Habit 5: Seek first to understand

“We’re filled with our own rightness, our own autobiography” Covey

Welcome to part 5 of 7 looking at the science (or not) of Stephen Coveys ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.

Those that joined me in Habit 4 will know I am starting to despair about the apparent mismatch (or lack of dialogue at least) between mainstream management practices and the research on management practice.

I was hoping I would get a break in Habit 5, for me and my dear readers.  Dear reader, guess what? We both get a break.  Here it is, watch this video (middle of the screen ish).

Are you still laughing?  I loved this when it went viral a few years ago and I love it again now.  It takes the mickey in a delightful way of many issues in gendered stereotyped male/female communications.  I hate a gendered stereotype as much as the next guy, but boy have I experienced this (from both sides).  Laughter at the human condition aside, there are many important points made here.  It can be dam hard to truly listen when the solution is literally staring you in the face.  But in real life, the solution to this woman’s pain might not have been the literal nail in her forehead!  The trick to listening is to truly suspend judgement, to just shut up for a bit, it’s not about you mate!

The opening quote and the video alone are enough to change a life and transform communication.  But we are here to consider the science so….

What is the science in listening (which is the crux of this habit)?

Good news; there is so much published on listening, there is even an “International Journal of Listening”.  My experiences in previous blogs are going to stop me looking for Covey’s exact approaches in these journals as I am too old and tired for a wild goose chase today.

So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and see what he had to say.

Covey on listening.

There are five levels of listening:

  1. Ignoring (not actually listening at all)
  2. Pretending (really is that any better? Even worse?)
  3. Selective (a bit selfish as usually the selecting is self-interested)
  4. Attentive (getting there)
  5. Empathic (listening with the sole intent to understand)

Do try this at home and see what happens – let me know.  There are more suggested actions (as this habit really needs to be learnt by having a crack at it):

  • Select a relationship where the emotional bank account is in the red.  Try and really get the other persons perspective.  Then have a go at level 5 listening next time they are talking.
  • Tell someone close about empathic listening, tell them you are having a go at it, get their feedback.
  • Go for a coffee, alone and watch people that you can’t hear communicating.
  • Next time you catch yourself ignoring, probing, advising etc. say “I’m sorry, I’m not really listening right mate, can we start over” (of course if you are not in New Zealand or Australia it might not be appropriate to call people ‘mate’).

Yours as Ever,

The Wellbeing@WorkDr

References links and all that jazz


This is part of a larger series on Stephen Covers 7 Habits, being:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Photo Credit:

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

“You cannot hold people responsible for results if you supervise their methods”  Stephen Covey

This is part 4 of 7 looking at the science, or not, of Stephen Coveys ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.

I was walking through the mall once with Ms12, when she yelled out “Mum! Look at those backpacks they come with fluffy balls already attached – that is, totally win/win!”. 

I’m not sure her and Covey were exactly on the same page, but their enthusiasm was well matched.  Covey opens his chapter on win/win with an anecdote about a client whinging that his employees were selfish and would not co-operate.  Peel down one (paper thin) layer and he offered a trip to Bermuda for the employee that sold the most.  There is no better way to make a team not co-operate than such an incentive structure.

Stop for a moment, close your eyes and tap into that feeling of being a child at a lolly scramble.  How much cooperation is in that memory?  So many corporate incentive structures mirror this without realising it.  The result? Adult employees – behaving like children at a lolly scrambles, with tears, squashed toes, pride, hair pulling and worse.

In habit 4 language; the boss wanted win/win but had put in place a win/lose incentive structure – there was only one trip to Bermuda on offer.  Conversely “Win/Win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody”.

Covey suggests making these five elements explicit and clear in any/all win/win agreements:

1.            Desired results (but not methods).

2.            Guidelines i.e. principles, policies etc (e.g. selling your grandmother will always disqualify you from winning the trip to Bermuda, even if your sales are better than others).

3.            Resources.

4.            Accountability.

Is there any science to this win/win malarkey?

The tragic truth is – I have no idea.  Sorry.

I began my search looking to any scientific publications with win-win as well as Covey in the title.  I was excited to find a paper, even if it was just the one.  My excitement wore thin when I looked into the quality of the journal it was published in.  Also the article was a case study.  Sure case studies are swell, but if you were dying of cancer and a drug existed for 300 dollars a pill and the only science was one patient case study … would you go there?  Exactly.

