We’re languishing, now what?

Last week, I wrote about discovering the word for how most of us have been feeling for a while now and accepting the fact that it may be the dominant feeling through the year. Yet, humans being humans are born to fight the status quo and hence the quest to ‘not languish’ continues. Adam Grant in his per-usual mind-blowing article offers two solutions: uninterrupted time and setting small goals (go read it). While I will reiterate and add on to it, I will also talk to two others that work for me. I can’t say I’m out of it, but these four definitely help make it less prevalent.

Uninterrupted blocks of time: Adam Grant’s solution to languishing is to enter a state of flow. While meditation is a great way of training the brain and hence ease into a state of flow more frequently, a necessary component is finding uninterrupted blocks of time to guard the state. Adam writes – That means we need to set boundaries. Years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tested a simple policy: no interruptions Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. When engineers managed the boundary themselves, 47 percent had above-average productivity. But when the company set quiet time as official policy, 65 percent achieved above-average productivity. Getting more done wasn’t just good for performance at work: We now know that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress. I don’t think there’s anything magical about Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. The lesson of this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard. It clears out constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.

While I love the idea of meeting free days and no instant messaging, depending on organizations to operationalize this is putting the monkey on someone else’s back. Yes, the 65 percent is appealing but I’ll settle for 47 when organizations don’t take on the same challenge. Three things work for me here–guarding my calendar (I am very dog like with this), putting the phone away and going to the office.

I feel zero guilt declining meetings not set 24 hours in advance unless it’s a genuine emergency and I have come to realize almost none are. A vague 1% of meetings have reason not to be booked 24 hours in advance and most of them are quick 5 minute calls, anyway. I also pack all meetings one after the other in order to not have useless blocks of space. A useless block of space is one that is longer than that needed to capture minutes from the previous meeting, drink a glass of water etc. but not long enough to enter the state of flow. This happens when meetings are 30-35 minutes apart. Five to ten minutes is quite enough. The other trick is to shave 5 minutes off meetings–25 minutes vs 30 and 55 vs 60.

Besides the dog-like guarding, I also keep my phone on silent and as far away from me as possible, looking at it once every hour and not more than a few minutes at a time, especially during what I classify as work hours. And my last attempt to minimize distractions is walking to work. Thankfully, my office is a 6-minute walk from home and offers me the luxury of few distractions. At home, I always find a million things to do whilst at other tasks.

For those who really want organizations to supplement individual efforts, I quite like TheSoul Publishing’s attempt at abolishing email and meetings altogether. While it’s not all gone, the additional friction promises to guard time and thus productivity. However, as much as I guard the calendar, meetings are also very essential. I’ll say more in the next post.

Setting small goals: Quick wins are an age old solution to motivation, joy and productivity. The advice given to all new hires applies here too. The snippet from Grant’s article says – The pandemic was a big loss. To transcend languishing, try starting with small wins, like the tiny triumph of figuring out a whodunit or the rush of playing a seven-letter word. One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty: a challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve missed during all these months.

I set tiny goals at the start of each workday. They could be little things that need done regularly or ones I’ve been putting off like watering the plants, laundry or just catching up on the Snacks Daily podcast. A check off the to-do list within the first hours of waking up sets up momentum for the rest of the day. However, the bigger boost comes from breaking something I’ve been putting off for months (a training) and chewing a little off every day (in 10 minute modules). If there was ever a mind trick that works, it’s this. Remember the concept of no zero days? It’s exactly that.

Context switching: This follows closely on the heels of uninterrupted time and achieving a state of flow. The outcome of a closely guarded calendar and no phone often results in blocks of 2-3 hours where I can focus on the tasks and strategies of the day. Yet, at the beginning, I’d find myself fast approaching the end of my time block with very little done. All because despite having everything I needed to get into the state of flow, the monkey brain did its bit in hopping from task to task. Enter the Pomodoro technique. After hits and trials, I realized that uninterrupted time only works if you have (a) a short and ordered task list and (b) the same task for multiple Pomodoro sets. I could not do job A for 20 minutes and then hop to job B for the next 20; nor could I let myself think of multiple tasks at the same time. Context switching tax is real. It takes time for the brain to switch from one task to the other and achieve a similar state of flow.

What can organizations do to help? Ruthless prioritization. While ultimately, prioritization is the prerogative of an individual, organizations and managers can help by not piling up the plate. Having a breakdown of goals by quarter or well-organized sprints reduce the prioritization tax on an individual, directly impacting the context switching tax.

Normalizing blurred boundaries: Let’s stop piling on the guilt, shall we? Email signatures now include messages like – ‘if I am emailing at an off-work hour, it is because it works for me. Please respond at an hour appropriate to you’. So we’ve normalized wanting to check emails over the weekends or at midnight. That’s great. It happened pre-pandemic too. However, grocery shopping on Wednesday morning or hitting the gym at 3pm still feels like cheating the company. Is this why we are complaining about increased anxiety and working hours? Unless the government demands that I turn up for a vaccination on a Thursday morning (true story), I am yet to go grocery shopping at 9am on Wednesday even if I’ve run out of things to eat in the fridge (very true story). Instead, I order lunch in and wait till 6pm to politely shut the laptop and go get my vegetables.  How have we normalized one and not the other?

My solution is simple–try it out. The beauty of the brain is that it only takes you to do it once for it to normalize. As much as it hurts, go grocery shopping on a weekday morning or meet a friend for breakfast for a weekday catch-up. You soon realize that as long as work gets done, it doesn’t matter which hours you stick to as long as you can squeeze the essential meetings in. I am doing that today. I spent the first half of the day getting the first jab and am now sitting in the office until 8pm or the end of my to-do list, whichever arrives sooner.

The good news is that languishing can be overcome. It doesn’t have to be but on days when you must; it is achievable. I’d love for you to try the above and let me know how they work. Though I have to say, the best solve will always be my favorite phrase–bird by bird.

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