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Learning about Return on Emotional Investment

If you know anything about economics, ROI (Return on Investment) is nothing new. Recently, as I started dealing with a lot more than money, I also got to think about what else I’m investing – and what I expect to get back. Hence the term I came up with: return on emotional investment.

0. What’s ROI anyway?

In very simple terms – return on investment relates to something you expect to get back after your period of investing is over. You invest £1000 in a company which does very well, and in one year it brings you back your £1000 and an additional £250. That’s good ROI.
If you think about it more carefully, you go beyond money. In order to deliver a face-to-face coaching session at the other end of London, for example, I’d have to buy a train ticket and spend at least one hour in a train – each way. So the cost is bigger than it seems – what else could I be doing with my two hours? Two Skype coaching sessions, perhaps?
These things are still easy to measure. But with emotional investment, it’s not so easy. Which is a shame, because in work and study this process is almost inevitable. We should talk about it more!

1. How does emotional investment work?

This is highly subjective territory. If you go about your work with nothing but cold-blooded rationality, then more power to you – your decisions are logical and easier to predict. But if you’re like most of us, your response to most decisions and events is emotional as well as rational. This makes it much harder (and more fascinating) to discuss. Let’s have two examples:

Alice signs up for an eight-week training course. She is required to leave work, travel to another town in Europe and spend half her summer there – away from her family and network of friends. The course is demanding, and the town is charming but culturally very different from what Alice is used to. Halfway through the course, Alice feels that she’s losing focus, patience and energy almost every hour.

Bob looked for a new basketball meet-up in his area. There are two groups meeting regularly. One of them is a bunch of really nice people, of mixed ages, backgrounds and nationalities – but their game is too slow and a bit frustrating for Bob who was expecting a workout. The other group plays fast and well, giving Bob what he came for in terms of the actual game – but they’re all good mates with each other, and Bob’s heard one or two comments and jokes at his expense already.

These two scenarios should be familiar to those of you who found their study, work or play influenced by social contexts. Basically, the question is: are my emotions involved in a good deal here?

2. Return on emotional investment

If Alice quits today, she can come back to her friends and family and forget about the stress. She can feel safer and more confident. But if she perseveres, her stress and anxiety may end soon, and give her the qualification she needs.
If Bob stays with the slow-but-friendly group, he will have a good time, whilst possibly waiting a long time for their game to develop to a challenging level. But if he stays with the pro-and-grumpy group, he can expect a lot more from every game, although the exclusion may never go away.
In both cases, what they get back is more than they came for. Alice was only thinking about the training outcome: she can get either good training with lots of nerves, or no training and emotional stability. Bob signed up for basketball: he can get mediocre basketball and a good time or good basketball and a mediocre time.
So what’s the key step to preparing for good return on emotional investment? What can help us navigate these things when learning, or coaching, or doing our work?

3. The emotional investment question: How could I feel when this works out?

This is a great question to ask. The important thing here: don’t just settle on one answer.
If Alice had a good think about this, she may have figured out that the stress levels will go through the roof. In which case, she could either think of a cut-off point “I’ll quit when I’m no longer able to focus on my assignments, and when people tell me I’m becoming too grumpy” or shore up the resources in advance “I’ll need lots of Skype credit for these eight weeks. Hey, I wonder if they have cinemas showing films in my language…”
If Bob had asked that question, his decision may have been easier: “I usually feel good around other basketball players, but I’m not that good when I’m stressed. And I get plenty of stressful situations at work. So it matters that I feel I belong to the people I play with.”

4. Taking it personally: how to plan for your return on emotional investment

  • Think of any situation you’re involved in which takes a lot of your time / effort.
  • Think of how you feel when doing it – what emotions it generates, what resources it requires from you.
  • Next, try to imagine how you could feel when this situation was concluded – would the emotional result be more positive? Would it justify feeling the way you feel about it now?
  • Finally – try to list what else you could do to change the way your emotions are invested now. Can good vibes be multiplied? Can you eliminate the source of bad feelings? Is it at all possible to change the way emotions go in that context?

5. More on Emotional Investment (because I didn’t 100% come up with this)

Read more here for emotions as valid investment in business.

And for a similar analysis in relationships, head on here.


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