Sunday, December 10, 2006

Asking the right questions

One way to make a difference to each day is to ask yourself the right questions as soon as you get up in the morning.

This is especially true if you wake up feeling low, anxious or generally out of sorts. I ask myself two questions:

  • What are you happy about in your life right now?
  • What can you do today to make things even better?

If you can't think of anything that makes you happy, qualify the first question with a "could". What the first question does is make you take a positive perspective. It forces you to look at what is right with your life. The result for me, even if I have been feeling negative beforehand, is to change my state, making me appreciate things I might otherwise have overlooked or taken for granted.

The second question builds upon that positive take and gets you into action mode, moving into your day with a plan.

I came across this technique in a book by Anthony Robbins called Notes from a Friend. He suggests using 7 questions that he calls the Morning Power questions but I think that's too many. I can't be doing with anything too complicated. He also has a set of Evening Power questions. I've simplified these too.

At the end of each day I ask myself:

What went well today?

What did I learn today?

Again this forces you to review your day in a positive light, even when you've had a really bad day on the surface. Try this out for yourselves and see if it makes a difference.

I had forgotten about this technique of using questions but started using it again when I dusted off my copy of the Anthony Robbins book a couple of months ago. It's such a simple thing to do but I've found that it is having a positive impact for me, especially when I'm feeling overwhelmed with life or otherwise not in a good state.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Kentucky Fried Persistence

I was feeling disheartened the other day about my lack of progress in attaining one of my goals, which is to be become a published poet. My sole strategy at the moment is to enter poetry competitions. So far I have had no success with this. What got me over feeling discouraged was when I recalled the example of Colonel Sanders, yes he of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.

Now until I came across his story, I had always assumed that the good Colonel was merely an invented icon, to supply a folksy, avuncular aura for flogging greasy fast food. I was wrong. He actually existed. He was a hard-up, 65 year old on social security and the only thing he had of value was a recipe for, yes you guessed it, chicken. His bright idea was to try and get a restaurant interested in using his recipe which he would demonstrate and in return get a percentage of the profits. He travelled all over America trying this out on restaurant owners. They didn't want to know. He got rejection after rejection. But he never gave up. He just kept doggedly on until he found someone who said yes. What is amazing is that he was rejected 1009 times before he got a yes. It took him two years but he got there in the end. I know that some of you are probably thinking that maybe the world would have been a better place if he hadn't succeeded! However, that said, as an example of sheer dogged determination the Colonel is a great inspiration. So many people give up on their dreams after just a few attempts. Perhaps if they'd kept going they'd have got where they wanted to be in the end.

To date, I've probably entered about 10 poetry competitions, so that's really not that many. I've still got a way to go before I'm up to the Sanders level of effort. Even after entering thousands of competitions and still not succeeding, I would like to think that I'll still keep on plugging away and not give up on my dream.

Monday, October 02, 2006


It's very easy to become discouraged when you're on the self-help path, trying to make changes in your life, to achieve certain goals or to make changes in the way you behave. When you get discouraged, it's all too easy to give up altogether. My advice at those times is simply to be patient. Growth isn't always perceptible or sometimes it can be very slow. This is particularly the case with changing aspects of your personality or how you interact with others.

It's worth remembering the 80/20 rule when you are feeling disheartened. In any endeavour, 80 per cent of your efforts produce only 20 per cent of the results. However, if you stick with it and are patient, then you will reap 80 per cent of the results from just 20 per cent of the effort. Most people who give up on a goal do so when they're actually within reach of it.

I found when I was learning to drive that I seemed to be making no progress at all at times. I was on the proverbial plateau. It seemed to be all effort but no results. I was focusing too narrowly on the skills I needed to master at that point in the learning process. What I found helpful at those times was to review how far I'd already travelled in terms of where I'd started, which was not being able to drive at all. So from that perspective I'd made enormous progress.

Be patient too if you seem to backtrack. Be kind and gentle with yourself if you make a mistake. I used to beat myself up all the time for the most trivial things. Recently I thought I'd forgotten to pay my credit card bill for the month. Discovering this in the past would have set me off on a spiral of self hatred about being disorganised, a self-directed anger out of all proportion to the original cause. I noted though, with satisfaction, that I didn't this time get annoyed with myself. I took this as a measure of progress. Then I discovered that I had paid the bill after all!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Unreasonable Happiness

Today I am fighting mad. I took a dip at the weekend and fell into one of those treacherous depressions that sneak up on me from time to time, seemingly despite all my efforts at self-improvement. It was quite bad but only lasted a day. In that time, however, I snapped at my daughter and made her cry. I did, however, apologise to her and made it up with her, which offered some redress. I started to worry though that perhaps I had everlastingly damaged our relationship but my wife reassured me that this was not the case. The relationship I have with my daughter is firmly secured on very strong foundations. Not that I take it for granted. One of my progressive goals is to be and remain a loving, supportive father. The same goes for my role as husband too.

I was annoyed with myself afterwards though. But I didn't fall into the trap of continuing to beat myself up about it. I've learned this much. You have to move on, learning from the experience. I feel I'm back on track now and ready to kick ass, as they say. I'm determined to head off these depression attacks at the pass, to take a preemptive strike - strange how I'm adopting a euphemism of modern warfare. A gentler metaphor would be that the way to overcome darkness is to hold up a light, and that is what I am determined to do from now. I have made such progress already, changing my life for the better, and that can continue. Every time from now on that I get even an inkling of a negative thought I'm going to blast it with what has now become my mantra: "I am very happy." Throughout the day I keep topping myself up with that thought. I do not want to fall into a black hole again if I can do anything about it.

I was reminded too of a concept that I came across in the writings of a self-improvement guru, Dan Millman. He coined the expression unreasonable happiness. What he means by this is that one of your main goals in life should be to be unreasonably happy, not basing your personal happiness on circumstances. Most of us measure happiness in this way and that's perfectly logical and reasonable. The trouble is though that circumstances are subject to the whims of "outrageous fortune" and can't be guaranteed. You're basing you happiness on something that is subject to change and loss. So the thing to do is rise above this and cultivate a perspective of unreasonable happiness.

This does not mean that you should become aloof, indifferent and uncaring. I think in fact that quite the opposite effect would happen. I think you would be better placed to be responsive to others because you would be operating in an empowered state and more able to give. Certainly, when I am suffering with depression I'm not much use to anyone, including myself.

I was very moved recently to read about the French poet, Robert Desnos. He died during the Second World War. He was an inmate at Buchenwald concentration camp. He refused to buckle and remained unreasonably happy until the end. He would go around the campsite, encouraging people who were bound for the gas chambers by opening their palms and predicting future happiness and a long life for each of them. A cynic might deride that as merely offering false hope and certainly it had no basis in reality but I can only applaud such strength of character, such courage and such unshelfishness, and hope that I might emulate that example to some degree.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Just Smile

I don't always remember to use the self-help techniques I've come across over the years. Some fall into disuse only to be suddenly resurrected. This was the case with one recently. It popped into my head again out of the blue and I've started using it once more. This is the smile technique. What I like about it is that it's so simple and easy.

All you have to do is first of all smile. While smiling, think or say a positive thought or affirmation. Then breathe in and out, focusing on your statement. This is very useful for any kind of block you might have or when you are facing a difficult or stressful situation. The beauty of this technique is that you can do it throughout the day, at any time, although there might be some situations where this might not be appropriate. You also don't want to unnerve people with a smile which is too fixed.

It's common knowledge that a positive mental attitude can affect your physical well being but it can also work the other way round. This is what the smile technique does. It employs a physiological stimulus to improve your psychological well-being.

I first came across the technique in an audio cassette course called Opti-Learning by Donna Cercone published by Nightingale Conant. It's well worth listening to if you can get hold of it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


I've talked a lot about affirmations in previous posts. Affirmations are obviously an auditory technique, although it's sometimes a good idea to write affirmations down, over and over again, like doing lines at school!

Another, visual, strategy I've used a lot over the years is visualisation.

