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Work life balance – does it matter?
Work – work is hard, it’s no fun, a necessary evil. To be happy, you need balance, your life has to be better, so it evens out the hardship you must endure every day at work.
Really? Is that the work-life balance you want?
I’ve been saying for a long time that work should be fun, motivating, rewarding, meaningful. Fulfilling, purposeful, challenging. Yes, there will be times when the going gets tough, but if you love the purpose of your work, then you can deal with the hard times. But that’s a bit different to believing that work is hard, something you must endure to earn a living.
So is a good work-life balance the answer?
I’ve just finished reading Nine Lies about Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Lie #8 – work life balance matters most. I’m blown away by this. You might think they’re off their trolley saying this is a lie, of course work life balance matters. But what they say is that it’s more important to be in love with your work.
One of the most moving things I’ve ever read in a business or personal development book is the story they tell of Sergei Polunin. He was a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet who quit at the height of his fame because he was unhappy in his work. I found it particularly tragic that a dancer, surely an artistic form that you can only do if you love your art, had to quit because he was unhappy in his work.
You might know this story, it was big news when it happened in 2012. (I didn’t, I don’t follow ballet.) Buckingham and Goodall then tell us how he fell back in love with his art, which was also big news, there’s been a documentary. It started with a performance on You Tube, and you can see this here. It’s worth watching, even if you’re not a ballet fan. Buckingham and Goodall say...
‘…you’ll recognise it not only as the work of a man at the end of his tether, but also as a pure expression of technical craft and unabashed joy. You see here a man who is taking his loves seriously, interlacing them with craft and discipline, and contributing to us something passionate, rare and pure.’
They talk about red threads, what are the threads in your work that you love? Identify them, and then weave more of them into your work. Fall in love with what you do, and spend more time doing those things at work.
If you’re in full time work, then that’s 35, 40 hours a week – more, if you’re in a stressful job where you’re being taken advantage of - you’re devoting to your employer. Do you want to spend that time resenting what you’re being asked to do? Or do you want to bring your best self, do what you love, bring your contribution to the world? If you’re in a difficult situation, then I get that it’s not a simple fix. A difficult boss or colleagues can be challenging. But if you can find joy in what you’re doing, you’ll feel better about the worst parts of the deal. You'll also be stronger and more able to deal with them.
If you want to know where to start, I’m going to take a leaf out of the book again. Buckingham and Goodall suggest keeping a note for a week of what tasks you love, and what tasks you loathe, as you do them over the course of the week. No need to worry where there's no strong feelings, just the extremes. At the end of a work week, you will have a list of your red threads. There’s no need for all of your threads at work to be red; research found that if they make up 20% or more of what you do, then you are in love with your work. I'm surprised it's such a small proportion, but that gives hope. If you have other issues, such as difficult working relationships, then at least you know you have a solid foundation on which to build.
If you’ve read some of my other articles, you’ll know that I’m a big advocate of starting small with making a change. Does this activity sound like something you could do? If it does, I’ve made it a little easier by preparing a simple checklist you can download and use for the process.
You can also see my review of Nine Lies about Work here. I’d love to know what you think of it.
Get your checklist now and find your red threads
Buckingham, Marcus and Goodall, Ashley, 2019 Nine Lies about Work, Harvard Business Review Press Boston, Massachusetts
Is motivation at work a problem for you? What’s the difference between motivation, willpower and self discipline? How can they help you to feel happier at work? Why can't you motivate yourself at work any more?
Bear with me while I go in to a little depth on the differences and whether you can develop these characteristics. I’ll then explain how they can help you at work.
For years I thought I struggled with motivation. Or lack of willpower. Turns out it's not motivation or willpower that cause the problems, it's poor self discipline. Once I realised the difference, I started working on developing better self discipline to good effect. So what are the differences? Let’s start with some dictionary definitions
Cause a person to act in a particular way, stimulate the interest of a person in an activity
Motivation can be
Control exercised by deliberate purpose over impulse; self control
The act of or ability to apply oneself, control one’s feelings etc; self control
And a bonus definition…
The power of controlling one’s external reactions, emotions etc
They don’t sound all that different – motivation sounds like things that make us act, so a pull towards, if you like. Willpower or self control sound a bit like the opposite, we have to resist temptation, not do something that’s bad for us.. And self discipline? Both, by the sound of things, the discipline to do something we should, or not do something we shouldn’t.
You can see there are two types of motivation
Extrinsic, like getting paid for your work, not getting in the bosses bad books, meeting the customer’s needs so that they don’t get angry. Or so that they are happy with us, we’re motivated by the approval.
Intrinsic – it comes from within ourselves, we’re able to get on with something that we really want to, just because we want to. This is where I used to fail. I’d want to lose weight, but instead of going to the gym I’d eat cake.
One of my favourite quotes ever is Zig Ziglar on motivation. He said people often complained that motivation doesn’t last, and his reply? Neither does bathing, that’s why we do it every day. I used to wonder what I had to do to motivate myself every day, because as much as I love the quote, it doesn’t really tell me the answer. I wrote more on how much this annoyed me here.
