…Get into the habit of eating properly. Don’t skip meals! You skip a meal, your metabolism gets sluggish and your brain’s not being fed so it’s like driving your car on gas fumes. It’s going to be bad for the engine. Eat little and often or have three good meals a day. Five meals is recommended because it keeps us going and then we have a period without eating.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Padraig Acton.
Michael Padraig Acton is an effective and experienced therapist, counseling supervisor, systemic life coach and author. He primarily acts as an intensive consultant to private clients.
His focus is on the cutting edge of therapy where reported or proposed evidence-based best practice meets the tough and unpredictable world of private clinical therapy. For more information, please visit https://mpamind.com
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?
Without going into too much detail, it was very tough. Being Irish and English, feeling different and being different, having dyslexia but being top of my class for maths — it was very confusing. I guess we all have our struggles, everybody has their story and my childhood shaped me into a person that really wanted to make my struggles help others in some way.
From a very young age, I had to learn how to survive and how to be independent. I became a teacher first, just to give me a job that could give me a home and feed me, but I was surrounded by amazing influences.
My Auntie Violet gave me safe shelter and she always believed in me. She designed crosswords and was a bookworm and she taught me how to get answers to questions by reading encyclopedias. People thought I was crazy reading encyclopedias but I loved it. I love knowledge and Google is now my encyclopaedia.
I also love seeing how people think. I used to walk through London at the age of 14 or 15. I would get the train, on my own, from the village station. There was no ticket master after 6pm and the barriers in the London stations were open. I was tall so I got away with some things but I used to just walk the streets and observe people, see what they were wearing and what they were doing. It was really special. I didn’t know how to be so I learnt how to be by observing others.
I had meningitis at 16, quite a severe bout, and I almost died. It knocked out my hippocampus a little bit so I had to learn how to read and write properly all over again. But I have always felt very grateful. Even through the really tough times when my faith, spirituality, optimism and hope has been really knocked, I’ve always felt that I’m doing OK. My benchmark is very low so anything that I develop on top of that is great.
I was a teacher for a number of years but I wasn’t a natural. I found counseling and therapy quite by accident. I saw a counselor for a few sessions at University and thought it was amazing being seen and heard. Then I was asked to be a pastoral carer at the college I taught at and I loved and got an awful lot from it.
I would say that from the nearly 30 years of being a therapist and a researcher and a contributor to people’s wellbeing, I have received the most amazing rewards. And it’s not about money. It’s about seeing someone have a light bulb moment or somebody to heal or make the right decision in a very confusing time.
I never felt my basic therapeutic training was enough. I really wanted to go further and be as helpful as possible with the best therapy ‘toolbox’ so I just kept on studying. I’ve got no idea how I did it because I did twenty year’s worth of study whilst working full-time, several jobs. I’m a sponge and I just found it amazing. All the person-centered, clinical, cognitive, social psychology training; the systemic work; the relationship training; the psychoanalysis; the psychodynamic; the family work,;the young person’s work; the trauma work; HIV/AIDS; gender dysphoria; pain management and disability (I wrote my thesis on that). All of it just seemed so nourishing.
So that’s my background. Choosing psychology and psychotherapy was a really big decision because I had no support. But I’ve never looked back. If I hadn’t changed my career, I wouldn’t have had as good a life as I have now.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Mr Oliver at school. He was one of the real teachers (i.e. he wasn’t a brother or a priest). I wrote a poem about inside and outside: the difference between sitting in a classroom and nature outside the window. He read it and said, ‘This poem is amazing. You’ve got a future.’ At the time I was scared of my own reflection and was just trying to survive. His words made me feel I had possibilities.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I have learnt from every person in my life, every encounter and every shift. But what’s influenced me the most are the patients I’ve seen over the years, putting me in a humble position and teaching me a lot. People come to me with huge issues, whether that’s an inability to cope, burnout, a death or disability, a trauma of some kind or substance abuse.
They don’t come to me lightly. They come to me because there’s a serious issue and they’re going to spend time, money and a lot of hard work to get somewhere that they want to be. But they also bring amazing skills on how they’ve coped so far. Although they’re coming for help, they teach me tricks and ideas and I listen to and make notes of them all. I’ve got almost 30 years of that so I would say the biggest body of influence in my life are the people that have come seeking help and I thank them immensely. Many people don’t think of that. There is a great book that was written called On Learning from the Patient and I really didn’t understand it when I was studying but I understand that influence in my life now.
And maybe myself in a way (if that doesn’t sound too self-important) When things aren’t going well and I’m hitting walls, I have always had this ability to step back and ask myself why I can’t get through the wall. What am I doing wrong? Is this a good fit? Is it meant to be? Although I left my formal religion in my teenage years, I’ve gathered an awful lot of skills and ideas from every religion in the world, everything from Judaism to Islam to shamanism.
All the above are big influences but I would say the biggest constant influence is my work with people.
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?
There are so many and I say that so truthfully!
The funniest mistake I made was with a potential supervisor in Glasgow. I was actually in Edinburgh at the time, studying in Dundee and working at Dundee Royal Infirmary. I needed an external supervisor and I chose a psychoanalyst because psychoanalysis was a big thing at the time, it was quite trendy. I found this guy in Glasgow which was an hour and twenty minute train ride at the time and I went to see him, not knowing much. I was very green. I didn’t know about the big world, really. I went to see him in this nice room, with a fireplace, and he sat there and we talked. Or more accurately, he let me talk. There was something very weird about the session but I really wanted him to be my supervisor. So I was trying to win him over and I said to him, ‘I really, really want this. I will take the horse by the balls and run with it,’ rather than the ‘bull by the horns.’ I started to giggle and corrected my mistake but he didn’t flicker. He just looked at me and nodded knowingly. I didn’t really understand the model of psychoanalysis, that you interpret everything, and I thought that this person didn’t have any sense of humor or didn’t want to talk to me so although my utterance was a mistake, it actually closed the door because I never wanted to see him again.
I’m pleased it did because I think psychoanalysis is great. I think people can gain a lot from it. However, I’ve never since been attracted to it. I’ve had colleagues who are psychoanalysts in the hospitals or clinics I have worked at and they don’t have an off button. You will see them at the coffee machine or something and you say, ‘Oh, how are you today?’ and they will just smile knowingly and nod. It’s not for me. I’m more black humor and fun and ‘leave it in the therapy room.’ I’m real in the therapy room but even more real outside.
It was interesting because a number of years later when I was studying with Mick Burton and Mic Cooper in Sussex University, in Brighton, I went to a psychoanalytic group meeting. We had to do these group supervision things and there weren’t many at the time. I was working at the hospital in Brighton and in the medical center in the university and I found this psychoanalytic group supervision and I was initially supposed to go five times but fortunately three was enough: by the time I did three I had had enough.
They were saying things like, ‘Oh, when a client is really in a difficult place, they come and sit on my lap and we work through what sitting might mean…’ and there was me seeing eight people a day and working shifts. I thought gosh, either you don’t see a lot of people or you’re all nuts.
I think for some people psychoanalysis is great but I’ve always been more of a practical worker. I work with the person where they’re at and I don’t interpret everything. I help them work it out with them. I was always trained that you don’t have any physical contact at all. In fact, sometimes we frustrate the feelings. Rather than calm somebody or band aid them, we say, ‘What are the tears about?’
Another thing. I couldn’t get my head around was that psychoanalysts expected their patients to pay for their therapy in the month of August which is when therapists traditionally take time off. I just can’t get my head around that. It’s like saying, ‘Here’s your dinner’ and giving them an empty plate. I’m not knocking psychoanalysts and I got a lot from studying Freud and Lacanian interpretations etc. but it’s not my way of practicing and certainly I wouldn’t want to be helped by a psychoanalyst.
Frankl was a very dear friend of Freud and was also following the same stream of psychoanalysis at the time. But Freud looked after wealthy individuals that could see him five or six times a day, lie down on a couch and talk with Freud sitting behind, taking notes and listening. Frankl had people needing help from working families or people with responsibilities. He developed logotherapy, logical ways of helping people drawing from psychoanalysis. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is based in logotherapy. I met Frankl’s grandson in Austria and we had a frank discussion — no pun intended — about what works and what is real.
So I guess, that’s my funniest and most interesting mistake. From that one hour session in Glasgow, I ran for the hills screaming. Taking the horse by the balls rather than taking the bull by the horns was a great mistake and very interesting because it got me out of the psychoanalytic arena immediately.
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?
If you want to follow in my footsteps, I would say success is only achievable if it is your passion. Without being scientific or wordy and being very real about it, passion is something that feels right in your tummy. If it feels like the right thing in your gut, do it.
This career has amazing rewards. When I see somebody’s path change or them develop in some way, it’s just fabulous. It’s insanely nurturing.
However, along with that there comes the darkness, the trauma. Sometimes there are periods where it’s just relentless and we really have to take care of ourselves. I know that the one of the bases for this interview is about caring for ourselves and that’s one thing we have to do. Across all my many years of training, the number one aspect was that if you don’t have a responsibility to yourself, you can’t have a responsibility to others. I have clinical supervision every month for one and a half hours and during that time I check on my cases, I check on me. My supervisor, Ruth, is amazing. She holds me as I hold my supervisees, the people I supervise. We look at safety of the person because we run towards the fire of trauma. We see things that sometimes people wouldn’t even want to think. I work in quite severe cases so somebody following in my footsteps would have to make sure it’s absolutely right for them and test their toes in the water.
I would say in any kind of career, you have to take care of yourself and you have to have the passion above all else. We need to monitor ourselves to make sure we are coping because burnout creeps up on us. I have been burnt out a couple of times in my career. From being a single father at times to workload and study and everything else. And then before Christmas, we can have people in desperate situations, even dead and we have to cope with that. We have to work with it and know that we’re being genuine with the people. In some of my training they say you have to be with the person where they are. I’ve cried with my patients. There’s no way you could avoid that. And then when the sessions are over, I’ve got to work out what I’m going to do with myself so that balance is really important.
So it’s not just about being a successful therapist and helping people. It’s about having enough passion to get you through the good, the bad, the highs, the lows. It’s also about believing in people, believing that people change at their own pace, for their own reasons and just not giving up on them. Just being with them where they are.
So my advice to somebody coming into the world of therapy or family work or relationship work is: choose the area you like the most, explore how to qualify and explore where you would like to work. I wrote a thesis on pain management and neurology and I loved the subject but I didn’t realize I would be in a hospital working with an aged population. I was this young whippersnapper in a suit in an office in a hospital and I didn’t stay in chronic pain management for too long because I wanted more diversity.
So if you’re really serious about it, maybe do some intensive therapy with somebody and work out if you can manage it and what success in that career would be for you.
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?
I was in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on a six month teaching contract and I was in my early twenties. I got the mumps and there were very, very few pharmaceutical drugs available in Saudi Arabia at the time. All my colleagues were male and they were worried because if you get mumps in your twenties or thirties you can be sterile. So I had zero friends and there were no women on our compound so I was really on my own for a good three and a half, four weeks and I was swollen everywhere. It was miserable and I had a local doc that would come to me and give me as strong a medication as he could.
I was in one room with no TV so there had been a whip round to get me some paperback books. One was called August by Judith Rossner, a story about a dialogue between a patient and her therapist. I never knew I was going to be in that world but I found the book absolutely fascinating and comforting too in my situation. I remember the phrase this therapist used when her patient/client talked with her. They would get to a junction and the therapist would say, ‘So tell me, tell me…’ It’s interesting because I use ‘Tell me’ a lot in my work. This was pre my career change because it wasn’t until a few years later, when I was in Australia, that I decided to go down the psychological route.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
It’s quite easy for me because my favorite is on a post-it note at the top of my computer screen here. It says, ‘You live the life you accept for yourself’ and I think that’s very profound.
I guess I’m living proof of that. I decided not to accept poverty. I decided not to accept abuse. I decided not to accept many things in my life and that has got me to safety and peace. Some people accept where they are and not everybody’s the same. Some people are comfortable with the familiar even if they are not in a really good place.
Success is something we have to revisit in our lives at different times. The most successful person I have ever met, and I’ve told people I work with this, was a young mum in Atlanta, Georgia. I was living there at the time and I needed my hair cut. I was so busy I decided to just jump into this Supercuts, which was around ten bucks for a haircut. This really nice girl came over, smiled and invited me to come with her. I went and sat in the chair, we went through how she was going to cut my hair and then she said, ‘Would you mind me asking you what your favorite recipe or favorite food is?’ I was quite taken aback. Through the conversation she revealed that she had this six year-old child, the father didn’t live with them and she was on her own as a single parent. She said she loved her job and loved helping people and she just had this big glow around her. She said what she likes to do is, if her clients don’t mind (she was very humble this woman, with a beautiful smile) is to ask them for their recipes so that she could make something similar and take it to the church group. She collected the recipes from all these different people and there was just an aura of peace and happiness about her. I’m sorry if this sounds a bit gushy but it is something that really stayed with me (and this is going back 15 years or more) because she is one of the most successful people I have ever met.
