How to make better decisions and beat overwhelm, with Michael Nicholas

by Joanna Pieters | Follow her on Facebook here

Do you get to the end of the day feeling that you used your time and energy in the best possible way? Although we’re making decisions every moment of every day, most of the time we’re not conscious of what goes on behind our ‘rational’ thinking.

Michael Nicholas thinks, writes and speaks about how we make decisions. But it goes far deeper than that. We look at how our deepest beliefs about ourselves and the world are holding us back – all the time.

The way we think about ourselves has a huge impact on how we experience stress. Short-term stress, he says, is good and even healthy. Those deadlines, then, are serving their purpose.

But the problem for us comes when we’re living in a continual state of fear. We may not be worrying about being eaten, but we do worry about all sorts of other things: have I got that structure right? What will my agent think of that title? Should I be pitching for that job, or will it be just another rejection? It’s easy to descend into overwhelm, and hard to climb out again.

Living with those kinds of stresses are having a huge impact on our life, our work and our creativity. Michael has a wonderfully human, sympathetic approach to how we can change the way we respond to the world, so that we can achieve more of what we want, with less stress.

Beating the pressure to be original

Michael has a a story that’s probably also familiar to many of us. We’re about to do some work – writing, painting, presenting – and we realise that it’s been done brilliantly before. So brilliantly, in fact, that we can’t see where we can do anything better (what do you do when the main book in your field led to a Nobel Prize?). That’s the dilemma he faced when he was commissioned to write his second book, which became The Little Black Book of Decision Making. He found a solution that’s allowed him to show and develop his reputation, with an angle that I found compelling and relevant.

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Joanna Pieters: Hello, I’m Joanna Pieters, coach and mentor to professional creatives and creative professionals. Always asking how can we be more curious, connected and fulfilled in our creative work? We’re talking today about how we make decisions, but what that really means is how we work and how we live. We’re making decisions all the time and often without realizing it, so everyday we’re deciding where to put our energy and then making decisions about really small things in our work. What are we doing with this paragraph as well as the big ones? Should we give up our day job to fulfill our creative dreams or should we take on a day job and it’s also the path we’re not taking. What is it that we’re not doing in order to live creatively? What is it that we want to be doing? All those things come down to the way we see ourselves and the decisions we make about them.

My guest is Michael Nicholas. Michael is a coach and speaker who works with many of the largest blue chip companies in the UK and he’s just published The Little Black Book of Decision Making with the publisher Capstone. Michael has been talking and training on decision making for decades. The first impression might be this is all about big business, but absolutely not, so I read Michael’s book and I just took so many notes, not just for this, this program, but just for my own use and it sparked have lots of really fascinating things about the way we work as creatives, so we’re going to be talking about our brain, our intuition, our creativity and how we can work in the end more effectively and be more fulfilled doing it. Michael, welcome to the Creative Life Show. Understanding how we make decisions is so fundamental to everything we do, isn’t it? I mean, is that what drew you to this area?

Michael Nicholas: Yes. Hi Joanna. Thank you so much for inviting me on. How to I get drawn to this area. Yes, that’s an interesting question. A few years ago, I was asked to start to put together something for one of my very large FTSE 100 clients in terms of a workshop. We put together a one day workshop, and halfway through the first morning, the L and D lady who was looking after it came to me and said, we can’t do this in a day. And it immediately became two days and ever since then decision making has been one of my passions really because the more you look at it, the more you realize the nuances of how difficult it can be to understand what’s really happening when we make those decisions,

Joanna Pieters: It does go to the very heart of everything we do, everything we’re doing in every moment is on one level a decision.

Michael Nicholas: Absolutely. People don’t realize the degree to which the making these little micro decisions all the time. If you’re in a conversation, when do you pause? How long do you speak for? How do you react to what people say? We don’t recognize these as decisions because they take place at unconscious levels, but if we try to take charge of all of that, consciously would be completely overwhelmed. I mean even if you think about it, the decision in the morning, which side of the bench, like outs of what colour socks should I wear and we’re going to wash my teeth, wash my face, or do my teeth first. We inform based on a subtle feeling about this is what I would like.

