Industry Insights

How to shift from languishing to flourishing: Q&A with Adam Grant

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We need to rethink the way we work. The global pandemic has made it strikingly clear that working longer hours does not lead to greater impact. In fact, it leads to burned out, unhappy, and unproductive employees. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, 76% of workers are struggling to disconnect from work. And, in the last year, 7 in 10 workers experienced burnout.

To rethink work and life in the new normal, we sat down with Adam Grant at our recent Focus & Flow Summit. Adam is an organizational psychologist, bestselling author, and professor at Wharton focusing on how we can find motivation and meaning, and live more generous and creative lives. 

Here’s what Adam had to say about that blah feeling we’ve all experienced during the pandemic and how we can shift into a state of flourishing. These insights can help us achieve greater focus and flow in our personal and professional lives. 

Understanding that blah feeling

Q: What is languishing?
A: Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. You’re not depressed; you still have hope. You’re not burned out; you still have energy. But, you feel a little bit aimless and a little bit joyless. It’s that sense of emptiness and stagnation—like you’re in a void or you’re looking at the world through a foggy windshield. It’s a real thing, and you’re not alone. 

There’s something you can do about it to move towards flourishing, which is the peak of wellbeing. Flourishing is when you feel like you have a sense of mastery, you have meaning, and you matter to other people.

Q: How do you shift from languishing to flourishing?
A: When the pandemic started, I got a taste of what it might take to move us in that direction. I reached out to American astronaut Scott Kelly, who set the record for spending 340 consecutive days in space. I thought, “If anyone knows how to live and work remotely, it’s the guy who literally lived off the planet for a whole year.”

Scott said that he prepared for a trip like that very differently than a typical mission. He’d been in space three times before but knew the year was going to be different. So, he set a goal to come back to Earth with the same energy and enthusiasm he left with. He needed something to look forward to. And that mental image of coming back to Earth with energy and enthusiasm was what powered him through the most difficult parts of that experience.

Tips to move from languishing to flourishing

Q: What is mental time travel and how can it help?
A: A lot of us are told carpe diem: seize the day, live in the moment. But in the middle of the pandemic, the moment sucks for a lot of us. What Scott Kelly was doing on the space station was exercising a skill that in psychology we call mental time travel. Mental time travel is the act of rewinding or fast forwarding to imagine either the past or the future.

There’s power in this idea of imagining the emotional state you want to feel in the future. It does give you something to look forward to. So, I immediately sat down with my wife and kids and said, “The day this pandemic is over, and in the week and month to follow, what do we want to do? Who do we want to see? Where do we want to go?” And, that’s really energized us through the past few months or so.  

Q: Should we focus on making a little progress every day?
A: Once you create that image of the future, ask yourself, “What do I need to do in order to create that energy and enthusiasm day-to-day?” What psychologists find over and over again is that it doesn’t take a big triumph or a major accomplishment to transcend languishing. All it takes are small wins—little moments of progress. 

The interesting thing about progress is it turns out to be the single strongest predictor of daily joy and energy at work—just feeling like you moved forward on a goal that you were trying to pursue. And I think that’s so important because if languishing is stagnation, progress is the antithesis of stagnation.

Q: What role does our own self resilience play?
A: A mistake a lot of us made over the past 15 or so months is we’ve said, “Well, I have never been through a pandemic before. So, I have no idea how to deal with this.” And it’s true, unless you’re 104 years old. 

But by asking what has maintained your energy and enthusiasm in difficult circumstances before, you realize you have faced loss, rejection, failure, and all kinds of stress and adversity, and you can learn lessons from your own past resilience. To get out of languishing, you want to look to the past to glean those lessons and you want an exciting image of the future to give you hope. 

Tips for flourishing with your team at work

Q: What should we do about micromanagers?
A: I’d encourage them instead to macromanage. Macromanagement is the process of focusing on what is our purpose? Why are we here? How do we inject meaning into our day-to-day work? 

Research on virtual teams shows that it’s nice to have icebreakers and happy hours, but even more important when it comes to building a sense of cohesion and purpose in a virtual team is clarifying goals and roles. The goals part is what are we all trying to accomplish? And the roles part is what is my unique contribution to that collective mission? 

The more clear you are that your individual work contributes to a greater purpose beyond yourself, the easier it is to experience some of that meaning and motivation that helps to move you from languishing toward flourishing.

Q: Are team brainstorms helpful?
A: Team brainstorms don’t work well. Over 40 years of evidence shows that you get fewer ideas—and worse ideas—through group brainstorming than if you let people work independently. There are at least three things that go wrong in group brainstorming: 

  1. Production blocking: We can’t all talk at once, so some ideas get lost.
  2. Ego threat: We don’t want to look stupid, so we bite our tongue on original ideas.
  3. Conformity: As soon as we know the highest-paid-person’s opinion, we jump on the bandwagon. 

We change those dynamics by shifting from group brainstorming to individual brainwriting, where you give people the task in advance and let them generate their own individual ideas. Individuals have more brilliant ideas than groups do and generate more variety. That’s when you should bring in the wisdom of crowds to figure out which of these ideas should be thrown out and which ones should be embraced.

Q: What is “burstiness” and how can we practice it?
A: Research by Christoph Riedl and Anita Woolley suggests that the most creative and productive virtual teams only communicate intermittently. They might even go days without talking to each other. But once they’re in contact, they have messages and bits of code flying back and forth. 

This mode is called burstiness. Burstiness is a pattern in which your collaboration is literally bursting with energy and ideas. To get to that place, you need to be communicating in real time. This idea of giving people independent time for their own work, and separate collaborative time for group work, is at the heart of making remote collaboration effective.

Q: Is it important to schedule time for focus and flow?
A: When people set aside time for uninterrupted work, they can find flow. They get absorbed in that zone where you are completely immersed in your tasks. You lose track of time, of place, even of your sense of self. That is where we do our peak creative work, which facilitates productivity.

Think about how different that is from the way most of us work. Even pre-pandemic, there was evidence that on average people checked emails 74 times a day and interrupted themselves by switching tasks at least once every 10 minutes. It’s hard to get into a flow state if you’re being interrupted constantly. Scheduled quiet time sets a boundary to allow people to achieve focus and flow. 

Q: When should we work async versus sync? 
A: The different modes of interdependence correspond to individual sport, relay sport, and team sport. If your project is structured like an individual sport, you can let everybody do their individual routines. If your work is more like a relay race, the person handing off the baton needs to be in synchronous communication with the person receiving it. If your project is a true team sport like soccer, where the ball flies back and forth and everybody’s skill is required at multiple phases, that’s when you really need to be synchronous—working in the same place or at least the same time. 

Before we assume we always need to coordinate in the same place at the same time, it’s worth rethinking that process and asking, “Is this project like an individual sport, a relay sport, or a team sport?” It’s easier to land in a place where you can find flow individually, get to burstiness collectively, and that can move you from a position where you feel like your work and your team is languishing toward one where you’re all flourishing.

For more insights on how to combat employee burnout, read this manager’s guide with tips on reducing stress, improving clarity and focus, and keeping companies resilient.

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