Struggling to accept what we are sometimes faced with is a normal part of being alive, like a tax on being human works-in-progress. Our battles with reality are usually won, in the end, by reality. But have you noticed that for very many people, reality increasingly involves relentless pressure and frenzy? Three inescapable societal trends are behind this. Being overwhelmed by them is optional.
Within the next twelve months you’ll experience increasing pressure, disruption and uncertainty in your life. I guarantee it.
I was enjoying my coffee till you told me that. How come? And why me?
It’s not just you. Everyone will. Although there may be nothing cataclysmic on your personal horizon, our society is being shaped by three different but related trajectories:
- accelerating busyness and pressure to keep up with it
- disruption that uproots and changes how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day 
- anxiety about the unpredictability of what lies ahead of us.
You’re confident about that unpredictability . . ?
It’s not a joke. The mutually reinforcing effects of these forces are unavoidable. Very many people will experience them as adversity or severe hardship. The future isn’t what it used to be.
Now you’re being funny. But I get the serious bit. How do you know this?
Anyone who isn’t aware of these trends hasn’t been paying attention. What are your clients reporting or exhibiting? What changes have you noticed in the organisational cultures you’ve worked with over the past couple of decades?
My friend has a business similar to mine. Our regular discussions like this over coffee or during a 30-minute walk help us review and learn from recent experiences in our work.
For the majority of my clients, I told her, pressure reached fever pitch some years ago and has exploded since. They’re smart people but they keep struggling and failing to “get on top of things”. Even those who don’t believe they’re struggling, appear to be just-hanging-on by their fingernails through super-human effort. They’ve got what Edward Hallowell has called Attention Deficit Trait or ADT. 
You’ve been reading again?
I have. Hallowell lists the core symptoms of Attention Deficit Trait as distractability, inner frenzy, impatience, difficulty staying organized, setting priorities and managing time. Do they sound familiar?
Very. They’re part of what I’m talking about.
Work harder, try to keep up
ADT is now epidemic in organisations. As our minds fill with noise, Hallowell says, the brain gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and thoroughly to anything. The condition, he adds, is like the traffic jam, an artefact of modern life . . . brought on by the demands on our time and attention that have exploded over the past two decades. That’s a 2005 quote but he might have been writing about what I see in my client work every week. You too?
I do. And I’m not immune to it. But I see the lack of brain capacity as a slow-creep problem rather than a sudden explosion. It occurs gradually, not from a single identifiable crisis. We keep getting a series of minor emergencies while we try harder and harder to keep up.
Suck it up, feel guilty, panic
What adds to the problem is that those who struggle to keep up the pace, risk being seen as deficient or weak. They take on a responsibility to “suck it up” and not complain as the workload increases . . . (Hallowell again) . . . They do whatever they can to handle a load they simply cannot manage as well as they’d like, and feel a constant low level of panic and guilt. Facing a tidal wave of tasks, [they become] increasingly hurried, curt, peremptory, and unfocused, while pretending that everything is fine.
I see many of those symptoms in people I work with; they discuss them with me in hushed tones behind closed doors. And although generally secretive about their reality, they do complain – ineffectually and warily – usually to similarly disgruntled close colleagues, and never to those for whom they believe they must maintain a heroic “can do” attitude.
Meet others’ expectations, be completely flexible, always “on” and willing
Their guilt is reinforced by everyday media stories about the workplace, such as these recent commentaries:
- “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a Doer.” [An ad campaign for the freelance marketplace Fiverr.]
- “A 94-Year-Old Woman Who’s Worked at McDonald’s for 44 Years Is Making the Rest of Us Look Bad.” [An opinion reported in Slate.]
- [They] never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall. [American businessman Andrew Puzder commenting on the benefits of robots.]
It’s more acceptable to applaud people for working themselves to death than to argue that when people work themselves to death it’s an indication of a badly flawed system – fatally flawed, we might say. Attempting to live up to expectations . . . of being always on, completely flexible, willing to undertake any task – isn’t translating into much for the workers who do it. 
What do you encourage your clients to do about this?
