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Five gears for wellbeing: right gear at the right time

Stephen Mordue Stephen Mordue Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland

05 August 2021

Stephen Mordue is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland. He has a specific interest in the impact of stress on wellbeing and focuses on how self-care and being organised can mitigate the effects of stress and improve productivity. Before moving to academia, he worked in older people’s social work as a practitioner and team manager.

When I first came across the “five gears” metaphor, I felt it had a lot to offer via a little re-engineering for our specific environment as we try and navigate a way through our lives. The five gears are like the five gears of a car. These all have a purpose and to get somewhere we must use all five at the appropriate time.

First gear

Just like in a car, first fear gets you going. In terms of self-care, first gear is our rest and recovery gear. Just like in your car, we need to start our journey into the day in this gear, periodically use it throughout the day, and then change back down into it as we bring things to a conclusion at the end of the day. Rest and recovery are things we need to do regularly to fire up our motivation and maintain our attention to the task. We can’t leave it until an evening or a weekend. We need micro-breaks throughout our day, particularly when moving between tasks, to rest ourselves, to switch off from the previous task, and to take a few minutes out before engaging with the next task. What can you do for a micro-break? Have a walk around the building, get outside for a few moments, stand still, and breathe? Reset.

Second gear

While time alone is an important opportunity to reflect, we can do restful things with our friends and family. A leisurely walk with the children, a coffee with a colleague. Spending time in restful pursuits such as these forge relationships and create strong bonds as well as supporting our wellbeing.

Third gear

We forge social connections in the workplace and other more formal settings. This is you in third gear. These connections are about building good relationships with people that you must be alongside or work directly with. Good relationships in the workplace lead to us feeling comfortable enough to bring our authentic selves to these places. We feel safe to be who we are, and this is less stressful than feeling as though we are acting out to be something we are not. Research from Oxford University (reported in the Guardian in 2018) showed that engaging socially releases endorphins that make us feel good. Lunching alone can lead to an overall sense of unhappiness. Make connections.

Fourth gear

We’re in fourth gear when we are getting down to business. Maybe administrative type tasks, dealing with emails, or talking collaboratively with colleagues. These are short tasks that require us to connect in a more formal way than when in third gear. These tasks may get done effectively when we are in communal places where we can communicate easily. You’ll be working methodically through short tasks and connecting when you need to. You’ll maybe be drawing on those relationships you fostered in third gear. One key aspect of the fourth gear is planning. Making sure that you have everything you need for the longer tasks in your calendar. Have you got the materials you need for the teaching you are delivering, have you got what you need for the meeting or for the tutorial you are having later in the day? These tasks will require you to arrive prepared so that you can focus on them to the exclusion of everything else. Be prepared for your gear five: deep work.

Fifth gear

Deep work can be a range of things, but it always requires you to focus on a task without distraction. In some sectors, this may well refer to work that requires you to take yourself off to a quiet place and exclude any distractions so you can focus on a report maybe. For those of us working in education, there are other types of deep work where we are required to maintain complete focus while not in glorious isolation, for example, delivering a teaching session. The success of what you do in gear five connects to the other gears. It may depend on how effectively you planned while in gear four, which may have drawn on the relationships from gear three. Your energy for the task will be determined by how you rested while in gears one and two. Bertie Forbes, the founder of Forbes magazine, said that how effective you are when at work depends in a large part on how effective you were at resting when outside of work.

The secret is to be in the right gear at the right time for the right task

When at home in gears one and two you need to be able to leave work behind so that you are in the same gear as those around you – your friends and family – they deserve that. Being able to do that will rely on how effective you were when you were in gear four planning for tomorrow or next week. How you end your day and how you end your week have a huge impact on how effectively you can leave work behind at work. You need to leave it in a state of order.

We also need to be responsible to each other in the workplace and not try and coax and coerce people into gears that they don’t want to be currently in. We need to be mindful when people are in gears four or five not to encroach on them and demand their attention for a gear three conversation. When someone is in gear five, we shouldn’t be asking them anything - they are engaged in deep work.

Right gear for the right task is a converging of personal responsibility, our responsibility to each other, and the responsibility of our employers, family, and friends to help create effective environments. Get into the right gear at the right time for the right task.