In this Tougher Minds Masterclass about The Greatest Human Strength we explain the science of well-being and performance. Specifically we focus on:

  • How we can be healthier, happier and at our best more often in our work and life.
  • The importance of high-performing teams for success in a challenging world.
  • How to make small changes in our lives which allow us individually and collectively to develop NEW helpful habits.
  • We also will explain more about happiness and how our brains work.
  • We will show specific exercises which help everyone start working towards feeling well and performing better.

You can listen to this FREE Tougher Minds Masterclass on your podcast platform of choice:

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The Greatest Human Strength – the science of well-being & performance

By Dr. Jon Finn, Tougher Minds Founder

We might know what we want to do or achieve in our lives and our work, but accomplishing it is a different story. I remember watching a Peter Kay comedy DVD where he talks about going shopping then filling his kitchen cupboard with chocolate biscuits . 

He says that it is so full, he can’t close it. He then announces he’ll start his diet on Monday and he admits he says that every week!

Is it becoming more difficult to be successful?

This is because the limbic regions of the brain, or what we call the A.P.E. (pronounced ‘ape’) Brain, can dominate our thoughts and habits. I have developed the A.P.E. Brain concept to make our natural instincts easier to understand. A.P.E. stands for Alive, Perceived and Energy. The concept is based on the metaphor of the ‘triune brain’, which was coined by pioneering American neuroscientist Paul McLean in the 1990s. I will explain this in greater detail in due course.

The A.P.E. Brain

To begin understanding this idea, I want to take you back to one of my most informative experiences in sports psychology. I was working on the backroom staff of English professional soccer team Scunthorpe United. At the start of the 2006/07 season, we were more favoured for relegation than success. But against all odds, we won the league and gained promotion. 

The statistics told a fascinating story. We spent 58% less on player wages than our rivals. While it cost us approximately £25,000 to acquire a single league point, the team that finished second in the table spent £66,000 per point and the team that finished third spent £41,000 per point. For us to be able to secure league points so cheaply was amazing. 

I became so interested in how we had achieved these outcomes that I completed a PhD to learn even more about what people need to do to be healthy, happy and fulfil their potential. 

How do we go about achieving this?

The first step we can all take to being healthier, happier and at our best more often is what we call ‘Me Power Conditioning’. This refers to the way in which each of us can purposefully choose to look after our well-being and work towards being at our best. If we think in terms of a scale, at one end we could refuse to try to be at our best. At the opposite end of the scale, we could purposefully choose to work towards being at our best.

Let’s connect Me Power Conditioning with happiness. It turns out that choosing to be at your best gives you a much better chance of being happy. 

Feeling happy and well is important for the vast majority of us. The UK government believes this is so important it tries to measure it via a Personal Wellbeing Index published by the Office of National Statistics. It has been suggested if more people feel happy and content, we will see a decrease in many social problems – including violent crime. But what is happiness?

Hedonism and eudaimonia – the two components of human happiness

In psychological terms, happiness is like a coin: it has two sides. The first is hedonism. This is about short-term gratification. In other words, doing things which immediately make us feel good and satisfied, but are not necessarily good for our long-term health and happiness.

It feels easier than ever to gain short-term gratification. We have an abundance of affordable food choices, cheap credit and fast fashion. We can reach our friends and family in an instant via social media and mobile devices. And, of course, tech platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter make all this even faster and easier.

HedonismAlthough hedonism is important for happiness, it is only one side of the coin. The second component of happiness is eudaimonia. This refers to us making personal progress in our lives and work, or any endeavour we undertake. It means we need to feel that the effort we put into our work and other things in life is bringing us tangible progress; that it is moving us forward and helping us achieve our goals. To achieve eudaimonia we have to delay short-term gratification. 

Progress

This feels like the perfect storm. We live in a world where the only constant is change, and we need to make and experience small changes in order to feel happy. Sounds like a winning combination. But there is a catch. This is the A.P.E. Brain.

Your A.P.E. Brain prioritises saving energy, making change difficult

To understand more about the A.P.E. Brain we want you to visit this page.

You probably noticed that, even though the letters are mixed-up and some words are spelled incorrectly, you can still understand the meaning. This is because most of our thoughts and actions (behaviours) are mindless, or habits. In fact, science shows that at least 98% of our behaviour is unconscious or semi-unconscious. You did not need to read the passage consciously, taking the time to process each individual letter in each word. Your brain reads each word as a picture, meaning that even if some of the letters are not in the correct place, the picture still makes sense. 

Why? Humans have been around for more than 200,000 years – and probably much longer. For most of our existence energy (food) has been a very scarce resource. Thinking consciously burns a lot of energy (your brain uses around 25% of your total energy output). Habits make thinking and doing things more energy efficient. So we have evolved to run on habits. 

This means we do not think about most of the things we do. This includes breathing. We just do it. We do not talk ourselves through the process e.g., ‘breath in, breath out’. The way you are reading this book is largely habit. It is a very automated process. The way we make a decision about someone we have just met for the first time happens in about five seconds. We are not deliberately being judgemental or critical: it’s just the way our brain works. 

Habits become more dominant and powerful with practice. Science shows that when we repeat or practice a certain aspect of behaviour (thought or action), we hardwire it into our brains via a process known as neuroplasticity. This means that the 100 billion or so neurons in your brain are like plasticine (a type of remouldable plastic). Your neurons grow, reshape and die depending on what you practice. 

Our habits dominate what we do and how we think. My experience of the world is what I am in the habit of paying attention to, and the same goes for all of us. If I pay attention to my failures in life and the setbacks I’ve experienced, that becomes my reality. If I pay attention to how fantastic I am, and how nothing is ever my fault, that becomes my reality. 

Our family, friends, colleagues, teams and organisations all run on habits. The habits that are most dominant are those they practice the most. 

We are not designed to be healthy, happy and at our best

Our primal instincts – developed over the long process of human evolution and hence driven by our A.P.E. Brain – mean we are not designed to be happy and collectively at our best, in the context of our 21st-century lives.

As humans, the challenge we all face is that, above all, we are designed to survive. Our principal way to do this is to save energy. This is reflected in what has been called ‘the brain’s number one operating rule’. That is, the easier it is to do something, or think about something, the more likely we will do it. Things that are really easy to think and do are those things we have practiced a lot and become habits.  

Habits connected to saving energy and helping us to survive include the following:

(Note that the words in brackets after each habit show how the A.P.E. Brain views this.)

  • Worrying or looking out for threats (social and physical)
  • Being self-critical or beating yourself up (looking out for threats)
  • Giving in to temptation (saving energy)
  • Procrastination or wasting time (saving energy)
  • Giving up easily (saving energy)
  • Jumping to conclusions (saving energy and protecting us from threats)
  • Becoming stressed (looking out for threats)

It’s important to understand these behaviours are habits. For example, worrying is a habit. If you want to get better at it, all you need to do is practice it a lot and you will become a world champion worrier! This might also result in an unhelpful sleeping habit. 

Unfortunately, these types of survival habits have become increasingly unhelpful as our lives and jobs have changed. In fact, we’ve started to recognise that these types of habits are often the biggest waste of personal resources in any 24-hour period. And not only for individuals, but also for our family units, teams, businesses and organisations. 

These types of habits are seen to be damaging for two main reasons. First, they are largely invisible to us – e.g., we are not consciously beating ourselves up, worrying or giving into temptation. Secondly, these habits typically run contrary to the type of things we try to do in order to be our best more often. They are obstacles when we try to overcome the type of challenges we face in our modern lives and work.

These reasons mean it is more difficult to: 

  • Maintain well-being, mental health and physical health
  • Perform at our best
  • Be productive
  • Be innovative
  • Engage people and teams 
  • Improve morale 
  • Lead and manage successfully 
  • Optimise our performance 

Why can life feel like it is getting more difficult?

We live in a challenging world where the only constant is change, and these changes feel like they are becoming more and more frequent. The modern world can feel so challenging that some have started to call it the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world – V.U.C.A. for short. To stay successful in the V.U.C.A. world we need to keep adjusting and progressing our thinking and our approaches to life. This allows us to make the personal progress that is so essential for our happiness and success 

But our brain’s standard operating procedure is to save energy and survive. We will habitually look for the easiest way in any endeavour or activity, resisting change wherever possible. 

