Beating Stress & Having Fun; Hobbies & Interests

The importance of hobbies and interests in beating stress

Most of us pride ourselves on working so hard and effectively that we find we don’t have time to indulge our interests outside of work.  What we forget is that these outside interests may well make us more productive inside. Not only that- research shows that people who have hobbies and interests are far more effective at beating stress when it strikes.

When was the last time you took a whole day to read a book?  When you go on holiday do you put your phone/tablet away and leave work things until your return? Do you have periods where you switch off from work entirely? Most important of all what do you do for FUN?

Having fun and beating stress

I am as bad as the next person. I haven’t had a proper holiday now for 4 years and have a stack of books I have been meaning to read by my bedside.  However, this is somewhat offset by the fact that I travel for my speaking events and take a few days either before or after to explore where I am or lounge around near a beach.  I also started a rule some time ago that on Sunday’s (unless imperative) I will not turn on my pc or look at my tablet which has freed up my time to stick my nose in a book and lose myself for a few hours.

Explore what you might enjoy.  It might be going to the gym (yuk), it might be roaming the countryside and having a picnic, it might be taking up a new hobby (I’ve just taken up archaeology and am loving it).  It could be anything just make sure it is not work related and makes you smile and relax.

The beauty of a hobby is that you can switch off from work demands and literally, “go somewhere else”. When you are absorbed in an activity your brain can focus on that activity alone and the other concerns literally get filed away. This is like a holiday for your brain and all those neurons that over fire during anxiety can rest.

A side benefit of having a hobby or interest is not just beating stress but warding off disease.

Research has suggested that combining good nutrition with mental, social and physical activities may have a greater benefit in maintaining or improving brain health than any single activity.

Stress is bad for your brain health and as you get older you may find yourself becoming forgetful or unable to focus. By giving your brain a break from the demands of your workload, you improve its cognitive ability and this can be helpful in not just beating stress overload but also in warding off diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Making time for hobbies and beating stress is possible

And if you are still saying “I don’t have enough time” – yes you do. In a week, there are 168 hours of which you sleep 56 and 40 are normal business hours – that still leaves you 72 hours per week to do something else if you want to.

It does take planning and commitment and sometimes the best way to do this is to schedule your downtime. If your calendar looks full, find a slot each day/week that you block off just for “you time”.

Plan breaks between periods of activity to allow the business of the day to filter down to your subconscious (where lots of ideas and solutions lurk). I find that walking away from a problem for a while often helps a solution to present itself. So, engaging in a hobby for an hour- or just doing a crossword, reading a chapter of a book etc. allows your brain to rest and think through a problem in your subconscious while your conscious brain is having fun.

If you are a workaholic- you will find that after a while you become less effective. It is not “heroic” to keep pushing yourself through this- it is counter-productive. Beating stress is not an option- it can severely compromise your ability to function. So, do yourself a favour, step back, take some time out and when you return to your work you will be refreshed and more effective.

The Dangers of Stress – And How to Overcome Stress

Is it important to overcome stress?

It’s been well documented the work hours lost attributed to stress.  An expensive condition to both employee, employer and the self-employed.  And yet we still push ourselves to the limit and don’t raise our heads enough to notice that this month is a perfect time to slow down a little.

According to medical research the physical problems related to chronic stress include the lowering of the immune response, chronic muscle tension, and increased blood pressure. These problems can eventually lead to serious life-threatening illnesses such as heart attacks, kidney disease, and cancer.

When your immune system is compromised you are prone to catching colds, fevers and any bug in proximity- you literally cannot fight off infection. You may find that as soon as you relax, such as go on holiday, you get ill and then as you are forced to rest you recover and eventually feel much better than prior to the illness. The adrenaline of working can keep your immune response functioning but all you are doing is stacking up the impact of the underlying stress for later.

Stress leads to everyday niggles such as headaches, insomnia, panic attacks, general aches and pains and a feeling of being “under the weather”. More serious long term effects of stress are depression, weight loss or gain and mood swings that disrupt your work and family life.

