Going Too Fast to Say No? How to Strengthen Your Self-Discipline Muscle

Q: You went flat out all week but never completed your critical task.  What happened?

A: You forgot to slow down.

Here is an analogy.  I love mountain biking.  The gnarlier the path the better. But sometimes I get so caught up in negotiating the next rocks and drops that I fly right past the turnoff. I end up lost. Sometimes I have to climb all the way back up.

Have you ever been in the flow like this, where you completely loose track of time?  It feels so good!  You just don’t want it to stop. But what was the cost of having to repair the mistake? Sometimes in hindsight it was totally worth the cost.  But at other times, we are only able to listen to the strongest medicine such as a missed business deal, an accident or a fling that cost the marriage for our self awareness to develop. Often it is the worst costs that force our long-term focus to mature. These are the lessons that change our behaviour.

Impulse Control:  Indulgence is a textbook ADHD symptom.

Some mountain bikers say they are going too fast to prevent a mistake about ten percent of the time.  So far, it has been blind luck that they haven’t been injured.  And they are fine with it.  Being too “in the moment” in the workplace might include forgetting to follow-up on an initiative, getting a parking ticket, or enjoying researching for an article for way too long.

How does one become aware when they have derailed from their task?  When lost in the moment people can become blind to choices we are making.

The solution is to develop the habit of checking if you are present.  But that can only happen when you have decided, and I mean really decided, that the direction you are taking is what you truly want.

I recommend using a reminder device.  An elastic.  An egg timer.  A ring.  A bracelet.  Or post it notes.  Set calendar appointment alarms with questions in the title.  Anything that will cause you to ask yourself: “Am I actually doing what it is that I want to be doing with this time?”

I have found that strengthening our self-discipline muscle means being fine with saying no to indulgences and wanting to say yes to what it is we really need.  Saying no means that you can stay focused on what you really want to say yes to.

Believing in yourself and your vision is a necessity.  But it’s not enough.  You need to make the decision you want it enough to do the work.  This means living like a person who earns it especially when nobody is looking.  Have you ever had a moment when you suddenly become aware of what you are doing e.g. you pulled out of the driveway to the left as if you were going to work, but you needed to go right?  You snapped out of autopilot.  Congratulations!  We can do the same thing just as we slip into an indulgence that might protect us from social threat, or from feeling uncomfortable from effort.  Snap out of your autopilot and into your presence so that you are aware of what choices you are really making.  Once you have decided for yourself the rest is much much easier. A coach can help with this.

If I asked you when you have done this before, you would give me a long list of when you did a great job of snapping back into being present.  You can do this: it is a question of degree and how much you want it.

Self-discipline bootcamps can help you address sudden urges. Or coaching support can help you train your new thinking habits and action reflexes to step up to what you are capable of.

My guess is you already have lots of grit, just look at what you have accomplished so far.  But could you accomplish more if you had better impulse control?  If you managed your focus more effectively, what could you achieve? Evaluate if the cost of indulgences is getting too expensive at this point in your life. If you could do it alone with the tools and support you presently have, you would have done so already.

How to Believe in Your Ability to Succeed

This is Called Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is the belief that one is able to successfully think, behave and feel in a particular situation.  Psychologist Albert Bandura emphasized the silent conclusions we draw about ourselves through the ups and downs of growing up.  These conclusions develop our belief set and adult personality. For example, one may conclude that a success was well earned or may think that it was just a fluke. We also see this when one says that a certain failure is “normal for me and just part of my brand”.  A person’s attitudes, abilities, and cognitive skills are in a way both the product and determinants of our success.

The Role of Self-Efficacy

Virtually all people can identify goals they want to accomplish, things they would like to change, and things they would like to achieve. However, most people also realize that putting these plans into action is not quite so simple. Bandura and others have found that an individual’s self-efficacy plays a major role in the meaning assigned to experiences (“what this event says about me”) and how goals, tasks, and challenges are approached.

People with a strong sense of self-efficacy:

  • View challenging problems as tasks to be mastered
  • Develop deeper interest in the activities in which they participate
  • Form a stronger sense of commitment to their interests and activities
  • Recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments

People with a weak sense of self-efficacy:

  • Avoid challenging tasks
  • Believe that difficult tasks and situations are beyond their capabilities
  • Focus on personal failings and negative outcomes
  • Quickly lose confidence in personal abilities

Sources of Self-Efficacy

These beliefs form in early childhood with the wide variety of social experiences, attempted tasks, and outcomes. Luckily, the growth of self-efficacy continues throughout life as people acquire new skills, awareness and understanding.

According to Bandura, there are four major sources of self-efficacy.

1. Mastery Experiences

“The most effective way of developing a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences,” Bandura explained. Performing a task successfully strengthens our sense of self-efficacy. Failing to adequately deal with a challenge can weaken it if we view it as a character flaw, rather than simply a lack of training or effort for example.

2. Social Modeling

Witnessing other people successfully completing a task is another important source of self-efficacy. According to Bandura, “Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises one’s belief in one’s capabilities to master comparable activities and to succeed.”

3. Social Persuasion

Bandura also asserted that people could be persuaded to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed if they have sufficient evidence.  Consider a time when someone said something positive and encouraging that helped you own, focus on and achieve a goal. Getting verbal encouragement from others helps people overcome self-doubt and give their best effort to the task at hand.

4. Psychological Responses

Our emotional reactions to situations play an important role in self-efficacy. Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels all impact what a person decides about their abilities in a particular situation. A person who became extremely nervous before speaking in public may come to a conclusion about their incompetence, weakening their self-efficacy in similar future situations.  Importantly, Bandura notes “it is not the specific intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are interpreted.”


By learning how to manage your mindset when facing difficult experiences, you can improve your self-efficacy.

Stanford Professor Carol Dweck categorizes two types of mindsets. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities. http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/

Blog post adapted from: http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/a/self_efficacy.htm
Bandura, Albert “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change”, 1977.

Fuel Your Focus

Work these days is getting faster and faster. 

I hear otherwise well-balanced professionals saying they are struggling because they find they:

  • cant slow down
  • are attempting too much multi-tasking
  • and are busier than ever before.


Sleep disturbances are more common now and they make it even harder for a mind to focus.  With so much going on, professionals find it harder to stay calm, which is a foundational element of emotional intelligence.  Staying calm is becoming a leadership imperative; a required competency especially for senior leaders. 


I am not implying that you have a habit of setting your hair on fire or that you infer “staying calm” to mean you turn into Dr. Spock.  My intent is to highlight the power of making a decision to more often leverage a wider field of vision and consider issues at more depth.   Of course you do this already since you are reading this blog.  But maybe not always.  Calm big picture thinking is in fact neurologically impossible when our brain is triggered through stress and change fatigue which compromise our ability to manage internal interruptions to our own thoughts such as judgements and running commentary.  But HOW do we calm our mind when we need to be thinking  a mile-a-minute to not fall behind?


Stay clear on your purpose.  Do you know your one MAIN focus for that moment?  Personally making the decision to focus is a critical step.  Ask yourself if it is a true priority.  Do you really want it?


Presuming you have been coached (by self or others) and are clear with and have made an explicit decision to be committed to it, you can be more present with it, know that you can ignore interruptions and complete your thoughts.  You will have the confidence to keep the conversation topic clean, uncontaminated with other burning platforms (which you will deal with later)  and can resist the temptation to do five things at once.   By using cleaner “fuel” for your focus, your thinking engine will run smoother and at higher efficiency than when trying to use “mixed fuels”.


But that’s much easier said than done.

So HOW do we better manage interruptions and derailleurs and maintain our focus?

1.  Become more mindful

2.  Manage your mental muscle fitness and habits/reflexes

3.  Be the leader that brings out their best


Become More Mindful

Ever noticed that stream of commentaries about the world that goes on in our heads?  Feels silent at times, and very loud indeed at other times.   Who you are is not the voice (the thinker) but the one who is aware of it.  At different times, we need to attend to the different parts of our thinking.  For example, when  the other person is speaking, are you preparing the next thing you’re going to say rather than truly listening to what’s going on for them?


Through formative experiences we may have developed a reflex to evaluate ourselves and what’s going on at all times.  But the greatest gift we can give might be to be truly present for them and listen deeply.   Other times it is essential to be the objective, rational, realistic judge of the data available in order to make a sound visionary, informed, evaluated and strategic decision.  So maturity in this case, is knowing when to be the scientist, and when to be in the moment.  We must learn from the past but not dwell there.  We need to plan for the future but not worry about or believe that once when we have that car/job/lover/whatever THEN we will be happy, because that’s dwelling in the future.  There is no time like the present.   In fact it is all we will ever have.


How can you best serve and contribute?  Depends on your purpose, and the context.


Purposefully paying attention to the moment and delaying judgement will keep you open.   When you have clarity on your goal, have decided on your objective (intention), you will become more effective, the way an engine runs quieter and more smoothly with cleaner fuel.



MINDFULNESS can help you to:

  • Make more effective decisions and be more clear and selective on when and how to take action both in organisations and in life in general because you have a wider perspective
  • Increase your awareness of here and how, which play a huge role in capturing missed business cues and preventing the loss of big picture thinking which affect our perceptions of what is real e.g. threats and opportunities, apparent logic, and knee-jerk decisions.
  • Dampen stress receptor systems and cortisol flood,  which all trigger Fight-Flight-Freeze reflexes, which measurably compromise our ability to see alternative perspectives  (both abstract, and literally with peripheral vision acuity changes), to innovate and be resourceful,  and to be empathic and calm.
  • Develop your capacity to pick up on what a complex situation TRULY requires, rather than just the presenting problem at a superficial reactionary level.


Manage your Mental Muscle Fitness and Habits/Reflexes

Staying mentally aware is work. 

Our thinking mind is DESIGNED to hand over everything it possibly can to our unconscious and our filter sets.  For example, feel the skin on your feet.  Hear sounds around you.  Listen to your breathing.  These are things our brain is supposed to filter out so that it doesn’t explode with the burden of decisions (when should I breathe?  Are my socks too tight?  Oh look, a bird.  Should I digest now?).  These filters saved our hides.  For example, in a crazy noisy room if you hear your child call your name, or you hear a person quietly choking, that same filter system will force you to notice it because they are emotionally relevant.  Or if you are speaking to a crowd and you spot a frown of anger or curled lip of contempt from the sea of faces looking at you, you will most likely notice if you care about your audience.  Conversely, if you are so wrapped up in how you appear and are delivering your message, you won’t notice your audience’s responses as much.  Filters are invoked depending on our hopes, fears, expectations and priorities.  You might as well be aware of them, because they are running your life for better or for worse.


This is where we need to develop our Mental Muscle Fitness, and be more aware of our thinking habits and reflexes which code our responses.   If we are able to stay un-triggered (calm, open and un threatened), we leverage our big brain and remain  open minded, skilled and resilient even in the face of uncomfortable discussions and feedback.   Staying calm even measurably increases  our learning readiness.  This forms a key element of the most admired leaders who are most effective at engaging and inspiring those they lead.

Be The Leaders Who Brings Out Their Best

Ever been in the workplace where an individual was so skilled that people fought to be on his or her team?  Effective leaders manage themselves in a way so that those they lead feel better about themselves.


It helps their team to better incorporate the information available to them, fosters an environment where they can debate, provides feedback in a climate that generates more sound decisions.  They take initiative and take the right actions because their brain RAM isn’t preoccupied wondering and computing the ruckus of stories, false conclusions about what statements might have meant and if they are a threat to their personal credibility, acceptance or belonging.


On the other hand when you are stressed, others’ mirror neurons can hardly stop themselves from picking that up.  While they don’t know why, they tighten up, and are not able to do their best work for you their leader.   Remember, you will influence much more powerfully when you are mindful, manage your emotions and are clear on your purpose.  As their leader, they NEED you to take managing yourself seriously, because then they can do their best work.


