Category Archives: self-development

Is age just a number?

Thinking positively about being old has surprisingly powerful effects.

In my years of teaching undergraduates, there were many instances in which students seemed clueless — and had poor memories. A student would come by my office asking how to get to their classroom. I’d say, “What’s the name of your subject?” “I can’t remember.” Then there were students about to hand in their assignments who couldn’t remember the name of their tutor.

            If these students had been 60 years old, we might have said they were having a “senior moment.” But they were 20. Were they having a “junior moment”?

            During a class, students would sometimes forget the names of their classmates — if they ever learned them — or get the day of the week wrong, among other simple mistakes.

            Then there was the challenge of finding their way around the building where I work, the notorious building 19. Many students needed directions. We used to say that once they could find their way around building 19, we’d give them a degree.

            The idea of a “senior moment” reflects a cultural assumption that older people’s memories fail. This same cultural expectation is apparent in all sorts of areas, from physical activity to job opportunities.

Breaking the age code

What are your age beliefs? Here’s a simple test. Imagine an old person and write down the first five words or phrases that come to mind, anything from “my grannie” to “absent-minded” or “helpful.” If you come up with words like “doddery” and think getting old means going downhill, losing your memory, becoming incapacitated and senile, then you have “negative age beliefs.” On the other hand, if you come up with words like “graceful” and think of old age as a time of wisdom, maturity and emotional stability, you have positive age beliefs. Does it matter what sort of beliefs you have? For the answer, get Becca Levy’s powerful new book Breaking the age code.

            Her answer is a resounding yes. Levy is a Yale University researcher who has been studying many aspects of age beliefs for decades. What she and co-authors discovered is striking: individuals with positive age beliefs do better in all sorts of ways. They do better both physically and mentally. Is this just a placebo effect? If so, it’s a powerful one that can improve your biomarkers and your performance on mental acuity tests.

“In study after study I conducted, I found that older people with more-positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively that those with more-negative perceptions; they were more likely to recover from severe disability, they remembered better, they walked faster, and they even lived longer. I was also able to show that many of the cognitive and physiological challenges we think of as linked to growing old — things like hearing loss and cardiovascular disease — are also the products of age beliefs absorbed from our social surroundings.” (p. 5)

            Levy had been doing research for years when one study suddenly made her a media star. She looked at the difference in life span between individuals with the most positive and the most negative age beliefs. “What I found was startling. Participants with the most-positive views of aging were living, on average, seven and a half years longer than those with the most-negative views.” (p. 93) That made people sit up and listen.

            However, changing your beliefs is not all that easy. If you imagine that you can say, “I’ll just start thinking positively about being older, and reap all those benefits,” think again. Individual beliefs can make a difference, but it’s hard to go against the surrounding culture. If nearly everyone around you has negative age beliefs, and speaks and acts accordingly, you’re almost bound to be influenced — negatively.

            When co-workers, faced with a challenging task, turn to younger colleagues and ignore you, you may feel unneeded, and furthermore you miss out on the intellectual and social stimulation that can help you maintain and develop your capacities. When doctors treat your ailments as “just getting old” and hence as less urgent than the same ailments in younger patients, you miss out on the help you need.

            Levy studied cultures where elders are respected. In such cultures, older people thrive. It’s as if they live up to expectations. Others’ beliefs affect what opportunities you have. If you’re continually challenged, mentally and physically, you are more likely to maintain your capacities.

Ageism

Watching academic appointments over decades, I’ve seen a preference for promise over performance: a younger applicant with “promise” is favoured over an older one with a solid record. Sometimes it seems to me that some of those on appointment committees don’t want to hire someone for a junior position who has achievements comparable to their own. This is just my impression but it accords with everything Levy says. She says ageism in employment, in the US anyway, is standard practice despite evidence that older workers can be creative, are more reliable, have fewer accidents and have more life wisdom. Discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender or ethnicity is treated as a serious matter, even a legal matter, but there is no similar taboo against ageism.

            I talked with colleagues who, like me, are unpaid but still researching. Many of us have extensive experience and would be pleased to be more involved giving guest lectures, assessing theses, mentoring and helping in other ways. But it seems no one in authority is interested. If you’re retired or otherwise unpaid, you’re just about invisible.

            Another arena where ageism has major impacts is health care. Levy says that negative age stereotypes inform western medicine, and also notes that there’s more money in medicating disease than in preventing it through exercise and other means.

            I’ve often read about the impending demographic crisis of ageing: as a country’s population gets older, there will be fewer people of working age to support the greater numbers of the elderly with their greater demands on health services. One of the aspects of this “crisis” is self-inflicted: the requirement or pressure for people to retire, and the difficulty older workers have in finding a new job. The so-called demographic crisis would not be a problem if older people had greater opportunities to continue working. There’s another aspect: Levy cites a study showing that countries with older populations do not have higher public health expenditures. This goes against the usual assumption, and undermines the rationale for government policies to boost the birth rate or encourage immigration of young people.

            Over the years, I’ve occasionally run into someone I hadn’t seen in many years who says, “You haven’t changed a bit.” This sort of comment annoyed me in some way I couldn’t articulate, because of course I look considerably older than ten or twenty years ago. Levy explains that telling someone they haven’t aged is intended as a compliment but implies that ageing should be denied or is bad. Perhaps I should respond, “Actually, I’d really like to look older and more distinguished!”

Making a difference

Even if you live in a society with negative age beliefs, you can resist the messages around you and help to change attitudes. Levy offers a variety of practical exercises to change negative age beliefs to positive, based on changing people’s awareness and understanding, and confronting ageism. In one of the appendices, she provides information to challenge false age stereotypes. For example, you can counter the view that “Older workers aren’t effective in the workplace” by citing information that “Older workers take fewer days off for sickness, benefit from experience, have strong work ethics, and are often innovative.” (p.212).

            In Australia, there is no mandatory retirement age, but the way pension systems are set up discourages working past the 60s, and added to this are strong pressures to retire and give opportunities to younger workers. Levy tells about Jonas, a paediatrician, who retired from clinical practice, while continuing to teach. Jonas had much to offer, and told Levy, “I realized at the very end of my clinical career that most people retire as soon as they get good at something.” (p. 68) To cover his accumulated knowledge and abilities, the university had to hire two younger doctors.

            It seems the economic system is set up to throw away vast amounts of accumulated wisdom, yet people don’t recognise what’s happening because of the prevalence of negative age beliefs. Read Breaking the Age Code and help bring about change.


Becca Levy

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Can you focus as well as you’d like?

What do gym-goers think about when they’re lifting weights? I don’t know, but in recent years I can see what half of the gym-goers are looking at between sets: their phones. Some become so engrossed that they seem to forget, for a while, that they’re at the gym.

            Outside, walking along, when I come up behind a young person who is walking slowly, I guess they’re multitasking: walking and checking their phone. Usually they are.

            For years I’ve been fascinated with attention, including what we pay attention to and how we maintain it. Part of the challenge is having some control over our attention when others are trying to hijack it, for their own purposes. You might be trying to read but the children want you to do something with them. Or you get a call from a friend. Sometimes interruptions are welcome, such as when you’re doing a boring task and you need a break.

            Interruptions from children and friends are one thing. Interruptions for commercial purposes are another. For quite a few years I’ve been reading about how advertisers seek to capture people’s attention.

            For an eye-opening survey of media and attention, see Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. Wu tells how US and UK military propaganda methods were adopted by advertisers, who then pioneered more effective methods. According to Wu, the standard method for capturing your attention is to offer something for free — or just seeming to be free — and then resell your attention to advertisers. Because attention is scarce and there is competition, the race heads downwards, seeking to engage with the intuitive mind and sidestep the rational mind. From The Attention Merchants I learned a different way of understanding developments in television, celebrities, blogging, Facebook and much else. My blog post.

            For understanding how social media have become so good at capturing attention, turn to Adam Alter’s book Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching. It’s a highly engaging account of behavioural addictions, covering evidence for their rise (especially via smart phones), addictive tendencies, the biology of addiction, the engineering of behavioural addiction through goals, feedback, escalation, cliff-hangers and social interaction, and what to do about it. Alter provides a stimulating treatment of gamification, in which activities are turned into games. He addresses how habits are formed. My blog post.

Stolen focus

Then I heard about Johann Hari’s new book addressing attention. I had learned a lot from his first two books, Chasing the Scream about the war on drugs and Lost Connections about depression. Hari writes in a highly engaging way, telling about his search for answers to crucial questions, drawing on his own experiences and interviews with key participants and researchers.

            Hari’s new book is titled Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. He starts with the observation that many people don’t seem to be able to focus for as long as they used to. He tracks down researchers who have studied the capacity to focus. They say the evidence does show that, on average, people’s capacity to focus is declining. Hari wants to find out why.

            He first tackles the most obvious explanation: social media and apps. You might think you are in control of what you do when using your phone. Think again.

            Hari interviewed a former Google engineer, Tristan, who says that success for Google workers was getting more people engaged, in other words hooked. This was not a nefarious plot but simply maximising income: engagement brings in more money from advertisers. At Google and elsewhere in Silicon Valley, no one thought about what they were doing to people’s attention.

            When you use your smartphone, the phone is smarter. The apps are designed by some of the smartest people on the job market to capture your attention. Hari lists several ways that websites and apps are designed that harm attention.

  1. They train your mind to crave rewards – frequent ones.
  2. They encourage you to switch tasks. Task-switching disrupts attention.
  3. They learn what make you tick and use what they learn to distract you and keep you on the platform.
  4. They make you angry, because being angry keeps you engaged. The result is that online, condemning rather than understanding has become the norm.
  5. They make you feel like you’re surrounded by angry people, though this is partly a result of getting everyone engaged.

The result is that your capacities — your intelligence, rationality and focus — and those of others are downgraded.

            What should be done? Why not just take control? Switch off notifications. Unsubscribe from lists. Set your phone to be offline for designated periods. When you go to bed, put it in another room. Hari talked with Nir, who helped develop engrossing apps and then wrote a book about how to resist them. Hari agrees that individuals can do a lot to protect themselves from perpetual distraction, but it’s not enough. When users are up against highly sophisticated algorithms designed to bypass rational controls, only a few have the resources to resist effectively.

            Hari supports individual efforts but thinks collective action is needed to bring websites and app design into a different model, one that supports users rather than exploits them. He gives a nice example of what could be done. It would be simple to develop an app to tell you about everyone in your neighbourhood who would like to go out for dinner, right now. But such an app isn’t available because it would help people go offline.


Johann Hari

What else?

A good portion of Stolen Focus is about devices that hijack your attention, but Hari thinks there are other factors, and continues his explorations. Another important contributor is insecurity. If you’re worried about your job or being able to pay your bills, then it’s harder to concentrate. With the rise of the gig economy in which many people can only obtain insecure and irregular employment, it is no surprise that anxiety levels escalate and attention suffers. Hari argues that a UBI, a universal basic income that is provided to everyone with no strings attached, would do a lot for people’s attention, and for their happiness as well.

            Another factor is your diet. Do you ever binge on junk food? When you aren’t getting enough nutrients, that’s a problem. When you get too much sugar, then after a while your blood sugar level crashes, and your capacity to focus suffers. Add to this environmental chemicals that can affect the brain, especially kids’ brains. Hari says added chemicals in food, as well as ones in the environment, are damaging to attention.

            Finally, Hari explores the way that children, in many affluent societies, are continually monitored. Due to exaggerated fears of child abductions and the promotion of “stranger danger,” many parents no longer allow their children to walk or cycle to school or to play unsupervised. Actually, says Hari, children need the opportunity to organise their own activities. Adults, by their excessive oversight, are not meeting their children’s needs.

Here’s how he summarises the impact of several of the factors he explored:

“We don’t let them play freely; we imprison them in their homes, with little to do except interact via screens; and our school system largely deadens and bores them. We feed them food that causes energy crashes, contains drug-like additives that can make them hyper, and doesn’t contain the nutrients they need. We expose them to brain-disrupting chemicals in the atmosphere.”

This is quite an indictment, but there’s only so much an individual can do. Many of the processes Hari describes are hard to escape unless you are really privileged. If you’re Bill Gates and own a small island, you can go there to get away from interruptions. Otherwise, you’re largely on your own — unless you join up with others to bring about change. Hari says there needs to be a social movement to regain the capacity to focus, a movement to support people engaging in the experience of flow in which you become totally engrossed in an activity requiring you to exercise your skills.

            As a clincher, Hari says the people of the world need their attention to deal with serious problems such as climate change. This sounds good. I followed Hari all the way with his explorations, and definitely think it’s worthwhile to cultivate the capacity to focus, and to use it regularly — including to read every word of Stolen Focus. The problem is that the power of attention can also be turned to less noble purposes such as building weapons and constructing ads. Yes, let’s join together to protect and restore our capacities to focus, but also join together for goals that help others.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Tiny habits for writing

It’s not easy to become a productive writer. Using the tiny habits approach has much to offer.

A common problem for writers is procrastination, often linked to excess perfectionism: “I don’t feel like writing today. I’ll wait until I feel the inspiration.” Delay follows delay. Sometimes, when sitting down to write, a perfectionist keeps rewriting the first paragraph or even the first sentence, because it’s never quite right.

            Finally, after an interminable delay, pressure builds up, often due to a deadline, and this triggers a surge of writing lasting hours or even days. It’s a binge. It generates lots of words but it’s exhausting mentally. Not wanting to do it again soon leads to procrastination, and the cycle goes on.

In 2008, I read Tara Gray’s book Publish & Flourish. It is a short, easy-to-read and inspiring guide to becoming a productive scholarly writer. The core of her approach is writing daily — a practical way to overcome procrastination and bingeing. Gray was inspired by research, carried out in the 1980s, by psychologist and education researcher Robert Boice. He observed that most new academics were overwhelmed by the demands of teaching, but noticed a small number who were less stressed and more productive. Boice thought the techniques used by these more productive junior academics could be taught to others and set out to show how. He found that a practice of daily writing, in short periods and with accountability, could work wonders.

Since 2008, I’ve used the Boice-Gray approach myself, offered it to my PhD students and coordinated a writing programme for academics and research students. I’m always on the lookout for ideas to make the process easier and more effective. It was with this background that I came to BJ Fogg’s book Tiny Habits.

            Fogg developed his programme for building habits a decade ago and has been using it to help thousands of people. Tiny Habits is a straightforward presentation of the programme, with lots of exercises, diagrams, lists and — most revealing of all — stories about habit development. Some of the stories are about people Fogg knows, and some are his own personal experiences.

Here I’m going to point to a few of the ideas in Tiny Habits and say how they relate to the Boice-Gray writing programme.

Start small

A key idea in Tiny Habits is to start small — very small. The purpose is to make it as easy as possible to start a new behaviour. Once it becomes a regular part of your routine, it can be built up. Fogg repeatedly uses one example from his own experience: after he has a pee, he does two push-ups. And to start with, the push-ups can be against the wall. Easy! Fogg wanted to become fitter, and he wanted to develop habits that would help in this quest. He didn’t start by going to the gym for a workout. He started with the two-push-up routine.

            In the writing programme, we have something similar. Rather than procrastinating and then going on a writing binge, the goal is to write a relatively small amount each day, an amount small enough to feel unthreatening, small enough to feel doable.

When I started the Boice-Gray method, I aimed at about 15 minutes per day, which felt like a breeze compared to my previous methods, and easy to maintain week after week. However, I soon learned that for many of my colleagues, even to sit down and write for 15 minutes was too daunting to contemplate. They couldn’t do it. Some couldn’t write anything at all. So, for those who join our group and started out writing many hundreds of words each day, I say, “Cut back. Don’t write for so long each day. Think of doing five or ten minutes. Do this until you create a sustainable habit.”

This advice worked for some, but others dropped away after starting the programme, returning to their usual pattern of procrastination and bingeing. If I had known about the tiny habits approach, I would have offered something simpler: start by writing just one minute each day. Or even simpler: start by picking up a pen and looking at a sheet of paper. Do this every day for a week. If you feel like writing a sentence, do that.

Tiny habit indeed! Picking up your pen — or putting your fingers on a keyboard — and thinking about writing seems pretty easy. That’s the point! It’s so easy that it’s hard to rationalise not doing it. It’s hard to say, “I’m too busy to pick up a pen and look at a sheet of paper for a few seconds.” It’s so easy that excuses are too obviously just that, excuses.

Don’t rely on motivation

Many people, when they want to start a new behaviour, rely on motivation. They want to lose weight, so they rely on their willpower to eat less or eat differently. This sounds obvious, but it hardly ever works.

Fogg devotes pages of text telling about motivation and why it’s an unreliable road to change. He tells about “behaviour design” as a way of getting around the “motivation monkey.” The idea is to discover what you really want to do, and develop a way to turn that into a routine.

The Boice-Gray writing programme is also based on a distrust of relying on motivation. The bad habit of procrastination is driven by an assumption, or rationalisation, that you need to be inspired to write, so if you don’t feel like it, then you should wait until you do. For quite a few scholars, the result is very little writing.

Here comes a delicate issue. Fogg provides a detailed set of steps for figuring out what you really want to do. The writing programme assumes you really want to write, or at least to be an author. But perhaps some scholars don’t really want to write. Maybe they don’t really want to be authors because they fear putting out their work for others to read.

Make it easy enough

Fogg provides an illuminating diagram showing the areas where action will be taken, with the axes being motivation and ability. If your motivation is too low, you won’t act; if you lack ability, you won’t act. Doing 20 push-ups might be too hard; doing two push-ups against the wall probably won’t be.

Everyone in the writing programme has the ability to write. Most of us are either doing PhDs or already have PhDs. But sometimes it seems that writing on a challenging topic for an article or thesis chapter feels too hard. Because it’s important to write regularly, we sometimes suggest easier options, such as writing a diary entry, a letter to a friend, or just whatever comes into your head, so-called free writing. Options like these help keep up the daily writing habit, and maintain or improve our capacity to turn thoughts into words on a page.

Use prompts

When it comes to building a habit, a crucial factor is having a prompt: something that will remind you of what you want to do. Fogg gives many examples of prompts and how to find one that is reliable and effective.


This is probably not a good prompt.

            In the writing programme, we recommend finding a regular time and place for writing, so it becomes part of a routine. For me, it’s soon after getting up in the morning. Others time their writing after specific activities. We could do more to help each other find prompts.

Over the years, many participants in the programme say that it’s important to do their writing before checking emails or social media. It’s easy to get sucked into hours of online browsing, and before long writing seems too hard. One tip is to turn off notifications, so there’s less temptation to see what’s come in. For those who find it easy to be distracted, we’ve suggested various tricks, for example leaving a sheet of paper on top of the computer, to be seen at the next visit, saying “WRITE”. The problem of overcoming distractions can be thought of as breaking an undesired habit. Fogg tells about this too.

Celebrate

Fogg recommends celebrating immediately after every single success in carrying out a tiny habit, even just doing two wall push-ups. He goes to great lengths to encourage you to find the most effective way. It might be a fist-pump, shouting “Yes!” or doing a little dance. Fogg says it’s worth experimenting to see what actually brings out a positive feeling. It’s the positive emotion that’s important: it helps wire in the habit.

            In the writing programme, we encourage people to reward themselves after finishing a writing session, for example by having a favourite drink, taking a walk or checking social media. That’s fine, and is compatible with a tiny habits approach, but I think Fogg would recommend something more immediate and emotionally powerful right after writing the last word in a session.

What else?

There is far more detail in Tiny Habits than I can indicate here, and it would be fascinating to explore many possible applications to writing. There is one other connection, a general one, worth mentioning here: experimentation. Fogg says it’s worth trying out different techniques to find what works best for building a desired habit, or ending an undesired one. In our writing group meetings, I often say that finding the most effective approach to writing is a matter of trial and error. What works for one person may not work for another. Each of us listens to others describe techniques they’ve tried and thus get ideas about what we might try ourselves, so in a sense we’re experimenting both individually and collectively.

Tiny Habits is remarkably detailed in its guidelines. There’s one thing I missed: comparison with other works on habits. Fogg gives no references. I would have liked to see a discussion of Charles Duhigg’s best-selling book The Power of Habit or of research on expert performance such as Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Perhaps this is just a scholarly quibble. The test for each individual is whether learning the tiny-habits approach is worthwhile.


BJ Fogg

            Are you going to get a copy of Tiny Habits? Maybe you need some incentive to order it. Then, are you going to read it? Start small: just open the book once a day. Then aim to read just one page each day — and celebrate just after you do. Before long, you’ll have perfected a habit of regular reading.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Paula Arvela, Monica O’Dwyer and Bec Watt for useful feedback on drafts, and to all members of the high-output writing programme for sharing experiences.

Why you should get moving

Physical activity is good for you in lots of ways, so why do so many people not get enough?

The evidence is overwhelming: exercise is good for you. Not just physically, but also mentally. Exercise reduces depression and anxiety. It boosts your memory. It protects against disease.

I’ve just read a new book, Move! by Caroline Williams, that tells about some of the latest research on the benefits of physical activity. More on that in a moment. First, a few observations.

Working in universities for many decades, I’ve met numerous smart people, including some who think highly of their own intellects. After all, one of the few talents that academics have more than others is using their minds to extend knowledge. Yet if academics are proud of their mental capacities, and seek advancement in their careers depending on the outputs from their intellectual prowess, why do so few take heed of the evidence that physical activity protects the mind and boosts mental performance?

            There are several possible explanations. One is a persistent belief that the mind is pretty much independent of the body. Another is that using your body is lower in status than mental work. This is why, if you’re going to exercise vigorously, do it in a gym where you have to pay, not out in public. Driving a car is more dignified than walking to work.

A third explanation is that our lifestyles are designed to discourage exercise. More on that later.

Move!

Caroline Williams is a science writer. She interviewed scientists researching how the body affects the mind, and weaves what she has learned into an engaging account, adding comments drawing on her own experiences. If you need convincing that movement is good for you, Move! is a good place to start.

            The book is more than a motivator. Williams tells how different sorts of movement affect different aspects of mental performance, including creativity. She starts by telling about human evolution and how movement and mental functioning are intertwined.

“… our biological baseline is to be on our feet, moving and thinking at the same time. If we don’t do it, our brains make the sensible decision to save energy by cutting brain capacity. In better news, when we get on our feet and move, it primes the brain to be alert and to learn.” (p. 32)

This reminds me of research I read about years ago saying that the brains of people over age 50 start to shrink — except for those who exercise regularly. Use your body or lose your mind.

Williams reports on research about physical activity and rumination, which is repeatedly and unproductively thinking about things in the past. The more you ruminate, the less happy you’ll be. Here’s a surprising finding. When you are moving, walking or jogging, you are literally putting things behind you, and this sense of forward movement reduces rumination and hence is good for your mental health. This made me wonder whether walking outdoors is superior to walking on a treadmill, because with a treadmill you remain in the same place. Maybe you still feel you’re moving forward, especially if you watch a screen showing scenery going by.

            As well as moving, it’s also valuable to build your strength. Having stronger muscles leads to a longer life and makes you feel better too. You don’t need a physique like Arnold Schwartzenegger’s: you can be stronger without any increase in muscle size. There are mental benefits too. Williams states:

“There is also a link between bodily strength and a healthy brain. A ten-year study of twins showed that greater strength in middle age is linked not only to more grey matter but also to a better functioning memory and a quicker brain a decade later, while grip strength (an overall indicator of muscle power) is associated with a healthier hippocampus.” (p. 57)

Many people think muscle-builders are less intelligent than weedy types who spend their days reading. This needs to change. Having strong muscles and flexing them regularly is a good way to enhance brain power and creativity.

To get moving is good. To do it in rhythm is even better, certainly for mental functioning. Dancing is one option. Another is an exercise class, accompanied by energising music.

            Moving together with others dissolves the sense of self, so you feel part of the group. Williams notes that you need to be careful about this. The Nazi salute and mass rallies helped to bond the German population with Hitler.

“Sit up straight!” Did your parents ever tell you this? Slouching may feel more comfortable, but there’s solid scientific evidence about the physical and mental benefits of good posture. Sitting or standing straight is linked to having positive thoughts. More generally, using core muscles is good for controlling stress. Options include running, Pilates and yoga. Strangely, using core muscles is calming.

            Stretching is good for you too. If you’ve been sitting for a while, it’s beneficial to get up and stretch. Williams delves into the advantages and disadvantages of stretching beyond what the mind says is too far, and the challenges for those who have hyper-mobile joints.

Then there is breathing, normally an automatic activity but one that can be the focus of attention. Williams tells of research on breathing six times per minute, a process that stimulates the vagus nerve and calms the body.

Barriers to physical activity

Given decades of research showing the physical and mental benefits of physical activity, you might think that everyone would be going out of their way to keep active. Alas, only a minority do, and those who are older and need it the most are the least likely to move enough for optimal mental and physical health. Why?

The main problem is that humans have constructed environments for themselves that make it too easy to be lethargic, at all ages. Think of “labour-saving” devices. Think of cars, ride-on mowers, video games, Facebook. Think of parents protecting their children by driving them to school.

In the book The Energy Glut, Ian Roberts says cycling to work is dangerous but it’s even more dangerous not to cycle to work. In other words, the health risks from not getting exercise are greater than those from commuting by bicycle.

            In Australia and many other countries, cities are constructed in ways that discourage everyday walking and cycling. There are vast car parks around shopping centres and just a few places for bicycles. Imagine an alternative urban design, closer to that in Amsterdam, that makes it easy and attractive to walk and cycle, and makes it slow and inconvenient for drivers.

Unfortunately, most of us live in what is called an obesogenic environment, one that discourages activity and encourages overeating. Although it’s possible to go to the gym or participate in sports, the trouble is that this requires initiative. A society that prioritises movement would design the physical environment and incentives so that being active would be the easy option and sitting for hours on end was considered foolish.

We can dream about an alternative society, but until things change it is mostly up to individuals to do what they can in their personal situations. So read Move! and be inspired. And while you’re reading it, remember to occasionally get up and stretch.


Caroline Williams

PS Some earlier accounts that I’ve found useful.

John Ratey with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (New York: Little, Brown, 2008)

Ralph S. Paffenbarger, Jr. and Eric Olsen, LifeFit: An Effective Exercise Program for Optimal Health and a Longer Life (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1996)

Roy J. Shephard, Aging, Physical Activity, and Health (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1997)

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Tim Johnson-Newell and Jody Watts for helpful comments.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

The voice in your head

Is there a voice in your head? What does it say? Does it encourage you or does it tell you that you’re no good?

 

Did you ever stay up late during high school with last-minute cramming for an exam or writing an essay due the next day? If so, you have experience with procrastination followed by binges of studying and writing.

I coordinate a writing programme for academics and research students based on a different approach: moderation. It’s inspired by research by Robert Boice and Tara Gray about how researchers can be more productive. The foundation of the programme is brief daily writing sessions. This is quite a contrast with the far more common approach of procrastination and bingeing.

Why do writers procrastinate? One of the factors is the voice in your head that says you’re not ready, you’re not good enough, you’ll never finish, and anyway you might as well wait until you’re in a better mood. Basically, the voice is telling you to give up, which leads to procrastination.

            Gradually I learned that most writers have to deal with this sort of negative self-talk. Boice and Gray each tell about it. In some of our writing group meetings, we’d talk about the voice. Once the question was asked — “Do you have a voice that discourages you?” — people would open up telling about their own experiences. It was reassuring to find out that others have the same obstacle.

To deal with the voice, I have recommended either ignoring it or challenging it, for example telling it that it’s wrong or just to go away. Somewhere along the line I obtained a tiny rubber duck that would squeak when squeezed. Putting it on your shoulder represented the voice in your head. Then there was accompanying note paper that said “Shut the duck up!”

Chatter

If there’s a voice in your head and it’s causing problems for writers, what should be done about it? Ever since learning about this problem, I’ve been on the lookout for insights and practical solutions. Then recently I obtained the wonderful book Chatter by Ethan Kross. Suddenly, there are answers.

            Kross is a researcher, and his special interest is self-talk. He writes that “we all have a voice in our head in some shape or form” (page xxi). Chatter has many pages of references to scientific studies, but the main text is a model of engaging story-telling. Kross tells about his own embarrassing experience when his inner voice took over his behaviour, turning him into a nervous wreck as he irrationally prepared for a threat — and this was despite all he knew about how the inner voice operates.

Kross’s message is that the inner voice, in other words the conversations in our head, can be valuable but can also cause distress and worse.

First consider the advantages in having silent conversations in our heads. Kross provides evidence that the inner voice aids working memory, enables self-control and helps evaluate progress towards goals. Sounds good.

Then there are all the negatives. A basic problem with the inner voice is that it sabotages your focus on tasks. You want to write but the voice is telling you that you’re no good. Even if you can overcome the negativity and start writing, the voice occupies some of your mental capacity so you’re not fully engaged.

            One of the ways to try to address the problem is to tell others about your distress. This seems to help but can push others away. In Chatter, Kross reports on studies showing that ruminating on our difficulties is linked to both aggression and unhealthy stress. This is sounding very bad indeed. So what can you do about it?

One helpful method is to create psychological distance. Have you ever imagined yourself up in the sky looking down on the world, and there you are sitting on a chair, walking along outside, or staring at your screen? Imagining yourself from the outside reduces destructive chatter. You may feel that your problems are not as overwhelming as they seem up close.

            You can also gain distance by imagining yourself from the perspective of five or ten years from now, looking back at what’s going on right now. In this imagined hindsight, what is upsetting or distracting now seems like a triviality in the scheme of things. The point of temporal distancing is to escape being fully immersed in your current reality.

Another way gain distance is to think of yourself in the second or third person. Rather than thinking or saying, “I need to relax”, I should tell myself “Brian needs to relax” or “You need to relax.” This reduces the self-critic. So get out of “I” and talk to yourself with “you.”

This sounds too simple. Does it work? Kross describes experiments in which individuals preparing for a stressful task — speaking to an audience on an assigned topic with little preparation — are less stressed when they speak to themselves beforehand using “you.” Furthermore, independent observers say their speeches are better. How could something like this be so effective? Easy. By using “you,” you reduce the chatter in your head that takes up mental space and undermines confidence.


Ethan Kross

Helping others

I was talking with Alice, who is going through a stressful time. She tells me about her difficulties and I sympathise, and ask for more details. This goes on for some time. Alice feels better for having shared her feelings.

Whoops. Kross says this is not the best way to help. Indeed, when you and your friend commiserate, this “co-rumination” concentrates attention on the details that are linked to distress, so in the longer term this continues the stress by encouraging ever more thinking about the issues.

It’s more useful for me to offer practical help to Alice. Rather than rehashing the events, I can suggest ways forward or other things to think about. Even better, I can offer what Kross calls “invisible support.”

            Alice is preparing for a crucial performance. If I give her unsolicited advice on what to do, the advice might be useful but the giving of advice might reduce her self-belief. More useful is to do some shopping or cleaning. Those who can most readily offer invisible support are people who live in the same household or have regular contact.

There’s another option. I could send Alice some pictures of nature, perhaps of forests or streams. Kross reports fascinating research showing that being in nature has many health benefits, including calming inner conversations. Furthermore, it’s not even necessary to be among trees. Just seeing pictures of them is beneficial.

Another thing that helps is rituals, either personal or social. Most of us in the writing programme have found that it works better to schedule daily writing in the same location and at the same time of day. After a while, it becomes both a habit and a sort of personal ritual, perhaps with the accompaniment of a specific drink, certain music or following a predictable set of steps in preparation.

A social ritual for writing? That’s not so obvious. If you are part of a group of writers, you can schedule a particular time and process.

Another thing you can do is clean up your office so that it looks neat and, more importantly, ordered. Kross offers evidence that order in the external world — such as a neat desk — can foster internal order, including less chatter.

Chatter is engaging to read because of the stories that Kross tells about himself and others, and his attractive style of writing. At the end of the book, he helpfully includes a list of the main methods for reducing chatter, many of which I’ve mentioned above.

The voice in your head is not going to change quickly. If you struggle with self-talk that undermines rather than helps you do what you want to do, reading Chatter should be valuable, and so is a systematic effort to implement Kross’s suggestions.

How does chatter manifest?

One thing intrigues me. Kross says everyone has a voice in their head, but how does it speak? I’ve asked several friends about this. Their answers vary. Some people hear a voice. If so, whose voice is it? Their own? A parent’s? Some people have conversations in their mind. They don’t hear anything but they know what’s being said. Who are the conversationalists? Two sides of themselves? I don’t hear a voice and don’t have mental conversations, so what’s wrong with me?

If I’m reading Kross’s book and concentrating on what he’s written, I’m thinking, but presumably this isn’t chatter. Only, perhaps, if extraneous thoughts intrude, such as thinking about someone I need to contact or about some grievance from decades ago, would that be unproductive thinking. But what if I suddenly have an inspiration about how to address a research puzzle I’ve been working on? That would be welcome.

Experienced on the inside, there are many commonalities in people’s minds but also some important differences. I know some aspects of my own mind, up close, but continue to find it difficult to fully appreciate the diversity of other people’s inner worlds.

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Aloysia Brooks, Kelly Gates, Tara Gray, Olga Kuchinskaya, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Melinda Waterman and Qinqing Xu for useful feedback, and all those who have shared with me their experiences with their inner voices.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

At your best

Do you know for sure when you are being your best possible self? And how can you be that way more often?

            I came across a recommendation for a book titled Exceptional: build your personal highlight reel and unlock your potential by Daniel Cable. The title made me a bit sceptical. A “personal highlight reel” sounds suspect, reminiscent of the US self-help genre that is all about the individual and says nothing about social conditions.

Still, I was intrigued. Even since I was young, I’ve experimented with self-help techniques. They don’t have to encourage self-centredness and self-indulgence. After all, if you can be more effective in achieving your goals, you can be more effective in helping others and in contributing to positive social change. Personally, I didn’t feel a great need to unlock my potential. But I thought, “I’ll give this book a try. Then I can tell others if there is anything from which they might benefit.”

Cable tells about a man named Dave Maher whose friends thought he had died while in hospital. They posted touching comments about him — then he awoke from a month-long coma.

It seems a pity that you have to die before those who know you tell stories of what a wonderful person you were in their lives. So why, Cable asks, do you have to wait? He says there’s a great reluctance to talk about people’s strengths while they’re alive, a reluctance he calls the “eulogy delay.”

            Most people — narcissists excepted — also have a reluctance to talk about their own excellence. Combined with the eulogy delay, the result is a continual focus on shortcomings. Many people are down on themselves, being constantly self-critical. They focus on what they’re doing wrong and spend enormous energy trying to fix their weaknesses. This self-critical attitude is often applied to others. Bosses criticise their subordinates for what they do wrong.

For decades, I’ve seen this orientation to flaws among academics when they comment on each other’s research papers. They focus on mistakes and weaknesses, saying little about strengths. No wonder so many people suffer the imposter syndrome, believing that any day others will discover that they aren’t nearly as good as imagined.

Cable’s programme

Cable shows how to identify and then focus on your strengths. To benefit from this programme, you have to undertake some tasks. Just reading his book is not enough.

The first major task is to write down times when you were at your best. I did this by selecting five categories in my life where I thought I had done well.

I can understand why some people would be reluctant to write about when they’ve been at their best. It might seem too much like self-promotion. And besides, what about all the bad times? A good part of Exceptional involves Cable trying to convince you to get past these sorts of reservations. He’s seen them all before, many times, and argues that they are misguided rationalisations.

After writing about your own highlights, the next major task is more daunting. You write letters to other people in your life telling them when they were at their best. It’s sort of like writing eulogy letters, except they’re still alive.

I knew about writing gratitude letters as a result of co-teaching a class on happiness for nearly a decade. Researchers have identified a number of different activities that make most people happier, including physical activity, relationships, optimism, forgiveness — and expressing gratitude. If, every day or every week, you stop to reflect on three things that you are thankful for, like a friendship, nice weather or listening to music, this is likely to make you happier. It’s simple and easy and remarkably effective. In the happiness class, students were asked to try out an activity shown by research to increase happiness. Many of them chose expressing gratitude.

            There’s also a more powerful method for evoking the benefits of expressing gratitude: writing a gratitude letter. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, tells about doing this. You write a letter to someone important in your life thanking them for everything they’ve been and done for you. For maximum effect, you read it to them in person.

By all accounts, this is a powerful emotional experience for both parties. However, despite knowing about the research, I had never written a gratitude letter. Cable’s programme provided both the stimulus and the rationale for writing letters of gratitude. Well, not exactly, because Cable’s task is to tell others when they’ve been at their best, which is not quite the same. But there’s a significant overlap.

Cable quotes several participants in his classes who say to write as many of these letters as you can, to people in all parts of your life, past and present: family members, friends, work colleagues, neighbours. Here’s the extra part: when you write a letter to one of these individuals saying when you’ve seen them at their best, you also ask them to reciprocate by writing to you saying when you’ve been at your best.

Then, Cable advises, don’t read the replies right away. Wait until you’ve received at least ten responses, find a quiet place and read them all. Powerful indeed.

If you have doubts about your own worth or feel down on yourself in some way, this exercise can be a way to dramatically raise your morale. Moreover, it can shake you up, helping you see better what’s worth doing.


Dan Cable

Continuing

But wait, there are several more chapters in Exceptional to read. Figuring out when you’re at your best should be more than a brief feel-good exercise. You can use the insights gained from your own reflections and from others’ comments about you to identify your signature strengths and practise using them more often.

Signature strengths, also called character strengths, are things like bravery, kindness, humility and humour. There are 24 possibilities in all. Two of mine, according to an online assessment, are creativity and curiosity, and some respondents concurred. One wrote that I “latch onto a new idea or process and stay with it. You test it, integrate it, write about it, share it in all sorts of different ways.”

            You may think that focusing on your strengths is a very self-centred sort of thing to do. However, Cable has observed that it often makes people more other-directed, using their strengths to help others, to make organisations better and to engage in campaigns to improve society.

After receiving comments from many correspondents about my strengths, I felt a sense of responsibility. It’s going to be a challenge to continue to be at my best. My feeling was just what Cable said: “Learning about your most exceptional qualities doesn’t make you arrogant and complacent; instead, it makes you humble and energized to work harder” (p. 163).

Many people take their strengths for granted. Because they seem to come easily, they aren’t valued all that much. Instead, they put more effort into fixing weaknesses. Cable argues against this tendency. He says that you can often do more by building on strengths.

Habits

The biggest challenge is ahead: changing your habits. It might sound wonderful to use your signature strengths more often and more effectively, but this requires change, and this is difficult.

Years ago, I read Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. It uses engaging stories to explain how habits are broken and formed, offering great insight. I thought the book was fabulous and then discovered that so did lots of other readers. If you can identify your signature strengths, then you can formulate and execute a plan to use them more often and consistently, and to turn doing this into a habit. Not easy but very worthwhile.

I’ve noted some but far from all of the key aspects of Cable’s programme. Should you follow it? He’s the expert at using it, having worked with over a thousand people to develop their personal highlight reels and build on them. That’s why I followed his advice. His programme has strong connections with findings from research on happiness and habits. That gives me confidence.

I think the programme will be especially valuable for anyone who has doubts about their life and where they’re going in it, for anyone who wants to build stronger connections with others important to them, and for anyone who wants to make better choices about what to do with the rest of their life. That sounds like just about everyone. However, I know that overcoming the mental resistance to the activities involved can be enormous.

Last year, one of my most valued colleagues, Mark McLelland, died. Our offices were a few doors apart and we often chatted about common interests, including defending against attacks on academic freedom. We co-supervised two PhD students. I now regret that I never wrote Mark a letter expressing everything I treasured about him.


Mark McLelland

Then I think of others who have died in recent years to whom I now wish I had written a gratitude letter. Cable is quite right about the “eulogy delay.” Henceforth I’ll continue to try to overcome it.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Be confident — but not too confident

Do you lack confidence? Are you afraid to set up a new business, embark on a new career, commit to a relationship or take up hang gliding?

Don’t worry too much about it. You might be making the right decisions. Being too confident can be worse than not being confident enough.

But how can you tell? Turn to Don A. Moore’s new book Perfectly Confident. It’s about making the best decisions.

            Moore says most popular treatments assume that more confidence is better. People just need to overcome their fears and jump in. This is true for some people and some decisions. But it can also be disastrous.

When you see a sports star making a seemingly brash prediction of winning, you might imagine that being really confident is necessary for success. After all, if you’re not confident, how can you do your best? Not so quick, says Moore. There’s actually little evidence that super-confidence improves performance. Those sports stars have worked hard and long, and may be making reasonable judgements about their chances of victory.

Overconfidence is potentially dangerous and can lead you to take unwarranted risks. If you’ve never tried base jumping, it’s better to be very cautious and prepare carefully before your first jump. Most new small businesses fail within the first year. Perhaps their owners were overconfident.

            There is evidence that most people overestimate how good they are at things. In a classic survey, 93% of US drivers said they ranked in the top half. Most young people think they are more honest than average and better than average at relationships. The reason is that people think, “I’m honest most of the time, so I’m better than average” but don’t stop to think that most other people may think the same way. Moore says the way to fix your perception of superiority is to be more specific. For example, if being a good driver is specified as never having had an accident or a ticket, then fewer people will overestimate their abilities.

There’s another side to people’s thinking about their own capabilities. When it comes to an uncommon skill, like riding a unicycle or subtracting large numbers in your head, most people underestimate their abilities. You might think, “I wouldn’t last three seconds on a unicycle” and forget to think that most other people might have the same difficulty.


Could you unicycle across China?

            One of the methods Moore recommends is to think probabilistically. Consider all possible outcomes of your decision. Consider the new business. You might guess that there’s a 10% chance of making a lot of money, 40% of making a little, 30% of losing a little and 20% of losing a lot. Just writing down the possibilities can be sobering. Overconfident people never stop to think of failure and hence can make unwise decisions. Assigning probabilities also helps in overcoming the tendency to think in terms of yes or no, success or no success.

You also need to weigh up the benefits against the costs. In setting up the business, you might be working 90-hour weeks. This can be exhilarating but it might also be exhausting. You should factor these possibilities into your decision. Vital here is the idea of opportunity cost. All that money and those hours of effort might be invested in some other activity. Thinking in terms of different possible outcomes and opportunity costs can help counter overconfidence.

A confident scholar?

Many times in my career as an academic I’ve had to make decisions about whether to write an article or a book and then, after writing it, where to submit it. When I was first starting out, I’d write an article and then try to figure out where to submit it. Before long, I learned this was not a good strategy, because sometimes there was no suitable outlet. Moore would say I was overconfident and needed to consider the possibility of wasting effort, at least for the purpose of publication, which is crucial for aspiring academics.

These days, before writing an article, I think about where I plan to send it, and the likelihood of it being accepted. Sometimes there is a high-prestige journal that I think could be worth trying. I might estimate the chance of acceptance as 5 percent, one out of twenty. I have to weigh up the effort of tailoring the article to this journal and going through the admission process, along with associated delays, against the 95% chance of rejection.

In many cases, I decide not to bother with the high-status journal and go straight to one where the odds are better. This points to another factor to consider when writing an article: are there fall-back options should my first-choice outlet reject my submission?

Another decision is whether to undertake a PhD. When I did my own PhD, aeons ago, I didn’t think about failure. I took a risk without considering the full range of outcomes. Now, as a potential PhD supervisor, I regularly talk to prospective students. They need to make several decisions: whether to pursue a PhD, what university to attend, what topic and what supervisor. It’s a big decision because writing a PhD thesis requires years of effort. Although about three quarters of students who’ve started with me as their supervisor have graduated, the cost for those who don’t finish can be large: they could have been doing something else with their time and energy. On the other hand, a student can acquire skills and obtain satisfactions along the way, a sort of consolation prize for non-finishers.

            Therefore, in advising prospective students, I point to the large and sustained commitment required and note that most PhD graduates do not obtain academic posts. After reading Moore’s book, in future I’ll recommend that prospective students assign probabilities to different outcomes. That will help counter overconfidence.

For students who are part way through their theses, a more common problem is under confidence. The challenge seems enormous. It can be helpful to have the courage to continue, knowing that most students, including most of those who finish, go through periods of self-doubt.

A confident whistleblower?

Another area where Moore’s recommendations are relevant is whistleblowing. Thinking from the point of view of managers in organisations, he says that being results-oriented is not necessarily a good thing. Being results-oriented often means rewarding employees for success and penalising them for failure.

This sounds logical but it misses an important consideration: sometimes it is wise to take risks even though some of them don’t pan out. If developing a new app costs $1 million and has only a 10% chance of success, it’s still a good bet if success means a return of $100 million. But when employees are penalised for failure, they won’t take risks like this. Apple never would have developed spectacularly profitable devices if it hadn’t supported risk-taking with positive expected returns.

Imagine being a manager and one of your employees reports possibly fraudulent activities in the organisation. You investigate and discover your employee is wrong. Does this warrant a penalty? Moore would say that this whistleblower should be encouraged even if the report was wrong, at least if there’s a reasonable chance it might have been right.

In practice, employees who make allegations of wrongdoing are often penalised even when they’re right, especially when the wrongdoing implicates higher management for being involved or for tolerating it. That’s another story.

            The whistleblower, treated badly, then turns to a watchdog agency such as an ombudsman or anti-corruption agency or court. A good idea? Moore’s advice would be to consider all possible outcomes and assign them probabilities, and also to consider other options. Few whistleblowers do this. They want vindication and assume that some higher authority will provide it. They do not investigate the success rate of previous whistleblowers, which can be abysmal. Because they know they are right, they do not consider the possibility that justice will not be done, and that many previous whistleblowers also knew they were right but failed in their efforts to be vindicated.

Moore recommends learning from experience. When you have a decision to make, assign probabilities to potential outcomes and consider alternative courses of action. When you learn the outcome, go back to your probabilities and figure out whether you may have been too confident or not confident enough. Gradually, over time, you can improve your skill in predicting outcomes.


Don’t just jump in! Learn to predict outcomes.

            This is good advice for many purposes. However, when you’re faced with a decision that is likely to be made just once in a lifetime — like doing a PhD or blowing the whistle — then it’s sensible to learn as much as possible about what others have done in the same situation. Why make your own mistakes when you can learn from others’ mistakes? By undertaking this sort of investigation, you minimise the risk of making a wrong decision. And when things don’t work out, remember that you still might have made the right decision. If you are successful in everything you try, you probably aren’t taking enough risks!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

 

Indexing your book

You’ve just written a book and checked the proofs. Now it’s time to prepare the index. How do you go about it?

One option is for someone else to do it. There are some talented indexers available. This is easy for the author, but there’s one catch. Nearly always, you as the author know your material better than anyone. (If you don’t, maybe you’re a celebrity and didn’t write the book with your name listed as the author. In this case, you might learn something by doing the index.)

In my experience, the person most likely to rely on the indexes in my books is me! A few years after writing a book, I want to check a point or a name for something new I’m writing, but I can’t remember the details. So I turn to the index of one of my books.

Back to your book. Let’s assume you’ve decided to prepare the index yourself. How do you start? It’s worth looking at indexes in a variety of books, especially ones similar to yours. You can also read advice on preparing indexes; there is some good material available.

I once read that indexes are typically between 2% and 10% of the length of a book. You can aim for a minimal index, 2% or less, or a comprehensive one, closer to 10%. Sometimes the publisher will impose constraints, for example on the number of pages allowed. By using very small print, you can pack in more entries.

You as the author know your own style and your work habits, and it’s important to find an approach that suits you. What I’ll do here is describe a couple of the ways I’ve gone about indexing in case you might find a useful idea or two. I’ll use examples from my latest book, Official Channels; you can download it for free and see the index for yourself.

Here are the first few entries in the index.

academic exploitation, 81–83, 128–29, 133
acknowledgement practice. See plagiarism
activists, 59, 101–5, 187–89. See also political jiu-jitsu
Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17, 166

A page-by-page approach

Before word processing, indexing involved going through the text page by page, adding entries to a handwritten list. Word processing makes things easier. Here’s one way to proceed. Go through the text page by page. When you see a word that should be in the index, make an entry in your index list, in no particular place. If you see that the word is relevant for several pages, include those pages, but otherwise don’t worry about whether you’ve already included the word. When you get to the end of the book, put everything in alphabetical order. You’ll have to amalgamate entries with the same word. For example, after putting entries into alphabetical order, you might find:

Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17
Acton, Lord, 166

Just put them together to form

Acton, Lord, 30, 116–17, 166

What a computer can’t do well

Assuming you have an electronic copy of your book as it will appear, you can use a computer program that automatically compiles a concordance, which lists every mention of every word. The problem is that the program has no knowledge of what your book is about, so it chooses words without any understanding. That means there’s still a lot of work to do. Eliminating words such as “the” from the list is easy. However, there are two other problems.

Let’s say the program lists Zambia in your index. Did you really discuss Zambia? If you said, “Every country from Albania to Zambia,” then Zambia is not a useful entry. Someone using the index would expect that you’ve said something specific about Zambia. Maybe you did, just not at this particular page.

Suppose the program gives a list of page numbers for “community.” You did discuss the role of the community in your book, but you also used the word in a generic sense, for example, “In this community …” A useful index will include only those pages where there’s a substantive attention to the concept of community. This means that you need to check every instance where you used the word and eliminate the unhelpful instances.

Finding every use of a word is one thing. An index has added value when it includes relevant pages where you didn’t even use a word. Suppose you’re writing about torture. You might have some pages about sensory deprivation where you don’t use the word torture, but it’s useful to include those pages.

Some indexes stick to words found in the text but give little information about the connections between the words. This is where the author, or a highly knowledgeable indexer, can provide guidance, especially using See and See also.

bill of rights. See First Amendment

In my book, I do not discuss the US bill of rights, but do discuss one important part of it, the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Using See does not necessarily imply that the bill of rights is the same as the First Amendment; it just gives an indication of where to look for something relevant to the bill of rights.

courts, 13, 23, 86–87, 109–10, 156–57. See also defamation; First Amendment; law; official channels

See also points to related topics. If I’m trying to think of the First Amendment but can’t remember the name, maybe I’ll think of courts or the law. Under entries for “courts” and “law,” the First Amendment is listed after See also. Unlike the bill of rights, I actually discuss courts, so those page numbers are included.

A skim-and-check approach

After indexing quite a few of my books, I found a method that works well for me. There’s one important requirement: I have a pdf of the entire book. It’s most convenient if page 1 of the book is page 1 of the pdf.

I start by going through the book from page 1. Typically there are one to five entries on each page, though this can vary considerably. On page 5, for example, I discuss the whistleblowing case of Vince Neary, so I begin an entry for him.

Neary, Vince, 5

It’s more than a passing reference: I discuss Vince’s case for several pages. So I look forward to see how long this is.

Neary, Vince, 5–10


Vince Neary

There’s also an entry for State Rail, about which Vince blew the whistle, and “whistleblowing” as a general topic. I add these to my index file, in alphabetical order.

In the text, I say that Vince had come to Australia from England. Should I include “England” in the index? Perhaps, for a very comprehensive index, or maybe if I discuss other individuals from England. But in this book, I don’t discuss England as a country, so I don’t include it in the index.

Another issue: State Rail, for which I’ve created an entry, is a government organisation in the Australian state of New South Wales, commonly abbreviated NSW. Should I include an entry for NSW, with a See cross-reference from “New South Wales”? I know that later in the book I have lengthy treatments of two other NSW organisations. So it would be reasonable to include “NSW” in the index. However, I don’t actually say anything specifically about the state of NSW, for example the population, the government or the climate. Because of this, I decide not to include “NSW” in the index. This is the sort of decision that determines how long the index becomes.

There are numerous decisions of this sort in any index. Should a word be included? What cross-references should be listed? Making decisions requires mental effort. This is why indexing is not a mechanical process — or at least shouldn’t be a mechanical process, if the index is to be really useful. This is also why I don’t work on the index for long stretches of time. An hour per day is plenty. That way I keep fresh, and on the following day my mind has processed some of the issues I had confronted.

To keep everything on the screen, I use two columns and a small font. I keep adding entries and adding page numbers to existing entries until reaching the end of the book. Through this skim stage, I’m not too worried about being comprehensive. The main thing is to pick up all significant topics.

Next I glance through the index to pick up anomalies and start adding See and See also cross-references. Then I start through the index, searching the book pdf for each word or phrase. Proper names are the easiest. One of my entries is Lord Acton. I search the pdf for Acton, noting the pages where it appears. If I picked up all instances in going through the text, the pdf search will find all those instances. Sometimes, though, I missed an instance or incorrectly typed a page number.

For some entries, I don’t want to list every mention in the text. Many of the case studies in my book are Australian, so when I search the pdf for “Australia” there are a lot of hits. If I listed every one, there would be so many pages that the entry would be useless. No one wants to look at 50 or 100 different pages to find what they’re looking for. So I only include those pages where Australia is discussed, not just mentioned. Also, I have considerable discussions about several Australian organisations, for example Whistleblowers Australia. I add “See also Whistleblowers Australia” to the entry and don’t include the pages for Whistleblowers Australia under “Australia” unless there’s a comment about Australia as a country. The result:

Australia, 19, 22–26, 37, 43–47, 77–78, 119, 168–69, 172–75, 179–81. See also ASIC; HCCC; ICAC; Whistleblowers Australia

Because this entry has a fairly long list of pages, it is more unwieldy than most other entries. But it’s still more helpful than if I had listed every page where the word Australia appears. As well, the word “Australia” is not part of the name of the HCCC or ICAC. These are organisations in Australia, so the See also reference goes beyond a simple cross-reference to the word “Australia.”

Next consider a more challenging entry, discussed earlier:

courts, 13, 23, 86–87, 109–10, 156–57. See also defamation; First Amendment; law; official channels

I searched the pdf for the word “court” and decided to list some but not all pages where the word appears. Sometimes in the text I listed several examples of official channels — “grievance procedures, ombudsmen, anti-corruption agencies, and courts.” This sort of reference to courts isn’t worth including in the index because I haven’t said anything much about courts. It’s only when there is some substantive comment about courts that I want to include page numbers.

Along the way, I thought about other areas where courts are regularly involved, leading to See also references to defamation and the First Amendment. Courts are a type of official channel, so there’s a See also reference to official channels. Then, I thought, courts are intimately bound up with the law. At that stage I didn’t even have an entry for law. So I searched the pdf for all mentions, going through the same winnowing process, leading to this:

law, 33, 200–1. See also courts; First Amendment; injustice; official channels; SLAPPs
     and crusades, 44
     defamation, 24–25, 176, 179
     and HCCC, 229
     and myth system, 37–38
     and operational code, 38, 46
     serving power, 33
     whistleblowing, 19, 22–26, 28, 42–43, 45–48

In this entry, I list pages where I discuss law in general at the outset (law, 33, 200–1) and then have sub-entries for when law is part of a discussion of specific topics. Note how these are in alphabetical order in a peculiar way, with the main word potentially either before or after “law”. For example, the first item on the list, “and crusades,” is connected as “law and crusades” whereas the second item, “defamation,” is connected as “defamation law.” The “and” is not taken into account in forming the alphabetical order.

The final sub-entry in this list, “whistleblowing,” is connected to “law” as “whistleblowing law.” Technically, it would be more appropriate to refer to “whistleblower law.” However, elsewhere in the index I made a major entry for “whistleblowing,” and for the purposes of the index it seemed to me unnecessarily discriminating to have separate entries for “whistleblowing” and “whistleblower.” Perhaps on another day I might have chosen differently.

For this index, I laid out the complex entries using the format above. Another option is:

law, 33, 200–1; and crusades, 44; defamation, 24–25, 176, 179; and HCCC, 229; and myth system, 37–38; and operational code, 38, 46; serving power, 33; whistleblowing, 19, 22–26, 28, 42–43, 45–48. See also courts; First Amendment; injustice; official channels; SLAPPs

This format is more compact, and I’ve used it in the past. However, it is not quite as convenient to read.

After completing a draft of the index, it is worthwhile looking through it all again, noting any obvious problems. It is definitely worth checking the alphabetical order. If you use a sort function, it may not result in an order that you want.

There are a few complications in arranging entries in alphabetical order. Consider these two entries:

Whistleblowers Australia, 2, 5, 9, 14–16, 19–20, 52–54, 236–37
Whistleblower’s Survival Guide, 19–20

I’ve ignored the apostrophe for the purposes of alphabetical order, but my sort function put the two entries in reverse order.

Then there are numbers:

Ferguson, Adele, 172–75
5th Pillar, 69
First Amendment, 175–81

I’ve included “5th Pillar” as if it were spelled “Fifth Pillar.” You might prefer to put numbers at the beginning, before letters.

For “#MeToo,” I ignored the #:

medical dominance, 225–27
#MeToo, 114–15
Milošević, Slobodan, 166–67

Then there are titles with indefinite articles:

political jiu-jitsu, 144–52. See also backfire
The Politics of Nonviolent Action, 145
power, 27–29

I could have written the book entry as Politics of Nonviolent Action, The, 145. There are rules for most of these sorts of issues. I usually follow the rules because they are designed to make things consistent and easy, but sometimes I use my own judgement. Given that I’m the one likely to use my index more than anyone else, I want it to be convenient for me.

Ideally, you should find someone to check your index. Spots checks would involve looking at random pages, seeing words or topics, and seeing whether the index includes the words or topics with those pages. Though I can’t remember ever asking anyone to check my indexes, it’s a worthwhile precaution. A friend told me about a book by a well-known author for which the page numbers listed in the index were in disarray, with few of them correct. How could this happen? Imagine that you accidentally use a version of the text with the wrong page numbers — even just an extra paragraph added early in the book could cause subsequent pages to be changed — or the publisher adds a foreword and renumbers all the subsequent pages. Not a pleasant thought.

When preparing an index, sometimes I wish that I could rewrite aspects of the book. The index alerts me to inconsistent uses of words, of words that are overused, of repetitions in the text, and of important concepts that I’ve not addressed. Preparing the index offers a perspective on what you’ve written that may be slightly different from what you gained from the writing and proofreading. If you gain insights from the index, write them down for later. It’s possible you’ll prepare a second edition of your book!

Is there a politics of indexing, in other words does indexing reflect the exercise of power? Any book has a politics in this sense. It’s your way of making sense of something, and in doing this you make assumptions and give a partial perspective via the words you use and don’t use. The index reflects the book’s politics, namely its perspective, and sometimes highlights or accentuates it. Does your index include emotive words such as abuse or exploitation? Does it include contentious topics?

If there’s a book about the politics of indexing, it would be fascinating to look at its index.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries and Jason MacLeod for valuable comments on drafts.

Natural talent and beyond

A lot of people believe in natural talent. They believe that some individuals have a genetic advantage, enabling them to perform far better than others. For example, Mozart is assumed to have a natural talent for music and Einstein for physics, and there are numerous star athletes whose performance seems so fantastic that they must be genetic freaks.

Researcher Anders Ericsson challenged this belief. With two colleagues, he studied violinists at a violin academy in Berlin. They divided the students into three groups: the most highly accomplished, those least accomplished and those in between. They then asked students how much violin practice they had undertaken in their lives.

If some of the violin students had natural talent, you would think that they could be in the most highly accomplished group with far less practice than others. But no, all of the top performers had put in large amounts of practice. Although the correlation between practice and performance was far from perfect, nonetheless none of the students seemed to be able to reach the highest level without thousands of hours of practice.

Furthermore, the practice needed to be of a particular type, involving students intensely concentrating on performance challenges at the edge of their abilities, under the guidance of experienced teachers. Ericsson called this “deliberate practice.” Just playing through the same easy pieces didn’t enable improvement. Deliberate practice did.

Ericsson went on to further investigate what is called “expert performance,” which refers to high-level performance in a domain where there are well-established and relatively objective criteria. Such domains include classical music, chess and competitive sports. In art, law or business, for example, measuring performance is more subjective.


Practice is essential for success in classical ballet

            Although practice may be essential for outstanding performance, lots of practice does not guarantee such performance. It is difficult to determine the quality of an individual’s practice, given that this involves the level of focus interacting with the suitability of the challenge for one’s development. One person’s ability and willingness to focus may differ quite a bit from another’s. There is still much to learn about deliberate practice.

The strong interpretation of research on expert performance is that there is no such thing as natural talent. In some sports, like basketball, inherited physical attributes such as height make a difference but, other than this, the key to high-level performance is practice.

When you learned to drive a car, you had to practise. However, most people, after they can drive competently, stop practising. After you obtained your licence, you had no need to continue to improve. You can gain experience by driving a lot, but this does not do much for your skills. If you want to learn to drive a bus or a race car, this requires additional training.

In most domains, people practise until they are competent but then use their skills without additional focused practice. This applies in sales, carpentry, nursing and indeed most occupations.

Not everyone accepts the research on expert performance: belief in natural talent is deep-seated. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m no good at maths.” Underlying such statements is an assumption that they lack natural talent and hence can never hope to achieve even a modest competence. Additionally, some researchers contest claims made by Ericsson and others who study expert performance.

In 2008, science writer Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers was published. Gladwell popularised expert performance research, including the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that to become a world-class performer in any field, it’s necessary to devote 10,000 hours to deliberate practice. Gladwell gave the example of the Beatles, who spent long hours performing in German night clubs before their breakthrough into stardom. Unfortunately, Gladwell’s account of expert performance research was flawed.

            Ericsson, in collaboration with writer Robert Pool, wrote the book Peak, published in 2016. I reviewed it at the time. Peak provides an accessible treatment of research on expert performance and its implications for a variety of endeavours. Along the way, Ericsson and Pool address Gladwell’s example of the Beatles.

They say that Gladwell had one important point right, namely that developing high-level skills requires a great amount of practice. However, contrary to Gladwell, 10,000 hours is not a special number for attaining world-class status, nor is any “rule” involved. The Beatles did indeed spend many hours performing in German nightclubs, but this was performance, not practice, and would contribute little to their skills. In any case, the Beatles never became great performers. Their most significant contribution was in song-writing, especially by Lennon and McCartney, so attention should be on the amount and quality of time that Lennon and McCartney spent becoming better song-writers.


Lennon and McCartney at work songwriting

            David Epstein is another popular writer who has addressed expert performance. In his 2013 book The Sports Gene, he explored the role of genetics in sporting eminence. It is a fascinating book, with many examples. Epstein gives an account of research on expert performance, arguing that genetic factors play a much greater role. As a counter-example to the requirement for extensive practice, Epstein describes the case of a basketball player named Donald Thomas who jumped an impressive height at his first attempt at the high jump and before long won the world championship.

Ericsson has made a special project of studying claims of elite performance without much prior practice and found all of them wanting. In Peak, Ericsson and Pool point out that Thomas had competed in the high jump in high school. Subsequently, as a basketball player, he prided himself on dunking the ball, something that involves many of the same jumping muscles and skills as the high jump. So actually he could not be considered as lacking practice relevant to high jumping.


Donald Thomas

            Having read The Sports Gene, I saw Epstein’s new book Range, and read it hoping to see how he would respond to Ericsson’s analysis. Range is an engaging account of what it takes to succeed in a variety of fields. Epstein argues that early specialisation and training may not be the best option. Instead, it is worthwhile to explore a range of activities until you find the one that best matches your interests. Range gives many revealing examples of individuals who have sampled diverse careers before finding one at which they excelled. Epstein also tells of how non-specialists can sometimes solve difficult problems that stump specialists.

Range in some ways seems to be a reply to Peak. Indeed, Epstein at various points argues that the 10,000-hour rule is relevant only for a narrow group of individuals and activities. As I read through Range, I found many valuable insights about what it takes to succeed, but also an unfortunate dismissal of insights about expert performance. It makes sense to try out different activities and then to pursue one that appeals to you. But once you’ve obtained what Epstein calls “match quality,” namely matching your interests to an endeavour, then it’s time to put in lots of practice. However, Epstein hardly mentions the effort required after finding your ideal match.

            By my reading, deliberate practice is a necessary counterpart to finding the activity you want to pursue. I asked myself, why didn’t Epstein give due acknowledge to the role of practice? Why didn’t he take on board the arguments in Peak? I can’t answer these questions, but I did make a more detailed analysis of the arguments in Range in the light of expert performance research. This has been useful for my own understanding.

To become a best-selling author, like Gladwell and Epstein, perhaps it helps to make striking and memorable claims. Few scholars are good at this: to be published in academic journals, it’s usually necessary to write in scholarly style, with citations of previous work, exhaustive details about methods and results, and commonly in indigestible prose. When scholars seek to write in a more accessible way, often they are assisted by co-authors or editors, indeed as with Ericsson and Pool’s Peak. Some popularisations are true to the underlying research but others may have misrepresentations. How can you tell the difference? There’s no easy answer. All I can suggest is that if a topic is important to you, it is worthwhile exploring some of the underlying research papers yourself, reading reviews, and looking for contrary points of view. Along the way, you’re developing your own understanding. After a few thousand hours of this exploration, you might become really good at it!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

The value of asking

It’s worthwhile learning effective ways of asking for help, and to do more asking.

Asking has a bad reputation. There’s an old saying, “It is better to give than receive.” Research shows that helping others is a reliable way to increase your happiness, but the research says little about receiving help.

In some areas, asking has become associated with marketing. Advertisers in essence ask people to become customers. Politicians ask citizens to vote for them. Large charities use professional marketers to refine their pitches. In these arenas, people need to develop resistance to those seeking their money or support, and this resistance can rub off to become negative attitudes about asking.

In an illuminating book titled Give and Take, Adam Grant describes three types of people — givers, matchers and takers — in the context of US business. Givers help others without any expectation of receiving anything in return; matchers operate on a reciprocity basis; and takers accept help but don’t give anything in return. Most people are matchers.

The normal assumption is that givers won’t get ahead. Grant argues that they can, and offers many examples of highly successful givers in business. But not all givers get ahead, because they can be taken advantage of. Grant says givers can do very well when they also look out after their own needs. He calls these “otherish givers.”

“Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.” (p. 158)

Grant presents ideas via detailed stories of individuals who have a giver style. He uses the stories to make points, supplemented by descriptions of relevant research, of which there is quite a lot. Give and Take is a highly readable book, independently of the important messages conveyed.

Adam Grant

Asking

If you care about others, then you don’t want to be a taker. But there’s still a place for asking for help, according to Wayne Baker, author of All You Have to Do Is Ask, just published. Baker has worked closely with Grant, and like Grant focuses on US businesses.

Asking others for help can make a tremendous difference to your career and your life. You might save lots of time and money by getting a tip on how to improve, a contact to a lucrative venture, or information that can save a life.

One of the techniques used by both Grant and Baker is called a reciprocity ring. Bring together a group of maybe 20 people and invite each of them in turn to make a request about something, work-related or personal, on which they need help. The more diverse the group the better, because unexpected ideas and personal connections are more likely.


Posterboard for a reciprocity ring

When takers join reciprocity rings, the public nature of the process moderates their taker tendencies. Because they want to look good to the group, they can offer valuable assistance to others. This suggests that giving, matching and taking depend not just on personal characteristics but also on the circumstances.

Baker says some ways of asking are better than others. He recommends an approach with the acronym SMART: specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound. He also gives advice on when and where to ask. He recommends accepting rejections gracefully, giving thanks for acceptances, and letting the other person know what happened in the aftermath.


Wayne Baker

I decided to examine this approach in light of a type of scholarly asking.

Checking citations

In writing an academic paper, authors usually cite various other publications. Some of these citations are important. Asking can be used to make them more accurate.

Scott Armstrong, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, was co-author of a 1977 paper about correcting for nonresponse bias in survey research, and hundreds of other authors cited this paper. Years later, Armstrong collaborated with Malcolm Wright to examine some of these citations. They found that of 50 papers that cited Armstrong’s 1977 paper, only one reported its findings correctly.


J Scott Armstrong

Wright and Armstrong recommend that researchers contact authors whose work they cite, asking them whether the citation is correct. This is most important when your results and methods rely heavily on another’s work or where you discuss it extensively.

After reading Wright and Armstrong’s paper (and writing a commentary on it), I adopted their approach myself. When I’ve discussed an author’s work, usually I send a draft of what I’ve written to the author, asking whether I’ve cited it correctly. Sometimes this isn’t possible: the author is dead or otherwise uncontactable. But in many cases it’s possible. Here’s a typical but fictional email (adapted from an actual one) written to the author of The Definitive Investigator.

Thank you for your valuable study The Definitive Investigator. I’ve been working on a book titled Official Channels. In chapter 15, I’ve discussed and quoted from your book in a short section on investigating. Could you have a look (bottom of page 230 of the pdf or page 12 of chapter 15, or search for your name) and let me know if anything needs fixing? Comments most welcome on any other part of the chapter and book.

This was written before I read Baker’s book on asking. So let’s see how well I’ve followed his SMART approach.

  • Specific. My request is quite specific: it refers to a “short section,” with details of how to find it and what I’m asking.
  • Meaningful. I’m asking the author to check what I’ve written about their work. For most authors, this is very meaningful. In fact, it’s hard to resist looking at what someone else says about your work. I’ve known academics who, when looking at a new book in their field, turn first to the bibliography to see whether their own publications are cited.
  • Action-oriented. I’ve asked the author to check what I’ve written.
  • Realistic. My request is fairly small. It doesn’t take much time to check my text and write a short email in response. In my experience, most authors respond promptly and helpfully.
  • Time-bound. I didn’t satisfy this criterion: I should have given a time frame for replying. In practice, nearly all authors who respond do so within a day or two.

I find it rewarding to make small specific requests about citations. In most cases, authors say that what I’ve said about their work is fine, which is reassuring. In a few cases, they offer corrections, which are valuable in improving the accuracy of what I’ve written. As well, a few engage with the material and send me extensive comments, often including additional references. This is highly stimulating.


Malcolm Wright

I’ve told quite a few colleagues and correspondents about the benefits of seeking feedback about citations, but nearly all seem reluctant to use this method. This brings me back to Baker’s book. In it, he offers eight reasons why people don’t like making requests, and counters each one.  He writes,

“Asking for what we need doesn’t come easily for most of us. Asking is a behavior that must be learned. It requires three steps: determining your goals and needs, translating needs into well-formulated requests, and figuring out whom (and how) to ask.” (p. 85)

In relation to checking citations, Baker’s comments are spot on: scholars are reluctant to ask and need to learn how to do it. The three steps aren’t so hard in this case: improving the accuracy of writing is the goal, requests follow the SMART formula, and cited authors are the people contacted.

In other areas, determining your goals and needs may not be so easy. If you are feeling vaguely unhappy about the way things are going, what exactly is your goal? What do you ask? Who do you ask: a family member, a friend, a counsellor, a stranger? Here’s where Baker’s advice is again valuable. Asking requires skill, and as you obtain more experience you should get better at it. And you can learn from Baker’s book. Remember the title: All you have to do is ask.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au