Before you put your foot in your mouth count to three

Updated to Business on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

We’ve all done it: said something we regret. Maybe you were with a client, a friend, your wife/husband/partner, even your child. It’s embarrassing, even damaging. Here’s what happened this week.

We were rushing to pick up our oldest daughter at the airport. She was flying home from a two-week backpacking trip of Europe and we were anxious to get to the airport on time. 

An hour before I had checked my phone to see if her flight had arrived in Vancouver for the final leg of her trip back to Kelowna. It had. Now, just as we were rushing to get out the door, I was back on-line trying to see if it had left Vancouver. I couldn’t find the flight.

My wife, was getting irritated. “Can’t you find it?” she called out. 

“I’m still looking!” I replied, feeling slightly hopeless.

Before I knew it, she was on her computer looking up the flight.

In an instant I was a child again and Dad had taken the hammer out of my hand.

And that’s when it came out.

“You know, control freaks don’t always get what they want.”


It was a quiet drive to the airport.


When we feel attacked our sympathetic nervous system goes into flight-or-flight response (see “My Freak-out and 5 lessons learned” for more on this). The common analogy is that our autonomic response was critical for survival when our primitive ancestors were hunting on the Serengeti 150,000 years ago.

Your heart rate goes up, taps for Adrenalin and Cortisol are opened (for energy and glucose), pupils dilate, muscles tense, and to conserve energy the brain is put on rations. You are ready for war. That’s all about external threat.

The only problem is you’re not on the Serengeti, there’s no sabre-tooth tiger, and it’s your wife your talking to. “Our body is perfectly designed,” wrote Peter Hanson, in the Joy of Stress, “but for the wrong war.”

That’s usually when I say something stupid.


You want to say the right thing, not hurt the other person, make things better, but your body is tensing up for a fight. Your internal wiring is pushing you to a potentially bad decision. 

Self-control is needed.

By pausing and counting to three, you allow time to switch from an external threat to perception of an internal conflict.

This allows your decision-making mind (the prefrontal cortex) time to over ride the adrenalin-fueled body that wants to lash out with a right hook.

Suzanne Segerstron, a psychologist from the University of Kentucky, calls this “Pause and Plan”. When you pause and plan, it “…sets into motion a coordinated set of changes in the brain and body that help you resist temptation and override the self-destructive urges.” (The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal)

In short, you buy some time.


We’ve all been in conversations when we get defensive, anxious – even mad. That’s when pausing and counting to three can save your bacon. Here are some situations to try it out:

  • your partner accuses you of screwing up
  • your employee/co-worker screwed up
  • you were just given a counter offer in a negotiation
  • your neighbour is having a loud party (you weren’t invited)
  • someone isn’t respecting your space
  • you want to return something and the store clerk is arguing
  • in a meeting, you feel attacked


The need to be right can be pretty powerful. The need to be right quickly can be deadly. 

The simple habit of pausing and counting to three might sound like something we learnt in kindergarten. But, often those lessons serve us well as adults. Especially, when you care that what you say is good for everyone.

What about you? When do you need to pause and count to three? Let me know in the comments below – I want to know!