These are not rules or absolutes.  They are mere thoughts and perspectives gained from my experiences which might apply in certain contexts and may provide a new lens. 


I would love to hear if any parts ring true (or don’t) for you?

What have you found works best for you?

Is ADHD just another fad?

Could it be ADHD?

Maybe not.  Most people will have some of the patterns described in the Brown Attention Deficit Disorder Scales at some point.   What makes it Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD (or ADD minus the hyperactivity)  is if the degree and frequency is impairing you or not.

Thomas E Brown from Connecticut has clustered together 6 classic areas of impairment*.  These are from the most extreme end and are rarely seen in the workplace.   ADHD absentmindedness and  impulsivity do NOT give you license to be late, hurtful or inappropriate.  It means you need to accept and manage your wiring differences the way somebody with diabetes must accept to pay attention to what they eat.  Even when medicated, pills don’t spell skills.  Alas.


Executive Functions Impaired in ADD/ADHD:

Activation: organizing tasks and materials, estimating time, prioritizing tasks, and getting started on work tasks.

Patients with ADD describe chronic difficulty with excessive procrastination. Often they will put off getting started on a task, even a task they recognize as very important to them, until the very last minute. It is as though they cannot get themselves started until the point where they perceive the task as an acute emergency.

Focus: focusing, sustaining focus, and shifting focus to tasks.

Some describe their difficulty in sustaining focus as similar to trying to listen to the car radio when you drive too far away from the station and the signal begins fading in and out: you get some of it and lose some of it. They say they are distracted easily not only by things that are going on around them, but also by thoughts in their own minds. In addition, focus on reading poses difficulties for many. Words are generally understood as they are read, but often have to be read over and over again in order for the meaning to be fully grasped and remembered.

Effort: regulating alertness, sustaining effort, and processing speed.

Many with ADHD report they can perform short-term projects well, but have much more difficulty with sustained effort over longer periods of time. They also find it difficult to complete tasks on time, especially when required to do expository writing. Many also experience chronic difficulty regulating sleep and alertness. Often they stay up too late because they can’t shut their head off. Once asleep, they often sleep like dead people and have a big problem getting up in the morning.

Emotion: managing frustration and modulating emotions.

Although the medical world (DSM-IV) does not recognize any symptoms related to the management of emotion as an aspect of ADHD, many with this disorder describe chronic difficulties managing frustration, anger, worry, disappointment, desire, and other emotions. They speak as though these emotions take over their thinking much like a computer virus invades a computer, making it impossible for them give attention to anything else. They find it very difficult to get the emotions into perspective, let alone their impact.  It’s a challenge to get on with what needs to be done.

Memory: utilizing working memory and accessing recall.

Very often, people with ADHD will report that they have adequate or exceptional memory for things that happened long ago, but great difficulty in being able to remember where they just put something, what someone just said to them, or what they were about to say. They may describe difficulty holding one or several things “on line” while attending to other tasks. In addition, persons with ADHD often complain that they cannot pull out of memory information they have learned when they need it.

Action: monitoring and regulating self-action.

Many persons with ADHD, even those without problems of hyperactive behavior, report chronic problems in regulating their actions. They often are too impulsive in what they say or do, and in the way they think, jumping too quickly to inaccurate conclusions. Persons with ADHD also report problems in monitoring the context in which they are interacting. They fail to notice when other people are puzzled, or hurt or annoyed by what they have just said or done and thus fail to modify their behavior in response to specific circumstances. Often they also report chronic difficulty in regulating the pace of their actions, in slowing self and/or speeding up as needed for specific tasks.

So given that some elements are genetic and some are socialised (see epigenetics), what can we do about it??  See my next blog post.


Do you recognise any of these behaviours in those you know?

How have you (or they) learn to better manage or make improvements in compromising behaviour patterns?

*Excerpted from http://www.drthomasebrown.com/add-adhd-model/