Monday, February 03, 2020

Why clarify your values?

Yesterday, summing up some key learning  points from Philosophical Life Coaching, I suggested it was a good idea to clarify your values.

One reader then asked me a very good question

"Is there any evidence that clarifying your values is a good thing to do. Couldn't it be neutral or even negative?"

I think Values Clarification is a bit of a misnomer. It should be called values clarification and actualisation -  but that's a bit of a mouthful.

So we need not just to become more aware of our values, we also need to work towards actualising our values.

In the workshop on Saturday, straight after participants had selected a few cherished values, we then looked at how they could bring these values into their lives more. That's where the "value time" idea came up - when you devote 5 minutes a day to one value.

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.” — Lucius  Seneca

That's one justification for values clarification - values provide a compass to steer your life.

The evidence comes from packages which includes values clarification as an element - ACT and certain forms of Behavioural Activation, which have both been found to help with depression.

Of course clarifying your values can sometimes be uncomfortable if you realise that you aren't satisfying them very much. The existentialists had a phrase for this - existential guilt.  Although it may be uncomfortable, it can motivate you to change.

So, remember, when you clarify your values, don't forget to take action as well. 


Sunday, February 02, 2020

Philosophical Life Coaching - 4 key take-home messages

Thanks to a fantastic group who helped yesterday’s Philosophical Life Coaching Session City Lit London yesterday be so special. Here are 4 key take-home messages.
  1. Clarify your values.
    This fun exercise only takes 2 minutes.
    Reflect on one of your best days.
    Then pick out 3 reasons why it was so special.
    These 3 reasons are likely to be amongst your most cherished values.

One of my best days was a few years back on Holy Island off Arran in Scotland. My daughter and I walked around this peaceful oasis enjoying the serenity, unusual wildlife and the spiritual setting.
It’s enjoyable just to reflect on the day. When I come to think about the values of that day, I realise that connection (with my daughter and with nature), calmness and a sense of meaning away from the madding crowd are all cherished values for me.

    For more ways to clarify your values, 

2. You have coffee time, why not Value Time?
VALUE TIME is 5 minutes in your day to thinking about and working towards a cherished value. Set an alarm on your phone so it happens today.

3.Do you ever envy a comic book hero like Superman or Wonder Woman? 
The good news is you already have a superpower.

It’s your mind, your potential to be rational and wise.
Use your superpower today.
4.Understand the difference between what you can’t change and what you can.
You can’t change the past or other people. Accept them.
You can change your attitude and what you do. Focus on what you can change.
The next day of philosophy with me is at City Lit in central London is Saturday March 28th 2020
Hope to see you there.

Superhero picture: Thanks to Thibault fr [CC BY-SA (]

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Favourite Personal Development, Philosophy & Psychology Books and Podcasts 2019

It's always good to hear what other people are reading that's relevant to become a satisfied Socrates, living happily and wisely. 
Here's what I read and listened to and found particularly enlightening in 2019.  

Please feel free to share your highlights from this list or your own favourite personal development reads of last year in the comments.

1. Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

2. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body

3. Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder 

4. The Spinoza Problem by Irvin Yalom

5 In the Habit: Introduction to Changing our Behaviour. Ash Ranpura and Alice Fraser (favourite podcast of the year)

6.Lessons in Stoicism: What Ancient Philosophers Teach Us about How to Live  by  John Sellars

7. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by  Donald Robertson

8. Live Like a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez

10. .Buddhism for Busy People by David Michie


    12. Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood

Thursday, January 02, 2020

How to set SMART+ Goals for a successful 2020

Yesterday I argued that setting New Year's Resolutions was not such a good idea. In fact, I said that you'd have to be NUTS to rely on them.  Today I will describe a much smarter approach to personal growth.  It's based on the SMART+ framework I first introduced in Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology.
Q: I've heard of SMART goals. Are you saying this approach is an improvement on that?
A: That's right. The goal-setting literature endorses the SMART framework, but  proposes 4. more key tips for effective goal-setting.
Q: I do remember hearing about SMART goals on a training I did a while ago, but can you just remind me what SMART stands for please?
A: Sure - SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound (and, sometimes, timely)
SMART Goal Setting