Joanna Pieters: Yes. Which means understanding that process is so fundamental, isn’t it? To actually making the decisions to allow us to get to the end of the day and say, you know what, I did what I wanted to do.

Michael Nicholas: Yes, absolutely, and it’s important from two perspectives. The first is can we improve our decisions when they’re informed in these subtle ways by feelings, and the second is when we made decisions which aren’t necessarily as good as we would have hoped, understanding what went wrong so we can do better next time because there’s a famous quote from Karl Jung that lots of people might’ve heard that said, until we make the unconscious conscious, it will rule our live and we’ll call it fate, and so it’s about unpicking those unconscious drivers

Joanna Pieters: I think that’s a really fascinating thing. We’re going to come back to that in a moment. There’s so much, particularly as creatives that are bound up in our beliefs about ourselves and our work and the industry and the environment we work in. Before we do that, I’m going to ask you to, go back to a time in your life when you’ve had a particular creative challenge. I know that relates to this book, which is your second book. Can you talk us through that?

Michael Nicholas: Yes. Well, I was approached by the publisher to write this book. It was not a clear cut offer. It was more like they shortlisted some people who are credible experts in this area and asked us to write a book proposal and I managed to win that contract, so I wrote a book proposal about two years ago now and that was my concept for what I was going to try and produce.

Joanna Pieters: They wanted a book on decision making, didn’t they?

Michael Nicholas: They did and I. my starting point was, well, how do you add to this field? You know, there’s some incredible books thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his work in this area. Thirty years of research and his book, in my opinion, is kind of the definitive book on cognitive biases. And my starting point was I’ve got to write something that’s different to that because I can’t improve on that.

Joanna Pieters: So a huge mental potentially block. I’m in this field, it’s been done so brilliantly. How do I take it further?

Michael Nicholas: Exactly. So where do those ideas come from? And you know, what is this concept going to be? Because I’m sure we can all resonate with the idea that it’s very hard to know what you don’t know and the solution to your most difficult challenge feels incredibly difficult until it pops into your head and then suddenly you go, oh, well that was easy. Then the process of that idea popping into your head is something which if we don’t understand it, it’s very difficult to know how we can improve our chances of having that experience.

Joanna Pieters: So you just got this contract for this book. You’ve put in a proposal and you’re going, right, I’ve got to sit down and write this book. That is going to be a great book. What you do, what was going on in your head at that point?

Michael Nicholas: Apart from the panic! Well, no, not so much panic, but certainly there was a little piece of, you know, what on earth am I going to do here? I hope you don’t mind me comparing myself to Mozart’s here. Because when you know, when I’ve read about Mozart, he’s this sort of prodigy who wrote his first symphony before he was 10, but actually when they’ve studied his work, they’ve discovered that wasn’t really what happened. What really happened was the his very early works they could see copying from other people and they could see hand alterations by his father who was also a musician and it was only much later that he started to produce his own original, what would be classed as original work, which he became famous for. And that’s kind of the process. You start somewhere and you start with things that you know and things that you might’ve picked up from other people and then you work on it and you refine it and then over a period of time, what emerges by some process, which looks to me now almost magical, looking back on it and seeing where it ended up versus where I started. Through this process of iteration and constantly sitting down and doing your best with what you’ve got everyday, through just sheer tenacity, which in the book I’ve described as one of the three essential requirements of creativity, then somehow it’s emerges.

Joanna Pieters: That’s really interesting. So you started so from a point where it is derivative work and heavily influenced by other people and is this what you experienced then? You start to gradually is uncover or develop or bring things together that actually are your own. Your own voice.

Michael Nicholas: Yes, exactly. To to use the metaphor of what happened when the Wright brothers solve the problem of flight here for a moment. The problem with flight had been something which people have been trying to solve for centuries and we’ve all, I’m sure seeing the early pictures of people with wings attached to their arms trying to flap because the model for flight that we recognize and understood was the only one we could see which was birds and that was how they all did it and that was what people did and the breakthrough actually came in and moments of relaxation, which I’m sure we’ll talk about later as one of the key requirements for insight and they were just lying, relaxing in the sun on a sunny hillside overlooking the bay, watching the sailing boats in the bay and one of them said to the other, how do the boats move against the wind? and it was that moment of insight that created the idea for the wing and if you look at the pictures of early wings, they look more like a sail than the modern day aerofoil which has been aerodynamically designed to be as efficient as possible because that was where the original idea came from.

So there was nothing kind of totally new, but it was the combination of those two ideas into a new form that created the solution.

Joanna Pieters: And is that what you experienced happening to you as you started work on this?

Michael Nicholas: Very much so. So the ideas in the book. I think everything that’s in the book I’ve studied being aware of and how does a significant part of my mindset and my life for many years. So the book ends up in a place of practicing mindfulness and the impact that mindfulness can have on our ability to come up with these creative decisions. Well, I’ve been a practitioner of mindfulness in a fairly dedicated way for well over a decade, 15 to 18 years. I can’t pin it exactly. And so it’s when I started to see how much that contributed to this field, I thought, well actually this has to become part of the solution here.

Joanna Pieters: Was that one of those moments of insight realizing that here is an angle that actually hasn’t been applied here, is there a layer colour that hasn’t been put onto that discussion?

Michael Nicholas: I do believe that’s true, yes. Because there are, I’m guessing not many people have missed the modern trends of conversation around the importance of mindfulness. The books on the field are just exploding at the moment and the number of apps that people have got, all this sort of thing. So it’s not as though mindfulness is a surprise to people, but I’ve yet to find a book which is actually a really deep dive into a specific application of mindfulness and how it can help you in a particular area. There’s a clear application of mindfulness for the improvement of decision making and particularly to help us in this area of creative decision making.

Joanna Pieters: So you were applying what you need for different area. I think there’s a real idea often in creativity and I think you even touch on it in the book that somehow we need to be original and coming up with new things. Actually lots of it is insights and how different ideas can be combined. So Mozat doesn’t come out of nowhere. He comes and builds on and puts an extraordinary unique taken and genius into what he does, but fundamentally what I’m hearing, it’s about that belief that you can bring those things in and it’s that tenacity and the practice and the belief that there is something there that you can reach.

Michael Nicholas: Exactly, and that without the belief you won’t have that first vital requirement, which is the tenacity. If you look at James Dyson who produced 5,024, I think the number was, of prototypes of his first bagless vacuum cleaner before he bought it to market. You look at Edison, probably the greatest, scientific creative ever holding a patent on average for every two weeks of his life and he solved this huge challenge of the light bulb and and famously produced 10,000 attempts before he found one that worked.

Joanna Pieters: So it’s about that deliberate and conscious looking outside yourself.

Michael Nicholas: I think the idea has to be prompted by something, doesn’t it?

Joanna Pieters: It has to follow from something else. Is that it?

Michael Nicholas: Well, I’m not going to say quite always because we could go into some of the scientific research at the sort of leading edge of metaphysics right now, which is coming up with some quite interesting suggestions in this area, but I suspect that we probably don’t want to spend the whole podcast going down that route right now. I think as a general rule for most people most of the time in practical terms and the things that we can manage and control, then absolutely it’s that breadth of understanding, the breadth of thinking that enables us to have the creative idea. Bringing something which is potentially already applied in a different context into the area that we’re looking at.

Joanna Pieters: So I love this because this, this story of you overcoming those fears of how to create something are busting so many myths about creativity that we have in the back of our minds, even if we know they’re not really, true about this idea that it’s all about flashes of insight, that it’s all about this somehow. It’s most about of practice and tenacity and just getting it wrong, I guess before we get to get through it. And that uniqueness comes from actually that that tenacity and that digging deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper.

Michael Nicholas: Well, there’s no doubt the insight is a part of it, but, but without that tenacity, you’ll never probably get to the point of having the insight because if the insight was easy, someone’s had it already. Now, I think it was Emerson who said, in every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts because it’s so easy. It was to kind of look at what is but so hard for us to look at what might be and that really introduces the third essential requirement for these creative solutions, which is an openness, the openness to look beyond what we know without this knee-jerk tendency to reject an idea just because it seems unfamiliar.

Joanna Pieters: I think that’s very applicable to so many of us. You started off the book talking about cognitive bias and let’s move onto this because I think this is so important for how we think about our creative worlds, that out sense of our understanding about and our abilities and our contexts and we can be very fixed without realizing it. Can you talk us through how it works, why it’s so dangerous?

Michael Nicholas: Yes. If you look at people’s behavior on a day to day basis, it is clear that most of it runs unconsicously. Our conscious mind simply can’t handle the volume of information and the number of decisions that we would have to handle if we were to try and do everything consciously. You can see this very clearly in any experts. To become an expert, you have to reach a level of of unconscious practice that enables the mind to take care of it without thinking. Think of a concert pianist and it’s very clear there’s nothing conscious going on there, they’re allowing their fingers to fly over the keys. It could be a golfer and Darren Clarke wrote in his book that it is not the conscious mind, but hits a golf ball, is not Andy Murray’s conscious mind that hits a tennis ball, the best professional speakers in the world have automated almost all of the aspects of doing a great presentation so that they can focus on those few things that are key that might be changing in that moment and and so it’s that practice that embeds something unconsciously. This enables us to perform. At the highest level, the problem with the fact that our real high levels of expertise only come when we embed our capability to unconscious levels is that if one of those programs or if the way we’ve wired and practiced doing something it introduces error, we will probably won’t become consciously aware of that so that error can then lead us to make decisions which aren’t going to be as effective as we would hope, and so it’s how do we recognize the potential for error once we’ve reached the level of expertise.

Joanna Pieters: Practically does that mean so if we write or paint or come up with copywriting ideas in a certain way, it’s a practical way. That’s the kind of the one that’s the way we default to and it becomes very difficult to see the limitations of our own thinking or the fact that we’ve backed ourselves into a corner almost believing that is our expertise.

Michael Nicholas: Yes, and we become comfortable with it. Don’t wait because once we were very good at something, then that feels good for us, so we don’t really want to diverge to something else because something else will feel.

Joanna Pieters: It reminds me of a conversation I have on the show, particularly with creatives who have been working for some time who are not the kind of, the new generation that have perhaps grown up with social media because obviously the whole explosion of social media offers extraordinary opportunities for creative now to share their work. But if you went through university, your whole creative process, education at a time where that didn’t exist, it’s a very, very alien thing. The idea of sharing in that way and it strikes me as the same kind of process, you see it, you see it can work and maybe even doing it with some success, but it doesn’t feel natural.

Michael Nicholas: Yes. And what does feel natural when we first started? Anyone who’s played a racket sport to any kind of level can probably remember when it didn’t feel natural. And yet with some practice we gradually got better at it. Most of us probably can’t really remember riding a bike and get that process of riding a bike is the process of training the unconscious mind. It’s one of the very few processes actually where we become consciously competent before we develop an unconscious capability, it just goes straight into our unconscious mind. And most people who ride a bike, still don’t really know how they do it, but it was very uncomfortable to start with and then after awhile it becomes automatic.

Joanna Pieters: So thinking about the practicalities of, for example, developing much more of a social media presence or whatever it is, whatever it requires, a step change in your, in your working presence process. There’s a whole lot of things on this. So we look at it and we go, oh, and you said your first reaction to something, the feelings about it will always come faster than the rational process. So the feeling is likely to be fear because it’s something new and alien and particularly related to other people. We have a very fast instinct reaction is, is this friendly or unfriendly? Potentially this is threatening. It’s very easy for us to feel threatened by it and there’s a line in your book which I find incredibly powerful. You talk about beliefs that that have great power but no warning bells and it’s the idea that if once we have a belief about something, a wrong belief feels the same as the right belief.

We don’t have a filter system that says that thing that you’re believing is not actually good. It feels exactly the same as when we have a thing that is completely right, so we have this real inability to stand back and question ourselves and say – I hesitate to say, does it make sense because what’s sense? – but we’re caught in this cycle of really not knowing how to evaluate that decision or how to move forward. We’re caught in the cycle of and reactiveness.

Michael Nicholas: It is very easy to get caught into that and it’s one of the biggest problems that we can face, especially for creative work because a whole reactive mechanism, our flight-fight response was designed essentially – if we consider it design – but it evolved at a time when the kind of psychological threats that we worry about today didn’t really exist in the same way. It was much more about the physiological threat of genuine survival. And apart from the times when I’ve run workshops for the police force – it was quite a surprise for me the first time I asked one of my standard questions for the police force because I often ask in workshops when was the last time you actually experienced a genuine life or death situation? – And most people can’t think of one and if they did, it’s probably on the roads or something in a car accident.

Unfortunately that’s a situation where our fight-flight response won’t even help us anyway. So we’re in this world now where we’ve got this fight-flight response, which as you just said, gets triggered incredibly quickly. It gets triggered through parts of the brain called the amygdala, which triggers a cascade of changes in the body which are designed to mobilize energy as quickly as possible so that we can run or fight. And it does that in a tenth of the time that it takes to think about it. So by the time we’re thinking about it, we’ve already had the reaction of fear mechanisms that are already in flow and that means we’re going to see that situation through the lens – if I can use that language – through essentially through the lens of that feeling and we will tend to interpret the situation consistently with the feeling and so we find ourselves getting triggered by things and it can be very difficult to do what you just did, to see if it makes sense to evaluate it rationally, because by then the rational brain’s been turned off because it’s not required in a survival situation.

Joanna Pieters: So we get caught in a trap of our own making.

Michael Nicholas: We get caught in a trap of our own making, because our brain has evolved to handle situations which aren’t really reflective of modern life. And this is one of the great paradoxes that we have, that if we’re trying to escape from an animal. And by the way, this is the reason why the uncertainty of a social media kind of environment, it might feel scary because when our brain was evolving, the dark shape in the long grass might have been a rock or it might have been a tiger, but we couldn’t afford to assume it was a rock. The uncertainty faced with the unknown, we had to assume the worst because it was about survival and the price of making the wrong assumption was too high.

Michael Nicholas: So we automatically process uncertainty or new things that we don’t understand as threatening. And today it’s a psychological threat, not a physiological threat, but it creates the same reaction through our body. And the real paradox and the problem here, and this is one of the key things I’ve tried to address in the book, is that once our brain has been triggered that way, it shuts down precisely the parts of the brain that’s required to come up with what we need today, which is a creative solution. Because when we are running from an animal, the most important thing is we access our automatic programs so that we react as quickly as possible, but today the challenge is a different one. It’s the challenge of uncertainty, of ambiguity of fast moving change, and it triggers our threat response in the same way, but unfortunately the actual response we need is not with the part of the brain that’s automatic. It’s the part that’s thinking, that’s creative and that’s what we’ve got to learn to manage if we’re going to handle the modern world as well as we can.

Joanna Pieters: So one of the things that struck me, and I am aware this is a huge subject, is that particularly people involved in creative work, whether they’re artists or whether that’s engineers, you know, creativity is a huge range, but they’re essentially, where’s that you’re working with areas of uncertainty. There’s no clear pathway to be. We’re not sort of fixing a washing machine and that requires a certain amount of energy. So handling in addition to the uncertainty of social media, of, of networking, of all these other things that go around it, it’s almost kind of using the same energy reserves so it should, although we feel we can live with uncertainty, very happy in one way, it’s actually quite hard to be continually going out and, say, networking. I know it’s often with many creatives really hate because it involves the same kind of of energy and processes and it’s just doubly exhausting. It does that. Does that sound sound credible?

Michael Nicholas: Yeah, I can. I understand that people have that experience and there’s actually some conflicts in the scientific research around this at the moment because there has been a belief for quite some time now that this conscious parts of our brain only has limited reserves of energy and will use them up and so therefore we should do our most difficult, most creative tasks first and leave the less demanding challenges like maybe processing emails till later because they use the same mental reserves. But if we do the less important task first because it’s easy, we won’t be able to handle the more complex task and certainly two years ago I would have fully agreed with that. But right now there’s a question mark being raised about the validity of some of that research. So all I can say right now is maybe.

I certainly believe that if we are running on on stress essentially, so if our threat response has been triggered, then there is no question that we’ll run out of energy. Because our body isn’t designed to run under stress for very long. Acute stress, our body is perfectly adapted for the idea that we would have to escape from a threat and that will take an enormous burst of energy. As long as we learn to relax at the end of that, then there’s no problem to our body whatsoever and you can see this throughout nature. The gazelle escaping the tiger as soon as the dangerous gone just returns to its grazing as though nothing happened. But the problem that we have is that because we’re producing a lot of this perception of threat psychologically, it can become chronic. It can live with us all the time, and when that happens, we set up our body into mode where we can run out of energy and it is very exhausting trying to operate when our body is that way.

So actually the solution to more energy is better relaxation. I do believe we’re all capable of handling worldclass stress as long as we get worldclass recovery and relaxation in order to allow our body to recover. Because there’s two parts of our nervous system, our sympathetic and our parasympathetic nervous system. They both work perfectly, but they’re designed to work in balance and when they get out of balance in the sympathetic nervous system is over-engaged because of a perception of threat, then we’re going to lose our ability to maximize energy, to have these creative ideas, to remain focused and to do all of the things that we need to do.

Joanna Pieters: So we’re coming back again, it’s all about this perception of ourselves and our environment, so one of the things that you talk in lots of different angles is actually about learning to regulate our own response to it. Learning to, if you talk about mindfulness, the ability to differentiate between what our perception is and what reality is, whatever that means, but the ability to become more aware. You’ve talked repeatedly about awareness being the awareness that we may be coming from a place of emotive reaction that may be holding us back.

Michael Nicholas: Yes, well, it will be holding us back. It will be holding all of us back. There is absolutely no doubt about that. The opportunity therefore is to become better at recognizing that and knowing how it affects us personally. So the process actually is that we go from a place where we’re unconscious, how these things are affecting. So as you said, there’s no warning bells when we make a bad decision, it feels exactly the same as when we make a good decision until the moment where we realized it was a bad decision and then of course we’ve realized so we still don’t really have the experience of the bad decision. We have the experience that the realization, so we have no warning bells that highlights to us that we’re actually on the wrong track. So the question is how can we bring into our conscious awareness more of those factors, and then the next step is, can we become self aware enough to be able to recognize, well, why do I say it this way and what sort of behaviors is this creating? So actually it’s a process. I like to differentiate it. I think it’s an important differentiation or distinction between reaction and response because the idea of a reaction is it’s automatic and it’s very fast. It doesn’t take any conscious involvement. So therefore it’s very good for handling situations that have happened before, where we’ve had an opportunity to learn how to handle that situation well, and then we just do it on automatic. But as soon as something changes, it’s very possible that’s old reaction won’t work too well and that’s where we need to respond, not react. And one of my favorite quotes is a quote from Einstein who said, the most important question we can ever answer is whether the basic nature of the universe is friendly or hostile. And the interesting thing about this quote was, I read it so long ago that I actually didn’t really understand why he might be right, but I so liked Einstein quotes that I hung onto it and thought about it.

But my explanation now I do believe is right. And the reason for that is because essentially if we see the world as hostile, then that is going to trigger our stress response. Which means we can only react out of our old conditioning. Out of our old paradigms are old programs, our old way of seeing the world. Whereas if we see the universe as friendly, then we can stay in our open, relaxed state that enables us to keep the parts of our brain that does our creative thinking, that enables us to reflect. This enables us to rationalize that is the seat of our decision making, that’s the seat of our self awareness and it enables us to keep that part of the brain engaged, which maximizes the mental state necessary for handling, to be honest, almost all of the modern challenges that we face in the world today.

Joanna Pieters: I think we could talk about this for hours. There’s so many practical things, so go and find Michael’s book, the Little Black Book of Decision Making by Michael Nicholas, published by Capstone, which is part of Wiley. It’s out now. I’m conscious we’ve talked about limitations and becoming aware of when we’re getting in our own way. It is the first stage, I think when you said in the book, it is a long process about repetition and awareness, but very possible to change the way we feel about the world and to change our answer to the fact that the universe is friendly.

Michael Nicholas: Yes. One thing I should just say, it is a long process in that the potential for improvement is enormous and if we stay with it for a long time we will see enormous changes. The other side though is this is been proven in modern research that we are capable and it is possible for us to see improvements actually very quickly, sometimes in as little as a few days, but definitely in timescales of a couple of months once we start deliberately training our brain to operate in a way that’s effective for this kind of work.

Joanna Pieters: Can you give us a tool that if we were starting out, we might begin to make very small changes and perhaps in a few days, and you know, this is not a quick fix thing clearly, but where, where should we start today?

Michael Nicholass: Well, the heart of this is about awareness as you’ve rightly said. And so the question is how do we best train awareness and retrain awareness training our ability to focus? Because when we, when we practice focusing, what happens is we engaged the parts of the brain which is responsible for all of those high capabilities I just mentioned like empathy, like self awareness, like decision making. Emotional self regulation is the same part of the brain. So when we developed that part of the brain through focusing – in just the same way as if we go to the gym and practice doing bicep curls, we develop that muscle – when we focus on the parts of the brain that we want to develop, it will improve and become stronger. And so what we want to do is we want to practice focusing. It’s very simple. I’ve called this in the book the ultimate skill. It’s the ability to focus your attention with intention. And the old word for that is meditation and meditation produces mindfulness. And these two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re not really the same because mindfulness is a way of being. And meditation is that tool or technique that we can use to develop greater levels of mindfulness. So as a very simply, my suggestion to anybody who wants to start to improve in this space is to go find yourself a good app or a good book and learn simple principles for meditation and set yourself a target that you think you can achieve. So with most of my clients, if I’m starting them on this path, I’ll say, how much time do you think you could realistically do every day? And if they say 20 minutes, I’ll say, great. So let’s do 10. Because it’s far more important to do a little bit regularly than it is to try and do as much as you think you can do and fail four days a week and lose interest. So it literally is that. And if it’s five minutes, that’s still good. In fact, it’s been scientifically proven that if you, with some practice, if you can take three breaths consciously where you’re focusing your attention on the breath, that actually gives the brain time to start to reorganize so that you can get rid of some of those stress responses and bringing the brain back into a more balanced state where it’s optimized for modern day living.

Joanna Pieters: That’s a fantastic tool. I know that’s one night which I use with my clients. Is this focused breathing. If you were to recommend one book or one app to help people start that meditation journey, which would it be?

Michael Nicholas: Right. Well, on apps I’m slightly struggling because I’ve been doing this since before. There were any apps, so I have to confess I’ve never used one. Although I do believe the Headspace app is good.

Joanna Pieters: I use Headspace myself and I think is terrific. So yes. Okay. Here’s a great recommendation. Headspace.

Michael Nicholas: On a book, the book I’ve got but I liked the best is called Mindfulness in Plain English and the author has a slightly unpronounceable name, but um, there’s only one book with that name. And the reason I like it is because it doesn’t just delve into the techniques that also delves into the and the things that go wrong, and when people say, oh, I can’t meditate because I can’t stop my mind from thinking that’s actually a misunderstanding because meditation isn’t about stopping the mind from thinking and if you think it is, you’ll think you’re failing and then you’re likely to give up. And so he addresses many of these misunderstandings about meditation, which actually can lead people to approach the whole practice in the wrong way.

Joanna Pieters: I will put those links up on the show notes at You can find out more about Michael and his work at If you’ve enjoyed this, then tell a friend about it or colleague. That’s a nice thing you can do for me and my fantastic guests like Michael who come on each week. I’d love to know what you find useful in this and what you would like to hear more of. And how are you going to put this into practice. So share it with a friend. And, and let me know what you’d like to hear about in your creative life. Michael, thank you so much for coming on and sharing both your story of overcoming your own mental beliefs about your ability to put your voice out and incredibly valuable information on decision making. Thank you all for listening. I’ll see you back here soon.

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