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 try 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 it isn’t so great for our mental and physical health in the long run.

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 enriching.

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 essential deep down?

Research has found that we are much more likely to experience motivation when we are 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. Something about being paid to study (an extrinsic factor) 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 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 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 your actions or what you do daily? 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 exercise is on the app ‘CBT-I coach’ in the ‘quiet your mind’ section 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 avoid 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 it, 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 our emotions 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 it 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 to 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 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 (AVP) informed us that the program was being suspended worldwide. All volunteers would be sent home in the next one to three weeks.

On the 16th of March, the program told us that we would need to pack up all our stuff and book a flight to return to Australia before the 31st of March. Then, on the 19th of March at 6:30 pm, AVP told us 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.

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.

Many of the things that we are all being asked to do during the pandemic are 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 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 tell us. Over time, it can become easier and easier to do these (and other) activities.

What about Coronavirus?

Regardless of where you are in the world, the most important thing that we can do for the 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 needed out in the community. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds regularly, or use a hand sanitiser 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. Ask medical professionals about what you should do rather than just turn up to unannounced clinics or hospitals.

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 reduce how overwhelmed our medical facilities become with severe or critical COVID-19 cases, which will reduce the overall fatality rate.

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 was 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 challenging 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. So 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:

By figuring out my top 6 priorities and writing them down, I managed to feel a lot better and more in control, even before I started 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 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 provide this for us, but you need to create this yourself if you are at home 24/7. 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),
  • regularly eating 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 you can build these things into your daily routine, the greater the chance of maintaining or improving your mental health. Having some activities that we enjoy each day and look forward to doing can also really help.

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. Still, 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
  • 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 the 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 into my appearance
  • Doing a favour for someone online
  • Building a birdhouse 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
  • Baking home-made bread
  • Walking barefoot on the 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 stationery 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 a 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.

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 perform at their best.

Part One covered the important mental aspects of 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 competition and reflect and learn the most after the event has finished.

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 understand how you best find flow or get “into the zone”. For example, 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.

2. 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?

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

How do you know if things are not working for you while competing? Are you not focused on your objectives, or are you 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 first to 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.

4. 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 you are caught up in judgmental thoughts, the more you will worry, the tenser you will become, and the more your performance will suffer. So 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.

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

Whenever 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 not helpful, then put all of your focus on 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.

6. Do you know how to cope with adversity if you are not playing as you hoped or 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 to 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.

7. 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 within your control.

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 you put into the lead up to the event, and how you prepared for it. 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?

2. If you performed at your best, do you know what you did that helped you 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?

3. If you did not perform at your best, are you aware of what triggered the poor performance or the 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?

4. 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.

5. 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 appropriate.

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

7. 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 unsure 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 to 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 in 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.

When I shared these skills with the Vanuatu Women’s Beach Volleyball Squad, one question that I had 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 learning new skills. Just keep doing what you are already doing because it is working. However, if you have poor concentration and goal setting skills, do focus on learning the strategies that I have recommended and see if they work for you.

Now on when to apply these skills. Below is a checklist that I have created to see if you are already doing everything 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 during competition and afterwards.

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. But, again, 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 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 healthy, and having too much caffeine and sugary drinks isn’t recommended either. Still, there are sport-specific recommendations that nutritionists can provide also. If you burn an extra 3,000 calories of energy a day in your workouts, you will need to eat more and require more carbs than an athlete who is only burning 200–500 extra calories a day.

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

The average adult needs 7–9 hours of sleep per night. You may need more than usual 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 the 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 starting to do it and building 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 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 is 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, an ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) strategy. Imagine the belief in a different colour or font, 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 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 those 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 was 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.

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. Next, I pack my bag with all I need and 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. Finally, we all go out as a team and warm up together before the introductions and the game begins.

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

If your pre-game ritual doesn’t help you 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 making 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 the result. Over time, you’ll know what helps and doesn’t, and what to do more before a competition.

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

Some people are more extroverted and like to be around people, socialising, connecting, 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 backup 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 on 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 eight or nine. Once you know what number you are at, determine if you need to increase or decrease it to be ideal for the event.

7. Do you know how to pump yourself up if you feel 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, 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 feel 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 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 you want to focus on 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

young game match kids

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

man wearing brown suit jacket mocking on white telephone

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

hi haters scrabble tiles on white surface

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

black steel welcome hanging signage

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

woman holding teacup

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

man wearing brown jacket and using grey laptop

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

man in blue crew neck shirt staring at woman trying to lift barbell

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

man and woman holding hands walking on seashore during sunrise

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

man person street shoes

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

red and blue hot air balloon floating on air on body of water during night time

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

microphotography of orange and blue house miniature on brown snail s back

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

battle black blur board game

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

two men assisting woman riding on swing

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

bench cold dawn environment

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Psychological Strategies Can Improve Your Sporting Performance the Most?

I’ve played a lot of sport in my lifetime. When I was six years old, my first basketball game was on the Diamond Valley mini-courts in Victoria, Australia. My most recent game was this week at Wan Smol Bag in Port Vila, Vanuatu. So that means I’ve been playing organised sport for over 27 years now.

Both of my parents were Physical Education teachers and excellent sports coaches, and they consistently encouraged my two siblings and me to play sports and be active. I’m not sure if my siblings felt this too, but there was a sense that we should take sport seriously, and it was essential to try our best and be unselfish team players and fair opponents.

For example, this Larry Bird Converse poster hung on the wall in our house when I was younger:

“It makes me sick when I see a guy just watching it go out of bounds.” — Larry Bird

I was a super competitive kid, with most of my childhood consisting of competing against whoever I could find, especially my brother and friends. I also tried to compete in anything, including board games, computer games, card games and multiple sports.

I’ve managed to have some success in several sports. I finished in the top 10 in the state in swimming in Primary (Elementary) School, the top 20 in discus throwing, and the top 30 in alpine skiing. In High School, I made the State team in volleyball for three years and the Victorian Institute of Sport and the Australian Youth Squad for volleyball. I then moved to the USA at 16 to play Varsity volleyball, basketball and tennis in California and Virginia. Later on, I won a State Championship in the top division in the Victorian Volleyball League at 25 and won a championship playing Semi-professional basketball when I was 27 in Australia.

Despite this modicum of success, I don’t think that I reached my potential.

I was a bit like Allen Iverson in his famous “practice” speech:

https://youtu.be/eGDBR2L5kzI

I loved to play, but I hated to practice. I was not overly goal-focused outside of turning up on the game day, giving my all, and doing whatever I could to help my team win. When I was younger, I also had what is known as a ‘fixed mindset’, and thought that I could not change my athletic capabilities with deliberate effort.

It wasn’t until I started to learn psychology at university that I realised that I could mentally change how I approached the games that I played. I began to apply the psychological skills I had learnt and developed a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. As a result, I became less afraid of losing, more able to learn from setbacks and mistakes, and more able to step up when the game was on the line. I also discovered how to bounce back after making a few mistakes, keep pushing and trying when we were losing, and perform at my best on a much more consistent basis.

I wish I could have had these skills earlier in my life, and I would like to share them with you so that you can hopefully take your game to the next level.

How Strong is the Mental Side of Your Game?

The Athletic Coping Skills Inventory (ACSI) looks at seven sub-scales related to how you mentally approach sport and helps to highlight areas in which you might struggle:

Sub-scale #1: Coping with adversity — assesses if you remain positive and enthusiastic even when things are going badly. Also determines if you stay calm and controlled, and can quickly bounce back from mistakes and setbacks.
  • Do you remain positive and enthusiastic during a competition, no matter how bad things are going?
  • When things are going badly, do you tell yourself to keep calm and does this work for you?
  • When you feel yourself getting too tense, can you quickly relax your body and calm yourself?
  • Can you maintain emotional control regardless of how things are going for you?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you currently are not coping as well as you could with adversity.

TO IMPROVE HOW YOU COPE WITH ADVERSITY

  • If things are going bad during a competition, try cognitive restructuring. First, tune in to what thoughts are going through your mind. Then ask yourself if they are realistic thoughts and helpful thoughts to be having right now? If you are thinking about anything that is not what you are meant to be doing in the present, they are probably not helpful. If it’s the mistake you just made, let it go and move on. If you worry that you might keep making mistakes and lose, let it go and move on. Tell yourself, “this isn’t helpful!” or ask yourself, “what is a more helpful way to be thinking right now?” It might be “keep calm”, or it could be another mantra that you find helpful. Then stop focusing on your thoughts and focus on whatever is in your control in the present that will help you to get back on track. Then do it.
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed or out of control during a competition, try deep breathing. Tune into your breathing. Chances are, your breath is probably rapid and shallow if you feel overwhelmed, tense or out of control. Then, exhale and breathe out all of the air in your lungs. Slowly breathe deeply into your stomach, pause for a second or two, and then exhale all of the air out again. Keep breathing slowly and deeply and exhaling all your air until you feel a bit calmer and more in control. Then stop focusing on your breath and put your focus back to the main objective that you have that is in your power in the present.
  • If you feel too physically tense during a competition, try progressive muscle relaxation. Tune in to where you feel most tense, then pick one area to target first. Squeeze it as hard as possible, take a deep breath in, pause, breathe out and relax. Then repeat if needed or move onto another tense muscle area. If you can’t tense it because of the sport you are doing, try to breathe in and around the tight area and then see if you can relax it with the out-breath. Repeat as often as needed. Once you feel less tense, stop focusing on your body tenseness and put your focus back to whatever is in your control in the present that will help you to achieve your objectives.
Sub-scale #2: Coachability — assesses if you learn from coaches instructions and are open to accepting constructive criticism or advice without taking it personally or becoming upset:
  • Do you manage not to take it personally or feel upset when a coach tells you how to correct a mistake you’ve made?
  • When a coach criticises you, do you feel helped rather than upset?
  • If a coach criticises or yells at you, do you correct the mistake without getting upset about it?
  • Do you improve your skills by listening carefully to feedback and instructions from your coaches?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

You are currently not very coachable if you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items. For example, my dad said I was uncoachable growing up, but I did improve by applying a few strategies.

TO IMPROVE HOW YOU COACHABLE YOU ARE

  • When a coach criticises or yells at you, try not to take it personally. The coach is likely to be on an emotional roller coaster if it is a competition, just like you. They may care just as much or even more than you about winning, but they cannot control your behaviour on the field. They can merely make suggestions or sub you out, which may make them feel even more stressed or anxious than if they were out there performing. See if there is merit in what they are saying to you regardless of how they have said it. If it is useful advice, take it on board. If it is not helpful, try to tune it out and re-focus on whatever is within your control that will help you achieve your objectives.
  • Develop a growth mindset and let go of your ego. When you make a mistake in practice, try to listen to feedback from coaches about what led to the error and how you can improve it. If they don’t give you any feedback, ask for it when it is appropriate. It is generally a lot easier for someone else to see what you are doing wrong and how you can improve it than it will be for you to view it. Asking someone in your coaching staff to film what you are doing can also help because then you can view what they see and discuss how to improve it.
  • Listen carefully to your coaches’ advice and instructions, especially during practice and before and after a game. The coach’s job is to help you perform at your best, so try to take what they suggest and give it a go before rejecting it as not helpful. Having a growth mindset sees mistakes and losses and failures as opportunities to reflect on what went wrong and how you can improve it. A coach can help with this, especially after a game and in practice. Asking questions to clarify what they said if you don’t understand can also help ensure you follow or try what they suggest. Don’t overthink things too much during a game, and get back to the game plan you and your coach established before the event.
Sub-scale #3: Concentration — reflects whether you become easily distracted and whether you can focus on the task at hand in both practice and game situations, even when adverse or unexpected conditions occur:
  • When you are playing sports, can you focus your attention and block out distractions?
  • Is it easy to keep distracting thoughts from interfering with something you are watching or listening to?
  • Do you handle unexpected situations in your sport very well?
  • Is it easy to direct your attention and focus on a single object or person?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, your concentration ability is not as good as it could be.

TO IMPROVE YOUR CONCENTRATION LEVELS

  • Meditate regularly. It doesn’t matter which type of meditation you do, but practice it for at least 10 minutes a day. Developing a daily meditation routine will help you improve your concentration levels on a game day more than anything else. I prefer mindfulness meditation the most, and the apps I would recommend the most to download if you want to have a guided meditation session daily are:
    • Smiling Mind
    • Insight Timer
    • Headspace
    • Calm
    • Waking Up
    • Ten Percent Happier
    • Buddhify
    • Balance
  • Avoid multitasking. Whatever you are doing throughout the day, try to focus on one thing at a time rather than attempting to do two or three things at once. It will be less tiring for you, and will also train your concentration. Just ask yourself, no matter what you are doing, “What is most important right now?” and try to put all of your attention and focus on that one task. If your mind tries to distract you or get you to do something else, thank your mind and bring your attention back to whatever is most important at that moment.
  • Practice informal mindfulness. Formal mindfulness involves sitting down and doing mindfulness meditation for a set period. However, you can also approach any other task that you are doing mindfully, called informal mindfulness. To do this, no matter what you are doing, try to see if you can approach the task as if you have never done it before in an open, accepting, non-judgmental way without wishing for it to be any other way. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls these the attitudes of mindfulness, and when applied to sports, you are likely to have a sense of relaxed concentration that is the key to getting into the zone or a state of flow more regularly.
Sub-scale #4: Confidence and Achievement Motivation — measures whether you are confident and positively motivated. Also assesses if you consistently give 100% during practices and games, and work hard to improve your skills:
  • Do you get the most out of your talent and expertise?
  • Do you feel confident that you will play well?
  • Do you give 100% during practices and competition and don’t have to be pushed to practice or play hard?
  • Do you try even harder when you fail to reach your goals?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you do not have high levels of confidence and achievement motivation.

