Working Smarter

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 of 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.

As the holidays dawn and some of us get a few hours of unstructured time, it’s a good time to think about the other side of the work-life balance hyphen. Why is it 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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Tags: stress relief, stress management training, stress management, burnout, work stress, work recovery

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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Tags: employee engagement training, improve employee engagement, employee retention, work life balance programs, work life balance, employee morale, employee motivation

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.

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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

The Call of Risk: Fear Is Momentary, Regret Is Forever

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If fear was gold, we’d all be millionaires. Unfortunately, the payoff is mostly less than zero for this ancient and epidemic human emotion. In the epic battle in your brain between the forces of safety and growth, the comfort zone usually wins, keeping at bay a skill essential to the full expression of your non-work life: risk-taking.

You’d never know it in a world of alarmists and nay-sayers, but we weren’t built to cling to the Barcalounger. The biochemistry is designed for the exact opposite, to go where we haven’t gone before. Comfort is your enemy.

Risk is the central piece of forward progress—and the life satisfaction that springs from it. Without managing fears we can’t satisfy the mandate of our brain neurons for novelty and challenge, the keys to long-term life fulfillment, say brain researchers, not to mention avoiding the regrets that rush in when fear squelches our progress.

Without risk, we can’t gratify core psychological needs that require that we step off the moving sidewalk and chart the path we're here for.

ITCHY SECURITY TRIGGER

Fear is the power of what doesn't exist to control what does. It has the upper hand most of the time, thanks to an itchy security trigger from our days back on the savanna and our habit of not disputing the emotional backwash in our brains. If it’s in my head, it’s gotta be true. The research shows we can outfox fear’s vise-grip on risk by modifying our behavior and thoughts and changing the terms of risk evaluation.

What risks has fear overruled for you? Maybe a trip someone convinced you wasn’t safe, an activity you didn’t want to look like a fool doing?Looking back, you’d make a different choice, because, with time you see that the “fears” were false, momentary blips of projected anxiety that stepped on the neck of your life.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

Fear is momentary; regrets are forever. The reality is that fears that paralyze us today will be long forgotten tomorrow, and we’ll be left with the after-effects of opting for safety — life unexperienced, progress unmade, a truckful of regret. All because of irrational neuron burps in your brain. For nothing, in other words.

It’s the opportunities we don’t act on that cause the most regret, say researchers, known as “the inaction effect.” Instead of looking back years later at what we wished we would have done, why not look back now in the moment of risk, and use regret to transcend autopilot fears?

IRRATIONAL PROJECTIONS = REGRET

Regret is a built-in insurance policy to make sure we don’t leave too much life on the table. It forces us to see the big picture fear obscures. Think how mad you’re going to be later that projections in your brain of things that don’t exist kept you from the life you could have lived. Instead, let the prospect of future regret fortify your courage to act now.

We pay for the safety default with boredom and stir-craziness, items born of something built into the DNA — adaptation. We’re made to get tired of reruns. This anti-rut device is designed to make us change things up. Core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, can only be satisfied when you demonstrate your capacity to take on new things 

We can improve risk-taking ability by changing attitude, increasing competence and through a process of reframing fears called fear extinction. Researchers have found that people in a positive frame of mind tend to see risk as an opportunity, not a threat. Stress management is key, since stress keeps your brain constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment, i.e., negativity. Intrinsic goals are another way to disarm fear. Acting for the sake of the experience itself removes the expectations that give us pause.

Risk is about managing uncertainty. The more that uncertainty is managed, and the more you feel competent to handle the risk, the easier it is to step forward, instead of back. Competence makes you see potential benefits, instead of threats, say researchers.

Fears can also be weakened by exposure to threatening stimuli. You can change fearful images by altering your memory of them. Each time you recall a memory and add or subtract from it, you are defanging the initial fear.

More of us could take the risks we need by changing the equation from potential loss to gain. Try viewing the unknown, not as a threat, but as exploring, exactly what your brain neurons want you to do.

Researchers call the release of the brain’s party chemical, dopamine, at the mere expectation of something novel the “exploration bonus.” You can get your bonus through incremental risk, one step at a time 

GET TO THE BASE CAMP 

Mountaineer Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb the world’s 14 tallest peaks, made a practice of not looking at the summit when he climbed a daunting peak. Too intimidating. “You see this rock in front of you and say, I’m going to go to that rock and then I’m going to stop,” he told me. His goal for the day is the base camp, not the summit.

In the course of doing a book on the power of engaged experience, Don't Miss Your Life, I met a host of folks who have applied the spirit of exploration to risks in their personal lives that have transformed their lives. Psychotherapist Sheila Gross turned the jitters of performing with a group of strangers into the most important feature of her week — singing in a community choir. Accountant Marty Herman transcended his social fears by becoming an ace salsa dancer in his 50s.

Breast cancer survivor Cindy Roberts overcame her battle with the ultimate fear through the power of dragon boat paddling. She knows the truth behind risk: There’s no such thing as security anyway. “There is no later. Live it now,” she says.

Mountaineers call the initial climb of a peak a “first ascent.” There’s an extra incentive in bagging a “first,” a distinction we can use to turn the discomfort of doing something new to its flip-side: excitement.

What can you do for the first time this week? Next week? It could be anything from trying an exotic fruit for the first time to signing up for a dance class. Consider your “firsts” progress, and the route to a life of no regrets.

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6 Ways Remote Workers Can Get on Top of Boundaries and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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REMOTE WORKING is one of the most popular employee perks. Employers should be fans of it, too, since it does wonders for performance. One study (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta) found that productivity increased 10% to 30% for those working from home offices.

That’s a big payoff and a compelling reason to do more of it. More companies are doing just that. Some 37% of Americans (Gallup) are now working at least some of the workweek at home. Contrary to the image, though, of teleworkers slacking around the house, they actually work more than their colleagues at the corporate office. It’s adding up to a growing downside for virtual workers, whose work-life balance dreams are not always paying off the way they thought.

Remote staff have been shown to work 50-75 hours per week (Doherty et al, Pratt), averaging consistently longer days than their coworkers at headquarters.

THE PROXIMITY FACTOR

And therein lies the irony of telecommuting. As much as remote workers like the increased freedom, lack of commute, and fewer interruptions, a practice chosen for better work-life balance can make it worse. A Center for Work and Family study found that only 24% of telecommuters rated their work-life balance as very good, compared to 38% of those who worked at the office but used daily flex time.

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It’s not the remote option itself that’s driving long hours and a trip down the burnout track. The culprits are the lack of boundaries and self-management skills and the proximity factor. You can’t drive away from the office at the end of the day when it’s in your house. The three priorities you didn’t get to today are feet away from handling. Why not go back to the desk and polish off one more task?

Remote workers have a problem knowing when to say when in an unstructured environment in which there is added pressure to make it known you are getting the job done even though no one can physically see you. An affliction known as guilt enters into the equation, a need to prove worth from afar by going the next several miles beyond to compensate for the lack of face time.

I recently led a work-life balance training for a remote team at a medical laboratory firm. The company was happy to retain top talent by giving them the option to work from their homes across the U. S. As much as they liked the autonomy that virtual work provided, the group was finding it difficult to shut off the workday, get the mental detachment necessary at the end of office hours, and were too accessible to technology that followed some of them straight into bed at night.

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VOTE OF CONFIDENCE

We zeroed in on the importance of time management, boundaries, and setting the terms of engagement with technology. Companies that allow employees to work remotely are providing a vote of confidence in the ability of their virtual staff to self-manage their day. The responsibility is on the individual to structure the day in an effective way and utilize technology so that it enhances, not overwhelms, the chief productivity tool—attention.

Let’s take a look at six habits that can turn remote work into what it was designed for, an aid to a more flexible life and a better work-life fit:

1. Keep Office Hours. It's the same work, just in a different space. To rein in a default to excessivley long workdays, set office hours for yourself and stick to them. You have the advantage of being able to slot in a child's play or yoga session—just keep them within a set schedule. Don't go off on impulsive distractions—such as social media tangents—that destroy focus and make you fall behind. Simulate the schedule of headquarters at home as much as possible.

2. Set Stop Times. The work is not all going to get done by the end of the day, but you can finish yourself off by chronically going on too long. Long hours have been shown to dramatically increase strain and the stress that results from it. Choose a time at which you can remove fingers from keyboards, put down the phone, and stop for the day. What is a reasonable stop time for you? You are not always going to be able to stop on a dime, but aim for consistencly regular closing hours. Kick out the last person in the office, you, at the approinted time. Set an alarm as a reminder. Turn your coffee mug over to symbolize that the day is done. You're going home. Wait a second, you're already there.

3. Set Boundaries on Technology. The remote employee has to have greater reserves of self-regulation, i.e. discipline, to avoid the temptation of having all communcation with the outside world bombarding and notifying incessantly. That means having a strategy to deal with unbounded technology is essential. Check devices manually at set times. Three or four times daily are the most productive schedules, researchers at the University of California Irvine and Oklahoma State report. Try starting at hourly checks and wean down from there. Turn off visual notifcations on your screens. 

4. Organize Your Desk and Prioritize. It's a lot easier for clutter and distractions to pile up at home. Organize your workspace and remove all distractions from view. Get set up for maximum concentration. Turn off browsers. Prioritize and plan the day's events.  Take 10 minutes at the start of the day to prioritize. Qualify tasks by the urgency of doing them now, and create a next physical action for items on the to-do list.

5. Create Focus Zones. When are you the most alert? If you are a morning person, that's going to be anywhere from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and if you are a night own, it's going to be in the late afternoon, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Set aside 30 minutes, an hour, whatever you can spare, and block it off to do your high concentration work. Put a message on your auto-responder that you're on a deadline and will be back at a designated time.

6. Take Breaks and Get Exercise. This is an area that is tailor-made for remote workers—so it's important to utilize it. You have been left to make your own schedule. That means you can create one that allows your brain and body to get the daily recharging they need. It's easy to put the head down and barrel ahead for 10 straight hours, but the work and your health will suffer as a result. Researchers say we need to give the brain a break every 90 minutes to two hours. Set times you can step back for a 10- or 15-minute reboot. Use your breaks to build in exercise, to take a walk, do some stretching, or make your lunch break an exercise break. Studies show that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at lunch time increases productivity.

Going from the corporate office to the remote office can be a tough adjustment, one that we aren’t really prepared for. Yet the autonomy can pay powerful dividends for those who get organized and prioritized—more opportunity to take care of personal and family issues, easier access to refueling breaks, more concentration, and best of all, gratification of one of our core psychological needs. We all have a need to feel autonomous and to chart our course.

Remote working offers a choice to take on more responsibility, and when we do, our brain neurons like it, and pay it off in the form of job and life satisfaction. As long as we can resist the digital, self-interruptive, and caloric temptations.

Tags: work life balance, telecommuting, time management skills, home office tips, remote working

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