Prioritising positivity online

If you follow me on Twitter (@jailbirdstreet) you might have noticed that this year I’ve made a habit of starting each day with a positive tweet.

It’s a little experiment I’ve been conducting on myself. Late in 2018 I reflected on the negative influence of social media on my life and decided it would be healthier not to spend so much time there.

The negative effects of social media are much discussed, and include sleeplessness, bullying, social disconnection and envy. In my case, I often got sucked into a vortex of negativity and helplessness about all the horrors in the world. Constant stress damages the brain, and I knew that feeding my fear centre all that negativity was keeping me in a constant state of anxious arousal. 

I realised that I couldn’t entirely disconnect, as some people do. I need to be on social media for a number of reasons, including for work. I looked around for ways to minimise the negative effects and came across the work of Barbara Fredrickson and the idea of ‘prioritizing positivity’. In brief, her work shows us that positive emotions and experiences contribute to our health, wellbeing and resilience.

““Our day-to-day positive emotions function as nutrients for our overall wellbeing.  Today’s positive emotions do not simply exemplify today’s wellbeing, they also help to create next month’s increases in wellbeing.”

Just as we need to nourish our bodies with nutritious foods, we need to nourish our brains and spirits with positive emotion: joy, wonder, hope, contentment, happiness, cheer…and just as we need to make an effort to make sure we eat nutritious food, we need to make an effort to ensure we get positive emotions.

“Everyone is busy these days, so much so that we can become too focused on our “to do” list. Prioritizing positivity means also having a “to feel” list and scheduling in time for activities that you know to be reliable elicitors of your own positive emotions.  For me it’s spending time with a friend, walking in nature, or creating a new recipe.”

I had already been prioritising positivity in my day: going for walks, doing things that make me laugh, singing along loudly (sorry neighbours) with my favourite songs…I decided to apply the theory to my social media activity. I set the bar pretty low: start each day with a positive tweet.

I was inspired by an Aboriginal man I’ve followed on Twitter for some time: in the way these things go, I know him as Koori Brotha (@mrngunnawal). He tweets beautiful, positive tweets every day, generating a warm oasis in the midst of the snark and sarcasm, along with a strong and diverse group of followers. Fredrickson talks about creating ‘micro-moments of love’ with other people, and it seemed to me his tweets and the reactions they got proved that it was possible to do that over social media.

After a solid couple of months of consistent practice, I’m convinced of the benefits. Forcing myself to think of something positive to say first thing every morning puts me in a good frame of mind to start the day. The interactions I have are increasing, and I notice I am more comfortable about expressing support, concern and compassion. I also find I’m less inclined to spend hours scrolling the depressing news.

If you find your social media diet is making you queasy, try adding some positivity into the mix. Amplify love!

amplify love
Image from https://www.marcjohns.com/

 

Read more about Barbara Fredrickson’s work on positivity.

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Shameless self-promotion

I’m chuffed to have had a piece I wrote about how I coped with having cancer published in The Underbelly, a brilliant site where breast cancer patients and survivors support each other.

I have been really hesitant to write about cancer. “Does the world really need another cancer blog?” is a question I asked aloud more than once. “There’s nothing special about me, or my experience, unless you know me and love me” was another argument. Not wrong: something like 70 other women in Australia were diagnosed on the same day as me. Horribly common. My Dad changed my mind, telling me that my perspective might help someone else get their head around it. Thanks, Dad.

I’m posting here because my commitment to mindful leadership at work arose from this experience, and from my desire to carry over the practices that helped me get through the worst of times into my daily life. As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the biggest lessons for me is how often when we are “well” we are making ourselves sick with stress. No more. Not for this chicken!

I hope you’ll read Loving yourself sick

 

Ego is a dirty word

Skyhooks
Ego IS a dirty word, fellas.

Skyhooks sang “ego is not a dirty word” but they were wrong.  For the young whipper-snappers out there, Skyhooks were a glam rock band in the seventies, pictured. Do they look like they know anything?

Talking to Michael Pollan about his new book on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics in mental health care, Stephen Colbert said “ego should be a controlled substance”.

Ego gets in the way a lot at work, and it’s something  people talk about without clear understanding of what it is. One definition is that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light (Scott Barry Kaufman).  Katie Spero says “The ego lives life through you by making you believe you are the ego.  That you are not safe, that your existence is precarious.  It makes you believe others’ perceptions of you, along with objects and thoughts, validate your being”.

Brené Brown calls it her ‘hustler’: “My ego says to me, ‘You have no inherent worth. You’ve got to hustle for it, baby. How fast you gonna run? How high you gonna jump? How many likes do you have on Facebook?”.  Both Brown and Eckhart Tolle talk about the ego being used as a shield: it’s the voice in our head telling us we are better than other people because we fear the opposite is true.

The ego likes to emphasize the “otherness” of others. This sense of separation is an intrinsic part of the ego. The ego loves to strengthen itself by complaining—either in thoughts or words—about other people, the situation you find yourself in, something that is happening right now but “shouldn’t be,” and even about yourself. For example, when you’re in a long line at the supermarket, your mind might start complaining how slow the checkout person is, how he should be doing this or doing that, or he failed to do anything at all—including packing the bag of the person ahead of you correctly.

When this happens, the ego has you in its grip. You don’t have thoughts; the thoughts have you—and if you want to be free, you have to understand that the voice in your head has created them and irritation and upset you feel is the emotional response to that voice. (Eckhart Tolle)

If there’s a voice in your head telling you this can’t be true, that’s probably your ego talking. We generally believe our emotions to be objective reactions to what’s going on around us, but neuroscience knows better: emotions are created in our brain in response to the stories we make up about what’s happening.

The good news is that means we have more control than we think. Michael Pollan talks about experiencing total ego dissolution under the influence of psychedelic drugs: we don’t have to go that far. But we can QUIET the ego: turn the volume of the ego down “so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.”

Mindfulness can help us recognise when we are in the grip of ego, and give us the tools to release its grip. Simple techniques like compassionate enquiry into your emotional reactions help us to get out of our fear brain, and put our cognition to work.

We often forgive arrogant or prideful people who have accomplished something for their ego, as though an inflated ego is part and parcel of success. This is not true: indeed, ego attachment prevents us achieving goals. We need to make ego a dirty word in the workplace, and expect people to learn to regulate their emotions and be constructive. Letting over-sized egos toxify the culture is bad for everyone.


Read more:

The pressing need for everyone to quiet their egos (Scientific American)

You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions, your brain creates them (Neuroscience and News Research)

Free yourself from your ego armor (Oprah.com)

Are you listening?

From what I can gather, the key to mindful leadership is listening. As a talker, it’s a skill I’ve had to acquire, and the specific type of listening that makes for effective leadership is definitely one I am still working on. There’s a certain irony to the fact that we listen long before we learn to speak, but most of us are still pretty bad at it. Working in communications, you learn that people only remember a small amount of what they hear: as little as 10% and perhaps not more than 50%. I’ve spent years honing skills that enable me to manage what people remember from a talk I am giving, but I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent very little time until fairly recently on worrying about how much I am taking in when I am listening.

Still, in the workplace, most people are reasonably skilled at the basics of active listening. They know to make eye contact, to nod and otherwise signal their attention, even to remove distractions like other sources of noise, and to pause before responding. The trouble is, too often we are only listening to find fault or to get our turn to speak. Most people listen with the intent to reply Stephen Covey quote

Now, I have known about this for years, it’s my job to understand communications but it was only when I learned about mindfulness that I fully understood what it means to truly listen to someone. I’ve often joked that there is no hope for world peace because after more than 2 decades together and with great goodwill my partner and I still struggle to communicate. Often when we argue (and we argue often, about everything: we are both from families in which arguing is a sport) he complains I am ‘defending a position’. This has always baffled me, as in my mind I was merely clarifying my position: correcting his misperceptions about my argument so he can counter correctly.

I was concerned with being heard, not hearing. During my treatment I took to listening to audiobooks on mindfulness. In The Art of Communicating,, Thic Nhat Hanh could not have been more plain: when you listen to someone, you focus entirely on them, and on what they are saying. If they have ‘wrong perceptions’, he says, you do not correct them. I realised my partner is right (dammit!) I am being defensive.

I listen very attentively to what he says – to find fault. In what he says, how he says it, facts, exaggerations…all lots of fun if we are having a sporting argument about something inconsequential maybe, but pretty unhelpful when we are discussing something important. This little video from Brené Brown explains it perfectly.

Link to short video about defensiveness

I realise we do this in the workplace all the time. We are wired for defensiveness, and the workplace involves constant judgement. It’s only natural we engage in defensive behaviours, but it’s as unhelpful at work as it is at home.

The point of the ‘pause before responding’ technique in listening is to actually digest what the speaker is saying. The art of mindful listening is to give your full attention to someone as they are speaking, to suppress any emotional reaction you have to the content of their speech, and to consider your response before speaking. That middle bit is the tricky part: if someone says something that you perceive as a threat, your brain and body going into full self-defend mode, pumping adrenalin and speeding up your heart. It’s hard to keep calm in the face of a threat.

