My efforts were recognized even though I didn’t expect it

Yesterday, I won the PhD Award of the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging (DCCN) for 2018. The prize recognizes someone who has contributed to the DCCN to make it a more vibrant, pleasant, and inspiring place. I was surprised and very, very happy.

Me after receiving the award and a beautiful bouquet of tulips. Yay!

Two days ago, on Wednesday, I received an email from Tildie Stijns, the secret organizational force behind the DCCN: “Are you coming to the DCCN centre meeting tomorrow?”

I was confused. Why did she care if I’d be at the centre meeting? I responded that I couldn’t go because I had a writing course at that time.

“But you must go! It’s important.” said Tildie. Well, if Tildie says something, you do it. So I went to the centre meeting on Thursday.

Receiving the award

My friends Lieke and Patricia were convinced that I’d get the DCCN PhD award. I didn’t dare believe it because I’d be disappointed if it turned out that wasn’t the case. They spent the whole lunch break making fun of how cautious I was.

At the centre meeting, I realized I was getting the award when Peter Hagoort said, “The person we’re giving the award to this year has done a number of things, among which organizing a time management course.” There is no other way, I thought, it’s me!

From then on I was just happy. It felt so good to receive the award, and my friends and colleagues congratulated me afterwards, clearly happy for me. Coincidentally, my supervisors, Eelke Spaak and Floris de Lange, were sitting next to me during the meeting and also expressed their congratulations. I was beaming the whole time, my face warm and flushed.

Appreciated and surprised

The truth is that I was genuinely surprised that I received the award. What had I done to be of service to the centre? Peter Hagoort mentioned the Organization Bootcamp (which is starting today! more on that soon), contributing to Donders Wonders and leading it during the summer, and performing a monologue about ethics in science (you can read it here).

But I had done all those things simply because I thought it would be cool to do them. I hadn’t done them thinking, “Hmm, this would be good to do, so I can get the DCCN PhD award.” I guess that’s exactly the point.

I hadn’t expected people to appreciate the things I did. It wasn’t necessary; I did what I did because I enjoyed it. And then it was even sweeter when the recognition came, and I really appreciated it.

Thanks to many people

When I told my mom about the award in the evening, she said, “Wow, this Donders place is such a great place to work. They even pay attention to these things.”

And she’s right. I’d like to thank many people: the DCCN directorate for giving me the award, the award committee for picking me, and the colleagues who nominated me for, well, nominating me. And my friends and family for being by my side and sharing my nervousness as well as my joy. The Donders is such a great place to work (and live 😉 )!

Excitement

I’m off now, today’s a big day… I barely slept last night because the first session of the bootcamp is taking place in the afternoon, and I still need to practice my talk (never believe me if I say I always stick to my schedule!).

Then in the evening, we have the Donders Karaoke!!! Oh, I can’t wait! I was warming up my vocal cords in the shower this morning, so hopefully the neighbors enjoyed the performance. As the lady living below me once said, “I really enjoy your singing. Are you a soprano?” Oh, the embarrassment in that moment… 😀

And in the weekend, I’ll plan how to enjoy my prize! The award is a fancy dinner in a restaurant of my choice, so I’ll be checking out all the cool restaurants in the area. Woohoo!

The simple secret of discipline: Avoid tempting situations

We are often told that discipline is the answer to our problems. With a little more discipline, we can achieve our goals and avoid temptations. Just try a little bit harder, have a little bit more willpower, have a little more self control. But that’s not how it works.

We grossly overestimate the contribution of willpower. Willpower is not a constant; it may be strong at one moment and then wane when we’re tired or stressed. If we leave our actions up to willpower, we will at some point disappoint ourselves.

I often hear the assumption that disciplined people have more willpower and somehow have the superhuman ability to stick to their values or priorities. I don’t think that’s true and, if anything, it only contributes a tiny bit to what discipline actually is.

In reality, disciplined people know themselves and know when their willpower fails. If they are tired, they will spend a long time on social media, unable to look away. If they go to a fast food restaurant, they will end up ordering fast food. They are aware of their tendencies and don’t leave it up to willpower to make the choice they consider “better” or “right.”

By choosing the situation you place yourself in, you choose the possible actions.
Photo by Tyler Lastovich from Pexels

Disciplined people often avoid putting themselves in tempting situations. They know that the only way to resist is to avoid the setting altogether, so they avoid the tempting situation. If they want to spend less time on social media, they use a website blocker. If they want to eat less fast food, they go to restaurants that don’t serve fast food. It’s so much easier to avoid an unwanted action if the immediate environment prevents it.

I’m not saying that you should always avoid tempting situations. It all comes back to the mindful choice: if you consciously and purposefully choose to do something, by all means, go ahead. Just don’t let the situation decide for you.

When you want to avoid an action and you know your willpower may fail, it is so much easier to avoid the tempting situation altogether. This is the secret that disciplined people know.

Not all tempting actions lend themselves to simple solutions. But if you identify such a solution, then make sure you implement it. It will save you lots of frustration over inevitable lapses in willpower.

What kinds of tempting activities do you avoid? What actions would you like to prevent? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn. 

Discipline = making a mindful choice

We may think that disciplined people lack or suppress their desires. In fact, they still experience strong cravings, but they make a mindful choice.

When someone offers me cake at work and I decline, I usually get one of two typical reactions:

“Oh, live a little. Nothing bad will happen if you eat a piece of cake!”

I usually respond to this with:

“It’s not about living a little. It’s about what feels better to me and my body, and right now I’d feel better if I don’t eat the cake.”

And the other reaction is:

“Wow, how are you so disciplined? Do you never eat sweets? Do you not like sweets?”

These questions make me smile. In fact, I have a huge sweet tooth. I can eat way more cake, baklava, and chocolate than most people. When most people say, “Ah, this is too sweet for me, it’s making me sick,” that’s my favorite level of sweetness.

We often think that disciplined people don’t feel desires or cravings, or perhaps we think they suppress them. Disciplined people may appear cold inside, as though they’re more like robots who don’t know what it’s like to feel a strong human craving.

But, in fact, disciplined people do have desires and cravings, sometimes even more strongly than other people. Because these people’s cravings are so strong, they need to keep them in check.

When facing a desire or craving, the important thing is to make a clear, conscious choice about what we do next.
Image credit: JESHOOTS.com (Pexels license)

For instance, Philip, a friend of mine, comes from a family with a history of alcoholism. Philip doesn’t drink any alcohol. He told me that people often ask him how he’s able to have such self-control. He responds that it’s the opposite: he knows he doesn’t have the self-control to stop once he starts. That’s why he avoids alcohol altogether.

So is the only solution to abstain altogether? Avoid all tempting situations and things we desire?

For some people, abstaining from some substances (such as alcohol in the case of my friend Philip) works well. But that doesn’t have to be the case for all of us. (See the distinction between abstainers and moderators raised by Gretchen Rubin.)

I have a different solution in relation to my desire for sweets. I create specific implementation intentions: When X happens, I will do Y. When I am at work, I do not eat sweets. But on Friday evening, when I’m having dinner with a friend, I will have dessert. Or, on Saturday afternoon, when I go for tea with a friend, I will have a piece of cake.

These are planned exceptions. It means that I have thought about them in advance and decided what I’d like to do in that situation. When I do eat something sweet, I’m not reinforcing a mindless craving but rather I’m making a mindful choice. And I get more enjoyment out of it because it’s a conscious choice instead of an absent-minded reaction to a situation.

The characteristic that makes people disciplined is that they make a conscious, purposeful choice. It doesn’t actually matter which action they choose; whether they eat the cake or don’t eat the cake is not important. The crucial point is to make the choice with clarity and to be aware of the reasons that lead you to that choice.

Is there an area in your life where you purposefully choose what to do? Is there an area where you’d like to make more mindful choices? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Intention setting: Does it actually work?

“Before you go into a difficult situation, set an intention. How would you like to behave in that situation? How would you like to come across? Just put the intention out there, and it will happen.”

I’ve heard this type of advice many times, but the skeptic in me retaliates. “What do you mean that putting the intention out there will make it happen?” I agree that if I think about how I’d like to act, I’m more likely to behave that way. But that doesn’t seem particularly powerful. Surely it’s not such a big deal whether you take 10 seconds to think about how you’d like to approach a situation.

To set intentions or not to set intentions

Paradoxically, over the last few months, I felt like I was lacking intent in my actions. I would go from one activity to the next because I knew it had to be done, but I didn’t connect to why I was doing it.

This led me to think that I should try this intention setting thing. I tried it a couple of times but quickly forgot about it. After all, who has time to set intentions when there are things to do?!

The wake up call came when my husband tried setting intentions. I didn’t think he’d really do it, but apparently my love for structure is rubbing off on him, so he stuck with it! After a week of setting intentions, he said, “This intention thing really works!”

He usually does this three times a day: at the beginning of the work day, after lunch, and before dinner. First, he notes his current attitude. Then, he thinks about the thing he’s going to do next and sets an intention for how he’d like it to go. He says he’s able to focus much better and, as he works with people, that he’s able to serve people better.

By setting intentions, we gain clarity about why we’re doing something.
Image credit: Pixabay (License CC0)

I started setting intentions

Well, once I heard this, I had to catch up! If my husband was setting intentions, I had to be able to do it too!!

I decided to combine it with my hourly breaks: once I sit down at my desk after my break, I take a few deep breaths and notice how my body feels. Am I anxious or excited? Tired? Thinking?

Then, I think about what I’ll be working on for the next hour. What would I like the outcome to be? How would I like the work process to go? This whole check-in takes about a minute, and then I start working.

I mostly do this at work but not only. I also aim to do it at the start of each meal and also at the beginning of my workout. It really changes how I feel during the activity because instead of just going through the motions, I connect to my priorities, i.e., the “why” behind my actions.

The pros and cons of setting intentions

I really enjoy it when I set an intention for a block of time. When I sat down to write this blog post, I thought, “I’d like to write on a topic I’m passionate about, and I’d like to convey information well. Also, I’d like to have a calm, thoughtful writing process.” With such a clear intention in mind, getting to work is easy and pleasant.

The trouble is that I often forget to set an intention. Especially if my schedule is a bit irregular or I have limited time, intentions go out the window. There’s suddenly no space in my mind to take a step back and think about why I’m doing something. Instead, I need to do, do, do.

In essence, that’s the problem itself. I’d like to set intentions to avoid being mindless. It doesn’t work if I’m already mindless (because I’m stressed, for instance), so I don’t remember to set an intention, which means I don’t get clarity and don’t connect to my “why.” It’s a vicious cycle, and I don’t see how to break it besides to remember to set an intention.

This is my main question with relation to setting intentions: is it actually helpful, or is it just wishful thinking? Is it possible to also remember to set intentions when things are not going smoothly? And in those cases, does it help?

I will try it out for a month and then report back. I will track how consistently I set intentions on different days and see how that influences my mood and my work output. I’ll let you know in about a month, so stay tuned! 🙂

More info about setting intentions

I got the idea of setting intentions in this way from Brendon Burchard and his book High Performance Habits (the audiobook is available to listen to for free as episodes in his podcast). He discusses setting intentions as a way to improve Habit #1, Clarity.

If you also try setting intentions, let me know how it goes! Or are you doing something similar already? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Set an intention for the holidays

The holidays are an awesome time for fun and excitement, but they can also be stressful and frustrating. Think about what you want out of this holiday season and discuss it with the people you’re spending the holidays with to make it happen.

Many of us look forward to the winter holidays each year, while yet others detest the December period. Whatever your attitude towards the season, you can get the most out of it if you know what you want.

What do you want for Christmas?

At the beginning of the holiday season (which is right about now), think about what’s important to you at this time of the year. You can write about this in your journal, ponder it while going for a walk, or reluctantly think about it while being tortured by Christmas music in the supermarket.

Do you want to…

  • Spend time with family?
  • Avoid getting annoyed with your partner/mother/father/aunt/parents-in-law/insert random relative here?
  • Eat your favorite Christmas-themed food?
  • Eat food that is aligned with certain health goals?
  • Get some movement?
  • Get enough sleep and rest?
  • Give nice gifts to people?
  • Do voluntary work?
  • Be left alone to watch movies?
  • Complete a reading challenge before December 31?
  • Take time to reflect on the past year?

Once you have identified what is most important to you during this holiday season, you can condense it to a phrase. In this way, it’s easy to remember. When you start to get pulled by someone else’s idea for what you should be doing, you can remind yourself of your intention and decide how to act.

Clarify in your own mind what you’d like this holiday season.

Image credits: Pexels (License CC0)

Ask the people close to you about their intentions

If you’re spending the holidays with other people, it would also be useful if you know what their intentions are. By knowing what each of you would like for the holiday season, you make it much easier for everybody to get what they want and for people to be less grumpy. In the end, that means that everyone enjoys the holidays more!

For instance, my mother and my brother will be visiting my boyfriend and me for the holidays. My intentions for this time are: spend time with my close people, get some rest, do some fun things (but not too many), and read. I know that my mom shares these interests, but I don’t think my brother does. He probably wants to stay up late and sleep late, which doesn’t match our intentions. And my boyfriend doesn’t like Christmas and also has to work during the holidays, so I don’t think he wants to do lots of fun things. Mostly he’d just like to rest.

So the way I see to combine everyone’s preferences is to, primarily, have enough time for rest (which also gives me time to read). We can do some fun things, but I shouldn’t try to pack too many activities into a few days. And I should also accept it if my brother and/or my boyfriend don’t want to join and not take it personally.

It really helps when everyone is honest about what they want. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I proposed that my mom, my brother, and I go to a Christmas concert during their stay. I didn’t really want to go but thought it might be nice and fun for my mom. My brother didn’t really want to go. And then my mom also said that she’s been going to plenty of concerts recently, so she’d rather go for walks in nature parks. Perfect! That’s what I prefer as well.

Then I realized I’d really like to watch the new Fantastic Beasts movie in the cinema, and I asked the others whether they wanted to go. It turned out that everyone was up for it, so now we’re doing a simple, easy, fun thing together. What a nice outcome.

It really helps to first clarify in your own mind what you’d like out of the holiday season and then discuss that with the people you’ll be spending that time with. If everybody is clear about what they’d like, it’s much easier to find a way to make people happy.

What is your intention for the holidays? Do those align with how your close people want to spend this time? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

How I un-freaked myself out about planning my own wedding

I was seriously freaking out about my wedding. But once I figured out what was important to me and how to put that into practice, it became much easier and less stressful.

When I mentioned I am planning my wedding, many of my friends made jokes: “You love organization, so this must be heaven for you!” Everyone knows planning a wedding is stressful, but people assumed it was easy for me.

The truth is, it wasn’t heaven at all. I was freaking out. Completely! What kind of event should we have? Where should it be? How should we do it exactly? I had no idea.

Also, there are so many expectations around weddings. They are supposed to be gorgeous, elegant, fun, romantic, delicious (the food), entertaining… I felt like there was no way I’d be able to fulfill all these expectations and that the guests wouldn’t enjoy the event for one reason or another.

Whenever I shared this concern with friends, they said, “But you don’t need to worry about that! It’s not about the other people, it’s about you. This is your day!”

“Really?” I thought. “This is supposed to be my day? But if it really were my day, I would do it very differently.” But this was a strange thought because I had an idea of what weddings should be like, and that didn’t particularly attract me.

 

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Photo credit: Logan Zillmer

I was fortunate enough to have multiple people around me consistently ask, “What do you want?” The truth was that I didn’t know what I wanted. I had never thought about it, and I had no clue.

In the end, it all came down to identifying my priorities. What’s important to me and what do I enjoy? I am not much into ceremonies and formal rituals, but I enjoy being in nature and being together with friends and family. (Fortunately, my fiance has the same priorities.) Once I identified these things as the most important, instead of expectations based on past experiences, things became clearer in my mind.

I also had to battle FOMO (the fear of missing out). What if, at some point in the future, I regretted not having a formal wedding? What if it turned out this was something I wanted?

I had to think about something Gretchen Rubin said: “If it’s right for us to throw something away, we should, even if someone else would pick it up.” In my case, it might be right for someone else to have a formal wedding, but it’s not the right thing for me. Why? Because it’s not what feels right right now. I have no idea what will feel important to me in the future, but I can try to figure out what feels right now.

Once I identified what my priorities are and what feels right to me, I knew what to do. As I described in the blog post about my system, I made a Trello board for our wedding, identified projects and tasks, and started getting stuff done.

Before, I had felt paralyzed and couldn’t start acting because I didn’t know what I wanted. But once I identified what I wanted and broke it down into manageable tasks, it became easy to act. It’s amazing how having clarity about what we want and why we want it can reduce our stress and get us going.

Have you been stressed about a major project you had to undertake? Did you find a way to reduce the stress and manage the project better? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

How I Learned to Pace Myself So I Don’t Burn out

Six years ago, I got close to burn out for the first time. I was in college, it was exam week, and I had my last exam the following morning. It was for the course Psychopharmacology, probably the most difficult exam I’ve ever taken. I had studied so much that I knew I’d do well, but nevertheless I was miserable. I lay in bed, trying to sleep, but names of pharmacological compounds and various brain areas were swimming in my head incessantly. What was more, I had a fever, and I kept tossing and turning in bed. My stress levels were through the roof because I couldn’t sleep, and I knew how important sleep is for performance at an exam. Needless to say, trying to make myself sleep only made things worse.

It was a truly terrible night. I felt exhausted beyond belief but still unable to rest. My mind was incredibly anxious, and every single thought was torture. Perhaps the worst was that I felt helpless to change anything or to make myself feel better. None of my usual tricks worked, so I just had to lie there, waiting for morning to come.

Lying there, I thought about what I had done to bring myself to this place. The answer was clear: I had overworked myself. I had worked hard for many weeks and months on end, without taking proper breaks and without letting myself rest. I was taking five classes instead of the recommended four (because of course I could do more), and I had three side jobs (because I could do it all!). My only time off of studying and working was Friday and Saturday evenings. Literally.

I still can’t believe I did that to myself. I know how important it is to get some rest, exercise, and have at least a little bit of free time. But I found myself in a situation where every single minute was crammed full of things to do, and I felt constantly anxious about whether I’d manage to complete everything I needed to do.

I think it had a lot to do with the environment. When everybody else appears to be pushing themselves to their limits, it seems to be the right thing to do. And since my self-worth was on the line, i.e., I felt like I would not succeed if I didn’t do that as well, it seemed like the only thing to do. There was no choice, I just had to keep pushing.

On that night when I lay in bed and couldn’t sleep before my last exam, I felt incredibly sad for us humans. We push ourselves so far, to the point of breaking, and we usually only realize it once we are broken. We feel that the only way to be happy, or to deserve to be happy, is by completing that impossibly long to-do list. But we never quite get to that happy point; instead, we just pass out at the end of the day, utterly exhausted. The next morning, we have a new to-do list to complete.

———

That experience (and many others like it) have led me to make some changes. For me, that sleepless night marks a ‘before and after’ point. Before it, I used to take on as much as possible on my plate, trusting that I would figure it out somehow. After that night, I knew that I was able to do all those things, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. What’s the point of succeeding at a bunch of stuff if I broke myself in the process? To me it was clear that it wasn’t worth it.

What followed was an extended (and still ongoing) search for how far it’s good to push myself. It must be a dynamic balance: I don’t want to sit around and do nothing all the time, but I also don’t want to burn myself out. So what’s the right balance?

I immediately made some changes after that psychopharmacology exam. For the following semester, I signed up for four courses (apparently, it’s the recommended number for a reason) and dropped one of my part-time jobs. I also made time to exercise regularly and to meditate. Moreover, I prioritized sleep: I made sure I got seven hours of sleep each night. (Side note: seven hours a night was still not enough for me, but I only realized that a couple of years later when I started sleeping eight hours a night and suddenly I didn’t need caffeine anymore! How surprising!)

Nowadays, I am much stricter about taking care of myself. I monitor my energy levels and my anxiety levels to make sure I steer clear of ‘the danger zone.’ It’s still a struggle sometimes when other people are (or appear to be) so much busier and doing so much more, but I need to do what works for me. Even if I feel that anxious urge to do more, I force myself to do less. For example, at the end of the work day, I know it’s time to get up and go to the gym, but I feel guilty leaving my work. If I could only stay and do a couple more hours of work… but no, I get up, go to the gym, get moving, and give my mind a break. I inevitably feel better than if I had stayed at my desk and kept working until I felt exhausted. And the next morning I’m actually excited to do my work again! What’s more, in this way I have more energy for the important relationships in my life as well.

There are several simple things I prioritized to make sure I don’t overwork myself:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Good food
  • Meditation
  • Rest/free time (at least a little bit)

In the next blog post, I will describe specific things I do to ensure I don’t overwork myself and to maintain stable energy levels and a fulfilling lifestyle. Stay tuned!

What Is It Like to Be You? Description 5

I spend my days vacillating between experiencing small pleasures (recently eating mango ice cream with fresh lime juice or noticing acts of kindness or a sunrise) and noticing small discomforts (often fatigue or noticing disappointments). I am intensely happy when I feel loved or when I feel like I can make a difference or when I can lose myself in the act of creating something. I feel deeply sad when I am isolated, betrayed, or don’t feel understood or cared for. I worry a lot about whether I’m competent or smart or talented or likable and if that’s enough. I like to feel like I’m a deeply good and caring person. I like to feel like an artist. I like to analyze what has made me the way I am.