Clive Armitage (00:09):
So, hi, everyone. Welcome to our latest Agents of Change video. And I’m here with Rob Archer, who is a psychologist, who I got to know during the pandemic, when he came and talked to a bunch of peers within Next 15, the holding company the agency is part of, about how to cope during the time of COVID. And I found what Rob had to say incredibly interesting, in terms of managing some of the challenges that we saw at that time. And I thought it was worthwhile, just talking to Rob today about some of his hints and tips about what COVID has meant in terms of the way we work and how we look at peak performance as individuals in the workplace. And I’m sure his content is going to be really interesting for everyone. So, welcome, Rob, thanks for making time today.
Robert Archer (00:53):
Well, thanks and thanks for inviting me and look forward to it.
Clive Armitage (00:58):
It’s going to be brilliant. So, if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and your background, and then I’ll get into some of those questions I’ve got for you?
Robert Archer (01:04):
Yeah, of course. So, I’m a psychologist. I suppose what my clients have in common is they all work under relentless pressure. So, I work across many different sectors and industries, financial services, professional services, agencies, and also some of the time, in elite sport. And I do like to talk about what we can learn from other very high performance, high-pressure environments, to apply to our own lives, which is going to help us not just stay healthy, but also perform at our best.
Clive Armitage (01:40):
Well, talking about performing at our best, do you think that shift from a predominantly office-based working environment to predominantly home based still, has that changed the way we need to think about our peak performance?
Robert Archer (01:53):
Well, I think the answer to that question is always somewhat, it depends. Because one of the things I’ve learned from speaking to, really, thousands of people across the world, many different industries, is that people’s individual experiences have really varied. You’ve got everything from people who hated working at home, it was an awful experience. People who’ve gone through trauma, all the way through to people who actually secretly have really enjoyed it and don’t really want it to end. So, I think you have to start by saying, it depends. But certainly one of the themes that I picked up again and again, probably is best illustrated with a story. So, I was speaking to some people at Virgin Atlantic, the airline. You can imagine what a time they had through COVID.
Robert Archer (02:45):
And I remember, one of their leaders said to me, “In February, March 2020, we just were in emergency mode. We were doing everything we could to try to save the business, but now it’s 18 months later and it still feels like we’re still in the same mode. We’re still in the same routine.” In other words, I think what many people felt is that they fell into a routine, a mode of working, which started off as a sprint, understandably emergency, and then somehow became a marathon and maybe even an ultra-marathon. And those routines were not something that we designed, it wasn’t conscious, we were doing our best, but they weren’t really sustainable. And this is what I call the ‘flat line’ way of working. It’s really easy to fall into, but actually hard to get off. And I’ve got some symptoms if you want to-
Clive Armitage (03:38):
Robert Archer (03:39):
…check yourself against this. I’ve got 10 symptoms of the flat line, so see what resonates. So, a classic is you wake up and immediately you look at your work phone, you look at your emails, you look at the news quite reactively. It’s understandable where a lot of us do it, but it is starting the day on the back foot. By definition, those things are not in your control, so they will feel stressful and that can affect sleep the night before. Because if you go to bed knowing this is what you’re going to do first up, that’s going to potentially make you feel on edge from there. Another indicator is you’re hardly moving, so maybe moving less than 5,000 steps a day. Very often, people find it hard to focus when there’s no constraints or structure to the day, focus gets harder. And also, very often, particularly in the winter, we realize it’s midday and you’ve not seen daylight.
Robert Archer (04:39):
A real common one is feeling guilty about taking breaks. In the evening, people are working and watching TV too late and then going to bed too late, partly because they’re dreading the next day. Then you find it harder to switch off. Then you find it harder to get going in the morning. And then just finally, people feel guilty about other areas of their life. And the killer one is number 10, you worry about all of the above, but you’re also anxious that if you work less, you’re going to feel even more overwhelmed. So, I don’t know, does any of that resonate?
Clive Armitage (05:14):
I’m sure people watching this and myself will listen to that and say, I’m guilty of some of those things, if not all of them at times, but what are the practical tips to address them then? Because now, that’s identifying the things we’re doing wrong, but how do we get better? How do we change our behaviors?
Robert Archer (05:32):
Yeah, that’s right. And by the way, if you are thinking, that’s my life, that’s the most common response I get is blimey, that’s all of it. So, you’re alone. So, I think in terms of practical tips, one of the things it’s helpful to understand is that this ‘flat line’ way of working with no boundaries doesn’t really work, because it’s not how humans work. It’s not how our biology works. If you think about any process in the body, most of it is fluctuating through the course of the day. Just think about your alertness levels. It’s not just constant through the day, it’s fluctuating. In other words, we evolved with a set of daily rhythms. There’s a upswing and there’s a downswing, really dominated by light. And in the blink of an eye, we’ve dispensed with a lot of that rhythm, even though that can have quite negative effects on health and performance.
Robert Archer (06:29):
So, if you buy that premise, making small tweaks in the direction of our natural biological rhythms should help us do more and feel healthier. And that’s what I call a high performance routine. So, high performance routine is about, instead of seeing the day as just one long slog, you divide the day into four stages and try to spend a bit of time in each stage. So, the stages are preparation, performing with focus, warming down, and then recovery. And I wondered if it would be helpful to just look at each of the four stages.
Clive Armitage (07:07):
Absolutely. Yeah, I’d love to hear that.
Robert Archer (07:09):
Preparation, on the flat line, it’s easy to feel like you’re very reactive. Everything feels like it’s a priority. So, there’s a few characteristics of effective psychological preparation. Firstly, you need a mental transition. So, the first thing that you do, I encourage people to make it in your control, something that you do that you’re fully in control of, first thing. So, you’re starting the day off on your terms. Secondly, you need to identify priorities. So, again, it’s easy to see everything’s a priority when you’re stressed. So, you need to step back and think about, “Well, some things are going to be more important than others today, what are those things?” And then thirdly, you need to expose yourself to daylight, ideally at the same time as getting some movements. If you can do this, 15 minutes worth of daylight, within about an hour of getting up, you’re going to be working with your biology from that point on, as opposed to grinding against it.
Clive Armitage (08:11):
Yeah. I think you gave us just a small little tip of doing the occasional walking call and just being outside. Doing a call that you could do at your desk, but just take it out outside on a call and you’re ticking lots of different boxes in the process.
Robert Archer (08:24):
Exactly right. Exactly that. These things don’t always have to be extra things that you add on, you can just do things differently. And by the way, a walking phone call lends itself particularly well to the warm down phase, which we’ll come onto, but absolutely right, Clive. So, focus, the next stage. Preparation is all about setting up proper focus, because I think it’s so easy to fritter away the day in a blur of switched attention. And I also think that many of my clients see this as a kind of, “Oh, yes, I should probably be less distracted.” I think it’s way more urgent than that. If your brain is how you make your living, this is top priority. You need to think about your environment and your routine.
Robert Archer (09:10):
So, three things to do, create a distinctive focus environment. So, think about the nature of the space around you, does it lend itself to proper focus? And also, I think the second one would be working to deadlines. So, don’t just sit and work at your desk for hours and hours, set a deadline. I talk about the Pomodoro Technique. Whatever it is, don’t just sit there, create deadlines. And then finally, I think, protect time in the calendar. I think we do need to use the calendar more constructively, put a focused block in the dairy, at least occasionally.
Robert Archer (09:55):
Warm down, I think people underestimate this. And in my sessions, this is where people score lowest. So, the best way of thinking of this is, if you remember your last holiday, you might remember the first day or two of a holiday, you don’t immediately recover. It does take a day or two to decompress. It’s the same thing on a daily basis. Most people can’t just flick a switch and they feel better, they recover. We need a warm down routine. So, the three things I would suggest here, set a cutoff time. So, obviously, sometimes you’re working across time zones, it’s not possible, but there is a time where you begin to borrow energy from the next day. Do you at least know when that is? So, that will be number one.
Robert Archer (10:44):
Secondly, I think, look ahead, have a ritual where you are actively looking ahead at the next day, the next week, maybe, getting a feel for the challenges. This is going to help lower your anxiety. And then thirdly, I encourage people to create a digital sunset. So, we want to encourage light in the morning, but also dim the lights in the evening. So, do whatever you can to dim the brightness in your screens, create a different feel to your environment post-warm down. And then shall I just finish off, Clive-
Clive Armitage (11:18):
Robert Archer (11:18):
…with the recovery?
Clive Armitage (11:19):
Robert Archer (11:19):
I suspect most people, this is the most important stage, but recovery is not not working at your desk. Recovery is not really sitting on the sofa watching TV, scrolling your emails either, that’s more like respite. So, recovery tends to be more active. So, have a think about three things. Variety, anything that is different to your day job is an opportunity to recover. So, if your day job is set relatively sedentary staring at a screen, anything that’s different to that will give you some recovery.
Robert Archer (11:57):
Physical movement is very high up on this list, I think. It’s a myth to think that we evolve to solve problems sitting down. We really evolved to solve problems moving around. So, see movement as thinking time. And then thirdly, sleep. And apparently, today is World Sleep Day, so, it’s a good time to mention this. But it’s the foundation of all mental health, all mental performance. And I would say, one extra hour of work is rarely worth an hour less of sleep. So, I think those are the four stages. You’re not trying to do all of them perfectly every day, but maybe just tweaking can really help.
Clive Armitage (12:41):
That’s brilliant, Rob. I mean, there’s so many little nuggets in there. And having spent a lot more time with you, I know that we could chat for hours about the stuff you do and your courses are absolutely brilliant. I recommend anyone watching this to get in touch with Rob and we’ll make sure we’ve got Rob’s contact details on this video. But thanks for that, that was really insightful. I’m sure people watching this will find it super useful. Thanks for your time and I look forward to catching up with you again in due course.
Robert Archer (13:07):
There’s a free website, highperformanceroutines.com, with loads of free resources. It’s not trying to sell anything, loads of stuff that you can just download and use with your team. So, I encourage people to go and do that.
Clive Armitage (13:20):
That’s brilliant, Rob. Fantastic. Thanks a lot.