
  • Can be detached and cold when others are hurt and upset

Agreeable/Assertive Virtues

  • Trust people
  • Am interested in people
  • Feel others’ emotions
  • Inquire genuinely about others’ well-being
  • Know how to comfort others
  • Make people feel at ease
  • Am a good peacemaker
  • Am aware that malevolence exists in the world

Conscientiousness/Carelessness Faults

  • Get obsessed with details and lose the big picture
  • Cannot stand to be late for an appointment
  • Feel that I am being unproductive if I relax
  • Believe that I have to be flawless
  • Can be contemptuous of other people and of myself
  • Find it difficult to get down to work
  • Neglect my duties
  • Frequently make excuses
  • Am sometimes willing to bend the truth to get out of an obligation
  • Feel unmotivated to complete my work

Conscientiousness/Carelessness Virtues

  • Have a very long attention span and can work without being distracted
  • Do things according to a plan
  • Strive for efficiency and economy
  • Pay attention to details
  • Am extremely reliable
  • Always arrive at appointments early or on time
  • Am very goal-oriented
  • Do what I say I am going to do
  • Know how to go with the flow
  • Don’t waste my time thinking about little details

Emotional Stability/Low Stress Tolerance Faults

  • Am sometimes not afraid of things I should be afraid of
  • Don’t appear to learn as well from my mistakes as others do
  • Don’t pay enough attention to costs and potential future dangers 
  • Often take counterproductive or unnecessary risks
  • Blow little things out of proportion
  • Let my fears stop me from doing things I want to do

Emotional Stability/Low Stress Tolerance Virtues

  • Am difficult to offend
  • Am in control of my emotions
  • Calm down quickly when I do get upset
  • Seldom get disturbed or upset
  • Am rarely incautious
  • Am a cautious, careful person
  • Don’t rush into things before I feel comfortable
  • Am good at identifying the risks in new situations

Openness/Traditionalism Faults

  • Pursue too many activities at the same time
  • Am interested in so many things that I don’t know what to focus on
  • Have a hard time planning for the future because I am interested in everything
  • Have a hard time making up my mind because I can always see all the sides of an argument
  • Am so interested in creative activities that it is hard to concentrate on things that are practical
  • Have had a hard time forming a clear identity
  • Have done crazy things just because I was curious about what might happen

Openness/Traditionalism Virtues

  • Am quick to understand things
  • Can handle a lot of information
  • Catch on to things quickly
  • Am always learning new things
  • Spend time reflecting on things
  • Can always see new possibility in things
  • See the value in tradition and custom
  • Am resistant to radical, dangerous thoughts
group of young multiethnic cheerful colleagues having party after workday

So, as you can see above, your personality style is never all good or all bad. I’m sure that even if you are introverted, disagreeable, careless, neurotic and closed to new experiences, there will still be some virtues associated with your personality style. I also think that, even though it may be more of a challenge, it is still possible to find the right career or job and the right relationship and friendships for you.

You may not be the right fit for everyone or everything, but no one is. What is more important is to first try to understand yourself, change what you would like to and are able to, accept what you do not want to or cannot change, and then find the places and people that love and appreciate you for who you are.

Happy New Year, and all the best for 2021!

Where Are the Happiest Cities in the World?

For the first time ever, the 2020 World Happiness Report ranked 186 cities around the world in terms of their level of subjective well-being. By looking at the Gallup World Poll data across more than 160 countries and 99% of the world’s population, we can now tell which city’s residents evaluated their current life the highest. Well, at least how they evaluated their life satisfaction before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

If you would like to determine your life satisfaction, you could also ask yourself the following question: “imagine yourself on a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. Zero represents the worst possible life and ten the best possible life you can imagine. Which step would you put yourself on based on your life currently?”

Here are the top 20 cities, based on their inhabitants’ responses to the above question:

  1. Helsinki, Finland = 7.828 average
  2. Aarhus, Denmark = 7.625 average
  3. Wellington, New Zealand = 7.553 average
  4. Zurich, Switzerland = 7.541 average
  5. Copenhagen, Denmark = 7.530 average
  6. Bergen, Norway = 7.527 average
  7. Olso, Norway = 7.464 average
  8. Tel Aviv, Israel = 7.461 average
  9. Stockholm, Sweden = 7.373 average
  10. Brisbane, Australia = 7.337 average
  11. San Jose, Costa Rica = 7.321 average
  12. Reykjavik, Iceland = 7.317 average
  13. Toronto, Canada = 7.298 average
  14. Melbourne, Australia = 7.296 average
  15. Perth, Australia = 7.253 average
  16. Auckland, New Zealand = 7.232 average
  17. Christchurch, New Zealand = 7.191 average
  18. Washington, USA = 7.185 average
  19. Dallas, USA = 7.155 average
  20. Sydney, Australia = 7.133 average
photo of cathedral near buildings and river

Scandinavian cities dominate, with more than half of the top ten cities worldwide. Australia’s happiest city is Brisbane, but three other Australian cities make the top 20, with Melbourne beating Sydney (yes!). NZ also fares pretty well, with Wellington the happiest city outside of Finland and Denmark, and Auckland and Christchurch in the top 20 too. The happiest city in the US is Washington D.C. surprisingly at #18, with Dallas just behind it in 19th.

Which Cities Are Improving their Happiness Levels the Most?

Here are the top ten cities with the biggest improvement in life satisfaction from 2005 to 2018:

  1. Abidjan, Ivory Coast = 0.981 average improvement in subjective well-being
  2. Dushanbe, Tajikstan = 0.950 average improvement
  3. Vilnius, Lithuania = 0.939 improvement
  4. Almaty, Kazakstan = 0.922 improvement
  5. Cotonou, Benin = 0.918 improvement
  6. Sofia, Bulgaria = 0.899 improvement
  7. Dakar, Senegal = 0.864 improvement
  8. Conakry, Guinea = 0.833 improvement
  9. Niamey, Niger = 0.812 improvement
  10. Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo = 0.787 improvement
grayscale photograph group of children

Some of the biggest improvements in subjective well-being come from the continent of Africa, with six out of the top 10 cities coming from there. Central Asia and Eastern Europe are the other two main areas with the biggest jump in subjective well-being in the early part of the 21st Century.

Which Cities Feel the Most Hopeful About the Future?

Below is the top ten most optimistic cities and how they imagine their subjective well-being will be in the future:

  1. Tashkent, Uzbekistan = 8.390 average future subjective well-being
  2. San Miguelito, Panama = 8.372 average
  3. San Jose, Costa Rica = 8.347 average
  4. Accra, Ghana = 8.297 average
  5. Panama City, Panama = 8.286 average
  6. Aarhus, Denmark = 8.286 average
  7. Copenhagen, Denmark = 8.208 average
  8. Helsinki, Finland = 8.206 average
  9. Atlanta, USA = 8.204 average
  10. Freetown, Sierra Leone = 8.203 average
Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Central America seems to be very optimistic about their future, especially the two countries of Panama and Costa Rica. Atlanta is the only USA city to crack the top ten in any of the categories in this article, and Scandinavia remains hopeful about things continuing to improve going forward, especially Denmark and Finland. Tashkent in Uzbekistan comes out of nowhere to win this category, although Central Asia has had some big improvements in their subjective well-being over the last 15 years. Ghana and Sierra Leone are also expecting that things will continue to improve for them, with greater levels of happiness predicted in their main cities than anywhere in Australia or Western Europe in the future.