TO IMPROVE YOUR CONFIDENCE AND MOTIVATION FOR ACHIEVEMENT

  • Know your personality: Take the IPIP-NEO personality assessment to get a good sense of your personality and what will likely motivate you. If you are an extrovert, you probably need to train with other people and need excitement and fun. You may not need as much rest, either. If you are an introvert, you may need some individual sessions to remain focused and motivated and plenty of time to reflect and recover between practices and competitions. If you are agreeable, you will enjoy cooperating with the plans of your coaches or other athletes and helping out others. If you are disagreeable, you will probably need to do things your way a bit more to stay motivated and confident. If you are highly conscientious, you could have a consistent training schedule and pre-game routine, and you will be able to follow it and benefit from it. If you are low on conscientiousness, you will need more flexibility and variety in your training and preparation and goals to stay on track. If you are highly neurotic, you will have more times to feel down, anxious, angry, self-conscious, but developing skills to assist you with these emotions will help. If you are low on neuroticism, you are unlikely to be bothered by intense emotions or self-doubt and need additional strategies. Lastly, if you are very open to experiences, you are likely to remain confident and motivated even if things don’t go according to plan and accept whatever is happening and make room for whatever feelings arise. If you are low on openness, you will probably need more contingency plans to know what to do and feel less overwhelmed when things don’t go according to plan.
  • Clarify your essential values: The values exercise that I have previously written about is a great way to identify and remember why you are playing sport and what you are hoping to get out of it — knowing our why can help us to be much more motivated to push through pain and challenges when things get hard. By figuring out which values are essential, quite important and not relevant to you, you can see if you have been living in line with your fundamental values or applying them in your sport. If you haven’t, setting some consistent goals with these values will increase your motivation and hopefully improve your confidence.
  • Apply your character strengths to your sport: The VIA character strengths survey is similar to values clarification, with the VIA standing for values in action. Please take the survey, identify your top 5 key strengths and apply them to your practice and competition. It could help your confidence and motivation a lot.
Sub-scale #5: Goal setting and mental preparation — assesses whether you set and work toward specific performance goals. It also determines if you plan and mentally prepare for competition, and if you have a “game plan” for performing well:
  • Do you set concrete goals to guide what you do in your sport daily or weekly basis?
  • Do you tend to do a lot of planning about how you will reach your goals?
  • Do you set your own performance goals for each practice?
  • Do you have your game plan worked out in your head long before the game begins?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you are currently not setting enough goals for yourself in your sport or preparing yourself mentally as much as you could be.

TO IMPROVE YOUR GOAL SETTING AND MENTAL PREPARATION SKILLS

  • Get on the same page as your coach (and teammates if you have them) about your sport’s objectives and the steps you will all need to take to achieve these objectives. By doing this, including having contingency plans for if things are not going well, your coach should help you stick to your plan and encourage you to switch to a contingency plan if things are not working as well as you both hoped. You can apply this for your training sessions, your weeks in the lead up to competition, before a game, during competition, and afterwards. If your coach changes the rules and goes off course, it is vital to raise this and remind them of your overall objectives so that you can remain on track and make progress towards your long-term goals.
  • Make sure the goals that you set are SMART goals. SMART means that your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-framed. You will then know if you have achieved them or not in the time that you have set and can make adjustments as needed.
  • Have a consistent pre-game ritual to mentally and physically prepare yourself for the game. Maybe eat the same meal the night before a competition (carbo-loading), do things to wind down and switch off to ensure you don’t get to bed too late and obtain a good quality sleep. If possible, wake up at a similar time in the morning and have the breakfast that your nutritionist has suggested is most helpful. Stay well hydrated. Have a game plan figured out with your coach well before the competition, and keep that fresh in your mind on game day. Get to the event place early enough to not have any unnecessary stress. Choose the location that allows you to get into the state you want to be when the competition starts. If you can’t choose the room, bring noise-cancelling headphones or other things that can still help you feel settled wherever you are. Then listen to music or motivational material as needed, warm up your body as required, visualise doing well or think back to times you have performed well in the past, and centre yourself before the competition. Then go out there and enjoy it.
Sub-scale #6: Peaking under pressure — measures whether you are challenged rather than threatened by pressure situations and if you perform well under pressure — if you are a clutch performer:
  • Do you tend to play better under pressure because you think more clearly?
  • Do you enjoy the game more when there is more pressure during it?
  • Are pressure situations challenges that you welcome?
  • Do you make fewer mistakes when the pressure is on because you concentrate better?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you are currently not peaking under pressure or getting into the zone as much as you potentially could.

TO PEAK UNDER A PRESSURE ON A MORE REGULAR BASIS

  • Try the seven steps of centering:
    1. First, select a comfortable focal point in the distance that is below eye level.
    2. Form a clear intention in your mind of what you aim to do.
    3. Breathe slowly and deeply in a mindful way and breathe all the air out with each breath.
    4. Release your muscle tension by observing where you are most tense in your body, then release this tightness by first tensing it further and then letting go, or just trying to release it with each out-breath.
    5. Find your centre of gravity or “chi” and use that to help ground you where you are and with what you are doing.
    6. Repeat your process cue, or imagine what it sounds, feels and looks like to achieve what you aim to do in step 2. If there is a word that describes this, you can use it as your cue. For example, golfer Sam Snead would use the word “oily” to describe the smooth and effortless swing that he wanted.
    7. Channel your remaining energy into a dynamic and inspired performance. Trust that all the hard work you have put in during training will pay off and help you achieve your aim and see if you can enjoy the competition and the peak performances that can come with this.
  • Develop your inner game. Timothy Gallwey wrote one of the best sports psychology books of all time with ‘The Inner Game of Tennis.’ The first step of the inner game is to observe what is happening in a non-judgmental way. The second step is to picture the desired outcome. The third step is to trust your body to reach your desired outcome and not try to overthink it. The last step is to nonjudgmentally observe the change in your performance and results by doing this.
  • Get into a flow state. To increase your chances of getting into a flow state, you first need to remove or zone out from all potential distractions. It is also important that the task you are aiming for strikes a good balance between your current skill level and the challenge you face. Flow is most likely to happen if the challenge is slightly greater than you perceive your current skills. If it is not challenging enough, you are likely to be bored. If it is too challenging, you are likely to be anxious. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that there are eight main characteristics of flow:
    1. You need to put all of your concentration on the task at hand.
    2. You need to be clear about your goals and get immediate feedback about if you are on the right track.
    3. Flow transforms time, and things feel like they are either speeding up or slowing down in a flow state.
    4. The experience must be intrinsically rewarding or enjoyable in and of itself, and not just a means to another end.
    5. Your performance should feel effortless in a flow state.
    6. There needs to be a good balance between challenge and skills; ideally, what you are doing is challenging and requires a lot of skill.
    7. Your actions and awareness are merged, and you are no longer in your head thinking about what you are doing or worrying about your performance.
    8. You feel fully in control of what you are attempting to do in pursuit of your objectives.
Sub-scale # 7: Freedom from worry — assesses whether you put pressure on yourself by worrying about performing poorly or making mistakes. It also determines if you worry about what others will think if you perform poorly:
  • Do you worry quite a bit about what others think of your performance?
  • Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself by worrying about how you will perform?
  • While competing, do you worry about making mistakes or failing to come through?
  • Do you think about and imagine what will happen if you fail or screw up?
How often do you do these things — rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, your worries probably impair your performance.

