“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
The current moment lends itself perfectly to test Pascal’s theory. After a couple of months of compliance, adjustment and embracing the novelty of new working practices, we have reached a point where we have started to embed new habits. We’ve settled into a rhythm - for good or ill - whether we are furloughed, solo working or leading teams of people.
We have been forced to sit quietly in a room alone. With our work. With ourselves. With our thoughts. Many working-from-home evangelists have been celebrating this instant transition. A wealth of articles and ‘motivational’ LinkedIn blog posts have been written eulogising companies who have equipped their people to work from home and indicated a long term shift in working practices. Polished home-working setups and routines have become the new humble brag, designed to instil a sense of inadequacy in the average person. The evangelists have been full-throated: this situation has been coming and it's not before time. The flexibility and opportunities that stem from remote working are ultimately going to do us all personal and professional good.
However, we must recognise that this has not just been working from home. This is enforced isolation.
In what feels like a blink of an eye, much of what we all know about our working structures has suddenly changed. For many of us, work has always meant heading to an office and being connected physically to our colleagues. This is what we know.
Suddenly, we find ourselves out in the wilderness. Everything we thought was stable and secure is feeling very fragile. The global economy, the security of our work, , the safety of our loved ones, our daily working routines. Everything has flipped on its head.
These circumstances are not ideal home working conditions. Normally working from home would come with the caveat of any children being in childcare and an ability to create a quiet working environment. Instead, we take turns in using the desk with our partners as broadband connections creak under the strain of work,, Disney+, online education programmes and a regular stream of poorly coordinated video conferences.
Even the no- obligatory email opener is designed to torment us: “I hope you are doing well in these unprecedented times”. Many are not. Yes, we are home. Yes, we are working. Yet that doesn’t automatically mean we are working well. The technology exists, but as humans we need additional support. We haven’t been conditioned to become productive whilst isolated. Some days even making it to the desk/dining room table is an achievement, and when we do get there, many of us find ourselves sitting quietly in a room with our thoughts, wondering where to begin.
2020 will continue to test our capacity for resilience, productivity and patience.
This feels like the grind. After months of normalising the unthinkable, we’ve collectively reached a point where we have started to embed new habits. It’s imperative we can ensure they are the right ones.
There are three key areas that drive effective remote working.
Yet it is not enough to simply say 'be motivated, be organised, communicate well'.
We require practical strategies to help us cope - and even excel - during this period of uncertainty.
We are all familiar with super-charged moments when we can achieve a day's worth of work in one intense burst. Similarly, the feeling of being starved of motivation can see weeks drift from productivity in a fuzzy haze of lost potential. Motivation is undoubtedly the fuel of intellectual work. Overnight, the notion that it is our team - or our direct managers - who are responsible for motivating us has disappeared. Whether we welcome it or not, we are all now our own personal managers and motivators.
It’s only now become apparent how much we relied on external factors to motivate our ability to work. Commuting to the office - once an energy-sapping obligation - has now revealed itself as a daily ritual in which we mentally shifted from a personal to a professional mindset. How often did you simply rely on the presence of others working around you to kick-start your own motivation?
A famous fictitious boxer once told his son that ‘life ain’t all sunshine and rainbows’. Rocky knew that motivation ebbs and flows and that ultimately motivation starts with ourselves. There will be times when our energy flags. Regular intervals when an unappealing to-do list fails to instil excitement. These are the moments when we need to find ways to become our own personal cheerleader.
The comfort blanket of external motivation needs to be replaced with the tougher task of summoning up the will in your own home.
This is possible by embracing regular mental rituals to convince our brain that we are entering a motivated frame of mind. From the moment you wake, consciously telling yourself “today is going to be a good day” gets you off to a good start. Dressing for work rather than the sofa is another proven mental trick. Starting on work immediately before being drawn into home-based tasks and working from the exact same place each day are all tried-and-tested techniques to help make the mental shift into a professional mindset.
Thinking positively is commonly touted as a method to boost motivation. Easier said than done when you have a demanding child, limited personal space, heightened anxiety or new obligations to fulfil.
In the face of these realities, the best way to generate motivation is to give yourself the opportunity to experience ‘flow’.
A term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a psychological state we enter when we are immersed in a perfect task. A task that is right on the cusp of our abilities, something that requires concentration, effort and will result in a sense of accomplishment once completed. The type of thing we tend to put off for fear of it being ‘too hard’. The more often you can find and get stuck into a task that enables you experience flow, the better you will feel.
Simply by identifying the tasks which will help you enter this state, you will unleash a ripple of motivation that will soon become a wave, crashing down on each upcoming day, quelling self-doubt and empowering you to build momentum.
Pick a tough task. Give yourself a chance to experience flow, and to achieve something challenging. This is the key to self-motivation.
Time is now at a premium. Whereas we could just about get away with a day in the office that wasn’t especially well planned, a day working at home without a plan is a day where nothing gets done. We have to be far more intentional with how we spend our time, working in tune with our bodies rather than singing an entirely different song altogether.
Traditionally, we’ve chunked our working days into morning and afternoon tasks. Two blocks of work before we leave for the day and attend to our personal lives. With all of our additional responsibilities, that approach can seem stiflingly insufficient.
Many of us are familiar with the concept of sleeping in 90 minute cycles. What is less widely appreciated, is that these 90 minute cycles follow us through our waking hours. Once humans go beyond a period of 90 minutes of concentration, we hit a period of diminishing returns. We become inefficient, less capable and increasingly irritable. Yet we push on, determined to continue, despite our brains effectively screaming for a rest.
The effective remote worker knows how to work with the natural rhythms of the brain. Regular 90 minute bursts of intense activity are far more effective than 4 hours in the morning and 3 in the afternoon.
Look at your calendar and insert 90 minute chunks of time to get good, tough work done. Then create time after these bursts to have a break, recharge and go again. This is the most effective way to achieve more at home. By pulsing in this way, your day suddenly seems full of realistic, 90 minute opportunities to get things done.
Your company, our colleagues, your brain and your sense of self-worth will thank you for it!
TALK A GOOD GAME
We spent a good deal of time at the start of this article setting out precisely why traditional working from home practices are unfeasible right now. Those who are expecting similar results to pre-lockdown performance are placing unrealistic pressure on themselves and their colleagues. We all have to make allowances for the current circumstances.
The additional responsibilities that many of us are facing at the moment do mean that we have less cognitive capacity and physical energy to apply to our professional lives. For those in literal isolation, speaking with their colleagues might represent the only contact they have with anyone outside of their home. For many, the underappreciated benefits of having colleagues close by - sense checking, collaboration, sounding boards, positive encouragement - are becoming apparent as we feel the effects of trying to work on our own for a prolonged period. It’s simply the case that for many people, the best we have to offer right now may be significantly less than we are used to.
Acknowledging this truth - in ourselves and others - isn't weakness. It’s compassionate pragmatism.
We are operating at a time of heightened emotional strain. Disagreements and misunderstandings that could have previously been nipped in the bud are susceptible to becoming more damaging and eroding team trust.
Members in a team have to trust each other.
Leaders in a team have to trust their team members.
Each of us have to be worthy of each other’s trust.
When the bulk of communications happen via email or text, it doesn’t take much for bad blood to develop unless everyone is making a concerted effort to the contrary. Peers, colleagues, friends all need to make a commitment to adhere to a central principle that can govern us all nicely out of this period of uncertainty: Don’t be a dick!
Nip unseemly drama in the bud. Communicate tasks clearly and ensure that you ask for clarity whenever you are uncertain. Take a breath before leaping towards a position of defensiveness. Agree as a team to avoid drama, blame and accusations.
It is during moments of crisis that the strongest relationships are forged. Regular conversations with your colleagues will ensure that you are better able to understand each other’s personal circumstance, challenges and fears. Regular conversations with your clients will enhance the strength of the relationship when the world returns to relative calm.
Communication is more important than ever right now. It will make your business continue to function. But more importantly than that - it’s simply the right thing to do. It’s what humans crave.
This period is arduous, yet not devoid of hope or potential.
If humanity’s problems really do stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone, then the very least we can do is to tackle that challenge with the maximum amount of grace, skill and empathy we can muster.
With a healthy dose of compassionate pragmatism, we can ease the individual and collective strain affecting us all right now.
Motivation, organisation and communication. They hold the keys.
This is how we can be more productive and better connected in our isolation.