Which Cities Experience the Most Positive Emotions?

Here are the top ten cities in the world with the highest levels of positive affect:

  1. Asuncion, Paraguay = .892/1
  2. Mogadishu, Somalia = .877/1
  3. Vientiane, Laos = .873/1
  4. San Pedro Sula, Honduras = .867/1
  5. Quito, Ecuador = .862/1
  6. San Jose, Costa Rica = .860/1
  7. Cork, Ireland = .857/1
  8. Reykjavik, Iceland = .855/1
  9. Santiago, Chile = .853/1
  10. Montevideo, Uruguay = .850/1
Asuncion, Paraguay

These rankings are based off of people’s responses to the positive and negative affect scale (PANAS). The 10-item positive affect scale measures how much people describe feeling active, alert, attentive, determined, enthusiastic, excited, inspired, interested, proud and strong on a 5-point scale from 1 = not at all to 5 = very much. South American cities seem to rate quite high on this scale with Asuncion in Paraguay winning by quite a bit, Quito in Ecuador landing in the top 5, and Santiago in Chile and Montevideo in Uruguay rounding out the top 10. Central America have two cities in the top 6, with Somalia having the lone city from Africa, Laos the only city from Asia, and Ireland and Iceland representing Europe.

Which Cities Report the Fewest Negative Emotions?

The top ten cities with the lowest levels of negative affect:

  1. Taipei, Taiwan = .110/1
  2. Prishtine, Kosovo = 0.132/1
  3. Shanghai, China = 0.140/1
  4. Talinn, Estonia = 0.144/1
  5. Singapore = 0.144/1
  6. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan = 0.144/1
  7. Baku, Azerbaijan = 0.145/1
  8. Wellington, New Zealand = 0.152/1
  9. Almaty, Kazakhstan = 0.158/1
  10. Moscow, Russia = 0.159/1
city during nighttime

These rankings are also based off of people’s responses to the PANAS. The 10-item negative affect scale assesses how much people report feeling afraid, ashamed, distressed, guilty, hostile, irritable, jittery, nervous, scared and upset on a 5-point scale from 1 = not at all to 5 = very much. Unlike many of the other findings, Asia and Eastern Europe come out on top, with no sign of African or North, Central or South American countries in the top 10. Taiwan, China and Singapore all rank in the top 5, indicating low levels of negatively reported emotions in this region. Unfortunately, low negative affectivity doesn’t seem to result in super high levels of reported happiness or life satisfaction, as the only city to rank in the top 10 in any other section is Wellington, New Zealand.

road between trees near snow capped mountains

Conclusion

If you want to go where people are most satisfied with their life, Finland is the place to be, as it has been rated the happiest country in the world for three years now. Helsinki also takes the crown for the city with the highest life satisfaction at present, but other cities in Scandinavia aren’t too far behind.

When you explore the data a little further, it gets a bit more complicated as to where the happiest places in the world are. No Australian city ranks in the top 10 in the world for recent improvement in life satisfaction, optimism about life satisfaction in the future, or levels of positive or negative affectivity. Only one US city (Atlanta for optimism about the future) makes the top ten for any of these categories, and UK countries are nowhere to be seen for any of them.

Conversely, there are many cities in Africa and Central Asia where well-being has been improving at a fast pace over the last 15 years and their citizens remain excited about the potential for what is yet to come. None more so than Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Central America also has a number of cities that are feeling happy and hopeful about their future, especially in Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras.

Based on the findings, South America has the most cities that report a lot of positive emotions in the present, and Asia and Eastern Europe win out on minimal negative emotions. Personally, the idea of living somewhere with minimally reported negative emotions and a high level of life satisfaction sounds pretty good to me. Wellington, you might be just what I am looking for…

Feeling Fatigued? What Would Happen if We Worked Less?

Back in the 18th Century, employees worked up to 16 hours per day. Everyone knew this was unsustainable, and that it led to severe fatigue and a horrible quality of life for most of the working class. Then in 1856, the 8 hours movement began in Victoria.

The Labor unions fought hard for the idea of 888. They wanted 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for work, and 8 hours for family, rest and play. This statue was erected at the top end of Russell Street in Melbourne in 1903, meaning that they had achieved this goal for most people sometime between 1856 and 1903 in Victoria.

Eight Hour Day Monument (Melbourne): UPDATED 2020 All You Need to ...
Eight Hour Day Monument (Melbourne): UPDATED 2020 All You Need to ...

In the US, the railroad workers began to work eight-hour shifts in 1916. Ford Motor Company followed suit in 1926 when they cut the working hours of their employees to 8 hours per day while doubling wages. The reduced work hours and better pay led to a happier and more committed workforce, and productivity increased. More leisure time and money also led to more workers buying more stuff (including Ford cars), which the government realised was better for raising GDP. Other companies also began to realise that workers were more focused and productive when they worked less. An eight-hour workday subsequently became the new norm.

Since then, the working hours have begun to creep back up again, especially in the US. Among people employed full-time, the average employee works 47 hours per week. 40% of full-time employees now work over 50-hours per week, with only 8% working less than 40 hours. So much for 8-hour workdays being the standard. 

The Negative Consequences of Long Work Hours

Research has shown:

  • Working more than 10 hours per day can increase your risk of cardiovascular issues by 60%
  • Regularly working more than 10 hours a day can also increase your risk of stroke by 29%.
  • Working more than 11 hours of overtime a week leads to increased depression risk.
  • Working 12 hours days increases your risk of making mistakes at work by 23%.
  • In companies where the average weekly work time is under 43.5 hours per week, barely any fatigue-related problems are found.
  • In companies where the average weekly work time is between 43.5 hours and 46 hours, minor fatigue problems are detected.
  • In companies where the average weekly work time is over 46.5 hours, severe fatigue-related issues are seen.
  • The rate of relationship problems in those working 50-60 hours per week is 10%
  • The percentage of relationship problems in those working more than 60 hours per week is 30%.
  • Long working hours are linked to poorer mental health and sleep quality.
  • Long working hours are also linked with increased smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and weight gain.
  • Long working hours are related to lower job performance, as well as less job satisfaction and lower overall life satisfaction.

What if We Did Work Less?

Six Hour Workday infographic

The above infographic by Ohio University highlights why we need to work less. If the top 10% of employees in terms of productivity work in 52-minute blocks followed by 15- to 20-minute breaks, they can only do seven 52-minute work block in a day. That is 7 x 52 = 364 minutes of work per day. That means we really shouldn’t be putting in more than 6 hours and 4 minutes of work per day.

We also should be taking 1 hour and 56 minutes of breaks spread out across the day if we want to be at our most productive too. That’s six breaks that are 19 minutes and 20 seconds long, or five 15-minute breaks and one 41 -minute lunch break. Like they say in the infographic, eight-hour days are only productive when we take sufficient breaks, and few people do.

An alternative for the people or organisations that don’t want to take regular breaks is a shorter workday. The average person is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes every day. What do you think would happen if we reduced the workday to only 6-hours per day and paid people the same amount?

For a 6-hour workday to be effective, it would be necessary for companies to make it harder for their employees to waste time. Just putting a block on news websites and social media sites would give the average person 1 hour and 49 minutes of their typical workday back. With the extra time after work, these employees could check the news and social media then if they wanted to. If the average employee is 20% happier and healthier with six-hour workdays, they are going to be less likely to look for other jobs too.

Microsoft has also recently experimented with four-day work-weeks in Japan. When workers took the Friday as well as the weekend off, productivity went up 40%. Only 10% of the staff who tried this weren’t more productive overall. They also cut meeting times down to a maximum of 30-minutes each. I’m sure that this helped as well.

When other companies have tried four-day work-weeks, they manage to produce 25% more output with the same size staff. They also find it easier to fill vacant positions when they arise, as more people are enticed by the four-day-a-week full-time job than a typical five-day-a-week role.

Conclusion

Since coming back to Melbourne and returning to full-time work, I have noticed that a lot of my stress and fatigue has returned. Finding the right work/life balance isn’t easy, especially with all of the uncertainty and anxiety created by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m grateful to have full-time work doing what I love to do, but working in a way that isn’t harmful to my health and well-being is still a work in progress for me.

However you decide to manage your workload, please understand that working long hours without regular breaks is not sustainable. We can address this by working fewer hours in a day or fewer days in a week. Or we can merely get up from the desk and walk around a bit more when you notice that your productivity and energy levels are dropping. Getting outside for lunch and away from screens can also help. As can taking some pressure off of ourselves.

Working hard and being busy are still seen as status symbols in Western society on too frequent a basis. Stepping out of this culture and into “island time” for 20 months was one of the best things I could have done for my fatigue, happiness and overall well-being.

The biggest question I still have is whether or not we can learn from our experiences and from what the research says. It seems counter-intuitive, but working less could help us to be a healthier, happier and more productive society going forward. We just need COVID-19 to go away so that we can enjoy the free time we have doing the things we enjoy and connecting with the people we love.

Motivation: Tips for How to Improve it

People often ask me how they can improve their motivation. Generally what I tell them is that there are two big motivators in life. One is your values, or what is most important to you in your life. The other is fear, or trying to prevent the worst from happening.

Research by Tversky and Kahneman found that losses loom much larger than gains. This means that fear is usually better for motivation than values, because we are more willing to put in effort to avoid something bad happening than we are to create something good. This bias is one of the main reasons that all of your direct ancestors survived long enough to reproduce. So without their loss aversion, you may not be here today.

The problem of just using fear for motivation is that it triggers our fight-or-flight response. It increases our cortisol levels if we trigger this response too often, so in the long run it isn’t so great for our mental and physical health.

Being motivated by our values on the other hand is very rewarding. We aren’t just in survival mode. We are creating the life we want and it feels very rewarding.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic values

Values are not the same thing as goals. You cannot just achieve them and then move on. They are guiding principles for life. They help you identify whether you are on the right track in your life or not. If you are not sure which values are most important to you, this clarification exercise can help.

The biggest problem with values is that it can be hard to know why your most important values are important to you. Is it because society says they are, or movies, or marketing companies? Or is it because your family or religion says so? Or just because it feels really important deep down?

Research has found that we are much more likely to experience motivation when we are being motivated by our intrinsic rather than our extrinsic values. Extrinsic means something outside of us. Intrinsic means something within us.

I remember back when I was doing my Doctoral studies. For the first six months I was not on a scholarship and was studying for free. Then I was placed on an academic scholarship, and was being paid to study. There was something about being paid to study (an extrinsic factor) that diminished my intrinsic motivation to study and made it harder overall. Before I received the scholarship, I thought it would have been the opposite, and that getting paid to study would have helped me remain focused and finish my research even quicker. It did not.

Professional sports players who start getting paid to play can feel the same way. Growing up you couldn’t keep them off the court. They just loved the game. But now it’s a business, and some people in the NBA refuse to play unless they are getting paid more or playing for a team that is contending for a championship. Their intrinsic motivation has become overshadowed by their million dollar salaries.

Volunteering in Vanuatu was the opposite. Because I was no longer getting paid to do any of the Mental Health support that I was offering the country, I could fall in love with psychology and therapy all over again. I was simply helping people to improve their mental health and the overall quality of their lives. I felt connected with my important values and experienced lots of motivation as a result.

Three Intrinsic Ways To Build Motivation

In his excellent book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, the author Daniel H. Pink says that there are three major ways to increase your intrinsic motivation:

1. Autonomy

  • What do you want to do?
  • Why do you want to do it?
  • Is it for others or for you?
  • If it is for others, do you feel forced to do it or is it because it is important to you?
  • If it’s important to you, what personal value is being highlighted as very important for you:
    • Dutifulness?
    • Obedience or Loyalty?
    • Altruism?
    • Empathy?
    • Sympathy?
    • Being supportive?
    • Being kind or compassionate?
    • Not being indebted to others?
    • Equality or fairness?
    • Something else?

2. Mastery

  • What skills do you want to build?
  • What do you enjoy learning?
  • What areas interest you?
  • What comes easily to you that doesn’t come easily to others?

3. Purpose

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What is personally meaningful to you?
  • If you didn’t have to earn money, what would you do?
  • What would you want your epitaph or tombstone to say?
  • What would you want to hear someone say at your 80th birthday during a talk about you and the person you have been?
  • What do you want your legacy to be?
  • What do you want to add to the world?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • If the world was going to end in 2 years, and you couldn’t do anything about it or tell anyone else about it, would you do anything different to what you are doing now?
  • If your kids didn’t listen to what you said, and only looked at what you did, would you change you actions or what you do on a daily basis? If so, what would you do differently?

Is FEAR Holding You Back?

Let’s say you know what you want to change, but are still struggling to do it. Perhaps FEAR is holding you back from making the changes you want to. FEAR is an acronym Russ Harris created in his books’ The Happiness Trap’ and ‘The Confidence Gap’.

FEAR stands for:

F = fusion with unhelpful thoughts

If you are fusing with unhelpful thoughts, you need to practice defusion skills to let go of unhelpful thoughts and increase your motivation. Defusion techniques involve recognising thoughts, images, and memories for what they are. They are just words and pictures. You then allow them to come and go as they please, without fighting them, running from them or giving them more attention than they deserve. Google search Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) defusion exercises and try some until you find one that allows you to let go of unhelpful thoughts. My personal favourite is on the app ‘CBT-I coach’ in the section called, ‘quiet your mind’ where you can find an exercise called ‘observe thoughts – clouds in the sky’.

E = expectations that are unrealistic

If you have unrealistic expectations, review your goals and write the new ones down to improve your motivation. Break these goals down into smaller steps, give yourself more time to achieve them and allow yourself to make mistakes. Let’s say you are hoping to obtain seven hours of sleep per night, and you only sleep five hours currently. Start with trying to improve your total sleep time by an average of 10 minutes over the next week. Once you achieve this, you can then aim for another 10 minutes. Within 12 weeks, you could get to where you want to be, so try to take the long-term approach instead of looking for a super quick fix. If you do not reach your sleep goal on one night, that is okay. Just stick to the plan you have set, and do not give up until at least two weeks have passed. Everyone has a terrible sleep from time to time, so it is important to keep realistic short and long-term goals to ensure that your motivation remains high.