TO FEEL FREER FROM YOUR WORRIES WHILE COMPETING

  • Try constructive worry. I don’t recommend this strategy during competition, but it is excellent to do before or after a game or when you are training for an upcoming event and are feeling worried. Create a table with three columns, and say what is worrying you in column one, what you can do to address the worry in column two, and when you can solve it in column three. It shouldn’t take much more than 5 minutes and might look like this:
Worries/Concerns What Can I do to address this? When can I address this?
What if I lose? Train hard, prepare well, try my best Now and at the competition
What if I make mistakes or fail? Mistakes help me to learn and improve. Remember the Michael Jordan quote about failure leading to success Anytime I have a setback, try to have a growth rather than a fixed mindset and see what I can learn from it to get better
What if others judge me? Try to care less about this and focus on what is in my control, which is training hard, preparing well and trying my best. Also, don’t forget to have fun. If others judge me for trying my best, that is more about them than it is about me Now. I can put my energy into things that are within my control, which is my intention and my actions, and let go of everything else
  • Practice grounding yourself in the present. Ask yourself: “What are five things I can see right now?” “What are four things I can touch or feel right now?” “What are three things I can hear right now?” “What are two things I can smell right now?” “What is one thing I can taste right now?“. These questions help you to become fully grounded in the present, instead of worrying about things going wrong in the future or ruminating about a mistake you made in the past. Finally, ask yourself: “Am I safe?“. If there is no imminent physical danger, you do not need to be in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, and your brain can relax while you take a few deep breaths and re-focus on what you need to do next to achieve your objective.
  • Defuse from unhelpful thoughts. Sometimes it is helpful to challenge our worries if we know they are unhelpful. If you instead think of something more useful to believe, it might eliminate your fears. If it does not, try to defuse from your worry instead and aim not to get too caught up in it. Thinking “I’m going to miss this shot” won’t help, so if it crosses your mind, imagine putting this worry on a leaf on a river and let it float downstream, or put it on a cloud and watch it float away, or put it in a box on a conveyor belt and let it speed away into the distance. There are many different defusion strategies to help you let go of worrying thoughts. Look them up, try them out when you are not competing, see which ones are most effective for you, and then apply the most effective ones during your next competition. The less you worry, and the more you focus on what you can do that is in your control, the better your performance is likely to be.
To answer the title question, the best psychological strategies to improve your sporting performance are the ones that work best for you. See which sub-scales you score the lowest on, try some of these strategies that I have recommended, and then let me know what worked and how much your performance improved. I look forward to hearing about your improvement and growth! Dr Damon Ashworth Clinical Psychologist

What Separates a Good Athlete From a Truly Great One?

Could You Be Like Mike?

Michael Jordan is potentially the greatest basketball player of all time. He is also thought to be the king of staying laser focused and composed under pressure, and consistently performing at his best. He holds the record of 866 straight games in the NBA scoring at least 10 points, and he scored over 20 points in all of his last 47 playoff games.

Jordan holds ten scoring titles for the most points scored in a season, as well as the highest career regular season scoring average (30.12 points per game) and career playoff average (33.45 ppg). He went to the NBA finals 6 times, and won 6 championships with the Chicago Bulls, alongside 6 NBA most valuable player (MVP) awards. Jordan also won the defensive player of the year award once, played in 14 all-star games, made ten all-NBA first teams and won five MVP awards. He was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 2009, and was named ESPN’s greatest North American athlete of the 20th century. Not too bad a career.

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How did Jordan perform to such a high level so regularly, especially when the stakes were the highest? The stadiums were packed with media and screaming and jeering fans, and millions more watched on TV around the world, and yet he managed to consistently step up, night after night.

Maybe it was just was genes or natural talent. However, if this was the case, Jordan’s children should have also been great, and Jordan wouldn’t have been cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore.

Maybe it was his physical conditioning. Again, this might be true, but there have been plenty of fit and athletic players in the NBA, and not all of them go on to become superstars.

There’s also the infamous ‘flu game’ in game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals against the Utah Jazz, where the commentator Marv Albert said this:

“The big story here tonight — the story concerning Michael Jordan’s physical condition. He is suffering from flu-like symptoms.”

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Because the series was tied at 2 all, Jordan didn’t want to let his physical state prevent him from playing. Jordan started slow, and later admitted that he felt weak, had really low energy and couldn’t breath properly. In spite of almost passing out and having to slump over with his hands on his knees whenever the game stopped, Jordan helped the Bulls fight back from a 16-point first quarter deficit to win 90-88 and then go onto win the series in 6 games. In the process, he scored 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 1 block and the three-pointer that sealed the game with less than a minute to play.

What separated Michael Jordan from the rest and helped him to become one of the greatest athletes of all time was his mental fortitude and mindset. He never gave up, truly believed that great things were possible as long as he put in the work and tried his best, and he never backed down from a challenge.

Here are two of his most famous quotes that perfectly exemplify this:

Jordan didn’t care about making mistakes or failing in the eyes of others. What he really cared about was trying his absolute best, and not letting fear of failure hold him back from doing everything he could to help his team win. It could be that Michael Jordan is an anomaly here, but I don’t think he is.

If you look at all the greats, their mindset and mental strength played a huge role in their overall level of success. Let’s look at Simone Biles in gymnastics, who has now won 25 medals at the World Gymnastic Championships in her career, including 19 gold.

Here’s how she approaches training and competitions:

Biles believed in working harder than anyone else in practice to be the best, but also prioritized being confident in herself and her abilities, and knew that in order to do this, she needed to also ensure that she looked after her mental and emotional health.  

What about Michael Phelps, who is the most decorated Olympian of all-time with 28 Olympic medals in swimming, including 23 gold:

Phelps, like Biles, tried to train harder than anyone else to be the best. He also focused on building belief and confidence in himself and not listening to any doubters who tried to tell him that something couldn’t be done. Like Jordan, he did not view it as failure to try as hard as he could to achieve his goals, even if he fell short.

All three amazing athletes had incredible success when it mattered most. Their mental attitude towards themselves, setbacks, practice and competition was no doubt a huge factor in the results that they achieved.

man climbing on rope

The Equation for Success

Some people may still try to put their success down to talent, but hopefully all of you know that this is wrong. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, in her book ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ developed an equation for success based on her research into the area:

talent + effort = skill

skill + effort = achievement

This means that the amount of hard work and effort you put into your training and preparation is twice as important for success than your initial level of talent.

Duckworth doesn’t exactly say this in her book, but once the effort has been put in at training, I truly believe that the next most important predictor of success is your mindset and mental strength on the day of the competition.

silhouette of a boy playing ball during sunset

Finding Flow

Most professional athletes know what it is like to be “in the zone” or in a “peak experience” as Psychologist Abraham Maslow called it. It has also been commonly referred to as a “flow state”, which was initially coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and examined in detail in his book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’.

Flow can be defined as:

“being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Your perception of time changes. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you are using your skills to the utmost, and those skills are significantly magnified. Physical skills, mental skills, psychological skills, social skills, creative skills, decision-making skills. Flow breaks boundaries. You are flow. It is you. There is no thought. You are fully immersed in your body and the moment. You experience profound mental clarity and a sense of oneness. Everything just works.”

I’ve never been to an Olympics before, but I can tell you that when I am confident and in the zone playing basketball or volleyball, I feel like no one can stop me, the game is so easy, things seem to move in slow motion and my level of performance astounds me. I am not exactly the best shooter in basketball, but I have had some games where making a basket was as easy as throwing a stone into the ocean from the edge of a pier.

If you don’t know what I mean, check out Klay Thompson’s shooting performance in only one quarter of basketball, smashing the previously held record:

Notice how it didn’t seem to matter where he was or who was defending him; he was in the zone, and he was going to shoot the ball as soon as he caught it, and those shots were going to go down.

