Our Thoughts Can Affect Our Performance

In the previous post, I discussed how nervousness can affect your mind and body and impact your performance.  I also looked at two strategies – naming your feelings and accessing your success anchor – to gain control over your nervousness.  In this post, I want to focus on how our thoughts can affect our performance.

Our negative thoughts

When we are nervous or anxious about our performance before some public activity, our minds tend to race, and we lose control over our thinking. We can be bombarded with a whole host of negative thoughts – “What if I forget what I was going to say?”, “What will people think of me?”, “How will I ever recover if I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues?”,  “Will I cope if they reject me?”, or “What if I do not meet their expectations?”

These negative thoughts often lead to procrastination.  I have found many times that people fail to start something because of these kinds of negative thoughts.  Sometimes, these disabling thoughts are not at a conscious level – they may just manifest as nervousness or anxiety.  This is where an exercise to name your feelings and the thoughts that create them can be very helpful.

Reframing with positive thoughts

I was recently following up people by phone who had participated in one of my courses – effectively a coaching session.  I was wondering what was causing me to procrastinate.  I have facilitated hundreds of courses and the people I was ringing were participants on my most recent course and yet I was nervous about the phone activity.  I started to follow the suggested step of naming my emotions and identifying the thoughts that gave rise to them.  The thoughts predominantly related to, “Would I live up to their expectations?”, and “Could I actually provide them with some help with their practice or project?”.  Sometimes, our doubts are not rational, but they persist.

Getting in touch with my feelings and negative thoughts enabled me to move on and actually conduct the phone coaching discussions.  What I found was that by controlling my negative thoughts through mindfulness, I was able to change my mindset and view the phone coaching differently.  I came to appreciate the very positive aspects of this exercise and this helped me to reframe the activity as relationship building.  I found that the participants were actually putting into practice in their workplaces the skills we covered in the course and they were having a positive impact on their workplace and the people in their team (intrinsically rewarding feedback!).

I came to the realisation yet again (somewhat blocked by my current anxiety), that my major role was to listen and ask questions for clarification and understanding (mine and theirs).  The experience then was very reaffirming.  Reframing the activity in positive terms, rather than focusing on possible (but not probable) negative outcomes, freed me up to perform better in the coaching interviews.  However, I have a long way to go to be free of “ego” concerns.

Becoming free of ego concerns

When we revisit our concerns or negative thoughts, we often have in advance of some public activity, we begin to realise how much “ego” is involved.  We are concerned about our image – how we will be viewed or assessed, what impact our performance will have on us or our future, what impression we will make or how embarrassed will we be if we “fail”.

These issues constitute ego concerns.  Tom Cronin (The Stillness Project) in his blog post, How to Find the Confidence to Speak in Front of 300 People, suggests that controlling your ego is a key aspect of gaining that confidence.  The less ego plays in determining how you feel about your forthcoming performance, the better you are able to just be present and appreciate the moment. Your presence and sense of calm can be very effective in helping you access your creative abilities and best performance.  He recommends daily meditation as a way to dissolve the ego and gain peaceful presence, no matter what we are doing:

… meditation plays a HUGE role. In the stillness of meditation we connect with that unbounded state of peaceful presence, beyond the limits of the ego. The work is to put aside time to meditate, and then outside of meditation, to observe the difference between that which is ego and that which is not. 

To remove all ego from our thoughts and activities requires a very advanced state of mindfulness.  As Tom indicates, this is a lifetime pursuit, because ego often gets in the road of our performance and our ability to have a positive impact.  However, we cannot wait until we are cleansed of all ego before we perform.

I have successfully addressed 1,800 people at a World Congress in Cartagena, Colombia in South America.  The topic was on action learning and I was doing the opening address as President of the Action Learning and Action Research Association.  My luggage had not arrived by the start of the Congress, so I had to present in my jeans that I wore on the flight over and a colourful Cartegena t-shirt I bought in the street outside the Congress.

I had to let go of any ego concerns about my standard of dress (the other dignitaries were in suits) if I was to actually get up on the stage.  I think this need and the casualness of my dress helped me in my address – it was particularly well received by the Colombians who were present amongst the representatives from 61 countries.  I certainly had ego concerns but the momentousness of the occasion and the potential contribution of the Congress to global cooperation, helped me to get through and manage my nerves.  But you can see I still have ego concerns that are alive and active when I undertake a relatively simple phone coaching activity (as described above) – lots more meditation to do!!

As we grow in mindfulness, we can clear anticipatory, negative thoughts about our performance, identify and control our emotions and progressively remove our ego concerns.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

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How Mindfulness Undermines Cravings and Addiction

Melli O’Brien recently interviewed Dr. Judson Brewer (known as Jud) who is Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Craving Mind.  Jud is an acknowledged international expert in training people in mindfulness to overcome addiction.

In the interview Jud explained the basic cause of addiction and shared neuroscience research that explained the impact of addiction on the brain and the counter-impact of mindfulness.

