Do you ever feel that you simply can’t get it together? That you’re pathologically disorganized, totally incapable of managing your workload? Those who are organized and capable have probably learned how to be that way. And so can you. We construe events differently depending on how ‘psychologically distant’ we are from them. And it is by using psychological distance that you will be better able to “see the wood for the trees”: using psychological distance will help you prioritize better by helping you to see the bigger picture.
The use and effectiveness of psychological distance as a means of processing information has scientific backing. Scientists have found that the more distance we perceive, the more activity there is in those areas of our brain connected with abstract thought and thinking about others.
To illustrate psychological distance in action, imagine that you have been chosen to project manage an important event. You are great at focusing on details such as monitoring the budgets and sending out status updates, but you are not so good at thinking about ‘bigger picture’ aspects such as the needs of the stakeholders, how the event fits into the organization’s strategic plans, and the strengths and weaknesses of various team members. As a result, you fail to anticipate key needs of the team and struggle to understand the strategic value of the project. A brief knowledge of the concept of psychological distance would help you to prioritize more effectively and create better outcomes. Here are four ways you could use psychological distance to benefit both you and your team.
1. Imagine physical distance
You could think about the areas and considerations you would need to accommodate were the event to take place in another country, for example.
2. Imagine temporal distance (time)
You could consider how you would approach the event if it were to take place at different points in time, for example: tomorrow, in six months’ time, or in a year.
3. Imagine someone else were in charge
You could think about how someone else would approach the project management of the event. What would be the differences? What would be the similarities?
4. Imagine the outcome were not clear
If the event were only hypothetical, where would your focus be? Who would be involved, and why? What would success look like?
Using these psychological tools will help you see the bigger picture issues when taking one or more of these different perspectives. You are more likely to appreciate that success would require addressing factors such as legal constraints, communication barriers, motivation levels within the team, stakeholder priorities, co-worker strengths and weaknesses, and organizational criteria for success, for example. You may, as a result of taking on different perspectives, make important changes you may not otherwise have made, such as replacing some members of the team with others or even delaying the project until a more expedient time. In short, using psychological distance will enable you to generate better outcomes by moving away from a narrow task focus to a bigger, more abstract one.
Can psychological distance help you in your job? Share your comments below.