Chapter 1 – Introduction

Who am I?

Hi!

My name is Gareth.

I am a registered psychologist – https://www.ahpra.gov.au/Registration/Registers-of-Practitioners.aspx?q=PSY0001291874&t=oPi36xOCGwDJjn3w6iZU

I graduated with a Clinical PhD in Psychology from Flinders University in 2006 – oh the memories! I’ve not really achieved much since 🙂 

Now I realise I am biased but I think psychology is a fascinating discipline. Fundamentally it is the science of human behaviour. Psychologists are interested in why people think, feel and act the way they do.

Most of us are amateur psychologists in some way. We want to better understand why our friends, our family members, our partners, our colleagues act in certain ways. We might also be interested in our own behaviour and choices. Like why did I spend the weekend watching Netflix when I had a whole bunch of important things that I needed to do? We’re all trying to navigate the complexities of human interactions and relationships on a daily basis and developing our own explanations for how it is that humans work. 

It is why revealing I am a psychologist at a dinner party or event with strangers usually ends in my helping them understand the behavior of someone in their life.

Despite psychology’s broad focus, when most people think of a ‘psychologist’, they tend to think of clinical or counselling psychologists who work with people who are struggling with mental ill health. These psychologists work privately or in the health system. These are the people that your GP might send you to if you are struggling with anxiety or depression.

But psychology is a much bigger discipline than just clinical or counselling psychologists. For example, Industrial and Organizational psychologists apply psychological principles to the workforce to improve productivity or workplace culture. Sports psychologists work with athletes to increase their performance. Forensic psychologists apply psychological knowledge to the legal environment.

And not all psychologists work directly with people. Some are researchers, conducting scientific studies to better understand human beings and the psychological experiences that defines them: consciousness, imagination, perception, thinking, judgement, language, memory, feelings/emotions, attention, intelligence, beliefs, identity. 

Some are teachers, passing on the principles of psychology to students. 

I’m trying to create a career somewhere in the middle. I’m interested in what the psychology research says about how to live a rewarding and satisfying life, and I’m interested in communicating/ teaching that to the ‘general public’, that is, people who haven’t necessarily studied psychology. 

My day job at Flinders University allows me to do this. 

At Flinders, I sit within the Health, Counselling and Disability Service (HCDS). I don’t see students individually. Instead I create resources that students can use to make changes in their own life. Resources like a blog, workshops, self-help handouts, newsletters and seminars.

I do this on the assumption that all students want to :

  1. Be good at their studies (i.e. good grades, feeling of learning something)
  2. Have high levels of wellbeing (i.e. happy, connected, energised, in control)
  3. Have access to resources that help them achieve a and b

That assumption is supported by what students tell us they want – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-news/2019/03/20/what-you-told-us-about-your-success-at-flinders/

I see my job as helping as many students as possible achieve the best they can, using the principles, ideas and findings from the field of psychology, and related disciplines like medicine, philosophy and health science. 

But it is not just my day job where I get to practice this role.

Outside of my day job, I work on projects that have a similar goal: communicating psychological concepts and ideas to the general public. One is called ‘7 Days of Psychology’ which uses Psychology Week to promote the different contributions that psychology has made to everyday life. The other is called Visualising Mental Health where we get Communication Design students to develop novel and imaginative solutions to communicating psychology and mental health concepts to the general public. 

So you might be sensing a theme here?

Put simply, my goal, across multiple aspects of my professional life, is to help people develop the psychological tools necessary to build a rewarding and satisfying life.

What is this book?

This is a book on a blog. A constant work in progress. A space for me to collect and present my thoughts on the topic of self-improvement. It is being written piece-by-piece, chapter-by-chapter, almost in real-time.

Practically speaking, this is a book on how to train your brain/ mind (I’ll deal with the distinction between mind and brain in Chapter 2). It is a place where I have tried to distill out the key concepts and ideas relevant to training one’s brain/ mind.

The fundamental message of this workbook is that a personal philosophy which includes a commitment to continuous incremental self-improvement is a pathway to mental fitness (a well trained brain/mind). The chapters and suggested exercises included in this book seek to educate you on the principles of self-improvement and then encourage you to apply those principles in your everyday life. 

I’m writing this book from the perspective of someone who has some knowledge about human behaviour (because of my training and ongoing learning) and wants to share that knowledge in the hope that it might help someone better cope with and thrive in the face of the psychological demands of life. When I speak to students in my day job, I hear that time is precious and they are already juggling many activities; study, work, social lives, hobbies, family. This seems to apply equally to just about anyone that I meet in life. This book is about how to train your brain/mind in the context of an already busy lifestyle.

I should state up-front that I am trying to use the principles and processes discussed in this book in my own life. They have been very helpful to me. I believe in this work. I am not saying that I’ve got everything right or worked out the secret of life (far from it). I know for sure that I am still learning as I go, but I believe that a philosophy encouraging self-reflection, self-experimentation and trying to improve one’s place in life is a valid approach. I am trying to be a living example of what I will describe in this book. I’ll document some of those experiences on the blog part of this website.