A = avoidance of discomfort

If you are avoiding discomfort, challenge yourself to improve your motivation by taking action. Remember that gradual exposure is the most effective intervention for any anxiety disorder, including post-traumatic stress disorder. With anxiety, we want to avoid, but this only keeps the fear alive as our brain tells us that what we are avoiding is dangerous. We need to challenge ourselves to do what we want and make room for the emotions that we feel in these moments. By doing this, we will generally realise that doing the thing we were afraid of was not nearly as bad or uncomfortable as we imagined. To increase your ability to sit with painful or difficult emotions, try expansion ACT exercises, or a body scan meditation. The CBT-I coach app has a body scan meditation under the ‘quiet your mind’ section that I would recommend checking out.

R = remoteness from values

If you are not living consistently with your most important values, reconnect with them to increase your motivation. Then see if your plan or desired outcome will help you to live more consistently with your most important values. If your plan will, write down your most important values and put them in a place that you will often see to remind yourself of why you are currently doing what you are doing. If your plan will not, change your plan so that it is more consistent with what is most important to you.

Remember, change is generally always hard, but worth it if it will help us to live the life that we want to be living in the end. Keeping in mind why you are doing something is also the key to improving your motivation so that you can push through when things get tough.

Good luck with improving your motivation, and do let me know if these strategies help!

Things You Can Do to Stay Mentally Healthy During Self-Isolation

These past few months have been wild, and not in a good way. 

On February 4th I partially dislocated my knee while playing basketball in Port Vila, Vanuatu. It hurt. A lot.

On the 8th of February, I was medically relocated back to Australia, where an MRI confirmed the extent of the damage. I had ruptured my ACL, torn my meniscus, injured my MCL and fractured my tibia. Surgery was recommended, but the waiting list to see a specialist was lengthy. I worried that I would need to terminate my volunteer role as a Mental Health Specialist at Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health early. Fortunately, a private medical specialist said that I could go on a public waitlist for surgery and medically cleared me to return to Vanuatu to finish my role. I was still in pain, but I could walk and work, and the surgery could wait. 

On March 7th I returned back to Port Vila and was super happy to see everyone again and put my psychological knowledge and skills towards reducing mental illness in Vanuatu.

Around this time, the number of Coronavirus cases began to escalate worldwide. Quickly. Before I had even re-adjusted to life in Port Vila again, the Australian Volunteer Program informed us that the program was being suspended worldwide, and all volunteers would be sent home in the next one to three weeks. 

On the 16th of March, we were told that we would need to pack up all our stuff and book a flight to return to Australia before the 31st of March. On the 19th of March at 6:30pm, we were told that we needed to leave the following day. After living in Vanuatu for 18 months, I did not even have a full day to pack and say a proper goodbye to everyone there, including dear friends, coworkers and patients. It was extremely tough, and something that I am continuing to try and process both cognitively and emotionally. 

architecture buildings clouds daylight

Now that I am back in Melbourne and self-isolating, I suddenly have a lot of free time, no job and no demands except to stay on my property and away from other people.

A lot of the things that we are all being asked to do during the pandemic is almost the exact opposite of what psychologists would normally recommend for people to do. This is especially the case for people with a diagnosable mental illness, such as depression or anxiety. 

For depression, not doing things that we have previously enjoyed and isolating ourselves from others are two of the biggest traps that we can fall into. For anxiety, the biggest trap is continued avoidance of the things that we are afraid of. 

A common psychological intervention for depression with a lot of scientific evidence supporting it is behavioural activation. This means that we push ourselves to try to do the things that we know are likely to be good for us, even if we don’t feel like doing them. For anxiety, the most empirically supported intervention is gradual exposure, or slowly challenging ourselves to face our fears, especially with situations that feel like life or death situations to us but are actually pretty safe. Once we begin doing these things again, we realise that they are actually more enjoyable and less scary than our minds were telling us, and over time it can become easier and easier to do these (and other) activities.

person holding covid sign

What about Coronavirus?

Regardless of where you are in the world, the most important thing that we can do for our physical safety of ourselves and our loved ones is to follow the directives from your government about COVID-19 and the trusted health organisations that are helping to determine these directives in your area. If you are being asked to self-isolate, don’t go outside your property. If you are being asked to work from home and you can, please do, unless you are considered an essential service and you are needed out in the community. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds regularly, or use hand sanitizer if you have access to them. Don’t touch your face and cough into your elbow and away from others. Practice social distancing and stay at least 1.5 metres from others. Don’t hang out in groups or touch or shake hands or hug and kiss others. Wear a mask if you are worried that you have any symptoms. Call the emergency numbers or hotlines in your region if you are concerned about your symptoms and ask medical professionals about what you should do rather than just turn up to clinics or hospitals unannounced. 

Hopefully, most of you know the relevant recommendations in your area by now and why they are important to help flatten the curve. If we can all do our part, it will help to reduce how overwhelmed our medical facilities become with severe or critical COVID-19 cases, which will reduce the overall fatality rate.

don t panic sticker on sign

How Can We Mentally Cope?

The current Coronavirus pandemic does seem to be having a huge psychological impact on people across the globe. Many people were in denial initially or trying to minimise the seriousness of the virus or the impact that they thought it would have. However, once it began to spread more, people began to feel scared, afraid, fearful, anxious, worried, nervous, panicky and overwhelmed about what is going on in the present and what may come in the future. Others report feeling sad, shocked, despondent, hopeless, helpless, or in grief about what they have already lost and what they can do about it at the moment. Or they feel annoyed, frustrated, mad, or angry about what has happened, how it has happened, and the decisions that governments and others are making to try and slow down the spread of the virus.

It is a very difficult time for everyone. 

During my first few days of self-isolation, I think I was still recovering from the panic associated with trying to pack up my life and leave Vanuatu in less than 24 hours. I was in shock maybe, or denial. For the first three days, I didn’t even unpack my bag. I just communicated with friends and family, read some books, worried, played video games, watched Netflix, ate and slept. 

By day four, which was yesterday, enough was enough. I pulled out a notebook, and decided that I would try the Ivy Lee Productivity Method. This 100-year-old method to boost productivity is quite simple, with only five steps:

wly_infographic-01

By figuring out what my top 6 priorities were and writing them down, I managed to already feel a lot better and more in control, even before I started actually doing the tasks. I also managed to fly through the tasks and feel productive again for the first time since being back in Melbourne. I resumed my daily meditation practice using the ‘Waking Up’ app. I unpacked my bags and tidied my room. I switched over my SIM card in my phone back to my Australian one. I did some much-needed paperwork online and did a weights workout while watching some TV. It was a good day. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed or unproductive at the moment, try the Ivy Lee Productivity Method. Just make sure that you only put six items on the list, and do the most important things first.

Having a schedule or consistent routine is also something that I would highly recommend during this pandemic. Work and school often provides this for us, but if you are at home 24/7, you need to create this yourself. A helpful routine might consist of: 

  • trying to sleep and wake at relatively consistent times,
  • not spending too little or too much time in bed (7-9 hours for adults, more for children),
  • eating regularly with lots of vegetables and not too much junk food or sweets,
  • staying hydrated by drinking enough water and minimising consumption of alcohol, nicotine and illicit drugs,
  • communicating via phone or the internet with at least one friend or family member daily,
  • doing some form of strength training or cardiovascular exercise for 20-30 minutes a day, even if you are confined to a single room,
  • having some daily tasks that give you a sense of achievement, engagement or mastery, and
  • getting fresh air and sunlight regularly if you can do this without breaking any restrictions in your area.