The book ‘The Rise of Superman’ by Steven Kotler suggests that extreme and adventure sport athletes are the best at getting into flow states consistently and remaining there while competing. Because of the real risk of death and serious injury with mistakes, flow is not just a desired state to aim for but a necessity in these sports. Consequently, only the athletes that can consistently do it survive, both in the sport and in their lives.

Kotler tries to go beyond flow to explain unbelievable performances, such as pro-skater Danny Way jumping the great wall of China with a broken ankle:

Kotler says that every athlete has the capacity to get in the zone. Unbelievable performances are about experimenting with the impossible once you are in a flow state, pushing your limits, and seeing what you are truly capable of. 

man wearing black long sleeved shirt standing on mountain

The opposite is also true. When I am not in a good headspace or my confidence is low, even the most basic moves feel difficult and scoring points can feel almost impossible. I’m going to guess that most of you have had similar experiences in your own sports too. When things just aren’t clicking. Where you start to doubt yourself. Where no matter what you try you just can’t get out of your head and you tense up. You start to miss free throws like Shaq:

What if you could be like Michael Jordan or Danny Way, and consistently perform at your best and reach your potential when it matters most? How would that feel, and how much would you pay to figure that out?

Fortunately, I won’t be charging you anything, but I do hope to help you unlock your own secrets to consistently great performance. In my next article, I’m going to teach you the mental skills and strategies to bounce back from adversity, take on helpful feedback from your coaches, and remain focused and composed even in highly stressful and distracting situations. I’m also going to help you to become more consistently confident and motivated, have clear objectives and be well prepared, perform at your best under pressure and not let your worries interfere with your game or prevent you from getting into a consistent state of flow. Stay tuned. 

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Values Do You Try to Live Your Life By?

Values are guiding principles for our lives that are endless pursuits. We cannot achieve a value in the same way we can accomplish a goal. However, at any point in time, you can connect with them, act in accordance to them, and receive the vitality, energy, improved self-worth, greater emotional well-being and happiness that are often the result of living consistently with our values.

To figure out your most important values, first write if each value in the list below is very important to you (V), quite important to you (Q), or not important to you (N).

It is essential that we choose the values that feel right to us, rather than pick the values that we think our parents or society might want us to follow.

Then, for only your very important values, score from (0-10) how much you have been living according to this value over the past month, with:

0 = not following this value over the past month,

1 – 3 = following this value occasionally,

4 – 6 = following this value sometimes,

7 – 9 = following this value often, and

10 = always living by this value.

VALUES LIST

  1. Connecting with Nature: Importance of value to you (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency with value if it is very important to you (0-10?) = _________
  2. Gaining wisdom: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  3. Creating beauty (in any domain, including arts, dancing, gardening): Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  4. Promoting justice and caring for the weak: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  5. Being loyal to friends, family and/or my group: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  6. Being Honest: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  7. Helping others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  8. Being sexually desirable: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ________
  9. Having genuine and close friends: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = _____
  10. Having relationships involving love and affection: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  11. Being ambitious and hard working: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  12. Being competent and effective: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  13. Having a sense of accomplishment and making a lasting contribution: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  14. Having an exciting life: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  15. Having a life filled with adventure: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  16. Having a life filled with novelty and change: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  17. Being physically fit: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  18. Eating healthy food: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  19. Engaging in sporting activities: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  20. Acting consistently with my religious faith and beliefs: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  21. Being at one with God: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  22. Showing respect for tradition: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = _____
  23. Being self-disciplined and resisting temptation: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  24. Showing respect to parents and elders: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) =____
  25. Meeting my obligations: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  26. Maintaining the safety and security of my loved ones: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  27. Making sure to repay favours and not be indebted to people: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  28. Being safe from danger: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  29. Being wealthy: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  30. Having authority, being in charge: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  31. Having influence over other people: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  32. Having an enjoyable, leisurely life: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  33. Enjoying food and drink: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  34. Being sexually active: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  35. Being creative: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  36. Being self-sufficient: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  37. Being curious, discovering new things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  38. Figuring things out, solving problems: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) =______
  39. Striving to be a better person: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  40. Experiencing positive mood states: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  41. Feeling good about myself: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _______, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  42. Leading a stress-free life: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _______, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  43. Enjoying music, art or drama: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  44. Designing things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  45. Teaching others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  46. Resolving disputes: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  47. Building and repairing things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  48. Working with my hands: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  49. Organising things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  50. Engaging in clearly defined work: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) =_____
  51. Researching things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  52. Competing with others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  53. Being admired by many people: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = _____
  54. Acting with courage: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  55. Caring for others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  56. Accepting others as they are: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  57. Working on practical tasks: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ________
  58. Seeking pleasure: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  59. Avoiding distress: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  60. Avoiding self-doubt: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________

It will be difficult/impossible to always live by all of our very important values, because some values will come into conflict with each other. However, if you are have scored it a 5 or below in your consistency rating, then try to set a goal for the next month of how you can live more consistently with this value.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

PLEASE NOTE: These value descriptions were taken from a values cards exercise that I did during my doctoral degree. I am not sure who developed it, but will happily give credit to them if anyone can let me know who did.

 

Straightforward Life Advice From a Successful CEO

Derek Sivers seems like a pretty cool guy. He calls himself a musician, producer, circus performer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and book publisher on his website. He started a company called CDBaby and made millions from this. He then gave the company to charity, resulting in millions of dollars subsequently being used to help up-and-coming musical artists who need some monetary support to try and realise their dreams.

Sivers also reads a lot of non-fiction books that are focused on psychology, self-help and self-improvement. He has little reviews of these books on his website and gives them a score out of 10, which is great if you need a recommendation of what to read.

In 2016, Sivers tried to summarise all of the key points he obtained from reading many non-fiction books. Then, he put these key points into “do this” directives as a personal guide to various aspects of life. Derek first brought the directives to the public’s attention in the hugely popular ‘Tim Ferriss Show’ podcast. Then, because of the demand, Derek shared the remainder of these lists on Derek’s website sivers.org. He also plans on doing more with these directives in the future, including potentially writing his own book.

Below are his directives, as well as my opinion of them. Directives that I completely agree with will be in green. Directives that I disagree with or that go against scientific research will be in red.

group hand fist bump

How to be useful to others:

Get famous

  • Do everything in public and for the public.
  • The more people you reach, the more useful you are.
  • The opposite is hiding, which is of no use to everyone.

Get rich

  • Money is neutral proof you’re adding value to people’s lives.
  • So, by getting rich, you’re being useful as a side effect.
  • Once rich, spend the money in ways that are even more useful to others.
  • Then, getting rich is double useful.

Share strong opinions

  • Strong opinions are very useful to others.
  • Those who were undecided or ambivalent can just adopt your stance.
  • But those who disagree can solidify their stance by arguing against yours.

Be expensive

  • People given a placebo pill were twice as likely to have their pain disappear when told the pill was expensive.
  • People who paid more for tickets were more likely to attend the performance.
  • People who spend more for a product or service value it more, and get more use out of it.

people taking group photo

WHAT I THINK: While many famous and rich people are useful to others, many others are not. What is true is that if you are famous and rich, you can have more influence on others and do more positive things, such as Bill and Melinda Gates. However, you also have the potential to negatively influence more people too, such as Donald Trump. What you do with that power and exposure is up to you.

You can also make a difference to others without being rich or famous. Don’t underestimate the difference you can make as a teacher or coach or parent or volunteer or community member or any other role where you interact with others regularly. If you charge more, people will value your services more, and you will earn more money and then have a greater chance to be useful to others.

Do try to be informed before sharing your opinions publicly. For example, look at all the damage Jenny McCarthy did by sharing her opinions on vaccines and autism.

achievement-bar-business-chart-40140.jpeg

How to get rich:

Live where luck strikes

  • Live where everything is happening.
  • Live where the money is flowing.
  • Live where careers are being made.
  • Live where your role models live.
  • Once there, be as in the game as anyone can be.
  • Be right in the middle of everything.

Say yes to everything

  • Meet everyone.
  • Pursue every opportunity.
  • Nothing is too small. Do it all.
  • Like lottery tickets, you never know which one will win. So the more, the better.
  • Follow-up and keep in touch with everyone.

Learn the multiplying skills

  • Speaking, writing, psychology, design, conversation, 2nd language, persuasion, programming, meditation/focus.
  • Not pursued on their own, they’re skills that multiply the success of your main pursuit (e.g., A pilot who’s also a great writer and public speaker; A chef with a mastery of psychology, persuasion and design).
  • These skills multiply the results of your efforts, and give you an edge over others in your field.

Pursue market value, not personal value

  • Do what pays well.
  • Do not be the starving artist, working on things that have great personal value to you, but little market value.
  • Follow the money. It tells you where you’re most valuable.
  • Don’t try to make a career out of everything you love. For example, sex.

Shamelessly imitate success

  • Imitate the best strategies of your competitors.
  • The market doesn’t care about your personal need to be unique.
  • It’s selfless and humble to use the best ideas regardless of source, to create the best service or product for your clients.
  • Get great at executing other people’s ideas as well as your own.

Be the owner, not just the inventor

  • It’s tempting to try to be the ideas person, having someone else do the dirty work of making those ideas happen.
  • Ideas don’t make you rich. Great execution of ideas does.
  • A rule of capitalism: whoever takes the most financial risk gets the rewards.
  • The biggest rewards will always go to those that fund it and own it.
  • To get rich, be the owner. Own as close to 100% as possible.

Benefit from human nature

  • Instead of complaining about the downside of human nature, find ways to benefit from it.
  • Instead of complaining about the rules, just learn the game, then play it.

bitcoins and u s dollar bills

WHAT I THINK: To get rich, it is important to know how humans think and act and find ways to benefit from this instead of wishing for things to be different. It is useful to see what has worked for others, learn how to do things in this way first, and then adapt the best things so that what you are doing is authentically yours. It is important to try to own the product or service you are trying to sell. If you don’t do this, your earning potential will always be capped and will generally always be less than your bosses.

While it is true that people need to be willing to spend money to make money, it’s not just about taking financial risks. There are many broke people out there who have spent too much on bad ideas. Figure out how to test your ideas or products first to see how the market responds before investing too much in it, and don’t be afraid to make changes or start over again if a better opportunity presents itself. Ideally, we aren’t just doing something for the money. If we love it, are good at it, and make a lot, we will be much happier than doing something just because we know that it pays well.

While it is true that we don’t know which opportunities will necessarily work out, we also can’t make much progress if we are saying yes to everyone and everything. Instead, meet and connect with the right people who are not just out for themselves until you find a great idea. Then pursue this project for a set period until you know if it is likely to make you rich or not. If not, jump ship as soon as you realise it and keep brainstorming and connecting and saying yes until you find your next great idea. Once you have this, learning to prioritise and say no might be even more important than always saying yes. Same with being in the middle of everything. It’s good until you know which path you want to go down. Once you know, distance from others can be just as good until an idea has been executed.

The last bit of advice that isn’t here is don’t gamble or invest in get rich quick schemes. Use debit cards instead of credit cards. Don’t buy the most expensive insurance options. Instead, invest in index funds and other trustworthy stocks regularly and as early as you can. Don’t change them around too much. Compounding interest will help you to gain a lot of money over time. But having heaps of money beyond what you need to meet your basic needs isn’t likely to make you a lot happier in the long run.

flight technology tools astronaut

How to thrive in an unknowable future:

Prepare for the worst

  • Since you have no idea what the future may bring, be open to the best and the worst.
  • But the best case scenario doesn’t need your preparation or your attention.
  • So mentally and financially prepare for the worst case, instead.
  • Like insurance, don’t obsess on it. Just prepare, then carry on appreciating the good times.

Expect disaster

  • Every biography of a successful person has that line, “And then, things took a turn for the worse.”
  • Fully expect that disaster to come to you at any time.
  • Completely assume it’s going to happen, and make your plans accordingly.
  • Not just money, but health, family, freedom. Expect it all to disappear.
  • Besides, you appreciate things more when you know this may be your last time seeing them.

Own as little as possible

  • Depend on even less.
  • The less you own, the less you’re affected by disaster.

Choose opportunity, not loyalty

  • Have no loyalty to location, corporation, or your past public statements.
  • Be an absolute opportunist, doing whatever is best for the future in the current situation, unbound by the past.
  • Have loyalty for only your most important human relationships.

Choose the plan with the most options

  • The best plan is the one that lets you change your plans.
  • Example: renting a house is buying the option to move at any time without losing money in a changing market.

Avoid planning

  • For maximum options, don’t plan at all.
  • Since you have no idea how the situation or your mood may change in the future, wait until the last moment to make each decision.

aerial view of city with lights during night

WHAT I THINK: It’s good to be creative, flexible, adaptable and open to change. These characteristics will become even more important in the future because change is likely to continue to happen at an even faster and faster pace. People back in the 14th century knew what to expect by the 15th century, but most people living now have no idea what life is likely to look like in the 22nd century. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan, and it definitely doesn’t mean that we should only plan for the worst. Life has continued to get better and better in so many ways, and it is likely to continue to get better in many ways too. It doesn’t mean it can’t get worse, but we shouldn’t all become doomsday preppers or not buy anything in case disaster strikes. Instead, try only to buy the things you need that will help add value to your life.

Especially if you have kids, stability is good, so don’t be afraid to set up roots. Buy a house, start a business where you live, and develop friendships with other people in your neighbourhood. Some people may leave, businesses may collapse, marriages may crumble. However, research still indicates that people have more satisfying relationships if they get married than if they live together but don’t get married. Married men are also both happier and healthier than single men. Divorce negatively impacts kids, especially if there is a lot of conflict. Learning how to overcome difficulties is better than always avoiding things or running away when things get tough or another seemingly desirable option presents itself. We always think the grass is greener on the other side, but when we get there, it’s often not as shiny or as different as we first thought (or better than we’ve previously had).

Essentially, having plans and making commitments is better than having none, as long as you are also open to making tweaks and even big changes if things really aren’t working out. Research indicates that having too many options makes it too hard to choose, and not making a decision can be really stressful and physically and emotionally draining. Also, research indicates that we tend to become happier with our choices over time once we have made them, as long as we commit to our choices and don’t keep trying to doubt ourselves or leave all the other doors open.

four women standing on mountain

How to like people:

Assume it’s their last day

  • Everyone talks about living like it’s your last day on earth.
  • Instead, to appreciate someone, live like it’s their last day on earth.
  • Treat them accordingly. Try to fulfill their dreams for the day.
  • Really listen to them. Learn from them.