You live the life you accept for yourself and she was a hairdresser in a ten buck cut shop but she didn’t accept a life of victimhood even though the person she got pregnant with didn’t want to marry her and she was on the breadline, working hard and being a single mum. She went and got a job, trained to be a hairdresser and makes these dishes for her church. That’s her success. She gives. She shares stories, she shares recipes. I hope that child’s been good to her because he will be in his twenties now.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m just finishing a parenting book. The book Codependency & Narcissism: Walking You Away from Toxic Relationships is doing so well and the reviews are coming through. Whenever I embark on a project, I always think that if I help one person, it’s worth it and I’ve helped hundreds.
Codependency & Narcissism is a very dark book about a dark area. I’ve worked with narcissism and codependency my whole career. I don’t work with narcissists because I choose not to (and they very rarely come to me for help) but I work with an awful lot of the victims of narcissists.
I’m really pleased to come out of the dark now and move into parenting. This will be a very practical and very useful guide. I was the best dad I could be but that means I was failing loads and faulty and did the wrong things. I could only be an OK enough dad and I’ve seen parents struggle, whether it’s in work situations or friends, and sometimes they just need a bit of reassurance on whether they’re doing OK or not.
Having said that, there are some big challenges for parents these days and it’s everything from addiction to devices to loneliness and more. It’s a different world we live in now and this parenting book hopefully is going to give very practical, concise help to the parents of today. It’s for parenting from zero to 21.
I do want to write a follow on book on parenting adult children because I think that’s the most difficult part of parenting if your child’s dysfunctional. As an example, I’ve come across adult children, while working on drug dependency units, who have disappeared for years and the parents think they’re dead. Then they turn up at the doorstep and the parents are so relieved to see them but they’ve got drug debts. I’ve known families to lose everything. They’ve sold their house they’ve worked their whole lives for just to give £20,000, £40,000, £70,000, whatever it is to keep their child alive and then guess what happens? The child disappears again.
Across all demographics there are dysfunctional families and there are wonderful, healthy families and there are all the in-betweens, mostly in-betweens (like my good self, I’m in-between). There are some really amazing parents and there are some really unhealthy parents. I had a discussion recently with a trust wealth manager and I’m thinking it might be an idea to interview him about his experiences are. He looks after a lot of the rich and famous in the UK and in Europe and he comes up against quite huge struggles sometimes with families. I think that will be a nice add-on to the parenting book.
And then a really interesting book that’s going to be coming up next year, in 2022, is a book on death and dying. I love Kubler-Ross, Yalom, all the people that have written on death and dying but with COVID and everything that’s happened recently, I think death and dying needs to be revisited as in how we heal from it and how we manage the concept of death and dying. What is it now? What is it in this world where we don’t necessarily have funerals? What is a funeral about? And also what is death and dying across different cultures? I was fortunate enough to be in India a few years ago and went to Varanasi where they burn the bodies on the side of the river and I learnt an awful lot in India about their concept of death and dying. Having lived in the Middle East and been in the outback in Australia with shaman, I’ve found it interesting to see how people manage death differently and learn about their different philosophies. Then there is the struggle of managing different kinds of death. We have traumatic death which is unexpected. It’s called complicated grief in my field. Sometimes a relationship break-up that was only three months long can be the most devastating loss to a person so we should never judge anybody. Loss is very, very personal. If you soul connect with somebody and all of a sudden they disappear or break up with you that can be traumatic.
The death and dying book will include a chapter on teenagers because I don’t think they are heard enough when they are really struggling with a loss. We need to hear them and not judge. I know lots of drama queens are running around at that age too but sometimes there are really bad losses and if they are not managed well enough that can then create a damaging pattern for their future lives.
So these are the projects I am excited about.
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?
Oh gosh, I’m the worst person to answer that as I sip my coffee in the afternoon.
There are several areas where creating good habits is important.
First, good habits around waking and sleeping avoid us becoming depressed and burnt out. When we didn’t have electric light and gas we would stay in packs, wake up with the sunlight and go to bed with the darkness.
We have so many distraction now. We have light pollution, TV, news from all over the world, internet. All great but do they really help a human stay healthy? No. Blue light keeps people awake at night and with scary news stories, crime dramas and horror movies, you’re not going to get a good night’s sleep because you’re hyper-alert.
Then there’s shift work, I don’t know how people survive shift work. It should be illegal. I don’t know how you would do that because we need shift workers but shift work has been proven to cause anxiety, distress, depression, withdrawal, body fatigue and burnout. Burnout is huge on shift work. It depends on what kind of work you’re doing but it’s just unnatural for humans and an example of a bad habit. We need hospitals to be manned, we need airplanes to be built, we need all these things shift workers make and do but when you’re on a shift routine, you’d better have good habits because you’ve got to compensate for that bad routine.
My good habit is I have a dog that gets me up every morning at six. I love dogs. They always have a habit of waking up with me and I think I’ve been so far down that road now that even if I go to bed at one in the morning, after a party or watching a good movie, I’m up at the same time every morning. So that’s a good habit for me because then I’m tired and by nine, ten o’clock I’m dozing.
A power nap helps me through the day. That really recharges me. I can’t actually survive now without doing that and a good habit I’ve got into is before going out for the evening, I make sure I lie down for about 15 minutes. I make the time. It’s a good habit to have because otherwise I’m just stressing and extending myself and I’m not going to be really present.
People also have to have good eating habits. It’s OK if you’re carrying a few pounds or you’re a little bit too skinny but the way we eat affects the brain. Even if you’re absolutely broke you should still eat little and often to feed the brain.
We’ve complicated things by socializing food. Papua New Guinea used to be the only country in the world without eating disorders because they never socially ate. They ate as they worked or as they walked around. We socially eat and comfort eat and drink all these different poisons (I have gin and tonic and wine myself but I have created the good habit of limiting myself).
Habits are important for making us happy. What is happiness? What habits could evolve happiness?
One habit to get into is listening to your stomach. That’s where our truth is. I was taught that by shaman. Our truth is always echoed in our stomach and if we throw out a boomerang with the truth on it, (i.e. what we really want to do), we don’t care what comes back.
I was asked by a Chamber of Commerce group that I did an interview with recently what to do if you’re unhappy at work whether it is a person causing you unhappiness or the job. I said apply for another job or reflect and step back from your career and ask yourself whether is this for me because generally we can earn the same amount of money doing something else. If you’re a lawyer you can change the type of law you practise. If you’re a cook, you can change the place you’re cooking at. If you’re a waiter, you can change the bar or the restaurant you’re at. There are many different options. You just have to step back, listen to your gut and think,’OK, whilst I’m doing this miserable job, I’m going to look for other opportunities.’
I’ve worked with athletes, actors, singers, people at the top of their careers and they have been very unhappy. Most of them changed their career. Once they made that move, they were fine but it had to be the right move. The truth that was in their stomach.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Having a healthy balance and listening to myself have been important. Some habits I benefit from include having a soak in the tub or going for a walk. I exercise to music every morning which gives my brain a break. It can be any kind of music I like but it’s like a meditation that gives me time out from thinking as well as physical exercise to pump the blood which is very important. So it’s mind, body and spirit. You have to look after the mind, body and spirit because they’re all connected and very dependent on each other.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
It’s New Year again and people have all their ideas on what they want to do differently but it’s their motivation for doing things that’s most important — and that motivation has to be the truth.
Somebody I know that’s very dear to me said, ‘I desperately want to lose weight’ and it was a good 70, 80 pounds and I asked them, ‘Why do you want to lose weight?’ They said, ‘Well, you know, health,’ and I said, ‘No, why do you want to lose weight?’ They had a cigarette in their mouth at the time and a drink in their hand so it wasn’t about health!
Finally they said, ‘Do you know what? It’s for my family. I can’t play with the kids. With this mass I can’t do things. I can’t go biking, go on a slide, get on a swing. Everything’s a mess and I’ve got no energy.’ That person proceeded to lose 90 pounds and changed their life. But they had to do it for the right reasons and not ‘health’.
So even though a good habit may have health benefits, you have to think, ‘What’s going to keep me on this track?’ The same with career. ‘What’s going to keep me on this track? What’s my motivation? What’s my passion? What’s my vision?’
How do you know which good habits will benefit you? If you put down your five bad habits, they will usually lead you to what the good habits are if you look at their opposite.
You can stop bad habits by listening to the body. Be aware of mind, body and soul alerts. If it isn’t working, change it. If you’re waking up with a hangover too often, if you’re too tired, If you’ve got constant diarrhea, if you’re nauseous, if you’re feeling sluggish, your body’s telling you something.
You wouldn’t drive a car that’s not going fast enough would you? It’s the same with your body. If you’re taking care of your body enough it should be in tune.
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. Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
It depends on what we mean by wellness. If we’re looking at overall wellbeing, we’ve got to look at what works for us and do more of it.
One good habit to nurture is taking time out for yourself and giving yourself time to stop, something we all need in this world of craziness.
So if you think, ‘I really enjoyed sitting on the train going to work because it was 25 minutes for me’ but during lockdown or due to changing jobs that doesn’t happen any more, we have to say, ‘I’m not doing the train anymore so what I am going to do to find a place to be for 25 minutes a day where I can watch people go to and fro or just sit on my own just 25 minutes?’ If we’re on a train, we can relax and let ourselves go because we’re told when we’re at the stop.
To develop that habit, I’d say get a kitchen timer (that’s what I do for my time out naps), set it to 25 minutes and just sit there. No screen. No music. No radio. Nothing. Just sit there and see what that 25 minutes does for you. Make sure you have that 25 minutes without interruption.
Second, get into the habit of eating properly. Don’t skip meals! You skip a meal, your metabolism gets sluggish and your brain’s not being fed so it’s like driving your car on gas fumes. It’s going to be bad for the engine. Eat little and often or have three good meals a day. Five meals is recommended because it keeps us going and then we have a period without eating.
How do we develop good habits with food? Maybe don’t eat late. Maybe think about favourite foods and doing portion control for instance: not having too little, not having too much. Some people eat a celery stick for breakfast. What? You can’t run on a celery stick! At least have something every two hours. Not McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, etc. Have those occasionally, for sure but eat nutritious food throughout the day for wellbeing because otherwise you’re going to feel sluggish or stressed and your engine won’t be firing properly.
A final good habit for wellness involves people. I know we do an awful lot of communication with people every day with work, social media, etc. but make sure you actually call a friend or send a friend a text or something every day. Just keep connected. I think we can lose the ability to remember what a joyful conversation or a nice reach out with somebody can be. It’s important to keep a little bit of that going. And maybe send a kind message. Giving kindness out to people brings us a lot of wellness. So a habit of sending a really nice message to a friend once a day and see what comes back.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
For a start, repetition is not enough on its own. Even though I practised and played tennis every day for many years, I never became a pro so it doesn’t matter how much you try something sometimes. I enjoyed the game but I wouldn’t have wanted to be a pro. It was my social thing and it was wonderful to me.
First, get into the habit of being realistic about goals because this affects anxiety levels.
Anxiety is so important. It’s often bandied around as a bad thing. 50 per cent of depression is anxiety. It’s about feeling overwhelmed, helpless, etc. But we also need anxiety to perform well. In performance psychology too much anxiety will make us give up. Not enough anxiety won’t make us push hard enough. What gives us the right amount of anxiety is having realistic goals. We say, ‘OK, this is my target, it’s achievable, I can do it and that’s what I’m going to be building myself up to.’ The four-minute mile was broken by one man many years ago, in the 1950s and guess what happened afterwards? Hundreds of people could suddenly run the four-minute mile because they felt it was achievable, they could do it. So if you have expectations which are above and beyond what your ability at the moment is, you’ll not probably get there and your anxiety will go up because you’re trying to do something that’s not achievable. So being realistic with your goals is really important for performance.
It’s the same for work performance. If you are a lawyer with seven cases on, be honest with your boss (or yourself if you are your own boss) and say, ‘You know what, I can only take on five because I’m not doing seven well.’
Second, get into the habit of being properly geared up and getting the environment right for your activities.
If you’re uncomfortable, you’re not going to perform well so whether it’s your clothing or the environment you’re in (the view, the air quality, ambience, atmosphere, etc.) equip yourself with what you need. Sometimes we can’t choose where we work, where we’re running etc. but try and choose the best thing possible to perform at your best. It can be any kind of adjustment. If noise is a problem, carry ear buds with you. If you’ve put on a bit of weight and that skirt or pair of pants is a bit tight then take the time and get a clip put in it so you can sit down comfortably and perform. Maybe your glasses need renewing and you’re getting headaches. Change the glasses. You have to. Find a way to do it.
Third, get into the habit of dividing your time well. This applies to work, sport and even parenting.
A good habit with parenting time is to have a schedule that’s workable but flexible because one child might be sick, you might be having a day off, somebody needs a bit more extra attention etc. You can’t do all of it. You have to be realistic. There’s only one of you. Even if you are two parents parenting, there’s only one of you that can control you. You can’t control the other parent. So we have to work out what we’re inputting and when.
There are no parenting heroes. There’s adult time and child time so performance is about acknowledging logistics. If you’ve got a 2, 4, 6 and 14-year old, you’re going to have to manage that somehow and and divide your time between those children. And give yourself time too. We can’t parent 24 hours. That’s why if we have a child with autism or a geriatric parent that’s in constant need, we have carer’s support. You won’t perform well at anything if you’re not taking care of yourself. So allocating a certain amount of time to certain things and making sure you’re taking care of yourself in the matrix is very important.
A good way to develop that habit would be to write down the schedule and tell everybody about it. Have a family conference. Plan out the way it’s going to be and make it your template.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
A good habit for focusing would be to be honest about what you need to focus so you can create that environment, create that situation.
The first thing that came to mind was university. Some people would study with headphones on, listening to music and others needed absolute quiet. Just because somebody else can focus in a certain way, it doesn’t mean to say it’s going to be the best way for you to focus.
Number two, organization. You can’t focus on anything if you’re not organized. If you have 17 plates spinning at one time, a few of them are going to fall so the best thing to do is take some of them off. Make an A list of important things for now, a B list, things that can wait, and a C list, things we can put off. Work out what’s right for you, not for somebody else. I’ve got a simple in-tray, pending and out. Out’s the things I’ve dealt with, pending are things which I can put on hold, aren’t a matter of life and death right now, and the remaining things are like bills I have to pay otherwise the electricity is going to be cut off. So we have to prioritize and we have to learn how to do that. Focus will happen naturally if we can say, ‘OK, I’ve got this bit to deal with now, I can get to that tomorrow,’ etc.
The third habit for better focusing is getting enough sleep. Sleep is so important for a human. Sleep requirements can change between one person and another. Some very famous leaders, like former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, could survive on four or five hours of sleep. I need eight minimum, nine’s great. Other people can be optimal at seven or whatever. Work out what your best sleep pattern is. Make sure it’s regular if you can and you’re not on shift work, etc. but make sure you get that sleep. If you are a bit anxious or you wake up and can’t quite get back to sleep, resting in bed in a dark, calm, cool place is the best alternative. And if you’re a new parent, your child is sick or something else is happening in your life that is disrupting your pattern, just make sure you make up the sleep time somehow, whether it’s a nap or whatever.
Sleep is vital because if our brain hasn’t got the off time to process, we’re not going to be able to focus very well. Meditation is all about focus. It’s either about focusing on a certain thing or turning off the focus totally so that when we go back to our daily activities we can have more attention. So I would say giving the brain a rest is a good habit for optimal focus. Get that down time.
As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
I guess it’s rhythm, harmony, motivation and again comfort.
I sometimes get into a state of flow when I exercise in the morning. I get on the elliptical machine, I set it at seven tension and seven incline and I do three minutes forward, one minute back, three minutes forward, one minute back, etc. That’s just perfect for my body I’ve found. Sometimes the first five minutes or so can be really tough and I don’t want to be on there but I make sure I play some funky or popular music and I start to forget about the body saying, ‘Oi, I’d rather be sitting down drinking coffee!’ When my workout’s over, I often find I’ve gone past the time because I’m in the flow (I don’t go very much past it because I then want my reward which is the coffee at the end of it). I have tried to increase the tension and incline settings to ten or eleven and although it makes me more out of breath, I don’t go as fast and I don’t get into that rhythm. So, I would say that rhythm is the most important thing for a human to get in the flow.
When I’m writing, sometimes I get into this zone where the ideas will just come. It happens when I’m really enthusiastic about what I’m writing. I guess that doesn’t help people that have got to sit there and get through a massive in-tray but I guess focusing on the reward at the end of it can get us into the flow too. We need some reason for doing anything we don’t want to do. Nobody would decide to ski downhill for seven hours without thinking about what they will benefit from. And of course it’s the exercise, fresh air, scenery and also the camaraderie at the end of it. So I guess we have to step back and see why we’re doing something and also if it’s achievable but challenging enough. Going back to the elliptical, exercising at more than seven doesn’t get me in the flow because the tension is too much for me but anything less than seven is too easy so that doesn’t work either.
I have been joining people on morning walks over the Christmas and New Year period and we’d all go into a zone where we would just walking and enjoying with no need for communication. But we can’t get into the zone if our environment’s not correct. So I would say check your rhythm, check your motivation and focus and get comfortable. They’re what will get us through this. We have to do an awful lot of things we don’t like doing in the world but sometimes getting into the zone will happen if we accept that this is it and that’s where we’re going to be.
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 would like to develop the habit of kindness and that’s not me being woolly and fluffy. I do three kind acts every Christmas and it brings me so much joy I actually feel guilty doing it. It can be a gesture or a gift but not just giving a gift to somebody. It’s observing somebody that needs something and acting upon that as an act of kindness using the function of gift-giving.
So I would support a movement that develops kindness in the world because I think now we need it more than ever. From my Bible days back as a youngster, I remember it said that the person that puts a penny in the pot in church is giving as much as the wealthy man giving a pound (or a dollar or a Euro) because it’s all relative. So it can be giving a cold, homeless person a coat or sending a bunch of flowers to a nurse that’s giving her all in her work in these tough COVID times. It goes back to good habits. Just by texting somebody you care about a nice message each day, it’s amazing what you can get back.
I think that the leaders of the world at the moment (mostly, not all) are giving the wrong messages to people. They’re not giving the messages of how to be kind and get kindness back. Sometimes they can’t. There are dictators, etc. and we have to put them in their place for sure because they won’t do it themselves and people are being harmed but to lead with kindness is a very important thing. It gives an example to children. Children learn so much from us growing up and we have to give them examples of how kindness can bring warmth and stability.
The whole topic of this interview is about how we can optimize our wellbeing in many ways and it’s really all about being kind to ourselves and others. Being kind means to give ourselves that bit extra and to give others that bit extra from an altruistic or selfless point of view. And being kind to yourself is being selfless in a way because you’re doing something so you can be more optimal in the world and act more responsibly in the world. It goes right back to the beginning of this interview. If we don’t have a responsibility to ourselves, we can’t have a responsibility to others and the same goes for kindness. If we can’t be kind to ourselves, we don’t have the bandwidth to be kind to others. Look what’s happening in America at the moment. We’ve got 70 year olds fighting over who’s going to lead the country. I wouldn’t be wanting to be doing that kind of job at 78 and 74 and these guys are fighting over it. How can they get enough rest? Yes, people generally get wisdom with age but boy, I’ve got no idea how they can be kind to people if they’re not being kind to themselves. They need to lead by examples of kindness not ripping each other apart. And that’s just the USA. You’ve got people all over the world that are blaming others instead of taking responsibility for their own actions and then trying to be kind to others. And when somebody is really acting out they need kindness more than anybody so I would support a movement of kindness. With all these massive software companies in the world like TikTok, Facebook etc. there should be some kind of promotion saying do one kind thing a day. It takes a second. Don’t challenge. Don’t try and be the best looking. Don’t try and be the most active, the wealthiest or whatever. Just be the kindest in some way.
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 in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I think it would be Oprah Winfrey. Not just because of what she does on TV. Not just because she tries to harness the best in others and provides an amazing arena for people to share important things. But because of where she comes from. She struggled, she didn’t just turn up in a chair in a studio. The most impactful thing about her is that she owns her struggles, she owns her history. She is genuine. And the one thing that I feel I’ve got in common with Oprah Winfrey, if you don’t mind me saying this, is that we’re both genuine. In my therapy room, in my writings, even in this discussion with you I’m actually being very genuine. Crying with a patient is being genuine. It happens very rarely but when it does it’s communicating something. It’s showing them that I’m touched and ‘wow’. Oprah does that. She communicates for people. People feel that they can be themselves with her because she’s accepting of difference, she’s accepting that we are all individual, unique souls. However, we’re also collective in some way. She’s an inherently kind, thoughtful, brilliant person that’s learnt so much from the people she’s worked with and I say that’s what we’ve got in common so I’d like to have breakfast with her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
That’s very easy, you can go to MPAmind.com. On there you will see snippets of videos (including the video we made of this interview), access to the books, what I do. I still see people and help people but on a very limited basis now. I’m almost 30 years in so I do more writing and research, trying to help a broader, bigger circle than what my mere mortal soul can do in a room with one person, family or couple. But I do still keep my hand in and work with people. So if you would like to see a bit more about what I do or some of my favourite quotes or writings or projects or a little bit more about my biography, my history or whatever then MPAmind.com.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.