Working Smarter

Crisis Mentality: The False Emergency Driving Overwhelm and Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Crying wolf is a behavior frowned upon by society at large, but celebrated in the workplace. Did you get that email I sent two minutes ago? We need that report by noon! Or what, apocalypse now?

How about that person who sends every email with a giant red exclamation point on it. New cat video!

Granted there are deadlines and competitors to reckon with and work that must be done in a swift way, but that doesn’t mean everything is an emergency every minute of the day, as has become the norm in most organizations caught up in the Crazy-Busy Model of performance. Time panic has become the order of the day, setting off a vicious cycle of clenched necks, churning stomachs, absenteeism, and dismal productivity.

SIEGE OF INDIVIDUAL HEROICS

Harvard management professor Leslie Perlow found in a study she did while at the University of Michigan that nonstop rushing sets off a state of “crisis mentality,” that in turn triggers “individual heroics,” which cause people to believe they can interrupt anyone at any time, which drives more time panic as the interruptions make people fall behind in their work.

Technology has played a large role in amping up the hyperventilation, creating an illusion that the speed with which communications travel can be duplicated by the humans on the other end of them. Devices and the interruptions they rain down on us have also undermined attention spans, and with that the ability to regulate impulse control. Without self-regulation, we have no ability to resist interrupting others or practice patience, which requires self-discipline. We want what we want NOW!

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Perlow found that crisis mentality had a huge impact on performance and engagement at a technology company she studied, reducing both.  The engineers tasked with designing new products were so inundated with interruptions, they would have to work nights and weekends to get anything done. It took longer to finish tasks. The obsession with speed above all else caused people to focus on individual needs over group goals and sapped any commitment the employees may have had for the company.

WHEN EVERYTHING IS AN EMERGENCY, NOTHING IS

It was all-emergency, all the time—even though the emergency was false. Everything became life-and-death, which is a perfect description of the stress response that the crisis mentality set off. That's a false emergency, unless you are literally about to die. You’re not going to expire from a deadline or 300 emails, but time panic can convince your ancient brain otherwise. When everything is an emergency, nothing is.

The frenzy at this company was toxic to deadlines and quality work. One of the insidious things about interruptions is that they make you believe the work you’re doing is more difficult than it actually is.  Studies show that interruptions can increase annoyance and aggravation more than 100%. That makes it easier for irritation to click over into anger, increasing the stress load further.

QUIET TIME

In her study, “Finding Time, Stopping the Frenzy,” Perlow argued that blind rushing is counterproductive and countered it with an intervention at the company that cut crisis mentality and dramatically boosted performance. Her solution, Quiet Time, mandated two periods during the day free of all interruptions and contacting. From 8 a.m. to11 a.m. in the morning, the engineers couldn’t be interrupted. Normal contact and messaging resumed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then it was back to an interruption-free zone from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Performance increased 59% in the morning no-interruption zone and 65% in the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. focus slot. With minds more focused, productivity even shot up 42% in the period with normal interruptions. The engineers created a new product on time without needing to work every night and weekend for months on end.

Crisis mentality undermines intellect, since stress constricts thinking to the perceived emergency of the moment. That means poor decisions, snap decisions, emotional decisions, and an inability to see beyond the latest crisis—no planning, in other words. It means colleagues at each others’ throats. And it means lots and lots of exclamation points on the emails in your in-box.

We can do better by learning how to quality urgency, setting boundaries on messaging, respecting others and being judicious about interruptions, getting clarity on what a true emergency is, resisting the hurry-worry of others, and practicing the hidden weapon of excellence: patience.

If your company would like to lose Crazy-Busy Overwhelm and work less harried and more effectively, click here for more on our productivity trainings and a smarter way to work.

Tags: effect of stress on productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, employee productivity, productivity training, interruptions, false urgency, increase productivity, stress management, job stress, burnout, chronic stress, time frenzy,, crisis mentality,

Feeling Overwhelmed? You Could Have Attention Deficit Trait

Posted by Joe Robinson

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The woman gabbed on her phone as the clerk rang up her items. The cashier asked if she knew that the shirt and pants she bought were not part of the sale, but the customer was oblivious, chatting away about the nonphenomena of her life as if eight other customers were not in line behind her.

For a second time, then a third, the cashier tried to get the woman’s attention without success, then sent another clerk off to get the correct sale items.  The customers in line simmered. The phone yakking continued. After an interlude of a few minutes, the staffer came back with the items, the woman paid her bill, gathered up a bag of purchases, and then left, forgetting the shirt and pants. The clerk told me it happens all the time with distracted screen zombies.

INSTANT GRATIFICATION

Technology is as addicting as any substance, studies show, and has a similar effect on the brain. Its ceaseless distractions and interruptions erode a critical part of the executive attention function known as effortful control, which regulates impulse control. Without the ability to regulate impulsivity, instant gratification becomes the go-to default. In the case of technology, that means constant message-checking, texting—and the shorter attention spans that come with the disruptions. It becomes difficult to stay on task without self-interrupting for another task or a social media distraction. 

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Adding to the attention problem is the sheer volume of information overload, which is outstripping human bandwidth, undermining productivity and engagement, and driving a malady known as Attention Deficit Trait, or ADT. Identified by Massachusetts psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, ADT mimics the conditions of Attention Deficit Disorder, a neurological disorder that is mostly genetic. ADT, though, is a byproduct exclusively of environment—too many interruptions and excess data overwhelming brain neurons.

Author of Driven to Distraction and a specialist in learning disabilities and ADD, Hallowell sees more and more clients who think they have ADD, but it’s actually Attention Deficit Trait, which is proliferating as the crush of email, texts, social media, Internet data, Instant Messages, and notifications overwhelm gray matter. The information avalanche drives work stress and habits like multitasking that further compromise attention, forcing neurons to do what they weren’t designed to do—simultaneous thinking tasks. As studies from the University of Michigan to Vanderbilt have proven, we can’t do two or more high cognitive tasks at one time.

We may think we are having a phone conversation and doing an email at the same time, but, in fact, we are switching back and forth between tasks. In the process, attention is kicked from the top floor of the brain, the cerebrum, home of the rational and analytical, to rote and irrational floors such as the hippocampus and amygdala, headquarters of mistakes, fear, and emotional decisions.

DISTRACTION DERBY

People with ADT are highly distracted, impatient, and flit from one thing to the next.  They feel overwhelmed and unable to get anything done. They stand back at the end of the day and don’t see outcomes, just incompletes and the undertow of more to-do’s than they can get handle. A sense of falling behind makes them rush through the day to catch up, and that fuels stress.

In fact, they aren’t getting much done, because they can’t stay on task for very long, since impulse control is on the blink. The more they check email, the more they have to check it. Some 44% of interruptions are self-interruptions, and for those with ADT, the number is no doubt higher than that.

The interruptions slow down performance and, as a study by Brian Bailey, Joseph Konstan, and John  Carlis at the University of Minnesota showed, make you think that everything you do is more difficult than it actually is. That jacks up annoyance, impatience, anger, and fear that you can’t keep up, which in turn triggers a false belief that you won’t be able to cope with all the demands on your plate. The perception that you can’t cope sets off the stress response and the panic of fight-or-flight, which constricts the brain to crisis mode. It’s as if your very survival was at stake with each task.

“When you are confronted with the sixth decision after the fifth interruption in the midst of a search for the ninth missing piece of information…and the 12th impossible request has blipped across your computer screen, your brain begins to panic, reacting as if the sixth decision were a bloodthirsty, man-eating tiger,” Hallowell wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

So what can you do to avoid the shortcircuiting of ADT? Here are six ways to take back your brain:

1. Recognize Your Limits. The first step is understanding that the brain has limits—data volume, neural channels, working memory. Overload capacity, and you have blowback, from errors, to stress and burnout, to ADT.

2. Set Boundaries on the Incoming. Boundaries are the key ingredient to keeping ADT at bay—managing interruptions, devices, and priorities. Set the terms of engagement with devices, such as checking messages at designated times three or four times day, as researchers from U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State recommend.

3. Carve Out No-Interruption Zones. Find times in the day when you can set aside an hour or more to do your high-concentration work without interruption. Maybe it’s the first hour at work. Skip checking email and go right to the tasks that demand the most attention. Shut off email software and your phone.

4. Practice Patience. Turn off the racetrack mind, take a breath, and focus entirely on the task at hand. Get other to-do’s out of mind by writing them down, along with a next-action for each. Don’t be run by self-deadlines that no one else but you are holding yourself to. Impatience is the tripwire for a pattern that leads to irritability, anger, and the stress response.

5. Increase Attention. One of the best ways to combat attention deficit is to increase your ability to concentrate. The key here is focus on a target. Studies have found that Buddhist monks have some of the best powers of attention, due to intensive meditation practice. Meditators improve focus by watching the breath or through a repeated mantra.  Meditation, or the relaxation response, as it is known in lay form, is highly effective at building attention, as are hobbies from chess to salsa dancing, that make you pay attention to rules and action to the exclusion of all else.

6. Take Breaks.  Humans are energy machines. Energy we use to complete tasks and stay self-disciplined has to be replaced in the form of breaks, nutrition, exercise, hobbies, and mental resets of even a few minutes. Attention fades with fatigue, so make sure to keep your chief productivity resource charged and energized.

ADT is not something that happens to slackers. It’s a byproduct of doing too much and cramming the brain with more data than it can process. Therein lies the way out. Make adjustments so that you're not doing more than you can do well, and you keep ADT and its frenzied work style at bay. After all, the humans are in charge, aren’t they?

The Missing Link to Work-Life Balance: Play

Posted by Joe Robinson

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It's a vision problem that no laser surgery can cure that keeps us from seeing the central source of happiness right next to us. The problem is called adulthood. Those afflicted with this condition have trouble focusing on nearby objects of amusement and the realm that delivers the most enjoyment per square inch: play. Adults are oblivious to what they knew as kids—that play is where you live.

Grownups aren't supposed to play. We have problems. We're too busy. We have important things to do. It turns out, though, that there are few things more important to your happiness than frequent doses of play. As a study led by Princeton researcher Alan Krueger found, of all the things on the planet, we're at our happiest when we're involved in engaging leisure activities. Why not do more of that?

LAST TABOO?

Play isn’t just for kids. It’s the source of engaged living for adults too, and a whole lot more. It's an essential component of work-life balance and stress management. Play has been shown to be one of the best buffers against stress and setbacks. It increases positive mood, which helps build resiliency.

Playfulness at work was found by a study in Taiwan to increase productivity and innovation. Energy increases when we approach something in a playful way. Play also breaks up the mental set when we get stuck. It shakes up associations in our brain that keep us stuck and allows new ideas to come forward.

Why don’t we play more often? "Talking about adult play is kind of taboo in our culture," says Lynn Barnett-Morris, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, an expert on the effects of play on personality. "We think it's a waste of time or that we could be more productive doing other things."

Play doesn't operate on the output metric. It's about input, the experience of life itself. It's precisely the lack of a quantifiable result that allows play to tap a place that satisfies core needs.

THE TRUE SELF

When you're engaged in activities of "personal expressiveness," ones that are self-chosen and that reflect intrinsic goals, you're operating from the "true self," says Alan Waterman of the College of New Jersey. 
This leads to optimal psychological functioning (i.e., happiness). We're talking about something far from tangential to your existence. Play scholar John Neulinger called passionate play pursuits none other than the "central life interest."

Play brings you back to life—your life. "Adults need to play because so much of our life is utilitarian, the University of South Alabama's Catherine O'Keefe explained to me. "We need to reconnect with the things of our lives that ground us in who we really are and why we like our lives."

When a 40-year-old goes headfirst down a water slide, that person is not 40 anymore. A few decades have been knocked off, because something inside has come alive again. It should be pretty obvious that the animating spark of play is the fast track to happiness. There is no quicker transport to the experiential realm and full engagement than through play, which brings together all the elements you want for the optimal moment.

  1. Play is 100-percent experience.
  2. It's done for the intrinsic pleasure, for the participation.
  3. With no judgment or outcomes needed, play grounds you in the now.

BACK TO LIFE

Researchers say that the more absorbed we are in activities we like to do, the happier we are. Abraham Maslow and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pinpointed the power of full involvement in the moment to produce optimal experiences. Maslow called optimal moments the time when we are most attuned, "more integrated and less split, more perfectly actualizing." He argued that these instants of sublime activation had all the hallmarks of the religious or mystical but were triggered by intensely felt, secular experiences.

Contrary to stereotype, engaged play is the gateway not to time-wasting but to times that let you contact deeper realms. When you paint a canvas or play volleyball, you're in a creative improvisation that calls on inner fortitude and commitment and that reflect your values through self-expression. Play satisfies core self-determination needs, such as autonomy and competence, as little else can, connecting you with your mandate to explore and challenge yourself. Play relieves you of the burden to be someone you're not. There's nothing on the line; it's just play.

When it comes to beefing up your happiness, it's hard to do better than engaged play. Not only does it align you with your deepest needs and deliver fun in the moment, but the social component of play is a huge predictor of increased daily well-being, the research shows. Participating in recreational activities has been connected to increased positive mood and experiencing pleasure. And play increases the odds that you're going to have more fun in your life because it kills stress, reducing strain and burnout, boosting your immune system and pumping up vitality and energy.

When you're stressed, the brain's activated emotional hub, the amygdala, suppresses positive mood, fueling a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity. Play can break you out of that straitjacket. It’s the brain’s reset button.

This tonic we write off as trivial is a crucial engine of well-being. In its low-key, humble way, play yanks grownups out of their purposeful sleepwalk to reveal the animating spirit within. You are alive, and play will prove it to you.

Tags: happiness, passions, life balance, optimal experience, work life balance programs, play,, play and productivity, play and stress

The Hidden Agent of Job Stress: the Startle Response

Posted by Joe Robinson

Bracing for impact

You’re walking down the sidewalk thinking about the mouth-watering hoagie sandwich you’re going to sink your teeth into for lunch, when you hear a loud, “Bang!” In milliseconds, the hoagie vanishes from your mind, and your head jerks around to see what the danger is. It turns out that it’s only a car backfiring, but your blood pressure and breathing are still racing from the brush with this potentially ominous threat.

It’s known as the startle response, an instinctive flinch and bracing move at the sign of a threat. Even babies have this early warning system. A sudden, loud noise will cause them to bring their hands and feet closer to their chest. The reflex is designed to go off before we can even think and prepare us to brace for harm’s way.

EMAIL ALARMS

Like, say, another email or text dinger or a pulse from your smartphone. That’s right, digital alarms and noisemakers can also set off the startle equipment, along with the stress that comes with it. The more anxious you feel or stressed, the easier it is to overreact to the incoming stimuli and go into startle formation, ducking, cringing, blinking the eyes, and otherwise ready for impact.

In a world of unbounded email and smartphones, that turns most days into a startling performance—and that’s not a good thing. It amounts to repeated, jarring alarms throughout the day that signal threats, drive a defensive posture, and hijack attention.

Startling might be fun at a fright flick or on the local roller coaster, but it makes for lousy work and health. University of Minnesota researchers Brian Bailey and Joseph Konstan found that interruptions can lengthen the time needed to complete a task by up to 27% and increase annoyance by as much as 106% by making everything seem more difficult that it is. In other words, a steady diet of startling from flashing and noise-making devices lowers the threshold of coping, which increases the stress load. That makes sense, since the startle reflex activates the sympathetic nervous system associated with the stress response, which colors all in doom and gloom.

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FLINCH MODE

What doesn’t make sense is to be in flinch mode all day from unbounded devices. We have to set the terms of engagement with email and smartphones, or they will keep the the startling coming, raising the stress level and stealing attention for survival threats that don't exist. Most people answer the flashing visual notifications in the corner of their computer screens within six seconds. Because it plays to a survival instinct, these notifications are almost impossible to resist.

So much for free will. Or whatever it was you were thinking about when you got startled by the incoming noise or light. Interruptions vaporize short-term memory, which is why an interruption of just 2.8 seconds, can double the risk of error, according to researchers at Michigan State and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

The rings, bongs, chimes, and light shows that we’ve come to know and love not so much are part of what is known as “bottom-up” attention, part of the startle reflex that takes priority over anything you want to focus on. These intrusions are seen as perceived threats in a part of our brain that never got the manual for the 21st century.

BOTTOM-UP ATTENTION

Bottom-up attention lives to startle. Everything is an alert, 72-point headline font. It’s like having your own Breaking News ticker interrupting you every couple of minutes.

Luckily, there’s a better way of getting things done than cringing for the next alarm. It’s called “top-down” attention. Humans were designed to select and pay attention to one thing at a time. When we do that, we no longer have to be on guard all day, waiting for the next threat. We get to choose what we pay attention and when. That puts us in control. The more control we feel we have over our work environment, the less stress, the faster we get tasks done, and the more we like what we’re doing, say researchers.

How do we get more control and reduce the volume of startling we go through in a given day? Start by turning off mail software and noisemakers unless you are using it. The same goes for your smartphone. Check them both at designated times. Researchers from the University of California at Irvine to Oklahoma State say that the most productive email checking schedules are three or four times a day. If you have to have your email software on, turn the sound all the way down or set the volume extremely low on your desktop (higher decibel levels activate the startle response) and ask someone in IT how to turn off the visual alerts. These are easy and highly effective stress management tools.

The humans are allowed to set the rules on devices, and in the process reduce a lot of needless startling and stress. If you want to get the tension and time urgency down and improve work-life balance, make a vow to check messages on your terms, and not at the hysterical beck and call of every call or spam message that appears in your in-box. 

Tags: email overload, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, stress and email, startle response, smartphone addiction, stress response, setting boundaries

Stress Management Tricks: Don't Believe Everything You Think

Posted by Joe Robinson

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It’s not enough that we have to duke it out each day with the mercurial Mr. Murphy and his law that insures that all things that can go wrong will. No, we are saddled with an even more annoying pest: the ubiquitous false alarm of stress, time panic, and guilt generated by our own minds. With friends like ourselves around, who needs enemies?

Most of us take the thoughts in our brains at face value. They are in our heads, so they must be true. But the reality is only experience is real, not thoughts. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t built for the time they live in, for the social stressors of the modern world, which they are clueless to compute. Lost in time, they are prone to conflate non-life threatening issues from deadlines to workload as if they are life-or-death emergencies. 

THROWBACK NOGGINS

Humans have the same brain we did back in hunter-gatherer days, 100,000 years ago, when life-and-death events were a daily occurrence. Few things today threaten your life, but your ancient brain makes you think your existence is on the line anytime something overloads your ability to cope. It happens out of your consciousness in a part of your ancient brain that houses your emotions and your ancestral warning equipment, the amygdala, part of the limbic system that once was all we had for gray matter.

This outmoded defense trigger is out of its depth these days. Feel overwhelmed because you have too much to do? That’s enough for the life-or-death signal, the stress response, to go off, because you have overloaded your perceived ability to handle the load. Does that deadline seem impossible? Before you can even think that or verbalize it, the amygdala switches on the alarm.

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Are you going to die if you don’t meet the deadline? Hardly. Two hundred emails in your in-box are very good at setting off the fight-or-flight button. They make you feel you can’t cope. “Can’t cope” for the caveman brain = “I’m going to die.”

Once the danger switch has been pulled, you and your modern brain are mere passengers on the panicked ride of fight-or-flight. The amygdala hijacks your modern brain and its ability to offer rational analysis.

REFLEX AWFULIZING

The first thought you have after a setback or highly stressful event is catastrophic, in line with the part of your caveman brain that thinks you are about to be an ex-living person. This sets off a pattern we know and don’t love so much, that of “awfulizing,” a loop of dark self-talk generated by the fact that your brain is fixated on your imminent demise. You don’t get a specific death message, though, just the racing pulse, churning abdomen, and relentless negative chatter of impending doom or doubt.

Stress management and work-life balance are about managing the false alarms that bombard us every day, thanks to an overreactive amygdala, the brain’s early warning system. The root of the problem is that we are designed to react before we think.

Humans couldn’t be trusted to think their way out of a jam way back on the family tree, so we were equipped with a defense mechanism that goes off first, before we’re even conscious of the threat. How fast? Daniel Goleman reports in Social Intelligence that it can react within .02 hundredths of a second. You’re not going to beat it to the punch, but you can counterpunch.

CATCH YOURSELF

How do you control a hair-trigger reflex like that? You have to stop and catch yourself, when the false emergency, false urgency, and false guilt go off. Stop and ask when the stress erupts, am I going to die? Is it an emergency? Is the frenzy valid, or am I picking up on the panic of someone else? Is it the end of the world if I don’t send this email in the next few minutes? Is the guilt based on real physical harm I’ve committed, or is it just a projected anxiety and manipulation by others?

If you had someone constantly crying wolf about calamities that didn’t exist, you would stop listening. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore the wolf cries in our heads, because they seem so convincing. They’re coming from us, after all! But they are almost always false, whether the trigger is a challenge that appears insurmountable or a rush that seems so critical, it’s apocalypse now if we don’t get it done in a millisecond.

CONSTANT CONSCIOUSNESS

The way out of the trap is constant consciousness, being mindful of what it is we’re doing and not lapsing into rote mechanical momentum. Stress and time panic thrive on non-thinking and non-challenge of the events around us. They drive overwhelm and the feeling of a world spinning out of control. Disputing the false alarms as they pop up keeps you in charge of your own mind, instead of at the mercy of a remnant from hunter-gatherer days.

Subject all stressors and hurry-worry to scrutiny. Take a deep breath, then pull out a piece of paper and a pen. What is at the bottom of the stress? What is at the bottom of that? Keep going until you find the trigger. Is it life-or-death? What’s the false story driving the bogus emergency? Tell your brain that you’re not going to die from this particular event, and as a result, that THERE IS NO DANGER.  When you convince your brain of that, the stress response stops in four minutes. Bring out the facts, and the caveman brain has to admit what is already abundantly clear—it’s a drama queen.

If you would like to manage the false alarms of the stress response and keep time panic at bay, explore a stress management training for your department, organization, or yourself. Click the button below and find out how our programs work and how affordable they are.

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Tags: awfulizing, stress and self-talk, time panic, work life balance programs, stress management, job stress, reducing stress, stress management programs

8 Stops to Work-Life Balance in 2015

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman celebrating

The first couple of weeks of the new year are rare, indeed. They are one of the few times it is permissible to actually pause from head-down, full-blast mode, to reflect, ponder the upcoming year, even smell a rose or two.

Pausing is not something most of us are very good at. We are raised to keep on going to the last drop of caffeine. The premium is on action, and non-action appears to have no payoffs. Yet the key to work-life balance, productivity, stress management, and a quality life in 2015 or any year is in the space between the action, the moments when we take time to consider what’s working, what’s not, what needs to change, why, and how we get there. 

THINK-TIME

Without a pause, we can’t chart a better path forward. So before resolutions, before intentions, we need to stop so we can plan where we're going. Without a step-back to plan it’s easy to keep doing the same-old, same-old and default to the mechanical momentum of busyness. Planning, from prioritizing work tasks to putting life on the calendar, is the essential self-management tool. It figures out what you want and offers a path to make it happen.

So let’s make 2015 a year in which we are going to take the time to make the time to plan, whether it’s 10 minutes at the start of the day to get priorities together, time to discover what tasks need to be adjusted for more effective work, time to choose a new hobby to recharge during the week, or time to figure out what you’re going to do on your vacation this year and when you’re going to take it.

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Europeans use the month of January to sit down with coworkers and managers and figure out when people want to take their vacations, so that holidays can be built into the workflow and operations of the company for the year. Planning puts things you value on the calendar. 

STRATEGIC PAUSING

Taking strategic pauses to map out our days and life highlights gets shoved aside usually because of the grip of time urgency and overwhelm that afflict most of us these days. Time urgency is a fixation with the passage of time. It makes you think every minute is an emergency and that each moment must be booked to the gills, or you’re a slacker.

The result is a cheek-flapping ride through the blur of busyness. We can’t stop for a second, or it’s apocalypse now. “Did you get that email I sent you three minutes ago?” The vise grip of busyness keeps you from making the extra call to a colleague, doing the research to have accurate turn-around times, or get exercise or life in for stress relief. “There’s no time!”

But studies show we do have time. It’s just not organized. Let’s take a look at some pauses we can use to direct a more thoughtful, effective, healthy year ahead for both work and life.

1. Big Picture Pause. Set aside a chunk of time, say, 30 minutes this week and then once a month, to think about where you’re going at work and life this year and why you’re going there. What are your work goals? Life priorities? What’s missing from the picture? What do you need to change? How can you do that?

2. Work Effectiveness Pause. Review tasks and identify ones that are frequent bottlenecks and time-wasters. How could they be adjusted for less stress and more effectiveness?

3. Priorities Pause. Set aside 10 minutes at the end of the workday or at the beginning to map out the top five tasks on your list for today or tomorrow.

4. Balance Pause. Each Friday, take a few minutes to assess the state of your work-life balance. Are you out of whack? What needs to happen to have a better work-life fit?

5. Recharge Pauses. Fatigued brains look like ones that are sound asleep. Pause when the pressure peaks, you’re stuck, concentration fades, the daydreaming begins. Take a walk, listen to music, or plan your weekend to build up energy and cognitive resources again.

6. Free Time Pause. Take time to put together a free-time log for a week of all your time outside work. Where are the time sinks? Where are the free-time slots you could schedule a new hobby or activity? What would you like to do? Salsa dancing? Cycling?

7. Vacation Pause. Figure out at the beginning of the year where you want to go on vacation and when you want to go. This makes it easier for coworkers and managers and locks them and you into making the holiday happen at the most opportune time, with plenty of notice to make workflow adjustments.

8. Life List Pause.  Take some time to think about what you’d like to do on this planet for the experience of it. What’s on your Life List? Sail the South Seas? Learn guitar? Keep a rotating list of five experiences and start jotting down steps to make them happen.

We are led to believe that nonstop commotion is the only road to success, but it’s informed action that makes work effective and life worthwhile. Satisfying work and a well-lived life are the result of thinking, assessing, and having the attention to create a better pathway forward, something no one else can do for us. What you want doesn't happen on its own. You have to make it happen.

Let’s use this opening of the dawn of the new year to pause frequently in 2015 and put the most underrated tool of work-life balance into action.

 

Tags: time urgency, 2015 resolutions, work effectiveness, time management and planning, stress and prioritizing, well-lived life, work-life coaching, work life balance programs, work life balance

John Lennon's Path to Stress Management: Reach Out

Posted by Joe Robinson

John Lennon reached out in "Help"

The Beatles made reaching out respectable as far back as 1965 with the iconic strains of “Help.” John Lennon said he wrote the song as a cry for help to escape a depressive period in his life.

Nearly 50 years later, it’s still not easy in a culture of rugged individualism to ask for a hand. That’s especially true when it comes to work-related issues. We’re supposed to suck it up in silence, and keep on going till the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving, so we need a smarter approach.

I met one manager at an aerospace firm who was back at work after a heart attack. He was already worried he was going to have a recurrence. A scientist in Tennessee told me how he was hauled out of his office on a stretcher after his myocardial infarction and remembers his panic as the siren wailed in the ambulance on the way to the hosptial.

A social worker told me about her nervous breakdown, set off by an overwhelming caseload.  She didn’t even tell her husband how serious her stress had been until she was in an ER bed. At one training I did for a large consulting firm, staff members reflected on the heart attack death on a hotel bathroom floor of one of their hardest road-warrior workers, someone who was only in his 40s.

FEAR AND EGO

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem, and we have to face up to it as organizations and professionals. All the tragic events above could have been avoided if people had just asked for help—if individuals had reached out when things got beyond their capacity, if managers had reached out to staff or to leadership for training in stress management or time management.

It’s hard to be productive when you’re in an ER or six feet under. So why is it so hard to ask for help? Fear and ego override common sense and even self-preservation. We don’t want to let managers or peers think we can’t handle our responsibilities, fearing we’ll be thought of as lightweights or that we will jeopardize career or promotions. Egos tell us that admitting we need help would be a failure. Like all fear, these are projections that something will happen that almost never does. Irrational self-talk locks in false beliefs that put your health and even maybe your life in jeopardy.

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Denial fuels more stress, because it keeps the false belief driving the stress entrenched through rumination. The more we think about the false belief the more it feels true. Health consequences from your work are flares from your physiology to examine what’s not working and what you can do about it.

STRENGTH OR WEAKNESS?

Part of the problem of reaching out is that we are led to believe that it’s a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s an indication that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. One Harvard report about speaking up in the workplace called the word “No,” the voice-oriented improvement system. We move forward when we find out what's not working and remain counterproductive as long as we don’t say anything. Think about dialogue, not as a sign of failure, but of progress—problem-solving ineffective behavior, such as stress and burnout, that can cost you dearly and the company five to seven times more than the average workplace malady.

Fear and ego blind us to the irony that, to appear strong and play the bravado game, we consign bodies and minds to physical weakness. Are CEO’s weak who bring in consultants to chart a new path? No, it’s considered smart to bring in expertise to solve problems.

That’s all we are doing when we speak up and let someone know there’s too much on our plate or a department is too overwhelmed to avoid making serious mistakes. We are solving problems.

Asking for help isn’t a character flaw, it’s a sign of character, of knowing when to  say when, determining when we have diminishing returns, identifying when we have more than we can do well. It’s a sign of strength.

GETTING UNSTUCK

Ignoring health problems is a big lose-lose for employees and companies. Let’s set a new standard to change this. If the way you are working is affecting your health, it’s time to reach out. If the people on your team or department are racking up doctor appointments or citing burnout, it’s time to reach out. If stress and crisis mentality is rampant, it’s time to reach out.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Most of my coaching clients contact me when they are on absolute fumes, when a small spark could cause a conflagration. It’s no different than going to a personal trainer or music teacher. You move forward through new knowledge, through strategies that take an outside ear and expertise. Our brains generate ideas through associations, putting this idea with that random one. It’s inefficient, time-consuming, and it often leads to an association dead-end. We get stuck in association cul-de-sacs and can’t get out on our own.

The same is true for organizations. If your department is reeling, don’t wait for the entire company to do something, reach out and explore a stress management, work-life balance, or productivity training for your team. Get solutions to overwhelm and burnout that everyone knows are undermining productive efforts, rapport, and future success.

“Help me get my feet back on the ground,” sang John Lennon. Ask, and chances are you shall receive.

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Tags: feeling overwhelmed, work-life balance coach, work stress and health, asking for help, work life balance programs, job stress, stress at work, burnout, stress management programs

7 Ways to Avoid Overwhelm

Posted by Joe Robinson

Feeling overwhelmed by workload

There’s enough on most plates these days to keep an 18-armed Hindu goddess busy. As a result, more and more of us feel overwhelmed by all we have to do and the scant time with which we have to do it. A study by the Families and Work Institute found that more than half of Americans have felt overwhelmed by the amount of work on their agendas.

As a result, “overwhelm” has morphed from a verb to a noun and a growing problem for buried individuals and companies alike. Overwhelmed minds get hijacked by stress and have trouble focusing, planning, and solving problems. It’s a condition I see everywhere in my productivity and stress management training work, and it’s a serious one, since feeling overwhelmed is a sign that demands have outstripped the ability to cope with them.

When humans tell themselves they can’t cope by thinking or saying they are overwhelmed and therefore, out of control and helpless, that tells an ancient part of the brain that doesn’t know how to compute non-life threatening social stressors in the 21st century, “I’m going to die.” Off goes the stress response and the fear, anxiety, and crisis mentality that go with it.

PILING ON

Managing overwhelm and crazy-busy schedules is about restoring a sense of control and what the psychology world calls “agency.” You feel you have the ability to act to change things. When you feel overwhelmed, there’s a sense of being a helpless bystander as everything and everyone piles on. The constant barrage of interruptions and email keeps you jumping to their demands, instead of you calling the tune, at the mercy of what’s known as “bottom-up” attention, a survival and startle instinct that fuels loss of control.

The more perceived control you feel have over your work environment, the less stress you have and the more confidence you have that you can handle whatever comes your way. The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman showed in seminal research that, faced with an overwhelming threat that appears to have no end, some people give up and wind up in a state he calls learned helplessness, believing resistance is futile.

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This leads to a pessimistic “explanatory style” that locks in futility and ultimately depression. Explanatory style is the way we frame stories in our heads about why things happen to us. It’s the little-known culprit behind everything from stress, to negative mood, to taking things personally, to depression.

CHANGING SELF-TALK

The way out of the overwhelm trap is to change the thinking and actions that drive it. That means telling ourselves a different story, since self-talk drives stress, and, instead of operating on reflex to devices and people around us, getting proactive with boundaries, prioritization, and breaks to refuel minds and bodies.

Let’s look at seven ways we can activate these strategies to keep overwhelm at bay:

1. Change your explanatory style. It’s easy to lock in false beliefs by repeating them often enough. Setbacks and stressors set off catastrophic stories, courtesy of the caveman brain, that aren’t true even though they are in your head. They have to be countered. You can feel less overwhelmed by not telling yourself you are. Also ban language/thoughts such as, “I won’t be able to handle it,” “I can’t cope,” etc., which are easy triggers for the stress response. Tell yourself you can cope, you have coped, you will cope. Yes, you have 200 emails, but you can handle it. The glass is half-full.

2. Get it out of your head. Human brains are not built for storage, but for processing. Trying to keep all your to-do’s sloshing around in your brain fuels anxiety about how you’re going to get it all done. Cut to-do angst by writing down next actions for each task on your list. As Florida State researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister and Getting Things Done guru David Allen have proven, unfulfilled goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks. Writing them down releases the brain to focus on the moment.

3. Qualify urgency. Time pressure is a huge factor in overwhelm. It drives a belief that everything is an emergency and must be done immediately. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent. We need to qualify the urgency of tasks, and take a breath to do so. What’s the urgency of doing it now? Busyness isn’t the same thing as being productive. If you are the type of person who celebrates how busy you are, that can add to the workload and lock you in to be maxed to the gills at every moment as essential to your identity.

4. Say, “Let me get back to you.” People who are overwhelmed tend to have a hard time setting boundaries. They are over-optimistic about how much they can get done and how fast, and say Yes a lot. Self-management begins with basic boundaries. You can’t take on more than you can do well. One Harvard report showed that people are speaking up at the office. They tend to be extroverts. Don’t respond with an immediate Yes. Say, Let me get back to you. Question, clarify, and communicate about what’s on your plate.

5. Set the terms of engagement with devices. Turn off devices and check them at set times. Shut off the bottom-up attention of unbounded messaging and interruptions, and you feel in control, not at the mercy of an avalanche of notifications, rings, pings, and pulses. Cut the volume of email, and use strategies to do so. Every email results in six emails.

6. Stop multitasking. Multitasking is a myth. A host of studies from the University of Michigan to Vanderbilt show that you can’t do two cognitive tasks at one time, particularly anything involving language. There’s only one channel for language to flow through. Each time you multitask you self-interrupt. That causes it to take longer, some 50% longer, to complete tasks, and the interruptions make your brain feel that tasks are harder than they really are, which fuels overwhelm.

7. Reach out for support. When overwhelm is at a level that is causing serious health issues, say something—to a manager, supervisor, spouse, significant other. I spoke with a woman in social services who kept it inside even from her husband, and she wound up having a nervous breakdown. Reach out for support. There are other ways of arranging workflow.

Overwhelm is a cumulative condition. It builds and builds by default without boundaries and systems to work more productively and create more work-life balance. The hardest workers can easily turn into burnout cases when they are doing more than they can possibly do well, whether through their own choices or through management decisions. We have to start seeing an unbounded world, not as a test of bravado, but one of anarchy that serves no one’s interests.

If your organization would like to give your staff tools to get more done in less time without the drain of overwhelm, click the button below for more information on our productivity, engagement, and stress management trainings.

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Tags: overwhelm, productivity programs, multitasking and stress, crazy busy, feeling overwhelmed, information overload and stress, interruptions, job stress, job burnout, stress management programs

Passions Power Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Dancing to well-being

The Declaration of Independence may guarantee the pursuit of happiness, but, as we all know, landing the prize is a different story. It's a winding road through the options we're given. Status, wealth, popularity, the refrigerator, the medicine cabinet -- all the standbys have failed to get the job done. What really works, though, is something that wouldn't cross most of our minds: a passion or a hobby.

Robert Vallerand from the University of Quebec at Montreal and his associates found that participating in a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week. I think we could all hoist a glass to an extra eight hours of bliss each week.

But a passion doesn't just plug you into a dependable source of rhapsodic moments each week, it also provides the best kind of happiness: gratification, a lasting sense of fulfillment that the instant mood upgrades can't. Passions demand initiative and mastery, which go deep to satisfy core self-determination needs.

And maybe deeper. "Playfulness is the very essence of the universe," philosopher Alan Watts noted, in music, dance and activities that get us off the bullet train and allow us to celebrate where we are.

PRIMING THE POSITIVITY PUMP

Passions are stellar at this, planting you in optimal moments and connecting you with others equally ecstatic, widening your social circle. Studies show they increase positive emotions during the activity, boost positive mood, and decrease negative feelings afterward, and go a long way to delivering work-life balance you can feel to the tips of your hair.

Stocking up on positive events is important because we're usually in a losing battle against the negative avalanche barreling down on us from all sides. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has documented that we need a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative events to stay on the positive side of the ledger. The negative is that powerful, and it tends to be our default, part of the survival worrywart instinct we know and don't exactly love. Hobbies and passions keep the positivity pump primed.

GO FLY A KITE

I met dozens of people in the course of doing a book ("Don't Miss Your Life") whose lives were changed radically by something as simple as flying a kite. Amy Doran was a youth program director in Bend, Oregon, newly divorced, without friends in a new town and facing the challenges of her son's epilepsy when she took up flying stunt kites. As she learned the ropes of the flier's aerial ballet, she wound up becoming a confident festival performer. She now has a host of friends and her son, Connor, doesn't need his meds anymore.

Connor took up flying after he saw the fun his mother was having, and he got so good at it, he flew in front of millions of viewers on a couple segments of "America's Got Talent" last year. Because of his epilepsy, he had thought he was worthless, but that all changed with kite-flying. "My whole life I've been told I can't do things," he said. "But kite-flying changed that. I have something I'm good at."

Unlike romantic passions, the pursuit that becomes a reason to get up in the morning doesn't appear across the room, setting your heart aflutter. It comes out of a process of building capabilities and a persistent quest for mastery. There are no thrills until you've gotten the skills.

Passions take foreplay. The passion that can transform your life from missing or just okay to extraordinary has to be developed. Vallerand, a pioneer in the field of passion research, and his associates have studied passionate cyclists, dancers, music students and swimmers in search of the keys to avid involvement. Along the way, they have put their fingers on a couple of very important pieces of optimal life.

DO IT TO DO IT

One, pursuing happiness has a lot to do with pursuing competence. It's the pursuit of competence, wanting to get better at something, that fuels the skill-building process. Secondly, you won't get the satisfaction you want from a hobby unless your motivation for doing it is intrinsic. You have to do it to do it, not for a payoff.

As Alan Watts put it, "When you dance, do you aim to arrive at a particular place on the floor? Is that the idea of dancing? No, the aim of dancing is to dance."

Harmonious passions, as Vallerand calls them, spring from a goal of mastery, an intrinsic aspiration that puts the focus on learning and drives practice. A lot of it. This jibes with findings on happiness that show that effort is a critical component of satisfaction. Repeated practice leads to improved ability and further interest, until the activity begins to define you. The activity becomes your conduit to self-expression, tapping your core values and creating a focal point for life.

DANCING CHANGED HIS LIFE

Chicago investor Richard Weinberg is a perfect example of this. A dinner at a Mexican restaurant that featured salsa dancing sparked him to take dance lessons at the age of 49. A few years later, he was competing in 14 different dance categories and had found something central to his entire being. "It's changed me totally," he says. "It's really given me a purpose. I went to the office, had a great family to care for, but dancing shifted my spirits and energy and direction in such an amazing way. I feel 20 years younger than I am."

Having an enthusiasm that connects with you at a core level and gives you something to look forward to energizes your life and provides a sense of direction and meaning, far from the rap of triviality hung on hobbies. I can't think of anything as potent as a passion or hobby to activate life to the nth degree.

So how do you get your hands on this elixir? You have to select the right activity, something that would have internal value for you. It all starts with interests. Try many kinds of pursuits and see what connects.

INTERNALIZING AFFINITIES

When you find something you'd like to learn, stick with it. You need to be persistent to get through the adult phobias about not knowing everything and looking like a fool. An intrinsic motivation will get you through it. You're in it for the learning, not to be an overnight champion triathlete or tango dancer. A study of music students found that only 36 percent developed a passionate interest in playing their instruments. The students who felt it was their choice to play, and not the result of pressure from others, were the ones who found the love.

For an activity to turn into a passion, it has to click with your core needs, especially autonomy and competence. You have to increase the intensity of your interest, says Vallerand, with more practice. That increases your skill base to the point where you're good enough at the activity to enjoy and meet the challenge. The final stage is internalizing the activity by valuing it as a part of who you are. You wind up seeing yourself as a "runner" or a "salsa dancer," which gives you a critical sense of self apart from the almighty identity on the business card that is not you but is very convincing at making you think it is.

This might be one of the best services passions provide. They introduce you to yourself, long forgotten under a pile of duty and obligation. They reacquaint you with the enthused, eager soul you used to be, pre-adult straitjacket, and give you a reason to be that person more often. You're home, at last.

 

Tags: happiness, fulfilling life, wellness, passions, recreation, living well, gratification, work life balance programs, work life balance

Information Overload: The Art of Interruption Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Interruptions drive stress

IT JUST MAY BE the crime of the century. Our minds, thoughts and chief productivity tool--attention--are being stolen by a thief operating with absolute impunity: incessant, unbounded interruptions. An ever-growing volume of intruders--e-mail, texts, apps, phone calls, social media alerts--combined with assaults from increasingly time-panicked humans, are leaving few places safe for chirp-, chime- or ding-free concentration.

Information overload, which includes the recovery time from unnecessary interruptions, cost the U.S. economy $997 billion in 2010, according to Overload!: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization by Jonathan B. Spira. An Intel study found that lost productivity from information overload alone would cost $1 billion per year for a company its size.

Chronic intrusions shrink attention spans, drive stress by burning up mental and emotional resources and trigger mistakes. An interruption averaging 2.8 seconds--say, one of those blinking notifications in the corner of your computer screen--can double the risk of error, a study by researchers at Michigan State University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory found. Increase the duration of the interruption to 4.4 seconds, and you triple the chance of a mistake.

Interruptions play havoc with working memory, fuel overwhelm, and undermine intellect. A study that measured the effects of forced interruptions on resident surgeons performing a simulated laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) found that surgical mistakes occurred 44 percent of the time with the distractions, and only about 6 percent without. Interruptive questions triggered the most errors, followed by sidebar conversations.

There's a reason airline pilots have mandatory no-interruption zones just before takeoff and landing: Federal regulations prohibit any activity--from nonessential conversations with crew or others in the cockpit to reading nonessential publications--that could distract a pilot during critical phases of the flight.

So, what are the main sources of intrusion, how do they affect us, and what can be done to curb them?

DIGITAL DISTURBANCES

The average businessperson receives and sends about 109 e-mails per day, and that rate is growing each year by 7 percent, according to studies by technology market research firm The Radicati Group. Instant messages are increasing 11 percent, and texting, once confined to the nonwork realm, is bombarding offices, with 67 percent of professionals saying they text for business, according to messaging service HeyWire Business. How interruptive is this? Mobile Marketing Association reports that 90 percent of all texts are read within three minutes.

"It's a huge problem," says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts psychiatrist and co-author of Driven to Distraction, which chronicles the siege on attention. "It's the newest addiction. There are in-patient centers now for people with technology addiction. Marriages break up."

"There's a thrill to it," adds Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. "Your texts and e-mails are like video games. There's a stimulus and rewards."

The surge of texts and social media notifications in recent years may be leading to a tipping point of terminal distraction and always-on availability. Michael Salem, co-founder and CEO of Vorex, a Plano, Texas-based provider of cloud-based professional services automation software, says he gets 1,000 messages per day. "I'm overwhelmed," he admits. "Responding is a daily thing, 24 hours a day." For a while, he says, he barely slept, taking calls from global users of his product from his bed. His health started to suffer; he gained weight and became anxious from the never-ending assault.

"I counted recently," says Matthew Bellows, CEO of Boston-based Yesware, an e-mail productivity service for salespeople. "I have 22 inboxes, from e-mail to LinkedIn. The idea that I'm supposed to monitor and troll through these is absurd. I get hundreds of e-mails a day. Interruptions and distractions are the biggest drain on productivity for the modern office worker."

THE BATTLE IN THE BRAIN

The volume of intrusions today is unsustainable by any metric: productivity, engagement, physiology or common sense. So what can we do about it? The first step is to understand the impact of constant interruptions on our brain neurons.

Out of all the things your brain could focus on right now, your attention at this moment is on this sentence. This is because you are implementing what's known as top-down attention, in which you choose what to take note of. You set the terms of engagement, giving you control and concentration--that is, if you can block out the distractions of the other kind of attention: bottom-up, which is dictated by something or someone else. Bottom-up attention is part of our survival equipment. When you hear a siren or a car backfire, your attention instantly shifts to the potential threat. The cavalcade of electronic noisemakers--e-mails, texts, IMs, phone calls, notifications--are all bottom-up intruders. They arouse defenses and hijack concentration.

It's a battle that's daunting but winnable. "You are the boss of what's in your head," Gallagher points out. "Attention is a tool, and you can take charge of it. It's a matter of knowing when you want to use your top-down attention, and then you have to suppress the bottom-up stimuli. Otherwise, you become a victim of stimuli."

Interruptions trigger detours that tax working memory and increase the time it takes to accomplish tasks, all of which drives stress. When an intrusion occurs, "it sets off a chain of random events, with people switching activities," explains Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of a study on the subject. On average, she says, "you work on two intervening tasks before you get back to the original task." For example, you might be at work on a marketing project one minute, then shift to an e-mail from a customer, then off on a trip to LinkedIn.

Mark followed 35 managers, engineers and project leaders for three days. She found that the average time people spent on a single task before being interrupted or switching to something else was a whopping three minutes. The amount of time they worked on a device before switching was two minutes, 11 seconds.

The interruption blitz is held in place by fallacies that the human brain is an inexhaustible well that can be crammed with an unlimited amount of information, perform multiple functions simultaneously and switch tasks without decrease in output. The shocking truth is that our gray matter has limits, from working memory to data volume to neural channels that permit us to perform only one high-cognitive task at a time.

Interruptions undermine effortful control, which reflects the ability to regulate impulse control. The more interruptions one has, the more they erode the self-regulation equipment. Feel like you have to check your e-mail even though you just checked it five minutes ago? That's your impulse control and attention span on the blink. Interruptions shred the ability to self-regulate everything from checking e-mail to consuming Häagen-Dazs or Jack Daniel's.

ATTENTION DEFICIT

This is why technology is so addictive. It can destroy the ability to control impulsivity, which means more frequent message checking and web browsing and shorter attention spans. That, in turn, leads to more distractibility and less ability to see tasks through to completion--exactly the sort of symptoms psychiatrist Hallowell began to see in the '90s in patients who thought they had attention-deficit disorder.

But people with true ADD are born with the condition. So Hallowell's patients' fractured attention was a byproduct of something else--an affliction that mimics ADD, set off by interruption and information overload "filling our heads with a cacophony of mental noise" until the brain "loses its ability to attend fully and thoughtfully to anything," Hallowell notes in Driven to Distraction. He dubbed the condition "attention deficit trait."

Once high-producers, people with this condition flit from one thing to the next and find themselves falling behind in their work, which in turn increases time panic and anxiety as they try to catch up. Thus the constant disruptions feed a fear of being overwhelmed and not being able to cope, a signal to the ancient brain to set off the stress response.

"I can feel my heart racing," says Karen Swim, who launched her Sterling Heights, Mich.-based public relations firm, Words For Hire, 10 years ago. She used to be able to manage the electronic flood, but she says the increase in texting over the last couple of years has pushed her coping resources over the edge. "There are days when I feel I have to stop and breathe. It feels like you're on a treadmill that keeps speeding up, and you can't keep up."

THE NO-INTERRUPTION ZONE

Everyone knows the volume of intrusions is counterproductive, but attempting to moderate the flow strikes fear in the hearts of business owners and managers. It shouldn't.

More entrepreneurs would crack down on interruptions if they knew how much it was costing them, says Dan Adams, CEO of Woburn, Mass.-based New England Network Solutions, which provides computer services to small and midsize companies. "Business owners don't know how much time is being lost to these distractions," says Adams, who installs firewalls to track and monitor internet and social media use.

As relentless as the siege is, entrepreneurs and employees don't have to throw up their hands. There is a range of tools available to control the onslaught, improve productivity, and along the way build in stress management controls.

Strategies range from curbing e-mails to limiting personal pop-ins from colleagues. U.S. Cellular, Intel and professional-services giant Deloitte are among large firms that have attempted no-e-mail days--not mandating a complete shutdown of electronic messages, but encouraging in-person or voice communication, especially among co-workers--which may cut down on unnecessary distractions.

"Without uninterrupted time you can't listen to someone, write good code or think," says Yesware's Bellows, who once spent a year at a Buddhist retreat meditating for hours a day. "Those tasks take concentration and focus that is quickly taken away by devices."

INTERRUPTIONS

Bellows is trying to stem the tide of interruptions. Instead of interrupting one another with questions, Yesware employees send messages via a HipChat.com intranet page that colleagues can review on their own time, when they have a break in the action. Bellows blocks out uninterrupted time on his calendar to think, urges everyone to close laptops and not check messages during meetings and reads and responds to his e-mail in designated chunks a few times a day.

The latter strategy in particular can dramatically reduce interruptions. If your e-mail automatically checks and feeds you messages every five minutes, that's a potential of 96 interruptions over an eight-hour day. However, if you manually check it every 45 minutes, that cuts the total to 11. Researchers at Oklahoma State University say the most productive checking schedule is four times per day. UC Irvine's Mark recommends that you plow through as much e-mail as you can in three scheduled periods per day; the rest of the time, it should be turned off.

Other interventions aim to block off no-interruption zones. Leslie A. Perlow, Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, developed the "quiet time" program, which walls off all intrusions during certain times of the day.

She deployed the method at a software company whose engineers were having trouble creating products without working nights and weekends. After a period of investigation, Perlow discovered that the engineers were being interrupted so often they didn't have time to think and couldn't get enough done during regular hours. With everyone falling behind schedule, a crisis mentality developed, in which people felt entitled to interrupt anyone at any time.

Perlow's solution was to set aside a certain portion of the day, before 11 a.m. and after 3 p.m., for uninterrupted work. (Normal interruptions could take place during that four-hour window.) The results: 59 percent of engineers reported that their productivity increased in the morning interruption-free zone, and 65 percent said the same for the afternoon. With heads cleared, 41 percent even reported that their productivity jumped during the interruption portion of the day.

Harman Singh likes the idea of quiet time. The founder and CEO of WizIQ--who gets upward of 200 messages each day--says he's been thinking about the need for rules to control the flood at his online education company. "It's gotten crazy," he says. "I don't get enough time to think. It's a menace."

His most frustrating distraction: mobile messaging via WhatsApp. He has considered getting off the app but is concerned about how investors who contact him that way might react. As with most thoughts of managing interruptions, there is fear. Would they respect boundaries? But Singh believes that ultimately his investors would rather have him engaged in productive thought and running his company than buried in social media and needless communication.

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Tags: email overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, managing interruptions, reduce distractions, multitasking and stress, information overload programs, email management, interruption management, information overload, stress management programs

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