Working Smarter

Time Management and the "I'm Too Busy" Mental Block

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Too much to do, not enough time. It’s the refrain of the crazy-busy age. But what if it wasn’t true? What if we had the time, but we weren’t using it properly? Studies by Geoffrey Godby and John P. Robinson (no relation to me) have found that we have more time than we think. It’s just not organized.

Organizing time isn’t just a case of savvy calendaring and prioritizing. The bigger hurdle takes place at the psychological and emotional level, in the beliefs we tell ourselves about the time we think we don’t have and the perceptions those thoughts lock us into.

THE MENTAL BLOCK OF "BUSYNESS"

Time operates on two levels—Greenwich Mean Time and the state of mind that interprets the world in temporal terms. The latter is the hidden key to time management and exiting the chronic frenzy and frazzle that happens when we confuse “busyness” with productive endeavor and make it our very identity. The “I’m too busy” mental block subverts time management and productivity on all sides.

If you tell yourself there’s no time, there isn’t any. If you tell yourself “I’m too busy,” you are. You’re too busy to have that extra conversation you need with a colleague, too busy to sit down for 15 minutes to plan priorities, too busy to get the recharge time to deactivate tension, too busy to understand the self-infliction of busyness.

In an unbounded, always-on world, it’s easy to get caught up in busyness. Yes, there is a lot to do, but we don’t have to do it all at one time, feel besieged, juggle all the to-do’s inside our head, default to terminal multitasking mode, or rush all day. Mental racing tells a part of the ancient brain that every minute of the day is an emergency. That turns on the danger signal of the stress response, i. e. fight-or-flight, and the false belief that we have to do everything faster than we’re doing it, or it will be Apocalypse Now.

EFFECTIVE PACE

Without stopping to think about what we’re doing, whether it’s a priority or not, and when the best time to do it is, the default is to action,  uninformed, reactive action that drives frenzy. The first step to time management, then, is a conscious mentality of effective pace. We have to step off the runaway train and put the conductor back at the cognitive wheel.

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As Daniel Kahneman reports in Fast and Slow Thinking, time pressure makes us do stupid things. We default to what he calls System 1 thinking—reactive, instinctive, making decisions not based on analysis or facts but on rash diagnostic bias, what appears familiar, or the last thought in our head. Time pressure impairs cognitive ability and fuels bad decision-making.

Obviously, there are deadlines that have to be met and urgent issues that land on our screens that need quick turnarounds. But when time pressure extends beyond due dates and immediate tasks to all the time, even at home, it can lead to perpetual time urgency. This drives a fixation with the passage of time that makes every task an emergency.

But it's not. It's false urgency, since the emergency your outmoded brain misinterprets is that you are going to die. You may have 200 emails, but you're not going to die from them. Since time frenzy activates the stress response, it's no surprise that studies show that time urgency is a heart attack risk. The pattern goes: Impatience leads to irritability, which leads to anger and clogged arteries. Unconscious speed mode undermines performance, rapport, and health. 

THE SPEED TRAP

It’s a speed trap. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. The way out of the frazzle and the first step to time management is to stop the busyness long enough to regulate pace, qualify urgency, prioritize, and change our perception of time and ourselves.

That means untangling identity from the reflex of unconscious busyness and redefining where true productivity comes from. When someone asks how we are, the tendency is to blurt out: Busy! Even if we’re not. Busyness has a habit of becoming ingrained with who we are. We wind up identifying as a person constantly in motion. Say "I'm too busy" often enough, and that is who you are—Mr. or Ms. Too Busy.

Yet productivity is not a function of how busy you are or of constant commotion. Rote busyness is simply mechanical momentum, movement without an understanding of whether the commotion is moving things forward, without knowing where we are going or why and that we are creating extra work and stress by rushing through it.

It’s mobility that we want, not a badge of busyness and being able to say how swamped we are, which only intensifies time anxiety. Mobility comes from the opposite of hyperventilation—reflection and focused attention on the task, not the clock. This places us in the moment, instead of having to keep a part of our brain on the finish line. We get the work done faster without the ticking time bomb of the clock.

TIME MANAGEMENT IS ATTENTION MANAGEMENT

The perception of time changes from tormentor to friend when we take a breath to see what needs to be done and why at a given moment. When you set terms of engagement with tasks, you are in control, instead of a fearsome deadline or stack of to-do’s. The more you can be absorbed in what you are doing in the present, you remove the oxygen of time panic, which is agonizing about the future, a tense you can never be in anyway.

Time management boils down to attention management. If you are truly paying attention and not self-inflicting time stress by checking clocks or allowing unbounded distractions, you stay focused on the task you’re on. Attention comes from focus on a target. Trying to pay attention to multiple targets through multitasking or keeping to-do’s circling the mind like jets at LAX accelerates time tension and the chances of making a mistake while rushing.

So how do you or your team manage time, instead of being run by default fight-or-flight? It’s a daily practice, since the accelerators of time frenzy are all around us—emails, instant messages, texts, and the influence of others flying on hyperdrive.

We pick up on the emotions and expressions of others through mirror neurons. We have to make conscious choices to resist false urgency, our own and that of others. Here are a few keys to time management we don’t usually hear about:

  1. “I’m too busy” is a story, not your identity. Getting things done is the goal, not nonstop commotion.
  2. Stop, pause, and target attention. If you’re rushing for no reason, stop and stare at the clouds in the sky, or put on some music. Target your attention on something else. That breaks up the time frenzy entrainment.
  3. Restrict the amount of self-deadlines. We drive a lot of stress by setting arbitrary self-deadlines for this task or that dry cleaners that no one is holding us to. Avoid setting yourself up by seeing these targets as more approximate deadlines.
  4. Limit clock-checking. Each time we check the time, we self-inflict time stress and an interruption.
  5. Resist the hurry-worry of others. Choose not to accept the time frenzy of others. "Yes, I see they’re freaking out, but that is them. I will not react."
  6. Do time estimates of all your key tasks. It’s easy to be overly optimistic on turnaround times. Analyze how long it takes to do each of your main tasks. When you take an assignment, you know how much time to budget for it.

A classic false belief of the “I’m too busy” mindset is that, if you pause or even slow down, then you will fall behind. In fact, an effective pace insures that you won’t have to do everything over again by making the mistakes that come with rushing. It’s mechanical busyness, without thought as to where the busyness is going, that undermines progress.

Busyness and the time frenzy it fuels also do something more insidious. They make it impossible to savor accomplishments, since you have to instantly move on to the next thing and next thing on a treadmill that never ends to keep from falling behind the self-inflicted schedule. 

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Tags: work productivity, crazy busy, time urgency, time stress, time management

How Employee Training Drives Productivity

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all learn the skills of our trade, but few of us ever learn how to work in the most productive way with those talents, based on what the research actually says. Most of the time the way we work isn’t based on anything at all, other than reacting to others and devices all day. That fuels a lot of bad habits, since reacting before we think drives the stress response, overwhelm, and short-circuiting minds crazy.

There is a way to get out of retaliatory mode and put the thinking in charge, employee training. It’s not just what you do, but how you do it that makes for effective performance. Development programs can extract minds from triage mode with the best solutions from the science.

OUTSIDE INTERVENTION

This is the mission of the training programs I do, from work-life balance to employee engagement and stress management. Skip the torment and go straight to working smarter. The right self-management practices are the difference between a sustainably performing team and one that is imploding. It takes outside intervention to put bad habits to rest and create good ones whose benefits can last a lifetime.

