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Energy at work

People have to come to work, but they don’t have to bring all of themselves to work and they don’t have to work all of the time. Work is contractual, energy is personal. Energy at work is discretionary.

What is it that motivates people to put in that bit extra?

Good leadership has a part to play, and a good leader will know what motivates every person in their team, at an individual level.

But a really good leader will get people to recognise and play to their strengths motivations; – a personal pride in doing a good job; working with good people,; growing their technical knowledge; making a difference – whatever puts a spring in their step.

“One of the best ways of spotting a toxic workplace is noticing the absence of this discretionary energy”

I can’t remember where I first heard the term “mobilising discretionary energy”, but I’ve used it a lot since, when talking about productivity and morale at work. It’s not about working harder or longer, it’s about levering goodwill and not getting in people’s way. One of the best ways of spotting a toxic workplace is noticing the absence of this discretionary energy. In the olden days it used to be called a “work to rule”, now it turns up as a passive aggressive response to poor management. Not that I blame people for reacting that way, I just think withdrawal of goodwill lessens their power even more than incompetent management.

Many modern organisations have concentrated on process improvements, using time and motion techniques to rationalise workflow and de-skill knowledge work. Then it’s not “my” work any more, effectively anyone could do it, you’re as easily replaced as a clapped-out machine on the production line.

Henry Ford brought this method to the motor industry by breaking down the manufacturing process, and getting people to do the same task repetitively, rather than build a whole car. Frederick Taylor widened this out to manufacturing in general, and is said to have been the first management consultant. He believed that a new class of “manager “was required. Workers being incapable of understanding what “work” was, by themselves:

 ‘I can say, without the slightest hesitation,’ Taylor told a congressional committee, ‘that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is … physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron’

The eventual outcome was high output, but poor quality, as no one person could say “I built that car” and the craftsman status of a car builder was given over to unskilled labour. Build quality eventually improved when the Japanese car industry, and Toyota in particular, introduced quality circles, small teams and the concepts of pride, personal initiative and responsibility and craftsmanship.

These are old-fashioned sounding values, which are easy to forget about in the drive for progress, productivity and efficiency. But in the productivity equation, energy at work is a massive variable that will affect output just as much as streamlining systems, workflow and processes.

Mind the GapQ: Three frogs were sitting on a lily pad. It was a hot Summer’s day, and one decided to jump off and cool down in the pond. How many frogs were still on the lily pad?

A: Three. (scroll down for an explanation)

“Some people characterise it as procrastination, some think they’re plain lazy, and  others think they have a split personality.”

Have you ever made a decision and then emphatically failed to carry that decision through into action? Recently I’ve met a lot of people who are worried about their decision-making abilities. To be more accurate, they’re worried that they don’t do what they’ve decided to do. And they can’t figure out what it is that stops them from moving from “deciding” to doing. It’s fascinating to listen to them talk about it – like there’s two different people, one who decides, and one who stubbornly refuses to carry out the decision.

“if a decision is made and nobody sees it, was there really a decision?”

Some people characterise it as procrastination, some think they’re plain lazy, and  others think they have a split personality. However they explain it, it wastes a lot of time, deciding, un-deciding, re-deciding. Makes you wonder what a decision actually is – if a decision is made and nobody sees it, was there really a decision?  If nothing manifests in the real world, then nothing can be criticised. It can’t be faulted. Blame can’t be attached to anyone, and no one risks the shame of failure. The word “perfectionist” crops up a lot in this context. Apparently failure to start falls in a different category, and has totally different feelings attached to it, compared to failure to complete.

It’s easy to get drawn into the trap of analysing the causes, and being endlessly fascinated by the elaborate self-deception and mind games. That certainly IS procrastination. But how can you move from decision to action? Here’s a straw man plan – I’d welcome comments.

  1. Don’t leave a gap. Act immediately, without second guessing yourself.
  2. If you can’t act immediately (and, be honest, you probably can) set a date and a definite, practical first step that leaves a mark in the world.
  3. Use “If …..then…….” thinking to leave less time for rumination
  4. If you’re still not doing anything, check who made the decision. Was it really you, or was it one of those should/ought/must things that don’t really belong to you?
  5. Get outside of your own head, get a coach to help you.

Explanation: Why were there still three frogs? The frog who decided, never actually jumped.


past and futureI’ve just updated an old post about dealing with a negative past. While I was revisiting my past, I realised there’s another group of people who don’t necessarily have a negative past, but who are stuck there anyway, and might want an update as well. You probably know someone who hasn’t changed their hairstyle since forever, who still only likes music from the era when they were a teenager, and whose memories are focussed on a particular period of their past. Psychologists call this the Reminiscence Bump. Memories of our formative years, between 15 and 25 are more vivid and accessible than those from any other period in our lives, and they persist over a long time.

“did you know that nostalgia means “homesick” and that the original sufferers were Swiss mercenaries in the 17th century?”

Philip Zimbardo’s Time Perspective model has two different aspects of the past – Positive and Negative. If you have either or both of these Time Perspectives, you like to hang out in the past a lot more than other people. If you’re Past Negative, you’re regretting past mistakes. If you’re Past Positive, you’re nostalgic about the good old days. By the way, did you know that nostalgia means “homesick” and that the original sufferers were Swiss mercenaries in the 17th century? Doctors supposed that they were prone to the blues because the sound of cowbells had damaged their brains and eardrums during their youth.

“That didn’t work last time we tried it”

Nothing much wrong with being nostalgic, is there? It’s a harmless past time. In fact, having a positive past is a good predictor of well-being generally – you have deep roots, close family ties and a strong sense of how tradition binds us together. That’s all good, and makes you very resilient, but the flip side is less rosy. Resistance to change is the most obvious negative – you will hear your colleague saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “that didn’t work last time we tried it”. They may well be right, just don’t expect them to be the driving force behind any innovation in the team. They like to stay in the same place.

It’s only a personal theory, but I suspect that past positive people also tend to collect more stuff around them as they go through life. Memorabilia. Souvenirs. Photographs. 10 yard swimming certificates. That kind of thing. And they would tend to stay in the same place – the place where they’d set down roots – so they wouldn’t get the chance to clear out the loft every time they moved house.

Full disclosure: on average I think I’ve moved house every four years, so I like to think I don’t carry much stuff around with me. But I’ve just looked over at my vinyl record collection – most of which is clearly at least thirty years old, that I hardly ever listen to. And my books, which also come with me, wherever I go.

Guilty of a positive past, m’lud.


space time

We have five senses, and none of them is equipped to perceive time, so we do the best we can with the senses we have available. We saw last week how we organise time spatially – along lines, left and right, up or down.We use our vision to map the past, present and future, and orientate ourselves in that analogue space. Everyone does this a little bit differently, and some people even add extra features like colours.

There’s a drawback, though. We fool ourselves into thinking that we can actually manipulate time, and manage it, as if it really exists as a physical, external thing. So people focus on time-saving tips the same way as they do with space-saving tips. The key word is “organising” – in the same way you can go to Ikea and buy a nifty new “storage solution”, to get your stuff organised, you can buy an app or a technique that claims it will do the same thing for your time (without the Byzantine shopping rules).

Two things.

Number one: buying storage solutions is dealing with the symptom, not the root cause. Instead of going to IKEA to find more ways to store and organise our stuff, we should get rid of it, or better still, not get the stuff in the first place. Similarly, the way you “de-clutter” your time demands isn’t by becoming a Zen master at organising them better. You have to throw stuff out – prune that to-do list so it only has three items. Prioritising is not having a long list of things to do and then putting them in the right order. It’s doing the necessary things, executing what you have to do, here and now.

Number two: time is a construct of our imagination. Time is psychological. It follows that the tools of choice should also be psychological; not an Allen key and self-assembly instructions. That’s why we talk about Time Intelligence – by which I mean training your mind to think smarter and treat time as a concept, rather than a thing. Then it becomes less of a struggle, you’re not battling against the clock. You’ve got time on your side.




TimeHow much space do your past, your present and your future take up? Here are two ways to find out how you organise time in your mind: Get some paper and draw three circles, representing your past, present and future. They can be any size, placed anywhere on the page and linked or unlinked.

Turn the paper over and then draw a straight line. Then mark four points on the line.

1) The start of the historical past (HP)

2) The start of your personal past (PP)

3) The start of your personal future (PF)

4) The`start of the historical future (HF)

How did you do? On the first exercise, are the circles linked or separate? Are they all the same size, or do they vary. If so, which is taking up the most space, and which the least?

On the second one, how close together are the personal and historical points? Or is your lifespan a small interlude in a long line of history?

Both of these tests were devised by Thomas Cottle, a US Navy doctor, to study time perception. They show that we find it pretty easy to organise time spatially, and that everyone has their own way of coding the way they organise it. I’ve uploaded mine here, so you can compare it with what you did.

In my version, the circles run North-South, they’re distinct from each other, and the present is much bigger than the future. The past is pretty tiny as well.

On the timeline exercise, the HP is at the start of the line. My PP and PF are quite close together about half way along and the HF starts at the same time as my PF.

You’re probably thinking how wrong I am. Why have I put the past below the future, when it clearly goes to the left/right (delete whichever is not applicable). How can the historical future start at the same time as my own future? Why don’t I take up more space on the line?

Get your colleagues and friends to do the same experiment and compare your results. It’s striking how different the pictures are. So what are the implications when you’re communicating your own ideas about time? What do you need to do to adjust the picture so that they can understand what you mean when you’re talking about big the future’s going to be, when you could fit theirs on a full stop?

Because we organise time spatially, it means we can fall into traps as well. More about that next week.


Delays Expected

Until this week, the best thing I’d read about procrastination was “The Procrastination Equation” by Piers Steel.  It’s evidence-based, and pretty good about the “How To” in overcoming procrastination. The best thing about it, is that it’s not preachy. If you check out any articles on the internet, most of them will tell you that you procrastinate because you’re lazy, and if you just got off your arse, well, that will fix your procrastinating. The protestant work ethic frowns deeply at procrastinators. There’s a special circle of Hell reserved for us, where we’re always waiting for the right moment, but it never comes.

This week I read this article, though (by Eric Jaffe). I thought it really got to the heart of procrastination, and didn’t need 215 pages plus notes to get there. There are some top quotes in there:

“It really has nothing to do with time management. To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”

“The chronic procrastinator, the person who does this as a lifestyle, would rather have other people think that they lack effort, rather than ability”

“…procrastinators comfort themselves in the present with the false belief that they’ll be more emotionally equipped to handle a task in the future. The future self becomes the beast of burden for procrastination”

These all resonated with me, particularly that last one about the future self. Honestly, when I get hold of that future self guy, I’m going to tell him what I think about him.

When I coach people who procrastinate, the first thing I do is to find a link to their deeper values and re-frame it so that it becomes important at a personal level. Very often, people will baulk at doing something that is on their To Do List, put there by someone else. So really, they have an Ought To Do List. Words like “Should”, “Ought” and “Must” are modal verbs, often issued from a disembodied voice, nagging us to do something. We meet this voice with resistance, passive aggression and failure to act.

Many team leaders and bosses will have encountered this at work. Subordinates just won’t do what they’re asked to do, and there doesn’t seem to be a good reason. I think it’s because the task you’ve given them has no worth, to them. It doesn’t line up with their values, and until it does, it gets shoved down the list. So you have a choice, you can show them a carrot, or a stick, tell them to JFDI, or find out what really motivates them, and connect the task to that. In short it’s a problem of motivation, rather than time management. Or if you can’t be bothered with that, give it to someone who gives a damn.

One other thing. That shadowy figure of authority, can be anyone, though. If you’ve ever had “Tidy Bedroom”or “Clean Fridge” on your To Do List for more than a month, it’s probably an “Ought to Do” coming from a parent, echoing back through the years, not you!

So you’re there, waiting for the right moment, like you’re in a Samuel Beckett play. Inspiration will visit you, one day. Until it does, find something worthwhile in the task, take a small step in that direction, get some momentum, and keep going.

How do I get more organised?

How do I get more organised?

Clients tell us “I just need to be more organised”. They feel overwhelmed and harassed. If they could just get everything straightened out, they’d be OK. In actual fact, we usually find that lack of organisation is only part of the issue. So here are some tips to getting more organised and being more effective.

1) Use visual tools, like a wall planner or a personal kanban system using post-it notes. Don’t be tempted to use an app, at least to begin with – you need something that exists in the real world. Something that’s easy to complete and in your face every day, not shiny nagware that costs you time to set up and er…organise.

2) Be ruthless. Prioritise 2 or 3 things and DO THEM. I love this story (thanks to @brainpicker for this) about a training exercise given to a group of US Generals. They were asked to write a summary of their strategic approach in only 25 words:

The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.

The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: ‘First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.’”

3) Prioritise by using your big goals as a yardstick, not by the size of the fire. You’ve got big goals, right?

4) Execute. Don’t stop after the “tidying up” phase. Organised and Effective are not the same thing. Being organised is not an end in itself, and if you don’t make progress on those 2 or 3 things you prioritised, you’ve just been rearranging the furniture, not doing anything new.

5) If you’re struggling, get help.



It’s February; we’re running out of steam on those New Year resolutions. What happened to all that willpower and motivation? Where did the light-footed exuberance and optimism of a new start, turn into a trudge through a muddy, ploughed field, with no end in sight?

It happens at work as well. All through the year. The team starts a new project full of optimism, energy. Planning is done by groupthink with a “How could anything go wrong?” mindset. Six months down the line people are looking for a scapegoat, and the exit, before they get engulfed in the crapstorm of blame and recrimination.

Where did it all go wrong?

“What do you do when the plan starts to fall apart, when willpower has gone and working long hours just doesn’t work?”

I’ve written before about the pre-mortem. It’s a thought experiment. You fast forward to the future, a future where your resolution/project failed disastrously, and list the reasons why it did. It forces you to remove the rose-coloured spectacles and face a different reality. One where willpower, guts, blood, sweat and tears are all exhausted. All those plentiful resources that you start with are depleted. Time has run out.

At the planning stage it doesn’t feel like this could ever happen. The glass is completely full, never mind half full. And it feels like it will never be empty. There’s even a superstitious feeling that imagining it being empty will help bring it about failure. We mustn’t allow negative thoughts to drag us down. Think positively.

Any plan must be capable of failing. So planning for failure must also make sense. What are you going to do when the plan starts to fall apart, when willpower has gone and working long hours just doesn’t work?

First, name some of the possible triggers. What will I do about my diet when I have to go to three business dinners in one week?s When I’m stressed out by my boss, and I’m reaching for a cigarette, how will I respond?  What will I do when I just want to pack in the new routine, because it’s too hard and I’ve run out of willpower?

Then come up with a plan for when you meet these inevitable obstacles.

But it’s more than having a theoretical plan. Rehearse the whole scene, including visuals and dialogue. You need to be ready with an automatic response that doesn’t need any willpower to put into action. “If this happens, I know that I need to do this”. “When we’re faced with situation X, we’ll recognise the trigger and  do behaviour Z”.

By the time your faced with the nightmare scenario, it’s OK. You’ve already been there in your head. You know what to do, because you planned for this, and you’ll be happy you did.


Looking For A New JobIt’s a New Year. Time for a change. A new job. How can you use psychology to give yourself an edge?

“The VIA survey will give you brilliant material for an interview. You’ll have a scientifically validated list of the qualities that make you unique.”

A really good place to start is the VIA survey of character strengths – It’s free, you just have to register to use it. I like it because it makes you think about who you are, not what you do. You’ll get a list of your signature strengths, like Love of Learning; Fairness, Equity and Justice; or Judgement, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness. You can read more about it in the Martin Seligman book “Authentic Happiness”. Seligman was the founding light of Positive Psychology, which shifted the focus from a “What’s Broken?” model to “What’s Great” frame. That’s an excellent jumping off point when looking for a new job, you can play to your strengths. Otherwise it’s easy to waste a lot of time rectifying or concealing your “weaknesses”. The VIA survey will give you brilliant material for an interview. You’ll have a scientifically validated list of the qualities that make you unique.

It’s also good to find out what your motivations are for leaving your current job (assuming you have one). I love Daniel Pink’s book ” Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” . I love it because research shows that what we think motivates us (money, shiny things, big houses) isn’t what motivates us. What we really seek is Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Very different to the carrots and sticks usually on offer in the workplace. You might want to buy your old boss a copy as well. Did you know that having a bad boss is the most common reason for wanting to get a new job?

I’d also modestly suggest getting a Time Intelligence Report for yourself. It will tell you how you score on Motivation, Planning, Execution and Reflection, as well as the all important Time Perspective. Why do you need to know these things? Well, if you’re looking for a new job, you need to change from your current negative state of disillusionment with the past (old job) to a more optimistic, future-orientated state of optimism. The Time Intelligence Report will get you there, with a personal diagnosis and list of positive actions to take.

The Time Intelligence Report is only £1 until the end of January.

You can get it here

Looking Back

At the end of December, you can’t open a newspaper or magazine without seeing a review of the past year. What happened, who died, who won, who lost? You might be tempted yourself to have a bit of a self-audit of the year just gone, and maybe use it to cook up some New Year’s resolutions of your own.

It’s a worthy endeavour,but  I’m always reminded of a quote I first heard from Tony Robbins – [Tweet “You can’t use your rear view mirror as a navigation aid”]. In other words, you shouldn’t be using your past experiences to determine your future goals. I’m pretty sure this works for companies as well as people. A lot of what passes for corporate strategy is either re-jigging something that worked in the past or fixing a sticking-plaster over something that didn’t work, and dressing it up as innovation. No one sits down with a blank sheet of paper and just riffs on the future to create a new world of possibilities. Unless you have a coach.

A good coach will invite you to just go wild and dream, without looking over your shoulder at the Shoulda, Woulda, Couldas. The future doesn’t have to be the same as today, with the volume, contrast and brightness turned up a bit. It could be an extraordinary place. Learn from your past mistakes, by all means, but don’t rely on them to illuminate the way forward, get yourself a coach if you want to escape from the confines of your own thinking.

What are you forecasting for yourself next year? Get in touch with me if you need some help getting past your limiting beliefs and shaping a future that you want to thrive in.

Me? I’m finally going to learn the harmonica, after thirty-five years of not getting around to it.

Have a great Christmas