Daily Resilience–boosters for you

Blog Post No. 46

31st March 2017

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2017

Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: Daily resilience–boosters for you

Introduction

Do you want to be more resilient? To stand up to the pressures of your daily life more vigorously and powerfully and energetically?

Tennis-starIn this blog I am going to summarise some findings from research conducted on athletes, which can help us build our resilience in the face of all the hassles and challenges we can face at work each day.

An explanation of micro-resilience at work

Micro-book-coverBonnie St. John and Allen Haines wrote a book called ‘Micro-resilience’, and in it they summarise this research finding: Dr James Loehr (a sports psychologist) wanted to understand why there were hundreds of athletes who were on international tours, but there were only a few who regularly won the tournaments and trophies. He wanted to know what the difference was between these two sets of athletes.

Loehr put heart rate monitors on a selection of the two different sets of tennis players – the ‘winners’ and the ‘also ran’s’ – and discovered that the top tennis players were able to very speedily recover their energy and positive focus after having played shots.

As they were returning to the baseline in the tennis court, or to the side of the court, they used particular strategies to recover their energy, focus and motivation.

These top-players very quickly returned their heart rates to normal – much more quickly than their less successful competitors. Here was the crucial part of what Dr James Loehr learned:

The further he went down the list of seeded players, the more dramatic the differences were. Those at the bottom of the list (the less successful tennis players) employed none of these rejuvenating behaviours….”

“They stayed keyed up, tense and even distracted in the sixteen to twenty seconds that normally elapse between a point scored and the following serve.”

The power of ‘mini-recoveries’

He discovered that by the final set of a 3 hour tennis match, the player who had been using small, imperceptible ‘mini-recoveries’ in-between the points, was much more likely to succeed in the tennis game than the players who did not use such strategies.

So Dr Loehr created something called the ’16 second cure’ and this consists of focusing exercises and relaxation techniques that help the players, who are under intense pressure, to do the following things:

“…shake off mistakes, release tension, and project a positive image to their opponents…”

And this strategy has now been taught by tennis coaches throughout the world.

How this research finding can help people in all types of jobs

We can all use this research insight in any field of work.  Each day, any of us can experience periods of intense pressure, quiet times and a whole range of experiences in-between. We also have a constantly changing selection of people to deal with and respond to. How can we keep going so that we aren’t totally washed out by the end of the working day?

Power-of-full-engagment-coverDr James Loehr created the concept of the ‘executive athlete’ after these research findings, which he wrote about in his book ‘The Power of Full Engagement’ (2003) with T. Schwartz.

This very successful use of energy management strategies by athletes can be transferred to other working environments, if we adapt them appropriately.

Micro-resilience techniques to help us stay in control

If you experiment with using some of these strategies – listed below – to keep you going during the day, you will find that your energy level is higher and you won’t feel as drained.

I used these techniques during my career as a college tutor, and there are also techniques from Bonnie St. John and Allen Haines’s book. (Bear in mind that if you are working in exploitative work situations, you will need help from your union as well as these self-management strategies. The union’s specialist form of protection is necessary as it will be beyond your capacity to fully defend yourself if your energies are drained from: bullying management tactics; zero hours contracts; wages below the minimum wage, and/or unhealthy work environments).

Here is a little selection of just seven such strategies; and I teach many more to my coaching-counselling clients:

1. The Yoga ‘Death pose’

Picture-death-poseFirst, let us look at the ‘death pose’ from yoga practice.  This is an amazingly effective way to recharge your batteries, and is very good for your back. If you have you own office or there is a vacant room, simply lie on the floor for 10 minutes with a book (of, say, two inches thickness) under your head (as a ‘hard pillow’). Put your arms down by your sides. Clear your mind of any stress or strain, worry or preoccupation.  Breathe deeply into your belly, and relax.  Stay still, and close your eyes if you want to. Any ideas that arise in your mind should be gently brushed away.  After 10 minutes, very slowly sit up, and then stand up. This will refresh your body and mind at the same time.

Benefits-death-pose-callout

2.The  seated Tin Soldier/Rag Doll Relaxation Exercise

Whilst sitting at your desk, after about 30 or 40 minutes of intense concentration, you will need a break.  Sometimes you will need to get up and move around (as sedentary activity is very bad for you, physically and mentally!).  But sometimes you can relax while you are sitting down.  One way to do that is to use the ‘Tin soldier/Rag doll’ exercise.  This is how it goes:

Tense your body, arms, and face as much as possible for a couple of minutes. Really feel the tension in your body. Imagine you are made of tin, and are very stiff and unbending. (The ‘tin soldier’ phase).

Then slowly, slowly let all the tension drain out of your body, and change yourself into a rag doll. Feel yourself melt into the chair. Relax all your muscles – your thigh muscles, feet, arms, hands and fingers, stomach and jaw, and facial muscles.  Let your arms hang down by your sides.  Let your head fall, and your shoulder slump. (The ‘rag doll’ phase).

Sit with the feeling of complete relaxation for a few minutes (say, five or six).  This will be really good for your body and mind – to say nothing of your productivity, creativity and focus.  In the process, you will be switching on your ‘relaxation response’ which is (to get a bit technical) the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system.

3. Have a quick, healthy snack to boost your blood sugar level.

By eating a small amount of nuts and seeds (for example) you boost your blood sugar level which helps with willpower, and energy during late morning or late afternoon meetings or other challenges.

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4. Have a short walk

Get out of the building, to change your environment. Just a ten minute walk will put you in a different space (mentally), but in particular, it’s really valuable to get out at dinnertime (lunchtime).   You will feel mentally refreshed and have more energy for your work in the afternoon. Seeing trees and experiencing fresh air will boost your energy. Recent research shows that taking a stroll through a natural setting can boost performance on “tasks calling for sustained focus”: “Taking in the sights and sounds of nature appears to be especially beneficial for our minds.”

5. Write it Out!

If you’ve had a draining, difficult interaction with someone in work, and you are still reverberating from it, then when you are at your desk (or workstation), write down what happened and how you felt about it.  Writing it down will get it out of your head and give you a chance to cool down. Later you can then reflect on what happened.

(If you are unable to write anything down, simply name the emotions that you are going through, in your mind.)  This is a technique that is called “labelling” and there is a New England head teacher (whom St John and Haines describe in their book) who uses this technique when she has confrontations with parents and teachers.

“When she tried labelling, Kathleen noticed that it increased her sense of control. Now, unbeknownst to her guests, Kathleen’s notes during confrontational meetings not only cover action steps and follow-up items but also descriptions of her emotions during each encounter.”

Dr Daniel Amen, who is an expert on brain-scanning techniques, says: “Often, just naming a thought takes away its power”.

Or as Dr Daniel Siegel says: “You have to name it to tame it!”

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6. Using your sense of smell

Cinnamon

Scents are very powerful. Dr Joan Borysenko, who was one of the pioneers of  integrative medicine and worked at Harvard medical school, stated: “Certain scents can cut right through an emotional hijack. For example, cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg.” These scents affect our limbic system and relax us very quickly. This finding was confirmed by Dr Daniel Amen, in his book ‘Change your brain, change your life’:

“Because your sense of smell goes directly to the deep limbic system, it is easy to see why smells can have such a powerful impact on our feeling states. The right smells likely cool the limbic system. Pleasing fragrances are like an anti-inflammatory”.

So, having small samples of spices, perfumes or sweets, in your work environment, which have really comforting associations for you, can give you a quick boost of energy.

hardcastle-crags

7. Images from nature can calm us down

Finally, having pictures of scenes from nature around us will have a beneficial effect on us, even if they are just on our screensaver or on a poster on the wall. Or in a frame on our desk or workstation.  Just looking at photos of nature in a quiet room can give us a greater mental boost than walking down a busy urban street.

Dr Marc Berman and researchers at the University of Michigan had participants take a break for 10 minutes in a quiet room to look at pictures of a nature scene or city street. They found that mental performance improved after the nature break, even though the images were  only on paper. Although the boost wasn’t as great as when participants actually took a walk among the trees, it was more effective than an actual city walk.

Conclusion

Balancing our stressful working days with micro-resilience techniques- like the seven outlined above – will make us happier, increase our energy, and improve the quality of our lives.

Why not experiment with them, and see if any of them work for you!

If I had more time and space I could teach lots more of this stuff to you.

Best wishes

Renata

Renata Taylor-Byrne

Lifestyle Coach-Counsellor

ABC Coaching-Counselling Division

Telephone: 01422 843 629

Email: renata@abc-counselling.org

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References

Loehr, J and Schwartz, T (2003) The Power of Full Engagement. New York. Simon and Shuster.

St John, Bonnie and Haines, Allen (2017) Micro-Resilience: Minor shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive and Energy. London. Piatkus.

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Continue reading “Daily Resilience–boosters for you”

Don’t go shopping on an empty stomach: no glucose – no willpower!

Blog Post No. 41

4th November 2016

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016

Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: Don’t go shopping on an empty stomach!

callout-1-shopping-image

Introduction

My last blog was about habits – changing them and starting new ones. But to make any changes in our behaviour, we need willpower. And willpower is fuelled by the glucose in our bodies that we get from our diet. Food is much more important and powerful than we realise.

Our willpower is strong if we have a good supply of glucose in us. But when we face the challenges of our daily lives, and the constant decision-making that we have to do throughout the day, slowly our level of glucose drops, and this can strongly affect our behaviour.

Yes.  Decisions take energy, which is provided by blood-glucose, which is provided by the foods that we eat.

In this blog I’m going to give you some amazing examples of how our mood and behaviour is affected by low blood sugar, because of lack of food. Also in the blog are some brief summaries of the research into how willpower, energy and self-control are dependent on the food we eat and what we drink. I’ll also mention some suggestions that show how you can benefit in your daily life from the valuable insights that researchers have identified in this area.

Let’s look at one experiment:

The ‘Radish’ experiment

callout-2-radishes

This experiment was conducted by Roy Baumeister (1996).

A group of students, who’d been fasting (so they were all about equally hungry), were asked to enter a room which was filled with the smell of warm, freshly-baked cookies (biscuits).

The students then had to sit at a table which had 3 different types of food on it: warm cookies, some pieces of chocolate, and a dish of radishes.

After that they were split up into 3 groups:

# The first group was a control group of students, who were not offered food of any kind.

# In the second group, participants were invited to eat the cookies or the chocolate, which was on the table.

# And in the third group, the participants were only allowed to eat the radishes.

To increase the pressure on the students, the researchers left the room, and, from a private vantage point, watched the students as they ate their food.

A few of the students in the ‘radish’ group picked up the cookies and smelled them, but then put them back again, and didn’t give in to temptation, even though it was clear that they really wanted to eat them.

callout-3-cookies

Then all the students were taken into a room where there was a selection of puzzles laid out. These puzzles were actually unsolvable, and the researchers wanted to see how long the students would work at attempting to solve the puzzles before they gave up.

(Apparently the value of giving them this task, which is used by many stress researchers, is that it’s a very useful indicator of people’s general level of perseverance).

The results were as follows:

1. The students who had been allowed to eat the cookies typically worked on the puzzles for twenty minutes.

2. The control group of students also managed to work on the puzzles for twenty minutes (even though they had no cookies or radishes to eat).

3. What about the radish-eating students? They gave up after only eight minutes! This is a large and significant difference by the result levels of laboratory experiments. The researchers concluded that the temptation of looking at the cookies and having to control their desire to eat them, had affected their energy levels considerably.

The value of the ‘radish’ experiment

This experiment shows that people’s ability to keep going at a task is reduced by being frustrated beforehand. Baumeister called it “ego depletion,” meaning that people have a reduced ability to manage their thoughts, feelings and actions if they have had to use their self-control repeatedly. And the radish-eating students had had to control their feelings about the cookies and chocolate!

When frustrating experiences take place, it causes a slow-down in a specific part of the brain (called the anterior cingulate cortex). And this is the specific part of the brain that is essential for self-control. So too many frustrations results in slower brain activity and people then can’t control their reactions to events as well as they normally could. The result is that they struggle to do things that normally wouldn’t be a problem for them.

How our relationships can be affected by ego-depletion

couple

A marital therapist called Don Baucom, when he heard about this research experiment conducted by Baumeister, stated that this helped him to understand a common pattern that he’d observed in the dual career couples that he had been counselling for many years. But (up to that point) he hadn’t understood the meaning behind the pattern.

What many couples had reported to him was that as soon as they got home from work, they would start having arguments about really insignificant things, and this took place every evening. This naturally was causing the couples a lot of unhappiness.

And what he had done sometimes was recommend that they try to go home early from work. He’d realised that the long hours at work were badly affecting their energy.

When they got home after a tough day at work they’d got nothing left to help them handle their partner’s irritating habits. They had no energy left to be generous or considerate with their partner, and had no energy to stop sarcastic comments being said.

dont-thrash-out-serious-probs

Baucom realised that the couples would really benefit if they left work early while they still had some energy left. He could see that when the stress levels at work were high, it had a serious effect on people’s marriages. People were using up all their willpower on the job and had nothing left when they got home.

One of the most revealing examples of the effects of low blood sugar – (a low level of glucose in the bloodstream) – was the research that was done into the decision-making patterns of Israeli Judges.

 

The Israeli Judges

A team of psychologists, led by Shai Danziger of the Ben-Gurion University, and Jonathan Levav  of Columbia University, reviewed over a thousand decisions that Parole Board judges made over a period of 10 months, in an Israeli prison, in 2010.

After hearing appeals by the prisoners, each judge had to then listen to advice from criminologists and sociologists on the parole board, in order to decide whether they should allow the prisoner to go out on parole or not. They had to bear in mind that there was a risk that if parole were to be granted, then the prisoner might go on to reoffend.

israeli-judgesEach judge, on average, granted parole to one out of three prisoners. What was apparent was that there was a pattern which emerged in the decisions made by the judges and it was this:

If a prisoner appeared in front of the judge in the early morning session, they were granted parole approximately 65% of the time. And if a prisoner appeared later in the day, they got parole less than 10% of the time.

graph

Another pattern emerged in the judges’ behaviour half-way through the morning.  Before 10.30am, the parole board would stop for a short break, during which the judges would eat a sandwich and a piece of fruit. This would give them a boost of energy, in the form of glucose, into their bloodstreams.

Apparently the prisoners who appeared just prior to the break, had a 15% chance of getting parole, but the prisoners who were seen immediately after the break had a 65% chance of being granted parole.

Then, amazingly, the same pattern emerged after lunch. Around 12.30 pm the likelihood of being granted parole was only 20%, in this period of time, before the lunch was served. And if you were seen by the judge immediately after lunch, the likelihood of being granted parole increased to more than 60%!

callout-4-same-willpower

Why did their decision-making follow such marked patterns?

Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (2012) are of the opinion that when we make decisions, we use up energy (in the form of glucose). This would have meant that the judges became drained of energy after a morning of decision-making, and that if there were any doubt in their minds about the wisdom of granting parole to a prisoner, if they had very little energy, the judges would opt to maintain the status quo, and play safe and keep the prisoner in jail.

Decision-making reduces our willpower, (by reducing the fuel that it depends upon!), and if we are making decisions all day, then as our energy gets depleted, we then choose easy options, or avoid making decisions, to escape from the hard labour of thinking.

Watching a video with words flashed on the screen

Another experiment measured the glucose levels of participants before and after they did a simple task of watching a video. As they watched the video, at the bottom of the screen were words, which were flashed onto the screen at varied intervals. There were two groups, as follows:

# The first group of people were told to pay no attention to the words on the screen, and they could just relax and watch in any way they wanted to.

# The second group of people had been told that they had to avoid reading the words. When the glucose levels (of this second group) were checked, they had a big drop in their brain’s glucose levels.

students-watching-screenWith regard to the first group, the levels of glucose had remained constant in these people, who had been told to view the screen however they wished.

So it was apparent (from the second group, by contrast with the first) that having to make mental efforts to avoid seeing words flashed on the screen, used up the glucose levels in their brains.

But scientists have to be very careful about the conclusions they form, and go back and check their inferences using additional experiments.

Checking out the accuracy of the research results

A later experiment, using lemonade, was conducted, to make sure that there really was a connection between decision making and a reduction in glucose levels in people.

The ‘lemonade’ experiment

Researchers gave out drinks of lemonade to two groups of people:

# One group were given lemonade drinks with diet sweetener in them.

# The other group were given lemonade with a small amount of sugar, to give them a quick shot of glucose.

lemonade-glass

When these two groups of participants started playing a computer game, the differences in the drinks they had consumed became very obvious.

To reduce the participants’ willpower, the computer game had been rigged, and after a while it became apparent that it was very difficult to play.  Slowly the participants began to get annoyed. But the participants with the sugar in their drink just moaned a bit and kept going.

The other participants (with the diet drink) started swearing and hitting the computer. And when an insulting (scripted) remark was made by one of the experimenters, then the people who had not got any glucose in their drinks became angry at the experimenter’s provocative remark.

This led to the following insight:

“No glucose – no willpower: the pattern showed up time and time again as researchers tested more people in more situations”, stated Baumeister and Tierney. (Page 49)

The implications of these findings for us

What can we learn from these experiments?

If our willpower is greatly reduced, then this can result in low levels of self-control. And this can cause us major problems.

Here’s an example: When we go shopping, because of all the different types of offers and goods on display in the shops, we use up lots of energy (glucose) paying attention to many different things, which are often potential choices to make, which are also potential decisions to wrestle with.  As a result, we can suffer from decision fatigue, just like the people in the research experiments.

Here’s an example:

Choosing an outfit

 swatchesCompanies selling goods know about the energy-draining effects of decision-making and can use it to their advantage. Here is an account by a Columbia University psychologist called Jonathan Levav. He had to buy a bespoke suit (made-to-measure by a tailor), for a wedding that he would be attending.

At the tailors, he went through all the different choices of fabrics, style of linings, style of buttons and other aspects of his new suit design.

How did this affect him?

By the time I got through my third pile of fabric swatches I wanted to kill myself”, Levav said. “I couldn’t tell the choices apart any more. After a while my only response to the tailor became: ‘What do you recommend?’ I just couldn’t take it.”

As it turned out Levav didn’t go ahead with the suit purchase (partially helped by the $2,000 price tag).

But because he felt overwhelmed and exhausted by all the choices he was given, and the decisions he was asked to make, this gave him an idea for some research experiments. One scenario for his research, conducted with other colleagues, was to observe what happened at car dealerships, specifically a car dealership in Germany.

The researchers surreptitiously observed real customers who were asked to make choices about their design options for their new sedan cars.

car-forecourt

At first the customers took the choices they had to make very seriously. Here are some of the options they faced. There were:

~Four styles of gearshift knobs

~Thirteen kinds of tyres and rims

~Twenty-five combinations of the engine and the gearbox

~Fifty six different colours for the car’s interior.

Slowly the more difficult choices wore out the buyers’ energy, and they ended up choosing the habit-based, traditional route, and they thereby “settled for the path of least resistance.”

Levav and his researchers discovered:

# The salespeople seemed to consciously manipulate the potential buyers, by overloading them with information;

# the net result was that the buyers abandoned all apparent choices open to them, and left it up to the salesperson to decide what they should have; and

# the customer ended up being ‘given’ a more expensive option than they could have got, if they’s had the energy (glucose) to compute the available options.  ( And the average difference totalled more than fifteen hundred euros per car (which was about $2,000 dollars at the time of the observations).

Another example

Sometimes shoppers get fed up making decisions, and stop buying things. But this doesn’t stop the marketeers. Have you noticed that in supermarkets, after people have used up their decision-making energy – looking at the different special offers, price reductions and varied choices of food and drinks, etc. – they finally arrive at the checkout area, where they have another range of choices?

check-out-at-supermarket

This is where the customers with decision fatigue (low glucose levels) are at their lowest ebb, and most vulnerable (especially if they have young children with them, clamouring for sweets). The sweets and chocolates are deliberately there at the checkout for anyone desperate for a glucose fix.

So what can we do in the face of this information about how our bodies and brains work – information which has been used, and will continue to be used, relentlessly by big (and small) businesses, to get our money? How can we get stronger?

no-glucose-no-willpower

Eat your way to willpower

As always, information is power, and Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (2012) make some very helpful suggestions so that we can benefit from their findings. They mention the key insights from all the willpower research that has taken place with thousands of people inside and outside the lab:

1. Firstly, we have a limited amount of willpower(which is fuelled by glucose!)

2.Secondly, we use the same store of willpower for a wide variety of tasks. So if you check your mobile phone about once every 4.3 minutes, as one recent study has found – (Sunday Times, October 30th, 2016,  Page 29) – then don’t expect to have much energy later on in the day for other decisions or uses of your willpower (like communicating with your loved ones at home at the end of the day!)

How can we use our store of willpower effectively?

Baumeister and Tierney recommend that you keep your level of glucose as constant as possible:

“Glucose depletion can turn the most charming companion into a monster. The old advice about eating a good breakfast applies all day long, particularly on days when you’re physically or mentally stressed.

“If you have a test, an important meeting or a vital project, don’t take it on without glucose. Don’t get into an argument with your boss four hours after lunch. Don’t thrash out serious problems with your partner just before dinner.”

(Very briefly, do not take this emphasis on the importance of glucose for willpower as advice to eat white sugar.  White sugar, and other sugary foods, like white bread and pasta, will give you a quick spike of glucose, but your insulin will then shoot up, and suck the sugar out of your system, leaving you with less blood glucose than you had before you had your quick sugar hit).

Making glucose work for you

healthy-food

In order to have a steady level of self-control, these authors advise people to eat foods which have a low-glycaemic index. This means that the food is converted into glucose at a slow and steady rate throughout the day. Suitable food examples are fish, meat, nuts, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, cheese, olive oil and other beneficial fats.

The evidence of the value of this type of diet is shown in the research findings from the behaviour changes of many teenagers held in detention centres. After the centres swapped sugary foods and refined carbohydrates with vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, there was a steep reduction in attempts to escape, violence and other behaviour problems.

Making sure you get enough sleep has a beneficial effect on your glucose level

If we don’t get enough sleep, we have less self-control and less ability to perform related processes like decision-making! Lack of sleep also interferes with the body’s ability to process glucose which can, over a longer period of time, create a higher risk of diabetes.

sleeping-child

And by resting, we reduce the body’s need for glucose, and we improve our body’s ability to use the glucose that we have in our bloodstream.

Changing your habits

These authors recommend that if you want to make a big change in your life, keep it simple:.  This is what they say:

“Focus on one project at a time…if you  set more than one self-improvement goal, you may succeed for a while by drawing on reserves to power through, but that leaves you more depleted and more prone to serious mistakes later.

“People who are trying to quit smoking, for example, will have their best shot at succeeding if they aren’t trying to change other behaviours at the same time”.

Don’t make any New Year’s resolution lists!

new-years-eve

The final insight from this book that I want to share with you is this wise advice:

“Above all, don’t make a list of new year resolutions…by February 1st people are too embarrassed to even look at the list.

“But instead of lamenting their lack of willpower, they should put the blame where it belongs – on the list! No-one has enough willpower for that list. Because you’ve only one supply of willpower, the resolutions all compete with each other. A better plan is to make one resolution and stick to it. That’s challenge enough.” (Page 38)

quote-on-eating-regularly

Conclusion

In this blog, I have looked at how our willpower depends upon our blood glucose levels; and how vested interests in the market use this against us.

I hope you find this information useful! Soon all of us will be exposed to intense and powerful marketing techniques and high-pressure sales bids, as we start to look for presents for our family and friends in the next month, leading up to Christmas. So don’t forget your glucose level, keep yourself as well-fed as you can afford, and it will keep your self-control strong!  (But always go for slow-burning fuel, and not quick spikes of refined sugar products!)

If you need support as you attempt lifestyle changes, contact me. Some changes are much harder to bring about in our lives than others. There’s no substitute for having a good coach, as I’m sure Andy Murray will agree.

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That’s all for now.

Best wishes,

Renata

Renata Taylor-Byrne

Lifestyle Coach-Counsellor

The Coaching/Counselling Division

Renata4coaching@btinternet.com

01422 843 629

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References:

Willpower: Rediscovering our greatest strength By Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, (2012) London, Penguin

‘Driven to Distraction’@joshglancy (30.10.2016, page 29) The Sunday Times, London.

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