Five months in Lisbon now and I still struggling to speak the language. I understand a lot when I read it but when it comes to talking it’s something else entirely. I pride myself on the fact that I speak Italian and German but I don’t remember them being so hard to learn! The interference from my other languages in my bumbling attempts to order and ask for help in Portuguese leave me cringing. 

So what is happening? The answer is that I am letting my ‘System 1’ as Danny Kahneman describes in “Thinking fast and slow” take over. 

I was literally standing in front of the shop assistant today experiencing this inner struggle in my head and in the end my ‘I got this system 1’ steps in to save the day. She says to my slow to action more deliberative and logical self ‘this is taking forever, this is embarrassing, do you really want to inflict this on this person right now? I’ll step in and save the day, this is far too much effort for you.

So I capitulate and step back letting my ‘I know better’ System 1 take the ‘easy’ lead and ask ‘fala inglese?’ I begrudgingly concede and regret yet again another opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and make an effort to develop my skills.
The labels system 1 and 2 used by Mr Kahneman refer to the two systems of the brain. The first which functions with little effort, speeding along with no sense of voluntary control in contrast to the second one which is linked to choice, action and concentration. 
The automatic system that we use to drive cars, understand simple sentences and stereotype people. Versus adapting your behaviour in an unfamiliar social situation, completing a complex discussion or telling someone your phone number in a different language.

Our system 1 mind can be compared to an over-protective parent. Over and over again we find ourselves in challenging situations. Often we know in advance and prepare for it but somehow the second self doubt enters the arena, Miss or Mr know-it-all takes over. Often to our dismay and disappointment when we reflect on the moment later and criticise ourselves for not doing better or worse saying I did my best, but knowing full well you didn’t because you know you let your system 1 take the easy way out.

Only our ‘system 2’ can override habits, assumptions and makes deliberate choices about how we behave or our actions. Effort is required to keep several ideas going at once when action is needed. Time is the enemy of endeavour and learning something new. When faced with new challenges and the clock is against you, your system 1 steps up, takes control over the lazier system 2 choosing the more familiar option, but not necessarily the better one. This is how we have always done it and sure ‘it’s grand’ as we say in Ireland.

As I become more skilled at Portuguese it will demand less and less exertion but only with dedication, practice and resilience. Effort has a cost and learning new skills like languages or managing and communicating with people who are culturally diverse.
Developing and fine tuning skills like leading, managing and communicating with colleagues or clients from different cultures pushes us out of our ‘comfort zone’. It takes effort, attention to detail, self-awareness, and determination all of the things our work-shy system 2 prefers not to get into if it doesn’t have to.

If you don’t believe in something you won’t make it happen, belief precedes action. The reality for most to us is that we are time poor. We struggle to do it all. Particularly at a critical phase like internationalisation. When we say yes to something there is an opportunity cost. If you don’t believe and the benefits are not clear, you won’t take action.

So what can we do to help ourselves?

  • When we commit to doing something new it pushes us. We need to have the cognitive bandwidth to make those decisions to keep focused, determined and resilient.
  • Have someone who holds you accountable to what it is you want to achieve
  • Surround yourself with people who cheer you on when you want to walk away
  • Appoint a challenger to ask you the hard questions like are you truly optimising your effort and resources?
  • Identify people who you look up to with the experience and knowledge you need to stay the course. They can act as your reset button when you are in overwhelm.
  • Use daily practices of exercise or mindfulness to stop you spinning out of control.
  • Visualise the process, what are the steps and actions you need to reach your goal? This primes your brain to ensure it happens.