Be who’d you’d be when alone

  • You could live in a crowd, pleasing only others.
  • You could live in solitude, pleasing only yourself.
  • But ideally, when in a crowd, be the same person you’d be when alone.

Assume men and women are the same

  • Men think women are so different from them.
  • Women think men are so different from them.
  • But the differences among men and differences among women are far greater than the differences between men and women.
  • So, counteract your tendency to exaggerate the differences.

Always make new friends

  • As you grow old and change, old friends and family will be unintentionally invested in maintaining you as you were before.
  • Let go of people that don’t welcome and encourage your change.

Avoid harming the relationship

  • For long-term relationship success, it’s more effective than seeking the positive.
  • A friendship that may take years to develop can be ruined by a single action.

Act calm and kind

  • Regardless of how you feel

Don’t try to change them

  • unless they asked you to.
  • Don’t teach a lesson.
  • Stop trying to change people who don’t think they have a problem.

Find wisdom in your opponents

  • Really engage with those who think opposite of you.
  • You already know the ideas common on your own side.

Purge the vampires

  • Get rid of people that drain you, that don’t make you feel good about yourself.
  • They make you hate all people.

men s white button up dress shirt

WHAT I THINK: It is great to really try to appreciate others, and understanding that some people may die soon is a helpful way to ensure that we don’t take others for granted. The Tail End by Tim Urban is an awesome blog post that nicely highlights how little time we actually have left with the important people in our lives. We should try to make the most of our time with them while we still have it, so we don’t regret it later.

We can learn a lot from others if we ask them about their life and experiences and beliefs and really listen, even if they have different ways of looking at things. But we shouldn’t try to give advice or teach lessons to others unless someone has asked or agreed to it first (or they’re reading your blog post!).

While it is good to minimise how much time we spend with people that drain us or don’t accept us for who we are, it is also important to try and maintain our old friendships. Having both old friends and family to keep us grounded and new friends to help us learn and grow is having the best of both worlds.

Men and women are different in some ways, and it is important to understand how and why. Of course, we should still see each other as individuals and not just a gender, but this is the same with people from a different culture, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and any other group different to yours. If we can understand group norms, it can help us to understand others a little bit better. Still, we should also be willing to change our perceptions of others based on what they say and do, rather than hold onto rigid, unhelpful or even discriminatory stereotypes.

While it’s impossible to always be 100% ourselves around others, the more authentic we can be, the more energised around others and connected with them. Similarly, we shouldn’t always act calm if we really are upset or angry or worried and need to express our feelings or what we need. However, we can express this in a kind and considerate way to not unnecessarily burn any bridges.

Thanks for reading!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Is it Better to be Completely Honest, a Strategic Truth-Teller or an Occasional Liar?

I used to lie a lot growing up. Not quite as bad as Holden Caulfield in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’:

I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

But still pretty bad.

I remember lying to my mum about cleaning my room so that I could go outside to play. Instead, I would push all the mess under the bed or throw it in the wardrobe.

I remember lying about doing my homework so that I didn’t have to do it and could play video games. I would then lie about being sick the next day to finish the assignment that I was meant to do the night before.

I remember lying about how many points I scored in basketball to friends or how many alcoholic drinks I had to my parents whenever they picked me up from a high school party.

I even remember lying to my brother’s friend about my surfing skills (I didn’t have any) and to a classmate about how many languages I spoke (I can say maybe 30 words in Indonesian, Spanish, and Italian, but not much more).

I think back to these moments, and I’m not proud of saying these things, but I can also understand why I did it.

I wish I could have been a less lazy, more confident and self-assured kid who was always honest with his friends and strangers and did the right thing by his parents and teachers. But how realistic is that scenario, and is it even ideal?

The truth is always an insult or a joke. Lies are generally tastier. We love them. The nature of lies is to please. Truth has no concern for anyone’s comfort.
― Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

Why Do People Lie?

We lie to:

  • fit in and pretend we are like others
  • stand out and pretend we are different to or better than others
  • seek approval from others
  • be seen as more loveable/desirable/acceptable
  • feel better about ourselves
  • avoid getting into trouble
  • protect other people’s feelings or avoid hurting them
  • be polite
  • avoid feeling hurt, sad, disappointed, guilty or ashamed
  • keep a secret
  • maintain confidentiality
  • be consistent with societal norms

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.
― Friedrich Nietzsche

What Happens if We Are 100% Honest?

In the 1997 comedy ‘Liar Liar’, the main character is played by Jim Carrey. He’s a high flying lawyer who keeps disappointing his son Max by making promises to him that he can’t keep by always putting work as his priority. Finally, after his dad doesn’t turn up to his birthday celebration, Max wishes for his dad not to be able to tell a lie, and the magic of movies makes this wish comes true.

What results is some hilarious situations in which Jim Carrey’s character gets himself into trouble for telling the whole truth when it would definitely be more polite to lie. This includes telling his secretary why he didn’t give her a pay rise, telling his boss that he has had better than her, and confessing to everyone in a crowded elevator that he was the one who did the smelly fart.

The moral of the story was two-fold:

  1. Sometimes it is necessary to lie, or at least not always be brutally honest and say everything that comes to your mind, and
  2. By trying to be as honest as possible whilst also tactful, you may actually become a better person who upsets people less and has better quality and more authentic relationships.

One lie has the power to tarnish a thousand truths.
― Al David

Radical Honesty

In 2007, A.J. Jacobs wrote an article for Esquire magazine about a month-long experiment on a small movement called Radical Honesty. It was titled ‘I Think You’re Fat’ and is definitely worth a read. Much more than the 1995 book called ‘Radical Honesty’ by Brad Blanton that initially inspired the article:

Blanton had worked as a psychotherapist for 35 years in Washington D.C. and ran 8-day workshops on Radical Honesty that retailed for $2,800 back in 2007. Blanton says his method works, although he may distort some of the positive benefits for personal and financial gain. He’s been married five times and claims to have slept with more than 500 women and six men, including a “whole bunch of threesomes.” He also admits to lying sometimes.

She looks honestly upset, but then, I’ve learned that I can’t read her. The problem with a really excellent liar is that you have to just assume they’re always lying.
― Holly Black, Black Heart

I Think You’re Fat

In Jacobs article, he wasn’t overly positive about Blanton’s version of Radical Honesty either. If we didn’t have a filter between what we say and what we notice in the world, in our body and our thoughts like Blanton advocates, the results would probably be less funny and more consequential than what happened to Jim Carrey in ‘Liar Liar’. Jacobs declares:

Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.” — A.J. Jacobs

Jacobs found it impossible not to tell a lie during his month long experiment, but did cut down his lying by at least 40%. But, unfortunately, he also scared a five-year-old girl, offended numerous people, and spoke about sex and attraction to the point where he felt creepy.

On the positive, being radically honest did save Jacobs time, resulting in him having to talk less to the people he didn’t want to talk to and do less of the things he didn’t want to do. In addition, it saved him mental energy by not having to choose how much he would lie or massage the truth. It also meant that people were usually more honest with him in return, and he found out that his relationships could withstand more truth-telling than he expected. So, similar to the ‘Liar Liar’ take-away message, Jacobs concluded:

  1. Being radically honest all the time and never having a filter is likely to be inappropriate in many settings and lead to more confrontations with others, and
  2. We could probably benefit by being more authentic, honest and truthful with others, especially in intimate relationships, as secrets tend to weigh us down.

