Working Smarter

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

Posted by Joe Robinson


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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?


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 


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.

If you would like to get fear, anxiety, and stress under control, we offer programs for individuals and companies. Manage demands and thoughts, instead of the other way around. Click on one of the buttons below for more details on our stress management training programs.

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Tags: avoiding regrets, fear, risk-taking and fear, risk, regret, stress and fear

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

Posted by Joe Robinson


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.


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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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

The Amazing Habit That Fuels Success: Positive Affect

Posted by Joe Robinson


Forget the power suit and the room full of movers and shakers. The most effective weapon in the success arsenal may be something that appears to be a typo — positive affect.

The word is “affect,” not “effect,” though it has a big one when you deploy it. Positive affect is the body language of happiness, a buoyant and optimistic spirit transmitted via facial expression, tone of voice and demeanor. The research shows that when you have it, the world wants in.


The scientific literature brims with testaments to the power of positive affect, from success in the social arena to health (less stress, hypertension), job success, creativity and problem-solving. Positive psychology heavyweights Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener and Laura King demonstrated in a meta-analysis of 225 research papers covering 275,000 participants that this “hallmark of well-being,” as they call it, spawns numerous successful outcomes and “behaviors paralleling success.”

They found that people with frequent positive affect are more likely to be successful in their professional lives, make more money and get more promotions. Those with chronic happiness have better social relationships, more support and stronger friendships.

Studies show that the most cheerful people make $25,000 more than the least cheerful (Diener). Happy people get more raises over time (Shaw) and are evaluated more highly by supervisors (Cropanzano, Wright). 

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“Chronically happy people,” Lyubomirsky, Diener and King report, “are in general more successful ... their success is in large part a consequence of their happiness and frequent experience of positive affect.”

It turns out that a happy state leads to success, instead of the other way around. Obviously, you have to be able to do more than be upbeat to succeed in the world. But the right disposition increases the odds.


When you’re in a good mood, energy soars and you have a welcome sign out to the world that you’re available for business or conversation. Visible vibrancy is contagious, thanks to the social circuitry built into our brains in the form of mirror neurons. These cells simulate the actions of others in our minds and emotions. When somebody laughs uncontrollably, your mirror neurons soon have your facial muscles breaking into a smile or chuckle too. When a friend is depressed, your neurons follow the cues and adjust your emotions downward.

I remember boarding a plane for a trip to Africa to do a story on Zimbabwe. My photographer and I were so cranked up about the adventure that it showed, and a flight attendant got caught up in the excitement. After a brief chitchat about the trip, she upgraded us, unprompted, from coach to first class. That’s positive affect, a spirit that’s infectious.

Research has linked positive affect with increased confidence, energy, optimism, self-efficacy, sociability, conflict resolution skills, likability, ability to cope with stress and challenges, as well as reduced cardiovascular events and improved immune function. Studies show that employees with a positive disposition have more autonomy and meaning in their jobs and that work performance is impacted more by well-being than the performance itself.

When you start out on the positive side of the ledger, you don’t have as far to travel emotionally to connect with someone, to enjoy yourself, to be spontaneous and jump into something new. You’re already there. People animated by positive emotions are more apt “to approach than to avoid,” say Lyubomirsky, Diener and King.

We all know people who are stocked with positive affect. Magic Johnson, the genial former Laker great, or Virgin boss Richard Branson exude positive affect, with sunny, outgoing dispositions and no fear of smiling. It’s as if their childhood exuberance didn’t get beaten out of them by adulthood.


That’s what happens to most of us. The school of hard knocks keeps knocking and hardening, and moving us further and further away from what fuels curiosity, aliveness and enthusiasm. Some people come by this trait genetically, but if you don’t, the research shows that positive emotions can work even without a disposition inclined that way. You’re not stuck with what you’ve got.

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The goal isn’t a 24/7 grinning stupor. That’s not how our emotions work. Your mood swings back and forth in repeated cycles every day. The aim is a frequent state of positive feeling and vibrancy that opens you up to opportunity, instead of shutting it out with the default reflexes of cynicism and apathy that dog the protective realm of adulthood. 

You can dramatically increase your levels of positive affect with frequent participation in experiences that boost joy, fun, and social connection, beefing up your reserves of key components of visible vibrancy — physical vitality, pro-social behavior, optimism, expressive body language, flexibility and spontaneity.

You have to be clever about it, since negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. It requires tricking the inner curmudgeon, which will torpedo anything out of character. Fake it till you make it.

In one study a group of introverts asked to pretend they were extroverts in a job interview performed just as well as the extroverts in making an impression.

Making life come alive, the data is telling us, comes down to skills and traits of self-determination that allow us to create the world we want. Positive affect is one of them. What you mirror is what you get.

If you would like to get a jump-start on positive affect and living the fullest life, check out our coaching page or sign up for one of our online life balance classes.

Tags: happiness, wellness, positive emotions, job success, positive emotions and success, introversion, postive affect, subjective well-being

You Are What You Say: Words That Create Stress and the Best Phrase to Shut It Down

Posted by Joe Robinson


HOW MANY TIMES have you worried about a future event, only to have nothing dire happen? The answer, I’m guessing, is more than a few. We’ve all been down this path so many times—sweating up a dump truck of angst, only to have zero dreaded results take place. It’s almost disappointing that the bad event didn’t happen, you put in so much hard-fought consternation over it. 

Why do we worry when there’s so little chance of any of it occurring? We’re designed to be worrywarts. It’s part of the defense equipment that has allowed the species to survive this far by erring on the side of the negative—and, as a result, to stories as imaginative as anything penned by Melville or Kipling.


Fear makes us all expert storytellers—and not-so-expert predictors. It specializes in creative worst-case scenarios and a stream of fiction that drives stress, "awfulizing," and the chronic anxiety process.

Stress comes, not from anyone else, but from the story we tell ourselves about a stressful event—in other words, from our own thoughts. That story is supplied by an ancient part of the brain that is out of its depth in a world of social stressors and sees everything through the lens it was created for, threats to life and limb. Any threat that overloads coping ability sets off this one-track alarm in the emotional limbic system and its hub, the amygdala.

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Since it believes you are about to be deceased, the brain yells fire in your mental movie theater, concocting stories way out of proportion to the event and awfulizing bordering on the hysterical. But you are not about to expire, you are simply caught in a reflex false belief that can only exist if you take it seriously.

Crucial to the illusion is the language of stress. It produces a vocabulary that reinforces extreme, black-and-white thinking and its stories, which must be true, since they are in your own words. Except they are not.

The first thought that goes off in the brain after a setback is a catastrophic one. The self-talk tells us that it’s the end of ego, job, relationship, life as we know it. This all-or-nothing thinking is made convincing by the language that comes with it, such as, “I’ll never make it,” or “This always happens.” "It's over." Terms like always and never exaggerate the setback, ratcheting up anger, fear, or humiliation into the life-and-death event they are not.


The words we speak under the influence of the stress response make the false stories appear real and set up a cycle of rumination, or obsessive thinking, i.e., worrying about the stressful event. The most destructive words are those that explain things that happen to us as permanent and pervasive, such as “never” and “always,” “completely,” “can’t,” “forever,” “finished,” “impossible.” They are a trap, leaving no way out, and they are utterly false.

This kind of language can lead to what's known as a pessimistic explanatory style, describing why events happen to us in a negative way, which has been shown to be very bad for health and performance and success on the job. People with negative explanatory style get major illnesses much earlier in life than those who have an optimistic explanatory style, they are less productive and have less rapport with colleagues.

We are what we say we are. The language of stress inflames the irrational emotions that drive chronic stress and pessimism. Or the words we use can open the door to a response that fosters resilience in the face of challenge.

One of the keys to exiting exaggerated, negative framing is avoiding the phraseology of permanence. Stressful events are not permanent. They are temporary, because the state of life is change.

This is the road out of all-or-nothing catastrophic thoughts—not taking things permanently but merely as a passing storm, after which there will be clear skies again. Words direct the role we play. They have the power to make us either helpless cynics or persistent in reframing stress and making adjustments to stress triggers.

Terms that emphasize the momentary nature of the setback or anxiety, such as “recently” or “lately,” restore the 21st=century brain and rational thinking. It’s the belief that a situation is permanent that fuels the panic that keeps the fight-or-flight response going. We can turn that false belief off by choosing to describe setbacks as momentary and learning how to manage reactions through stress management training something I teach in my stress management training for groups or individuals.


One of the best terms for doing that is a word that doesn’t get a lot of respect—“maybe” or “may be.” We associate the term with indecisiveness, but in the right context, strategic "may be’s" have the power to defang the false belief of permanence and signal that you’re not out of options. It’s also very useful at keeping expectations in line—another driver of stress—and holding out hope when none is in the picture.

“May be” acknowledges reality as it suggests the potential for better circumstances. It’s a term that recognizes that the indisputable fact of life and mortality is not that situations and people stay the same; it’s nonstop impermanence, a major tenet of Taoist and Buddhist thought. It’s our failure to accept the true nature of things, change, say Eastern sages, that is a key source of human suffering. 

A classic Taoist tale about a farmer’s misfortunes speaks eloquently to how the right phrasing can prevent a rush to the cycle of worry and woe-is-me. In Tao: The Watercourse Way Alan Watts tells the story of a farmer whose horse ran away. “That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, ‘may be,’ The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, ‘May be.’ And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “May be.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, ‘May be.’”

All things pass, especially emotions, which are extremely ephemeral. The goal, then, should be to have words and phrases that counter permanence ready to deploy when setbacks send us down Forever Road. What terms could you practice and have on hand on a Post-It for the next time stress pops up? What about: “It’s momentary.” “It’s temporary.” “It’s not life-and-death.” “I can cope with it.” “I can handle it.” “Stay neutral.” “Recently, these things have been happening.”

These phrases bring back the 21st century brain hijacked by the primitive limbic system. The experience of spoken words can trump unreal thoughts by shutting off the spiral of pessimistic and panicked thinking. The earlier in the stressful event you can fight back with positive terms the better, since extreme, pessimistic thoughts take root the longer they go unchallenged. 

Worrying is a self-infliction. So we have the power to not be masochists, by managing the language that give the false beliefs of stress credence. Counter your inner hysteric with terms of resilience, and you take back the script of your life.

If you would like details about our stress management programs for individuals, click here. For details on our employee stress management trainings, click the button below. 

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Tags: awfulizing, stress management training, stress, job stress, stress management programs, managing stress

Why Work-Life Balance Is the Best Retention Tool on the Planet

Posted by Joe Robinson


Anyone who has ever waded through scads of resumes or interviewees to fill a position knows something most of us don’t: Talent doesn’t grow on trees. Finding the right skills combined with the right fit can be like staring at a fitting room mirror and wondering whether the new shirt or dress will work on you, or whether you’ll be back in a couple days to return something you have no idea why you bought.

There’s a lot on the line to get it right the first time, every time. Hiring the best talent is a painstaking art, and it’s expensive, replacing the most valuable people even more so. The costs run from recruiting and training to lost productivity while the position in unfilled. The tab to replace an employee earning under $50,000 is 20% of salary, reports a study by the Center for American Progress that examined 31 company case studies.


It’s a bigger hit when it comes to hiring a new executive. The Center for American Progress found that it can run 213% of an executive’s salary to put someone new in a management chair.

High-turnover companies hemorrhage cash, but they rarely take into account the cost of the revolving door. Poor retention doesn't just hurt the bottom line, it also affects employee morale and commitment, as trusted colleagues leave. It can become a contagious, toxic cycle. 

The way out: Keep your people in the fold. Doing that isn’t rocket science. In fact, we have more knowledge than ever before about job satisfaction and how to keep employees happy—and better than that, engaged. 

First, there are companies that have already solved the retention issue, organizations whose employees love being there and seldom leave. The common thread at these firms is one consistent habit: Companies that take work-life balance seriously and walk the walk don’t have turnover problems.

SAS Institute, a $3 billion software company in Cary, North Carolina, has long topped the best places to work charts. Their turnover rate has ranged from 2% to 5% over the last four years in an industry that averages more than 16%. How do they do it? With exceptional work-life balance policies—37.5 hour workweeks, three-week vacations, on-site fully-paid daycare so you can have lunch with your kids, and on-site fitness center. You would have to have your noggin examined to leave a company like that.


Policies that help employees take care of their responsibilities on both sides of the work-life ledger make people very loyal. It’s why study after study shows that flexible work programs increase satisfaction and engagement.

Researchers in several studies (Aryee, Luk, Stone; Halpern; and Houston, Waumsley) found that work schedule flexibility resulted in increased organizational commitment and reduced turnover intentions. Teleworkers are so happy with having some control over their schedules that they work longer than colleagues at the office and are 10% to 30% more productive (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta, 1991). People who love their jobs do more willingly. That’s the definition of employee engagement.

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Modeling the behavior of companies that have great retention numbers can help improve loyalty, as can bringing work-life balance programs and practices to your organization, something we do here at Optimal Performance Strategies. The vast majority of management and staff have never received training in how to work in a way that aids work-life, and as a result operate in a retaliatory, reflex mode, which drives the opposite of engagement, stress and burnout.

Human nature is the same at every company. We feel appreciated and grateful when we feel valued. That’s what good work-life balance practices do. They tell employees the organization cares, and, as a result, so do employees.


Valuing employees brings us to the second strategy available to help keep talent on board—the science of human need gratification. It’s not widely known, but over the last couple of decades researchers have decoded the mystery of motivation. What makes people want to achieve? What makes them satisfied? If you know the answers to those questions, you're going to have happy employees. 

For a long time, it was thought that motivation was a simple carrot-and-stick affair. Offer an incentive, a bonus or promotion, and people would do what you want them to.

It turns out that, yes, people like money, but monetary and external rewards are not an engagement driver—because they are very ephemeral. The money wears off quickly, since we are all built with a been-there, done-that inner curmudgeon called habituation. We adapt to the new circumstance and get tired of it. The thrill is gone for a job promotion in two weeks, the research shows. Then you have to get another external boost to stay pumped up. Promoting people every two weeks would be great for business card printers, but not so much for the company.

There’s another kind of motivation, though, that lasts, and it’s one of the keys to employee gratification and effort: intrinsic motivation. You do something, not for an external gain but for an internal one—excellence, fun, learning, challenge, service, craft. When employees are intrinsically motivated, they are continuously interested in the work they are doing (Harackiewicz, Elliott).


This is where human aspiration and company goals come together in work-life balance and engagement. As the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have documented in their pioneering work, we all have three core psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others. We can only satisfy those needs if we have the right goal, an intrinsic goal.

Help employees satisfy those needs at work with an intrinsic approach, and you have staff more than satisfied; they feel gratified and aligned with aspirations at a core level. They won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

This is something we help organizations do through our employee engagement programs. We show how to unleash the most potent motivation in your employees through the science of intrinsic motivation. We build the behaviors that make people feel valued, engaged, and competent—self-responsibility, initiative, shared decisions, perceived choice, and internalizing the meaning behind tasks.

We all have a job we have to do, but how we do it is where we can build in the flexibility that allows employees to gratify core needs like autonomy and competence. By tapping the needs of employees and communicating in a less controlling and more informational way, we can get employees to do what we want—because they want to do it.

Retention problems flourish when folks are too busy to do any managing or when the managing is based on the opposite of what motivates people. It all boils down to understanding what it is people really want, and the right way to communicate to them and empower them so that they are getting what they’re here for. And what’s that? Participation and involvement. They are not here to spectate.

Great work-life balance unlocks employee engagement, and great employee engagement opens the door to work-life policies that let people feel they can manage the full spectrum of their lives. That gratifies autonomy and competence in a big way, something that touches off satisfaction and its chemical victory dance by the brain’s party drug, dopamine. It's a sensation that makes them think it would be crazy to work anywhere else.

If you would like to find out more about our work-life balance and employee engagement trainings, click the button below for details.

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Tags: employee retention, employee engagement, work life balance programs, job satisfaction, human resources, employee turnover

Managing Stress Is Managing Non-Vulcan Reactions and Emotions

Posted by Joe Robinson


It would be so much easier to be a Vulcan. Pure logic, no emotion or egos to get in the way at work. Pressure? What pressure? We could handle it all with the serene nonchalantness of Mr. Spock.

No taking things personally. That would be illogical. No obsessing about yesterday's woes or what had to be done tomorrow. That was/would be then. The only tense we can rationally be in is the present. And if we couldn’t get on the same page with somebody, we could just do a Vulcan mind meld. Now I see what you’re thinking.


Sure, it would be a little dull, if not a crashing bore, but at least we wouldn’t have stress to worry about, because we wouldn’t have the bane and also boon of human existence, emotions, to get in our way. It’s our reactions to the events of the day and the emotions they set off that create, produce, and direct the stress script. 

Without the ability to manage emotional reactions, we self-inflict false beliefs that lead to rash decisions, impulsive behavior, time urgency, crisis mentality, conflict with colleagues, distraction, disengagement, cynicism, and a host of physical byproducts, from high blood pressure to strokes, irritable bowel, and depression.


The fallout from stress on any team or organization is so massive—from retention (40% of people who quit their jobs cite stress as the main reason) to profits (23% higher when stress is managed)—that it would be illogical to not have ways to counter it.

The good news is that organizations don’t have to be a breeding ground for unmanaged reactions. You can manage demands and control emotional responses. That's what we teach here at Optimal Performance Strategies in our stress management training programs and classes.

Very few of us are ever equipped with the skill of managing our default emotional reactions. It’s like never being told that we had to brush our teeth to fight off cavities. Just let ‘em rot. 

Managing emotions is that basic to healthy brains and behavior. It's a daily practice we have to do, or wind up with a lot worse problems than cavities.

We are born with a mind that is easily hijacked by irrational emotions when it believes something has overloaded ability to cope, which happens often in a world of social stress that an outmoded portion of the brain has no idea how to deal with.


The tide of dysfunction set off by the stress response is a tsunami that can overtake any team or organization with fight-or-flight behaviors. Suddenly, everyone is snapping at each other. Stress is highly contagious, spreading secondhand stress through what are known as mirror neurons, which make us simulate the emotions and expressions of others. 

We pick up on the emotions of others through facial expressions and tone of voice. Mirror neurons are a social bonding tool. Positive emotions can sweep people up in a buoyant mood that is infectious and that research shows results in increased productivity and rapport, but stress and cynicism bury everyone in a toxic quagmire of anxiety.

Negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. It takes three positive to every one negative event to stay on the positive side, according to University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson. Studies show that negative affect drives down productivity, sales, and rapport for those caught up in it.

The key to managing emotions is managing reactions. That’s because it’s the reaction, or the story we tell ourselves about what somebody said or a project that didn’t go well, that sets off the stress response and a wave of raw emotions unhinged from the rational higher brain. The ancient limbic system takes over at this point, flooding our brains with irrational emotions—fear, anger, embarrassment—and the all-or-nothing, catastrophic thoughts that come from them.

The reaction usually goes off unconsciously, as the early warning system, the amygdala, detects within milliseconds a perception that something has overloaded coping capacity. When that happens, it triggers an intense emotional reaction, since a part of your brain thinks you are about to be deceased.


As a result, the thinking is dire, catastrophic, black-and-white. It’s hard to resist grabbing these strong emotions and thoughts because they are in our brain after all, so they must be true. Well, no. They are false beliefs. You are not going to die. The alarm and reaction itself are bogus.

This is where we make our stand against repeated mind hijackings, by not automatically reacting and becoming aware when we do go off and cutting off the stress response before its false beliefs are allowed to spiral and entrench in the brain. We have to do something we’re never told to do: contest the stress. That means challenging the false story behind the alarmist thoughts and becoming resilient in the face of challenges.

Often, we don’t know what that bogus story is. We simply get sucked under by the real-seeming catastrophe and fan the emotional flames by ruminating about irrational reactions like these: 

  • I’m going to lose my job
  • I’m never going to make it
  • It's all going to fall apart
  • I can’t handle it 
  • I'm a failure
  • I’ll never recover from this
  • I’m going to wind up on the street

Focus on irrational thoughts constricts the brain to the perceived crisis, shredding attention and driving mistakes and conflict. It can put teams, clients, patients, and organizations at high risk to have people in the altered state of stress-driven emotional reactions.

In our stress management programs at Optimal Performance, we train participants to recalibrate reactions and reframe the false stories that drive the emotional machinery behind stress. Studies show that we can prime our brains to respond to habitual triggers with new behaviors.

We can manage demands and emotional intensity. We can turnr reflex reactions into responses that keep emotional surges at bay and bring back the 21st century brain—and the voice of reason, our very own inner Mr. Spock. 

If you would like to find out more about how to train your team or organization to manage emotions and reactions, click the button below for details. Or give us a call at 310-570-6987.

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Tags: catastrophic thoughts, stress response, stress management, stress management programs, managing emotions

Are You Really on Vacation If You're Checking Work Email or Calling In on Vacation?

Posted by Joe Robinson


As Americans flee their work stations in search of vacation R&R this summer, almost all will have a stowaway on board with them: a device that prevents them from actually being on vacation, their smartphone. Every email check-in with the office while on holiday insures that the psychological detachment needed to provide the restorative benefits of the vacation is harder to achieve.

Vacations may be the best work-life balance strategy there is—the best chance we have each year to fully live and reboot our health—but they can only help us if we are there mentally as well as in body. Checking work email or making business calls keeps the mind tethered to the stressors of the office.


A Trip Advisor survey of 16,000 people in 10 countries found that 77% of Americans work on their vacations, while 40% of Europeans do. I hate to point out the obvious, but maybe it’s not so obvious anymore: Vacations are supposed to be a respite from work, where you don’t do what you do the other 50 or 51 weeks a year. Remember?

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Vacations are a remarkable tool to restore health and wellness because, as studies by Dov Eden and others show, they interrupt the sources of stress—unless you keep those sources alive by checking work mail and doing business calls. Then the separation is gone and the mind is back at work, ruminating over anxieties and work issues that crowd out the experience of the vacation itself and the positive emotions key to our re-creation.

A study by Derks and Bakker found that excess phone checking while not at work interferes with work-life balance by taking time away from leisure activities that are more beneficial to mental detachment.

I saw that on display at an upscale Waikiki hotel that had an infinity pool. In the late afternoon on a gorgeous Hawaiian day, some 80% of people lounging around the pool had their heads stuck in their phones, not looking at the view of Diamond Head, the surf, nada. They could easily have been at home. Others in the pool were also hypnotized by their screens in a scene that would have inspired a great Rod Serling script.


The healing power of the vacation is remarkable. Vacations can cut the risk of heart attack in men by 30% (Gump) and in women who take more than one vacation a year by 50% (Framingham Heart Study). There’s no health food that can give you that benefit. Vacations stop burnout by regathering crashed emotional resources, such as a sense of social support and mastery (Hobfoll, Shirom).

The medication that performs these amazing feats is distance—mental and physical separation from the source of strains and pressures that drive stress. With the flow of stressful events and can’t-cope stories in the ancient brain shut off, the body can do what it is actually designed to do—repair you. The cure for the activation of stress is the rest and maintenance that comes from our own parasympathetic system. We are born to wind down. Failure to close off the flow of anxiety-activating emails and thoughts makes it harder for rehab to get under way.

Getting away from the job mentally was a lot easier before the digital era. The only way you could stick your nose into events back home was by loading up your pockets with a stash of coins and finding a pay phone booth or by running up a big bill on the room phone.

Now, of course, being at work on vacation is as easy as checking the phone. Since that is a reflex as natural as breathing these days, it’s hard for people to see the danger in it or the lack of self-discipline that has relinquished control of our minds to impulse and whim.


That’s partly because so many are addicted to devices, the byproduct of interruptions that erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it, research shows, as your effortful control mechanism is compromised. We wind up being unable to resist impulsivity and self-interrupt our vacations by gazing into the glow of the electronic security blanket. More than a few people today have nomophobia, the fear of being without a mobile device. Are you one of them?

There are several issues keeping people tethered to devices on vacation—the addiction piece and lack of self-control, the fear of non-constant stimulation (i.e., a quiet brain), and employers who insist their employees check in on vacation. Let’s take them one at a time.


People who are addicted to their phones, as Rutgers’ Gayle Porter has demonstrated, have the same issue as substance abusers—no self-regulation or discipline to resist temptation to check messages or Facebook posts. This also means you have no ability to regulate other habits as well, whether it’s for Sara Lee or Jim Beam. The physical size of the habit-formation centers in your brain increase in size and the control and decision-making centers shrink.

A vacation can be your salvation, a way to opt out of mobile codependence and restore self-control. Why is that important? Without self-regulation, you can’t control your attention. Without attention, you can’t focus on your work or be present for your life. Without attention your mind jumps to the two other tenses that house your problems. Full attention gives you control. When you have control, you don't have stress.

You can’t experience the moment when every spare minute is filled with a reflex to grab the phone. Scientists say that defaulting to a phone every free minute prevents your brain from having any thoughts to process while you’re sleeping at night, a time when the brain connects the dots of the day and processes memories.

The solution to self-inflicted phone abuse is to impound your phone as much as possible on the trip. Lock it in a bag and only take it out for emergencies. Do not bring your work phone with you. Do not check your work email. Have clear conversations with colleagues and supervisors before leaving about what constitutes an emergency. Have them call if there’s an emergency.

Email should never be used for emergencies. As a result, there is no need for you to have to check mail for possible apocalypses while on vacation. You will know if a certain person called that you have to take this one call.

If you are an entrepreneur and there is no one to pick up the slack when you're on holiday, give clients an early heads-up to your vacation dates. Inform everyone several months out that you will be gone on these dates.  Try to take care of any issues in advance. Leave a vacation message on your autoresponder. The vast majority of clients will respect that you need time away just like everyone else. If you need to check email, set a restriction--once every two days, once a week, once a day--and don't vary from it.


The second reason for too much screen zombie action on vacation is fear, the cold, clammy anxiety of not having the phone to fill every empty moment. We have become so accustomed to being stimulated with noise and updates and positive reinforcement from our “likes” that we can’t bear the silence of quiet. We aren’t used to being alone with our thoughts. 

It turns out, though, that what we try to run away from—our own minds—by constant din operates on the same dynamic as fear. It’s the act of fleeing from fear and quiet that causes the anxiety. Standing astride the moment, not running, not stimulating, is what minds really like. Really.

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Being absorbed in the moment is a hallmark of all optimal experience. Whether it’s cycling a country road or drinking in the awe of a spectacular vista, paying attention isn’t scary, it’s what we’re here for. It’s key to liking what you do and remembering it, studies show. How much will you remember about your vacation experience by staring at a screen? What unknown activities will you miss out on? What ideas won’t pop into your head because it’s being monopolized by a screen? What fascinating fellow travelers will you never meet because you are locked up with your headphones with the “leave me alone” sign on?

The answer to the fear issue is to let go of the need to fill every moment. Let the vacation unspool with its own rhythm to take you out of your carefully scripted choreography. That’s where the adventures are. That’s what our brain neurons want: novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment. Only a still mind can find the peace we’re in search of on vacation.


Sometimes it’s not your choice to check in on vacation. The company requires that employees check in on vacation. This is counterproductive. The whole point of the vacation is to get employees recharged. That’s why American companies in the early part of the 20th century began the vacation tradition. Studies showed people were much more productive when they got back from a holiday.

Studies still show that, including several by Sabine Sonnentag, who also found that health problems and exhaustion decreased significantly on vacation. This is one of the reasons why Bart Lorang, head of software company Full Contact, pays his employees $7500 to take their vacation and to be unplugged when they are on it.

He knows that a complete mental break is what’s necessary to restore fatigued brains. Our chief productivity tool, attention, has to be recharged just like a smartphone. Mental exhaustion creates disengagement, the last thing an employer wants, since employee engagement results in 28% more productivity.


We can solve a lot of the compulsory email checking on vacation by a little time management and planning at the office beforehand. This is how Europeans go away on their vacations without tethers. Everyone plans vacation time at the beginning of the year. This way everyone knows when the gaps will occur. Then they figure out who can cover for everyone while on holiday in the tradition of cross-training, which the U.S. Army is a big proponent of.

German automaker Daimler, though, may have just figured it all out. They came up with a system that allows 100,000 of their employees to relax without email concerns on their holidays. Employees can set their email to auto-delete before they go on vacation. The software tells the sender the email will be deleted and not saved. The person is advised to contact someone else at the company, instead. This way employees come back to an empty in-box and have no concern about checking email on vacation.

Now that is an elegant solution, insuring continuity at the office while you’re gone and enforcing cold turkey on the email self-inflictors. May it spread far and wide and put an end to the theoretical vacation.

If you are interested in the topic of time and how to have more of it in our lives for happiness, health and community, I invite you to join the Time Matters Conference in Seattle Aug. 25-27. I will be speaking there, along with many other experts, from former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber to John de Graaf, author of Affluenza and What's an Economy For, Anyway, as well as many doctors, scientists, and professors talking about the effects of stress and the importance of recharging and refueling. Click here for a link to the conference schedule.

Tags: work life balance programs, time management, vacations and email, vacations and stress, vacation planning, work life balance and vacations

The Brain and Productivity Drain of Unbounded Devices, Interruptions, and Information Overload

Posted by Joe Robinson


DESPITE A FLOOD of technology investment in the workplace in recent years, productivity gains are at their lowest since 1982. Economists are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why. In the past, technology improvements were followed by big productivity gains. Why not this time? A lot of us under the thumb of 24/7 technology know the answer to that one. 

Digital overload. Too much technology has swamped the human capacity to deal with it. Instead of helping us get our jobs done, it’s making our work harder and longer. We're out of time and out of our minds too.


It’s on display every time I conduct a work-life balance, stress management, or time management (Managing Crazy Busy Work) training, which I did last week at the Supply Chain Leaders in Action conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Executives from Pepsi to Starbucks to Microsoft told me they were drowning in messaging and digital interruptions to the point they can’t keep up with it all and feel like they’re constantly falling behind. One executive told me he feels a semblance of control if he can get his email box down to 200. A couple people in the training were getting more than 300 messages a day. That means doing email at home to catch up, which drives exhaustion, crowds out recovery options, and grinds down performance.

Technology is helpful when humans are in charge of it. Most of the time these days, we’re not. We’re at the mercy of unbounded in-boxes, information overload, and distractions. It’s an exercise in collective anarchy, an invitation for any device or interruption to bombard our attention any moment of the day—or night for that matter. 

How many of you have been known to sleep with your significant other who’s not your partner? Your smartphone. Based on my experiences, it’s well more than a few.

We have lost one of the most basic management tools: boundaries. The devices are running us, instead of the other way around. As a result, most people are in retaliatory mode all day, reacting to what’s coming at them—acting before they think. That drives time frenzy, crisis mentality, overwhelm, and zero time management, not to mention bad performance, because our chief productivity tool, attention, is under assault.


What we don’t understand about digital devices is that they are supposed to work for us, to help us, not barrage our working memory and survival equipment all day. We're supposed to be in charge.

All the bongs, chirps, chimes, and pulses play to what’s known as bottom-up attention. That’s what happens when you hear a loud noise. Your attention immediately shifts from whatever you were focused on to see what the threat is. It sets off the startle response, a stressor, interruptor, and all-around saboteur of working memory, which is what you need to get anything done.

E-tools and interruptions are running amok at every organization. Intel estimated the cost of lost productivity per year due to email overload at $1 billion for a company with 50,000 workers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can put humans back in charge with a set of rules and guidelines that rein in the abuse.

A solution is long overdue. Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine says that 10 years ago, we used to shift between work spheres—online to offline and back again—every three minutes. Now it’s every 45 seconds. Her research shows that it takes an average of up to 25 minutes after answering an email for someone to get back to what they were doing before the interruption. We open a browser, talk to a colleague, and self-distract after an interruption.


Interruptions throw us seriously off track. They do that by blowing up working memory, that fragile collection of germinal thoughts that we can hang on to for only a few seconds, and that is at the heart of self-discipline and concentration. Research has shown that interruptions can slow us down by up to 27% and make everything we do seem more difficult than it is.

They also make us stupid. Interruptions can lower IQ up to 10 points. This is why we make suspect decisions under the influence of distractions.

Multitasking, which is really a misnomer (you can’t do two high cognitive tasks at one time), reduces productivity more than 40%, from all the switching back and forth that brain neurons have to do, according to research at the University of Michigan. And, of course, there are all those mistakes that come from multitasking, or what it really should be called—simultaneous inattention.

The problem is worse than we think, since we don’t understand the impact that unbounded devices and interruptions are having on our brains and self-regulatory equipment. Interruptions erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. We are losing ability to regulate impulsivity. Without self-regulation, the discipline needed to avoid temptation and be able to focus, we’re backsliding into addictive behavior. As Gayle Porter at Rutgers found in her research, technology is as addicting as any substance.


In a poll at my Scottsdale training, the biggest distraction and time sink was email, which is growing at a rate of 25% a year. The volume is not sustainable. Every email results in six emails, three going, three coming back, as we try to tease out what someone is saying and find a polite way to exit the conversation. The good news is that we can do something about email, interruptions, and multitasking. We can create boundaries, rules of the digital road that restore control and end anarchy. 

For instance, we can create manual checking schedules, which reseearchers have documented increase productivity and reduce chaos. We can make sure everyone knows that if something is an emergency, then that requires a phone call. Never handle an emergency by email. This way people don't have to be checking email every five minutes for fear of missing an emergency.

Every organization that wants to increase productivity and reduce overwhelm, distractions, stress, and burnout, needs to be looking at ways to manage the incoming siege of messaging and intrusions. Does your organization have an email or interruption management strategy? Our programs provide the tools to get the deluge under control, including an Email Etiquette Guidebook and Interruption Norms Rulebook.


The problem now is that there is no thinking about options and best practices, just head-down digital avalanche mode. It’s all-out autopilot dog paddling. We operate without norms and standards, which leads to digital abuse and triage.

Our productivity and time management programs give your team the best practices vetted by the research to keep the productivity killer of unbounded technology at bay. When we stop for a couple of hours and develop new practices and norms and address bottlenecks, the chaos and stress ends, minds and working memory refocus, and more work gets done in less time.

Learn how to rein in the chaos for your team. Click the button below for details on how our Managing Crazy Busy Work time management training can make your organization less crazed and more effective.

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Tags: email overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, feeling overwhelmed, information overload, time management programs

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