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Hot emails and emotional control

Abraham Lincoln got mad at times.  When he did, he had an interesting technique to deal with it.  He’d write what he called a ‘hot letter’.  In an article published yesterday in the New York Times, Maria Konnikova describes how Lincoln, for example, wrote a hot letter to General George C. Meade to express his fury and frustration that he’d allowed Robert E. Lee to escape Gettysburg.  He would pour all his bile into these letters, then mark them ‘Never sent. Never signed.’

Organizations are emotion-soaked places these days.  As we scramble in our headlong quest for personal productivity, we inevitably bump and even collide with others whose aims aren’t perfectly aligned with ours.  As we race to get it all done, small obstacles get magnified by our urgency and anxiety, and we can over-react.  In short, we’re flustered and so we fluster others.

shutterstock_15143455Yet, as the challenges and demands of organizational life continue to increase, we need to learn to manage our emotions better; to stay calm and focused no matter what is happening around us.  Which brings me back to Lincoln’s letters.  As I read Konnikova’s article I came up with an idea: how about setting up a ‘hot email’ alias.  Effectively create an email account which you, and only you, have access to.  Whenever you are angry or upset with anyone, unreservedly pile your angst into an email and send to your new alias.

Why does this help?  I think there are three reasons this could be beneficial.  The first and obvious one is that, after writing your hot email, you can then come back to it the following day and more dispassionately decide what you want to send.  Relationships are vital in our highly-matrixed organizations, so an overnight pause to reconsider what you want to say can save a lot of time and energy later in rebuilding trust.

The second reason is focus.  When we are in the throes of anger or frustration, our limbic system fires up and valuable mental resources are diverted away from the pre-frontal cortex.  In short, we become more stupid and less able to focus when we’re hot and bothered.  We lose time we simply haven’t got to spare.  Research has consistently shown that writing about our emotions is an efficient method to diffuse extreme feelings to regain focus and calm. A few minutes blasting someone in an email (to our hot email address) could save hours of unproductive festering.

Finally, there has been a lot of research on the benefits of mindfulness for well-being, creativity and effectiveness.  One of the central aspects of mindfulness is the ability to observe your thoughts and reactions to events, rather than being hooked emotionally by them. If we can understand how we get ‘hooked’ better, we can observe when this happens and learn to stay calm more often.  If we begin a practice of sending our hot emails to a particular email address, we are effectively building up a record of what causes us to lose emotional control.  I think that as we read our history of vitriolic outbursts, not only would they be hilarious in retrospect, we can learn a lot about ourselves.  We can learn to be more mindful of our reactions, to choose different responses in the moment and so stay more focused and effective more often.

What will you call your hot email alias?

Productivity through chunking and slicing

How long does your attention stay on one thing at work?  One study found that office workers switch task every three minutes.  You’re working on a project and ‘ping’ an email arrives.  You leap into action and deal with the email before returning to the project…then an IM pops onto your screen.  It feels good swatting away all those incoming demands, like some task-juggling Jedi: the brain rewards bouncing between tasks with a release of dopamine.  The more we hopscotch, the more effective we feel

However this feeling of effectiveness is misplaced.  Each time you switch tasks the brain has to re-orientate itself to the rules of the new task.  In fact, switching backwards and forwards between tasks has been shown to increase the time taken to complete both tasks by 30%.  So, anyone habitually bouncing between activities, who allows themselves to be tempted by the ‘ping’, could be losing two hours of raw productivity each day


Big chunk your time

The impact of switching tasks on productivity is seen most strongly for more intellectually demanding activities such as problem solving, prioritizing or planning.  Your brain needs more time to get into gear, to grapple with the issues.  Think of it like a new job.  If you have been employed to perform a simple task, you will probably get up to speed pretty quickly.  However, take on a big role and you simply won’t be able to add value for months.  I worked with a Brasilian VP in a major multinational who was taking on his first role in the Asia Pacific Region.  He spent his first three months doing nothing except chatting and learning.  He recognized he needed time to understand before he could perform.  Big, complex tasks are the same: you need time to kick the issues around before you can deliver value.  If you switch tasks before you have got fully up to speed, you are losing significant efficiency.  Big tasks need big chunks of time

So, when you are working on that big task today…shut off your distractions to reduce the temptation to hop, skip and jump away from productive focus


Are thin slices ever good for big tasks?

