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.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Incredible Tale of Leicester City Football Club…and the (Limited) Power of Thinking

“Following today’s devastating result for the national team, I take full responsibility for the most unfortunate choice of coach, which has resulted in such a poor image of the national team being put before the fans.”

ranieri sacked by greece

 

 

 

 

 

It is November 2014 and Giorgos Sarris, the head of the Greek Football Association, has just sacked Claudio Ranieri, a genial 62 year old Italian manager, after losing to the tiny Faroe Islands.

It was beyond embarrassing, and the end for Ranieri after only 4 games in charge.  It was also probably the end of his career.  His quirky, kindly personality seemed out of kilter with the hard realities of modern football.

At that time, Leicester City Football Club were rooted to the bottom of the English Premier League.  After a record 13 match winless streak they were certainties for relegation, which was really no surprise – Leicester are one of the ultimate ‘yo-yo clubs’.

Meanwhile the league title was again being won by Chelsea, a team managed by Jose Mourinho who had replaced Ranieri some years previous.  Mourinho was the opposite of Ranieri; knowing, calculating, snide.  He is the kind of man who stamped on insects as a child. Even his jokes contain a bitter aftertaste.

But Mourinho seemed modern, Ranieri a relic.  Chelsea, at the top of the league, had the manager and the money.  In contrast Leicester had 20% of the budget of Chelsea, and were facing certain relegation.

It’s all just maths.

Season 2015-16

The following season started out like any other, but then unfolded as though reimagined by Picasso.

One by one the established realities were invertedPicasso:

  • Leicester City had escaped relegation and somehow remained in the Premiership after all.
  • Jose Mourinho was sacked by champions Chelsea after a disastrous start to the new season.
  • Leicester City charged to the top of the table, stayed there, and – incredibly – last Saturday were crowned champions with largely the same players who had battled relegation a year ago.

The odds of Leicester winning were 5000-1 against.  To put that into perspective, the odds of finding Elvis alive today are 2000-1.  It was unthinkable, impossible.  The greatest upset in sporting history.

And at the helm of this towering, absurd achievement was a man called Claudio Ranieri.

 Explaining Leicester’s Season

There is now a cottage industry re-examining the leadership secrets of Leicester’s rise.  Of course Ranieri is no longer seen as a relic.  Now he is seen as having an ability to keep things light and deflect pressure, to ‘make his players believe’.

Certainly for months he had joked with the press, smiled with the fans, laughed at any talk of winning the league.  Suddenly he seemed a refreshing alternative to the cynicism of Mourinho.

But from a psychological perspective, there is one standout lesson from this incredible tale.

The (Limited) Power of Thinking

Leicester didn’t win the league because they believed they could do it. Let’s be clear, no one believed they could do it.

The psychology behind their success lies in being able to hold thoughts lightly, whilst focusing on constructive, workable actions in each moment.

Of course this isn’t easy.  Although thoughts are not reality, they feel like reality.   This is fusion – the process of seeing thoughts and reality as the same thing.  Fusion can be very useful, especially for survival.  But it can also limit our ability to thrive because our thinking can be so limited, prone to bias and swayed by ‘wisdom’ which turns out to be wrong.

Even now it feels wrong for Leicester to be champions, which is perhaps why so many people say that it still feels more like a dream than reality.

What does this have to do with ACT in the workplace?

So many people today feel trapped in jobs they don’t enjoy, or are drawn into lifestyles that are drained of joy.  Yet the traps are set by fusing to thoughts like:

  • ‘I am too old to change career’.
  • ‘I am too introverted to be a leader”.
  • ‘I can’t control my angry response with my kids’.
  • ‘I am not in a position to take control of my career’.

Whilt these stories may contain elements of fact, they are not reality. We feel trapped by these thoughts, but we are not trapped in a way that say, a dog would understand.

Picture1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem is that when we buy into our thinking and stories wholesale, we risk acting within the confines of the story and failing to author our own story.  We fall into the comfortable illusion that there is nothing to be done, events are outside of our control.

And this is what Leicester have really taught us.  It is not ‘if we dream it, we can do it’.  Most of us find it hard to control our thinking.

The skill we can learn is to hold belief (and disbelief) lightly, acknowledging that our own thinking is limited; an artist’s impression of the real thing.

Fusing to stories of hard luck or powerlessness may make life easier in the short term, but it also makes it smaller.

Leicester have shown us that reality is far from what our minds tell us it is.  If we learn to hold our thoughts lightly, and focus instead on workable behaviours in the direction of what really matters to us, then the world opens up.

And just occasionally, we far exceed what we can ever have imagined.

Leicester champions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

source: BBC website

What Can You Do When You Feel In Over Your Head?

Many leaders are feeling ‘in over their heads’. The organisational landscape has become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and it can often feel so challenging and overwhelming that we feel out of our depth and swamped.

The skills that led to success in the past, no longer seem to work.

There is so much change happening that we can’t keep up. Everything is interconnected and, as a result, less easy to predict or control. Your outputs are increasingly dependent on other teams. Their mistakes or delays are disastrous for you but no-one seems to think that is a reasonable explanation when, as a result, your deadlines blow out. The future is highly unpredictable, it is unclear what the next right action is.

In their excellent book, Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston explain that many of the problems we are now grappling with are complex rather than complicated and that means they need to be handled differently.

In complicated situations, you create the outcome you want by working through things logically, defining the problem, breaking it down into it’s component parts, perhaps doing a root cause analysis and then making a step by step plan. It is hard, but manageable.

In a complex environment this isn’t the case. In complex situations, causality isn’t linear or predictable. So a root cause analysis quickly becomes messy and unhelpful. In complexity, you can’t predict the future from what happened in the past. You can’t work out logically what actions will create the outcomes you want to achieve, as things are interconnected – a small change in one place has an unpredictable impact in another place. So your attempts to create and act on a plan don’t seem to work. It is easy to feel swamped, powerless and uncertain.

What are better strategies for complex situations? Garvey Berger and Johnston suggest the following:

  • Have a broad sense of the direction you want the system to head in but avoid rigid plans and goals that can’t adapt and take advantage of changes in the system. (e.g. ‘Better customer service’ is a broad direction whereas ‘answering customer calls within 2 minutes and resolving all questions within a further 2 minutes’ is a rigid goal).
  • Become very curious about the present
  • Listen very deeply to what others are saying – recognize that others may be making sense of things differently to you
  • Be interested in multiple perspectives on the situation – including the perspectives that people (including you!) may have in a year or 5 years.
  • Take a wider, more systemic view. Rather than looking for root causes – look for combinations of factors that interact to push the system in a particular direction.
  • Notice what is tending to happen already in the system and then try to amplify any current tendencies that are aligned with the desired direction.
  • Take actions designed to nudge the system in a positive direction.
  • Instead of making and executing a plan, use ‘safe to fail’ experiments to try to shift the system – learn from the outcome of each experiment and feed that learning into the next safe to fail experiment. NB For this to work, you need a culture where is okay to take risks and fail (with boundaries given for what are acceptable and unacceptable risks).

My hunch is that psychological flexibility is a key skill that leaders will need in order to enact these new and challenging skills.

Psychological flexibility is: “contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values” – Steve Hayes

It is composed of a number of processes that are highly relevant when leading in complexity:

Acceptance helps leaders to cope with ambiguity, uncertainty and the associated anxiety that comes with that.

Present moment awareness (or mindfulness) helps leaders to be better at observing what is really happening.

Values clarity helps leaders to behave more consistently in volatile contexts, so that followers can trust them, even though the direction is unclear and the leader can’t give them any sense of certainty about the future.

Defusion helps leaders to look at the world as it is in this moment, rather than how the mind is saying it is. This is a particularly important skill in an ambiguous environment, in ambiguity, we tend to have thoughts that tell us, ‘This is certain to turn out badly’. We need to be able to hold those thoughts lightly and see the situation as it is in this moment.

Perspective taking skills enable leaders to be mindful of and listen to the needs and views of many different stakeholder and also to see the broader system.

These skills seem to be key for leaders to thrive in the new industrial age.

And, often you wont feel like you are thriving, if you are like me then you will feel overwhelmed and swamped. At those times, please be very, very kind to yourself. This is genuinely hard. Some self-compassion is vital.


 

If you want to build your psychological flexibility, then these blog posts might be helpful:

How to Clarify Your Values

Acceptance – here are some posts on handling painful emotions

Defusion Techniques

If you want to read more about leading in VUCA environments, these resources are good:

Simple Habits for Complex Times

Complexity Leadership in Health Care (BMJ- 2001) – relevant for non-health care settings

A Framework for Understanding VUCA – Scott Berinato in HBR


And finally…if you are interested in learning more about Leading in Complexity – Queensland University Of Technology (where I teach) is offering a new online course for leaders on this very subject.

A Letter to The Escape Tribe

For regular WWA readers, some context.  I’ve been working as one of the Faculty at the brilliant Escape School, in particular an amazing Tribe of 50 people who have been on a 3 month journey to get unstuck and do something more meaningful with their careers.  It was so enjoyable and moving that I wanted to write them a short letter…and I’m sharing it here because it is hopefully a good example of ACT being used in coaching (and getting into the water supply).

Dear Escape Tribe,

I can’t tell you my admiration for your courage to stand for something in your lives, even in the presence of your fears. It feels like a privilege to watch you and work with you; in many ways one of the highlights of my career. So I wanted to write you my own letter, perhaps because I was so moved by those you wrote to yourselves…

Get out of your mind and into your life

 This is a great book with a cheesy title, yet which captures a critical idea in psychology.

Society teaches us to think that if we can only get more confident, certain, less anxious etc, then all will be well. But it’s really the other way round. Thinking follows behaviour. From another great book:

“We think that the key to successful career change is knowing what we want to do next and then using that knowledge to guide our actions. But change usually happens the other way round. Doing comes first, knowing second”. 

Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity

Remember the anemone

When stuck, our minds often tell us that the action we must take has to be big and bold.

If that works for you then great, go for it.  But if it doesn’t, think of an anemone.

If you aren’t willing to open your whole self up to some big change, see if you can be willing to start by opening one tentacle out into the ocean; exploring and experimenting.

anemone

Experiential avoidance will always be an option….

Our minds can always find an excuse not to do difficult things. And that is normal.

But if avoidance becomes our objective, then it narrows our lives.  And over a lifetime this can lead us to feel trapped – trapped in prisons made only by the words in our minds.

Picture1

Values are about the here and now

Instead of seeing values as ‘out there’, a remote and distant pipe dream, remember that they are accessible to you right now.

You have a choice to tune into them and show up to them, right now.  What will you stand for in this moment?  Put enough of these moments together and you become a different person.

‘The road less travelled’ is less travelled for a reason

The irony of human existence is that if something feels important to us then it will have a flipside which feels scary.

If you dare greatly, you will feel fear. If you commit to love then you risk rejection.

Happiness and sadness are not exclusive, but intimately connected.  They grow weak together, or strong together.

Acceptance changes everything

Once you start those first few steps out in the real world, the feedback you receive may be mixed.  If avoiding pain is your objective then it is tempting to retreat into the narrow repertoires of behaviour that have trapped you.

But if you are willing to accept yourself – that is, the whole of yourself – then you will have pain and joy, anxiety and meaning.

Only if you can accept the thorn, do you get to keep the rose.

Don’t forget; the world needs you

Don’t be fooled into thinking there is nothing for you to do. The world is full of challenges which need you – your skills, talent and energy.

This may not be fighting great battles of justice or injustice, but contributing to the world in the best, most vital version of your self.

That is really what the world needs more than ever.

Therefore, for yourselves, but not only for yourselves, may you all find the courage to keep going.

And in so doing, may you all be ignited.

with huge thanks, admiration and hope for all of you,

Rob

What I have Learned So Far

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world?

Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, the holy and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
The gospel of light is the crossroads of indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

The Hard Thing about Hard Choices

Many times in Executive coaching the person I’m working with is facing a difficult choice.  Do I take job A or B?  Should I spend more time at work or with my family?  How can I work with a difficult colleague?

I am a fan of decision science, but more often than not, this does not actually help the person to decide.  That’s because they are wrestling with what Ruth Chang calls  ‘hard choices’ – there is no right or wrong answer.  However this is usually not what people want to hear.  They want certainty… and an answer!

How then should we choose?

The thing about hard choices, Chang argues, is that yes, they are hard; but that is what makes them  so liberating.  After all, if there were only ever choices between the ‘right’ choice and the ‘wrong’ choice, then life would be very dull.  In fact, there would be no real choice at all.

This is where the ACT distinction between choices and decisions is so useful:

Decisions can be “explained, justified and…supported by reasons”, whereas a choice

” is a selection among alternatives that may be made with reasons but not for reasons….”

In ACT, choices are where values can guide us.  Values are freely chosen; free in the sense of there being no coercion, no ‘having to’ or reason-giving driving the choice.  Therefore choices (or what Chang calls ‘hard choices’) are precious because unlike decisions, they are our chance to author our lives and to take a stand for something that we feel matters.

Instead of saying ‘A was better than B so I went with A’, we get to say ‘this is me, this is the choice I made and this is what I stand for’.

Why Organisations Should Measure Psychological Flexibility

What should we measure to predict job performance?

Organisations spend millions of pounds each year measuring cognitive ability as well as various personality dimensions – and they are right to do so.  Although personality and ability are not perfect predictors, they are a good deal better than the alternatives.Validity in selection

Two classic papers help demonstrate this.  The first by Robertson and Smith (2001), shows that two factors predict performance best of all – cognitive ability and integrity.   Of these, cognitive ability is the best single predictor of performance.  At the bottom, interestingly, are factors such as handwriting (no surprise), but also years of experience, age, job references and even (unstructured) interviews.  Anyone with an interest in valid, reliable and fair selection processes should read this paper.

And yet the challenge must be to improve selection processes still further.  After all, even the best selection methods predict only around 60% of someone’s likely job performance.  Clearly other factors matter.

This is why in the second classic paper by Sackett and Lievens (2008), the authors identify the need for incremental validity – factors which add to our ability to predict performance over and above existing measures.  They identify situation based moderators as being critical to improving our understanding of how specific traits predict job performance.  In other words, the extent to which the situation itself overrides ‘personality’ or ability factors, and demands a more flexible set of responses.

This is why we should measure a third factor; psychological flexibility.  The (accurate but pretty awful) technical definition of psychological flexibility is:

“contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values”.

What this means in practice is a measure of someone’s ability to:

  1. Focus on the present moment, including awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions and the demands of the situation; and then
  2. act in accordance with one’s chosen goals or values at that time.

Psychological flexibility is therefore a measure of the extent to which someone is able to transcend their automatic or learned patterns of behaviour, and act in ways which better fit the situation:

“This enhanced capacity for noticing, and responding to, the goal opportunities that exist in one’s environment has been described as “goal-related context sensitivity” (Bond, Flaxman, & Bunce, 2008).

‘Goal-related context sensitivity’ can be thought of as a secondary skill which helps people to implement their primary skills (e.g. communication, problem solving, creative thinking) more effectively.  By measuring psychological flexibility we can assess how well someone can adapt or persist in the face of difficulty and how well they are able to remain focused on the demands of the present, rather than implementing the same strategies irrespective of the situation.

Psychological flexibility has been shown to predict performance of an in itself (see Bond et al 2008) but it also helps us account for situational awareness.  Therefore if we want to build on our understanding and prediction of high performance, we should measure this, too.

References:

  • Robertson, I.T. and Smith, M. (2001). ‘Personnel Selection’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol.74. no.4, pp.441-72
  • Sackett, Paul R. and Lievens, Filip, Personnel Selection. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 59, January 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1141954
  • Bond, F. W., Flaxman, P. E., & Bunce, D. (2008). The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 645-654.

ACT and conscious evolution Part A: Why cant we get our act together to respond to global change?

We live on a planet completely transformed by humanity.  Our impacts upon the planet are so great that scientists have now coined a term for a new geological age – the Anthropocene.   We are changing the climate, the chemical balance of the oceans and soils, biodiversity and even the physical structure of the planet –humans move more sediment and rock than all natural processes combined.  Together this is referred to as ‘global change’.  Whether we like it or not, and whether we are conscious of it or not, we are designing the future of not just our species, but every other species on the planet.

In this blog and the next I argue that Contextual Behavioural Science is not just a tool for individual wellbeing, it is a tool for global transformation.  For future generations to live meaningfully, happily and sustainably, we must master our thinking and feeling at least as much as we have learned to master the physical world. We need to more consciously evolve our behaviour, choosing our evolutionary path instead of reacting unconsciously.

Getting better at choosing is critical for many of our most pressing problems, but nowhere is it more important than the choices we make about our treatment of the natural world. The natural world is the context for everything else: It is the cradle of our development as a species, the support system for our thriving today and the legacy we leave our children.

Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.  In this blog, I outline some of the reasons we seem to be so ineffective at collectively responding to anthropogenic changes to the natural world.  Next week I will explore some ways contextual behavioural science can help us to respond more effectively to such wicked problems.

Why cant we get our act together?

From a contextual behavioural perspective, human beings have at least six characteristics that get in the way of successfully responding to complex problems [1].   These characteristics served us well in old contexts, but might just be big problems for our ongoing survival.

Responding to reinforcement

a)      Immediate consequences outweigh delayed consequences – we might be concerned about the fate of our children, but we tend to act on our desire for that new car or second helping of food right now.

b)      Strongly unpleasant stimuli presented abruptly prompt action, but gradually increasing unpleasant stimuli do notThis is the story of the boiled frog. So long as global conditions worsen gradually, we will tolerate bad air, foul water, and species loss that would once have been considered intolerable.

Complexity and Accuracy of Thinking

c)       Simple, familiar ideas are often preferred over complex, alien ideas that are more correct. It is estimated that evolution, about as well-established a fact as it is possible to obtain in science, is rejected by 46% of the American population, one of the best educated populations on earth.  This figure doesn’t appear to be changing – there is a limit to the power of science and education, in part because…

d)      Coincidental events often strengthen ineffective behavior –  Short term weather events lead to claims that climate change isn’t happening. Our cognitive systems are tuned to use even random patterns as evidence supporting our beliefs.

e)      Thinking more complexly puts us in contact with uncertainty and paradox which can both feel aversive – As we learn language we are repeatedly rewarded for being coherent [2]: Parents discourage children for saying they like spinach one day and not the next.  Uncertainty, ignorance and inconsistent beliefs feel deeply aversive for most of us and thinking about complex environmental issues inevitably exposes us to these states.

Our relationships

f)       Consequences for the individual usually outweigh consequences for others although we can and do act altruistically, our primary concern is usually to protect ourselves and satisfy our own needs.

So what can we do about it?

This is a pretty depressing list. But actually these characteristics are just the products of human evolution.  Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.

But what makes human beings really interesting are the times when we act differently to the basic tendencies outlined above.  Next week I will explore how ACT and contextual behavioural science help us to make sense of what happens when we are at our best as a species – when we plan well for the future and act beyond our own self-interest.

Between now and then, you might like to see if you can notice examples of these evolved tendencies in action.  How do they serve you and how do they get in the way of living the life you want to live?  I would love to read about what you notice.

1. Chance, P. (2007). The ultimate challenge: prove B. F. Skinner wrong. The Behavior analyst, 30(2), 153-160.  Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc2203635/

2. Hughes, S., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Vahey, N. (2012). Holding On to Our Functional Roots When Exploring New Intellectual Islands: A Voyage through Implicit Cognition Research. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 1, 17-38. doi: 10.1016/j.jcbs.2012.09.003. Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212144712000075