So I read that willpower doesn’t work. We run out of it, it’s a finite resource. A bit like energy, if you use it all up one day, you have to rest and recharge to build up your supplies again. What this means is that if you start your day stressed getting the kids out of the house for school, college or whatever, and making sure they have a decent breakfast before they go, and have got all the kit they need for the day, and having a healthy breakfast yourself, then battling with traffic or the public transport commute, the bus is late again, you have to stand on the way in, and then you’ve got to be nice to your boss and your incompetent colleagues, and not lose your temper with a dissatisfied client, you run out of willpower to make a start on that massive report that you know you should be working on, but it’s ok because it’s not due for a couple of weeks yet. The best thing I’ve read on willpower is actually called ‘Willpower doesn’t work’, written by Benjamin Hardy. You can find my review of this book on You Tube. Spoiler alert – it’s worth a read.
So if will power doesn’t work, is self discipline the answer? I mean, it’s not that different by the sound of things, both require self control. Well, yes and no. It is, but the trick is to develop it. It’s not something you either have or don’t have. It’s like a muscle. Exercise it, build up its strength and it will get stronger. And much like exercise, the way to do this is through a regular habit. Start small – you can’t go into a gym and lift 85kg the first time you go in, if you’ve never lifted weights before. Especially if you’re an unfit overweight middle aged woman like me. Hell, I couldn’t pick up the 20kg kettlebell this time last year. I mean, literally couldn’t lift it from the floor. But I did in fact lift 85kg a couple of months ago, after a programme that built up from what I could do, and now I regularly lift 60-65kg. And look at that, I now have the self discipline required for a regular exercise habit. Pretty amazing considering all my life I’ve struggled with this and never made exercise a regular part of my life.
What's the answer?
And so it is with any habit. Start small. Use tricks to make sure you’re reminded to do what you said you’d do. Make sure your environment supports your new habit, make it easy to do.
And that, there is the answer. You have to practice self discipline, and develop yourself so that you are better at it. How? Are you screaming at me now? Tell me how! I will come to that. But first, you want to know how they can help you be happier at work.
How to be happier at work
Do you often complain about having to go in to work? Do you complain about your boss, your incompetent colleagues who leave everything to you? Do you feel miserable at the prospect of another work week? I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re doing this to yourself. These feelings and responses are bad habits. If you want to feel happier at work, you have got to put some effort into changing your approach. Look back at that definition of self control – controlling one’s external reactions and emotions. Daniel Goleman found that people who have good emotional intelligence do better at work, and part of this is managing one’s own emotions.
There’s loads of recent findings that suggest that happiness comes before success, and let’s face it, mostly we only want to be successful because we want to be happy. So it makes sense to work on being happy. Aristotle is often quoted as saying that ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit’. (He apparently didn’t, but that doesn’t make the observation less true.) We are what we repeatedly do. If we repeatedly complain, we’re a complainer. If we are repeatedly cheerful and enthusiastic…. well, you can work that out. Being happy, cheerful, optimistic, enthusiastic, motivated… these are all habits we can develop. This is good news! You’re not doomed to this miserable job for the rest of your working life! You can turn it into something you love. You can move on when you’re ready, for the right opportunity, rather than jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
My favourite mantra at the moment is start small. But I also think it is worth thinking about what will make the biggest difference. In Atomic Habits, Clear talks about habits that have a ripple effect. In the Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg talks about keystone habits. For me, exercise was a keystone habit, exercising has a knock on effect of helping me to eat more healthily too. What you need to do is work out what you could do that would be simple to implement, but would have a similar ripple effect.
Two things that worked really well for me were
Stickk.com is a website where you make your commitment; I committed to exercise three times a week for eight weeks. If I failed on my commitment in any week, I would be fined. I got people to referee and support me, so people checking up that I was following through. Although in fact, it was more the matter of pride that ensured I followed through.
Focusmate.com is a website where you sign up for a 50 minute work session, and it pairs you up with a random person on the internet who wants to do the same thing. At the beginning of the session, you tell each other what you’re working on, and at the end you say how you’ve done. Throughout, you have your computer’s camera and microphone on, so they can see if you’re still sat there working, or hear if you have YouTube videos going. I’m sitting here now with Jasmin, who is working on transcribing interviews for her Masters degree while I finish this article. But the bit that really works for me on this is if I book for a session at 9am the next morning, I have to be at my desk at 9am because someone is depending on me to be there when I said I would. It is also easier to focus on one task for a 50 minute sprint, and not get distracted by Facebook.
So I wholeheartedly recommend starting small, and trying one of these web tools. If you want to understand the process behind how our brains work and how to change your habits, read Willpower doesn’t work, and also read Atomic Habits by James Clear, they give so much useful – and scientifically backed – advice on how to stop habits you don’t want, and start the ones you do.
Still don’t know where to start? Don’t worry, it can seem overwhelming at first. If you want some help with this, sign up for my free webinar on 6th June, where I’ll walk you through a review of what’s going on for you, and what you’d like to change. I’ll have resources and worksheets available to guide you, step by step, and help you identify what might be a keystone habit for you at work.
