Rachel Morris: If you feel like you’re clinging on to your sanity until your next holiday, then you’re not alone. Many people are suffering with overwhelming stress at the moment, and not just in health and social care. But is it possible to be stressed and bored at the same time? A few years ago, I realized that this had happened to me. In order to keep up with the demands of work and life with three small children, I had tried to simplify things. And it ended up losing anything interesting or challenging from my life.
So in this podcast episode, I’m talking about what to do. If it feels like you’re running as fast as you can just stay still, and you’re feeling restless and bored with what you’re doing. The answer is not to cut down stuff until there’s nothing left for the client or the patient facing work. Nor is it to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and give it all up. So become a diving instructor in the Maldives. Although if that’s your lifelong dream, then please go for it.
In this episode, a solo one from me, I’ll share some insights from positive psychology about well being about getting into flow and the basic human need for growth and development. That will help you make some small changes that will make a big difference. So listen to this episode to find out the difference between the pleasant the good and the meaningful life, why the concept of flow is so important and the easiest way to achieve it. And a simple change that you can make, which will make a huge difference to the way that you feel
Sometimes when I finally stop and try to relax, I just don’t know what to do with myself. It seems to take a while to decelerate, switch my brain off and really rest. So we’ve put together a summer playlist of different podcasts, good books, stuff to watch on TV blogs, to read. And Ted Talks and films to check out. They’ve all been things that have brought me great joy, and have helped me relax a little bit. So if you’d like to get hold of our summer, download playlists, then do click on the link in the show notes. It’s totally free. And maybe it will just help you get some inspiration, get some perspective. And above all, get a little bit of rest and relaxation.
I’m recording this on a very hot afternoon in July, and many of us are clinging on by our fingertips, right now, just waiting for holidays, where eventually we’ll get a chance to properly rest. Now, we know in health and social care at the moment, there is a pandemic of overwhelm, and it’s much, much worse following the COVID pandemic. Many people in all the training that I do are telling me about how overwhelmed and stressed they are.
But, I’ve noticed another toxic combination and that is the combination of being bored and stressed. Because I think a lot is made of being overwhelmed and certainly, whenever we do our training, I ask people, what’s stopping you giving your best at work right now? The overwhelming answer is workload. This feeling of overwhelm, the feeling that there’s never enough time in the day to do everything that you need to do.
But even before the pandemic, people are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, and a lot of what we talk about on the podcast is tips to help you deal with the overwhelm. Because let’s face it, the overwhelm isn’t going away. In healthcare, and some of the other professions I know you guys are in, the demand will never cease.
There will always be too much demand for the resources that are available. Hence, there will always be too much work. But what if you are feeling overwhelmed, but you’re also feeling incredibly bored. And I think this is a toxic combination. I remember a few years ago, I was watching that brilliant BBC TV series Sherlock.
It was the episode where Dr. Watson thinks that Sherlock is dead, so he goes back to being a doctor. He’s sitting in his consulting room and his wife keeps putting her head round the door going, well, I’ve got another one for you. This one’s got thrush. Next one, toenail infection; next one, spots, et cetera, et cetera, you get the drift. It just struck me. I thought, Oh, my goodness, this is what my life has boiled down to.
Because at the time, I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed. What I did to cope with the overwhelm was get rid of some of the stuff in my life that felt a little bit difficult, that felt a little bit challenging. But, what had happened was that I was just left with the boring stuff. Let’s face it, there can be a lot of the boring stuff. Now, I tell you this story not to say that consulting, seeing patients, seeing clients is the boring stuff.
It definitely isn’t. But if we strip away everything else in our jobs and are just left with the service delivery, churning through the production of the widgets, or whatever else you do, then it is likely that you will become this toxic combination of bored and stressed. Now, the traditional advice, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, when you’re feeling stressed, is to eliminate stuff, and that’s something that I talk about all the time.
Michael Hyatt, in his Free to Focus books, talks about the fact that when we are overwhelmed with things to do, when we have too much on our to do lists, we just need to eliminate, automate, and delegate, and I am all for that. In fact, just very simple things like setting up recurring email signatures with things I’m regularly saying on email has been absolutely brilliant, and using Calendly, which is a appointment phone call booking app that can sync straight into your diary has been a complete game changer.
And then, delegating out some of the stuff that other people can do much, much better than me, has also been a massive help. But at the end of the day, we do need to try and eliminate some of the things in our lives when we are overwhelmed and we are stressed. What my worry is, is that we eliminate the wrong things, rather than eliminating some of the very repetitive work that is getting quite boring.
We tend to look at our lives and eliminate some of the stuff that actually is the most challenging for us such as new roles that we’ve taken on or ideas that we’ve had, or things that we would love to do. Often because the boring stuff, the stuff that feels a bit like drudgery is the stuff that pays well.
The stuff that is safe and the stuff that is risk free. The problem with this is then yes, the workload can then start to fit into our working day much more easily, but it has this very insidious risk of causing disengagement, detachment, and boredom. I’m sure that a lot of you listening will understand exactly what I’m talking about. So often, when teams are stressed, when they’ve got too much to do, the first thing that goes is their learning.
The first thing that goes with their team development is their getting together and solving some of those tricky problems within the team, or even thinking about how the team could operate differently, because this all takes time.
I think in healthcare, we’ve got this idea that learning is only to get to a particular place. I mean, all our lives, we’ve learned towards exams, haven’t we? We’ve stayed up all night to get through our university exams to qualify, to get through our professional exams, to hit that next level, the next level and the next level. So for many of us, learning has just become a chore that we’ve had to do to hit the next level.
But, learning, growing and developing yourself are absolutely crucial for wellbeing and for living a life well. If you look back at all the study into positive psychology going on from the early 90s, or the late 80s, really, you will know that they talked about three different types of life. Martin Seligman talks about this really well in a TED talk, which he did. So essentially, you’ve got three different types of life. The first life is the pleasant life where you have enough money to buy yourself pleasant experiences.
The problem with a pleasant life is it can only get you so much life satisfaction. So if you’re making enough money to get a nice car, go on nice holidays, have a nice house, that’s all very well and good. But then, what happens is people focus on making even more money, often by just doing the same thing again, and again and again, or working even longer hours. That slightly nicer house, the better holiday, the faster car — does that buy them higher life satisfaction?
Absolutely not, and we all know that deep down. So if we just focus on doing what we do in order to get enough so that we can live a pleasant life, we will get very mediocre life satisfaction. Now, the second type of life that they described in positive psychology, time and time, again, is the good life. This is a life where you are regularly doing something that gets you into flow. Now, flow was originally described by the psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to be that state that you get into when you’re doing something that has a really great level of challenge.
You’re engrossed in it. You’re enjoying it and time is literally standing still. Now, many people can get into a state of flow in their work, say, in good conversations, or when they’re working on a really tricky problem, or creating something. If you can get into flow in your work well, that really, really is the holy grail, because we know that a state of flow is really really good for human thriving.
But for many, many people, their day job alone isn’t enough to get them into the state of flow in a regular enough manner, and so they need to look elsewhere to get into flow. That’s why people do evening classes, learn new skills, play team sports, play board games, because these are the sorts of things that get them into flow. So, playing a musical instrument, reading a book, watching a film, these can all really get you into flow.
The quickest way to get into flow is to learn something new, particularly learning a new skill. A life which has plenty of opportunities for you to get into flow is going to give you a high level of life satisfaction. Now, they also describe a third type of life, which is the meaningful life and that is where you are regularly giving and contributing to a cause beyond yourself. So, it’s not just all about you and what you can gain.
That will give you a very high level of life satisfaction. So, I think it’s really important to remember those three different types of life. Because most of us focus on having enough to live the pleasant life, but we forget about these other two lives, the good life, where you get into flow regularly, and the meaningful life where you are giving regularly. Those of you that have studied medical education or coaching or mentoring will also know about Maslow’s hierarchy, which is that pyramid of basic human needs.
At the bottom, the basic human need is for food, for safety, for shelter. The next level up is for love, for acceptance, for belonging. As you get towards the top, you will find learning and self actualisation. So, the ability for human beings to become as good as they can be, and we all know that reaching our potential is something inbuilt in us that we really, really want to do. So, being stuck in a career or a job where you’re feeling bored and stressed, probably means that you’re nowhere near the top of that pyramid.
That you’re not growing or developing in any way, shape, or form and you’re probably not getting into flow regularly either. So when you are feeling this toxic combination of bored and stressed, rather than firstly, looking at what do I just need to cut out from my life. Perhaps you should start with looking at, ‘What do I need to learn. How can I grow and develop? How can I get myself into a place where I’ve got more flow in my life, where there’s a little bit more meaning in my life, rather than just grinding through the daily chores?’
When I had this massive realisation when I was watching Sherlock, that actually I was incredibly stressed, as well as incredibly bored. I started to think to myself, well, what is it that I can do about it, because I looked at these piles of medical journals stacked up by my desk and thought to myself, well, I just haven’t had any time to read any of this. But then, I looked at the pile of books stacked next to my bed and I realised that I had read an incredible number of books over the last six months.
So, it wasn’t, I didn’t have any time to learn and grow and develop. It’s just the things I thought I should be checking out and developing in, were not the things I was interested in at all, because we do have time in our weeks. We all have 168 hours in a week. And if you sleep eight hours a night hurt the chances would be a fine thing but If you do, you still have 100 pen, awake hours. Now if you’re at work for 60 of those hours, you will still have 50 hours in which to do all your other activities of daily living.
So, is it too much to ask that you might be able to find half an hour a week to do something in terms of learning, growing and developing? Of course not, I think I can identify 30 minutes. I just spend doomscrolling through Facebook every week. But often, we’re so tired. We’re so depleted from our jobs. Actually, learning the latest guidelines really doesn’t do it for us, and we just want to do something that our brains are going to enjoy, like watching TV or checking out Instagram.
So, you don’t need masses of time to grow and develop like everything in this podcast. Small changes will make a huge, huge difference to your life. You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater either, and think, ‘Right, I’m going to completely leave my job in order to go and develop in that particular area.’ Often, it’s just those small steps that will make a huge difference. As the old saying goes, a change is as good as a holiday.
So, how do we do this? How do we fit in growth and development into our very, very busy, busy, busy weeks without increasing our chances of burning out? Well, firstly, I think it’s important to recognize that it will in fact, reduce your stress and it will reduce your chances of burning out. The government in 2008 decided to develop the five ways to well-being, a little bit like a five fruit and veggie day, but for the mind.
They looked at those three different types of life that I talked about just now, and they looked at all the positive psychology stuff and they came up with these five ways to well-being, the first one being connecting with other people, the second one being active, so getting enough exercise. We then had noticing which is all about staying in the present moment, and the fourth one is giving.
Now, the other one that they came up with was learning, so learning is one of the five ways to well-being, so it isn’t just about self actualisation. It’s actually good for you in the here and now. It will benefit you now as well as in the future. So, how do you do this easily and joyfully? I’ve already said that one of the first mistakes people make when they’re overwhelmed is to get rid of a load of stuff, and it’s often the stuff that’s feeling quite challenging.
Now, I think there’s a big difference between stuff that is challenging and stretching, and stuff that is just plain difficult. There’s a great book by Greg McKeown called Effortless, and it really challenges this assumption we have, that anything that’s worth doing has got to be really, really difficult. We’ve got to soldier on and push through. I completely agree with him. I think, oftentimes, the things that are worth doing are those things that feel easy.
That feels like the universe is leading us in the right direction, where all the stars suddenly seems to become aligned for it, where there aren’t too many obstacles in the way. So, that’s my definition of easy, yet challenging. The very easy but non-challenging option is just to keep the status quo, to keep your head down, and just carry on with that boring, stressful stuff, but don’t make it difficult for yourself.
When I looked at that pile of medical journals, I realised that the stuff I was reading was all the self help or their personal leadership books. I was really, really enjoying them.
It felt really easy to read them. I was learning far more than I would have learned in a different way, because it was things that I was interested in. So firstly, look for your interest, follow your interest, see what you’re naturally drawn to. This is another mistake. I think that we often get wrong as medics, we think we need to be good at everything, and so often, we go off and do courses on stuff that we really need to improve, on stuff where we feel we’re failing a little bit, or not doing so well.
Of course, if you are practising in an area where you need some knowledge about a certain thing and your knowledge is really not up to scratch, then you need to go and do that. But often, this obsession with being brilliant at everything, being a jack of all trades, just means that we are a master of none. All the evidence from the research around character and personal strengths is that if you focus on developing your strengths, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck than if you focus on developing your weaknesses.
Now, I’m really not very good at spreadsheets, and I could go on courses and things to develop my skills in that area, my analytical skills, but I know that’s really not where my interest lies. It’s not where my skills lie. Actually, I’m better spending my time on thinking how I can communicate better, how I can make better podcasts, then focusing on developing my analytical spreadsheet skills. It’s just more cost effective. It’s more time effective.
The problem is many of us don’t even know what our strengths are, and that’s not your fault. Typically, in medicine, we’ve never had that personal development stuff that helps you do that. So, if you have any coaching schemes in your area or any places where you can go and find out about your strengths, then I really recommend going and getting a strength inventory done.
You can do a free strength survey if you Google authentic happiness, and then go to the VIA survey of character strengths, and that’s well worth doing. Because if you focus on developing your strength, well, you’ll just enjoy yourself much more, and you’ll be much much more successful in that. The great thing about our jobs in medicine is that we can pick and choose the extra roles that we take on. For example, we could major on teaching or we could major on quality improvements or we could do some medical writing, for example.
It is possible to be really diverse even within one particular speciality. So, a bit of self awareness, a bit of understanding our own strengths is really, really helpful when working out actually how can we learn and grow and develop in an easy way. Now, the second circle on my Venn diagram is working out what you need right now.
Many of us will be going on holiday soon and I suspect that what a lot of us need is rest. I know I, right now, need a little bit of fun. I need a bit of inspiration, rather than knowledge right now. So if you need rest right now, then probably what you don’t want to be doing is signing up for a very intense course. You might want to be finding an interesting book that you can leave through whilst you’re on a sun lounger or perhaps a couple of podcasts that you can listen to in a desired area to increase the skill or even taking yourself off on a day long course where you can learn a skill just for the sake of learning it.
So, work out what you need and see if you can fit that growth and development in to what you need. I recognised a while back that, actually, I wanted to spend a little bit more time with my kids, particularly over the weekend, and at the same time, an ice rink was built in Cambridge. I’ve always wanted to learn how to ice skate, and so did my daughter, so we signed up for ice skating lessons together.
Every Sunday morning, we get up early. We drive to the ice rink, and we have a half an hour lesson. During which time, I will often fall over, get thoroughly wet and come out with a massive smile on my face. The other week, I was driving to ice skating thinking, why do I do this, this is so early in the morning. I’d love to just be in my bed. Where is this leading to? It’s not like I’m ever going to be invited to be part of an ice dance display team or be sent to the Olympics, or maybe have to cross a frozen lake to get emergency assistance.
You know, ice skating is just not one of those skills that you need in your everyday life. But when I looked at those five ways to wellbeing, I realised how many it hit. It hit the being active. In fact, it uses a lot of core strength, which I really need at the moment, believe me. It helps you notice you have to be in the present moment when you’re trying to go backwards in a circle on one leg. When you’re ice skating, you really don’t think about anything else.
Of course, you’re learning a skill that gets you into that flow, and I am definitely in that flow. I don’t think about anything else during the half an hour of my lesson. It’s also helping me connect with my daughter. We listen to her latest boyband crush on the way there. We talk about other people in our family. It’s a really special time. So, I’m actually hitting four ways to well-being in half an hour on a Sunday morning.
Now, I’ve been tempted to give it up because it costs money. I know the cost of living is going up, but sometimes, investing in this sort of stuff is the best thing that you can do with your money rather than investing in more things, in more stuff. So, my third Venn diagram, when you’re trying to decide what you should do, would be: look at ways of learning and growing and developing, which actually hits some of those other ways to well-being.
That way, you can save time, and you’re killing two birds with one stone, very effective. Another way to make this easy is to think about my fourth Venn diagram circle. This is all about how you learn. How do you learn best? Are you an audio learner?ow you learn how do you learn best, I just love walking around listening to podcasts. I listen to the radio, I listen to podcasts in my car all the time.
If I’m doing an online course, I’ll actually very rarely watch the video, I’ll often listen to it. But many of you will like to watch things in the online learning industry. Everything is now delivered as bite size video. Goes for people to watch seems to be a very good way of cementing knowledge for people. So if you’re a visual learner, then finding something that you could watch to learn can be very helpful. And then don’t forget those of you that learn by doing stuff that kinesthetic learners, or those who like to write. So find different ways of learning that use all those different learning styles.
And the other thing that’s very helpful is to understand yourself, are you an introvert or are you an extrovert, when we’re talking about introverts and extroverts, we’re really talking about the Myers Briggs type definition of an introvert and an extrovert. So we may think that an extrovert is somebody who’s very, very sociable, but that is not really this particular deck definition of an extrovert. It’s all about how you recharge. Now, an extrovert is a bit like a robot who recharges by being outside by being in the sun.
So it’s a solar powered robot that needs interactions, and sunshine to replenish their energy. So those of you that are extroverts, learning with other people is a brilliant way of doing this. So please don’t be too quick to rule out going to face to face events where you can interact with people in the flesh, it is so, so different. And I’m now back to doing some face to face events. And it is completely different experience from just watching something online or even interacting online.
But if you can’t get to face to face stuff, joining live training can often be really, really helpful, particularly to the interactions in the breakout rooms that you get. Now, if you’re an introvert, then you will replenish and recharge your energy by being on your own. It’s a bit like a robot who expends all their energy during the day. And then at night needs to go into a cupboard and plug itself in to recharge and introverts out there, you will know who you are. And for you the thought of learning in a big group where you have to socialize and where you have to talk all the time is an absolute nightmare for you.
So, find ways that you can learn on your own. Like I said, there’s so many courses that you can do on your own, or you might just want to be in a thinking partnership with one other person. A bit of self awareness goes a long way, when you’re working out how and when you should be learning.
Then finally, and this goes for everybody, try and find things that are going to use your right brain. In medicine, in health care, in social care, a lot of our work is using that logical thinking part of our brains, that means that we solve problems well, that’s has to analyse loads of facts and figures, all the time has to be very, very logical about things. I think one of the reasons why learning and playing gets us into flow so quickly, is it’s often engaging the right side of our brain, that creative bit of our brain, that spiritual bit of our brain, that bit that connects with everybody, and everything.
Now, for me, I’m absolutely hopeless at history. I didn’t study it at GCSE. My knowledge of current affairs is woeful. But, I have learned the history that I, now, know through reading novels, so I’ve learned all about the history of China through reading the Wild Swans novels. I’ve learned all about Henry the Eighth through reading the Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall novels and also the excellent Shardlake, Hunchback lawyer novels as well, which I’d really recommend.
A lot of my knowledge of the Second World War has come through reading Louis de Bernières and other war literature. So, finding creative ways of engaging with learning — really, really important, and it just makes it fun. You might just want to think about how you can get all those different circles to intersect. Think about what you’re interested in. Think about what your strengths are. Think about what you really need right now. Do you need some rest?
Do you need some inspiration? Do you need some deep study? Think about what your learning style is. Do you like to listen? Are you a visual learner? Are you a kinesthetic learner? Think about are you an introvert — would you prefer to learn by yourself? Are you an extrovert? You need to go and do stuff with other people, in which case you might go sign up for some sort of evening class or sign up for a group lessons in something.
If you’re time-poor, is there something that will intersect with some of those other ways to well-being such as being active, so learning a new sport skill like that, or learning something that’s going to help you give to other people or connect with other people. Then, get creative about how you do it. There is so much stuff out there.
There is so much stuff out there. I guess the problem sometimes is that there’s just too much choice. Or when we come across stuff, we think Oh I’d love to watch that or listen to that or learn about that. We’re in the middle of something else and we forget it. That’s why I’ve actually started a list on my phone, it’s a to do list, it’s just called Check this out, whenever I see a good link that I want to check out or a YouTube video I want to watch or a podcast I want to listen to, I will just save it in that list.
And then when I have a little bit of time, and I just want to listen to something, I will click on the first thing on that list. So, there’s just some hints and tips about how you can get a little bit more learning and growth into your very, very busy working week.
I just want to reiterate what I’m not trying to do is tell you to fit more and more into your already busy and packed schedule. What I’m saying is that if you make time for a bit of learning and growth and development, you will find that it radically increases your feeling of well-being, your feeling of satisfaction in life, even if nothing much has really changed.
I think one of the great things about learning and developing is that if you start to dig deeply into a topic and really follow your interest in that area, you will find that new opportunities open up for you within your work, or that you start to seek out opportunities along those lines within your work. A few years ago, I was listening to a podcast all about the fact that following your passion is a really, really stupid thing to do.
But, following your interest, however, is a really, really smart thing to do, because we are generally interested in what we enjoy, and also what we’re good at. Now, will this be challenging? Yes, of course, it will be challenging. That’s the whole point. When I first started ice skating, it was really challenging to go backwards at all. Now, going backwards is really easy. What’s challenging is to spin without falling over.
But, there’s a difference between stuff being really difficult, and feeling like a real chore, and things being challenging. The thing about challenging things is you do have to set aside time to do it. Very often, we write off the stuff that we want to do to learn and grow and develop, because it takes too much time. But, investing this time in learning and growing will be a fantastic investment, and there are different ways to find this time.
Firstly, just recognising all the time that we waste on stuff that isn’t particularly enjoyable, and not particularly necessary, so eliminating that stuff that’s not urgent and not important. And then, seeing, learning something that is important, because it will never ever become urgent for you. Unless of course you’ve got an exam the next day, in which case it becomes very urgent and very important.
But really, when we’re learning and developing in our careers, this is often stuff that just is put on the back burner, because no one’s clamouring out for it. Often, people just don’t see the value in it. So if you currently feel that toxic combination of bored and stressed, can I encourage you not to take the easy route of just ditching all the stuff that feels challenging, putting all the learning, the growth and development on the backburner.
So, you can just churn through yet more of the stuff that you’re finding boring and stressful, but think about ways in which you can add some learning, some growth and some development into your life in a way that’s easy, that’s joyful, but will be challenging. Because by getting into flow, by reaching your potential, you’ll actually find your life satisfaction goes up. You’ll find your mental health improves.
You may also find opportunities to diversify your role in what you’re doing now, so that you get a better balance between the boring stuff and the challenging stuff, and just take a moment to think what you need right now. What you need over the summer? How can you learn and grow in a way that’s going to give you what you need, that’s going to give you some rest, that’s going to give you some inspiration, or some fun, and don’t feel guilty about it?
Side note, whenever we do anything that fits into the not urgent but important quadrant in the urgent-important matrix, we feel like we’re wasting our time with being self-indulgent. Because let’s face it, if you’re ticking off patients tasks, referral letters, results, filing, appraisals, et cetera, et cetera, you feel busy. You feel productive. But whenever we set time aside for strategy, for goal setting, for self development, we feel guilty because we just feel that little tap tap tap of all that urgent important stuff on our shoulder.
But realise this, if you are someone who is growing and developing, getting into flow regularly and living the good life or the meaningful life that gives you high levels of satisfaction with life and work, then you will be happier. You’ll be more successful. You’ll be a better doctor, a better colleague, a better partner, a better friend. So, prioritise learning in your life. Check out some of the links I’ll put in the show notes.
We’ve also included a lot of different recommendations in our summer checklist, so do download that. I wish you all a restful summer. I hope you get a chance to reflect and think about what you really want, and then make a deliberate choice about how you’re going to live and work so that you can thrive in life and work. I’ll see you in the autumn.