Why does the chocolate win after a hard day?

Why does the chocolate win after a hard day?


What’s your pleasurable vice for which you restrict your consumption?  Mine is chocolate, well it’s one of them anyway – it’s always handy to have multiple options.  But perhaps the question ‘why does the chocolate win after a hard day?’ is just too simple – we’re hungry, chocolate has lots of calories, it’s a fast way to refuel, our brain urges us to eat it (oh, and it tastes great)!

Hmm… except I don’t think that’s the only explanation.  Perhaps we’re normally really good at restraining ourselves, restricting our intake, a paragon of self-control.  But sometimes, that willpower just goes out of the window – as if during our hard day we’ve used it all up.

In fact, that’s quite likely.  Researchers in the lab of Dr. Roy Baumeister & Dr. Dianne Tice discovered a number of things about self-control, including that we have a finite amount and once we’ve used it up, we need a break in order to rebuild it.

So, consider that hard day – perhaps you’ve successfully driven yourself to complete a project, tying yourself to your desk, resisting that chat at the coffee machine, staying later than usual, and then gifted with busy traffic on the way home.  Or the children are at home and it’s just been one of those days when you’ve had to exert your saintly parenting powers just a little too often.  You get to the kitchen, take a deep breath, and having thoroughly spent your finite self-control reserves you open the cupboard, only to be faced with your nemesis from the land of sugary vice.  We can all see who’s favourite to win this showdown.

Of course, controlling our sugar intake is an obvious challenge.  Some are a little better disguised.  Perhaps you’ve just had enough and you say something in a meeting that you really wish you hadn’t.  Or both you and your partner have had a challenging day, and that evening becomes one on which you tackle your gripes of domestic bliss in the guise of dirty dishes not being put in the dishwasher, and it blows up into a domestic storm.

I think firstly knowing that self-control fatigues with use, like a muscle, is handy.  Put the sugary vice in a place that takes a lot of effort to retrieve it – use the fatigue to your advantage.  Use your last vestiges of control to suggest a break in the meeting when you feel yourself on the edge of exploding.  And, watch a movie together and tackle the domestic bliss issues in the morning.

Oh yes, one of the other things Baumeister discovered about self-control was that it needs energy – the same kind that we expend during exercise and refill when we eat and rest.  Darn, as if the ‘eat well and exercise’ mantra needs any more props.  But there it is – yes the chocolate will provide the energy boost that may raise your level of self-control, just before it plummets as your pancreas kick-in to deal with the overdose and strip it away again, leaving you open to another round of sugary vice.

So approach mid-day chocolate with caution – perhaps I’ll smother a carrot with it and see how that works.

Be remarkable,

P.S. I highly recommend the book by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, “Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success”, my inspiration for this post.

Experience weird and boost creativity


In our day to day routine we get used to the way things normally work.  That includes processes like the way we approach making dinner, the route we take to work or get ready for bed, and it includes the way things work, the function of pedals in a car or the keyboard on a computer.  These normalities are brilliant for efficiency and in some cases give us the mental space to be able cogitate and form new ideas (see Why is the shower great for creativity).  But, throwing out our expectations is another way to boost the creative muse.

One of the standard tests in creativity research is the Alternative Uses Task – which basically counts and rates for unusualness the number of alternative uses you can come up with for a particular object, like ‘a brick’.  Well it turns out that experiencing some of those unusual, weird, uses may well put you in a frame of mind needed in the first place to come up with those alternatives!  Unusual experiences can enhance creativity, or more formally, increase cognitive flexibility.

Dr Simone Ritter and colleagues conducted a number of experiments to come to this conclusion, my favourite being given instructions to make a chocolate chip sandwich.  But it’s not the sandwich filling that’s unusual, the chocolate chip sandwich being a popular breakfast choice in the Netherlands where Dr Ritter lives.  It was simply that after buttering the bread the chocolate chips should be tipped onto a plate, and the buttered bread applied to chips, rather than the usual sprinkling of the chips on to the buttered bread.  This simple violation of the norm increased cognitive flexibility.

I think its important to realise that our capacity for creativity isn’t fixed – despite the fact we often describe people as creative or otherwise.  It’s certainly true that some people are more creative ‘by default’ but we can all boost our creative muscle… and one way to do that may be as simple as bypassing our normal routine. Would typing on our keyboard using a pencil stuck to our head with blu-tack weird you out enough to boost creativity?  Well, if not, it would at least lighten the day of whoever observes you doing it.

Be remarkable and do something weird,

Why is the shower great for creative ideas?

We’ve all been there, while in the shower the answer to that sticky problem, an idea that seems inspired, or even the perfect response to an earlier comment – just appears.  Why is that?

It’s not just the shower, it might be when we’re dropping off the sleep, while out walking, doing the washing up, and a big one for me, while out riding a bike – I often return desperate for a piece of paper to scribble down my thoughts before they disappear.

