What Are Your Strengths–And How Can You Use Them More?

Disengaged at work? Not energized and thriving in your life? It’s all too common.

What’s going on? It could be that you’re not using your strengths—the things you’re good at—regularly.

Are you focused on fixing your weaknesses instead of leveraging your strengths? Maybe you’re engaged in tasks you’d rather avoid, such as those that bore you or challenge your confidence. Do you keep doing something even when others excel in that task and you don’t? Meanwhile, it just drains you.

This is a recipe for frustration and failure. A better approach: actively shape your work and life to align with your strengths.

 

What’s a Strength?

Strengths are the things at which you most excel.

Knowledge, skills, and talents are the foundational components of strengths. Their development is influenced by additional factors, including practice, coaching, repetition, and feedback. Through consistent repetition and targeted guidance, coupled with feedback on your performance, you can significantly enhance your capabilities.

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.

 

The Advantages of Knowing and Using Your Strengths

Researchers highlight significant advantages associated with understanding and leveraging your strengths. For instance, doing so can:

  • Bolster your confidence
  • Elevate your motivation and engagement levels
  • Enhance productivity
  • Clarify your pathways to success
  • Facilitate goal achievement
  • Foster greater happiness and fulfillment
  • Help prevent burnout

Having a coach can help, since you probably have some strengths you’re not aware of. (When you’re good at something, you often assume others have no problem with it as well.) A coach can also help you figure out ways to develop and use your strengths more effectively.

 

Strengths Search: A New Tool for Identifying Your Strengths

Instead of sitting around trying to think of your strengths, you can take a strengths assessment to help you with this process. My new Strengths Search tool prompts you to do the following:

  • Choose from a list of dozens of potential strengths (and add any that may be missing).
  • Determine your three to five core strengths. Ideally, place them in order, or at least identify your top strength.
  • Describe each of your core strengths so you have a clearer picture of it.
  • Consider the extent to which you’re using (or not using) your core strengths at work, home, and beyond.
  • Brainstorm ways you could use your core strengths more.
  • Determine what specific actions you’ll take to start using your core strengths more.
  • If you wish, ask people who know you very well and ask them to share their perspective on your strengths. (The tool has this input and sharing process built in to its functionality.) This process of identifying your strengths works best when you discuss it openly with friends and trusted colleagues.

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.

 

How You Can Leverage Strengths as a Leader

Strengths are highly relevant if you’re a leader. They can be a catalyst for high performance. How? Four ways.

First, leaders should actively identify and employ their own strengths in their work.

Second, they ought to scrutinize strengths during personnel selection, advancement decisions, and the structuring of job roles and teams. A team should be well-rounded and have people with complementary strengths.

Third, leaders should ensure that all team members are using their strengths as much as possible.

Fourth, leaders should develop the strengths of everybody on the team, including themselves.

 

Conclusion

By identifying your strengths and integrating them more into your life and work, you can experience heightened engagement, vitality, and success. Imagine channeling these strengths towards a higher purpose, leveraging them to serve others. The possibilities are enticing and powerful.

Wishing you well with it.
Gregg

 

 

 

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What are your core strengths?
  2. How often are you using your core strengths at work, at home, and beyond?
  3. How could you use your core strengths more?

 

Tools for You

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.

 

Related Articles

 

Additional Resources

  • Patrick Lencioni, The 6 Types of Working Genius: A Better Way to Understand Your Gifts, Your Frustrations, and Your Team
  • Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (including an online assessment)
  • Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld, Living Your Strengths
  • Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work
  • Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (including an online assessment for a personalized leadership guide)
  • Clifton Strengths Assessment
  • VIA Survey of Character Strengths

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Strengths

  • “Liberating and expressing your natural genius is your ultimate path to success and life satisfaction.” -Gay Hendricks, psychologist and author
  • “The man who is born with a talent which he was meant to use finds his greatest happiness in using it.” -Johann Wolfgang Goethe, German poet, novelist, and scientist
  • “A leader needs to know his strengths as a carpenter knows his tools, or as a physician knows the instruments at her disposal. What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths—and can call on the right strengths at the right time.” -Dr. Donald Clifton, psychologist and researcher
  • “I’ve never met an effective leader who wasn’t aware of his talents and working to sharpen them.” -Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander
  • “While there are many good levers for engaging people and driving performance… the master lever is getting each person to play to his strength. Pull this lever and an engaged and productive team will be the result. Fail to pull it and no matter what else is done to motivate the team, it’ll never fully engage.” -Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

This Is How to Stop Being a Victim: 18 Practices

Why me? Why can’t I ever catch a break?

If you’re in the habit of asking such questions, it’s a sign you may have a victim mentality. When you’re playing the victim, you believe that bad things you experience are the fault of others.

What’s more, you believe those bad things will keep happening, so there’s no point in changing. It feels like the world is against you.

There’s a difference between being a victim of real hardships (e.g., poverty, disease, trauma) and having a victim mentality. (1) With a victim mentality, you believe not only that you’re a victim of negative circumstances but also that you’re helpless in the face of them.

Such thinking may provide some psychic relief, at least in the short term. But what you’re really doing with this kind of thinking is sabotaging yourself.

A victim mentality is not only a problem for individuals, according to researchers. Groups and teams can also fall into this trap. That damages the culture, so leaders need to monitor and address this problem early and often.

Having a victim mentality comes with a substantial price. For example, it can:

  • drain your energy
  • bring frustration, anger, resentment, and bitterness
  • result in giving up and feeling self-pity
  • diminish your sense of agency
  • lead to withdrawing from friends, family, and colleagues
  • stop you from taking necessary actions
  • damage your mental and emotional wellbeing
  • be a gateway to other maladaptive behaviors, including numbing behaviors like abusing alcohol or drugs
  • become a vicious cycle, with poor responses to tough situations, inviting more problems and then ultimately feeling worthlessness and pointlessness

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Stop Being a Victim: 18 Practices

According to psychologists, victimhood is an acquired trait, not inborn. That means you have the power to overcome it.

Here are 18 ways to stop being a victim:

1. Avoid wallowing in negative emotions. Dark and gloomy feelings are natural, even universal. But that doesn’t mean you have to dwell on them. Catch yourself tuning into negative feelings and resolve to change the channel when you do so.

2. Change your self-talk. Analyze and question your beliefs. Dispute the idea that you’re a helpless victim. For example, ask whether your identity as a victim is true. Ask whether your current beliefs are useful or harmful. Then act accordingly.

3. Don’t ruminate on your problems. Focus instead on something more positive (e.g., what you’ve learned or what you’re looking forward to). (See my article, “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying.”)

4. Recognize the patterns of when you lapse into victimhood. Be wary of those people or things and devise ways to avoid or address them. Recall the kinds of things that help you stop these downward spirals.

5. Develop a healthy view of yourself and your capabilities. Build your confidence by preparing well for challenges or big projects. Focus on learning and developing as you go.

6. Recall situations in which you’ve overcome adversity. You may be more resilient than you think.

7. Take an inventory of your strengths. Know what you’re good at—the things at which you excel most. Brainstorm how you can use your strengths to address challenges you’re facing. (See my article, “The Power of Knowing and Using Our Strengths.”)

8. Distinguish between yourself and your negative experiences. You are not what’s happened to you. Don’t assume the identity of a victim. Believe that you have the power to overcome your circumstances.

“I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
-Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

9. Realize that you always have agency. Yes, life is sometimes unfair. It comes with pain, loss, and heartache. But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless in the face of hardship.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

10. Change who you spend time with. Avoid people who wallow in victimhood. Spend more time with positive people who take responsibility and proactively address problems as they arise.

11. Recognize that having a victim mentality is a form of self-sabotage. Resolve to transcend this thing that’s only prolonging your misery and holding you back.

12. Make a clear and firm decision to let go of the victim mentality. Why not choose to be happy and thrive instead?

13. Forgive. Forgive people who have harmed you—if not for them, for you. Maya Angelou called forgiveness “one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.” And forgive yourself as well for past mistakes. Make peace with your past.

14. Take responsibility for your whole life and everything in it. That means everything, including the things that are unjust or unfair. (See my article, “The Power of Taking Full Responsibility for Your Life.”)

15. Be kind to others and find ways to serve them. By doing so, you’ll escape an unhealthy fixation on yourself and your dramas. The fixation feeds the victim mentality, while service starves it.

16. Engage in daily self-care practices. Create systems for this, make it easy, and develop good habits. That should include exercise, good sleep and healthy eating habits, and perhaps other practices like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing.

17. Develop a gratitude practice. This will interrupt your negative thought loops and place your feelings of self-pity in a larger and more accurate perspective. (See my article,The Trap of Not Being Grateful.”) When you focus on the good things in your life, it’s hard to feel like a victim.

18. Seek help from a therapist, counselor, or support hotline when needed. Options include:

Wishing you well with it.

Gregg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on How to Stop Being a Victim

  • “Whatever has happened to you in your past has no power over this present moment, because life is now.” -Oprah Winfrey, media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author
  • “Once you have identified with some form of negativity, you do not want to let go, and on a deeply unconscious level, you do not want positive change. It would threaten your identity…. You will then ignore, deny, or sabotage the positive in your life.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “…what helps victims best is the development of a healthier self-concept.” -Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”
  • “If it’s never our fault, we can’t take responsibility for it. If we can’t take responsibility for it, we’ll always be its victim.” -Richard Bach, writer
  • “…an individual’s sense of personal control determines his fate.” -Dr. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
  • “Most people are in love with their particular life drama. Their story is their identity. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “The difference between the hero and the victim is the way they react to the pain they experience.” -Donald Miller, business executive and author
  • “…even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor
  • “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” -Napoleon Hill, author
  • “Constructive action is the opposite of victimized brooding.” -Dr. Robert W. Firestone, clinical psychologist
  • “…people suffering from the victim syndrome are prone to aggravate the mess in which they find themselves. Strange as it may sound, they are often victims by choice. And ironically, they are frequently successful in finding willing victimizers.” -Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, “Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?”
  • “A victim identity is the belief that the past is more powerful than the present, which is the opposite of the truth.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” -Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor

(1) If you’ve experienced trauma or abuse, try to disclose it as early as possible to trusted family members, friends, or trained professionals. That can lead to more support and quicker processing and healing.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

This Is How to Develop Focus: 20 Approaches

It feels like the world is dead-set against our focus these days. Are you bombarded with digital distractions? Are there near-constant requests for your attention?

Do you feel overloaded? Does your concentration feel fragmented? Find yourself checking your phone constantly?

These aren’t just annoyances. They can become a disaster for your productivity and quality of life.

 

Focus and Leadership

According to a survey of more than 35,000 leaders in more than 100 countries, 73% reported feeling distracted from their current task some or most of the time, and 67% described their minds as cluttered.

Nearly all the leaders surveyed (a whopping 96%) reported that enhanced focus would be valuable or extremely valuable to them. The researchers concluded:

The ability to apply a calm, clear focus to the right tasks… is the key to exceptional results….
we have observed a direct correlation between a person’s focus level and their career advancement.”

-Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter*

 

Struggling with Focus?

Here are some signs that you may be struggling to focus: You’re reading something but not absorbing it. Maybe you’re listening to people but you’re not taking their words in. You zone out in meetings. You’re jumping from task to task, and not making considerable progress on your priorities.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Benefits of Focus

There are many benefits when you cultivate the ability to focus. When you’re focusing properly, you: make better decisions, manage your time more effectively, feel less stress, remain calm under pressure, and have better work quality. What’s more, you’re more creative and productive.

 

How to Develop Focus: 20 Approaches

How can you develop your focus? Here are 24 actionable approaches:

 

1. Observe your daily rhythms. Notice your best and worst times for focused work. Track your energy levels at different times and on different tasks. Then design your work and schedule to capture your greatest attention and energy.

 

2. Take regular breaks. Your brain can’t focus all the time. You need to toggle between focus and rest. (When you do so, you’re able to focus much better when you return from rest, according to the research.)

 

3. Practice self-care. Develop good sleep habits (regular bedtimes, caffeine and device curfews, etc.), eating and hydration habits, and exercise habits.

 

4. Minimize interruptions and eliminate distractions. For example, turn off smartphone notifications and place your phone outside the room when working.

 

5. Develop simple rules to maximize time in deep work. For example, don’t check email before noon (or another time that works for you).

 

6. Focus on one task at a time and avoid frequent task-switching. When you switch tasks, you waste time regrouping and trying to recover your focus. Be more disciplined in doing one thing at a time.

 

7. Design your work for “flow.” According to researchers, flow is a state of deep concentration and absorption—a state of almost effortless attention and peak performance. (See my article, “Designing Your Work for Flow.”)

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

8. Practice doing things that require concentration. For example, read books or play games that require focus.

 

9. Engage in deep breathing and practice meditation. With meditation, you can train your mind to become more present, focused, and still, and you can enhance your concentration. It can help you train your attention and awareness, helping you feel calm and clear in the process. It’s a means of quieting and focusing—and refocusing—your mind. (See my article, “Why We Need Meditation and Mindfulness Now More than Ever.”)

 

10. Reduce anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk.

 

11. Get very clear on what’s most important so you can direct your efforts toward that.

 

12. Determine which tasks will contribute the most toward your most important aims.

 

13. Clear the decks so you can focus on your most essential task for extended periods.

 

14. Reduce or eliminate non-essential tasks. Consider using a “stop doing list” or a “drop list.”

 

15. Schedule your most important tasks and give them deadlines. (Tip: Be generous in the amount of time allotted for completion. We tend to underestimate the time it will take, generating stress in the process.)

 

16. Learn to say “no” more often and more easily, especially to things that don’t fit with your top priorities.**

 

17. Systematically measure your progress on your most important tasks. Tracking progress helps you maintain attention.

 

18. Stop focusing so much on results and focus more on deep engagement with the process of doing things that matter. For example, focus more on the strategies you can adopt for healthy living and focus less on your target weight.

 

19. Experiment with different schedules that help you focus better. For example, try themed days, such as a Monday planning day, Tuesday prospecting day, Wednesday writing day, etc. (or half-days).

 

20. Make a “Done for the Day” list each morning—a list of what would constitute essential progress and that’s reasonable for a single day.***

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Tools that Help with Focus

Beyond the approaches noted above, here are three tools and frameworks that can help with focus:

1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to your long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

2. Ivy Lee Method: give yourself no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until you’ve completed the current one.

3. Brian Tracy’s “Eat the Frog” method: identify one challenging and important task (the metaphorical frog) and complete it first thing in the morning. The logic:

“The hardest part of any important task is getting started on it in the first place. Once you actually begin work on a valuable task, you seem to be naturally motivated to continue…. The most valuable tasks you can do each day are often the hardest and most complex. But the payoff and rewards for completing these tasks efficiently can be tremendous.”
-Brian Tracy, Canadian-American author and speaker

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you struggling with focus?
  2. How is it affecting you?
  3. Which approaches work best for you?
  4. Which new ones will you try, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Recommended Books

“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. The few who cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life will thrive…. Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”
-Cal Newport, Deep Work

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Focus

  • “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” -Alexander Graham Bell, scientist, engineer, and inventor
  • “If there is any one secret of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.” -Peter Drucker, consultant, author, and expert on management and innovation
  • “Learn to master your attention, and you will be in command of where you, and your organization, focus.” -Daniel Goleman, psychologist and expert on emotional intelligence
  • “Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives.” -Tony Robbins, author, entrepreneur, and philanthropist

 

References

* Source: Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, “Are You Having Trouble Focusing? These Simple Strategies Will Help,” Harvard Business Blogs, December 26, 2017.

** Author Gregory McKeown suggests saying “yes” only to the top 10% of opportunities you encounter, in part by using rigorous criteria for giving assent, such as whether the opportunity is exactly what you’re looking for. If it’s not a clear “yes,” then it should be a clear “no.”

*** Source: Gregory McKeown, Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most (Crown Currency, 2021).

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

+++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

This Is How to Be More Decisive: 20 Practices

To live and lead well, we must be decisive. While this may come naturally for some, many people struggle with it for a variety of reasons.

In our lives, what price do we pay when we’re stuck in “analysis paralysis” and unclear about how to move forward in the face of our options? In our organizations, do we want leaders who waffle, or ones who move forward despite uncertainty?

There’s a lot going on when it comes to making decisions. The neurological mechanics are breathtaking. When we make decisions, we’re using our brain’s prefrontal cortex for what’s called “executive function.” We’re drawing upon many cognitive processes, including: attentional control; working memory; cognitive inhibition and flexibility; reasoning; problem-solving; differentiation between conflicting thoughts; value determinations (e.g., is it good, bad, better, best, worse, worst?); prediction of outcomes; and more.

It’s no wonder so many people struggle with indecisiveness—wavering between different courses of action and having trouble choosing and moving forward.

The challenge of making decisions in organizations can be daunting given all the complexity. According to a McKinsey & Company Global Survey, only a fifth of workers reported that their organizations excel at decision making. Meanwhile, a majority report that much of the time they devote to decision making is used ineffectively.

Clearly, there’s much room for improvement on this front.

Indecisiveness can have painful consequences. For example, it can make a difficult situation worse, impede important progress, create delays (leading to new problems), cause frustration, and reduce our effectiveness, not to mention our credibility.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Be More Decisive: 20 Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to improve our decisiveness. It’s a skill we can learn and develop. Here are 20 practices:

1. Get clearer about what we want—including clarity about our purpose, values, and vision, and goals.

2. Build our confidence (the right kind). True confidence, and not false arrogance, is earned through hard work and disciplined attention to growth and development.

3. Develop systems to make as many decisions as possible habitual, routine, or automatic. For example, have a regular workout routine at a certain time on certain days. This helps us avoid decision fatigue and frees up our cognitive resources for other choices.

4. Increase our self-awareness. By doing so, we can get a clearer sense of the conditions in which we work and decide best (and worst).

5. Recall that most decisions involve uncertainty, which invites anxiety. Learn to expect and account for that.

6. Develop mechanisms for coping with stress and anxiety, because they can fuel indecisiveness.

7. Recognize the difference between fear and actual danger. Our fears are often exaggerated compared to the actual dangers we face. Due to our evolutionary biology and the historical importance of focusing urgently on threats, our minds get carried away with worst-case scenarios.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

8. Note that being decisive isn’t about always being right. Instead, it’s about being able to make decisions—even tough ones—quickly and confidently despite uncertainty.

9. Distinguish between irreversible and reversible decisions. This will help us determine situations in which we need a lot more information and ones in which we can act quickly and make adjustments later, if need be, without too much of a downside. (1)

10. Understand why we avoid making decisions. Common reasons include fear, excessive risk aversion, decision fatigue, prior conditioning, and perfectionism.

11. Start small and make less consequential decisions more quickly at first, building from there to bigger decisions.

12. Divide bigger decisions into smaller ones (or a series of steps) that are more manageable.

13. Practice making decisions more quickly and more boldly—and then take stock of how things turn out. Keep a record of decision-making duration, results, and how often things went better or worse than or as expected.

14. Summon more urgency into our lives. Remember that time is precious. Recall that wasted time is a common regret. Urgency helps us avoid stagnation. It propels us forward, especially if we have a compelling vision we’re on fire about.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

15. Set deadlines for making decisions. Without deadlines, we risk having decisions keep slipping further into the future, often for no good reason. Deadlines can be helpful forcing mechanisms.

16. As the saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Look for the point where we have enough information to make a reasonable, informed decision instead of waiting until we have nearly all the possible inputs. Focus on pursuing learning and growth, not perfection.

17. Recognize that we can’t be right all the time, and that’s okay. More often than not, delay and inaction are bigger problems than being wrong.

18. Employ the “only option test.” First, imagine that only one of the two options we’re facing was possible and then see how it feels. Then, imagine that the other option was the only possible one and see how it feels. Next, consider whether both options are good and it doesn’t matter too much which we choose. (2)

19. Focus on the most important decisions and don’t get caught up in the rest. Delegate some decisions to others.

20. Sleep on important decisions, or pray about them. When we do so, we summon our deeper wisdom and grace.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent is indecisiveness causing you problems, and in which areas?
  2. What will you do, starting today, to become more decisive?

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Articles and Resources

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Decisiveness

  • “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” -Theodore Roosevelt, conservationist, naturalist, writer, statesman, and former U.S. president
  • “Indecision is the greatest thief of opportunity.” -Jim Rohn, entrepreneur and author
  • “Indecisiveness is the number one reason for failure. Lack of ability to make a decision in a timely manner causes most people to fail with their projects and plans.” -Farshad Asl, business executive and author
  • “Be decisive. A wrong decision is generally less disastrous than indecision.” -Bernhard Langer

(1) In a letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos distinguished between one-way doors, where there’s no going back, and two-way doors in which we can simply “reopen the door and go back through.” He noted that too many big companies use one-size-fits-all decision making, treating all decisions like one-way doors, In the process, they slow things down, even when speed is imperative.

(2) Source: Erin Bunch, “Decisiveness Is a Learned Trait—Here Are 11 Tips To Master the Art of Decision-Making,” Well and Good, March 22, 2021.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Set Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Many people struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries. It requires knowing their preferences and breaking points. It means being willing to assert their desires and needs. This is hard for many people, either due to their upbringing or personality—or both.

There are many advantages that come with getting good at this. For example, it can help us protect our emotional wellbeing, grow as a person, develop greater self-respect and confidence, protect our time and energy, avoid burnout, earn respect from others, and prevent unnecessary relationship conflicts.

When we set boundaries, we’re helping others interact more effectively with us. Sometimes we’re setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. We’re getting clear on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

Boundaries help us function effectively. They allow us to enjoy our life and work while also giving us a sense of control over our lives.

When we don’t set and enforce boundaries properly and consistently, we’re more prone to anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We get overcommitted, perhaps falling into overwork, workaholism, exhaustion, or burnout.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to get better at this. Here are 14 proven practices for setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Recognize that setting and maintaining boundaries can benefit our lives greatly, including our work and our leadership. Given all the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. Also, it gets easier over time.

2. Realize that setting and enforcing boundaries is not just good for us but for everyone involved. Why? Because it creates clarity and generates mutual respect.

3. Avoid falling into the trap of overestimating the resistance that will come from setting boundaries. Our brains are good at generating fear and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as we fear when we get into worrying mode.

4. Stay focused on the higher purpose of setting boundaries instead of the down-side of the temporary awkwardness. When we set boundaries, it’s usually for a good and important reason such as protecting our wellbeing or reserving our time for our top priorities. In this light, it’s well worth a little temporary pain or awkwardness.

5. Evaluate our current boundaries to identify areas that need improvement. In particular, look for situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

6. Take an inventory of boundary crossings that have happened. Thinking about these instances, focus especially on the people, the situations, and how they make us feel.

7. Determine new boundaries that we want to set and recommit to or update old boundaries. Our core values and current goals and priorities should inform these decisions. If we’re new to setting boundaries or have struggled with it in the past, we’re wise to start small and build out from there.

8. Communicate boundaries clearly. Sometimes, the problem is that we’re expecting people to read our minds and just know our boundaries. It’s a recipe for frustration and failure. Sometimes, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I can’t help with that”). In other cases, we can leave it with a declaratory statement (“I can’t take that on”) or even just a simple “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

9. Be consistent in communicating and enforcing boundaries. This is key. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Without consistency, others are likely to get confused or forget, and that may take us back to square one. Better to do the hard work upfront and in the early stages until things start to take on a life of their own.

10. Develop our assertiveness, including getting better at saying “no” and saying it more often. We can focus on saying no to requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or advance our priorities. We can avoid spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, neediness, or narcissism. And we can decline opportunities or requests, so we don’t end up doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating things to others).

“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, chair and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

11. Be kind but firm. Ideally, we come across as thoughtful and considerate while still assertive and clear. Sometimes, a little humor helps.

12. Get clear about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. When we’ve done this inner work, it allows us to set and enforce boundaries.

13. Set boundaries on our work time. For example, we can set a maximum number of hours we’ll work each week. We can limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed. It helps to plan ahead—and be sure to identify and focus on our most important tasks.

14. Place boundaries around our emotional commitment to others. Boundaries aren’t just about our time. They’re also about the focus of our attention and emotions. It’s a trap to feel responsible for other people’s choices or their happiness or outcomes.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires reflection and course corrections. As we proceed with it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and when to make exceptions based on new information.

As we choose our boundaries, we should bear in mind that other people will make different choices about their boundaries. What works for us may not work for others. So, we should respect other people’s boundaries even as we fight for our own.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we get good at setting and enforcing boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we actually want to do and experience. By setting limits, we gain freedom. We free up our time and energy to live life on our terms.

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.
You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

-Anna Taylor, author

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Many of us have a hard time asking for help.

Maybe we pride ourselves on being independent. Self-sufficient. A Lone Ranger.

There’s value in being self-sufficient, but when we’re too proud to ask for help it can be costly. It can keep us stuck in hardship and delay our advances, or lead to overwork and burnout. And it can inhibit close relationships with family and friends.

“Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Asking for help is an important skill that can aid us in all our endeavors, from living and loving to leading and learning. We’re wise to get good at it.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Here are 10 things you can do to develop the useful skill of asking for help:

1. Notice that nobody succeeds without the help of others. Where would you be without the help of parents, teachers, coaches, teammates, colleagues, mentors, and friends?

2. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you’re committed to your goals and confident enough to show some vulnerability.

3. Realize that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing your frustration and suffering.

4. Understand that your fears about asking for help are misplaced. Even the worst-case scenario probably isn’t so bad. Perhaps the person refuses to help or can’t right now. Maybe you feel a bit awkward or disappointed for five seconds. So what?

5. Recall that most people like to help others. It makes them feel good to contribute. Think about how you felt when you were asked for help. (1)

“How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right?
Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?”

-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

6. Stop waiting so long to ask. Consider how much time you’ve already spent on the issue, whether it’s something you’re good at addressing, and whether there are better uses of your time and energy.

7. Trust others to set boundaries for themselves. They can always decline or chat further about the extent of help they may provide.

8. Tally the potential benefits of getting help. Maybe you’ll get fresh ideas or greater clarity about how to proceed. And in the process you may very well deepen your relationship with the person contributing.

9. Start small when trying this out and build from there. This will make it more manageable and less likely that you’ll abandon it.

10. Be open with others that it’s hard for you to ask for help, but you’re trying to get better. This will make it easier to ask when the time comes.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this: Ask for help. You need it more than you know.” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take

 

References

(1) According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science, “Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” (Source: Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.) There’s also research noting that helping others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. (Source: Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Knowing and Using Our Strengths

Many people are disengaged at work and not energized and thriving in their lives. One major reason is that they’re not using their strengths—the things they’re good at—regularly.

According to data from Gallup’s global client database, most people aren’t using their strengths every day at work. See the chart below.

Source: Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (Gallup Press).

Many of us are either working in areas of our weaknesses or focused on fixing our weaknesses instead of leveraging our strengths more in what we do. For example:

We’re doing things we’d rather avoid—perhaps things that bore us or make us feel weak or incompetent.
We keep trying things but don’t get traction on them and don’t seem to improve much.
We’re working on things even though we know others who are much better at them than we are.
We feel drained by the things we’re doing.

Could it be that we’re thinking about things the wrong way—focused on just doing what we’re told or what’s in front of us, or on shoring up our weaknesses to avoid looking bad, instead of actively crafting our work and activities in line with our strengths?

In their book, Living Your Strengths, Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld note the following:

“If you’re like most people, you have grown up with the ‘weakness prevention’ model. You’ve been told that to become strong, successful, or truly serve…you must ‘fix’ your weaknesses.…That thinking is just plain wrong.…
the evidence is overwhelming: You will be most successful in whatever you do by building your life around
your greatest natural abilities rather than your weaknesses.”

Enter strengths.

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.

 

What Is a Strength?

Strengths are the things at which we most excel. According to English consultant and author Marcus Buckingham, “Your strengths are those activities that make you feel strong.”

In Living Your Strengths, Winseman, Clifton, and Liesveld define it as follows: “A strength is the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity.” They conceive of a strength as a powerful, productive combination of innate talent, relevant knowledge, and skills.

“The fundamental building block of any strength is talent.
When you enhance a talent by adding the right skills and useful knowledge, you have created a strength.”

-Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld, Living Your Strengths

Let’s look at the three components of a strength in turn:

Talents, they write, “are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” Examples include a natural tendency to make people laugh, tune into others’ emotions, or thrive under pressure. These talents naturally exist within us as our inborn predispositions (unlike knowledge and skills). We do them instinctively and derive satisfaction in the process.

“The man who is born with a talent which he was meant to use finds his greatest happiness in using it.”
-Johann Wolfgang Goethe, German poet, novelist, and scientist

Knowledge is what we know—whether factual or experiential knowledge. We can acquire knowledge through various means, from reading and courses to conversations and challenges. Ideally, we have a learning mindset and continually look for new ideas and methods.

Skills, they note, “are the abilities to perform the steps of an activity.” Examples include preparing seminars, presentations, or lesson plans. When we focus on developing our skills, we can boost performance significantly.

Talents, knowledge, and skills are the fundamental building blocks of strengths, but there are other relevant factors that influence their development. Such other factors include practice, coaching, repetition, and feedback. When we do things repeatedly and get targeted guidance and feedback on how we’re doing, we can really amp up our performance.

In his book, Strengths Finder 2.0, consultant and author Tom Rath notes that there’s incredible room for growth when we focus on developing our natural talents. He says it’s not realistic to be anything we want to be, as the saying goes, but we can be a lot more of who we already are. By building on our innate talents and interests, we can make incredible strides and thrive.

 

The Benefits of Knowing and Using Our Strengths

There are tremendous benefits to knowing and using our strengths in our work and daily lives, according to researchers. For example, knowing and using our strengths can:

  • enhance our confidence and help us overcome self-doubt (and keep our negative self-talk in check)
  • boost our motivation and engagement dramatically (1)
  • increase our productivity
  • give us more clarity about how we’re likely to succeed
  • help us achieve our goals
  • set us up for more opportunities for advancement
  • make us happier and more fulfilled
  • help us avoid burnout
“Burnout doesn’t happen when you are working long hours on invigorating activities. Long hours may tire you out, but they rarely burn you out. But fill your weeks with the wrong kinds of activities, activities that weaken you,
and even regular activities will start to burn.”

-Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work

There’s also a flip side to this: there’s much lost when we don’t use our strengths. When we’re not operating in our strengths zone, according to Rath, we’re much more likely to be disengaged at work. We may even dread it. We’re more likely to have more negative interactions with colleagues, treat customers poorly, and achieve less.

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.

 

The Signs of a Strength

Unfortunately, we tend to take our strengths for granted. In some cases, they’re so much a part of our daily lives that they’ve become invisible to us. We’re not aware that others may struggle with the things that come easily to us because we’ve been swimming in our strengths for so long.

So, what are the signs of a strength? In his book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham identified four signs of a strength, using the acronym SIGN (Success, Instinct, Growth, Needs):

Success: the things we do that make us feel successful. We’ve received recognition or praise for these things.

Instinct: the things we find ourselves drawn to, even if we’re not sure why. We’d like to do them every day, and we may volunteer for them spontaneously.

Growth: the things that were simpler for us to pick up and develop over time. We don’t have to try very hard when we do them. Also, we stay focused on them naturally and lose track of time when doing them.

Needs: the things that fill an innate need of ours and that leave us feeling powerful, fulfilled, and restored instead of drained. We feel a need to do them, and they give us a lot of personal satisfaction.

In sum, our strengths make us feel successful, draw us to use them, are relatively easy for us to develop, and fill a need of ours. We also feel energized while using them.

 

Signature Strengths

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, writes about what he calls “signature strengths,” which he defines as “strengths of character that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently exercises.” They’re essential to who we are, and they tend to give us the following:

  • rapid learning curve as they’re first practiced
  • feeling of excitement while using them
  • sense of authenticity (“This is the real me”)
  • desire to learn or find new ways to use them
  • feeling of enthusiasm and invigoration rather than exhaustion while using them
  • desire to pursue projects that revolve around them

To determine our strengths, we can take assessments (see the resources at the end of this article), ask those who know us well (perhaps via a 360-Degree Assessment), and/or observe our own experiences and ask ourselves questions like the following:

When have I achieved success, and what strengths did I use in the process?
What things do others come to me for help with because I’m good at them?
How have I overcome significant challenges, and what strengths did I use in the process?

 

How to Leverage Our Strengths in Our Life and Work

Here are nine steps for leveraging our strengths effectively in our life and work:

  1. Know what our strengths are.
  2. Clarify how and when our strengths help us with our most important work.
  3. Measure how much time we’re using our strengths (e.g., over the past week).
  4. Set goals for how much time we’ll do so in the future (e.g., over the next week).
  5. Decide what actions we’ll take to use our strengths.
  6. Create a plan for how we’ll develop our top strengths further with new knowledge or skills.
  7. Determine what we’ll do to reduce the amount of time we’re working in areas of our weaknesses. (It may not be possible to eliminate it altogether.) An important caveat: though we should generally avoid working in areas of weakness for us, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore our weaknesses. Knowing our weaknesses can be valuable.
  8. Seek colleagues who have different strengths and who compensate for our weaknesses.
  9. Continually seek ways to leverage our strengths in service of worthy endeavors that we’re passionate about.

It may also be helpful to have a coach because we’re often blind to our strengths. Others can often see our strengths more clearly and help us figure out ways to develop and use them more effectively.

 

How Leaders Can Leverage Strengths for High Performance

Strengths are also relevant for leaders and organizations. They can be a powerful performance booster. To begin with, leaders should know and use their own strengths in their work.

“I’ve never met an effective leader who wasn’t aware of his talents and working to sharpen them.”
-Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander

Next, managers should pay close attention to strengths in people selection and advancement as well as in job and team design. The team overall should have a well rounded and complementary set of strengths. For example, a founding team in a startup can map out the skills of its current team members as well as the skills gaps it’s looking to fill with new hires. See the table below.

Third, leaders should ensure that all team members are using their strengths as much as possible.

“While there are many good levers for engaging people and driving performance… the master lever is getting each person to play to his strength. Pull this lever and an engaged and productive team will be the result.
Fail to pull it and no matter what else is done to motivate the team, it’ll never fully engage.”

-Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work

 Finally, leaders should invest in the development of the strengths of everyone on the team (including themselves).

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.

 

Conclusion

We’re all born with certain talents and interests, and we’re all drawn to certain activities and endeavors. If we can discover what we’re good at and build our life and work around those strengths, we can feel more engaged and energized, and we can thrive. And what if we applied our strengths toward a purpose or calling and used them to serve others in meaningful ways? That would be remarkable.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What are your core strengths?
  2. To what extent are you using your strengths (at work, home, etc.)?
  3. Are you using them every day?
  4. How could you use your strengths more?
  5. What will you do differently, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Strengths Search

We all have core strengths–the things in which we most excel. Take this self-assessment to determine your core strengths so you can integrate them more into your life and work.

 

Related Articles

 

Additional Resources

  • Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (including an online assessment)
  • Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld, Living Your Strengths
  • Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work
  • Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (including an online assessment for a personalized leadership guide)
  • Clifton Strengths Assessment
  • VIA Survey of Character Strengths

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Strengths

  • “Liberating and expressing your natural genius is your ultimate path to success and life satisfaction.” -Gay Hendricks, psychologist and author
  • “Herein is my formulation of the good life: Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to being abundant gratification and authentic happiness.” -Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness
  • “A leader needs to know his strengths as a carpenter knows his tools, or as a physician knows the instruments at her disposal. What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths—and can call on the right strengths at the right time.” -Dr. Donald Clifton, psychologist and researcher

(1) According to Tom Rath in StrengthsFinder 2.0, workers who can focus on their strengths every day are “six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.”

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Journaling: Benefits and Best Practices

We humans have been journaling, writing diaries, or otherwise writing down our thoughts, feelings, and experiences for centuries. It’s a practice that dates back to the ancients. And it’s a tool that’s been used by pilgrims, explorers, soldiers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and artists.

People journal for different reasons. Some people journal to engage in deeper reflection, while others do it to help manage stress or process difficult experiences. Some journal as a way to reinforce their strengths or accomplishments; others focus on gratitude. Many therapists, counselors, and coaches recommend journaling, and many teachers assign it in schools.

Those who journal are in excellent company. People known to have engaged in some form of journaling include: John Quincy Adams, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, Winston Churchill, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Joan Didion, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anne Frank, Benjamin Franklin, Arianna Huffington, Thomas Jefferson, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Martina Navratilova, Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Seneca, Susan Sontag, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington, Oscar Wilde, Oprah Winfrey, and Virginia Woolf.

“I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone,
and I hope you’ll be a great source of comfort and support.”
-Anne Frank’s first entry in her journal, 13th birthday, June 12, 1942
Anne Frank writing at her desk at school, 1940

Different Types of Journaling

There are different types of journaling. One common form is “expressive writing.” It involves writing continuously about an issue in our lives, including our deepest thoughts and feelings. According to James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth, authors of Opening Up by Writing It Down, it can include different variations, including writing about a problem we’re facing, journaling about our worries and concerns, or doing a word association around a certain word (e.g., “stress”).

Another common form is “gratitude journaling”: writing about positive experiences that we’re thankful for.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Benefits of Journaling

Hundreds of studies over several decades have documented an impressive array of benefits deriving from journaling. For example, it can help us:

  • discern the lessons and patterns of our experiences
  • understand our experiences and feelings in new ways
  • get a clearer sense of our progress over time
  • remember the good things we experience, which can otherwise be easy to forget
  • become more self-aware
  • boost our confidence
  • remain more mindful of our thoughts and feelings

Journaling also comes with a large number of mental and physical health benefits. For example, it can help us:

  • cope with stressful events
  • reduce anxiety
  • regulate our emotions and ease our distress when we’re struggling with difficult feelings
  • reduce the frequency of intrusive thoughts
  • improve our mood
  • enhance our psychological wellbeing
  • make sense of our personal history, of the events and experiences that have shaped us (1)
  • cultivate a greater sense of purpose and meaning
  • have a lower risk of depression

According to the research, journaling is associated with lowered blood pressure, better sleep, and fewer stress-related doctor visits and less time spent in the hospital. It’s also associated with improved function of our immune system, lungs, liver, and memory as well as reduced symptoms of chronic diseases. In addition, it can help with recovery from traumatic events, in part because it allows us to process our experiences and emotions.

Journaling can also benefit our brain and cognitive capacity.

“The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information… it promotes the brain’s attentive focus … boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain’s highest cognition.”
Judy Willis, board-certified neurologist and teacher

At work, journaling is associated with less work absenteeism and less time out of work following job loss. And at school, it’s associated with higher grades. Journaling can help us address many of the common traps of living, including overthinking, self-doubt, negative self-talk, drifting, settling, and more.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Journaling is not only inexpensive and straightforward to engage in but it also avoids the need for having people there to listen every time we want to get something off our chest. The pages are always there for us, and they never interrupt or misunderstand. As Anne Frank once wrote, “Paper has more patience than people.”

Benefits come not only from journaling itself but also from going back and reviewing what we’ve written some time later. This review process can help us recapture forgotten stories or experiences and see patterns.

Note that there can be downsides of journaling for some people—or of journaling in certain ways. For example, it’s not always a pleasant experience, since it sometimes involves dredging up painful feelings.

 

How to Journal: Best Practices

When it comes to how we should journal, there’s of course no single formula. Different people will approach journaling in different ways. The key is to find what works for us. Still, here are some tips:

Remember that journaling is for us and us alone, not for an audience. If we’re self-conscious as we write or concerned about judgment from others, it can reduce or eliminate the value of journaling.

Start small. For many, it’s best to begin with only a few minutes on a manageable topic (e.g., a recounting of the day or a single incident).

Try journaling in different ways. Try writing in a bound journal or spiral notebook. Or try using a digital writing app or voice recording app. (Note, though, that writing by hand comes with real benefits that can easily outweigh the slight loss of speed compared to typing or speaking.) Experiment and see what works.

Try different frequencies. There’s a debate about the ideal frequency of journaling. Some people swear by the practice of daily journaling, in part because it builds a healthy habit, while others warn against the monotony that can come from having a regular cadence. In the end, we should find out what works for us and do that.

Find a quiet and peaceful space without interruptions and distractions. Going deep into our thoughts and feelings requires focus and concentration.

Choose a time of day that works best—the time when our thoughts and reflections flow most naturally. Many people swear by morning journaling. Others prefer to wait until they feel inspired or troubled.

Be sure to include both feelings and thoughts. This helps us avoid unhealthy rumination and makes it more likely that we’ll see patterns and themes. Start with expressing feelings first and then move on to thoughts and thinking patterns.

Be forthright in expressing exactly how we feel without any editing or filtering.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
-William Wordsworth, English Romantic poet

Bear in mind that journaling may bring up painful feelings or some anxiety, and that’s okay. Feel free to take a break and come back to it later. Keep in mind the strong potential for long-term benefits if we stick with it.

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”
Natalie Goldberg, writer

Don’t get caught up in written rumination—in rehashing difficult things over and over. That can actually be counterproductive.

“One of the interesting problems of writing too much, especially if you’re going through a difficult a time, is that writing becomes more like rumination and that’s the last thing in the world you need.”
-Dr. James Pennebaker, social psychologist

Feel free to draw in the journal. We don’t have to limit ourselves only to text. But researchers advise against drawing only, as it can lead to worse moods.

Try journaling prompts, especially if we’re not sure where to begin. Examples: things that bring us joy, what we’re feeling or noticing right now, people who or places that make us feel the happiest, dreams we have about the future, or what deserves our best attention now.

“…one thing journaling has taught me is that the mind is a surprising place, and you often don’t know what it may be hiding until you start knocking around in there. In other words: Writing in your journal
is the only way to find out what you should be writing about.”
Hayley Phelan, “What’s All This About Journaling?” New York Times, October 25, 2018

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Journaling for Leaders

Many leaders have noted how journaling has helped them become a better leader and grow as a person. These days, many leaders are time-starved and deluged by inputs and information, so having a simple process that facilitates thinking, reflection, and analysis can be powerful.

Leaders can use journaling to process difficult events, think through important decisions, prepare themselves for upcoming challenges, vent their frustrations, or document their journey and see progress and patterns. And they can use it to reconnect with their inner voice when they’re flooded with outside inputs.

Journaling can help leaders be more mindful and present with their colleagues—and empathetic toward their struggles. It can also help them make better decisions and unearth important insights about vexing situations, including innovative ideas that may otherwise have been lost. Importantly, journaling can serve as a pressure valve that allows leaders to process difficult emotions and release some of the stress and pressure associated with the job. Finally, it can help steel them for tough battles ahead.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
-Anne Frank

 

Journaling for Creativity and Innovation

British entrepreneur Richard Branson keeps notebooks full of questions as part of his creative process. Journals can be a great tool for entrepreneurs to capture their ideas about new products and services to launch, based on observing customer problems and spotting market gaps.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, advocates a distinct form of journaling as a way to recover our creativity and reconnect with our own inner spiritual guide. With her “morning pages,” as she calls them, she advocates writing three pages of strictly stream-of-consciousness, longhand writing every morning—simply writing down whatever comes to mind, jumping from topic to topic, no matter how banal or bizarre—until the three pages are filled. She explains:

“Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included… Nobody is allowed to read your morning pages except you…. Morning pages are nonnegotiable. Never skip or skimp on morning pages. Your mood doesn’t matter…. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write, ‘I can’t think of anything to write.’”

 

Conclusion

With our busy lives and frenetic work schedules, journaling can be a great way to slow down and reflect, reawakening a rich inner life. There’s a reason so many different types of people have been doing it through the ages.

“How noble and good everyone could be if, at the end of each day, they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day and, after a while, would certainly accomplish a great deal. Everyone is welcome to this prescription; it costs nothing and is definitely useful.”
-Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you using journaling as a practice for personal development, emotional expression, gratitude, creativity, or leadership?
  2. If you’ve tried journaling before but not kept up with it, will you give it another try using some of the tips above?

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Journaling

  • “Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain.” -Jack London, novelist, journalist, and activist
  • “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” -Louis L’Amour, American novelist and short story writer
  • “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” -Ernest Hemingway, American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist
  • “Writing is medicine. It is an appropriate antidote to injury. It is an appropriate companion for any difficult change.” -Julia Cameron, American teacher, author, and artist
  • “Listen. The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish economist and diplomat

 

Resources on Journaling

  • Nancy J. Adler, Leadership Insight Journal
  • Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
  • Hal Elrod, The Miracle Morning Journal
  • Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
  • Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic Journal
  • James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth, Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain
  • Five Minute Journal (app)

 

Appendix: Why Does Journaling Work?

