“Make yourself a priority”, David Couper and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

When you find yourself doing things that you don’t want, take time to reflect on what happened. Our “bad” habits often come about because, as a kid, we decided that doing one thing or another was the best way of living. Take time to see if that is true and then make a different choice. […]

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When you find yourself doing things that you don’t want, take time to reflect on what happened. Our “bad” habits often come about because, as a kid, we decided that doing one thing or another was the best way of living. Take time to see if that is true and then make a different choice. As an adult, you can do something different.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus,” I had the pleasure of interviewingDavid Couper.

David Couper is the founder and CEO of David Couper Consulting, working with clients such as Mattel, Amoco, Ameritech, Accenture, ICM, Kaiser Permanente, Keck USC, Los Angeles World Airports, and NBC. Before this, David was Vice President, Training & Development, with a significant financial institution, and Senior State Manager for Kaiser Permanente, responsible for employee engagement, leadership development, employee training, instructional design, and policies and procedures. During the pandemic, his company has supported frontline employees and healthcare leaders with resiliency and burnout.

He started his career in Japan, where he spent four years working with the British Council and the BBC. While in Tokyo, he worked with Suntory, Shell Oil, and Japan Gasoline Corporation. He has also worked in his native UK in London, consulting with major banks and financial institutions, including Halifax Bank and Alliance & Leicester. He is a published author of four business and career books. Regularly quoted talking about business and careers on TV, Radio, print, and online, you can find David in outlets such as NPR, Forbes, CBS News, and Newsweek Japan.

He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication from Cardiff University in the UK; a Master’s in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica; and a postgraduate diploma in education through the Royal Society of Arts in the UK.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I’m a Brit who grew up in a Bed and Breakfast in the same town as the old British comedy Fawlty Towers. My first job was washing dishes by hand, and I waited tables for my parents. My parents were great hosts and loved to make people feel at home. I learned that from them, and I am pleased that my 14-year old son has learned two things — first, to appreciate people who work in hotels, restaurants, and stores, and second to love people and be interested in them. He talks to anyone, and I am learning how to do that too!!!

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My father was in HR, and I followed him in that, but I also wanted to be a sitcom writer. That was why I moved to LA. I didn’t end up being a funny guy for TV. So I have combined my love of education and entertainment in my work. I want people to learn and to have fun. I like to use stories as I coach people. I want people to remember what we teach them!

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

I have worked with many coaches, and they have given me lots of help and encouragement. One of my coaches was very tough with me, challenging me to do things I didn’t want to do — like firing someone I liked a lot but who wasn’t doing the job. He told me to “have a vision of the best, plan for the worst, and live somewhere in the middle.”

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

My boss in London told me that, “I had a career-limiting tie!”. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. I didn’t fit. My tie was very bright and didn’t fit in in a very corporate environment. But it made me learn how to be authentic and be proud of who I was. I found a company where everyone loved my ties!

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Think again! I would hate for someone to follow in my footsteps. I would like people to be themselves. But if I were to give advice, I would say I had my most success — I took my business from low six figures to seven figures — by being brave and yourself. After my husband, my domestic partner, died, I realized the worst had happened. I couldn’t hide out and be worried about what other people thought of me. So when I started sharing how losing my best friend in an accident when he was 50 and raising a kid by myself was the kick in the pants that I needed to go out and be myself, I found lots of people resonated with that. If people don’t like what you say, find other people who resonate with that, frame it differently, or wait until they are but don’t give up your truth.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Pema Chodron — “When Things Fall Apart.” She weaves her own story about her divorce and her Buddhist views. I liked that she said that things would go wrong — we can’t think it will always be OK — but we don’t have to stay in those feelings. We have to go back to that neutral zone.

I also like fiction and like Dickens. Dickens wrote fiction where he exposed some of the evils of his time. In “Bleak House,” he reveals how you can spend all your money fighting in court to end up with nothing and shows how disease — typhoid — can be spread to the poorest and the richest.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Slow Down (and Smell the Coffee). Slowing down sounds like the worst thing to do, but it is the best thing. When I slow down, I come up with ideas, connect to how things can work out, and stop worrying.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

One of our coaches, a physician, contracted COVID-19, and so did her 5-year-old daughter. DCC already focused on resilience training for organizations. But this made me think about how we could help.

