All posts by Jon Cousins

Be kind to yourself by taking more time.

I used to bemoan the fact that when I asked a programmer how long he thought it would take him to finish a project and he said four days, this actually meant four weeks.

But the trouble is, that’s often how things work – and in fact I’m as guilty as the next person for underestimating the length of time that tasks will take.

In business it’s good to exceed your customers’ expectations.

For instance I love that when I buy a book on Amazon, the site tells me it won’t get delivered for several days, but then my order often turns up tomorrow.

When you underestimate the length of time it’ll take you to do something, I think you’re really setting yourself up to fail.

Instead of being pleased with your achievement, you’ll be disappointed in how much longer it took than it should have done.

So why not try to be a bit more lenient when it comes to planning your time?

Instead of giving yourself 30 minutes to tackle a task, and being dissatisfied when it takes 45, why not allow an hour in the first place?

This way you’ll very likely end up with a spare quarter of an hour to spend as you wish.

Don’t over-schedule.

Do be kind to yourself.

Forget what went wrong, what went right?

When things go wrong, we can often be all-too ready to analyse the reasons, to look for underlying causes, and often to feel miserable as a result.

But what about when things go right?

What do we do then?

After a good day recently, when all the pieces seemed to slot into place, I didn’t even stop to think about it – just carried on with all the usual routines.

In fact it took a friend to drag me away from my desk for a celebratory coffee, talking through the good things that had happened.

I don’t think I do this enough.

I rarely stop to reflect on successes, whether they’re big or small.

And I don’t often allow myself to feel grateful.

I wonder if you do?

Even if the answer is yes, there’s no harm (and a lot of benefit) in doing a better job of acknowledging the good things in life.

They don’t necessarily need to be big wins.

They might even be something as simple as realising that for once you haven’t got a headache, for instance.

I reckon the late and great Ian Dury was right when he sang about ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’.

In general we all have them, even though they sometimes hide themselves in the recesses of our minds.

How about hunting some down today?

A cat and a kid crowded out the worries.

Walking to an appointment the other morning, I caught myself needlessly worrying about things.

Now, of course worries do sometimes have a useful part to play in life.

In healthy doses, they can be the catalyst that motivates us to make progress and take action, and to not simply sit on our backsides praying that things will get better.

But I think there’s healthy worry, and there’s the other kind.

The kind that eats away at you, gnaws at your insides, causing you to ruminate – turning things over and over in your mind, usually to no good effect.

However, for once I was ready for this sneak ambush.

In fact the solution was surprisingly simple, and right at hand.

All it took was to begin actively taking notice of my surroundings.

A vivid green and freshly clipped privet hedge.

A black cat nuzzling its head against the bars of a front gate.

A little girl walking alongside her mother, taking three steps for each one of her mum’s.

Paying attention to what was around me banished those worries to some inner part of my mind where I could happily allow them to remain for as long as they wished.

Sometimes worries and negative thoughts creep up on you, elbowing their way in to occupy any available space in your consciousness.

If you let them.

Better, I believe, to crowd them out with thoughts of the here and now if you can.

What are your strengths? Ready to list them?

When did you last list your strengths?

That was the question put to me by a friend when we met for a coffee.

I had to confess that it had been a long time.

Our deal was that I’d do it myself and should also ask a few other people for their views on my strengths too.

My friend said she’d get the ball rolling for me on this front.

It was a surprisingly helpful exercise, reminding me what’s important in my life, what I’m good at, and what I’ve got to offer others.

In fact I’ve no hesitation in suggesting that you give it a try yourself.

Psychologist Martin Seligman has done some useful work in this area, so if you Google ‘seligman strengths survey’ you should find his invaluable inventory of 24 ‘character strengths’ to start you off.

It’s not always easy to compile a list for yourself without some sort of stimulus material, which is just what Seligman’s material provides.

I know that if my mood gets low, I can feel I’m useless.

Good for nothing.

Capable of little.

I honestly don’t think this is gratuitous self-pity, it’s simply the trick that a blue mind can play on you.

And in times like those it can be helpful to have evidence to hand that this is far from the truth.

Building a lifetime of resilience.

I wonder if you’ve noticed the way in which many older people seem to have an enormous resilience to adversity?

When things go wrong they simply accept them, and carry on pretty much as normal.

Chatting to a friend who’s a clinical psychologist, I wondered if there might be a degree of denial involved in this.

Perhaps these older folks are in some way choosing to ignore what’s befallen them?

My friend’s view?

In general, definitely not.

Their very real strength and resilience comes from having experienced adversity and heartache in the past, and from having proved to themselves that it’s perfectly possible (and in fact highly likely) to bounce back.

When you face bad times, as you’re certain to, it can be tempting to believe that they’re simply destructive and negative – of no value whatsoever.

But another way of viewing things is that these challenging experiences are building up your mental immune system, in just the same way that having certain childhood illnesses boosts your physiological immunity.

Whether you’re eight or eighty, it seems that going through bad times can make you stronger.

Give yourself something to look forward to.

I bet when you were young, there were things you looked forward to so much it made you ache.




It seemed they’d never come, and you’d count down interminable days.

But as you get older, it may sometimes feel there’s less to look forward to.

Occasionally you might actually feel as if you’ve nothing whatsoever to feel excited about.

Low mood and depression can rob you of the joy of anticipation, the pleasure of things to come.

And of course it’s a double whammy.

If you feel low, you’re less likely to make plans.

So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think the trick in such circumstances is to go against all your instincts, arranging to do something, be somewhere, or see someone in the nearish future despite your belief that you probably won’t feel like it.

Because the magic of the mind is such that merely setting a goal like this (and it doesn’t have to be a big one – simply agreeing to meet a friend for coffee can do it) very often works wonders.

Make plans, and you’ll make progress.

Your mind. Turn it off, then back on again.

There’s a joke, isn’t there, that a lot of computer problems can be solved by turning the thing off, then back on again?

The thing is, it frequently does work.

Computers are technologically complex devices which occasionally get ‘stuck’.

Operations go round and round in never-ending loops, or else they hang about waiting for an instruction which never comes.

Powering down and then up again often does the trick.

Now, your brain is far more sophisticated than the most advanced computer, but just like its more primitive electronic cousin there will almost certainly be times when your thought processes become cloudy, sluggish and confused.

Rebooting your brain isn’t really an option of course (enticing an idea though it may sound) but there’s a lot to be said for taking a break.

The mind has an amazing ability to bounce back after a good night’s sleep, or a couple of days calmness.

When I get tired and have been thinking too hard, my judgement is impaired.

I make bad decisions.

I’m almost certainly not the person I’d like to be.

But that can be pretty easily sorted by taking simple steps like getting better sleep, eating properly, getting some gentle exercise outdoors, or spending time with friends and family.

You wouldn’t expect your poor computer to thrive without the occasional spot of maintenance, so how about treating our minds with the same degree of TLC?

I will if you will.

Tidying away life’s flotsam and jetsam.

If you’re anything like me there’s almost certainly something in your home which needs sorting out, but which has been lingering untackled for ages.

In my case I’d been putting up with an unsightly stack of plastic crates in a corner of my office. I’m ashamed to admit they’d been there over a year.

Although they’d almost grown invisible day to day, I was embarrassingly aware of them every time I had visitors. And even when I didn’t, they made working in the office a lot less pleasant than it should have been.

Then one Sunday I got up and decided to sort out the mess. Time taken? No more than a couple of hours. Benefit? Massive. A big relief to be able to sit down peacefully without the irritation of a lot of unwanted stuff staring me right in the face.

Of course, like anyone I’ve still plenty of tidying to do. It never stops.

But the crates in the corner were a relatively easy win. ‘Low hanging fruit’ I think they’d call it.

So take a look around the space in which you live or work. Perhaps there’s a similar mess which you could tackle easily and relatively speedily?

The psychological benefits of crossing something like this off your To-Do list are huge in proportion to the effort it takes.

Get tidying, and almost certainly throw some of it away.

It will almost certainly be a load off your mind.

Just like cars, humans need their tanks topped up too.

If your car runs out of petrol/gas, it’s either that you’ve been negligent or forgetful and not filled its tank, or you’re on one of those ridiculously long Arizona roads that most of us only ever see in movies.

As I say, in general, the only one to blame when your car runs out of fuel is you.

But if this is so self-evident, why do we expect our bodies to keep on running at full speed, and our minds to keep making sensible decisions, when we’ve not kept ourselves properly fed and watered?

Why do we work through lunch without stopping to eat? Worse still, why do we do that, then resort to a bar of chocolate a couple of hours later – promising that it’s deserved because it’s simply a meal replacement?

Eating properly, healthily and regularly is vital. Yet when you’re busy, stressed or feeling down, it can be one of the first things to get forgotten.

You don’t need me to tell you what’s good for you and what isn’t. You don’t need me to tell you when to eat and when not to.

So do the right thing today, and make sure your tank’s filled appropriately.

Running out on one of those long, lonely Arizona roads isn’t a happy experience.

Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

If you or I needed to move a large and heavy piece of furniture, you probably wouldn’t attempt to struggle with it on your own.

In fact it’s often the case that you need to lift something that’s so heavy that it would be physically impossible to do so alone.

What do you do?

You look around and find someone who’ll lend a hand.

If they’re not in the immediate vicinity you’ve no option but to wait until they are.

This is so obvious that you may wonder why I’m even writing about it.

Let me tell you.

The thing is, what’s true for physical weight is every bit as true for mental burdens.

As you go through life there are some things that it’s perfectly reasonable to deal with yourself.

But every now and then it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to face something which is beyond your capacity.

That’s when it makes enormous sense to ask for help.

Of course it might be that you feel there’s nobody around you who could provide it.

But, you know, that’s nearly always not the case.

Even if it has to be someone you don’t know terribly well.

When you’ve too much on your plate, stop and think.

There will be someone who can help and you’ll almost certainly give them a warm glow just by asking them.

Just as you shouldn’t try to lift a wardrobe on your own, don’t struggle alone when things are weighing heavily on your mind.