In 1927, a Gestalt psychologist called Bluma Zeigarnik was sat in a Vienna coffee house with a bunch of friends.  They ordered a few rounds of drinks, yet the waiter never wrote down their order.  Intrigued by this, after the bill was paid and the group had left the coffee house, Zeigarnik returned.  On questioning the waiter, she found that he no longer could recall what her group had drunk.  One way of interpreting this is that the brain works with open and closed files.  Once the bill had been paid, the waiter closed the file and forgot.  This has become known as the Zeigarnik effect (and people tend to be twice as likely to remember things in open files than in closed ones)

I use the Zeigarnik Effect slightly differently.  If I have a big task to do, one that requires creativity or deep thought, I’ll deliberately ‘open the file’ a few days before I actually want to do the work.  In practice this simply involves starting to work on the problem for about 20 minutes, possibly in the form of a mindmap.  I then leave my subconscious to work its magic.  When I finally begin to work on the task in earnest, my thinking and ideas flow

What file should you leave open today?

We need more doubt

I don’t see enough doubt…and it really worries me.

As I psychologist, I understand why we prefer not to doubt but, for businesses at least, there has never been a time in history where doubting is more important.

Two significant reasons why people don’t doubt are:


1.  Believing, not doubting is our default state; we doubt by exception.

Take the statement: Lizards love playing Sudoku.

What happened as you read the statement above is that an image of a lizard sitting in front of a Sudoku puzzle, probably holding a pen, popped into your head.  In doing this, for a little while at least, you believed me.  Daniel Gilbert explains that to understand anything we first have to believe [1].  Or, more accurately, to understand something we must first know what the idea would mean if it were true.  So we picture it as if it’s true.  It is only then that we may or may not begin to question whether it is true.

We normally, however, don’t bother to try and disbelieve, because it’s hard work.  You see, our brains constitute about 2% of our body weight, but use up 20% of all the energy you consume.  It’s not that the brain is lazy, it’s just on a serious budget: conserving energy is one of its prime objectives.  It does this by splitting mental functioning into two types:  System 1 and System 2.  System 1 is fast, automatic, easy and unconscious.  System 2 is slow, hard and conscious.  The brain, to reduce its workload, processes as much as it can with System 1.  Believing is System 1.  Doubting is System 2.

Information that is odd, or that we’re alerted to, will prompt us to make the conscious effort of will to fire up our System 2 to verify our belief.  However, in the normal cut and thrust of daily life, the majority of data is received as unquestioned fact.  In addition, because System 1 is unconscious, we’re not even aware that we haven’t properly analysed the information…it is accepted as a ‘taken for granted’ piece of information.


2.  We believe more when the brain is busy.

System 2 is more effortful and has severe limitations as to how much it can handle at once.  So, if the brain is busy consciously processing other things, there is less capability left for doubt, so you believe even more.  Gilbert ran a nice experiment to show this [1].  He gave people a series of nonsensical statements for them to remember such as  ‘a dinca is a flame’.  Some of the participants he also asked to hold numbers in their head at the same time (thus using up some processing power).  Later, those who had to remember the numbers as well as the statements, believed more of the nonsense.


The importance of doubt

Yet doubt is crucial.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studies Nobel Prize Laureates to see what had led to their breakthroughs in their fields [2].  He found a consistent pattern: identifying solutions wasn’t the hard thing; it was finding the right question to ask.  Once they had identified the right question, the solutions flowed swiftly.

As we struggle our way out of the financial crisis; as we deal with the unprecedented complexity and interconnectedness of global markets [3], companies will not succeed through increases in efficiency.  They will not succeed through finding new solutions.  Successful companies will fundamentally change the way they operate; they will make breakthroughs and disrupt the markets they are in.  Breakthroughs don’t need new solutions; they need great new questions.  Such organizations will find a way to have their people start questioning the ‘taken for granted’, they will question everything.  Questions don’t arise from certainty, they come from doubt.

Thirty years ago German companies used to employ philosophers to create doubt in their businesses and identify fundamental questions.  Who’s doing that in your business today?  In most of the organizations I work in, all I see is people too busy to question; too distracted to doubt.  We need to kill the mantra that says ‘Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions’.   Managers and leaders should do all in their power to be catalysts of doubt.  It is only through doubt that the next great questions and breakthroughs will emerge.


[1] In ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ Daniel Kahneman (a brilliant book)

[2] In ‘Breakthrough thinking inside the box’ Kevin P. Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford, and Renée Dye. Harvard Business Review 2007

[3] Capitalizing on Complexity.  IBM CEO Study. 2010.  A survey of 1500 CEOs across the globe that identified the biggest single challenge facing their businesses as being the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of global markets.  Further, they acknowledged that their organizations were simply not equipped to deal with this and needed to find new ways of responding.

Thinking with your body

For this little experiment you will need a pen.

Hold the pen lightly in your lips.  Then read the following statement: Why don’t oysters ever donate to charity? Because they are shellfish!

Now, take the same pen and hold it in your teeth.  Now read: Where is the English Channel? I’m not sure. We don’t get it on our TV!

Which statement did you find funnier?  Typically, irrespective of whether it’s jokes, stories or comics people find things funnier when they hold the pen in their teeth than when they hold it in their lips.

This is because of something called embodied cognition.  In plain language, our thoughts and emotions are affected by the position or sensations in our body; and vice versa.  This stands to reason since the only real reason we think at all is so we take the necessary actions to survive or mate.  Cognition isn’t simply a brain thing.

Some weird examples:



When people feel socially rejected, they start wanting a hot drink to warm up; and when people are holding a warm drink, they rate themselves closer to important people in their lives than when they hold a cold drink.



Shakespeare was right when he had Lady Macbeth say “Out damn spot, out I say!”: people actually do have a greater desire to wash after their morals are threatened; and conversely, feel transgressions are less morally wrong when they wash their hands.



People who were criticized when lying down had less left precortical activity (the part of the brain that goes into overdrive when we experience extreme emotion) than those sitting down.



People are more likely to cheat in the dark, or act selfishly when wearing sunglasses.



Back to the pen and the jokes.  When you held the pen in your teeth it moved your face’s smiling or zygomatic muscles.  The brain assumes the fact you are smiling means the joke is funny.  Conversely, holding the pen between your lips prevented these muscles being activated, so you assume it isn’t funny.


So next time you’re trying to influence how someone feels, think first about how their body feels.  If you want people to warm to you, turn the thermostat up or serve hot drinks; to accept an idea or bad news, make them comfortable…literally;  or to take your arguments seriously, put them in a weighty folder!





For a great summary of all this research and more in this area see:

Barbara Isanski and Catherine West. The Body of Knowledge: Understanding Embodied Cognition

The madness of creativity

Writers and artists are 8 – 10 times more likely to suffer mood disorders than the general public.  Does this show what many have long believed: that truly creative people are a bit odd?  Maybe, but I think is has more to say about the importance of mood on creativity.

So what does it take to be ‘in the mood’ to be creative?  The advice around producing a creative atmosphere, for example for brainstorming, has always been to foster a trusting, positive mood.   Rubbish!  The results just don’t support this ‘best practice’ view.  Both positive and negative moods have been linked to improved creative performance.  For example, watching tapes of stand-up comics increases the frequency of creative insight.  Whereas being blasted with negative feedback improves the creativity and quality of paintings produced afterwards.

To help make sense of this, I want to refer to some lovely research at the University of Amsterdam.  It was shown that creative output is less about whether the mood is positive or negative, but how extreme the mood is.  They classed moods as being ‘activating’ (happiness, anger, fear) or ‘deactivating’ (calm, relaxed, sad, depressed).   Activating moods – both positive and negative -caused a surge in creativity, deactivating moods had little effect.

There is a difference of course, before all you leaders out there start ranting and raving at your teams to spark their powers of innovation.   Anger and fear – even simply seeing someone being shouted at – have been shown to narrow people’s thought processes.  People observe and think less expansively, making fewer lateral insights.  However they are more persistent and urgent.  So if creativity is what’s required, people will work hard at creativity.  It’s unlikely to be truly breakthrough originality, but it will be good and solid creative output.

On the other hand, people who are happy and having fun (activating states) also produce more creative ideas, but this time from more cognitive flexibility.  One of the central mechanisms in the brain for generating insight is the ability of the brain to switch from one line of thought to another; to see a problem from a different perspective.  Happy people do this much more than those either in a deactivating or a negative mood.  They also think and see more widely, they are more likely to spot things (physically or intellectually) that can help lead to insight that others simply miss.  Genuinely new thinking is more likely to emerge from happiness.

There you have it, if you want your team (or yourself) to create, the last thing you should do is make everyone relaxed and comfortable (or sad).  Get them going!  Fire them up with anger or fear: they’ll produce a lot of creative stuff, though it may be more mechanical.  Or help them to have a lot of fun: and stand back as the ideas fly!

So are truly creative people mad?  The chances are they just experience more extreme moods, or put themselves in situations that generate stronger reactions (good or bad) than most of us.  When they are at their best, ‘creatives’ probably are mad (angry)…or maybe just really happy.


Key Reference:

Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Matthijs Baas, and Bernard A. Nijstad (2008) Hedonic Tone and Activation Level in the Mood–Creativity Link: Toward a Dual Pathway to Creativity Model.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 94, No. 5, 739–756



How do you decide how much risk to take?

You’re a smoker.  Or at least you were.  On the strong advice of your doctor, following endless nicotine patches, you’ve succeeded in giving up.  Congratulations!  Your risk of developing any of a host of smoking-related illnesses has just dropped dramatically.  You might also expect your life expectancy to increase.  The news is a little less good there.  In fact, one study showed that those who had given up smoking actually died a little sooner than those who continued.

In flood-ravaged countries in the developing world, when you build a levee you can significantly reduce the risk of flooding.  However, research shows that, despite the success of the levees, the actual number of flood victims remains about the same.


These results can be explained by something the Canadian Psychologist Gerald J.S. Wilde called Risk Homeostasis.  Homeostasis is the process in biology which keeps things about the same.  Think of your body temperature.  You have a normal temperature of 37.0 °C (98.6 °F).  When your core temperature rises, you start sweating and blood flows to the surface of your skin to cool you down.  When your temperature cools below 37.0, you start shivering to generate heat.  Risk homeostasis works like this.  We all have a level of preferred risk.  This varies between people but stays the same for any given person over time.  Fairly obviously, if we are in a situation of higher risk than our preference, we act to reduce the risk.  More surprisingly, if the risk is lower than our preference, we also act; this time to increase our risk.

This was most powerfully demonstrated in a taxi fleet in Munich.  Half the fleet were equipped with ABS (anti-lock braking system).  Half the fleet had conventional brakes.  ABS makes the car safer by reducing skidding under braking.  However, the number of accidents in those using ABS was the same as those using conventional brakes.  Drivers with ABS could recognize their cars were safer, so what did they do?  They responded by driving more dangerously to increase the risk back to their preferred level.

This effect was nicely used by Volvo, who are well known for building a brand around safety.  This was a very successful strategy in the 70s and 80s, but became a less potent proposition into the 90s as all cars got safer.  Volvo asked themselves the question: why do you want to be safe.  The answer they came to is that having a safer car allows you to do more dangerous things.  The resulting adverts showed Volvos driving through volcanoes and ice fields.  This was risk homeostasis in action.

So when a successful drink-driving campaign in British Colombia reduced alcohol-related accidents over a four month period by 18%, it should come as no surprise that accidents that were not alcohol-related increased by 19%.  Or that smokers who quit, simply increased their other non-healthy behaviors.  Or that people living in areas which are less prone to flooding due to levees increasingly build houses on the more fertile, more risky, flood plains.

On a personal note, my wife and I often commented that whenever our lives seemed to be ‘settling down’, we would do something which dramatically de-stabilized everything again.  What we didn’t realize at the time is that we were simply finding our way back to our preferred level of risk.

The lesson from this is to be mindful about your risk-related choices.  Like so many areas of human judgment, these decisions about adjusting risk are not explicit, conscious decisions.  The taxi drivers will not have thought ‘Oh, I’m a little safe in this car…better change that!’  If you want to increase the risk in your life or career, create the capability and motivation first by increasing your sense of safety.  If, on the other hand, your life has just got a lot safer, your attraction to risk-taking behaviors is likely to shoot up.  Be ready for this, and meet that need by choosing risk that is productive (or at least not harmful).


Wilde, Gerald JS (1994) Target Risk: Dealing with the danger of death, disease and damage in everyday decisions. First Edition. Web edition: