Category Archives: Connect

How writing to a friend can really help you

I’d like to start today with a belated apology to readers who weren’t part of the Signpost trial that began at the end of January.

I became so immersed in it, that last week’s usual Moodnudge fell through a crack in the floorboards.

So I’m sorry if it seemed I might have disappeared from the face of the earth.

If you didn’t participate in the Signpost experiment and missed knowing what it entailed, let me explain, very briefly.

Signpost is an app I’m developing.

After prompting you with a daily text message, it asks you to check in via a 10-item questionnaire.

The questions evaluate your overall mood, and also check for possible underlying issues that might be affecting you – are you, for example, feeling anxious or angry?

Depending on these issues, you then hear my recorded feedback: a kind of audio moodnudge, hopefully tailored to your current state of mind.

I say “hopefully,” because for what you might call an interesting couple of days during the trial, the app unhelpfully told just about everyone that they were angry, when they weren’t.

As I said at the time in an email to participants, even if they weren’t feeling it to begin with, being wrongly labelled as angry could well be enough to rile anyone.

Signpost enables you to see your progress on a graph, to which you can add notes and explanations that may help you make sense of your ups and downs.

As a few people pointed out, Signpost seems to combine most of the different mood-management techniques I’ve explored over the years, into one overall idea.

Over 200 people took part in what turned out to be a two-week experiment, and more than half filled in a questionnaire leaving detailed feedback about their experiences.

The majority seemed to greatly enjoy the app, with only a few saying that it wasn’t for them (which I completely understood).

What’s more, and I honestly hadn’t anticipated this, there was an overall average mood lift of 7.5 points (on a 0-100 scale) across 14 days, which allows me to cautiously conclude that it was doing people some good.

I went into testing the prototype largely to experiment with the mechanics – sending text messages, providing audio (rather than written) feedback, for example, so for me to learn that it was actually helping people was really promising.

The more challenging part of the feedback process, however, was my realisation that many see the app developing in one of two ways.

Some regard it as a tool for anyone, really, who’s going through what what you might say are the normal emotional ups and downs of everyday life.

Others, though, view Signpost as being squarely aimed at people going through a particularly difficult time – those who are experiencing significant depression or anxiety, for example.

Currently, I therefore find myself at something of a crossroads (‘twas ever thus, for me!) as I’m pretty sure it’s not really viable to make one tool serve two purposes.

You might say that I need to decide whether I’m building a hammer or a screwdriver.

Having said this (and I’m literally just seeing this as I write), whichever we decide to develop now, won’t stop us using the same underlying methods (check-in via a questionnaire, get audio support, track progress on graph, add annotations) to create the “other.”

With steel and wood, you can build both a hammer and a screwdriver.

One at a time though, perhaps.

Hmm. It feels good to have gained some clarity, which I certainly didn’t have when I started writing this an hour ago.

Perhaps it’s a lesson to us both of the power of putting thoughts down on paper?

If you’re currently at some kind of crossroads yourself, right now, maybe consider explaining your situation in a message to a friend (which is actually how I regard this piece of writing to you).

Maybe, when we describe dilemmas to others, it actually helps us line up our own thinking.

In conclusion, I’m still not clear whether the hammer or screwdriver should come first, but at least I now know they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

So, who are you going to write to you about your situation?

Random Acts of Kindness Day

I’d love to claim credit for having planned it this way, but the fact that the final day of our Signpost trial happens to have fallen on Random Acts of Kindness Day is – appropriately – entirely random.

Two weeks after we started this journey, we end it by being encouraged to do something unexpectedly kind for someone, perhaps anonymously.

I’ll be in touch with everyone who has taken part in the trial, with a link to a short survey that will enable me to gather overall feedback, but right now, perhaps you have thoughts about today’s message specifically? Do, please, share away.

I’m in the forest

Something a little different for our daily Signpost catch-up today, as you’ll find me amidst the redwood trees in Huddart Park, near Woodside, California.

It seemed a good opportunity to remind us both of the emotional well-being benefits of getting out in nature, so – microphone in hand – off to the forest I went.

Maybe you’ve experienced moments of feeling great, out in nature? Why not share your story?

Valentine’s Day: it’s not always easy

Valentine’s Day isn’t always the easiest of days, particularly if you happen to be going through a tricky time. For a celebration that’s supposed to be all about love and connection, some can actually find it difficult and lonely.

Today on Signpost we’ve talked through some strategies that could help, but it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all issue. What do you think about Valentine’s Day? Do you embrace it, or try to escape it?

Let’s share thoughts.


Shrove Tuesday – pancakes with a dash of self-examination

March 13th is Shrove Tuesday, and Mardi Gras. In the UK this means pancakes, while in the USA Mardi Gras is a time to make merry. Any excuse.

Actually, though, some religions view the day as a special time for self-examination, so perhaps this is a good time to look a little deeper inside yourself, being careful of course to avoid rumination.

Neuroscientist and mindfulness expert Dr. Daniel Siegel recommends a strategy he calls COAL (Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving) to keep things on track.

So where will self-exploration take you today? What are you thinking about Signpost?

And, anyone for pancakes? [Yes please. Ed.]

Please feel free to add to the conversation.

February 11th – National Inventors’ Day, and curiosity

Today sees the start of another Signpost experiment, when I’ll be producing the recorded signposts just about as close to live as is possible. There’s also now the possibility of seeing what others feel about the day’s content, and contributing your own thoughts if you like.

Today is National Inventors’ Day in the USA, the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Edison, a man who knew a thing or two about the power of curiosity – the central theme of today’s signposts.

Please feel free to add to the conversation. No rules. We’re making this up as we go!

Pointing in the right direction again

Enormous thanks for your patience, which has allowed me the space today to (a) properly work out what had gone wrong with Signpost, (b) put it right, and (c) introduce a few new surprises that I hope you’ll enjoy.

As this email is going out, I’m reinstating the text reminder system, so your usual messages should start appearing again soon (unless, of course, you’d previously asked me to stop them).

As I suspected, the feedback had got pretty messed up, with lots of “angry” conclusions drawn where they shouldn’t have been. Things should be a lot better now.

One small but important change is that the 11th question when you check in, which asks about your overall emotional state, now has the answer “So-so” in place of “Reasonably good.”

You’d be quite right to suggest that the “temperature” of this answer has gone down a notch. Whereas “reasonably good” indicated a somewhat positive emotional state, “so-so” is clearly more neutral. A bit kind of “meh,” if you like.

The logic behind this is that if you judge your overall state as “good,” the system will take that at face value, so it won’t try to persuade you that you are in fact, for example, angry (promise).

However, any other answer to this question – “So-so,” “A little difficult,” or “Difficult” – will cause the system to look at your underlying emotions, in order to discover what might be going on behind the scenes for you.

If you don’t want to know, for some reason, just answer “Good” to question 11, but if you’re happy to explore, give one of the other three responses.

You’ll find that the short text descriptions under the audio control strip have now been replaced with a simple list of your individual responses for that day, grouped into happiness-related, anxiety-related, and anger-related feelings.

In addition, one of three smiley emoticons sits alongside each of the ten feelings/emotions to indicate whether your response is likely to be making a positive, neutral, or negative impact on your overall emotional state.

Sorry of this sounds a bit complicated, but if you look back at your previous signposts, I think it will all become clear.

I felt this would be a sensible move, enabling you to make your own judgements about individual days, rather than having a computer program trying to sum things up for you, which I think is always going to sound weirdly artificial.

I’ve tried to work as thoroughly as possible today (Thursday) so I really hope your Signpost experience will be tons better when you next visit, which I trust will be soon.

Do please feel free to let me know what you think. I’d love to get a conversation going, and you won’t have to wait for me to wake up on Friday morning!

It’s Mingling Monday.

Practice what you preach, they say.

So I’m sorry in advance that this email is definitely not a perfect example of this.

But first, my excuse.

You and I don’t really have another way of keeping in touch other than by email.

I’m not sure you’d like it if I phoned you every morning to read you these messages.

And making several thousand phone calls every day would be time consuming in the extreme.

But the point I’d like to make, which you knew I’d get to sooner or later, is that emails, text messages, tweets and Facebook pasts aren’t always the best way to communicate with people.

When you actually talk to someone (ideally face to face, but over the phone can be almost as good) the interaction is immeasurably richer.

Emotions often don’t get conveyed at all in written messages, and when they do they can so often be misconstrued.

It’s all too easy for someone to get the wrong end of the stick.

So let’s make this a Mingling Monday.

Rather than bashing out soul-less keyboard messages to someone nearby, go over and talk to them.

If they’re further afield, pick up the phone.

You’ll feel all the better for it and so will the other person.

I guarantee it.