This tension is resulting in more people of all ages reporting they do not feel well or satisfied. People’s A.P.E. Brains are feeling overwhelmed because they are not designed for 21st-century life. 

V.U.C.A. World

People are attacked from every direction by problems, worries, challenges, distractions, and stress.  

If people do not know how to make deliberate changes in their lives, they will be much more likely to get stressed, be mentally unwell, be unhappy and fail. 

Some good news: Personal Change Management works

The good news is we are not helpless. This brings us back to our idea of Me Power Conditioning. We can learn how to get better at making small changes so that we can successfully navigate the V.U.C.A. world, be healthy, happy and fulfil our potential.

The first step to Me Power Conditioning is to recognise our habits. Specifically, we need to recognise the unhelpful habits stopping us being at our best. We also need to recognise those habits that are helpful. 

we run on habits

We start by teaching people to change one small unhelpful habit at a time. We show people how to recognise an unhelpful habit, and how to replace it with a new helpful one. We call this process Personal Change Management.

This instils a Purposeful Development Mindset in people. It empowers them to take control of their own personal progress, which we now know is essential to us all for happiness and work satisfaction. And if groups of people – like schools and family units – are full of people who are actively and regularly engaging in the personal change management process, to make small personal adjustments and gradually build new helpful habits, then it becomes a Purposeful Development Group. If the people are growing and thriving, so will the group.

The opposite of a Purposeful Development Group is one where people do not change or progress themselves. They have A.P.E. Brain Mindsets. They do the same thing they’ve always done. Groups that just keep doing the same thing are failing faster than ever. 

They are finding it harder to be mentally well, resilient, and perform to their potential. We can see that groups which adopt the purposefully developmental approach are better able to thrive in the V.U.C.A. world. They report the following positive behaviours and outcomes among their people:

  • Better performance
  • Greater well-being
  • Improved resilience 
  • Increased productivity and innovation
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved leadership development
  • Healthier, happier people are more satisfied with life

The most important thing individuals and groups in the V.U.C.A. world can do is upskill and empower their adults, teenagers and children to engage in Personal Change Management. The result is people who are able to make small adjustments and gradual changes to develop new small, sustainable, helpful habits for every aspect of life.

We think of Personal Change Management as a three-step process: 

Step One – Identify Your Progress Habits

Progress habits are connected to things like sleep, diet and exercise, motivation, stress management, building confidence, increasing productivity, creativity, and innovation. 

Step Two – Knowledge and Skills

Gaining access to the knowledge and skills we need to build and develop new progress habits. 

Step Three – Habit Programmes 

These involve using behavioural science insights to help individuals and groups build habit programmes. They enable people to practice helpful behaviour so it becomes a helpful habit. We use our Nine Action Factors model (we’ll cover it in more detail in our Habit Building Masterclasses) to help individuals and groups build habit programmes. 

Habit Development Cogs

Adults (teachers and parents) have an important role in helping teenagers and children develop new sustainable habits. We teach adults with these responsibilities to become Transformational Leaders. We think of them as being ‘habit mechanics’. Once they have learned how to help themselves they can help young people and others adults to build their own new helpful habits, supporting people at every stage of the three-step process.

The Habit Mechanic

How do we build better habits?

If we know that doing some exercise or getting a good night’s sleep is important for us to feel at our best and perform well, then we need this to become a habit. The first step is to intelligent self-watching.

Intelligent Self-watching is the starting point 

If we want to create teams and organisations that are purposefully developmental, the first thing we need to introduce is the concept of intelligent self-watching. This simply means watching ourselves in a focused and systematic way, so that we can precisely identify our unhelpful behaviour and begin thinking about improvements we can make. This is important because we spend most of our time engaging in mindless behaviour, and not being very self-aware. 

Self-Watching

Please complete this simple self-watching task.

Write down a few words explaining what health, happiness and performance mean to you. Here are my examples: 

Health: in good physical condition; feeling mentally sharp; eating well; sleeping well.

Happiness: making progress; doing meaningful work; positive relationships; helping others.

Performance: working towards goals; efforts are rewarded; developing as a Transformational Leader.