Exercise logical priority-management and self-responsibility
They readily accept two pieces of logic. First, although there’s a lot they cannot change about their circumstances without seriously unattractive consequences, there’s a good deal they could initiate to get more head-space, composure and resilience. Many of those possibilities lie within their personal autonomy and ability to actually control, without others’ permission. They can make improvements simply by changing their own systems, practices and habits.
The second bit of logic is this: opportunities for improvement can usually be gained by making a very high priority of better balancing work in the business (doing the work) with work on the business (improving how we work, how we self-manage, and how we might better work together). (What this means is often misunderstood.)
But when it’s time to commit to or take specific action, their priorities lie elsewhere. It’s as though they’ve become addicted to a certain level of stress and wish to maintain it. Many make the classic response: That’s all very well but I can’t stop now. I’m too busy. I’ll get on to these matters when things settle down, later in the year. That time never comes, of course, so they soon face more insistent pressure and greater stress.
It’s about accepting or not accepting self-responsibility, isn’t it? I’ve been reading, too – a new book by Welby Ings. He argues that effective leaders “question insightfully to stimulate analysis and move people beyond passive reception“. He says that not asking questions preserves damaging cultures: “We know that the preservation of our own worst behaviours depends upon us not asking ourselves honestly what is going on and why we are not taking responsibility for it. Our contracted agreement to abstain from asking questions lets the behaviour maintain its hold on our lives.” 
That’s well put. Those who make rapid progress do so because they take full responsibility for their circumstances and are deeply committed to their own development. This requires persistence and possibly courage, because some of the behaviours they find they need to change were learned and established in their early years, so are well-established and deeply embedded.
How and where do they begin?
Choose your habits of mind
Accepting our own power to change can be difficult. Rather than being aware of our own part in creating our problems, we’re better at finding that all the causes lie elsewhere, outside of our control. Few people have learned the discipline of attitude management. Even those who accept their responsibility for an attitude change may need help to effect it because they’re unaccustomed to locating and modifying their habits of mind. Progress doesn’t and can’t happen overnight.
Once self-responsibility is accepted and in place, I support them to systematically introduce new self-management practices to their routines.
That’s interesting. Self-management is what Epictetus described as self-mastery, “the starting point of freedom“. “No person is free who is not master of themselves“, he said. As many other wise people have pointed out, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of our unhelpful habits of mind and the discomfort of being ruled by them. However, I know it takes courage and self-discipline, to stop preserving “our own worst behaviours”.
It certainly does. Daniel Kahneman writes about the difficulty this way: “Any kind of cognitive change, whether individual or collective, requires people to first “make conscious” their current understandings, and then to hold those understandings out “at arm’s length” for examination. This is much harder – and takes much more energy – than just going with what they’ve always done. So usually people don’t do it.”  However, once people work through that difficult challenge, they find it releases a floodgate of progress.
What other major obstacles do your clients face?
Consider the system’s design
All organisations are perfectly designed – with their drivers, structures, systems and processes – to get the results they currently get, including the characteristics and qualities of the organisational culture. Wherever symptoms of Attention Deficit Trait exist, are there because the organisational design creates, enables or perpetuates them.
While workers, especially senior staff, usually crave personal well-being and “more time” in which to do things properly, the systems they work within often act to block that goal. Even if there were different intentions when the organisation was established or last reviewed, the systems gravitate towards and lock themselves into those that produce ADT.
But whether or not the organisational environment is in fact oppositional to reform or even minor modification, is often untested because people with important positions appear to regard stress as an inescapable tax on success, so abandon hope of change.
I’d say that individuals’ personal systems – their day-to-day behaviours and habits – are also designed, applied and locked-in similarly to produce ADT. Regarding stress as a tax on success would be one of those habits.
Choose slow or fast
That’s very likely. As you and I have often observed, it’s uncommon to meet leaders willing to (a) bring their habits of mind to awareness to be held “at arm’s length” for examination; (b) seriously question or challenge a damaging organisational culture; or (c) take even 10 minutes for reflection at their own initiative – unless it’s time with a coach that they pay for.
The few who actually do stop for a mid-week lunch break with colleagues often turn the occasion into a monologue or debate about work tasks and challenges, punctuated with incoming texts and phone calls. Many give control of their planning for the week over to whoever schedules the meetings they attend. They work late into their evenings and often on weekends. Even when reminded that everything stops for dysentery (that is, in the event of their forced absence everything will carry on well enough without their involvement), they rarely choose to exercise their discretionary time wisely.
Some say they never have and never will have discretionary time, a claim that would be laughable if it wasn’t so commonly and strongly held.
I like what Eknath Easwaran says about this: “Somehow . . . we have acquired the idea that the mind is working best when it runs at top speed. Yet a racing mind lacks time even to finish a thought, let alone to check on its quality. When we slow down the mind, we work better at everything we do. Not only is the quality of our work better, we are actually able to get more done. A calm, smooth-running flow of thought saves a lot of wear and tear on the nervous system, which means we have more vitality and resilience in the face of stress.”
Yes, in reality faster often means slower and much less effective. There’s a relevant anecdote about this in the life of the brilliant physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford:
Rutherford, to a hard-working student in his lab: Do you work in the mornings, too?
Student (proudly): Yes!
Rutherford: But when do you think?
Maintain the status quo or take risks
Part of the difficulty is that while leaders and senior managers love leadership training, culture change and staff development programmes in theory, their current systems and practices are what they know best, trust and therefore carefully maintain, either deliberately or unconsciously.
Can you give me an example?
Increased staff empowerment is a great idea but the command-and-control model (efficient obedience) is still fundamental to much organisational life and its strongest behavioural driver after “financial viability/return on investment” and “ensuring and reporting compliance”. Empowering people to make performance improvements without changing the processes, structure or systems they work within, increases pressure, helplessness and cynicism.
And sadly, those who recognise that they do have the power to make important change, often demonstrate that they’d rather be helped to feel better about keeping things pretty much the same as they’ve always been.
To feel happier about being obsessive and over-anxious . . ?
It sometimes seems like that. Usually, both organisational and personal systems could be changed because everyone, at all levels of their organisation, has a degree of autonomy within which they could address significant causes of pressure and Attention Deficit Trait.
When individuals intentionally change their work and relationship practices and habits of mind for greater resilience, they suffer less. But if they remain within an organisational system perfectly engineered to produce ADT by chipping away at their self-awareness and concentration, it’s always going to be a hard battle.
It’s like telling people to get healthy by exercising more, then offering the choice between a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder when they sit down for a meal.” 
Would you like an almond croissant or a blueberry muffin with your second coffee?
Study your responses to disruption
How do you cope with disruption?
I thought you’d ask about disruption, I told my friend at our next session – this time in an online video discussion. You predicted accurately: pressure, disruption and uncertainty all became very relevant for me recently as I went through some personal upheaval.
Shall we discuss disruption then, before we discuss uncertainty?
I’m not sure.
Always the comedian. Tell me what happened while we sip our lattes online. I’ll imagine we’re in our favourite cafe, here.
As you know, I moved to another city to support my partner in her new job. Nothing new about moving home. I’d already done that 20 times in my life and it’s always been disruptive. I thought this shift might be easier, but I found it quite difficult.
So you’re not talking about disruptive innovations – the kind that uproot and change how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day  as in plastics replacing many things formerly made from wood, word processors replacing typewriters, internet access replacing traditional encyclopaedia . . . personal computers, smart phones, digital calculators, LED lighting, 3D printers, industrial robotics and the like?
Be ready for VUCA
No. My most recent upheaval was entirely personal. But there is a connection: we should all develop constructive coping mechanisms for disturbance and turmoil because they are rapidly becoming our universal operating conditions. All organisations including mine, and all people’s lives, will experience disruptive innovation, though many seem to be in denial about that. The pace of change everywhere is becoming incomprehensibly fast. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) surround and lie ahead of us.
And unless we’re continually open to the possibility of disruption and have prepared our personal and organisational tools and systems for resilience, we’ll get swept away when the things we thought were stable constants are pulled out from under us.
The house-moving upheaval was a recent test of my preparedness. It involved a run-of-the-mill “interruption or suspension of usual activity or progress”. I disappointed myself by self-creating unnecessary anxiety and confusion around it. Preparations took place as we hosted house guests, and we moved while I suffered from a painfully-infected hand (unpredictable) and an adverse reaction to a ‘flu shot (also unpredictable) which added to my discombobulation and frustration. I turned a not-very-special “state of disorder caused by outside influence” into a calamity caused by my own internal influences.
You behaved like a headless chicken and became quite grumpy . . ?
A lucky guess?
Choose your own reality
However, some things I did well. Throughout the move from my comfortable routines to yet another *#*! relocation, I was aware of self–creating my unpleasant reality. I paid careful attention to my assumptions, behaviours, thoughts and thinking processes, so that I could examine these things later. Except briefly, I didn’t become what I was feeling about the events. I reminded myself that mastery does not mean we never fail; mastery discovers its lapses and recovers its guidelines sooner than novices.
You managed to hold those understandings “out at arm’s length” at least to some degree, while you were in the middle of it. How?
By choosing, in my lucid moments, to use some tools I’ve kept sharp: practices I constantly work to habituate.
I’ll get you to remind me of those. But first, what did you learn or re-learn from examining your responses and reactions, later?
Mostly it was another reminder of my responsibility to manage, educate and transform my mental and emotional states, rather than seek something or someone outside of myself to blame for my circumstances. For that, I need to constantly practice both intellectual and emotional agility based on knowing as much as possible about myself.
How is that important?
My composure or equanimity is usually undone by my lack of understanding of myself.
Get to know the entire system
Beneath whatever my mind focuses on at any point and my resulting emotions, are many layers of unconscious mind – the “cloud of unknowing, where primordial instincts, fears, and urges [cover] cover our understanding”.  As W Edwards Demming said, “If you don’t like your results, don’t focus on isolated events – look at the entire system.”
So, you need to dig into your past to understand how you learned to be you?
Occasionally. It’s easier to complete a jigsaw puzzle when we have the whole picture in view.
Our personalities originate in a mix of genetics, family influences and other socialisation processes which may be individually unique, and from our choices, intentions and consequential habits of mind – the entire system we’ve partly been gifted and partly self-created, polished and habituated. For example, some of the 20, now 21 house-moves I’ve been through (mostly very long ago, some when I was very young), were emotionally very painful times. Without vigilance on my part, that pain is easily triggered unconsciously and re-experienced.
Digging that deep could take a while. When we burrow into that stuff, we usually find we’re psychologically very complex beings. Some of us especially. Do you need to lie on a couch?
Create new habits of mind, now
No couch. I can’t drink when I’m lying down.
At the time I experience stress or distress it’s much less important for me to clarify its deeper causes than it is to understand there’s much I can get to work on in the present moment to modify their effects. If a surprise wave turns me and my sea kayak upside down, at that moment it’d be pointless to start exploring the early origins of my hostility to authority figures that caused my lack of attention to the wet-exit recovery procedures instructor.
My emotional pain is always (and only) one or more old pattern playing itself out. All I need do is understand what those patterns are, how they “run”, how I can disrupt them with different patterns, and how I can turn those into new habits of mind.
You provide a lot of help for that in your book, EVEN UNDER PRESSURE.
One thing I remember about the book is the emphasis you put on developing tools for choosing our thoughts and attitudes.
When I’m knocked sideways by events or notice I’m experiencing circumstances negatively, it’s useful for me to understand that I always have choices of thought, attitude and behaviour available to me. Such as these, for example:
- Flexibility (like willow) and composure OR rigidity (like oak) and anxiety about being broken.
- Agency (conscious volition), engagement OR passivity, helplessness, dejectedness, victimhood, passive tolerance of the unacceptable.
- Acceptance, curiosity, adaptability and willingness to sit with the pain and discomfort of not knowing in order to learn from it OR avoidance, resistance to learning, rigid thinking, anger.
- Appreciation, gratitude OR ingratitude, self-entitlement, avoidance.
- Self-care OR bloody-minded soldiering-on when self-care is needed.
- Awareness, attention, mindfulness, presence OR unawareness, unfocused mindlessness, distractability and preoccupation.
- Intentionality, clarity of purpose, response-ability, consistency OR situational/random fight-or-flight reactivity.
- Kindness, empathy, compassion for self and others OR judgement, abhorrence, unkindness, distancing, retreat.
- Patience and self-composure OR impatience and irritability.
- Being of service, generosity OR selfishness, exacting service from others
That’s a lot of ideas – and words – to consider!
Of course. Far too many. We need short-forms, for emergencies. When I’m under pressure (or upside down in my sea kayak), I want easy access to a well-planned, well-rehearsed Plan B for recovery of my composure and resilience. Many of the “tools” I introduce in EVEN UNDER PRESSURE are to help find short-cuts to awareness of our attitude choices.
One approach is to make a habit of having three or four single “trigger” words memorised, to help bring helpful attitude-management ideas to awareness and project on to otherwise neutral situations. In the list above, I’ve highlighted (in bold) the four I brought to mind and repeated to draw myself out of the funk I fell into during this most recent upheaval. I create Venn diagrams with them to help make the process easier:
We can never achieve happiness by trying to make the world conform to our wishes. But we can master our desires, intentions and habits of thought.
Prepare for discomfort
So, although your move to another city was an uncomfortable upheaval, you applied considerable objectivity to your attitude and behaviours and were able to make a critical analysis of them. Your work in this field and awareness of the things you’ve discussed, must have added to your discomfort at the time.
It certainly did. I spent some time beating myself up for not living up to my own ideals.
Of course. No matter what practices we’re focused on, when we’re still learning to habituate them, our efforts to move from a state of conscious incompetence to one of conscious competence and beyond are always uncomfortable, particularly if we’re very clear about the nature of competence we’re aiming at. The important thing is to be very aware of the point we’re at with whatever we’re trying to develop into a skill through constant practice.
Sweep the floor, every day
How true. The philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli likes to compare enlightenment to sweeping the floor. He reminds us that you can’t just sweep once. The dust comes back. We have to sweep every day. The same is true with achieving any new practice. It’s not a one time and done kind of thing. It’s a process. It needs to become a ritual, to embed change.
If you were to give yourself advice for action-planning personal improvement, what are the vital changes you’d make or existing learning you’d reinforce?
- Pay attention to the larger systems (personal and organisational) we live and work within.
- Learn about VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) and how to become agile around rapid change.
- Practise mindfulness (re-read EVEN UNDER PRESSURE).
- Remember that it doesn’t have to be A Big Deal, even when it’s A Big Deal.
- Recognise the extent and limits of your personal power to change; what you can and cannot control or influence.
- Get serious about self-management.
- Sweep the floor every day.
- Rehearse short-cuts to your “Plan B” for resilience until they’re habits like first-aid, house-fire or earthquake drills.
- Practise sitting with the pain and discomfort of uncertainty, long enough to learn from it.
- Remember that you can change things from the inside: “If a whole system can’t be reformed, infect what you can with positive initiatives. . . . Even at a micro-level our intervention still counts“. [Welby Ings.]
You’ve used your share of the time we have. Are you ready to listen to me?
Do you need a couch?
o o o – o o o
 Caroline Howard, writing in Forbes.com.
 Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform, Edward Hallowell, Harvard Business Review, January 2005)
 This comment and bullet points above, from The Problem With Becoming an Inspirational Meme, by Christine Emba, The Washington Post, 9 April 2017.
 Disobedient Teaching, Welby Ings, 2017.
Thinking Fast And Slow, Daniel Kahneman, 2011
 Bianca Bosker, in The Atlantic, November 2016
 Caroline Howard, writing in Forbes.com.
 Eknath Easwaran.
 ‘Below the relatively superficial levels of the mind – beneath the emotions we are ordinarily aware of – lie layer on layer of the unconscious mind. This is the “cloud of unknowing,” where primordial instincts, fears, and urges cover our understanding.’ Eknath Easwaran.