Based on a large body of research over time, we know that journaling comes with many benefits. It’s less clear, though, why that’s the case. Here are some of the most likely reasons why it’s so beneficial for so many. Journaling:

  • helps us get distance from painful or confusing experiences, seeing them in a fresh light without the pressures of the moment
  • can facilitate emotional release of unconscious conflicts
  • helps us avoid the problem of stuffing our emotions down (it’s healthy to acknowledge, express, and label our feelings about difficult events)
  • facilitates the process of mentally organizing our experiences, allowing us to examine root causes and formulate a coherent story
  • helps us uncover new insights about ourselves and the way we’re suffering or experiencing the world
  • can lower our emotional inhibition
  • gives us a heightened sense of control over our emotions and our lives
  • involves a powerful combination of both recording and processing, of both remembering and reflecting
  • can provide a sense of emotional catharsis

(1) Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams notes the importance of “narrative identity,” an internalized story we create about ourselves. It helps us form a coherent story of our lives, which in turn can help us view our lives more holistically and positively.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Benefits of Nature and Getting Outside

Nature – path by water trees and mountains

How much time do you spend inside? How about staring at a screen? These days, we’re spending more and more of our time indoors and online. Many people don’t get outside enough.

Too many of us are nature-deprived. It’s part of a larger historical trend from the Industrial Revolution. With bigger cities and factories and more office work and indoor living, more and more of us have started feeling separate from nature—or even alienated from it. This has real implications. Richard Louv, an author and co-founder of the Child & Nature Network who coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” noted:

Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.” (1)

 

The Benefits of Getting Outside and Being in Nature

Being in nature has all sorts of benefits. According to the research, being in nature can lead to a reduction of anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones, anger, attention fatigue, muscle tension, the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (a mood disorder in climates where there’s less sunlight during parts of the year), and more.

Furthermore, spending time in nature can help promote the following:

  1. greater attentional capacity, including focus and concentration
  2. our ability to connect with others (a key contributor to our happiness)
  3. creativity and creative problem-solving abilities
  4. empathy and love (2)
  5. more exercise
  6. immune function
  7. a sense of meaningfulness
  8. physical wellbeing
  9. positive mood
  10. sleep quality
  11. vitality
  12. healthy management of body weight
I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people.
I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.
’” -Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

To be clear, being in nature doesn’t have to mean deep wilderness expeditions. Many people these days live in cities or suburbs, and they’re wise to take advantage of what Linda Åkeson McGurk, author of The Open-Air Life, calls “nearby nature.” That means just getting outside in our local neighborhoods and finding whatever green or blue (water) spaces we can.

Nature – CITY PARK WITH LAKE AND FALL FOLIAGE

Sunlight plays an important role here. Direct sunlight has about 200 times the intensity of office lights. Our body’s internal clock depends on the daily cycle of sunlight and darkness. Getting exposure to sunlight helps us feel more tired at night and shorten the time to fall asleep. Sunlight exposure can help with fatigue and low mood. It also helps us get Vitamin D, which is important for our bones, blood cells, and immune system, as well as absorption of certain minerals (e.g., calcium and phosphorus). Also, it helps keep our serotonin levels up, which keeps our mood calm, positive, and focused.

Getting outside can also help us be more social. When we go outside, we get more chances to see and connect with people, which is essential for our health and happiness. (See my article, “The Most Important Contributor to Happiness.”)

There are different theories as to why being in nature is so beneficial. One is “biophilia theory”: since we evolved in wild, natural settings and relied on the environment for survival, we have an innate drive and need to be in nature. Another is “attention restoration theory”: being in nature replenishes our cognitive resources, like our ability to pay attention and concentrate, when they get depleted.

If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover. And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.
-David Strayer, professor of cognition and neural science, University of Utah

Most likely, it’s a combination of these and other factors.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

10 Tips for Getting Outside

When we learn about all the benefits of getting outside, it can motivate us to do so. Still, we have work obligations, time pressures, and all sorts of online distractions and temptations. It’s a challenge for many of us. So, here are ten tips for getting outside more:

1. Keep it simple. It doesn’t have to be trekking into the deep wilderness. Take advantage of your nearby nature and do simple activities like walking.

2. Make it a habit and create outdoor rituals, like morning coffee on the deck, mid-day walks, or evening chats on the patio.

3. Exercise outside sometimes, including walks, hikes, runs, bike rides, or other outdoor activities or sports. (See my article, “Exercise and Movement for Health, Wellbeing, and Great Work.”)

4. Limit screen time, since it keeps us from enjoying the great outdoors. Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning. Check those daily screen time stats regularly. And be sure to unplug sometimes when out there walking or running so you can listen to the birdsong and be present where you are.

5. Experience nature with a friend. This comes with several benefits: deepening our social relationships (a primary contributor to our happiness), exercise, and all the advantages of nature.

6. Try gardening. It has many positive health benefits, according to a large body of research. Gardening, with its digging, planting, raking, carrying, squatting, kneeling, and more, entails functional movement that incorporates whole-body exercise, including movements similar to squats and lunges. According to the research, gardening can:

  • lower levels of stress and anxiety
  • improve our cognitive function and mood
  • reduce our body mass index
  • provide helpful structure to our days or weekends
  • increase our psychological wellbeing, quality of life, and sense of life satisfaction
  • enhance self-esteem and creativity
  • reduce the effects of dementia

What’s more, it’s gratifying to plant, tend, harvest, eat, and share home-grown food. It’s healthy and good for the environment as well. Gardening is also a great activity for practicing mindfulness.

7. Visit city parks, nature reserves, and national parks. They’re there for a reason. They can help bring calm, gratitude, or awe back into our lives.

8. Go camping, boating, climbing, or trekking. These are great ways to bring fun and adventure back into our lives.

9. Try forest bathing (spending time in a forest environment). The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku. Studies show that it can help boost our energy and immune system as well as help us sleep better and recover more quickly when we get sick.

10. Go wild sometimes, i.e., do go to the forests, jungles, prairies, mountains, lakes, seas, or oceans sometimes. As writer Linda Åkeson McGurk points out, the wilder it is, the more restorative it’s likely to be.

 

What about Office Workers?

Thankfully, office workers aren’t doomed to nature deprivation. They’re wise to take breaks (including lunch) outdoors and have walking meetings whenever possible. It helps to have a supportive workplace. (3) For example, managers wanting to support the health, wellbeing, and productivity of their team can:

  • provide a space for employees to relax and get away from the office (e.g., an outdoor area with comfortable seating)
  • give workers flexible hours
  • offer wellness programs
  • have bicycles on the workplace grounds, if applicable, and/or provide incentives for commuting by bicycle
  • employ outdoor team-building activities
  • incorporate nature in company meetings and retreats

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What the Nordic Countries Taught Me About This

When I moved to Sweden many years ago, the temperature dropped to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius) that first winter. A bit colder, and we could have reached the place where Fahrenheit and Celsius converge (minus 40 Fahrenheit equals minus 40 Celsius). For this man who grew up in southern California, it was a shock. But not as big of a shock as seeing all the Swedes get out into that bone-chilling cold. There’s a famous saying in Swedish:

Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Enter what the Swedes and Norwegians call friluftsliv (which we can translate as “free-air life,” “fresh-air life,” or “open-air life”). Linda Åkeson McGurk wrote a book about it: The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day.

Friluftsliv is about connecting with nature in simple ways. It’s a lifestyle in the Nordic countries that’s been passed down across generations, that’s taught in schools, and that’s used as preventive care for mental health (nature therapy), often for people with burnout.

When in the Nordics, you can see it all around you, from people enjoying time in their summer cottages for weeks at a time, to grilling hot dogs outside in the middle of winter (grillkorv), to baby strollers placed outside on the porch of daycare centers and preschools in the middle of winter, with the children swaddled in cozy blankets and breathing fresh air. It’s also a part of the work culture, with gå och prata möten (“walk and talk meetings”). There’s also a conservation aspect: the more connected we are to nature, the more likely we’ll be good stewards of natural places and resources.

During that first winter in Sweden, my inclination was to hunker down by the fireplace. Eventually, I learned a better approach. In Sweden, you just pile on with about seven layers of clothing, including snow pants and great winter gloves, boots, and hats, and you get out there in that magical winter. And in the dark rains of November. Rain or snow, you just get out. It makes a big difference. Friluftsliv.

What are your favorite ways to get outdoors?
How can you build more of them into your routines?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books and Podcasts

  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day (TarcherPerigee, 2022)
  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (Touchstone, 2018)
  • Richard Louv, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (Algonquin Books, 2016)
  • Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2008)
  • Podcast: “We Know Nature Is Good for Us. Here’s How to Make Time for It, Scandinavian Style,” Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris podcast interview with Linda Åkeson McGurk, August 28, 2023.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Nature

  • “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” -Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher
  • “They will forget the rush and strain of all the other weeks of the year, and for a short time at least, the days will be good for their bodies and good for their souls. Once more they will lay hold of the perspective that comes to those who every morning and every night can lift their eyes up to Mother Nature.” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist
  • “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher
  • “Nature itself is the best physician.” -Hippocrates
  • “If you wish to know the divine, feel the wind on your face and the warm sun on your hand.” -Buddha
  • “It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.” -Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
  • “The earth has music for those who listen.” -William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor
  • “We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” -Henry David Thoreau, Walden
  • “I have just come from four days rest in Yosemite… Lying out at night under those giant sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build….” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist

 

Appendix: Research on the Benefits of Nature

A study of 19,806 people by University of Exeter environmental psychologist Mathew White and his colleagues found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces (e.g., local parks or other natural environments) were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological wellbeing than those who don’t. This finding held true whether the visits to green spaces were all at once or spread out over multiple visits. Source: White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019).

