Working Smarter

Why a Sleep Problem Is Often a Stress Problem

Posted by Joe Robinson


Cats can nod off upside down with their paws in the air. Dogs can be out cold in five seconds. The realm of sleep is a little more complicated for humans. There are those racing thoughts to contend with, the hyper state that won’t shut down when you want it to. Trying to do what for any pet is a snap costs Americans $41 billion a year in sleep aids. 

It’s kind of embarrassing that Rover and Fluffy can get the job done and we can’t, but there is hope for better nights ahead and spending a lot less money on sleep meds. The culprit in a bad night’s sleep for many is something we can fix, if we know how: stress. We can shut off the stress alarm just as we can the alarm clock in the morning. When we do, the stress response stops in four minutes.


Stress is part of our built-in survival equipment. It’s an alarm set off in the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system, which triggers a host of physiological reactions to allow the body to find the strength and speed to fight or run from danger. While it has kept us alive through the millennia, it’s a mechanism that was built for another time and place—African savannas 100,000 years ago—not for the social stressors of the modern world.

The stress response and its headquarters, the amygdala, don’t know how to compute the 21st century. They are out of their depth, out of whack with the nature of the threat they are reacting to, and so are we when they are allowed to run us. An impending deadline, 200 emails, or a conflict with a friend or family member may create tension, but they are not threats to life and limb. They are false alarms that come from bad brain architecture.

When something overloads our ability to cope with it, the modern brain is instantly hijacked by the ancient brain, as if the higher brain and the cerebral cortex that evolved on top of the limbic system didn’t exist.


This can happen before you even consciously feel you can’t handle someone or something. It’s very quick on the draw, and if we’re not just as quick to shut down the false alarm, we can fall prey to the host of physical maladies and conditions stress can set off. Because stress suppresses the immune, digestion, and tissue repair systems, it can lead to cardiovascular problems, irritable bowel, stroke, back pain, chronic fatigue, and, yes, insomnia, among many others.


Research shows that stress lessens the length of sleep—not just how many hours we sleep, but how often we awaken during sleep. A whopping 78% of participants in one study (Bastiem, Vallieres, Morin 2004) reported a link between stress and insomnia.

At the most basic level, stress is at odds with the concept of sleep, which is the act of closing up shop for the day and shutting down. The stress response is an activation agent. It drives arousal. It's a stimulant. It doesn’t want to close down for the night, because you are going to die, or at least that is the message being sent by outmoded brain neurons.

One of the hormones that the stress response floods your body with to help you survive a threat is cortisol. It's not a sleep aid. Sleep starts when cortisol is at its lowest point, and you are ready to wake up when it is at its highest level. Too much cortisol interferes with sleep regulators such as the Hypothalamo-Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA) (Kato, Montplaisir, Lavigne, 2004), activates the autonomic nervous system, and increases attention and alertness.

Acute and chronic stress have been found in studies of rats to decrease slow wave "delta" sleep, the deepest sleep, when the brain is less responsive to external stimuli, as well as REM, critical to our circadian sleep/wakefulness rhythm (Meerlo, Pragt, Daan).

When stress shuts down the immune system, that also impacts sleep. The immune system is critical to the work of cytokines, which signal immune system molecules such as interleukin-1 beta, tumor necrosis factor, and interferon, which regulate sleep. Without these elements, sleep is interrupted (Han, Kim, Shim, 2012).


Stress-related insomnia itself aggravates these and many other physiological barriers to sleep in a vicious cycle that doubles down on the strimulant effect of stress. Insomnia causes many of the same problems that the stress that created it does—increased cortisol, heart rate, body temperature (which can also cause wakefulness), and oxygen consumption. If you have insomnia, you are in a higher state of alertness, even though you are fatigued from lack of quality shuteye. Insomnia has been dubbed an “over-alertness obstacle” to sleep.

Let’s take a cue from Fido and Ginger, and drop the stress. Just get rid of it. Animals don’t hang on to it. After a trespassing dog pads a few yards past your house, it's like the event never happened for your rabidly barking dog, now docile and ready for a snooze. We can do the same, by switching off the stress when it erupts. That means dropping the rumination and awfulizing that perpetuate stressful thoughts, and challenging the false beliefs behind negative events that keep our brain in the stress vise grip.