The more that you can build these things into your daily routine, the greater chance there is of maintaining or improving your mental health. Having some activities that we enjoy each day and look forward to doing can also really help.  

lego toy in clear glass container

Which Activities Can Help?

If you still aren’t exactly sure what you can do from day to day at the moment, a pleasant activities list or pleasant activity schedule can help. There are many different ones available online for free, but the one I will use for this article is the ‘Fun Activities Catalogue‘ by the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Western Australia. 

Out of the 365 activities listed, there are some that I can definitely not do while in self-quarantine, including going ice-skating, going out to dinner, socialising in person, flying a plane, scuba diving, going on a tour or to the zoo or movies, or playing sport. 

What is surprising though, is just how many items I still can do. Read the list of self-quarantine friendly activities below, and rank on a scale from 1 to 5 how much you think you would enjoy doing the task if you were to do it. If you can’t do that particular item where you are living, just skip it. For this exercise, 1 = I would hate to do this activity, 2 = I wouldn’t really like doing this activity 3 = doing the activity would be okay, 4 = it would be pretty fun to do this activity, and 5 = I would love to do this activity!

  • Spending time in my backyard
  • Watching the clouds drift by
  • Debating with someone online or over the phone
  • Painting my nails
  • Scheduling a day with nothing to do
  • Giving positive feedback about something (e.g. writing a letter or email about good service)
  • Feeding the birds
  • Spending an evening with good friends online or on the phone
  • Making jams or preserves
  • Getting dinner delivered by a restaurant and having them drop it at your doorstep
  • Buying gifts online
  • Having a political discussion online or over the phone
  • Repairing things around the house
  • Washing my car
  • Watching TV, videos
  • Sending a loved one a card in the mail
  • Baking something
  • Taking a bath
  • Having a video call with someone who lives far away
  • Organising my wardrobe
  • Playing musical instruments
  • Lighting scented candles, oils or incense
  • Spending time alone
  • Exercising
  • Putting up a framed picture or artwork
  • Looking up at the stars at night
  • Birdwatching from my backyard or window
  • Doing something spontaneously in the house
  • Going on a picnic in the backyard
  • Having a warm drink
  • Massaging hand cream into my hands
  • Fantasising about the future
  • Laughing
  • Clearing my email inbox
  • Getting out of debt/paying debts
  • Looking at old photo albums or photos on my computer or Facebook
  • Exploring Google Earth
  • Walking around my house and yard
  • Researching a topic of interest
  • Redecorating
  • Donating money to a cause I support
  • Smelling a flower
  • Opening the curtains and blinds to let light in
  • Doing jigsaw puzzles
  • Sorting through old clothes or items that you could donate to a charity eventually
  • Lying in the sun
  • Learning a magic trick
  • Talking on the phone
  • Listening to a podcast or radio show
  • Noticing what I can see in the neighbourhood from my house or yard
  • Doing arts and crafts
  • Sketching, painting
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Doing the dishes
  • Sitting outside and listening to birds sing
  • Watching TED talks online
  • Planning a holiday for the future
  • Playing cards
  • Putting moisturising cream on my face / body 
  • Re-watching a favourite movie
  • Gardening 
  • Going camping in the living room or backyard
  • Entering a competition
  • Doing crossword puzzles
  • Patting or cuddling my pet
  • Cooking a special meal
  • Putting extra effort in to my appearance
  • Doing a favour for someone online
  • Building a bird house or feeder
  • Looking at pictures of beautiful scenery
  • Talking to family members online or over the phone
  • Listening to music
  • Learning a new language using the app Duolingo
  • Taking a free online class
  • Working on my blog or seeing clients via telehealth
  • Washing my hair
  • Singing around the house
  • Creatively reusing old items
  • Stretching
  • Maintaining a musical instrument (e.g. restringing guitar)
  • Buying clothes online
  • Snuggling up with a soft blanket
  • Listening to an audiobook
  • Watching an old stand-up comedy show on Netflix or Youtube
  • Writing down a list of things I am grateful for
  • Teaching a special skill to someone else online (e.g. knitting, woodworking, painting, language)
  • Playing chess using an app
  • Playing video games
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Sending a text message to a friend
  • Doodling
  • Putting a vase of fresh flowers in my house
  • Participating in an online protest or campaign I support
  • Baking home-made bread
  • Walking barefoot on soft grass
  • Watching a movie marathon
  • Skipping/jumping rope
  • Wearing an outfit that makes me feel good
  • Cooking some meals to freeze for later
  • Hobbies (stamp collecting, model building, etc.)
  • Talking to an older relative over the phone and asking them questions about their life
  • Listening to classical music
  • Photography
  • Watching funny videos on YouTube
  • Doing something religious or spiritual (e.g. praying)
  • Making my bed with fresh sheets
  • Lifting weights
  • Early morning coffee and news
  • Planning a themed party for next year (e.g. costume, murder mystery)
  • Wearing comfortable clothes
  • Shining my shoes
  • Trying to act like the characters in my favourite movies or TV shows
  • De-cluttering
  • Arranging flowers
  • Working on my car or bicycle
  • Juggling or learning to juggle
  • Contacting an old school friend
  • Calligraphy
  • Sleeping
  • Playing with my pets
  • Listening to the radio
  • Doing Sudoku
  • Planting vegetables or flowers
  • Surfing the internet
  • Doing embroidery, cross stitching
  • Buying books from Amazon or bookdepository.co.uk
  • Meditating using Smiling Mind or Headspace or Calm or Balance or Waking Up apps
  • Training my pet to do a new trick
  • Planning a day’s activities
  • Waking up early, and getting ready at a leisurely pace
  • Organising my home workspace
  • Writing (e.g. poems, articles, blog, books)
  • Dancing in the dark
  • Reading classic literature
  • Putting on perfume or cologne
  • Reading magazines or newspapers
  • Calling a friend
  • Sending a handwritten letter
  • Reading fiction
  • Meeting new people online by joining groups that you are interested in
  • Doing 5 minutes of calm deep breathing
  • Buying new stationary online
  • Turning off electronic devices for an hour (e.g. computer, phone, TV)
  • Buying music (MP3s, Spotify premium subscription)
  • Relaxing
  • Watching an old sports game (rugby, soccer, basketball, etc)
  • Doing woodworking
  • Planning a nice surprise for someone else
  • Saying “I love you” to someone important in your life online, over the phone or in a letter
  • Making a playlist of upbeat songs
  • Colouring in
  • Doing a nagging task (e.g. making a phone call, scheduling an online appointment, replying to an email)
  • Shaping a bonsai plant
  • Planning my career
  • Reading non-fiction
  • Writing a song or composing music
  • Having a barbecue
  • Sewing
  • Dancing
  • Looking at art online
  • Making a ‘To-Do’ list of tasks
  • Having quiet evenings
  • Singing in the shower
  • Refurbishing furniture
  • Exchanging emails, chatting on the internet
  • Knitting/crocheting/quilting
  • Napping in a hammock
  • Making a gift for someone
  • Having discussions with friends
  • Trying a new recipe
  • Pampering myself at home (e.g. putting on a face mask)
  • Reading poetry
  • Savouring a piece of fresh fruit
  • Eating outside in my backyard
  • Making a pot of tea
  • Using special items (e.g. fine china, silver cutlery, jewellery, clothes, souvenir mugs)
  • Doing a DIY project (e.g. making homemade soap, making a mosaic)
  • Taking care of my plants
  • Telling a joke online or over the phone
  • Discussing books online
  • Watching boxing or wrestling online or on TV
  • Giving someone a genuine compliment
  • Practising yoga or Pilates
  • Shaving
  • Genuinely listening to others
  • Tidying-up
  • Rearranging the furniture in my house
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Buying new furniture online
  • Watching a sunset or sunrise from the balcony
  • Watching a funny TV show or movie
  • Recycling old items
  • Boxing a punching bag
  • Cleaning
  • Daydreaming
  • Learning about my genealogy/family tree
  • Setting up a budget
  • Writing a positive comment on a website /blog
  • Eating something nourishing (e.g. chicken soup)
  • Taking a class online (e.g. Masterclass, Udemy, Coursera)
  • Combing or brushing my hair
  • Writing diary/journal entries
  • Scrapbooking
  • Cooking an international cuisine
  • Reading comics
  • Trying new hairstyles
  • Watching a fireplace or campfire
  • Whistling
  • Working from home
  • Playing board games (e.g. Scrabble, Monopoly)
  • Savouring a piece of chocolate
  • Hunting for a bargain online
  • Buying, selling stocks and shares
  • Buying myself something nice
  • Solving riddles
  • Watching old home videos
  • Making home-made pizza
  • Origami
  • Doing something nostalgic (e.g. eating a childhood treat, listening to music from a certain time in my life)
  • Joining an club online (e.g. film, book, sewing, etc.)

Hopefully there are at least a few items in the above list that you would find fun or would love to do. If so, put them on your to-do-list or build them into your routine somewhere over the next week, and see what happens. If it’s been a long time or you have never done it before, it may be even more fun than you expect once you get started. Just make sure that you give the task a proper go for at least ten minutes before stopping and trying something else. 

people walking near train

Conclusion

In the 21st Century, our lives have become extremely busy, full and fast-paced. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now being told that the most helpful thing we can do is stay at home and remain physically distant from others. Unless you are in an essential profession, this could be a time to slow down. To check-in with those that you care most about. To chat for longer and to connect emotionally. To reflect on your life and rediscover what really matters to you. To hope and dream and plan for a better future. And to try things that you otherwise may not have had the chance or the time to do.

 

The Pro Athlete’s Checklist for Optimal Performance: Part Two

This is the second part of a two part series exploring a checklist that professional athletes can go through to ensure that they are performing at their best.

Part One covered the mental aspects that are important to consider while training for an upcoming competition and preparing yourself right before an event. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend checking out that article first.

Part Two will now cover the aspects you need to consider to perform at your best during a competition, and how to reflect and learn the most after the event has finished.

woman jumping with ball

When Competing in an Event

  1. Do you know how to get into a state of flow? [_]

The flow genome project has a 10 question survey that helps you to understand how you best find flow or get “into the zone”. My flow profile result said that I was a hard charger:

A hard-charger: You’re a focused go-getter. You thrive in intense situations, both personally and professionally. You seek out challenges. You lead a high-impact lifestyle. When you set out to learn a new skill, you look for training from the best and brightest in that field. If such training is not available, you hunker down and focus until you’ve figured it out yourself. Either way, “slow and steady” progress is not what you’re after.

The same intensity that fuels your drive and focus also feeds a relentless inner critic. One that ceaselessly pushes you to raise the bar. For you, the Flow State offers a rare escape from the relentless tallying and scoring of yourself against your own ideal goals and past performance. When you find activities that allow this blissful calm and relief, you make them a priority in your life.

Flow Hacks: Hard chargers gravitate towards adventure sports. Skiing delivers the intensity you seek. You favour non-traditional, off-the-beaten-path travel. You’re less interested in itineraries than you are in cultural immersion.

Pro-Tip: As a Hard Charger seeking flow, you may lose sight of the trade-off between risk and reward. Make sure you always stay on the recoverable end of that equation. Rather than pursuing bigger and faster, try going more in-depth. Slow down. Take time to develop discipline and to understand all your pursuits have to offer. It’s typically a lot more than thrills. Develop skills instead of seeking challenges. If you’re already hucking off 20-foot cliffs on Alpine skis, try a different approach, like telemark skiing. If you’re surfing big waves, try stand up paddleboarding. You might also benefit from mindfulness training.

Check out the website, take the quiz, and see what can help you to best get into a flow-state on a more regular basis.

  1. Do you have a clear objective? [_]

A clear objective is something that you can focus on that is within your control that if you do well will help you to win. In the excellent book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ by Timothy Gallwey, he said that tennis only has two requirements for success. The first requirement is to hit each ball over the net and the second is to hit each ball into the court. What are the requirements for success in your sport, or the essential things for you to keep your focus on during a game or performance?

  1. Are you able to observe what is going on so that you change things if they are not going right? [_]

How do you know if things are not working for you while competing? Is it that you are not focused on your objectives or you are easily distracted or irritated by less important things? Is it that you are in your head too much and not in your body or the zone enough? Is it that things don’t feel quite right? Is it that you feel too physically tense or your worries are getting the better of you? Is it that you are making mistakes or losing?

To me, being able to observe well is to first become clear of what my point of focus or objective is going to be during the game, then notice as soon as possible when my focus is no longer on this objective, and then gently bring my attention back to this without getting frustrated with myself for becoming distracted.

  1. Are you able to let go of judgment so that you are in your body and connected with your senses rather than caught up in your head or lost in your thoughts? [_]

Being non-judgmental of your performance and having trust in yourself and your body and your capabilities are some of the keys to staying in the zone or getting back into it during competition.

The more that you are caught up in judgmental thoughts, the more you will worry, the tenser you will become, and the more your performance will suffer. If you notice yourself being judgmental or self-critical, treat these thoughts just like you would any other unhelpful thought – challenge them, or try to let them go.

  1. Can you keep your focus on what’s most important and know how to minimise or block out distractions or worries? [_]

Whenever you find that you are distracted or worrying too much about things during a game, first take one slow, deep breath. Then accept that you have been distracted or worried without judging yourself. Remind yourself that these things are traps and are not helpful, then put all of your focus back onto your clarified objectives from #2 above. Try to be patient and trust that things will be better the more you try to immerse yourself in your movements and the game rather than worrying about what others are doing or saying, including your own mind.

  1. Do you know how to cope with adversity if you are not playing as you hoped or you are losing by more than you expected to be? [_]

When things aren’t going how you have planned, call a time out if possible and re-centre yourself. Select a focal point in the distance below eye level. Form a clear intention of what you aim to do, whether that is stick to the plan or make needed adjustments if the plan isn’t working. Breathe slowly and deeply, and release your muscle tension if you feel tight anywhere. Then find your centre of gravity and ground yourself with where you are and what you are doing. Have a process cue that you can say to yourself in these moments to re-focus on your objectives, and then try to channel all your remaining energy into these objectives and inspired performance.

