Getting Unstuck - CBT, Virtual Meetings ... and More
Getting Unstuck – remote working, virtual meeting fatigue and separating “work” from “home”
“Unsticking” is a technical term in cognitive behavioural therapy and one we often use in coaching. It got me thinking about resilience and choice in the context of work. Part of adjusting to our new work patterns and embracing the best of the “new normal” is about “unsticking” ourselves and looking for different, better ways of working.
Taking ownership of your schedule, and recognising problem traits therein, is the first step towards getting unstuck. It takes resilience and determination but will reap rewards in today’s new workplace.
Getting Unstuck – The Issue
With remote working/working from home becoming more common since the COVID-19 pandemic, the barriers between work and home life have been eroded. There is a lack of separation between work time and family/home/social time, leading to longer working hours and virtual meeting fatigue.
Those who have been working from home long-term will not be surprised by this common problem, but some newcomers to this way of working (both clients and friends) have commented on their lack of spare time. Virtual or remote working is, by its nature, any-time, any-place. It is all-consuming: valuable family time in the evenings; commuting time (used for reading, reflecting on the day or having a nap); coffee/lunch breaks – now a quick visit to the kitchen and then back to our desks rather than taking the lift down 20 floors, exiting the building, walking to our favourite coffee or lunch spot, pondering our choices, queueing to pay, then sitting down to enjoy our selection or head back to the office … It even fills those fifteen minutes of preparation/reflection/pause as we move between meetings. We are able to start work earlier and finish later, but haven’t necessarily thought to put boundaries on our hours. And as our office is at home, we can even work all weekend if we choose to!
Losing this precious down-time throughout the day can be exhausting …
Getting Unstuck – The Solution
Where does “unsticking” come in? First, we have to see the path we are on – in this case, back-to-back working, not enough breaks in the day, long workdays – and we need to recognise that we do have some choice. (If you don’t think you have a choice, you will definitely benefit from some coaching … so drop us a line!)
Use change as an opportunity to find new strengths within you
We all hear the voice in our head which tells us we need to keep working flat out. That same voice probably says breaks and down-time are a bad thing and we should feel guilty for wanting a pause. That voice needs to be challenged!
But I am not proposing radical behavioural change here. I think, for many people, the solution will be obvious. But be warned, that doesn’t make it easy. When we are stuck in habitual work patterns, or any other pattern for that matter, it is hard to unstick ourselves and try something new. We often think we must do things a certain way and that others will disapprove if we don’t.
Coaching can help …
The art in coaching is helping clients observe for themselves the impact of their behaviour – in this case, current working habits – both on themselves and on those around them. And then to help clients see that alternative ways of doing things won’t necessarily be as catastrophic as they think. My elder son is 16 and I have been a working mother for most of those years; plus I have worked remotely from my team, often in different time zones, so I have hands-on experience of the work/family/remote working juggling act. The most important revelation I had was that nobody else would manage my schedule for me; it was down to me alone.
Employers will always take as many hours as we are willing to give, so whether you are supposed to be working a 7/8/10/12-hour (!) day, or only a three-day week, there will always be more you could do. Conscientious managers and leaders feel they should be available for their team if the team is working hard, so they stay at their desks. However, this might indirectly put pressure on their team to also stay late. An office culture of long hours and no breaks is usually driven by the behaviour of leaders, not by junior staff!
So, let’s get unstuck here – recognise that you can take ownership of your own work patterns. Don’t make excuses for a busy schedule – such as too many meetings, needing to be available to your team, too much work, etc.
With electronic diaries, it has never been easier to manage our own time and enable others to work around our schedules, so take a step back. What does a reasonable work day look like for you? The occasional coffee break? Some fresh air at lunchtime? Maybe half an hour of reading or reflection at the beginning or end of the day when you would have been commuting? Remember – what we read is often relevant and beneficial to our work as it keeps us up to date, introduces us to new ideas, broadens our perception and can help us to be more creative. Reflection and time to pause are important as this is when our brain can connect patterns and random pieces of information, finding solutions to previously unsolvable problems.
To put this another way, remember the important vs urgent dilemma. Human nature is such that we will focus on urgent matters … even if it’s not actually important. If we want to get unstuck and take ownership of our schedule, we need to plan important things; we have to be proactive. In reality we should do important things first and fit non-important things, whether urgent or not, around them (if we have time).
So what is important – taking a lunch break? Well, skipping a lunch break from time to time is not necessarily bad, but getting into the habit of working through our lunch break every day, and not refuelling our minds and bodies or pausing for air, is definitely not good. If I asked you whether you thought working in a sustainable way – taking breaks and managing your wellbeing, getting enough downtime and sleep on a long-term basis – was important, what would you say? Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) distinguished between “production” on the one hand (in other words work output) and “production capacity” (our ability to work) on the other hand. The latter is important because if we don’t manage our ability to work – our health (food, exercise, sleep and fresh air) – we won’t be able to work as efficiently or as competently as we would if we paid attention to these important things.
Getting Unstuck – Exercises to Try
As a coach, I don’t expect behaviour to change overnight or that people can fix everything at once; a step-by-step approach is often best.
- Make a list of important things for which you are currently not making time.
- Select the MOST important thing from the list and schedule time for it in your diary during the next week. If it’s something simple like a morning coffee break, maybe be bold and schedule it as a recurring daily event! You don’t have to call it “Coffee Break” – label it “Private” or “Busy” or “Meeting” – anything you like.
- Think about what day(s) would be most practical/desirable and then block the after-work time in your diary as “busy”.
- The important aspect here is that it is now in your schedule, blocked out. Personally, my preferred challenge would be to set yourself an earlier finish time one or two days in the week.
Does all this sound too easy? It’s simple time management, nothing more sophisticated.
However, there is a second (and third) part to this:
- Don’t delete the event! And make sure you take the break as scheduled or finish at the time you have set yourself. Remember – this is a choice that you made.
- You can choose to take the break as it is now blocked in your diary, or you can choose to ignore it; but don’t try and make excuses or blame others for taking up your time. Observe your own behaviour; listen to the voice in your head and what it’s trying to tell you. Challenge it!
A word of caution: this will need practice over time. Don’t give up because you didn’t manage a break every day. Even if you manage one more break than last week, that is progress! Don’t give up if you planned to finish work on time today but over-ran by an hour or so. Keep putting that one important thing in your schedule and practise, practise, practise!
Finally – when you feel you have shown sufficient improvement on the first important thing, congratulate yourself. It is important to acknowledge success! Then, maybe up the challenge and add a second important thing …
Good luck with getting unstuck!