On the benefits of a wandering mind


by Bernadette Healy

Where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone with your head?[1]

Have you had one of those lovely, just-post-return-from-holiday moments when you find your mind wandering from thought to thought: such as on the bike, just getting to the top of that climb, at a major gradient over a grueling number of kilometres; or that morning reading that crime novel without interruption for 2.25 hours; perhaps the walk along the coast; or watching the Making a Murderer series (and in record time!); maybe mastering the creation of your favourite Adam Liaw dish; or enjoying your traditional post-Christmas get-together with the people of your choice; watching one of the glorious early 2016 sunsets; dancing to the last song of a great evening; or just allowing yourself to aimlessly move from one thought to the next without intention or deliberate focus on anything in particular.

Allowing this process  of ‘mind wandering’  (whereas day dreaming, by contrast, may involve quite deliberate focused thought[2]) at the least may provide you with a sufficient level of distraction to provide a restorative break from your task. However research suggests that during such moments your brain is involved in complex and sophisticated cognitive processes. During mind wandering, the brain is highly active across many regions including those involved in executive function[3].  Those moments which you probably describe as not thinking, are actually moments when you are using large parts of your brain.  You are thinking when you don’t think you are thinking – an under-rated human skill[4].

Data from ECG, MRI and alpha brain wave measurement indicate that, even when you think you are not thinking, your brain is occupied in carrying out non-conscious cognition or structurally sophisticated, multi-dimensional integrative neural processes.  Non-conscious cognition involves neural processes that integrate knowledge into understanding by processing knowledge, making connections and identifying complex patterns, all of which are involved in creative problem solving – including assisting you in the long-term generation of solutions for issues being faced in your life[5].  Research suggests that purposefully allowing yourself the time and space for your mind to wander can be an effective method of facilitating the type of creative or insightful thinking which leads to the experienced of  ‘aha’ moments. Creative thinking has long been recognised as enhancing the production of both quality and quantity of new ideas, however new technologies have provided evidence to suggest that such creative thinking may also be actively facilitated by allowing specific incubation time for the non-conscious cognition to occur[6].  Some research even suggests that the brain prepares in distinctive ways for problem solving – even before the problem is presented – and that this preparation type modulates the problem solving strategy.[7]

Phenomenological and inferential processes are an essential part of these research areas as the actual processes cannot be observed directly and are interrupted as soon as thoughts are directed.  It is a new and exciting area and not surprisingly full of controversy and discussion including questioning the previously unquestioned centrality of conscious awareness as a precondition for thinking.

I think it would be accurate to say that mostly people try to keep a low profile about times when they allow themselves to mind-wander – particularly at work. In future however it may be that booths for glass-eyed staring are purposefully created along the window side of corporate offices as the benefits of utilizing the brains natural ability to maximize its own flexibility and responsiveness become better understood. In the mean time you might like to be a trail-blazer in this area by regularly and blatantly submitting to this wondrous natural facility.  At the very least, keep a ten-minute non-focused doodling sojourn in mind next time you find yourself at the impasse stage of a complex problem looking for new ways forward.




[1] If this phrase triggers a musical memory, you are either an oldie like myself and/or one of those Rock Wiz types… or offspring of either of the above subjected at an early age to recordings such as  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8XQZYIiNgo

[2] Claire M. Zedelius and Jonathon W. Schooler,  ‘Mind wandering ‘Ahas’ versus mindful reasoning: alternative routes to creating solutions’, Cognition, Frontiers in Psychology, June 2015.

[3] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090511180702.htm

[4] Dr Caitlin Street Joining our own dots  Lecture in Diamond Series: Education conversations in the community, Malthouse Theatre 26th November 2015 (and see Dr Street’s PhD thesis available on line and including description of the unique technology developed and utilized as a way of presenting her thesis findings in visual and interactive form).

[5] Street ibid.

[6] Ut Na Sio and Thomas C Ormerod, Does incubation Enhance Problem Solving? A Meta Analytic Review Psychological Bulletin 2009, Vol. 135, No.1, 94-120

[7] Kounios ibid.

All I want for Xmas Is…


by Bernadette Healy

Wish list for families at Christmas

Christmas is a time for connection and joy but it can also be a pretty tough time for some of us. Whether you are someone for whom Christmas is a bit of a non-event or someone for whom Christmas triggers strong emotion, it is a time for all of us to reflect about how we want to be in relation to others. Here are some tips that might be helpful:
• Allow each other to be just how they are – and let go of yearning for them to be how you (or others) would prefer them to be
• Let yourself define your own experience and throw out any feeling or sense of having a template which has been given to you by other family members
• Be aware that labels and expectations are handed out to most of us during our childhood but we can each decide as adults what we regard as important values to live by now and learn to resist the pressure to satisfy the outdated expectations others have of us
• Don’t punish others by excluding them for not interacting in the manner you prefer or regard as the way to be
• Try and foster the opportunity to discuss differences of opinion and make it a conversation in which feelings are shared and in which each individual takes responsibility for their own reactions and resists the temptation to blame others
• Reflect on any no-go family dynamic conversation zones and live to tell the tale
• Share a conversation without employing your inner critic to yourself
• Actively try and show tolerance by listening, by showing interest in others such as by asking questions about them, by not interrupting even when you are bored or have a great point to make and by reciprocation through volunteering something about yourself
• Treat in-laws and new partners and ex-partners and step-family members and anyone else equally
• Question and resist any pressure to choose a side
• Allow yourself to enjoy the company of whoever you choose to at your family functions without succumbing to the influence of others as to the status and merit of various individuals
• Avoid being a party to bullying
• Laugh together but not at the expense of another
• Be kind

What Kind of Professional Do You Want to Be?

Professional Meditating

by Bernadette Healy

Being a professional new to their career – exciting and nerve-wracking!

Congratulations on being a practitioner in your new career (or if you are a law student on getting as far as you have to date!).   You have probably been so busy getting to this point that you may not have given thought to the question: how do I want to be in this career? 

That is, what kind of lawyer do you want to be, not just in terms of executing your professional obligations as a lawyer but what sort of professional do you want to be?

It may be helpful to think of your new career as a marathon you are about to start rather than a sprint.  For some of you sprinting will be a particular strength and this is definitely the kind of skill required for some of your work.

However treating this career in general as a sprint or a series of sprints may inadvertently lead you to experience burnout.

Although it is common, particularly when a new professional, to view your new career in terms of discrete projects, from a long-term well-being perspective, it will help to keep stepping back and asking yourself about how you are going in terms of an ongoing professional journey.

This means regularly setting aside time to yourself, relaxing and reflecting – asking yourself questions about how you are compared with how you want to be. This will help to avoid your putting too much emphasis on any one outcome – a protective practice in terms of stress and helpful if you tend towards frequent feelings of anxiety and / or tending towards being overly responsible.

Anxiety and responsibility are two of the most common issues that young lawyers face as they are finding their way in their new profession.

Anxiety is a non-specific kind of feeling which is associated with symptoms such as excessive worrying, negative thoughts often including concerns about failure and approval of others and feelings of agitation.

Troubling feelings related to responsibility generally oscillate between taking on too much responsibility and taking on too little with associated feelings of shame and self-criticism

Are these feelings relevant to you or perhaps to a colleague?

It may be a little challenging to be asked to reflect on your feelings when you are most likely highly rational people about to begin your career within a profession where rationality is so greatly prized.  However, feelings are a great source of information – about how we are going relative to our deeply held sense of ourselves – ignore them at your own peril down the track!

You need to be careful not to prematurely judge your own performance as a lawyer (in worse case, deciding to leave when the issue is just the natural one of being new to a professional role).

Perhaps for a very small number it may not turn out to be your career – if so remember that it is not possible to find that out without putting yourself in a position to try; hopefully if this turns out to be the case, you can avoid self-recrimination and any urge to inaccurately conclude that you are a failure when actually you have merely done a necessary bit of career self-correction.

Judging everything in terms of achievement, winning and needing to avoid making mistakes is very common within the legal profession.  The use of judgement and judging while a necessary skill can also be very limiting if it means you are not as engaged in your life as you could be due to a fear of failure.  That is, people who focus only on success tend to avoid putting themselves in the position of being a beginner.  This leads to their ending up with a much reduced repertoire of skills and abilities and experiences than those who are less concerned with trying out something for fear of looking like an idiot or not getting it right the first time.  Ongoing self-criticism and judgement is predictive of both stress and even, poor performance, particularly in terms of a rigidity in problem-solving.

 Staying true to yourself

Try and keep a gentle and warm interest in yourself and who you are; your values and priorities and feelings and how to remain true to that while in your professional role.

Put some rituals in place to ensure that you make a point of separating out work from non-work, for example:

  • Listing questions arising from current work day and leaving them at work ready to be re-visited at the beginning of the next work day.
  • Cycling home.
  • Getting off the tram or train one stop early and walking.
  • Sitting in a park for 5 mins before going home.
  • Doing a 3 min breathing practice on the train home.
  • Asking your partner and family to leave you alone for the first 10-15 mins after you get home.

Do some regular self-reflection.  You could start with the identification of your personal triggers – this could be people, situations or events which cause you to react in a manner which is out of proportion with the situation.

For example you may find yourself being very annoyed with the approach of a colleague and find yourself ruminating on them, their approach, your reaction, the situations you have shared etc.  What may actually be happening is that your colleague has triggered a potential threat to a core belief such as that you must be liked and approved of; that you must be in control; or that you must be included.  If you are not aware of these potential triggers, you are likely to automatically and unthinkingly respond to the situation in an inappropriate and reactionary manner and to attribute to the other that which is really to do with you.

Learning to identify and control personal triggers is vital to ensuring that you know where you and your ‘stuff’ ends and that of others around you begins.  It doesn’t change the situations you face but it will give you a sense of security that you will be ok.

Self-reflective practice can guard against the kind of existential desert that is commonly experienced  by those who have been so busy doing, fixing, controlling and generally just getting on with things that they have omitted to build in regular time for being, reflecting and asking themselves some non-task-focused questions.

Focusing in on your inner life can help to modify the down side of your skill set.  That is, just as it is necessary to know your strengths and build on them and maximize their use, it is also necessary to understand the likely down sides of these strengths.  E.g. the strong individualistic drive and focus that can motivate someone to become a skilled practitioner may also be associated with low tolerance for others’ weaknesses and perhaps even make them a poor team player.  A person with great organizational ability and project management ability may also be associated with an inability to see the role of lateral thinking in problem-solving or perhaps even a reluctance to give time to the use of non-standard problem-solving methods.

So think about the kind of professional you want to be, make a bit of effort to allow yourself space for your own feelings and ideas to bubble up, watch out for your personal triggers and the other side of your strengths and most importantly, do all this with a sense of fun, curiosity and kindness.



Your effort is a finite resource

by Bernadette Healy

Super employee

You really can be whatever you want to be in terms of the best employee you can be, or the best partner you can be, or the best friend you can be, or the best community member you can be.  But you can’t be the best that you can possibly be at all of these.

Imagine that all the effort you can potentially expend at any point in time is broken up into 10 even pieces.  You can choose to put them all into one domain or you can choose to spread them around.  You can change this emphasis and shift the effort from one area to another.  However, your effort is a finite resource, the allocation of which is your responsibility.  If you decide for example to put your 10 pieces of effort into being the best employee that you can be, you may well turn out to be one of those phenomenal people in the workplace that we have all observed.  But this of course will come at a price because the lack of effort put into other areas will mean that you cannot become your best in those.  (This outcome may of course be a perfectly satisfactory one for you.)

Look around you and instead of limiting yourself to noticing the ‘wow’ factor of those super-performing employees or that perfect parent / partner that you know, consider the optimizing formula that they are likely to be using to achieve that result and ask yourself if that is the way that you would like to be.

Are you prepared to make the same kinds of trade-offs that they would have made to achieve that level of ascendency at work or to be that parent or partner?  Will you be happy to experience yourself as you will be in your other life domains if you choose to focus primarily on one?  It is entirely appropriate to make your own choices but the reality is that you cannot be the best you can possibly be, in all areas.

Take the opportunity to reflect on how others might be approaching these decisions as a way of increasing understanding of colleagues and others.  This reflection will also help your own decision-making process regarding your allocation of effort.  In terms of relationship building, it is always a good idea to discuss these kinds of issues, and this kind of reflection process will help to prepare you for such a conversation with your loved ones about your preferred direction.

Perhaps you consider yourself to be one of those lucky few who start with 12 rather than the 10 pieces of effort to expend – the same principle still applies – you only have X amount of time and energy to allocate at any particular time and whatever you allocate in one area will necessarily deplete another.  Also, over time, you, like all of us, will have less effort available to expend, and this reality needs to be factored in to any plan you might be making regarding addressing currently neglected areas at some far-away future point.

It is your choice and it will continue to be your choice.  You can choose to put all the pieces into one area now and shift them later or you can choose to mix it up or you can choose to put effort into maintaining balance… etc. etc. but whatever you choose try and remain aware that you are actually making choices all the time.

And with regard to comparing, it might help to try limiting your comparisons to those that you make about yourself – relative to other experiences that you have had – rather than agonizing over what is inevitably a faulty comparison with another.

Giving yourself permission to explore options

by Bernadette Healy

binoc woman

Perhaps you just have to get out and try something else for a while.

Did you have any physical reaction when you read that sentence? For example, a sense of stomach churning, or chest tightening or your head sort of closing in on itself or perhaps even a sense of a muscle group relaxing? It is likely that your body knows about your true reaction before your mind does – and sometimes we practice not allowing ourselves to know our real reaction for so long that we are at risk one day of waking up and not being able to find it at all!

If you have been feeling for a while, as if nothing much is of interest to you; if you have long been wondering what it would have been like if you had chosen x instead of y; or even if you just have a niggling little sense that there is another something that you are supposed to be doing – it is probably time to go and do some exploring.

At some stage – if we are to experience ourselves fully – we need to allow ourselves to wander into the unknown. I can imagine that many may cry out with objection that the above is just not practical. That may be the case but it is still possible.

Of course you can do a little of that wandering in a sort of virtual way too – which might eventuate in the need to make actual change but you can at least start the process in this less confronting way. In my experience, the action of throwing up everything in the air as if you might change everything, will lead to a renewal even if, as often happens, the process leads to a re-commitment to the status quo.

  • So how to wander around virtually in a world of possibilities? Annoyingly, and as usual when it comes to personal development, there is no right or even wrong way.
  • You might like to think about your heroes and imagine how you could incorporate a little of their magic into your life
  • You might like to think about a trip and use that as an excuse for leaving your current situation
  • You might like to think about someone who you are constantly finding irritating and play around with the idea that what irritates you about them is something that is actually in you but not yet recognized
  • You might like to go and have a conversation with someone older than you and ask them about times when they found themselves wandering and what came of it
  • You might like to just take the question ‘what if …?’ around with you for the next few weeks and ask it of yourself regularly, being ready (and open) for your own answer turning up
  • You might have to face up to the need for taking responsibility for your own direction – that could mean staying where you are but it might not.
  • If you are into poetry: http://oedipa.tripod.com/eliot-2.html

Competency and enjoyment – both necessary ingredients for job satisfaction

by Bernadette Healy

competent and happy

Are you happily engaged in your work and feeling competent? Do you feel like this for a good proportion of the time? If you find yourself struggling to recall the last time you had a week when you mostly felt like that, it may be time for a re-think about your role or even your job! (The exception to this is of course where you are new to the role / job – in such cases it is perfectly natural to feel quite incompetent most of the time!)

Are the areas that you dislike related to a short-term project? Is completion of the disliked tasks clearly related to a specific and highly sought personal goal? If either of these 2 situations apply to you, you are probably able to tolerate the mis-match, but it is preferable in terms of job satisfaction and stress management, that such a situation is only for a defined period of time and accompanied by regular tracking with regard to your stress levels and your goals.

In order to feel a reasonable amount of job satisfaction we need to spend a large proportion of our time at work engaged in tasks that we both enjoy and in which we feel competent. Think about your skills. Are most of them able to be used in your current role? If not, are you happy for that to be the case? Do you have non-work outlets for use of these currently under-utilized skills? If not, can you create an opportunity to do so? There is an in-built stress management component to a life characterized by the ready expression of most of a persons’ attributes, interest areas and competencies. Of course this can occur primarily in a work domain or primarily within one’s personal life, but the risk of experiencing significant stress in either one of these domains is reduced where there is a sense of satisfaction from expression of our personality via our interests and competencies across both the work and personal domains.

How would you rate your level of competence in your work-based skills? How would you rate your level of enjoyment utilizing these skills at work?

Medium to high competency plus medium to high enjoyment of exercising those competencies is the best fit in terms of job satisfaction. Spending most of your time at work in this zone is optimum.

Medium to high competency combined with low levels of enjoyment may be ok for a while or for short, time-bound bursts but when sustained over long periods of time will tend to lead to burnout.

High competence and low enjoyment may also suggest the need for a shift in focus within a current role or
even that it is time for a different role or job.

High competence and low enjoyment may also be due to other factors such as a significant stressor in one’s personal life. In any case if you are very good at what you are doing but have lost enthusiasm and enjoyment doing it, you probably need to spend some time considering possible causes to this situation. And it is worth remembering that just because you are good at something doesn’t mean that you must continue to apply that skill. It may be that you developed a reputation for being good at something, received attention when doing it, and then came to be known as the one who was good at …. but actually, deep down, it may no longer (or ever!) be of interest to you.

Medium to high levels of enjoyment combined with low to medium competence levels suggest the need for further training and development.

It is extremely stressful to be working in a role while feeling that you have insufficient competency but if you are in the first few years of your working life, (or at the beginning of a career change), a reality check is needed to ensure that you do not mis-label yourself or worse, make a decision prematurely based on this feeling of incompetence before you have had a reasonable period of time to learn and develop. Find yourself someone – who you trust –who is at least 3 to 5 years ahead of you in terms of work experience and ask them about their experience of the feeling of competency at the beginning of the job and over the first 12 to 18 months and beyond.

If you are working in a role in which you continue to have low competency combined with low enjoyment, you are quite possibly in the wrong role – and perhaps even the wrong job. You need to think carefully and make a plan about how you are going to get yourself out of what is likely to be a toxic and stress-inducing situation.

A little musing on relationships

by Bernadette Healy


Learn to be open and honest with each other

In order for relationships to improve, dialogue and change has to be possible – some people are capable of this and others are not.

It is necessary to engage regularly in an open and truthful conversation with each other about the important and personal issues that underlie relationships, particularly values, needs and priorities. This means specifically asking each other:

  • What really matters to you?
  • Are there any hurts being carried from old wounds in the relationship?
  • What are your needs in our relationship?

Think about what patterns you have formed.

Talk about the patterns. Consider how your family of origin may be shaping the way that you are relating to your partner and share this with each other.  For example, if you grew up not feeling heard or understood, you will likely doubt that a different kind of communication is possible and may be unable to trust that you can be open without being hurt or attacked. If you haven’t processed this early experience sufficiently, you may find that you are attracted to someone who leaves you feeling similarly.

Where the primary need is not about the relationship, the possibility of change is unlikely

Where one person is primarily committed to satisfying a need that is external to the relationship to the extent that they are routinely unavailable to participate and contribute in a fully present way with their partner, any meaningful shift in the relationship dynamic is impossible.

Be on the lookout for trends in you and your partner leading parallel existences.

If you are feeling left out of the household, ask what decisions are being made and what you have missed.

Where partners are uninterested in what really matters to one another

Another scenario is that the partner of someone who is passionately interested in their professional domain is unwilling to make themselves available to show interest in this aspect of their partner’s life – perhaps due to unexpressed resentment about the consequences of this passion on them and the relationship.  This needs to be talked about before the resentment builds otherwise one partner is likely to feel lonely as their passion is not understood and the other perhaps self-righteous – a risk-filled combination.

All relationships need to move past romantic beginnings

Consider where your relationship is in terms of development. For example it is very common for one or other partner to continue to expect the excitement and passion of the early stages of a romantic relationship to extend indefinitely. Many relationships suffer serious fault lines around the failure to move beyond the romantic beginning. Practice talking openly about sexual needs and wants including waning interest, disparity in sexual appetite and contextualize the discussion within the frame of the relationship as a whole, rather than separating out sexual needs as if they are a separate item.

Make some time to meet with your partner to open up a new conversation.  

Establish some ground rules and etiquette for example:

  • timing of the conversation,
  • action if interruption occurs,
  • taking turns,
  • not raising voice,
  • resisting urge to use blaming language such as accusatory statements or summations or caustic beginnings[1]

Caustic beginnings are fights between partners which leave no room for collaboration or constructive problem solving.  Use of opening phrases with you always… and you’re such an … or opening questions such as: what is up with you? or what is it with you? – are not about trying to resolve issues but more likely to incite reaction and to inflict hurt.

Rather than the voicing of a complaint or resolution of a problem, such beginnings quickly lead to escalation and to meanness and character assassination.

If you are on the receipt of caustic comments the following framework can help get the conversation back to a more constructive place:

When you said x, I felt y and what I would prefer is a and the benefits would be b.

That is, when you said … just then (for example, you always…), I felt…(for example disappointed, angry, hurt…) and what I would prefer is … (for example, for you to speak about a specific situation and to tell me what the problem was as you saw it, how you felt and what behaviour you would prefer from me in future) and the benefit would be (for example, that I don’t shut down or become defensive or bite back or leave etc and then we will be more likely to engage in a conversation).

If you find yourselves stuck in an exchange of ‘you don’t understand what I mean’, try taking it in turns to make statements to each other followed by a series of clarifying questions from the partner until they receive three ‘yesses’ in a row[2] to signify that your statement was understood exactly as you intended.  Make sure you both have a turn.

Talk about the responsibility of nurturing the relationship.  Are you able to stand back and consider the relationship as something separate from each of you, as an entity deserving of respect and one for which you are both responsible?  Is the relationship an equal priority for both of you?

Remind each other of what drew you to each other.  Remember together the loving beginnings.  Talk about what mattered then and continue the discussion to the present situation.

[1] Reivich, K. & Dr A. Shatte (2002). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. New York: 3 Rivers Press.
[2] Adapted from Satir, V., J. Stachowiak & H.A. Taschman (1994). Helping families to change. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Pub. Inc.

Dear lawyer Bob, please be kind and gentle to yourself and remember …

by Bernadette Healy


Have you ever tried writing a letter to yourself?  It can be an amazingly comforting experience. About ten years ago, I had a particularly memorable experience of composing and then later reading such a letter.

I had just returned from a very, very relaxing holiday.  Back at work on the first day I remember being so relaxed that I floated through most of the day.  At some point however, I was in the company of someone who needed me to go with them (metaphorically that is) to a very painful emotional place.  This of course is very common in the working life of a psychologist (and many others, including lawyers).  On this particular day, however, I was not there with them as they needed me to be.  They left and I sat and reflected and owned the fact that I had failed to do my job properly.  I recognized that I had been in a sort of relaxed fog that I didn’t really want to get out of and that nothing much could get through it unless a more conscious effort was made by me to make that happen.   I can still remember the mixture of feelings I had as I sat and analysed that particular work incident.  I thought what can I do about it (in addition to reparation with the individual) to try and ensure that it doesn’t happen next year?  I decided to write a letter to myself to be read the following year on my return from holidays.

I wrote myself a letter about how it felt to be back at work and what I might like to be on the lookout for, in terms of avoiding repeating the same mistake.  I made suggestions to myself and also reminded myself to be kind rather than punitive in my approach.  It was a very easy letter to write and I found myself being very reasonable to myself, accepting responsibility, applying critical thinking and suggesting strategies to myself.  I then signed off in a very warm and loving manner.  As soon as I had a diary for the following year, I attached the letter to the relevant week.   When I came back from holidays the following year, I read my letter to myself and ensured that I took my own advice!  Most importantly though, I experienced a quiet and private feeling of comfort that I had  not reacted to the mistake in either an overly indulgent or overly critical manner and that I had been able to trust in my own judgement about an effective response for the future.

Journaling (writing to yourself, specifically for yourself), can be a very powerful process.  If you will be patient and practice writing in one of the various journaling styles – of which the letter to oneself is an example – you will experience yourself coming up with all sorts of ideas, pieces of wisdom and an ability to identify potentially problematic patterns (amongst much more).  There are all sorts of variations of journaling, for example:

Style of Writing: Conversation / script

Helps With: Preparing for negotiation or performance meeting including


“Hi Bob where is that xxx I asked you to prepare?”

“It’s a fascinating project and I have identified at least 3 possible tracks so far and would welcome your input about which one should receive most attention going forward”

“Its still a work in progress – how do you want me to proceed moving forward? “

“So its not finished?”

“That’s correct.  I assumed you wanted me to approach it comprehensively. But if you would prefer I give comprehensiveness a lower priority that the timeline I can adapt my approach from now on.”

“That’s right, I am having trouble setting task priorities  “

“Just get it done!”

“Of course but is it possible moving forward to provide an indication of the tasks within a framework, that is, level of detail required / priority of task relative to others / timeframe?”

Style of Writing: Stream of consciousness

Helps With:

  1. Accessing your own ideas and wisdom
  2. Finding out where you are stuck
  3. Clearing out difficult emotional material for which there is no real solution but which might be taking up lots of space


Just write whatever comes into your head without any censoring of any kind, preferably first thing in the morning before doing anything else and keep going for 2 or 3 pages – push through resistance to the process! Keep private.  Don’t re-read until you have allowed yourself at least a week of writing.

Style of Writing: Letter to self

Helps With:

  1. Remind yourself of strengths
  2. Acknowledge effort
  3. Highlight need for improvement


  1. Dear self, just want to write to remind you that today you did really well coping with that thing that you have had a lot of trouble with…. And the strategy you used was …
  2. Dear self, please remember that you are particularly vulnerable to ….. and even more so when x Is around
  3. Dear self, please remember that today you really stuffed up / hurt someone’s feelings when you behaved …. Said …  Next time it would be better to …

Style of Writing: Letter to other (not to be sent)

Helps With:

  1. Helping yourself to let go of difficult emotions
  2. Honouring feelings towards another not able to be expressed


  1. Something you would ideally like to say to someone but know that that is unrealistic
  2. Something you wish you had said to someone who has died

Style of Writing: Detailed writing about known future anxiety-provoking situation

Helps With: Exposes yourself to your worst anticipated fears which frees you up to handling the actual situation more effectively


Write in detail about the situation that you will be facing and everything you fear will happen including all your worst case scenarios[1].  Re-write daily for at least 4 or 5 days before the event.

Style of Writing: Worry log

Helps With: Manages worrying; helps you to sort out whether your worrying is useful or otherwise; illustrates your vulnerabilities; and over time, and with continued use, helps to break the habit of constant worrying.


A few words jotted on note pad every time you become aware of worrying thought.  (Could be a thought to do with a current problem or it could be a ‘what if’ kind of thought.  Could be a problem solving thought or could be pointless rumination).  Put aside a time at end of day (same time each day) to consult worry log.



[1] Of course if you become extremely uncomfortable, discontinue and seek professional advice.

Get that mess out of your head!

by Bernadette Healy


In replying to a question I recently asked regarding workload issues, a wise old judge replied that ordered thinking and a sole focus on one thing at a time were the key ingredients. Although this may be well known to many if not most of you, it is nevertheless common to find that those suffering stress overload have lost sight of this pathway.  This is what happens when numerous worst-case scenarios are being generated as one runs backwards and forwards scanning the task stacks for possible future threat but never staying long amongst the stacks to actually work on them.  The longer one feels overwhelmed, the more difficult it becomes to settle down and focus on one thing.

The following is offered as a practical reminder of how to get back to the point where you can again focus on that one thing and make some headway:

  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Get the mess out of your head
  3. Create Themes
  4. Own your own authority
  5. Interrogate your themes
  6. Accept your choice
  7. Focus on the chosen theme
  8. Be realistic and specific about gaps in your knowledge
  9. Take a break
  10. Start with number 1
  11. Park thoughts about other items or themes
  12. Keep Going
  13. Take charge of any avoidance patterns
  14. Re-visit your Theme numbering
  15. Keep going
  16. Acknowledge


  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Get the mess out of your head

When feeling stressed and overwhelmed it is common to also feel as if you cannot think as clearly as usual.  Anxiety often decreases the ability to order ones thinking even when one is at other times, quite systematic and logical. That is part of why anxiety can be so corrosive to your feelings of self-worth. Gaining a new perspective on your issues may feel impossible but practising a process which includes some sort of externalising will help to alleviate this feeling, creating a kind of ‘re-set’ towards the task challenges you currently face.

One way to start the re-set process, is to dump everything you have on your mind, down on paper.  Keep to a word or phrase for each concern or question and write it on individual pieces of paper.  Don’t worry about putting the thoughts in any particular order at this stage, allowing yourself instead, to accept the order in which they occur to you

  1. Create Themes

When you feel finished, put the pieces of paper out – perhaps on the floor or a large clear surface.  Stand back and consider what you have dumped.  Look for themes.  Write a name for each of the identified themes and do so on separate pieces of paper – perhaps using different coloured paper or markers and then put these on the floor also and move any related pieces of paper under those theme headings.   (It may work better for you to use a computer or a whiteboard. However the physical aspect of moving around and placing the paper and relating to the material in a concrete way, is beneficial in and of itself, particularly as an anxiety-reducing strategy)

  1. Own your own authority

At this point, particularly if your feelings of being overwhelmed have increased, stop and make a note of the personal attributes, qualifications and experience you bring to your current work situation.  This is to remind yourself of your authority, that is, that you have enough of what is required to handle the situation including the ability to know when a question or consultation will need to be sourced.  Remind yourself that you are enough to handle your current challenges.

  1. Interrogate your themes

Stand back again and look at the themes and the points under the themes.  Ask yourself which theme is the one with the most urgency right now?

  1. Accept your choice

Once you have made that choice, put the other themes and their related points plus any points that as yet do not belong to a particular theme, out of sight – and in a form that keeps them in the order that you have created to date.

  1. Focus on the chosen theme

Focusing only on your chosen theme, look at each piece of paper under the theme and ask yourself what is involved in this item?  List each related requirement or task.

Ask yourself which of the subheadings under your chosen theme needs to be tackled first? Second? Third? etc and number the subheadings accordingly

  1. Be realistic and specific about gaps in your knowledge

If a gap in necessary knowledge occurs to you – note it down using as specific a description as possible.

(Phrases such as: I am hopeless; I am always stuffing up; or I will never understand this– may get in the way for some at this point – they are examples of non-specific – and possibly automatic negative thoughts (NATS).  They are also examples of cognitive distortions – eg. Overgeneralizing – which can creep in to thinking in a way which may sabotage your efforts. Just let them come and go but don’t take any notice of them.)   Keep the notes about gaps in knowledge, short, non-personal and specific.  Put them to one side.

You now have the makings of a plan of attack.

  1. Take a break

Take a 5-10 minute break. Walk outside, stretch, listen to music, doodle – do something that requires a shift in attention and preferably uses a different part of the brain (going on the computer is not advisable but if you must, be mindful of its potential to increase your stress levels, for example, by being reminded of additional tasks, by becoming distracted by emails or by getting overly caught up in non-productive and time-consuming net-surfing!)

  1. Start with number 1
  • Look at your number 1 subheading (and the associated task points) and start working on these tasks and do so for 20mins (set a timer)
  • Break for 2 to 3 minutes and then do another 20 minute block [1]
  • Ensure that at least every 5 x 20 minute blocks that you give yourself a minimum 10 to 15 mins break.
  1. Park thoughts about other items or themes

If while working on one point, you become distracted by another item – quickly note down the item and your question or concern in a sentence or less and put this with the related theme.  Return to the point that you were working on before you became distracted.

  1. Keep Going

Stick to the area you have chosen until you have addressed each of the task points.  If you become aware of a missing piece of information or the need to consult someone ask yourself whether or not this is the optimum time to do so or could it be an avoidance strategy?

  1. Take charge of any avoidance patterns

Notice each time you feel the urge to move away from the task and how this manifests e.g. surfing the net / coffee /reading emails/ sending emails/ making a phone call / chatting etc.

Make a mental note to reflect on these urges at the end of the day, with a view to identifying (and then resisting) the patterns in your avoidance.

  1. Re-visit your Theme numbering

Once a Theme area is completed or as complete as possible, look at the remaining themes and see if the numbers you have allocated are still relevant – in light of what you have learnt while working on the theme chosen so far.  Make any adjustments necessary including re-organizing of points / allocation of points to new themes / noting down new questions and thoughts under appropriate headings.

  1. Keep going

Repeat the process for Theme no. 2 and beyond!

  1. Acknowledge

Ensure that during breaks – even the 2-3 minute – you stand up and move around and away from your desk.  Look out a window.  Remind yourself that you are doing the best that can be done by anyone, that is, you are giving your total concentration to one thing at a time and one which you have chosen to work on at that moment.  You are focusing.  You are approaching the task in a systematic manner.  You are quickly capturing relevant ideas and thoughts and putting them aside to be dealt with at the appropriate time.  You are learning to dismiss negativity.  You are beginning to notice any patterns regarding avoidance which is the first step towards change.  You are ok.


[1] The use of the timed 20 minute block is known as the Pomidoro Technique see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

Sorry but being a ‘standout’ doesn’t come with a guarantee

by Bernadette Healy


How to thrive and make a difference?  It may be surprising to find that there is an answer to this question. It is to be yourself.  As you are likely to know already, this is not easy, particularly at work because work contexts, in general, are about persuading those within them to mould themselves according to an organizationally-defined template.  The ongoing efforts to do so which necessarily includes continual comparison between employees (and even with those outside the organization) –can lead to feelings of inadequacy, failure and isolation – and is known to impacts on both personal and organizational wellbeing.

At the recent Wellness for Law forum at ANU  (for a sample of the program offerings, please see:  http://wellnessforlaw.com/2015/01/2015-forum-presentations/)  a lawyer on a panel considering the issue of workload used the expression “the magnetic force to conform.”  This wonderful and accurate description helps to explain why  many people are prepared to routinely work hours that must inevitably lead to burnout -for the majority – and not uncommonly, an exit from study or an organization (accompanied all too often by a belief that they were a failure).   As many of you will know, the practice of using up and then replacing young bright legal hopefuls is cynically built into some organization’s practices.

In another presentation, we heard about a young female lawyer who successfully negotiated work / life balance issues for herself at the hiring stage and continued to maintain her negotiated practices while also gaining management recognition and promotion.   This would no doubt have taken courage both when initiated and also on an ongoing basis as she faced questioning and possible pressure to conform (as it was not a generally accepted practice within the firm). The oversupply of lawyers makes this kind of behaviour seem all the braver and it is easy to understand that many would choose instead to refrain from making any demands of the organization – at least at entry level – for fear that it upset their desperate bid to get the proverbial foot in the door.  But perhaps for the young lawyer above the balance issue was the ‘must have’ factor for any role and known to her, to be a critical ingredient for success.  (perhaps you are saying to yourself as you read this ‘she must have been a real ‘standout’ .  But aren’t most of you ‘standouts’- at least in terms of the prevailing societal definition of success?  Being someone who has generally succeeded up to the point of entry to your chosen profession or a few years in or even in the middle of your career, won’t necessarily lead to personal satisfaction or wellbeing at work.  For those experiences you can’t avoid paying attention to yourself and who you are, both in terms of your relationship with yourself and with others)

What is your critical ingredient?  What is your ‘must have’ in terms of the thing that is a pre-requisite in order for you to be able to thrive in the work context?  Have you given thought to what contributes to your thriving compared to what is a ‘its nice when it happens ’ kind of issue?    Where does workload and work hours fit in the above for you?  Where does respect and a climate free of bullying fit for you?  What are you prepared to ignore, tolerate, or even turn a blind eye to for the sake of your professional goals?  Are you prepared to risk anything for the sake of your values?  Is your desire to conform and be accepted the number one thing that drives you?

These issues need to be faced by all of us.  I have found in my profession listening to countless dilemmas that the object of your choice will generally be less significant in terms of personal wellbeing than is the action of you consciously choosing and importantly being prepared to take responsibility for that choice.

Thankfully there is increasing recognition and some signs of action[1] around the reality that organizational policies and practices impact the individual wellbeing of its members.  However bureaucracies are inherently slow-moving and unwieldy beasts – if there is something that really matters to you, that you know is impacting your professional and personal wellbeing – don’t hang around too long waiting for change – (either in the organization or you!) make a decision and act.

[1] (for example as suggested by law firms and associations who have become signatories to the TJMF psychological wellbeing best practice guidelines for the legal professions – see http://www.tjmf.org.au/raise-the-standard/the-guidelines-at-a-glance/