Self-Control Can be Learned

December 7, 2011

Self-control is a predictor of success. Research shows that children who learn to control their impulses do better in school, college, work and relationships. But adults who never perfected their self-control can make significant and life-changing improvements with a few simple techniques and
practice. Picture this:

You’re ready to head for bed, emotionally and physically wound down. Just a few simple routines to complete and you can drift into the mysterious state called sleep – check the doors, turn off the lights, brush, floss and settle into the embrace of your bed and sleep.

As you shuffle through the kitchen one last time, the image of a bowl of ice cream snaps into your mind. Wouldn’t the creamy, sweet, cold taste of a small bowl of chocolate be delightful? If
you slow your steps, you’ll likely open the drawer for the ice cream scoop.

It is possible to learn to resist at will. Try picturing something else. Focus on images of your bed or an experience you had of stepping on a scale that stopped short of where it previously was. Too hard? Picture a great play from the last game you watched or some other really good experience. Just know that if you stare at the freezer, you are more likely to indulge.

Have you had the experience of walking away from temptation and having the image weaken and lose its urgency? Try it as an experiment; walk away and see what happens over the next few minutes. Focus on paying attention to your reactions and the process of learning instead of the treat.

Controlling your impulses can be learned, whether it’s to stop putting junk food in your mouth or quieting your frustration with yourself, employees, colleagues or clients. Maybe you’ll never find it easy, always have to push to keep your focus, even fall off track sometimes when you’re
tired, but you can develop improved strength and technique with desire and practice.

Eight Quick Hints:

  • Use distractions to pull your attention away from temptations
  • Don’t re-evaluate previous decisions when you’re under the influence of temptations
  • Develop an unbending pattern of behavior until you’re past thinking about a temptation
  • Understand that developing will power (self-control) is a process of learning and practice
  • Dump the old notion that your abilities or attitudes are set – they aren’t, you can learn new ways
  • Notice, celebrate and savor small bits of progress
  • Have a support person or group who you feel accountable to – who bolsters your self-control
  • Live for the changes that you’re working on and practice them into being

Multiple past failures to grow your self-control simply mean you haven’t yet found the right approach. It’s discouraging, but learning is often a process of gaining knowledge from failures until you start getting a hint of which directions are successful. Try getting a new perspective (a coach’s
point of view) and more emotional support. Remind yourself, “With practice I can learn this.”

Want a more complete primer on how to improve self-control and self-discipline? I help people develop new habits and behaviors; it’s what I’ve been doing for over 30 years. Change takes practice and support, but the actual process is simple.

Jay Livingston

Link found between APGAR scores at birth and future risk of ADHD

February 14, 2011

According to a recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics, Neonatal Health Can be Associated With Risk For AD/HD.

ADHD is known to be highly genetic. Approximately 77% of the time someone diagnosed with ADHD has the condition because of the genes they carry. However, genes are not the only factor. Researchers are finding other issues can “correlate” with ADHD. In this recent study published in January’s Journal of Pediatrics researchers show that neonatal health is an important risk factor for ADHD.

An astounding 980,902 children born in Denmark between 1988-2001 were monitored. The baby’s health immediately after birth was measured by commonly used Apgar scores. Then all children were followed from age 3 until a diagnosis of hyperkinetic disorder, a first medication for ADHD, migration, death, or the end of 2006, whichever came first.

The results – The lower the Apgar score the greater the risk for the child developing ADHD. Compared with children with Apgar scores of 9 or 10 at 5 minutes, the risk for ADHD was 75% higher in children than with Apgar scores of 1 to 4 and 63% higher for those with Apgar scores of 5 to 6.

Doctors concluded from this study that a low Apgar score is associated with risk of ADHD in childhood. Perhaps low Apgar scores and ADHD share common causes, or a low Apgar score reflects at least one possible pathway leading to ADHD.

A Reflection on Acceptance

June 18, 2010

“To succeed, it is necessary to accept the world as it is – and rise above it.”
Michael Korda
I recently sat with a young man who was telling me why he was feeling so down, discouraged, and guilty. “It’s all that acceptance stuff” he said. “All that acceptance stuff” sounds pretty important, doesn’t it? In fact, the notion of acceptance is a fundamentally crucial step in the development of all people. By this, I am not promoting the notion that we all just need to simply accept everything in our lives, but rather stop beating ourselves up for the human limitations that we all have, while being aware of and celebrating our unique gifts.
Acceptance comes in many forms. The young man sitting across from me was talking about his sense of how accepting his parents were of him, which in turn had shaped his self-image, and his ability to be self-accepting. If you met this young person, you would likely see what I see. He is intelligent, quick, artistic, verbal, handsome, gentle, caring and loving. So why on earth would he need to struggle with the notion of self-acceptance? As we work to better understand this question, we are increasingly clear on one fact: He did not create that sense of being “less” or like a “failure.” Others did that for him, especially his father.
It is never my intent to vilify a parent for a child’s pain. It serves no purpose to do so, but it is important for this young man to know where these feelings came from. His sense of not being good enough come, in large measure, from the messages he received, and continues to receive, from his father.
As Father’s Day is upon us, I am reminded of a reflection I sent out one year ago. In part, I included the following:
Men tend to be “bottom line” thinkers. They don’t want to talk around something; rather, they want to get to the point. This kind of short-circuited dialogue can create obvious tensions in any relationship because too many important things are left unsaid.
If inadequate communication between adult partners can be problematic, between fathers and their children, it can be toxic. Children, whether they admit to it or not, anxiously watch for signs of approval from their fathers. In my practice, many young people report an easy going and open relationship with their mothers while they frequently describe the exchanges with their fathers as limited or absent. This leaves many children wondering what their fathers are thinking and sometimes assuming the worst.
So, why don’t fathers come by this connection thing more easily? Many men were raised to think that expressing how they felt was a sign of weakness. Men often tell me that they can express emotion but that the range of emotion is frequently limited to anger & frustration. While men can identify feelings of hurt, love, insecurity or frailty, it almost always comes out as anger, or it doesn’t come out at all.

The young man in my office wants, and needs, what we all want and need…validation. Validation is most importantly provided by those paternal and maternal figures in our lives. Without that sense of unconditional love and acceptance, we leave our sons and daughters to, at the very best, wonder if they are “adequate” in our eyes, and at the very worst, struggling with “all that acceptance stuff.”

No one should have to struggle with the notion of acceptance as children and yet too many children do exactly that. And those children grow into adults who carry that overwhelming fear of not being “enough” to relationships with their bosses, partners, and their children.

So, it is time to stop right where we are and challenge ourselves to be more self-accepting, whether we received that message from our parents or not. And if we are parents, we can begin to undo damaging messages of the past and help our children gain the kind of self-acceptance that all of us need in order to survive, and thrive, in the world around us.

With the passing of another Father’s Day, I would encourage fathers (mother’s too) everywhere to consider how they might want to communicate differently with their children. Considering the well-being of a child who knows they are abundantly loved and cherished, it certainly seems worth the effort. And it’s really not that difficult to do…just sit down each of your children tonight for two minutes, hold them and tell them that they fill your heart with pride and love. (THEN REPEAT DAILY) I guarantee that the children who hear that message go on to discover unqualified adult happiness.


Walter Sherburne, Psychotherapist

Emotional Impulsivity – A Core Component of ADHD

June 6, 2010

Throughout history disorders of attention were described to include symptoms of emotional impulsivity, as seen in writings by Alexander Crichton (1798) and George Still (1902). Problems with regulating emotion were intially recognized as a core feature of ADHD. But during the 1960’s and 1970’s symptoms of emotional impulsivity/emotional self regulation were split off from the core criteria of ADHD as we know them today: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Dr. Russell Barkley just published a wonderful discussion article in the Journal of ADHD and Related Disorders arguing that emotional impulsivity should be returned to its proper status as a core symptom of ADHD.

What do we mean by emotional impulsivity? Why does this matter? Examples of emotional impulsivity include impatience, quickness to anger, easily frustrated, over-reactive, and easily excited. These characteristics are frequently seen with ADHD, yet often unrecognized as a core part of the condition. Frighteningly, these folks may be misdiagnosed as having a mood problem such as depression or bipolar disorder instead of what is really going on – their ADHD!

Over the years in practice I have seen many ADHD kids mistakenly labeled as bipolar. Their over-reactive nature gives an impression of a mood problem when the child is instead struggling with self regulation of attention and behavior. They have difficulty putting on the brakes in their brain. Similarly adults with ADHD can be impatient or emotionally over-reactive, which could lead to misdiagnosis. Unrecognized and untreated these features of ADHD can lead to problems at work and home.

I should also mention ADHD frequently does co-exist with Depression, Anxiety, Sleep Disorders, Bipolar disorder,etc so it is indeed possible to have more than one condition. Making an accurate diagnosis can be tricky. If you are seeking an evaluation for ADHD, I encourage you to work with professionals who are specialized in this area. Getting an accurate diagnosis is essential to getting the right treatment.

Theresa Cerulli, M.D.

Unplug to Plug In

April 10, 2010

Entrepreneurs and business people I work with often ask me for help “being a better dad,” or “being a better partner/spouse.” These high-energy, on-the-go people want to find ways to have more connection with their children and spouses.

I asked one owner of a mid-sized business, “Do you have any chance to talk with your son in the evenings?”

My client responded, “Some, but by the time I get free he’s getting ready for bed.”
Another dad told me his daughter “wasn’t that interested in talking.” And a third sighed and reported that he was treated like a stranger by his kids.

When I followed up with specific questions I discovered that each of these men brought major work home with them every night and on weekends. I’m not talking about the traditional briefcase full of papers, I mean responses to be made to emails and phone calls – Blackberry jam – you know the sticky stuff that gets all over your family time. Though they didn’t intend it, their kids were relegated to (and likely felt like) second class citizens.

My suggestion is pretty simple, unplug!

I’ve encouraged these successful men (and women) to experiment with 5-10 minutes of being unplugged from their Blackberries— shut it down or put it far enough away that you will not here it. Yes, ignore it. It doesn’t work to just set it for vibrate – you’ll probably keep checking to at least see who called.

You need time to look into your children’s eyes and say (with words or your attention), “Nobody’s more important than you! How’s your life going?” Or in the case of young children, “How’s Elmo doing?”

I get laughed at when I suggest 5 minutes. My high standard clients think 20 minutes is a more realistic time, until they get home and try it. After 5 minutes they start feeling the “gotta check it” withdrawal symptoms. You know the signs—hands in the pocket, Blackberry being played with or quick glances just to see who it’s from.

If you’re really going to “be there” with and for your children, then you need to create a strong motto for your home life, something you can use as a touchstone when the going gets tough. Something like, “My kids deserve this uninterrupted time with me alone.” “My email isn’t more important than my kids, wife or husband.”

Most of my clients quickly adjust and keep themselves free, well, for at least 6.5 minutes.

Good luck.

Szifra (Shifra) Birke

Good luck.

On Second Thought…

January 14, 2010

Some interesting research shows that on first impulse we usually tend to overrate but occasionally underrate our abilities, and it’s only after a moment’s reflection, in which our brain gets a chance to bring its full cognitive capabilities to the evaluation, that we estimate our skills accurately.

You’ve probably heard of the study where almost all drivers rated their driving as better than most other drivers, a clearly unrealistic self-evaluation. Although I’m pretty sure my skills do put me in the top tier of drivers.

Clearly, we sometimes don’t do a good job of evaluating ourselves.

When studies ask self-evaluation questions a second time, after a moment’s pause, the answers are a more realistic assessment. How good are you at estimating time? “Excellent?” How excellent? “Oh, the “pretty ok when I’m paying attention” kind of excellent.”

This information may be particularly important for those with ADHD who have a tendency toward impulsiveness and over-optimistic projections. Think of quickly answering a question about when you will be home with “Half an hour!” After a minute of slowing down and working it out, you might agree that the most likely correct answer would be an hour or more.

By waiting you’ve allowed yourself time to tap into your ability to compute details and mathematically figure out answer to questions, and you’ve allowed your intuitive side time to process unconscious information and experiences you have stored.

“Can you take on this new project?” If you answer “Sure!” without a pause to allow realistic concerns to bubble up, you’re trying to function at your best by using only part of your ability. It is clearly in our long-term interest to pause long enough to give our brains time to bring their full potential to bear on our response.

I’d suggest you pause, breathe, say, “Let me check my schedule and task list.” Do anything to allow your full intelligence and experience time to evaluate your answer.

Jay Livingston


October 19, 2009

Coaching has three distinct steps:

·         Learn how to address a topic or issue you want to change

·         Implement an effective approach or solution

·         Keep at it through the ups and downs of your life

Using a system even when things are going well, or making adjustments in routines so that you don’t fall behind again is one of the major challenges to managing responsibilities more effectively. For many high-energy, bright, creative people routines can quickly become boring and our attention will drift to the next new or interesting project.

I find it tricky to help clients understand they need to stick with the coaching process until they have practiced pulling themselves out of a backslide toward chaos. When coaching has helped get things going better, and there is room to breathe again, it can feel discouraging to contemplate the next failure, but inevitably the pressures will build; you will drop your adherence to the systems that you learned; and pretty soon you will need to stop yourself and re-start the process. Done early, a restart can quickly get things back on track.

Each year sports teams start their season practices with conditioning (most players have let it slide during the off season) and practice of the basics (both to reestablish high quality patterns and responses and to build player skills to a higher level.) Musicians regularly play scales slowly and deliberately so that they can listen and improve the fundamentals their creative music depends on. Those of us that lead complex lives need to practice the fundamental skills that help keep us focused during times of pressure, skills that encourage us to quickly work our way back into proven routines.

You can always call your coach to remind you of what to do when things start coming apart, but your coach should also be helping you develop the ability to become self-correcting. Only with practice will you see a pile of papers that has grown too big and say, “I need to do a quick sort of this pile, but I have to be careful not to get too involved. I’ll set a timer for 15 minutes and try to make one pass through it.”

When a project is late you will stop for a minute and say, “Have I scheduled time in my book to work on this? What is the next small action to take to get started?” Or you will recognize that you don’t feel pressure yet, no one is upset at you – yet, and you will practice the techniques you learned to generate some of your own sense of urgency so that you get motivated to get to work.

Becoming self-correcting is a huge step toward successful self-regulation; be sure it’s on your agenda and your coach’s.

Jay Livingston

Contact Jay

Nothing Changes Until Something Moves

October 5, 2009

Dear Friends:

Pinned to the wall in my waiting room, hangs a quote by Albert Einstein that reads, “Nothing changes until something moves.” I confront it every morning as I walk into my office. There it waits on a bland, white, 8 by 11 piece of paper. It waits for anyone walking past to notice it, to read it, and to ponder its meaning.

When I stop to consider it, Einstein was likely thinking of physics when he wrote it, but it makes perfect sense in the world of human emotions. When it comes to how we understand ourselves and others, you see, nothing does change until we decide to imagine and construct our thoughts differently.

I frequently speak to men, for example, about the relationships they have with their wives, children and partners. Too often, I hear these men talk about wanting to tenderly reach out to those they love and tell them how they feel, but that they hesitate to do so. Hesitation to fully express oneself emotionally can be the result of many influences. Sometimes these men had no role models to teach them, through their actions, how to love and cherish another. Sometimes they feel their words are inadequate. And, sometimes they fear the possibility of ridicule and rejection of others. For whatever the reason, powerful hesitation persists.

When confronting hesitation and avoidance, I often think of Einstein’s quote, along with the age-old advice, “time and tide wait for no man.” Life does move along on its own timeline, doesn’t it? The opportunities we have today to reach out to others may quickly vanish tomorrow. I wonder how we would act if we knew that we only had today? How much would we express to others? What of ourselves would we want to give to others? For as many times as I have raised these questions, I am too often met with, and perplexed by, that all too familiar and deeply entrenched avoidance and hesitation.

Hesitation to create movement in how we see ourselves or how we relate to others can be painfully obvious to the afflicted. I frequently ask the avoidant person if the avoidance they know so well is working for them. The nearly universal response is “no.” If we avoid, we do it for a reason. We do it because that’s how we were trained to deal with life’s challenges and upsets. That is all we know. Burying is another form of avoidance. As one client recently noted, “burying is a survival technique, but not a happy technique.” Burying, avoiding, denying and hesitating are all part of the human need to survive. But, if by avoiding conflict we keep ourselves from others, our “survival” comes at a tremendous cost.

And so, for all who wait, vacillate and hesitate, I am reminded of yet another quote. “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” What I sometimes find myself wondering is what will it take for the “blind” to see? Whatever it will takes, please remember that time is not on our side.


Walter Sherburne, Psychotherapist

Competing with a Computer Screen

June 16, 2009

Marty sat talking to me with his eyes on his computer screen and regularly input burst of typing. I tried sitting at the other end of his desk so he would be forced to look away from the screen, but he just pushed his chair back and swung his head from the screen to me until I lost out and he was back to starring at the screen.

More and more jobs seem to necessitate people keeping an eye out for incoming emails or require the completion of a computer form as part of the appointment process. I first encountered this at a specialist’s office where the physician did a remarkably thorough job, but rarely looked up from his screen. Now I see my ADD clients struggle with it.

Some people think I’m entertaining and my wife even thinks I’m funny, but I couldn’t get Marty to take his eyes off his screen. I reminded him that he was not paying attention and he apologized but quickly drifted back. I finally asked him to turn off the monitor while we talked about what to do. He was very willing, but the interesting thing was he kept checking the blank screen every 15 to 30 seconds. That was better though because he would check in with me more often and his conversation was more responsive.

The computer is a huge time safer and it is a huge interruption and distraction. Those with ADD have to be particularly vigilant about letting it dominate their day. A few suggestions:

·         Turn off the monitor when you’re having meetings or business conversations; it’s easy to fire it back up again.

·         Close the email program or set it to not go looking for email but once an hour – you can always manually click the send/receive button.

·         Turn off all signals that you have email and set a kitchen timer for one hour to remind you to check.

·         Move away from your desk when you’re having a business conversation so that you’re not distracted by other non-technological things on your desk.

·         Get a squeeze ball or some other fidget toy to play with while you talk.

Marty came up with an interesting solution on his own, he now takes notes with a pen while we talk; of course he spends a lot of time starring at his notebook. Funny but that doesn’t bother me nearly as much.

Jay Livingston can be contacted at

Miss Appointments?

March 23, 2009

Jim and I set our next appointment time, but he didn’t write it down. He just agreed to the appointment, collected his cell phone and keys, said goodbye and headed out the door.

As soon as he was gone I grabbed my cell to make the call before my next client. I quickly looked up the number and dialed. I got his machine – good, he’d remembered not to answer; I punched “1” and said, “Hi, this is Szifra. We have an appointment on Thursday at 2:30. See you then. Goodbye!”

With that one phone call I cleared my responsibility before I could forget, and had given Jim an appointment reminder that he could replay again and again all week long. That’s right; my quick phone call was to Jim as he walked out to his car. It was an arrangement that we had devised to help him remember, and it worked great for the entire time he saw me.

Before my first appointment with a client ends, I ask them if they need a reminder for appointments. Each client has a different need. For some, despite the fact they have ADHD, they never have any difficulty remembering when we’re getting together, as long as they have a card with the time.

Some clients prefer an email the morning of their appointment and others request a phone call to remind them as they start their day. A few clients, who need some time to make the drive to my office, ask for a call about 90 minutes before they’re supposed to be there.

If possible, I try to accommodate whatever approach works. With Jim that means calling him as he leaves my office and leaving the reminder on his cell phone where he likes stumbling across it all week. Jim thought of this idea when I was offering the list of possibilities.

If you have trouble remembering appointments, be a good observer of what works well for you. Once you find a system don’t be afraid to tell your dentist, accountant, personal trainer or other service providers. They may appreciate knowing what will get you to your appointment on time and on the right day. You may even teach them to ask other clients who sometimes forget.

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