“Walk in nature and feel the healing power of the trees.”
-Anthony William

In a Japanese experiment, researchers measured the heart rate and blood pressure of people who were assigned to either walk in a forest or an urban center. The walks were of equal length and difficulty. Those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and reported better moods and less anxiety than the others. Finnish researchers found that city dwellers who walked for as little as 20 minutes through a city park or woodland reported significantly more stress relief than people who walked in a city center.

Dr. Gregory Bratman and his Stanford University colleagues conducted a 2015 study in which 60 participants were randomly assigned to walk for 50 minutes in either a natural setting of oak woodlands or in an urban setting along a four-lane road. The people who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination, and negative affect (likelihood of experiencing negative emotions), plus more positive emotions and better performance on memory tasks. Dr. Bratman and his colleagues noted evidence from a review of the research that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective wellbeing, positive social interactions, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life—as well as decreases in mental distress. Source: Gregory N. Bratman et al., Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Sci. Adv. 5, (2019).

According to a meta-analysis from Dr. Alison Pritchard at the University of Derby in England and her colleagues, people who feel more connected to nature have greater “eudaimonic wellbeing” (experiences associated with living a life of full flourishing, growth, authenticity, meaning, and excellence). Source: Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D. et al. The Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Eudaimonic Well-Being: A Meta-analysis. J Happiness Stud 21, (2020).

Peter Aspinall and his colleagues at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland studied participants while they walked through an urban green space. Mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) monitors showed lowered engagement, arousal, and frustration while in the green space and higher engagement levels when departing from the green space.

Roger Ulrich and his Texas A&M University colleagues conducted an experiment in which participants viewed a stressful movie and then either videos of natural scenes or videos of urban settings. The people who viewed natural scenes demonstrated a much quicker and more complete recovery from their stress. In a study of gallbladder surgery patients, with half of the patients given a view of trees and half given a view of a wall, the patients with the view of the trees tolerated pain better and spent less time in the hospital. Nurses also reported that they had fewer negative effects from the surgery.

Juyoung Lee, Dacher Keltner, and other University of California, Berkeley researchers showed participants nature scenes, independently rated for their levels of beauty, and then observed their behavior in two games, one measuring generosity and another measuring trust. Those who viewed the more beautiful nature scenes experienced greater positive emotions and acted with greater generosity and trust in the games than the others.

Penn State University sound researcher Joshua Smyth has found that when people hear songbirds, the tension in their nervous system falls. The opposite occurs when they hear cars and airplanes. Another study compared participants who listened to nature sounds (e.g., waves crashing and crickets chirping) to those who listened to urban sounds (e.g., traffic and the noises of a busy café). Those who listened to nature sounds performed better on demanding cognitive tests. Source: Van Hedger, S.C., Nusbaum, H.C., Clohisy, L. et al. Of cricket chirps and car horns: The effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance. Psychon Bull Rev 26, (2019).

According to a 2015 study of 2,000 people in the United Kingdom, more exposure to nature was associated with more community cohesion and substantially lower crime rates. Source: Netta Weinstein et al., Seeing Community for the Trees: The Links among Contact with Natural Environments, Community Cohesion, and Crime, BioScience, Volume 65, Issue 12, 01 December 2015.

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
-William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor

The benefits of nature aren’t limited to green spaces. They also come from blue spaces, including marine and freshwater environments.

(1) According to researchers, concentrations of air pollutants are much higher indoors than outdoors, and there’s a risk of respiratory problems because of that. Being outside can also help reduce the chances of contracting airborne viruses like the flu and covid-19.

(2) When study participants viewed nature scenes, it activated the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love, according to fMRI scans.

(3) More and more organizations are paying attention to and investing in this. We’ve even seen an increase in “forest schools” in many countries. Forest schools are found in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, and Japan, among other countries.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Great Sleep for Health, Wellness, and Great Work

Good nutrition, exercise, and sleep are three key drivers of our health and wellness.

No surprise there, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got them covered. In this article, we focus on great sleep for health, wellness, and great work. (We covered nutrition and exercise in previous articles.) Sleep is the “sleeper” of the three—often overlooked but hugely important. I used to focus mostly on exercise and nutrition but have recently come to see how sleep really is the linchpin.

“Sleep is the most underrated health habit.”
-Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer, Wellness Institute, Cleveland Clinic

 

Many People Struggle with Sleep

Many people struggle with not sleeping well. The National Sleep Foundation reports that about 40 million Americans have a chronic sleep disorder, 62% of U.S. adults have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week, and 30% of Americans experience insomnia at some point over the course of a year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than one in four U.S. high school students gets the recommended amount of sleep per night. (1)

Of course, this is a worldwide problem. According to the International Journal of Epidemiology, about 30% of adults report having had “some insomnia problems over the past year”—and about  10% report having chronic insomnia.

 

The Problem of Not Sleeping Well

There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is widely considered to be a form of torture. With poor sleep comes a wide range of risks and side effects. For example, it leads to a higher risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity, and depression.

Sleep loss slows our metabolism and triggers food and sugar cravings. (2) It elevates cortisol, a key stress hormone, and scrambles our blood sugar.

Poor sleeps impairs our memory—both short- and long-term—including our ability to consolidate learning during the previous day. It downgrades our mood, negatively affecting our relationships and parenting. And it reduces our productivity.

“When you are tired, you are not yourself. Well, at least not the best version of yourself.”
-Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Generally, sleep deprivation may facilitate or intensify all sorts of problems, including:

  • accidents
  • addictive behaviors
  • anxiety
  • appearance issues (e.g., dark circles under our eyes)
  • appetite surges
  • attention problems
  • blood pressure problems
  • concentration problems
  • confusion
  • depression
  • reduced enthusiasm about positive events
  • headaches
  • increased stress hormone levels
  • immune system suppression
  • impulsiveness
  • irritability
  • lower libido and sexual health in both sexes
  • memory lapses or loss
  • motivation drops
  • obesity
  • relationship problems
  • violent behavior
  • temper tantrums in children (and some adults)
“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds.”
-JoJo Jensen

According to a study in The Lancet, surgeons who had not slept the previous night took 14% longer to complete a task and made 20% more errors than those who had a full night’s sleep.

 

Effects of Poor Sleep on Leaders

For leaders, poor sleep can be an occupational hazard—especially if they work in an organization with a culture of burnout.

Too many leaders brush this aside. “Sleep is for wimps,” they say, or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“The Western workplace culture… is practically fueled by stress, sleep deprivation, and burnout.”
-Arianna Huffington, Thrive

Unfortunately, poor sleep negatively affects skills and capacities that are important for leadership effectiveness, including:

  • ability to focus
  • cognitive speed
  • decision-making capacity
  • mathematical processing
  • performance on tasks

In a nutshell, being tired is a terrible state for leading and living. Importantly, sleep deprivation also makes us less ethical, according to researchers, in part by reducing our resistance to pressure. In his book, Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson notes that when we don’t sleep, our parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex lose a significant amount of their glucose, impacting our social control and ability to tell the difference between right and wrong.

According to researchers Christopher Barnes, Brian Gunia, and Sunita Sah writing in their Harvard Business Review article, “people who didn’t sleep well the previous night can often act unethically, even if they aren’t unethical people.” In an experimental study, tired participants (after an all-nighter) were given the opportunity to play along with a lie to earn money. The result? Tired participants were more likely to abandon their morals for cash.

Author Ruth Haley Barton, founder of the Transforming Center, distinguishes between what she calls “good tired” and “dangerous tired”:

“Dangerous tired is an atmospheric condition of the soul that is volatile and portends the risk of great destruction. It is a chronic inner fatigue accumulating over months (and sometimes years)…. it can actually be masked by excessive activity and compulsive overworking. When we are dangerously tired we feel out of control, compelled to constant activity by inner impulses that we may not even be aware of. For some reason we can’t name, we’re not able to linger and relax over a cup of coffee. We can’t keep from checking voice-mail or e-mail ‘just one more time’ before we leave the office or before we go to bed at night.”

Our state of sleep deprivation impairs our judgment and can bring out the worst in us, causing damage to our health, families, teams, and organizations. (See my article, “The Problem with Tired Leaders.”)

“We continue to live by a remarkably durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity. In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity, and our productivity.” -Tony Schwartz, “Sleep Is More Important than Food,” Harvard Business Review, March 3, 2011

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Benefits of Great Sleep

By contrast, quality sleep comes with an incredible array of benefits. For example, it has positive effects on:

  1. appearance
  2. bones
  3. cognitive function
  4. disease prevention
  5. emotional regeneration
  6. hormonal balance
  7. immune system function
  8. inflammation (reduction)
  9. longevity
  10. memory
  11. performance
  12. relationships
  13. sexual function, including desire and arousal
  14. skin health
  15. stress resilience
  16. weight loss
“Sleep… will magnify the results you get from your food and movement in the most amazing way if you allow it to…. Sleep is the secret sauce. There isn’t one facet of your mental, emotional, or physical performance that’s not affected by the quality of your sleep.” -Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Good sleep is also a driver of athletic performance. It’s no secret that top organizations, from the U.S. Olympic Committee to professional sports teams, as well as athletes (including LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Phelps), musicians, and artists, have worked to tap into the amazing power of great sleep. Stanford University researchers tested members of the men’s varsity basketball team after increasing the amount of sleep they got and discovered the following:

  • increased speed (faster sprint times)
  • improved shooting (9% improvement in free-throw and three-point shooting)
  • faster reaction times
  • less fatigue
  • improvement in mood and overall physical wellbeing

According to Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, “What these findings suggest is that these athletes were operating at a sub-optimal level” before their sleep time was extended. “They’d accumulated a sleep debt…. It’s not that they couldn’t function… but that they might not have been at their full potential.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Top Strategies for Getting Great Sleep

So how should we go about it? Here are top strategies for getting great sleep:

Make sleep a priority, since it affects everything we do so profoundly. Turn the good sleep practices below into rituals and habits. Reject a “grind culture” at your office or a mentality of toughing out late nights.