For example, suppose you start with a vague goal  of wanting to get fitter The problem is this goal doesn't say anything about how you will do it. By making is SMART, you know you will go jogging each day, you have adapted the goal to make sure you have time for it to be achievable, and you will know whether you achieved it.
Q: Great - hard to see how it could be improved!
A: Well, Edwin Locke and other researchers would argue that you can do better. Many people frame goals negatively - saying things like "I don't want to be lazy" or "I don't want to sit on the couch all day"
Q: What's wrong with that?
A: A couple of things. First of all it doesn't tell you what you should be doing
Q:  I see. So I could achieve not sitting on a couch  by lying in bed!  You said there was another  problem with negatively framed goals?
A: Try not to  think of  pink elephant" for 30 seconds
Q:  OK - no , a pink elephant keeps popping into my brain!  Are you suggesting that telling our brains not to do may be similarly counterproductive?
A: Yes  If I tell myself to not sit on a couch, I am actually more likely to think about sitting on a couch and  may be more rather than less likely to do it
Q: OK, but actually I already have  myself a positive goal -remember - it is to job every day this month, jogging more at the weekends. What's wrong with that?
A: It's perfectly fine, and can be better still if you label your progress as you go along. L stands for labelling progress. A smart goal is measurable, but research suggests its usually helpful to label progress as you go along.
Q: So that I know how I am doing and  I feel a sense of achievement?
A: Exactly. Its also been shown that people who write down their progress are significantly more likely to achieve their goals. 
Q: OK, so I will write down how much jogging I do each day. Easy. What's next?
A:The  U  of PLUS stands for having an unwavering commitment towards the goal. That's the problem with many New Year's Resolutions. They are things we would like to achieve, but are often more of an aspiration, something we hope will just happen,  than a commitment.
Q: So I need to be really committed to the goal. How can I make that happen?
A: Well, there are several ways. One is to tell other people, another is to remind yourself of why it is important. The same study that found that writing down goals helped people achieved discovered a similar positive effect of telling other people about your goals and sending them progress reports. These are types of  "commitment devices".
Q: What is a commitment device?
A: It's an artificial yet often effective may of making sure you stick to your goal. It could be giving money to charity every time you don't go for a run, for example. People have come up with some quite creative commitment devices such as posting something embarrassing on social media if they don't carry out the step towards their goal.
Q: Hmm. Not sure about that. But perhaps I will go running with a pal, would that count?
A: Yes, as long as you don't want to let them down.
Q: I don't want to let them down, so I will go running with a friend on days when they can make it, and we can both keep each other accountable for our progress.
A: Great, sounds like your going to have an accountability partner, which is a great way to increase commitment to your goal.
Q:What does the final S in PLUS stand for?
A: S is for stretching. Research has found that people feel more motivated and obtain  more sense of accomplishment if the goal hits the sweet spot between it being too easy and too difficult.
Q: I guess it wouldn't be a very useful goal if I said I was going to talk to the station each day, if I do it anyway!
A: Exactly,  so might set yourself a target time to walk to the station. Or, with our jogging example, you could increase the amount of time you run each week. Or work towards running a 5K. Let's summarise your SMART+ goal.

Smart+ Goal Setting

A: Yes,  you know are working towards something quite challenging yet meaningful - the 5K run - and are also now going to record things and get a pal to run with you and to share progress with. Do you think SMART+ makes a difference?
Q: Yes, I feel more motivated and also more confident I will reach my goal. This will be me  in March on my 5K with my pal!

A: Glad you found it helpful. You can do it.  Let me know how you get on ... And for everyone else, use the comments section to tell us how moving from SMART to SMART+ can help you. Hope it helps all readers have a successful 2020.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Thinking about setting some New Year's Resolutions? You must be NUTS ...

It was the first day back in the office after the Xmas break and two young men were earnestly discussing their New Year's Resolutions.

"I'm going to give up drinking", proclaimed the first confidently. "I was completely wrecked after New Year. I think my body may be trying to tell me something..."
"I'm going to go jogging every day" chimed in the second. "I went for a short run last night and felt so much better for it. From now on I'll do that every evening."

This solemn exchange of pledges was interrupted by a booming Irish voice.

"I'll give both your resolutions about a week at most". His voice trailed off into a gentle laugh. This elder statesman spoke not with malice but from the wisdom of bitter (and lager) experience.

Of course he was right. And friends, I know, because (many years ago) I was that (would-be) jogger. The three of us went out drinking that very night, putting paid to 2 resolutions in one fell swoop.

I don't imagine my experience is all that unusual. In general, New Year's Resolutions don't last very long. Although I'm a great believer in personal growth, I'm a sceptic when it comes to the value of making New Year's resolutions.

I don't want to cause offence, but I'd go further and say that New Year's Resolutions are not at all smart but are, quite literally, NUTS.Let me explain ...

