Ian MacRae is a workplace psychologist, researcher and writer, currently working as the Head of Workplace Psychology at performance management platform company, Clear Review.
Ian’s next book, Dark Social: Understanding the darker side of work, personality and social media will be published by Bloomsbury in November.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
I’m a workplace psychologist, researcher and writer. I’ve written six books on workplace psychology, I do a lot of consulting and speaking work and I’m the Head of Workplace Psychology at Clear Review (an Advanced company). I tend to wear a few different hats at any given time, so work-life balance is always tricky to balance.
2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
I generally work for about 8 – 9 hours a day, following a fairly standard workday. I usually glance at my email around 7 or 8am to make sure there isn’t something urgent, but if there’s no looming crisis I’ll doze for a bit longer.
When I wake up, I’ll make a leisurely breakfast (usually scrambled eggs on toast with cheese) where I plan my day and mentally prioritise a set of tasks. Unless I have something specific scheduled earlier, I’ll usually start working between 8 and 9am.
My days vary, because for large writing or research projects I need long stretches of uninterrupted time to focus. I try to keep the mornings focused on completing work and then when meetings are necessary I try to keep them in the afternoon.
I also try to keep most meetings to 2 – 3 days of the week so I have 1 or 2 days per week that are meeting-free. When I’m writing a book I usually try to make sure I have at least one day per week completely blocked out for writing (more as the deadline looms closer). That’s the ambition, but sometimes that’s difficult to achieve in practice!
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
Yes, I’ve been working mostly remotely for almost 10 years now, so the transition to working fully remotely in 2020-21 wasn’t as extreme of an adjustment for me as it was for some people, but I was still surprised how different working 100% remotely is different from working 70-80% remotely.
I found during the lockdowns of 2020-21 I had to be more deliberate about work-life balance. With a lot of leisure activities unavailable it was too easy for work to just fill all available time. In the last year I’ve been more deliberate about having regular ‘office hours’, taking breaks on weekends and having a clearly delineated workday.
I found having regular exercise at the end of the workday was necessary for my mental and physical well-being. Finishing up the day with a long walk was a great way to put some mental space between the workday and the evening.
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
To me, work-life balance means that I can take time away from work when it is most important to me. I’m quite happy working long days or long weeks when I can choose my time off, or take the time off when it’s important.
Sometimes taking a Tuesday afternoon off to spend time with a friend feels more luxurious than a long holiday weekend or a short vacation. Sometimes I’m quite happy to work evenings or weekends to get projects finished on my schedule, so I can take a bit of free time on the weekend.
I live in the UK, but most of my family is in Canada so I like to take time off to visit once or twice a year. For me, work-life balance isn’t about a set amount of hours per day or per week – I’m happy to work some 60 and 70 hour weeks if it means that I can have time away from work on my own terms. Achieving that requires a lot of planning ahead, and a flexible mindset.
5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?
Maintaining daily exercise (and shifting that exercise based on lockdown rules and restrictions) has been a very deliberate change in habit over the last 12 months. I find that daily exercise has a huge impact on my mood and well-being so it’s been really important for me to make sure I include that as a priority in my routine, not as an afterthought.
My routine would normally involve cardio exercise at the gym or yoga classes.
When gyms and yoga classes were closed I needed to find alternatives. Walking was great, and during the spring and summer of 2020 I was walking about 10km per day.
I find exercise can have a nice confluence with my work too. Intensive exercise takes a lot of energy and focus, but less intensive exercise tends to give me a lot of room to think. Long walks without a specific destination can be a great time to think through ideas.
When I’m writing a book or designing a large research project, sometimes I’ll set off on a walk with a tough problem, and by the time I’ve finished I’ve mentally mapped out a book chapter or a research project in a way that I’m not always able to when staring at a screen for 2 hours. I think letting the mind and body wander for a few hours can be incredibly useful, even if it doesn’t always look “productive”.
6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?
I tend to get absorbed by history, so there’s a couple podcast series by Mike Duncan that I love: Revolutions and The History of Rome. I really enjoy the Fall of Civilizations podcast by Paul Cooper too.
For books, I’d recommend any of Gore Vidal’s historical fiction especially Creation and Julian – I find reading history always puts problems that seem new or unsolvable into perspective. For public policy discussions I’ve been enjoying The Al Franken Podcast.
For anyone interested in workplace psychology I have to recommend my books: Dark Social: Understanding the darker side of work, personality and social media will be published in November 2021 (Bloomsbury).
Previous books include: High Potential: How to spot, manage and develop talented people at work (Bloomsbury, 2018); Myths of Social Media: Dismiss the misconceptions and use social media effectively in business (Kogan Page, 2020); Motivation and Performance: A guide to motivating a diverse workforce (Kogan Page, 2017).
7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?
My favourite productivity tool is the ‘Do Not Disturb’ setting on my phone. It’s extraordinarily effective.
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
Quentin Tarantino – not to emulate, but just to know.
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
It’s tough for me to tell people what their work-life balance should look like. And the way I balance work as part of my life would certainly not work for everyone. I’d encourage people to really think about what you want from work, and what role you want it to play in your life.
What you want from work, and the right balance for it within your life won’t be the same for everyone, and it changes over time. It’s not possible to get everything at once so pick what is important, decide what you’re willing to compromise on and figure out how to make it work best for you, with your own circumstances and goals in mind.
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