Get enough sleep, consistently. Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. (1) Find out what works best for you by learning to listen to your body. If in doubt, start by increasing sleep by just 30 minutes for a few days and see how it feels—or take a short nap (20-30 minutes) during the day, if possible.

Awaken early in the morning. According to researchers, waking early can help reduce negative thoughts and set us up for better quality sleep the next night. Also, “night owls” tend to sleep less overall than early risers, and they’re more likely to develop sleep disorders.

Get adequate sunlight during the day—including some sunlight as early as possible after waking up. Our sleep cycle depends in part on the amount of sunlight we get. Not getting enough sunlight can disrupt our circadian timing system.

Get adequate exercise. When we sleep, our body releases many beneficial hormones and does the repair work necessary for us to benefit from our workouts. The relationship between sleep and exercise is powerful—and bidirectional. Getting good exercise—including strength training two or three times a week—helps us sleep better, and getting good sleep helps us exercise and perform better. Morning workouts are ideal for the best sleep, so be sure to move in the morning even if you do your main workout in the afternoon. When we exercise early in the day, it gets us in a good cortisol cycle. Meanwhile, exercising too late in the evening raises our temperature, which can make it harder to fall asleep.

Limit screen time, especially before bed. According to researchers, using electronic devices before bed can negatively affect our alertness and our circadian clock. Shawn Stevenson notes that eliminating screen time at night is “likely the number one thing you can do to improve your sleep quality immediately.” If we shut off all screens at least 90 minutes before bedtime, we help our bodies normalize our natural melatonin and cortisol levels. Little things like blue light blockers and “Do Not Disturb” phone settings can go a long way.

Manage caffeine intake and set a caffeine curfew. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that excites our nervous system, and it causes our adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol, both of which work against our sleep. If taken in excess, caffeine can make us jittery and can cause insomnia. It has a “half-life” of between five to eight hours. Avoid energy drinks because they provide excessive amounts of caffeine (e.g., 80-300mg) and use natural sources (e.g., green and black tea or coffee) instead. According to many experts, most people need a caffeine curfew of 2:00 p.m. (3)

Calm our inner chatter. Many people have difficulty falling asleep because their mental wheels won’t stop spinning. Many struggle with overthinking, rumination, and worrying. Simple calming or relaxation techniques can go a long way. For example, try deep breathing or meditation, or listen to calming apps (e.g., the Calm app), stories, or audiobooks.

“A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.”
-Charlotte Bronte, English novelist

Create a sleep sanctuary—a cozy place that your mind and body associate with rest and sleep. That begins with a comfortable bed with a quality mattress, sheets, pillows, and blankets. Set it up for peace, quiet, and comfort.

Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Start winding down 30 to 45 minutes before bed. Do something relaxing, like listening to light music, journaling, or reading a book (ideally, fiction, poetry, or something spiritual—and not something that will generate stressful thoughts about work).

“A bedtime ritual teaches the brain to become familiar with sleep times and wake times.
It programs the brain and internal body clock to get used to a set routine.”

-Jessica Alexander, National Bed Federation

Maintain a regular bedtime. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule (both going to bed and arising in the morning—even on weekends) can dramatically improve our sleep quality because our body gets into a good sleep rhythm.

Set an eating and snacking curfew well before bedtime. It’s best to give our bodies at least 90 minutes to digest food before bedtime—and even better with more time.

Avoid or reduce alcohol consumption. Alcohol can significantly disrupt our REM sleep and prevent our brain and body from fully rejuvenating. When we do consume alcohol, it’s best to stop at least three hours before bedtime.

Remove devices from the bedroom. According to a 2023 Reviews.org survey of 1,000 Americans, 60% sleep with their phone by their sides (e.g., nightstand) at night, and many check alerts and notifications in the middle of the night, seriously disrupting their sleep. Watching television before bed also disrupts our sleep cycle.

Make sure it’s dark when we sleep. Light sources can disrupt our sleep patterns significantly by throwing our biological clock out of whack. We sleep better when it’s dark enough that we can’t see our hand in front of our face. Blackout curtains are a good investment.

Maintain a cool temperature in the bedroom—ideally, between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16-20 degrees Celsius.

Use technology to measure sleep duration and quality (e.g., sleep tracking devices), and make adjustments accordingly.

 

What to Do If You’re Having Trouble Falling Asleep

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, get up out of bed after a while and go do something relaxing (without a screen), instead of just lying there and getting frustrated. If there’s a lot on your mind, such as unfinished projects or ideas about how to address a problem, write it down. That way, you can avoid having your working memory churning on it. (A caution: Don’t try to suppress unwanted thoughts because that only makes it worse. Consider scheduling worry time in the afternoon and writing down worries and stressors so they’re captured on paper—leaving no need for your mind to keep spinning on them. See my article, “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying.”

Other recommended practices:

  • Think of three things you’re grateful for about your day while lying in bed.
  • Count backward from 100 to zero as slowly as possible.
  • Check with your doctor for underlying sleep conditions (e.g., sleep apnea) if the problem persists.
  • When needed, take natural, herbal supplements (e.g., nighttime tea with chamomile)—and don’t go straight to sleeping pills or melatonin. (4)

 

Conclusion

In the end, sleep is pivotal to everything we do. It affects everything. If “sitting is the new smoking,” as they way, then sleep is the new cool. So hit that pillow without guilt and enjoy the experience of life when we feel rested, fresh, calm, energized, and ready for the day. Our lives are too important to spend them in a foggy state of fatigue.

Wishing you well with it!
Gregg

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Resources

Books:

  • Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter (Rodale, 2016)
  • Arianna Huffington, Thrive (Harmony Books, 2014)

Podcasts:

  • “Model Health Show” (Shawn Stevenson)
  • “Feel Better, Live More” (Dr. Rangan Chatterjee)

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Sleep

  • “Sleep is a necessary part of life, though most of us scrape by with as little as possible. Most physicians and public health officials ignore it as a cornerstone of optimal health…. It turns out that sleep can make or break your ability to lose weight, age slowly, prevent cancer, and perform at a high level.” -Dr. Sara Gottfried, physician-scientist
  • “Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” -Thomas Dekker, English dramatist
  • “Proper sleep has helped me get to where I am today as an athlete, and it is something that I continue to rely on every day.” -Tom Brady, American football quarterback and champion
  • “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” -Irish proverb
  • “Never waste any time you can spend sleeping.” -Frank H. Knight, economist
  • “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” -E. Joseph Cossman, inventor, entrepreneur, and author
  • “When you’re sleep deprived at work, it’s much easier to simply go along with unethical suggestions from your boss because resistance takes effort and you’re already worn down.” -David Welsh, a University of Washington professor
  • “With too little sleep, people do things that no CEO in his or her right mind would allow.” -Dr. Charles Czeisler, Professor of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • “Tired officers are always pessimists.” -General George S. Patton, World War II U.S. Army General
  • “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” -Vince Lombardi, legendary football coach
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton, former U.S. president (famous for getting five hours of sleep a night)
  • “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” -John Steinbeck, writer

 

References

(1) Most teens should get between eight and ten hours of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The amount of sleep we need changes throughout our life. Here are guidelines for recommended amounts of sleep by age group:

  • newborns: 14-17 hours
  • infants: 12-15 hours
  • toddlers: 11-14 hours
  • preschoolers: 10-13 hours
  • school-aged children: 9-11 hours
  • teenagers: 8-10 hours
  • adults: 7-9 hours

(2) Sleep deprivation triggers higher activity in our amygdala, an emotional and reactive part of the brain associated with our motivation to eat. Also, it reduces activity in the more advanced parts of the brain associated with judgment, maintaining social appropriateness, social control, and decision-making.

(3) Those who take too much caffeine are wise to consider reducing it gradually, because it can have withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, nervousness, and fatigue. Few people realize that decaffeinated coffee actually contains some caffeine (e.g., 2 to 15 milligrams), though much less than regular coffee.

(4) Stevenson points out that many experts agree that melatonin supplements can be very effective for some people, but it’s a hormone that has a risk of potential problems, including down-regulating our body’s natural ability to use melatonin on its own and creating a dependency. Many people turn to sleeping pills prematurely without understanding the causes of their sleep problems (e.g., too much caffeine, irregular schedule, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, physical problems, side effects from other medications, etc.).

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!