Little Things Lead to Sucess At Work

What if your greatest successes are more a reflection of your small, everyday choices than of the big decisions you make?

In his book, ‘How to Choose’, David Freemantle suggests that it is our micro-behaviours that make the difference between success and disappointment. By micro-behaviours, he means the ‘nuances and minutiae of our observed behaviours’. We tend to remember big choices we have made and think they have determined the course of our life. Whilst it is true that these larger choices are important. Freemantle suggests that it is actually our micro-behaviours that ultimately determine our success in these larger events.

For example, a ‘macro-behaviour’ might be to apply for a secondment to a project that interests you. Making this choice and taking this action certainly matters, but all sorts of micro-behaviours impact on how successful your application will be. When you apply for the secondment, do you go and see the person in charge of the project and engage with them in a way that makes them feel confident that you would be a pleasant and conscientious team member? Do you take the time to write a well thought out application? Have your tiny, repeated behaviours over the last 2 years, built you a reputation as someone who is helpful and effective? All of these frequent, small choices will impact on the outcome of your application.

Our natural tendency is to consciously choose the big things but to let our habitual style determine our micro-behaviours. For example, if my family and cultural background encouraged a blunt and straightforward style of communication, I will tend to do that. If my background has trained me to be compliant and avoid conflict. I will tend to do that.

In order to succeed in ways that are meaningful, we need to do something different. Instead of letting our history determine our micro-behaviours, we need to choose these behaviours consciously based on three key factors:

  • What is happening in this moment?
  • Which of my values are most important to express in this situation?
  • What do I want to achieve both in the short and in the long term?

This assessment of what each moment calls for involves the capacity to be really present. To really see what is going on.

It requires that we have a clear sense of who we want to be (our values) and a broad sense of what we want our life to stand for (our purpose).

And, finally, it requires the capacity to unhook from impulses to act in reactive or unskilful ways.

These are the skills of psychological flexibility.

Acceptance and Commitment Training has been shown to build psychological flexibility.

To get a sense of how to do that – you could explore this blog, read one of the many excellent ACT books or find an ACT coach.

(How to) Stay on The F*****G Bus

I recently came across Helsinki bus theory, an interesting metaphor by the photographer Arno Minkinnen which is usually applied to creativity.  Being a big fan of bus metaphors, I started using it with my coaching clients and it resonates, so let me explain:

In Helsinki all buses follow the same route at the start of their journey.  For at least 1 km all buses take the same route and make the same stops, irrespective of their number and eventual destination.

Helsinki 3

After this they diverge and the differently numbered buses start to separate into more distant and less familiar parts of Helsinki.

HelsinkiLet’s imagine that in the metaphor you are a new artist who wants to create innovative art.  Each bus stop represents one year of your life, so the third bus stop represents 3 years of learning your craft and trying new things out.

After 3 years people begin to notice your work but they start by comparing it to people who have done similar work before.  Being driven to do something unique, you feel discouraged at finding you’re following someone else’s path.   So what do you do?

You get off the bus, go back to the terminus and try another route.

This time you take a different number bus in the hope that it will lead to something different.

But the same thing happens.  You had the intention of changing to something new, but you get compared to others and feel discouraged.  So back to the terminus you go. As Minkinnen says “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.”

So what’s the answer?

Well the advice offered by Minkinnen is simple:

Stay on the fucking bus.

Exactly!  Stay on the bus!  And this is true not just for creative endeavours, but for anything that requires persistence, including career, life or behaviour change.  As this HBR article makes clear, it is long term commitment to a direction which is often the key to success.

The Problem with Staying on the Bus

Unfortunately, most of us find staying on the bus very difficult, mainly because we are directed by our short term thoughts and feelings. Just as in the case of the artist, we feel as though nothing has really changed, that this is just the same as before, that maybe we should have taken a different route.

This is where we all need help to understand how to stay on the bus.

How to Stay on the Bus

The first step is to get clear on which bus you want to get on.  I suggest a combination of decision science, The Dip and values work for this.

But next we need to learn how to deal with the thoughts and emotions that come from staying on the bus.

Let’s be clear that it is not the feelings themselves that force us off the bus.  It is our interpretation of those feelings – our relationship to them – which leads us to get off early.

The Role of Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is the ability to see our immediate experience from different perspectives.  For example, instead of thinking about our immediate thoughts and emotions, we can consider our longer term values.  Instead of seeing emotions as reliable guides to behaviour, we can place them in a different context as the flipside of what really matters.   Instead of running away automatically from certain thoughts, we can see them as just learned behaviour and not something we necessarily need to listen to or struggle with.

With practice, we can become less influenced by our short term impulses (‘this is just the same as last time!’) and more by our long term values.

This can help us to stay on the bus, and to persist even when our immediate thoughts and emotions make persisting difficult.

Passengers on the bus

Effective Decision Making

Sometimes we have to make important decisions where the ‘right’ answer is unclear. I would like to suggest this process for making for those tricker decisions:

1. Which of your values are relevant in this situation?

2. What are the key facts? In this step aim to see the world the way it really is rather than as your mind tells you it is.

3. What is the relationship between the facts – how do they interact?

4. Focus in depth on different parts of the problem (whilst keeping the whole in mind). Take different perspectives – how would others view this problem? How will you view this problem in 5 years time?

5. Consider that there may be a better alternative that you haven’t thought of. Ask for advice. Do some research. Brainstorm. Consider trialling different options and observing how they turn out.

6. Be prepared to sit either with the discomfort of not deciding or with the discomfort of deciding and possibly making the wrong decision. See if it possible to have those difficult thoughts and feelings without them pushing you around. 

7. Make a decision and then check it against your values – is this a move towards what you want your life to be about?

6. Observe the outcome and be prepared to make incremental adjustments. Again, work to see the world as it really is – rather than how your mind tells you it is.

This process draws on Roger Martin’s work on Integrative Thinking

I think he has developed a great model and adding in connection to values, defusion, perspective taking and acceptance make it that bit better!

Rob wrote a great post on the costs of making decisions without any connection to values.

Who runs your life?

In this brilliant TED talk, Daniel Kahneman talks about the tensions between our experiencing self and our remembering self.

Daniel Kahneman – The Riddle of Experience v Memory

He says that our memories of the past inform our expectations of the future and determine our decision making.

The problem is that our memories are inaccurate. We fail to notice so much of what is happening in the present moment. Our memory of whether we enjoyed something is overly influenced by how the last few minutes of the experience went (Kahneman explains that it is the last minute of a colonoscopy that determine how we view the experience – good to know!). Each time we tell the story of what happened (even just to ourselves) we unconsciously slightly change the story.

Daniel Kahneman suggests that this causes us a significant problem. Our remembering self forces our experiencing self  to do things that aren’t really in our best interests. We work to earn more and more money (even though, once we are comfortably off, it won’t make much difference to our happiness). We spend our money on long, expensive holidays (even though a longer  holiday doesn’t actually make us much happier than a shorter one). We avoid doing what matters (calling Grandma; expressing our view in a meeting; doing our exercises) because our memory of the last time we did it suggests it will make us feel bad.

So how do we manage this tension? How do we make wise decisions?

The research evidence is growing that a helpful approach is to:

  • Hold the stories our remembering self tells us lightly – sometimes they are useful and sometimes not so much.
  • Clarify our values (what we want our life to be about) and then use them to guide our decision making.

Listening to The Future You

When you have to make a difficult decision (Shall I eat another chocolate almond? Shall I buy the $15 wine or the $50? Should I apply for that job?) considering how you would view that decision in 10 years time leads to wiser decision-making.

Daniel Goldstein explains how to better connect to the future you in this TED talk.