Working Smarter

Get More Done, Increase Vitality, the Engine of Productivity and Wellness

Posted by Joe Robinson

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What would happen if for one day no one at the office had any caffeine? No doubt there would be colleagues collapsed in hallways and slumped over computer keyboards. Without artificial stimulation, most teams would have to close up shop for the day, since motors would be on idle. A no-caffeine day would reveal that one of the hallmarks of performance, and certainly wellness, is missing in action: vitality.

There’s not much of that commodity around these days. How would you respond, describing your state right now, to the following statements from the Vitality Scale, developed by the University of Rochester’s Richard Ryan and Christina Frederick Recascino of the University of Southern Utah—"not at all true," "somewhat true," or "very true":

--I feel alive and well

--Sometimes I feel so alive I just want to burst.

--I nearly always feel alert and awake.

 THE HUMAN ENERGY MACHINE

Judging from what I see in my work-life balance trainings, the only bursting going on is that of brain cells short-circuiting from information overload. Unbounded email and interruptions drain energy, which shuts down performance. 

The reality we don’t appreciate is that humans are energy machines, like a car or a smartphone. We have to resupply energy used up, or we deplete the resources needed to operate our chief productivity tool: attention. Our brains alone use 20% of the body's energy. 

Few of us stop to think about the state of our personal energy or that of the team, but when physiology is ignored, the race is on to burnout, a state of maximum exhaustion that is the exact opposite of what all leaders want, employee engagement. The key dimension of employee engagement is physical and psychological vigor, energy, vitality. It leads people to go the extra mile. We can’t even think about extra effort when we are tapped out from exhaustion.

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ENGINE OF ENGAGEMENT

Vitality is one of the hidden engines of engagement, work and life satisfaction, and a leading marker of happiness. It’s the gas in our tanks, and without it, we don't get very far. Vitality is low to missing in action at most organizations because we are led to believe that what creates the exact opposite condition of high energy, endurance and never stopping, is the ticket to productivity.

I call this the Endurance Fallacy, a false belief that undermines performance and its lifeblood, attention. Everything we know about performance says that energy, and, therefore, attention, wanes with time on task. That’s especially true in the knowledge economy where we are using brains, not brawn to do the job. The source of productivity is not how much of a pounding you can take physically, but how energized and refreshed your brain is.

The false assumption at the root of the exhaustion treadmill is that, because we are using our brains and not being taxed physically, we can keep going indefinitely. Brain scientists have told me that minds go down well before the body does. We all know that. If you’re a morning person, your brain is mush after 3 pm in the afternoon. Night people have their ebb in the morning hours.

Vitality has emerged as a key dimension in the sciences of subjective well-being and happiness, as well as self-determination theory (SDT), which finds that intrinsic motivation, not the usual external metrics—money, success, beauty, status—leads to satisfaction of our core psychological needs. The originators of SDT, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester, report that, “in vital states, people are more active and productive, cope better with stress and challenge, and report greater mental health.”

ENERGY AVAILABLE TO THE SELF

The kind of vitality we’re talking about here is not the kind that comes from nerve-jangling, five- hour energy drinks. Deci and Ryan define vitality as “energy available to the self.” It’s not something manipulated from outside but comes from within to those who allow their own refueling and maintenance equipment to do the job, from sleep to healthy eating. You can feel true vitality when you have it. You are in a highly positive state, ready to tackle anything. You have the power of possibility.

We can all get there on a regular basis without caffeine. Work-life balance and wellness programs such as the one I teach, Work Smarter, Live Better, can resupply vitality by giving teams the tools to manage energy-draining demands and activating life skills to recharge and refuel personal energy.

Vitality activates positive emotions and behaviors, such as positive affect, the visible sign in your expression and body language of optimism and buoyancy. Deci and Ryan say this makes us more open to purposeful action, initiative, connection with others, and gives us more focused performance, persistence, and resilience, as well as more equipped to combat stressors and demands. When we are exhausted or burned out, we are in a bunker, withdrawing from initiative and others. That is not a place where great work happens.

Maintaining vitality is both a physiological task and a psychological one. We have to get the right amount of sleep (at least seven hours), eat well, and exercise regularly. We also have to resupply mental resources, known as self-regulation, that are burned up when we use self-discipline or willpower, which happens whenever we try to get things done. And we need to find mental detachment from the strains and stressors that drain energy and vitality, so we can refuel.

GRATIFICATION JUICE

Bolstering and fueling vitality throughout the workday and at home is essential to keep minds active and energized. What strategies does your organization have to promote vitality? Exercise programs at lunch have been shown to increase energy and productivity as a result. One study in Sweden found that even after subtracting 30 minutes a day from people’s work schedules so they could exercise at midday, they were more productive than if they’d worked the normal, additional two-and-a-half hours weekly

Deci and Ryan say the best way to boost stores of vitality is through activities that satisfy our basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others. But we have to have the right goal, an intrinsic purpose behind our actions. That means we act, not for an external payoff, but an internal one, such as learning, challenge, excellence, or service. 

“The pursuit of meaningful activities, especially those associated with intrinsic goals, maintains or enhances vitality,” report Deci and Ryan. “These activities do not simply relax the self-regulatory muscle; rather, they can satisfy psychological needs and thus rekindle the energies lost from the more depleting conditions that are so pervasive in many people’s daily lives.”

True wellness, then, goes beyond maintaining physical health. It’s a state of mind that managers can support by promoting self-chosen, energy-boosting activities. Allowing people the option for breaks in which they can listen to music of their choice or play an online brain-building game, participate in a self-chosen activity or mastery experience at lunch, or be supported in their hobbies after work help build autonomy and competence, which generates vitality.

Like engagement, vitality can’t be commanded. It can only be enabled. But once it’s going, it’s a self-fpropelling agent, as long as we are getting refueled. Think of how much money you can save on caffeine bills.

If you would like to explore a work-life balance and wellness training or employee engagement program at your organization, click on the button below for details.

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Losing Our Minds to Devices: Goodbye Impulse Control, Hello, Attention Deficit

Posted by Joe Robinson

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You may remember the famed marshmallow test, the ingenious Stanford study that measured the ability of children to delay gratification by not immediately eating a marshmallow (or a cookie or pretzel in later tests) sitting right in front of them. Children four to six years old were told that, if they could hold off for 15 minutes and not gobble up the goodie, they would get two marshmallows.

Most of them couldn’t get through a minute without downing the treat. In later studies, the researchers found that those able to delay the reward had better SAT scores, educational accomplishments, and body mass index.

WHEREFORE WILLPOWER?

I wonder if most adults could make it through that test today if the treat was, instead, a smartphone. I doubt it. Adult discipline has gone the way of the dodo, thanks to the loss of the essential tool of willpower, impulse control, which is under siege by technology addiction. 

The battle between our impulsive urges and the reflective, rational brain is the elemental contest we all face. It's maturity vs. instinct, civilization vs. reflex emotion. Most of us learn by the time we’re adults to manage headlong impulses and think before we plunge into hare-brained actions we will regret later. Or at least that was the way it used to be.

The inability to manage devices and screen time has resulted in frazzled brains that have a much harder time getting the job done or carving out a semblance of life. Work-life balance can’t exist without impulse control. When devices are running the show, the work takes longer, studies show. Interruptions make us more aggravated and subject to stress and overwhelm. They also make every task we do seem more difficult than it actually is (Bailey and Konstan).

Technology addiction makes us unavailable to family and friends. With one eye on a screen, we are not present for conversation or caring. We hibernate indoors and miss the world outside awaiting us.

As Gayle Porter of Rutgers and others have demonstrated, technology is as addictive as substances. It does exactly the same thing that drugs do to your brain: removes the ability to resist temptation. You can't regulate your impulsivity anymore.

Technology brings a highly intoxicating mix of two hard-to-resist forces, positive reinforcement from the email or text and the survival instinct set off by the e-noisemakers, in other words, gratification and fear, which shred self-regulation, leaving attention functions dulled and inoperable. We are unconscious to it, letting devices run us, instead of adopting boundaries that put us and our chief productivity tool, attention, in charge. 

THE RISE OF ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER

At the root of impulse control is a signaling process in which sensory neurons trigger action responses in movement neurons. Researchers have found that people with low impulse control, such as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, have movement neurons that jump into processing action without a deliberating filter.

When impulse control goes, so do attention spans. Minds flit from one thing to another like a monkey at play. More and more people have what’s called Attention Deficit Trait, which is like Attention Deficit Disorder, except you are not born with it. It’s characterized by high levels of distractibility, inability to focus, and difficulty seeing things through to completion.

Without the ability to control impulsivity, we are not just at the mercy of constant email or phone checking but also any other habits we might not like to have, from Jim Beam to Sara Lee. A recent study linked low impulse control to obesity.

An impulsive personality and a habit of acting without thinking first are risk-factors for weight gain, according to a study at the University of Texas (Filbey, Yeshuvath), opening up a new line of attack on eating issues.

Work-life balance is a function of proactive self-management. That means we have to be good at self-regulating, at planning and prioritizing to manage work and clear the space for life and home responsibilities. We can’t do that if we’re defaulting to a screen every free moment.

BLOWING UP WORKING MEMORY

To do any task, we have to use working memory, which consists of three to four thought chunks you can hang on to only for a few seconds. It’s very fragile stuff, more fragile still if you are distracted and have no attention span.

When the brain is hijacked by temptation to a secondary task or interruptions, it blows up the tenuous thought associations in your working memory. You lose what you were working on, and have to reconstruct your thoughts, or start over again if you can’t.

The ability to get anything done begins with the executive attention function in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It regulates what we attend to out of everything in front of us at any given moment. A part of this region, known as “effortful control,” regulates impulsivity. The more we check email or get interrupted, the more that mechanism is eroded, to the point that that we can’t stop ourselves from checking and self-inflicting interruptions. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

Researchers have found that we are more prone to acting impulsively when there is emotional distress (Tice, Bratslavsky) and time pressure. Add that to the siege of pings, chimes, rings, and pulses yanking our chains with the bottom-up attention of the survival instinct with devices, and the rational brain and what’s called System 2 thinking—slow and analytical—is no longer in charge. Instead, it’s all rote, instinctive, System 1 thinking—leap before you look, reflex, last thing in the memory, most familiar.

To restore functioning faculties tof the adult mind, we need to:

--Manage devices and interruptions by setting the terms of engagement with them. Turn off email, phones, and notifications, and only check them at designated times. This will make a huge difference in the number of interruptions that can erode your impulse control.

--Increase attention. This is something few of us are doing, so attention spans continue to shrink. The key to increasing attention is focusing on a target. We can build up attention like a muscle if we regularly engage in things that make us concentrate—chess, learning a language, Scrabble, reading a book, and the best tool for increasing focus: meditation, also known as mindfulness or the relaxation response.

You focus on your breath going in and out in one style of meditation and concentrate on a mantra, a couple of syllables repeated in your mind, in another, while sitting quietly for 20 minutes. Try it for a week. You’ll love it.

Assuming control of your impulses again by increasing your attention has all sorts of great outcomes. Studies show you will have less stress, like what you do more, remember it longer, and get it done faster. On the count of three, then, one, two, three—turn your email and phone off now.

For details on our Working Smarter Work-Life BalanceTime Management, or Information Management programs and restoring your team's impulse control, please click the button below: 

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Tags: email overload, interruption management, technology addiction, attention management, time management, information overlaod, impulse control and attention

What We Can All Learn About Really Living from the Sudden Death of My Friend—While We Still Can

Posted by Joe Robinson

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PHOTOS BY MICHAEL JUSTICE

Michael Justice was one of the best photographers on the planet and one of my best friends. He went to work a couple days after New Year’s to get some pictures of ships at the Port of Los Angeles and never came home. The helicopter he was in crashed into the sea within sight of his home, and an investigation is under way.

The shock of a close friend vanishing off the planet after an accident is staggering. It’s so sudden the brain can’t process what took place. I had just talked to him the last day of the year, and we made plans for the new year. There was plenty more to talk about, but we would get to that next time. Except now there is no next time, only a gaping void.

WHEN THERE IS NO NEXT TIME

This is what I would like to share with you now, the state of not having a next time, and what that means while we have friends still with us, as well as the importance of using our next times and our present moment to live fully on this earth while we can, because he sure did. No one I know lived a fuller life. You can see by his photos here that he got around, to some five dozen countries, capturing the beauty and challenge of life along the way.

Life wasn’t a lukewarm affair for Michael. It was an event to be excited about. He wouldn't just say, "Hey," when he saw you, he would shout out your name--"JOE!"-- like he was hailing you from across the street.

He had what so many of us lose, the eagerness and enthusiasm of youth. We get beat down, talk quieter, worry about what others think, get more jaded, stay home. Mike had his demons too, like we all do, but he had something special that helped him override them.

THE POWER OF POSITIVE AFFECT

I saw it on our first adventure together. We met when I was doing a story on Zimbabwe. Mike and I got on the plane to our destination, and before we could take our seats in coach, a stewardess came up and said, “Wow, you guys look like you’re having a good time. Where you going?”

“AFRICA!!” Mike boomed, followed by the Justice laugh. Everyone on the plane now knew our destination. “Right around the corner isn’t it?” he said, laughing. 

“That’s a long trip,” she said with big smile. “You guys need to be upgraded to first class.” What? We were ecstatic. I didn’t know what had happened at the time. It was before I knew the science of something powerful and magical, something Mike had in abundance. It’s called POSITIVE AFFECT.

It’s the visible sign in your expression and body language of optimism, fun, and playfulness. When you have it, the world wants in. It’s the real law of attraction. Even lab rats are attracted to other lab rats that exhibit playfulness. It was Mike’s positive affect—the laugh, the loud, upbeat voice, that attracted the stewardess to the good vibes, and we were off in style.

We had plenty of adventures on that trip. One time, we were on a lake in a rickety motorized canoe and we ran over a sunken tree. A branch ripped a hole a hair above the waterline in a lake swarming with crocodiles and hippos. “You don’t have to worry,” Mike said to me. “There’s not enough meat on your bones.”

As I look back now, the most memorable event of the trip was not tracking the rhinoceros on foot in the bush or the power of the “smoke that thunders,” Victoria Falls. It was making a great friend, one who would be there for me whenever I needed. We would share our challenges in work and life, next ideas and destinations, and lift each other up. 

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THE SOULFUL SOJOURNER 

Mike and I were soul brothers—outdoors, adventure, exploring, and traveling the world. We also connected because he was a seeker, too. Photography wasn’t his real job. He was a seeker of light. His life was a quest for light, light that reveals what we are all too busy and stressed to see, the beauty all around us and within us—the little things we don’t notice, because we aren’t present for our lives. He also brought us images from realms of change and conflict, from the L. A. riots to Bosnia. He was our eyes, taking us to the heart of the matter.

Color is how our eyes perceive how energetic light waves are. Think about that for a second. Light is very magical stuff, literally coloring our world. Mike was an artist with this medium and capturing his subjects within the moment of illumination, like his photos of Mother Teresa, that in turn illuminated us. He took our eyes off our problems, our own self-consciousness to see truth and value.

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Michael wasn’t a religious guy, but he was as soulful as it gets. His life was a pilgrimage to find the spirit of humanity, the wonder of nature, the will to survive, the need to believe, with images that could reveal us to ourselves and redeem us from our default survival instinct to the negative and the dark side.

Did you know we need three positive to one negative experience to stay on the positive side? That’s how powerful the negative is. In a relationship, the ratio is five to one. So you have to work at bringing the positive into your life, and Michael was a master at that.

THE QUEST FOR WHAT'S RIGHT AT HAND

Some of his most amazing work came on a project documenting pilgrimage sites around the world and the faithful visiting them. He journeyed to India, Israel, Fatima in Portugal and elsewhere, capturing the devout as they desperately sought an answer, a cure, a miracle, a reason for things like why I am writing this story. He was drawn to that project because of his own inner quest for answers.

He loved to talk about philosophy and what it’s all about, whether he was with me or a longshoreman at a bar. He drew strength from some of the ideas of the pilgrims he chronicled. Impermanence, for instance, being the ultimate reality of life.

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In his search, he found what he was looking for, what we’re all looking for, we just don’t know it. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell was once asked what the meaning of life is. He said, it’s not about meaning, it’s the rapture of being alive we’re after.

Michael found plenty of that through his passionate love for photography, nature, travel, people, and life itself. He was a man of the people. The bear hug, The storytelling. The infectious laugh. We’ve got the preposition wrong. It’s not meaning OF life we’re looking for. It’s meaning IN life.

WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR?

My friend didn’t just capture the light of others. He was a giver of light. He made us all laugh, try things we shouldn’t have, and crave his next barbecue.

This is what friends do for us. They warm a cold world. My big regret now is that I didn’t see him as much as I should have in recent years. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own concerns that we let excuses like traffic and time get in the way, when great friends are irreplaceable. We think there’s always time, but, as I found, there isn't. The drive, the time, it's all inconsequential when you will never see or hear your friend again.

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Studies show that in a busy working world, friends are the first to go, and the ones who suffer most. But we also suffer when we don’t keep our friendships active. They are precisely the tonic we need, since play is one of the best stress buffers. Stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain, making it hard to do the very thing you need to shake the false danger signal. It’s hard to get out of your head and play when a part of the ancient brain thinks you’re going to die that second. That means we don’t get out, we flake out, and wallow in our self-talk just when diversion is the way out. Difficult times are the best times to seek out your friends.

Talking out thoughts with friends brings perspective, consolation, and returns you to reality, because thoughts aren’t real; only experience is. Stress conflates every problem into a catastrophe. Our friends talk us down.

Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to your friends. They are only too happy to help or listen. We’re too distant and too under the spell of the mental block of busyness in this culture, and it has to stop. What is the work about if not to allow us the time to spend with those who make the journey worthwhile? What is a friend if we are a stranger? 

WE CAN ONLY LIVE NOW, NOT LATER

Mike was an amazing friend—generous, funny, supportive, humble, and a force of life. His life is a call to action for all of us to hold our friends closer and live our lives fuller. Here’s what I propose:

1. Call your friends more often. Just to talk. Not text. We think we have to have a reason to call, especially guys. The reason is friendship. If you live far away, get on Skype video, and be there more fully with them. It’s much better for the friendship to see and almost be in the same room with them. 

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2. Don’t say, “Let’s get together soon,” knowing you won’t. Set a date, put it on your calendar.

3. Tell people what you admire about them. Don’t leave things unsaid. Just a little admiration can go a long way. I admired Michael’s commitment to living the self-determined life and his tenacity. He was a battler.

4. Don’t flake on your life. Use Michael’s example and go for the experience. Experiences are where the juice of life is, and Michael knew that. When he had downtime, he’d head out to the Eastern Sierra or some other getaway or dive into one of his favorite hobbies or interests, usually with others. Experiences make us happier than material things. They can’t be compared to anyone else’s experience because they are your own personal event, so they don’t lose their value through social comparison like objects do.

Researchers have found that 50% of your potential happiness is genetic. Sorry about that. You’re stuck with what you got. Another 10% is circumstance, the state of your health, the environment you’re raised in. That leaves us with 40% we can actually do something about. It falls into a realm known as “intentional activities,” or, in other words, the very experiences that make us happier, which Michael naturally sought out, from social activities and barbecuing to fishing and kayaking.

The two keys to sustainable happiness, says researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon, are initiating intentional activities and sustaining them.

Why are they so important? Because the key to happiness is determining the content of your life. The more we do of that, the happier we are, because that gratifies your three core psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others.

The great psychologist Erik Erikson, who studied the life stages, said we’re going to have three questions in our final days. They are all about self-determination.

• Did I get what I came here for?

• Did I do what I wanted?

• Was it a good time?

Let’s not wait until the end to get the answers we want. Michael could answer a resounding Yes to all three.

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5. Act for no payoff. Do whatever you’re doing just to do it, for the intrinsic reason. Michael dove into all of his passions for internal goals, fun, learning, challenge, expression. The science tells us those are the goals that make us happy.

We are programmed to act only for external goals—money, success, status, fame, beauty. Those things don’t make us happy, the science shows, because they are ephemeral, based on what other people think. That doesn’t do anything for you internally. You don’t really buy it because it’s someone else’s opinion. Lottery winners go back to how they felt before they won the money six months later.

6. Be present for your life and your friends and family. Michael was 100% there when you were with him. Eye contact, really listening, concerned. Put the damn devices down! Life isn’t on a screen or out in the future somewhere. It’s happening now every moment. Be there.

7. Linger. Michael wasn’t in a hurry when he was with you. You never felt rushed talking with him. He was there for you. Lingering is the key to all friendships, adventure, and good storytelling, as Mike knew. That’s when good things happen, and you get below the surface. Michael was unrushed enough to talk to everyone he met, and that’s why he had so many friends.

8. Play more. Playfulness was at the heart of the Justice motor. He worked hard, but knew when to turn it off and have fun. When you get home and are too lazy to get out, don’t fall for the first mood. Don’t let moods manipulate you and shut down your life. Tell yourself, “I can rally,” and say it the way Michael would have boomed it out: I CAN RALLY!

9. Follow the light. We bring more light, more positive affect into our life when we are more positive. How do we do that? Increase our optimism. It’s one of the hidden keys to a happy life, and it’s something we have to be proactive about, since the default is to the negative. Negative moods keep us in a bunker. That’s not living.

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Michael Justice on the road in India. Photo: Andrea Makshanoff

THE THREE THINGS THAT WENT WELL EXERCISE

I’d like to share an exercise with you that has been proven to be the most effective tool for increasing optimism. It’s very simple. When your head hits the pillow at night, you think of three things that went well over the course of the day. Maybe someone let you in front of them in traffic and didn’t run you over. Maybe you stopped long enough to see the amazing reds and oranges of a sunset. You were present for your day for a few seconds. Maybe something went well at work.

Then you ask why each of those things happened. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and you will be amazed the effects that it has. Most of the day consists of neutral to positive experiences, the science shows, but we don’t see them because we’re focused on the bad stuff.

This exercise helps you notice the good things. We are as happy as the most recent positive and novel event we can remember. So we have to keep our memories primed. Your memory is an ongoing status report, telling you whether you like your life or not.

With this exercise, you start noticing as positive events happen during the day and make a note to put it on your list. You begin to notice the patterns of when postive things happen and what you did to make them happen. Already you are crowding out the appearance of all-negative. You go to bed on a high note, thinking about what went well, instead of your problems. I’m usually out by the second item 

Let’s all take Mike’s cue, then, and pay attention, be present, and notice the goodwill, the beauty around us.

That was his gift to us, making us notice. We can keep his spirit alive by participating in our world to the absolute fullest.

 

Tags: positive emotions, living the fullest life, optimism, meaning of life, great photographers, Michael Justice

Start 2017 with Smarter Work and the Key to Engagement: Progress

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all go through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to learn the trade of our craft, but when it comes to how we actually do the task practices that make up our profession, it’s a big zilch. We never learn how to work in a way that’s not knee-jerk reflex mode, reacting to stuff all day. It’s like a high jumper who knows about all the great athletes in the sport and techniques but has never gotten training on how to actually leap over a bar without killing themself.

Today, we have a lot of people quietly killing themselves and their team’s productivity because they’re on autopilot mechanical momentum. They are acting before they think and, as a result, driving time frenzy, crisis mentality, and, of course, the king of reactionary behavior, stress.

ACTING BEFORE WE THINK

Stress is the result of not having control over events to the point where capacity to cope is overloaded. It’s the definition of overwhelm and doing more than we can do well, which is rampant in every organization these days. It’s so widespread because we never get stress management training, either. There’s a tendency to see no stress, hear no stress, speak no stress, when everyone knows it’s shredding performance and teamwork. You can turn stress off, but it takes instruction to make that happen.

This unconscious cycle undermines productivity, since attention is focused on the perceived emergency, instead of the task at hand. It leads to absenteeism, retention problems, health issues, mistakes, and cynicism, the opposite of engagement.

But there is a way to change things in 2017, to have your team work in a way that improves performance as it reduces stress by making adjustments to how they do their tasks that make them more effective, engaged, and less susceptible to stress and frenzy. It all happens by changing work style, something we never think about, from mechanical to full engagement based on the latest tools proven by the research.We do precisely that at Optimal Performance Strategies in our work-life balance development trainings.

Employee engagement is defined as discretionary extra effort. It comes from informed performance, energized performance, not how robotically fast you’re working or how many things you think you’re doing at one time (you can only do one cognitive task at a time, say researchers; multitasking is a myth). Engagement doesn’t happen without training and development. It has to be taught.

DEVELOPMENT DRIVES ENGAGEMENT

Your employees are waiting for you to help them improve their skills. Research shows that development trainings are one of the biggest levers of employee engagement. So just the mere act of outfitting your team with more knowledge makes them more apt to be committed and engaged.

Why is that? Our brain neurons crave two things more than anything else for long-term fulfillment, novelty and challenge. We are born to learn, because we are born to seek progress in our lives. The gratification of growth and forward movement set off a chemical in the brain called dopamine, which rewards us after we acquire new knowledge and makes us want to learn more. Studies have shown progress to be one of the key markers for job satisfaction worldwide.

Your team can make progress that will activate everyone’s brain neurons in 2017 by learning skills that allow them to work smarter, get more done in less time, and recharge the chief productivity tool, the brain, on a regular basis. Our work-life balance programs give them strategies to:

--Manage stress, pressure, and pace

--Control email and information overload

--Manage interruptions and attention

--Improve time management

--Develop prioritization and time estimation/deadline skills

--Navigate the work-life divide

--Improve health and wellness

--Activate the most fulfilling life

The new year is the best time of the year, when minds are receptive to change, to chart new paths and replace what’s not working with what works. Learn how our work-life balance development program can give your team tools they can put to work immediately to improve work effectiveness and quality of life. It’s the “how” of workplace progress.

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Tags: employee development programs, stress management programs

The Lost Key to Happiness and Real Work-Life Balance: Leisure Skills

Posted by Joe Robinson

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A few years back I met a guy who is an identity detective. What the heck is that? He helps people track down who they really are by digging up who they used to be, buried under years of the career I.D.

Doctors and lawyers are the most in need of recovering lost clues to their interests and enjoyments, but we’re all capable of shoving our personal life so completely out of the way, that we need to file a missing persons report on ourselves to find it.

It’s a good time to think about the other side of the work-life balance hyphen. Why is the life side important? How do we access it? What do we do with our spare time that’s not productive, that's only fun or satisfying for its own sake? Is that even possible? I can hear the fidgeting already.

We get plenty of encouragement on ways to work better but almost nothing on that amorphous life piece.  There's no work-life balance without life, and no life without skills we've long-since forgotten. We've got our life cut out for us.

The importance of life activation was brought home to me in an interview with Stanford's Mark Cullen, who studied retired executives. After lucrative careers in the financial world on Wall Street, these men walked out the door to retirement, and in days felt worthless. Their identity was tied up solely in output, and Cullen told me, "they had no leisure skills." They didn't know what to do with themselves in retirement. Some were dead within a year.

INTERESTS MAKE LIFE INTERESTING

We can get back to life by zeroing in on interests and affinities we used to have. Remember? Show me someone with a lot of interests, and I’ll show you someone who finds life interesting. Experts say it’s the range of activities you’re exposed to that gives you the best chance at a thriving life beyond work.

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When you get stuck in a rut—kids with soccer, video games; adults with golf or poker—you limit the universe of what can really excite you because you limit your play and life skills. That’s important, because if you have a passion, researchers say you can add eight hours of joy to your week, which is one of the best stress management weapons available.

Finding potential passions is like wine-tasting. The idea is to sample many kinds of activities, some of which grab your liveliness buds, while others may not quench your thirst. Where do you find the vintages that hit the spot? Start tasting, beginning with things that: 

• You used to love but dropped

• You’ve been wanting to try but haven’t

• Make you happy

• Look intriguing

• Look fun but you think you can’t do

• Are affinities and areas of interest

• Are out of left field, but you want to try

THE PROBLEM WITH ADULTS

Adults weren't always so clueless about getting a life. We lose the leisure skills we had as kids and rule out most anything new because we don’t want to look like fools. So we stop learning, something our brain neurons hate because they want novelty and challenge.

We have to get reoriented to stepping in to the spice of life—jumping into things we don’t know how to do. How? With a fabulous tool we had as children: enthusiasm. Be eager about trying new things like you once were, since that is where we discover things that make us excited to be alive.

That’s easier to do when you don’t use the work mind to try to access your leisure life. The work mind is about results and outcomes, The life mind is about intrinsic, not external goals, about being in the experience for the sake of it, the fun of it, not where it’s going or how well you do it.

If you let the work mind ask: What am I going to get out of that bowling night or pottery class, the answer will be nothing productive, so you drop it since there’s won't be any instrumental gain. The “only” thing you get from recreational outlets and hobbies is the life you’re working for.

Your new mantra, then, for disconnecting in off-hours is do it to do it. Eagerness comes with the anticipation of learning something we want to know or experience. We all knew that as kids. Back then, it didn’t matter if you knew how to do the activity or what people might think of you if you didn't, or if you were going to make a fool of yourself, you just plunged in.

THE MEANING IN LIFE OF SALSA

Richard Weinberg, a highly successful businessman in Chicago, went out one night with his wife to a Mexican restaurant. After dinner, waiters removed the tables, opened up a dance floor, and the salsa music started. His wife tried to get him out on the dance floor, but, being an adult, he wasn’t having any of it. No way was he going to make a fool of himself.

His wife had so much fun dancing with the waiters, though, that the next day Weinberg reconsidered. He decided to take a dance lesson at a studio called Chicago Dance. Then he took another one and another. Six years later, at the age of 55, he was dancing professionally in 14 different dance categories, and he won a national competition.

Weinberg told me something that is a wakeup call for all of us. “Until I discovered dancing, I didn’t know I wasn’t really living,” he said. “Now that I have dancing, I feel like I have a purpose in my life.” This is someone who has achieved the American Dream and has no concerns for money. This is how important the life side of work-life balance is.

HAPPINESS = INTENTIONAL ACTIVITIES

With 50% of our potential happiness due to genetic inheritance (sorry about that; you’re stuck with you got) and 10% due to circumstance (the state of your health, environment you are raised in), you have only 40% you can control. It falls into a realm known as intentional activities. Research by Kennon Sheldon and Sonia Lyubomirsky shows that the two keys to sustainable happiness are initiating intentional activities and sustaining them.

So searching out and initiating intentional activities are THE place to start activating life and happiness. Where to look? Identify which of the following genres of R&R fit your interests. Which are you curious about? Which offer the most fun, challenge, or interest?

• Hobbies and crafts

• Creative arts

• Games

• Sports, fitness

• Dance

• Outdoors

• Music

• Science, mind play

• Volunteering, service

Once you have identified genres you like, then open your Internet browser and start digging in to the activities within them to sample. What would be the most fun? What would you really like to learn?

Having an enthusiasm that connects with you at a core level gives you something to look forward to and provides meaning that can transform your life. The surfer checking the weather report every morning, the artist who can’t wait to get home and paint a canvas, the table tennis player hooked on Sunday pickup matches at the local college—they have an extra gear or two of aliveness when a favorite activity becomes an extension of who and what they’re about. They’re excited to be here.

You will be, too, when you find an activity that unleashes your own mastery need, one of the most powerful stress buffers and the ticket to satisfy your core needs of competence and autonomy. Repeated effort through practice operates as a self-propulsion agent, leading to improved skills and further interest until the activity is internalized as part of your being and begins to define your identity as more than what’s on the business card.

Passions pay off in so many ways. They increase positive emotions and optimal experience during the activity and boost positive mood and decrease negative feeling and stress afterward. But that’s something you already imderstood—when you were five years old.

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Tags: happiness, passions, life balance, intrinsic motivation, recreational activities and stress relief, get a life, work-life balance and leisure, leisure activities and happiness

How to Get Employees to Buy In to Change Because They Want To

Posted by Joe Robinson

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For all its myopia, homo sapiens has stuck around for millennia because of its ability to survive all sorts of environments, climates, skullduggery, and duress. We have a talent for adapting and bending to new circumstances, matched only by how we resist the new world initially.

We can go from hating kale to almost liking it, because it’s good for us. We can be convinced that a haircut that shaves one side of the head is not the unfortunate result of brain surgery, but is stylish.

REFLEX RESISTANCE

We are the adaptable species that doesn’t like to change but will— given an appropriate amount of reasoning or adoption of the new thing by others. In fact, as much as most of us like to hang on to the old way, our real nature is change. We’re changing from our toes to the tips of our hair every day we are alive. The world and people around us are changing. The work we do changes, and we have to adapt, or get left behind.

Teams and divisions get consolidated, shrunk, merged, purged. People who have been doing things one way now have to do them another. The reflex is to resist the new way. What is it that unsettles your team about change? Are there ways to get sign-on to new policies and systems without an insurrection? How do minds come to accept a shift away from what's always been done?

The surprising key for anyone involved in change management is that we are all of distinctly two minds. The defensive equipment in the brain wants things to stay the same. There’s less chance of something calamitous happening that way. On the other hand, our brain neurons want two things more than anything else for long-term fulfillment: novelty and challenge, both of which have to do with stepping into the unknown and unpredictable.

It’s a battle the defensive brain usually wins, at the cost of growth and moving forward invidually and employee engagement and employee morale at the organization level. To get people to sign on to change, we have to appeal to the higher realms of the brain that want to learn, take initiative, and make progress. That’s something we can do when we get them involved in the process and understanding the rationale behind the changes.

THE RATIONALE FOR CHANGE

The research of Ed Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester shows that when you give someone a reason for doing something, they’re more inclined to do it willingly. Even if they don’t want to do it, if you give them a rationale for why they should, they internalize the task, which increases its importance and, as a result, the willingness to do it. It’s like the kale. People buy into the health argument, and suddenly, it’s less like chewing alfalfa and more digestible.

Letting people know why they have to do things is essential to digesting change. This is because the higher brain equipment that seeks challenge and growth wants us to satisfy key psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, that require we be more than mannequins. Commands and control may get acquiescence but not agreement, and that fuels disengagement, the opposite of what both manager and employee want.

We are all designed to be engaged, to make choices and be involved in things that affect our world, job, life. When we feel self-responsible and a participant in the change, that activates the core needs that make us feel true to our aspirations and goals. We feel part of the change, instead of part of the order-taking.

Since we have the equipment built-in for change with our latent desire for novelty and challenge, all we have to do is appeal to it by seeking out the input and assessment of those who are going to experience changes. The more transparent about the change we can be, the better. Have everyone make suggestions about how to implement the changes. Get them to help chart the path forward.

This creates the perception of choice, and with that, resistance turns into shared redesign. Use the opportunity to ask for thoughts on other changes that could help the work process move smoother. They can win new process improvements, and you get people feeling a part of the team enough to help move the change forward.

I’ve found that work-life-balance trainings are a great way to introduce process upgrades and fixes that make everyone feel they are, not only a part of the initiative, but also being listened to and valued during the process of change. Our work-life balance trainings, for instance, help people embrace change, because they see the concrete benefits that come from them, making work and life less difficult. This paves the way for the larger change issue or reinvention. Doing them in tandem builds trust.

CHALLENGE DRIVES SATISFACTION

The language of change is critical. The phrasing should be informational, not controlling. Instead of relaying an edict and that you “have to” do this, lay out the scenario and ask the team for their suggestions. How can the new situation move us all forward? How do we implement it?

Progress is one of the key levers for employee satisfaction, so people want to move in that direction. They just need to feel they play a part in making it happen. That’s the autonomy piece.

The fear of change, is, of course, about security, ego, doing new things that you might not have done before, exposing a learning curve. Try to move the issue from the personal to a group participation project. Have everyone contribute something to the process, so everyone is learning and a part of charting the new course.

Research shows that development programs are one of the big levers for employee engagement, no doubt because of the novelty and challenge mandate of our brain neurons. Satisfaction, brain scientists say, is a byproduct, not of doing what’s easy, but of doing things that make us stretch. We can’t satisfy our need for competence by doing what’s easy.

Since it comes with challenge, change, then, can be a key route to job satisfaction—when people know why they’re doing it and that through their active participation they are the change they are making.

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Tags: work-life balance training, employee engagement, change management, employee morale, managing change, participation and morale

The Science of Work Recovery: How to Leave Work Stress at Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IN THE BEST stress management advice ever delivered in a pop song, Paul McCartney gave it a good try. Though tens of millions heard his plea, few “let it be.”

McCartney had it exactly right. So much angst in life has to do with the inability of the brain to let go of things. A schnauzer or a tabby is adept at this, dropping a stressful moment like it never happened. Humans, unfortunately, did not get this talent.

DETOXING BY DETACHING

Stress is a byproduct of exaggerated fears and thoughts we give life to by hanging on to them and ruminating about them incessantly. Rumination entranches false beliefs and makes them appear real. It’s pretty darn masochistic, but most of it comes from autopilot behavior programmed by an overactive defense system. We can opt out of reflex cling mode with awareness.

One of the keys to managing a major source of circular worries, job stress, as well as creating better work-life balance, is leaving work at work. That shuts off the day's stressors and allows the body to repair itself from the effects of strain and tension. It’s called work recovery by researchers, a process of detaching from work thoughts and engaging in experiences that help restore the body to pre-stressor levels. It's a reset button that flips the switch on stowaway stress with proactive recovery strategies.

Initiating leisure and recuperative strategies is something few of us are equipped for in a culture in which idle time is the devil’s time. As a result, most of us go home without a plan for how to let go of the day’s events and shift over to another mindset. And managers would never imagine that they  can play a major role in the process simply by encouraging staff to recharge after work in whichever way they enjoy—exercise, to meditation and hobbies.

The science shows that psychological detachment from work through relaxation and recreation isn’t something to feel guilty about—it’s essential for attention, engagement, and health. Without recovery from the strain that results from unmanaged demands, any number of medical issues, from cardiovascular disease to irritable bowel to burnout can occur, as well as poor performance, cynicism, presenteeism and absenteeism.

RECOVERY IS A TWO-WAY STREET

Research by Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz and others has documented that a break from the work state of mind allows recovery from strain and ends the pattern of negative affect that drives pessimism and chronic stress. Studies show that people who are able to detach from the day's work tensions are more likely to report positive mood in the morning and a reduction in stress. No doubt, these folks are also having a lot more fun, since stress suppresses the play equipment in the brain.

New research shows that turning off the stress replay machine after work is as critical for employees and leaders as it is during work hours, and that managers can play a key role in helping employees restore well-being at home. A study that looked at the intersection of supervisor signals and norms around recovery (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) found that when employees are encouraged by managers to unwind after work, they are more likely to do just that, leading to a healthier staff and workplace. “If supervisors adopt norms supporting employees leaving work at work, employees will seek to meet these expectations,” the authors wrote. 

Supervisors who are supportive of exercise, recreation, and pastimes have a big influence on the employee’s ability to shift out of the work mind and get the relaxation, social interaction, or detachment they need for recovery. Job strain and time pressure over the course of the day tax mental resources, requiring extra effort to get anything done. If energetic and self-regulation resources burned up over the course of the day aren’t replaced, it comes out of our performance hide the next day and the next in the form of fatigue, researchers have found. The toll has to be countered on a daily basis. 

READING THE SIGNALS

When managers don’t signal that it’s okay to step back after work, the Bennett, Gabriel study found that employees are more prone to take work home with them and to ponder work issues. This tends to occur when supervisors and employees have a very tight connection, which is usually a good thing, especially for employee engagement. But when people are very close to their leaders, they want to help them out more, even to their detriment of not being able to let the office go after work and doing more than they can do well.

It starts with something as basic as asking what a staffer is doing to recharge and refuel. Inquire about hobbies. What do they do for exercise? Let them know that performance is the sum total of the whole person—energy, health, optimism, and mood. People who go home with negative affect and stress that is not alleviated come back to work the next day with negative affect. Let employees know you want them to leave the workday at the office and live a healthy life outside it, since a fresh and energized mind is the key to productivity in the knowedge economy.

So what can we do to restore resources at the end of the day and shut off the stress loop? Let’s look at the four main routes to work recovery: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control. Studies show that these recovery processes can reduce fatigue, increase work engagement (Brummelhuis, Bakker) and improve health and well-being (Sonnentag, Binnewies, Mojza).

 FOUR RECOVERY KEYS

1. Psychological detachment. This is a fancy description of something pretty logical. Stop thinking about work and the worries that flow from it. It's easier said than done, though, when the adrenaline is high after a tough day and/or commute, and the rumination parade of projected anxieties is under way.

Continuing to think and talk about work issues keeps you mentally at work, so find ways to change the subject. Another option is to create physical and electronic barriers to prevent the default to a desk or work emails and help separate work and home. Imagine yourself flipping a light switch off as you leave work. You’ve switched over to another job now, your life.

2. Relaxation. There is a false belief in our work culture that you have to be at the threshold of pain or near collapse before you are entitled to relax. Taking care of yourself needs no justification. Relaxation is built in to the human physiology. Activation periods of stress are meant to be followed by the reparative parasympathetic system of rest and maintenance. Relaxing is essential to recover and restore the body and the brain's equilibrium to pre-stressor levels. 

Create a buffer zone when you get home from work of 30 minutes or more if you can to do what you like to do to relax—go for a run, meditate, hit the gym, listen to music (one of the best stress shifters since stress is dependent on dire mood). Make it a routine. 

3. Mastery. Research shows that mastery experiences are one of the best ways to promote recovery and knock out stress. These are activities done outside of work that allow for personal growth, skill-building, and learning. We all have three core needs--autonomy, competence, and conection with others. Mastery experiences put us in touch with these needs and get us aligned with who we are. 

Whether it’s cycling, salsa dancing, learning a musical instrument or a language—studies show that the mastery process can shut off stress activation even in the middle of work, at lunchtime, as well as at home. Identify things you want to learn, potential passions, and you crowd out negative affect with positive autonomy and competence. A passion can add eight hours of joy to your week, the ultimate antidote to stress.

4. Control. The activating ingredient in stress is control, or rather, the lack of it. The more control, or latitude, we feel we have over a stressor, the less perceived stress. There are two sides of the control issue, control at work, i.e., having the ability to make some decisions about work processes, not the work itself, and leisure control, deciding how to spend your off-hours. Find ways during the day to experience more choice over how you work, or get a shot of it on a break. One study found that playing a computer game on a break increases recovery (Reinecke). 

Increased leisure control reduces strain by helping you feel more in charge of your life and able to put aside a bad day with something that lifts you up and is autonomous. The idea here is to identify what you, not others, like to do for fun and recreation and indulge it regularly. You have to be entrepreneurial about your leisure activities. No one can choose them or make them happen but you. Most of what we do outside of work is ad hoc, minus thought or planning. Put leisure ideas and activities on the calendar, or they don’t happen. Take your life as seriously as your work.

The strain-stress cycle is pretty simple in its insidiousness. It goes off automatically and we react on reflex, fanning the false alarms with rumination and helplessness. The solution is getting off autopilot,  contesting stress, and engaging in recovery processes that help us get back to the pre-stress state. Work recovery science shows us the way forward, that managing stress is both a proactive work AND life process in which we learn how to put McCartney’s advice to work. And let it be.

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The Cure for Retention Problems in Lean Times? Changing Minds with Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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One of the more frequent retention issues I encounter with clients is how to keep employees engaged and happy in a lean and mean era. Typically, the organization is losing top talent to higher pay elsewhere, often across the country where incomes are higher. It’s a challenge I see a lot in the healthcare and government arenas. How do you keep your people on board when you can’t offer more money?

Without a solution, cynicism and presenteeism grow, along with disengaged employees. Morale plunges in a downward spiral of frustration and futility. Nothing is going to change, and employees who feel this way are only too happy to keep broadcasting that mantra incessantly, dragging down the whole team. Humans are designed to pick up on the emotions and expressions of others, so gloom and doom spreads through the organization like a virus.

MIND OVER MONEY MATTERS

Financial constraints make options limited, at least in the paycheck department, but there are other tools available. Research tells us that if you change the way someone thinks about their work, they can go from actively disengaged to engaged. This, then, is the way forward, reframing the single most important piece to employee engagement and job satisfaction—the thoughts that determine attitude, motivation, and belief that employees are able to satisfy core psychological needs that make them feel gratified in what they do every day. This is what we do through our work-life balance programs and employee engagement training.

Money definitely matters, but there are factors that go deeper than that. Studies show that more than half of Americans, for instance, would take more time off, instead of more money. Clearly, this is something that is doable in almost any organization. An extra week’s vacation can make a huge difference in outlook and retention. People feel valued and highly grateful when they get more time off. Cincinnati firm, Jancoa, saw their retention problems disappear when they added an extra week of vacation, going from two to three weeks. Staff turnover dropped from 360% to 60%. Sales increased 15%.

People want to feel valued. This sensation is the essence of engagement, a belief that because you are valued by the organization, you are going to work longer, harder, and forego the big bucks in return. Engaged employees are 28% more productive (Gallup), so finding ways to make people feel respected, competent, and a key member of the team is essential. Engaged employees don’t leave. Their needs are being met, and then some.

Employee morale is a complex dance in which you have to supply the choreography. That comes from understanding what makes employees want to dance in the first place. Researchers have discovered that what drives us all is something very different than what we once thought. It was believed that we all acted or not based on rewards or punishments, that we were little different than a horse cart driver dangling a carrot in front of the mare. We were motivated by the treat or by the stick of the angry driver.

JUST DO IT TO DO IT

It turns out that there is a more sophisticated and potent motivation, one that drives us from the inside out, instead of the pursuit of external yardsticks, such as money, status, and what other people think. The most powerful engine of motivation is internal goals, known as intrinsic motivation. You act for the sake of it, the inherent interest, not to get some instrumental gain. You do it to do it, and that’s enough, because you are advancing internally through goals such as excellence, challenge, learning, fun, or service.

A study by Harackiewiez and Elliott found that “intrinsically motivated employees are continuously interested in the work they’re doing.” When the focus is on the work itself and satisfying core psychological needs through it, people can focus on the excellence or service of their work in the moment and not be focused on an external payoff. Not only does this make employees feel better about themselves and their jobs, it drives attention, the chief productivity tool. Studies show that intrinsically motivated people are more focused on their tasks, like them more, and remember them longer.

How can you get people to act more intrinsically and less extrinsically (for the payoff only)? That piece comes through an understanding of what your employees really need. As Ed Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have detailed, we all have three core needs: 1) autonomy, 2) competence, and 3) relatedness. We have to feel that we are not being forced and controlled all the time and have some choice. We have to feel effective. And, as the social animal, we have to have close connections with others.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE TRAINING REFRAMES THE GAME

Through our work-life balanceand employee engagement programs we help your employees satisfy all those needs by giving them tools to exercise more freedom in how they do their work. They all have a job they have to do, but how they do it is how we can build in autonomy and choice. That makes people feel a part of the process, a valued team member, and more competent too. Firms with the highest employee involvement have a 19% higher return on investment. That’s the dividend of the discretionary effort that comes from engagement.

Work-life balance and autonomy support practices keep eyes on the internal prize, instead of on what others are doing or getting, or the next reward that the research tells us fades very quickly. The thrill of a job promotion, for instance, is gone in two weeks. Then you’re back to how you felt before the promotion. Working in pursuit of core need gratification promotes teamwork, dialogue, self-responsibility and innovation.

Unleashing the power inside your employees to work for intrinsic goals of craft, excellence, or service to others, in tandem with practices that make the workday much easier and less stressful, gratifies employees with the real arbiter of worth and valuation—their own self-scripting and purpose equipment. It’s a potent package that lasts way longer than a raise, which, though very nice, is ephemeral.

One of my favorite bits of research, detailed by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, shows that for any new money we add to our budgets, we then need 40% more to feel like we have enough. It’s a treadmill on which our wants never catch up to our needs. Because they’re not our real needs.

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Five Ways to Unleash the Antidote to Work Stress and Overwhelm: Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

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WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you saw someone freaking out because they were completely in control of their work? I’m going to take a wild guess: never. Feeling that you have control over demands means that the demands are no longer a threat, and, as a result, they can’t turn on your ancient defense equipment, the stress response.

Control is the difference between managing work and life pressures and being at the frayed mercy of them. It’s a critical distinction in an unbounded world of devices and distractions, where so many things are intruding into working memories and limited bandwidths that it seems we have no control over anything. As the unmanaged email and interruption count skyrockets, so does overwhelm, which explodes when there are more demands than we think we can keep up with.

THE FUEL OF JOB STRESS

When things are out of control, you can bet stress and work-life balance are too. Work-life balance is itself an exercise in control, trying to ensure that both work and home responsibilities are being handled.

Researcher Robert Karasek of the University of Massachusetts identified the central mechanism in work stress as the level of demands versus the amount of control over them. The more decision “latitude” you have, the ability to affect the work you do and how you do it, the less stress. High demands and low control add up to high stress. High demands and high control, though, mean the work is manageable, even enjoyable as a challenge.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

Karasek’s job strain model demonstrated that employees with the least decision-making options had more exhaustion, depression and sleep issues. These unhealthy impacts of little latitude have been vetted by scads of research over the years, including the landmark British Whitehall Studies, I and II, which examined some 28,000 civil servants altogether. Those investigations found a clear connection between stress and the position of the person in the organization hierarchy. The lowest ranking people, who had the least decision-making discretion, had a mortality rate three times higher than administrators.

Interestingly enough, this dichotomy is also what Stanford University scientist Robert Sapolsky found in his research with apes. Those on the bottom of the social totem pole were the most stressed and least healthy. Helplessness is stressful, and in humans it leads to a downward spiral of pessimism and depression.

LATITUDE ADJUSTMENT

Having the ability to control the work environment makes a massive difference in how brains process demands. When we can’t do anything about job demands mental strain develops. That in turn can set off the body’s defense equipment, since you aren’t able to take actions to cope with the demands. Not being able to mitigate a demand that is perceived as a threat is the definition of stress—and a fight-or-flight trigger.

Control isn’t just key to managing demands, it’s also the essential element of attention, performance, and doing the tasks that need to be done. It’s a managing partner with self-regulation in discipline and willpower to keep you focused on task. Stress undermines intellect and constricts the brain to perceived crises and rumination in tenses other than the one you’re trying to work in, which shreds focus and concentration. The same is true of missing work-life balance, the lack of which is an ongoing source of concern and guilt, taking minds far afield when home issues aren’t being handled.

Obviously, we can’t all be control freaks on the job. We are there to do what others want, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more flexibility in how individuals choose to do and think about the practices they are tasked with and how managers frame the tasks to be done. This is the dynamic behind autonomy support, one of the most effective systems for increasing employee engagement, when people willingly put forth extra effort. It’s based on tapping into core human needs such as autonomy and competence, which bolster perception of self-control by increasing employee involvement and responsibility.

Getting more control over your work-life is a matter of taking many practical steps to better organize, plan, and manage an unbounded world. It comes down to something that all humans are primed to do for their own safety and well-being—make life more predictable. Threats are manageable when we have wrestled them into more predictable paths and outcomes. I’m not saying you have to be a psychic, but you do have to take steps to harness the bucking broncos in your life and minimize the possibility of being thrown.

Here are a few steps that can help you feel more control:

1. Control Email and Devices. If you have your email on autopilot, with incoming every five minutes, that’s a potential of 96 interruptions over the course of the day. Unbounded email is a great way to drive overwhelm. Check your email at designated times. Three and four times a day is the most productive, say U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State researchers. Keep your email and phone turned off and check them manually when you decide, not the startle response set off by device noisemakers.

2. Interruption Management. Disable the visual alerts on your screen. Set aside times, 30 minutes here, an hour there, for no-interruption zones. Put a message on your autoresponder that you’re on a deadline. Researchers say that when you’re being interrupted, it makes anything you’re doing seem more difficult, i. e., out of control, than it actually is.

3. Stop Multitasking. Circus clowns can juggle bowling pins, but you can’t do more than one cognitive task at a time. There’s only one neural channel for language to go through. You are not talking on the phone and doing email at the same time. You are switching back and forth. In that switching there’s a cost: stress, as brain neurons try to figure out where they were before they jumped to the secondary task.

4. Ask for a Rationale. Studies show that when we ask for a rationale for doing a task or give one to someone we’re asking to do something, the task gets internalized, and it becomes something more important and makes us feel we are exercising choice, autonomy, latitude. This undercuts hierarchy and order-taking strain.

5. Time Estimation. Take time and figure out how long it takes you to do each of your primary tasks. When you are asked to do one of them, you then have a hard time estimate, instead of wishful optimism, about how long it’s going to take to do it.

And finally, Karasek pinpointed demands that drive low control and strain—time pressure, reaction time needed, pacing, amount of work, having to wait for others to do their part of the task, interruptions, and concentration needed. How could you and your team adjust these demands to make them more manageable?

Propose alternative ways of doing a task that would allow you to feel it’s more manageable. Studies show that speaking up doesn't have the whammy we think. It’s how everyone finds out what isn’t working, in other words, what’s out of control.

If you would like to train your team in effective work practices, reduce stress, and increase productivity, click the button below for details on our time management training, stress management training, and work-life balance programs.

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Tags: overwhelm, feeling overwhelmed, stress, stress management, job stress, reducing stress, work stress, job strain model

How to Measure Your Stress: Take the Stress Test

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, but perception is ten-tenths of stress. It’s the whole kit and caboodle. The way we view a stressful event determines whether we transcend pressures or fall prey to alarms that set off the fight-or-flight equipment.

We know that’s true at a practical level, since friends, family, or work colleagues experience the same demands we do, but they can react very differently. One person drives the mountain road on the edge of a deep canyon without concern while another goes through high anxiety. Two colleagues get the same work assignment, but one reacts emotionally and ruminates about how it’s all going to get done while another has no alarm and figures it will all get done, as everything always does.

A CHALLENGE YOU ARE UP TO

These differences are great news, because they prove that demands of all sizes and shapes are being managed by some people, so it must be possible for others to manage them too. And it is, because stress is a state of mind, and we can change that and the leap-to-crazed-thoughts in it to reflect a reality that is not a threat, but simply a challenge we are up to.

Stress occurs when we perceive that a threat outstrips our ability to cope with it. But perceptions are only as good as the facts and reality behind them. Stress-triggering perceptions aren’t based on either, but, instead on rash, panicked thoughts from way back on the family tree.

It’s not the stressful comment or deadline that causes stress; it’s your reaction to it/perception of it. Your thoughts and interpretation of the event are the problem, fed by the story of an outmoded brain that doesn’t know how to compute the social stressors of the modern world. It misperceives the threat and activates your ancient survival equipment to fight or run from too many emails, a colleague’s high-decibel voice, or an upcoming presentation. None of these are life-threatening moments, but your mind, controlled by the irrational thoughts of a brute in Flintstones garb from 100,000 BC, perceives that the situation is more than you can cope with.

To avoid being played by misperceptions, we have to be able to catch ourselves when stressful events go off and contest the false life-or-death signal with a spin based on the reality of today. The problem with stress is that it’s an automatic reaction, the signal going off before we have time to think. The key is to catch ourselves when stress bites, step away from the triggering event and change the story by bringing back the 21st-century brain.

As soon as you feel stress go off or that you can’t cope with something, take a deep breath and try to classify a category of stressor—ego hit, change, overwhelm, setback, interpersonal conflict, overload. This forces you to think rationally, which helps bring thoughts out of rote emotionality and back to the modern world. This is how the perception starts to shift, from autopilot, unconscious panic to analysis and reason.

FIND THE STRESS BOTTOM-LINE

Now go to the root of the stress. What’s at the bottom of it? When you find a culprit, find out what’s under that. Keep digging until you get to the bottom line, which is going to be a variation on an all-or-nothing belief such as “I’m going to lose my job or house” that ultimately comes down to “I won’t be able to handle it.” It’s that perception that determines whether your thoughts trigger stress, and then hang on to it for hours, weeks, or even years. The fact is, you can handle it, as you have always handled everything else.

There are a number of proven stress reduction processes that can help you dispute false perceptions, cut obsessive thoughts and rumination that drive catastrophizing, and let you cognitively reach a rational assessment that a demand or pressure can be handled. Our stress management training and coaching gives you the tools to flip perceptions and contest them. Is it an emergency or a false perception? We work to build in behaviors to counter knee-jerk perceptions that have no basis in fact.

A good place to start on reframing misperceptions and reducing stress is to identify the level of stress in your life. Here are a some questions from a cognitive stress test that can help you determine stress levels. To download the whole test and scoring information, please click the button below.

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  1. In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly? 0 – Never 1 – Almost Never 2 – Sometimes 3 – Fairly Often 4 – Very Often
  1. In the last month, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life? 0 – Never 1 – Almost Never 2 – Sometimes 3 – Fairly Often 4 – Very Often
  1. In the last month, how often have you felt nervous and stressed? 0 – Never 1 – Almost Never 2 – Sometimes 3 – Fairly Often 4 – Very Often

As much as we are run by our instant reactions to stressors, we are not at their mercy, since we have the power to control our reactions and perceptions. It’s a choice we can make to either buy the catastrophic thoughts and exaggerated emotions or to confront them and cut off the engine of stress and burnout.

Tell yourself, I don’t react to stowaway perceptions from hunter-gatherer days. I create my own, based on facts. One of those facts can overpower the fight-run rut: It’s not life or death. It’s just life. And I can handle it.

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Tags: stress, stress management, stress test

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