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:

A picture of a frayed rope powerfully represents how parents sometimes feel during lockdown.

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.

Do what you must:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • 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:

The ACT Approach to Handling Anxiety Like a Human Being

Everyone is anxious right now and frankly, why wouldn’t we be?

But it’s worth remembering that humans are constantly anxious.  Here are five reasons why, followed by five ACT-based techniques to handle anxiety like a human being.

Five Reasons Why We’re Constantly Anxious

1. We’re programmed to see the bear

Imagine your ancestor saw a strange blob on the horizon and turned to a friend and said…

‘Is that a bear or a blueberry bush’?

 

 

 

 

The optimistic friend said ‘it’s a blueberry bush’ and skipped merrily over, but your anxious ancestor hung back, fearing a bear.

Even if the optimistic friend was right and got a nice lunch, it would have only taken one error for them to be a nice lunch.  Meanwhile your pessimist ancestor missed lunch, but lived to pass on their anxious genes (to you)…

2. The double-edged sword

Humanity’s special weapon doesn’t look like much, but since developing language we have been able to communicate risks verbally and then plan ahead to solve them.

This is an incredible tool for solving problems but it is a double-edge sword, which means we can create anxiety at any given moment.

As a result we are the only species that can sit on a beach in Tahiti with a fruity cocktail and STILL be anxious that maybe we drink too much, or that our choice of hatwear is a little last season.

3. Media and social media

I just did an experiment – by looking at the news for 1 minute I found stories not only about Corona, but also animal cruelty, climate change and the certainty of global recession.

We have created a world with unparalleled riches, but also unlimited access to worrying news.  So remember the golden law…

4. Uncertainty

Many of us can handle bad news if we know how to respond to it.  But uncertainty – will I catch this virus, will my family – is especially anxiety producing because the fact is WE DON’T KNOW.  And your mind would prefer anything to not knowing.

However, this is where the story gets really anxiety inducing interesting.

5. We try to control it

Despite anxiety being an inevitable part of being human, many people see it as something to be avoided or controlled.

The problem is, we can’t avoid or control anxiety.

Imagine I put a gun to your head and tell you not to feel anxious.  Could you do it?

 

 

 

By seeing anxiety as something we can control or need to avoid, we set ourselves up to become anxious about our anxiety.

This leads us to try and avoid anxiety by avoiding the things that make us feel anxious.

If this becomes a behavioural pattern it means we start organising our lives around avoiding anxiety rather than the things that make life meaningful.  This is called experiential avoidance, – a significant factor in many forms of mental distress because it both diminishes our lives in the short term and makes anxiety worse in the long term.

Five ACT-Based Ideas to Deal with Anxiety

1. Make a plan

Worrying about the future is not the same as deciding what to do.  And while your plan isn’t going to be perfect, you are never helpless.

So work out what’s in your control and then make a plan to manage the risks as you see them.  Inform yourself of the facts, but no more.  Try to limit exposure to armchair experts on social media.

That said, however good your plan is don’t expect it to free you from anxiety (because that’s impossible).  So you will need to learn how to…

2. Drop the rope

The problem with anxiety is that the harder we try to avoid it, the stronger it becomes.

It’s like being in a tug of war with some huge monster.  You are pulling with all your might because in between you and the monster is a huge, bottomless pit.  You are spending all your energy pulling because you are sure if you lose you’ll be pulled into the pit.

 

But the harder you pull the harder the monster pulls.

What’s the best thing to do?

 

 

Well your mind will tell you to keep pulling harder.  But the monster never seems to tire.

What’s the alternative?  DROP THE ROPE!

3. Pivot Towards What Matters

Anxiety is the price we pay for caring about something.  This means we can pivot our attention to focus on whatever that thing is for you.

Mark Freeman talks here about pivoting away from the fear that we are going to lose a family member.

My anxiety mostly relates to my young family, because I want to protect and care for them.  I realise I can’t protect them completely which makes me anxious, but I can do some things.  My pivots include challenging cars which speed past our house (we live opposite a playground and yes, I literally run after them), lobbying the council to install speed bumps (they did), and buying this handsome sign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you feel anxious about Corona Virus, identify what matters to you in this situation.  How could you pivot towards that, and do something meaningful in the service of what really matters to you, even when you’re feeling anxious?

4. Practice Self-Compassion

In this video Steve Hayes explains a great exercise to view anxiety from a stance of self-compassion.  Self-compassion is a key technique for depowering anxiety and changing our relationship to it:

5. Further resources

My favourite resources on this topic are:

For families

  • A new book for children on Coronavirus written by Elizabeth Jenner, Kate Wilson & Nia Roberts (and illustrated by Alex Schleffer of Gruffalo fame)
  • Heroes in your home – this is a great article written by some top psychologists about evidence-based ways to promote cooperation in the home, ensure safety, and most importantly, have fun as a family.  Heroes in Your Home BRIEF (002)

I will update this list regularly – feel free to suggest ideas in the comments.

Fighting for what matters: what I really learned about completing a doctorate whilst raising a family and running a business

So I did want to reflect on what I learned during these past few years because so much of it is Working with ACT-relevant.

But I am wary of writing one of ‘those‘ type of posts, or one of those ‘it was tough but I am so glad I did it!’ things.

Fact is, I am not sure I am glad I did it.  But I’ve done it now, so here’s what I think I learned:

1. Make every session count

If there was one principle that stood out, it was this.  Every time I sat down to work, I focused on taking one step forward.

Sometimes this was impossible, or I even went backwards (the climbing a mountain metaphor helps here – i.e. sometimes you have to go down the mountain to go up again).  However, by accepting the tiniest step as progress, including correcting one typo, I can’t think of a single instance where this didn’t work.

And one day, I woke up and it was done.

2. Create deadlines

There were days when I felt totally overwhelmed and my mind would wander to all the things I wasn’t doing / couldn’t do. If this resonates you need deadlines.  The pomodoro technique is good for this.  So are children.

I would often work during my children’s nap times, which created an exquisite sense of urgency.  Sometimes – agh! – one of them would wake before I’d made any progress.  To my surprise I was still always able to find one thing to do before running off to the bedroom.  It’s amazing how deadlines focus the mind, and a crying child is a very good deadline*.

* My children are for rent on an hourly basis.

3. Intensity beats time

I placed intensity front and centre of my strategy.  This led me to do seemingly strange things, like working for around 60-90 minutes on the Doctorate even when I had more time available and getting involved in kanban, which sounds like is a cult.  I also learned the value of 5-minute runs as a way of breaking things up and thinking things through.

I had ‘TAKE A BREAK’ stuck to my laptop and made it a rule never to stare at my screen defeated.

4. Remember it’s a choice

One especially dismal day I shared my pain on Twitter and got some lovely responses – ‘hang in there’, ‘keep going’ etc, which I was grateful for.

But Mat Rawsthorne said ‘give it up and walk away if you choose’, which felt liberating.

‘Do I choose to do this today?’ was a far more helpful question than ‘Do I feel like doing this today?’, because the answer to the first question was generally yes, and the answer to the second was always no.

5. Ditch social media

Although Twitter etc can be helpful (see above), in general it is DEADLY* to a deep work project such as doctoral research.  I basically had to cut it out altogether.  What’s interesting is I grew to dislike Twitter much more during this time, as I came to see it for what it is.  And if I can’t convince you, let Cal Newport have a go:

* not in the Irish sense

6. I had a lot of help

The fact is I couldn’t have done it without a supportive partner, and I had one who protected my sleep, too.

I literally fantasised about the words of thanks that I would give my family once it was all over, so here they are:

 

So each one of these principles of committed action really made a difference.  But to be honest, they only tell half the story…

Going where you mind says you cannot go

“Where does your mind say we cannot go?”

Steve Hayes, A Liberated Mind

I completed my final write-up in a long, hot London summer with my little children playing in a playground opposite my office.

I can still see them; 2-year-old Orla pretending to be an airplane whilst bouncing on a trampoline.  And tiny Sam, toddling and falling about like a gorgeous, drunken penguin.

Orla
Would you rather eat ice cream with her or do linear regression in a stuffy office?

I have a place in me, perhaps stored in my body more than in words, that remembers the feeling of my own Dad vanishing at about the same age. It’s like a feeling of permanent emptiness where a hug should be.

And so of course that summer it felt like I was doing something similar to my children.  Almost at a cellular level, I had a feeling that I’d been here before somehow, and that this struggle inside my office was not where I should be.

At the time, I wrote:

The brutal truth is, there won’t be another summer where my daughter pretends to be Mo Salah or when my little boy is learning to run and talk.

There won’t be another summer when, at bath time, my babies scream with laughter when I shower their toes.

And there won’t be too many summers when they both shout ‘DAD!’ and jump into my arms when they see me.

In 10 years’ time what will I give to have even one of these moments back?

It’s fair to say I had some low points.

And this led to the final thing I learned.

7. Hard choices need self-compassion

My heroes in life aren’t Buddhist monks who meditate on hilltops or Silicon Valley CEOs whose incredible ‘life hacks’ spare them the need to make difficult choices.

My heroes are the ones who struggle and fight for something, and who live all of their values fiercely and imperfectly.

I care for my children, but I care for evidence-based psychology, too.  To fight for only one of these would be a shallow victory.  Yet to fight for both meant the fight of my life.

So what will I want my children to do when faced with a similar situation? 

The same.

I want them to care for their kids of course, but I want them to struggle and fight for what matters to them too.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

From this perspective – and only from here – I reach a place where I can finally grant myself some compassion.

Because this was the summer where I stared at one of my most powerful demons and didn’t flinch.

And this was the summer my kids saw their Dad doing that.

And maybe this was the summer – who knows? – that their choices expanded a little.

And many summers from now, when the time comes for them to fight for something, maybe they will have a feeling stored in a place beyond words that they have been here before, and that this struggle is where they are meant to be.

ACTing On Mental Health: The Evidence

This week someone asked me for a meeting, so I looked at my diary….kept looking…and eventually came up with a date in early December.

It’s not just me – though of course I am terribly important.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t busy (and terribly important) and perhaps no surprise – many of us feel stressed as a result.

Some of the stress statistics would be shocking if they weren’t so familiar:

  • In the UK, work-related stress accounts for 37% of ill health and 45% of days lost (Health and Safety Executive, 2016).
  • 1 in 6 people in paid employment will suffer a common mental health issue this year (Mental Health Foundation, 2016).
  • The estimated cost of poor mental health is £74 – £99 billion p.a. (Stevenson & Farmer, 2017).

So what can be done?

Tackling Stress at Work

In a recent interview for the New Scientist (on behalf of one of my Fintech clients), I argued that interventions at both organisation and individual level were required.

But given that 75% of people suffering from a mental health issue will never receive any form of psychological support (Seymour & Grove, 2005), this places extra emphasis on other forms of support, such as workplace training, to help people deal with the demands of the modern workplace.  The trouble is, of course, that workplace training often gets a bad name.

 

 

 

 

 

And a lot of it lacks even that most basic criterion; evidence that it works.  Ideally there should also be evidence of how the training works too.

The Case for Using ACT to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

As part of the preparation for the New Scientist interview (and prior to publishing a Systematic Review on the subject) I looked at some of the main evidence for ACT training.  Below I’ve listed five workplace studies which caught my eye.

1. Dahl, Wilson and Nilsson (Behavior Therapy, 2004)

This study gave an ACT intervention to a group of Swedish care workers selected as being at high risk of long term work disability due to stress and musculoskeletal pain.  An ACT group was compared to a group who received their respective medical treatment as usual (MTAU).

At post and 6-month followup, ACT participants showed fewer sick days and used fewer medical treatment resources than those in the MTAU condition, with a mean of 1 sick day versus a mean of 11.5 sick days for the MTAU condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Flaxman and Bond (Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2010)

This study randomly assigned 311 local government employees them to either stress management training based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (n =177) or to a waitlist
control group (n =134). The ACT program consisted of three half-day training sessions.

Across a 6-month assessment period, the ACT training resulted in a significant reduction in employee distress for those who had been at high risk initially, as well as a significant reduction  compared to the waitlist group.  In fact, of these initially distressed SMT participants, 69% improved to a clinically significant degree, compared to 31% in the waitlist group.

3. Waters, Frude, Flaxman, Boyd, (British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2017)

This study demonstrated that even a short, one-off training intervention can have positive effects.  A 1-day ACT workshop was offered to 17 care home workers in Wales, UK with a further 18 assigned to a waitlist control group.

At 3 months post-intervention, those in the ACT group reported a significantly lower level of psychological distress compared to the control group, with clinically significant change exhibited by 50% of ACT participants, compared to 0% in the control group. When the control group received the same ACT intervention, 69% went on to exhibit clinically significant change.

In keeping with ACT theory, the ACT intervention also resulted in significant improvements in psychological flexibility, but did not significantly reduce the frequency of negative cognitions.

4. Vilardaga et al., (Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 2011)

This was a cross-sectional survey with nearly 700 addiction counsellors working in substance abuse treatment centres in the USA.

Results indicated that burnout was more strongly associated with psychological flexibility than other well-known predictors of burnout e.g.  job control, supervisor support, salary etc.  The study concluded that a future approach to reduction of burnout among addiction counsellors should target psychological flexibility.

5. Lloyd, Bond and Flaxman (Journal of Work and Stress, 2013)

This study took 43 employees of a UK government department receiving an ACT workshop (3 half days over 2 months) aimed at increasing participants’ levels of psychological flexibility (PF), and 57 participants allocated to a waitlist control group. The study found significant reduction in burnout and strain in the ACT group.

Crucially the study was also able to show that it was higher levels of PF that mediated (or caused) the reduction of emotional exhaustion at follow up.  In other words, this study showed not only that ACT training works, but why it works.

Conclusion

Of course, training psychological flexibility is only a part of the solution to a complex problem.  We shouldn’t overstate the evidence, or see it as a standalone solution.  But increasingly it looks to be a critical part of our response to an increasingly demanding world of work.

 

Update to the Working with ACT privacy policy

We have updated our privacy policy to reflect the new data protection laws in the EU.

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Avoiding Stuckness With Values

[This is from a series of posts written by Rob Archer and Rachel Collis in reply to a reader who felt that values were actually keeping him stuck].

Right from the start, the ACT model made sense to me, and made so many things clearer.

Apart from the bit about values.

That bit left me confused, but I let it go, thinking it would all work out.

But it never did really.  I still get stuck on values really easily.  I think my mind loves the idea that I have a set of values, and jumps at the chance to know EXACTLY what I SHOULD be doing.  Finally!

Next thing I know I’m treating values like they are a real thing.  I conflate values (how I do things) with decisions (what I do).  I mix up values (how I want to be) with my own needs.   I look to values to tell me what the ‘right’ answer is, and when I get stuck, I blame values conflicts.

I don’t think it’s just me.  Values are brilliant for bringing vitality and purpose to life, especially when options are limited.  But in coaching we are often dealing with people with too many choices.  Values can add to this sense of overwhelm, at least in my experience.

Yet at the same time, I feel like values have changed my life.  How the hell did that happen?

How I understand values, when I understand values

The other day  my two-year old daughter told me her name was ‘Orla Archer’ and I simply burst with pride.  The words caught in my heart.  Orla Archer.

Up to the age of about 7 or 8 I was called Robert Davies.  Then my Step Dad arrived, married my Mum and on the day of the wedding they asked me whether I wanted to be called Robert Davies or Robert Archer.  I was never in doubt.

Since then I’ve always been proud of that name, without ever really knowing why.  Now I think it was all about choices.

I chose the name, but I also began to choose other things.  I chose all the best stuff; sport, Liverpool FC and of course, The Beatles.  I also chose organisation, determination, anger, softness, self-reliance.

As Robert Davies I’d never really chosen anything for myself.  I was in survival mode too often.  But from ‘Archer’ onwards, I started to choose things.

Crucially, I didn’t have to state in advance what my values were. If anyone had asked me whether I was ‘living my values’ I’d not have had a clue.  They weren’t the ‘right’ choices necessarily, or the easy choices.

But looking back, this choosing was the beginning of the essential ‘Archer-ness’ that feels like the most worthwhile bits of me, even today.

This is how I understand values.

Values help with hard choices

Values, therefore, are different from decisions, and from ethics and morals.  With values it is the choice that seems key.  What am I valuing rather than what are my values.

My favourite all-time TED talk is by Ruth Chang.  In it she argues that values are about ‘hard choices’; situations where there is no right answer.  Those situations are tough!  But from another perspective they can be liberating, because this is our one chance in life to properly choose stuff….

Avoiding stuckness with values

I still don’t really know what my values are.  Or at least if I cling to the idea that I have a stable set of values for all situations, then I quickly get stuck.

But if in a given situation you ask me what my ‘values move’ is, or how I would choose to respond to a situation, or how I behave when I feel like a version of myself I can be proud of – generally I can do that.

So right now, in this moment, I try to focus on the choosing.

And one day – perhaps long after I’ve gone – Orla Archer will tell you what my values were.

 

 

 

 

Traps to Avoid On the Path to Success – Or Why You Can’t Have it All

Do you want to be successful? If you are like me, then your response to that question is, ‘Hmm...It depends‘. It depends on what ‘being successful’ means.

We are surrounded by the message that success is about ‘having it all’. Over and over again, the world implies that if you are to truly consider yourself a success you need: love, money, a prestigious job, a wonderful family, happy kids, lots of friends, health, a beautiful body, a lovely home with a shiny kitchen, a fancy car…. Only when you have all of these things can you count yourself as successful.

How dispiriting!

Even worse, we are sold the myth that it is actually possible to have it all. A multitude of articles; books and courses promise, ‘if you just do x, then you will … lose weight, earn lots of money, get that promotion’ etc. We are encouraged to believe that if you keep following all of this advice, then, one day, you will have it all. You will know that you are successful. And, all will be well.

However for people like me (and perhaps you) this belief – that you can/should have it all – is exhausting and unhelpful.

In practical terms, when you pursue success, you come up against a tricky contradiction. Some of the things you need to do in order to achieve objective career success, actually make it harder to build meaningful relationships and be happy. For example, objective career success is linked to working long hours and moving for work. However, moving to a new city and working long hours both make it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships and are both associated with decreased happiness.

More than that, this isn’t a level playing field. When it comes to objective career success (salary and promotion), white men who live in developed countries have a head start.

A further difficulty is that it is actually getting harder and harder for most people (even white men!) to achieve objective career success and this trend is likely to get worse rather than better.

The ‘having it all’ myth is also problematic because of how it can mess you up in other ways.

I notice that whenever I buy the ‘you can/should have it all’ myth, then I start to berate myself, because:

  • I spend too much time reading about Donald Trump and not enough time doing deep work
  • I eat too many biscuits and not enough kale
  • I am not a university professor and I haven’t written a best-selling book
  • I don’t earn a six figure income.

When I buy the ‘having it all’ myth, I run around trying to get everything right. I feel anxious about all the things I am not achieving. I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and my life passes me by as I pursue the ‘infinite more’.

When I buy the myth that I can have it all, I see myself and my life as problems to be solved. I fail to notice moments of joy and connection. I notice myself thinking, if I just try a little harder; If I read the right book; if I do all the right things; if I just become better or different in some ill-defined way;  then, everything will fall into place. Then, I will have it all and then…I can relax and enjoy this moment.

But what if you and I were to accept that we can’t actually do it all or have it all? What would that be like?

Instead of focusing on getting everything right, perhaps we could give our attention to being here now. To embracing this messy life with all of its imperfection. Whilst at the very same time, with courage and lots of self-compassion, we face up to the ways we need to change. Not in order to get the perfect life, with the fancy car and the posh job, but so that we give ourselves a fighting chance to achieve the things that really do matter, which probably include:

None of these are easy. All of these require an ongoing commitment to gently aligning moment to moment choices with these longer term goals. All of these become more likely if you practice certain behaviours – such as mindfulness and self-compassion.

In the end, I do need to eat less biscuits and more kale. But not so I can tick ‘perfect body’ off my ‘having it all’ list. (I am a middle-aged lady – I think that ship has sailed!) Instead, I choose to eat more kale because it is one way of caring for my precious body.

Perhaps we can’t have it all but, instead, over time, we can make choices that lead to a life that is rich and meaningful and that might just be better than having it all.

Is Meaningful Success Possible Within an Organisation?

Working in a twenty-first century organisation can feel pretty bleak. Many employees describe feeling increasingly discouraged, disconnected and disengaged. They struggle to feel a sense of meaning or joy in their work.

Do the harsh realities of the global economy make this inevitable? The situation can seem pretty depressing. But there is hope! New ways of running organisations may be about to change everything.

In his book, Reinventing Organizations, Frederik Laloux describes vibrant and meaningful workplaces that still deliver key outcomes. He calls these organisations ‘Teal organisations’.

in this approach, the organisation is considered to be a complex adaptive system, like a city or a forest. This is in contrast to the current dominant metaphor of the organisation as a machine. This change in metaphor is important. If an organisation is a machine, then people are seen as replaceable cogs. Whereas, in a complex adaptive system, all of the parts are important. Different parts interact in surprising ways and a small action by one element can create large, system wide changes.

In Teal organisations:

  • The usual hierarchies are dropped.
  • Individuals are given much more autonomy.
  • People often work in small, semi-autonomous groups that are nested together to create a larger system.
  • Everyone is seen as able to take on a leadership role whenever needed.
  • All employees are provided with training in the skills they need in order to navigate the complexity of this sometimes challenging environment.
  • Individual workers can make important decisions – as long as they seek advice from those who will be affected by the decision.
  • The CEO doesn’t decide on strategy or tell people what to do. The group agree a broad purpose, and then ‘the role of the leader is to listen for where this organisation naturally wants to go’ (Laloux). 

What I particularly like about Laloux’s perspective is that he doesn’t pretend this is easy. It is clearly challenging to implement this approach. If a Teal organisation is to flourish, appropriate processes and systems need to be put in place. For example, successful organisations adopting this new approach all have clear processes for dealing with conflict.

This model does give hope for the future. It suggests that grim and soulless workplaces may be replaced by something much better. Within a Teal organisation, it is highly likely that employees will experience a sense of meaningful success.

You probably don’t work in a Teal organisation at the moment, but it may be possible to start to shift the centre of gravity. In a complex adaptive system, small changes can lead to dramatic shifts. Just adopting some of the Teal daily organisation practices in your team could help build autonomy, meaning and a sense of community. Try picking one small change suggested on the Reinventing Organizations Wiki, implement it and see what happens.

Fostering these changes will require a degree of psychological flexibility. You will need to be present, open and flexible. You will need a capacity to observe what is happening; take thoughtful action; notice the outcome and then take more action.

You can watch Laloux explaining his research in more detail in this talk:

Mindfulness 2.0 – The Future of Mindfulness

My Granny died last month, aged 97.  Good knock, Gran.

Granny 6

It wasn’t such a sad death really, as the real essence of Granny that we all knew and loved had long disappeared.

I wonder how much of our grief is like this; tiny portions of loss spread out across the days and weeks, regular downpayments helping to spread the cost. Well before she left Granny’s fingers had been prised away from the habits and routines that defined our lives.

Then once she was gone the routines of commemoration take over.  I had to read out some words from my Aussie family and then say some words of my own.  It was all very life affirming, as death can be.

I was struck by how we remembered Granny.  What she did, yes.  But also how she did it.  Granny could be quite formal, snooty even, but the Real Granny was also silly, curious and generous.

I mean, does this look like a woman who really cares whether your elbows are on the table?

Granny 1

Mindfulness

Comparing myself to Granny’s generation seldom goes well.

She and her friends fought a war for freedom with incredible modesty and courage.  I get annoyed with software updates on my smartphone.

I’m more caught up in my head, too.  Busy, but not always about important stuff.  Granny did stuff for her family and community.  If I’m not careful I do stuff on social media.

Of course this isn’t just me, and maybe this is why mindfulness has taken off.  This ancient practice has been seized upon as an antidote to the age of distraction, and there’s a lot of evidence suggesting it works too.

Yet at the same time there are problems with the mindfulness movement.  In his new book Carpe Diem Regained, Roman Krznaric highlights two:

First, the mindfulness movement focuses too much on the self, leaving it thin on moral foundations. 

Second, in placing so much emphasis on attending to the present moment, it overlooks how much human beings thrive on striving for meaningful goals. 

Krznaric also points out that studies suggest mindfulness may increase wellbeing, but not pro-social behaviour. (Author’s note: please see my comment below for an update on this).

So what is mindfulness really for, if all it does is help us bear these atomised, self-absorbed lives that would be so alien to Granny?

Mindfulness 2.0

Do you remember the early days of the web, when websites were static and focused on giving people information?  This was web 1.0, when the focus was all about spreading awareness and knowledge.

The next generation of websites were interactive.  Their focus was on changing the way we did things like communicating, finding jobs and looking at kittens. This was web 2.0.

The same leap is now happening with mindfulness – a movement away from simple awareness to using our awareness to do things.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is in the vanguard of this movement.  ACT combines hard-edged science with the ability to move people, literally and figuratively.  There are four reasons why ACT is the future of mindfulness:

ACT RCTs 2016

  1. Evidence. It includes all of the benefits of mindfulness – with over 180 randomised control trials now demonstrating its effectiveness in everything from depression, chronic pain, smoking cessation and weight control to workplace effectiveness.
  2. Practical.  It offers different ways to be mindful – making mindfulness more  accessible to more people than ever before.
  3. Clarity.  ACT is based on a clear and transparent philosophy of science which helps practitioners learn faster and explain concepts more clearly.  (Once I got this I never thought in the same way again).
  4. Behavioural.  The use of the acronym ‘ACT’ is deliberate, because ACT is a behavioural intervention which focuses less on peoples’ thoughts than on what they want to DO in life.  ACT  explicitly links mindfulness to values and action: it is mindfulness for a purpose.

ACT positions mindfulness as a call to action.  It links awareness to behaviour that can actually change the world for the better.

Isn’t this what the world really needs?

And isn’t it how we will be remembered?

Granny 2
Margaret West 1919 – 2017

Running from Depression

20170117_151236It was very sudden this time.

Suddenly, like an eclipse, gloom descended and the birds stopped chirping.

I shouldn’t have been surprised I suppose.  The end of a long-awaited holiday, dark January days, lots of travel, the death of my Step Father.  I should have expected the black dog’s appearance.

But these days I know what I have to do.  I reach for my trainers, and run.

I’ve learned that I can outrun depression, especially if I get a head start.

running-from-black-dog

 

 

 

I am not sure why running works.

I guess there’s the obvious physical effects – endorphines and the like.  But it feels more than that.

Running feels like an assertion of my values over my emotions.  I never want to run, but I run.  If that sounds easy, it isn’t.  When I’m running the battle can feel quite elemental, like I’m in a fight for the direction of my soul.  But if I can hang in there running starts to reconnect me with a version of me that I like, or at least find harder to hate.

This experience exactly mimics the latest research, which shows that committing to valued actions reduces suffering, but not the other way round.

In his seminal book ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, Haruki Murakami says:

“Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.”

I think that’s true, even though my inner voice often says FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP AND EAT CAKE!

But to have a thought and not be pushed around by it….running helps me know where to draw the line.  Over time my sense of self becomes defined less by what I think, and more by what I do.

It’s not just thoughts though. I also experience emotions more strongly when I run.  Today I found myself choking up mid-run to Time to Say Goodbye.

I felt a bit stupid, but it occurred to me that running is the only time I allow myself to properly feel my emotions.

Maybe this is the difference?

When I started to get depressed in my 30s, I really would run from my feelings.  But not by running – more often it was alcohol.

Today I run, but running doesn’t feel like running away from anything.  It’s more like running towards my emotions.  And even when sadness shows up – big gulps of it – I keep running towards them, like old friends greeting each other at a train station.

In this context sadness almost begins to feel like joy.  A kind of reconnection with the best part of me.

The depression gains no traction.

It is just me, running in a forest, taking care of the person who sometimes hates himself.