July 4, 2022

How to live your life on purpose: Dr Tharaka Gunarathne

Vistage speaker and clinical psychiatrist Dr. Tharaka Gunarathne - Dr T for short - will be a familiar face to many of you. We’ve previously spoken to him about his ‘Pyramid of Purpose’ which will create a strong foundation for - and help you achieve - your goals. 

In his latest Vistage session, Dr. T shared his thoughts on how to ‘Live your Life with Purpose’. Attendees learned how understanding what motivates you can increase your drive and resilience. 

 

See all of our upcoming free Climb events here.

 

Purpose, though, is something that’s changed for many over recent years. We caught up with Dr. T to find out how things have changed for business leaders since COVID-19 - and what leaders can do differently to stay ahead of the game, both personally and professionally.

 

A changing world

“COVID has been a major disruptor”, says Dr. T. “Psychologically-speaking, we don’t love being disrupted. We like working out our sense of autonomy and control.” 

Control, he explains, often has negative connotations. However, it’s not always a bad thing: sometimes, as he puts it, it’s “just another word for correctly managing your intentions.”

When the first lockdown was announced, nobody knew how long it would last. Nobody knew when staff would be coming back. Nobody knew what the working environment - or the future - would look like. 

“It was a time of panic, but it’s actually led us to ask some important questions”, says Dr. T. “It’s made us question what we really care about, what gives us fulfillment.” 

 

Setting goals with meaning

One area where leaders may have struggled is with goal setting: something which, Dr. T explains, has a large psychological element to it. 

“There’s a big difference between setting goals, and setting goals with meaning”, he says. “When you set a goal with meaning, you create a psychological narrative behind that goal, which increases your probability of attaining it.”

 

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When you know that a goal is connected to your life story, your vision or your values, it’s far more likely that you’ll succeed. 

That vision and those values are sometimes all a business will have to lean on when it’s not entirely clear what lies ahead. Dr. T compares this with aeroplane pilots navigating storms. 

“When you’re flying through a storm, the dials in the cockpit are going berserk and you can’t see out the window, you rely on your pilot training and your navigational tools”, he says. “Just so, with COVID, there are many variables ahead. What you can do, though, is stick to your core values and make sure that you deliver on them every single day.”

 

The importance of rational thinking

When faced with a storm - be it COVID or a turbulent patch for pilots - it can be easy for our thoughts to become clouded by fear or anxiety. This can lead us to believe that there’s no way out when, in reality, this may not be the case. 

“One of the first things to go offline in the brain in that situation is rational thinking”, says Dr T. “What can help is to have other people around you to help look at the situation from different angles and help you get that clarity of thought. But you also need to have the motivation to do it.”

Motivation, he explains, is the result of certain circuits that fire in the brain. Those circuits are stimulated when we achieve something: such as setting the task of vacuuming the house tomorrow, and getting it done. “You feel good because you’ve achieved something”, he says. “You’re moving forward - and the brain likes moving forward.”

However, if your plumbing springs a leak shortly afterwards and floods the house, are you more likely to focus on the completed vacuuming or the flooding? 

“Our brains have a real tendency to gravitate towards the negative”, he says. Business leaders - surrounded by lots of noise, negative news, stress - tend to condition their thinking to expect and look for those things, leaving them unable to focus on the good that’s going on. 

One of the practices that’s important in positive psychology, says Dr. T, is something he calls the three 3Ws: what went well. “At the end of the day or the week, alone or with others, personally or professionally, ask yourself what went well”, he says. “It really helps to keep some of those circuits in the mind stronger for positive thinking.

 

A blurring of boundaries

Dr. T’s advice applies both to leaders’ professional and personal lives - but the boundaries between the two are becoming ever more blurred. 

“Pre-COVID, I’d rest at home and work in the office”, he says. “Now, I’m starting the soup on the Aga while in a video call, and my kid is asking me for an iPad code so they can do their primary school project.”

With this blurring of boundaries has come changes in productivity - both good and bad. “We’ve seen both higher outputs and lower outputs”, says Dr. T. “Our brains have now been trained to multi-process a lot more, which can be ineffective and tiring for the brain. 

There are some efficiencies that have come from this - like hosting meetings and interviews via Zoom, which would have seemed less natural pre-COVID. 

The big issue, however, is that it’s now harder for leaders to define their life in work and their life outside of work. “Some people are managing that sub-optimally”, says Dr. T. “This shows with greater tiredness and fatigue, despondency with life, and not feeling as fulfilled.”

 

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Productivity may have risen, as is often cited by surveys and business leaders themselves - but at what cost? “We’re now more anxious - and anxiety can drive action”, says Dr. T. “Some people may be doing more because they’re afraid that people will think they’re lazy at home, that they’re not doing enough, that they may miss deadlines.”

This sometimes leads to a significant increase in working hours: the temptation to check emails late at night while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, for example. What we need to remember is that we’re humans, not machines. “Because we’re biological, there’s a limit”, says Dr. T. “It’s not a case of the more you put in, the more you get out.”


COVID has really forced us to look inward in ways that we haven’t before. “We’re not just human doings - we’re human beings”, says Dr. T. “If all we are is what we do, we’re just a role. COVID has made us look more at what matters: what defines us, what we care about, our visions and our values.”

 

A sense of shared purpose

Finding your own purpose is one thing. Developing a shared sense of purpose for the entire organisation is quite another. 

“There is a real, measurable and tangible output from having a sense of shared purpose”, says Dr. T. “Everyone has either a conscious or an unconscious narrative in their head about purpose - but does every member of your team have the same narrative?”

Clearly defining that shared message to the world creates a psychological narrative amongst your team. In turn, this has been proven to increase engagement, productivity and energy at work, and decrease sick days and burnout. 

For this to work, though, it needs to come from the top. Business leaders need to have a real sense of clarity about their purpose - and set goals driven by that purpose. 

“What is the why?”, asks Dr. T. “Because if we don’t uncover that and bring that to the forefront of our minds, we’re really missing out on a huge piece of human motivation, output, and a sense of fulfillment in our workforce.”

 

Many thanks to Dr T for his time. You can watch his Vistage session in full here - and for our full list of Climb events, click here.

 

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