Stress is a broken car alarm that shuts off only when we grab the keys and switch it off—by convincing our brain that the danger is not real, just like thoughts aren't real. Only experience is. You are not going to die. You are going to handle it, whatever it is. You always do. 

The process starts by understanding the mechanisms of the stress response, that the first thoughts that go off when negative things happen are false beliefs, all-or-nothing, black-and-white distortions and exaggerations. We have to catch ourselves when stress sets the worries and dreads off and submit them to a vetting process—disputing, challenging,  contesting. False beliefs and fear projections can't hold up to scrutiny when we dig in and unmask them.

Proven processes I teach in my stress management trainings and coaching help you defang triggers that set off stress and bring back your 21st century brain to resume command of the ship. You are no longer back in your hunter-gatherer mind, but present, and well-rested, in 2016.

If you are having trouble sleeping, have stress in your life, and would like to get back to restful nights again, click here or give us call at Optimal Performance Strategies at 310-570-6987. We turn off the stress. 

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Tags: life balance, stress response, managing stress, insomnia, burnout and sleep, stress and sleep

5 Online Classes for Smarter Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson


We say we don’t like repeats, but that’s only when it comes to TV episodes. On the behavior front, humans are creatures of deep habit, from buying the same brand of cereal to sitting in the same chair at the favorite restaurant. It’s even true with behaviors we don’t like, such as stress or chronic overload.

The tendency is to keep doing things that drive stress and overwhelm, instead of making changes. It’s called adaptation. Humans are experts at molding themselves to conditions at hand. We adapt to chronic stress with the aid of adrenaline or an out-of-whack personal life, setting up a date with burnout and worse.

We tell ourselves we are too busy to stop for a second or do anything different. Those are false beliefs, a byproduct of the stress response. There’s always time for a better approach, one that could get more done in less time or manage a schedule better. 


Luckily, it’s possible to exit the rut by tapping in to our very own core human needs for self-determination and progress. Researchers have found that we all have a powerful need to determine our own scripts and that helplessness is not our style. Those with the highest job satisfaction are people who feel a sense of progress in their work, which is largely the result of doing things that gratify self-determination needs such as autonomy and competence.


We can’t wait for these needs to satisfy themselves. We have to be proactive to make it happen. The way forward comes through knowledge and education, from strategies to change the reflex of repeat mechancial momentum.


One of the most convenient ways to do this is through online classes. You don’t have to get in the car, hire a babysitter, or fight traffic. Our new online work-life balance classes give you five courses to help you do what your brain wants—move forward and put the overwhelm, stress or burnout in the rear-view mirror.

Take your pick from work-life balance classes, stress management, time management, information management, or an inspiring life balance course. “The Missing Piece of Happiness.” Based on my book, Don’t Miss Your Life, the program shows through the science how to activate the most gratifying life outside the job.

I teach these programs in my employee development work for organizations from IBM to Kellogg’s and Budweiser, but the vast majority of people in the U.S. or around the world don’t have access to training programs where they work or live. Now anyone can log in to one of our Webex classes and get tools virtually to make dramatic improvement in their work and lives. You can take a single class or put together a training series with multiple courses.

Our online work-life balance classes offer five ways to get out of the unbalanced column:

1. Work-Life Balance: Work Smarter, Live Better

It’s hard to be balanced with your eyes closed, and that’s effectively what’s happening when we are not paying attention to how we work. It’s how we work—acting before thinking, time frenzy, doing more than we can do well—that’s at the bottom of unbalanced world. This class shows how to make the adjustments the science says make work and life less difficult, by setting boundaries, managing demands and devices, building attention and refueling and recharging the batteries.

You learn how to get control of an out-of-control world and put your life and personal responsibilities on the calendar at the same time.

 2. Stress Management: Stay Calm in the Storm

Stress is optional. It’s your reaction to what someone says or does, the story you tell yourself about the stressful event, that drives the stress. That’s great news, because it’s something we have the power to change. This class shows you how to manage stress, eliminate burnout triggers, and prevent the false alarm of stress from wreaking havoc on your thinking, health, and life. Five out of the six leading causes of death have stress as a factor, as well as some 75% of doctor visits. Learn how to turn off the danger signal of stress and manage any challenge.

3. Time Management: Manage Crazy Busy Workload

Most people I talk to these days are drowning in a flood of unbounded devices and demands. Studies show a vast number of people today feel overwhelmed by their workload. The feeling that things are out of control is one of the easiest triggers for the stress response. This class shows how to get control over events and cut stress and overwhelm by setting boundaries on the incoming and developing essential time management skills. One Harvard study shows that boundaries are a success tool. They are the most basic piece of self-management. This class shows how to put them into action, separate the urgent from the important, build better time estimation, manage interruptions, and control devices and intrusions.

4. Information Management: Control Message Overload

No matter what industry you are in, your real business these days is the clicking business, triaging through a siege of email, IMs, texts, and WhatsApp messages. Researchers have identified great ways to manage our messaging better, and we learn their secrets here. This course provides strategies to set the terms of engagement with devices, manage interruptions and distractions, and cut down on the time spent dealing with email and messaging run amok. Learn how to create the most productive email checking schedules, reduce email volume, and restore sanity.

5. Life Balance: The Missing Piece of Happiness

The other side of the work-life hyphen, life, gets lost in the shuffle, crowded out by more “important” things, but researchers tell us that nothing succeeds like recess—through engaged experiences. This class explores the skill-set of living the fullest life. We learn through the sciences of happiness, optimal experience, and intrinsic motivation that experiences make us happier than material things. You are as happy as the most recent positive and novel event you can remember. The power of now is 100% within the moment of active recreation, play, and fun. It requires the opposite skills of the work mind—from risk-taking to not caring about the result, to turning on the self-propulsion engine of mastery. 

The weight of habit can keep us grinding through a routine that outlived its usefulness long ago, if it ever had one. The law of least effort, another human wont, would have us believe that changing anything would be more work, even though it would have the opposite effect. The “I’m too busy mindset” is notorious for closing out better options.

Don’t fall for it. The skills we teach in our online work-life balance classes are what lead to real least effort—a more productive way to work. And a more gratifying way to live.

The route to the self-determined life we’re wired to lead is a participant path. If you are interested in a proactive step to learn more about our online classes, click the button below for details on our work-life balance class and visit here at our nline classes page.


Tags: online classes, burnout classes, stress management classes, time management classes, work life balance classes, life balance classes, online work-life balance classes

The Secret Agent of Happiness and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson


If there's one thing that people around the world agree on, it's that being happy beats being miserable. But what exactly makes us happy? That's something that hasn't been crystal-clear over the ages, which has allowed others to decide for us that a certain luxury sedan or a 55-inch flat screen will do the job. It's also led to the habit of shortcut happiness through default pleasures—double fudge chocolate, "Grand Theft Auto"—that obscures the real deal.

Social psychologists have decoded much of the puzzle of subjective well-being over the last two decades, showing that the external metrics assumed to be the route to happiness can't deliver the goods. There's a momentary bump from toys, money or a promotion, and then it's gone, because these outer symbols are based on what others think. What works is the secret agent of happiness—the subtler art of internal gratification, and understanding it is a key piece of work-life balance.


We usually don't have time or patience for that. The reflex for positive mood states tends to gravitate to quick-fixes, the sensory and momentary delights that University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman calls "pleasures." The impulse is to make a beeline for that hunk of Swiss chocolate or boost the adrenaline with a cinematic nail-biter. You feel good briefly but it doesn't fill you up.


There's a big difference of opinion between the body's idea of happiness and that of the mind. Pleasures are fun, but they're cotton candy for your brain, which has a higher threshold for satisfaction and demands a more engaged version of happiness, what Seligman calls "gratifications."

The eye candy and bodily sensations of pleasure mode require little in the way of participation or thinking, so their effect on well-being is ephemeral. "Once the external stimulus is gone, the positive emotion sinks beneath the wave of ongoing emotion without a trace," Seligman has written.

Since pleasures are easy and what's drilled into us, they can wind up the only strategy for happiness, leaving us always wanting more. It's the "Is that all there is?" syndrome. They keep you chasing the next momentary hit while doing nothing to fill the void that fuels the chase.

It takes effort for the more lasting form of well-being, the gratifications, something I detail in my book on the power of participant experiences, Don't Miss Your Life.


Satisfaction and fulfillment are not drive-thru affairs. These higher forms of happiness require challenging and involving activity. That's hard to fathom given the human default to what's easy. It seems that more and more comfort is the mission of life, but your brain neurons say no. They don't like terminal boredom. They want engagement, something required by our core psychological needs, say researchers.

What kind of gratifications can satisfy those needs over the long term? The research points to experiences that allow you to be absorbed and fully engaged, that let you feel you're freely choosing things, that make you feel competent and allow you to learn and grow, and that connect you with others through close relationships, social activities and service to others.

Active hobbies, learning new things, recreational pursuits and volunteering are primo gratifications, satisfying your core as few other things can through challenge and growth. Participant activities, from dancing to aikido to painting, deliver experiences that stick with you through the competence and relationships they build and the joy that lingers in indelible memories.

Unlike fleeting pleasures, gratifications are expansive events, giving your brain the forward movement it craves. "You're constantly learning," says Werner Haas, a chemist from San Jose who gets his gratification from two activities that are a world apart—orienteering and ballroom dancing.


Another way to look at gratifications is that they come from a seeking mind-set, as opposed to the escapist mode typical of pleasures, as the University of Maryland's Seppo Iso-Ahola puts it.

Recreation seekers, who are driven by personal and interpersonal goals, are less bored, more fulfilled, and healthier than people fueled by the escapist motive, says Iso-Ahola. Spend too long in escapist mode and you become dependent on the entertainment served up until you don't know how to occupy yourself off the clock anymore.

You can find more gratifications if you manage attention better. The reflex to divert attention to phones and distractions in a free moment undercuts the engagement your brain wants.

Try to become aware when you have the impulse to shift attention to a distraction. Instead, think about what you can focus on before grabbing the remote, phone or the Skittles. Ask yourself: What can I learn? What can I try? What can I experience? Where can I discover something?

We don't put much thought into our free time, which we're led to believe doesn't have much value. Without planning or engagement skills, it leaves things up to autopilot escapes and pleasures.

We can opt out of that mode, though, by exercising choices we're not told we have—to go with the gratifications and the seeking mind-set, a prerequisite to finding things, such as satisfaction and missing lives.

If you would like to learn more, click the button below for info on my life balance keynotes, trainings, and coaching.

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Tags: happiness, recreation, gratification, life balance, life skills, happier life, work life balance, play,

Leadership: How to Get People to Do What You Want Because They Want to Do It

Posted by Joe Robinson


You can lead a horse, or penguin, to water, but, as we all know, you can’t make them drink the stuff. Like animals, people also have minds of their own. Getting them to do what you want can be dicey. Compulsion and nagging can fail miserably on humans, but there is something that is highly persuasive: giving them a rationale for why they need to do what you want them to.

Research from the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan has shown that we are much more inclined to buy in to doing a task when we feel as if we are part of the process. Give an employee a reason for why something has to be done, and you sidestep the default resistance adults have to being told what to do and activate a key lever of employee engagement, choice.


Offering a rationale, instead of just telling someone what to do, plays to one of our core psychological needs: autonomy. We all have a strong need to feel that we are freely choosing things and not being forced and controlled, says Deci. How do you satisfy that need in the workplace, where it’s your job to do what others want? Through the agent of autonomy in the workplace, choice, in how the job is done—not what is done. We all have a job we have to do. How we do it is where we can build in choice, within limits, of course.

When you let someone know why he or she is being told to do something, it enables that person to feel autonomy by offering a sense of choice. Let them in on the purpose behind the action, and it makes them feel more a part of the team, more responsible, and a part of the decision to move forward. It’s a kind of jiu-jitsu that helps them feel they are doing the task because they want to.

Learn the 5 Keys to Engagement

That’s been the goal of leadership for a long time. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, “Leadership is the art of getting someone to do what you want because he wants to do it.” Now we have the science to tell us how and why this most potent of motivational systems works, whether on the job, at home, or anywhere you have to get folks to work with you. You let them satisfy core needs, they reciprocate.

The dynamic at the heart of autonomy and employee engagement is participation. Involvement gratifies two other core psychological needs—competence, or feeling effective, and connection with others. When all three needs have a chance to be expressed, people respond in a more participant way—taking initiative, more responsibility, going the extra mile willingly, which we know from the data on engaged employees can make them 28% more productive (Gallup).


