“Does this improve the situation?”

ice covered statue

Not all of our actions are helpful.

In fact, when we’re caught in small, defensive or petty mindsets, our actions can be wilfully hurtful and obstructive. We can sabotage situations and wound those present.

We have a real capacity to be arseholes, especially when we act in a reactionary and aggressive way.

The solution to many of these related challenges is space. With enough space between the stimulus and response, we can be less reactionary and respond more skilfully to situations with a wider range of choices. We have the time to consider the consequences of our actions and determine if they reflect our long term interests.

The challenge, in the heat of the situation, is in remembering to create the space. In some cases, it’s not just about remembering, but also over-riding our own natural tendency to lash out and react. And it can be tough to fight a natural reaction. Just try to keep your hand on a hot stove.

In the same way that a wedge can stop a door from slamming shut, we can use questions to stop reactions from slamming situations shut, closing off other options.

My favourite question in this case is “does this improve the situation?”

It’s something I try to ask myself before I speak whenever I’m feeling trapped or defensive. Before I snap at someone. Before I react. Before the toys get thrown out of the pram.

It’s not a panacea to all bad reactions, but it creates the space for a “no” response, and then a desire to find better alternatives.

And sometimes, that’s all you need.

When motivation fails

clear sky behind a row of houses

It’s only 1° outside and I’m struggling with the motivation to run to work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m running to work, there are no two ways about it, but I don’t want to – and I’d like to understand why.

The sky is clear and blue, even at this time of the morning, but for some reason, today, the temperature seems like a good excuse not to run.

Suddenly that solitary 1° is a barrier, not an opportunity. It should be a challenge, a call to action, an invitation to go forth and conquer – but today it just seems like the world’s best reason to catch the train.

Herein lies the challenge of motivation.

Today, forces and circumstances which would normally propel me forward, feel like they’re holding me back.

Nothing externally has changed. I don’t look any different, sound any different or (probably) smell any different from the days in which the 1° would be the best reason to run – but I certainly feel different.

Somethings are just going to be impenetrable to us in any given moment – Why is this happening? Why is that person being difficult? Why don’t I want to run? – and while there is value in picking apart the causes, especially in the long term, the question for the moment is “what are you going to do?”

You can wish that the situation were otherwise, but it’s not. So what are you going to do?

Sometimes, how we feel about a situation will have changed, but the objective realities of the situation have not. The best course of action when we felt good about it, is still the best course of action, even now when we feel rubbish.

The challenge here is to understand when it’s in our best interests to ignore our short term feelings and pursue the long term action, and when it’s not.

One answer here might be to quickly ask “why?” until we hit on the likely cause of our change of feeling. We can then more objectively evaluate if it’s a valid reason or not.

I don’t want to run to work.


It’s too cold.

Why is that a problem?

It’s uncomfortable, and I would rather be warm right now.


Right, you’re going running.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Many thanks to Meriel Rosenkranz for pointing me in the direction of “why?” which Charles Duhigg writes about in his new book.

Figuring out what comes next

Changed priorities ahead

The to-do list is never-ending.

As soon as we tick something off, two more tasks will take its place. It’s an admin hydra.  The sooner we accept this, the better,  because it’s not going to change anytime soon.

That doesn’t mean, more work, harder work, longer work – it just means that we have to learn to accept that our work is never done. We need to learn to give it boundaries or it will dominate everything.

Taking this as our starting point, there is value in execution, for sure, but there is also huge (and often hidden) value in prioritisation.

When you’re not going to get to everything, what are you going to get to? What will you complete and what will you leave?

Irrespective of which method of prioritisation you use, you first need a realistic understanding and acceptance of the time and resources you have available. This means not pretending you have 10 productive hours if you have 3 hours of scheduled meetings. It means not saying you can work late if you have to pick up the kids and get them to bed.

Once the playing field is established, you can then bring your priorities to bear.

There are an infinite number of ways to cut this, but here are two personal favourites, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

The first is to use an Eisenhower matrix which is a great tool for distinguishing what’s urgent for what’s important (we tend to always conflate the two, and that can create a lot of unnecessary noise). Lots has been written about this, so I won’t repeat it all here. Google is your friend.

The second is to ask “which task will add the most value for the effort required, right now?” It’s important to add the “right now” when you ask the question as both the value and effort required to complete a task will change over time. It’s also vital to not just do the easy tasks first, but whatever is most valuable with respect to its effort.

Both of these methods will then give you a focussed list which you can then slot in to your available time. If there isn’t enough time to complete at least one of your tasks, then you need to break them down and learn how to eat the elephant.

Either one of these methods will go a long way towards making sure you’re focussing your time and attention somewhere useful, but neither will offer you any solace until you’ve made peace with the fact that there will always be something more to do, and you’re not going to get it all done in this lifetime.

Is that smoke really the cause of your problem?

5029 Nunney Castle In Sunny Shropshire

I was listening to a great conversation between Sam Harris and David Chalmers on the nature of consciousness, when they raised the notion of the epiphenomenon.

An epiphenomenon is something which happens (a phenomenon) alongside, or at the same time as something else you’re observing (the primary phenomenon).

They gave a great example of the smoke that will rise out of the top of an old steam locomotive as it moves. You might notice that when it’s still, there’s no smoke, but that when it moves (especially quickly), a lot of smoke will appear.

If you didn’t know how a train worked, you might then infer, that the smoke coming out of the top of the locomotive is what makes it move.

But we know that’s not right.

The smoke is a byproduct of the fire which boils the water for steam which in turn produces the movement of the train. The smoke is an epiphenomenon.

It just happens that there’s smoke when the train is moving, but that doesn’t mean that the smoke causes the movement of the train.

It made me then wonder: in how many other areas of our life are we looking at the smoke and thinking it’s making the train move?

How often are we looking at the epiphenomenon and confusing it with the cause of the primary phenomenon?

This awareness won’t always stop us from making the mistake of confusing the two, but at least it gives us a framework for asking “Is this the cause of the problem, or is it just smoke?”

Calm is a superpower

A jetty over calm water in the Lakes District

Calm is often underrated, or overlooked entirely, but the ability to remain steady and focussed under fire is one of the most valuable qualities anyone of us can develop. Period.

The stoics called it equanimity and valued it so highly that it was a cornerstone of their entire philosophy.

In fact, you’ll find it difficult to name a major religion or belief system which doesn’t put equanimity and calm close to its centre (it’s just a shame they don’t seem to make better use of it).

Calm a superpower because it’s the best antidote to anxiety, and anxiety is a contagious, corrosive, cancer which can runs through groups like a wildfire.

But calm stops anxiety dead in its tracks.

Calm helps create herd immunity from anxiety and panic, it helps group and individuals remain resilient.

Calm is a powerful and generous gift in almost any situation, and best of all – it’s perpetually available to all of us, free of charge.

“Calm is a superpower” is a phrase I have shamelessly borrowed from Brené Brown.