Clear, James, 2018. Atomic Habits. Random House Business Books, London
Charles Duhigg, 2012.The Power of Habit. Random House Group, London
Hardy, Benjamin, 2018. Willpower Doesn't Work. Piatkus, London
Birthdays - a time for reflection. Last year, I was horrified about being 60, it seemed so grown up. In my head, I’m still a teenager. I laugh at fart jokes and swear words, (swear words are funny, ok?) my husband’s dad jokes on Facebook, daft things with my kids and five year old grandson. I still love rock music, including some new (ish) stuff, although I’m hopelessly out of touch with what’s new. I will get up and dance round my handbag at a family do. Yes, I know teenagers don’t do that any more, but that’s what I did, so it counts.
The last few years my birthday has been overshadowed because it is also the date we lost my much loved mother in law. I’m thinking today too about my own mom, who passed away at the age of 60. So I’m relieved to have made it to 61.
Counting my blessings
In the last year I’ve taken up weight training, photography and improvisational comedy. I’ve lost three stones – more than 40 lbs - and can now walk further than the length of my local High St without needing to lie down for a rest.
I’m enjoying working on developing a business, and I think, after all these years, I’ve cured myself of procrastination
I have a wonderful family who I love so much; a husband who loves me and has supported me for 40 years of marriage. A grown up son who’s worked hard to gain his engineering qualifications and I’m immensely proud of. A daughter and son in law, who are lovely parents to two beautiful children, my five year old grandson and his new baby sister.
I’m blessed with lovely extended family and supportive friends. Sisters, brothers, their families, the in laws, with all their aunts, uncles, cousins, first cousins once removed, second cousins…. There are hundreds of them. And we get to see and spend time with a fair few. Not often, but when we do, it’s usually joyous. Friends, old and new, people I worked with years ago, people I’ve met more recently, people who support other solopreneurs and entrepreneurs.
So this year, instead of cursing about my age, I’ve decided to be grateful I’m still here, getting older, loving life. I’ve been talking about gratitude as a great way to improve your mood and positivity for a while now. But something about today just made me properly feel it.
62nd year, bring it on
And then, the universe came knocking
It’s usually my husband who goes in for meaningful reflective posts on Facebook, but today it just seemed right, so I posted something similar to this in my timeline. I was in a great mood, fully happy with life. And then, just when I didn’t need a reminder of how life is short, the universe sent me one anyway.
I’d just got home from a walk, sat down with a cup of fruit tea while deciding what tasks to do next, when there was a knock at the door. A neighbour stood there. He’s lived across the road from me for almost the whole time we’ve been in this house, more than thirty years. His daughter is the same age as my son, we used to walk to school together with her and her mom. He said his wife died on Monday. She was 56 years of age.
They’d had so much to look forward to. Two years earlier, they had sold their house and were planning to move to a village in the countryside. It all fell apart when she collapsed suddenly one night and suffered brain damage. For the past two years, she had needed full time care, unable to speak, eat, walk or do anything for herself. And now she’s gone. Her daughter’s baby girl will never know her nanna growing up. There will be no mother of the bride at the wedding later this year. My neighbour has lost the happy retirement in the countryside they had both planned.
We weren’t close friends – we’d not really spent much time together since those walks to school, somehow our friendship didn’t develop into a close one and we drifted in different directions when there was no reason to spend time together. So in one respect, it won’t leave a hole in my life. But my word, what a shock. Even though I knew her quality of life wasn’t there, even though her husband recognised that, I can’t help but feel for him and his family. Such a personal tragedy.
And I know these things happen all the time, there are countless personal tragedies happening daily. I lost my parents many years ago. We all know people who’ve lost people, fathers to cancer, mothers to strokes, partners to pneumonia, even people who have lost children. But there was something about the way I was feeling yesterday, remembering my mom perhaps, and feeling relieved that I’m still here even though she’d died aged 60, this news hit me like a cold shower. It was the starkest of stark reminders that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, we need to be grateful for the good things we have in life, and don’t waste it on stuff that doesn’t matter. And definitely, don’t live for retirement. You can’t guarantee that you’ll have one.
It was also a reminder of how much I do have to be thankful for. I probably love my life now more than I ever have. I’ve counted my blessings above, so I won’t go over them again. But I will say one more thing; if there are things in your life you wish were different, don’t waste any more time wishing, take action. Do something. And I’ve said many times before, I know how hard that is, those habits are so ingrained; sometimes we even know we’re doing something from habit, but still carry on despite knowing it’s hurting us.
Start even smaller by leaving me a comment below, tell me what you’re grateful for today.
BUPA’s point with the article seems to be to encourage older employees to feel more confident in recognising symptoms and seeking help. Which is all very admirable.
For me though, as one of those older people (ok, not an employee any longer, but definitely in that age group) the article raises more questions than it answers. Those symptoms – are they an indication that professional help is needed? Continuous low mood – if you’re not happy at work, then yes, you may have a continuous low mood. Is that an indication of a mental health issue, or is it a question of an individual’s mindset?
There’s a line between what is a mental health issue that needs professional support and someone who is unhappy because they have a fixed mindset and, to quote Carol Dweck, think the world needs to change, not them. Or, as Jen Sincero  says, people with bad habits and limiting beliefs, head towards the big snooze – a life of mediocrity. It’s too easy to sleepwalk through life, meeting obligations , family commitments, having to earn a living, and then find that you’re stuck in some boring job that doesn’t inspire you or seem meaningful. That doesn’t translate necessarily into a mental health issue that needs professional help. There are things you can do, take action yourself, make a change. I know, because I’ve done it.
