The future of work: Why Psychological Flexibility is a Key Leadership Skill of the Future

A few years ago in the UK, a Panorama investigation uncovered systematic abuse of elderly care home residents who were ­being routinely pushed about, belittled and ­humiliated by their so-called carers.

Worse, when whistleblowers drew attention to the abuse it was they themselves who were disciplined by senior management. Empathy for the victims seemed in short supply as it took a TV investigation for action to be taken. 

This is just one example in a long line of depressing stories about toxic leadership.  From MPs to journalists, and leaders in organisations from Big Tech to oil, the modern era seems one where empathy, care and values in leadership can be in short supply.

Values and leadership

Theorists like Bruce Avolio have argued that we need a more authentic form of leadership, which connects leaders to what really matters to them.  This acts as a kind of compass for leaders, which is especially useful in times of uncertainty (read; now).

Connecting leaders more powerfully with their values is also important because it has been shown to generate positive psychological outcomes in followers.

And yet…

There is one slight problem with these ‘authentic’ forms of leadership: they are bloody difficult to do.

Leadership values easily get derailed by circumstance and expedience as well as by existing organisational cultures.  It takes a special kind of courage to execute values in practice.

Yet most modern leadership theories (and training) deal with values as though all that remains after identifying them is to go off and do them.

Good luck with that.

Understanding our values is only half the battle.  Values have a flipside – an admission price.

Put simply, pursuing our values makes life psychologically harder, not easier.  We tend to hurt where we care.

It is much easier to avoid this psychological discomfort – something that psychologists call experiential avoidance.  However in the turning away from our discomfort, we often turn away from our values. 

This is why experiential avoidance is perhaps the biggest driver of substandard leadership behaviour (as well as in clinical contexts, poorer mental health). 

After all it’s far easier to avoid that awkward but important conversation than to have it.

how can we help our leaders live their values in practice?

Psychological flexibility is a concept which started in the clinical context (over 850 randomised control trials show its effectiveness in improving mental health) but is now gaining traction in organisations. 

Many of my organisational clients are introducing this training, not least because psychological flexibility is so practical, and especially effective with difficult situations involving ambiguity or uncertainty – what Todd Kashdan ‘calls the messiness of human life’. 

Psychological flexibility is important in leadership for three reasons:

  1. It helps people clarify and understand their values in practice, not just in theory.
  2. It helps people stay more aware of the present moment, which means that they are more likely to notice opportunities to be empathetic and engaged with other people.
  3. It gives leaders the skills to move towards their values and deal with the psychological cost of doing so.  By building willingness to have difficult thoughts and emotions, it reduces the natural human tendency to avoid them. 

Too many leadership training programmes focus on values and forget to train people in the skills that help them live their values. 

Yet unless we do this, leaders will continue to run from the pain that empathy brings them.

How to choose your values and why it matters

There is compelling evidence that spending time thoughtfully choosing your values is a good idea (Cohen & Sherman, 2014).

Research suggests that spending even a few minutes considering your values has some significant benefits, including:

In this post, I want to give you some strategies for how to choose your values.

Steve Hayes (Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada and one of the founders of ACT) defines values as

 ‘…intentional qualities of action that join together a string of moments into a meaningful path’

(Hayes & Smith, 2005)

So values are qualities. Words like: curiosity, kindness, courage, compassion, generosity.

Take a moment to think about this. What words would you want your friends to use when they describe you to someone who hasn’t met you? What qualities would the best version of you express so consistently, that this is how people describe you to others?

This is what I would want people to say about me:

‘Rachel is really kind and wise. She is incredibly non-judgemental. She loves to learn and is very curious about what makes people tick. She is easily moved to laughter or tears. She enjoys the simple things – a lovely cup of green tea; a beautiful flower; spending time with the people she loves.’

This is aspirational. It is who I want to be in my relationships with others. Some of the time I display those qualities but others I don’t. My intention, over time, is to be more and more like that person. And when I am not the person I want to be, I hope that I can notice those moments with curiosity (I wonder what is going on for me here?) and self-compassion (It is disappointing that you … but you are human, aren’t you?).

It is helpful to repeat this activity for different areas of life. You might consider how you want to show up at work. How you want to approach your own self-care and health. What qualities you would like to express in your relationships with your loved ones.

