by anne lueneburger


Willpower    /’WIΙ paVe® = capacity to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions

Have you already made your New Years resolution for 2018? If you have and you do succeed, you are part of an elite minority of 8 percent that achieves their goal. What makes it so (damn) hard to succeed?

Slava Koza, a 33-year old chess instructor from New Jersey, led a pretty ordinary life. Everything changed when he fell madly in love with Alina, a New York City ballet dancer who did not love him back. Heartbroken, he was determined to prove that he would go to the end of the world for her. He started running 50 miles a day, first through the US, then Europe. Mile for mile he pushed forward, despite swollen feet, aching knees and a heavy heart. Even when Alina told him that she had started dating someone else, did Slava not stop running.

What allows one person to push through hardship where another would long give up? The phenomenon of willpower has long occupied psychology and neuroscience. Willpower as a psychological trait is the game changer in life: it is a key predictor of happiness and well-being. People who have superior willpower do get better grades in school, have higher levels of confidence, are more successful in their careers, have stronger relationships, and are physically healthier and live longer.

So if willpower carries so many benefits, why do we struggle to resist that extra helping of Tiramisu or getting out of our chair for a 5K run? While willpower varies based on our DNA, it does not really explain why we slouch on the couch. The reason we fail to achieve future dreams is that we frequently do not know how to use and strengthen our willpower in the here and now.

The bad news is: willpower functions like a muscle, it tires when overused. On average we spend about 4 hours a day challenging ourselves to make good choices and decision fatigue creeps in. The good news is: like a muscle, we can train and grow our willpower. Princeton trained psychologist Roy Baumeister shows in his research that with clever tactics we can increase our ability to achieve our goals by a whooping 89 percent. Here is how:

1. Set a measurable, achievable goal: the more specific you make your goal (i.e. what, by when, how) the more likely you are to stay on track.

Do: Read this if you want to learn more how to make change stick.

2. Get the basics right. Attend to your willpower physiology  such as sleep, following a healthy diet, and exercising. Without a basic life hygiene we are setting ourselves up to fail.

Do: Daily get 7-9 hours of sleep, aim for a minimum of 35 minutes of exercise, and, as Michael Pollen said: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.

3. Envision your future self. The more we feel that our future self is a stranger, the less likely we are to protect it. However, if we feel familiar with our future self we are twice as likely to invest in our long-term vision. We procrastinate less and we are more likely to make sacrifices in the here and now for a better future.

Do: Imagine yourself in your future daily life in great detail, even to the degree of imagining yourself grocery shopping. Write a letter from your future self to your present self: who you are, what you are doing, where you are living, what you care about. Thank your present self and why it matters. Be optimistic in this letter and imagine the positive effects of making that change. Create a 3-D avatar; what does your future self look like? Feel like that future self is real and in some way you. Also, think about what will it feel like if you do not make that change.

4. Plan for obstacles. Even if it is nice to envision success, be interested in how you might fail and plan your responses. Predict when you might be tempted to break your vow and it prepares you to make good decisions in the face of temptation. Optimism motivates, but a dash of pessimism can help us succeed and we can better manage the shock factor when we have a set back.

Do: Ask yourself: What will be the biggest obstacle(s)? When and where is this obstacle most likely to occur? What can I do to prevent it? What specific thing will I do to get back to my goal when this obstacle happens?

5. Practice self-compassion. The harder (shame & guilt) you are on yourself when you get off track, the more likely you are to fail again. We are human and set backs are bound to happen. In fact, studies show that when people are reminded of their to-date progress they are much more likely to do something that interferes with their future success.

Do: Go for encouragement over criticism: Think about what you would say to a friend if they failed.

6. Surf the urge. It is hard for us humans not to give in to temptation in the moment. During a 2007 study of chimpanzees and humans, both groups were offered two favorite snacks now or six favorite snacks later if they waited two minutes. While 72% of the chimpanzees were able to wait out the two minutes, only 19% of the humans were prepared to make the short term sacrifice.

Do: Notice your thought, craving or feeling. Accept this inner experience. Breathe in to the count of 5, hold on the count of 6, and breathe out on the count of 7. Do this several times a day and give your brain and body a chance to pause and plan. Broaden your attention, and look for the action that will help you achieve your goal.

7. Never break the chain twice.  Progress will happen even if you take baby steps. Say you want to stop eating meat but have set backs. As long as you make sure that you never have two set backs in a row (i.e. eating meat during two consecutive meals), you will slowly but surely get closer to achieving your goal by pure mathematics.

Do: Watch this.

And as for love-struck Slava, you might wonder? After running more than 10,000 miles, Alina finally went out with him for another date. Like a good fairy tale with a happy ending, Slava got the girl.

slava and alina

Slava is likely among the few lucky ones who are born with a high degree of determination. For the rest of us, while we are unable to draw on what Mother Nature didn’t give us, we can use the tactics described earlier and build good habits. Creating automated processes will help us overcome decision fatigue and use the willpower resources we have more effectively.

With this, borrowing from Star Wars, May the force be with you in 2018!

Read more:

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney



by renita kalhorn


True life is lived when tiny changes occur. ~Leo Tolstoy

It’s that time of year, at least for me, where I look back and think, where did the year go — what did I accomplish?

I was reviewing my notebooks and seeing that I’d been writing about some of the same career, language and fitness goals for years. My first thought was: “Wow, nothing’s changed!” and my achievement-loving self felt a pang of despair.

Then I thought, “Wait a minute, a lot has changed:” I’ve created a bi-continental life between NYC and Paris, for one, and have made gains on all the Olympic lifts, for another. Once I started making a list, I saw there were, in fact, plenty of positive changes in my life, large and small, that signaled I was moving toward my goals.

Human nature strikes again, this time with “change blindness.” Research shows that we’re surprisingly capable of missing even major changes right in front of us. (In one hilarious study, 50%+ of the people who were asked directions on the street didn’t notice when the person they were talking to was replaced by someone else after construction workers walked between them.)

We have a kind of “change blindness” when it comes to our daily lives as well. For positive change, that is — we’ll notice negative change right away.

But as Harvard professor Teresa Amabile showed in her research, we feel most motivated when we have a sense that we’re making progress. So, in the same way we can catch people doing things right, we can focus on the tiny positive changes resulting from our efforts.

It’s easy enough when the change is concrete and quantifiable: when we can point to revenues increased, subscribers gained, pounds lost, errors reduced.

But when it comes to behavior or performance, there’s often no way to measure incremental progress. So we have to get good at noticing subtle differences — something I learned as a musician, when the only evidence of my hours of practice was a slight improvement in rhythmic control or melodic phrasing.

Did you bounce back from a disappointing email in minutes instead of hours? Catch yourself before getting defensive in the meeting? Manage to say no to your colleague who usually pressures you into saying yes? Make it through the workout with no breaks? Forget there was chocolate in the cupboard instead of obsessing about it? (That was a big tiny change for me!)

These are all signs of progress.

Then, as Professor of Psychology Todd Kashdan says, you have to savor it: “Stop for 10 seconds and soak up all the details. It requires 10 seconds for the brain to be Velcro with the win so it’s sticky in your brain.”

There is no progress too small to celebrate. What’s one tiny positive change you’ve noticed today?

And Happy Holidays from your North of Neutral team – wishing you and your loved ones a peaceful transition into 2018! 

by anne lueneburger


A few weeks ago a blog post went up: “Failure #2: Not being Anne Lueneburger”. Looking at the title, I giggled. Was that a joke? I soon realized its author, my friend Tricia, was being serious.

Reading on, I was perplexed that someone so accomplished, who has such a full life, would think she might be falling short. And I admired her courage of sharing her vulnerability so openly. Tricia is one of the most likeable, interesting and smart women I have met. Together with her husband Stan, she is raising three young daughters in rural Canada. She captures their life off the beaten path in her blog: Experimentingaswegrow.

My mood changed. Surprise was replaced by feeling flattered. Really, she thought I was interesting? That I was successful? Admiration feels good. But a feeling of discomfort soon followed. I recognized the voice Tricia shared as one that had created similar narratives in my own head: thinking that I have/am less [fill in the blank] than someone else. Most of us have moments of being tough on ourselves.

Psychology labels the emotion that results from unfavorable social comparison as envy. This emotion that so many of us feel, if not addressed, can lead to bouts of anxiety, feeling deprived and depressed.

The biology of “envy”

Envy lights up the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex part of our brain. Envy in humans intensifies especially with people who we perceive to be similar to us, such as age, job experience, or values. Not surprisingly, when we look at 360-degree feedback results, our peers tend to be our toughest critics, more than our boss or our direct reports.

Coming up short in social comparisons essentially conflicts with our need to maintain a positive self-image. The result is a two-fold emotional pain: self-social (disappointment in ourselves) and social exclusion (feeling inadequate as we look at others). The more we think the other person outshines us, the greater the pain. A sad reality is that when the coveted person gets unlucky, key reward nodes in our brains get activated. Envy goes, Schadenfreude comes.

How do we get out of this thinking trap?

Whether we resent our colleague’s ability to articulate confidently in front of the Board or a friend’s financial independence, envy is a mood hoover. But we can zap its power supply: feeling inferior.

Step 1: Start with compassion: If a friend at work gets passed over for promotion, you would feel for them. What then is wrong with some self-compassion when you are experiencing a tough stretch? Offer phrases that you might say to them to yourself: “No wonder you feel stressed/bored/frustrated when you look at [person x] who is the boss’s favorite. But they have been here twice the time you have, so allow yourself to be patient.” While we do not have a lot of control in life, we do have control over how kind we are to ourselves.

Step 2: Understand where your negative self-judgment stems from: Negative self-judgment precedes feelings of envy. Where does your tough inner critic come from? Possibly another person exemplifies what your parents envied or admired. For example, if your parents idealized a college education or financial success, you might be craving this in your own life. Looking at your ideal self and giving it a reality test is important. Maybe it is time for an overhaul when it comes to the standards you are measuring yourself against. What really matters to you?

Step 3 Count your blessings: As Buddha said, “the way to happiness is actually quite simple: the secret is to learn to want what you have and not to want what you don’t have.” Writing a gratitude journal is a powerful intervention that leads us back into a positive spiral.

Step 4: Wish the other person well: “May you be successful in your next role”. This can be hard. But it is the ultimate road to envy-less bliss: celebrating another person’s success.

And if everything else fails, why not run the thought experiment of how you would feel about exchanging your life 1:1 with that of the person you think has something you want. Cherry picking does not work, you gotta eat the whole cake.

I guess in the case of Tricia and me that would mean a bit of along the lines of the US reality TV show of Trading Places. Are we ready Tricia? I for one feel intimidated by the thought of stepping into your shoes, even for a week. Not sure I would be able to measure up.


vision = act as if


“To believe in the things you can see and touch is no belief at all; but to believe in the unseen is a triumph and a blessing.”
~ Abraham Lincoln


by renita kalhorn

Too often, we get it backwards. We think it’s when we reach our big goal – the seven-figure revenues, ideal body or championship trophy — that we can believe it’s possible.In fact, we have to embrace our vision before it actually happens: “You’ll see it when you believe it,” said Wayne Dyer.

That’s what Roger Federer proved when he won Wimbledon again this year, after not winning a major tournament for five years (!), even as many publicly expressed their belief that he couldn’t.” I kept believing and dreaming,” he said afterwards. “If you keep believing you can go really far in life.”

The thing is, “believing and dreaming” is hard because our brain does NOT want to imagine a different reality than the one in front of us. “That’s a waste of valuable mental energy,” says the brain, waving its calculator. “Let’s just keep scanning the current environment for potential threats and react the way we always do. More efficient that way.”

So how do you get around that?

Start from where you are with what you have.

When Jake Jacobs, founder of Winds of Change Group, wanted to take his company to $5M in annual revenues, he and his team began behaving like a $5M company wherever they could in the way they were currently conducting business: who they had as clients, what services they were offering, how they closed deals and how they delivered upon promises.

Start with tiny actions.

Even the smallest change can have a ripple effect. I spoke with a technology entrepreneur who feels in limbo while he waits for funding to come through. Once it does, he told me, he wants to get a receptionist, upgrade the office environment and showcase the artwork of up and coming artists (he showed me one of them, sitting on the floor, unhung). “Hang the picture!” I told him. “Put a table where the receptionist will sit. Send a signal to yourself (and your team) that things are happening NOW.”

Start with how you talk.

Another entrepreneur is seeking funding to develop a crucial piece of her technology. Though what she says sounds positive — “I’m going to get the money” — those words actually put her in a place of always being about to get the money, not actually having it. Instead, if you say, “I’m getting the money” it starts you thinking about what you’ll do when you receive the payment (in her case, prioritizing a to-do list for the developer).

The good news is you don’t have to be utterly convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, of your invincibility. Golfer Jordan Spieth said after coming back from three bogeys to win The Open Championship: “Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps are the greatest to ever do what they did, and I’m not. But if you believe that you are, then you’re almost as good as being that. And it’s so hard in that situation to believe that, but just having just the slightest bit of belief in it makes you so confident.”

That’s what “act as if” really means. It’s not about faking it, pulling the wool over people’s eyes or shirking your current responsibilities. It’s about cultivating the slightest bit of belief, one tiny action at a time.

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”

~ Albert Einstein


by renita kalhorn

If you’re a working human being in the modern world, you’re keenly, maybe even obsessively, aware of time, with thoughts like: “I don’t have enough time.” “This is taking too long.” “I’m falling behind.” For sure, it’s hard not to come from a place of scarcity around time when our success seems to revolve around it.

But before you read another article about time management or productivity hacks, first understand this: Your brain perceives lack of time as an actual survival threat. Which means every time you imagine an unwanted consequence related to time, you’re likely triggering a “fight or flight” response.

You think: “How are we going to get this bug fixed before the client meeting tomorrow morning?” (Your brain registers: Death is imminent!) You think: “We’re not going to make our quota this month.” (Your brain registers: Death is imminent!)

Now, think about the hundred other ways you can be triggered by time scarcity during a typical work day: you need to hire that rock star salesperson before your competitor does, get through traffic to a client meeting, finish a meeting in time to make your flight, get home in time to see your kids before they go to bed, and the list goes on.…

The thing is, there’s a cost, a sort of bandwidth tax, associated with this “time scarcity” mindset. According to economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir, authors of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, our perception of being overwhelmed or feeling behind induces a kind of shortsightedness that makes us “less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled.” Not exactly the recipe for stellar decision-making.

And remember, fight-or-flight reaction produces a rush of stress hormones like adrenaline or cortisol and, over time, we can become as addicted to this state of scarcity as we do to caffeine, alcohol or other chemical substances. So even though you may think you want to feel less stressed and more calm, your body has other ideas — it’s craving its adrenaline fix and is not going to easily let you change your habits.

So while you can’t eliminate the fight or flight response, you can train yourself to interrupt and neutralize it. Here’s how:

Step 1: Recognize the false alarms. Because so much of our behavior is automatic and deeply conditioned, most of the time we’re not even conscious of what sets us off. But you can start to notice your signature “fight or flight” triggers: Do you feel a pit in your stomach when you see the CEO walking toward you? Panic a little when a certain name comes up on your phone? Each time, ask yourself whether your survival is literally, actually, in danger: “Am I being chased by a sabertoothed tiger?” “Is my hair on fire?” If not, you can tell yourself: “False alarm! My life is not in danger.”

Step 2: Get back to the present moment. For most of our waking hours, we’re in our heads, reliving the past or transposing it into the future. When we’re in a meeting, we’re thinking about getting back to work; while writing an email to the team, we’re rehashing what someone said in the meeting; in a call with the client we’re wondering what to eat for lunch…we’re never really fully present in the moment that’s right here, right now.

And yet, all our power to solve our perceived problems is in the present moment: “It’s easy to miss a potential piece to your innovation puzzle when it’s right under your nose if you aren’t there,” says Angela Benton, founder of NewME Accelerator. As I’ve said before, a ridiculously simple but effective way to bring your attention back to the moment is to simply narrate the facts of what you’re doing (leaving out the emotional content): “I am listening to the conference call…” “I am calling the client…”

Step 3: See time as a tool not a threat. “Time and space are not conditions in which we live but modes in which we think,” said Albert Einstein. That’s the difference between being in survival mode and working well under pressure. If you see time as a condition that you can manage, you will feel out of control when you perceive that you can’t. Instead, use time as a tool to manage something that is in your control: your attention. Decide how much time you’ll spend answering emails (15 minutes), brainstorming new sales prospects (30 minutes). Try the pomodoro technique.

You’ll have the same amount of time as before, but you’ll feel more in control, less in survival mode.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

cat and dog negotiate

by jennifer bezoza

So often the anticipation of having a “difficult conversation” is worse than the reality of actually having the conversation. We build it up in our heads, avoid it and imagine the worst case scenario for it. We may feel too emotional about a topic to hold a productive conversation or we may anticipate the subject may be too emotional for the other person so we may avoid it for too long.

I recently had the opportunity to teach a few half-day classes for a financial services client; this particular client is going through a major transformation in how they provide technology services internally.   As a self-described “nice” culture, the organization’s leadership wanted to enhance technology leaders capacity to confront business leaders productively and transparently, and help business partners to own the change implementation process alongside the technology function; thus, they needed to build managers confidence and competence in leading delicate conversations with the internal client groups they serve.

So often, what makes the difference between a difficult and productive conversation is our level of care and planning in advance of the conversation. What I increasingly appreciate in reflecting on this topic intensely over the last several weeks is that our tolerance and savvy for difficult conversations grows exponentially the more we do it.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself and also practice answering with a thought partner when you are thinking about broaching a difficult conversation with someone else at work or in your life:

1/How could having this conversation positively advance the cause?

2/What could be the worst case scenario of having this conversation?

3/What would be ideal outcome of having this conversation?

4/Do you care enough about this person, this work and the beneficial outcomes to broach this topic?

5/What is the most constructive, positive next step(s) you can take to prepare for the conversation?

In teaching this topic, I have had to ask myself whether I am fully seizing every opportunity I have to be a positive change agent as a coach and consultant, a parent, a friend and colleague, and as a concerned citizen. I realize that with lots of practice, it has become much easier and even seamless for me to regularly confront difficult topics, and also to make those “difficult” conversations natural, respectful and even enjoyable.

Especially in today’s climate, where political outcomes and decisions in Washington, DC may have thrown us for a loop, it’s grounding and affirming to be able to speak up and impact change in our sphere of influence.   It seems there is no better time to be able to navigate and confront meaningful topics, in face of an increasingly volatile national and international climate.

Want more? You might also enjoy reading our entry the road from ‘no’ to ‘yes’.