If You Had a Couple of Extra Hours In The Week, What Would You Spend Them On?

Just imagine, something magical happens and you suddenly find yourself with two extra hours in the week. Empty…waiting to be used. What a delicious thought!

How would you choose to spend those hours?

Romanian Family
Romanian Family (Photo credit: JoshLawton)

Would you:

  • Work on a pet project that matters to you?
  • Spend more time with loved ones? Doing what?
  • Look after yourself a little better – perhaps exercising more often; cooking healthier food; getting more sleep?
  • What would it be…..?
And…what wouldn’t you choose to do with that time?

I invite you to sit with those questions. To let them be with you over the next few days and see what turns up.

If you want to find time for an important but neglected activity, then I encourage you to start small. Just pick one action and commit to focussing on that area for 10 minutes more each week.

If that change seems to give your life more vitality, you might then choose to gradually increase it over time.

This question comes from an interesting book: Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobal and Jerold Panas

Successful People Often Feel Bad Too

For most of my adult life I have worked in roles where people told me the truth about how they felt. This privilege has meant that I know an important secret. The secret is that most of us have good days and bad days; good weeks and bad weeks, sometimes even good days and bad months. When I worked as a psychiatrist I thought that only my clients and I felt like this. But then I moved into executive coaching and discovered it was also true of people who, on the outside, look very successful.

Most of us know that we have times when we feel happy and times when we feel sad, anxious or angry. However, we can tend to assume this isn’t true about other people. Other people look like they have got it together and so we assume that they have. Which leads me to the second secret – most of us hide it when we are feeling bad. We spend a miserable evening feeling like s*#t and the next day we do our best to act like everything is okay.

So when all of our efforts to become happy, secure and confident seem to only work in the short term. When over and over again our confidence disappears and we feel scared, sad or anxious, we assume that there is something wrong with us. That we are some how more broken than other people.

A woman dries her tears as she says goodbye to friends emigrating to New Zealand, 1953 (We can all relate to the pain of loss) (Flickr http://flic.kr/p/5uBE8s)

So we hide our pain. And what is worse than feeling heartbroken, sad or frightened? It is the feeling of being alone in that suffering. The feeling that everyone else is out having a good time – happy and successful – whilst Rachel, the loser, stays home alone feeling overwhelmed and scared.

Next time that you feel like howling into the wilderness (or even just feel a bit sad and forlorn) remember that you are not alone. Somewhere out there in the seething mass of humanity will be someone who, at this very moment, is feeling a very similar emotion. And, likely, just like you, they will get up tomorrow and go out into the world and when someone says ‘How are you’ they will smile and say, ‘I’m fine’.

It is a myth that most of us are happy most of the time and it is a cruel myth. The nature of being human is that we have a tendency to suffer. We suffer often and sometimes we suffer deeply. However, if, when emotional pain turns up, we choose to take an open, curious, compassionate approach to our pain; we then seem to get less hooked by the pain. This means that in the very next second, we might just find ourselves feeling content… at least for a moment.

If we stop seeing emotional pain as something to avoid then we can get our life moving. We can take bold and courageous emotional risks and give ourselves a chance to experience joy too.

The Problem With Work-Life Balance

I think the concept of ‘work-life balance’ is deeply flawed.

The phrase suggests that:

  1. Work and life are somehow different. Now, that is patently stupid. If you aren’t feeling alive when you are working, then your problem isn’t lack of work-life balance. You probably need a good career coach – I hear that this fellow is quite good.
  2. There is a state where everything is in balance and there are people who have achieved that state. I have honestly never been in that state. have you? Do you know anyone who has been in that state?

I think a much better strategy involves a fundamentally different approach.

(Enjoying the Beach with Albert – Two valued domains (Relationship and Health) at the same time!)

1. Instead of just balancing work and life I think the task is much more complex. We need to work on balancing different life domains (or what Kelly Wilson would call ‘Domains of valued living’). Most of us have a few of these. Mine are: family, work/achievement, learning, friends, relationship, health and wellbeing, contribution/community.

2. It would also help to view ‘balance’ as a verb  – ‘balancing’. An ongoing process that involves:

  • Deciding on the areas of life that matter to you and what values and actions you want to take in each area.
  • Noticing how you are doing over time. Getting better and better at noticing when you are focussed too much on one area of life and neglecting other important areas…and then making a correction.

You can take the Valued Living Questionnaire here to see how you are going in balancing your life.

I Worry That I Sound Like An ACT Evangelist

You may have noticed that Rob and I are pretty passionate about ACT. If you have met either of us in person you will know that if you show even a glimmer of interest in the topic we will happily go on and on about valued directions and experiential avoidance for hours. We might even start ranting on about Relational Frame Theory if you are very lucky!

Sometimes I have the thought that just possibly we might sound a bit crazy. That our passion might come across a tad evangelistic.

The reason I am so enthusiastic about this approach is because ACT and the science behind it (contextual behavioural science) combine scientific rigour with an attempt to answer the ‘big questions about understanding and improving the human condition’ (This is based on a passage in The Neighborhood Project by David Sloan Wilson).

How cool is that?!


How White Dog Poo Can Give Us Hope For 2012

Do you remember white dog poo? It seemed to be all over the place when I was growing up, but now I can’t remember the last time I saw any. What’s going on?

The answer is that humans have decided to pick up after their dogs.  In general, we carry around little black bags for the purpose and deposit them in special bins.

As Jerry Seinfeld said, if an alien ever landed they would undoubtedly conclude that it was the dogs who were in charge. But the real point is that our short term behaviour has changed, making the environment more pleasant for others, even though the immediate consequences for ourselves are unpleasant.

Why does this matter?

Because it tells us something important about human nature. Even behaviour which seems deeply ingrained and resistant to change can be changed.

Yet the thing about humans is that we forget this and give ourselves a hard time. As a species we criticise ourselves constantly, even though evidence suggests our behaviour has never been better or more peaceful.  And at an individual level, when we think about behaviour change we often to chide ourselves for not having changed already.  And any behaviourist will tell you that’s not a great reinforcer.

Steve Hayes once said the real question is not why are we so controlled by short term impulses, but rather how do we ever fail to be?

This puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotations of all, by Robert Ardrey but used  here by Ken Robinson.  I think it’s a nice reminder as we start 2012.

Happy New Year, everyone.

“Human beings were born of risen apes, not fallen angels.
And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles?
Or our treaties, our symphonies, our peaceful acres, our dreams?
The miracle of humankind is not how far we have sunk but how magnificently we have risen.
We will be known among the stars not by our corpses, but by our poems.”

What Kind of Life Purpose Leads to Meaning in Life?

Steve Jobs once said that Apple’s mission was to ‘dent the universe’.  That is, he was driven to make a difference in the world above and beyond profit. Yet other people – can’t think who – 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 all need to eat), but some people also seem to have a transcendent purpose as well.

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 children.  Conversely, Hitler had a transcendent purpose.  The difference is in terms of how people interact with the world.  Those with stronger self-related purpose will focus on their immediate surroundings.   Those with a transcendent purpose want to affect the world around them through their work.  So over time, they learn more about the world around them and their place within it.  This is what generates meaning in work.


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 predict meaning in work – something even I had not dared 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, which confirms the findings of happiness researchers everywhere.  However, the transcendent scale did significantly predict psychological wellbeing.

The implication is clear: if you want meaning in work, then you need to work out how you can dent the universe in some way.  Then go out there and do it.

The Flaw

I recently watched a brilliant film, called The Flaw which explored the global financial crisis and its causes.

Capitalism is a system which, through its invisible hand is able to benefit the many via the self interest of the few.  By trying to maximise their own gains in a free market, individuals benefit society, even without setting out to do so.

Yet as we look around the world it is clear that capitalism has another invisible hand, which is rather less benevolent.   This ‘flaw’ was identified by Alan Greenspan, who was making a relatively narrow point about economics and the self correcting power of free markets.

But I would argue that the flaw runs deeper than Greenspan thinks.  Capitalism – at least in its current form – is flawed in terms of psychology.  The way that work gets structured and organised tends to distance people from their values and sense of responsibility.  A combination of behavioural reinforcement, mindlessness (due to workload?) and a short term, inward focus encourages a kind of collective myopia and disconnect from our own values.

I found this myself when, as a consultant, my objective rapidly went from helping the public sector to improve its efficiency, to selling consultancy services into the public sector.

At one point in The Flaw individual bankers, traders and derivatives experts were asked whether they felt any direct responsibility for the financial disaster.  Most of them fell silent.  Not, I think, because they felt guilty, but more because they genuinely did not know the answer.  Such was the way their role had been structured they had lost contact with any kind of individual responsibility.  Their role had distanced them from their individual values without them even really being aware that that had happened.  No one was responsible.

It is this flaw which allows individual bankers to argue that they did nothing wrong, whilst millions cope with repossession, debts and unemployment.  It is this flaw that allows senior managers to sell packages of derivatives that no one truly understands.  It is this flaw that allows News International bosses to turn a blind eye to practices which were contrary to the ethics of their own profession.  It is this flaw that allows nurses and care home workers to treat the elderly and sick with cruelty and contempt.

I don’t think anyone deliberately set out to do this.  But we create our organisations, and then they create us.

What Can We Do to Address The Flaw?

Our organisations have created a version of us which too easily loses contact with individual accountability and values.  Instead, management focus on implementing organisational values.  The problem with this is that these are not really values – they are tracks and plys.

What then is the answer?  Better economic regulation is key, as are changes to governance practices that promote longer term thinking, flexible perspective taking and individual accountability.

But we also need to understand how and why people lose contact with their values at an individual level.  One of the major reasons is that staying in contact with our values is very difficult.  It requires psychological skills that are not innate or obvious.  It requires interventions that go far beyond merely promoting happiness or engagement.

It is interventions like ACT that have shown that people can be trained to deal with the psychological consequences of following their values.  Whilst this is not easy, we cannot fix the flaw simply by trying to build happiness or engagement or by legislating for transparency or fairness.  None of that addresses the reality of what it means to be a human.  But if we can teach willingness to experience difficult thoughts and feelings in pursuit of values, then we have much more of a chance.

If ACT can help reconnect even those lost in depression and chronic pain to their values and make a real difference to their experience, it does not take much imagination to think that maybe there are things we can learn which apply directly to organisational culture change.

There is a flaw.  We can fix it.  But we must listen to the science.

How to Build Engagement and Vitality

Are you willing to invest energy in your work? Do you persist in the face of difficulty and give your full attention to your work when you are at work? Do you feel like your work matters? Do you care about doing a good job? If your answer is ‘yes‘ then you are engaged with your work.

Rob and I are highly engaged with this project – we hope that this comes through in our writing. I believe that applying ACT principles to this project has helped us to maintain our energy and enthusiasm.

In our experience, ACT builds workplace engagement in a number of ways:

  1. When people are connected to their values and are able to live their values in their work they have a deep sense of meaning and purpose. They experience vitality. Rob describes here what that looks like in practice. Here is the values statement Rob and I wrote when we started working together. We spent time on it because we knew that if we were to persist with this, if we were to give energy to this project when we have so many other competing priorities, then we would need to be clear about why it mattered to us.
  2. When people feel a deep connection between their work and their values they become more willing to persist in the face of difficulty. They care about the outcome. They want to do their best. This week I gave a talk to a group of senior managers and CEO’s (arranged by the lovely people at Arete Executive.) I was frankly terrified. I tried to wriggle out of my fear by minimising the importance.“I don’t need any more work. My consultancy is really busy. It doesn’t matter whether they like my talk” but Rob, bless his heart, wouldn’t let me do that. He reminded me that the purpose of my talk wasn’t to ‘sell’ my consulting services  or the training sessions that Rob and I offer together (although that would be nice!). It was to connect the audience to some information that might genuinely help them (and their employees) to have more vitality in their lives. I felt more anxious after this conversation (Thanks Rob!) but I also had a deep sense that it was worth it.
  3. When people become skilful at ‘defusing’* from their thoughts and accepting** their feelings, they have more energy and attention to give to their work as they aren’t wasting energy trying to get their thoughts and feelings ‘right’.
  4. When people are in contact with the present moment, they make better decisions and tend to respond more flexibly and effectively to their circumstances.

Both the research and our experience is suggesting that ACT will be central to future workplace engagement initiatives. I am excited!

Explaining the jargon:

*Defusion is an ACT term that means having some space between you and your thoughts. Rather than seeing the world through your thoughts, you see your thoughts as just thoughts.

**Acceptance is about the reality that when we take action in line with our values, then often painful emotions (like anxiety) turn up. If we want rich and meaningful lives, sometimes we need to make space for those painful emotions.

When Your Mind is Saying: ‘You Just Aren’t Good Enough’

I want to tell you a secret…I have a fierce ‘I am not good enough story’ running today. It has been in my face on and off most of the day.

What triggered it? My dear friend and co-blogger, Rob Archer, has written four really good posts in the last few weeks. In case you missed them, there are two on values here and here and two on talent management here and here. They are really good. I feel intimidated. My mind is telling me how embarrassing it must be for Rob to have to put up with my inarticulate ramblings on this blog. I have a strong impulse to delay posting until I come up with something absolutely brilliant.

So what do I do?

I breathe…and pause for a moment. I lean into myself with kindness. I acknowledge that this ‘I am not good enough’ story has been around for many years. If I dig around, I can even find my first memory of it (I was 4 and got in trouble at school for needing to go to the bathroom during class – let’s just say that the incident ended with me wearing some borrowed knickers from the school knicker cupboard). This story is an old friend that visits me often. And I know that it is trying to help, trying to keep me safe. To protect me from further ‘knicker cupboard’ embarrassment. I also acknowledge to myself that I am not the only person in the world that has that story running now and again.

And I think ‘What do my values tell me to do here?‘ This endeavour – Working with ACT – really matters to me. Being authentic and real really matter to me.

So here I am writing away…whilst my mind whispers, ‘This is rubbish, who wants to read this’.  Thanks mind.

Finding True North: How to Clarify Values (part 2)

In my previous post I talked about exploring values and looking for patterns across a number of different tests.

Over the years I have taken countless values exercises and tests.  Below are some of the best and I’ve interspersed my results to demonstrate the variability involved – and the risks of doing just one!

  1. The Obituary Exercise
  2. Values in action questionnaire
  3. Your Values by Franklin Covey
  4. Values Sort Task by Goodwork Toolkit
  5. Career Values by Stewart Cooper & Coon
  6. Valued Living Questionnare

1. The Obituary Exercise

The classic and probably still the one that has had most impact on me.  How do you want to be remembered?  Try it here.

My values in this test always include doing meaningful work first and foremost.  This means using my skills and talents to actually make a difference to other people and to ‘dent the universe’ in some way.  Another top value (for me and others) is courage.  I don’t want the fears I experience day to day to hold me back.

2. Values in action questionnaire

I have taken this test 6 times over a period of 8 years.  Although my top 6 values vary each time, there are some which remain consistent.  The values which have made it in every time are:

  • Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
  • Curiosity and interest in the world
  • Social intelligence
  • Fairness, equity, and justice

3. Your Values by Franklin Covey

I think this is an excellent resource which asks different questions to elicit values.  My values here include growth and development, curiosity, humour and freedom.

4. Values Sort Task by Goodwork Toolkit

Having said I don’t like ranking values, it can be quite revealing to ‘sort’ them for importance.  This online values sorting tool is quite fun and works well.  My top values here turned out to be honesty and integrity, social concerns and professional accomplishment.

5. Career Values by Stewart Cooper & Coon

Another values sorting exercise, but the sorting is done differently and so it is interesting to observe differences.  I find this kind of test more difficult because it is hard to know how to assign importance to values without comparing them to other values.  Therefore, I think you respond differently to the values at the beginning of the test than the end.

The values that came top in this test were freedom, security, helping others, recognition, honesty and integrity.

6. Valued Living Questionnaire

This test is used extensively by the ACT community, along with the similar Bull’s Eye.  This test identifies 10 different life domains and asks you to identify key values in each.  Clearly, this test deals with broader values than those which simply relate to work.  Nevertheless, this in itself can be useful to identify any conflicts or tensions between work-related values and values in other life domains.

My work-related values in this test include doing meaningful work (again), making a difference to others, collaborating with excellent people and acting with integrity.


There’s a huge range of different values tests out there.  The ones listed above are really good and all of them are free.  However, they do tend to yield different results and this can be disconcerting.  However, remember that you do not have a single set of values – too much depends on context.  So take these tests and look out for patterns.  And when you have your list, hold it lightly and aks yourself in this moment, which way is True North?