My experiences assessing Habit 4, were very similar to my recent experiences with habits 1, 2 and 3.  Hence after the failure to find direct research, I turned my energy to look for similar ideas that showed scientific rigor.   Habit four is about effective teamwork and effective delegation (as seen in the opening quote).  I chose to look at delegation and although I could find a good amount of research, nothing seemed like it might reflect the Covey ideas enough to bore either of us with.

Hence my conclusion that I did not know (as for an unpaid task I am doing in my spare time, I feel I had invested enough time over the past two weeks on trying).  It should not be this hard which gets me thinking …..

Where are we at now?

This process of looking for the science or not in Coveys 7 habits is making me despair re the overall mismatch between ‘corporate gurus’ and academic research.  Given the multi-squillion dollar per year income made off the back of such gurus advice worldwide – it is a bit shocking I have to work so hard to find said ideas reflected in hard science.   I am not ready to blame the guru or the scientist yet.  Especially as I suspect both are equally to blame.

For now I am going to hope like heck that habit 5 is kinder to all of us.  But I am also going to pay some attention to the win/win (or win/lose or lose/lose)  paradigms in my work and home ‘teams’.  I suspect (science or no science) there is a lot to learn here.

Footnotes, References and all that Jazz.


Tudor, S., & Mendez, R. (2014). Lessons from covey: Win-win principles for university-employer engagement. Higher Education, Skills and Work-based Learning, 4(3), 213-227. doi: 10.1108/HESWBL-06-2014-0018

This is part of a larger series on Stephen Covers 7 Habits, being:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Picture credit


Habit 3: Put first things first

This post discusses Habit 3: Put first things first, it is part of a larger series looking at the science (or not) of Stephen Coveys’ 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

The science that seems most important here in terms of supporting Coveys’ ideas is the goal hierarchy work discussed in Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind


I enjoyed reading and listening to Covey’s thoughts on Habit 3, it felt sensible and inspiring.

So what does he say – well – using the metaphor of photography he says:

  • The wide-angle lens is the big picture, our large goals, values etc.
  • The telephoto lens is all the details and detritus of life, you know: pick up the kids, pay the bills, stop at the red light.
  • The standard lens is a bit like a calendar week.  Almost like a wee subset or even case study of your life.

Covey argues (I don’t think a single one of us would disagree) that when we live at the telephoto lens perspective day in and day out – we are pushed and pulled and rushed and stretched, running from crisis to crisis like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off.

The week is a great place to practice putting first things first.  By focusing on a week in the life of us, we are neither the autumn leaf nor the mountain range, we are both.

The suggestion is to take 20-30 minutes out before your next week begins, and plan it out like this:

  1. Clarify your important life roles e.g. parent, worker, runner, preacher, researcher, project manager, carer, friend, sister, self-carer……
  2. Choose your big rocks i.e., one meaty thing to achieve in each role for the upcoming week – ask yourself “what is the most important thing I could do in this role this week, that would make the most positive difference?”
  3. Schedule these big rocks
  4. Then, and only then, schedule the rest of your week.

Goal Hierarchy Say’s

The discussion and approach above is very consistent with a published concept mentioned briefly in Habit 2, called goal hierarchy.

Understanding the goal hierarchy is best done interactively, so try this, I dare you:

First get a large piece of paper and some pens (more than one colour, hell you can justify a guilt-free trip to smuggle if need be).  Now find a quiet time and place.


  1. In a row along the top, in boxes write your core 5-7 values (here’s a list of useful value words if you are stuck)
  2. One row down, write your major roles in life
  3. Below that write your major project goals (include work and life e.g. get a massive bonus, renovate the laundry, lose 10kgs)
  4. Finally list out your day-to-day tasks, not every one, put them in categories e.g. fitness tasks, or report writing.

What you have should look something like this, without all the crazy lines.

Now draw lines where there are connections between levels.  You can add more granularity by indicating stronger connections with thicker lines and negative connections in a different colour (go the new smuggle pens! I hope you got a red one?).

Now think about what you learnt, go on write it down, you know you want to.

If you did this tasks (within even a little enthusiasm) you will understand deeper the point made in the post on habit 2, that a goal alone is not enough to get you ….. anywhere much.

In preparing this post I reviewed and updated my personal goal hierarchy and had three wee epiphany’s (yes I realise the oxymoronic nature of that but bear with me*).  I understood why I feel so stretched just now.  Secondly I understood why someone in my inner circle (who shall not be named) was feeling neglected.  There were not many linkage lines connected to their box and they did not appear at all in day-to-day tasks – ouch!  I also discovered I have many tasks that are not connected to ANY higher order things (values, roles or goals) what Covey would call Quadrant 4 activities.

Coveys’ Quadrant

Coveys 4 quadrant model is probably the one that has endured most over the years, both for me personally and in conversations with clients.

Working up this post has made me realise it might be time to actually get my tasks on the quadrant to help with that feeling of overwhelm, tasks that are currently in notes on my phone, the fridge the, the car, that Siri has made for me in random places (with spelling worse than mine). It’s one thing to be a list person, it is another thing altogether to be drowning under the weight of so many roles, goals and lists that you struggle to breathe.

So here it is … simple and easy …. draw this quadrant with ‘urgency’ one side and ‘importance’ on the other and write your to-do list down.  Then treat each quadrant differently.  I for one will make a wee ceremonially fire and burn quadrant four …. or call the cleaner (bless you Dee, you rock!)

Take out

My take out from rereading content for this post (as well as my experience of executive coaching) is that it seems logical that putting first things first is a critical success factor (hate that buz phrase but it fits here) for well …. success.  However putting first things first isn’t always clear or easy, especially with so much information coming at us every second of every day trying to tell us it is important and urgent.  We must be ever vigilant, policing our own attention and activity all the time.

Our are your first things?

Next week we will be thinking win-win.

Links, Rerences and all that Jazz.


Unsworth K, et al. Goal hierarchy: Improving asset data quality by improving motivation. Relaib Eng Syst Safety (2011), doi:10.1016/j.ress.2011.06.003

*Did you ask – doesn’t she mean ‘bare with me’? Well, actually no that is a common, but incorrect use of a homophone and would literally mean ‘uncover with me’, which could also be interesting but let’s not.

This is part of a larger series on Stephen Covers 7 Habits, being:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw


Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

‘Begin within the end in mind’ is a neat phrase that gets at the heart of goal setting.  It is also the subject of this blog, which is part of a series looking at the science (or not) of Stephen Coveys 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Covey took his end-in-mind challenge seriously, asking people to think of the ultimate end: their death.  This end-of-life thinking is aimed at helping get at what we most value in life.  As the stunning poem by Mary Oliver asks us; what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

In his book chapter on Habit 2 Covey covers mission statements (personal and organisational), goals, roles, values and more.

So, what is the science of this stuff?

My PhD supervisor, Professor Kerrie Unsworth, has contributed to the science of goal setting, and yes there is science there – but, there is also a but.

This from her:

“yes, goal-setting can help. But it’s not a miracle cure (there aren’t any miracle cures when it comes to people at work; anybody that tells you differently is selling snake oil).”  


Kerrie and her equally smart chums’ research found that self-concordance matters too.  What is self-concordance you might ask?  Loosely, if a task or activity supports your long-term goals, dreams, values and important roles in life, then it is self-concordant.  Then (and only then) you are going to be motivated to do it.  Maybe even if it is downright horrible, or your boss is pressuring you to do it.  As Dr Elisa Adriasola (Chile) says it’s like changing dirty nappies – no fun, no one wants to – but it’s so important to your role as a parent, you just do it.

So what do other academics say?  Searching all articles with “goal setting” and ‘review’ or ‘meta’ in their title – bought me a few ideas:

  • Research considering goal setting in the work setting concluded that goal setting in groups helps group performance.  But, only under certain circumstances and conditions (Kleingeld, van Mierlo, & Arends, 2011).
  • A summary of 35 years of goal setting theory (Locke & Latham, 2002) provided lots of info including – difficulty is important (you don’t want things too easy nor too difficult, although actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that); and success is dependent on good feedback systems (i.e. to know how you are tracking towards your goal).
  • But. Wait. There is more.  A review of diet and exercise changes and goal setting found … um … inconsistent results (Shilts, Horowitz, & Townsend, 2004).

This all makes me think this: half an idea is a bit like half a car.  That is, goal setting alone, not implemented well or linked to what really matters, won’t take you far.  The trick is knowing how to implement your goals best in the setting and situation that concerns you.

My personal take out is:  Watch my goal setting a bit closer, maybe even make some notes.  I’ll first get really clear on exactly how my goals link to my core values (fortunately I’ve been working on this in coaching for 15 years so this bit I’m comfortable with).  However, if that was all, all my goals would be met, would they not?  I’d be ready for my very own end-of-life video.  Hence I’m going to also think about my roles in life, my projects, my short and long-term goals as well as what I value –  this is what Kerrie calls my ‘goal hierarchy’.

Links, Reference and all that Jazz

This is part of a larger series on Stephen Covers 7 Habits, being:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Coveys motivational video, watch it, it’s cool:


Quote from Professor Unsworth from – The Leeds University Business school Alumni Magazine 2017 Issue.

Adriasola, M. (2014). Motivation for Multiple Goals at Work: The Role of Goal Hierarchy Self-concordance. University of Western Australia.

Kleingeld, A., van Mierlo, H., & Arends, L. (2011). The effect of goal setting on group performance: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(6), 1289.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705.

Shilts, M. K., Horowitz, M., & Townsend, M. S. (2004). Goal setting as a strategy for dietary and physical activity behavior change: a review of the literature. American Journal of Health Promotion, 19(2), 81-93.

The opening paragraph is an exert from The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

The artwork is by my talented tween.

The 7 Habits: Do they stand the test of time? Will they save us?

Once upon a time, when I was a perky young management consultant/coach, I swallowed ideas on offer at swanky conferences by swanky peeps (especially when the hotel and wine were good).Fast forward a few decades and spending the majority of my early 40’s in the ivory towers (doing a PhD) have taught me to question everything, to ask for the evidence.

In 2018 I have been transitioning back into my business with my right-hand woman (aka, my mum).  We did good work previously and our clients were happy.

Still, I started to wonder, where were we letting them down? Where were we selling them things that felt good and seemed nice but ultimately were not supported by good scientific evidence?

Of course science does not have all the answers, and is sometimes too far removed from practice to be helpful.  However there are ideas/tools sold to business that are well researched and shown to be (at best) totally ineffective.  Hence, I do not want to charge our clients for such tools (just because some of our competitors arenot naming any names).

So it is that I am returning (with my new eyes) to some of our old favourite tools and authors, to asess which ones should be ‘put back on the shelf’.

Given my current blogging focus is habits it is obvious to revisit Stephen Covey’s famous, 7 habits of highly effective people.

So what is the verdict?

I can’t seem to find any academics slamming the 7 habits (but I have given it half a day not a month so do let me know what I missed).  On the contrary I found a few articles in top journals* using his tools for their specialty (i.e., pharmacology and nursing).  I also see he was himself and academic.  So far so good, I think I’ll go further.

But first I have long forgotten what the 7 habits actually are, so let’s start with a recap for your sake and mine:

  1. Be Proactive – Wow this baby is big it is much more than Nikes ‘just do it’. It is doing it with self-awareness, with reference to your personal values, by leveraging your own unique awesomeness and more. I do like the sound of this.  It feels intuitively useful no?
  2. Begin with the End in Mind – Get your mission statement going mate.
  3. Put First Things First – “The main thing is to keep the main, thing the main thing”
  4. Think Win-Win – This one sounds a wee bit too hippy dippy, law of attraction, abundance blah blah for me.  But I shan’t judge this book by its cover.
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood – Easier than it sounds.
  6. Synergize – that feels a bit last millennium, corporate bingo now huh?
  7. Sharpen the Saw – you never know when you need to prune a tree. Actually it’s about working on our four domains: physical, social/emotional, mental and spiritual.  I’d say this is very much interlinking with habit 1.

So there we have the 7 habits of highly effective people.   Over the coming weeks I’ll take each one and see what evidence exists for it.


* You can enter journal titles and see their ranking here.  Understanding them is another thing – I’ll get around to a post on that eventually.

Photo Credit

Habits Big & Small: Flossing Investigated

This post is a summary of some research on flossing.  Before you yawn and go to sleep there is more here than meets the eye or should I say teeth?

The authors open with discussing the importance of automaticity i.e., once we have reached auto-pilot with habits, our conscious mind is no longer engaged, a cue leads to an action.  We are also reminded that the link between intention and behaviours weakens as habits increase in their automaticity.

This is another way of saying our conscious mind turns off after a habit is embedded.  This is a great thing for good habits, but a nightmare for bad ones.

Memory matters

Something new in this article (for me at least) is the importance of memory.  I for one, never forget when I am trying to eat better, drink less and other painful things.  However I do forget to take my iron supplements.  It is a specific type of memory that is important here called ‘prospective memories’.  Which is kinda like it sounds, remembering to do something in the future, like take your iron pills tomorrow or stop after one glass.

Placement matters too

Tip: Imbed new habits inside existing routines, which will help ensure that memory is triggered, e.g. when I put down my tooth brush I remember to floss.

Next in the article things get pretty technical, but the gist of it is that it matters exactly where and how we embed a new habit into a routine, to up the chance of success.

To test their ideas the researchers paid 50 people thirty pounds to floss daily.

So who were the winners? What sorts of people trying what sorts of things made flossing a habit?

Well those that had good attitudes to flossing did better, supporting the idea we are not total helpless victims to our habits (thank the good Lord).

Now here is the interesting bit: those that flossed after brushing did better at forming the habit than those that flossed before.

Is flossing after better? No and yes.  It is only better because it has a better, more appropriate cue – finished brushing – ok floss – ah good girl.

When the cue is at the same ‘level’ of detail as the habit, things work better.  If the cue was ‘get ready for bed’ and you put your flossing habit first, you are likely to be less successful as this is a task at a higher level than ‘brush teeth’.

Take Outs

Experiment with your habits and see what works.

Try and imbed new habits within existing routines but not at the start of them, ideally between the lower level steps.  The devil is in the detail… as it were.

Go well in the direction of your dreams, your bed that is, right after you floss!


Judah, G., Gardner, B., & Aunger, R. (2013). Forming a flossing habit: an exploratory study of the psychological determinants of habit formation. British journal of health psychology, 18(2), 338-353.


How and when do your habits form?

When behaviours are repeated in consistent settings (places, times, with certain people etc.) they become automatic responses, that is, they become habits.

But how do habits form? How long do they take to form? How is this different from each person? And how important is reward (or reinforcement) in this process?

Rewards: do they matter?

It seems unclear how important rewards are.  The behaviourists (see footnote) think that repetition will only occur with any behaviours if there is some reward.  They feel that without reinforcement there is no habit.  However, others argue that perhaps the behaviour itself IS the reward, especially in the instance of desired habits.

So how do habits form?

Phillipa Lally and her colleagues (2010) had a look at exactly this.  They asked 96 students (in truth they paid them 30 quid) to choose a new and healthy behaviour, namely eating, drinking or excise and do said behaviour for 12 weeks.

Importantly the researches asked the students in the study to do the habit in response to a cue, and not a set time of day.  So it might be: ‘drink water with lunch’ or ‘go for a run when you get up’.

What did they learn?  If you can find your way through the statistics (non-linear regression, asymptotic curves, and more) they found that mostly our habit formation is this sort of shape:

asomyptote of habitynessThat is an asymptotic sort of shape.  What does that mean?  It means, there is some sort of ‘point of diminishing returns’ i.e., a point where we are behaving really habit-like.

Although, after that key point we get ever closer to some habit nirvana; the speed of approach to perfect habity-ness gets ever slower.  We have reached some sort of ‘tipping point’ where the habit is embedding enough in our daily lives (just at the hump of the curve).  Obviously we want to reach this ‘hump’ as soon as we can, at least for some habits.  For other habits, we want to get far, far away from said hump.

How are we all different?

Question: How different are we from each other in habit formation?

Answer: MASSIVELY different!

Lally and her chums found the time to reach the ‘hump’* on the curve ranged from 18 days to a whopping 254 days!()

The question on my mind, and maybe yours is; how to reach it in 18 days rather than 254 days?  This was unfortunately not within the scope of Lally’s research but it is certainly on my agenda now.

I have a horrible feeling that it might be something to do with core personality or genetics.

Which makes me wonder about the differences between good and bad habit formation, or habit formation aligned with goals versus not aligned with goals.  Which in itself could be confusing as a bad habit might be goal aligned e.g. a teenager trying to impress an older, inappropriate love interest.

There is good news

The good news is, missing a day in your new habit isn’t that serious to your habit formation.  Missing one day did make the next day habit-y-ness a little less strong, but not in a way that was statistically significant.  Which is just scientist speak for not enough to make any sort of meaningful difference, which did not affect the path of the graph. Yay!

How many missed days it takes to make a difference (i.e. break the habit-forming path) was not looked at.  Boo hoo.

Take outs

It is hard to know what I will take away from this one, not knowing my own story i.e how would I compare to the data here? What is my number of days to each my 95% own ha

Perhaps I will plan for the worst, i.e., put very strong systems’ in place until well over 18 days after starting a new habit.

Footnotes, references and all that Jazz

This post is based on the below article. It is part of a series on habits. 

Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

*or put in scientists speak: the time it took participants to reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity

Behaviourism is a type of psychology focused on observable actions, what we say or do or don’t say or don’t do, rather than focusing on emotions and stuff.  Clearly there are some criticisms of behaviourism, but it has still taught us a lot and is interesting from the perspective of habits, which are behaviours really huh?

Changing Circumstance, Disrupting Habits

Habits are automatic

How much did you today that was simply a repetition of yesterday?

Was your breakfast similar? Maybe it was different but you sat in the same chair or ate it at the same time?

What about the order of your morning ablutions? The route you took to work?  The irresistible snack you choose from the snack machine, around the 3pm slump?

Many of our habits are not only frequent but we do them in certain (usually stable) circumstances, or in response to set triggers i.e. given times, certain ways of feeling or things in our environment.

Over time our habits become ‘triggered’ automatically by certain internal and external things and of course stuff.

But don’t intentions matter surely?

Habits are different to conscious intentions.  Walking into a dark room is likely to have you reach for a light switch without any conscious thinking at all.  It is perhaps not surprising that different brain bits are involved in these different processes (specifically the neocortex for habits and the hippocampus for making novel decisions not triggered by repetition or environment).

But yes it seems that your conscious intentions may also have some influence over your habits, just maybe not as much as you would like to think.

Shake things up

So what happens when life changes (temporality or permanently), when naturally our cues and daily routines are altered dramatically?  Wood, Tam et al. (2005) considered exactly this.  They looked at what happened to students when they moved between universities in three key habits; exercise, reading the newspaper (I know who does that anymore – right?), and watching TV.

They were interested in how circumstances, intentions and habits work together, or against each other, to maintain or change habits – after a move that naturally disrupted daily triggers and cues as well as potentially intentions, and of course social networks and systems (which are also important in habits).

They found context was key in whether certain habits travelled from the first living environment to the second.   However these changes were also influenced by what intentions were set in the new environment.

In summary, the relatiohip between environment, intention, and automatic appears complex and interwoven.

Wanna Quit Smoking? Take a Holiday!

This research helps us understand the anecdotal idea that changing major life habits is easier when say we take an overseas holiday, move houses change or relationship status (is it just me that notices friends in love get a little plumper?).

However before you book your next trip, or end your relationship to get into your swimsuit – is it really that simple? Each person has their own daily triggers and their own specific intentions (driven of course by their own life story, values, personality etc).  Hence understanding why Jack quit smoking on his Bahamas holiday but Joanne took it up on her African Safari, is not that easy.


Take away

So what is the take out?

I’m taking a long hard look at the internal and external triggers as well as intentions on each of my good and bad habits.  The challenge I suspect is how subconscious much of this is.

I do notice I am writing this with a glass of wine in the ‘usual spot’ within easy reach of my left hand (I’m left handed).  Is this triggering my writing, or the writing trigger my wine-ing?  What of my intentions to drink or write, or write while drinking?

I am uber keen to hear about your habits and intentions.  Drop me a comment below.

Footnotes, References and All that Jazz

This blog is part of a larger series on habits (if you click the word habits in the image you’ll get others).  This blog is focused on the article below of the same title, published in 2005.   Academic knowledge does not turn over like celebrity news and just because it isn’t this weeks news doesn’t mean it does not have something profound to teach us, that just might make our lives better.  In fact, I think it does.

Wood, W., et al. (2005). “Changing circumstances, disrupting habits.” Journal of personality and social psychology 88(6): 918.

The problem with science is, not enough sex!

Fact: Katy Perry has 74.2 million Instagram followers, NASA has 37.6 million.

Science is just not sexy enough!

Sex sells.

Science, not so much.

The problem with science is, the baby & its bathwater

A terrorist or 10 identifies with Islam and Muslims worldwide are bullied, persecuted and generally hated upon.  A scientist or 10 mucks up, lies, or takes a bribe and scientists everywhere are persecuted.  But there is more  – the communities ideas get thrown on the scrap heap.

The problem with science is, arrogance

Do you expect your plumber to know more about plumbing than you?  Do you call them arrogant when they make it uber clear they do, in fact, know more about plumbing than you?  So why are scientists so often considered arrogant?

I’m open minded  – maybe plumbers are sexier and have better PR.  Probably in fact.

The problem with science is, it’s a fat Greek

Have you tried reading an academic journal article recently?  They are total horrors, in the readability stakes at the best of times.  Sometimes it’s even all Greek to me and I am a scientist.

Combine this with the issue that non-academic readers are expected to pay for many articles (this at least is slowly changing).

Given there are around 2.5 million academic articles published each year – is it any wonder science is struggling to remain relevant, or to get its important messages across?

The problem with Science is, Nazi-Poop

Once I was ‘arrogant’ enough to make some scientific claims in an online health forum.  I was foolish enough to argue that constipation was not likely to be linked to vaccinations.  The response? Well, it seems somehow to be the fault of some Nazi scientists.

The only silver lining is now if I am stuck waiting on the toilet, I can just shrug and say “those damn Nazis, at it again!”.

How can one use reason as their tool of trade in a discussion where logic and reason is not one of the rules?  How can science defend itself with scientific logic, without logic?

The problem with science is, pseudo-science

According to Webster pseudoscience is “a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific”.  Just for completeness erroneous is “containing or characterized by error: mistaken”.   Pseudoscience is the guy in the middle damaging science from more angles than we have time to discuss.

The problem with science is, humans

Human beings are flawed.  We are not objective. We are often illogical.  Yet we constantly claim that we are both.  Then, of course, there is the downright scoundrels, liars and thieves on both sides of the fence.  How can any of us find our way?

The problem with science is, time is running out

Terrifying Fact 1: A University of Sydney study found that just “16 out of 133 children hospitalised in New South Wales between 2007 and 2010 due to complications arising from chickenpox infection had been vaccinated” resulting in underlining concerns that areas of low vaccination rates leave communities vulnerable to outbreaks of serious diseases (aka death and stuff).

Terrifying Fact 2: “The Arctic region may have its first completely ice-free summer by 2040”

Please help us help you – save a scientist today!

Please for your own sake and the sake of your great-grandchildren, take in a scientist near you.  Befriend them.  Teach them what to wear, how to talk in small sensible understandable words, and most importantly how to get followers on Instagram.

Interesting Links







Photo Credit


Part 3 of 4: Vagus nerve stimulation; can you really ‘gag’ your way to good health?

Welcome to part 3 of a 4 part series on the vagus nerve in which I explore whether or not you can gag or splash your way to good health.
First, a little background…
During my PhD (on the vagus nerve) I noticed online health forums talking enthusiastically about the vagus.  It might be like the way you notice pregnant people when you are pregnant. Notwithstanding this some of the content of these conversations alarmed me. Today, I would like to dig into some of that content.
We talked of general lifestyle ways to improve the functioning of your vagus nerve (yoga, meditation etc.) in Part two; today we focus on the specific idea of vagus nerve stimulation.

So what does the science say?

Indeed vagus nerve stimulation is a thing.  It has several decades of (somewhat successful) use in epilepsy to reduce seizure frequency.

Also in 2005 the USA FDA approved vagus nerve stimulation for long-term treatment-resistant depression (Daban, Martinez-Aran et al. 2008).  It is also breaking ground for use in reducing arthritis symptoms (Koopman, Chavan et al. 2016).

The downside – vagus nerve stimulation involves a minor surgical procedure, somewhat comparable to getting a pacemaker put in.  A wristwatch-sized device is implanted in the chest wall. Clearly given surgery is needed (even if ‘minor’) it is not without its downsides and risks.

The good news is, some headway seems to be being made with a device that stimulates the vagus nerve without surgery via the ear (Frangos, Ellrich et al. 2015).

If you google “vagus nerve stimulation” you will see information from chronic illness bodies and association discussing these procedures.  If you google-scholar the same phrase, you will find some of the references below.