I first came across the technique in a book called Creative Visualisation by Shakti Gawain. It's the acknowledged classic in this field. You don't need to read any other book on the subject. I've been dipping into my copy for the last 8 years. It's beautifully written with admirable clarity.

I like creative visualisation because it is easy and simple. It employs an intuitive, imaginative approach to goal realisation rather than the logical, linear approaches favoured in business manuals. As Shakti Gawain explains: "Creative visualisation is the technique of using your imagination to create what you want in your life."

I've used the technique to prepare me for giving presentations and other situations which are potentially stressful and liable to pitfalls. What you do is go through the whole event in your mind, picturing it happening perfectly. This approach has been used a lot by athletes and sports people. It's sometimes called mental rehearsal. (A frequently cited study demonstrated the power of mental rehearsal when two basketball teams prepared for a competition. One team trained physically, whereas the other team could only use mental rehearsal. It was the latter team that performed best in the actual event.)

Visualisation is particularly good for mastering motor skills. I employed it when I decided to learn to drive, which I finally knuckled down to aged 50. It's the hardest thing I've ever done but I know that visualisation helped me enormously, particularly when it came to the test itself. I'm pleased to report that I passed first time.

I created a collage of images when I started to learn to drive. One image was of me driving a smart red sports car. I also had a picture showing a full driving licence with my name on it. This "treasure map" provided further visual reinforcement for my goal.

You can use this approach to picturing having a successful day when you first get up in the morning. Even when things do go wrong or don't work out as you intended, I find that this preparatory work gives you a quiet, inner strength which makes you more resilient and flexible.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


It is one thing to have your moment of enlightenment on the self improvement path, but what I've discovered on my own journey is that you have to maintain that vision. I find I need to do this on a daily basis otherwise I start losing the ground I've achieved.

If you've decided to dedicate your life to continuing improvement, then maintenance is an essential basic. I look upon it as keeping myself topped up. It isn't enough simply to have had your moment of satori. The epiphany has to be maintained. It's the same with physical fitness. You decide to go to the gym and within a few weeks you start to see and feel an improvement. However, as you will know if you have a lapse and stop going, you quickly get out of shape again. You can liken it to car maintenance too. Forget to check the oil and one day you'll find yourself with a seized up engine. Fortunately in this case there is such a thing as a warning light on the dashboard.

To ensure that I keep myself maintained, there are certain rituals I do every day, like thinking positive thoughts and affirming. I find that I can very easily get tripped up with my buttons suddenly getting pressed and I find that I have gone into self sabotage or fallen into a hole of my own making. Because of my maintenance work I can quickly extricate myself from these feelings and situations and recover in less time than it used to take. More usually I can prevent the negative feelings taking a hold in the first place. It doesn't do to get smug though and think that you are now invincible.

The thing to do when negativity takes a hold, when you feel you've taken a backward step, is not to beat yourself up about it. Learn from the experience and move on. Don't berate yourself or tell yourself that you've failed, otherwise you'll just end up digging yourself into a bigger hole. Simply make the commitment to maintaining your daily good habits, your self help strategies and routines and feel yourself gradually getting stronger.

I'll be talking about many more techniques you can use in future posts, techniques that I have put into practice and made into daily habits or use frequently in order to keep myself functioning well.

One final thought. Don't feel that you have to have a moment of vision like the one I described in my first post. If you adopt some of the changes that I've suggested like using affirmations and the flipside technique then you will see changes in your life regardless of whether you've had a life changing insight or not.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Just Do It!

The main reason I've experienced change in my life on the self-improvement track is the result of putting what I've learned over the years into practice. It can be very minimal at first. It doesn't have to be a great leap forward. If you were only to use one affirmation, for instance, but use it every day, you would notice a difference. The important thing is to stick to it. Make it a habit or daily action you would never think of not doing, like brushing your teeth.

When I used to deliver self-help courses, I always gave the participants a warning. This was that if they didn't act on what was covered on the course, then it would have been a complete waste of time for them. People would always nod their heads sagely, agreeing with me but I suspect it didn't really sink in for everyone.

Too often, though, people think that it has to be all or nothing. They don't do anything because they get overwhelmed with where to start or feel that they should immediately incorporate loads of changes into their life. I would say that it's better to do one thing, however slight. If you're learning to drive or swim, you wouldn't expect to learn it all in one go. Give it time. Start with just one action and build upon it. Many people who get interested in self-help do so entirely passively. They read the books, they go on the courses, take it all in but do nothing about applying what they've learned. That's such a waste.

Above all ,though, don't be hard on yourself if you feel these words apply to you. Just remember that it's never too late to start. I didn't really get going on this until I was in my 40s and even then it's been a long process. What got me started was the intial vision but what has maintained that vision is the daily application.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


In my previous post I think I overstated the case for living each day as if it were your last. I'm indebted to a comment from a visitor to this blog who points out that you also need to factor hope for the future into the equation and to acknowledge negative experiences in order to be able to learn from them.

I came across the technique of living each day as if it were your last in the lovely book by Richard Carlson called Don't Sweat The Small Stuff. It's one of my favourites and one I keep going back to it for inspiration and ideas. The pay off of this perspective is that it makes you appreciate each moment more fully. It's so easy to take the gift of life for granted.

However, beyond appreciation of the present moment, we also need to have aspirations and to think positively about the future. We need to live in hope, which is what setting goals is all about. Goals and dreams are what give our lives momentum and direction. I like the definition of a goal as a "dream with a deadline".

I've delivered courses on goal setting on many occasions, and what became apparent to me from meeting people who needed help in this area was that they had no problem knowing what they wanted to achieve and in setting goals. What was more difficult for them was to actually get started on achieving their goals. It's here that a double perspective is necessary. You need the vision of a goal to motivate you. But you also need to break the goal down into short term goals so that you can move towards it. Goals are achieved in the present through small steps. Each day it's necessary to check in with yourself to see how you're doing. A good affirmation in this respect to say daily is: "I make today my masterpiece". This doesn't mean that you have to do fantastic things every day. Sometimes what is most important is what is very ordinary.

It's easy to get deflected from your goals when things go wrong. When that happens it's essential to learn from the experience. Ask yourself: what's the lesson here? Otherwise the tendency is just to give up altogether.

A trait of successful people is that they take responsibility for their mistakes but recover quickly. That's because they analyse what went wrong, learn from it and then move on. It's important to be flexible though and it's OK, I think, to change your goals when perhaps you realise you're on the wrong track. This isn't giving in. It's being adaptable.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Have a nice day

One of the things I do every morning to try to ensure that I have a good day is to affirm that I am going to have one.

On waking each morning, while I am waiting for the kettle to boil for my coffee, I say aloud ten times: "Something wonderful will happen for me today." Now that doesn't mean that bad things don't happen to me but it does mean that I am approaching each day in the right frame of mind so that I am more likely to attract good luck. Even when things go wrong, I am more able to put a positive spin on the event because I have programmed myself with this expectation.

It also means that I notice more that is already right with my life, things that I might otherwise take for granted. It does make you more likely to count your blessings.

Each evening, I review my day and there is invariably something wonderful to be acknowledged, no matter how "ordinary". Sometimes it is simply the gift of still being alive. Something that can be taken away in an instant. A few years back, a colleague of mine died while working at her PC at home. She was found sitting in her chair, a cup of coffee at her side. Death is not always something you can prepare for.

Perhaps we should all live every day as if it were going to be our last, providing that doesn't lead to our being selfish or inconsiderate.

Friday, August 18, 2006

In the affirmative

I first started using affirmations several years ago and they are now part of my daily routine. I like them a lot because they're simple. They require little effort too which appeals to me greatly. It's the fast happiness approach.

There are some basic "rules" required to using affirmations. They have to be positive (of course). So you wouldn't affirm: "I wish I wasn't so tired". Better to say instead: "I have abundant energy." The reason for this is that your subconscious doesn't understand negative commands. If you say: "I am not a smoker", your subconsious will hear "I am a smoker" and you're stuck.