There is beauty in truth, even if it’s painful. Those who lie, twist life so that it looks tasty to the lazy, brilliant to the ignorant, and powerful to the weak. But lies only strengthen our defects. They don’t teach anything, help anything, fix anything or cure anything. Nor do they develop one’s character, one’s mind, one’s heart or one’s soul.
― José N. Harris

What is a Lie?

In his interesting small book ‘Lying’, Sam Harris defines a lie as:

anything that is done to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” — Sam Harris

Omission vs Commission

In ‘Lying’, Sam Harris distinguishes between lies of commission, where the person is active in their intent to deceive, and the more passive act of omission, where the person fails to do something or say something they probably should. Both commission and omission are deceptive in that they are both misleading to the audience or person who is the target of the action or lack of action.

Harris believes that lies of commission are a more serious violation of ethics and likely to be more harmful. It is similar to how pushing someone in front of a train is a more serious ethical violation than not saving someone who was hit by a train when you had a chance to do so.

Harris argues for people to stop all forms of commission and says that we can enhance our world, build trust and improve relationships by always being honest in our communication. While he believes that omission is also lying, he does not believe that we can or should eliminate all forms of omission. Instead, he says that “skilful truth-telling” is sometimes required to be both honest and tactful in our words and avoid causing unnecessary harm.

Let’s look at the following three examples to see the difference between radical honesty, lying and skilful truth-telling.

SCENARIO ONE: Your husband asks if he looks fat in an outfit that you honestly believe isn’t flattering for him. You could say:

A)Yeah. You do look fat. I’d say about 10 pounds overweight. Maybe you should skip dessert for a while.

B)Not at all, sweety. You look amazing!

C)You look nice, but I think I prefer the black jumper and blue jeans I bought you a few weeks ago. Want to try that one and see which one you feel better in?

SCENARIO TWO: Your sister and her family are in town for the week and decide to stay at your place for the whole time because they want to save money. You don’t dislike them, but also don’t feel like you have heaps in common, and you’d really prefer to be catching up on your work that you are behind on. On night four, she notices you are a little tense and asks if you mind them staying there. You could say:

A)I do. I wish you weren’t so tight and could have paid for a hotel if you planned to stay more than 3 nights. A week is really pushing it, and I’d prefer you left.

B)Mind? Are you kidding? I love it. The more, the merrier, I always say! Stay for as long as you’d like.

C)It’s a busy week for me in terms of work, so it wasn’t ideal timing for me. If I seem a bit tense, I’m sorry. I do want to be able to help you guys out because family means a lot to me.

SCENARIO THREE: You’ve been unemployed for six months and get a job interview to wait tables at a restaurant in town. You’d ideally prefer an acting job. The restaurant boss asks what your career plans are, as they really want to hire someone who is going to stick around. You could say:

A)Well, acting has always been my passion, so this is really just a stop-gap job to pay the bills and put food on the table. I couldn’t care less about the job or your restaurant. I want a regular paycheck so that I can pay my rent and bills until I get a real job.

B)I’d love to become a professional waiter. I’ve always thought that providing great service to people is my calling in life, and I plan to stick around for at least five years and show everyone just how amazing your restaurant is. So I’m in it for the long haul.

C)I’m not too sure about what will happen with my career, but at this stage, I’d really like to be able to work here. I am available seven days a week and will put in 100% effort whenever I am on shift. I am also willing to learn whatever skills are required, and I can promise that I will give you as much notice as possible if my plans ever do change in the future.

In each scenario, A is the radically honest response, B is the active lying or commission response, and C is the skilful truth-telling response. While no actual lies are being said in the C answers, not everything is being said, technically a lie of omission.

Many people still believe that omissions are a big no-no:

When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.
― Yevgeny Yevtushenko

A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.
― Alfred Tennyson

At times to be silent is to lie. You will win because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: Reason and Right.
― Miguel de Unamuno

People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on…There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.
― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Is it Ever Helpful to Lie to Ourselves?

The short answer is yes. It has been found that it is psychologically healthier to be slightly optimistic than to be completely realistic. Research indicates that people with depression are often more realistic in their appraisals of situations and other people’s judgments than people without depression. Most “healthy people” believe that, compared to the average person, they are better drivers, more intelligent, better workers, better parents and better lovers.

People lie to themselves because they like to feel that they are important and maybe a little bit more unique or special than they really are. To prove this point, how would you feel if someone told you that you were just “average”? People also like to see themselves as a good person who behaves in particular ways for good reasons. Even people that consistently cause harm to themselves or others.

Anyone with an unhealthy addiction becomes an expert at lying to both themselves and others. This secrecy and dishonesty only further fuel the sense of depression, shame and guilt that people with addiction feel, as long as they are actually in touch with the whole truth of the situation and the consequences of their actions. Most addicts are not, however, thanks to in-built defence mechanisms.

Defence mechanisms are mostly subconscious or unconscious methods that we engage in to protect our ego or positive sense of self. Some of the more famous ones are denial, humour, repression, suppression, rationalisation, intellectualisation, projection, displacement, regression, and my personal favourite, reaction formation (click here for a full description of these defence mechanisms and how to identify yours). Most people will deny engaging in defence mechanisms if you ask them directly about it, but they’ll also be able to tell you that other people do. The reality is we all lie to ourselves at times, and maybe we need to lie to maintain a “healthy” outlook on ourselves, others, the world and our future.

The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.
― S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders

The best lies about me are the ones I told.
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Anybody who says they are a good liar obviously is not, because any legitimately savvy liar would always insist they’re honest about everything.
― Chuck Klosterman

So What Can We Do?

The most accurate recommendations that I could find on lying were also some of the simplest:

If you don’t want to slip up tomorrow, speak the truth today.
― Bruce Lee

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
― Mark Twain

I agree with Sam Harris that it is a worthwhile aim never to be actively dishonest. Furthermore, this approach is consistent with one of Jordan Peterson’s better rules from his ’12 Rules for Life’ book — Rule #8: “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie”.

The philosopher Robin Devenport wouldn’t agree with either Harris or Peterson. He states:

“it is impossible for anyone to be truly honest about many things, as long as he (or she) carries biased perspectives, hidden resentments, unresolved longings, unacknowledged insecurities, or a skewed view of self, to name just some inner human conditions… if absolute honesty is impossible, then we are all liars by nature, at least to a degree.”

In his excellent book ‘The Honest Truth about Dishonesty’, Dan Ariely also concludes that we all tend to lie to everyone, especially ourselves. We lie only as much as we know we can get away with, but not so much that it becomes hard to keep seeing ourselves as good people.

Devenport continues:

“Perhaps the best we can do, then, is only to lie in ways that are intended to promote another’s well-being or spare her unnecessary pain, and so further our integrity. The ‘noble liar’ is someone who tries to live by good intentions, even if that means intentionally lying to another person, if doing so is the lesser of two evils…Before we cast too harsh a judgment on the liar, let’s first understand what his motives are.” — Robin Devenport

We all need to try to be as honest as we can, especially with those we love, and make sure that it is for a good reason when we do lie. We also need to realise that it will never be possible to be 100% honest about everything to anyone, including ourselves, and that is okay. Other people won’t be 100% honest with you or themselves either, which doesn’t make them bad people. It’s what we lie about and why that really matters.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist