See this article in The Guardian featuring Rob in December 2017.
Author Archives: Rob Kendall
Many years ago, I worked with a remarkable man who’d spent 20 years as a monk before getting married, starting a family and becoming a brilliant educator. He was making a brief stop in the UK and I had the afternoon free, so I took him to Hampton Court Palace near London.
I imagined that we’d go round the palace, but he seemed more interested in the garden, so we walked round that instead. I set out at my normal walking pace, which was almost a jog, but he wasn’t in such a rush. He asked me when the blossoms came out, and although the same trees were on my street, I couldn’t remember because I always dashed past them. He inquired into the history of Hampton Court; I knew King Henry VIII had lived there but couldn’t recall anything else. He was aware that I’d been a professional artist and he stopped to ask me about the correct name for a particular shade of red on one of the flowers. I said I had no idea. He must have got a little exasperated at this point because he turned to me and said, in a gentle way, “Do you notice anything?”
His words stung, but they highlighted an uncomfortable truth: that I lived in a cloud of distraction and missed out on experiencing what was in front of me. As Leonardo da Vinci is claimed to have said, “An average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.”
Living in a state of distraction inevitably leads to shallower relationships and reduced effectiveness, but a study conducted by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert revealed that we pay a price in happiness too. They used an iPhone application to gather data from 2,250 participants, aged 18 to 88, on subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their daily lives. They concluded that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. The punchline was this: people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not.
The challenge of being present isn’t helped by the fact that our attention span is shortening. For example, researchers at the University of California tracked the average time people spent looking at a computer screen before moving their attention to another window. In 2004 the average time was three minutes. By 2012 this had dropped to one minute and 15 seconds and in 2014 it broke the one-minute barrier, averaging 59.5 seconds. The issue with switching attention is that it exacerbates our tendency to bring thoughts and emotions from the last task or conversation into the new one, which in turn erodes our ability to engage in the present moment. Sophie Leroy, a business school professor at the University of Minnesota, refers to this phenomenon as attention residue. It’s the same challenge faced by a professional tennis player whose game suffers because she gets caught up in thinking about the volley she missed in the last game rather than playing the point in front of her. Equally, we rob ourselves of experiencing the present moment when we are engaged in anticipatory rumination; on these occasions, we are too busy thinking about a future moment to experience the present one.
The good news is that small changes in our habits can make a demonstrable difference.
- Start to notice how little you notice. Improving the quality of our attention starts with observing it. While it’s impossible to always give people your undivided attention, you can notice when your attention drifts away and then bring it back to the person you’re speaking to. This takes discipline and practice but begins to turn the habit of being distracted into a habit of being present.
- Practice switching on and switching off. The correlation between preoccupation and unhappiness makes good sense when we consider the converse: that simple activities can be a source of great joy when we become absorbed in them. The following practice will help. When you begin a task or conversation, imagine that you’re turning off a switch that relates to the last thing you were doing and turning on a switch that relates to the new one. Sports professionals use the same prompt to remind them to stay in the present. Before moving to your next activity, you’ll need to switch off again, before repeating the process again. You can practice this countless times each day; each time you do so, you are strengthening the mental boundary between tasks and improving the quality of your attention.
- Go deeper. Interruptions are a part of life, but this doesn’t stop us scheduling uninterrupted time, during which we put our phone away and stop checking our emails. During these activities, focus entirely on what you’re doing, expecting to be nowhere else. Being absorbed is both productive and healthy.
As neuroscientist Moshe Bar puts it, “Except when you are flying an F-16 aircraft or experiencing extreme fear or having an orgasm, your life leaves too much room for your mind to wander. As a result, only a small fraction of your mental capacity remains engaged in what is before it, and mind-wandering and ruminations become a tax on the quality of your life.”
Thankfully, the route to being happier may lie directly under our nose.
Moshe Bar, ‘Think Less, Think Better’, The New York Times, June 2016.
Steve Bradt, ‘Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind’, Harvard Gazette, 11 November 2010, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind
Ian Hardy, ‘Losing Focus: Why Tech is Getting in the Way of Work’, BBC News, 8 May 2015, www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32628753, based on studies by Professor Gloria Mark, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California.
Sophie Leroy, ‘Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks’, Science Direct, July 2009.
The life lesson we should have been taught at school.
We all suffer from emotional overreactions. In the heat of the moment we say something to a person we love without stopping to consider the shockwaves. Or we blast off an email and wonder why we didn’t sleep on it before pressing ‘Send’. Our emotions spill over and, by the time they recede, the damage is done.
There’s no denying that this kind of behavior is on the rise. In the public domain, barely a day passes without newspapers splashing the story that a comment, tweet or email has caused an uproar. Demands are made for heads to roll, and responses range from retractions (‘I apologise unreservedly for my lack of judgement …’) to defiance (‘This is a ridiculous case of political correctness…’). And then the next story breaks.
The converse situation is that we feel gripped by fear or anxiety and fail to seize the moment to speak up or act according to our values. The consequences of freezing can be just as deleterious, and sometimes more so, than overreacting. Either way, managing our emotions is a tricky business.
When we look back on these situations our stock explanation is, ‘My emotions got the better of me’. But this raises a serious question: am I in charge of my emotions, or are they in charge of me? Nobody asked me this question at school, or told me the answer. Consequently I stumbled into the adult world with a royal flush of emotions – ranging from joy and excitement to fear and anger – without a manual for how to live with them.
The truth is that we’ve ended up with a tangled mess of advice in this area. Much of the prevailing literature tells us to squash negative emotions and replace them with positive ones. Other experts tell us this is tantamount to putting icing on dog food and calling it cake. So which, if any, is right?
To navigate through this emotional battleground, some important distinctions need to be made:
- We cannot turn emotions on and off like a tap. They will come and go whether we like it or not. Once this is clear in your mind, you can stop waiting for unwanted emotions to go away. The idea that we can banish them is unhelpful and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny; they are part-and-parcel of the human experience. Besides, the more we strive to live according to our values and commitments, the more our emotions will rise up to challenge us.
- Emotions aren’t positive or negative. The human brain is wired to categorize things as positive or negative, and is particularly alert to threats. This made good evolutionary sense for our ancestors, who learned to react to external threats for the purposes of survival. As humans developed language, we employed the same process of classification to our internal state, including our emotions. Thus we see joy as positive, and therefore welcome, and fear as negative and unwelcome. However, this creates new problems. On the basis that ‘what we resist persists’, suppressing emotions that we perceive to be negative causes them to tighten their grip on us. So what’s the alternative? If we can experience the full range of human emotions without attaching positive and negative labels to them, the result can be hugely liberating. Take Dame Judi Dench as an example, who has won one Oscar, two Golden Globes and 10 BAFTA awards. She says that the more she acts the more frightened she becomes. In contrast to thousands of aspiring performers who are waiting for the day when they’ll overcome their fear, she treats it as a companion rather than an enemy. This is not to say that she finds her fear comfortable, but she makes no attempt to resist it, and therefore it doesn’t define her. ‘I have the fear,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t be without it.’ Perhaps this is why her on-screen characters brim with humanity.
- You are not your emotions. Emotions are, by their very nature, strong. However, it’s important to get clear that you are not your emotions. You are a person with values and commitments who happens to have emotions that are triggered on a regular and ongoing basis. This point might seem semantic, but it isn’t. When we become fused to our emotions – thinking that ‘they’ and ‘we’ are one and the same thing – we are effectively hijacked by them. If you can notice emotions without becoming them, they no longer determine your behaviour.
- We always have a choice. A thought or feeling in itself doesn’t prevent you from taking any action. It’s easy to think, ‘I’m frightened and can’t speak’, but this is a trick of the mind. It would be more accurate and authentic to say, ‘I’m frightened and I’m choosing not to speak.’ Being able to observe our emotions – even when they feel overwhelmingly powerful – creates a space in which we can reference our commitments and values. While we cannot always choose our emotions, we can choose our response to them. This gets to the heart of responsibility, and responsibility is probably the closest thing to a superpower that human beings possess.
This blog was published on the Psychology Today website on 14 August 2017.
The route through my professional life has not been traditional or linear. I worked with amputees at the age of 18 in India, before completing a degree in English at the University of York and becoming a professional artist with work sold in 24 countries.
I’ve spent the last 25 years studying the art and practice of conversation. During this time I’ve worked with over 70 organizations on five continents, including the 2012 London Olympics, Virgin, the Post Office and BBC Worldwide.
My first book Blamestorming: Why Conversations Go Wrong and How to Fix Them was published by Watkins in September 2014 and is available in 5 languages. The follow-up is Workstorming: Why Conversations at Work Go Wrong and How to Fix Them which was published in September 2016. The techniques referred to in my books have been developed from working with thousands of people, including business leaders, sports professionals and teenagers.
I am represented by Robert Kirby at United Agents.
I’m a Non-Executive Director at BAFTA and EMMY-winning visual effects company Jellyfish Pictures, based in Soho, London. Have a look at www.jellyfishpictures.co.uk
Over the last 25 years I have worked with leaders, managers and staff in over 70 organisations on five continents. My job is to support you in delivering on your commitments, without losing yourself in the process.
Areas of focus include:
- Helping you invent a bold future and strategy for your team or organisation that people are passionate about delivering
- Developing strong and resilient leadership teams
- Turning around relationships and projects that are failing
- Designing bespoke programmes that equip your people to lead and manage in an environment of continual reinvention
- Individual support for leaders faced with challenging commitments
- Creating leadership meetings (often globally) that mobilise the commitment of your leaders
- Working alongside teams who are delivering critical projects that will define your future success
- Abbott World Marathon Majors
- Alliance & Leicester
- American Express
- BAA – Heathrow Terminal 5
- Bank of Cyprus
- Bank of Ireland
- BBC Worldwide
- Bovis Lend Lease
- British Gas
- Crossrail (BFK)
- Direct Valuations
- Ferrovial Agroman
- First Rate Exchange Services
- FTSE Group
- Heathrow Airports Ltd
- HS2 (Fusion project)
- Jellyfish Pictures
- Jones Lang Lasalle
- Kent County Cricket Team
- Lagan Construction
- Laing O’Rourke
- Line Up
- Liquid Capital
- Lloyds Register
- London 2012 Olympics
- London Marathon
- Lucent Technologies
- Manchester Metrolink
- Mercury Communications
- Met Office
- Mortgage Force
- Nationwide Platforms
- Old Mutual Group
- park run
- Premier Farnell
- Prudential Assurance
- Prudential Banking
- Saatchi & Saatchi
- Scottish Water Solutions
- Société Générale
- St James’s Place
- The Institute of Financial Planning
- The Post Office
- Virgin Money
- Virgo Health
- Warwick Schools Foundation
- Zurich Banking