This is all too stressful #2

Carole Speirs is a great motivational speaker and stress counsellor ( and as a mentor to senior executives, the management of stress has always interested me. It was no surprise then, that when she visited Dubai I went to one of her lectures.

I remember it was in this lecture Carole asked us all to talk about our stress levels. She was surprised, and a little disbelieving, when I was the one person who said, “I don’t feel stress. I don’t get stressed”. Maybe, it was a little bit of bravado but broadly it was true.

Subsequently, we met a few times for a drink and have maintained contact ever since. Carole and I have talked about stress and I particularly remember a drive through Dubai when the conversation became quite heated, although I can’t now remember all the detail but, delving into my version of Sherlock Holmes’ mind palace, a run-down shack at the end of a neuron trail, much of the discussion was Carole questioning me to discover f I was merely hiding and supressing my stress, which she thought may be more dangerous than denying it. A little like Nero fiddling in a burning Rome. I will ask her when we next meet.

Before I continue I should say, quite clearly, despite introducing Carole the following aren’t her opinions. They are all mine. It is not that I disagree with anything she says, it is just that from all that time ago I can’t remember what she said. I suffer from many things but generally, stress isn’t one of them.

I am always grateful that I manage stress well as there is every reason I should feel panicked. There are enough problems in my life that I could be a quivering and screaming wreck, but I sail effortless through the day and generally, sleep well. Doctors tell me that controlling stress will lead to a happier and better life and according to these doctors it will also extend my life. There ae many things that could kill me early, but stress is unlikely to be one of them.

There was a time in a staff review at Coopers & Lybrand when I was told that some directors and peers found it disconcerting that when there was a crisis not only didn’t I panic but I seemed to become even calmer, just like the lull in the heart of a storm.

I never practiced managing stress. It all came naturally.

I don’t think there is a universal panacea. If there were then others would be selling the snake oil. I am just lucky. It is the way my neurons are connected. On the other hand, there are parts of my background which help me stay calm.

One was my interest in how we all make decisions, covered in yesterday’s piece. I will come back to that later.

I am sure that some of my early reading and study of Zen has helped, not least the concept that there is always a ‘just right’ moment to make any decision and act. That is the time when all the stars and moons are aligned. In more prosaic language it is when everyone involved in solving a problem is most amenable to a solution and you have enough data to confirm it.

The real cause of stress is that you have found your past decisions have put you in a place you don’t want to be. Never tell me it is what others have done to you. Somewhere in the past you made a decision to involve yourself or interact in the problem you now face.

Of course, there are exceptions. Illness and ill health, or a global crisis are not the result of something you have done or a decision you have made but my rules still work!

The core of my approach is that I never (I feel tempted to put ‘never’ in bold and underline it) regret any decision I take. it doesn’t matter if I have made the decision too quickly or thought about it for a long time, or if changed my mind as more data becomes available, I never look back.

I am convinced that much of the source of stress is caused by reflecting on the past and because I never regret what has happened, what might have been, stress is reduced. Once a decision is made it becomes history and all I can manage is the future.

That is not easy to do but it is a lot easier if you are sure of your decision-making processes. If you are sure the decision which you made, at the time a decision had to be made, was made using all your skills and data then available, then, whatever the outcome, it was the right decision. Listen to me. It may not be the decision you would make today but the, at that moment it was the right decision. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just get on and manage the future.

A corollary is that as well as eliminating regret this approach can remove all feelings of guilt, another source of stress. Let me be clear. I am not saying that you shouldn’t feel very guilty about committing a crime that you have thought about and planned. Life is not that easy.

I am though talking about the sort of guilt we can feel from buying those over-expensive shoes, beautiful but inordinately expensive gold coloured dresses in Turkey, or a new mobile phone from Apple. I know two women, at least, who can now sleep more comfortably knowing that .

Understanding how you make decisions doesn’t take the enjoyment out of life. You can still be impetuous and let your System 1 brain have its say. In fact, I have a personal rule which is to try and answer ‘yes’ to any opportunity offered. You are rarely asked twice to do anything if your first reaction is always to say, ‘no’. Say ‘yes’ then let System 2 take over.

Letting System 2 have its say on big decisions is of course important and that means don’t be rushed into a decision. This is particularly true when a crisis looms. Experience tells me that is in a crisis, however serious, there is often a second, minute or day longer than you think. Take that time. Use it wisely. If the temptation is to react immediately the chances are you will get it wrong and your stress will increase. Don’t screw up the decision-making process.

My final tip to manage stress is to always remember you can only manage those things in your control. You can’t control President Trump (sadly, no one can) nor can you change the Brexit decision. You might get angry but there is no need to get stressed.

You are happy with the decisions you have taken, you never regret what you have decided, you manage the future and you manage what you can control.

Why should you ever feel stressed?

This is all too stressful! Part 1

Annie has just changed jobs and is moving to a new house. She is stressed. That is not an opinion but her own words. Maddie is taking another round of her law exams. She has revised more than anyone I know, she has worked hard, but still she is stressed. Some people use stress as a motivator and for others it is debilitating.

Today I am writing about stress. Today is Part 1 and it will finish tomorrow.

(It’s a bit of a cheat. I have already written it but today I am going to Bertie’s first birthday party and, so my time today will be limited. The whole is already very long and easy to split. it is good to have a piece in the bank! A stress mitigation strategy?)

Stress is a consequence of the situation you are in and that can often be traced back to, and is a consequence of, a decision you have made. Part of my approach to managing stress is to try and understand why and how I make any decision.

This doesn’t mean that I make better decisions than anyone else but that afterwards if the world is falling apart around me, I know that if I had to do the same again, nothing would be different. Believe me, that is a solace.

So, in the first section I will talk about how we make decisions and in Part 2, tomorrow, I will discuss how I use this understanding to manage stress.

I have always been fascinated by the processes of decision making. I used to lecture at Universities on the principles of investment appraisal. These are the processes we use to understand if a capital investment will be profitable.

Most of it is clever arithmetic and when you get the right data, structured in the right way it comes down to number crunching. I wish it was so simple, but there are always problems.

It was Alfred Korzybski, the Polish-American scholar who said: “the map is not the territory” and never was that clearer than in investment appraisal. We can prepare all the scenarios we like but it is only in retrospect can we assess the quality of the analysis. To complete an analysis in an orderly time the problem always must be simplified.

Not only do we simplify the amount of available data, but it is all estimated, giving another source of error. On large capital projects, we may have to estimate the future profit recovered from an investment over a twenty-year period. How well can we forecast and what accuracy is there?

To mitigate against forecast inaccuracy, in the jargon, we develop ‘what-if’ analysis. (I was once listening to an American expert lecturing who instead of using this common phrase, in a deep Texan drawl instead coined ‘suppository analysis’ which raised the quip from the audience ‘and he knows where he can put that.)

The final problem is that most of the literature on formal investment appraisal is based on the assumption of rational behaviour. An assumption proved to be wrong by among others behavioural economist, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Economics laureate.

Think of a simple game of chance. I have a coin and I will give you odds of two to one on it being a head. I will put down my stake of two pounds and you will put down yours of one pound. Heads and you take it all and tails and it is all mine. This is a game very much in your favour. On my courses I had no shortage of takers, but as I upped the stakes to ten pounds, a hundred pounds or even a thousand pounds the number of takers reduced, and everyone wanted better odds. The risk of losing a thousand or more pounds became far too great even though chance says nothing has changed. Will anyone bet their house with me?

I have been banging on about formal investment appraisal because this is the gold-plated end of decision making. I get paid thousands of pounds to make these assessments but what about making day-to-day decisions in your personal life?