If you are struggling to think of the ‘right’ words. Russ Harris has a good list of suggested values in this free handout (go to page 23 & 24).

Spending time deeply considering what you value actually helps you to live those qualities more consistently, as it makes it clearer what you’re aiming for.

It may be that considering how you want show up, freaks you out. If it does… that is okay. Take a breath and don’t panic. You don’t need to nail this in one sitting. You can try different values on for size and adjust them. And remember, this is aspirational – you don’t have to be expressing these values currently. Just give yourself some time to consider – What do I choose? What qualities matter to me?

If you are feeling stuck, try taking the VIA Character Strengths test, designed by positive psychologists, Martin Seligman and Chris Petersen. That might give you some clues about which values give you a sense of flourishing.

If you would like some more suggestions for defining your values, these worksheets are really good:

Once you have chosen about 8-15 qualities that you feel describe the person you want to be, then you can use them as a compass to guide your behaviour.  Remembering that you don’t have to do this perfectly – you are human and you will have many, many moments when you don’t show up as the best version of yourself. Do be kind to yourself in those moments.

In this very moment, will you accept the sad and the sweet, hold lightly stories about what’s possible, and be the author of a life that has meaning and purpose for you, turning in kindness back to that life when you find yourself moving away from it?”

(Wilson & Dufrene, 2010

References

Association for Psychological Science. News Release July 22, 2008 Reflecting on values promotes love, acceptance

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Maste, A. (2006). Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention. Science 1, 313(5791), 1307 – 1310. 

Cohen, G.L & Sherman, D.K. The Psychology of Change: Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention Annual Review of Psychology 2014 65:1, 333-371

Creswell, J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D. K., Gruenewald, T. L., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16(11), 846-851.

Crocker, J., Niiya, Y., & Mischkowski, D. (2008). Why does writing about important values reduce defensiveness? Self-affirmation and the role of positive other-directed feelings. Psychological Science, 19(7), 740-747.

Hayes, S. C.,  & Smith, S. X. (2005). Get Out Of Your Mind & Into Your Life: The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA, New Harbinger Publications

Nelson, S. K., Fuller, J. A. K., Choi, I., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Beyond self-protection: Self-affirmation benefits hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(8), 998-1011.

Wilson, K. G., & DuFrene, T. (2010b) Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong: A Guide to Life Liberated from Anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger

How having a messy car might actually align with your values

Do you have some activities that you just avoid? You never quite get them done and you feel bad about not getting them done?

It could be cleaning out the kitchen cupboards; sorting out your email; exercising; updating your LinkedIn profile; cleaning your car…

We know we should do it, but we kind of don’t choose to do it.

And that would be okay, but if you are like me, your mind sometimes uses this lack of action as evidence that you are lazy, disorganised, neglectful…

I drive a 5 year old car. I almost never wash it. It is usually messy on the inside too. Hats, sunglasses, shoes (including, I am embarrassed to admit, a pair of red Crocs), sundry shopping bags and wrappers from chocolate bars are scattered around the seats and floor. Discarded bits and pieces that found their way into my car but never seem to find their way out.

Why is my car like this?

The logical reason is that having a clean, tidy car is low on my list of priorities. Now and again I write ‘Clean out car’ on my job list for the day, but other, more interesting (Write blog post) or more urgent (Invoicing) tasks crowd it out.

Even though I often have ‘good reasons’ for not cleaning out my car, when someone else sees how messy my car is, my ‘I am not good enough’ story pops up. I worry that they will see me as lazy and disorganised. (Which sometimes I am, but I don’t want other people to know that!)

I could use this concern to motivate me. I could clean my car to avoid the pain of other people’s judgment. In ACT terms this is an avoidance move. An avoidance move is where a behaviour (e.g. cleaning the car) is about avoiding painful internal stuff (e.g. fear of other’s judgement). There is a lot of research to tell us that a life that is organised around avoiding unwanted emotions isn’t healthy. It is clear that repeated avoidance doesn’t lead to a rich and meaningful life. So, perhaps, for me, having a messy car might just align with my values?

