At a glance
There’s a state of being between thriving and depression that is often overlooked, according to organisational psychologist, bestselling author and 2023 CPA Congress speaker Adam Grant. It’s called “languishing” and Grant describes it as feeling stagnant and empty.
While the word languishing has been part of everyday language since the 14th century, it’s not one often used in a workplace context – and quite possibly has never drawn as much public attention as it did in 2021 with Grant’s viral piece for the New York Times.
In the article, Grant, who has been Wharton's top-rated professor for seven consecutive years, wrote: “Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work.
The article hit a nerve with many people who felt like they were languishing during the pandemic and couldn’t shake it off.
“The whole world was standing still, and it felt like we couldn't move forward,” says Grant.
Despite the flurry of interest that came with the New York Times piece, he says languishing is not unique to a pandemic and is with us all the time.
“It's part of the human condition and it is something we have all felt at work when we are struggling to make a decision because we don't have a clear sense of vision or purpose or hope.”
Use ‘flow’ to get back to healthy work habits
According to Grant, the answer to getting back to productive work habits lies in focus and absorption, as well as constantly challenging the status quo.
“I think that the most powerful way to escape from languishing is to find flow. So, we all know flow as a sense of total absorption in an activity where you lose track of time and place. Sometimes you're so engrossed you forget where you are.
“The problem is that it is really hard for us to find flow in a world where the average person checks [their] email multiple times per day. We are constantly interrupting ourselves and getting out of that flow,” he says.
The answer to that is to change habits and try blocking out periods of time for different activities, including not looking at emails. It’s all about setting boundaries, says Grant.
“There’s some recent evidence that shows that we overestimate how responsive other people really expect us to be.”
Develop a ‘challenge network’
Grant also argues people should be questioning the way things are done and that might mean challenging some assumptions.
“It might mean asking: ‘are the best practices that we adopted in the past obsolete now? Has the world changed in such a way that it no longer makes sense for the future?’”
Collaborating with colleagues will get you there faster, he argues.
“We all know the value of a support network – I think we also need a challenge network, which is a group of people who are thoughtful about criticising you constructively.
“When I need to, I reach out to a couple of people who are good critics and ask them whether they’ve seen me do or say anything that I might want to rethink.
“That invitation opens me up to a lot of fresh thinking, and sometimes helps me abandon beliefs that are holding me back,” says Grant.
Grant has advice for those who may not think the term languishing applies to them. As he wrote in the New York Times article: “Even if you’re not languishing, you probably know people who are. Understanding it better can help you help them”.
This article was adapted from a CPA Australia webinar with Adam Grant and quotes were edited accordingly.