The secret, I am reliably informed, is to focus on your breath. From Buddhist tradition and modern leadership practice the advice is the same. Pay attention with intention to the speaker, and regulate your own emotions by controlling your breathing. Take a few long breaths before responding to allow your cognitive brain to get back in control.

By practicing Mindful Mondays and Daily Breath I hope my team and I are developing the muscles that will allow us to be better listeners, and that in turn will improve the quality of our communications, and the overall mood.

One great tip is a variation of the Golden Rule: Listen as passionately to others as you would be heard. If you’ve ever bounded in with news only to have your audience wander off while you are talking or interrupt you with a question, or look at their phone while you’re speaking, you’ll know how crushing inattention can be. A simple way to make others around you feel valued is to treat them the way you want to be treated: stop all other activities, let them finish speaking, be interested in them and what they are saying.

Not saying I am good at it, but I am giving it a go!

Friday Thanks

Possibly the most challenging item on the Stress Less Take 5.

On Fridays, rather than internal reflection of gratitude, I am encouraging people to write or speak to their line manager to tell them what they are grateful for in the week past. By Friday, they will have 4 days of Daily Gratitude recorded somewhere, so content should take no time at all. Again, I specifically instruct them to be grateful for something they’ve achieved.

I adapted this from a popular lifehack that advises you to email your boss every Friday to tell him or her what you accomplished that week. Part of the logic of the original is that no matter how attentive your boss is, they only see part of your performance: this is very true. It will benefit all team members for the line manager to have clearer picture of what’s going on. I’m convinced it will also counter negativity: no one is immune to the warmth you feel on hearing good news. If members of the team are in the habit of sharing with one another what they are grateful for, and acknowledging each other for their contributions, I believe they will approach each other more kindly when the pressure is on.

This task is challenging in a couple of ways:

  • it’s not ‘normal’ workplace behaviour
  • everyone hates commenting on their own performance
  • there’s a certain amount of emotional vulnerability required
  • many people struggle to see their boss as whole person.

The last two make the argument for doing this. We can’t compartmentalise ourselves: we bring our whole selves to the workplace, then try to be pretend we only bring our brains, and the bit of our bodies necessary for doing our job.

To help people along, I share what I send to my boss with the participants. One of my direct reports is doing it, and at least one other person is doing it too. Can we make it catch on?

 

Daily Gratitude

To me, gratitude is the antidote to negativity. Yes, life sucks sometimes but when we focus on what we have, we feel better.

In the Stress Less Take 5, the Daily Gratitude practice is taking 5 minutes at the end of each day to write down a couple of things you are thankful for in the day that has passed. Pretty simple, huh? And yet sometimes it can be tough: we get so down in the weeds with office politics and the minutiae of the day to day that we forget to notice the good things…like the fact we have a job!

I tell the team this is personal and won’t be checked, and I’ll commit to keeping it private. Whatever you write is what you write, no judgement. One specific instruction I give is that’s it’s important to be grateful to yourself. Perhaps you pushed through with a difficult task and solved a problem. Perhaps you faced a fear and delivered a presentation even though you hate public speaking. No doubt how your day went, there was undoubtedly something you owe yourself thanks for. Look for it.

One of the best lessons from my mindfulness training taught me was to love and value myself as I would one of my dearest friends. It was a hard lesson: like many people I was unconsciously beating myself up all the time. Realising that was tough. I want different for myself, and I want different for my team, so part of the practice is about being kinder to ourselves.

Mindful Mondays

Mindful Monday is the first practice in the Stress Less Take 5 and it’s all about collectively setting intentions for the week, as well as making mindfulness part of the workplace language.

So far I’ve lead them all, but I hope other team members will step up if I can’t be there. I’ve had some very positive comments and some thanks, and quite a few people practice mindfulness so I hope they will.  We’ve had three Mindful Mondays now, and a Mindful Tuesday in Toowoomba and a Mindful Thursday in Ipswich, and a Mindful Moment during a planning day and a training day with our casuals.

It’s very simple: at 9.00am every Monday, we all gather in one room and I talk them through a short meditation, starting (of course) with focus on the breath. I don’t have a script, just a simple schema:

  • Start with breathing: slowly and deeply, through the nose
  • Have them notice their bodies
  • Remind them to let go of thoughts
  • Remind them they can return to their breath at any time
  • Remind them of our intentions: practice calm, work from strength, permit joy
  • Encourage them to stretch and move before they start their day.

I leave spaces where I do not speak for several breaths, to allow them to be alone with their breath.

Most people are participating with an open mind. One or two seems to be resisting. I hope they’ll be influenced by their peers over the three month pilot.