How addiction develops

The concept of “operant conditioning” developed by B.F. Skinner provides a fundamental explanation of how addiction develops.  Basically, certain behaviours lead to what we perceive as rewards.  So, if we continue to engage in those behaviours and receive the associated rewards, we positively reinforce the behaviours so that we are more inclined to repeat them – thus leading to cravings and addiction.

The craving and resultant addiction can be related to anything, e.g. food, sex, shopping, spending money, drinking alcohol, gambling or consuming drugs.  We unconsciously link the rewarded behaviour with something that is unpleasant – e.g. if we are stressed we may over-eat or drink alcohol excessively.  What we are attempting to do is to substitute something pleasurable for something that we find unpleasant, e.g. we eat dark chocolate (pleasure) to overcome the unpleasantness of stress.  So, stress acts as the trigger for our craving and addiction.

We consolidate our belief in the utility of dark chocolate to help us deal with stress by reminding ourselves of the latest research that shows the positive benefits of dark chocolate – thus we not only receive a physical reinforcement (pleasant taste) but also an emotional reinforcement (positive feelings for “eating what is good for me”).  Of course, we overlook the fact that the research on dark chocolate stresses the moderation required in eating the chocolate so that the positive benefits are not outweighed by negative impacts such as the amount of saturated facts consumed.

Mindfulness undermines addiction through a process of substitution

Jud pointed out in the interview that addiction activates a part of the brain that is called “the posterior cingulate cortex”; whereas, when we engage in mindfulness practice, the opposite happens – that region of the brain becomes deactivated.   Through mindfulness, then, we are substituting excitation of the brain (generated through craving and addiction) with restfulness.

Mindfulness for overcoming addiction works on two basic levels – firstly, as we look inward, we increase our awareness of the body sensations associated with our craving; and secondly, we sever the link between our addictive behaviour and the rewards we ascribe to that behaviour.  We effectively undermine the reinforcing link between the behaviour and the reward.

Substitution occurs on three levels:

  1. pleasant feelings associated with our addictive behaviour are replaced by the pleasure experienced when we are curious about, and investigate, the bodily sensations generated by our cravings and addiction (we are substituting one form of pleasure for another);
  2. seeking to have, or do more, is replaced by the act of noticing what is going on for us (we replace uncontrolled seeking with patient noticing of the bodily sensations experienced in craving something);
  3. temporary happiness derived from satisfying our craving is replaced by the realisation of more sustainable peace and joy.

In the final analysis, mindfulness breaks what Jud calls the “habit loop” of addiction with a new and rewarding “habit loop” – habituated behaviour whose rewards grow exponentially.  Jud reiterates that developing new habits, such as mindfulness, requires “dedicated practice every day”, which is one way to overcome the barriers to changing our behaviour.  Sustaining mindfulness practice, then, is critical to undermining cravings and addictions.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain a better understanding of our craving and addiction and learn ways to use mindfulness to undermine the hold that cravings have on our thoughts and emotions.  We can learn to make more conscious choices in the process.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  whekevi on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Realising the Benefits of Meditation

In an interview with Tami Simon as part of The Mindfulness and Meditation Summit, Dr. Richie Davidson spoke of the positive impacts of meditation both on our behaviour and our brain.  His presentation was based on the book, Altered Traits, that he co-authored with Daniel Goleman.

Among the many points that Dr. Davidson makes is the statement that there is a distinct increase in benefits gained for people who undertake retreats in addition to engaging in daily meditation practice. He surmises that the benefits are broader and more sustainable for retreat practitioners because we are invariably away from our normal daily environment and the associated reminders and triggers and are assisted by a leader who can guide us and provide feedback.

However, you do not have to go on retreat or undertake 10,000 hours of practice like full-time, contemplative monks, to realise the benefits of meditation.

What is important is sustaining practice – daily practice to build new habits and enhance our brain functioning.  The benefits grow with regularity of practice and the longer we sustain meditation practice in our lives.  So, the more experienced meditators are likely to gain greater benefits than those who persist only over a short period of time.

Scientific research has reinforced the positive impact of meditation on our behaviour .  We are better able to maintain focus and handle stress, are less reactive to triggers and more resilient in the face of difficult situations.  While we retain the capacity to experience the whole breadth of emotions [and may increase our capacity for expression of emotions], we are more in control of our response to these emotions.

A key behavioural change that has been evidenced in research is the reduction in “unconscious bias” and the negative impact of associated assumptions.  Dr. Davidson stated that the research highlights the fact that these particular changes “endure beyond the meditative state” and pervade a person’s life and way of being-in-the-world.

As a person practices meditation more and more, the positive after-effects become more enduring and habituated.  Dr. Davidson instanced the personal benefit of meditation for himself as a “reduction in volatility at work” in response to workplace triggers – a behavioural change readily acknowledged by his colleagues over time.