The research shows that employee training can pay big dividends. Stress management training programs have been found to increase performance 21% and cut absenteeism 24% (Munz, Kohler, Greenberg), while teams who acquire work-life balance skills work 21% harder than those without them (Corporate Executive Board). Productivity jumped 17% for companies who had employee training programs (Bartel).

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Beyond the powerful stats, there’s also something else that happens in employee trainings. When organizations set aside time to stop, reflect, imagine, and troubleshoot, communication is facilitated that otherwise wouldn’t happen, and it leads directly to a more engaged team, higher morale and participation.

Everyone is busy, maxed to the tips of their hair. It leaves no time to flag the practices that aren’t working, share ideas, plan ahead, seek advice, and make the tweaks that keep people engaged and off the burnout track. Everyone races downriver in their separate barrels headed for a long drop over the falls. Open up the conversation in the training setting, though, and the conversations and insights come forward.

SELF-INFLICTED DEADLINES

A manager from a global firm in one of my productivity programs shared with his team that he was surprised at how often his staff will set themselves up for heartburn by promising overly ambitious turnaround times. His comment surfaced an issue that was driving overload and burnout at this firm (as well as at most I work with): overpromising without regard to the realities of time and physiological capacity.

The debate that followed was animated, as the group discussed how this reflex habit drove frenzy, crisis mentality, and poor work-life balance. Then we moved to zero in on criteria that could be used to estimate turnaround time more accurately. Lack of detail on assignments was a problem. We developed a form that could flesh out the particulars and approximate time estimates for key tasks, cutting down on excess messaging in the process.

As is the human wont, everyone thinks they are the only person on the planet who is experiencing a given problem. When the subject gets an airing, there is relief and recognition, and plenty of others wrestling with the issue. Better yet, there are individuals who have suggestions and sometimes solutions for the challenge. Trainings bring out the best in teamwork.

UNLEASHING INVOLVEMENT

Participation is the key to employee engagement, and development programs unleash involvement that makes everyone feel they are part of the solution. At a training for a federal government agency, one woman shared how she had gotten the IT department to help her turn off visual notifications on her computer monitor. Without the constant flood of notifications, she was getting more done and focusing better.

At a follow-up training for a tech firm, a supervisor detailed how she was using the stress management processes she had learned in our earlier meeting to get to the bottom of each stress incident. What was the false story? The most likely? Where was the emergency? There wasn’t any. She turned the danger signal off, giving colleagues a point-by-point description of how they could do the same.

Whether the challenge is meetings, carving out family time, or how to navigate customer expectations on service, a good employee training not only provides learning opportunities from the trainer but also crowdsources the successes of colleagues and brainstorms workarounds. Out of the process come tighter teams, a roadmap to smarter norms, and an inspired crew armed with ways to manage demands, instead of the other way around.

Work-life balance, stress management, and productivity management are all proactive affairs. They don’t happen on their own. The default button of reflex will keep teams and organizations behind the eight-ball of retaliatory mode. Employee training programs have to be initiated to bring the tools and forum to change the status quo, to spark employees’ own built-in need for improvement and challenge.

Surveys tell us that the most important factor in job satisfaction is a sense of progress. Employee trainings gratify that need by improving not just skills, but rapport and teamwork, which in turn satisfies another powerful need, the social animal’s need for connection with others. Let's get going!

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Tags: employee training, employee training programs, employee training and productivity, employee training and stress, employee training and engagement

Why Brain Neurons Seek Novelty and Challenge in 2016

Posted by Joe Robinson

New year's dawn for resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are like any other new behavior. We are of two minds about them. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh/discipline is weak. Part of our brain, the higher floors, is gung-ho. Yes! Let’s do it. Eat healthier. Get more exercise. Be more productive at work.

The second mind, located in the lower rungs of the brain, has other ideas. The fear hub of the amygdala, constantly on the alert for danger and risks to life, ego, and pride, says, “Why bother?” “Too hard.” “Would look foolish.”

NOVELTY VS. FEAR

It’s a titanic struggle that goes on throughout our lives between the forces of growth and progress versus the lizard brain’s fear of venturing outside the comfort zone. We know who usually wins that battle. The default button is to do nothing. Doing something requires proaction, and that requires self-regulation, or discipline.

The science shows that the effort is worth it, because we satisfy our higher aspirations when we go beyond the autopilot. This is the best time of the year to make a new course happen, when receptivity is at its highest and we are willing to exert ourselves to try a new direction.

Embarking on a new path is no less than a physiological and psychological imperative. The research of brain scientist Gregory Berns has shown that the two key factors in life fulfillment are novelty and challenge. Both require us to move off status quo, or face the consequences—boredom, cynicism, life unlived.

Humans are programmed to seek out the new. It’s what got our hunter-gatherer forebears to venture beyond the next ridge to find new food sources. The need for novelty is so strong that even the anticipation of something new, before we have even experienced it, sets off the brain’s party drug, dopamine, which makes us feel good and encourages us to take on more new things.

BRAIN NEURONS DON'T LIKE RERUNS

Our brains seek out new data so insistently that when our neurons get the same information over and over, they literally stop noticing it. This is why you can drive to work without remembering passing the last five exits. Your brain neurons have been there, done that. They’re not paying attention anymore.

We all have certain core psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that also depend on us engaging with the new. We satisfy these needs through acts of initiative and challenge, by going beyond our normal routines.

With so much in our biology nudging us to try a new course and feel the satisfaction from doing so, you would think it would be a little less like pulling teeth to get us to take on a new resolution—and stick with it. But that doesn’t take into account the other mind, the security-fixated default that holds you back. It doesn’t want to change anything. It might be risky, hard. You might fail. Isn’t there an easier option?

We have to overcome that static and take the very first step in the new direction. Then the next. Otherwise, we wind up doing more than we do well at work and not managing the demands coming at us. On the life side, we get locked into stale routines. Our brains were made for participation, not vegetation.

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GETTING OUT OF OUR OWN WAY

The battle between our two minds happens by rote, outside consciousness, so bringing awareness forward on the importance of trying new things is a great place to start. Change is not something to be feared. It is the fuel of fulfillment. Our autonomy and competence needs demand that we stretch, go the extra mile.

At work, this is the definition of employee engagement, bringing extra discretionary effort to the table. Employees are willing to do that (increasing productivity 28% in the process, according to the Conference Board) when they are able to demonstrate initiative and involvement in how they do their work.

The need to grow and take on challenges is what makes training and development such a key lever in employee engagement. Surveys show employee training in the top tier of factors that drive engagement, along with mentoring and managers who have open door policies. When people get skills and strategies to be more effective and manage demands better, they respond with greater engagement.

RESOLUTION: TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT IN 2016

We can satisfy the personal growth mandate of our brain neurons as well as organizational change and process improvements with a New Year’s resolution for employee training. Change becomes, not something to fear, but a part of the innate drive we all have for self-improvement and competence. When employees get tools to work smarter, manage interruptions, eliminate overwhelm, and control stress, as they do in my Work-Life Balance, Stress Management, Information Management, and Managing Crazy Busy Work trainings, there’s an immediate reward in energy and initiative, as people feel they have strategies and support to do their jobs.

As I mentioned in my last post, “The Three Things We Don’t Know We Need to Be Happy,” the most potent motivation is self-generated through what is known as intrinsic motivation. That comes when we act for internal reasons, not for an external payoff. Key intrinsic goals include learning and challenge, exactly what employee training brings to the table. As one study reported, “employees who are intrinsically motivated are continuously interested in the work that they are doing” (Elliott, Harackiewicz).

This new year, seize the opportunity to grow and increase productivity by initiating an employee training or development program, wherever you are on the organizations chart. On the life side, find the one thing that can make your life more fulfilling, and take the next step to make it happen.

Let the higher brain win in 2016. The glow of satisfaction from taking on a challenge will tell you that you made the right choice.

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Tags: employee engagement programs, happiness, employee training, employee development programs, life fulfillment, life satisfaction, employee engagement, work life balance programs, fear and risk-taking, novelty

The Three Things We Don't Know We Need to Be Happy

Posted by Joe Robinson

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The holidays are a great time to dig in to what it is humans really want, as opposed to what we or others think we do.  If we knew the answer, we'd know exactly how to get what would satisfy us. How big would that be?

For most of human history, the answer to that question has been a gray area that peers and marketers have happily filled in for us, creating needs where there weren't any for designer togas or shoes with blinking lights in them. Luckily, we live in a time when some very sharp minds have deciphered the correct motivational wiring and pinpointed what it is we need to be happy.

THE GPS OF SATISFACTION

Researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have led the way, with a framework that points the way beyond gifts to what it is we really need, as opposed to desire. Self-determination theory, as it is known, is a veritable GPS to fulfillment, decoding our innermost longings and linking the world of science and spirit. It has been vetted by hundreds of scientists in more than a dozen cultures and is key to work-life balance and the effectiveness that leads to productivity.

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No longer do you have to rely on guesswork to know what you need to feel satisfied. No longer do you have to have expectations that constantly disappoint. No longer do you have to put your life on hold while you wait for some external ship to come in. You can live more fully than you ever imagined when you finally know what it is you're living for.

Deci and Ryan found that at the root of human aspiration, there are three core psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (the need for social connection and intimacy). You need to feel autonomous, that you are freely choosing things in your life and are not being controlled. You have to feel effective and competent, doing things you initiate and that make you stretch. And you have to have close relationships with others to satisfy your social mandate.

Think about all the flailing we have to go through to find what fills us up. Now there's a roadmap. Satisfy your three core needs, and you'll be happy. You can have all the external success in the world, but you'll remain unfulfilled if even one of the core needs is unaddressed.

EXPECT NO PAYOFF AND YOU GET ONE

The catch is that you can only satisfy these needs through intrinsic motivation, the reverse of the motivational approach we're all raised with—external motivation, doing things for external approval. With intrinsic motivation, you seek no payoff, only the inherent interest of the activity itself—for learning, fun, growth. Do it just to do it, and you'll get a whopping internal reward in the form of the lasting version of happiness, gratification.

This is the unconditional path about which the sages have tried to clue us in, from Aristotle's idea of living well through lifelong learning, a reward in and of itself, to the Buddhist concept of right intention and the Taoist notion of acting in line with your authentic nature.

You must be in full alignment with your true self and values, while allowing the three core needs to work as your homing device.

"When people are oriented to goals of doing what they choose, growing as a person or goals for having good relationships, they experience higher levels of the basic psychological needs," says Tim Kasser, of Knox College, a leading researcher in the psychology of motivation.

That's not the training we get, of course. We're taught to go for the payoff. Everything has to get us somewhere socially, financially, emotionally. We're like trained capuchins, waiting for our peanuts after each task. 

STOP THE PAY, STOP THE PLAY

Deci showed in one experiment how external rewards sabotage us. Subjects were asked to solve a puzzle in an exercise in which some got paid while others didn't. The ones who received no money kept playing with the puzzle after the teacher left the room at a strategic moment, while the financially motivated had no interest playing unless they got paid for it. "Stop the pay, stop the play," Deci summed it up later. His work and those of many others have documented that we learn more, remember it longer, are more interested in what we're doing, and are more satisfied when we act for intrinsic goals.

Intrinsic goals on the job include excellence, service, learning, challenge, and craft. On the life side, you can't get more autonomous than choosing what you want to do in your free time. Social opportunities, softball games, creative outlets and vacations can get shelved if we use the external goal mode: where's this going to get me? How can I be advanced?

The core needs tell us we're waiting in vain when we expect other people, things, and status to make us happy, and that we are the ones who must make our lives fulfilled through self-determined choices. Your core isn't satisfied by thinking or spectating but by directly participating in life's meaningful experiences.

The need for autonomy comes from a desire to feel that you are the author of your own script. When you feel that your activities are self-chosen, there's a sense of self-determination and freedom, which brings gratification. You've moved forward.

CORE COMPETENCE

The need to feel effective is essential to self-worth, but you can only satisfy your need to feel competent by doing things you initiate; it has to be coupled with autonomy. You can be effective on an assembly line, but you won't satisfy your competence need, because the activity is not autonomous. Learning a new skill is one of the best ways to activate competence. In one study, first-time whitewater canoeists felt a surge of competence as they handled new risks.

The third core need, relatedness, is a well-documented route to increased positive mood, better health, and a longer life. You can't satisfy your need for relatedness by networking, since it won't produce the satisfaction that comes from close personal relationships. Your core needs are very smart. They know when they're not getting the real intrinsic deal.

The findings of Deci, Ryan and their colleagues have yanked us out of the Dark Ages of our unknown needs. Their data lights the way forward for you to become who you are, as Alan Watts once put it. The key to the meaningful and fulfilling life you want is acting from intrinsic goals that reflect your inner compass—learning, fun, challenge, growth, community, excellence. It's tricky, since external metrics are so instinctual, but you can do it.

Act for the sake of it, and you are at the center of full engagement in the most rewarding life possible, one that gratifies your deepest longings. There are no barriers to your attention and involvement, no agendas to get in the way of the good stuff. You have arrived at the place where the chief ingredients of optimal living meet: experience, intrinsic motivation, and the riveting moment of now.

Have a great holiday season and Happy New Year!

 

 

Tags: happiness, life satisfaction, work life balance, intrinsic motivation, self-determination theory

Control Email Overload and Overwhelm by Setting the Terms of Engagement with Devices

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Face-to-face conversations these days more often than not mean a face-to-scalp session, as you speak to the hair or pate of the person looking down at their phone. You can almost say anything, because they’re really not paying attention to you. “Hey, your car just got towed.” “Uh-huh.”

They hear human sounds in the world beyond their screen, but ask them to repeat it back, and they would be stumped. It’s not just the device that is impeding discourse, it’s the type of attention that is being brought to bear—divided and directed by the device, not by the device holder’s brain.

MULTITASKING SLOWS BRAIN NEURONS

The reflex is to try to both look at the phone and listen to the conversation, but doing both things at once is impossible. You can’t do more than one high cognitive task at a time, especially anything involving language, because there is only one neural channel for language to flow through. As a result, you are either doing one or the other task and switching back and forth between them. That switching has costs—time to figure out where you were on the other task each time there's a switch, fractured attention, inability to retain information, and rote behavior that operates on autopilot, i.e., the past, instead of focus on the present.

Multitasking forces attention down from the top floors of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, to the rote realms, like the hippocampus, which act on muscle memory. Thinking is sidelined for default action. Operating on rote mode is highly unproductive, as the data on multitasking shows. Productivity can drop from 40% to more than double that, according to David Meyer, a multitasking expert at the University of Michigan.

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Why would you want to work so ineffectively and scatter-brained? You wouldn’t—if you were thinking about it. But, alas, you’re not thinking about it. Almost none of us are. We are simply following orders from devices and interrupters. That means we are using a form of attention, bottom-up attention, that undermines focus and engagement and drives loss of control, stress, and overwhelm.

THE NOISEMAKER DEFAULT

Bottom-up attention is a survival instinct. When a car backfires, we stop whatever we’re paying attention to and focus on the source of the threatening sound. Blood pressure increases, thoughts are constricted to the intrusion, and we lose the fragile thought chunks held together in short-term memory that we need to get our work done. Then we have to reconstruct later what it was we were doing before the interruption. Research by U. C. Irvine’s Gloria Mark shows that it can take up to 25 minutes for your thoughts to get back to wherever they were before bottom-up attention took hold. Think of the hit to productivity that delivers multiple times a day.

The reason so many feel overwhelmed today is that attention is being driven, not by what our brains were designed for—selecting one thing to attend to—but by the bottom-up world of the noisemakers and flashers. The chimes, dings, chirps, and pulses, along with visual notifications (impossible to resist flashing lights; could be a threat) keep us in startle response mode, a defensive posture, instead of on the attention offensive.

The key to restoring focus and productivity to the day is bringing back the kind of attention we need to get work done and concentrate: top-down attention. How do we do that? By setting the terms of engagement with the bottom-up brigade. That means creating strategies that put top-down attention in charge as much as possible. When we use the ability we are programmed with, to select and pay attention to one thing at a time, studies show we have more focus, less stress, we like what we’re doing more, and we remember it longer.

BOTTOM-UP DICTATOR

All of that good stuff comes from full absorption in what we’re doing, from something that used to be known as undivided attention. Reclaiming it requires that we deploy perimeters around the unbounded realm of bottom-up intruders. Like a city without traffic lights, a workplace without boundaries on the incoming is anarchy, a field day for bottom-up dictatorship.

When we’re not choosing what to pay attention to, and just reacting all day, we feel out of control, which is the root cause of overwhelm—a belief we can’t cope with demands. This is all your ancient brain needs to flip the danger switch of the stress response. It’s a huge attention saboteur, exploding working memory for a false emergency that constricts thoughts to the perceived crisis that isn’t one. The definition of stress is high demands and no control, what’s known as “latitude,” over the work environment.

When we select what we pay attention to and when, we have command and control to keep overwhelm at bay. We can set the terms of engagement with adjustments to how we work, by checking email at designated times and keeping it turned off otherwise, by shutting off the noisemakers on our email and phone, by creating no-interruption “focus” zones that allow us to concentrate by using 100%, undivided top-down attention, and by many other strategies that restore control and attention.

The average corporate email user gets 109 bottom-up emails a day and dozens of Instant Messages. Business texts are up 67%. An interruption of just 4.4 seconds can triple the risk of errors. How sustainable is this path for your team or organization? There is a better way than terminal startle response all day. By putting the humans back in control.

If your team could use more top-down attention and less bottom-up, more focus and less overwhelm, we can get you there with our Information Overload and Managing Crazy-Busy Workload training programs. If you would like to learn more, click the button below for more details. Proactive self-management is the answer to overwhelm and growing attention deficit.

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Tags: email overload, increasing productivity, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, information overload programs, information overload, stress management, attention management, productivity and attention

The Secret to Productivity: Time to Recharge

Posted by Joe Robinson

(This is a feature I did for Entrepreneur Magazine and for people everywhere, struggling to balance work and life.)

As a college buddy was recounting a great trip to Europe, something snapped inside Jeff Platt. "It was like all of a sudden I woke up," recalls the CEO of Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park.

Though only 24 at the time, Platt was exhausted. He'd been working 16-hour days, seven days a week, for two years since launching the Los Angeles-based company's second trampoline park, this one in St. Louis. He had taken no vacations, had no social life whatsoever. In the bootstrap tradition, he was doing it all in the early days of the venture started by his father, Rick. But that habit is sustainable only until the reality of mental and physical limits strikes.

"I felt like I was missing out," he says. "All I was doing was busting my butt. I was tired. I had to slow down. I stepped back and said, it's time to hire some people."

Entrepreneurs are often celebrated for wearing multiple hats and logging numerous hours. But working without letup is a bad habit that can jeopardize business, health and the life you're supposedly working toward.

It's easy to fall into the trap of overdoing it, since capital in the early days is tight, but also because few ambitious achievers understand one of the biggest secrets of productivity--the refueling principle. It comes down to this: You get more done quicker when you step back and recharge the brain and body. Studies show that performance increases after breaks of all durations: from extended vacations down to microbreaks of 30 seconds. .

RUNNING OUT OF JUICE

Continuous time on-task sets off strain reactions, such as stress, fatigue and negative mood, which drain focus and physical and emotional resources. The brain's ability to self-regulate--to stay disciplined--wanes with each exercise of self-control during the day. It's a loss of resources that must be replenished, or it becomes harder to stay on-task, be attentive and solve problems.

"There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources," says Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies job demands and employee motivation. "When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performance decline. You're able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks."

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That's counterintuitive in a culture programmed to believe that it takes near-nonstop work to get the sale, beat the competitor or do whatever is needed to succeed. For most entrepreneurs, rest is considered the province of lesser mortals, put off for a future that never arrives. It's as if each day is an Ironman triathlon that requires one to crawl across the finish line on all fours.

Dan Sullivan, co-founder of Toronto-based Strategic Coach and co-author of The Laws of Lifetime Growth, says it's this mentality that keeps entrepreneurs exhausted, stuck and reaping a fraction of potential profits. He has built a multimillion-dollar coaching business in part by advising entrepreneurs to do the last thing in the world they would ever think to do: take time off. His anthem is that productivity and performance start with free time, which he argues is the fuel for the energy, creativity and focus that lead to success.

"It's not the amount of time you spend working each day," Sullivan says. "Entrepreneurs get paid through problem-solving and creativity. You can create a solution in a shorter period of time if you are rested and rejuvenated."

One of his clients, Jonathan Gassman of the Gassman Financial Group in New York, is a believer. Before Sullivan's program, he was a self-admitted workaholic who each year took maybe a week's "vacation" that wasn't one, since he spent much of it checking in electronically with the office. Since allowing himself free time under Sullivan's guidance, "my personal and company income are up dramatically, and I've started two businesses I wouldn't have otherwise," he says. "More quality time off is what really catapulted things." He now takes off six weeks per year, unattached to the office.

Work-life balance isn't a theoretical frill. It's a necessity for performance. After years on the burnout track, racking up long hours and heavy business travel, Saurabh Bhatia found his normally high energy reservoir tapped out. "I wasn't getting the energy I was used to, and the sense of joy was missing," says Bhatia, co-founder and CEO of mobile video ad company Vdopia in Fremont, Calif. Then he heard a TV commentator talking about how basketball star LeBron James had taken a break to recharge. That, Bhatia figured, was what he needed, too.

Bhatia put together his own program of "boosts," which include daily breaks (walking meetings, lunch with a friend, a swim); unplugged weekend activities such as hiking or driving with family and friends; and home activities, such as cooking, that relieve stress.

"You shouldn't have to slog through every day," Bhatia says. "I'm working smarter now, and finding that doing less is more impactful. My brain is getting more nutrition. On the life side, I'm able to pay more attention to my health and spend more time with my daughter."

As Bhatia has discovered, productivity doesn't come from being glued to the helm every waking moment but from how energized and, as a result, focused and organized your brain is. Humans are just like smartphones or iPods: We have to be recharged, or we run out of juice.

MANAGING MENTAL RESOURCES

Most of us wouldn't think twice about taking a breather after an hour of basketball or Zumba, but mental fatigue is another story. The brain is usually seen as an ethereal realm that exists apart from the body and the laws of physiology. Yet gray matter tires well before the body does. Since almost all of us are doing mental work these days, managing cognitive resources is not a nice thing to be able to do; it's essential.

The brain is "like a muscle. You can strengthen it or deplete it," Gabriel says. "If you let this muscle recharge and replenish, you'll feel better mentally and see improvements in your performance."

Regular refueling--input--is a prerequisite for quality output, because the brain is an energy machine, consuming 20 percent of the body's calories, even though it's only 2 percent of total body mass. Energy that gets expended must be resupplied.

Just like the heart, the brain gets fatigued from too much time on-task. "If you overtax your heart, the next thing you need to do is relax, or you'll die," says Jeff Stibel, CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. and author of Wired for Thought, among other books. "The same thing is true of the brain. Do too much, and you'll burn it out. You'll make bad choices."

One study found that mental fatigue takes hold after three hours of continuous time on-task; other scientists say brains need a break after 90 minutes, the length of the "basic rest-activity cycle."

Burning up mental resources without replacing them leads to stress, burnout and poor performance. Stress constricts the brain to a narrow focus--a perceived threat--making it hard to concentrate on anything else, plan or make good decisions.

In the course of staying focused on a task, we use up a key cognitive resource: self-control. Studies show that regulating our emotions is taxing. Known in research circles as ego depletion, this holds that every time we exercise self-regulation--paying attention, suppressing emotions, managing how we act to conform to a cultural norm--we use limited regulatory resources and reduce the ability for further self-control, depleting energy and causing fatigue.

"Engaging in effortful choice and decision-making has been shown to lead to impairments in subsequent self-control," report the authors of a study from Florida State University and Texas A&M University that proved that self-regulation creates a fuel shortage for brain activities. (That fuel is blood glucose.)

From your calf muscles to your brain neurons, the pattern is the same: Activation of energetic resources requires a period of recovery. How? You shut off the flow of demands by stopping or resting, or by building up new resources, such as energy and control, to replace those that have been lost. The goal is psychological detachment from the stress and strain that cause negative activation--feelings of tension, distress, anger, dissatisfaction and fatigue--and engagement in positive activation that drives attention and vigor: fun, pleasure, learning and mastery.

BREAK TIME

Recovery opportunities might range from breaks during the workday to diversions that shut off the work mind when you get home at night, to weekend activities, vacations and sleep.

People who engage in respite activities during workday recovery breaks have higher levels of positive affect (observable expression of emotion) after the breaks, a study led by John Trougakos at the University of Toronto found. That restores regulatory resources that increase focus and resilience. Subjects who used the time for restorative activities--relaxing, social activities, napping--got the benefit, while those who used the time for chores--other tasks and errands--didn't.

As the longest separation from work stressors during the workday, lunch is a big opportunity for restoring energy. Working while eating lunch doesn't aid recovery, one study by Trougakos reports, while autonomy during the break "can offset the negative effects of work" and result in less end-of-workday exhaustion. Exercising during lunch is also effective. Swedish researchers found that taking two and a half hours per week for exercise during work hours increased productivity, even though workers were logging 6.25 percent fewer hours.

Vacations have been shown to lead to significantly higher performance upon return to the job. The energizing ingredients are time away from stressors (you need two weeks to get the recuperative benefits from burnout) and mastery and social experiences while on vacation that build competence and social connection.

Leaving the work at work is one of the most important recovery strategies--and the hardest. If you're still obsessing about work when you're off the job, no recovery can take place. Detaching from work with diversions at night reduces fatigue and promotes positive effects the next morning at work.

What is not an effective diversion? Watching TV. The average state of a TV viewer is a mild depression, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow. Instead, you should try new hobbies and mastery experiences that satisfy core psychological needs such as autonomy and competence, which energize, empower and buffer job stress.

When you make time off as important as time on and have a plan to use it effectively, it can lead to the kinds of performance gains seen by Sullivan's clients. "We've quadrupled the size of the company," says Noah Katz, co-president of Foodtown/Freshtown markets, a New York firm with 850 employees. Katz has been in the Strategic Coach program for 12 years. "You need to recharge the batteries. You come back like a tiger and get more done."

DEFEATING DIY DISORDER

Even after trampoline impresario Platt had his epiphany that he needed help, actually hiring people was another story. After all the sweat equity he'd put into Sky Zone, it was hard to trust others with his baby. He started to give managers decision-making power, but then would overrule them.

Platt had a classic case of do-it-yourself disorder, an entrepreneurial affliction that burns up precious time and mental space on nonessential, grunt or out-of-skill-set tasks that take you away from the important jobs of innovating and building profitability.

"That's not being entrepreneurial at all," says Waterbury, Conn.-based Don Mroz, president of Post University and founding dean of the Malcolm Baldrige School of Business. "It's what's going to move the organization ahead, what's new and innovative that I can be working on, instead of ticking off the to-do list."

It took three years, the advice of a mentor and the realization that he was getting in the way of his company's forward progress for Platt to relinquish some of the reins. "Work started to pile up. I couldn't respond to people fast enough and lost some work," recalls Platt, whose company now has 71 trampoline parks around the world. "I had to get to the point of the business running itself."

It can take a serious pounding for entrepreneurs to admit they can't do it all, shouldn't do it all and, indeed, are going to flame out if they keep trying to do it all. Sullivan's clients often turn to him after a crisis--a marriage falls apart, they're drained by burnout. Sullivan teaches them that the very activity they thought was necessary for success--putting in extremely long hours--was likely the obstacle to it.

In his program, entrepreneurs create a new calendar in which their weeks are broken down into "free days," when no work or checking in to e-mail or the office is allowed; "buffer days," for planning and preparation; and "focus days," for high-value, goal-oriented practices. It can be shock treatment for folks who haven't had a day off in months or a vacation in years.

But after learning how to delegate, focus on what they do best and use free time to sharpen energy and clarity, Sullivan's clients may wind up taking a month or more off a year.

"By getting away from work and letting the mind get involved in thinking, hobbies and rejuvenation, you come back to the job and produce results faster," Sullivan explains.

Thinking is one of the crucial benefits of stepping back. Just as quality time off fuels energetic resources on the job, reflective time is critical to producing solutions and creative breakthroughs.

"If you don't give your employees time to think and play, you're not going to have the creativity you need to succeed," says Vincent Berk, CEO of FlowTraq, a software company in New Hampshire that solves tough cyber-security issues.

There's a good reason for that. "When you're thinking about a problem, it's confined to one or two regions in the brain," Dun & Bradstreet Credibility's Stibel says, "but the solution may not be in those areas. By resting, the information sits in your brain and then percolates across other sections of the brain."

Stibel practices what he preaches. His approximately 700 employees can choose from amenities and recovery options such as yoga classes, spinning, surfing lessons, massages and significant flextime. His top two refueling tips: get more sleep (seven to nine uninterrupted hours) and take a break every 45 to 90 minutes.

Now that he has made his staff accountable for decisions and learned to take breathers, Platt is feeling better. "Now I can leave for two weeks, and it wouldn't hurt the business," he says. "I can go to the gym every day, eat healthy food. I'm happier and have more energy at the end of the day."

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Tags: increase productivity, productivity, work life balance programs, stress management, vacations,, productivity strategies, job bunrout

Job Stress Increases Risk for Strokes

Posted by Joe Robinson

Memory

Dozens of studies have shown the connection between job stress and cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. Now an important new study has found that high job strain also increases the risk of strokes, or brain attacks, by 22%. The risk is higher in women, 33%, and for the most common type of stroke, ischemic stroke, which cuts off blood flow to the brain, job strain increases the stroke risk by 58%.

As much as we would prefer to ignore it or call it something less charged, unmanaged stress has real consequences no one can afford to turn a blind eye to, whether employee or employer. This latest evidence shows that failure to control job strain can blow up the very source of productivity itself, the brain. This is an unforced error that doesn’t make sense. There are enough competitors out there ready to slice and dice. We don’t need to be doing it from within.

Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting 800,000 people every year. It occurs when there is an interruption of blood flow to the brain, which prevents brain cells from getting the oxygen and nutrients they need, and they can die as a result. Stokes are caused by artery blockage or narrowing, which happens in the 85% of cases that are ischematic, by blood hemorrhaging in brain arteries, or by temporary blood clots in the brain, known as transient ischemic attack (TIA). Stroke can lead to temporary or permanent disabilities and paralysis.

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DEMANDS VS. CONTROL

The Chinese researchers who conducted the meta-study analyzed data from six prior studies on three continents, including one in the U.S. They looked at the effects of strain on a sizable 140,000 people. Their report measured how the subjects fared over four categories of jobs, each with varying degrees of psychological demand, or strain, and control over demands, the key factors in whether you feel you can cope with a challenge or not. Lack of control in the face of high demands flips on the danger switch in the body's ancient defense mechanism, the amygdala, and the stress response kicks into fight-or-flight mode.

The risk of stroke is least for people in low-cognitive strain jobs, such as manual labor, and highest for people whose jobs have high levels of mental load, time pressure, and management and coordination, but who have little control over their work. Even if you have high demands, if you feel you have some control over events, what's known in the stress literature as "latitude," that creates a sense of coping capacity, countering the strain. High threat-vigilant work has been shown to be the most stressful, which includes bus drivers, taxi drivers, nuclear facility workers and air traffic controllers.

High strain jobs are proliferating with the speedup in pace, inundation of email and interruptions, which slow things down and increase time pressure, and leaner operations, which increase workload and the perception you are overwhelmed. Without strategies to adjust these conditions and the perceptions they create, chronic stress can develop, and that is where the serious health and productivity blowback occurs. 

BUILDING COPING CAPACITY

As has been shown in Japanese studies of karoshi (death by overwork) victims, chronic high stress leads to unhealthy lifestyle choices—eating fatty foods, smoking, drinking, and no exercise, as well as other decisions that increase stroke risk. Meanwhile, chronic stress jacks up blood pressure, lowers the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol, decreases the good cholesterol, and boosts the risk of plaque buildup in arteries, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, a proven risk factor for stroke.

As with heart issues, it's critical to know the warning signs. Symptoms of stroke include numbness of the face, arm, or leg (often on one side), vision problems, headaches, speaking and understanding problems, dizzyness, and unsteady gait. 

The good news is that we don’t have to let high strain develop into stress. We can control it in our bodies and companies by making adjustments to how we work that turn high strain into manageable pressure. Our stress management training, for instance, gives individuals tools to increase their perceived control over tasks and events, which moderates strain and builds coping capacity. Simple changes to processes and operations can dramatically reduce stress triggers within the organization and increase performance along the way. There are few blocks to performance as effective as unmanaged stress, which drives absenteeism, cynicism, conflict, mistakes, crisis mentality, fatigue, and exhaustion.

BRAIN MANAGEMENT

Stress management is brain management, and brain management is productivity management. Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, so it stifles planning and complex decision-making, which require a leap out of the current worry loop.  Brains under chronic stress make rash decisions, since the faculties of the analytical mind get hijacked by the impulsive, emotional caveman brain.

Most of us individually try to avoid things that make us unhealthy—cigarettes, high-cholesterol foods—but when it comes to stress, we don’t act or ignore the problem. We have been programmed to believe that it’s just the way it is, or that we can take it. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease by 20%. This new study says that job strain is just as risky for stroke, and considerably higher, 33%, for women.

Companies spend heavily to recruit and train the best talent, but then can jeopardize those skilled minds by not being proactive about stress management. The latest scientific evidence shows that job strain is no longer something that can be written off as just part of the day. The activation of stress itself is a signal that something is perceived to be an emergency.

I hope these latest findings can move us closer to a time when we see this threat for what it is—the single biggest threat to the nation’s health ($1 trillion a year in costs annually, according to U.C. Irvine’s Peter Schnall), and to the effective functioning of any organization in a time of digital, 24/7 demands.

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Tags: stress and productivity, work stress and health, stress management training, stress, stress management, job stress, stress management programs, stress and stroke

How to Control the Hidden Engine of Stress and Burnout: Rumination

Posted by Joe Robinson

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We all hate repeats, especially of dramas we are starring in. Those come most frequently courtesy of one of the main protagonists of stress, a rehash cycle known as rumination. If we weren’t so prone to repeated brooding and agonizing over things that push our buttons, there would be a lot less stress and depression in the world.

It turns out that one of the biggest culprits in the stress battle isn’t what happens to us. It’s what we think happened to us. That’s where rumination, or circular worrying, comes in, with exaggerated thoughts informed, not by facts, but by irrational emotions. It’s the obsessive replay over and over again of events that have overloaded our ability to cope with them that fan stress, entrench it, and convince us that there is a clear and present danger to life and limb, even though there isn’t.

GETTING OUT OF OUR OWN WAY

Turning off the rumination reflex is one of the keys to stress management and preventing your brain from being hoodwinked on a regular basis to believe it’s the end, when it’s simply a neuronic malfunction. All we have to do is get out of our own way, a course we chart in our stress management programs for individuals and organizations.

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Normally, thinking is a good thing. We don’t jump off the 100-foot cliff or floor the gas pedal in a parking lot. But that’s when the 21st century brain is in use. We can use rational faculties to weigh pro and con. The stress response, though, puts an ancient stowaway in charge of your mind in the form of the emotional limbic system. Over-cogitating with a mind that has been sent back to the future to 100,000 B.C. doesn’t work so well. That is because the survival mechanism that is setting off the alarm bell, the amygdala, doesn’t have a clue about non-life-threatening social threats in 2015. It only knows one kind of threat—imminent death.

As a result, the first thought we have when a stressful event occurs is a false belief, an exaggeration that blows events out of proportion with reality. Remember, a part of your brain thinks you are going to be an ex-sentient being at any second. It routes all thinking through what it believes is total calamity at hand. You can’t be thinking about your email, your next report, or going to the movies when you only have a few moments left on earth, at least in the panicky view of the amygdala.

This sets off a wave of catastrophic thinking, or “awfulizing,” which takes the form of constant ruminating about the situation and fomenting worst-case scenarios. The brain is constricted to the perceived crisis of the moment and stuck on a terminal replay loop, like one of those Vine videos ad nauseum. The objective is to get you to pay attention so you can save yourself from the perceived danger. 

ONLY EXPERIENCE IS REAL

Stress loves this total monopoly on thinking. The longer the catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged, the more the false belief is amplified and entrenched. Time and rumination turn mere thoughts that aren’t real into real physical problems, since the stress response reduces the immune system, increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind, and shuts down digestion—and worse. Depending on what you tell yourself about why you think this event happened to you, you can either turn the danger signal off, because there’s nothing there but a false belief, or it can lead to an even bigger problem, depression.

It’s the nature of humans to think that what’s in their brains must be true, because, well, it’s in our heads. But catastrophic thoughts are not real. Only experience is real. The thoughts you have after the stress response is triggered are the byproduct of a hyper-vigilant survival reflex, aided and abetted by what we tell ourselves about the event. “Explanatory style,” as it’s known, is the combustive engine for stress and depression.

What do you tell yourself after a setback? "I’ll do better next time," or "I’m never going to figure it out?" "It’s a one-off," or "I'm going to lose my job?" "I didn't prepare enough," or "There's something wrong with me?"

The all-or-nothing, black-or-white thoughts set off by the ancient brain can either be encouraged by pessimistic thinking or discouraged by an optimistic explanatory style. Even if you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you can overcome it with a bias for action, which is the antidote to rumination. The language we use can drive us down the path to rumination. Words like “never” and “always” fan the false story of stress, while “sometimes” and “maybe” deactivate it.

CHANGE THE STORY

It’s easy to fall for the pessimistic track at first, since the story and emotions we are being fed are coming from the alarmist ancient brain. Brooding, analyzing, and replaying take the bait and reinforce the false story. If you already are prone to pessimistic thinking, setbacks can serve as evidence for what you already believed, that nothing is going to work out. University of Pennsylvania researcher and author Daniel Seligman has written that, “The recipe for severe depression is preexisting pessimism meeting failure.”

So what we tell ourselves about what happens to us is essential to counter the rumination that can lead to chronic stress, burnout, and depression. The sooner we can cut off the bogus story and supply another one—"I’ll do better next time," "Sometimes the bear eats you"—we prevent the false belief from sticking and amplifying itself into an ER bill. Find a phrase that represents a different story like “stay objective,” to keep your emotions out of it, and repeat it like a mantra after a stressful event goes off.

There are two main ways to prevent rumination and its flights of stress-concocting fantasy—distraction and contesting bogus beliefs. The time to strike is as soon as the wave of emotion begins. Whether it’s rage, embarrassment, or fear, distract the caveman brain with your alternate story—“stay objective,” “it’s a lot of work, but I’ll get it done,” “they can have the battle, I’ll win the war.” Repeat it for several minutes.

Seiligman says physical inrterventions are effective at shutting off the rumination rut. Slamming your hand against the table or wall as you say, “Stop!” helps you snap out of BC times. Then shift your full attention to something in the present.

The one thing that’s seldom done when stress blows up is to contest it. Disputing stress is one of the most effective ways to shut it down. It’s a thinking process, but unlike the wallowing that takes place with rumination, there’s a point and action to the analysis. In rumination, the thoughts circle in a loop of helplessness.

Disputing the story reactivates the rational mind.  The analytical act of finding reasons why the catastrophic story is false requires the 21st century mind to spring back to life. Bring out the facts of the case and put them down on paper or screen, pro and con. Try to step outside yourself and be objective. Lay out the case like a lawyer would by focusing on the facts.

No, it’s not the end. You CAN cope. The facts are clear. But it is the last stop for wasting hours, weeks, and months of life in the fantasies of rumination.

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Tags: awfulizing, stress management training, optimism and work, stress response, stress, stress reduction, stress management, job stress, burnout, stress management programs, rumination, explanatory style

7 Surprising Ways to Boost Employee Morale and Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

Employee_Engagement

With only 29% of American employees engaged at work, it may be time to take a page from professional sports teams to boost morale. Hire a composer to write a company fight song. Deploy cheerleaders to the hallways and lunchroom. A bucket of chilled Gatorade over the head of someone who’s done especially good work might stimulate team spirit. Or might not. 

The sports world seems to know how important it is to keep the troops’ morale high, the business world less so. Aside from the rare thank-you note or gesture of appreciation, there isn’t a lot of thought put into building employee value, motivation, and commitment. If there is a focus, it’s on the wrong kind of motivation—carrot and stick, proven by a host of researchers, such as Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester, to be demotivating.

The cost of the morale problem is huge, $300 billion in lost productivity every year, according to Gallup, not to mention the impact it has on retention, customer relations, innovation, and internal conflict. When engaged employees go the extra mile, they are 28% more productive, one of the many reasons employee engagement development programs such as ours, "Supercharging Engagement," are so crucial.

EXTERNAL IS EPHEMERAL

There are plenty of reasons for sagging morale—undelivered promises, lack of support, absentee managers—but the main reason is that few know where good morale comes from. Most of us have been operating in the dark when it comes to human motivation and need gratification, what it is that people need as opposed to want.

That’s not a surprise, since the culture tells us there is only one choice for motivation: the external kind—money, success, promotions, status, popularity. All of these intensely sought-after goals are based on the approval of others. They give us a quick bump in satisfaction before it vanishes like the last bite of cheesecake. External motivation doesn’t last because it doesn’t validate us internally. It’s about what other people think, not you, and that’s very ephemeral. Opinions can change from moment to moment. You might get raves today, static tomorrow.

Research shows that the thrill of a job promotion, for instance, only lasts two weeks. Sorry about that. Then you return to however you felt before the promotion. We habituate to the new status, it becomes normal, and then we want more. It’s called hedonic adaptation. We are born to tire of even the best of fortunes and changed circumstances. Lottery winners revert to how they felt before they won the money (Diener).

What really drives humans is the self-propulsion engine driven by what is known as intrinsic motivation, acting for no outer payoff or pat on the back. The reward of intrinsic motivation is felt internally in the act of the experience itself. Deci, Ryan and a host of colleagues around the world have shown that intrinsic motivation is the most potent motivation and the one every manager and employer should want to stimulate.

ACTING FOR DEEPER GOALS

Why is intrinsic motivation so effective at increasing employee morale? Numerous studies in cultures across the globe have found the power of intrinsic values to increase self-esteem, well-being, positive mood, and vitality, all of which lead to more engagement. Vitality is the key dimension of engagement: physical energy. Act for internal purposes and you get the best return of all, satisfaction, says Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri. He calls that dividend “self-concordence,” when we are acting for deeper goals or aspirations that are aligned with who we are. 

Intrinsic motivation is subtle, but it’s not completely out of our orbit. It’s the basic urge behind anything we do for fun, to learn, or challenge ourselves. When people operate from intrinsic goals—inherent interest, excellence, craft, challenge, learning, fun, not for an outside payoff—they like what they’re doing more, remember it longer, and have full engagement in what they’re doing, research shows. One study found that “intrinsically motivated employees are continuously interested in the work that they’re doing” (Harackiewiez and Elliot).. 

What kind of difference could that make for your organization if everyone was absorbed in what they were doing? One of the most powerful elements of intrinsic motivation is its staying power. Studies show that if you are involved in anything that’s difficult or that requires persistence, intrinsic motivation is more effective in keeping you at it. Intrinsically motivated musicians and dieters who are in it for learning, the music itself, a healthier life and personal growth, not because others are forcing them to do it, stick with it.

CHANGING HOW WE THINK ABOUT WORK

Intrinsic motivation is powerful because it goes to the heart of human need satisfaction. What do we need? For most of human history, we haven’t had a clue, but over the last three decades researchers have found that when we act for goals that help us feel self-driven, competent, and connected to others, we feel gratified. People want to have a sense of choice in how they do their work, the opportunity to take on challenges that make them feel effective, and to collaborate with others for a larger purpose. 

Employees want to participate and contribute because they have to. It’s in the genes, part of a powerful self-initiative drive that will be left on the table if it isn’t coaxed out. How do you unlock this morale-booster? You can’t command employee engagement. You can only enable it by unleashing the employee’s own inner drive to excel, learn, and make a difference without regard to external payoff. It’s a process of changing how employees think about the work they do, and that requires a more collaborative approach. Here are a few tips on how to build morale through intrinsic engagement:

1. Increase choice in how people do their jobs. Choice makes people feel more autonomous and effective, which boosts satisfaction and commitment. We all have a job we have to do. How we do it, though, leaves room for adjustments. Let employees suggest ideas for improving bottlenecks, information overload, and task processes. Delegate decisions, not just minor ones.

2. Meet staff regularly. Employees with the worst engagement have managers with no time for them. On the other hand, 87% of those with the best engagement know their managers well (Blessing White).

3. Encourage innovation, input, and other viewpoints. Allowing employees to generate new ideas, even setting aside time to work on extra projects of interest (as Google employees do), and open communication let people feel they are contributing and are a valued part of the team.

4. Promote meaning. Why is your staff doing what they’re doing? Who is the customer and what’s the value that employees are providing? Detail the vision behind the work, the larger purpose, and build a noncynical climate. 

5. Find ways to keep people learning and growing. Development programs are a key lever of employee engagement and morale. Give staff time to learn new things and improve knowledge through employee trainings, and they can feel something at the top of the job satisfaction charts—progress. We are programmed to learn.

6. Offer positive and informational feedback. Pressure and threats make people resist, which isn’t conducive to extra effort. Language that reflects options and offers positive feedback helps employees feel self-responsible. Offer rewards as appreciation, not incentives. Acknowledge skills, which is a big nod to the person’s competence need—I like the way you did this/solved this.

7. Encourage staff to set challenging goals and the latitude to accomplish them. The more you can harness self-initiative, the more you increase the sense of value employees feel, which is great for morale.

Building employee morale isn’t about cheerleading. It’s about allowing staff to feel enfranchised and involved in the pursuit of goals that tap into the intrinsic engine within us all that wants to do better, dig deeper. Harness it, and your employees get an internal bucket of Gatorade to celebrate progress and success. 

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Tags: employee engagement programs, employee productivity, employee development programs, increase productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, job satisfaction, employee morale, increase employee morale, improve employee morale, intrinsic motivation, employee motivation

6 Ways to Prevent Deadline Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If you’re wondering which deodorant works best, submit each to the time pressure test. Deadlines are a splendid way to do this, since they are world-class triggers of the perspiration equipment. As the due date arrives, the tension mounts and deadline panic rises. How am I going to get it all done? What if I don’t make it? Will I be fired?

The more unrealistic the deadline is, the more industrial-strength deodorant you need—and the more stress management, since deadlines are very good at simulating emergencies that set off the fight-or-flight behavior of the stress response and the worst-case ruminating known as “awfulizing.” Down to the word itself, deadlines feel like life-or-death, but you can survive them and make adjustments to how you deal with them that can turn these nags into reminders, instead of execution dates.

LESS FRENZY, BETTER OUTCOMES

There’s nothing inherently deadly about deadlines. They are a simple tool to insure that tasks get done on time and we don’t have to chase others indefinitely to move projects along. We have to have them, but we don’t have to be driven crazy by them. As with most things in a crazy-busy workplace, we can make adjustments that allow us to manage deadlines, instead of have them manage us.

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Sometimes market developments require extreme turnaround times, but most of the time better planning, more awareness of what’s on people’s plates, and less optimistic time estimation can help keep deadlines doable. Lack of information drives deadline problems. Managers don’t know everything staff is working on, and employees don’t have task time estimates to make an informed projection on turnaround time.

Deadlines are an ad hoc item without much of a system to corral them. The tendency is to pull dates out of the air or decide on the spur-of-the-moment without careful consideration of doability. Granted, there’s not always much recourse with a deadline that comes from on high, but a more systematic approach to the process can produce better outcomes and less racing pulse rates. Here are a few steps to prevent deadline dread and make the process work better.

AVOID DEADLINE PANIC

1. Do time estimates of all key tasks. The more you know exactly how long it takes to do each of the components that make up tasks and assignments, the more accurate time estimates will be, and you’ll know whether you can meet a due date or how much extra time you might need. Break down tasks and projects into their constituent parts and time them. How much time is needed to complete each task practice, from product development, to meeting preparation, customer training, monthly reports, or meetings? Add those together with estimates for other projects you might have, and you will be able to determine how realistic a deadline might be and how long it will take to accomplish it.

2. Resist over-optimism. Humans are lousy predictors of the future, particularly of personal ability to get done what we think we can in a set period of time. Type A’s, in particular, tend to be overly optimistic in what they think they can accomplish, believing they can will their way to a best-case due date. We also have to think of a worst-case estimate and what can go wrong. If you take the time to estimate what it takes to complete all tasks on your watch, you can’t go down the Shazzam road to the genie school of instant materializations. Always build in an extra 20% of time for scope creep, as parts move and Murphy’s Law intervenes.

3. Deadline-setters: Plan more. Viability all starts with the deadline-setter. Have you allowed enough time for the job to be done well, or will it take rushing and crisis mentality to complete the task? The first is much more preferable since it leads to quality outcomes and avoids mistakes and conflict, but that requires thinking ahead and better planning to allot adequate time. Over-optimism also strikes at this stage of the process, with the belief that others can get it done at an appointed time because it has to be done. Sound out colleagues and other members of the team on the feasibility of the request before announcing due dates. It’s better to over-deliver with a great project than over-promise a raggedy or late one.

4. Assess deadline feasibility. One of the things I hear often from managers in my productivity trainings is that team members tend to say “Yes” to deadlines automatically without examining whether there is enough time or resources to complete the request, boxing themselves in to a date tough to pull off. If you take on more than you can do well, you are not doing anyone a favor. Unless the time estimate is doable, the deadline-setter is in trouble as well as you, so make the time work for both of you with as accurate an estimate as possible. Build in a pause to assess the deadline for its viability and say you’ll get back with an answer after checking resources and schedules.

5. Negotiate a more realistic due date. If the deadline isn’t feasible, propose or negotiate an alternate date, if that is possible. Managers are more open to making due dates work than is thought, especially when mitigating facts are brought to their attention that they are not aware of. Demonstrate why the deadline could be adjusted to insure a better outcome. Catching unrealistic deadlines on the front end is one of the best ways to prevent heartburn, mistakes, and missed deadlines later.

6. Create more informed timing expectations. Leaders and sales managers may have an idea of how long it takes to get something done that is at odds with the reality on the ground. Establish timing expectations through communication that insures that everyone has a clear idea of how much time is needed for each step of the process or project. 

Deadlines tend to fall through the management cracks, yet they play a huge role in daily operations and stress loads that drive crisis mentality, rushing, errors, conflicts, poor decisions, and health problems that undercut productivity. Every team and organization needs to make the time to create a deadline process that puts the emphasis on the best outcomes, not just rote speed. A little inspiration can save a lot of perspiration.

Tags: stress tips, overwhelm, workplace productivity, stress coaching, crazy busy, time management and planning, stress, work life balance programs, stress management, work stress, deadlines, managing deadlines, deadlines and stress

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