  1. Do you know how to peak under pressure and still perform at your best when the game is on the line? [_]

Try not to overthink things too much. Although this is easier said than done, remember how much hard work you have put in during practice, and trust that your muscle memory will know what to do in the crucial moments. If you worry that you tense up or worry too much under pressure, remind yourself of times that you performed at your best in the past and visualise how your body was during these times. Try to channel this and see if you can have fun, enjoy the moment, and give 100% to the performance. You won’t regret it if you know that you have applied yourself as much as you could towards the important things that were within your control.

grayscale photo of man at the finish line of a marathon race

After the Competition or Event

  1. Have you spent some time reflecting on how you felt your performance was? [_]

How do you normally feel after an event? Relieved? Disappointed? Happy? Sad? Whatever it is, spend some time just sitting with your feelings about your performance, all the hard work that you put into the lead up to the event, and how you prepared for the event. Do you feel grateful and appreciative of all the hard work you put in, or dissatisfied, knowing that you could have done more or better or pushed yourself harder?

  1. If you performed at your best, do you know what was it that you did that helped you to perform so well? [_]

If you managed to get into a flow state or were in the zone while competing, even if it was only for part of the time, do you know how you did it?  If you smashed your opponent and felt super confident and unbeatable, how did you do it? Do you know how you could replicate these things again next time?

  1. If you did not perform at your best, are you aware of what triggered the poor performance, or what traps you fell into? [_]

Let’s say you under-performed and did much worse than expected. What happened? Was it an issue with your training or your preparation, or was it purely what went wrong during the competition? Do you know how to make sure a similar outcome doesn’t happen again next time?

  1. Are you reflecting on your performance too much? [_]

Reflection doesn’t need to take any longer than 30 minutes, so if you find yourself continuing to stew over what has happened, especially in a self-critical way, you might be ruminating rather than reflecting.

  1. Regardless of how well you performed, have you written down three things that went well, either for you or the team? [_]

Writing this down will help you to remember that it wasn’t all bad and reinforce the positive. Even if you are bitterly disappointed, what did you or other people in your team do that went according to plan or better than expected? If it is what you did, give yourself some acknowledgment or a pat on the back.  Even though it didn’t quite work out how you wanted it to, you still put in so much hard work and effort and deserve some acknowledgment for that. If it’s what your teammates or coaches did, make sure you let them know when it is appropriate.

  1. If you made any mistakes, have you written down up to three things that you could do differently next time to overcome these mistakes and improve your performance next time? [_]

Even if you performed amazingly or won the event, was there anything that you could have done better? What will help you to shave an extra-millisecond off your time, or turn the ball over less, or take higher-percentage shots? Whatever it is, write it down so that you don’t forget what you can do keep improving and growing and getting better over time.

  1. Have you written down anything else that you would like to focus on that is in your control that you think will increase your likelihood of success next time? [_]

Things that you may want to write down include:

  • a different plan for training?
  • a different plan for pre-competition?
  • a different plan for during the next performance?

If you are not sure of what else to write after the 30 minutes of personal reflection, make sure that you also talk to your teammates and coaches about your performance. Others may be able to pick up on different things than you could. Maybe they saw things that you did not. They might also be more objective than you were about your performance too, especially if your emotions were high in the heat of the moment. If someone filmed your performance, watch it back with your teammates or coaches if possible. Ask for feedback, and then write down the essential points that you know you could improve. Only give your teammates honest feedback if they ask for this too. Then come up with a plan with everyone for how you can all address these issues together before the next event.

How many checklist items do you usually do? If it’s not many, are you willing to try and implement a few more of these steps by your next competition? If you do, I’d love to hear about how much it helps. Keep up the great work, and all the best in your athletic endeavours!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

 

 

The Professional Athlete’s Checklist for Optimal Mental Performance: Part One

My last sports psychology article covered 21 strategies that you can apply to improve your sporting performance. If you struggle to cope with adversity, remain free from worry, tend not to peak under pressure, get offended by what your coaches say to you, or struggle to focus as much as you would like to, I highly recommend checking that article out first.

One question that I had when I shared these skills with the Vanuatu Women’s Beach Volleyball Squad was “What skills do I try to learn first?‘ Another question was “When exactly do I try to apply them?” These are both great questions, as I don’t want anyone to overthink what they are doing too much, especially during a significant competition.

This article and the next one will try to answer both of those questions. Firstly, if you already cope well with adversity or peak under pressure every time, don’t even bother trying to learn new skills. Just keep doing what you are already doing, because it is working. If you have poor concentration and goal setting skills, however, then do focus on learning the strategies that I have recommended and see if they work for you.

Now onto when to apply these skills. Below is a checklist that I have created to see if you are already doing everything that you need to do for optimal performance. This article goes into training for an upcoming event and before the competition. The next blog post will cover what is helpful to know how to do both during competition and afterwards.

woman holding two ropes in gym

Training for an Upcoming Event

1. Are you training/ practising enough to improve as quickly as you would like to? [_]

If you notice that you are not growing as much as you hoped, it is important to look both at the frequency (how often you practice), duration (how long you practice for) and the intensity (how hard you practice when you do) to know if one or all of these variables need to change. You can assess this yourself or figure it out with your coach or trainer.

2. Is your practice deliberate enough? [_]

You must have specific objectives for each training session and each week. It is also essential that you have particular skills that you are trying to improve with each activity you do that aims to help you to meet these objectives.

3. Do you have baseline measurements of all the key things you want to improve and are you tracking your progress with these measures? [_]

If you have not conducted a baseline assessment of your skills or the things you want to improve, it will be tough to know how much progress you have made. Baseline measurements could include your weight, vertical jump, flexibility, 40m dash, reaction time. Whatever aspects you and your coach want to improve, figure out a way to assess them and keep track of your progress concerning these things as you train and prepare for a competition. Then you will know if you are on the right track with your training or will need to switch things up.

4. Are you over-training and not giving your body enough time to recover between practice sessions? [_]

Load management is all the rage in the NBA these days. Wilt Chamberlain used to play 48 minutes a night for a whole season at his prime, never subbing out. Now some of the stars will sit out the second night of a back-to-back set, as teams have realised that playing two nights in a row increases their risk of injury. Signs of over-training may include mental exhaustion, muscle fatigue, impaired motivation and concentration and reduced performance. If you are experiencing these things or are concerned that you are overdoing it, talk to your coach, reduce your workload for a bit, and see what happens. If your symptoms go away and your performance improves again, you will know that you are on the right track.

5. Are you eating healthily and enough for your training objectives? [_]

Fresh vegetables and fruit and good sources of protein (fish and lean meats) and fats (eggs, nuts, avocado, some oils) and whole-grains are generally considered healthy. Anything processed or deep-fried or too sugary or salty is not considered very healthy, and having too much caffeine and sugary drinks isn’t recommended either, but there are sport-specific recommendations that nutritionists can provide also. If you are burning an extra 3,000 calories of energy a day in your workouts, you will need to eat more and may require more carbs than an athlete who is only burning an extra 200-500 calories a day.

6. Are you getting enough sleep and rest? [_]

The average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep, with more sleep than usual needed after strenuous and extended training sessions. In between training sessions, try not to always be on the go either. Give yourself enough downtime for leisure, fun, socialising, relaxation and recovery.

7. Are you practising mindfulness meditation daily? [_]

Even 10 minutes a day can significantly improve concentration abilities during practice and competitions. Some people prefer doing it first thing in the morning. Others prefer last thing at night. Whenever you think you could consistently do it, set a reminder on your phone, have a meditation app (e.g. headspace, smiling mind, calm, buddhify etc.) that can guide you through a meditation, and then do it at the same time every day for at least three weeks. Once it becomes a habit, you won’t regret that you have started to do it and built it into your daily routine.