Apparently, many say that mental health simply ‘doesn’t affect me’. Is this because, as a comment on the article suggests, that older employees won’t speak up because they are afraid that if they do, their job is at risk? (Quite possibly.) Or is it because baby boomers are used to just getting on with things, even if they don’t feel like it? I’d say this is a definite characteristic of us baby boomers. Amongst the women, there’s a sense of obligation to our family commitments that mean we struggle on. Many men of this age still feel it is somehow weak to seek help for mental health issues.
And that 54 days before seeking help – so less than two months. You might legitimately feel that things will get better of their own accord without needing help; although, I realise I can’t argue this without proving BUPA’s point! But I’d still say; is less than two months suffering a continuous low mood an inordinately long time to wait before seeking help? Maybe younger people are too quick to say they have a problem that they can’t solve themselves?
One statistic in their findings I do find shocking is that two thirds of people in this age group suffer symptoms like anxiousness, (is anxiousness the same as anxiety? I’d have said anxiety, but the study said anxiousness. Maybe there’s some semantic difference I’m not aware of) continuous low mood, feelings of hopelessness and insomnia. Even if BUPA are overstating the extent of the problem, this is a terrible indictment of the quality of life for working baby boomers. I’ve long believed that work should be meaningful, enjoyable and rewarding. Surely us over 50s have earned the right to be doing something we love with our time, something we find useful and that we look forward to doing? Surely we should not be feeling hopeless, anxious or continuously in a low mood?
What is often not said is that it is work that makes us feel this way. Our lifelong feeling of not being valued in jobs that don’t feel meaningful leads to low self esteem and has a knock on effect on the rest of our lives. We don’t have interesting personal lives, we’re too tired once we get back from work to take part in social activities or hobbies, our family relationships may be suffering, and our health, fitness and diet aren’t ideal, making the tiredness worse.
I don’t want to suggest that you shouldn’t seek professional help if you need it, and if your company is enlightened and supportive enough to offer this, that’s awesome, use it. Or use the NHS. I'm not medically trained in any way, but my own past experience of support from the NHS for mental health issues hasn't really addressed issues of low self esteem and confidence. This has taken a lot of personal effort in self development and informal support instead.
So if it’s that you’re just unhappy at work, take action. Take control, and take back your power. There are some simple things you can do to be happier, and you can start today with these seven things.
Are you stuck in a job you don’t like, and you’d really like to make some changes, but somehow you never seem to get around to doing anything about it other than complain? I just want to say, it’s not your fault. It’s really hard to make that change, and sometimes we don’t even know where to start. To compound the problem, our brains conspire to keep us where we are. This post I wrote some time ago tells you more about how it does this.
I told you in the last post how I’d finally got the diet and exercise habit. What I didn’t say was that this was after more than forty years of failing to adopt healthy diet and fitness habits on a sustainable basis. So yay for me! And that got me thinking about transferring the lessons learned into other areas, and I showed you how you could start small to make some changes in your work situation.
I realised that the reason I’ve now adopted the new habits is because there are consequences to not sticking with it. At first, the consequence was that I’d have to pay a fine and show on a public website that I’d not achieved my goal. But now, several months later, the consequences of not getting in my activity for the day mean that I don’t get to eat so much. To continue losing weight, I must maintain a calorie deficit. If I’m active, I get more calories to eat and can still maintain a deficit on the day. If I don’t maintain a deficit, I won’t continue losing weight, and I now know that the progress motivates me. I don’t like to see a weight gain. I’ve associated the behaviour with the consequences.
There are other things I’d like to achieve though, and I realised that the consequences are not sufficiently associated with the results, so I need to find a way to link them – to ingrain the new habit to work towards other goals.
Which brings me to urgency. I’ve also always been a last minute kind of woman. As a mature student, I was often up until 3.30 am to finish an assignment. Once, I handed something in at one minute to the deadline, and my dissertation involved two consecutive all nighters in order to get it in on time. I did well to do two consecutive all nighters – that involved me planning ahead and doing some work two days before it was due in.
Now that I work alone, I have to create my own urgency, I have no tutor or manager expecting work to be done to a specific time, so you might have noticed that I don’t post an article every week. At the moment, I don’t have readers who expect a weekly post, so there are no immediate or obvious consequences if I miss a week. So if I say here, publicly, that I will post once a week for the next eight weeks, I will need to follow through. (There, I’ve said it.)
You may be in a job you don’t like, you may come home and complain to your family or friends about how awful it is, and you may even look at the job ads online to see if there’s anything else out there. But you’re not really taking action, you feel stuck in your current situation. There’s no urgency to make the change. You need the income your job provides, you’re tired out when you get back with domestic responsibilities, you don’t have time to fill out job applications online. The consequences, remaining fed up, dreading Sunday evenings and Monday mornings – well, that’s how it is, you’ll just continue to whinge about it.