Few decisions are taken with anything like all the information available. In fact, rarely do you have that luxury. However carefully you process data to make decisions there will always be gaps, and the gaps need to be identified and understood as carefully as you manage the data you have.

When you buy some clothes on Amazon, eBay or a trader’s own web site you know they may not fit, or maybe you won’t like the colour and it may be a real pain to return, but still you take that risk and buy.

What you have done when you buy on-line is take in and absorb as much data as is available, and then you just have to make a decision. If it’s buying clothes, you have a chance to do some research. You can check the size guide and the references on the site but sometimes there is no opportunity to process much data before you make a decision. These become impulsive decisions.

You are just leaving the office when someone says: ‘fancy a drink?’ There is not a lot of data to process. Who else will be there? Will I still get a train home? Can I afford it?

How do we make these decisions? In truth, not always as well as we hope. According to Daniel Kahneman, we have two ‘brains’.

Of course, not two brains but two modes of thought: “System 1” is fast, instinctive, and emotional while “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. They are not always in agreement.

While his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, describes the cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking, in the book’s first section, Kahneman describes the different ways the brain forms thoughts.

The following is extracted from: (,_Fast_and_Slow)

Our brains are comprised of two characters, one that thinks fast, System 1, and one that thinks slow, System 2.

System 1 operates automatically, intuitively, involuntary, and effortlessly—like when we drive, read an angry facial expression, or recall our age while System 2 requires slowing down, deliberating, solving problems, reasoning, computing, focusing, concentrating, considering other data, and not jumping to quick conclusions— like when we calculate a math problem, choose where to invest money, or fill out a complicated form. These two systems often conflict with one another.

Thinking slow affects our bodies (dilated pupils), attention (limited observation), and energy (depleted resources). Because thinking slow takes work we are prone to think fast, the path of least resistance. “Laziness is built deep into our nature,”. We think fast to accomplish routine tasks and we need to think slow in order to manage complicated tasks. Thinking fast says, “I need groceries.” Thinking slow says, “I will not try to remember what to buy but write myself a shopping list.”

 People on a leisurely stroll will stop walking when asked to complete a difficult mental task. Calculating while walking is an energy drain. This is why being interrupted while concentrating is frustrating, why we forget to eat when focused on an interesting project, why multi-tasking while driving is dangerous, and why resisting temptation is extra hard when we are stressed. Self-control shrinks when we’re tired, hungry, or mentally exhausted. Because of this reality we are prone to let System 1 take over intuitively and impulsively. “Most people do not take the trouble to think through. “Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed,”. Accessing memory takes effort but by not doing so we are prone to make mistakes in judgment.

To illustrate this I have copied out examples of some of the areas covered by each ‘System’

System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious. Examples (in order of complexity) of things system 1 can do:

  • see that an object is at a greater distance than another
  • localize the source of a specific sound
  • complete the phrase “war and …”
  • display disgust when seeing a gruesome image
  • solve 2+2=?
  • read a text on a billboard
  • drive a car on an empty road
  • come up with a good chess move (if you’re a chess master)
  • understand simple sentences
  • connect the description ‘quiet and structured person with an eye for details’ to a specific job

System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious. Examples of things system 2 can do:

  • brace yourself before the start of a sprint
  • point your attention towards the clowns at the circus
  • point your attention towards someone at a loud party
  • look out for the woman with the grey hair
  • dig into your memory to recognize a sound
  • sustain a higher than normal walking rate
  • determine the appropriateness of a behaviour in a social setting
  • count the number of A’s in a certain text
  • give someone your phone number
  • park into a tight parking space
  • determine the price/quality ratio of two washing machines
  • determine the validity of a complex logical reasoning

It’s a long list but it does illustrate that we have two quite different ways of thinking. The skill is to give yourself time to recognise when you are using System 1 or System 2 and with this knowledge you should make if not improved but conscious decisions.

Now you will be asking how does this help you manage stress. Well that is for Part 2!!