When you write out your own answers, you will start to see a relationship between your health, happiness and performance. They are all interconnected. You should also begin to see that your habits ultimately dictate whether you are able to be healthy, happy and at your best. For example, in my case, if sleeping well is an essential part of my health (and also happiness and performance), I need to develop really good sleep habits. Also, if making progress is essential for me to feel happy, a helpful habit would be to set goals every morning and then reflect on them in the evening to monitor my progress.

Habits underpin everything we do: 

  • How we think and feel
  • What we eat 
  • How much we exercise 
  • How well we sleep 
  • How we manage stress
  • Our confidence levels 
  • How productive we are 
  • Our performance as a leader 

If we want to be at our best more often, individually and collectively, then we need to learn how to build new habits.

Thinking about your thinking 

Please now take a moment to complete this simple task, which will help you understand more about how you think. 

We are always thinking

Imagine you are wearing a pair of headphones. They could be any style. Describe them to yourself. Are they large or small? Are they Apple AirPods or large Bose noise cancelling headphones? Think what song, radio station or podcast is playing through the headphones.

Notice how you are talking to yourself, inside your own head. If you think you are not talking to yourself, notice how you are saying something like: “I’m not talking to myself, I’m not crazy!”

The idea of this exercise is to highlight that we are always thinking. Recognising that fact is an important part of the habit building process. Some of the current mindfulness apps and workshops ask people to completely clear their minds of any thoughts. Science (and the exercise above) shows that this cannot be done. Our brain is always on: it’s designed to keep paying attention.

Also, our attention span is naturally short – and it’s becoming shorter because of how we use it in our modern world (e.g., switching between different stimuli, such as our mobile phones and our laptop). We can think of our brains as ‘frog brains’ that often jump from one thing to another.

Frog Brain

Think again about the concepts of hedonism (short-term rewards) and eudaimonia (longer-term personal progress). Our brain has a preference. It’s designed to pay attention to the hedonic things, which bring us immediate pleasure and short-term gratification. This can stop us achieving the sort of long-term objectives which ultimately would bring great satisfaction and fulfilment.

Life goalsMany businesses (especially the internet and social media giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook) understand that capturing our attention will help them make money. That’s why the term ‘attention economy’ has become common and well understood. 

We are surrounded by distractions and diversions, so it feels harder than ever to pay sustained attention to important things. This causes us ever greater problems for our mental and physical health and happiness.

The Attention economy

With this in mind, we can see it is important for us to pay attention to ideas and do things that help us to achieve our health, happiness and performance goals. You can either think about and do things that are helpful for your health, happiness and performance – or do things that are unhelpful. This concept, though, is not the same as positive and negative thinking. 

Positive thoughts are not always helpful to us. This is a subtle but important difference. For instance, we may like eating chocolate custard doughnuts for breakfast and this is a positive experience that feels great to us in the moment. However, it’s pretty obvious that such a daily diet will be unhelpful to our long-term health goals. Likewise, negative feedback from your boss about a project or piece of work may initially feel very disappointing. However, the feedback and overall experience may help you to improve and develop yourself in a way beneficial to your long-term career progression. 

All of us, including myself and my colleagues at the Me Power Academy, can find it easier to pay attention to unhelpful things. We can find easy to beat ourselves up when we see people doing better than us. 

Our Self-Talk can be very unhelpful:

Self-Talk can be very unhelpful

It feels easier than ever to buy the wrong kind of food, because retailers position it in places where it catches our attention and they make it cheap. And it feels easier than ever to spend 10 minutes doing a task that we could do in five minutes because we become easily distracted by our smartphones or emails. But by the end of the day, we find ourselves 30 minutes down in time. And by the end of the week, we are three hours down. We will never get this time back. We will probably have to stay at work later, spend less time with our loved ones and beat ourselves up as a result. 

How do you use your day?

Nobody is making any more time in the day: it is fixed at 24 hours for all of us. During every second of every day we can either be doing things that are helping us achieve our health, happiness and performance goals, or that are stopping us achieving them. Think of it like a barcode: some lines represent helpful thoughts and actions, others unhelpful. To be at our best more often, we need to get better at recognising our unhelpful behaviours and squeezing out one unhelpful line at a time. We’ll help you to do this by showing you how to build more helpful habits.  

Our timeAn introduction to your brain 

“Your brain is the world’s chief survival organ. The brain is trying to be safe on a continual basis, which is how it fleshes out survival.” – Dr. John Medina – world-leading developmental molecular biologist

The  A.P.E. Brain

Once you’ve recognised the type of things that are unhelpful for you to think or do, you need to learn how to resist the temptation to engage in these behaviours. To help you understand how to resist, we’re going to explain much more about how your brain works. 

The human brain has been evolving for more than 200,000 years. Being your best in the 21st century is difficult because this was not the main goal of the evolutionary process. Instead, the brain focuses on survival. It does not focus on how to support health and happiness as we measure them today. To understand this you can make a mini model of your brain using your hand. 

The Limbic region (thumb) and the Prefrontal Cortex (little finger).

Large A.P.E. Brain

The limbic regions of the brain, or what we call the A.P.E. Brain, can dominate our thoughts and habits. We’ve developed the A.P.E. Brain concept to make our natural instincts easier to understand. A.P.E. stands for Alive, Perceived and Energy. This section of the human brain makes us prioritise things like oxygen, water, food, shelter, warmth, and physical safety.

All these things are essential for staying Alive.

Closely connected to this is our concern about how we are Perceived by other people. Communication, cooperation and alliances with other humans support our survival. This means our prosperity can be closely connected to how we are viewed by people who are important in our lives. So we often worry too much about what others think.

Understanding the same neural circuitry processes both social (not wanting to look bad in front of others) and basic survival (need to find food and water) threats highlights the importance our brain gives social status. Given the scale of circuitry for emotion, especially negative emotions, social threat can be extremely disruptive.

Finally, as food (our main source of energy) has not always been readily available (e.g., we used to be hunters and gatherers, and not supermarket shoppers or food bloggers), we make every effort to conserve Energy. This is why we sometimes prefer to sit and watch TV instead of exercising, and we avoid work that is mentally challenging. Thinking hard burns a lot of energy. For example, it takes less mental energy to perform a well-practiced task than it does to learn a new skill or perform a difficult task.

We imagine a character called H.U.E. (pronounced ‘Hue’) runs the A.P.E. Brain. H.U.E. stands for horribly unhelpful emotions. H.U.E. can make us think and do things that are not very helpful:

  • H.U.E. can make it difficult for us to be healthy.
  • H.U.E. does not always make sleeping well as interesting and rewarding as browsing social media, messaging friends, watching Netflix or working late into the night.
  • Rich food and junk food are high-energy so H.U.E. encourages us to eat it. This makes it hard to eat enough fruits and vegetables, or drink enough water.
  • H.U.E. likes to save energy, and helps us to find excuses not to exercise enough.
  • H.U.E. can make it difficult for us to be happy. H.U.E. makes us doubt ourselves and worry about what other people think of us. This can make us too self-critical.
  • H.U.E. can make it difficult for us to perform to our potential. Working hard requires a great deal of mental energy. H.U.E. likes to save this and so avoids complex, mentally draining tasks. This sometimes makes us feel lazy and unmotivated.
  • H.U.E. likes new, interesting and exciting information, especially when it comes from friends and family. This can make it hard to concentrate and focus.
  • Being successful is not straightforward. To achieve success, we have to overcome set-backs and keep working through difficulties. H.U.E. does not like effort and wants to save energy. It can stop us fulfilling our potential.

The A.P.E. Test 

We can all learn more about how our A.P.E. Brain affects us by taking what we call our  A.P.E. Brain Test. We use it regularly in our programmes. You can take the test here.

Your Me Power Wish List 

By taking the A.P.E. Brain Test you will have identified the most significant challenge or problem your A.P.E. Brain poses. You may now wish to make a note of this in your Me Power Wish List

As you work through our Me Power Academy resources and programmes, you may well identify many things about your brain and your behaviour that you’d like to change. Please remember it’s only realistically possible to make one small change at a time. Nobody has the capacity to completely overhaul and change their behaviour in one go. It is a gradual process. We all must develop new helpful habits one step at a time. 

By making a list you may see a pattern which is helpful and supports your progress. This is a ‘wish list’ for a reason: you do not have the resources to make all of the changes you want to make at the same time.