As we grow in mindfulness through sustained meditation practice, we are able to realise not only increasing benefits but also benefits that are more enduring and integrated into our daily behaviour and daily lives.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Sustaining the Practice of Mindfulness: One Breath at a Time

You might have been inspired by a mindfulness workshop or the stories of other people who have experienced the benefits of mindfulness.

You could be convinced of these benefits by the neuroscience supporting mindfulness and just want to experience particular benefits yourself.

But all the knowledge, inspiration and desire alone will not help you to grow in mindfulness, if you don’t practice mindfulness.  You have to learn how to maintain the motivation for mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is like any other skill area – you need to practice to master the process and make it an integral part of your life.

Chade-Meng Tan, one of the creators of Google’s Search Inside Yourself course in mindfulness and emotional intelligence, likens sustaining mindfulness practice to developing the habit of going to the gym:

It is the same with sustaining a mindfulness practice.  You probably need some discipline in the beginning, but after a few months, you may notice dramatic changes in quality of life.  You become happier, calmer, more emotionally resilient, more energetic, and people like you more because your positivity emanates onto them.  You feel great about yourself.  And again, once you reach that point, it is so compelling, you just cannot not practice anymore. (Search Inside Yourself: The Secret Path to Unbreakable Concentration, Complete Relaxation, Total Self-Control, p.56)

Over the last ten years, Google has trained more than 4,500 staff and managers in mindfulness and emotional intelligence through their Search Inside Yourself course.  One thing the creators and facilitators of the course have learned is how to sustain mindfulness practice and realise its benefits.

Chade-Meng Tan shares his insights about a simple three-step process to sustain the practice of mindfulness:

  1. find a buddy to check in with on a weekly basis to share your mindfulness experience and make yourself accountable
  2. do less than you can manage so that it does not become onerous
  3. take one mindful breath a day.

Chade-Meng Tan explains the last step more fully below:

I may be the laziest mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day.  Just one.  Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled; everything else is a bonus. (Search Inside Yourself, p.58)

Practice increases our consciousness of mindfulness and its benefits.  It enables us to develop momentum that will help to sustain our commitment and motivation.

The secret is to develop a habit but start small with something that is easy to achieve.  This enables us to get over the early hurdles where practice is experienced as a chore.

If you don’t persist past the early resistance stage, you won’t experience the benefits of mindfulness.  So there is a lot of wisdom in starting with just one breath a day to grow mindfulness.

Image source: johnhain on Pixabay

Maintaining Motivation for Practicing Mindfulness

Maintaining motivation to practice mindfulness is a Catch-22 situation: to experience the benefits of mindfulness, you have to practice it; to maintain motivation for your mindfulness practice, you need to experience the benefits.  As you practise, you become more aware of the benefits and the benefits themselves increase.

However, the starting point is to believe that practising mindfulness will give you benefits that you value.  Having started your practice then, you are able to experience the benefits and to use these to motivate yourself to continue.

I found it hard to maintain my attendance at Taoist Tai Chi classes because of work commitments but I had experienced enough of the benefits of Tai Chi to find a way to maintain the practice.

As I persisted with the practice of Tai Chi, I started to experience an increasing number of benefits that now form the motivation for me to continue the practice.  These benefits that I value are:

Focus and concentration – these are essential skills for my work as a consultant and for my writing; they also help with playing tennis (my sporting passion)

Balance and coordination – this is a strong motivator for me because I have found over the years that there is a very clear link between my Tai Chi practice and how well I play during my weekly social tennis; I have written about this link elsewhere

Creativity – I noticed this benefit through my experience of greater creativity when designing workshop processes as part of my consulting practice; Google clearly values this benefit as it developed the Search Inside Yourself (SIY) mindfulness program which has been experienced by more than 4,500 members of their staff- the SIY program is now available to the public on a global basis.

Lower blood pressure – I inherited high blood pressure so anything that helps me maintain a lower blood pressure has many positive side effects

Flexibility – as I grow older, I find that my flexibility suffers. However, Tai Chi clearly improves my flexibility and I experience this on the tennis court and elsewhere; many older people throughout the world (e.g. in China) practise Tai Chi to gain this benefit, among others.

Calmness and clarity – mindfulness and Tai Chi, specifically, develop calmness and clarity and help me to manage stress

Reducing the symptoms of arthritis – this is a claimed benefit of Tai Chi which I had some skepticism about until I experienced reduced pain from arthritis in one of the fingers on my right hand when playing tennis; now I can play two hours of solid tennis without the pain recurring or impeding my capacity to play well

Reflective listening – Tai Chi and mindfulness practice generally are improving my capacity to listen reflectively, an important means of improving my valued relationships.

I think the moral of this story is that if you persist in the practise of mindfulness you will experience benefits that you personally value.  Both the choice of mindfulness practice and the valued benefits will be influenced by your own lifestyle and personal preferences.

Image source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com