This is where is gets tricky. Just because cleaning my car could be an avoidance move, it doesn’t mean that ‘not cleaning my car’ is a move towards my values.

It depends what I do instead of cleaning out my car. If, instead of cleaning my car, I engage in activities that link to my values – writing a blog post; spending time with people I love; learning something new – then, over time, those choices will likely help me to build a rich and meaningful life.

But if, instead of cleaning out my car, I obsessively watch videos of Beyonce, trying to figure out if she and JayZ are happy or not. Then it is likely that I am caught in avoidance, which is usually a bad idea.

So what do we do, when we are in the grip of avoidance? The first step is to take a breath and notice. How are you feeling in this moment? When you pause, see if you can notice, with curiosity and kindness, the whole range of thoughts and feelings that show up. And then, pause some more and see if you can notice what thoughts or feelings you might be avoiding.

For me, as I pause my YouTube video, I could notice that I don’t want to feel:

  • Bored whilst I clean out my car, or,
  • Anxious whilst I write a blogpost ‘What if people think it is stupid?’, or,
  • Challenged and a bit stressed as I try to master a new piece of theory.

Could I make room for those thoughts and feelings? And, if I did make room for them, and chose what to do next based on what really matters to me, what would I do?

Sometimes, just now and again, that might even be to spend ten minutes cleaning out my car.

Step 1 for Success: Choose What You Value

If you were completely free to make your life about things that truly matter to you, what would they be?

Pause and let that question sink in. Let the words settle within you….

If I was completely free to make my life about things that truly mattered to me, what would I choose?

Your mind will likely come up with all sorts of limitations – “But I am not free…

Remind yourself that you are just thinking thoughts – you don’t have to act on those thoughts.

If you could just let yourself answer that question, what would the answer be?

If you have a moment – jot down your answers to that question.

I encourage you to sit with the question slightly longer than feels comfortable.

See what bubbles up for you.

Now ask yourself the opposite question:

If I was completely free to make my life about things that truly mattered to me, what wouldn’t it be about?

If you were to let the answers to these questions run your life, what might change?

If I was watching you live this life – the life where you give time, energy and attention to what really matters to you and you don’t give time, energy or attention to what doesn’t matter to you – what would I see and hear you doing?

Some time ago, I was suffering from writer’s block, feeling stuck. Finding myself avoiding writing, even though I wanted to do it. I talked with my friend, Paul Atkins, a wonderful coach, and it became clear that I had got myself in a muddle. The joy of writing (something I value) had got mixed with an unhelpful focus on whether others would approve of my writing. Paul helped me to come up with a phrase to remind me what really matters to me:

‘I choose a life where I value writing and learning and connection rather than chasing approval, materialism and prestige’.

I keep reminding myself of this. This is what I choose. I get side-tracked. I get hooked by what others want of me or what the world tells me is important…and then I remind myself:

‘I choose a life where I value writing and learning and connection rather than chasing approval, materialism and prestige’.

Go back to what you wrote earlier, give yourself some time to mull it over and then choose your own phrase.

A phrase that describes the life you would choose, and perhaps also what you wouldn’t choose. Don’t stress about making it perfect – you can adjust it whenever you want to.

Once you have a phrase, then, with deep curiosity and kindness, notice what you do. Notice the moments when you are aligned with your own definition of success and moments when you aren’t.

“In this very moment, will you accept the sad and the sweet, hold lightly stories about what’s possible, and be the author of a life that has meaning and purpose for you, turning in kindness back to that life when you find yourself moving away from it?”

(Wilson & Dufrene, 2010)

Humanising the workplace; Two practical tools to help teams working remotely

Since March last year I’ve run well over 300 webinars with tens of thousands of people from all around the world, and everywhere the themes were similar.

After the initial burst of excitement of working from home, people talk about how relentless work is, and how much they miss some of the more informal, human sides of working in teams. 

For many the past year has brought a kind of empathy gap, where work has become more transactional and less human, with many of the informal 2-minute conversations replaced by more formal hour-long Zoom calls.

There is therefore a need for teams to adapt and to think of new ways of protecting the ‘human’ side of office life. 

Building on this idea, here are two tools that you can download and use with your teams; The Life Compass and The Key to Me.

Below you can find a brief explanation of each, as well as free templates to use. I hope you find them useful!

Tool 1: The Life Compass

This tool is to help people to understand what really matters to them (even in adversity); what kind of actions move them towards their values, and how stress can sometimes ‘hook’ them away from that direction. It is designed to help guide people through tough times, just like a compass.

How to use the Life Compass

Step 1: Have each person in your team complete their own Life Compass for themselves.  You can download the template here.

Instructions for completion are here.

You can see a compass that I completed – and which I sometimes use in workshops – below.

Step 2: Then, the group can complete a shared compass, to help them navigate through the project together.

You can download the Team Compass template here. We’ve also created a template in Mural here.

As with the individual compass, work round each quadrant to identify what matters, how the team gets hooked away from what matters and what course correcting might look like.

Tool 2: The key to me

This tool is useful for helping to build understanding and empathy across distributed teams. It’s also quite a fun exercise to do which can bring people together really well and remind everyone that we’re all just human beings doing our best.

The idea of The Key to Me is to create greater understanding of what gets the best out of each individual, as well as what kind of constraints and limitations homeworking brings. 

It is an especially great tool for any team which is newly created or has new members (so long as they feel sufficiently psychologically safe to do so).

Here is a template in Mural for using The Key to Me.

And here is my own example created in Mural:

I really hope you enjoy using these tools – both of them have helped me. Let me know in the comments anything you would add or any questions you have.

New E-book: Thriving in Uncertainty

I am happy to release version 2 of our e-book, Thriving in Uncertainty.

In this short guide, we cover the two key issues related to uncertainty:

  1. How to make effective decisions even when outcomes are hard to predict
  2. How to deal with the negative emotions (like stress and anxiety) that come with uncertainty

As with all our e-books we have packed it with links to free tools and resources, ideas for further reading and TED talks that illustrate key points.

We have also included a range of templates and interactive PDFs that can be used either by individuals or groups.

This is version 1 – we would love your feedback about how we can improve it.

Enjoy!

Confidence, Lies and Courage

This post was written by our friend and colleague, Eric Winters. Eric has written a fantastic self-help book based on ACT – Swipe Right on Your Best Self – which we highly recommend.

There’s a question I hear a lot during my workshops and coaching.
 
‘How can I be more confident?’
 
I ask people what they would do if they were really confident?
 
Well, they proclaim, if I was more confident, then I’d:

  • apply for more ambitious roles 
  • begin new relationships that nourish
  • leave relationships that drain
  • ask for what I really want at work and need in love
  • say yes to more opportunities in life
  • say no to crossed boundaries
  • live a bigger, bolder life on my terms

I get why they think more confidence would help. But for most, it’s a misguided strategy. For many people, the problem isn’t a lack of confidence at all. It’s too much confidence.
 
Often people are too confident that if they take courageous action then they’ll:

  • entirely fail
  • look particularly stupid
  • be humiliatingly rejected
  • learn nothing whatsoever
  • suffer intolerably and never recover.

No wonder they hold back! Paradoxically, the solution isn’t more confidence. It’s being less certain. It’s being positively skeptical.
 
The next time you hear an inner voice whisper ‘better not, it won’t turn out well’, remember you have a choice. You can believe these cautious little lies and live small and safe, or you can be positively skeptical. 
 
Actually, you don’t know:

  • how well this might turn out
  • what you’ll discover about yourself or others
  • who might respond positively
  • how others will be inspired by your courageous proactivity
  • how much confidence you may earn over time through experience.

The truth is, you don’t know for sure where positive skepticism and courageous proactivity will take you.
 
Are you willing to find out?

Living with Uncertainty

The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment that we find ourselves in is unsettling, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but some nights I find myself waking in the early hours with a vague sense of unease, my shoulders slightly hunched against threat.

It isn’t just the pandemic, it is all the existential threats we are facing. The complexity of our highly interconnected world makes it hard to predict what will happen next. And when we can’t easily predict what will happen next, our mind tends to predict threat. Which is, of course, not unreasonable when we read the news.

So what is to be done?

Practice Self Compassion

Be very, very kind to yourself. This is a tough time. It can be hard to concentrate. Hard to focus on anything but the tasks that have an immediate deadline. It is hard to do complex cognitive tasks. If you are like me, it is also hard not to have self-critical thoughts –“I am such a wimp, compared to so many people in the world I am so safe and privileged. Why can’t I just get shit done?”. This isn’t particularly helpful but it is what many of us do in tough moments.

These hard moments are actually times when it is important to treat yourself gently. See if you can talk to yourself with kindness and firmness. Don’t let yourself off the hook but don’t berate yourself either. ‘You do need to sit down and make a start on that report. I know it feels tough but just set a timer for 20 minutes and make a start’.

When harsh and self-critical thoughts come up, respond to them compassionately – they are just trying to help. 

Kristin Neff’s website has many resources to help build self-compassion. I find her self-compassion journal exercise particularly helpful.  And if you can’t even manage to do that, be kind to yourself about your inability to practice self-compassion.

Be compassionate and firm with others

Most of us are a bit under-resourced at the moment, which can make us snappy and irritable and sometimes badly behaved. It is a good idea to be compassionate to each other about these failings rather than harsh and judgmental whilst also gently and firmly setting boundaries. ‘I don’t like the way my boss just spoke to me in front of a client. It hurts. And, I suspect that, just like me, they are stressed. However, it is important that we treat each other respectfully. What would a wise person do right now? Perhaps ask ‘Are you okay? Is something bothering you’ 

Prepare for the worst case scenario – but don’t over-do it 

In volatile environments it is good to build some slack into the system, so you have some resources to draw on if things suddenly get much worse.

Do be careful not to over-do this. Preparing for the worst can be costly and humans tend to be very bad at predicting the future. Which means that it is highly likely that you will prepare for the wrong worst case.

“I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened.”

Mark Twain

The answer to this conundrum is to do things that are low cost and wise even if the worst case doesn’t happen e.g. put some money on one side for a rainy day fund; have some food in the pantry for if you get sick and need to self-isolate; learn how to grow vegetables; build good relationships with your neighbours; get strong and fit.

Think Differently

In VUCA environments you need to think differently. You need to use different strategies to both make sense of the world and choose what actions to take.

Until recently, many of the challenges you have come up against have probably been complicated rather than complex.

Complicated problems have solutions that can be found. You just need to think carefully and logically and draw on the right expertise. For example, when your car breaks down, you have a complicated problem. You work out how to get the car to the mechanic (the expert at fixing cars) and then the mechanic will, hopefully, fix it for you.

If, like me, you have spent a lot of time building expertise in solving complicated problems, it is easy to assume that you can use that expertise to solve the problems you are now facing. But this assumes that the problem is complicated rather than complex. And the situation we now find ourselves in, is complex.

In a complex system, things evolve all the time in unpredictable ways. A good example of how a complex system evolves is to watch a susurration of starlings.

You can’t predict where the starlings will go next. Sometimes they follow the path you were expecting and then, quite suddenly, there is a shift in direction. In a complex system you can’t predict how the system will change and what will emerge. This uncertainty is hard for humans. Particularly when the uncertainty is about things that are genuinely threatening:

Will I or someone I care about become ill? If they do become ill, will good health care be available for them?

Will I lose my job?

Will my business fold?

Is it safe to hug my parents/brother/sister/best friend?

What will bush fire season be like this year? Will the air be smokey for weeks?

So how do we manage this unpredictable and complex world?

Firstly, take a deep breath and go back to the points I started with – 

Be very, very kind to yourself and the people around you

Be gently firm with yourself and the people around you

Do what you can to plan for the worst case scenario without going overboard

Then, use some strategies that are designed for making sense of complexity:

Create a map or a rich picture of the system/problem

Think systemically 

Ask questions in ways that help people think together and come up with new thinking for example:

What has surprised you? And what can we learn from that?

Where did things not turn out as we expected and what did you learn from that?

Look for patterns and exceptions – but be careful not to impose patterns where none exist. Sometimes things are just random.

Look for what is not being talked about or perspective that haven’t been considered.

Design and run safe-to fail experiments

VUCA isn’t easy for humans. Most of us have minds that prefer safety and predictability. Paradoxically, recognising that you are in a VUCA environment and then thinking in different ways about the challenges you are facing, can help you to navigate the ever-changing situation more successfully.

The Marginal Gains Handbook – Practical ideas to survive and thrive in the age of Coronavirus

We are delighted to release VERSION 2 of this free, practical guide of evidence-based ways to survive and thrive in the age of Coronavirus.

DOWNLOAD HERE

This version includes improved ideas for thriving in the age of Coronavirus as well as a new section on parenting in lockdown.

This is from a CEO who’s been using it with his organisation:

Your Covid Marginal Gains booklet has been a great source to help me during this once in a life time roller coaster. It deals with so many layers that we are all going through and gave me confidence in what I was telling my team, give me solace in what I was feeling, and hope for what despair we all go through.

Continue reading “The Marginal Gains Handbook – Practical ideas to survive and thrive in the age of Coronavirus”

A Guide to Lockdown for Other Parents, from a True Parenting Expert

Anyone who knows me or my children will know that I am definitely both a relationship and parenting expert.

For example, before I proposed to my wife I felt I need to list all of my imperfections (which took a while), and only this morning I dealt with my two-year old’s tantrum by swearing at the top of my voice and then storming out of the room.

I’m available for paid consultancy.

However I am a reasonably enthusiastic consumer of parenting strategies and have lots of clients who are asking for ideas to help deal with the pressure of lockdown.

So here are some ideas which I like, even if the implementation for me is still a ‘work in progress’.

If you have any of your own (especially ACT-consistent ideas and resources) please let me know in the comments below.

The Executive Summary

For all you lazy layabouts who have no time to read another long winded concise and excellent post written by me, let me save you the trouble by drawing your attention to The Blessing of a Skinned Knee in which Wendy Mogel rejects the idea of making things easy for our children, of praising them constantly, of them to be somehow unique and ‘special’ – all of which loads pressure on to both them and us:

In order to flourish, children don’t need the best of everything. Instead they simply need what is good enough. This may include good enough (but dull) homework assignments, good enough (but uninspired) teachers, good enough and good enough (although bossy and shallow) friends.

Consider that “good enough” can often be best for your child, because when life is mostly ordinary…your child won’t end up with expectations that can’t be met on this worldly plane.

Or how about this little beauty:

My advice to parents is to tolerate some low-quality time. Have a little less ambition for yourself and your children. Plan nothing—disappoint your kids with your essential mediocrity and the dullness of your home. Just hang around your children and wait to see what develops.

Disappoint my kids with my essential mediocrity?

Now THAT is a parenting approach I can get behind!

Nothing I’ve read comes close to relieving the pressure on myself and my children during lockdown than this, so I urge you to read the full summary here.

Here are some more ideas:

1. You need respite

It doesn’t matter what you are doing, you need a break from it.  In a study mentioned on the excellent Psychologists off the Clock podcast, soliders in the military had the lowest rates of burnout even when the break was going to war.  In other words, what we need is a break from what we are doing.  Do anything for too long with too little respite and we start to mentally fray.  And here’s a powerful image to illustrate this point:

Ideas for implementing breaks will obviously vary but here are a few:

  • Enlist others. If there is another adult in your house, work in shifts to cover short breaks. If not try to enlist a Granny to read a story or an Uncle to make your kids laugh, even 20 minutes’ respite can work wonders.
  • Manage your energy. When you have brief periods when the kids are occupied, do your low-attention tasks (like admin, most emails). When you get a break from the kids,  tackle high-attention tasks (like problem solving).  Or just take a break and do nothing.  You decide, but do one or the other.
  • Deadlines work. For parents and children alike.
  • Turn housework into a game. The tidy up song is good for this, but giving kids proper, grown up tasks to do on a regular basis (and rewarding this) can be an effective way of lightening the load.
  • Routines are powerful because they reduce fatigue.  So try to at least create a ‘shape’ to the day that everyone understands. Things like bedtime stories, a specific time for homework, meals; all of this will reduce your levels of shatteredness (technical term).

2. Beware perfectionism

We all need to lower our expectations a bit, particularly in terms of how we should be feeling and what we should be achieving.  As Brene Brown says:

When we hit that wall, sometimes courage looks like scaling it or breaking through it. AND, sometimes courage is building a fort against the wall and taking a nap.

  • Set small targets. You are living in a GLOBAL PANDEMIC.  Survival is good!  Anything extra is a distinct bonus.  For example, today I changed my pants.
  • Find a way of noting all your achievements (however big or small) and create meaningful ways to celebrate them. 
  • You cannot do it all. Think back a few months and consider what you would have advised other working parents to do during A GLOBAL PANDEMIC?  What springs to mind?  Let me guess, is it ‘you should definitely seize the chance to teach little Ernesto Mandarin?’
  • Remember the sound of learning.  From the Psychologists Off the Clock podcast, a story about a music teacher who put sign outside the music room that said: ‘This is the sound of learning’.  In other words, learning is often not very smooth or beautiful, so don’t expect things to feel or sound great along the way.

3. Reframe this as a chance for your kids to learn

Before the pandemic I feel like the biggest challenge my 2 year old had faced was that time when I cut his toast in squares, when in fact he wanted soldiers.

In other words, the biggest risk for many (middle class) children is that life was too easy.  Well now we can put that right!

After all, we don’t build a child’s resilience by making life perfect for them.

Let’s also remember that when we step back it gives our kids the opportunity to step up.

If we expect them to do nothing they will do precisely that.  But if we expect them to step up they will do that too, and this has the bonus of building resilience and confidence.

4. Stay present

One of the reasons that burnout occurs is because we are not mentally in the present very often.

By constantly worrying about the future and ruminating over the past, we drain ourselves of energy and deprive outselves of the little fragments of joy which still appear with children in lockdown, especially if we look for them (the joy not the children).

And of course our kids notice when we’re not paying attention, when we’re scrolling on phones, when our laugh is hollow or a few milliseconds too late.  Under what heading will they file that experience away?

So what percentage of the time are you present?

When I applied this question to myself I noticed that I’m often not very present and that’s usually because I was trying to avoid some kind of emotion (something called experiential avoidance).

Here is an example:

Before bed time we have the habit of watching a few short videos with both kids sitting on my knee.  The videos are really tedious, so I often found myself scrolling on my phone.  This has the function of relieving the boredom, but it was not exactly building joy or connection.

So now I put my phone down and try to get present to my children’s reaction.  I smell their hair, fresh from bath time, and then suddenly this evening I noticed this:

I know this is a tiny example, but how much will I crave just one more of these moments once they are gone?

5. Create buffer zones

For me one of the toughest aspects of parenting in lockdown is that the small buffers between work and family interaction are squezed.

For example – and you must understand this is purely hypothetical – if I have a difficult work call and then walk out of my office straight into my 2 year old, who is asking me to be a horse, but

“NOT THAT TYPE OF HORSE DADDY NO – NOT THAT HORSE!”

Then it is fair to say that – hypothetically – I often don’t handle it well.

There is an emotional hangover with all things, and if we remove natural buffers it is inevitable that things start to go less well.  At least, that’s what I’m telling my wife.

The things that work for me are:

  • Trying to build a minute or two buffer before leaving the office, and tap into the type of Dad I want to be when I re-engage (i.e. loving, active, joyful); and
  • Giving myself a time out if I get hijacked by my own emotions.

6. Connecting to values

Notice those values above: loving, active, joyful.

When I first had children I was terrified – convinced – that I would not know how to do parenting.  I felt like I had no ‘Dad’ template and would really mess it up.

But actually the thing that has helped me the most is to orientate myself, again and again, to a set of values that I try to model.

It is the most enormously helpful idea for lots of reasons.  Firstly, I find it impossible to eradicate the bad bits of my parenting.  I’m impatient and swear too much, for example.  But I am able to put positive stuff in there too.  I am able to go downstairs, right this moment, and chase my children round the garden pretending to be the Coronavirus.  I can tickle them until the 2 year old says

“Dop Daddy, dop!”

This moment can be all about crisis parenting, or it could be about connecting enough of these tiny moment so it becomes about something more meaningful or even joyful.

By connecting to our values, again and again, we can transform the pressure cooker of lockdown into an opportunity to connect with what matters to us most.

Further resources from actual experts

I’ve been listening to podcasts on the topic and can recommend a few here now – please see below and please let me know any that you’d add.

Books and resources for children: