What We’ve Learnt About Ourselves In 2020

What We’ve Learnt About Ourselves In 2020


Tony Crabbe is a business psychologist who focuses on how people think, feel and behave at work and now at home. Specifically, he takes psychological research and applies it to day-to-day problems. SLMan spoke to Tony about the unique issues of 2020, the best ways he’s found to overcome them and why attention is the key to better living.
Photography iStock/BrianAJackson

Let’s go back to the beginning of this year, Tony. Where were you at?
I was helping organisations understand the importance of human attention. For the last 15 years, productivity has been pretty stagnant, despite all the advances in technology. That bucks a trend of improving productivity that had gone back a couple of hundred years. Research shows the reason for that is a lack of quality attention: we’re distracted and overwhelmed, which makes it difficult to bring what’s amazing about human attention – the imagination, the creativity, the problem solving – to our work.

As individuals, though, we don’t get to leave that difficulty at the office…
That’s right. A lot of our behaviours and habits were designed for a different world, where you could finish work in a day and then go home. Technology means we now live in a much busier world, so the question is: how do we thrive in this new environment?

What I’ve found is that ‘busy’ isn’t inevitable. It’s a choice – not necessarily a conscious one, but a choice nevertheless. For example, research shows we actively compete to win conversations about who’s busier. There’s also an eminent psychologist who has put people in a room for 15 minutes with nothing to do other than give themselves electric shocks. Most of those people chose to give themselves a painful shock rather than be left with nothing do.

We’ve got hooked on a world of hyper-stimulation in which ‘busyness’ has become the easy option. Our habits around technology have driven us to a kind of endless multitasking. If we have a day at home, we find it easier to run around doing 101 tasks that don’t require very much from us than to sit down and give our child and their homework our undiluted attention – because that kind of immersive focus asks a lot more of us.

Should we blame ourselves for this predicament then?
Not entirely. Yes, it’s the fault of the tech giants for their prediction algorithms and, yes, it can be the fault of employers throwing too much at us, but in psychology there is also something called ‘learned helplessness’. This where we sense there's nothing we can do. It's my organisation! It's my boss! It's all the projects I've got going on! By telling ourselves we’ve got no option, we absolve ourselves of responsibility. When we do that, we reduce optimism, reduce resilience and make ourselves more vulnerable to stress.

That all makes sense, so why haven’t we learnt to look after ourselves better already?
I think we’ve all known we should be looking after ourselves a bit better for a long time, but we haven’t been compelled to do anything about it. To help people actually make changes, I want to show that there are life satisfaction benefits to not being busy that go way beyond just not being exhausted all the time – and that the key to unlocking them is attention.

Take knowledge and insight workers, for example. The quality of their output isn’t determined simply by the time they spend on the task. It depends on their ability to bring real concentration and imagination to the job in hand. It’s the same in our daily lives. Look back over the last month, I’ll bet every single time you experienced real joy was a time when your attention was sunk with reckless abandon into what you were doing. That’s the kind of happiness people often say is the main goal in life. and attention is fundamental to it. The opposite of busyness is not relaxing on a beach; it’s giving sustained, high-quality attention to the challenges in your life and to the people you care about. The issue today is how we can do that in spite of the information, distractions, expectations and demands that swirl around us.

That’s why a good starting point for dealing with work – whether you’re in the office or at home during lockdown – is to identify areas where you do have a choice and where you can make some decisions in favour of the goals that are really important to you. Those goals might be spending more time with loved ones or just recovering more. Whatever they are, small increases in our sense of control can have a huge impact on resilience and stress levels.

"We’ve got hooked on a world of hyper-stimulation in which ‘busyness’ has become the easy option. Our habits around technology have driven us to a kind of endless multitasking."

Is there a sense in which 2020 has given us a bit of a break from all that and could be considered a blessing in disguise?
There's quite a lot of research showing people are really appreciating the opportunities to work from home. Not having a commute, spending more time with family, even just working with pets around them – these are all things we’ve liked.

There’s also been a more profound benefit: we’ve had a chance to pause and reflect. In psychology, we talk about something called ‘psychological distance’. If you raise the height of a ceiling in an office, people think more strategically. Somehow there’s more space above them, they can lean back in their chair and see a problem from afar, which makes it easier to grapple with. This year has created a distance between ourselves and our situations, and this has helped us look at things afresh.

We’ve also been able to conduct a bit of A/B testing on our lives. This is something a lot of companies do: you send two versions of something out into the world to see which does better. Now as individuals we’re able to compare the way we lived before with the way we’ve lived this year to see which is better.

However, research also shows we’re not actually taking some of the new benefits on offer. Americans are working three hours more a day under lockdown; in the UK we’re doing two hours more. The work itself can also be more intense because we’re not getting the built-in breaks that come with commuting or having colleagues around. We’ve got our pedals to the floor more or less every second of the day.

So there have been challenges alongside the blessings. Fundamentally, I don’t know anybody who’s gone through this that hasn’t thought about the human stuff – the importance of connection. One of the joys of my job is talking to people around the world and I’ve noticed a sense of global unity. Managers in China, India, Germany are sharing similar personal experiences. In organisations, the intensity of the conversations around the human side of work has gone crazy. A lot of managers seem to have been reinvigorated in the original role of a manager – to be empathetic and help the people they work with. I hope that long after vaccines have worked their magic, the conversations will continue to go much deeper than the window dressing they often used to be.

Have any of the results of 2020 surprised you?
It’s no surprise people are pushing to work more flexibly, but the scale of the preference shift has surprised me. There are articles saying buyers don’t even want customer-facing sales meetings anymore – they can meet digitally. But then, now we actually have the technology to work flexibly, it just seems crazy we’re using it to stay ‘always on’ as opposed to making better life choices.

In psychology we distinguish between two fundamental types of motivation. People who are ‘achievement oriented’ focus on the stuff that makes the most impact. People who are ‘performance oriented’ look for recognition, so they focus on demonstrating their intellect or their commitment. Right now, even among people with very secure jobs in very secure organisations, there seems to be an anxiety that’s driving us to focus on what’s visible, rather than on outcomes.

"Before lockdown, we had rhythms to our lives. Unfortunately we’ve shown we’re not very good at building new rhythms that allow us to make the breaks between work and life – this is why we’re never sure if we're working from home or living at work."

What’s causing that anxiety?
There’s something called ‘virtual distancing’. In short, when people work remotely, trust levels drop because there is less human engagement – you can’t look someone in the eye. I recently spoke to a manager in Japan who was excited about going back into the office. Over there they have this concept of ‘reading the air’. If you’re not physically in a room with someone, you can’t pick up subtle nuances or unspoken things in the same way, so he’s spent a lot of this year worrying about not being able to read the air. We don’t express it in the same beautiful way, but the problem applies over here too. To compensate for the virtual distancing and loss of trust and security, employees are doubling down and doing even more stuff – which is probably why so many of us are exhausted at the moment.

Any tips for overcoming the exhaustion and breezing through the last few months of lockdown?
Yes. As people we have two types of underlying, not-quite-conscious goals: prevention goals, which are about preventing bad stuff happening; promotion goals, which are about pursuing things that matter to us. Right now, it’s easy to focus on what we’re missing, especially in the long, slow drag through January, February and March until the sun shines again and the vaccine hopefully starts to make a difference. That’s only natural: as humans we naturally gravitate towards the problems and dramas in our lives. To counter this tendency, actively identify positive goals.
That sounds obvious, but this actually isn’t just about what you want to achieve; it’s about the experience along the way. As well as thinking about achievements, identify the experiences you want to have in those months, the encounters, the ways you want to feel and actively pursue them. On the flipside, try to catch yourself when you’re wallowing in problems or things you might be missing and move the focus. That will also help you balance your promotion and prevention goals.
Secondly, do stuff differently. New year’s resolution or not, if you make a change and want to stick to it, contextualise it. For example, if you want to get fit, don’t just say you want to do more exercise. ‘Anchor’ your commitment to a time, a day and a location. We are all far, far more likely to do something and keep doing it if we embed it in the context of our existing habits – and then have someone hold us accountable for it!
That’s the best way to improve our proactive behaviour. If we want to change reactive behaviour – give up smoking, for example, or learn to say no to a boss who’s always asking you to do extra work – we have to identify the triggers and create strategies to overcome them. If you take the time to get super clear on what the triggers are and your responses to them, you will triple the likelihood of you changing your behaviour.

Last one, Tony, are there any changes we can make day to day to improve work-life balance right now?
Before lockdown, we had rhythms to our lives. Unfortunately we’ve shown we’re not very good at building new rhythms that allow us to make the breaks between work and life – this is why we’re never sure if we're working from home or living at work. One of the most mindless things we can do is just carry on working and working. Instead, if you can create some rhythms and boundaries, they are super valuable things. Plan your day, because we make better choices in advance than we do in the moment – the psychological term is ‘pre-committing’.

Finally, figure out what not to do. If you’re making lots of well-meaning decisions and the upshot is your days are too full, start asking yourself the question: if I’m saying yes to this, what am I saying no to? This will help you to counter the human tendency to agree to things. It will help you see the consequences of constantly saying yes to extra meetings and the like. If you now realise you’re missing out on the important things – like playing Lego with your son – create a To Don’t list. This week, what are the things you’re actively not going to do? Alongside that, think of the three big things you want to do this week. If you then go and make progress on them, you will feel your week has been wonderful.

Pre-order Busy @ Home: How To Thrive Through The Covid Crisis by Tony Crabbe here. For more about Tony, visit TonyCrabbe.com


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