Obstacles to safe experiments

In some recent work, I had the chance to work with folk on STOPPERS. These are safe experiments to observe things that get in the way of designing safe experiments, implementing them and learning from the results.

I’d prefer to stay positive when writing up the results of safe experiments. On this page, however, I consider how safe experiments can help us to manage STOPPERS. As you read, I’d suggest you note down information about your own personal STOPPERS.


TIME: this feels like a genuine constraint; after all, there are only 24 hours in a day.  Looked at more closely, it is possible to notice that we are impatient – we want change NOW.  Other times, we persuade ourselves that we can only create change, WHEN (something has been sorted). Alternatively, we put off changing UNTIL something else has happened.

Any of these self imposed time constraints familiar to you?  What typical results emerge from these limitations? We move too fast, with too little preparation – as with New Years’ Resolutions –  or procrastinate until some condition is in place, but it never is! Have you ever done something like this?

The safe experiment here is to grasp the value of small and concrete changes. All that is needed is a small change – one that can be pursued this afternoon or tomorrow. As ever, we need to notice what small things are happening, when they happens. Smart Objectives can help us here.

PACE: relates to TIME, this feature arises when we push ourselves to get something done too rapidly. It’s one thing to get on with a small safe experiment, and it is another to do it like Lewis Hamilton.  There are very few things that are both urgent and important so the safe experiment generally takes the time it needs; time to examine the safe experiment with consideration. Is it possible to break it down even further – into even smaller steps – based on what is important and urgent to you. Do small, urgent and important first and set your priorities so that you get a results over time, in a systematic and ordered way.

DRIVE: some of us are inclined to drive ourselves hard.  In the Transactional Analytic model there are DRIVERS: internal motivators that help us focus our efforts. One such Driver is Try Hard and another is Hurry Up. Others of us are inclined to want the safe experiment to be perfectly designed to produce the perfect results (the Be Perfect Driver).  These normal motivators do get results, but it is worth noticing the price we pay for them and what ‘antidotes’ there might be to respond to them differently.

An example of a  safe experiment for each driver is:

TRY HARD: to practice living with ‘good enough’ or electing not to complete a task; choosing not to do it quite consciously, rather than simply put it off.

HURRY UP: as you might imagine: the affirmation to yourself, here, is to slow down. To speak slower on purpose and to complete a task more slowly, whether it is an everyday event like cooking a meal, or a more prolonged task such as preparing to go on holiday. Smart Objectives can help here as planning things will, by its nature, slow us down. We will see that the route to success is not a straight line, but the scenic route!

BE PERFECT:  reciting the affirmation “it’s OK to make mistakes”, affirming that your outcome is good enough.

PERSONALITY: again, you may think your personality is a ‘given’ and little can change it. There is some truth in this; our personality is rather engrained. However, you can use the safe experiment of ‘Acting as if ….‘. Here, you act differently, quite deliberately. This is not an easy safe experiment. It will feel awkward and other people may look at you oddly.  Even so, every now and again, you may notice something that you can, indeed, do differently until it becomes part of your ‘new normal’.

RESOURCES: here is a major limitation. If you do not have the resources – things, possessions or qualities – that could make a difference, then wishing for them will not make it so. However, there are other resources you can develop – especially if you have the help, support and affection of others in your life. The safe experiment here is to identify the shortfall of resources in your life. With that knowledge, take time to explore what you can do, as well as accept what you cannot do (if only at this time in your life). When you write this information down, you may find other people in your life willing to help you find creative ways of boosting your resources.

VALUES: Most of our judgements about things are hidden from view but they are powerful influences on the way we act. For instance, one big problem with small, safe experiments is that they can appear trivial or irrelevant to the main objective. The result of an experiment may not be good enough to us.  That’s an obvious judgement, isn’t it? We were expecting, or wanting more.  There may be times when it is not easy to see the point of an outcome you have obtained. In this situation, the safe experiment to THINK-JUDGE-ACT may help to re-assess your results. Note how easy it is to act without thinking.

If it helps, revisit the Acceptance and Commitment model as it can help us revisit the values that lead us to criticise ourselves and others.

NEGATIVE THOUGHTS:  negative thoughts can be a major obstacle to our success – more often because we do not notice them and/or we are reluctant to label them as such. It’s rather too easy for them to be ‘just normal’.

Negative thoughts these have several characteristics. They are:

  • automatic;  likely to pop into your head without any effort on your part
  • distorted; do not fit all of the facts.
  • unhelpful; making it difficult to change and likely to stop you from getting what you want out of life.
  • plausible; encouraging us to accept them as facts and stopping us from questioning them.
  • involuntary; you do not choose to have them.

Negative thoughts can trap us in a vicious circle. The more depressed we become, the more negative thoughts we have, and the more we believe them. The more we believe them, the more depressed we feel become.  There are experiments to help us break out of this vicious circle.


Consider this: you already beginning to break a circle of negativity by attending to these words. You may not be aware of doing so, but reading this may increase your awareness of what you are doing. For a start, the bullet-points, above, may have led you to recognize a negative thought. You will be more aware of what happens when you dwell on such thoughts. You may begin to feel more positive and start to seek a realistic way to test out some alternative actions. So, step one is:

1: Becoming more aware of negative thoughts even if they are not easy to catch. The first step in overcoming negative thinking is to become aware of the thought

2. What is the impact of a negative thought on you. USe Body Scanning to jut notice the feelings and sensations that seem connected to a given negative thought.

The best way to become aware of negative thoughts is to write them down as soon as they occur. Every time you notice an uncomfortable feeling, there will be a negative thought attached to it somewhere.

A final STOPPER I want to mention here is rumination – the tendency to let our 24/7 conversation, in our head,  dominate our lives. In my business, this conversation is call ‘internal dialogue’ and it is common for  such dialogues to disrupt our comfort. At night  we can lie in bed pre-occupied with something that occurred – or is about to occur. The pictures we see in our head, and the words we hear, are ‘internal dialogue’.

Many times, I am asked how such thoughts can be stopped or silenced. This is a demanding safe experiment as it is not easy to stop things; the human body and our mind operates 24/7. Up to now I have encouraged you to start something else, rather than work to stop an experience.

Stopping is tricky; us humans seems not to take kindly to silence and inaction!

That said, some thought-stopping in relation to negative thoughts can be helpful as my negative thoughts reduce my energy and reduce my motivation. My view of the world can become skewed and my behaviour can become self-defeating.

EXPERIMENT: take time to assess and just notice some of the negative self-talk that goes on  in your mind. Here, I am asking you to generate a negative thought, so choose something minor – preferably, something that generates a Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD) of 1-3 only.

The diagram, below, illustrates my point. We can experiment with our emotions (anxiety, in the example I am offering).  In the lower reaches, the quality of our self-talk can increase levels of anxiety with critical self-talk. If the gods smile, then anxiety can be reduced with kinder and more accepting self-talk.

This diagram demonstrates the place of self-talk in generating high emotion and I will have to address ‘diversion, distraction and going with the flow’ elsewhere, and in the future.

The Model



As you notice the cirtical self-talk and any associated discomfort, remember standing by a road side and recall your Green Cross Code. STOP, LOOK and LISTEN.

As you stop, look the negative thought in the eye and listen to something else it may be telling you. For instance, when I am cross with myself, I can be clumsy, I can stop, look and listen and notice that I am doing something too fast. Having listened, I can slow down the pace at which I am operating. HOW?


As you notice a negative thought, and having listened to what other things it may have to tell you, consider where you are. Look around you. Describe where you are, what you can see, what you can hear NOW.  If necessary, do this out loud, but best be on your own to do that!

Become very focused on your current and immediate experience. Help sustain this ability to focus by controlled breathing so that the in-breath increases your attention on the immediate experience. The out-breath can enable you to let go of the tensions of the day – and any negative thoughts that seem to remain.  Watch those tension ‘float away’ on your out-breath.

At some point, note the feelings and sensations that you were aware of. Note some small actionthat may help you to take to take better care of yourself.

Return to:


What is a nudge

Designing safe experiments with Smart Objectives