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.
Anyone who knows me or my children will know that I am definitely both a relationship and parenting expert.
For example, before I proposed to my wife I felt I need to list all of my imperfections (which took a while), and only this morning I dealt with my two-year old’s tantrum by swearing at the top of my voice and then storming out of the room.
I’m available for paid consultancy.
However I am a reasonably enthusiastic consumer of parenting strategies and have lots of clients who are asking for ideas to help deal with the pressure of lockdown.
So here are some ideas which I like, even if the implementation for me is still a ‘work in progress’.
If you have any of your own (especially ACT-consistent ideas and resources) please let me know in the comments below.
The Executive Summary
For all you lazy layabouts who have no time to read another long winded concise and excellent post written by me, let me save you the trouble by drawing your attention to The Blessing of a Skinned Knee in which Wendy Mogel rejects the idea of making things easy for our children, of praising them constantly, of them to be somehow unique and ‘special’ – all of which loads pressure on to both them and us:
In order to flourish, children don’t need the best of everything. Instead they simply need what is good enough. This may include good enough (but dull) homework assignments, good enough (but uninspired) teachers, good enough and good enough (although bossy and shallow) friends.
Consider that “good enough” can often be best for your child, because when life is mostly ordinary…your child won’t end up with expectations that can’t be met on this worldly plane.
Or how about this little beauty:
My advice to parents is to tolerate some low-quality time. Have a little less ambition for yourself and your children. Plan nothing—disappoint your kids with your essential mediocrity and the dullness of your home. Just hang around your children and wait to see what develops.
Disappoint my kids with my essential mediocrity?
Now THAT is a parenting approach I can get behind!
Nothing I’ve read comes close to relieving the pressure on myself and my children during lockdown than this, so I urge you to read the full summary here.
Here are some more ideas:
1. You need respite
It doesn’t matter what you are doing, you need a break from it. In a study mentioned on the excellent Psychologists off the Clock podcast, soliders in the military had the lowest rates of burnout even when the break was going to war. In other words, what we need is a break from what we are doing. Do anything for too long with too little respite and we start to mentally fray. And here’s a powerful image to illustrate this point:
Ideas for implementing breaks will obviously vary but here are a few:
Enlist others. If there is another adult in your house, work in shifts to cover short breaks. If not try to enlist a Granny to read a story or an Uncle to make your kids laugh, even 20 minutes’ respite can work wonders.
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.
Steve Jobs once said that Apple’s mission was to ‘dent the universe’. That is, he was driven to affect or make a difference in the world above and beyond profit.
Yet many people seem to have far more of a ‘self-related’ purpose, in that their primary objective seems to be to make as much money and to be as personally successful as possible.
In my research I decided to test the idea that there are two types of purpose – ‘self-related‘ and ‘transcendent‘. I also wanted to test if either type of purpose would predict meaning in work more strongly.
Using a measure of purpose originally developed at Stanford, my factor analysis found that there are indeed two broad types of purpose. Most people have self-related purpose (after all we need to eat), but some people also seem to have a transcendent purpose as well, which is broader and more outward looking.
Now, self-related purposes are not ‘bad’ nor are transcendent purposes ‘good’. For example, it is perfectly possible to have a self-related purpose of making money to provide for one’s family. Conversely you could argue Hitler had a transcendent purpose.
The difference is simply in terms of how people interact with the world.
Those with a stronger self-related purpose will focus more on their immediate surroundings and have less need to understand the world more broadly.
They may also try to ignore extraneous information from beyond their immediate context, especially if it is uncomfortable or unhelpful to their purpose.
However those with a transcendent purpose need to affect the world around them through their work.
Therefore over time they must learn more about the world and their place within it. As they learn more they comprehend more, and this is what eventually generates meaning in work.
I hypothesised that those with a self-related purpose would experience less meaning in work than those with a transcendent purpose.
In a sample of over 500 working participants, I found that those with a self-related purpose do indeed experience less meaning in work than those who also have a strong transcendent purpose. In fact, high levels of self-related purpose negatively predicted meaning in work – something I had not even dared to hypothesise.
Interestingly, not only did the item ‘My purpose at work is to make money’ negatively predict meaning in work, it was also associated with lower engagement at work. Money can’t buy you love, nor it seems employee engagement.
There was also no association of making money with psychological wellbeing. However, the transcendent purpose scale did significantly predict psychological wellbeing.
If you want to find greater meaning in your work:
Work on understanding yourself first; explore your strengths, values and personality preferences. This is the kind of thing coaching can help with.
Then think about the kinds of contexts or organisations that you thrive in – something psychologists call this ‘organisational fit’. What kind of culture, colleagues or organisation do you work best in? Do you value autonomy or structure? A formal or informal culture? Be as specific as possible.
Finally, think about causes you believe in. What is it that you want from a job, or want to achieve through work? If it is money and not much else – fine – but what is the money for? Again, be specific.
In my study my additional conclusion was:
“Those seeking meaning in work should try to identify and nurture a transcendent purpose. By identifying a life goal that extends beyond one’s own immediate experience, people could be encouraged to think in terms of how their skills uniquely meet the most pressing and important needs of the world.”
If you want meaning in work, then you need to work out how you can ‘dent the universe’ in some way that seems important and relevant to you.
Then go out there and learn how to do it. Meaning will follow.
When I retrained to become a psychologist, my MSc research centred on meaning in work. That’s because my work to date (as a management consultant) had been pretty meaningless, which left me pretty depressed, but I didn’t really know what to do about it.
So my research questions were:
What is meaning in work?
How can I find it?
I wanted to create a model of meaning in work to help people find it, but first I needed to understand…
What exactly is meaning in work?
There’s debate in academic circles about what meaning is, and I spent months sifting through these definitions. Eventually I felt the clearest description was in a brilliant paper by Eric Klinger, who argued (1998) that meaning can be seen from an evolutionary perspective.
Think about our ancestors, whose survival focused on successfully finding food and avoiding woolly mammoths in harsh and varied terrain. We are the children of brilliant problem solvers, who would move and adapt to new challenges every day. As a species we therefore survived by being able to respond to our environment and meet a succession of context-dependent goals.
The cognitive processes we developed to help us do that (i.e. our thoughts and emotions), all evolved to help us understand the potential dangers and opportunities that came our way during the pursuit of our goals. It is understanding that enables action to be taken in the pursuit of goals, and successful pursuit of goals = survival.
Klinger therefore argued that the role of human cognition is to manage the process of comprehension, working to sort out
“the ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into the emotional / motivation / action systems” (p31).
This means that at the heart of the human operating system is an imperative to UNDERSTAND the stimuli reaching us and to place it in context.
This is a serious business, too.
Consider that without understanding we feel uneasy (it’s not for nothing our greatest fear is the fear of the unknown).
Conversely, understanding something brings relief. Think about the ‘aha!’ moment when you solve a problem. It is pleasant because this is a relief from the burden of not knowing. Significantly, this holds even if the news is bad – think about how a diagnosis of a mystery illness often brings relief.
Meaning is essential because it means we are able to act with purpose and agency. Without it we are unsure and lack direction.
Meaning is therefore comprehension, whether that be for survival (understanding the meaning of a fresh Tiger paw print), or symbolic (like comprehending a word in a sentence) or the existential (like the meaning of one’s work).
As Baumeister (1991) argued, meaning in work and life is a process of sense-making which connects an individual’s existence to a wider understanding of the world. When we have meaning in work we understand ourselves and our work in context. Which feels good.
Without meaning our work feels as though it doesn’t make sense, we feel less agency over our place in the world and a sense of unease grows. A pretty fair summation of my time as a management consultant!
Conversely when we understand ourselves and our place in the world, meaning grows. We know how to relate to the stimuli reaching us and we feel more agency over it. Whilst we still experience difficult emotions, we understand why we are experiencing them and that they are in the service of something meaningful…
And that’s a fair summation of my life as a psychologist.
Klinger, E., (1998). The Search for Meaning in Evolutionary Perspective and its Clinical Implications. In The Human Quest for Meaning, Wong, P., & Fry, P., Eds. Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey.
Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Meanings of Life. New York.
I was describing the frustrations of running a small business to a friend who works in venture capital. In my mind I felt like the kind of dysfunction I was describing would shock her. Far from it – she seemed surprised at my surprise.
What’s odd is that as an ACT practitioner I am used to the idea that our own thoughts and emotions can frequently be unhelpful. Yet somehow I’d allowed myself to believe that organisations – built by dysfunctional humans like me – should be run in an entirely functional way.
The Dysfunctional Beatles
In early 1967 the greatest band in the world were in trouble.
John was behaving even more cynically than ever, only really coming alive when working on his own material. His relationship with Yoko was also causing resentment among the others.
Ringo was convinced he was surplus to requirements and considering his options in other careers – photography and furniture making. George was also feeling cut adrift, thinking that the others were deliberately excluding his songs.
Whilst Paul may have appeared the happiest, he was himself only a couple of years from his own breakdown. The author of Yesterday aged 26, was beginning to doubt himself. The Beatles were pulling apart.
The Dysfunctions of World-Leading Companies
In 1982 Tom Peters wrote his seminal book In Search of Excellence, looking at some of the best run companies in the world.
It’s a compelling read, until you realise that nearly all of the companies chosen as ‘excellent’ have since either underperformed or gone bust (think Atari).
Phil Rosenzweigh called this the “delusion of connecting the winning dots“. Yet we still do this. We pick the most successful organisations and then buy the myth that their success is down to their culture and leadership. Think Laszlo Bock from Google, pretending their success is to do with culture; Sheryl Sandberg lecturing on work-life balance, or anything to do with Steve Jobs.
Take a look at this clip of Microsoft in 1995 and ask yourself if that can possibly have been a functional place to work:
Think of investment banks, family-run businesses, the NHS…pretty much everything is dysfunctional.
It’s funny how the idea of acceptance – particularly accepting my own difficult thought and emotions – has freed me so much in my own personal life, yet when it comes to the places I work I expect organisations to work exactly as I think they should.
I’m not suggesting that working in dysfunctional organisations is easy or that we shouldn’t try to fix them. But I am suggesting it’s not the only way of assessing whether our jobs or careers are right for us.
The Dysfunctional Beatles (2)
In May 1967, amidst their heightening dysfunctions, the Beatles released Sgt Pepper.
It was a staggering achievement, made all the more remarkable by releasing Stawberry Fields and Penny Lane earlier that year, neither of which made the album.
The Beatles were overflowing with creativity and inspiration whilst growing increasingly frustrated with each other.
The following year, with relations at an all-time low, they released the incredible White Album, having earlier released Hey Jude, which was also not on the album (!)
Finally, in 1969 they released the mighty Abbey Road and in the death throes of the band, Let it Be (which was released after they had split).
In other words, some of the greatest music of all time was recorded amidst some of the most stressful and dysfunctional working relationships.
It’s the same everywhere. Dysfunctional companies run the world; they power things, finance things, change the way we work and live, and in the case of the NHS they save lives and give dignity to people when they need it most.
What Are You Building Amidst Dysfunction?
In ACT, one of the key ideas is that we can move towards our values and goals in the presence of difficult thoughts and emotions.
The test with our own careers, therefore, is not just how dysfunctional something feels, or how frustrating your colleagues are, or how undervalued you feel. (Of course, this is not an argument to just put up with these things – that is not what acceptance means). It is just not the sole measure.
The other part of the equation is what are you building in return? How often do you get to move towards your most important values and goals, amidst the dysfunction?
When I was a management consultant the answer to that was ‘almost never’. But as a psychologist, it is every day – my most meaningful contribution to the world ever.
In the same way that mental health is more than an absence of disease, your job’s worth is more than an absence of dysfunction.
Instead of buying the story that dysfunctional organisations leave us helpless to make a difference, we can learn to hold our stories lightly, and find room to create something of value, amidst the dysfunction.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
My Granny died last month, aged 97. Good knock, Gran.
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?
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?
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:
Practical. It offers different ways to be mindful – making mindfulness more accessible to more people than ever before.
Clarity. ACT is based on a clear and transparent philosophy of sciencewhich helps practitioners learn faster and explain concepts more clearly. (Once I got this I never thought in the same way again).
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.
I am writing this whilst sitting comfortably on a plane, powering through a brilliant autumn sunset towards Helsinki. I have everything I need, and the work will be great.
And I don’t really want to go.
This has nothing to do with Helsinki you understand. Who couldn’t be excited by the land of sauna, summer cabins and err, Moomins?
I don’t want to go because it’s going to be hard work. And lots of travel. And above all I’m sad because I’m going to miss my family. I feel like I just want to stop and go home.
Using Values When You’re Somewhere You Don’t Want To Be
This classic ACT move is easily forgotten, but when I remember it always helps:
Ask the cabin attendant for an extra gin
Take a moment to consider why I am making this trip in the first place:
What values are at the heart of my choice to be here?
This question tilts my attention towards the purpose of my being here. And purpose is the great generator of meaning.
So, why did I choose to be here?
Meaningfulwork. I am here because the workshops I run often help people shift in a positive direction. The data we’re collecting supports this.
Learning. I hope to learn something from the people I meet, and their reaction to the training. And it’s exciting to learn something about the countries I visit; Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
Security. I want to provide for my family so that they have the stuff they need to thrive. It is not the sole purpose of being here, but it is a factor.
Psychological Flexibility. Deep down, I know that without moments like these, my capacity to experience joy in life would diminish. As Kelly Wilson said, happiness and sadness are twins that either grow strong together or die together.
Tuning into my own values doesn’t get rid of the sadness, but it provides a different context for it.
It mixes something in with the sadness. Something richer.
And now I’m flying in a different way.
I am not so consumed by thoughts of wanting to go home.
My sadness feels like it has been dignified somehow.
It is the admission price for a life I have chosen, and I am grateful for it.