We have been supporting frontline healthcare workers with On-Demand Coaching at USC and PeaceHealth in the NW. The people who have given so much to keep us healthy and safe are stressed, over-worked, and at high risk of PTSD and burnout. Having a safe, confidential place to download on issues, get tools for stress management, or strategize leading during a crisis can be a massive difference in someone’s outlook. We have to care for our caregivers.

Luckily my colleague is OK, and so is her daughter. At first, her daughter was fine but then had some serious problems. Thank goodness, she is doing great now.

We work with doctors and nurses, and I see how tired they are and overwhelmed. When my husband was in the accident, the staff was so incredible. I didn’t know how the doctor could go on to the next patient. He had put his soul into his work, as had the nurses.

Burnout is when people are so overwhelmed they disengage, don’t show feelings, don’t care because they are too tired and stressed to care. The people who looked after my partner were not like that, but I have seen doctors and nurses who have switched off. I told one doctor about my partner. He didn’t look up from his screen. He made a note about grief as a symptom and then moved on to my shoulder!

So we have worked on helping with burnout. Burnout was a massive problem in all industries before 2020, made worse by the pandemic. Counter to what we may think, our response to events has a lot to do with how we’re experiencing stress. Resilience training not only helps make life easier to navigate, but research shows it helps meet many other metrics like productivity, collaboration, team building, and more.

We’re just about to launch a new effort with Dr. Heather Daly of Courageous Hearts that can do just that. Our “Healthcare NOW” program has made massive shifts in organizations for increased resilience, better collaboration, patient metrics, and productivity.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

It’s good to have good habits because we learn by repetition. Discipline is a word that I didn’t like much growing up. It made me think I had to be a certain way. But later in life, I found out that “discipline” at its Latin root means “to learn.” I found out that when I have daily habits or practices, I do much better. I like to read my affirmations, write ten things I am grateful for, and meditate. My daily practice is like having a good breakfast to set me up for the day.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

I have taught myself to have habits around things that I didn’t like to do. They just become automatic, like brushing my teeth. For example, I wasn’t always good with money. My partner had always taken care of the budget. But when he died, I had to do it myself. I was scared about what I might find. I found that some things were much better than I had imagined. Now, I have taught myself to have a budget and review it every month or every week. With no information, I make up stuff!

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

Rather than starting with the habits, start with the outcome. Be clear about what you are trying to do with your habits. If you think I should go to the gym every day, be clear about what you want to achieve and ask if this is the best way. If I hate going to the gym, it will be tough to create this new habit. I had this conversation with myself about the gym. I looked at my desired outcome. I wanted to clear my head, start the day feeling good, and work on my overall health. I also realized that I like to be out in nature. So, I created a habit of walking in the desert — in Palm Springs — early in the morning. It made me feel good, got me outside, and was good for my health. The gym didn’t have the same benefits.

With bad habits, I have found that we need to look at the outer and the inner. What I mean by that is I like to snack at night, and that is not a good habit for my diet and sleep. So I looked at the outer and made sure that I didn’t have the kind of snacks I wanted to eat. I also had water by my bed so I could take a drink. And the inner I saw it happened more when I was stressed or unhappy. Eating something sweet “made me feel better.” That was how my parents dealt with life. Now I stop and think before I eat. I slow down and think about what I am doing. AND if I do have a snack, I don’t beat myself up but start over the next day.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Schedule time for yourself for health and wellbeing. Unless I make the time, I won’t do it. I put it on my calendar, block time, and say “no” to other things.
  2. Make yourself a priority. I can do something for other people or work before I do things for myself. I had to look at what might be making me want to please other people first.
  3. Don’t come up with habits that punish you or focus on your faults. I’m going to eat healthy because I am way too fat is not going to motivate you. I lost weight when I created different habits instead of dieting. I looked at the dessert and said, “do you want that?” When I slowed down, I realized I didn’t.

It was just a habit to have something sweet at the end of the meal, so I looked at healthier choices and found I liked those just as well.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

  1. Good practice around scheduling time for yourself is to review how you did at the end of each day. This practice is an opportunity to learn what is working and what is not. For example, if you see that time you schedule for yourself at the end of the day gets eaten up by unfinished projects, maybe it makes sense to switch to the beginning of the day.
  2. When you find yourself doing things that you don’t want, take time to reflect on what happened. Our “bad” habits often come about because, as a kid, we decided that doing one thing or another was the best way of living. Take time to see if that is true and then make a different choice. As an adult, you can do something different.
  3. Keeping a record of what you eat can be helpful as a way of seeing how you are doing. Check to see if there are any patterns. At weekends I don’t eat well. I do fine in the week, but I sometimes get low when alone and find that I want something fun to eat.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Create a habit where you take time to reflect, slow down, and switch off every day. Always going through to-do lists is fine, but if you don’t have time to think about what you are doing and why you miss out on ways of being productive. Have set times when you work and when you stop work and keep to them. Saying you are going home at six but ending up going home at eight? That might cause you to lose motivation, beat yourself up for not being good at managing time, and grow resentful. It’s better to be realistic and say you are going home at six on Mondays and Fridays and committing to that. Emergencies will happen but not every day. Permit yourself to take time for you.
  2. Focus on your strengths. Make a habit of doing things you are good at and that you like as much as possible. Find work where you focus on these things or have other people help you with them.
  3. List your achievements every day and include some of the “average achievements” too. Don’t discount simple things like doing the laundry, making breakfast for the kids, or having a relaxing bubble bath. These can be more important than your significant splashy accomplishments.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

  1. Connect with a buddy at the end of the day to spend time together in a quiet moment. This moment can be in person (after COVID), by phone, or by video. Hold each other accountable. It could just be five minutes to each text each other and remind each other to switch off.
  2. At the end of the day or week, review what you did and see how many things connected with where you excel or what you love doing. It’s not a time to make a judgment about how much or how little; it’s a way of seeing what worked.
  3. It’s good to write your accomplishments at the end of the day and then reread them at the beginning of the next day. Another practice is to have someone close to you list some of your accomplishments for that week. Reading your achievements out loud may be uncomfortable, but it is a fantastic way of getting used to acknowledging ourselves.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Make a habit of creating a written vision of what you want in your life. Imagine your life or one part of your life and write what you want to see in the present tense. Then each day, read it and imagine yourself living this life. I did that one time and wrote, “I am driving a white Mercedes.” About a year later, I was in that car.
  2. Prioritize what is essential in your life. If you want to start your own business, make a habit of having at least one item on your daily to-do list connected to that goal. Completing that one to-do item can be very satisfying.
  3. For an important task, develop a habit of turning off social media, isolating yourself from other people, and just looking at that one task for a given period. Multi-tasking is not the right way of focusing. Despite what we think, it is not the right way of being productive.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

  1. Read your vision each day in the morning and the evening. Create a vision board — images and pictures — of your written vision and review that too.
  2. Review your list at the same time each day. Ensure that at least one item is related to what you want in your life. At the end of the week, list all the things you completed on your master list. This practice can be gratifying and a way of showing how you are making progress.
  3. Schedule this focused time on your calendar and work with a buddy to discuss how you did and what worked. Be honest with your buddy to get the most value.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of flow. Flow is a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, challenging, and meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of flow more often in our lives?

I coach the CEO of a hospital, and he is a big fan of flow. For him, flow is when things work well together in his leadership and life, like all the parts of a brand new car or a recently serviced one. We believe that to be in that flow you have to take care of yourself. If we don’t take care of this car with regular maintenance or checking out what a warning light means, we will find ourselves breaking down. So he likes to regularly connect with nature and hike in the mountains near his home. So you have to create the circumstances for flow. If you don’t sleep, get exercise, and have a good foundation, it’s hard to be at top performance.

OK, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I believe that people are the real bottom line of a business. My work focuses on people and their joy at work. Too many organizations look at profits before people, competition before compassion, and income before inspiration. I would like us to shift our consciousness about how we work for our good and the common good.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

There are lots of people I admire because of what they have done. I admire women who are great leaders, caring, and compassionate. I love Arianna Huffington and enjoy her smart, informed, and funny commentary on “Left Right and Center.” I also admire what she created in HuffPost and how she was willing to walk away from that to start to “Thrive.” Her focus on work is where I focus too. I want people to be happy at work, which begins with being self-aware, authentic, and courageous.

I also love how Michelle Obama kept calm and balanced even when people on the opposite side of politics criticized her. She kept her focus as she helps to inspire others. I admire Hillary Clinton in similar ways. And I heard Bill Clinton talk a couple of years ago and was just blown away by how smart he was. He made points, presented significant evidence and facts for his view, and was cheerful and persuasive in his delivery. He was also funny. It was interesting how he was friends with George Bush even though their politics are so complicated.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please visit our website, www.davidcouperconsulting.com. You can find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook as well.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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