Category Archives: conversational


The Head and Shoulders Effect

The Head and Shoulders effect. I named this after the 90s TV adverts for the shampoo. Their tagline was “I never knew you had dandruff.” In the adverts, one surprised individual asks their well-coiffed friend why they are using an anti-dandruff shampoo when they clearly don’t have dandruff.

More generally, the question might look like: why are you taking a preventative measure for something I didn’t realise needed preventative measures?

It always struck me as wrong and illogical as a question (but great advertising if you look at their sales results).

Recently, I’ve come across this style of question in real life (adverts don’t count as real life, despite what they want us to believe). I’ve been asked why I was watching what I was eating since I was already slim. The answer is that I’m slim because I watch what I eat (mostly…).

I think the Head and Shoulders effect nicely illustrates confirmation bias: our tendency to interpret information in a way that tends to confirm our beliefs.

There’s a darker angle to confirmation bias. I see this as the flip-side of the Head and Shoulders effect: “I’m taking measures, why aren’t I seeing results.”

I think the answer – and the problem – here is that sometimes we shouldn’t be comparing our progress to where we were at the start of the journey but to where we would be today if we hadn’t chosen to make a change.

For example, it’s very easy for me to feel bad about the slow progress I’ve had trying to improve my running fitness but if I instead think where I would be if I hadn’t done any training at all suddenly it’s obvious what the value is.

I think today’s lesson is to be kind to ourselves by realising that we can’t always directly measure the impact of our efforts because we can’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t tried, and to treat ourselves to a great shampoo.


Fear of the Known

Yesterday, I went for a run through an unfamiliar area. Pretty soon I was lost but I was happy. I knew I had to get back and I knew I was very unlikely to simply turn around and retrace my steps. And I was cool with it.

Then, suddenly, I recognised where I was and I was hit with a sudden feeling of dread as I realised that I was around 2 miles from home.

It dawned on me that a) this made little sense and b) this happened to me a lot. I could be fully aware of, and happy with, a set of risks. But then one of those risks would materialise and boom! I’d experience fear.

Fear is a little like arsenic: it’s natural, ancient, potentially toxic and only occasionally useful. Humans are built to experience fear, to run away, resist change, stay put and hide under the duvet.

On the other hand, fear is good. Fear means we’re evolving. It means we’re pushing forward. Fear means we’re reaching for our awesome.

This blog is all about taking gentle steps but if we’re not ever scared perhaps the steps are too gentle?

Head in the clouds, bum away from desk

“Making honey takes a lot of bees doing a lot of small jobs. But let me tell you about a small job. If you do it well, it makes a big difference.” – Barry B. Benson, Bee Movie

It’s been two months since my last blog post here. In that time I’ve learned a lot, and done very little. My standards became too high, the dream too big. Aiming high is a perfectly legitimate approach but it’s not for me. This blog is about gentle steps to improvement and now I realise that includes having reasonable goals in the first place. (Or maybe no goals at all, but that’s a question for another day).

I allowed myself to become enchanted by grand plans. Suddenly, I wasn’t writing blog posts because I was planning the blog launch, then I wasn’t planning the blog launch because I was trying to find the perfect domain name.

I was getting nowhere. And it was because I was following the wrong dream.

I started this blog to share my thoughts and maybe help some people along the way. When I began thinking about making this a successful blog, that’s when things started to go wrong. True, if this blog were to reach more people I could potentially help more. But that’s not why I was trying to be successful. I was chasing success itself.

I had succeeded in factoring out the part of the blog that I enjoyed.

It feels good to admit that. (It’s taken me a while.) Now to start thinking in practical, realistic steps again. Like Barry B., I’m going to set my sights on doing a small thing, and aiming to do it well.

Here’s what I have learned from looking back at my own actions from the last couple of months. Hopefully, it can save you from similar pain.

  • Learning is great but has to be balanced with doing, consuming balanced by producing
  • Have attainable goals. If the goal isn’t attainable break it down into sub-goals (and repeat) or drop it
  • Focus on the day-to-day, humble, gentle steps – don’t be distracted by the glam and the glitter of ‘big success’

Systems, rituals and warm-ups.

“Wax on, wax off” – Miyagi, The Karate Kid

Last week, I spoke about giving up. Today, I had a bit of a crappy day. Nothing serious, just a bunch of conjoined annoyances. After a rubbish day the last thing I really want to do is slave over a hot laptop to eke out a blog post. Fortunately, I’ve got some tools to help me get back on track.

I’ve discovered (read: learned from others) three ways of making life easier. If you read the blog title you may have an inkling what they might be. Each is a combination of simplification and mind-hacks. Here they are in reverse order:


A warm-up in this context is an activity that takes you closer to your desired goal while being far less taxing than the full task itself. A couple of examples are getting changed into a gym kit or pasting some text into a blogging site (more on that later). It’s relatively easy to change into exercise clothes. Once you’re in them, you might feel more inclined to exercise. Once I’ve pasted some text into a blank blog post the page is no longer blank and it’s a hell of a lot easier to write when the page isn’t blank. It doesn’t matter that the words on the page are going to be replaced.


A ritual is a fixed task or series of tasks that mentally prepare you for the job ahead. Unlike a warm-up they aren’t usually steps that are part of the process proper, they just help smooth the journey. My ritual for this blog is to wait until the nippers are in bed, grab a cup of tea and settle into my home office. I don’t need the tea. I don’t really need to be in my office. But following these steps each time I write a blog post helps settle me into a rhythm.


A system is a set of check-lists and flows for achieving a particular goal or change. They help take the uncertainty out of a large task by splitting it into a series of smaller, more palatable tasks. I’ve shared the system I’m developing for blogging below. Notice how the tasks start incredibly easy. In fact, they are so simple they don’t really even need to be recorded. These first few steps of the system are my warm-up; they help me ease into the harder stuff.

Your Turn

What tools do you use to help get through tricky moments and challenging tasks? Let me know in the comments.

Blogging in 23 steps

  1. Open up Blogger
  2. Click New Post
  3. Fill in working title
  4. Paste/write this (“quote goes here” – someone) at the top of the page
  5. Brain splurge – write down all the things I think I might want to say – no real effort to have stuff in the right order or in proper sentences
  6. Start writing from the start of the post at the top of the page & stick a few new-lines in to separate from the earlier splurge – at this point still going for quantity of words over quality
  7. Tidy up, removing last of splurge
  8. Fill in quote
  9. Finalise title
  10. Preview the post
  11. Add formatting
  12. Read through
  13. Edit for correctness – spelling and grammar
  14. Read through
  15. Edit for completeness – have I missed anything glaring out?
  16. Read through
  17. Edit for clarity – e.g. tweak word choices, rearrange sentences
  18. Read through
  19. Cut the darlings – remove anything I can without hurting the message
  20. Publish
  21. Share to G+
  22. Share to Buffer
  23. Update my Trello board with any new blog ideas or thoughts
   23a. Reward myself, but that’s a topic for another day

Don’t give up.

“The road is long, with many a winding turn.” – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, The Hollies

Do you ever feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? That perhaps, you’ve taken a step too far? That you don’t have what it takes? I know I’ve felt like that on more than one occasion.

It’s easy to give up.

There can be minor or temporary upsets. Maybe the conditions aren’t quite right. You’re tired or you’ve got a cold. The car broke down again.

Then there are bigger worries: strains on loved ones and family ties, money concerns.

Maybe you’re wondering what the point is. All this extra effort, is it worth it?

Don’t give up.

Starting something new, creating something valuable and amazing can be really hard. Seeing it through can be harder still.

I’ve barely started this blog and already there have been times of self-doubt. There nearly wasn’t a post today.

I’ve thought about giving up but I’m not going to, because I don’t want you to give up. I don’t yet know who exactly you are, but if my suspicions are right you want to do big things; things that a part of your brain tells you can’t be done, at least by you.

I know those feelings. I’m still having them. Let’s get through it together.

Here are some things that have helped me:

  • Aspire to the works and results of others, but don’t be put off by their success; you cannot know what they have done to get where they are, nor do you know where you can get to if you persevere.
  • Ride the wave. Recognise and harness momentum when it comes, ease into the uphill slogs.
  • Draw strength from those around you. Find the people who understand what you’re doing and will support you.
  • Focus on the outcomes. Remember why you started this in the first place. 
  • Act as if you’ve already succeeded, at least in the short term. Act this way and failure becomes less of a choice. (For one example, see immediately below)

Next week I’ll share a tip or two for bolstering willpower (see what I did there?). Until then, please leave a comment if you’ve got a tip to share for pushing on, or if you just want a few words of encouragement from someone who’s also in the middle of their journey.

Phase 1: trying

“Sometimes you just gotta roll the dice.” – Paul (the alien), Paul (the movie)

Things have going smoothly for the last week or so; I’ve made a couple of blog posts and a couple of awesome people have commented. Good times.

I thought it was about time for me to ‘fess up. I don’t know what I’m doing. Most bloggers I’ve come across seem to know what they are doing. I don’t. I didn’t want to wait until I was good – it could have been a damn long wait – so I’ve started now.

I’m in phase 1 right now, and that means trying. In this case I’m trying to do four things:

Write. A bit obvious this one. I like to write. Now I’m writing. Go me! 

Work towards my top-level goals. More on what they might be another time.

Tease out a process. I’m gathering some thoughts around a process I’ve had rattling away in the back of my head for some time. It’s part-Agile, part-Lean, and part wisdom accumulated from a decade or so working as a project manager. I’m not sure what the process is yet but I know it starts with trying and has the aim of small, repeated steps of improvement, moving gently up and to the right.

Finally, and this is the one that surprised me: 

Make the world more awesome

I realised something recently. Naive and simple I might be, but I want the world to be awesome. Not just good, but awesome. Not just for some people but for everybody.

I don’t see myself as being revolutionary material but that’s kind of the point. We could rely on the actions of the powerful few to make the world a better place or we mere peons could band together and do it. The technology exists now to make a motivated few a force to be reckoned with. Get enough people working together, taking baby steps in the right direction, and the cumulative effect could be surprising.

I don’t think I’m going to get very far. I’m unlikely to change anything. But the thing I’ve realised is that there is precisely no reason not to try.