Challenges and Charity

Last week I took the Live Below the Line challenge. The idea is that you challenge yourself to spend no more than £5 on all food and drink for 5 days, to raise money for global poverty charities. I chose to raise money for the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), who treat neglected tropical diseases in the developing world, as they've been been judged one of the most cost-effective giving opportunities out there by GiveWell.

My food for the week

My food for the week

I took the challenge because it's a very easy way for me to raise money for an important cause that wouldn't otherwise happen. Limiting my diet for a week is a small step outside of my comfort zone that can do really quite a lot of good. I've raised over £300 in donations, which is enough to give 600 children a year of healthy life. Compared to that, my small sacrifice is completely negligible.

Despite the fact I think it's definitely a positive thing to do overall, there's something about this of challenge that still feels a bit weird to me. I wrote about this after I did the challenge last year. To quote myself: "I think it's important to realise that what we're not doing by taking this challenge is "simulating poverty" or getting any insight into what it's like to live below the poverty line in reality." The fact is that the "challenges" we undertake to raise money don't even get close to the challenges some people face every day. Reflecting on this makes me feel pretty uncomfortable.

This got me thinking more generally about this idea of "doing sponsored challenges for charity." Where exactly did this come from, and why does it work? It's kind of weird, when you think about it. Why is it that me restricting my diet for a week, or running a ridiculously long way, means that you should donate to a charity?

Perhaps it's because by undertaking a challenge, I'm demonstrating a level of commitment to the cause. I'm saying, "Look, I'm doing this really hard thing to demonstrate that I care about this cause. The least you can do is donate a few pounds." 

It can also help make the cause you're raising money for more salient and emotionally compelling in peoples' minds. Me posting pictures of my split peas and rice on facebook might make people feel more appreciative of the fact they can eat whatever they want, and so more motivated to help. Equally, if someone shaves their head to raise money for cancer research, the image of a chemotherapy patient is much more easily brought to mind.

All this makes sense given what we know about moral motivation - it's hard to be motivated to help people on the other side of the world even if we know we're suffering, when it's not right in front of us. It's just hard to connect to the cause on an emotional or gut level. Seeing someone we care about making a sacrifice, helps to evoke that emotional response, and so motivates more donations.

Part of me thinks it's great that this sponsored-challenges model works so well. Given that it can be hard to be motivated by the abstract idea of something like poverty, finding ways to motivate people to donate to important causes anyway is undeniably a good thing. What matters, at the end of the day, is that we're doing something.

At the same time, it feels like a shame if we need to run marathons and give things up to donate to charity. And sometimes it can detract from the real issue - all the focus ends up on the challenge or the person doing it, rather than the person really in need. It also seems unlikely that sponsored challenges are the most effective way to do good. If we were really focused on helping, rather than challenging ourselves, then we could probably do a lot more. 

Above all, it just strikes me as pretty ridiculous that I have such a privileged, easy life that I even have the option of "challenging myself." It's pretty amazing that I can even spend time thinking of ways to push myself outside of my comfort zone and to self-improve, whilst others are facing lives with serious challenges they can't opt out of.

I think Ben Clifford, who took the same challenge this week, puts it pretty nicely:

"What do I do with the realisation that I undervalue the experiences I have and that most of life involves a cost which is a luxury on a global scale? I'm not sure there is any completely appropriate way to respond. The most important thing for me is not to let this realisation result in inaction."


How Useful is Identity?

Identity. I've been thinking a lot lately about what this word means and how it affects our behaviour.

We all have a certain image of ourselves - beliefs about the kind of person we are. Having a strong sense of identity seems to be desirable, something that brings comfort and security . Many people seem to spend a lot of time trying to figure out who they are, what they want, and what they believe. 

And perhaps rightly so: having a strong identity certainly seems to have advantages. A clear sense of "who you are" makes it easier to connect with other similar people and groups. People with a strong identity often stand out more and are more memorable. I'd guess that the people who are most successful in life - especially people who become famous - all have pretty strong identities.

Identity also helps us to make decisions and to know how to behave. We're constantly faced with complex decisions and circumstances. With no prior beliefs about what we should do, weighing all the options and making a decision would be near impossible. Having a sense of what kind of person you are makes it much easier to decide how you should behave, and to have confidence in your choice between options. This makes decisions that would otherwise be agonising virtually effortless.

But strong identities can also be dangerous. The drive to protect your identity can be overpowering. Sometimes we can get so caught up in this that we neglect other important things: like being open-minded, truth-seeking, and kind to others. It's hard to think clearly and objectively about something that you identify strongly with, and I think this is the driving force behind a lot of conflict in the world. Paul Graham has a nice essay in which he advocates for "keeping your identity small" for this very reason - "If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible."

Another problem with identity is that once established, it  can be very hard to change. If you believe that you are a certain kind of person, you'll generally be more likely to (a) act accordingly and (b) interpret your behaviour in accordance with this belief. And of course, this just acts to strengthen your sense of identity further. So, for example, if you think of yourself as an altruistic person, you're probably more likely to seek out opportunities to help people, and to interpret your behaviour as altruistically driven. Whereas if you think of yourself as a lazy person, you're probably more likely to spend whole days watching TV in bed, and to think of times that you struggle with work as being down to laziness. 

This self-reinforcing nature of identity is a double-edged sword. For positive aspects of your identity, it can be helpful - if you believe that you're altruistic, this belief is likely to make you more altruistic. But if you have parts of your identity that aren't so rosy (and don't we all?) this kind of circularity can be quite damaging, because it makes identity very difficult to change. It's hard for the person who thinks they are lazy to change this belief, because to do so he needs to change his behaviour - which is difficult to do if you identify as lazy. This loop seems pretty tough to break out of.

So what should we do about this? Simply making your identity as small as possible doesn't seem to be the solution - what you really want to do is only keep those parts of your identity that are helpful, and discard any that hold you back.

Can we clearly distinguish between "helpful" and "unhelpful" identities? Probably not. There are some clear cases - having as part of your identity things like "being open-minded", "having a growth mindset", and "being a kind and considerate person" seem to be pretty straightforwardly useful. Identifying as someone lazy or boring or stupid seem pretty uncontroversially harmful. 

But there's a lot of middle ground - especially when it comes to identities that are tied to certain groups or ideologies - identifying as right-wing or left-wing, utilitarian or deontologist, religious or atheist. Whilst these kinds of identities can be good for connecting with those similar and help with success, they can also polarize groups and cause conflict. One solution here would be to stop using identity labels, and instead just talk about beliefs - instead of asking someone "Are you Tory/Lib Dem/Labour?", we could simply ask "Do you agree with policy x?". I personally feel quite uncomfortable labelling myself as "a" anything. I tend to shy away from these kind of identity questions when asked, and focus more on what I believe. 

The approach of focusing more on beliefs seems likely to be more time consuming. It's much easier to simply attach a rough label to someone than to discern all of their different beliefs. Perhaps this is ultimately what it comes down to - identity labels make it much easier for us to model both ourselves and other people. And whilst we can try to be careful with the identities we attach to ourselves and others, it's near impossible to abandon them altogether. 


After writing this, I also discovered two nice posts making very similar points on LessWrong that are worth reading if this seems interesting to you: Use Your Identity Carefully  and Strategic Choice of Identity.

Putting yourself out there

This week, a post I wrote on getting outside of your comfort zone was published on the blog Tiny Buddha - woo!

This in itself was a significant step outside of my comfort zone. One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was that I wanted to get better at "putting stuff out there", but felt pretty uncomfortable doing it.

There’s a certain vulnerability that comes with knowing something your ideas, thoughts or writing are available for anyone to see. Every time I publish a post, I notice a slight feeling of discomfort, verging on fear - what if no-one reads it, what if they find it boring, what if I get criticised? I also tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, and have been known to spend hours or even days agonising over whether something is good enough to publish. Sometimes this ends up being at the expense of actually publishing anything at all. This discomfort mostly seems to stem from a fear of being judged by others - and knowing that the more of yourself you make publicly available, the more opportunity to judge you others have.

I’ve come to realise lately that my discomfort here may be mostly unwarranted, and even more - that I’m probably missing out on a lot by holding back in this way. I was pretty hesitant when I first started writing, worrying that noone would be that interested in what I had to say. But I’ve had some overwhelmingly positive responses, which have led to many interesting conversations and interactions I wouldn't have had otherwise. Now every time I post something, although the same discomfort does still arise, I think about what I’m getting out of it: sharing my ideas and connecting with people, and getting more and more comfortable doing so.

I’ve gradually got more comfortable writing for my own blog, for an audience that mostly consists of people I know. The next step in putting stuff out there was then to start trying to reach out elsewhere to larger venues. This carries with it an added layer of discomfort: there’s the possibility of rejection, and an increased chance of getting a negative response. But there’s also a bigger potential upside: the potential to get a wider readership beyond my existing network and so connect with new people, and the potential new opportunities that come with that.

Putting yourself out there can be scary. But it can also be exhilarating, and it can be a great way to prompt conversations and open up new doors. So far none of my worst fears of rejection or criticism have been realised - but even if they were, I'm pretty sure I could learn from that too. I’d be interested in hearing others’ experiences with this - do you think discomfort holds you back from "putting yourself out there" - in terms of sharing things you've written, thought about, or made? What are the best ways to deal with this?

Talking to strangers

There’s something I’ve been struggling with recently: getting more comfortable talking to strangers and asking strangers questions. Reflecting on why I’ve found this so difficult made me think about whether there’s a better way to approach this whole comfort zone expansion thing. So far I've mostly been focusing on fairly big, individual challenges but it seems like at least sometimes, taking small steps might work better.

 This started a while ago after I noticed I felt pretty uncomfortable asking stupid questions. In an attempt to overcome this fear, I spoke to a friend who suggested going into shops and asking stupid questions of shopkeepers. I found this incredibly difficult to motivate myself to do, and ended up making a lot of excuses and putting it off. I did eventually have some success: the highlight being going into Poundland and asking a shop assistant how much different items cost. She was not amused and gave me a very dismissive reaction - "Everything's a pound. We're in Poundland" - perhaps my joke wasn’t as original as I’d hoped, or my naivety wasn’t as convincing as I thought. Despite this small success, I haven’t done much since then, and the thought of asking deliberately stupid questions of strangers still fills me with discomfort and dread.

I tried various different ways of increasing my motivation to do this. I tried making explicit commitments to other people to do it. This didn’t work: it seemed I was happier admitting I’d failed than actually doing the uncomfortable thing. I tried taking this commitment a step further and started using Beeminder to track asking stupid questions (I've mentioned it before, but ifyou don’t know what Beeminder is, it’s basically a motivational tool which allows you to track your progress towards a goal whilst charging you money if you go off track. For what it’s worth, I’m currently writing this blog post because Beeminder is forcing me to :) ). But this didn’t work, either: I derailed. It seemed I’d rather lose a small amount of money than actually have to do the uncomfortable thing.

I realised that if my attempts were repeatedly failing even when I increased the odds, maybe I needed to rethink what I was aiming to do. Why did this thing actually make me uncomfortable?  When I thought about it, there were actually a number of smaller things underlying my aversion to asking stupid questions. There was a fear of being perceived as stupid, sure. But there was also some discomfort in talking to or approaching strangers full-stop. An additional worry about annoying people. Plus generally feeling uncomfortable doing things that aren’t socially normal or expected. If I felt uncomfortable even approaching a stranger and asking them a normal question, or asking them how they were, it’s no wonder I felt uncomfortable asking a question that might be perceived as weird or annoying or stupid. Maybe it was a mistake trying to run before I could even walk.

I think there are two pretty good reasons in favour of taking small steps when it comes to expanding your comfort zone:

1. Small steps build success spirals

One thing that I’ve learnt from my attempts to expand my comfort zone so far is that it’s very like any other motivational problem. There’s some long-term goal you want to achieve, but it requires you to do something you don’t want to in the short term. And one thing that seems really important for motivation in general is having a sense of self-efficacy: believing that you can do it. If you’re feeling demotivated, one suggestion I’ve heard a lot and personally found really useful is to set yourself a really small task that you can’t possibly fail at. This gives you a sense of achievement, no matter how small, which helps you to continue - a strategy known as success spirals which is a really useful way to achieve your goals or build habits.

Although I know that this is a really useful motivational tool in general, until recently I hadn’t thought about applying it in this context. Instead, I’ve been doing what any expert in motivation would immediately tell me is a bad idea: setting big goals, which I then often fail to achieve, and feeling demotivated. I don’t think I’ve really started building success spirals, and as a result I think my sense of self-efficacy is still pretty low: despite the fact I’ve successfully done some uncomfortable things, in general I don’t feel that confident in my ability to do more. Focusing more on doing small out-of-my-comfort-zone things on a daily basis that I know are achievable might be a much better tactic than trying to do something big every couple of weeks.

2. Small steps might actually help more in the long run

Another problem I’ve found is that I’ll set myself a large(ish) challenge - like going into the free weights room or eating out alone - manage it once, but then never do it again. And although this gives me a sense of achievement (and something to write a blog post about!), in the long run I’m not sure my comfort zone has actually expanded that much. I might feel slightly less uncomfortable about eating out alone having done it once, but I still feel a pretty strong aversion towards doing it. What’s actually helped more than that one meal out has been the small things I’ve been doing to get more comfortable being alone - when I’m out with a friend and they go to the bathroom, or I’m waiting for someone, I’ve been trying out just sitting there without checking my phone or reading anything. Because I’ve repeated this small thing a number of times, I think it’s actually contributed a lot more to changing my discomfort levels than that one big challenge has.


These, to me, seem like pretty compelling reasons to try the “small steps, not massive leaps” approach to getting outside of my comfort zone. So I’ve just started beeminding my “asking questions” challenge again, but relaxed the conditions somewhat - any kind of question-asking or conversation-making with a stranger that I wouldn’t normally do counts. I’m already feeling more positive about my progress, and once this gets easy, I’ll move on to more challenging things.

Don’t get me wrong: the big challenges can definitely help too - especially when it comes to proving to yourself that something isn’t as bad or scary as you think. In some circumstances, throwing yourself in the deep end might be a good idea. But only if you can do it. If it’s a horrible experience or you drown, you’re not going to learn to swim and you’re going to be put off further attempts.

Why Give Things Up?

For the past two weeks, I decided to stop wearing makeup.

A friend recently suggested that this might be a good way to push myself out of my comfort zone. Wearing makeup is something I normally do without thinking about it much, a part of my routine I don’t really question. I do it because it makes me feel good, and on the whole I think there’s nothing wrong with putting effort into your appearance. But it was when I realised that I felt like I needed to be made up to feel attractive, that I realised it might be a good idea to try going without it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried giving something up that I normally take for granted - over the past few years I’ve experimented with giving various things up, mostly dietary changes. I’ve (temporarily) given up alcohol, caffeine, sugar and gone fully vegan.

Reflecting on these different experiences made me think about the benefits of “going without” something in general. It struck me that by pure coincidence this week marks the start of Lent - a time during which Christians typically fast or give up luxury items. But I also know many non-Christians who have, at one point or another, decided to give something up for Lent - who clearly are doing it for some reason other than out of respect for religious tradition. So why do we give things up, and what can we gain from doing so?

What’s the benefit of giving things up?

Often when we think about giving things up we think of trying to eliminate harmful activities from our lives - drinking, smoking, eating things that are bad for us. But I don’t think this needs to be the only motivation for going without. In every case where I have given something up, I have ended up reintroducing it into my life in one way or another. I don’t see this as a failure, so clearly my aim was something other than to completely avoid it.

So if giving things up doesn’t necessarily always mean eliminating harmful activities from our life, what’s the benefit?

Giving things up helps us to reflect on things we normally do without thinking. In doing so, this gives us the space to ask why we do that thing at all, whether we want to continue doing it, and under what circumstances.

Often it’s helpful to give something up not as a means to eliminating it from our life, but because it is something we do mindlessly and so we want to reassess our usage of it. Things that we do without thinking needn’t necessarily be bad for us - in most cases, they at least have some benefits to our lives - or we wouldn’t have started doing them in the first place! But by giving these things up for a period, we get the opportunity to think about why we started doing them at all, what downsides we might be unaware of, and how much we want to continue doing them in the future.

I didn’t stop wearing makeup because I thought it was bad for me and I wanted to stop doing it forever. I stopped because I realised that I was doing it without really thinking about whether I wanted to, why I was doing it, and when I wanted to wear makeup. At the end of the two weeks, I don’t feel like I never want to wear makeup again, but I feel like I have a better understanding of why I wear it when I do. This definitely makes me likely to wear less makeup and wear it less often, because I’ve realised that in many contexts I don’t really have the reason to wear it that I thought I did.

A similar thing happened when I gave up alcohol. I realised that I’d often been drinking at social events without even thinking about whether I wanted a drink - it had just become a default, a habitual action. Sometimes I’d have a few drinks and afterwards think - I didn’t even enjoy that, why did I do it? After not touching alcohol for 6 months during my undergraduate degree, I didn’t feel like I never wanted to drink again - but I did start to much more consciously reflect on whether I actually wanted a drink in any given situation, and why I was doing it overall.

Giving things up helps make us aware of any possible benefits of not having the thing, that we might have been oblivious to otherwise. When I gave up drinking, I was suddenly more aware of how great not feeling tired and hungover the day after a night out was - and how much money I saved. Not wearing makeup encouraged me to take even better care of my skin because I couldn’t hide spots or blemishes. Without caffeine my energy levels felt much more constant throughout the day. If I hadn’t thought about these things, I’d definitely have thought about these benefits less.

Giving things up tends to make us appreciate them more. This, I think, is related to the fact that when we give something up we reflect more on why we do it - and so reflect more on what benefits it brings us. It’s surprisingly easy to habituate to things, even those that bring us a lot of pleasure, to the extent that they become quite neutral. Because I was so used to putting makeup on every day, it had stopped feeling like a nice thing to do to make an effort. Equally, if you drink caffeine or alcohol more regularly, you quite literally adjust to their effects more. One of the nicest things about giving something up, I find, is how much more you appreciate it when you choose to have it again. Absence really does (tend to) make the heart grow fonder.

Giving things up often forces us to change our routine or habits in a way that opens us up to new possibilities. This is something I really like about experimenting with my diet, for example - I quite enjoy restricting my diet in various ways because it makes me think more imaginatively about what to cook, rather than sticking to the same recipes.

There’s also just something empowering about proving to yourself that you don’t need something. A big incentive for me giving up alcohol was that I wanted to prove to myself that I could still have fun and be sociable without drinking. I gave up caffeine because I wanted to know that I could get through the day with enough energy without a cup of coffee. I stopped wearing makeup because I wanted to show myself that I could feel attractive and good about myself without having to paint a face on every morning. None of this means that these things don’t still have benefits and I’m not going to use them sometimes. But I like knowing that I am choosing to use these things rather than feeling that I need them. Now if I have to drive to a party I know I can still have a great time without drinking. If I don’t have time for a coffee in the morning I’m not worried that the whole morning is going to be a struggle. If I stay at a friend’s house and forget my makeup it’s no big deal.


Giving something up that you ordinarily take for granted, or feel like you need, is actually a really good way to step outside of your comfort zone. Although it might not be the kind of thing you first think of when “going outside your comfort zone” is mentioned - it’s not public speaking, or bungee jumping, or embarrassing in any way - it means changing some part of your routine or life in a way that can feel a bit scary or uncomfortable. This can help you to rethink why you do the things you usually do without thinking, make more conscious decisions in future, and open you up to new possibilities.


Eating Out Alone

Last week, I went to a restaurant in the evening and ate dinner alone.

Different people I’ve spoken to have had different reactions to this as a challenge. To some, it’s nothing - “I’ve done that loads!”. But to others, it’s a pretty daunting idea, and I was definitely in this latter camp. Eating out alone has been on my list of things to do ever since I started this blog. But it wasn’t until a friend told me that she wanted to try this challenge too, and we both committed to one another to doing it, that it actually happened.


The hardest part was probably walking into the restaurant and asking the waitress for a “table for one, please.” But I did it with a smile in my face and what was hopefully a confident air - rather than a “I’m really sad to be alone and I want you to take pity on me” one. When she asked me if I’d rather sit at a table “out of the way around the corner” (is it just me or was this blatantly implying I might be ashamed and so want to hide myself?!) or in the middle of the main part of the restaurant, I told her the main part of the restaurant was just fine, thank you. Sitting in a corner where no-one could see me felt like a bit of a cop-out.

I’d brought a book and a notepad with me as a kind of safety blanket, in case I felt really uncomfortable and wanted something to do. It’s amazing how difficult it can to just be alone - to just sit or stand in the presence of other people, and not do anything. I’ve become more aware recently of how even when I’m waiting for a friend, or I’m out with someone and they go to the bathroom, I feel a compulsion to get my phone out and play with it. I’ve been trying to get out of this habit, by letting myself simply sit and look around, or think, whilst I’m waiting - and as I do it more, finding it becomes less and less uncomfortable. So when it came to having dinner, even though I had my book in my bag, I decided to leave it there, and just sit. I had a nice view close to the window, and I sat and watched the street. I sat and I paid much closer attention to both my thoughts and to my food than I normally ever would. I realised how rare it was that I just sat for any reasonable period of time doing nothing, and resolved to do this more often in future.

One of the best things about just sitting there with no distractions was that it gave me the opportunity to pay more attention and explore any feelings of discomfort as they arose.

Sitting there and focusing on my feelings of discomfort, I realised that a lot of them were associated with thoughts of the form “What are the people around me thinking of me?”. I felt discomfort asking the waitress for a table because my mind was predicting her feeling sorry for me, thinking I must have no-one else to eat with. The discomfort arose again when someone new would come into the restaurant and sit near to me, anticipating that they must be thinking similar thoughts. It was only as I started to consider alternative ways in which people might interpret my dining alone - they might think I was visiting town alone, and meeting someone later, or that I was simply a confident person who enjoyed dining alone - that my discomfort lessened.

“It doesn’t matter what other people think of you”

It’s much easier said than done for most of us to simply “stop caring what other people think.” We probably don’t want to completely stop thinking about how others might perceive us, anyway, as there are plenty of situations in which an awareness of this is useful. If you’re preparing for a job interview, or a first date, it’s probably well worth considering how you’re going to come across. Caring what others think makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: for our ancestors, being accepted into a group was probably crucial for survival.  Thinking about how others perceive us also goes hand in hand with thinking how the things we do might make others feel, and being sensitive to those feelings.

Rather than simply stopping caring what others think, we want to be able to identify when worrying too much about what others think is causing us undue discomfort or holding us back, and stop doing it in those cases.

So how do we do this? There are two problems here: first separating the worth-caring cases from the not-worth-caring cases, and then figuring out how to not-care in the not-worth-caring cases. Here are my two cents on both, but would love to hear others’!

1. Figuring out when it’s not worth caring

The first step is just noticing when you’re worrying what other people, or someone else, thinks of you. Often these kinds of thoughts arise and pass without us properly acknowledging them, manifesting themselves as a vague feeling of discomfort.

If you can begin to notice yourself having these thoughts, the next step is to subject it to some investigation.

First try to break down exactly what you’re worried about: who exactly are you worrying about thinking badly of you, and what exactly are you worried they might be thinking?

Next ask if this specific person thinking this specific thing is actually likely to cause anything bad to happen. Imagine the scenario in which the person thinks the thing you’re scared of, and then try to imagine all the possible bad consequences of that thought.

  • Is this someone with whom you have an important relationship that could be affected?

  • Is this someone with whom you’d like to have a relationship, which might be threatened?

  • Could this person thinking this thing spread to other people thinking the same thing, in a way that might end up harming your reputation, opportunities, or relationships?

If the answer to all of the above questions is no, and there are no other bad immediate consequences you can think of, as a rule of thumb it seems pretty unlikely that you should worry much what that person thinks.

2. Managing to not care

Ok, but as I acknowledged before, it’s all very well saying you shouldn’t care what someone thinks - much harder to actually stop yourself from caring. The best remedy I can think of this is something similar to exposure therapy for overcoming fears. The problem is that even though you know rationally that it makes no difference what this person thinks, your gut still thinks it does. So what you need to do is convince your gut that nothing bad is going to happen - and the best way to do that is by repeatedly doing things that make you worry what others think, and proving to your gut that nothing bad ever happens. (And if something bad does, you’ve learned that your gut was actually right, which is also useful!)

In my case, I was worried about a waitress and some other people dining in a restaurant thinking I was a weirdo who had no friends. When I thought about it, I realised that even if they did think this nothing bad would happen - these people were unlikely to be people I was going to have important relationships with, nor were they likely to influence others with these thoughts. I still intuitively felt myself wondering if they were judging me, but the longer I sat there with no-one looking at me weirdly or saying anything to me at all, the less I worried about this. I’m pretty sure if I started going to restaurants alone on a weekly basis I’d quickly become vastly more comfortable than I am now.

Make Yourself Accountable

Back in September, I said I was going to try and do something outside of my comfort zone once a week and write about it. I hoped that by making this commitment online, and promising to share my experiences, this would be enough to motivate me to try challenges I’d back away from otherwise. And whilst it certainly has pushed me to do more of these things, it hasn’t quite done so as much as I’d hoped, yet. It turns out that my incentives not to do really uncomfortable things are just really strong - and the incentives I’d tried to build in the opposite direction weren’t strong enough to combat this.

I realised what I really needed was someone holding me personally accountable. There’s a huge difference between vaguely writing on the internet that you plan to do something, and committing to a specific individual to do a specific thing at a certain time, and having them check up on you that you did it. The second is just vastly more motivating, because there are actual consequences if you fail to do the thing you said you would.

So I’ve started asking friends to hold me accountable for doing specific challenges I want to do, and so far it’s definitely increased my motivation. Things I’ve promised so far including asking weird or stupid questions in shops, and eating out alone, which I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks.

I’ve also realised that involving other people in my challenges has more benefits than increasing my motivation. First, it’s allowed me to start discussing what makes me uncomfortable, and brainstorming ideas for challenges with other people - which is both fun and incredibly useful. I’ve been surprised at how difficult it is to figure out exactly what things make me uncomfortable and why, and how to design appropriate challenges - bouncing ideas around with other people about this really helps.

Second, I’ve also started trying out doing some joint challenges - where I not only commit to someone else, but we in fact commit to one another to do something we both find uncomfortable. This is really great because (a) I’m encouraging my friends to face the things they find uncomfortable, too - so two people benefit rather than one, and (b) we can then share our experiences with one another and find out more about what makes different people uncomfortable. If I want to really understand the limitations of staying within our comfort zones, it seems really useful to collect data on other peoples’ experiences, not just my own!

I’m also now beeminding the number of blog posts I write as an added commitment device - at the moment this means I have to write a post every other week or I lose money. (For those who don’t know beeminder, it’s an awesome website that allows you to track your progress towards a goal visually whilst also motivating you by charging you money if you go off track - highly recommend it!). If this isn’t enough to motivate me, another option would be to start committing larger sums of money to individuals - last week I almost ended up paying my boyfriend £100 for failing a challenge...

Want to help or join me? If you’re reading this and you either:

1. Have a challenge you think would be good for me to do, you’d like to hear about me doing, and can hold me accountable to actually doing, or

2. Have a challenge you would like to do yourself, but struggle to motivate yourself to do, and would like to do together, us holding one another accountable,

then please get in touch!

Noticing progress - helpful or harmful?

This post was originally going to be about how noticing that you've made progress is a really useful motivational habit when it comes to expanding your comfort zone (and of course more generally). But whilst awareness of progress can sometimes be motivating, sometimes it seems that progress can have the opposite effect: we take it as an excuse to lie back and relax, often for longer than is beneficial. This made me think about how achievement and progress affect our motivation generally, and how this has applied to my own experiences challenging myself over the past few months. When is tracking progress helpful, and when might it actually be counterproductive?

When noticing progress helps

Last week, I gave two talks about work I did last year with 80,000 Hours (one at Warwick University introducing the organisation, the second at Cambridge University talking about some research I did on job satisfaction.)

I realised afterwards that I’ve really improved at public speaking - both in terms of my actual performance and my confidence. Less than a year ago the thought of giving these talks would have made me nervous weeks in advance, but now I’m really only nervous just beforehand. My mind used to freeze and I used to rush through talks at lightning speed, but now I know I’m managing to speak more naturally and clearly. The positive feedback I got - from other people, but even more my sense of accomplishment and achievement - felt great, and really encouraging. I now feel more motivated to push myself to speak publicly and improve further than I did before.

Intuitively it makes sense that realising you’ve progressed would be motivating. Achievement, quite simply, feels good, so we’d expect a feeling of progress to reinforce the behaviour that led to it in the first place - i.e. motivate you to progress further. If you have some large goal in mind (say, being comfortable talking in front of large audiences!), realising you’re closer to that goal than you were before also acts as evidence that you can improve, and so progress even further, which can also be motivating. This is supported by a body of research into the psychology of motivation, which suggests that making progress or “small wins” is the single most important factor for motivation, and that a sense of self-efficacy is also crucial.

When noticing progress harms  

On the other hand, it seems like sometimes we also use progress as an excuse to lie back and relax. I’ve got a bit of a confession to make here. I haven’t been back into the free weights room since that first time I wrote about it, even though I’ve been back to the gym multiple times. The first time I went back I had a sense of “well I went last time, so I can let myself off this time - it’s *really* busy today and I’m very tired...” (notice the excuses creeping back in?!) Then the next time it was even harder to go in, because I hadn’t gone the last time... the “progress” I made by going into the free weights room in the first place doesn’t seem to have helped motivate me to do it again.  

Studies support the idea that sometimes noticing progress can be discouraging, not encouraging. A group of dieters who were reminded of their progress were more likely to choose a chocolate bar over an apple than those who hadn’t been given positive feedback. Students who felt they’d spent a lot of time studying comparatively were much more likely to take the night off and go out partying (reference).

So which is it? Helpful or harmful?

There seem to be two directly conflicting ideas about the effect of noticing progress on motivation. In some cases, realising you’ve moved closer to your goal can motivate you to progress yet further - but in others, it seems that it might be used as an excuse to take a break or indulge ourselves. Which is the correct account of the relationship between progress and motivation?

I expect both are partially correct - progress can sometimes be motivating, but also risks being viewed as an excuse if we’re not careful. One explanation for the difference (suggested by the researchers who conducted the study with dieters and students) is that it depends on how we view progress. If we view progress as evidence that we’re really committed to our goal, and that we can achieve it, it’s likely to increase motivation to pursue the goal. On the other hand, if we’re simultaneously pursuing multiple goals, progress might be seen as evidence that one goal is being “taken care of”, and so as justification for then pursuing other, perhaps less important, goals at the expense of the main goal. This seems to be a nice alternative way of thinking about a lot of issues of self-control and motivation - often there is a bigger, more long-term goal (e.g. losing weight, getting a degree) and smaller short-term conflicting goals (enjoying food, having a fun social life.) Progress on the long-term goal might in some contexts be seen as evidence of commitment, so inspire further progress - but other times be used as an excuse for indulgences.

In my case, it seems like I do certainly have two very clearly conflicting goals: a long-term goal of expanding my comfort zone, and a short-term goal of not doing things that make me uncomfortable. The difficulty is staying focused on the long-term goal when it explicitly requires me to do things that go against my goals in the short term. The nice thing about progress is that it helps to reinforce the importance of the long-term goal over the short-term goal, but there have definitely been times where I’ve used it as an excuse to retreat back to what’s comfortable. This idea of framing progress as evidence of commitment to a goal, and the ability to achieve it, certainly seems like one that could be helpful here.

How can you use progress as motivation, not an excuse?

  • Make sure you’re clear what goal you’re aiming for. I think part of the reason progress was motivating for me in the case of public speaking, but not the gym, was that in the former case I had a clearer goal: get *really* good at public speaking. Feeling I’d improved was evidence that I’d moved closer to my goal, but I knew I wasn’t there yet. When it came to the free weights room, my goal was really “go into the free weights room once” - which, once I’d achieved, I didn’t feel the need to do again. But what my goal should really have been was “be comfortable enough to go in regularly.”
  • Each time you notice yourself progressing towards a goal, view it as evidence that:
    • (a) You’re committed to that goal
    • (b) You have the ability to reach that goal

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever allow yourself small rewards or breaks for your progress. But try to view these explicitly as rewards, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can relax because your main goal is “taken care of.”

Taking Criticism

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how asking for feedback can be quite uncomfortable. Part of this discomfort is the fear of getting negative feedback. But when you’re asking family, friends and colleagues for feedback the risk of criticism is relatively low - these people are generally going to have some concern for your feelings, and not want to say things that hurt you. Even if they do give you negative feedback, it will likely be balanced by positive feedback and framed constructively. Very little of the feedback I actually received through this exercise actually made me feel that uncomfortable - it was more the act of asking, and the expectation, that was difficult.

But there are some contexts where we might actually have to deal with harsh, critical feedback. The internet is one. I imagine anyone who has “put themselves out there” enough - anyone who has published writing that gets a wide enough readership, or videos that get enough views, will have experienced this. There is always someone who will come along and comment saying they hate what you’re doing or what you’re wearing or how you’re speaking, that you’re a complete idiot and completely wrong about everything. And these people don’t care about hurting your feelings - they don’t know you and can do it from behind their computer screen, so they’ll say whatever they like.

Being criticised

I experienced this myself for the first time this week. I’m helping my PhD supervisor to run a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), part of which involves me having some discussions with him which are filmed and uploaded as video content on the course. This in itself is definitely outside of my comfort zone - it’s the first time I’ve been on video like this, and talking to a camera is surprisingly nerve-wracking! But the most uncomfortable experience of my week was when I logged on to the MOOC yesterday to go through the comments, and read the following:

“Sorry to strike a negative note but I find Jess' delivery quite irritating which detracts from the whole objective of this video. I'm sure she's incredibly intelligent and has much to contribute but she needs to slow down, think a little more before she speaks and have more confidence in her opinions.”

I nearly cried. (I probably would have done if I wasn’t in an office with other people!) I was pretty shocked: I hadn’t been expecting to see that. The thought that someone I didn’t know had been watching and judging me was really quite upsetting - partly, I think, because it made me wonder how many other people had been thinking similar things but just not saying it. One person’s opinion may not matter that much, but what it signals about others’ unspoken opinions does. I think it was also hurtful because I knew she was at least partly correct - that I do speak too fast sometimes, and am not always as confident as I should be in what I’m saying, are things I’m well aware of. In a way this seems pretty irrational - if I’m not getting any new information about myself that’s negative, why should I be upset? But I guess sometimes even when we know our faults, we hope other people don’t notice them... or that at least they are less obvious than we fear.

What’s the best way to take criticism?

When we receive a piece of criticism, especially when it’s quite harshly phrased, I think it’s natural to react in one of two ways:

  1. To take a big confidence knock, start to doubt whether you should really be doing the thing you’ve been criticised for, and avoid doing it in the future.

  2. Reject the criticism on the basis that it was overly harsh and/or unfair, ignore it, and continue doing the thing you were criticised for just as you were before.

I think both are overreactions. In almost all cases, when someone criticises us harshly, what they are saying is neither completely true or completely false. There will likely be something true that the criticism points to - some way in which we could improve. In my case, it’s true that I do sometimes speak too fast, I could take more time to think before I speak, and I could express my opinions more confidently. But often the kind of harsh criticism people dole out online can go too far, too - I don’t believe it’s true that in general I am “irritating.” The problem is, when we think about criticism in a “black or white” fashion, we fail to notice this, and in either case miss an opportunity to grow. In the first case where we take the full force of the criticism, this can often be strong enough to discourage us from pushing ourselves further. But if we reject the criticism entirely we also won’t acknowledge its constructive parts, so here too we miss an opportunity to improve.

My initial reaction was of the first kind. I knew I had to do the filming for the second week’s wrap-up the next day, and suddenly I really didn’t want to do it. But I also knew I was never going to back out - and I actually knew, on reflection, that I hadn’t done a bad job of it really. I realised calling me “irritating” was an obvious overstatement - but that I could reject this part of the criticism and still take on board other parts. If the comment had been reframed - if she had said “This video was really useful, but Jess would be easier to understand if she talked a bit slower, and she should have more confidence in her opinions!” I would have taken this as useful feedback to improve. So I decided to “reject” the unnecessary negative part of the comment, reframe it as something like the above, and try to speak more slowly and confidently in the second filming session. For me, the ability to “brush off” the parts of the criticism that weren’t useful, learn from the parts that were, and push forwards, felt like both an achievement and a invaluable thing to have learned. In a way, that nasty commenter did me a favour!

I also found that identifying the useful and not-useful parts of the criticism in this way helped me to dispel my initial reaction. Now I can look at the same comment and not feel hurt or uncomfortable, because rather than seeing someone judging me, I see two things: 1. some useful feedback that I can use to improve, 2. an overreaction on the part of the commenter that is clearly their problem.

I’m not sure how far this type of thinking extends to every type of criticism you might ever receive, but it seems like it might be more broadly applicable. I’ve realised through thinking this that I’ve definitely had the “total rejection” reaction in other contexts where I’ve been criticised, so this gives me a better strategy for dealing with this in future too.


  • We’re all likely to receive hurtful criticism, in one way or another, at some point in our lives.

  • It’s easy to “overreact” to criticism in either of two contrasting ways:

    • To take the criticism too seriously, taking it personally and feeling discouraged from doing the thing you were criticised for again

    • To completely reject the criticism, and fail to learn from any constructive aspects

  • If you can learn to separate out useful/not-useful parts of criticism, you can get the best of both worlds: the ability to learn from the parts that are constructive, without taking to heart the bits that aren’t.

It’s possible though that this last part is easier said than done, and I’m over-generalising from one example. Have other people have experiences where they’ve been able to react similarly to criticism? Does this seem like something that might be useful for dealing with criticism in future?


Not Belonging

I’ve been thinking about how a fear of “not belonging” is quite central to a lot of what makes me uncomfortable. Some of the times I feel most uncomfortable are when I’m somewhere new or where I don’t quite fit in, and I start worrying that people will be judging me because I stand out. Conversely, the times when I feel most secure and comfortable are when I’m in familiar places or situations with people I know well, places I feel I fully “belong.” This realisation was prompted by a regular trip to the gym earlier in the week.

Feeling you don't belong

Whenever I go the gym, I tend to stick to machines I’ve used before. Part of what holds me back from trying different machines or areas is not knowing exactly how they work and not wanting to look like an idiot using things wrong. This comes down to being afraid of looking stupid again.

But it's the free weights room which is the epitome of discomfort for me. Why? I think because I feel like I “don’t belong there.” It tends to be packed with big men lifting heavy weights - I rarely see any girls in there, so I’d certainly stand out. So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that people will be thinking  “what is that girl with her tiny weak arms and 2kg weights doing in here? Doesn’t she realise she’s in the wrong place?” I know rationally that I have every right to be there - and that even if people are judging me, it doesn’t really matter - but my intuitive reaction is still highly aversive. I realised this aversion was pretty strong the other day, and that it’s actually quite a hindrance. So I decided to face the fear and venture into the terrifying pit of sweaty, muscled men.

Now, before I talk about my experience and what I learned, I’d just like to clarify that this is not going to end in me talking about equal rights in the free weights room and labelling myself a gym feminist. You may be reading this thinking that a room in the gym really doesn’t sound that scary or uncomfortable. But this post isn’t really about the gym. It’s about feeling like an outsider, like you don’t belong somewhere and are being judged for that - and I challenge anyone to say they aren’t or haven’t once been afraid of this.

Going into the free weights room

I picked a particularly bad time of day (or good for really pushing myself, depending on how you look at it!) when the gym, including the weights room, was completely packed. I started with a nice, comfortable, run on the cross trainer, whilst I debated whether I was going to go in or not. I’d been telling a friend beforehand about how I wanted to get over this aversion, so I’d somewhat committed myself, although not strongly so - I don’t think he would have been too reprimanding if I’d told him I hadn’t done it. But when I thought about seeing him next and saying “yeah, I went in!” rather than saying “nah, I was too uncomfortable...” the former felt a *lot* better, which definitely helped to motivate me. I pumped myself up by pushing myself to run just a bit longer and faster than I normally would - I think this got me into a “I can push myself to do things that are a bit of a challenge, and it actually feels good” mindset, which also helped to motivate me.

But I almost didn’t go in. Whilst on the treadmill, watching my thought patterns was quite interesting - I was going back and forth between “just go in, nothing bad will happen, and you’ll feel good about it” and “errr but... no... I don’t want to!” This made me think back to what I was saying a couple of weeks ago about making excuses - often we have an intuitive aversion to something which causes us to look for reasons it might be a bad idea, and it can be hard to tell if these reasons are good ones or mere excuses. What was interesting here was that, unlike before, I barely started coming up with reasons - perhaps because there weren’t any good ones, or perhaps because I’m now more aware of my tendency to make excuses - but the intuitive aversion still had quite a lot of force. When I stopped running, I decided to just walk towards the exit and the free weights as they were in the same place, and then make a snap decision when I got there. I’m pretty sure if the exit had been on the other side I probably would have just left at this point. But conveniently, it wasn’t, and somehow when I got closer it was like my body just walked into the free weights room before I could even think about it. And once I was a few steps in, I’d look even more stupid turning around, so I was pretty much committed.

The experience itself was about every bit as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. The place was packed and I was the only girl in there amongst at least 30 guys. I had to weave my way through to find some weight and find a tiny corner to stand in. I felt about as self-conscious as I expected. But part of me also felt determined not to let this stop me - so I stood there telling myself that I had every right to be there, and that I didn’t care if people were judging me. I tried to act as if I felt completely comfortable there, walking confidently and taking up as much space as I could/needed, which helped a little. I didn’t stay in there that long (maybe 5 minutes or a little more), but the fact I went in at all felt like a pretty big achievement for me.

Why is “feeling like you don’t belong” so uncomfortable?

This made me think more generally about a lot of other situations where we’re held back from fear of feeling like we don’t fit in. I think it’s a big part of why we are often afraid to try new things e.g. going to meetups where we don’t know anyone. It might lead to staying in a job where we feel comfortable but that isn’t pushing us anymore. It’s why people quickly form friendship groups at school that they stick closely to, and why it would seem weird to suddenly one day go and eat lunch with a group of people who you don’t know - you don’t “belong” to their group. But in all these cases, is this fear helping us, or holding us back? It seems like a lot of the time fear of not belonging can lead to inertia and prevent us from trying new things or meeting new people.

“Love/Belonging” is the third most fundamental level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - the only needs more fundamental than this are the need for safety and physiological needs (oxygen, food, water, etc!) The need to have a strong sense of belonging makes sense from an evolutionary perspective - at one point, it would have been essential for survival! Nowadays it seems like this is more central to our sense of self-identity: in a social world, the group we belong to or identify with plays a key role in defining who we see ourselves to be. How we feel others view us inevitably feeds into our self-image and self-esteem: acceptance and recognition from others is crucial for having a positive self-image. If I feel like I don’t fit in, people don’t value or recognise who I am, I’m inevitably going to start to doubt myself and feel insecure. The need to belong, and fear of not belonging, is only natural.

Sometimes we can take this too far, though: once we’ve found somewhere we feel we belong, it’s easy to just stay there and never leave. But it’s ok not to fit into every group we ever encounter and spend time with, it doesn’t matter if not everyone likes and values us, as long as we have a fundamental sense of belonging and security. It doesn’t matter that I don’t “fit in” in the free weights room, really - it’s certainly not integral to my self-image or self-esteem when I really think about it. But it’s almost like there’s something hardwired in my brain to make me avoid any situations in which I might feel like an outsider, which, whilst useful in some situations, does seem to be holding me back in many others.

How can you overcome this?

How can we overcome this fear of not belonging when it’s holding us back from doing new things? One strategy would be to use reinforcement: remind yourself of people and places that do make you feel like you belong, before trying to do anything that might threaten that.

For example, if, before I’d gone into the free weights room, I’d thought about a group in which I feel a real sense of belonging, thought about some positive feedback or a compliment I’d received recently, or spent time with some people who make me feel valued and accepted, I might have found it much easier to just go in. Essentially what’s uncomfortable about putting ourselves in situations where we feel we don’t belong, I think, is that it threatens our self-image or self-esteem. So if we can pump up our self-esteem and sense of belonging beforehand, then doubts will find it harder to penetrate.There’s a psychology study (thanks Nick Beckstead!) that suggests that this kind of “self-affirmation” technique makes people more likely to accept information they might otherwise view as threatening, and subsequently change their beliefs and behaviour in a way that would be beneficial.

I’m going to try this next week and see if it makes doing things outside my comfort zone any easier.

In summary:

  • Having a sense of “belonging” seems to be a fundamental need and central to having a positive self-image

  • However, this need can sometimes hold us back, because it makes us fear (and so avoid) new situations where we might not fit in

  • I found this earlier this week when I realised just how uncomfortable I was in the free weights section of the gym!

  • One technique that might help, if you feel held back from doing something that might be beneficial out of fear of “not fitting in” is to use a technique of “self-affirmation”, before you do something outside of your comfort zone. Ways to do this might include (but are not limited to!)

    • Writing or thinking about relationships that make you feel good about yourself

    • Writing or thinking about a time recently when you felt a strong sense of belonging

    • Spending time with a person or a group who make you feel good about yourself

    • Writing or thinking about some positive feedback you received recently

    If you try using this technique and find that it helps (or that it doesn't!) please let me know!


Asking (Stupid) Questions

We all have an image of ourselves and how we come across to others. Whether it's being perceived as kind, smart, or funny, we all have certain things that are important to our self-esteem: this is only natural. The problem is that worrying about being perceived in a certain way sometimes holds us back from doing things that might help us to grow.

Being perceived as “smart” has always been quite central to my self-esteem. My earliest memories of feeling good about myself are all related to getting high marks in tests, doing well in class, or being told I was bright. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: in a lot of ways, this has served me really well - it means I’ve always had very strong intrinsic motivation to achieve academically, which has probably played a big part in getting me to where I am now. But, because being judged as intelligent is so tied, still, to my image of myself, it means that I’m pretty afraid of losing this. One of my biggest fears is that I'll come across as stupid.

Fear of asking questions

One big way this has held me back is that it’s prevented me from asking questions. Especially if I’m talking to a person or group of people I perceive as more intelligent than me, my natural inclination is to sit there in silence rather than admit that I don’t understand something. Relatedly, I’ve found that whenever I go to a talk or lecture where there’s a Q&A afterwards, I often sit for ages with a question I want to ask in my head, but rarely ever ask it. I start to convince myself that the question isn’t really a good one, it’s actually quite stupid, and so I should just keep quiet. 

Obviously this is silly; it’s preventing me from learning and having more interesting conversations with more people. If I could admit that I didn’t fully understand something in these situations, I’d not only be able to learn something new, but I’d also then be able to more fully engage in the conversation. The risk of being perceived as stupid, is, in reality, probably quite low, and easily outweighed by the expected benefits. I do know this: and I know that I probably actually come across as less intelligent sitting there in silence than I would if I just asked the questions I'm afraid of.

Facing the fear

A few months ago, I decided that I really needed to do something about this. I realised this wasn't something I was going to overcome immediately, but that I could tackle in small steps. So I started consciously pushing myself to ask questions even when I was afraid they might sound stupid; to ask people when I didn't understand things. The only problem was that “ask more questions when you don't understand” doesn't have totally clear success/failure conditions - I needed a slightly more concrete task. So I decided that every time I went to a talk or a lecture with a Q&A session afterwards, I had to ask a question. This gave me a very specific context and trigger, and had the added benefit of helping me to speak up in public and large groups more. 

It only struck me this week how beneficial this habit has been, and how much I’ve improved. On Thursday, I went to a seminar organised by my research group at Warwick, where a pretty well-renowned economist from MIT had been invited to speak. He gave a really interesting talk (on finding the truth even when the majority is wrong for anyone who's interested!) and I found I naturally had lots of questions. I asked two questions during the discussion that followed the talk, and afterwards realised I'd barely hesitated or found it difficult.

Three or four months ago, there is no way I would have put my hand up and asked even one question of an MIT economist in a room full of professors – I would have been far too intimidated. I've still got some way to go – I'd still struggle to admit not understanding something in some contexts, I think. But in general I now find it much easier to speak up and ask questions without worrying whether they're clever enough.

What I've learned from asking questions

  • I've realised that a lot of the questions I would reject as “stupid” really aren't, or at least others aren't judging the quality of what I say as harshly as I am. 
  • I've realised that not everything I say needs to be perfectly well-thought out – even if I do say something a bit silly every now and then, it really doesn't matter that much and no-one going to infer from this that I'm an idiot.

And in terms of pushing myself out of my comfort zone more generally:

  • Setting goals that are concrete and have clear success/failure conditions is important. Deciding that I was going to “ask more questions when I didn't understand” didn't work that well, because it was too easy for me to just avoid doing it on any specific occasion and then discount that occasion. On the other hand, if I knew I had to ask a question at any talk, if I left and hadn't asked a question, it would be much clearer to me that I'd failed.
  • Doing “comfort zone expansion” in small steps, rather than big actions, is sometimes better. When I've been thinking about things I could do to push myself, I've so far mostly been thinking of fairly big, independent actions – like “singing in public” or “go to this event where you don't know anyone.” Whilst I think doing these kinds of things is good too, what makes them quite difficult is you really have to psyche yourself up. Pushing yourself to do smaller things repeatedly, on the other hand, seems to have the advantage that each time doesn't take so much effort, but over time you can build quite strong habits and change attitudes (perhaps more so than from a single small event.) Other things to try in this realm might be things like “Speak to a stranger every time you go on public transport” or “Email a stranger every morning.”
  • The other great thing about taking small steps I've found is that success tends to breed success: doing one thing a bit outside of your comfort zone then makes it easier to do the next thing, and so on.  I'm not sure whether this is because you realise that the thing isn't as bad as you thought, or whether it's that the more things you do the more incentive you have to "not give up" or "not break the chain" or similar - perhaps a bit of both.

Making Excuses

There’s a general pattern of thought I’ve noticed when trying to push myself out of my comfort zone. Each time I come up with an idea for something I could do, I experience two very conflicting reactions. First: “Awesome! That seems like it could be a really good/fun/useful thing to try and do!”, quickly followed by, “What, are you crazy?! That sounds horrible!” The two seem to be different types of judgement - the former is much more rationally based and the latter more an intuitive, even emotional, reaction. A little battle then goes on in my head to try and figure out which I should listen to.

How do you tell good reasons from mere excuses?

It can be quite difficult to tell which voice to follow. In particular, it’s hard to tell whether my aversion to doing something is actually based on good reasons or not.Beyond this, even if we know we’re making excuses it can still be incredibly difficult to overcome them. To illustrate this, I’ve got a success and a failure story from the past week.

Going to toastmasters: success!

Let’s start positive. On Tuesday I went to a Toastmasters (public speaking) meetup. I want to get really good at public speaking this year, and I also want to push myself to go to more new things - especially when I don’t know anyone - so this seemed like the perfect way to combine both. As it turned out, the meeting itself was pretty tame/easy (I think there were quite a lot of new people there, so they wanted to be friendly and not to scare anyone off!) - but I was surprised at how much I struggled to get myself to go in the first place. I found myself coming up with lots of reasons against going - I was pretty tired, I had lots of important work and reading to do for the next day, I needed to do some washing... etc. I spent some time going back and forth, trying to decide whether these were good reasons I should listen to, or excuses I should ignore. In the end, the “you’re just coming up with reasons not to go because it’s not totally in your comfort zone” voice in my head won out, and I went.

Dancing alone: fail...

But it doesn’t always. On Friday night, I went to a friend’s gig, and it struck me that being the only person to start dancing whilst everyone else was standing and bobbing awkwardly to the music would be perfect for getting me outside of my comfort zone. Then the reasons against inevitably began flooding in - it wasn’t really “dancy” music, I’d look stupid and people would think I was weird, I was tired (yeah, the excuses got lamer and lamer...) - so I wimped out. In retrospect, would anything bad really have happened if I’d done it? Almost certainly not - I didn’t even know most of the people there, so rationally I don’t care at all what they think of me.

Why do we make excuses?

It seems like these "two voices" are a case of something called cognitive dissonance: the feeling of holding two conflicting beliefs is pretty uncomfortable, so we look to do whatever is easiest to resolve this discomfort. There are two ways of doing this. You can either look for new reasons why your aversion might be well-founded (and so decide not to act) or accept that your aversion is irrational and force yourself to overcome it by acting.

Which of these should you do? Obviously it depends on the situation - sometimes, your discomfort might be justified, so it makes sense to consider whether you might have good reason to avoid something. But a lot of the time, it seems like our aversions are irrational, and that listening to this discomfort all the time might hold us back. For example, I often feel quite uncomfortable overtaking other cars on a fast, busy motorway. If I never overtake anyone, it will take me much longer to get places and I’ll never improve as a driver - so it seems like it would be detrimental to me to never override this discomfort. On the other hand, if I’m completely rash and just overtake all the time even when I feel uncomfortable, it seems pretty likely I’ll end up in a crash. So what I really need to do is have some way of assessing when this discomfort is well founded (e.g. when there’s a heavy stream of traffic on my right or I haven’t checked my blind spot) and when it’s not (there’s a big gap and I’m certain nothing is coming or in my blind spot.)

When you really don’t want to do something, you’re massively biased towards finding reasons that you shouldn’t do it. In most cases when faced with a conflict between what you feel and what you rationally believe, it’s much easier to find reasons to support your intuition than it is to convince your intuition using reason. This means we might often end up rationalising discomfort when we shouldn’t - making excuses, essentially. Even if this doesn’t happen, and we can maintain the rational belief that our aversions are misguided, really internalising this can be difficult. Sometimes we can override this - I think in the case of going to toastmasters, my intuitive aversion was weak enough that I was able to simply ignore it given enough reasons. In the case of dancing alone, though, the aversion was much stronger, it was something I felt much more uncomfortable about, so not easy to override.


How can we get better at distinguishing good reasons for discomfort from bad ones, and stop just making excuses? How can we make it easier to override discomfort when we know rationally it’s not justified? These questions seem like they’re worthy of more attention, so I’ll try and address them in later posts. I’ve got some ideas, but I’d love to hear yours: how can you tell when you’re just making excuses, and what methods have you found useful for ignoring them?


Asking for Feedback

Last week I sent an email to a number of people I’ve worked and interacted with over the past year asking for their feedback, to help me identify ways to improve. This was something I’d been planning on doing for a while - since before I decided to start this project - and not something I thought I was particularly uncomfortable doing. But then I noticed that this email had been sat, unsent, in my “drafts” folder for almost 2 weeks...

This made me realise how rarely most people actually ask for feedback from others. Seeking feedback seems to be a perfect example of something we tend to feel uncomfortable doing, so avoid, but could benefit from hugely if we could overcome that discomfort.

What’s so useful about asking for feedback? If it’s such a good thing to do, why don’t people do it more? How can we make asking for feedback easier? 

Why ask for feedback?

Through asking for feedback, I learnt some useful things about myself: especially about peoples’ first impressions of me. Many of the really helpful suggestions I received were things I was somewhat aware of, but hadn’t got round to addressing or putting into action yet. I’m now more motivated to make improvements in these areas of my life, and more convinced that doing so will be worthwhile. For example, taking time in the evenings to reflect on my day is something I’ve been considering doing for a while, but only actually started doing recently after a couple of people made the suggestion to me explicitly.  

No-one’s perfect. There are probably hundreds of ways in which we could each improve: by eliminating bad habits, developing good habits, or simply by spending our time a little differently. But it can be hard for us to notice these things ourselves. Other people often notice things that we don’t from a more impartial perspective.

There’s also just the fact that we can’t really know how we come across to other people until we ask them. We have some model of how we appear to others, based on the way people respond to us and act around us, but it’s likely this model is flawed or at least incomplete. So if you want to improve the way others’ perceive you: to appear more confident, smarter, more attractive - you’re going to have to first get feedback from people about how you currently appear.

Why don’t we ask for feedback more?

We're scared of criticism.

The most immediate and natural explanation for avoiding feedback is that we’re afraid of being criticised. If we ask people for feedback, some of it might be negative - and negative feedback can hurt. But being aware of your faults and weaknesses is the first step towards reducing them (provided, of course, you are able to do something about them.)

Have you ever got home at the end of the day to realise you’ve got something on your teeth, or pen on your face? You realise that it must have been on there all day, that several people must have noticed it, but that no-one told you. Don’t you wish someone had mentioned it, so that you could go and rub it off? You might have felt a bit silly about it briefly, but not knowing about it wasn’t going to make it go away.

The same applies to all kinds of criticism. Not realising that you come across as rude or dismissive to new people won’t change the fact that you give that impression - and at least by knowing about it you can actively start to compensate, by being especially friendly when you meet people in future. Not to suggest, of course, that anyone reading this post would ever come across as rude or dismissive. I'm sure you all make a great first impression - but just to be sure, you should ask people!

The only difference between this kind of criticism, and someone telling you you have something on your face, is that it’s more personal, so might hurt a bit more to hear. Finding out you’ve got pen on your face doesn’t really threaten your self-image, but hearing that people find you rude might.

Asking for feedback can seem kind of weird

I don’t think it’s just fear of criticism that makes us avoid seeking feedback, although it is a big part of it. Another reason we might not seek feedback is simply because it’s not something people tend to do often, so it goes against social norms.

I noticed when I was asking for feedback myself I was sending the email to quite a specific group of people, who I knew would see “asking for feedback” as a normal, and even quite a respectable thing to do. These were mostly people I’ve worked with over the past year, in a culture where reviews and feedback (both formal and informal) are quite common. People I didn’t send the email to include some close friends and family - even though they seem like the sort of people who might have really useful things to say. There were also a few people I did send the email to who I don’t know that well but I expected might have useful comments, whose names I felt noticeably less comfortable typing in the “send” field.

This made me realise there are certain social norms that apply to asking for feedback. It’s much more acceptable to ask your boss for feedback on your performance than it is to ask someone you’ve just met for feedback on your personality, for example, even though the latter might give you equally useful information. Some of the most useful feedback I received was actually from people I don’t know all that well.

How can we make asking for feedback easier?

I think fear of criticism is at least partly rooted in having a fixed mindset: thinking that our traits and abilities are fixed and there’s nothing we can do to change them. If you consciously try to adopt a growth mindset - believing that you can develop and change abilities through dedication and hard work - every piece of criticism becomes an opportunity to improve. So every time you receive a piece of feedback or criticism,  ask yourself the question, “How does this information help me to improve? How can I use this to become better?” 

I’ve personally found that the more I develop a growth mindset, the more I’m able to react positively to things that I might previously have seen as criticisms. For example, I had a feedback meeting at work a couple of months ago where I realised I’d made some mistakes in management when I was overstretched. A year ago, I’m pretty sure I would have reacted to this feeling a little despondent and discouraged about my management abilities. But I genuinely came out of this meeting feeling practically excited about the fact I’d found some concrete ways in which I could improve as a manager.

(To find out more about the benefits of a growth mindset, and how to change your reaction to criticism, I’d highly recommend Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential.)

Some other useful ways I’ve found to make asking for feedback less scary:

Start by asking people to give you feedback in areas of life that are less personal, and less likely to threaten your self-image: certain areas of your work, for example, rather than starting by asking for feedback on core personality traits. As you get used to taking potentially negative feedback in less personal areas, you can then build up to start asking for feedback in more and more personal areas.

It’s also really important to ask for both positive and negative feedback together - not only will negative feedback be much easier to take if it’s served alongside compliments, it’s also much easier for the person giving the feedback: criticising people doesn’t feel too great, either! I actually made this mistake myself when I first sent out my email - not explicitly asking for positive feedback. I was concerned about looking like I was fishing for compliments, but someone quickly made this point and suggested I add a positive feedback question.

Asking for specific, actionable feedback (especially when it’s negative) can be a good way to make sure you elicit useful comments, rather than ones that are simply going to make you feel bad about yourself.

Spencer Greenberg also has some really great advice on how to process criticism  by breaking it down into different types, to understand when feedback is accurate and when it might not be. This raises the important point that you shouldn’t necessarily take all criticism you receive seriously - some pieces of feedback may be much more useful and relevant than others, so it’s worth thinking about how to distinguish them (I’d highly recommend reading Spencer’s post for this.)

In summary

  • I think we could all benefit from asking for feedback from others more often.
  • If you can begin to change your mindset to see feedback (even negative) as valuable information that will allow you to improve, asking for feedback becomes much less uncomfortable - maybe even enjoyable! 
  • Other things I've found useful are: starting small (with less personal areas or people we're more comfortable with), asking for positive as well as negative feedback, and asking for specific, actionable feedback to make sure it's as constructive as possible. 
  • And of course, I hope that the more people make a habit of asking for feedback, the more socially acceptable it will become, making it easier for us all to do!


If you want to give me any feedback you can fill out the google form here! I’d also love feedback on this and any other blog posts I’ve written, so I can make them better. What did you like and dislike about this post? Were there any points that you found particularly interesting/useful? Which parts were boring or could I have cut? What did you think of the structure/writing style/topic/length?


Singing In Public, Part 1

When starting this project, one thing I didn't fully think through is that I’ve given my friends a perfect excuse to make me do anything embarrassing for their entertainment, simply by claiming “...but it’s outside of your comfort zone!” On Sunday evening, I was having dinner at home with a group of friends, and the particular suggestion made was that I sing in public. I actually already had “go busking” down on my list of things to do for this blog in the future - emphasis on in future. It must be at least 10 years since I’ve sung alone in front of any kind of group. I certainly wasn’t planning it for my first post.

I had a string of excuses for this. It was 8pm on a Sunday evening - not exactly prime busking time. I was pretty busy for the next couple of days. I’d do it in a few weeks’ time, when I had someone with a guitar to accompany me, and we’d worked out the best spot do it, etc etc.

Then someone pointed out that we actually had a particularly good guitar player amongst us, and a guitar. Why not start by singing to us, right now, before dinner? Actually it was less of a request and more of a command: I think the exact words used were “You can sing for your dinner. You don’t have to sing, if you don’t mind not eating.”

So I sang. I sang Jessie J’s “Price Tag” (with a, quite frankly, fantastic guitar accompaniment.) Singing in your living room to a group of friends might not sound like the most uncomfortable thing ever to many people, but it was a fairly big deal to me (did I mention I haven’t sung since I was about 12?). The experience also taught me some useful lessons about trying new things and pushing our comfort zones, so I thought it was worth writing about.

1. Don’t do it later. Do it now.

In the past few days I’ve spent much more time coming up with ideas of things I could do to push myself out of my comfort zone, than I’ve spent actually doing any of these things. Each time I’d come up with an idea, I’d think something along the lines of “ooh, that’s a good idea, but maybe too ambitious to start with/I don’t have the time this week/I should do something else first.” In some cases these excuses were legit, but in most, they were just excuses.

When thinking about doing things that make us uncomfortable, obviously the reaction “I’ll do it, but later” will be natural. But waiting until a more comfortable time kind of defeats the point. Going forwards, I’m going to try and notice and dispel these “I’ll do it later” thoughts when they’re not justified.

2. Think of things you used to enjoy doing before you were self conscious, and do them.

I loved singing in primary school. I was in the school choir and sang solos in multiple concerts. When I hit teenage years I got self conscious and stopped. The thought “I wish I’d had the confidence to continue...” has certainly crossed my mind since, but never carried enough weight to get me to do anything about it. But when I started singing on Sunday I remembered how good it made me feel. It struck me as a real shame that I’d been missing out on something really great for so long because I was afraid.

This made me think: how many other things are there that I used to really enjoy, and could still, that I stopped doing because I got self-conscious? I’m going to use this question to guide more of the things that I try in future.

3. Trying new or different things can be really, really fun!

I ended up having one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in a long time on Sunday. Rather than just sitting around and chatting all night as I normally would when having dinner with friends, we ended up playing guitar and singing as a group all night, and it was so much fun. This would never have happened if I hadn’t been pushed to do something I was scared of.

Staying within our comfort zones means we fall into comfortable routines. But when you think about the times you’ve had the most fun, are they times when you’ve stuck to a routine, or broken out of it? For me at least, it’s definitely the latter. One of the best experiences of my life so far was spending nearly two months living and teaching in rural Thailand. I don’t think it’s a coincidence this was also about as far away from my everyday routine I’ve ever ventured.

That trying new things can be lead to fun and novel experiences may sound like an obvious point, but I’m not sure I’d fully appreciated it before. I’d been thinking of comfort zone expansion as something that would be good for me but I might not really enjoy. This project might be scary at times, but I now realise it might also be a lot of fun.

(You may have noticed there’s a “part 1” in the name of this post.  I’m hereby promising that there will be a part 2, in which I sing in a venue more public than my own living room... and also try to shed a bit more light on the question of why we find singing in public so embarrassing.)


I meant to credit/thank a few people in my last post but forgot, so better late than never: thanks to Cat Lavigne and the rest of the Center for Applied Rationality for inspiring this idea, Uri Bram for making me execute it (and sing!), and Ben Clifford for the aforementioned fantastic guitar accompaniment.


Make Yourself Uncomfortable

Once a week, I’ve decided to try something new that pushes me outside of my comfort zone, and then write about it. Why?

I’ve realised I spend way too much time being “comfortable.” Most of my time, in fact. This isn’t all that surprising - I don’t like feeling uncomfortable, or nervous, or awkward, which creates a pretty strong incentive not to do anything I think will make me feel any of these things! And yet it seems pretty unlikely that everything that makes me feel uncomfortable is something I should avoid. This means I’m probably missing out on a huge number of opportunities, and a million ways in which I could improve. This thought in itself makes me pretty uncomfortable, so it seems like time to do something about it. Problem is, this realisation in itself doesn’t change the fact I don’t like feeling uncomfortable. My natural incentives just aren’t aligned with doing new things that might be scary.

So I need to create new incentives. Committing myself to this project on the internet for anyone to see seems to provide me with a pretty strong incentive not to fail and embarrass myself.

But there’s more to it than this. I don’t just want to do things to expand my comfort zones, I want to really understand them. We all know there are certain things we can do with ease and others that make us flinch or recoil, but I’m not sure many of us have a good sense of where the boundaries lie, and why. There are a number of things I’m aware that I avoid doing, there are probably even more I’m not aware of yet, which I’d like to identify. By identifying, analysing and facing my feelings of discomfort, I hope that I’ll start to find patterns in what makes me uncomfortable and why, giving me broader insight into what’s holding me back, and how I can improve. (Admittedly I’m also the kind of geek who likes analysing things and understanding them deeply, so I just find this pretty fun too.)

By sharing my experiences and thoughts I’m also hopeful I might inspire other people to push their boundaries too. I think we could all benefit from spending a little less time doing things we’re comfortable with. If anything I write just motivates a few people to do something they’ve been wanting to do but held back from, then I’d be pretty damn happy :) I hope that some people will read this and share their own insights about their comfort zones and how they’ve overcome various barriers. If you fancy doing this with me on any given week then please do; drop me a message or comment!

One extra incentive for writing about this is that I’ve realised recently I spend a lot of time thinking about what I should do but very little actually doing. I think this is partly because I’m a perfectionist: I want to make sure I’m doing the very best thing, but often end up spending so much time trying to figure out what to do that I never actually do anything. One particularly relevant example of this is the fact that I’ve been thinking about starting a blog, or sharing writing in some way, for ages. I’ve failed to actually do this because each time I’ve considered it, this little voice pops up in my head and says “Hmm, you should probably spend more time thinking about what the best thing for you to write about is first, though.” Getting the right balance between thinking and doing seems difficult, but I’m pretty sure I’m erring on the side of too much think and too little do. So, somewhat poetically, part of the reason I’m writing about the things that make me uncomfortable is that writing and sharing it is, in itself, something that makes me feel pretty uncomfortable!

Whilst I’m aware of some of the things that are clearly outside of my comfort zone, I also think I’ve probably got some massive blind spots here! So I’d love suggestions of things I should be trying: anything that makes you personally uncomfortable or has done in the past. Every week I’ll try to pick the idea which gives me the strongest aversive reaction, whilst seeming plausibly beneficial. I’m happy to do things that are embarrassing, but the point of this isn’t embarrassment for its own sake, so I’ll err towards choosing to do things that actually seem useful. How “far out” of my comfort zone I decide to go each week might vary, but if it seems like I’m copping out by doing things that are too “easy”, then please comment and berate me!