girl with a book

The smarter thinking project

Drs Jamie Barker and Martin Turner are official speakers at Learnfest 2016. We interviewed them to find out more about The Smarter Thinking Project.

Tell us more about The Smarter Thinking Project – how did it start, what inspired it and how does it work?

In 2009, we realised that there was a hugely valuable and well-established cognitive-behavioural approach that had been given very little attention in performance research. That approach was Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), developed by Dr. Albert Ellis in the 1950s. After incorporating the approach into our work with professionals, we realised that it can be extremely efficient and effective in helping individuals take control of their emotional and behavioural reactions to adverse events. For us, REBT doesn’t need the “T”. We are not clinical psychologists and we do not provide “therapy” or “treatment” to clients. In our experience, the use of the word “therapy” promotes clinical connotations. So we thought, how can we operationalise REBT in performance settings, making it process-driven and focused on continual personal growth, while stripping away unnecessary clinical connotations?

Alas, Smarter Thinking was born…So for the last 5 years through the The Smarter Thinking Project we have dedicated our research to understanding and testing REBT in performance settings, and developing Smarter Thinking as a logical and effective approach to managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in a range of performance contexts. Smarter Thinking has been used in elite sporting environments, corporate business settings, and in academia: helping athletes, business professionals, and students, to fulfil their potential when it counts and respond to adversity adaptively.

What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

What we see with the leaders we work with is that the ever increasing demands of business and sport exert rising pressure and stress. Adding to the demands are constant change, organisational stressors such as communication, conflict management, financial constraints, uncertainty and uncontrollability, and the shifting of company values. With the work we do, our challenge is to help leaders develop sufficient resources to deal with the rising demands, to become more resilient and better able at managing adversity.

What is your definition of success?

We both feel that success is about maintaining personal well-being, with a view to delivering replicable and consistently high levels of performance. This includes being able to effectively reflect and recover, aiding the development of the self and others. Being able to fulfil potential is not just about working more hours, it's about working Smarter and being able to take a step back. Part of this reflection is about understanding limitations and exploiting the support available to them. Leaders don’t have to solve every problem they face, but need to be skilled at empowering others to solve problems.

What do you want to be remembered for?

JB: For making complex theory comprehensible and applicable for those working in high performance environments including sport, business, medicine, and the military.

MT: For helping people to understand that long-term performance comes from a human first, performer second, philosophy. I hope my work using REBT impacts those in all performance settings.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

JB: My good friend and colleague, Dr. Paul McCarthy, once told me “It's all about the recovery”. In other words, it's about how you respond to adversity and what you do next, rather than dwelling in the past. Also, Sir Alex Ferguson advised Steve McClaren to get a hobby. I took this on-board and have taken up cycling as a way to keep active.

MT: After I left college, I worked for gas mains maintenance company as a way to delay my decision to go to university. I enjoyed this experience – earning money as an 18-year old had its perks – but it was clearly a “job”, not a “career”. I met a lady there who had chosen to stay working for the gas company and regretfully turned down the chance to go to university. On her last day (she was leaving for maternity leave) she made me promise her I would go to university. Up to that point, there was 50/50 chance whether I actually would. University did change my life – I met my future wife there, and now work at the university at which I studied. I also take great inspiration from the work of Albert Ellis, and my favourite gem of his is “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.”

When do you come up with your best ideas?

When we take time and space to get away from the normal working bubble to a creative space where we can challenge ourselves and each other about what we do and why we do it. We find that finding time to reflect is vital for creativity. We also find that working in unfamiliar environments helps us to consider the wider implications of our work and to think more adventurously.

How do you make difficult decisions?

We tend to draw on our personal philosophies based on being open, honest, and integral. We also take a pragmatic approach to decision making. Our working group share similar views, and therefore bouncing ideas around before making a difficult decision is helpful.

In the past few months, what is the smallest change you have made that had the biggest positive result to your life?


JB: Learning to say no and prioritise with areas that do not align with my focus has been important. It is ok to say no, and therefore I can maximize my energy and resources on important projects.

MT: I got a dog. This has helped me restore a work-life balance that sometimes gets forgotten. I also find that I am more productive because my time spent working is quality time, and I am able to get away from it and enjoy walking (and trying to train!) my dog.

How does technology support your life (and thinking!)? What are your go-to devices or apps?

Technology supports our day-to-day work in terms of consultancy, research, and teaching. In our consultancy we draw on cardiovascular measurement devices to educate people about the mind-body connection. Our research makes the most of social media, which has been a useful resource for us to get our work out to the public and the psychology community. Blogging has also allowed us to communicate ideas to a wider audience, who would not necessarily see our work. Apps like Skype have allowed us to work long-distance with clients to maintain our support. It also allows working offsite, but still being in contact with colleagues.

Why did you decide to take part in Learnfest 2016?

The festival is a fantastic challenge helping us to disseminate our work and engage with a new audience. It is also a great chance to experience the work of others, and challenge our thinking.

What’s next for The Smarter Thinking Project? What are you most excited about?

The website is developing all the time with blogs, podcasts, free tips, and research updates. Also, we are developing an App to help support people with integrating Smarter Thinking into their daily routines. We are really excited about cascading Smarter Thinking across different sectors. For example, we are working with a charity organisation supporting unemployed people to prepare them for employment. Also, we are working with schools and colleges to help students and teachers deal with the demands of academia.