Whilst I am confident that I have based the principles described in this book on psychological research and good practice in clinical psychology (I will expand on this in Chapter 3 – ‘Is this workbook evidence-based?’), I believe you should approach the ideas in this book with some caution. Your job, as the reader is to determine whether the principles and ideas in this book may have value in your own life. It is excellent if you think they do. It is totally OK if you think they don’t. I make this a little easier by exploring upfront the problems and limitations of the approach I outline (Chapter 9). I want you to take an active role in shaping your own wellbeing, and part of that is sifting through the different views you encounter to find those views that genuinely improve the quality of your life.

As I publish the chapters of this book, you’ll notice that rather than being just a set of recommendations about how to live your life, it is more about giving you a framework for making your own decisions about how to build your wellbeing. That is a deliberate thing. 

There is a saying ‘Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime’ that the internet isn’t quite sure who said it – https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/08/28/fish/

The essence of the quote is that giving someone directly what they might need may not be as powerful as giving them the skills to get that need met in an ongoing way.

I think the same applies to self-improvement or self-development.

I could focus on writing a book that simply outlines a set of activities that I think you should engage in to get better wellbeing and productivity. To a certain extent, I will do this – in Chapter 13 I will be listing selected activities for building capacity in different areas.

But the reason I won’t be addressing that until Chapter 13 is that I am mindful that everyone is different. People have different goals, interests, aptitudes, histories. It is very hard to give a single roadmap for life that applies to everyone. Furthermore, as per the quote, it makes more sense for me to teach you a framework for self-development and self-improvement, than it is for me to just give you specific advice. I liken it to a personal trainer giving you a set workout to follow, versus teaching you how to construct your own workouts based on an understanding of the need for strength, agility, endurance to feature in any workout plan. 

I want to focus on giving you a psychological framework for thinking about how you build the life you want to live, a rewarding and satisfying life. You can apply this framework to thinking about all different sorts of issues; your study, your happiness, your relationships, your hobbies, your work. It is about giving you the tools to become an active agent in your own self-development. 

Thus you’ll find that the bulk of this book is dedicated to getting you to memorise a framework for self-development that you could apply to any aspect of your life, at any stage of life. Then it is about practising using it. 

My language use here is quite specific – namely to ‘memorise’ a framework and then ‘practise’ using it. 

On the memory point – I don’t want you to get to the end of reading my book and simply have 1 or 2 interesting ideas in your head. Instead, I want you to be able to describe clearly the framework to anyone who asked you. I want you to be able to see the world through this framework. In support of this I will try to make the framework as simple as possible, whilst still being robust enough to give you real guidance. I’ll also incorporate revision exercises at the end of each chapter to help drive home the key points.

On the practise point – self-improvement only becomes ‘real’ when we actually put it into action. Reading is only part of the journey. Thus in Chapter 10, I will encourage you to develop and then implement your own personal self-improvement plan, drawing on what you’ve learned in the previous chapters. The true test of the framework is whether is actually ‘works’ in moving you forward in life.   

Why did I write this book?

A lot of things converged at a point which made writing this book make sense to me. It is too self-indulgent to go into each one in detail, but a quick tour of the reasons will help you make sense of my motivations. 

  • For my PhD I developed and evaluated a workbook for people recovering from a heart attack. I really enjoyed the development process but it’s only recently that I’ve had the opportunity to return to book development.
  • I really enjoy writing, especially trying to describe complex psychological concepts in a more accessible way. 
  • In my 30’s I got sick. Getting better meant making changes in my life. I made those changes in a very haphazard way and afterwards thought – ‘there must have been a better way to have approached that’. This book is partly my attempt at describing a ‘better way’. 
  • My day job is to help students have a better university experience. The principles inherent in that seem relevant to everyone else trying to have a better life experience.
  • I think there is a constant appetite for self-development materials in the general public and that it is a topic we should keep talking about. I hope to make a contribution to that discussion.
  • The area of self-help and self-improvement is vast. Trying to do something coherent in that space is a great intellectual puzzle which I am enjoying trying to solve.
  • A blog book is a good format for me to develop and distribute my ideas. It could be the basis of developing more complex coaching or online programs down the track.      

Who is this book for?

Anyone.

Anyone who wants to make improvements to their life.

Anyone trying to develop a roadmap for their life. 

Anyone on the internet.

What do I hope you get out of it?

In my life I’ve learned that many people are actively pursuing learning, productivity, wellbeing and meaning at the same time. They want to upskill, do good work, enjoy their life and also know they are making a difference in the world.

For some this is a challenge. They might be juggling extensive commitments (e.g. study and work) or they might be dealing with chronic health or mental health problems. They might be barely keeping their head above water in life and have faced multiple adversities along the way.

Knowing this, my goal is to give people a framework for helping them achieve their learning, productivity, wellbeing and meaning goals at the same time, but one that is actionable in the context of an already challenging existence. Self-improvement is that framework, and the pathway to having a well-trained mind (Mental Fitness). 

This book won’t give you all the answers you need to build the life you want. But it might give you a few pieces of that puzzle. I hope it gives you some insights into the processes and principles of training your mind and the inspiration to start doing this in your everyday life. I hope it convinces you to consider your mental fitness with equal importance as your physical fitness.

So let’s get started…………