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When you cannot resist a great book

Have you ever had the great fortune of getting a book in your hands, feeling enticed by its title, and, while reading its pages, realising that this book is a bridge to more than one topics? This book acts somehow as a connector to concepts and topics of broader interest than expected and you actually catch yourself noting down all the possible interconnection links and start building a rewiring web with a feeling of excitement.

That’s what recently happened to me when I picked up Caroline Webb‘s recent work “How to Have a Good Day”.  As the creator and founder of ProEnglish and a passionate English Language Coach, I’m always on the lookout for people who produce great work (and are kind enough to share practical tips that actually work!) in the fields of education, business, leadership, mindfulness, behavioural psychology, linguistics and neuroscience, just to name a few of the topics I’m very interested in. However mixed this range of interests is, they are correlated: they act as sources of knowledge and inspiration and help me stay focused on my mission: provide tailored English coaching to professionals from a broad spectrum of industries and combine their expertise and skills with super stimulating and engaging language coaching material. This is why I chose Caroline Webb’s book for this blog article.

Is work learning and vice-versa?

Have you ever considered that work is learning and learning is work?
Let’s look closer at this relation: when we work, we use the expertise and experience we’ve acquired through the years. That means we apply accumulated skills and knowledge. By the same token, we are also constantly learning new information, adding new skills to our wealth of information, and thus we are eventually working on our learning abilities.

The same can be said for learning a language: while working on your linguistic skills, you set a number of goals you wish to achieve. With that, you learn your way towards your personal targets.

This is the great takeaway I have seized, and Caroline Webb’s book confirms it: to work means to be in constant learning mode about how we perceive ourselves and the others in the workplace and how can we transform our working life into a happy one with some practical hacks.

Does this ring a bell? Have you ever caught yourself needing that extra push to motivate yourself at work or even trying to remember why you are working for that company in the first place?

This is what my clients experience outside the office and inside the coaching room: they have lost focus on their ultimate language learning goals, they feel the challenges are too high.

Caroline Webb explains it better.

One head, two brains

It’s fascinating how Webb goes on to explain how our brain works, what happens when we feel out of our comfort zone, and how we react when that happens. She calls it the two-brain system. Let’s quickly take a look at this system.

The Deliberate System is responsible for the “grown-up” behaviour: reasoning, self-control and forward thinking. Webb explains that reasoning doesn’t mean logical thinking but “our effort to work out the best response that isn’t routine“. Our self-control mechanism is responsible for “not losing our cool when we’re upset and our ability to concentrate in the face of distractions“.
Finally, our deliberate system is responsible for planning, for instance, setting goals and figuring out how to achieve them.

However, our deliberate system has some limitations: our working memory is limited since we are trying to apply reasoning, self-control, and forward thinking. Webb’s advice, which I also like and suggest to my students: take short breaks and refuel your brain, to keep the deliberate system running smoothly.

The Automatic System takes care of our more familiar tasks by running them into autopilot routines. It’s also responsible for our multi-tasking side, meaning we can process huge amounts of information. What’s interesting about this system is that it saves us mental energy by rapidly seeping through ideas and information, helping us filtering out what’s important or in priority.

Are you threatening me?

What happens when you feel out of your comfort zone? Workwise you might feel under pressure with tasks that your two-brain system finds challenging. Language learning-wise you are faced with a linguistic challenge: you resist looking at the problem with a more open mind, and this reaction is called “the defensive mode“, as Webb labels it. In a nutshell, Webb explains that the defensive mode is simply our way of protecting ourselves against threats, of any kind. Professional threats or linguistic challenges trigger our defensive mode, and we become resistant to the situation.

So how can you reverse the defensive mode? It’s not pleasant or productive when you are constantly on the defensive, resisting change or allowing yourself to look at the challenging situation from a different angle. Caroline Webb suggests that the first step in extracting yourself from this negative side of yourself is to notice what is going on. From a mindful perspective, this is called coming from a place of awareness. By just observing what the current situation is, you are scanning the environment for potential threats, and this is because your brain is also scanning for potential rewards! How is that so? Just as we seek potential risks to protect ourselves, we simultaneously seek potentially appealing situations to reward ourselves.

From my experience, when my students are confronted with a challenge, they usually form a kind of resistance, closing up and feeling frustrated or even humiliated because they are put on the test, but unable to win their reward.

Some typical reactions I’ve registered are: “I don’t understand this rule at all”, “It’s too difficult for me”, “I’ve tried, but I don’t get it”, “I really don’t like (grammar)”, “I can’t stop translating everything in my first language”.

What happens if you try to notice what blocks you from understanding the problem and how more satisfied you’d feel if you could take steps to overcome that challenge?
Just for a minute think how more clearly you could focus on your challenges (whatever they might be) if your brain wasn’t on the defensive.

Practical tips to escape the negativity loop

Here are some useful tips drawn by C. Webb’s book that you can apply right now to start feeling happy and more productive, even in your English language journey:

  • It’s all about the language
    Negative language creates negative brain reaction. Break the negativity loop by adopting a positive response to any linguistic challenge you’re faced with.
    E.g. “I’m going to approach this challenge in the best way possible, and with an open mind.”
  • Make a short list of the steps you’re going to follow and overcome this linguistic hurdle
    E.g. Use a grammar book, ask your language trainer clear questions, practise more or get creative with your challenge: go online and google it!
  • What can you get out of this?
    What is the motivation behind overcoming the linguistic challenges that keep you from reaching your goals?
    E.g. You will be able to produce professional, correct business emails, or you’ll be more fluent and therefore more confident when it’s time to voice your views at work or with your international colleagues and friends. The potential gain is unlimited!
  • Chop the elephant
    In her book, Webb mentions that “research suggests we achieve more when our goals are focused and achievable.
    It’s better to break your big goals into a series of smaller goals you can complete on a daily basis and that are within your reach.
    E.g. You can sharpen and improve your Business English by listening or reading related material 15 minutes a day and create your personal vocabulary list. This way, your reward system is activated, you complete your daily goal, and you feel content and happy!
  • Create a brain-friendly to-do list
    Once you have set positive intentions and clear goals, you feel the urge to compile a to-do list to keep things on track. Whether you create your to-do list using a fancy app or pen and paper, it doesn’t matter. Most of the time, these lists tend to stress us more than motivate and help us pursue our goals.
    Here are Webb’s brain-friendly essentials:

    • Write it down as soon as it comes to mind: Don’t try to memorise your ideas and goals. It doesn’t work.
    • Only keep today’s tasks in view: Prioritising your tasks helps you stay focused.
    • Make it satisfying to check off: Track your progress and tick off everything you’ve done. You’ll feel motivated and positive.
    • Be realistic about what you can do in a day: Progress feels good, however setting yourself on an overachieving mode isn’t productive. Complete three tasks instead of five or ten.
    • Include mind-body maintenance: Include exercise, rest on your goal list. It’s important to give your body and mind frequent short breaks; it will help you stay fresh and focused throughout the day.
  • Remove distractions
    It’s easy to get distracted and lose focus from what we are actually are doing. Allocate how much time you need to complete your task, and during that time avoid answering emails or checking your smartphone.

I find all of Webb’s tips helpful and applicable to language learning as well. However, how often do we fail to follow practical tips because we’re not clear about our goals, motivation or why we should include the mind-body concept to the equation of our personal success?

The English Coach’s guide for Confident English and a happier mindset

I have compiled a list of questions that are based on my coaching experience and the way I apply mindfulness. They will help you achieve a higher level of clarity and be aware of how your mind-body reacts when you can’t move forward with your English language learning journey.

How it works: Take the necessary time and answer each of the following questions with honesty; the answers will guide you to finding what is best for you and you only to move forward with your English learning. Then go ahead and apply any of the practical tips I shared with your from C. Webb’s wonderful book.

  • What do you enjoy most when learning English?
  • Why do you find it enjoyable and therefore easy?
  • What do you find challenging when learning English?
  • Why do you find it challenging?
  • Have you noticed your resistance is raised when you are faced with a language challenge?
  • What happens then? How do you react? Articulate the kind of resistance you usually experience.
  • How do you get out of your resistance loop? Name 2-3 things that help you break the resistance loop.
  • What happens if you stay in the resistance loop?
  • If you spend 5 minutes thinking of how your body reacts when you resist while facing a challenge in relation to your English learning, how would you describe your body behaviour?
  • If you spend 5 minutes thinking of how your mind reacts when you resist while facing a challenge with your English learning, how would you describe your mind behaviour?
  • Have you ever created a goal list that includes what you want to achieve in relation to your English learning?
  • How often do you update your goal list?
  • Is this goal list a motivator or demotivator for you? Why?
  • What keeps you focused and going with your English learning?

If you love books as much as I do, then you will enjoy my recent live Facebook video, where I suggest How a Book Can Help You Upgrade Your English. One of the books I suggest as a great read but also as an excellent source of Business English vocabulary combined with some brilliant practical tips that can help you cope with the stresses of the modern workplace is, of course, C. Webb’s How to Have a Good Day.

If you want to improve your reading, vocabulary and speaking skills outside the business context, then the three other books in the video might tickle your fancy. In any case, reading is beneficial, whether it is for escaping this world for a while or updating knowledge for a specific purpose. Books are also inspiring, especially when loaded with great tips that propel us to discovering new ways of living a happier and more productive life.

Thank you, Caroline Webb, for a great dose of inspiration!


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