What does it mean to be resilient? We can think of being resilient as a two-step process: 

  1. Recognising when you are doing and thinking things that are unhelpful and which make it more difficult for you to be at your best e.g. recognising that you are beating yourself up too much.
  2. Refocusing your attention onto, and doing things, that are more helpful and make it easier for you to be at your best e.g. refocusing your attention onto thoughts that make you feel more positive about yourself.  

As you become more resilient you become increasingly skilled at this two-step process. Neuroscientists call this implicit emotional regulation. 

Why is resilience important for success at work and in life?

In the modern world, new flexible working demands, new social pressures, new technology and new processes mean we are constantly facing Volatility, Unpredictability, Complexity and Ambiguity (the VUCA world). More often than not, emotional stress in our personal and family lives exacerbates and compounds these challenges. 

If we can not cope with these challenges, our well-being, morale, productivity, creativity and performance will suffer. That includes young and old, as well as workers, managers and leaders. The cost is not just personal. It is also societal. A few years ago, a UK government report estimated that workplace stress and burnout was already costing up to £97 billion annually. 

To overcome these challenges we need to be resilient. The foundation of human resilience is emotional control. To truly understand this, we need to understand our brains.

Why does your brain make being resilient difficult? 

The human brain is a major obstacle to us consistently being our best in the VUCA world. Evolution means the human brain focuses on survival, and not on health and happiness as we measure them today. The limbic regions concentrate on keeping us Alive; on how we are Perceived by others; and on conserving Energy. We call this brain region the A.P.E. Brain®. It can have a very damaging effect on us.  

Understanding unhelpful habits is part of being resilient.

More unhelpful habits

How are self-control and emotional regulation connected to resilience? 

This potentially problematic evolutionary legacy can often result in us lacking self-control. The social psychologist Professor Roy Baumeister describes self-control as “the greatest human strength”. As Baumeister explains, effective self-control allows us to be healthier, happier and at our best more often. Remember the A.P.E. Brain drives us to ‘lose control’.

He places massive importance on this dynamic and recently said, “There is more data [  ] showing that people who have good self-control are more successful in school [  ] and at work [ ], they make more money, become more prominent and successful.

“They are also better at relationships. They are more popular with other people. People trust them more. They have stronger marriages, intimate and romantic relationships. They are happier. They have lower stress… They are better adjusted. [They have] fewer drinking problems, and drugs and eating disorders… [they have] better mental health, better physical health too. They behave better, commit fewer crimes, are less likely to be arrested, fewer traffic accidents and partner abuse, and prejudice and everything like that. And at the far end of life they live longer.”

Effective self-control, or what neuroscientists, call emotional regulation, allows people to resist unhelpful thoughts and actions. It means recognising that you are thinking or doing something that is unhelpful for health, happiness or performance, and then refocusing your attention onto helpful thoughts and actions. 

In our Tougher Minds programmes, we coined the term ‘helpful attention control’ (H.A.C.®), and we describe refocusing attention onto helpful thoughts as brain H.A.C-ing (as in computer hacking). It is important to recognise that this is the central component of resilience and being resilient. 

Making resilience a habit

In terms of the world of work, organisations seeking success need to help their people to build resilience and better emotional regulation habits. These suppress primal impulses and make it easier for us to be at our best more often. They also mean we can perform to our potential and overcome challenges.

It is important to note that behavioural science shows that only sustained programmes can effectively develop resilience and the associated well-being habits. Reminders and triggers are therefore crucial, if helpful behaviour is to become hard-wired in our brains. Effective resilience training should offer insights into brain function, and its potentially damaging consequences. This is the starting point in our Tougher Minds programmes

Another part of supporting people to become more resilient is giving them a detailed understanding of emotional regulation techniques. A key strand of this approach is showing the value of effective daily planning and showing people how to refocus their attention onto helpful thoughts. This is also what we mean when we use the acronym: H.A.C.

Which part of my brain helps me to be more resilient?

We regard the part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex as 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). 

Will Power can help us hack our brain and focus our attention onto behaviour which is helpful to us in our lives and work. Remember that this is emotional self-control (the term used by social scientists) or emotional regulation (the term used more often by neuroscientists). Whatever term we use for this attribute, if we can successfully do this, we become resilient.

Again, in simple terms, resilience is the ability to recognise unhelpful behaviour, thoughts and experiences and focus our attention onto something that is more helpful. We are resilient when we are able to deploy self-control and regulate our emotions.

If we are individually and collective more resilient, it is easier to achieve the following outcomes:

  • Improved performance
  • Greater well-being
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved confidence
  • Increased creativity and innovation
  • Improved productivity
  • More Transformational Leaders
  • Truly high-performing teams
  • Successful change management
  • Happier people

Building better habits connected to the following areas ALSO make it easier to become more resilient: 

  • Diet, exercise and sleep 
  • Stress Management and Helpful Thinking
  • Robust Confidence
  • Performing Under Pressure
  • Productivity
  • Transformational Leadership

Learning to be more resilient

So if we can H.A.C. our brain effectively, we become more resilient. This makes it easier to do important things really well. Remember, the crux of the process is recognising helpful and unhelpful behaviour. 

It is also useful to recognise that we can use Will Power to step back from the here and now in our lives and work and analyse ourselves. We call this self-watching. It requires us to deliberately analyse our thoughts and actions; and then to switch our attention to more helpful things.   

To understand how we use Will Power to take control of our attention, we need to understand that our 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. Brain is so powerful that we all experience unhelpful emotions, from time to time. But the faster we can use the H.A.C. Brain and Will Power to move past these onto helpful emotions, the less problematic they will be for our health, happiness and performance.

Will Power is a limited resource

WARNING – Will Power is 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. 

How can I use Behavioural Science to supercharge resilience and change

Will Power alone is not enough. It is only the conduit for change. Therefore we need other change factors to secure new habits. So, to supercharge the habit building process we have used the latest insights from behavioural science to create our Nine Action Factors model. 

We have created this to help our clients achieve successful and sustainable change. There are more than 200 rules that underpin the model and make it easier for our clients to support the desired changes in peoples’ behaviour to help the organisation achieve its goals.

Here is a simple overview and diagram of the nine core areas: 

  1. Mindset 
  2. External Triggers
  3. Personal Knowledge and Skills
  4. Community Knowledge and Skills
  5. Habit Factor
  6. Personal Motivation
  7. Social Influence
  8. Rewards and Penalties
  9. Brain State Optimisation

The Nine Action Factors

In combination Will Power and the Nine Action Factors 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.

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

Improve your resilience in five simple steps – Dr Jon Finn explains how to use the Me Power® Planner to develop your resilience 

  1. Learn how your brain works and about the importance of habits for well-being and performance.
  2. Create long-termmedium-term and short-term goals
  3. Learn how to build better sleepdiet and exercise habits.
  4. Analyze your helpful and helpful habits. Create ‘habit building plans’ to help you build new beneficial habits.
  5. Create monthly, weekly and daily planning and reflection structures.

Our Me Power Planner is designed to make all five steps super simple.

Find out more here

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