Take a stress break

A vast swathe of the working population is now entering the summer holiday season when their sprogs are off school and need catering for in other ways.  Noting that the ideal is not to leave them glued to their phones or game consoles thoughts turn to taking off for an annual getaway. How best to keep them entertained…How best to deal with the increased costs of looking after them….They might get 7 weeks off but can you afford to?  All this induces a different kind of stress which is equally as damaging. You are supposed to be taking a break and overcoming stress but all that is happening is the stress triggers have changed.

For us childless people August brings another type of stress.  With so many others off work for large chunks of time our work automatically slows down as fewer decisions are made or are deferred until after the summer break.  Particularly for the self-employed this can be extremely frustrating e.g. not many companies have conferences in August so my work dries up!

However, the trick is to embrace this change of pace.  It’s going to happen and there is nothing you can do to stop it so accept it and make the best of the slower period ahead.

Overcoming stress – some practical tips

Don’t wait until your holidays to tackle your stress- but make the most of this break to set yourself up with some good habits.

It’s all about pacing yourself. That means getting a regular good night’s sleep and eating properly as the basics.

Taking care of yourself is not selfish, it is necessary.

If you are working then your organisation may offer some stress busting activities as part of their staff welfare program- take advantage of them

If you are self-employed, then when you do your annual planning, identify your peaks and troughs. Build in a break in the quiet times and use those times for long term planning that will save you time when you are busy.

If you are a parent- planning activities you all enjoy can be as simple as playing sports, going for walks, or playing card games when it rains. The holiday away may not be within your budget but kids value your time more than expensive holidays so stop beating yourself up about it.

Overall, take the impact of stress seriously. If you have a constant headache, feel ill and fed up most of the time- chances are you are experiencing stress. Take some time each day for some deep breathing. Plan your weeks to minimise stressful situations and when all else fails, get outside in the fresh air and walk. Studies show that nature is one of the best cures for feeling stressed.

I will be covering some stress busting techniques in later articles, but would be interested to hear any of your tips- just comment below.

The Blame Game – a game with no winners

For more years than I care to remember I have heard numerous companies stating that they ‘want to get away from the blame game’ they want to promote a culture of inclusivity where employees can voice concerns or point out problems without fear of retribution.

However, I see very little evidence that this is not more than just something to be said rather than a true cultural shift.

Coming back down to basics; an employee will always feel that their position is vulnerable.  If not from external forces, as we are seeing, such as economics forcing workforce rationalisation but also from internal pressures such as being regarded as a trouble maker. Employees in general, are afraid that if they lift their heads above the parapets to complain, they will be shot at!

Avoiding the blame game

A progressive employer wants to encourage employee participation and will listen to their views whether they be good or bad.  One way to achieve this, to remove the fear of retribution, is to set up some form of confidential feedback reporting.  A system that is completely anonymous but allows those who care about their employer and want the whole company to do well to give feedback. A way for them to express their opinions, thoughts and views which the employer can then take on board. It needn’t be complicated.  Even a simple suggestions box tucked in the corner would do or an anonymised feedback from online.

Public sector organisations have a written whistle blower policy for the more serious concerns and many large companies have the same. The term whistle-blower dates to the 19th century when policemen used to blow their whistles to alert the public of impending danger or crime. However, Ralph Nader, the US civic activist made it popular as a more positive spin on the idea of being a “snitch” or a “grass”.

When the blame game gets serious

Whistle-blowers take a huge risk when exposing unethical behaviour, illegal conduct or misdeeds, whether within a public or private sector organisation. Although protected by law, the law is vague and open to interpretation and many have lost their jobs or even been prosecuted. Hardly surprising then, that many employees keep their heads down and say nothing.

If something is going wrong within a company the front-line employee is far more likely to be aware than those sitting on the board of directors. A progressive company understand this and welcomes constructive feedback from their workforce. More importantly, a company has an ethical duty to eradicate sexism, racism and bullying from their workplace. They cannot do this if these incidents go unreported.

Signs that the blame game is in operation are; low productivity; high staff turnover; high sickness and absence rates. This indicates that somewhere in management, someone is not taking responsibility for the welfare of their employees. They are blaming, rather than listening.

Concern yourself more with accepting responsibility than with assigning blame. Let the possibilities inspire you more than the obstacles discourage you

Ralph Marston

The 21st century blame game

In this age of technology, companies would be well advised to take employee discontent seriously. In much the same way that an angry customer can leave a scathing review on their website or slam them on Facebook, so too can a frustrated employee. Moaning about work may be a national pastime, but social media enables those moans to go viral. Yes, if an employee writes defamatory comments about their company the organisation can sue them for libel, but is that the best solution?

Would it not be better to allow the employee a safe platform on which to air their grievances? Many schools do this well, with student suggestion boxes around the building. They then follow this up with student council meetings at which the suggestions are discussed.

Dismantling the blame game culture

Employees who feel their voice is heard tend to be more productive. If the culture is one of “keep quiet and get on with it” the company is guilty of a subtle form of bullying. The employer does have the power and most workers know this. They can strike, if they have a grievance and a union to back them, but surely that is a last resort?

The first step to dismantling the blame culture is to view all opinions as having equal validity. The marketing director may be angry and worried about the overspend on advertising budget by their ad manager. The ad manager may feel that the wrong instructions were given and is now terrified of losing their job. The reality may be that the system for setting budgets is flawed. Blame does not resolve this and costs the company money.

Allowing employees to express their opinions requires the company to listen first. Then there needs to be acknowledgement- the views have been heard, the company is investigating. Finally, there needs to be action- steps taken and the results fed back to the employees.

The imperative is that the employer actively promotes the system to their employees and then ensures they read what is said and act/report back on any issues raised.

Round Peg/Square Hole – the skills and job mismatch

I’ve deliberately switched this saying around as have you not sometimes come across people who don’t quite seem to fit their role and are rattling around knocking against the sides of their expected employment?

It could be that their role is not challenging them enough, or is too challenging.  It could be that their personal skills do not suit the role that has been allocated to them.  They may need more guidance, training or even given their head to develop their role.

Square pegs struggling with round holes just don’t fit and it can be easier for them to make a change in job or career. Your round peg employee has, on paper, all the skills needed for their job but somehow it just isn’t working. People in these situations are often discontented or have gripes that are ultimately destabilising for the rest of the team and company. They threaten to become that “difficult employee” everyone gossips about or, worse, triggers complaints.

As an outsider often brought in to help with company change and transition I meet quite a few of these round peg people.  It is such a shame as the skills they do have or the contribution they could make are missed.  These employees are aware that their abilities are potentially not being maximised. They may find parts of their job extremely tedious because it is way below their actual talent. Some parts of their work may be way outside their comfort zone, the gap between their ability and the requirements so great that it leaves them frustrated and anxious. In these cases, they will become challenging to work with as they try to avoid the areas that bore them while dodging the areas they struggle with.

Avoiding round peg dilemmas

In the fast changing 21st century jobs often must evolve to keep up and this can trigger a mismatch between skill level and job requirements. An employee who originally was a fit, becomes disillusioned at these changes; their job no longer matches their ability to perform it.

Here are some steps to help you avoid this situation

Step 1:

Creating detailed person specifications and job descriptions for each role in a company ensures a proper match when recruiting.

Step 2:

Reviewing these roles as change occurs will identify training needs for current employees

Step 3:

Implementing regular training to upskill employees will help fill the gap between current and needed skills.

Step 4:

Performance appraisal that is constructive, not punitive will identify a discontented employee before their disillusionment has an impact on the team and the company.

Perhaps checking at an annual review with specific, non-blaming questions might bring situations like this to light and enable relative minor changes that would retain a valuable member of staff.

Step 5:

Consider job rotation as a method to keep employees engaged, interested and their skills updated.

When an employee just doesn’t fit with the company ethos

Sometimes the round peg syndrome is because of a shift in company ethos. Change happens and change management is a crucial part of a company’s development. Some employees resent their jobs changing and resist. They do not see the gap between their skills and the job requirements as a positive challenge; they see it as a threat. As a business goes through transition it throws up many challenges and often brings to light those round peg employees.

To successfully effect change you need your employees to be on board so you cannot ignore their discontent. If you are an employee experiencing this and feeling as if your world is tilting, then take a good hard look at how you see your role. It may be time to get out of that square hole completely, whether shifting jobs within your current organisation or changing jobs totally.

Being a round peg in a square hole can be unsettling, but it does not have to be ongoing.  It may be that only a few tweaks to the role are needed to enable a comfortable fit. I have a helpful free guide on dealing with change – The Change Reaction that looks at how we deal with the necessary changes life and work throw at us. If you are an organisation going through changes and are discovering a lot of round pegs, then contact me to discuss how I can help.

Creative Space and brilliant ideas

creative space

Does your business have a creative space?

Now here is a business idea I love and have adopted myself.

At one of my clients’ offices I saw a glassed off area within their normal offices.  Inside were beanbags, funky paintings, an area with jelly beans and other treats, wipeable painted walls and decor that suggested a fun, light and airy playground rather than a stuffy office environment.  This was their creative area.

Employee team meetings were held in this area and the whole emphasis was on being creative.  No idea was too silly or nuts not to be considered.  It was scribbled up on the walls and then followed or discarded by further scribbling and noted thought processes.

Enjoyment and relaxation while thinking was the raison d’etre of this room and my client advised me that some startling yet great ideas had come from meetings such as these which had then shaped the company’s onward policies and tactics.

Brilliant.  And I can’t see why this would not work in any office, industry environment.  If we want the best from ourselves and our people surely creativity is where we will find it?

Making a creative space for yourself or your employees

If you are an entrepreneur and working from home it can be difficult to have that creative space. Maybe your office doubles up as a study for other members of the household or is just a space in the family living room. If possible, try to create a separate space for thinking and working, away from family and home life. I know entrepreneurs who use their conservatory or even their sheds as creative spaces. Outdoors can be a great place to think. If this isn’t possible, then home-based business owners could take themselves off for a spa day or play a round of golf, to relax, chat, and think away from the “office”.

If you are a business then consider creating a brainstorming, creative space for employees, following the example of my client. You may need to get creative to make the space, so think about those unused areas that you keep for occasional use or those landings between offices that generally have a few plants a picture and a couple of chairs nobody ever sits in.  As meetings tend to be outside client hours (or should be) – landings are a greatly unused space perfect for some free thinking.

The benefits of creative space for innovation

Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. All too often business is told it needs to be innovative but has few tools with which to inspire innovation. So, brainstorming meetings take place weekly, in the same surroundings that are styled for professional conformity. It is kind of hard to think outside of the box, from within a box.

What goes on in the space you choose is important; relaxed rules, no idea too foolish etc…but the actual environment has an impact on the thinking taking place. How many of you have had great ideas relaxing in the bath? Or out jogging, or simply lazing in your back garden? The reason is that your mind has been freed from the routine thinking that characterises your daily work life.

Now, I am not suggesting a bath time team brainstorming; but a relaxed and informal environment frees the mind from the constricts of corporate thinking.

Plants, real ones, releasing oxygen feed the brain and running water has been shown to calm the brain waves and allow freer thinking. There is another upside to this which is more engaged and loyal employees. Allowing a space for creative thinking empowers employees and encourages them to contribute to the company strategy. This then gives them a sense of ownership of company progress which is highly motivating. Motivated employees tend to be more productive, so it’s a win, win, scenario.

So, next time you are trying to infuse some energy and change into your company, consider- do you have a creative space to enable those potential brilliant ideas?

What is the Point of Lessons if we don’t learn?

learn lessons

As well as being upset, along with the rest of the nation, as to the recent tragedy unfolding with the Grenfell fire I have also been deeply aggravated by the governments’ response of setting up a public inquiry into what happened and what were the causes.

Every time a major public tragedy occurs this is their stock response. However, as I personally discovered and as I fear we will see again, what is the point of holding public inquiries, finding out the ‘why’ when little tangible action is then taken to implement recommendations that are made?

Everyone wants to learn the same thing from painful situations: how to avoid repeating them.

Gary Zukav

Learn lessons from the past, then apply them.

They pour time, effort and public money into these types of inquiries but to what purpose?

By their very nature inquiries take a great deal of time, often years to conclude and by the time they do come out with findings and recommendations the immediate furore tied to the incident has died down and the will to make the necessary changes seems to have evaporated.

I can think of numerous examples where the time delay has led to exactly this happening and the authorities then shelve the findings as the things that need to be put right are inconvenient or too costly in their opinion. Lessons are clearly given but the will to learn from them melts away.

The only times I can think of when inquiry recommendations have been enforced and put into action have been where survivors or those affected by the incident have had the patience and energy to keep campaigning for them to be done.  I know this first hand as if I had not set up the Paddington Survivors Group and we had not then spent 5 years of our lives pushing, insisting and generally being a nuisance to the establishment our inquiry findings would have been ignored just as they had been from Clapham and Southall before us.

Cutting through red tape, learn lessons, take action.

It is simply not right.  The will should be there and remain there to make the improvements necessary and action should follow. There must be a better way to apply the lessons learned from tragedy in a timely fashion so that we prevent further tragedies occurring.

Business can be guilty of this too. When faced with disquiet amongst employees for example, they conduct internal surveys to identify the concerns. Then, they ignore the findings!

When something is going wrong; people affected naturally want to know why. Business leaders, governments, councils and those in authority have a duty to explore and investigate. However, investigating is only appropriate if you are then committed to actioning the results. All too often, the results are unpalatable; someone is to blame, mistakes have been made. The ostrich reaction is to ignore the results, bury them, delay action, argue the cost implications and do nothing.

Leadership is about accountability, responsibility and action. When something goes wrong, be it accidental, negligence, cost cutting, poor decision making or outright fraud; leaders step up and act. When disaster strikes and people’s lives are affected, responsible leaders find a way to cut through the red tape and fix it. Watch how fast a business will change course in the face of competition or a government will pass a bill that affects the immediate economy when it is needed. It can be done, it just takes the will and smart thinking.

An alternative to a public inquiry is an independent review.

In some cases, there may well be alternatives. The recent – highly revealing and highly cathartic – report on Hillsborough was handled not by a public inquiry but by an independent panel. Lawyer free, much cheaper and quicker, and, in that case, chaired by a bishop.

One of the problems with public inquiries is the heavy involvement of lawyers who slow down the process, add costs and whose legalese recommendations are too obscure for many of the public to understand. Public inquiries may be prompted by a need to feel something is being done- and will therefore disappoint if no action is taken. They can provide a catharsis for those affected by tragedy, but frustration when they drag on too long. They may demand accountability, but actual prosecution and/or blame may be a long time coming.

Ultimately, when tragedy strikes, we all want to know, why? Could this have been prevented? However, the process for discovering this should be as swift as possible, outcomes focused and recommendations succinct or no lessons will be learned.

Do You Ask the Advice of Others?

We don’t like asking the advice of others especially when it is exposing a weakness in ourselves.  However, keeping quiet and not asking is a recipe for disaster.

Sure, to err is human and I believe we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes however it is better to make an informed mistake rather than an un-informed one.

The advice of others can improve your decision making

When considering any new task, even if you have researched thoroughly and formed your opinion or decision, I would urge that you run it past someone that you trust, respect or has more knowledge than you in the field.

If you worry about what they may think of you asking for the advice of others, perhaps you need to consider what you are afraid of. Do you feel as if you must behave like the expert, all knowing and all powerful? Are you worried they will think less of you? If their reaction is to belittle you; they were the wrong person to ask. Yes, choose who you ask for help carefully, but don’t suffer on alone when you are stuck or not quite sure if you are on the right track.

In my experience, truly successful people are willing to give advice generously and they also ask the advice of others. They are not so proud that they don’t value other’s perspective and their motivation is to achieve the best they can. Whether that is a new product, approach, way of thinking or a service; getting advice from others can improve the outcome.

