Wednesday 25 April 2012

Caffeine – A Cornerstone Habit?

I’m two weeks in to my 100 day caffeine free trial. After getting horrible caffeine withdrawal headaches for the first week I’ve been fine, and haven’t had any caffeinated drinks. I’ve eaten some chocolate, perhaps a little more than normal, but not much more.

In terms, of how I’m feeling I have to report I feel better without the caffeine than with. I’m much less tempted to have a glass of wine in the evening, so my alcohol consumption has plummeted. This in itself is a significant benefit. Sadly, it hasn’t resulted in any weight loss, but you can’t have everything! I’ve also taken up yoga again. It’s hard to know whether this is connected with giving up caffeine, but during the first week I did a lot of tidying up, and generally “putting my house in order”. So I’m tempted to think it was connected, but who knows?

On balance, therefore, I’m think there is something in this idea of a cornerstone habit. Improve one part of your life and other bits start following on, almost without any effort. It’s a very interesting idea that has lots of potential. Of course, it doesn’t have to be caffeine, it could be giving up smoking, taking up exercise, or making your bed in the morning. It could be anything. 

Curiously for me, I’m also growing tired of the debate about whether caffeine is or isn’t good for you (me, one, anyone). For me, it’s becoming clear that I’m a bit better off without it. It’s not a die in the ditch thing, but my life runs a little bit more calmly when I abstain. So whilst I’m sure there are benefits to drinking green tea, such as the antioxidants, I’m going to give them a miss. It’s no big deal, just personal choice. I know from past experience that a lot of people are interested in the do or don’t drink debate surrounding caffeine, but I’m no medic so can’t really contribute. The internet is a great resource for getting information on this sort of thing. I think running a personal trial with and without is no bad thing. Then you can make your own mind up.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

How to Love Yourself

At the risk of sounding like a real tree-hugger, I was thinking about self-love and self-esteem at the weekend.  A friend has written a rather lovely novella on the subject and I read the first draft on Sunday.  Apart from being a gripping read, it reminded me of the importance of looking after oneself.  I suspect there are lots of people who don’t spend enough time thinking about their own needs, whilst spending lots of time thinking about other people’s. 

The novella reminded me that we have to love ourselves before we can care for anyone else.
By loving yourself I don’t mean conceit or selfishness, rather taking care of one’s physical, mental and spiritual needs in order to function properly.  Put like that it doesn’t sound selfish at all, it sounds plain sensible.  Like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others on the flight we all hope we are never on. 

The odd thing is, once you start thinking about how to love yourself, it isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Thinking about what is best for you as an individual goes against the grain; we are too used to fitting in and not making a fuss. 
It’s hard to know whether my very unscientific experiment of giving up caffeine for a few months is encouraging these thoughts about what’s good for me, but the thoughts are there.  As caffeine is going out of my system, in comes thoughts about exercise and drinking more water.  Oh, and yoga classes.

I’ll be honest; this isn’t an area I’ve given much thought.  So you might say it’s an area I need to work on.  So I’ll give you a list I found, from someone who has come up with sensible non-tree-hugging conclusions.  This is the link if you are interested:
And this is the rather helpful list:

1.       Forgive yourself

2.       Stop comparing yourself to others

3.       Stop seeking approval

4.       Believe in yourself

5.       Practice silence

6.       Eat healthy and exercise
7.     Express yourself

Friday 13 April 2012

Cornerstone Habits

So the caffeine withdrawal headache is still there, but not as bad as yesterday.  I’m guessing I’m in for a few rocky days before my body gets used to the idea that we are on another mission.  100 days with no caffeinated drinks.  Why?  Well my reasoning is slightly different from last time.  Last time I wanted to find out how long it took to create a habit.  Naively I concluded about 100 days.  Boy was I wrong.  I think it can take years to override a habit you love like smoking or drinking (alcohol or caffeine), overeating or whatever.  Psychologists believe the habit will always be there, you just have to find ways to overcome it.  I’ve yet to experiment with how long it takes to establish a new good habit.
This time I’ve got two goals with my 100-day challenge.  Firstly, it’s to see if I function better without caffeine in my tea cup.  Secondly, it’s to see if certain techniques work and make it easier for me this time (last time I had three attempts over about a year and a bit).  You’ll hear about my experiences with both goals in the weeks to come, so find another blog now if this sounds marginally less interesting than the washing machine on spin cycle.

In fact, there is a sneaky third idea.  And that’s the idea of a cornerstone habit.  A cornerstone habit is a habit that starts off other good habits.  When I tried giving up caffeine a few years ago I found I was less likely to have a glass of wine in the evening, and more likely to exercise.  That sounds a bit like kicking-caffeine might be a cornerstone habit for me.  So I’m going to repeat the experiment and see what happens.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Caffeine Withdrawal

Will I ever learn? It’s not that I didn’t know about caffeine withdrawal, heaven knows I’ve been there often enough, but somehow I always forget. So after yesterday’s brilliant idea of restarting the 100-day caffeine-free challenge I woke up with a raging headache. Not a normal, little bit of a headache, but a huge horrid head-falling-off-shoulders headache.

The strange thing is, I didn’t think I was drinking so much tea that I would get withdrawal symptoms. Clearly, I was. And going cold turkey produces headaches, fatigue, drowsiness, irritability, difficulty concentrating and a host of other symptoms one wouldn’t normally choose. So, children, if you are going to try this at home I’d recommend the gradual step by step reduction. It has all the advantages of reducing or stopping your caffeine intake, and none of the disadvantages of feeling like you’ve been out all night drinking with your wildest friends.

Withdrawal symptoms apparently peak between one and two days after giving up, and last for two to nine days. So that’s something to look forward to …

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Self-discipline and caffeine

I talked yesterday about achieving goals and self-discipline.  Self-discipline is a recognised predictor of happiness, health, the ability to perform well in education, work and life in general.  So it’s an area worthy of some thought.  Like many people, I believe I have self-discipline in some areas, and less in others.  One interesting aspect of self-discipline (or self-control) is that there is some evidence that being disciplined in one area leads to improvements in other areas.  So increasing exercise, for example, leads to healthier eating, a higher propensity to stop smoking, etc.  They are known as cornerstone habits, and they lead to other seemingly unconnected good things happening.  

So at the risk of sending long-standing readers to the hills, I’m going to repeat my kicking-caffeine experiment.  For reasons I can’t quite remember, caffeine is back in my life.  I’m drinking reasonable amounts of green tea during the working day, and enjoying it immensely.  But for the sake of science, I’m going to document my experiences of not drinking caffeinated drinks for at least 100 days.  That's no coffee, no tea (black, white or green) and no Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Red Bull or the like (that won't be difficult for me as I don't drink them anyway). 

My experience to date is that habits are difficult to break or alter and that 100 days is the minimum  amount of time that is meaningful for such an attempt.  In true no-time-like-the-present style, I’m kicking off today.

It’s been almost 2 years since I tried this for the first time, and I’ve learnt a lot more about habits and self-control since then.  So in the days ahead I will fill you in on some of the techniques I have learnt that I hope will make this attempt a easier.  In the meantime, while you are all enjoying your coffee, I’m going to have another cup of Rooibos tea.  Yum!

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Achieving what’s Important

We all care about different goals.  Some want to run a marathon; others dream of getting a first for their art history degree.  Some care passionately about delivering an important project at work, and going on to yet greater responsibility and job satisfaction.  Others are frustrated with lack of success in completely different areas.  Whilst all our goals are very different, they are tied together with more commonality than differences.

What’s very clear is that achieving what’s important to us matters a lot.  It matters for our happiness, our financial security, and our ability to make choices in how we live our lives
There are just four steps to achieving your highest priorities:

1.      Be specific about what you want to achieve. 

2.      Plan what you will do to be successful.

3.      Make time to do the big, important things, as well as fitting in everything else.

4.      Stay in control of your days.

It’s short, specific and anyone can do it.  But not everyone does, even though there is a mountain of research to demonstrate that it works.  The reason for this anomaly, despite everyone’s protestations about how important their goals are, is equally short and specific.  It’s self-discipline.
It’s not that we don’t know what to do; it’s more that it’s a lot of effort to do it. 

A recent Horizon programme called “The Truth About Exercise” promised a way out of hours in the gym, at least for some people.  One minute of high intensity training, three times a week, can keep you fit.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Almost as good as a silver-bullet list for achieving your goals.  The difficulty is that one minute of truly high intensity training is not pleasant; I know because I’ve tried it.  I’d go as far as to say it’s unpleasant.  It’s certainly not an easy option, but it does get you fitter.
There’s the rub.  If you want to compete at the Olympics you have to get up early and train hard, so hard that you start to dream of opening a sweet shop in Devon.  If you want to achieve your goals you have to work at it - not on an exercise bike until you feel queasy, but at your desk until your brain hurts.  And then some.

The good news is that whilst you may not be a natural athlete, you can achieve important goals where you do have the necessary ability and motivation, providing you are disciplined enough to do what needs to be done.  Discipline isn’t a fashionable word, or a particularly agreeable notion in a world of instant-gratification.  On the plus side, if you want something badly enough, you don’t have to wait to win the lottery.  You can go out there and get it.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Are you are making progress?

“I’m like a little boat adrift in the ocean - I don’t know whether I’m 200 yards from land or 200 miles.”

When we are working under difficult conditions, it’s easy to lose sight of the basics.   The old saying “when you are up to your neck in alligators, don’t forget you came to drain the swap” is never more true when something is hard going.  We set out bright eyed and bushy tailed only to find everything a lot more difficult than we realised.  As time marches on our enthusiasm dwindles, and we start to wonder whether we will ever be successful.

I was talking to someone a few weeks ago about his business and he said he felt like a little boat adrift in the ocean.  He had no idea whether he was 200 yards from land, or 200 miles.  It’s not a nice feeling, and it’s all too easy to give up when you feel like that.  He was taking a step back to figure out what to do with this feeling.

What’s needed is to work out what’s important in your business, and to measure it.  In his business it was getting face to face meetings with people who have a need for his service.  As it turns out meetings with prospects is a lag indicator, rather than a lead indicator.  That is to say that the number of meetings with prospects is a result of work already done.  That work might be meeting new people at networking events, or having people request a white paper from your web site, or making a certain number of cold calls each week.  You know what the activities are that you need to do to create the circumstances where meetings with prospects start to get into your diary.  So the lead indicators are number of new people in your contacts database, the number of marketing communications sent out, etc.  The lag indicator is the number of meetings with prospects.  To say it another way, you reap what you sow. 

Coming back to this feeling of being a boat adrift in the ocean, it’s important to measure this activity.  Unless you know on average how many people you need to contact to generate a meeting you will never know where you are in the ocean.  If you don’t know where you are, your motivation takes a hit.  Without motivation you don’t do those upfront activities that are actually the life blood of your business.  So measurement isn’t a nice to have, it’s actually the map that guides our little boats through calm or chopping waters. 

I wrote about lead and lag indicators a while ago, if you want to have another look.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Clarity of Purpose

Anna Wintour: “People respond well to people who are sure of what they want.”

We somehow think that a clear purpose will come to us from above, as the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, or as Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi  tree.  Some people are lucky enough to know early on their where their talents and interests lie.  Anna Wintour reckoned she was just 15 when her career in fashion was fixed[1].    For the rest of us, being clear about our purpose is hard work. 

There is no escaping the fact that a clear vision is essential to the success of any organisation, and essential to the success of those within the organisation.  

If being clear about your purpose was easy, though, everyone would be highly focused on their specific goals.  Sadly, that’s not the case for one very simple reason: being clear about your purpose means making a choice.  By choosing one path you close off others.  For many people that is very difficult; the grass always looks greener someplace else, particularly when things don’t turn out as you planned.  So our attention wanders to something we think might be more profitable, more interesting, or just plain different from the problems we are facing.  However, that is exactly why clarity of purpose is so powerful; choosing forces you to focus your time, resources, and energy on one thing.  And doing one thing vastly improve your chances of success.  The old saying that the hunter who cases two rabbits catches neither one is as true in business as it is in the woods.  

When we are sure we are doing the right thing, we can sink ourselves fully into the activity.  Free from distractions, we become absorbed in our work.  Disturbances that would normally cause annoyance are ignored as we focus on the job.   Concentration and effectiveness are at their highest when we have absolute clarity about what we are doing and why we are doing it.

[1] When Anna Wintour was just 21 years old she told her co-workers that she wanted to be Editor of Vogue.  She achieved her ambition in 1988 and 24 years later she is still Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue.

Monday 2 April 2012

Be Sure of What you Want

Driven, ambitious and competitive; this is hardly the description you would expect of someone born into a wealthy family.  But it might be more understandable when you know the person’s father.  Charles Wintour was editor of the London Evening Standard following a decorated military career.  His daughter Anna obviously inherited his coolness under fire.

Anna Wintour is, of course, the legendary editor-in-chief of American Vogue who was savagely depicted in The Devil Wears Prada.  Ms Wintour is characteristically unruffled by such things.  She has been editor of Vogue since 1988 and has a loyal following from friends and staff.    She is unrepentant about her management style, saying[1] “people respond well to people who are sure of what they want”.  Her skill of course is both knowing what she wants, and being mostly right.   Her track record is impressive and Vogue continues to be an icon for all that is desirable in fashion and lifestyle.  It has made and broken many promising careers.

Being sure of what you want sounds simple enough, but reaching the point of clarity and being able to communicate it clearly isn’t always easy.  Without that clarity, however, decision making becomes laboured and people confused.  Your decisions may or may not be popular, as is the case with Ms Wintour, but at least people know where they stand.