For 99.9% of our evolutionary existence, humans would gather in small groups, forage and hunt for food, we were active in the day and slept when dark, our lives shaped by our environment.
Our ancestors moved a lot (over 15,000 steps per day according to Fitbit’s early records), and ate a wide variety of food.
In his book Origins; How the Earth Made Us, Lewis Dartnell shows how evolution and our environment are not separate events – our biology was shaped by nature.
Every cell in our bodies evolved in sequence with a daily rhythm, (primarily driven by exposure to light).
Yet fast forward to today and everything has changed.
Far from being tethered to nature, we now work in a way which is independent from these daily rhythms.
Where once we were connected to the earth and to each other, today we feel more connected but also more isolated.
For many of us, we hardly see daylight, we are largely sedentary (most of us now walking closer to 5,000 steps per day), and we work more or less constantly.
No surprise that work feels a daily grind…
Biologically and psychologically we evolved to work in a daily rhythm, and disrupting this rhythm leads to a kind of dysregulation, affecting everything from sleep to mental health.
This is another evolutionary mismatch.
Covid as the great accelerator
And Covid has accelerated these trends.
I first met Annette, a senior manager at one of the major airlines, in Spring of 2020.
She told me how when the Covid crisis took hold she and her team had moved into ‘emergency mode’, working round the clock to try and save the business, but
‘now it’s 16 months later and it feels like we’re still in the same pattern’.
From speaking to 1000s of people in many different industries last year, I know many can relate.
Many of us have been drawn into routines which we didn’t consciously design, and which have become unsustainable.
The issue is not whether we can carry on – most of us are good at soldiering on – but whether this is the best we can aim for. If you look at the statistics on mental health since Covid, I would argue not.
But what can we do about this, and where should we start?
Understanding high-performance routines
The first step is to build awareness that we are working in routines for which our brains and bodies were not evolved.
We are working out of sync with the rhythms that shaped our entire biology.
Arguably we don’t even notice the cost we’re paying, because it has become the water we swim in.
Yet by operating in a way which is divorced from our biology we create huge challenges to health and mental health.
There is hope, though.
Unlike hedgehogs, we can do more than just roll up into a ball.
In the next article I will explain what a high-performance routine looks like.
But in the meantime you can build awareness of your existing routine by trying this quiz, which will give you feedback as to whether you might benefit from strengthening your routine.
It is freely available to anyone, including hedgehogs (though admittedly you might need a mouse).
What will it take for you to define this year as a success?
Is it about what you achieved?
Is it about getting a promotion or an increase in salary?
Is it about whether you felt happy?
What if we expand to a larger scale? What would it take for you to define your life as successful? Would it be whether you became a CEO? Or made a million dollars? Or got married and raised some children?
It can be easy to focus on these external markers of success or failure and believe that this is the route to happiness. One problem with this is that the research suggests that we over estimate the impact of these events (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003). We think that if we get the good job and nice house, we will be happy, so we pursue those goals. But happiness actually seems to be much more about:
Psychological flexibility invites us to define success differently. It involves developing an internal yardstick for measuring success. Choosing your values and then intentionally putting those values into action based on the needs of the situation.
Using this yardstick, external achievements start to matter less. What matters more is: How much am I showing up as the person I want to be?
Dawson, D. L. & Golijani-Moghaddam, N. (2020) COVID-19: Psychological flexibility, coping, mental health, and wellbeing in the UK during the pandemic. Journal of contextual behavioral science. [Online] 17126–134.
A few years ago in the UK, a Panorama investigation uncovered systematic abuse of elderly care home residents who were being routinely pushed about, belittled and humiliated by their so-called carers.
Worse, when whistleblowers drew attention to the abuse it was they themselves who were disciplined by senior management. Empathy for the victims seemed in short supply as it took a TV investigation for action to be taken.
This is just one example in a long line of depressing stories about toxic leadership. From MPs to journalists, and leaders in organisations from Big Tech to oil, the modern era seems one where empathy, care and values in leadership can be in short supply.
Values and leadership
Theorists like Bruce Avolio have argued that we need a more authentic form of leadership, which connects leaders to what really matters to them. This acts as a kind of compass for leaders, which is especially useful in times of uncertainty (read; now).
Put simply, pursuing our values makes life psychologically harder, not easier. We tend to hurt where we care.
It is much easier to avoid this psychological discomfort – something that psychologists call experiential avoidance. However in the turning away from our discomfort, we often turn away from our values.
This is why experiential avoidance is perhaps the biggest driver of substandard leadership behaviour (as well as in clinical contexts, poorer mental health).
After all it’s far easier to avoid that awkward but important conversation than to have it.
how can we help our leaders live their values in practice?
Many of my organisational clients are introducing this training, not least because psychological flexibility is so practical, and especially effective with difficult situations involving ambiguity or uncertainty – what Todd Kashdan ‘calls the messiness of human life’.
Psychological flexibility is important in leadership for three reasons:
It helps people clarify and understand their values in practice, not just in theory.
It helps people stay more aware of the present moment, which means that they are more likely to notice opportunities to be empathetic and engaged with other people.
It gives leaders the skills to move towards their values and deal with the psychological cost of doing so. By building willingness to have difficult thoughts and emotions, it reduces the natural human tendency to avoid them.
Too many leadership training programmes focus on values and forget to train people in the skills that help them live their values.
Yet unless we do this, leaders will continue to run from the pain that empathy brings them.
Do you have some activities that you just avoid? You never quite get them done and you feel bad about not getting them done?
It could be cleaning out the kitchen cupboards; sorting out your email; exercising; updating your LinkedIn profile; cleaning your car…
We know we should do it, but we kind of don’t choose to do it.
And that would be okay, but if you are like me, your mind sometimes uses this lack of action as evidence that you are lazy, disorganised, neglectful…
I drive a 5 year old car. I almost never wash it. It is usually messy on the inside too. Hats, sunglasses, shoes (including, I am embarrassed to admit, a pair of red Crocs), sundry shopping bags and wrappers from chocolate bars are scattered around the seats and floor. Discarded bits and pieces that found their way into my car but never seem to find their way out.
Why is my car like this?
The logical reason is that having a clean, tidy car is low on my list of priorities. Now and again I write ‘Clean out car’ on my job list for the day, but other, more interesting (Write blog post) or more urgent (Invoicing) tasks crowd it out.
Even though I often have ‘good reasons’ for not cleaning out my car, when someone else sees how messy my car is, my ‘I am not good enough’ story pops up. I worry that they will see me as lazy and disorganised. (Which sometimes I am, but I don’t want other people to know that!)
I could use this concern to motivate me. I could clean my car to avoid the pain of other people’s judgment. In ACT terms this is an avoidance move. An avoidance move is where a behaviour (e.g. cleaning the car) is about avoiding painful internal stuff (e.g. fear of other’s judgement). There is a lot of research to tell us that a life that is organised around avoiding unwanted emotions isn’t healthy. It is clear that repeated avoidance doesn’t lead to a rich and meaningful life. So, perhaps, for me, having a messy car might just align with my values?
This is where is gets tricky. Just because cleaning my car could be an avoidance move, it doesn’t mean that ‘not cleaning my car’ is a move towards my values.
It depends what I do instead of cleaning out my car. If, instead of cleaning my car, I engage in activities that link to my values – writing a blog post; spending time with people I love; learning something new – then, over time, those choices will likely help me to build a rich and meaningful life.
But if, instead of cleaning out my car, I obsessively watch videos of Beyonce, trying to figure out if she and JayZ are happy or not. Then it is likely that I am caught in avoidance, which is usually a bad idea.
So what do we do, when we are in the grip of avoidance? The first step is to take a breath and notice. How are you feeling in this moment? When you pause, see if you can notice, with curiosity and kindness, the whole range of thoughts and feelings that show up. And then, pause some more and see if you can notice what thoughts or feelings you might be avoiding.
For me, as I pause my YouTube video, I could notice that I don’t want to feel:
Bored whilst I clean out my car, or,
Anxious whilst I write a blogpost ‘What if people think it is stupid?’, or,
Challenged and a bit stressed as I try to master a new piece of theory.
Could I make room for those thoughts and feelings? And, if I did make room for them, and chose what to do next based on what really matters to me, what would I do?
Sometimes, just now and again, that might even be to spend ten minutes cleaning out my car.
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.
I use the ACT matrix a lot in my workshops and with my coaching clients… and on myself! It is a tool that helps to build mindfulness, self-awareness and valued living. It is based on contextual behavioural science and is very easy to use.
I have made a video explaining how I use it:
You can download a pdf handout of the ACT Matrix here.
Kevin Polk (who is one of the people who developed the ACT matrix) has lots of free resources relating to the ACT matrix at his website.
So many people in ACT are attracted to its focus on values and connecting to what matters that it can be a surprise to learn of its roots in behaviour analysis. After all, isn’t that what they do with rats?
After attending an excellent talk on this subject by David Gillanders, I wanted to write a short series on how behaviour analysis might help in coaching.
In behaviour analysis, “A” refers to the antecedent, or the event or activity that immediately precedes a behavior. The “B” refers to the observed behavior, and “C” refers to the consequence, or the event that immediately follows a response.
Insight from Behaviour Analysis:
If an event (Antecedent) leads to a Behaviour whose immediate Consequence is less negative than alternatives, the chain is strengthened.
Clients who are really stuck.
Brief Example Completely Unrelated to Me:
OK so let’s imagine that someone feels anxious before going to a party. This someone always fears being judged and found wanting by those around me them.
To be clear, this never actually happens to me, but let’s go ahead and imagine anyway. And let’s get behavioural and call this the antecedent…
*Pause to high-five my bad inner behaviour analyst self*
This person then decides to stay in and watch Netflix instead (House of Cards since you ask). This is the behaviour.
The consequence is immediate feelings of relief – no more anxiety – and this therefore acts as a reinforcer of the behaviour, making the chain stronger.
Another example – Duncan – had been experiencing career paralysis for a few years. His work in finance brought acute feelings of meaninglessness. At the end of the week he consoled himself by going out and getting hammered. This was reinforcing because 1) he had a great time with his friends and 2) he forgot about his job.
Whilst there was plenty of good stuff going on (Duncan was popular) he was also anaesthetising himself from his feelings of meaninglessness. As the chain got stronger he also started to drink during the week, especially if he’d had a bad day.
In the short term this meant he could solider on whilst ‘living for the weekend’. But in the long term this pattern was reinforcing his stuckness, eroding his spirit, and draining his energy.
Helping to Unravel Clients who Feel Stuck
By viewing stuck patterns through the lens of behaviour analysis, clients can make more sense of their experience and see how avoidance behaviours provide immediate, short term reinforcement that easily become entrenched into habit.
Another client, Mia, has been stuck in her law career for over 5 years. She’s seen many coaches in her time with always the same pattern: initial hope and excitement, followed by lots of research and analysis, but then slowly tailing away. This she puts down to ‘laziness’.
In this case we see that antecedents, behaviours and consequences can take some teasing apart – but that it can be revealing to do so:
Mia feels like a ‘cog in a machine’ at work. Her feelings are most acute when she reads articles about people working for themselves and when she meets her friend Katherine who seems to have loads of autonomy as a freelance graphic designer.
Mia’s behavioural pattern then is to research alternative careers – from yoga teacher, to charity worker and in-house lawyer. This phase feels rich with possibility which is highly reinforcing.
However, as she then moves further into analysis mode, she begins to find problems with each option…. Yoga teacher? No proper pension. Charity sector? Badly paid and badly run. In-house lawyer? Same lack of autonomy.
Each option is analysed and rejected.
The consequence is that she begins to experience acute disappointment and loss of hope. This acts as another antecedent, which cues a period of plunging herself back into her work, trying to forget how miserable she feels.
Teasing out the antecedent from the behaviour (and exploring the consequences in each case) helps clients make sense of seemingly ingrained or embedded patterns of behaviour that are keeping them stuck.
This approach can also help coaches make more accurate case conceptualisations, and to track interventions more accurately from moment to moment.
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.