Recently I delivered a talk at the Microsoft Ignite Conference. I discovered after my talk that it was the second most popular talk - superseded only by the keynote. Some 700 people came along to hear my message: How to keep yourself under control when everything is out of control; and other brain hacks for techies.
You can listen to the talk here.
The key takeaway was that you can optimise your brain, just like you optimise your software. And in so doing you can make yourself more awesome.
Here's a summary of the key points.
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1. Know your brain
You can unlearn old thoughts, feelings and emotions and relearn new ones. Every thought, feeling and emotion is a result of neurons firing together. So we can learn new ways of thinking, feeling and doing; by being aware more aware of how our brains work.
We are of course all partly made up of nature - our genetics; and nurture - our upbringing. When considering how we act in life, I like to think of the difference between our personality and our behaviour. Our personality is quite hard-wired. It indicates our inner qualities like our attitudes, aptitudes, dreams, values and abilities. Our behaviour is the observable things we say and do. We can learn new ways of saying and doing things; without changing the fundamentals of who we are.
If we are an introvert and a friend is throwing us a birthday party. We can engage in some small talk, smile whilst we get sung happy birthday and farewell people graciously as they leave. All without changing our personality to being extroverted.
In this way, we can over time learn new ways of doing that are more in line with what is required of us. This is relevant for techies who work daily with people and find this difficult. You can learn new skills for your toolbox (your behaviours) without feeling like you need to change your personality.
Check out these apps for staying under control....
2. Get yourself under control
It is absolutely normal that in life we sometimes get out of control. After all, we areemotional beings. From time to time we experience strong, even overwhelming emotions. The trick is not to shy away from feeling these, but to wrangle yourself back under control when they arise.
This is relevant for all sorts of situations. Such as:
Our brain’s primary function over the course of human evolution has been to keep us alive. It's quite good at it! However it can't tell the difference between a physical threat (e.g. a tiger) and a psychological threat (e.g. a dressing down by the boss). It reacts in the same way - flight, fight or freeze. By learning some simple techniques you can kickstart your logical, rational brain. This puts you back in control.
Try these techniques:
It can be overwhelming when dealing with people. Afterall, let's face it, people can be very annoying! To learn to deal with people well, it's all about learning to deal with yourself well first. You can then get yourself in a good spot, making decisions for the best you. It's important not to react to situations mindlessly. Doing so often only makes things worse.
By learning some simple techniques you can kickstart your logical, rational brain
3. Beware of thinking traps
You need to debug your thinking just like you debug your code.
It is easy to think that our thinking is logical, rational and leads to good decisions. Pleasing as it is to think that, it's just not true. There are many thinking traps we can fall into.
We all like to think we are data driven, however there are a few proven thinking traps that it's good to be aware of.
The confirmation trap sees us seeking information that will most likely support our initial point of view. All the while, whilst conveniently avoiding information that challenges it. This affects not just where we collect our data but how we analyse it. I often see this in leaders who have their mind made up about someone. For example, the annoying person that keeps asking you questions above. If you have made up your mind that they're annoying, you're likely looking for data to support that.
The status quo trap sees us giving the status quo an advantage over every other alternative. It means that if you are currently structuring your team one way, you are likely to favour that over other structures. This also goes for seating arrangements, Friday night drinks - you name it. Ask yourself if you would choose the current situation if it wasn't the status quo.
Thinking traps are relevant in all walks of life, even around dealing with people. Remembering of course, that whilst we are prone to these thinking traps, so are people around us.
4. Use your intuition
Just like you would not immediately discount market data or customer satisfaction ratings, you should not immediately discount intuition. Intuition is just an internal data source. Too often in technology I hear of people who don't even want to listen to their intuition. This is a real shame as it can and does add value.
A few things to be aware of around your intuition. You can trust it the most when you have it in situations in which you are an expert. For example, I am an absolute expert with regards my kids; and often know what they will do before they even do!
So, when you're experiencing intuition, carefully note if the situation is one with which you are familiar.
You can increase your confidence around using your intuition by training it. It can be scary to start using your intuition when you haven't done so before.
So, when you notice your intuition arise, follow this process.
a) Check that this situation is one in which you have some expertise.
b) Feel in your body what the intuition feels like. Is it in your gut? Is it in your chest? What feelings are you having?
c) Act on your intuition if it's a low stakes environment. There's no better way to learn than to do.
d) Reflect on how it went. What did you learn? What would you do differently next time?
Increase your confidence around using your intuition by training it
5. Manufacture an Insight
Sometimes you need to get an insight fast. Insights happen when two or more discrete pieces of information or concepts join in your mind.
The best way to manufacture an insight is to
a) cram your brain with all the information
b) do some thinking about how things might go together (e.g. draw pictures with arrows and flow charts)
c) go and do something else for a while so that your brain can assimilate the new information into existing information.
We can create insights when we de-focus from the specifics and take a broad view; taking a step back and looking at things generally can help us access insights.
Why is this important?
We are all human beings; and we work with human beings too. Learning to be better ourselves can help us be better with others.
Learning how to keep ourselves under control is a major asset in the workplace.
Learning "how to people" is a key competency required to get ahead, both for individuals and business. The steps in this blog are is an important first step towards this.