As you move up the ladder and as life gets busier with family (parenting your kids, parenting your parents) things seem to get more stressful and perhaps its not surprising if we are on a shorter fuse than we used to be.

Maybe this is so, but it doesn’t mean to say that we have to accept being open to mood swings and to behaving erratically.

Although it may sometimes feel like it, events in the outside world don’t directly create different moods inside our brain; it depends on how we think about these events.


System 1 & System 2 Thinking

When something happens a number of thoughts just seem to pop in to our head instantly and feel quite instinctive (System 1 thinking*).  We then have secondary, more considered thoughts, which take longer to form (System 2 thinking*).

With a bit of effort, we can of course choose to think more constructively giving us more “helpful” System 2 thoughts.  Less obvious though, is that we can also change these seemingly instinctive, System 1 thoughts, because although they seem ingrained, we were not born with them; they are nothing to do with instinct and in fact they have been learnt.

These System 1 thoughts are generated without reference to our conscious mind (hence they seem instinctive as they apparently come from nowhere.) Instead they are formed by referring to a “world view” held in our subconscious which in has been created, specifically for this purpose, based on the sum total of all of our past experiences.

Thus we might “instinctively” return a smile (we’ve learnt that this is an effective tactic to build friendship) or we might drop eye contact when we sense tension. (helping us to avoid getting punched) These are deeply engrained as habit, but we can choose to change them over time if we wish to do so.  Cognitive Behavioural approaches can be most helpful here.



Our conscious thoughts can more easily be changed and we can use conscious decisions to reshape this subconsciously held “world view”.  We can shout at the traffic jam, cursing the idiots in front of us, focusing on “I’m going to be late!” or we can reframe the situation, focusing on the fact that there is now more time to relax or prepare for the meeting you’re travelling to. Most people would arrive angry or flustered, but you’re going to choose to arrive calm and ready.

It isn’t simple to change thinking like this overnight, but it isn’t as hard as you might think either.

Deliberately changing our System 2 thinking and actively working on our “world view” and thus our System 1 thinking will have a physical impact on the hormones and neurochemicals which our brain produces.  This impacts on both the emotions we experience and our underlying moods and shapes the environment in which future thoughts are forged, thus improving the chances of our System 1 thoughts being helpful ones.

Further, reacting well to a difficult situation adds a positive experience to our World view and hence positively shapes future System 1 thoughts.

Thus, with practice and awareness then, we can start to calm and tame the mood swings that throw our decision-making and diminish our leadership impact.


If you find that you are constantly more tired than you used to be then click this link to consider whether approaching sleep differently might help

Click on this link if you’d like to explore the link between mood and tiredness and the consistency of our decision-making



* See “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman