Work inspiration

Is a rigid mindset holding you back from success? How to develop an agile mind

- May 4, 2022 6 MIN READ
Witchcraft book cover with author Elaine Fox inset

As one of the world’s leading performance coaches, Professor Elaine Fox is also an Oxford psychologist and neuroscientist dedicated to finding the key to a happy, successful life. She joined editor Cec Busby on the Flying Solo podcast to reveal some of the insights from her new book, Switchcraft, and how we can embrace and build an agile mindset for ourselves.

Drawing on her own decades of experience as well as 25 years of worldwide scientific research, Professor Elaine Fox has found that it’s those people with an agile mindset – who can switch between different approaches to the world around them – who achieve the highest levels of success and satisfaction in life.

Professor Elaine Fox

Image: Professor Elaine Fox / Twitter

“What I had noticed over and over again in my own research is that when we’re looking at resilience, those people who were very flexible or agile and could figure out different ways of doing things – they were the ones who tended to be quite resilient,” says Elaine. “That was coming up in lots of different areas of research.”

In fact, it’s how Elaine came up with the name of her book and the concept of ‘switchcraft’ – the set of skills we need to navigate a complex and uncertain world.

“I’ve outlined four different pillars of ‘switchcraft’,” Elaine explains. “One of those is agility and that’s probably the most important, but that agility is supercharged by three other things – self-awareness, emotional awareness and situational awareness. Being aware of what’s going around us and our own abilities and being aware of our emotions – all of that informs our ability to be agile.”


So, how does self-awareness help us adopt a more agile mindset? Elaine says that understanding our personal limits and prioritising self-care is essential to coping well in our always-on world.

“Being constantly ‘on’ all the time is just impossible; we’re not designed to be like that. The latest research shows very clearly that a lot of problems with our wellbeing are to do with energy depletion. Mental work can drain us of physical energy, which people often don’t fully understand.

“When something bad happens or you have a real crisis, you are much more likely to react very badly to that situation if you are overstressed and drained of energy. Whereas if you’ve been looking after yourself a little bit better – keeping yourself fit, eating well, sleeping well – that puts you in a position where you’re much more able to cope with difficult situations and come through it in a much more resilient way.”

Elaine says that simple grounding or mindfulness techniques, such as body scanning, can make a huge difference to our ability to maintain a calm mindset in a difficult situation.

“A simple grounding technique is simply deep breathing,” Elaine reveals. “Taking a couple of deep breaths can ground you; it just gives you a little bit of space.

“Body scanning is a mindfulness technique where you get comfortable, take some deep breaths, and relax yourself. Then you bring your attention to your feet, and gradually move your attention around your body, really paying attention to the different areas of the body. Spending just a few minutes a day doing the body scan technique helps it become second nature, so that it can be used when you are in a really difficult situation.

“Scheduling in a little bit of time for yourself – even if it’s only ten minutes, and ideally outdoors – rather than jumping from one thing to the other will have a huge benefit in the future, because it puts you in a much better position to deal with a very heavy workload.”

Listen to Professor Elaine Fox on the Flying Solo podcast:

Emotional awareness

While some people have an innately positive and happy attitude, others tend to look at the glass as half empty. Elaine says that it is possible to cultivate emotional awareness, optimism and a more positive mindset.

“One of the ways we can get access to a deeper understanding of ourselves is by looking at some of our life narratives,” says Elaine. “How do we interpret the things that have happened to us? Sometimes if people interpret that in a particularly negative way, or they feel that they were very powerless, that can become quite a pervasive type of feeling, becoming a negative thing going into the future.

“There are psychological techniques that people can use to try and reinterpret that situation and look at it in a slightly different way or look at different perspectives on what happened. In a crisis situation, it’s always worth taking a slight step back and saying, ‘okay, what’s the most effective thing to do?’”

“We definitely can nurture optimism,” she confirms. “We often think of optimism just in terms of positive thinking. But when you look at the research into optimism, it turns out there’s a lot of different elements to it. Positive thinking is definitely one part, but positive actions are a really big part of it.

“If you want to become more optimistic, it’s not so much about working on your positive thoughts, but actually working on your positive actions, such as sticking with things for longer than you might want. So rather than just thinking, ‘oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if this worked out’, actually put things in place to try and make that happen.”

Situational awareness

Elaine says that paying attention to the world around you, and the position that puts you in, is hugely important for maintaining agility – particularly in business.

“If you don’t know how the world is changing, you’re not going to be able to respond in an agile way,” Elaine warns. “People often don’t take a good hard look at what’s going on around them and they can really miss out.

“A famous example is Kodak, who were world leaders in photography. One of their engineers discovered and invented digital photography, but the Kodak senior management looked at this and thought, ‘This could be very bad for our photography business; we don’t want to pursue this’. They ended up almost bankrupt several years later, while much more agile companies saw the potential of digital and went with it, developed and enhanced it. So ironically, the whole digital evolution in photography bypassed Kodak, who not only was the biggest photography company at the time but had invented it. Looking at the world in a rigid way was their ultimate downfall.”

Riding the wave

The most important message in working towards a more agile mindset is that if you want to ride the wave of success, you simply must learn to move with the challenges.

“Lots of things can happen that we don’t expect,” says Elaine. “So, we really have to be very agile to deal with uncertainty in our world.

“One of the things I talk about in Switchcraft is how we deal with those kinds of situations. A lot of people try to cope with challenging situations by actively trying to control them. One of the real messages in the book is that we simply can’t do that. For many situations, we just don’t have that kind of control. So, you have to go with the flow to some extent.

“A great example is if you’re surfing, you go with the wave; you don’t try to fight against it. So, when things are a bit out of control, you have to first of all ground yourself, look at the situation in a very calm way, and then figure out the best way of moving forward.”

Book cover: Switchcraft by Elaine Fox

Elaine shares helpful techniques and lots of research in her book to help us train our brains and adopt a more agile mindset. Switchcraft is available from May 12, pre-order your copy now.

Listen to the latest episode of the Flying Solo podcast now:

professor Elaine Fox podcast

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