Change your search ever so slightly (oh the joys of Google*) to “How to stimulate your vagus nerve” and you get a host of anecdotal and folklore information about exercises you can do at home.  Here are some of the delights you might find:

  • Splash water on your face
  • Gag
  • Hold your breath
  • Try to poop without pooping (called a Valsalva Maneuver)
  • Hold your nose and blow like you are landing in an aeroplane (ditto).

You are also likely to read all manner of claims about what this things might achieve for you in terms of your overall health and wellbeing, or curing major chronic illnesses, even cancer.

So what does the science say about these stimulation ideas?

Not a lot.

I did find that maybe there is something in splashing really cold water on yourself.  A study by Mäkinen, Mäntysaari et al. (2008) indicates that such cold dunking might move you towards parasympathetic dominance.  Remember that is the side of the autonomic nervous system that the vagus nerve is a major part of.  I don’t see any indication as to whether this short-term shift is going to have any long-term benefits.  Maybe have a bucket of ice water on hand for your next terrifying public speaking engagement it just might calm you down while entertaining your audience.

Maybe too there is something in fasting (Mager, Wan et al. 2006) however that probably fits more in the lifestyle section of part 2.

There is also research to support the use of the Valsalva movement to stop a racing heart (Lim, Anantharaman et al. 1998).  I have first-hand experience here as I have a type of congenital heart arrhythmia and have used the Valsalva to stop it.  I have also taught myself the best and latest technigues and asked the researchers personally for more details, there wasn’t much.  It is important to note this is a narrow and specific use of the technique, one should always extrapolate with caution.

When thinking of very specific findings – there appears to be a potential link between the kind of Valsalva one is forced into when pooping on western toilets and heart attacks (Sikirov 1990).  Do go carefully, friends. 

What’s the heads up?

As to whether these ‘exercises’ you can do at home have longer-term health benefits (even if they might temporarily stimulate your vagus nerve).  I’d suggest starting with the tried and trued not rocked science approaches discussed in Part Two.  Or ask your grandmother for general health tips, she is likely to say the same things.

Or perhaps you want to do some experimenting on your own vagus nerve.  Great news – Part 4 will show you how.

Meanwhile go thoughtfully in the direction of your dreams.

Yours as ever,

The WelbeingatworkDr.

Links, References and all that Jazz

*Do remember your google searches are highly personalised.   Uncle Google knows what you have been doing (true story) and incorporates this into what he thinks you might be more interested in.  So if you get the latest celebrity pooping stories – do not blame me.

Here are the parts of this series:

  • Part One: The Wanderer – A Brief Introduction to the Vagus Nerve (our Hero).
  • Part Two: How to improve the health of your Vagus Nerve – based on scientific evidence.
  • Part Three: Vagus nerve stimulation; can you really ‘gag’ your way to good health?
  • Part Four: Do try this at home; monitoring your own vagus nerve health using the variability in your heart rate.

Daban, C., et al. (2008). “Safety and efficacy of Vagus Nerve Stimulation in treatment-resistant depression. A systematic review.” Journal of Affective Disorders 110(1): 1-15.

Frangos, E., et al. (2015). “Non-invasive access to the vagus nerve central projections via electrical stimulation of the external ear: fMRI evidence in humans.” Brain Stimulation 8(3): 624-636.

Koopman, F. A., et al. (2016). “Vagus nerve stimulation inhibits cytokine production and attenuates disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(29): 8284-8289.

Lim, S., et al. (1998). “Comparison of treatment of supraventricular tachycardia by Valsalva maneuver and carotid sinus massage.” Annals of emergency medicine 31(1): 30-35.

Looga, R. (2005). “The Valsalva manoeuvre—cardiovascular effects and performance technique: a critical review.” Respiratory physiology & neurobiology 147(1): 39-49.

Mager, D. E., et al. (2006). “Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting alter spectral measures of heart rate and blood pressure variability in rats.” The FASEB Journal 20(6): 631-637.

Mäkinen, T. M., et al. (2008). “Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation.” Aviation, space, and environmental medicine 79(9): 875-882.

Sikirov, B. (1990). “Cardio-vascular events at defecation: are they unavoidable?” Medical Hypotheses 32(3): 231-233.

Photo by Noelle Otto from Pexels