Autonomy supportive leadership has been shown to increase trust, teamwork, and performance, Deci’s work and that of other psychology researchers show that, by turning loose the engines that motivate our deepest needs and drives, which come, not from external approval—the carrot-and-stick approach that runs counter to autonomy needs—but from goals such as excellence, craft, service, and learning, people are willing to do more, stick with it longer, and like what they’re doing more.

It’s a big shift from the command-and-control style of leadership we’ve all grown up with. For leaders, it requires a different language, less controlling, more informational. The idea is to forego the usual “have to,” “need to” phrasing and present tasks or issues in a way that allows others to play a role in the decision-making.

Getting a rationale for why something needs to be done allows the person to internalize the event, which creates a sense of importance and belief in the task. That holds true even if someone doesn’t want to do what he or she is being asked to do. When that is the case, letting someone express feelings about the task also results in a sense of autonomy through the act of expression, which makes the person more willing to do the task.

In this new world of leadership, the carrot and stick is supplied by the employee, enabled by the manager, just as Eisenhower observed decades ago. That is the definition of employee engagement—extra effort of your own volition, not because anyone demands it. We can’t command engagement, only enable someone else to unleash it with the proper tools, something our employee engagement training programs teach your team.

You can’t turn on the spigot of effort without filling up the tank with the juice—enfranchised people driving themselves with proactive involvement for goals that satisfy inner needs. Follow the trail of motivation blazed by Deci, Ryan, and their colleagues, and you discover there is a better way to engaged employees through strategies that make everyone a driver of both their own, and your, bottom line.

If you would like more information about how our employee engagement training can supercharge motivation and effort in your organization, tap the button below for details.

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Tags: employee engagement training, employee engagement, work motivation, leadership

The Most Important Stress Management Weapon We Don't Know We Need

Posted by Joe Robinson


We have met the enemy, and it’s us. That’s certainly true when it comes to one of the biggest hazards to life, limb, and functioning organizations: stress. Contrary to what we all instinctively believe, stress is not caused by anyone or anything else. No, the culprit is you.

I hate to tell you, but you’re stressing yourself out. The danger signal that trips the stress response is triggered, not by outside events, but by what you think about those events. It’s your reaction to what happens to you, namely, the story you tell yourself about what happened that activates stress.


It’s called “explanatory style,” how you explain bad things that happen to you, and it’s one of the most important things we can know for healthy human functioning on this planet. The problem is that few outside the medical and research world have ever heard of the term.

No wonder stress is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death (heart disease, cancer, stroke, lower respiratory disease, and accidents), according to the CDC, as well as some 75% of doctor visits, and 40% of employee turnover. Stress-related costs for American business add up to a colossal $407 billion a year, reports U. C. Irvine researcher, Peter Schnall.


We could save untold lives and billions of dollars on medications, absenteeism, presenteeism, lost productivity, and retention costs, if we knew how explanatory style worked and how to use it to control demands in our daily work and life. I’d like to see the concept taught in schools from junior high school onward as well as in every company in the country.

Explanatory style isn’t hard to grasp. I see the light bulbs going on right away for participants in my stress management programs. Our thoughts are the problem, not what anyone else is doing to us. Manage the thoughts set off by the default stress reaction, and you control the demands, instead of the other way around.


The first thought that appears in the brain after a stressful event is a catastrophic one, an irrational distortion. It’s a false belief that comes from an ancient part of the brain that believes your life is in danger.

When a threat overloads capacity to cope with it, whether it’s an argument with a colleague or 300 emails, it activates ancient survival equipment in our defense hub, the amygdala, which hijacks the modern brain and turns over command to a stowaway from the year 100,000 BC. The so-called caveman/woman brain then locks in irrational thoughts driven by the false belief of imminent demise.

That triggers dire and pessimistic self-talk, sometimes known as 'awfulizing"—“I can’t handle it,” “I’m going to lose my job and be out on the street.” Pessimistic explanatory style entrenches the false belief that the sky is falling or that nothing will ever work out. We buy the catastrophic story because it’s in our heads—it has to be true! No, not when the ancient brain is in charge of your faculties. They are mere thoughts, and thoughts aren’t real.

There is another explanation for what happened other than the black-and-white, all-or-nothing frame of negative explanatory style. Positive explanatory style reframes the reaction by bringing back the rationality of the 21st century brain. Something simply didn’t work out. A mistake was made, and it’s survivable. You’ll do better next time. It’s hard, but you can cope.


Explanatory style isn’t just key to controlling stress. Researchers who tracked the health of a group of Harvard students from college through their sixties (Peterson, Seligman, Vaillant) were able to show that a pessimistic explanatory style is a serious risk factor for poor health in midlife and late adulthood. The way we interpret why things happen to us can literally make us sick, set off major health conditions, and shorten our lives.

Of course, stress researchers have been saying this for decades. The reason is that the stress response was only designed to be active for a short period of time, since it does serious damage to our bodies in longer doses.

It suppresses the immune system, shuts down the digestive and tissue repair systems, and increases the bad cholesterol while decreasing the good kind. All this is intended to harness the body's strength and push blood to the arms and legs to help us fight or run during the brief time we are in harm's way.

This is why chronic stress that goes on day after day, week after week, sometimes year after year, is a factor in the leading causes of death and why it leads to absenteeism and presenteeism. Stress ravages bodies, brains, and productivity. It constricts brains to the perceived emergency, so the chief productivity tool, attention, goes missing in rumination.

It’s no wonder, then, that programs that teach people how to control stress with an optimistic explanatory style have an immediate impact on health and performance. Stress management training programs, for instance, have been shown to increase company revenues 23% and cut absenteeism 24% (Munz, Kohler, Greenberg). 


The right explanatory style can make all the difference for an under- pressure organization, team or personal life. The pessimistic style sees negative events as permanent, pervasive (affecting every aspect of your life), and personal. It can lead to what the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman identified as “learned helplessness,” a belief that there’s nothing that can be done. We give up. That fuels pessimistic self-talk and terms that lock you in to the darkness—things “always” turn out bad, you’ll “never” make it. Seligman discovered that pessimistic explanatory style is a road that leads to depression.

Optimistic explanatory style reverses the negative self-talk with terms that reframe the situation from permanent to temporary. It’s a passing storm, like all storms. It’s not pervasive but specific to a certain situation. Therefore, it’s not going to affect everything you do for the rest of your life. And you don’t take the event personally. That takes the ego out of the equation and the emotions that gush irrationally from it.

The optimistic style brings back the analytical brain that was hijacked by the primitive emotional brain, the limbic system. You can start to weigh pro and con again. The sky is no longer falling.

The power to manage stress is within us all when we shut down the false story of stress and reframe it with the right explanatory style. This skill can transform lives and workplaces. Without an understanding of how to frame pressure, pace, and workload, the default is to the unthinking catastrophic story, and to overwhelm, conflict, absenteeism and medical costs.

Stress management training can turn that all around and put your team on the path to effective performance. If you are interested in a program for your organization, click the button below for details on pricing and content. Reframe the overwhelm game.

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Tags: awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, stress management training, stress, stress management, stress management programs, explanatory style, self-talk

How to Do a Work-Life Balance Survey (20 Questions)

Posted by Joe Robinson


I speak to engineers a lot, and they can tell you, even the strongest materials pull apart, subjected to the right amount of force and load. The same thing can happen to any organization when people and teams get overextended, easy to do in an unbounded world of 24/7 technology.

When we do more than we can do well, it’s a lose-lose for company and individual. The blowback comes in the form of costly dysfunctions—plummeting performance, turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism (there in body, but not in mind), and burnout, which creates the opposite physical and mental states needed for employee engagement.


As burnout scholar Christina Maslach reported in her research, the main dimensions of burnout—exhaustion and cynicism—are the antithesis of engagement’s main characteristics: energy and dedication. For someone in a state of chronic fatigue or overwhelm, there is no capacity or intention to go the extra mile and voluntarily put forth the discretionary effort that defines engagement, which make people 28% more productive (Corporate Executive Board).

Make the Best Work-Life Case: Get the

The toll on individuals is harder to see, but it’s there—poor morale, guilt, overwhelm, and frustration that they can’t take care of their responsibilities at work or at home. Feeling effective, or competent, is a core psychological need, and if we chronically feel ineffective, that undercuts motivation and drives a belief that things are out of control, which in turn fuels overwhelm and discontent.

No one wants to admit it when demands go beyond coping ability, so the problems stay under cover. They usually only surface in anonymous employee surveys, on questions asking employees about their work-life balance. My clients often come to me for work-life balance training after discovering on an internal survey that it’s a glaring issue.


Less-than-stellar work-life balance scores are the canary in the coal mine, the signal that something harmful is in the air. If it’s not taken care of, it has the potential to turn the enthused and dedicated into the frustrated and disengaged. That can lead to lost productivity, resentment, cynicism, increased medical costs, and even the loss of top talent.

Giving employees a comprehensive work-life balance survey can surface issues that are critical to employee performance, satisfaction, and retention. People who feel they have good work-life balance are 21% more productive, studies show (Corporate Executive Board).

A work-life balance survey should be done anonymously to insure candid responses and can be used in conjunction with a work-life balance training and a follow-up survey to measure progress since the first survey.

To help you get started, I have provided a list of survey questions below that you can use to take the work-life temperature of your team or organization. The stataements flesh out, not just work-life balance, but also its supporting issues, challenges that drive the issue, from poor time management, to information overload, to no refueling and maintenance.

For each survey statement, respondees can answer: Not True at All, Rarely True, Somewhat True, Occasionally True, True, Often True, and Very True. Assign points for answers on a 7-point scale: 1 for Not True at All, 2 for Rarely True, 3 for Somewhat True, 4 for Occasionally True, 5 for True, 6 for Often True, 7 for Strongly True. You can tally up average point totals per statement as well as get an overall score for all seven possible responses, which can be very revealing. Here are a few survey statements you can use for your work-life balance survey.


  1. I feel as if I have good work-life balance.
  2. I am able to get most of what I want done each day.
  3. I feel valued by the organization.
  4. My supervisor understands the importance of balancing work and home life.
  5. I have trouble managing the volume of email and messaging.
  6. I have concerns that my personal and home responsibilities are being neglected.
  7. I have more projects than I can do well.
  8. I take the time to exercise and take care of my health.
  9. I feel I have control over my schedule and how I do my work.
  10. I feel guilty about not being able to do all that I want to at work and home.
  11. I am good at setting boundaries.
  12. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with all that is on my plate.
  13. I take the time to prioritize and have good time management.
  14. I feel stress often during the workday.
  15. I often bring work home with me.
  16. I feel I have good job satisfaction.
  17. The time pressure and deadline schedule is reasonable.
  18. I have effective strategies to manage demands and devices.
  19. There is good communication between my supervisor and I.
  20. I have enough support in my job to do my work.

A good work-life balance survey can open the door to conversation and solving bottlenecks that get in the way of performance and people’s lives. In my experience, the vast majority of employees want to work hard and go the extra mile—if they feel they have a chance to participate in the process and feel valued. When they are introduced to a battery of tools in one of my employee trainings to manage work and life better, there is palpable excitement that can really kick-start engagement.

At one of my clients, a work-life initiative at IBM energized one department so much that people from other departments wanted to know what they were doing so they could get in on the act.

The survey, though, is just the initial step. It needs to be followed up by course of action, or skepticism sets in and credibility is lost. A work-life balance training or development program takes the initiative to the next step, providing a road map forward.

Our work-life balance programs give your team a chance to zero in on concrete process improvements through discussion, interactive exercises, and evidence-based tools that help people work more effectively and carve out a better work-life.

Work-life balance isn’t pie in the sky. It’s a practical system of adjustments to how we work—from time management, to interruption management, to prioritization, stress management, understanding the most potent motivation, enabling engagement, and refueling and recovery strategies— that create a more sustainable approach on the job and a more gratified life outside work hours.

The work-life balance survey can get it all started, by demonstrating the unspoken needs necessary for employees to be able to navigate the work-life divide in the digital era.

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Tags: work-life balance program, work-life balance training, work-life balance employee survey

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

Posted by Joe Robinson


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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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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.


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


There's a difference between what humans really want, as opposed to what we or others think we want.  If we knew what that was, we would 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.


Researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have led the way, with a framework that points the way 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. You can have all the external success in the world, but you'll remain unfulfilled if even one of the core needs is unaddressed.


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 the sages have tried to clue us in on, 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.

The idea is to be in full alignment with your true self and values, with the three core needs working 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. 


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.


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.






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

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