The other rule is that your affirmation should be in the present tense. If you wish for something in the future then what you're trying to affirm will always dangle before you, out of reach, like the proverbial carrot. So you affirm in the now. It doesn't matter if you don't believe consciously what you're saying. Your subconscious will take it in and start reprogramming how you operate. This is because the subconscious doesn't have a sense of irony or humour, and will interpret everything you say literally. That's why you have to be very careful what you tell yourself. I try not to use the expression "pain in the arse" for instance, for this very reason.

I first came across the affirmation method in the book You Can Heal your Life by Louise Hay. The most powerful and fundamental affirmation she recommends that you say to yourself every day is: "I love and approve of myself." It's more powerful if you say it aloud. It's even more powerful if you look at yourself in the mirror when you say it. What you're doing is taping over all the negative messages that have tended to become habitual. I work with a woman who is a wonderful person but I have heard her say so many times to herself when she makes a mistake: "Oh, you stupid woman!" We all tend to be like that, being our own harshest critic when we should be supporting ourselves.

Don't worry that you'll become arrogant or narcisstic in loving yourself. People who are like that are actually insecure and covering it up. By working on yourself through positive afirmations you'll actually come across in a more positive light to others because you'll feel better about yourself and people will pick up on that.

I worked with a recovering drug addict who used the Louise Hay book, telling himself over and over again: "I love and approve of myself," even though at the time, as he put it, he felt "like a sack of shit". Eventually though, this process helped him stay off drugs and he was able to start a new life. He didn't need to believe in the technique every step of the way for it to work.

The thing is to be patient, allow the process time to work, make it a daily habit and you will see changes.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Flipside Technique

After my moment of enlightenment in the bath (in Zen Buddhism this is known as "satori" - a sudden illumination; in Western culture, an epiphany), I decided to look around for books to help me build upon this perspective.

The first one I came across was How To Develop A Positive Attitude by Elwood N Chapman (I loved the name of the author - for me it conjures up a thin, dapper guy with a reedy voice, wearing spectacles and sporting a spotted bow tie).

It's a great little book, portable at only 77 pages and with a number of very effective but accesible techniques. The one I immediately locked into was what Mr Chapman calls the Flipside Technique, that is taking any situation, no matter how painful, and trying to see something positive in it. You flip the problem over, as it were, like a coin. This is obviously hard when the situation is tragic although people do wrest comfort from the most dire circumstances. I guess this what we try to do at funerals when we attempt to focus on celebrating the life of the person we have lost even when the pain of loss is uppermost.

This technique is sometimes referred to as "reframing". It's a creative approach to the negativity that trips us up daily. It helps us deal with the imperfections of life.

Basically, it comes down to the choice between empowering yourself (trying to find the positive) or caving in to situations and disempowering yourself (why does this shit always happen to me!).

Sometimes all that's required to use the flipside technique is to be able to laugh at yourself more. This immediately defuses any situation where you feel you've messed up. It's all too easy to start beating yourself up about it. Reframing nips that in the bud.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Change your life in seven seconds

I told a friend of mine about the book by Paul McKenna called How To Change Your Life In 7 Days. Her response was that this wasn't possible. It was just too quick.

I make no claims about Paul Mckenna's book other than it is worth getting hold of if you're new to the self-help field as it's a really good synthesis of material that you'd have to trawl through a lot of other books to find. In other words, it's not that original but a good, accessible introduction.

What I said to my friend, however, is that you can change your life even more rapidly than in 7 days. In seven seconds to be precise. The change is simply having the realisation that happiness is a choice you make regardless of circumstances. Victor Frankl, the Nazi concentration camp survivor, called this "the last of the human freedoms" which is about deciding "to choose one's way."

I came to this insight one evening while I was having a bath (very Zen). In the moment of stepping out of the bath and drying myself off, it felt like stepping into a positive, new life - a rebirth. All I had done was decide to be happy. I went on from then to discover more about positive thinking and to develop the happiness habit.