8. Are you aware of unrealistic and unhelpful thoughts, and do you practice challenging them or letting them go? [_]

There are two ways that we can successfully manage unhelpful thoughts. Firstly, we can try to challenge and change them, which is a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) strategy. To do this, notice what you are thinking. Ask if it is a realistic or a helpful thought? If it not practical or desirable, ask yourself what ideas might be more useful to have. Then every time you have the initial thought, try to remind yourself of the more suitable replacement thought instead. Secondly, sometimes it is not the thought that we have that is problematic, but how much we get caught up in the idea or fuse with it.  Each time you notice you are too fused with a thought, aim to create some distance or let it go using defusion skills, which is an ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) strategy. Imagine the belief in a different colour or font, or said in a funny voice, or put it on a cloud and let it float away. Both thoughts challenging and defusion can be helpful for people, so see which strategy you like best, and then apply it whenever your thoughts are impairing your performance during training sessions.

9. Are you practising in ways that simulate the conditions and pressure you will experience during the event? [_]

Andre Drummond was an awful free throw shooter in basketball games in his first few NBA seasons, making much less than half his shots. Yet, in training, he could make 9 or 10 out of 10 regularly. If this is similar to you with a skill that you do well in training but poorly during events, experiment with the stakes during practice to make it more game-like or have more on the line. Every missed free-throw at training might equal two laps of running around the court or 20 pushups.  It would mean that the athlete may tense up a bit more, meaning better preparation and more practice for tense in-game situations.

10. Are you also allowing yourself to have fun, experiment with skills and play games? [_]

Extreme athletes like skateboarders and freestyle skiers don’t always practice deliberately, especially not the athletes who started the field. They improved their skills by doing what they loved, playing around with their friends, and challenging each other to push their boundaries and see what is possible. So even though deliberate practice is the best way to improve specific skills, getting into a flow state and not thinking about things too much is the best way to improve performance. Don’t forget to have fun, play around, push yourself just outside your comfort zone, and see what happens.

healthy person woman sport

Before a Competition

1. Do you have a consistent pre-competition ritual? [_]

Before games, I try to have a low-GI carb-heavy meal the night before, get 8 hours of sleep if possible, get up at my usual wake time, eat protein shortly after waking, and not have too heavy a meal too close to competition. I pack my bag with all the things I need, arrive at the stadium about an hour before the game. I then warm up a little bit by myself. After this I stretch and listen to music that helps me to get pumped up and focused. I then discuss the game plan with my team and coach. We then all go out as a team and warm up together before the introductions and the game begins.

2. Does it help you to perform at your best regularly or allow you to get into the zone quickly? [_]

If your pre-game ritual doesn’t help you to perform at your best, see what you can do to shake it up. Maybe get there earlier than you usually do. Find a quiet spot. Bring headphones and do a 10-minute meditation. Practice a few easy skills to fire up your muscle memory and boost your confidence. Listen to music and focus on your objectives for the day. Visualise yourself doing the moves you want to do and being successful doing this. Add something in that you don’t usually do, or take something out that you don’t think is helping, and see what the result is. Over time, you’ll know what helps and what doesn’t, and what to do more before a competition.

3. Do you know what type of environment is most helpful for you to prepare yourself before the competition? [_]

Some people are more extroverted and like to be around people, socialising and connecting and laughing and having fun. Others are more introverted and like space from others and quiet. Experiment with this before competitions, and soon you’ll know what environment is best for the significant events.

4. If the ideal environment is not available, do you have a back-up plan of what you can do? [_]

Let’s say you prefer space and quiet, but there are no change rooms around, and you need to remain by the side of the court. You may need noise-cancelling headphones or other things that can still take you away from where you are a bit so that you can focus and do your pre-game ritual and get into the zone for when the competition begins,

5. Are you aware of your arousal level before a game? [_]

Think of this as a scale from 0 to 10, where ten is overwhelmed, anxious and panicky, and zero is as relaxed as you can be. Check in to your physical symptoms and give yourself a score from 0 to 10.

6. Do you know what arousal level is ideal for you at the start of the competition? [_]

If you compete in a sport where precision is critical, you may want to be at three or a four. If you need to be aggressive and reactive, like in boxing or American football, it may be better to be at eight or nine. Once you know what number you are at, determine if you need to increase it or decrease it for it to be ideal for the event.

7. Do you know how to pump yourself up if you are feeling apathetic, lazy or tired? [_]

Let’s say that your arousal level is at a one or two and you need it to be at a six, what can you do to pump yourself up? Do you need some caffeine or sugar or an energy drink? Do you need to jump around to get your lymphatic system flowing? Do you need to watch motivational videos or listen to a pump-up music soundtrack? Do you need to remember your values or goals, or why you put in all the hard work at training or why you love the sport? Whatever you decide to try, give it a go, and if it works, repeat it next time. If not, move onto something else.

8. Do you know how to relax if you are feeling too overwhelmed, worried, stressed or anxious? [_]

Let’s say you are at nine or ten and want to be at five or six. There are thousands of spectators ready to watch you. You start to worry that you are feeling too anxious and tense and won’t perform well as a result. Try to re-frame this anxiety as excitement. Remind yourself that being pumped up means more oxygen to the limbs, which can help you to run faster, jump higher, put in more effort. Then if your arousal level is still too high or you are worrying too much, ground yourself. Look at what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Remind yourself that you are safe and there is no danger. Take some slow deep breaths and put your focus on one thing at eye level in the distance. Tense your muscles, breathe in, then release the tension as you breathe out. Stretch nice and slowly. Remember the objectives that you want to focus on that are within your control and think back to times when you have successfully done this. Remind yourself that you can do this, exhale all the air, and then go out there and give it all. People don’t tend to regret losing as much when they know they have given it their best!

part two is now up

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

20 Fascinating Paradoxes About Life

What is a Paradox?

According to the Oxford dictionary, a paradox is a noun that has two meanings:

1. A seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.

2. A person or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.

I love paradoxes because they are sometimes funny and usually also quite insightful. Listening to the audiobook version of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu was like listening to one paradox after another. This was especially surprising to me, because it is an ancient book of wisdom. So a great paradox is much more than just a cliche, even though it can appear like that over time.

Below is a list of some of my favourites, starting with one from the Tao Te Ching:

  1. New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings” – Lao Tzu

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2. “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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3. “I’d rather be hated for who I am, than be loved for who I am not” – Kurt Cobain

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4. “I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member.” – Groucho Marx

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5. “You know what the issue is with this world? Everyone wants a magical solution to their problem, and everyone refuses to believe in magic.” – Alice in Wonderland

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6. “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” – Socrates

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7. “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” – Rumi

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8. “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviours.” – Stephen Covey

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9. “If you don’t risk anything you risk everything.” – Mark Zuckerberg

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10. “The more we do, the more we can do; the more busy we are, the more leisure we have.” – William Hazlitt

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11. “Only you can take responsibility for your happiness…but you can’t do it alone. It’s the great paradox of being human.” – Simon Sinek

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12. “If you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?” – George Carlin

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13. “Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.” – Frank Herbert

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14. “Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde

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15. “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” ―Mahatma Gandhi

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16. “He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.”― Michel de Montaigne

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17. “A lot of people never use their initiative because no-one told them to.” – Banksy

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18. “If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?” ― Sam Harris

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19. “Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” Tony Schwartz

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20. “If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold onto it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.” – Socrates

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Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist