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To done list - or, to do list?

By Rebecca Thomas

Pause. Think for a minute. Since term 4 started, what have you accomplished?

Write it down.

Habitually we tend to minimize our accomplishments. We proactively write ‘to do lists’ - things still to be completed. As satisfying as it is to cross them out, we generally don’t pause long enough to notice what we have actually achieved.

Our lizard brain encourages us to focus on our negativity bias - gifted to us for survival. Scanning the savannah for tigers was more important than noticing the blue berry bush full of ripe berries in the distance. This ‘in built’ bias handed down from our ancestors is the very reason a student rolling their eyes in your lesson is more noticeable and becomes more memorable than a student who smiles; smiles take longer to register.

Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.

- Dr. Seuss

This negativity bias kept us alive when we needed it, but today it can help induce stress as it makes us scan and then focus on perceived threats. We only have to look back at how this bias played out in the past three years whenever alert levels changed, or a press conference was looming. To keep things in balance it is essential we build resilience and restore order.

No doubt the business of term 4 has created one or two stressors, as we have had a multitude of tasks to complete whilst scanning for potential disasters: ‘Have I spelt the names right on the trophies that need engraving?’, ‘Have I got enough parent helpers for camp?’, ‘Have I edited all of my reports before I sealed the envelopes?’, ‘Have I invited everyone to the V.I.P morning tea?’ If you think about it there is a huge part of our job that requires scanning and writing to do lists - no wonder, we feel tired and stressed and get ill as soon as term stops. The potential for danger lurks everywhere. These of course help build our resilience naturally; you don’t build resilience when things go well!

So how can we balance our negativity bias and prevent ourselves fixating on things we can’t control?

The good news is that the staff member who never bats an eyelid at stress and seems calm and collective at every hurdle wasn’t born with that skill. It is something they have learned to develop. You can do that too.

The following tips have been highlighted by Dr. Sarah Ferguson as qualities we can develop to help build our resilience.

#1 Optimism

This is our feel-good filter that helps to release dopamine. When we filter the world through an optimistic lens we see the world differently, helping us to notice things we might not see; a smile rather than an eyeroll. Think that this is happening for me instead of happening to me.

#2 Mental Agility: When faced with a challenging situation, having mental agility allows you to look at the situation from alternative perspectives. Spin sticky situations around, and with the help of optimism say to yourself 'at least it wasn't worse’. The way you choose to tell yourself a story can affect you greatly; there is always more than one way to look at an event.

#3 Connection: Our social fabric and relationships can help support us when things go bad. Consider your own connections. Do you have enough good quality relationships to support you in a time of need? If not, (using optimism and mental agility) how can you find some?

#4 Self- awareness: Having time and space to notice when you are feeling low, or noticing when your negativity bias is kicking in is very helpful. Although we may not be able to control or influence the situation causing us stress, being aware of it and how it is affecting you will help you learn to use optimism, mental agility and allow you reach out to your connections for support.

#5 Self-regulation: Once you are aware of the stress becoming unbalanced through self-awareness, the next step is to learn to self-regulate the situation. For many of us some form of movement can help alleviate the stress. Find what makes you happy and activate this strategy in times of challenge.

Warning - multi-tasking at this point will only contribute to the cognitive load you are under. Try to be present in the moment as you self-regulate.

#6 Character Strengths: Do a simple Character Strengths test to find out what you excel at. Then apply your superpower to your life and work. Understanding you are a lifelong learner might help you understand why you crave further professional development, or extra study. Finding out you have Zest might help you understand why you are drawn to decorating your house in fluorescent colours. Apply your superpower, understand your strengths.

In summary to counter the bias, notice when things go well and celebrate them, notice what is in your control, pause to be present in the moment, and enjoy being able to spend time together in person.

Even on very bad days - good things can happen.

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