The advice of others can spot mistakes

A fresh pair of eyes on things is never a bad thing.  Sometimes we get too close to our subject and can miss a vital or obvious detail that they may spot.  If their knowledge is greater, helpful suggestions normally follow which only goes to improve your final offering.

This is why I am an advocate for mentors.  I develop relationships and connections with people that I do value the advice of and they are my first port of call before launching any new idea or concept into the public domain. One of the greatest benefits of mentors is that they bring their own experience to the table, but they will often challenge you to take risks. They should also be part of your circle of positive people I have written about before, which helps you to take a positive approach to your challenges.

Even the most apparently successful and famous people have mentors. There is always someone who knows more than you and, conversely, someone who knows less. The trick is knowing who to ask and who, in return you can offer advice to. It is a two-way street, this giving of advice.

It is especially crucial to tap into the expertise of mentors if you are an entrepreneur. Starting a business can be scary, but it does not have to be a solo journey.

The idea of launching a business should no longer be a scary or daunting experience, riddled with unknowns. It should be a collaborative experience accumulating the learnings of the hundreds of local entrepreneurs who have already built successful businesses, and can help you move faster and avoid known pitfalls based on their years of experience, as entrepreneurs themselves.

Source: Forbes

Beware the advice dragons!

There is a however.  Sometimes we can get too much advice and sometimes it is not asked for.  I would always advise that you politely listen but remember that in the end it is your decision.  There are, sadly, those whose sense of self-importance extends to giving frequently unasked-for advice.

These are often those who are threatened by a new way of thinking; the “out of the box” idea that challenges the old way of doing things. Try to pick through the advice to discern bias from practical suggestions and see if there is any truth you can use. Sometimes within their negative reaction are kernels of truth you may need to accept.

However, ultimately you are the one who must live with the outcomes of any decisions you make, not those advising you.

Provided you are willing to accept the consequences, good or bad, of your informed decision then go with it even if it is at the expense of ignoring some of the advice of others you have received.

Don’t Dismiss Until You’ve Tried It

One of my pet hates is when someone announces that they definitely don’t like something (e.g. Indian or Chinese Food).  “Have you tried it then” I will enquire to which the answer is invariably “no”.  So how on earth do they know they don’t like it.

Some of our likes and dislikes are inherited; our parents didn’t like something and we followed suit. Or a dislike is based upon fear; fear of trying something new, resistance to new ideas because they are out of our comfort zone. Some dislikes are based upon ignorance. Maybe we heard somebody say something was bad/disgusting/dangerous/pointless etc and we took what we heard as truth, without checking it out for ourselves.

It is the same with business ideas.  Don’t be too quick to dismiss something, a suggestions or idea until you’ve investigated it further or tried it out.

Try it out, dare to be different

Some of my most successful ideas have come from the pottiest of ideas.  “I wonder if…” is a phrase I use all the time.  I will at least have a cogitate over the idea, bending and twisting it, following through mental paths before deciding if it is viable to act upon or really is a non-starter.

Clive Sinclair may have been dismissed as nuttier than a fruitcake with his weird looking electric car the C5 but the idea of an electric car was not dismissed.  The Toyota Auris Hybrid is certainly sexier than the C5 but it uses Sinclair’s concepts and elevates them to a car you can feel good about driving and is ecologically sounder than it’s petrol rivals.

Sometimes we dismiss ideas because they don’t “fit” with how we see ourselves. I may have been a champion for rail safety but I don’t see myself as very adventurous when it comes to physical challenges.

Hot air ballooning was an idea suggested that I might try. ‘Uh oh I don’t think so’ was my initial reaction as I don’t have a great head for heights but my second thought was ‘what the hell – I’m here so I’ll have a go’.  It did help that we floated above the Valley of the Kings so the scenery was spectacular but I’ll always remember the feelings of exhilaration and clarity once my fear had subsided.

Similarly post the rail crash I was faced with many challenges; the greatest being, what do I do now? I could not afford to dismiss ideas out of hand as I was literally reinventing myself. Many companies face that dilemma when the old way of doing things is no longer working. They may want to retreat to the safety of what they know, but if that is not giving them success, then new ideas and a different direction are needed.

Some of the world’s greatest breakthroughs have come from a lateral approach and a willingness to say, “What if?”

Feel the fear and try it…

I harness these same feelings now when I am faced by situations that I am not keen on and sail smoothly through them accomplishing the goal the situation offered.

Rather than dismiss an idea I suggest you “Don’t knock it, till you try it”. If fear is holding you back, identify the source of the fear before dismissing a potential new experience. Sometimes that fear is fear of ridicule; we hate to look foolish. Or, it can be a genuine fear for your safety; in which case, do your due diligence. Most scary pastimes are in fact, absolutely safe.

A friend of mine was terrified of roller coasters, without ever having been on one. She conquered that by going on a trip with her sixth form students, who held her hand, took photos and all cheered when she reached the end of her first ride. The rush she felt having achieved this, meant they couldn’t keep her off the scary rides for the rest of the day!

At the very least; try new foods, new social occasions; go to the theatre, or the ballet if you have never been, it can be quite an eye opener. By opening yourself up to new experiences you often find out new things about yourself.

Don’t be too quick to judge something you have never experienced; if you try it you may surprise yourself.

If I try something and really don’t like it I won’t repeat the experience but I am content that at least I tried.

Stay Open to New Ideas

So you’ve reached your pinnacle.  You are top of the heap. You are master of all you survey…..or are you? Are you open to new ideas or satisfied you know it all?

One of the dangers we can all face is complacency.  With success, there is a real possibility of you thinking that you have nothing more to learn.  Do not be fooled by this kind of self-arrogance.

All of us, however experienced, will still have things to learn until the day we die.  It’s imperative to keep ourselves open to new ideas.

Being open to new ideas means learning from the most unexpected places

I know I am learning all the time.  I ask lots of questions and then go off to research the answers which often opens new areas for consideration.  I actively pursue courses, new experiences, gatherings and lectures in both my professional life but also in different sectors that strike me as interesting to know more about.

If you work for a forward-thinking company they will commit to always educating their employees. If you run a business, then make that commitment not just for your employees, but for yourself. If you employ people who think outside the box, do not see their questioning as a threat, more as an opportunity. Beware the, “We’ve always done it this way” trap.

It may come from the most unexpected of places.  I’ve found simple statements from friends’ children can set off a whole string of ideas and thoughts that lead to surprising solutions.  Or it may be a throwaway comment by someone that sparks the germ of a new idea that I can then follow up on.  Your employees are a great source of innovative thinking if you allow them the chance to express opinions in a safe environment. Be open to the new ideas they come up with.

Even when I have sat through a talk that I have found quite boring or it has not sparked off anything for me I can usually winkle out at least one little gem to take forward which then makes it worthwhile.

Staying open to these and using them as fodder for new and different thinking is the key to continued success and development.  It’s what keeps us ahead of our competitors who have fallen into the complacency trap.

The danger of not being open to new ideas is extinction

Closing yourself off will lead to eventual extinction just like the dinosaurs. Look back over the significant business failures of the last decade and see how these companies “died” because of old thinking.  An example is Jaeger who failed to identify and attract their core customer- middle class, middle aged women as consumer buying habits changed.

Glen Tooke, consumer insight director at Kantar, says many retailers have been “left behind” as buying patterns have changed. “These companies are stuck in a rigid, seasonal buying cycle which no longer reflects how consumers shop,” says Mr Tooke.

About Jaeger – Glen Tooke at Kantar says

…the firm also relied too heavily on special offers, estimating that discounts accounted for over three quarters of Jaeger’s sales.

“This constant stream of sales and offers has discouraged shoppers from paying full price and has lessened their trust in the quality of the Jaeger product – one of its fundamental selling points,” he said.

There is talk that Jaeger may re-emerge but probably only as an online retailer. Relying too heavily on what used to work is likely to doom business to failure- whereas being open to new ideas allows for the possibility of exploring potentially profitable opportunities.

This also applies to us as individuals and solopreneurs. Scientific research has shown that stimulating the brain with new thinking helps ward off diseases such as Alzheimer’s and is good for our health. Being open to new ideas does not mean jumping into unknown territory every 5 minutes; that level of risk is not practical. It simply means avoiding being stuck in the same old way of thinking. It brings new perspective to problems and can encourage alternative solutions. It also allows us to grow as individuals and business owners/employees.

So, the next time you are listening to someone’s talk, or reading a new article about tech developments or innovation; consider, “why not?” rather than, “this won’t work for me”. Be open to new ideas and new avenues may well be the result.

Brain awareness and avoiding sabre-toothed tigers

How to develop your awareness

Day in and day out our brains are having to think and take in millions of bits of information but just how much of this are we fully, properly aware of?

It is important to be keenly aware even in this age when we are not (normally) being chased by anything that is going to eat us.  Why? Because that is when spotting opportunities and seizing them becomes a reality. If you understand the importance of this you can train your brain to pay attention and avoid the business sabre-toothed tigers that still stalk us.

From my train crash injuries, I have been left with a right hand that has hardly any feeling in it.  It also occasionally spasms either tightly shut or fully open as well as jerking entirely of its own volition.  Having broken vast amounts of crockery, and inadvertently thrown my butter knife at my dinner companion sitting to my right, I quickly learned that I had to pay attention to what my right hand was doing.

To start off with that meant deliberately staring at it when expecting it to function in a normal way. Over time my body adapted so that I can now keep an eye on it out of the peripheral vision of my right eye so that hardly anyone notices that I am doing so. Now I know my circumstances are extreme in comparison with most people, but it has taught me a valuable lesson in awareness.

Brain awareness makes business sense

This is also how you learn to develop your awareness.  To start off with you may need to slow down and deliberately look at everything carefully. Do it often enough and you’ll find ‘peripheral’ awareness kicks in and it will become second nature and you will easily see things that others are missing and that is when you can grab them for yourself.

The devil is in the detail and developing your brain awareness helps you identify those small shifts in your surroundings that can signal either danger or opportunity.

As a secondary effect, it helps you develop your empathy as it requires you to observe outside of yourself and helps you pick up the nuances in emotions that otherwise you may miss. Why is this important in business? People often mask their dissatisfaction with a situation to appear polite or because they want to avoid confrontation. Thus, a deal is lost because one or more participant is dissembling and the other is unaware of it. Misunderstandings arise because one party is distracted by the “big” picture and misses an important detail.

As you develop your brain awareness and start paying attention you can clear away the distracting clutter and information overload and hone in on the important parts.  All this clutter in our information loaded world can cause you to lose track and miss something vital so it is crucial you learn how to cut through the noise.

Your brain’s neurons need oxygen and glucose to survive, and all this information uses up your brain’s energy. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get or send is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether you get that report done, remembering to call the credit card company about that strange charge, or figuring out how to smooth things over with your sweetie after a spat last night.

Brain awareness leads to clarity of action

Once you can train your brain to observe and develop this peripheral vision you subconsciously process the useful information it is collecting. The next step is to clear away the distractions to allow you to focus on action steps to move you forward. It is a delicate balancing act between collecting and processing and discarding information.

The most successful entrepreneurs are those who spot, then seize opportunities and they operate with a kind of antenna that is constantly aware of their surroundings and can spot details that others miss.

Whether your brain is the type that takes in too much or too little information you can train it to become more aware and then more focused through meditation and breathing techniques.

If you lack focus, then practice total focus on a single object, always bringing your attention back to that object in a quiet room and breathing to a count of four in, hold for four and four out to steady your breathing.

If being over-focused is an issue then sit in the same quiet room but allow your gaze to wander, taking in every aspect. Allow yourself to focus on each and every detail of the room, then move onto the next, until you are aware of every nuance of the rooms’ objects and the light and shade.

These techniques help you to balance activity between the prefrontal and parietal cortices of the brain and strengthens the connections between the two.