There’s a lot of work in social science on creativity, but I think one particular starting point is interesting here.  I’ll summarise it as control thwarts creativity.  When we are mentally taking charge of a track of thinking, the very act of taking charge is counter to the disparate linking of ideas that often occurs during creative insight.

Have you every seen sheep herding when a farmer and dog are trying to coax sheep into a pen – between them they funnel all the sheep in the same direction, through a gate, catching any dashes for freedom and bringing them back in line.  In our heads, the sheep are our thoughts and farmer and dog are played by our pre-frontal cortex, the bit of our brain just behind our forehead, often described as our executive control system.  It’s fundamental to our ability to think, to understand ourselves and to be human.  The kind of control it can provide is great when you need to get something done, it’s productive time, stopping yourself going off at tangents until you’ve managed to achieve your goal.

But it’s the sheep shooting off at tangents, running around the field seeking out new lush bits of grass that better mirrors creativity – a lack of control is the thing.  It’s been found that creative insight comes most easily when this part of our brain is relaxed.  Prof. Arne Dietrich, created the term transient hypofrontality to describe these moments – transient meaning temporary, hypo meaning reduced, frontality meaning pre-frontal cortex control.  Temporarily reduced control from the pre-frontal cortex.

Guess what are good ways to induce transient hypofrontality – yes, take a shower, go out for a walk, ride a bike, do the washing-up, get ready for bed… basically, things that occupy you, but don’t tax your brain.  So, this is why the advice to take a break when we’re struggling for insight is good, and why our best ideas often come when we’re enjoying a shower.

Be remarkable, take a shower,

ps. if you’d like to hear about Transient Hypofrontality from the Arne Dietrich himself, watch his fascinating TEDx talk.

The unglamorous side of creativity

received blue rubber stamp

Creativity gets all the glamour, a seeming supreme being among talents.  And so it’s easy to forget the less glamorous side of creativity, the bit that means the creative juices get to deliver something that people will care about.

I like the definition of creativity that comes from social science of a successful activity producing something novel and useful.  This requires a combination of creative thinking and problem solving, but also that the problems are worth solving and that the solution actually gets delivered in a usable, that is, useful form.  There are no absolutes, but I tend to think that the second part of this duo is more challenging than it’s given credit for – it’s the difference between coming up with a clever idea and delivering a clever solution.

The delivery bit often requires much less glamorous skills, like hard work, persistence, and selling.  Yet, without the discipline that kept Terry Pratchett sitting at his desk writing the Discworld novels; the engineering required to create the unibody chassis of a MacBook; and the bravery of a comedian to stand-up, the world would be a duller place.

I know Peter Drucker said it (“Ideas are cheap and abundant; what is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action”), as I’m sure have many others.  But I think it’s worth a reminder…

Be remarkable, and deliver,

Speaking – Tip 3


Questions – Part 2 – Taking them

Often you’re given a slot – say 45 minutes, with a description like “35 minutes to talk and 10 minutes for Q&A.”  The problem with that description is that it also implies a structure – you speak for 35 minutes and then the audience can ask questions for 10 minutes.

This also connects with one of two common models that speakers set-up – the ‘I’ll take questions at the end’ verses the ‘I’ll take questions at any time’ model.  And most audiences are used to this distinction.  But, I have a problem with the ‘I’ll take questions at the end’ model in that it strongly implies to the audience ‘be quiet and listen while I talk’ – I don’t mind leaving space at the end of a talk to take questions, that might be very appropriate, but to refuse questions while you’re talking I think is a mistake (though there may be a few valid exceptions in formal settings or very large audiences), and in my experience most audiences are pretty good with question asking etiquette.

But hang on… what about the audience member who won’t stop asking questions or asks long winded questions, or those that are irrelevant?  You do need to do something about questions that are detracting from the value of the session – and unless you’ve really messed things up, the audience will be on your side, and thinking the same as you.

With long questions, at some point you may have to interrupt with something like “it sounds like there’s a lot of background to the question, how about we chat afterwards,” or you may be able to perceive what the question is, so do that.  Take your decision based on the reaction of the audience, if the background is enthralling, great, if it’s not, interrupt. 

With someone asking repeated questions, and on the assumption that they are not adding good value to the session, after answering their latest question, you might explicitly ask for questions from elsewhere – answer the question and then, “gosh, you have lots of questions, who else has a question” and eventually, “you clearly have lots of questions, perhaps we can talk afterwards.”

With irrelevant questions, you have to make a judgment or ask, is this a useful question to answer for a large portion of the audience?  Otherwise, “I wasn’t expecting that question, it does take me off topic, is it OK to cover it after the talk?”

Generally, questions can be really beneficial, helping you delivery the most relevant content.  But if they are devaluing the talk for the majority of the audience, they will want you to do something about it, and will support you.  Take comfort and responsibility from that.

In summary, if you’ve built a reasonable relationship or rapport with the audience, then they will want you to deliver a good talk and will support your sensible decisions that help them get the value they were expecting.  Unless there’s a really good reason not to, be willing to take questions at any time.

That’s it for now, if you have questions…

Be remarkable,

New Year, New…


Will there be something new for you this new year?  Resolutions are perhaps the most common expression of ‘new’ at the start of the year, and resolutions have a reputation for not making it out of January.  There’s motivation to get us going, but often not quite enough to build any kind of momentum… and for self-driven change, we need the motivation to start things off and, to keep up the momentum long enough to reach the point where the change becomes self-fulfilling, and eventually part of life.

In business we’re more used to the idea of change – a new financial year might bring a new focus, or the release of new product may create new roles and opportunities to pursue.  The motivation for the change might be customer demand, competitive pressure, or shareholder demand for growth (or the fear of financial analyst derision in larger businesses).  Whichever it is, it’s often a motivator that’s ever present.  Then, there might be multiple people involved in the change, either supporting each other or otherwise keeping the pressure on.  There’s probably a regular progress report, describing what action has been taken and its effect since the last report… all sorts of things that together, provide enough continued motivation to push things along through the initial change phase and make it into the normal routine.

That’s not to say at work things are always that driven – what if we want to create something new or make a change that doesn’t have all that backing; something that will help us personally, or that we think will help the company, but we’d like to get started on it before getting others involved?

When I first thought about this post, I thought I’d provide some deep insights that make change stick, with a discussion of intrinsic verses extrinsic motivation and the science behind habits.  But I quickly realised that in most cases, it’s the simple stuff that makes the difference.  The real challenge with change, is finding the things that will keep the momentum going long enough.  So, here’s five simple, but powerful, things that will help you to keep your change beyond the end of January…

  • Do it with someone else or a team of others.
  • If you have to do it alone, ask a friend or colleague to hold you to account – perhaps you’ll phone them once a week and update them on progress.
  • Examine the reason you ‘want’ to do it – a ‘should’ is no where near as strong as a genuine ‘want’.
  • Find reasons to do it that are beyond yourself – are you also doing it for your colleagues, your department, your spouse, a friend or your children?  When it gets tough, think about who you’re doing it for.
  • Track progress and reward yourself for progress (it’s all about progress!) – a reward might be anything from a break for cup of tea, to an evening out or a holiday.

Stick at it… Happy New Year!

Be remarkable,

Christmas Presence

Christmas background

There are many mediation techniques, lots of approaches to fit different preferences.  And all of them have one thing in common – retraining your attention.

Try concentrating on one thing for 30 seconds… look at something in front of you and simply keep your attention on that one thing.  How long does it take before some other thought pops into your head and steals away your attention?  For me it’s seconds.

In life the things that get our attention are the things that most affect us.  If it’s a task, the task that gets our attention is the task that gets done.  The feedback we pay attention to leaves the lasting impression, and the mood we dwell in affects how we feel and react to others (if you’re a parent or carer, you’ll have regular reminders of how easy going you can be when in a good mood, and how short you can be when in a bad one).

Like any ‘downtime’ at Christmas it’s easy to be thinking about what’s next, whether that’s the challenges facing you when you get back to work, your impending diet, or your new year’s resolution.  Wouldn’t it be nice to just enjoy the break and let our attention dwell on the pleasant things in life and the people we care about, at least for a day or two.

I wish you, very Merry Christmas Presence.

Be remarkable,

Speaking – Tip 2


Questions – Part 1 – Questions are fundamental

Questions is a big topic, more of a chapter than an article.  So this is part 1, and the tip is that questions are fundamental to any talk.

Why?  They help create engagement.  If we are looking for an answer, we are more inclined to stay engaged until we find one – so you want your audience asking you or even more importantly themselves questions, and looking for answers in your talk.

Perhaps this point is just too obvious, but it is easy to forget.  A monolog of information delivered with an unclear reason (a question) is hard going.  When we’re delivering information through a talk, questions are the hooks that we hang the information from.  And as the speaker, we should be proactive in generating the right questions, which may be explicit, but often they’re not.

Storytelling generates implicit questions; in entertainment we’re often left hanging as the book or film changes to a different scene or the closing music of the soap opera kicks in… you want to know what happens, it’s uncomfortable to leave a thread incomplete.  An unanswered question, is a powerful draw.

Even the simplest of jokes "A horse goes into bar, the barman says, ‘why the long face’" is quietly laced with questions.

A talk then, is a planned route from one or more big questions, through a maze of small questions and answers to reach a point of answering a big question(s) – or just to confuse things, cause the listener to answer a big question.

Questions are our most basic, fundamental engagement tool.  What we do as speakers, is package them beautifully.

Be remarkable,