Alice Katter of ‘Out Of Office’: “Creating space for leisure and creative activities”

Creating space for leisure and creative activities — Leisure activities such as cooking, painting, hiking, reading, doodling or playing an instrument (or whatever else you enjoy doing) can create space between your work and home, and are a great way to develop new skills, experiment, connect with people or decompress.⁠⁠ As a part of my series about […]

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Creating space for leisure and creative activities — Leisure activities such as cooking, painting, hiking, reading, doodling or playing an instrument (or whatever else you enjoy doing) can create space between your work and home, and are a great way to develop new skills, experiment, connect with people or decompress.⁠⁠

As a part of my series about “How to Slow Down To Do More” I had the pleasure to interview Alice Katter.

Alice Katter is a Brand and Community Strategist building and working with brands and platforms centered around creativity, community and wellbeing.

With a background in psychology, Alice is fascinated by the human mind and understanding how to design for belonging.

She has developed and implemented her frameworks and strategies at organizations such as Dropbox.Design, WorkingNotWorking, Red Bull and Uber, and shared her thinking on platforms and communities like SuperHi, 99u, General Assembly, Ladies Wine & Design and Freelance Founders.

She is also the creator of out of office, a monthly newsletter and thought-platform advocating for the art of slowing down, by exploring ideas and offering tools and resources to shape our working lives and culture.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

Of course! Traveling and living in different countries from a young age, I always had a passion for understanding the human psyche, and wanted to understand different cultures and communities.

After my psychology studies I went off to work in the brand strategy and advertising industry and worked in agencies in London and Vienna, until I decided to start my own consultancy six years ago. I wanted to be able to focus more on projects that I am personally passionate about, to collaborate with a wider variety of people, and to create greater flexibility in my working life. Since then I’ve mostly worked remotely and so have developed a flexible work schedule, which allows me to travel, work from and live in different countries, as well as put more time into self-initiated projects. That resulted in an interest in new ways of working, thinking and collaborating. I noticed that I had my best ideas and made the most of my connections by not sitting at my desk, but by traveling, spending time outdoors (hiking, running, walking), working from different places, and meeting new people.

With that, I started my research on the influence of rest, play and leisure on our creativity and wellbeing. I discovered its proven benefits and that the most significant human achievements and key breakthroughs in thinking have taken place in times of play, moments of leisure and contemplation — but also the fact that we are systematically jeopardizing it with our current work culture and productivity-fanatic society.

That’s when I decided to create out of office network — a monthly newsletter and space, to offer frameworks, tools and resources to reimagine the way we work and play, and inspire our day jobs with the things we do in our downtime.

According to a 2006 Pew Research Report report, 26% of women and 21% of men feel that they are “always rushed”. Has it always been this way? Can you give a few reasons regarding what you think causes this prevalent feeling of being rushed?

Sometime over the past few years, “busy” became the default answer for summing up our state of being.⁠

How busy you look or how much time you spend in the office started to become a representation of productivity, commitment, and professionalism.

Our contemporary culture of “workism” and obsession with productivity tends to look at anyone doing anything without a measurable output in a negative light, and sees them as time wasters. We have come to see the very notion of “slowing down” and “leisure” not as essential to the human spirit but as a luxury reserved for the privileged or those who are lazy.

That’s why we struggle to slow down or take a rest and instead “rush” through our lives at full speed.

But it’s not always been like this. Leisure activities and play have always been an integral part of culture and are in the roots of our human nature.

As children, we play naturally and instinctively. We let our minds wander, we rest, daydream and imagine. But then, as we get older, something happens. We are introduced to the idea that “play” and “downtime” are unnecessary and a waste of time. Unfortunately, many of these negative messages come from the very place where imaginative play should be most encouraged, not stifled — school and other educational institutions. Yet our modern system, born in the Industrial Revolution, has removed the notion of leisure and is more of a preparation for a lifetime of work conformity.

Based on your experience or research can you explain why being rushed can harm our productivity, health, and happiness?

Getting caught up in the whirlwind of daily life has a strong effect on our productivity and personal wellbeing in life and work.

If we’re caught up in the daily grind and just rush through our days, we avoid being in line with ourselves and the world around us. Before we can evaluate our next steps or define what we truly care about, we need time to look at different options and create space to explore and ponder.

Being constantly “on” isn’t just an unhealthy way to work, but a counterproductive one, too. With our “normal” way of working, where we’re constantly operating under high pressure, switching tasks, toggling between a Zoom call, a Slack channel, and an Excel sheet, our brains are strained, our work suffers, and we are slowly burning ourselves out.

On the flip side, can you give examples of how we can do more, and how our lives would improve if we could slow down?

Slowing down and letting our minds wander helps us be better at work and more in line with ourselves and the world around us.

By slowing down, we give our bodies the opportunity to regenerate. The general stress level drops and our concentration and creativity can rise again. It allows our brains to rewire, process information better, and create space for new perspectives, greater clarity, and renewed focus.

Research also suggests that activities such as mind-wandering and daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — make us more creative, better at problem-solving and open to the free flow of ideas.

It also has a psychological impact on us — in the short and the long run. A number of studies have shown that taking time away from the job can have physical and psychological health benefits. People who take regular vacations are physically healthier, have fewer mental health issues, and are less likely to burn out.

Rest helps us to rebuild psychological energy after a stressful time, detach from work, and allow ourselves to focus on other things.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed. Can you share with our readers 6 strategies that you use to “slow down to do more”? Can you please give a story or example for each?

1. Staying off the phone and resisting the need to keep your mind busy

As adults, we all too often fill gaps in our day that would otherwise allow moments of downtime by looking at our screens, scrolling through our feeds . . . which means we are keeping our brains constantly busy.

But there are lots of opportunities in our day when we can resist the urge to stare at our screens and give our brains a break. For example, when you have to wait for a few moments at the elevator, don’t pull your phone out but just look around you instead; or as your computer turns on, just practice patience and wait for it to start.

2. Setting up your day with a morning ritual that gives you grounding

Slow morning rituals such as journaling or meditation lower stress levels and improve overall health as well as creativity. I love to meditate in the morning and write down my stream of consciousness before starting the work day, even if it’s just 15 minutes. It helps me find clarity, focus, and calmness within me, and keep better focus throughout the day.

3. Taking walking breaks

Studies have shown that creative problems can in fact be solved by walking, particularly in nature, thanks to physiological changes in the brain that lead to lower frustration and stress, boosted engagement and arousal, higher levels of meditation, and an enhanced mood.

Mind-wandering can be seen as a creative incubation period, as well as offering the opportunity to create more self-awareness, reflection on the meaning of your experiences, and compassion.

I try to take a 20 to 30-minute walking break every day, and walk around my neighborhood without any external input to let my mind wander and get clarity. I take longer walks or hikes on the weekend.

Another example would be to take a five-minute daydreaming break every hour, and during this break engage in a simple activity that allows our minds to wander, like taking a walk, doodling, or even cleaning. This creative incubation period can give us a renewed sense of energy when getting back to work. Another example is to take a shower.

4. Setting up boundaries

Especially as millennial, we often take pride in self-sacrifice in the name of career development. With that, we have to make conscious decisions on where to set our personal boundaries.

Ultimately, boundaries — at work or in our personal lives — are all about consistency. If you’re inconsistent, colleagues, friends, and family will have a difficult time understanding how best to interact with you.

We need boundaries to keep a balance, and not let our work take over our entire life.

5. Blocking your time

The “slow work” philosophy prioritizes meaningful productivity, alongside dedicated time for breaks. It’s a work style that places importance on concentrated work — especially on individual tasks, instead of hopping from assignment to assignment — and on blocking times for specific things, so our schedules are less packed. Humans work best in intervals of about 90 minutes each, followed by a 20- or 30-minute break. So instead of a traditional to-do list, scheduling blocks of time helps you work at your own pace and creates a sense of accomplishment after you’ve gone through a block. Tasks will no longer spill over or eat up half the day as you get distracted and drift into a rabbit hole.

6. Creating space for leisure and creative activities

Leisure activities such as cooking, painting, hiking, reading, doodling or playing an instrument (or whatever else you enjoy doing) can create space between your work and home, and are a great way to develop new skills, experiment, connect with people or decompress.⁠⁠

What unites these activities, besides the fact that they give us a sense of meaning, is that they also tend to get us into flow states — those moments in which we are so absorbed in what we’re doing that we completely lose ourselves in them. In the flow state, you see the big picture, time slows down, you see more connections, you get better ideas. With this, we can more easily get to a place where our mind is free to wander, perhaps even allowing us to reach a breakthrough on a difficult problem.

How do you define “mindfulness”? Can you give an example or story?

Mindfulness to me means paying attention and being present in the moment.

One example for me is simply to take a deep breath and improve my focus on the present.

When we constantly run from one thing to another, the quality of our work will suffer and we won’t feel fulfilled by it either.

By practicing mindfulness — simply coming back to the present moment over and over again — we can train ourselves to become more focused.

Can you give examples of how people can integrate mindfulness into their everyday lives?

People can integrate mindfulness by starting the day with some journaling and writing down their stream of consciousness. Listening to our inner thoughts and what’s going on in our heads helps improve our focus.

Most of the time we’re thinking about the future, dwelling on the past or worrying, but by pausing and taking a deep breath we can bring ourselves back to the present moment and so be less stressed, calmer, and kinder to ourselves and others.

Do you have any mindfulness tools that you find most helpful at work?

There are also many ways to cultivate mindfulness at work, from walking during the day to taking purposeful pauses when eating. One of the most reliable ways is meditation.

We can take a break and check back in with ourselves. I personally practice meditation before work, do yoga and journal on an almost daily basis, which helps me set up my day and get back to a moment of focus more easily.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to use mindfulness tools or practices

A journal, such as the 6-minute diary, Headspace Meditation App, Indistractable by Nir Eyal, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, Thrive Global, 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris, my yoga teachers at Yoga to the People and New Love City in Brooklyn.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite life lesson quotes is ”Do not work more than you live“.

As millennials, work has become so ingrained in our generational identity that it often takes control of our entire life and thoughts. As someone who’s very driven and passionate about my work and what I’m doing, it’s easy to let work take over my time.

It’s so easy to get stuck at our desks, thinking we’re too busy to do anything outside of work, or to not stop thinking about work even when we’re doing other things, such as spending time with our loved ones.

But if we’re absorbed by our work and the daily grind, we avoid creating moments of serendipity and space for new ideas on the one hand, but also have no time for personal reflection, wonder, mystery, surprise, awe, or the beauty of life and enjoying it with our loved ones.

That’s why, with out of office, I want to remind us all (myself included), that life is not just about work, and also that we can’t do good work if work is all we do. I want us all to get out of the hamster wheel of busyness by providing tools and resources as guidance for redesigning our working lives to integrate more space for rest and play, and to offer an opportunity for reflection and reimagining the way we think about work as a society.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

With everything I do, I want to tap back into the idea of creating a culture that powers creativity, community, and wellbeing. I would like to inspire a movement for self-reflection and awareness, which I think is the basis for being in line with yourself and the people around you. With that, I would like people to create more space to wonder, rest and play — and to live more in the present, enjoy daily life and all the beautiful little moments that come with it.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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