Podcast interview on Bettercast!

Coach Stevo is an expert in personal development but even he gained new perspectives and ideas during his interview with Cianna Stewart about Going NoCo!

Attend the live workshop in San Francisco, Jan 2017

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How to read the news without spiraling into a funk

newspapersBREAKING NEWS (NOT): It’s hard to watch the news without getting frustrated, afraid, or angry. This only gets worse once you decide to Go NoCo and you become extra-sensitive to things that trigger negative feelings. But you don’t have to get stuck in a choice between staying informed and keeping your cool. You can do both at the same time if you understand what triggers and reinforces a negative frame of mind.

Our brains are wired to be alert for danger — it’s how we’ve evolved to survive — so we respond to it more quickly than anything else. Knowing this, the media responds to our response by giving us what draws us in. News tends to be negative. Incidents which inspire fear are more likely to get coverage than those which inspire hope. Pundits, reporters, and politicians spin to the negative.

We all know this. Problem is, it’s not true.

Data-driven studies have shown there’s more positive reporting than negative — just not on the front page, or on posts that get spread like wildfire on social media. So even what we “know” about news being negative is skewed in our memory. Why? How does this happen?

You probably already know that your sense that something is “common” or “usual” is affected by how familiar it is, and whatever you put your attention on is what you see. This means if you look for something and you see it because you’re looking for it, you’re more likely to think it’s everywhere because you recognize it easily. On a related note, you’re also more likely to remember things that are similar to what you’re currently thinking about, making them seem even more ever-present.

What you may not know is that our attention can get so laser-focused that we entirely miss other things that are there, things that are different yet obvious if we were looking for them, but invisible if we’re looking for something else.

This was illuminated by an innovative study on the power of selective attention by cognitive psychologists Simons and Chabris. They asked subjects to watch a video of people passing a basketball and count the number of times the people wearing white passed the ball, but ignore the passes by people wearing black. [Spoilers ahead, so if you want to test yourself before continuing to read: watch the video on YouTube.]

Partway into the video, a gorilla walks through the scene. When asked about the gorilla, fully half of the study subjects said they hadn’t seen it. In fact they flat out refused to believe that it was there. Simons and Chabris concluded that focusing on something (e.g., counting basketball passes) caused “inattentional blindness” (aka “perceptual blindness”), a limit on the ability to see anything other than the task at hand.

This study has been replicated in different forms many times and the results are consistent. Our brain filters our experiences and when we’re focused we miss a lot of what’s happening around us.

Filtering for the Negative

If you’re in the habit of complaining, you’re more likely to look for (and therefore see) things going wrong. Good things could be happening, but you might not recognize them even if they’re right in front of you. Add to this the fact that when recalling a memory our brains are more likely to choose a well-worn path than forge a new one, and you get a situation where when you have a negative mindset you’re likely to see and remember negative things and the more you think about them the easier they will be to remember. Not only that, memories with stronger emotions attached become more vivid and alive, particularly if those emotions are fear or anger. (I wrote about this more in-depth here.)

Do you see where this is going? Paying attention to negative things that evoke strong emotions (e.g., front page news) make those things dominant in your perception and your memory, which then makes you pay more attention to them so you see more negative things, crowding out anything positive, thus making you think the world is all negative because that’s all you see.

But it’s not true that the world is all awful all the time. The truth is that at every moment bad things are happening, yes, and good things are also happening. Every minute, every day. The world is complex. We can choose to see that complexity or deny it.

What you perceive and how you feel depends on where you place your focus. And that is true about more than the news, but it’s certainly applicable there.

How to Read the News

Each of us can affect our perception of the world through conscious choices about what and how we choose to take in information. This might sound like a recommendation to put on rose-colored glasses, but it’s not. It’s a recognition that we are always looking through the world through filters, whether they’re the color of rose or soot or plaid, and that we need to understand those filters have an effect on what we perceive as “true” or “real.” Recognizing this enables you to make choices around it.

To keep my mood steady and still stay informed, I make different choices about the form of reporting for things I can predict will upset me or make me happy.

For negative or upsetting news stories, I prefer to read analysis. I resist front-page and bite-sized news stories because those are often written to evoke emotions and I know how much that will stay with me, (dis-)coloring my perceptions of everything around me.

Then I seek out positive or neutral stories that are presented emotionally. For me this means looking for thoughtful or artistic videos, personal essays, and reports of scientific breakthroughs.

When I’m feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable (e.g., I’m in personal crisis, stressed, or simply tired) I try to avoid the front page altogether, including news sites and Facebook re-posts. I choose instead to do things that nourish me like listen to music or read fiction.

As a rule, I avoid the news first thing in the morning. Definitely not before coffee.

Another technique is to expand my viewpoint by cultivating an “open awareness” of the world. This means staying with things longer, noticing ever-more details and nuances. You can practice by looking at something for a long time and inviting your mind to stay open to discovering new things about it. This is a classic mindfulness technique. The more you practice this, the more easily you can extend an open awareness out to people and events around you.

Lastly, my favorite method is to cultivate curiosity. With every piece of information, with every experience, I try to remember to ask questions such as: Is this true? What else is also true? What else could this mean? If I were [a different person] how would I perceive this? How could I respond to this? How else could I respond to this?

When you consciously choose to experiment with different perspectives your focus widens in a way that isn’t hazy. You become able to hold paradoxes and complexity in your mind. This is key to creativity, problem solving, and empathy. You’ll start to see more of the world, and you won’t miss a moonwalking gorilla.

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Further reading: The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

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The Kind of Complaint That Will Hurt You

Many personal development and leadership teachers include some variation on “stop complaining” as key to success and happiness. Recent discoveries have revealed that complaining will hurt you mentally and physically, as summarized in this popular article. Deciding to quit complaining (aka deciding to “Go NoCo”) can fundamentally change your perspective and positively affect all parts of your life.

It’s easier to quit if you can identify the problem, so let’s get speciNo Complaining Guyfic about what kind of complaining is damaging.


Unhealthy complaining is: Expressing a grievance or aggravation in a manner which does not contribute to resolving the problem or issue.

Examples:

  • Complaining to someone who can do nothing about the problem (e.g., complaining to your spouse about your boss, to a co-worker about your family)
  • Complaining about something that isn’t under anyone’s individual control (e.g., complaining about the weather, traffic, technology, corporations)
  • Expressing a complaint in vague terms, or indirectly (e.g., “this sucks”)
  • Expressing a complaint without making a request for change
  • Complaining using a tone/language that sparks or reinforces conflict or resistance
  • Complaining internally without taking action
  • Complaining about something from the past
  • Complaining about the possibility of something happening in the future
  • Expressing a complaint non-verbally (e.g., glaring without speaking, sulking)

Related:

  • Judging
  • Blaming
  • Sarcasm
  • Worrying
  • Insults, Put-Downs
  • Superiority
  • Snark, Being Snide
  • Negative Cross-Talk, Peanut Gallery, Heckling
  • Talking Behind Someone’s Back, Gossip, Bad-Mouthing

Did you read these lists and think, “I know someone who does that”?
Did you read these lists and think, “I do that”?

What would life be like if we avoided destructive negative talk?
What if we addressed problems directly?
What if we were kind to ourselves and others?
What if we were willing to be vulnerable and say what we really want?

That’s the goal of the No Complaining Project. Go NoCo today.

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High standards getting you down?

High standards are tricky. They can be great motivators or you can use them to beat up yourself and others. It all depends on whether you think of them as goals or measures. And if they’re grounded in reality.

I have always been pretty active and am generally involved in a number of different things. At one point I was working full time, swing dancing 4-5 nights a week, and regularly rock climbing on weekends plus the occasional evening or morning before work.

One night I was out dancing and someone started asking me about rock climbing. I started going on about how amazing it was, the exhilaration of climbing outside, how much I’d learned about myself through conquering my fears. She said, “You must be a good climber,” and I shook my head and laughed, saying no, I just enjoyed it. A friend jumped into the conversation at that point and said, “Cianna is a good climber. It’s just that she compares herself to people who do nothing but climb.”

I felt like I was caught out. He was right. I was comparing my skill level to friends who had been climbing for years before I touched my first wall, with people who planned all their ruler wooden hinged vacations based on the quality of the routes and chose jobs to support climbing, with diehards who lived in Yosemite most of the summer and who had even sacrificed relationships for the sake of climbing. I, on the other hand, had been climbing a couple hours a week for 2-3 years in between dancing and working and spending a lot of time with non-climber friends.

I realized my measuring stick was way off. There was no way I should expect myself to be at their level. Nor (truthfully) did I want to do what they’d done to be there.

Since then, I’ve tried to be sure that I chose appropriate comparisons for myself in climbing and in all aspects of my life. I can have role models, sure, but that’s different from saying “I should be at their level,” particularly if I know I haven’t put in the time and effort.

This is not to say that I let go of my high standards for myself. I still have them and I still set lofty goals.I still tend to look to singularly-focused people as examples of what’s possible to help set those goals. The big shift is that when I get down on myself for not having achieved something, I take a moment and figure out what I’m comparing myself to, and then I ask if that’s a valid comparison to make.*

It’s not unusual to discover that my mental image of what my level of achievement should be hinges on a denial of reality. So often I’ve once again been focusing on the achievements of a specialist or I’ve been expecting perfection.

I then pause and consider the commitment it would take to be at that level, all the intervening steps between where I am and where they are. I consider whether I want to put in that effort, think about my current life and what I’d have to change/sacrifice in order to take those steps, and then (only then) decide if I want to set that as a goal. Even at that point it’s difficult to let go of the expectation of success or achievement. But I try to switch myself to evaluating whether or not I took intermediate steps, trying to measure myself on actions instead of outcomes.

The more I can focus on the process, the kinder I can be to myself, and (seemingly paradoxically) the longer I can stay motivated.

Standards. Expectations. Measures. Goals. Outcomes. Actions.

It’s valuable to sort out what’s in your head.

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*This is also a useful practice when I catch myself passing judgment on someone else, complaining that something should have been done some other way. I step back and consider what I’m basing that comparison — that should — on.

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Stressed? 10 Ways to Take a 1-minute ME Break

Before you start reading:
Take a deep breath in and let it out slowly.
Do that one more time.
Now a third time, paying attention to the air that’s moving through your body.
Congratulations! You just helped to reduce the level of stress hormone (cortisol) in your system.

The more stressed we are, the more likely we are to be impatient, think negatively, and have less empathy for those around us. We become unhappy with people and things more easily. Our threshold for tolerance and coping goes down. And (you guessed it) this makes it more likely that we’ll complain.

Often we can’t control our circumstances, but we can adjust our responses to them. I’m sure you know that things like hiking, sleeping, and getting a massage are great for reducing stress. But when we’re really busy (as many/most of us are these days), it can seem impossible to take the time for proper breaks. So here are 10 stress-relieving “Micro-Exercises” (ME) that take one minute or less, and will add up to help calm your nervous system, reducing the levels of negative hormones while increasing the positive hormones in your body. ME Breaks will help you feel better and can even affect how you think, your level of creativity, and your ability to connect with others.

You just did the first one, so you’re off to a good start!

1: Take deep breaths. That old adage of taking deep breaths and counting to ten when you’re upset is a good one. It’s most effective if you can place your focus on the breath itself, feeling the physical sensation of air coming in through your nose and filling your lungs, then slowly breathing out through the mouth. Try to sense the flow of air across your tongue, teeth and lips.

2: Smile. Yup. That’s it. Just smile. It’s true that feeling good will make us smile, but the cool thing is the reverse is also true. In super-unscientific terms: Studies have shown that smiling triggers the “happy parts” of our brain. Turns out our brain interprets our expressions, so we can trick it by assuming the expression we want to feel. Smile first, feel better as a result. (On a related note: Pay attention to your facial muscles/expression when you’re doing things like working on a computer. If looking at a screen makes you squint, your brain thinks you’re frowning and that can contribute to your sense of frustration.)

man in victory pose3: Stand like Wonder Woman or throw up your hands in victory. Often times we feel the most stressed when things feel out of control. In another use-your-body-to-trick-your-brain maneuver, you can assume the position of someone who has control. Stand up with your feet about shoulder-width apart, put your hands on your hips, breathe to fill your chest with your back slightly arched. That’s the Wonder Woman pose. Or you could act like someone who’s just won a competition: Punch your fists in the air, or throw both hands up with your fingers stretched wide. You have the body of someone who’s confident and in control, and your brain will relay that feeling back to you. (Another related note: If you spend a lot of time looking down at your phone, your body is communicating a pose of defeat or exhaustion. Look up and pull your shoulders back as often as possible.)

woman looking at houseplan4: Look at plants, especially flowers. Often in our modern world we spend days without seeing plants, except (perhaps) those on our plates. Numerous studies now have demonstrated what gardeners have known for ages: Looking at plants makes you feel better. Have indoor plants in your home or workplace, or a find a window that overlooks a park or even a single tree. Periodically focus on them (it doesn’t really do much if you’re just glancing at plants without attention). You’ll get an even bigger boost from looking at flowers, and there’s another bump for having flowers somewhere that you’ll see them in the morning. The best (of course) is if you can walk around somewhere surrounded by plants and flowers and just let your mind wander. If you don’t have the time, though, try to get some flowers or living plants indoors and spend 30-60 seconds looking at them when you need a moment of chill.

5: Savor food and drink. That cup of coffee on your desk or the sandwich you have in one hand while the other is on the keyboard can be more than simply fuel or an unconscious habit. Just before putting food or drink in your mouth, take a moment to look at it and remind yourself of what you’re doing, e.g., “I’m eating a sandwich” or “I’m drinking coffee.” Then consciously choose to open your mouth and try to fully feel and taste the food or drink as it enters your mouth. Look away from the screen or anything distracting while you’re doing this. As you swallow, feel its passage down your throat and consider that this is going to be converted into usable energy to keep you going. If you can, let yourself be amazed by that chemical conversion happening without you having to control it. Let yourself feel grateful for the food, the drink, and for the work your gut does to keep the rest of your body going.

6: Listen to nothing in particular. Modern life means a nearly constant bombardment of stimulation and information. Sometimes what we need to be truly creative and relaxed is to take a break from taking any more in, to give space to what’s in our own minds already. Many people automatically put on music whenever they’re not absorbed in a conversation or watching something, but even “calming” music is more information, contributing to the sense of overload. The brain needs space to breathe. Turn off the music/news/whatever in the car, take off the headphones on the train. Listen to what’s around you or just to your own breath. Let your mind wander. Sometimes we’re in distracting environments where it’s not calming to just listen, such as the office or a noisy cafe. If you have a smartphone, get a white noise app. Listen to that instead of music when you need to take an aural break.

7: Look at a calming image or recall a happy memory. Stress, anger, frustration, fear – when we’re feeling these, our brains are wired to focus on problems, narrowing our band of attention. Happiness, calm, excitement – in these states our attention is widened and our focus is open, able to take in more different kinds of information. If you’re feeling locked in a negative state, simply telling yourself to be happy or calm doesn’t work. However, reminding yourself of a time that you were happy or looking at something that you find calming fires up the neural pathways in your brain associated with that positive memory or image, widening your attention. This can then help you more easily make a conscious shift out of a negative narrow focus.

glass of water 8: Drink a glass of water. Most of us are a little dehydrated and it’s easy to forget to take care of our bodies when we’re stressed. Get up, pour yourself a glass of water, and drink it very consciously – meaning put your focus on the water and the act of drinking it. Give your mind a rest and refresh your body at the same time.

9: Get and give a hug. One of the best ways to combat stress is to increase your body’s level of oxytocin, a hormone most easily released through non-sexual touch that communicates connection, like hugging or holding hands. So when you’re stressed, if it’s available and appropriate, ask someone for a hug. Neurochemically, it’s best if that hug can last 30 seconds, but even a short hug will help. Oxytocin can also be released when you hug or pet an animal like a dog or cat. Often, though, we’re stressed at work or other places where hugs and pets are not readily available. In those situations, you can still get some oxytocin going by hugging yourself. Cross your arms and give yourself a squeeze. Work your hands up and down your arms, continuing to squeeze. At the same time, think comforting thoughts and be aware that you’re doing something good to take care of yourself at that moment.

10: Step outside. Sometimes we need a dose of sunlight. Sometimes we need to breath deeply in fresh air. Sometimes we need to move our bodies around. Sometimes we don’t know what we need but a change of scenery sounds nice. For these reasons and more, spend a little time outside. Best if you can take a walk, move around. Keep your phone in your pocket and don’t put on your headphones. Just be outside. Swing your arms. Stretch a little. If you’re walking, exaggerate your steps by lifting your heels a little extra or raising your knees high. Basically: Remember you have a body and let it move a little.

stretching at window ThinkstockPhotos-7261709411*: Do Micro-Exercise Bundles. Look at flowers while taking deep breaths. Think of a happy memory while you’re hugging yourself. Eat your lunch outside in the garden. Smile while you stand tall. You get the idea.

The effects of the individual Micro-Exercises are small, but they add up. Do them regularly, and you should find that your stress level overall will decrease and you’ll be able to stay calm more easily.

Now you’re done reading and that was a long one.
Isn’t it time for a ME Break right now?


References are many, but I’ll call your attention to the work of Amy Cuddy, Chögyam TrungpaKimber Simpkins, Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley

*This post goes to 11!


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