Time well wasted

I have a weakness for signs. Not the cosmic type, I don’t believe in those. I think when people look for signs, what they’re really doing is looking for confirmation for things they have already decided or already know to be true in their hearts. They see what they want to see and attribute meaning so that they get the confirmation they need.

No, the signs I’m talking about are physical signs, words written on a slab of wood or a sheet of metal. I have two hanging on the wall over my desk in my office. One says, “Wake up. Kick ass. Repeat.” and was a gift from a dear friend. Looking at it makes me feel strong and, if not fearless, then at least less afraid. The other one was a birthday present from my family and it says, “Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice.” It makes me laugh, and the truth be told, I do talk to myself a lot.

Not too long ago I saw a sign in a shop that said, “Every day without laughter is a day wasted.” I was drawn to this sign because I truly believe in laughter. Laughter is so important. It’s healing, it’s therapeutic, it’s the glue that keeps families together, and it’s fun. But there was something about this sign that just didn’t feel right. I realized it was the part about days wasted.

Let me set one thing straight. No day is ever a waste of time, regardless of whether it’s filled with joy, sadness, stress, or just boredom. Every day is important, a piece of the puzzle that makes up your life and who you are. We can’t go through life always laughing. Some days I, at least, definitely don’t feel like laughing and those days are important too. A day without laughter may not be a fun day, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad day, and definitely not a wasted day.

This whole concept of wasting time gets to me. Ever since industrialization, productivity has become a mantra; it’s become something to strive for in everything we do. Organizations are supposed to be productive, individuals are supposed to be productive, and we streamline to the point of maximizing productivity at all times. We are led to believe that anything less is a failure to live to our maximum potential. This, however, is not a truth, it’s not a law of nature; it is just the way we are conditioned to think in society. We constantly seem to weigh everything’s worth instead of letting things be for the sake of being.

As I write this, I’m lying on the couch, nursing a cold, and thinking about how I should be using my time. I’m definitely not feeling very productive. Instead of just focusing on getting better, a part of me feels pressured to at least make an effort and answer emails – even though I’m feeling too tired to work – because aren’t we sort of expected to work anyway, even when we’re sick? Even though resting will make us better faster? Productivity is so ingrained also in my consciousness that even I, who research these things, get filled with self-doubt if I don’t feel I live up to social expectations.

Well, I’ve been relatively successful at resisting the temptation to work. I have taken a well-deserved rest, and let me tell you what happened: As I lay here on the couch doing nothing, I got bored. My mind started to wander and I started thinking about that book proposal I’m supposed to be working on but just haven’t had the peace of mind to get my head around. I started to see how I want to structure the book and jotted down a preliminary table of contents. This gave me such an energy boost that it inspired me also to write a blog post. Hooray for so-called wasted time!

P.S. And yes, I’m going to write another book! I’ll keep you posted, so stayed tuned!

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Young people are lonely. Is this our doing?

Being the mother of a teenage girl, a comment I heard the other day at a conference really caught my attention. It was a person in the audience, and the comment was that 25% of young Norwegian girls are reported to be lonely. Well, I haven’t been able to verify this number, but I did some digging and it turns out that this is not only a Norwegian phenomenon. It turns out, that studies have shown that teenagers and young adults in other places too, like the UK for example where a study has recently been conducted, are reported to feeling very lonely; lonelier than many elderly feel and we already know that is a problem. In one article the term ‘generation lonely’ had even been used.

The main argument – which has also been contested – is that the Internet and social media are the reason. Apparently, people in this age group rely more on social media to interact with friends than actually seeing them in person. And by now we know that the way we interact over social media is quite different from how we communicate with each other when we see each other face-to-face.

If you ask Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, this is a major problem. One thing is the flat and one-sided personas we present to the world through social media. They affect both our own identities but also the identities of those reading our updates due to the way we compare our own messy realities with the edited lives presented by our social media friends. Another problem is that we lose the ability to really be on our own with ourselves and our thoughts, which is a good thing to be able to do for emotional and mental well-being.

Well, that’s one aspect. Another is unemployment among young adults that many countries struggle with. In another presentation I heard, young people today are also known as the ‘Net generation’. People apparently associate them with things like flexibility and precarious work, arguing that this is the way they want it. Apparently they are supposed to lead us into the future where meanings of work are going to be completely different than today. But in a study conducted in Sweden, it is young people who are most negatively affected by insecure and flexible job markets. And when asked, these young people say that all they really want is a good and secure job so that they can earn a living. Not having a job can be a very lonely experience.

Both of these aspects are definitely relevant, but I’m struck by a thought. What also comes to mind is the way we organize our children’s lives, before they become lonely young adults. Due to the false perception that the world has become a more dangerous place (despite terrorist threats and the media going wild on this topic, studies have shown that the world is actually a safer place now than it has been previously), parents limit how far they allow their kids to roam. In my neighborhood I don’t ever see kids playing in the street, like I did with my friends when I was a kid. So if kids are to see each other, play dates need to be organized first. This, in addition to the professionalization of all things that should be fun (i.e. kids’ hobbies), seem to fill up our children’s schedules to the point where it becomes difficult for them to hang out with friends after school because everyone is constantly somewhere at some sort of training, club or class that just can’t be missed.

Hmm… it kind of makes you wonder: is social media really at fault? Or are we active participants in creating lifestyles for our kids where they don’t have much choice but to limit their interactions to Internet solutions? After all, as parents we set the standards.

Having a successful life

“The changing nature of work has made subjective success measures more important.”

This is something I jotted down in my notebook last week at the WORK2017 conference, as I was listening to a presentation on the ‘net generation’ and work in the digital age. The presenter said something along those lines and my immediate reaction was ‘YES!’

In research we differentiate between objective and subjective definitions of success. For a long time, success has been measured in things like salary, promotions, and fringe benefits (like a company car) – so called objective measures. In other words, the more you make, the more often you get promoted, the more powerful and higher up you are in the organizational hierarchy, and the more access you have to things like business class travel and other perks, the more successful you must be.

Okay, but that is a very narrow and one-sided definition of success. People who have opted out of objectively successful careers sometimes report that yes, they may have had a successful career before opting out, but not necessarily a successful life. Objective definitions of success didn’t always make them feel successful, not to mention happy or fulfilled or any of the other things that are considered important in a well-rounded life.

For them things like feeling that their work was meaningful and being excited about what they were doing, feeling healthy and rested, and having the time and the possibility to pursue other interests and spend time with the people they care about were more important. These are examples of subjective measures of success.

What this means in practical terms is that more money and power doesn’t necessarily attract potential employees anymore, or at least it isn’t enough. But don’t think that means you can offer people a meaningful job without paying them what they deserve. Getting paid is a hygiene factor and should be a given. It’s also an important form of validation and needs to be taken seriously.

But as always I feel pleased when my research results and ideas are confirmed. Employers need to recognize that there is more to life than work and objective definitions of success. But they need not worry, just because people value subjective success doesn’t mean they aren’t ambitious or don’t want to work hard. They just realize that a successful job isn’t enough; they want a successful life too!

A touch of humanity

A dear friend of mine is just about to embark on a new exciting journey. She is going to retrain as a nurse and I am so excited for her. She is following her heart and her dream.

She is doing this after having left a career in business, and what I find so interesting is that she isn’t the first person I know who has decided to become a nurse after having opted out of a corporate career. Not too long ago I interviewed a man who had done the same. And he apparently knew of a whole bunch of people who had opted out of different careers to become nurses. I quote:

“When I started [studying to become a nurse] I was 45 years old, but surprisingly I wasn’t the oldest in the group. As a matter of fact, just in my course, there was a small group of older men like me who wanted to change careers. So I’m not really a unique case.”

He’s right; he isn’t a unique case. Come to think of it, although everyone didn’t choose nursing, most of the people I have interviewed for my research – both men and women – have left corporate careers to do something that involves caring for and helping people. Two became life coaches. A few became teachers, teaching everything from preschool to college. One started working with immigrants, giving legal advice. One became a nutritionist and works with schools to make sure kids are provided with healthy food. A few started working pro bono and many are involved in charities of different kinds. I could go on.

All of a sudden I realize that I see a pattern here. A common denominator seems to be opting in to work where they can help others. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. I do, however, think it says something about the corporate environments they chose to leave.

We focus so hard on productivity and profit, and organizations are streamlined to the point where we seem to forget that they are made up of people; people with human needs. When people finally have enough, when whatever happens that pushes them to take the step and leave a career behind, they choose a road that provides them with the coherence and meaning that they didn’t get in their previous jobs. And apparently also one that provides a touch of humanity.

Not only that, all of them, every single one of my interviewees, talk about the people in their lives. They talk about family and friends, and about having a job and a lifestyle that allows them to be there for those who are important to them.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to take some well-deserved time off to spend with my loved ones. Because to be honest, as clichéd as it may sound, it really is the people in my life that make life worth living.

I’ll be back in August with more blog posts. See you then!

Sometimes slow is faster

I remember when I was working on my PhD. I would get so stressed over how long everything took. As I wrote chapter drafts, I couldn’t believe how incredibly slow the writing process was. Academic writing is a very particular and exact art form, not like jotting down a blog post. Well anyway, it felt excruciating at times and what I thought would take one week, took two or three, and then I would wait for feedback, after which I would have to rewrite parts… At a certain point I thought I would never finish, and never make the four-year deadline.

Well I did finally finish, but the thing I realized as I was working on my thesis was that the faster I tried to work, the slower it went. When I rushed, which I tend to do when I get stressed, I ended up having to rewrite more, not to mention rereading and having to go over my sources again more carefully. In other words, rushing really slowed my process down. So when stressed, I forced myself not to let my impatience get the better of me, and my mantra became “it has to be allowed to take the time it takes”.

I know this doesn’t sound very profound, but to me it really was. Because things do just take the time they take, whether it’s writing or learning a new skill or recovering from an illness. In this age of quick fixes and instant gratification, this can be hard to accept, but sometimes we just have to.

A while back as a group of us at work were fretting over looming deadlines and too much too do in too little time, a friend and colleague recommended a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber titled The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. This book is about academic life, but many of the points the authors make are definitely relevant to all of us.

The authors talk about what they call a “culture of speed”. In fact it is exactly this – the sheer speed of things – that many sociologists have argued is what makes contemporary life different from any time we have ever experienced before. The problem as Berg and Seeber see it, is that there is a constant pressure to increase productivity, which means that work tends to take over what should be our down time. As a result we end up having to manage also our free time in order to squeeze everything in (work, spending time with kids/friends/family, exercising, having fun…). And this, in turn, can lead to stress, a feeling of time poverty, and even mental health issues, in addition to stifling creativity, which at least for an academic trying to write is absolutely vital.

Besides, we cannot constantly create or write, we also need time to reflect so that we actually come up with something to write or create. We need quiet down time not only to recuperate, but also to actually be productive. Productivity does not necessarily come from doing more.

So let’s make sure we have enough down time this weekend so that we can be more creative and productive and whatever else it is we need to be.

What’s wrong with providing employees with mindfulness training?

I have very mixed feelings about mindfulness. It’s not mindfulness as such. Being mindful is not a bad thing. Research has shown that being mindful can help people be more resilient and prevent them from overreacting in different situations. This, in turn, has a positive impact on work environments in organizations. If people aren’t shooting from the hip so much, but instead taking a moment to reflect – to being mindful – then it is bound to have a calming impact on situations that might otherwise be conflicted.

No, I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when we use mindfulness to fix a symptom instead of solving the actual problem.

I was at a conference last week organized by the European Association for Work and Organizational Psychology. Being a sociologist, this was a new crowd for me. Sociologist and psychologists do have a lot of research interests in common, although the methods used are often different. One thing that struck me was how popular mindfulness research was also at this conference. Although studying the effects of mindfulness can be interesting and intriguing, the problem is that much of the research focuses on the individual and not on the systems and structures in which these individuals are embedded.

But not only are we researching mindfulness like never before, I also constantly see new consulting companies that specialize in mindfulness and that provide programs to help employees learn and practice mindfulness.

Work environments today are incredibly hectic. Focus is more on short-term wins than on long-term development and sustainability. Jobs are insecure and as Richard Sennett observes, past experiences aren’t so important anymore. It’s rather about potential and you’re only as good as your next accomplishment. However, since seriously questioning and changing the system is hard, instead of going to the source if people aren’t coping well in their jobs, we try to fix the symptoms by helping people deal. And the latest fad on that front is mindfulness.

So instead of creating sustainable working cultures where people can thrive and can work to their full potential, we give them tools so they can be better at dealing with the hectic work pace and organizational culture. By teaching them mindfulness we help them cope.

And yes, it’s good to be able to cope. But it’s bad if it means ignoring the actual problem, which in this case is organizational cultures and structures that don’t necessarily work anymore. They just no longer correspond to how a lot of people want and need to live and work.

So by all means, practice mindfulness. It’s good for many things, and something I probably need to do more of too. But let’s not use mindfulness to ignore the real problem at hand. And please, don’t provide mindfulness training to your employees thinking that you’re off the hook. We still have a lot to do when it comes to creating better and more sustainable working models and environments.

People who just don’t listen

I had the most frustrating experience a while back. I was giving a talk on my opting out research for the employees of a company. The talk as such wasn’t frustrating; I had a great time. It went well and my audience engaged in a fantastic discussion with me. I love it when that happens. The best talks are the ones where the audience has so much to say that I have trouble getting through my material because I keep getting interrupted with questions and comments. It sort of becomes more of a dialogue than a monologue and that is just more meaningful to everyone I think.

So it wasn’t the actual talk or the audience. On the contrary, they were really engaged in questions around opting out, like wellbeing at work and sustainable working models. It also became clear during our discussions that, in addition to them having lots to say about it, there was also a lot of frustration regarding their situation and the policies in their company.

Their HR director was there and many of the comments were obviously directed at him in the hope of starting an internal discussion about perhaps making some changes regarding real flexibility (not just the usual flextime that doesn’t really provide us with a lot of flexibility at all, read more about that here) and the possibility of working offsite more.

Well, after I finished my talk I felt really good. I felt like I had really made a difference in these people’s lives if I, by being there and talking about my research, had helped them by kick-starting a discussion to change things for the better. This feeling stayed with me for about five minutes until the HR director came up to me to thank me for a very good and informative talk. So far so good, but then he goes on to say that the clock cards that they have (that had been criticized quite a bit during the discussion) are really great. That people actually really like and want them. What? Were we just in the same room listening to the same comments?? Then he goes on to say that allowing people to work offsite is just too hard because how would you know that people are actually working if you can’t see them…

By now I wasn’t feeling quite as hopeful anymore. I had just spent a lot of time talking about and citing research on the benefits of real flexibility and the possibility of working offsite. I mean just because people are in the office and you can see them is no guarantee that they are actually working. The thing is though, if you do allow people the freedom to have more control over when, where, and how they work you need to develop new management routines. In this company, they use the clock card to do the managers’ work. I hope I don’t have to explain what is wrong with using a clock card time system to manage your people instead of doing it yourself. And yes, he was right in that if people don’t come into the office to stamp their card, the system won’t be able to know if they are working or not. The manager would actually have to step in and manage.

But it saddened me. I felt sad for the employees who, after that great and open discussion, hadn’t been heard. And I felt disappointed that the HR director who should know better just wasn’t listening. He was just hearing what he wanted to hear and the rest just didn’t register.

So next time someone is talking to you, take a moment to consider this: are you really listening to what they are saying or are you just hearing what you want to hear and confirming what you already know?