Keep on working over Christmas

It is absolutely vital you have enough time throughout the year to re-charge your batteries. Those in highly stressed jobs – I think for example of the health professional I work with – absolutely MUST take time between shifts to recuperate or the results to their health can be catastrophic. And even outside of those jobs, most of us find work to have its stresses for which the only real long term survival strategy is to have enough time away from it to recover. And this is why the received wisdom on wellbeing at work is to take breaks, have time to breathe during the day, don’t work in the evenings or weekends and when on holiday, completely switch off. And I think there is a lot to be commended in this advice. The research seems to show this sort of thing is a good idea and there are many academics doing really useful work in this area. So I surely can’t be serious to suggest you don’t actually take time away from work over Christmas?

Well, I kind of am. And here’s why:

Daley Thompson was undefeated in the Decathlon for nearly ten years. He was known for his somewhat anti-establishment personality, great sense of humour and intense competitiveness. He said that early in his career he noticed that none of his competitors trained on Christmas Day and some took several days off. Elite sport is about tiny margins so he decided he would take no days off whatever in the year which would give him a small marginal gain. And so if you continue to do some work over Christmas and you are in an organisation that closes for several days at Christmas, you can perhaps gain some advantage.

But there is also perhaps a better reason; practically nobody else in Western organisations is working over that period so no new stuff will come in. Of course if you work with people outside the West, things might be different. But in Europe, the USA, Australia, New Zealand amongst others there is a tradition of taking time off at the end of December. This can give you time to catch up, perhaps clear your inbox or maybe take time to read. Perhaps time to work through your to do list and do things you have been meaning to do. Or (as important) delete things you can now admit are not going to happen.

For many of us (and this is true for all holidays) there is a worry that you will have a massive stack of work to do when you return from holiday. So if you keep chipping away, you will be ready to ease back into work with less stress. The risk with keeping on top of emails is that something could come up that really annoys you that can spoil your time off. But the risk is quite low at Christmas because there should be few new emails arriving.


Many of the researchers who recommend taking time out don’t follow their own advice and work incredibly long hours. And why might that be? Well I think it’s because they don’t regard their research as being work. It is of course. But if you enjoy something, you think it’s important and that you are making a contribution to the world, you won’t necessarily want to switch off from it completely. And so if that is you, then my suggestion is to embrace it with a sense of balance.

However, if your work stresses you out, or doesn’t bring you satisfaction, or you don’t think is a useful contribution to the world, then by all means switch everything off as often and for as long as you can. And maybe, another blog will have suggestions about what you do in those circumstances.

Merry Christmas!

When you’re so worried about work…

Last week I was watching some video clips with my now 10 year old of him as a toddler. He was fascinated to see himself so small, acting silly and unable to talk properly. I was too. Until I realised the video was being filmed by my older son which meant I was in the background. And this was a supremely uncomfortable experience for me because I could just about make out what I was talking about. I was talking about the work challenges I was facing which were clearly vexing me at that time to the extent I wasn’t paying attention to my kids who were putting on quite a show for us. I was relating to a polite but incredibly bored group of relatives my current woes and who said what to whom and what I was going to have to do next week because of their nonsense.

I forced myself to listen to this and really focussed on trying to make out what I was saying. I was stressed out, anxious and presumably hoping that talking it through with my close family would help. Which is probably the right thing to do. And I could make out my face in the background of this poor quality video pinched with anxiety and tense. I look unhealthy and not at all well.

And here’s the thing. Even when I listened closely to what I was saying, I have absolutely no recollection of the events that had caused me to be so stressed.. My work world at the time that had made me ignore my kids, bore everyone around me and yet the events clearly resolved themselves in some way or other because there were obviously no long term consequences that I can recall. Apart to my health I guess and … well it wasn’t a happy experience to watch it.

And as I re-read the last paragraph, I noticed something else: “My work world at the time that had made me…”. This of course isn’t true. I had options. I could have worked out a way of resolving the issues or relieving the pressure. Work hadn’t made me do it. I had. Yes there were pressures because all jobs have them. It is how we respond to them that makes them manageable. Or not. Sometimes there will be insurmountable problems at work – the worst of these usually stem from your relationships with the people you interact with most frequently. And yet I can now see that when in the midst of these problems they will inevitably seem far worse than they really are. But my saying this won’t help them go away because writing this hasn’t stopped me from reacting less than perfectly to difficult work relationships.

Perhaps I should think about this example more often. What would an apparently overwhelmingly attacking set of circumstances look like in 6 months or a year or 5 years? It’s quite likely that even in a few days issues are resolved and forgotten. Somehow we have to find a way to have confidence that things will be all right and that you and your colleagues will work your way through whatever has been thrown at you. And if you don’t? Well, in that highly unlikely event you’ll then have to work out what to do. Think about it. When you look back, how many times have you been in situations that worried you and that you couldn’t see a way out? And how many times did it work out OK? I guarantee it is usually nowhere near as bad as you feared and most of the time, it all works out fine. So, when you get stressed, try to remember those times you managed to find a way through. And reassure yourself that this is another of those times.

Changing the world, one nudge at a time.

As a psychologist I know only too well how people are driven by a complex interwoven set of drives, preferences and biases. And anyone who has tried to manage people knows how resistant to change human beings are. The leader is driven to improve, change and create and finds it frustrating when others are not driven in the same way. Some even go so far as to say it’s impossible to change other people – you can only change yourself (and that’s hard enough!). It is definitely true that changing someone’s behaviour fundamentally is not going to happen as the result of one initiative, project or intervention. But it happens best when it is done incrementally. And this is perfectly in tune with the underlying psychological research.

So what is Nudge all about? At the heart of it is one of the most well understood notions in psychology – reinforcement. This is where behaviour is monitored in some way and the ‘correct’ behaviour reinforced through reward. The other side of the coin would be to ‘punish’ the wrong behaviour although this is far less effective than positive reinforcement. This might sound underhand or even immoral but the technique is well understood and can be used in every workplace imaginable.

What is reward?

the main thing is that reward is not necessarily financial. Everyone needs to be appreciated and we all need to be certain that we are doing the right thing. I worked for a boss who was really very nice to me and always positive. but I was never quite sure I was doing the right thing. Was I focussed on the right projects? Was my style right? Was I doing enough? When I had my annual review, he said in so many words that I was doing very well and then was specific about what he liked about what I was doing and why. This was amazingly useful and I left that meeting on a high. But it would of course been so much better if he’d managed to do this earlier! I see my role now is to reinforce when he gives me this sort of feedback. Here’s a form of words:

” Thanks for that Dave. It is sometimes hard to know in the daily pressures of work whether we are putting out efforts in the right place so I really appreciate your telling me this so I know I am on the right track.”

Another example could be when I might not be focussed on the right thing and he tells me this. So I might respond:

“Dave, this is of course a bit difficult to hear because I am clearly not quite focussed on the right things. But it is so useful to have this feedback so I know what I need to change. I will work on this and perhaps I can check back with you to make sure it is now going the way you want it?”

So. Reinforcement is the first step. More of this another day!

New Year resolutions – part 2

So  you have spent a bit of time writing down what went well over the past year. Most people find it hard to only focus on the positives so it is useful to try to make yourself think in this way. Of course being self-critical has its place and we get better at things by finding out what we are less good at and working on these things. At least that’s what most people think.

Recently I have been struck by a movement in occupational psychology that turns that received wisdom around. The thing is, we know that personality is pretty stable over time and also that it is really very hard to change our fundamental personality. And with good reason – it would be  pretty depressing idea to think we could change who we are. It is frustrating when we see ourselves struggling in the same areas all the time. And this is another reason why new year resolutions don’t work. We tend to make resolutions to be less about changing habits and more like wishes to be someone else. So the strengths approach says we should acknowledge that fundamentally we are unlikely to be able to change ourselves all that much. So whilst we should do what we can to allow for our weaknesses, we probably aren’t going to be able to change these into strengths. When I took a strengths based test (there are several good ones but in my view this is the best and some follow up coaching, it was obvious that an important blind spot was my calendar. I was for ever arranging to be in two places at once or forgetting to do something. I have worked on this and whilst I still have the potential to do this, I have taken steps to make it less likely. At the same time I could see the sorts of thing I would be good at so I put effort into developing my career into those areas. I have seen this with my coachees many times. When we stop fretting so much about the stuff you can’t do well, real progress is possible. Make allowances, do a bit of work but don’t obsess about them. Focus more of your effort on acknowledging the things you do really well. Find ways to use these skills. Craft your job in such a way that you can bring these strengths to bear. If you are in a role where your strengths are not currently being highlighted, think about what you could do so they can be.

As with all questions of self-development, the onus is on you to make the changes. I am not pretending this will be easy, but very well worth the effort.

So, this is the second of my three blogs about new year resolutions. And again there is homework. Thinking about your list of things that went well last year, now add a further list of things you are really good at. Things like being organised, attention to detail, influencing people. That sort of thing. Again, don’t think at all about the stuff you aren’t good at. We will get to that in the next blog!

New Year’s resolutions don’t work. But here’s what does… (1 of 3)

New years resolutions don’t work with study after study telling us what we all know: almost none of our resolutions will be fulfilled. But all is not lost –  there are things you can do so you can make real positive change to your life this coming year.

There is a value to this dark time of year when it is possible to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months and when we want to do for the next. However it is pretty clear that almost no New Year Resolutions actually succeed. As always there isn’t one simple reason for this. Although here is a pretty good one: you get carried away. You are partying, you are surrounded by people intent on having a good time, you maybe have a few drinks more than usual. This means you are in a very bad frame of mind to make a rational decision about anything still less what you are going to focus your energy on for the next year. The same result comes if you aren’t partying but sitting at home reflecting – even if you feel perfectly happy about the end of one year and beginning of a new on. This time of year can be joyful, exciting but also perhaps the darkness of the evenings in western Europe can be depressing (literally). So you are in the season of emotional swings and roundabouts.

On the other hand, 12 months is a pretty good length of time to make significant changes. It is long enough to do something that is lasting but not so long it doesn’t have to seem unmanageable. So I have a three step programme for you. Only three I hear you ask? Yes. That’s enough! I am basing my advice on firm the foundations that the Strengths approach gives us (more about this in this previous blog) . We tend to focus more easily on negative things rather than positive. There is sometimes value in this but what about flipping this so we take time to think about the things we have done well. Our achievements. A classic error is to only try to learn from mistakes. By all means do learn when things go badly, but what about trying to learn from when things went well? And this is the strengths approach.

So, the first for now. Do this when ever you decide you are ready to set out what you really want to do this year – it doesn’t have to be New Years Eve. This is particularly useful you are feeling a bit down about the challenges of the past year but also can be helpful if you are feeling optimistic. I want you to get a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle1. Across the top write these words:

“Achievements and good things from 2019”

and the left column put the header “work” and the right “personal”

Now I know that the natural thing is to put positive and negative things on one sheet. But we aren’t going to do this. We naturally dwell on negative more than positive so this stage of the exercise is to only list positive things. Seriously. Do it.

Nothing else for this step.

And no “but …”s or cynicism. Just the good things. Regardless of the year, I know that people can find some things that have been positive.

And I will shortly give you the second step.

And do let me know what you think…no resolutions

What to do over the holidays

As most of the western world winds down (up?) for Christmas, I guess the obvious holiday advice from a psychologist is to switch off completely and take a break. But actually that’s not quite what I am going to suggest because if I did, very few people would follow my advice. So rather than suggesting people do stuff they have no intention of doing, here is my advice for a great holiday.

  1. Finish off. Make sure you get all the really vital stuff done before you leave for the break. There is nothing quite so satisfying as leaving work and knowing you have done all that really needs to be done and now you can go home and relax. As in a previous blog, you won’t be able to finish absolutely everything but make sure you are happy with what is left over. The nagging doubt in the back of your mind if something important wasn’t quite finished will reduce the quality of your down time and you won’t relax. So take a really hard look at what you are working on, decide what MUST be done before you go home, and make absolutely sure it is done. Even if it isn’t quite as perfect as you might want. Just get it done.
  2. Say thank you. It is a good time to reflect on the year and what everyone has contributed. Take time to thank your team in person and be specific – what they have done really well and the challenges they have overcome. This is even more important for junior members of the team and your admin support.
  3. Work – holiday. Most advice is that working on holiday is a very bad idea. And it can be. But in my experience so many people do actually keep up with at least some work whilst knowing that this is not what they should be doing, there must be a reason for it. And I think there is a mix of fear and attachment. Fear that you might not actually be indispensable. Attachment because you invest a great deal into your work and want to make sure it is all going well. I add another – fear that on the first day back, the inbox will be huge. So I suggest the following work for holiday:
    • You can check email from time to time, but never when you could be with your children or loved ones.
    • You can read papers, but be prepared to be interrupted (and welcome these!)
    • Do not expose yourself to anything that might get you angry – especially things you can’t do anything about until you return.
    • Be careful if sending email that it doesn’t give the impression that you believe your team should also be working on holiday.
  4. Take a deep breath. Literally and metaphorically. You should do whatever it takes for you to re-boot yourself ready for the new year. If you can remove yourself from work completely, then do so. You will find a clear head is more creative, can see new solutions and spot where mistakes are being made.

But the basic advice remains: switching off is good. It’s not a holiday if you are working all the time. And holidays are good for productivity and health.


The fear of the new

I posted a selfie on Twitter last week from my last lecture of the term. I don’t usually do this but it was a special occasion; I am changing jobs and my new role doesn’t currently have me scheduled to deliver mainstream teaching. This may well change but, as it stands, after nearly 20 years that might well have been my last lecture. The significance of this is that I have built my career on being able to do certain things and (in all modesty) delivering engaging lectures has been something I have been known for all this time. And now I will not have this. So realising the change that is coming has left me in an unsettled frame of mind. I am very much looking forward to my new job, but part of me is looking back and taking stock.

I know this is natural and (mostly) healthy thing to do. We are creatures of habit and we like familiar things around us; we create our own little world at work consisting of the route to the office, people we greet in the morning, where we buy our coffee, the corridors we walk down. So even though we sometimes find that routine makes us bored, it is also comforting. When these routines are broken, it is unsettling, disturbing and can even trigger quite severe reactions.

On the other hand, we all change, all of the time. We learn new skills and hopefully get better at things through experience. More to the point, the role of the leader is to encourage change or else they probably aren’t really leading. But my current frame of mind has brought the reminder that when changes affect an individual, there is something very similar to a “fight or flight” response and I have remembered how uncomfortable this can be. For the person who has decided that a change is needed (the leader or manager), it is easy to forget the impact changes can have on those on whom it is imposed and leaders should remember this. It comes down to one of the absolute basics of great management – empathy. “What would this look like to the other person?”. It is not sympathy “poor things”, but a hard-headed analysis of how things appear from the other side of the desk which can then inform how you approach it. This is at the core of persuasion and influence.

So my point in this blog is a reminder to think about how everything you do will appear to the people concerned – especially when these appear to be minor changes to you.

When your boss is evil

Without doubt, the most important person in our work life is our boss. In fact, in reality it doesn’t really matter what they are like, the important thing is our relationship with them. I have spent a lot of time coaching people who struggle with their boss for all sorts of reasons and I have had my own struggles. I am absolutely certain that people will have struggled with me too! What starts out as a less than brilliant relationship can progress by degree to a point where you believe your boss is just evil. So what happens if this relationship has gone bad and it seems there is nothing you can do about it?

It is vital that you take responsibility for your relationship with your boss. You don’t have to agree with them all the time nor should you expect them to be nice to you all the time. But if you shrug your shoulders and say “It shouldn’t be up to me to…” or “He should take responsibility…” it really isn’t going to improve. So here are some tips:

1. When talking about your boss a sentence that includes the word “should” is unlikely to be helpful. For example “Well he should make sure he doesn’t have to ask at the last minute”. These may be factually accurate but they are unlikely to be helpful. Your boss may well leave things to the last minute and this affects you. However, if this has happened before, it is likely to happen again. Find other ways to account for this to make your life easier.

2. You are frustrated because your boss is frequently wrong – and this may be the case. However, there is a good chance that you are misunderstanding what her priorities are. You perhaps don’t know the big picture. Or maybe you are wrong. The reality is that actually it doesn’t matter. You cannot make your boss be righter. Or more correctly, make your boss think more like you.

3. Your boss doesn’t listen to your suggestions and this makes you feel devalued. The worst thing you can do is to carry on trying the same tactics. Try different approaches – is your timing right? Have you put yourself in his shoes to work out what his priorities are? What of approaches have worked – spreadsheets? Stories? Bold words? Who does have the bosses ear – and how has this happened?

The upshot of all these is essentially the same. You have a very limited ability to change the way your boss works. The only thing you have control over is what your reaction to it is. So focus on what you can control. Once you have made your views on a particular issue, let it go. Your boss will do what your boss will do. Your job is to find ways to deal with it.