Urgency can be a double edged sword. You may eventually get to the point where you’re desperate, things are so bad that you’ll start to take action. But then your options may be limited, and you could end up in just as bad a position or worse. Like Brenda (not her real name) who left a public sector job because she wasn’t happy there, and took a job with a charity working for a cause she believed in. However, she soon found that the organisation had a toxic work environment. Her new manager was someone who had been promoted but wasn’t capable of her new job, there were no support structures in place to provide the training and coaching that the manager needed, a colleague was being bullied, bitching and gossip were rife. Speaking up got her nowhere.
You don’t want to act out of real urgency and not be able to take a considered action. So how can you create some urgency for yourself - enough to motivate you to take consistent action and start a new habit but not so much that you have to act at all costs?
As I’ve already said, I’m finding the public accountability very helpful, combined with making a commitment to myself. Owain Service and Rory Gallagher in their book, Think Small, support the idea that making yourself publicly accountable is one of the foundations of creating good habits successfully.
And then we come to procrastination. The result of consequences not having a direct link in your mind to your current behaviour, and of not having urgency to act, is procrastination. You know you want to do something – most likely look for another job – but you put it off. There are reasons we do this – it can be too hard to take the action we want to take, it can take up too much time, we don’t give it priority over more immediate things. This article in the New York Times puts a different light on it, and it makes perfect sense to me. It’s not a time management problem, it’s an emotional problem. We don’t procrastinate because we’re lazy or because we don’t have time management skills. It’s a response to a negative mood – the urgency of managing that negative mood takes priority over the longer term consequences. It may just be that the task itself is unpleasant, but it may also relate to deeper feelings of self doubt, low self esteem, anxiety or insecurity.
The article gives some useful tips on dealing with procrastination. I’d like to add one more. Start small. Think about your habits, and what you’d like to do differently in your working life. You may think that finding a new job is what you want – and you may be right in the long term that’s the right course of action – but starting small means exactly that. What else could you do? The last post had a few suggestions. Here’s a few more – they are massive goals, but small actions to make a start.
Be more confident at work
Repeat affirmations to yourself every morning
Be more motivated
Pick a task that you must do daily or weekly at work, where you usually struggle to get it done. Set yourself a target – must have it done by 11.30 am every day, or by Tuesday lunchtime each week, whatever is appropriate for the task. Make a pledge in stickk.com and ask a friend at work to be your referee
Be more creative
Walk to work, or during your lunchbreak. Exercise has so many more benefits than just for your body. The time walking gives your mind the opportunity to wander, enhancing your creativity. Start with three times a week, or even once a week if you’re not active. Walk for 20 – 30 minutes.
Be nicer at work
Smile at people. Set a target – I must smile at five people today You’ll probably find you’ll soon smile at more than five.
Learn a new skill
Block out the time to devote to it. You can’t learn a new skill without practice. So either go to a class, or ensure you block out the time – at work if appropriate, at home if it’s not.
Improve working relationships
Resolve to ask one person each day how they are. And really listen to the response – give them your time and attention. Or even resolve to do this once a week to begin with
Be more organised
Pick one task and work on that. As for motivation, set a target, make a pledge in stickk.com
As well as on stickk.com, make your pledge here in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to support your efforts. Look forward to seeing how you get on.
A journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step. Those ancient sayings always sound so wise don’t they? And when it’s a literal journey, like walking the Camino de Santiago or the Great Wall of China, it’s easy enough to work out what the first step is.
But what if it’s not a literal journey? What if you’re using it as an analogy – the ‘j’ word as they call it on Strictly Come Dancing, or the journey of X Factor contestants? Maybe even then first step isn’t so difficult to work out – accept when the BBC ask you onto Strictly, turn up for the X Factor audition. Sometimes though, the first step isn’t so obvious. Or you find you take a step, but it doesn’t take you in the right direction. You take the first step, but then give up before you reach your goal. (Been there, done that, got the t-shirt – so many times.)
Last year, I started my weight loss journey. Yes, this is one of those things I’ve tried so many times and given up because it got too difficult. This time it’s different. Yes, really. What’s different about it is that I have learned how to overcome setbacks. I’ve learned to keep going, even when the going gets tough, and get back on the diet and exercise horse after Christmas, birthday meals out, felt a bit down so I ate all the food….
I might also be seeing how many cliches I can shoe horn into this post!
Stay with me on this – it might not be obvious how this helps you at work, but I’ll get to it. First, I’d like to share with you what makes the difference this time. My first step was to commit to exercise three times a week for eight weeks. I made this a public pledge on stickk.com. I was doing no exercise at all. I wore a fitbit, and I was averaging 3000 – 4500 steps a day, and doing no other type of exercise. So I didn’t prescribe what type of exercise it had to be – going to the gym for a class, or just a gym session, or even going for a 20 minute walk. All counted, I just had to do three in a week.
Five things made the difference for me
Let’s look at each of these in a little more details
Making a public commitment
Owain Service and Rory Gallagher in their book, Think Small, say that making yourself publicly accountable is one of the foundations of creating good habits successfully. Stickk.com is a great place to do this. You can make a pledge of any kind, and get someone to check up on you. As an added incentive, you can pledge that you will pay a fine if you don’t succeed – a donation to a cause you don’t support, direct to your referee, or to stickk.com itself. I couldn’t even bring myself to pledge a donation to the Conservative Party as an incentive to stick to my pledge, so I went for paying the website. In the event, however, I achieved three sessions for the full eight weeks. But if you feel you need the extra discipline of the threat of your hard earned money going to someone you detest, the option is there!
Making the commitment to myself
The discipline of the pledge helped me without a doubt, but I’d also been reading a lot of things where a commitment to oneself kept coming up. This resonated strongly with me, and I decided I was going to do this, exercise more, for me. It became really important for me to follow through, whereas before, without being very specific, I frequently let myself down.
I didn’t set out to stick to a restrictive diet, do one hour classes three times a week, walk 10,000 steps a day or any other goal that would have been too much. If I did a 20 minute walk, I counted that. Sometimes I did 30, but I was happy if I’d done 20. Or I did a 30 minute class. (Signing up for a class was another way I ensured I was committed. Very useful in the early days.) Three a week was do-able. Five, was more than a challenge, it would have been too hard.
Building on success
Achieving my exercise target gave me such a lift. Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit talks about a cornerstone habit. I always felt that regular exercise would be a cornerstone habit for me. It encourages me to eat more healthy food, and less junk. About four weeks in, I decided to start a low carb plan, and log food in My Fitness Pal. But the cornerstone habit is a bit more significant than that. Just realising that I could succeed in an area of my life I’d always struggled with made me more motivated in other areas. I developed self discipline. Turned down food I wanted really. Left for the gym for early classes, leaving home at 5.40 or 6 am. Went for a walk when it was pouring with rain and I didn’t want to.
I also discovered that My Fitness Pal gives you more calories if you’re more active, so exercise got me more food! In just over nine months, I have lost 3 stone (42 lbs, or 19 kg)
I found that I became more self disciplined with my work projects too. Bonus. And demonstrates the power of the cornerstone habit.
In The 12 week year, Brian P Moran and Michael Lennington, set out a process for measuring your progress. They talk about lead indicators and lag indicators. Lag indicators are the ones we usually focus on with weight loss for example. Have we lost weight on the scales this week? How much? Lead indicators though, help to tell as you’re going along how likely are you to achieve the lag targets. If you need to stick to a plan of 1200 calories to lose 1lb a week (and My Fitness Pal or a Fitbit will work these things out for you) what you need to measure is whether you adhered to the plan.
Moran and Lennington say that 85% implementation rate will usually result in success with the lag indicators. Not a precise science for everything of course, but at least you have measurements to monitor right? You can adjust, if you are monitoring on a weekly basis.
So what’s all this got to do with being happy at work?
These five success factors can all be transferred to any goal you have in life. If you’re not happy at work and you know you need to make a change, where do you start? What’s your first step? Starting small can have a profound effect, so I suggest you start small.
There are seven things you can do today that will help you to be happier at work. They are all simple (though not necessarily easy) and some are very simple indeed.
You can get a download here with more about these seven things.
Make your commitment here. Start small, pick one. Tell me in the comments which one, and how often you will do it. Or choose your own, it's your commitment. I'll just help you follow through.
In her book ‘How to have a great day at work’ Caroline Webb suggests that a technique of improvisational comedy is a good way to give brain friendly feedback. ‘Yes, and….’ instead of ‘Yes, but…’ fosters collaboration and helps bring out the best in others.
Ever since I read this, I’ve been intrigued to learn more about improv. Facebook must have known this, because they kept telling me about a local course, starting soon. I signed up.
I mean, I love my books but some things you can’t learn from a book, you’ve got to get out in the real world, meet real new people and do new things. I thought this would be fun. A little bit out of my comfort zone – I once did a short stand up comedy course, ending with a showcase performance. That was a bit scary, but I rehearsed and knew my routine. Improv – well, that’s a whole different ball game, but I thought it would be fun, so what the hell?
It is not what I expected. I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it. On our second meeting, we were asked to stare into someone’s eyes for two minutes and imagine their life. I knew next to nothing about these people. One guy (they are mostly guys, only one other woman, although the trainer is a young woman) the only thing I know about him is that he’d just been accepted onto a wimp to warrior MMA training programme. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds serious. Another guy, the only thing I knew about him is that he’s autistic and didn’t like the light in the room we were in. And the third guy, I know his name, but that’s about it. But then I eased into it a bit and started making stuff up. Which I think is what we were meant to do.
We also created a soundscape. For those of you who don’t know what that is – and again, I didn’t – it involves sitting in an outward facing circle, in the dark, with our eyes closed, making noises. Mostly copying other people’s noises, but occasionally dropping in a new one. Now, ask me to stand up in front of an audience to speak and I’m good to go. But you want me to sit in the dark, with my eyes closed, amongst strangers, and make funny noises? Seriously? Do I have to?
We also learned the ‘Yes, and…’ technique. Whatever someone said, you had to accept it and build on it. I got involved in drug smuggling in Colombia and found I had an alcohol problem on holiday in the Caribbean. I think there were drugs there too. (We’re new, not sure we had the right idea.)
You might be wondering why I’m telling you all this. Well, even though I’d started out with the knowledge that improv could foster collaboration at work and bring out the best in others I was nevertheless surprised at the life lessons in the first two classes. Here’s a few of the things I learned.
You don’t leave it to someone else, be proactive, participate and remember it’s always your turn. How useful is this at work? Ever work in one of those places (public sector is good at this) where people take the attitude ‘I’m not doing that, it’s not my job’? How much better would it be if everyone had everyone’s back, and just jumped in and did what’s necessary?
They may come out with something completely random or out of character – I mean, do you think I’d actually get involved in drug smuggling? But it’s been said, so work with it, and make the other person look good.
Imagine if everyone at your workplace used this principle, that they always had to make everyone else look good? There wouldn’t be problems of people taking credit for others’ ideas, because everyone would be focusing on making their managers, their team members and their colleagues look good. The level of collaboration would sky rocket, and so would productivity.
I discovered I have a problem letting things go. I’ve never considered myself a control freak. I’m usually the one suggesting other people let it go. Driving for example, and some idiot cuts in front, others get all worked up, honking and swearing at the other driver. I’m the one saying you’re only winding yourself up, let it go.
But when we start to take turns adding bits to a story, I was really frustrated if someone didn’t say what I thought they should. I did not like giving up the control to others or letting go of the outcome.
Autonomy at work is a key driver of motivation, so if you’re a manager finding it difficult to give up control, you’re stifling your team. Like me, you’re going to have to learn to let it go.
I found the exercises helped to develop empathy. Even though I was making it up, I felt empathy for the people whose eyes I sat staring into. And it also made me want to know more about them. It was good to develop some curiosity about someone else, especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t naturally consider things from someone else’s perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes at work would get rid of much conflict.
It was a difficult exercise to do, I totally get that this is a bit full on for work, and not everyone would be comfortable throwing themselves into this. But (ah damn, I said ‘but’!) if you can at least stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting, then working relationships will be smoother.
Are you a good listener? An active listener? Too often, we’re not fully listening to what someone else is saying, we’re waiting for our turn to speak.
Feeling heard is a powerful motivator. Disempowered people often feel that their concerns aren’t being heard, and at work this can lead to resentment, which in turn leads to low motivation, and then low productivity. Even just on a practical level, if you’re not listening to problems that others at work are experiencing, you’re also shutting off possible solutions
I’m not suggesting all workplaces introduce courses in improvisational comedy – though that could be fun – but it doesn’t hurt to borrow techniques that can improve your day at work.
What do you think? Is there a particular behaviour you could improve to make things better at work?
When Gallup created their poll into engagement at work, they added a question about whether you had a friend at work. Critics said it wasn't a useful question, but Gallup stood firm. Their poll consistently shows that having a friend at work is a good indicator of engaged employees.
In The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman said the keys to lasting workplace relationships are proximity, familiarity, similarity and self disclosure. And our old friend reciprocity pops up again. Friedman quotes from the research
If you want two people to connect … factual exchanges aren’t enough. What you need is for people to reveal intimate information about themselves in a reciprocal fashion. Having one person talk and the other listen won’t get the job done, it will leave one person feeling exposed. …both partners need to self disclose.
Friedman also states that the more frequently colleagues talked about non work matters, the closer they tended to be.
But obviously trying to force this doesn’t work. Self disclosure has to be done naturally and over time. Setting up ‘team building’ days where everyone is expected to share experiences can alienate some people. I well remember being forced to stand in a circle for group singing, which I hated. I also remember the mother of my daughter’s friend blurting out to my mother in law she’d just come back from the marriage guidance counseller – within minutes of meeting my mom in law! I mean, I hardly knew the woman, it was oversharing to tell me.
That’s why shared activities can be useful. The after work drinks might be one way to do this, but isn’t always practical for everyone, if they have domestic or other commitments to get to. So what about a shared lunch? Or a walk during the lunch break. A friend told me that at one place she used to work, someone would get a quiz book, and they’d spend 15 minutes or so answering quiz questions. It wasn’t a pre planned thing, someone would just bring the book out. But you could have an inter team quiz scheduled. Make a small charge for charity and you’re helping someone out, so a double win. Don’t make it an inter team event, but say that all teams must have a mix of members from other departments, and you’re spreading the love even further. Another example I heard of is a group yoga session after work. If you have a suitable space, you could all chip in and pay for a group teacher.
If you’re the manager and you can find a small budget for one or more of these activities, it’s a great way to foster team spirit and wellbeing for not much outlay.
Even if you’re not the manager, and there’s no budget, you can initiate something. Make it something you like to do, and you’ll be more motivated to organise it on a regular basis. Don’t force it – if it’s something you enjoy, hopefully there will be others who enjoy the same activity. If one doesn’t work, try something else. Take ideas from other places you’ve worked, what worked there? Join in if someone else organises something – the support you offer will also help you to develop the relationship.Leave a comment below – what’s worked for you to help you create friendships at work?
I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve seen managers who don't know how to manager, can’t motivate their staff. Maybe even worked for one. Hopefully haven’t been one, but sometimes, you know, that happens too - we can all learn to be better. Often, this is because of poor workplace culture – not always, there are cases of one off ineffective managers in good organisations, but in the main, the poor managers are a result of poor organisations in my opinion.
What if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself working in one of the places with some of these managers? How do you deal with that? Can you change the culture by yourself, or does the culture come from the top? As a comment in a previous post asked, ‘Is this really the responsibility of the individual if they are a lone voice? … Is it the responsibility of the management, organisation or team to change the culture?’
As I’ve argued before, if you are a lone voice with no power or authority within a toxic work environment, then no, realistically, you’re not going to make a significant difference. Does this mean you shouldn’t try? If you’re stuck with the job, even for the time being, surely you want to make some effort to improve things?
I recently re-read Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and one concept that was a bit of lightbulb moment for me was reading about circle of concern vs circle of influence. I realised I’d been getting all bent out of shape over things I couldn’t impact. Brexit, Donald Trump, austerity…my circles of concern. When it would be much more beneficial and impactful if I focussed on my circles of influence – where I could make a difference.
Let’s apply this to the toxic workplace. Can you change government policy and get them to make the right investment in your public sector service, so that it can properly serve the people it claims to serve? No. (Ok, my politics might be showing a bit here)
Can you change the strategic plan your managers and leaders are working towards? Mmm, maybe, a little, but unlikely. Depends what stage it’s at.
Can you change the targets your manager wants you to work towards? Again, maybe. Put together a good argument for why the targets are unrealistic, and a proposal for revised targets. If your manager has a little wiggle room, then you may be able to get them agreed. If the culture is very poor, maybe even that wouldn’t be successful. But give it a go – you won’t know unless you try.
Can you change your manager’s behaviour towards you? Not directly, you can’t make them change.
Can you change your behaviour towards your manager? Ah, there we have it. You can change your behaviour. You can change your response to your manager’s behaviour, and that in itself might result in a change of your manager’s behaviour.
Ditto your colleagues. You can’t make them change, but you can change your behaviour towards them, and their behaviour back might just change too.
Again, none of this is simple. If it was just as simple as deciding to change, and then doing it, we all would. But we’re creatures of habit, and changing habits is really hard. I mean, really, really hard. So let’s start with some simple things, and here’s an idea you can try out.
Give a cheerful greeting. Say a cheery good morning to everyone you meet as you arrive at work. If no-one does this at your workplace, people will be surprised at first. But persist. They’ll start to reply, and slowly it will alter the atmosphere slightly. When someone asks how are you (or that Brummie greeting of ‘alright?’, where you’re just meant to say ‘alright’ back) answer ‘Fantastic thanks!’ This is really fun to do, especially if your customary answer is ‘not too bad thanks’. People will want to know why you’re feeling fantastic, you’ll develop new connections with people you’ve not really spoken to before, and it will alter your own mood – it’s tricky to feel miserable or say ‘Fantastic!’ in a glum voice. Starting in these small ways will develop into a changed way you greet people generally, and you will make a difference.
The more you change your behaviour and responses to others, the more you will find your circle of influence grows.
Try this for a week, and let me know in the comments section how you get on. What difference has it made?
Want more tips like these? Download 7 things you can do to make work better today
World Mental Health day today then. It’s trending on Twitter under three different hashtags, several more on Instagram, Linked In has articles on it, people are posting memes on Facebook. I’ve also had emails on it, telling me what organisations are doing to raise awareness of mental health issues.
This is all very well, and I’m not saying it won’t help for people to be more aware and more sensitive to the issues surrounding mental illness.
But what really winds me up is organisations talking about what they’re doing to ‘raise awareness’, and what they’re not talking about is stress at work. How much is the workplace the cause of the mental health issues their people are experiencing? Are they working in poor conditions? Too much work leading to long hours? A culture that frowns upon anyone who leaves on time or doesn’t get in extra early? Having to take work home? A micromanager? A bully for a manager? Or management by absence?
I listened to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce podcast today, with interviewees from two large organisations in Birmingham talking about what they’re doing about mental health. Apart from a mention that work addiction is an addiction too, there was nothing about the role the workplace plays in causing mental health issues. There was a lot of talk about raising awareness.
Now these two businesses might be great places to work, but equally, they may be creating stress for their employees. If they’re not talking about it, chances are, nothing is being done about it. If their people have any of the issues I mentioned causing them stress at work, what are these organisations doing to address that problem? Are there genuine solutions available to them, and are they encouraged to take them up?
Birmingham Chamber also says that poor mental health and wellbeing is costing the West Midlands region more than £12 billion a year. The CIPD’s annual survey into health and wellbeing at work shows that stress is one of the top three causes of long term absences across all sectors, and the top cause of long term absence in the public and non-profit sectors. So it really doesn’t pay to ignore this issue.
One exception I did find on Twitter is Prof Sir Cary Cooper, speaking at the Mad World conference. He says that employers need to identify what could be damaging workers’ wellbeing, instead of looking for quick fixes like mindfulness at lunch. Prof Cooper is a professor of organisational psychology and health at MBS Manchester University, so has some authority to make these observations. Although it’s so obvious that if people are overworked for long periods of time, they’ll get stressed, and that will eventually result in sickness absence, I don’t understand why more employers don’t see this.
If you’re overworked and it’s having an effect on your mental health, I recommend you read How to do a great job and go home on time by Fergus O’Connell. It has some great strategies to deal with this problem. This book review tells you a little more about it.
You can also join my 30 day challenge to change how you feel about work.[WPMKTENGINECTA id=”20c659a041b84a93bf” align=”center” hastime=”false”]
O’Connell, Fergus 2005 How to do a great job and go home on time Pearson Education Limited, Harlow
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