Why I think New Year's Resolutions are nuts …
More often that not, New Year's Resolutions are about what you are going to stop doing. "I will stop drinking/smoking/over-eating/gambling ... (- fill in your own personal bad habit)" Why is saying what you are going to stop doing something a problem? Do you remember that old yarn about the little boy who was told he would get a present so long as he didn't think of a pink elephant in the next minute? Its a bit like that. Having a resolution not to do something makes you more, not less, likely to think of it. And if this something tempting - like eating a biscuit , or going for a drink - then having it brought to mind is not such a good idea. It's much better to frame a resolution in terms of something positive (what you want to do instead or what benefits it will bring). For example, don't resolve to stop eating cream cakes – resolve to be able to fit into those trousers again.

In this one respect my resolution to go jogging was better than my friends resolution to stop drinking. The trouble with my resolution though -and most other New Year's resolutions - was that it was totally 
UNREALISTIC. How likely is it that someone who has not jogged 364 days out of the last 365 is suddenly going to jog every night? Just as old habits die hard, new one's take a lot of effort to cultivate. Moreover there is sound psychological evidence to back up the claim that making a one-off resolution, however sincere, is on its own unlikely to succeed. The gold standard here is Prochaska, Norcross & DiClemente's "stages of change " model In their book, Changing for Good, which applies to addicts trying to overcome drinking or smoking addictions as much New Year's resolution, they says that typically you have to pass through 6 stages to make a successful change. If you are interested in their model, then I strongly recommend buying their book or visiting this web page where I describe the stages of change, how to recognise them, and how to move on to the next stage. The point that's relevant here is that a New Year's resolution squashes the whole change process into one resolution - omitting stage 2, contemplation, when you weigh up all the pros and cons, stage 3, preparation , when you where you break up the change into small, manageable steps and make an action plan and stage 5, maintenance, when, for example, you avoid places and people that can compromise the change. Trying to short-cut the change process into one annual resolution is an unrealistic as thinking you can win an Olympic medal by doing one day's training.

T stands for TIMELESS. Most effective goals are timebound. It's much better to resolve not to eat a cream cake today, than to not eat one all year. It makes the resolution more urgent and at the same time more achievable. It's not for nothing that Alcoholics Anonymous famously recommends that you proceed one day at a time. Another problem with timeless resolutions is the consequence of a relapse. Relapse is common in any change, but if your resolution is to quit forever, or to go jogging everyday then if you miss a day , it's easy to see that as failure and give in for another year . "Bang goes that New years resolution."
My final reason for arguing that New Year's Resolutions are NUTS is because they are too SAINTLY. When we make New Year's Resolutions we are often speaking on behalf of some imaginary, more saintly version of ourselves. That's why resolutions are often so extreme. For example, I didn't really need to go jogging every day - once a week would have been a good start. My friend (who was by no means an alcoholic) did not need to give up drinking altogether – a regime of 2 nights going out with friends a week would have been fine. Misguided saintliness doesn't just make resolutions unrealistic, it can also increase resistance to them. We subconsciously realise that resolutions are too extreme, so we take pleasure in breaking them. Go on – admit it – last time you broke a (too saintly) resolution, I bet you took some pride in breaking it.

So should I just resolve not to make any New Year's Resolutions?

The last thing I want to be is a personal development grinch. I certainly don't want to discourage you from making improvements to your life But my hunch is that on the whole New Years Resolutions contribute to the cynicism one finds in our culture about personal development, and we would be better off without them.

So what's my advice? If you want to make a big change, then read about the stages of change model and begin to put it into practice. But there are often better ways to effective personal development than revolutionary changes. In my next article, I will share with you my own SMART+ goal-setting framework which I apply every New Year. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

How to be a Stoic after Stoic Week

Stoicism appeals to many people. We now have a lot of evidence that it helps people in very many ways. So how do you become more Stoic? These ideas came from people who had done Stoic Week - could some of them help you?

  • Daily Stoic Meditation (specifically the morning and evening Meditations)
  • Read the main original Stoic texts
  • Do Stoic Week again on my own initiative
  • Speak to partner and friends about Stoicism
  • Watch You tube videos or podcasts about Stoicism regularly
  • Daily reflection and/or journaling of my progress in Stoicism
  • Focus on specific aspects of Stoicism such as the virtues and the dichotomy of control
  • Use the self-monitoring sheet from Stoic Week
  • Download the audios from Stoic Week and listen to them
  • Read modern books on Stoicism
  • Practice the ‘sage on my shoulder’ technique regularly
  • Do the View from Above meditation and reflect on our place in the universe
  • Set reminders (e.g. on phone) to do my Stoic Practice and of key Stoic teachings (daily or weekly)
  • Set aside time for regular practice, prioritise it
  • See a Stoic Life Coach
For more information on Stoic Week, see