Working Smarter

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

Posted by Joe Robinson


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. .


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.


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.


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."


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."

If you'd like information on how to build the refueling principle into your company operations, click the button below for details on our work-life balance and sustainable performance trainings.

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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


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.



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. 


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.


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.

If you would like to learn more abou how to control stress in your organization or get details on our stress management programs, click the button below. Manage stress, and unleash performance.

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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


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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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6 Ways to Prevent Deadline Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson


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.


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.

Download: Top Productivity Strategies for Crazy-Busy Work 

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.


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.

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The Cure for Zombie Phone Staring and Email Checking: Impulse Control

Posted by Joe Robinson


There’s a reason it’s hard to stop checking your email and why everyone around you is staring at screens like zombies. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. 

It turns out that constant interruptions erode impulse control. We lose the ability to regulate our impulsivity, which is to say, we lose self-discipline, essential to getting things done and warding off addictive behavior—which includes technology. Your devices have been shown to be as addicting as any substance.

People who have gone off the rails of digital interruption and distraction are more inclined to interrupt you, suffer from a bad case of crisis mentality, call you to see if you got the email they sent two minutes ago, and have difficulty focusing on tasks to completion or concentrating, the latter leading to a condition known as Attention Deficit Trait. The lack of control also drives stress and aggravation.


It all makes a crazy-busy world even crazier. What every office could use is the return of something that used to be a crucial element of functioning adults: willpower. Willpower is the engine of self-control, the ability to manage thoughts, emotions and harmful habits and override momentary desires. Not much gets done without it.

In a world of instant gratification, delaying payoff isn’t a popular choice—not surprisingly, because self-regulation is hard. It’s hard for brain neurons to resist an easier path. Since early humans didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, the species developed a habit for going for the bird in the hand.

Download: Top Productivity Strategies for Crazy-Busy Work 

The use of willpower also burns up resources. To stay on task, resist an impulsive action, or remain disciplined expends mental energy. That has to be replaced. Self-regulation expert Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has documented that after long hours of staying disciplined, the self-regulation equipment tends to flag at night.

Luckily, researchers say willpower is something we can all build like a muscle. We can improve our ability to hold off temptations at hand and persevere for a later reward. 

A 2000 Florida State University study found that mental resources are depleted by self-regulating processes such as resisting temptation, restraining aggression and coping with fear. The research suggested that self-control is a limited resource that must be resupplied regularly; each act of self-regulation makes it harder to perform another, because it eats up precious mental resources needed for discipline.


But more recent data indicates that willpower is not so limited after all. You have enough to meet any challenge—if you believe you do. It’s all about mindset. 

“We don’t say it’s unlimited. At some point you do need to replenish,” says Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and a leading motivation researcher. But willpower, she says, “is a much larger resource than previously thought. You can get tired, but it doesn’t mean you’re out of gas.”

Dweck and her colleagues have found that people who believe their willpower is limited feel tapped out after a strenuous mental task, while those who believe they have abundant willpower are able to push on. “Those with an abundant view aren’t monitoring themselves. They’re just kind of carrying on,” she says.

And once you resist temptation, it’s easier to resist it in the future. You can build willpower over time, in other words, by using it—something you can do by deploying the right motivation and belief systems, priming persistence and sidelining the quick-fix ego.


Achievement takes effort, and effort requires command of a brain function known as “effortful control.” Part of the executive attention function system, a disciplined effortful control mechanism is essential to self-control and the ability to resist temptation. It regulates impulse control, which prevents you from checking email when you’re trying to complete a task. 

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. Similarly, people who are “cognitively busy” are more likely to make selfish choices. (He points out that a few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night—the self-control of “morning people” is impaired at night, and vice versa.)

Other researchers have found that self-regulation depletes energy in the brain in the form of blood glucose. Subjects given sugary drinks were able to replenish resources to take on hard tasks that demanded self-control. Yet as Dweck discovered, there is another energy source: one’s own belief system and the motivation that drives it. Priming yourself with a realistic expectation of a rough road and the belief that you are up to it can get you through.

When motivation is driven by intrinsic goals that align with one’s inner goals—learning, challenge or the thought of making a difference—one has more staying power. When motivation is external—money, fame, praise, status—it’s harder to stick with it. 

In one study, Dweck found that college students who were concerned about grades and self-validation (external performance goals) weren’t as interested in tackling difficult goals with the possibility of failure, showing “substantial decreases in intrinsic motivation” after a significant setback. On the other hand, students who were in it for the learning—who want to work harder to increase their understanding—persevered.  

Researchers have found that rehearsing in one’s head the reaction to setbacks can help subjects resist temptation and overcome anxiety. Instead of reacting with autopilot panic and stress when the going gets tough, you can teach the brain to have a different reaction.

People “who persist have the idea that they can improve their abilities,” Dweck says. It comes down to “recognizing that you have more willpower than you think and finding strategies to put that into practice.”

Tags: email overload, work-life balance training, crazy busy, information management programs, technology addiction, productivity, work life balance programs, stress management programs, work stress, managing stress

Best Stress Management and Life Tool: Non-Reaction

Posted by Joe Robinson


If there are two words that sum up the central challenge of work and life, they are these: “Don’t panic!” That is because resisting the urge to react in a way that sets off the stress response and renders our brain’s decision-making faculties stupid goes against our design as emotional creatures.

We are programmed to react before we think. A couple hundred thousand years ago early humans couldn’t be relied on to think their way out of a jam—we didn’t have the higher brain organs yet, so we had to rely on primitive mechanisms that allowed the emotional part of our brain, the amygdala, part of the  limbic system, to call the shots any time we were threatened. The same is true today, even though we have vastly souped-up cognitive equipment. When demands overload coping capacity, the amygdala takes charge again—and rationality goes AWOL.


It’s just one of the many reasons why every individual and organization has to know how to manage reactions, and by doing so manage stress in the process. It's an essential work-life balance tool. The reaction reflex sets off rash, hare-brained, panicked decisions, crisis mentality, vengeful behavior (fight), and, of course, flight in the form of people quitting their jobs. Forty percent of job turnover is due to stress. Along the way, the emotional reaction of stress drives insomnia, cardiovascular issues, depression, and a host of other costly conditions, not to mention the fact that it’s contagious—spreading stupidity around the office.

Ignoring the problem makes it worse, since stress thrives on being unchallenged as the false belief it is. Stress management training gives employees tools to contest stress and the faulty ancient brain mechanism that keeps us reacting emotionally. The reality is we have 21st century brains and a cerebral cortex to think through a setback and do something that completely flummoxes the caveman/woman brain that wants us to go nuts several times a day: not react.

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If we don’t react when pressure builds, and we consistently let off steam from that pressure cooker in the form of stress reduction practices and recreation, we are in charge, not an artifact from early homo sapiens. The art of nonreaction is the key to managing setbacks, expectations, and just about all the other flashpoints and struggles of life. It’s an amazing ability that can transform our lives from fear and loathing to the confidence that we can deal with whatever comes our way.


When something happens that overloads the coping equipment, the goal is to not react blindly to it and buy the emotions that are coming from a bogus life-and-death story in our caveman/woman brain. Instead, you actively don’t engage with the reaction. You know the situation is temporary. You’ll get through it.

Yes, you might have 200 emails, but you can handle it. You’re not going to die from them. Yes, you are caught in a major traffic jam, but freaking out and racing down the median in flight mode to escape the herd is not a smart decision.

I watched a huge collision that happened when two drivers panicked and listened to their ancient flight buttons. A compact car two vehicles up from me on a gridlocked avenue swerved into the median to escape the traffic and go in the opposite direction, where there was no traffic. At that same instant an SUV came barreling up the median, and—crunch—two cars totaled, with who knows how much physical damage to the drivers. All because they reacted before they thought.

Stress management training teaches participants how to override the ancient machinery that desperately wants us to go crazy when something happens that we don’t like. It shows how without the reaction there is no stress. It’s not the deadline or what somebody says that drives stress—it’s our reaction to those events that causes stress. It’s the thoughts that arise from the emotional reaction, the story we tell ourselves about the stress, that creates the stress. 


How do we change such an ingrained behavior? Instead of letting a story fanned by irrational emotions run you, the trick is to shut down the storyteller. There is no story, just the frame you put on it. You are not going to die from the stress trigger, and you don't have to be manipulated by it. You can catch yourself as the emotions go off and bring back your 21st-century faculties.

This neutral approach allows you to not take the event personally, since the emotions of that default are a mega-driver of stress. The task is to simply observe the situation, the thoughts, and not engage with them. Let them slosh into your brain and slosh out again. You aren’t going to fall for it. 

Nonreaction is a superb weapon against ourselves, against all the ways that we set ourselves up for failure because our expectations aren’t met, or we aren’t perfect, or things don’t work out. The art of nonreaction prevents us from getting too high or too low. You cut off the pattern as soon as it starts. No, I’m staying neutral. I’m not taking the bait. You resist judgments about the event. You’re not going to get tangled up in its effect on your ego, a trigger of so many of these emotional wildfires. You aren’t taking sides.

It’s a great feeling to know you can’t get pushed around by yourself, that you are in charge of your own mind. It’s a state of being jaded to the manipulation that has happened so many times before. We are on to it, to ourselves, to the buttons others push.

You and the people in your organization or team can be on to this toxic saboteur too, leaving dramas, unmanaged demands, frenzy, conflict, and poor performance behind. Being able to control this reflex with nonreaction is one of the most useful things in the life arsenal, and the earlier we learn it, the quicker we can get it out of our own way.

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Work-Life Balance Programs: How to Stop Working the Hard Way

Posted by Joe Robinson


Humans are prone to doing whatever takes the least effort—even though our brains want us to do the opposite and challenge ourselves. We are a little contradictory. The high brain wants the gratification of growth, while for the autopilot brain the default is to instant gratification and expending as little effort as possible. The TV remote may be the ultimate instrument for this impulse.

At the office, the “easy” reflex results in rote and last-minute behavior, along with the anemic productivity that comes with them. It’s why I usually hear from clients when overwhelm has peaked or work-life balance survey scores are underwater. 


It may seem like it’s easier to work on rote and avoid change, but it’s actually much harder, as clients learn in our work-life balance trainings. When we are stuck on reflex, that keeps us locked in habits that drive stress, slow us down, and make tasks more aggravating than they actually are.

Take interruptions, for example. Left unmanaged, they not only make it much harder to focus and finish the task you are on, but they also make anything you do seem more difficult than it is. They change the perception of the work to something harder. So which is easier? Managing interruptions or being managed by them?

It’s a no-brainer, as it is when it comes to letting devices call the shots or corralling them, so we are in charge. Do nothing and unbounded devices and messaging run amok, adding to workloads and disruptions that slow everyone down. Do out-of-control messaging and constant disruptions make the work easier or harder? Cut the volume of email and check it at set schedules, and you can reduce the amount of interruptions from 96 (checking every five minutes) to three or four times a day, the most productive checking schedules, report researchers at U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State.

We can all free up hours of time to focus and get work done with a system that manages messaging. This makes changing how we work a lot easier than being bombarded by the anarchy of the status quo. But the law of least effort is seductive and most people today are also caught up in the autopilot of busy-ness, a condition that makes us think we can’t stop for a second, or it will be apocalypse now.


Work-life balance is a process of stopping for a moment to find easier ways to work, of getting tools to carve out the space to live a quality life and take care of personal responsibilities and map out a healthier road to success. In our work-life balance programs we bring your team the best strategies vetted by the research to stop doing things the hard way and start doing things the smart way.

Bad work-life balance survey scores and crazy-busy workplaces rife with overwhelm are clues that things could be done a lot easier. If your team is drowning in meetings and teleconferences, that’s doing it the hard way. If deadlines are out of whack with reality, that’s doing it the hard way. If people are working in a way that drives stress and burnout, that is really doing it the hard way. Stress undermines intellect and drives irrational decisions.

A host of research and best practices tells us that we don’t have to do it the hard way. Instead, with the right self-management, boundaries, and effective norms, any team or organization can get work done faster, communicate more clearly, de-clutter brains, and help employees activate  lives off the job too. It all comes from avoiding the temptation to keep muddling through with the same-old, same-old.

Work-life balance training is about solving problems, taking inefficient habits and turning them into effective practices that create the space to think and manage demands and devices. It’s a collaboration in which we work together to identify the bottlenecks and pressure points that drive productivity and work-life south and get solutions that make work and life easier.


I’m working with a client now on a post-work-life balance training sustainment program, two months of developing and practicing skills of sustainable performance. The managers of this global firm, with offices from Stuttgart to Hong Kong, Brazil, and the U.S, are super-enthused as we troubleshoot bottlenecks, set new norms, and make their days more effective. Each new practice they use to manage information or global time zones, or strengthen the work-family perimeter inspires more employee engagement—the very extra effort our species has an aversion to at the most basic level.

It turns out that effort isn’t a problem for people who are encouraged to participate and solve problems. In fact, we all are designed to be self-starters, to have a hand in writing our own script. Initiative and proactive behavior pay off core psychological needs, such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others as well as the quest our brain neurons have for novelty and challenge—the two key elements in long-term fulfillment 

So when it comes to working smarter with a work-life balance training, it’s a win-win-win-win. We improve work effectiveness, satisfy core needs, unleash the fulfilling powers of novelty and challenge, and inspire the discretionary effort that comes from employee engagement. And along the way, we make work, and life, a whole lot easier.

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A New Productivity Model Based on Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson


The traditional measuring stick of productivity has been, let’s face it, a rather masochistic metric—whoever can work the longest or send emails at 2 in the morning. It’s also dead wrong. It’s based on a flawed notion that in the knowledge economy where brainpower rules that a fatigued brain is where it’s at for getting things done.

In fact, MRI scans of fatigued brains look exactly like ones that are sound asleep. The chief productivity tool is attention, and that goes AWOL after three hours of continuous time on task, studies show (Boksem, Meijman, Lorist). 


Productivity comes from a very different place than burnout and fatigue, from the opposite place than we have been led to believe—from brains that are refreshed and energized. And where do those come from?

The data tells us from organizations that take work-life balance seriously. It turns out that work-life balance is much more than a check-off box on an employee survey. It’s the prerequisite for performance and engagement. It gives employees the tools and encouragement to work more effectively, to take care of their health, improve skills, and work in a way that makes them feel valued.

People who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who don’t, reports the Corporate Executive Board, which represents about 80% of the Fortune 500. Gallup found that engaged employees are 28% more productive than those who aren't engaged. But only 29% of workers are engaged. American businesses leave more then $300 billion on the table in lost productivity every year due to disengaged employees.

Naturally, every company wants employee engagement, which means that employees put forth discretionary effort beyond the call of duty. What makes an employee do more than what's necessary? Certainly not a fatigued brain. The key dimension of engaged employees is energy, vigor.

That can’t come from people who are burned out. You will never have engaged employees, if they are caught up in the Burnout Model of productivity. The main marker of burnout and chronic stress is exhaustion, the polar opposite of engagement. All energetic resources have been depleted—mentally, physically, emotionally.


It’s time for a new performance model, one that’s actually based on what the science says works. Let’s trade exhaustion for the Effective Model. The goal is to eliminate the bottlenecks that drain attention and engagement through things like interruption and information management, make operations more effective and less aggravating with better time management, manage demands, refuel the brain, and allow employees the sense that they can take adequate care of responsibilities outside the office. 

In other words, make work-life balance an integral part of the operations and workflow of the team or organization. When the goal is working in a way that strengthens attention, well-being, trust, communication, wellness, and value, it doesn’t take a brain scientist to see that people are more inclined to give not just their all, but more than that, the discretionary effort of employee engagement.

Work-life balance sets the stage for engagement, making employees feel valued, competent, trusted, and that they are a part of the mission, participants, not just cogs. Companies with high participation levels have a 19% higher return on investment, a study by Edward Lawler found.

Every company should want their employees to have better work-life balance, since that leads to the energy, commitment, and involvement that creates engagement. Every company should want their employees to have better self-management and be more proactive. When they are, we can delegate more, more ideas come forward, better communication reduces conflict, and we eliminate stress levels that fuel turnover (40% of people who quit cite stress as the main factor in leaving) and bad decisions.


The Burnout Model leads to ill and drained employees who are there physically but mentally depleted—the condition known as presenteeism, which costs U.S. companies more than $150 billion per year. The Effective Model produces team members whose brains are energized and focused on going the extra mile. Which is the better choice?

As a new generation that prizes work-life balance starts to play a bigger role in the workplace, the timing has never been better to integrate a comprehensive work-life program in every organization. There is a tectonic shift in corporate culture under way led by millennials and their values, and the Effective Model of work-life balance can lead the way. It’s a no-brainer for millennials—for productivity, commitment, wellness, and satisfaction.

How do you get started? Start with our comprehensive employee Work-Life Balance training that brings the strategies of the latest science to help your team work smarter and live better. We also offer a follow-up program that sustains the new behaviors, builds in new protocols and norms, and identifies challenges and solutions. Aftwards, everyone wonders why they didn't do this years ago. Let common sense and work-life balance demonstrate that there's another road to success, instead of one that is best described by an old Monty Python routine, "Being Hit on the Head Lessons."

If you would like more information, please click on the button below for details and rates on our programs.

Click for Keynote, Training Prices

Tags: work-life balance training, presenteeism, avoiding burnout, employee development programs, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance, work-life balance and employee engagement, work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and millennials, millennials

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