Come off autopilot – press “pause”

I was recently reminded by a colleague, of Daniel Kahneman’s classic – the amazing: Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), summarizing research conducted over decades; cognitive biases, happiness and prospect theory among other things. Daniel Kahneman is recognized globally as a true leader in the field of psychology, and the list of honors bestowed upon him is long and glorious, with the Nobel Prize in Economics (the only non-Economist ever to receive this) sitting prominently in 2002.

A favorite, inspirational for a lot of people including me, recognized for his ability to transcend his own field of research and for his determination to make the science of psychology relevant and useful to everyone.

Kahneman talks about our thinking to occur in two brain systems: the deliberate, sophisticated handling of self-control, forward thinking, abstractions, anything unfamiliar. This system is brilliant and creative, but slow; and it has a bottleneck: working memory, consuming loads and loads of energy and getting worn-out and tired through use.

And then the automatic, short-cutting, spam-filtering fast processing system, relieving the slow deliberate system of its hard work but inevitably, also leaving you with blind spots: it needs to base its processing on what is known as heuristics, mental shortcuts or rules-of-thumb.

Heuristics will be individual and learned over time. Your personal autopilot, driving you safely to work following a complex route which you don’t have to even think about. Helping you get on and off the escalator without falling over, without pausing to look for the steps. Opening doors with your primary hand. This is true for all human beings; we are all experiencing the world through the lens of our learned heuristics, nobody is “filter-free”. Reality is subjective, and the good news is that no matter how hard a situation seems, there is always a different perspective.

We learn through the “Slow” system, spending all the time and effort, and once the learning becomes automated, it is managed and perpetually reinforced by the “Fast” system. Very efficient!

But, be aware of the impact of this design on decision-making; in the eyes of the Fast system, the most obvious option is always the best option. And the most obvious option may be a behavioral feature of yourself you’d like to change: a bad habit you’d like to stop, a new behavior you’d like to learn.

To change – whether it’s something you will, you won’t, or you want – means disrupting your heuristics and slowing down the fast system. Otherwise it will drag you around, like the tail wagging the dog. Choosing which kind of restaurant, you want to go to for lunch may be ok to automate; choosing which country to expand your business into may not. Your brain will want to automate both (“Italy!”), since it’s really more convenient.

The very simple, fail-safe method to intervene in your brain’s auto-piloting is: to pause.

A pause, if only for a second or one breath, will bring you off autopilot and mobilize your slow, deliberate brain. You will be able to think, to remember your goals and positive motivation. If pausing is a challenge in itself (and it is, for everyone, don’t be shy), this is a skill in its own right, meaning it can be trained.

Try the following simple “power-pausing workout”: for the rest of today, open all doors with your left hand. (or, right hand if you are left-handed like me). This tiny little change will stop your fast system in its tracks, forcing you to think about why you’re doing this.

Exercise every day for a week, and your ability to pause will have improved massively, to be leveraged across any autopilot function you’d like to disrupt. Pressing send on emails too quickly? Forgetting to say “please” to the staff at the canteen? Having a second glass of wine for dinner? Wanting to be more intentional about meeting planning?

There is no limit, really, so don’t be perfectionist about it. Smaller objectives are always better; it’s the way we learn.

Feeling stress in a meaningful life

This post is not to deny the massive surge of stress as a cause of real and serious illness, or to make people go and look for more stress. But below findings are also real. The way we think and talk about stress should not ignore its upsides. There is a very strong link between feeling stressed and having a meaningful life. Not the link you may expect – would an absence of stress create the mental space to pursue meaning?

In fact, it’s the other way around: high levels of stress are associated with good public health, national happiness and good economy. Gallup World Poll researchers are keeping an eye on the global levels of happiness in their Global Emotions Report. In a 2005-6 survey of 125.000 people residing in 121 countries, they asked this question: Did you feel a great deal of stress yesterday? The worldwide average was 35% – with values from 67% to 5%. How well did this national variance correspond with other indexes of well-being? The higher a nation’s stress-index, the higher its wellbeing, life expectancy and GDP. With high levels of stress, more people are more satisfied with their life, health, work, standard of living.

Diving deeper into this surprising finding, the researchers discovered a “timing” factor: on the very day a person had felt stressed, that person was also more likely to have felt sad, worried, angry or depressed (like you would expect, right?). But these same people would report overall higher levels of joy, love and laughter on a previous day. So, stress is associated with distress (and a host of other problems) but also with well-being. A happy life is not stress-free, and a stress-free life is no guarantee for happiness. Nations reporting very low stress-levels, also reported high levels of shame and anger, and low levels of joy.

Clearly a controversial and surprising finding, the Stress Paradox: high levels of stress are associated with distress as well as well-being. To understand the underlying links between these seemingly contradictory findings, look to the concept of meaning. Among the best predictors of a meaningful life, stress ranks highly. People with a high number of stressful experiences in their past, will consider their life more meaningful. Time spent worrying about the future is considered meaningful. People with very meaningful lives will worry more and have more stress. Stress seems to be an inevitable consequence of committing yourself to goals and roles that will feed your sense of purpose.

Stress is a by-product of pursuing important and difficult objectives.

The way we talk about stress is not supporting our well-being. We talk about our struggles but not so much about what we learn from them. We reinforce the illusion of a stress-free life, but this would indeed come at a high cost. Avoiding stress can be isolating and a reduced sense of concentration and physical energy. Indeed, avoiding stress can be creating more sources of stress while drying up the resources that should be supporting you. Avoidant coping strategies, to keep yourself away from stressful situations or escape your own feelings, is likely to drive you towards a life without depth, meaning and community.

Understanding what gives meaning to your life will help you live with the unpleasantness of this “by-product”. People who see themselves as someone who overcomes difficulties, will be better able to cope with everyday stress. When you reflect on your values, the mindset you have about stress shifts and you see yourself as someone strong, able to grow from adversity. You’ll be more likely to seek challenges than to avoid them, and to see the meaning in difficult circumstances.

In some situations, avoiding the stress isn’t possible and denying its existence isn’t helpful. Remembering your values can transform your experience – from something happening to you against your will, to something that is a result of your priorities. Feeling stressed can feel like a sign you are inadequate. If you were strong enough, smart enough, you wouldn’t be stressed? Try to think like this instead: stress is not a sign of failure but evidence you are human. You can learn from it. Even in moments of frustration, stress and meaning are connected in the bigger picture of your life.

Findings quoted in this post are from Kelly McGonigal, 2015: “The Upside of Stress”

Will team dinners improve performance? The short answer is “No”

Business borrowed the term “team” from the world of sports, to label an interim group of people mobilized to deliver towards a common goal (product, project). We’re hoping the team will inherit the glory and sense of purpose glowing from National Teams, along with the motivation to train hard to be amongst the prospects; to actually get selected; and to fight like a champion once you’ve made it “all the way”.

We’re setting the highest standards for team performance, and we understand that teams don’t just go to work. They need to be built! Some will look to Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development to understand the relationship-dynamics in teams, starting off as a loosely connected group of individuals, evolving in four clearly identifiable stages: Forming, Storming, Norming – and finally: Performing.  Others may believe teams will flourish if the individual personalities are sourced and joined in certain ways, using tools such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Or other approaches, or a mix over time, as teams are continuously built and re-built.

As a team leader, in your day-to-day work you will typically nurture two types of coherence: task and social coherence, maybe sometimes stimulating the latter to improve the former. Meaning: team dinners or “outings” to improve performance.

However, the task/social coherence presents a classical chicken-and-egg problem: will a team with coherent and logically interdependent task also enjoy a great social life, or vice versa – a team having fun socially will make an extra effort to work together well? Research points to task-coherence as the decisive factor.

To understand task coherence, let’s borrow some more from the world of sports:

  • A team of single-sculler rowers will have a low task cohesion. Although the athletes may be part of the same delegation, they don’t have to work together but will each be in their own boat;
  • A relay team of swimmers or runners will be acting serially, one will prepare the action for the next to complete in a pro-act/re-act chain – you could argue such a team has medium task coherence;
  • A football team has high task coherence, each athlete continuously working with the others – passing the ball, maintaining a position, coordinating attacks

In terms of performance, social coherence is irrelevant for the task – only task coherence is needed (in some contexts, social coherence can even be detrimental to performance, diluting competition between team members). The sense of doing everything for the team is documented to be greater in teams that require extensive interaction, coordination and cooperation.

Social cohesion may increase as a result of success. Everyone loves winning, and winning may lead us to see teammates in a more favorable light.  At the other end of the social cohesion spectrum, the notion of being stuck with a group of people you really don’t like, or where the level of competition is excessive, is not very attractive. Social cohesion doesn’t hurt, spending time with people you like is endlessly more pleasant.

However, it’s imperative for performance to stay on-task. If you come across a team with an amazing social life, but little task cohesion, it’s time to refocus on the set goals (even at the expense of the good vibes). As a team leader wanting to promote team success, pay attention to the way the team collaborates, look out for the effects of competition and collaboration, and also have a keen eye for individual goals.

Pleasant and fun as they surely often are, social events will stimulate many things – company loyalty, family support, employer brand, etc. But in terms of performance, team dinners are really only dinners with the team.