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The Living Wise Blog

Before you make a new year’s resolution, read this!

December 27, 2014
More Amazing thing this new year

It’s that time of year again, when the season’s festivities are behind us and with full bellies and a bit of enforced downtime, we tend to reflect on the year that’s passed and think about changes we might make in the coming twelve months.  It’s at this time of year when we are generally inclined to make New Year’s Resolutions. With the new year and the promise of a whole new start just days away, it seems like the perfect time to take all those life changes we’ve been contemplating and put them into action.

Except, no. While I’m a huge fan of making positive changes in your life, I am not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions and I’d like to explain why.

First of all, many people decide that the first of January is the ideal day to overhaul their whole life. Does this look familiar?

new year's resolution

There are reasons why this approach isn’t usually successful.

Setting and achieving goals requires a degree of self-control. Let’s call it willpower. What we know about willpower thanks to the work of psychologist Roy Baumeister, is that it is a finite resource. In other words, if you use too much of it, it runs out!  ‘Willpower’ is the same energy resource that is used for:

  • Getting ourselves to do things we don’t want to do (like exercise)
  • Refraining from doing things we do want to do (like having another piece of chocolate); and
  • Making decisions.

These are the things which deplete our reserves of willpower. If you’ve ever wondered why you stick to your diet religiously all day only to blow it at night, this could be your answer according to Baumeister. At the end of a long day of exercising restraint, turning up to your job when you’d rather go to the beach, making multiple decisions and concentrating on tasks, your willpower reserves have been depleted.

Building willpower

The good news is that willpower can also be replenished and one good way to replenish it is with food. It seems that glucose in the brain (note that glucose comes from any food source – this isn’t about sugar) is what refills our stock of this energy we call willpower. Is it any wonder that when you go on a diet and hence willingly restrict your food intake, that your reserves of willpower often aren’t up to the task… especially in the evening? Keeping your reserves stocked up with regular snacks has been shown to increase the energy available to stick to tasks, make decisions and exercise restraint.

The other important thing Baumeister has found is that willpower is also a bit like a muscle that increases in strength the more it’s used. By exercising self-discipline in small doses but frequently, we are positively reinforced for our efforts and our willpower increases. I guess if we go back to the energy metaphor, it’s a bit like our willpower reserve tank gets larger.

Decision fatigue

Most people don’t realise that the act of making decisions draws on the same energy reserves that we need to exercise self-control. Barack Obama is aware of the phenomenon and for that reason, he only wears a blue or grey suit every day to reduce decision fatigue. Similarly, having daily routines helps to conserve your limited reserves of willpower so you can save it for the more important tasks and decisions. For example, people who opt to exercise every day are more likely to achieve long term success not just because of the consistency of their efforts, but because by committing to a daily routine, they effectively take the “Will I or won’t I?” question off the agenda, thus conserving that willpower so it can be put to use in other ways.

(Remember, when it comes to making decisions, if your stocks of willpower are low, such as when you’re tired or hungry at the end of the day, you have less energy for negotiation or compromise and are more likely to revert to default options or lazy choices).

So before you make a long list of new year’s resolutions… remember these key points!

  • Rather than attempting to make several life changes all at once, choose just one goal at a time,  work on it systematically, and as new habits are formed and your willpower muscle grows, move onto the next goal.
  • As much as possible, reduce decision fatigue by building routine into your life. If you say you’re going to meditate (or exercise or have an alcohol free day) three times each week, then every day you are faced with deciding “Is this going to be one of the days or isn’t it?” Decide the days in advance, or better still, choose to do engage in healthy habits EVERY day.
  • Don’t expect to make good choices on an empty stomach. Keep your willpower reserves stocked up with regular food and rest.

In upcoming posts, I’m going to be adding to this series on goal setting with posts about:

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The ‘slow’ movement and why it’s gaining momentum

October 5, 2014
slowdown living

It’s a funny thing, really… that for all the advances in technology and the myriad wondrous inventions we’ve created to make things quicker, easier and more efficient, somehow we’ve come full circle and now find ourselves so overwhelmed by the busyness and sheer pace of life that we are all looking for ways to slow down.

Fast food, cheap fashion & social media are the signs of our times. They are relatively new concepts in our culture, and all serving the common purpose of providing instant gratification.

But the truth is that despite all the inventions designed to make life easier, the number of ‘friends’ just a button click away, the prosperity we enjoy and the abundant choices presented to us every time we hit the supermarket or the nearest shopping mall, we are experiencing our highest ever levels of anxiety, depression, obesity and debt.

Depression is in fact the leading cause of disability globally. Consumer debt is at an all time high. The planet is being destroyed. We are disconnected, isolated, and dissatisfied; working harder and longer, yet never being rewarded with the grand prize of happiness that we so long for.

And so it appears we have woken up to the con of ‘fast’.

Voluntary Simplicity. Downshifting. Minimalism. These are all terms used to describe a growing movement towards unhooking from our technology-addicted, consumption driven lives and finding five minutes of peace and quiet in the simple activities and lifestyles our grandparents might have enjoyed.

The slow food movement was born in Italy in the 1980s when Carlo Petrini and a group of activists objected to a McDonald’s being constructed on the Spanish steps of Rome. Fast food is a disaster for animals, the planet and our own health. Today, ‘slow food’ embraces the values of wholesome food, grown locally and sustainably, and offering a fair price and conditions to its producers. It is the antithesis of fast food and processed food.  ‘Slow food’ values time taken to prepare and enjoy meals and the role of food in connecting family and friends. Most importantly, it’s a reminder to slow down in every aspect of our lives.

The slow living movement takes its cues from these same principles of mindfulness, connection and community.

Slow fashion for example, objects to the speed at which clothing designs move from catwalk to chain store, inviting us to reconsider our fashion purchases and opt for choices that will sustain us beyond a seasonal trend.  Fast fashion pollutes the environment with its manufacture and its rapid disposal, and demands we keep spending money as seasons and styles change.

Where ‘fast fashion’ often utilises offshore labour with unfair working conditions, chemically laden textiles, and rapidly obsolete trends, slow fashion calls us to choose quality over quantity. It also emphasises getting back to basics and repairing or re-purposing pre-loved clothing. Big fashion houses are lining up to get themselves accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia. Thus, it would appear that consumer demand for high quality, ethically produced fashion exists, and that suppliers are happy to meet our demand.

Slow living invites us to unhook from the continual distraction of our screens and gadgets by taking a regular ‘digital detox’  and spending quality, purposeful time in our real lives and connecting with our people face to face.

With a quick Google search (the irony), you can find a multitude of manifestations of the slow movement: people living in tiny houses, embracing thrift and minimalism, and living in intentional communities. Blogs like Zen Habits and Becoming Minimalist have millions of subscribers, such is the level of interest in scaling back and slowing down.

Most of us will never truly escape the hustle of modern life with our gadgets and our shops and our busy jobs. But we can look for small ways to slow down, shed what is unnecessary from our homes and schedules, shop more ethically and choose more wisely in every respect.

What about you? How do you find ways to slow down?

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What if we all had a secret… and it was the same one?

October 1, 2014
Impostor syndrome

What if we all had a secret…?

Dr Anthony Grant posed this question to our class in 2003 when I was a student in his Masters of Coaching Psychology program at Sydney University. Tony was discussing the things that cause us to feel ashamed or afraid of rejection (at least I think he was – it was a long time ago now!) He mentioned the prevalence of ‘imposter syndrome’ among some of the most successful leaders in the business world, and just how common it is at every level of society and every stage of life, to feel like we are somehow inferior.

I was young at the time and had just left a job in an organisation where I’d been one of the youngest members of the management team (by about two decades!) Instead of feeling proud of that position, I’d mostly felt like a kid playing at the grown up’s table.