The A.P.E. Brain can allow our thinking can be ‘hijacked’

It seems that many businesses, social media organisations and media companies have worked out how to tap into our A.P.E. Brain traits – whether it’s the smartphone in your pocket, the “buy one, get one free” supermarket offers on unhealthy snacks, or the ability to stream endless films, TV shows or funny cat videos.

More than ever, the A.P.E. Brain and H.U.E. appear to be surrounded by temptation. This seems to result in more unhelpful habits for health, happiness and being our best. 

In fact, the former president of Facebook, Sean Parker, has even suggested that the company’s primary objective was to work out: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible… by exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology?” 

And one former Google executive stated that “Silicon Valley’s central mission is to interrupt our every waking thought.” These businesses want you to use their products habitually because your attention drives their advertising revenues. 

Since we now live in an attention economy, our attention is probably the most precious resource we have. So for all these reasons and more, the challenge we face when trying to be our best and flourish in the 21st century is that the A.P.E. Brain and H.U.E. are constantly being prompted to pay attention to, and do, things that can undermine health, happiness and performance. 

Remember, too, the role of habits. Practicing unhelpful habits results in unhelpful mindless behaviour. For example, automatically checking your phone when you are trying to focus on a challenging piece of work, or getting stuck in an unhelpful thinking pattern where you are saying unhelpful things to yourself, like “everyone is doing better than me.”

Are we addicted to unhelpful habits?

The A.P.E. Brain and H.U.E. can have a profoundly negative impact on how engaged, fulfilled and satisfied you feel with life. The problem is the activities we engage in to pursue pleasure (the hedonic part of the well-being and happiness equation) can be very rewarding for the A.P.E. and H.U.E.. This means we can become addicted to them, and they become unhelpful habits. By addiction, we mean continuing to engage in behaviours even though they have negative consequences for health, happiness and being your best.

Again, we should all keep in mind the problem with the A.P.E. Brain is it can drive us towards behaviour unconducive to success and progress in our modern lives and work. We are often asked to concentrate for long periods, to focus, to be innovative, to put others first (clients, etc), and to find and solve problems. These outcomes are often achieved by delaying short-term gratification, meaning they are not very A.P.E. Brain friendly. 

So we can now see how there is a major conflict between what’s often required of us in the modern world to be healthy, happy and successful, and how we have evolved to behave as humans. This means the A.P.E. Brain is constantly hijacking us.

It makes us feel unwell and we experience stress. 

Stress is actually a chemical process that takes place in everybody’s brain. Certain stress-related chemicals are released. This process is sometimes referred to as the fight or flight response.

Not all stress is bad. Some degree of stress can even be helpful to us for our personal growth and development (more about this idea later). However, as you can see from the diagram below, too much stress is damaging to us.

The stress continuum

The Stress Response fight or flight 

To fully understand our stress response, we need to consider the process in greater detail.

Any stress response begins with an experience, or what scientists can an ‘event’. 

For example, I hold the door open for somebody in the office (an event). When I do this I have an expectation of how this event will unfold. To describe this we use the psychology term: ‘global meaning’. In this case, I expect the person to be courteous, say thank you, and tell me I am a gentleman (maybe not the last part!).

Regardless of what we expect will happen, the reality of the situation, or whatever events we experience at that moment, is known as the ‘situational meaning’. Perhaps the person I held the door open for does not thank me and just brushes past me. 

In another example, the event might be an email I receive from my boss about a project I’ve just submitted. I expect the email to tell me what a great job I’ve done, but instead it’s critical about my work.  

It’s important to point out that ‘events’ do not have to be real. For example, you might be travelling to a meeting. You’re a punctual person, so expect to arrive on time (think of arriving on time as the event). However, your train is delayed, meaning it will be more difficult for you to get to the meeting on time. Even though you might still make it to the meeting on time, your A.P.E. Brains starts to run through all of the worst-case scenarios – and the possible consequences! 

When these types of disparities between global meaning and situational meaning occur, we experience a stress response. Scientifically, this is described as a dislocation of meaning systems. In simple language, what’s happening is not what you expected to happen, or your A.P.E. Brain tells you that what you expected to happen will not happen!

The challenge with stress responses is they add up and quickly become overwhelming. In the mathematics of stress, one stress response plus one stress response does not necessarily equal two. One plus one can feel more like 26, depending on the nature and the content of the stress. This graphic helps us understand how multiple stress responses can build-up in our lives. The red dots represent stress responses:

Stress

Activation helps understand stress 

When a dislocation between your meaning systems occurs, a two-part process unfolds. 

First, in complex scientific terms, we experience a reaction in our brain’s HPA axis. That means we experience something commonly known as the fight or flight response. The part of this response I’m most interested in showing people is that they begin to breathe faster.

We measure this reaction with our concept of Activation and we also use the idea of the activation dial.

Activation Dial

  • If you’re at 00 on the scale, it means that you are dead!
  • Low numbers on dial mean you are calm and relaxed.
  • High numbers mean you might be nervous, angry, or excited and aroused. The chemical response in our brain is the same.

What number do you think you currently are on the Activation dial?

Please make a note of this. There is no right or wrong answer.

Then, using the dial, please write down your Activation level for optimal concentration and focus. This would be the sort of concentration that allows you to readily absorb the information and insight in this chapter.

Are those two numbers the same?  

All our daily activities and actions require different Activation levels. There are optimal Activation levels for everything. The Activation level each of us needs to achieve to sleep well will be different to the Activation level we need to play sports or to concentrate effectively. We can learn to increase and decrease our own Activation level in different ways. For example, you can quickly increase your Activation level by jumping up and down on the spot. We will explore other ways to increase and decrease Activation levels in later chapters. 

In the space of milliseconds during the first part of the stress response, our breathing pattern changes and our Activation level increases, typically meaning it is too high to be helpful. 

In the second part of the stress response, our attention typically drifts onto unhelpful thoughts. For example, we ruminate, beat ourselves up and worry. Remember, we are always thinking and we either pay attention to things that are helpful or unhelpful. Here we tend to think about unhelpful things for too long and waste time.

How to begin dealing with the stress response

You cannot stop the stress response. But if you are proactive you can deal with it faster. For example, instead of it taking 15 minutes to recover from an unhelpful email, perhaps we can do it in 13 minutes. These minutes quickly add up into hours, days and weeks. If you want to spend more of your time with your attention on, and doing things that are helpful for your health, happiness and performance goals, here are some quick tips

The number one tool to help us manage stress is good quality sleep. It helps your brain to work properly. Unfortunately, good sleep is often the first thing to suffer during stressful episodes.

The next thing that can help us manage stress is good diet and exercise. These also help your brain to work properly, but are much more difficult to get right if we are not sleeping properly. 

Building on good sleep, diet and exercise, I would also encourage you to write down your sources of stress (the things that are bothering you) and what has caused the stress (where is the dislocation of what is happening versus what you expected to happen?).

Why?

As we’ve already highlighted, our conscious brain (prefrontal cortex) is very limited. We can only hold around five to seven new ideas in our mind at once, and if we do not ‘secure’ those ideas (e.g., talk about them, think about them or write them down) within about 30 seconds, then our brain dumps them. 

So when you are thinking about a stress to try to resolve it, you are actually having an argument between the part of your brain that can only hold five to seven ideas for a short time (about 30 seconds) and your  A.P.E. Brain, which runs most of your thoughts, feelings and actions. 

The A.P.E. Brain will win this argument if you do not proactively take steps to stop this. When you write things down, your thoughts do not disappear after 30 seconds and you can write down more than five to seven pieces of information. Writing helps you to take more control over your thinking and deal with stress responses much more effectively.  

Brain damage

When we suffer prolonged periods of stress, a part of our brain called the hippocampus stops functioning properly. It is the part of the brain that produces new brain cells. We need these new cells to learn and to carry out vital mental processes like managing stress. The new cells give us the mental capacity to think about and deal with problems in a flexible way, instead of getting stuck in negative thinking cycles. 

It’s not hard to imagine how prolonged periods of stress, if left unchecked, can have severe consequences for us and our brain function. Our distracted and damaged brain means we won’t have the capacity for important things. We may well experience:

  • Feeling unwell
  • Low confidence 
  • Reduced productivity
  • Reduced creativity  
  • Impaired performance
  • Lack of motivation and confidence

Life becomes very hard if we experience these things.

In terms of understanding our stress responses, it’s also critical to keep in mind that we cannot see into each other’s brains, so we cannot appreciate how overwhelmed or stressed other people feel. The responses add up day after day and, in our V.U.C.A. world, can compound each other.

Stress adds up

We now understand much more about our A.P.E. Brain and its potentially damaging effects. Now we can move onto the good news!

We are not helpless – we also have the H.A.C. Brain

We can use what we refer to as the H.A.C. (pronounced ‘hack’) Brain to manage the A.P.E.

The prefrontal cortex is the H.A.C. Brain. We imagine this part of the brain is operated and managed by a character called Willomenia or Will Power (you can choose which name you like).

Helpful Attention Control.

H.A.C. stands for Helpful Attention Control.

So rather than just resisting the temptations and distractions we listed earlier in this chapter, Will Power can help us hack our brain and focus our attention onto behaviour which is helpful to us in our lives and work.

  • Social scientists call this emotional self-control 
  • Neuroscientists call this emotional regulation 

If we can do this, we become resilient.

In simple terms, resilience is the ability to recognise unhelpful behaviour, thoughts and experiences and focus our attention onto anything that is more helpful. It’s the outcome of being able to deploy self-control and regulate our emotions, or what we call H.A.Cing (pronounced hacking).

If we are resilient, it is easier to:

  • Be healthier
  • Be happier
  • Be more productive
  • Effectively manage stress
  • Increase our confidence
  • Be more creative
  • Fulfil our potential and achieve the exam results we are capable of achieving 

Many pre-eminent scientists have been studying resilience since the 1960s. Resilience, or the ability to H.A.C. our brains, has been shown to be predictive for a range of experiences and outcomes in our lives.

Professor Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist who writes about topics including human behaviour, willpower and self-control, lists these as:

  • Being successful in education and in life
  • Enjoying better mental and physical health
  • Feeling happier 
  • Be more creative 
  • Being more popular with others
  • Enjoying stronger marriages and relationships
  • Being more trusted
  • Having fewer drinking problems and addictions
  • Being less likely to commit crime
  • Being less abusive
  • Living longer 

In short, if we can H.A.C. our brain effectively, we become resilient. This makes it easier to do important things really well. Remember, the crux of the process is recognising helpful and unhelpful behaviour. We use Will Power to self-watch our thoughts and actions, and then to deliberately switch our attention to more helpful things if we notice we are doing unhelpful things.   

To understand how we use Will Power to take control of our attention, we need to understand our emotions.  This diagram shows a range of emotions we typically experience:

emotions

Each of these emotions can be helpful, or unhelpful, in any given situation. For example, it can be helpful to be angry with ourselves for a short period if we haven’t given our best efforts on something, and failed as a result. On the other hand, it can be unhelpful to be angry at ourselves if we have done our best, but the result was not what we wanted.

The A.P.E. is so powerful that we’ll all experience unhelpful emotions. But the faster we can use the H.A.C. Brain and Will Power to move past them onto helpful emotions, the less problematic they will be for our health, happiness and performance.

It’s also vital to keep in mind that Will Power does not explain everything about how we achieve personal change, but it is often the starting point. We’ve created our Nine Action Factors model (9 AF) to explain all the other factors. We’ll explain more about this in our habit building Masterclasses. 

Will Power is also a limited resource and becomes depleted. For example, it decreases when we’ve worked hard or concentrated for long periods, or as we approach the end of the working day and week.  

We need to make sure that we keep Will Power topped up and maintained. Improving sleep, diet and exercise will help us to top up our Will Power levels.

Will Power is also like a muscle. It can be trained, just like a bicep!

Modern neuroscience shows our brains change and we never stop learning, so we can learn to effectively deploy Will Power more often.

This will help us develop new, helpful habits which benefit us in our work and in our life amid the flux and constant change of the V.U.C.A. world.

We are not helpless

We are not helpless: we can be proactive and make it easier for ourselves, our families, our colleagues, our teams and our organisations to succeed and thrive.


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