And so, what I recall most vividly about Tony’s seminar, was how struck I was by this idea that no matter what kind of job someone has or how much money they make, no matter how much posturing and pretending we might do, underneath we’re all the same; we’re all vulnerable. We all struggle.

In the decade or so since that classroom discussion, this idea of universal suffering, that we are all swimming in the same sea of self-doubt and that we all have a version of the ‘not enough’ story playing on repeat in our minds has been presented to me over and over again. In many ways it has been liberating and life-changing.

I’ve also learned that it isn’t enough to grasp this idea with your intellect alone. The reason Brené Brown’s 2010 TED talk on vulnerability went viral is not just because people related to the idea of imperfection, but because we were touched by her authenticity. What has ensured her books became bestsellers was not her explanation of the theory of shame, but her willingness to display her own vulnerability in a very public way.

To be able to move from understanding and relating to an idea of common humanity (i.e., that we are all struggling together) to having that understanding change how you live your life is where the real challenge lies, and where the greatest personal rewards are to be found. In his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry referred to 

the distance between the mask of security, ease, confidence and assurance I wear… and the real condition of anxiety, self-doubt, self-disgust and fear in which much of my life then and now is lived.”

Apparently, he’s not the only one. If we all had the same secret, it would be that we each believe to fit in and be accepted we need to be someone other than who we truly are, because if anyone knew us properly… I mean the real, imperfect, flawed version of ourselves, they would judge and reject us.

Our universal suffering looks a lot like shame. It might show up when you lose your temper with a child; or when you are still single while everyone else is coupled up; when you feel stuck in a dead-end job while everyone around you is pursuing a worthy career. This is the pain of comparing yourself to others and coming up short every time. It also manifests in the form of private battles with food, alcohol, perfectionism, or depression.

Rather than own up about our flaws, or talk about the shame of feeling not good enough (or smart enough, or thin enough, or wealthy or successful enough), we set about using a bunch of strategies to protect us from being rejected. Brené Brown calls this ‘hustling for worthiness’. She says that:

If we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and have to hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving.

If it’s true that we all have the same secret, then we have all hustled for worthiness at one time or another. In fact, I think every day we’re hustling, and there is a real danger that we’re becoming more and more disconnected and isolated in the process. Every now and again, we might get a glimpse into someone else’s private world and we’re fascinated to compare ourselves and see how we measure up. When someone willingly opens up and admits to their feelings of inadequacy, our relief is palpable. And in that moment of shared vulnerability, there is real connection.

But how many of us are willing to be the first to share? It’s a bizarre paradox that all of our pretence is designed to keep us from being judged and rejected when in fact the greatest opportunity for real connection is to reveal our inadequate, human selves.

When you know and own your imperfections, there is less to fear and less to defend. And even better, you have the opportunity to offer others a remarkable life-changing gift when you own up to your struggles and thereby give them permission to do the same.  

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Is your TV making you miserable?

September 30, 2014
Downsides of television

I could happily live without a television and yet we have two televisions in our home. I admit there are some programs on commercial telly that I really enjoy, but my tendency to get hooked on a cooking or home improvement show is, for me, another reason to not have the TV in the house because much like wine and hot chips – while I may well enjoy those things, I also know they’re not very good for me.

For now, I’m stuck with a TV due to fierce opposition from my husband and daughter, but I’m not anywhere close to giving up on my anti-TV crusade, and here are all the reasons why:

1. Commercial TV advertising

Research confirms that television advertising increases our desire to buy stuff. Suddenly we want stuff we never even knew existed and our levels of life satisfaction decrease. Of course the TV is not singularly responsible for our increased consumerism but there’s a reason TV advertising is so expensive and that’s because it’s powerful. Children are particularly susceptible to this effect if we aren’t actively educating them about advertising in the media. A Dutch study confirmed that 8-11yr old children who watched more television were more materialistic. I use my 8yo daughter as my litmus test for this. After she’s watched commercial TV for any length of time, the list of stuff she wants grows longer… every time.

2. The News

Don’t even start me on the news. Is there anything more depressing? Of course we all know that there is a lot more going on in the world than the 30 minutes of depressing highlights you’re fed via a (probably biased) television news program each weeknight. I think it’s important to be aware of what’s happening in the world around us – that makes us responsible citizens. And the older I get, the more effort I make to know who I’m voting for and what they stand for and how this affects my family and broader community. But I do not believe it’s vital to my existence to know of every violent death that’s occurred locally and internationally in the preceding 24hrs and I do not need that negativity in my lounge room and within earshot of my daughter. So I turn off the news.

3. Television kills conversation

I know it from experience and I hear it all the time from my clients. Time spent sitting in front of the box with your partner is not quality time. If there are particular programs you enjoy watching together and which prompt you to engage in conversation, that can be fun for sure. But coming home at the end of the day and veging in front of the telly for a few hours before crawling into bed (or worse still, falling asleep on the couch) creates disconnection and dissatisfaction in relationships.

4. Television is often mindless

And I’m much more about being mindful in my daily life because the benefits of mindfulness are immense and proven. When you sit down to ‘relax’ in front of the television, you’re more likely to eat (or drink) more than you intend to, because you’re not paying attention. More importantly, escaping into television prevents you from dealing with whatever unpleasantness you are seeking to escape. In this way, mindless television viewing is a form of avoidance, whereas living a whole, happy, vital life requires us to increase our capacity to turn towards and tolerate discomfort, not find more ways to escape it.

5. Television shortens your lifespan

That on its own is surely enough to make anyone miserable. It’s been estimated that every hour of TV viewing reduces your lifespan by 20 minutes. Exact reasons aren’t clear but presumably it’s a combination of all those things already mentioned. TV watching is a sedentary activity so unless you’re watching TV while pounding out a few k’s on the treadmill or climbing Kilimanjaro on the stairmaster, the more hours spent television viewing, the less you spend moving your body, breathing fresh air and engaging in physical activities. Our bodies are designed to move, not sit at a desk all day and then come home and sit in front a television all night.

So what’s the answer?

If like me, you can’t have your way in getting rid of the TV, or if you’re not ready to make that change, I offer the following tips to minimise your exposure to its harmful effects.

1. Limit your viewing

Instead of turning on the TV and channel surfing until you find something appealing to watch, check the TV guide online and only turn the television on when there is something you really want to see. Each week, try to have one or two TV-Free days (or even better, no screens at all).

2. Skip the ads

Set your timer to record your favourite program so you can watch it at your leisure some other time and fast-forward the advertisements. The program without the ads will take a whole lot less of your precious time and you won’t be exposed to those enticing advertisements convincing you of all the new things you need to buy to be happier.

3. Do something while watching TV

Lie on the floor and do some pilates exercises or stretches, or if you have a treadmill – position it in front of the telly and get on it during your favourite program. The distraction of the TV should make working out seem less painful and if you’re going to do something mindlessly, it might as well be good for you.

4. Create a TV-free zone

If you’re fortunate enough to have space for a couple of living areas in your home – say a family room as well as a lounge room – make one of them television-free. Keep that space for reading, music, playing board games or talking without the noise and distraction of the TV. If possible, make this space the one that’s more accessible to you and your family, nearer to the kitchen and the major hub of activity in your home. Put the television in the room that’s further away and harder to reach so it’s less intrusive.

5. Consider the possibility of getting rid of it entirely

Rather than immediately shutting down the idea, start to play around with the possibility of what life would be like without it. Be curious and open minded about where your hesitation comes from. What would you be missing out on? What else might you do with your time instead? If staring down a whole evening with your own company seems intolerable, perhaps this is something to work on.

Who’s with me in the No-TV camp? What strategies do you use to minimise it, and if you’ve already gone TV-free, how is that changed your life (for better or worse)?

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
Hi, I’m Cass.

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