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Stress Management Training: The Antidote to Fear and Loathing

 
By Joe Robinson

Posterwoman for a stress management program

It takes a lot to get a human ready for the world. A dozen years, plus kindergarten, followed by all-night cram sessions in college—and maybe more, using every available minute and dime to get through graduate school. And after it all we know…next to nothing about how our minds work and how to manage a daily gauntlet for anyone this side of Zen master status: stress.

We learn the skills of our profession but not how to distinguish real threats from false ones, how to contest irrational thoughts set off by stress, or how to turn off the ceaseless alarms that jack up anxiety and blood pressure needlessly. What’s worse, almost none of the people we work with have received training to manage their false alarms, either.

Add to that the growing demands of an always-on work style, and you’ve got a perfect storm of crisis mentality, conflict, and hair-trigger emotions, which undermine intellect and performance and make a crazy-busy world even crazier.

THE STRESS DIVERSION

With the cost of stress to American business more than $400 billion a year, according to Peter Schnall at U. C. Irvine, and stress responsible for 40% of employee turnover, organizations that make stress management a key part of their development programs stand to gain a big edge on the competition, instead of being on the edge of frenzy and frazzle.

One study, by Nextera Enterprises, found that industries with high turnover, as high-stress organizations are, have 38% lower earnings. Firms with turnover rates less than 3% are 170% more productive than firms with turnover more than 20% (Jusko, Industry Week, 2000).

Stress diverts minds from the task at hand to obsess over perceived emergencies that our ancient brains misinterpret as threats to life and limb. As educated as we may be, the mind reverts to caveman/woman days whenever a threat overloads ability to cope with it. It’s like it’s 50,000 B.C. all over again, with the equivalent state of intelligence.

PERFORMANCE STRATEGY

The reality is that we have some bad brain architecture. Our gray matter wasn’t built for the social stressors of the modern world. Two hundred emails or a stack of to-do’s aren’t life-or-death, but brains not trained to recognize this automatically default to fight-or-flight mode and the fear that comes with it of not being able to cope. The stress response is activated, releasing a flood of chemicals, from adrenaline to cortisone, that cloud judgment, trigger rash decision-making, and unleash a tide of medical bills and absenteeism, since stress suppresses the immune system.

It’s a cycle that saps vitality, motivation, and commitment, and fuels fear and paranoia, yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, there’s always going to be pressure and demands, but with tools to manage stressful situations, we can keep the panic buttons and overwhelm at bay.

Stress management training delivers the knowledge we never got in all those years of schooling to manage the mind and prevent it from being hijacked by an ancient interloper. Development programs to manage stress are an extremely effective performance strategy, taking minds off threats and conflict and focusing them on the task at hand. Stress management programs should be a go-to option for any organization in these turbulent times—and would be more often if management knew how unmanaged stress and burnout shred productivity and talent.

Click: "The Case for Stress Management"

OUTWIT THE INNER HYSTERIC

The survival default of the stress response thrives on action before thought, on instant, emotional reaction, so one of the things that a training program has to do is counter the reflex autopilot that plays right into the hands of stress and burnout, which are a byproduct of reacting before we think.

Our stress management programs provide the missing tools to contest stress reactions and their apparent signs of imminent danger. Your team learns how to reframe stressful events and control their stories, instead of having the scripts driven by a panic-prone hysteric some 50 millennia behind the times. They learn how to dig out the false story, substitute the real one, and turn off the danger signal driving anxiety. When that happens, the stress response shuts down in four minutes.

Besides a grounding in how the brain works, and doesn’t sometimes, workshop participants also get training in a number of proven stress-reduction processes and techniques to break up the pattern of strain, anxious thinking, and awfulizing. There are a number of techniques, from progressive relaxation to the relaxation response, that have been shown to cut stress and untense the mind and body.

BUILD RESILIENCE

Changing how we do our jobs is another key component of reducing stress. The more control we have over how we do our work—managing email, interruptions, time, and other bottlenecks—the less stress. The more attention we have on the task we’re doing, the less stress. Building attention and self-regulation reduce stress by cutting the sense of overwhelm and increasing what’s known as latitude—demands are high, but there is also some control over the work environment. So increased attention and performance are key benefits that comes from stress management training.

The training helps participants build coping skills to turn down behaviors that cause pressure and conflict. Afterwards, people are less time urgent, rash, and cynical. They understand the important role optimism plays in resilience and effective performance.

Teams can bolster resilience with positive emotions, regular refueling, and mastery experiences—which buffer the setbacks and slings and arrows. As Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina has demonstrated, positive emotions broaden and build psychological resources, while negative emotions shrink them.

Teams that are more other-focused, more apt to frame things in a positive way, and ask more questions, have been shown to be more successful, have better rapport with coworkers, and sell more than their uptight counterparts.

If you would like to learn more about how a stress management training could help your team or organization with practical skills they can use every day, click the button below, and we’ll send you more details as well as a price quote for the program. There are proven tools to beat stress and work smarter. Let us show you how cost-effective they are.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Employee Training Drives Number One Motivator: Progress

 
By Joe Robinson

Employee training programs build morale

Raise your hand if you like feeling stuck. Let’s hear it for going nowhere! What, no takers? I thought so. Humans don’t particularly like suspended animation. Boredom isn’t high on the to-do list. Instead, our brain neurons crave movement, learning, and growth.

One multiyear study measuring employee motivation found that the number one factor in driving effort was progress, tangible movement on a project, a sense that you’re making headway, even if incrementally, on your work. Harvard Business School's Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer analyzed daily reports from hundreds of workers and discovered that forward motion, such as getting closer to completion on projects and removal of obstacles, was the top component in motivating performance. Small wins yield a big payoff in morale and satisfaction.

THE MOTIVATOR OF COMPETENCE

The need to see progress also extends to skill-sets. One of the consistent top levers of employee engagement, for instance, is employee development—right up there with managers who have an open door policy and communicate expectations, according to data from the Corporate Leadership Council.  

People want to improve their skills, learn new ones, and when they do through mentoring or training programs, it feeds a core psychological need: competence. The need to feel effective is essential to self-worth and to satisfy what brain neurons want more than anything else for long-term fulfillment: novelty and challenge.

We are programmed to search out and explore new horizons, so much so that just the anticipation of something new sets off a chemical reward in our brains in the form of the chemical dopamine. We feel good when we increase knowledge and capabilities, which make us want to acquire more information and new experiences—evolution’s built-in incentive to improve ourselves, and our odds of survival. 

TRAINING PROGRAMS INCREASE ENGAGEMENT

Employee training programs provide one of the most concentrated doses of learning in the workplace, and play a key role in boosting engagement levels. A Corporate Leadership Council survey found that general skills training programs can increase the discretionary effort of engagement by 17.5%, more than 7% to 10% higher than on-the-job learning opportunities. How much of a difference could an additional 17% of effort make for your team or organization? What could that mean for productivity and project completion speed, since engaged employees bring with them more attention, focus, and dedication?

The Corporate Leadership Council reports that employee training programs send “a message of credible commitment to employees.” Development programs back up organizational goals for engagement or work-life balance with action, with tools and strategies that employees can use to make their workday more effective, less stressful, more manageable, and more successful. Employees reciprocate with their own demonstration of commitment, going beyond the call of duty in the effort department.

Progress in the workplace is usually seen as a metric of job titles and positions. I spoke with the CEO of a large tech firm, who has to get very creative to keep coming up with job titles that indicate movement upward for his millennial staff, who expect advancement every few months. Everyone wants to move up, but there are a limited number of rungs at the top. 

POWER OF INTERNAL YARDSTICKS

The possibilities for advancing skills, though, are limitless. Employee training programs can have a bigger impact on competence and self-esteem than job titles, because they are internal metrics, which research shows is more powerful than the external yardsticks.  They gratify those brain neurons that want challenge and align with the intrinsic need to feel effective.

Employee training programs are a very cost-effective way to provide the tools that make staff feel competent, supported, and engaged. You make big gains in skills and enthusiasm very quickly.  When was the last time your team had a training session? What kind of training could your team benefit from right now? Time management? Interruption management? Stress management? Productivity training? Email and information management? Reining in crazy-busy time urgency?

Our training programs provide tools to handle all of the above, to help employees help themselves through better self-management, and in the process provide the spark of progress for individuals, the team, and the whole company.

Something happens when people stop growing. They stop caring. Training programs let employees and managers know that the organization cares, by providing skills to to ease burdens, simplify processes, self-manage any challenge. Learning is its own reward, one that promotes the best engagement resource: our own competence and need for mastery.

If you would like more information on our training programs, please click the button below for more details on programs ranging from productivity, to work-life balance, employee engagement, stress management, and email management.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

The Hidden Enemy of Employee Productivity: Impulse

 
By Joe Robinson

Harnessing the brain's impulsive nature

It’s called the law of least effort. Given a choice, the brain would rather exert less than more effort. Instead of sticking with a demanding task, we find it hard to resist the temptation of something easier, really hard when the attention span has been shrunk to that of a gnat’s.

That tends to be the case often these days, thanks to the barrage of distractions and devices. The more you check email, for instance, the more you have to check it. Interruptions erode impulse control. The ability to regulate impulsivity is compromised, and without it, the default is to more checking and attention that flits from one task to the next. It’s a pattern that kills concentration and, as a result, productivity. The condition thrives without interruption management policies and is aided and abetted by someone we wouldn’t suspect: us.

INTERRUPTING OURSELVES

Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine says that 44% of interruptions are self-inflicted. With friends like you around, who needs enemies? The more attention is compromised by interruptions or time urgency, the less ability you have to stay on task. When you divert yourself to check email or a grab a secondary task, say, one that shows up as a visual alert on your screen, it takes 25 minutes to get back to the primary task, says Mark. That drains productivity, slowing progress, trains of thought, and performance.

Technology and human nature are driving teams and the individuals in them to be their own worst enemies. Every time you stop to check email you self-interrupt, which leaves you further behind and rushing to catch up to where you think you should be. That causes time anxiety and a false urgency that makes it seem okay to interrupt anyone else at any time—because you’re behind.

Click for "The 5 Essential Productivity Strategies"

MULTITASKING: KING OF SELF-INFLICTION

One of the biggest cogs in the productive wheel is multitasking, which is 100% self-inflicted. Every time you multitask, you are self-interrupting and forcing your brain to do what it doesn’t want to: shift back and forth between tasks. This fractures working memory, as brain neurons strain to figure out what they need to do on a new task while trying to remember where they were on the old one.

That takes time, which is why multitasking can cut productivity 50% and more, according to multitasking expert David Meyer at the University of Michigan. This self-sabotage also kicks thinking downstairs to the rote floors of the brain, where we make mistakes triggered by a state of simultaneous inattention.

The constant barrage of distractions does something else particularly insidious. It makes you think the work is more difficult than it is, and that in turn ratchets up the stress, which goes off when something overloads perceived ability to cope with it. Interruptions increase annoyance 106%, say researchers Brian Bailey, Joseph Konstan, and John Curtis. That further diverts attention from the task at hand to a threat to coping resources.

RESTORING FULL PRODUCTIVE FACULTIES

While our attention spans have no doubt taken a hit from devices and distractions, we are not helpless bystanders. Proactive management strategies can cut down on the self-infliction that comes from multitasking, excess email checking, and other saboteurs. It’s not easy to do, since we have to find a way around default behaviors and the law of least effort.

In my Optimal Performance productivity trainings, we learn that the way to a more productive work style is a lot less use of the automatic mind that puts action before thought and more reliance on the effortful brain, which is needed to manage impulsivity, patience, and discipline. We are really of two minds, and one often gets in the way of our better judgment and productive efforts. The instinctive brain gets the upper hand in a time-sensitive world, because it’s much faster—and also more prone to mistakes, making snap assumptions that have not been vetted by the analytical brain.  

The idea is to manage impulse and reflex with a system that can catch the brain’s least-effort machinery in the act and prime it to defer to a higher authority, informed decision-making.  You can get more done faster and with a fraction of the aggravation when the productive brain is in charge, instead of the knee-jerk one.  

WHAT IS PRODUCTIVITY, ANYWAY?

The majority of people in every organization I visit are overwhelmed by distractions and devices. If you could control 44% of the avalanche, the self-inflicted portion, how much more productive could your organization be? 

Messaging is seductive, because it provides positive reinforcement. You send a message, you get one back. But, if we let the analytical brain think about it, that reinforcement isn’t all that positive after all. It reinforces a lot of bad habits that sabotage attention and productivity. Each email you send can result in 18 minutes down the electronic rabbit hole.

What is productivity, if not the ability to fully concentrate on the task at hand, so that we have more output per input? All we have to do is get out of our own way.

If you would like more information on our productivity seminars and managing crazy-busy work, click the button below for more details.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

The 3 Engines of Employee Engagement

 
By Joe Robinson

For most of the lifespan of the field of psychology, scientists focused on the dysfunctional, the haywire, and failings of the psyche, but a few decades ago some researchers said, Hey, enough already. What about the other side of the ledger? What makes things go right? If we know the answer to that question, there’s liable to be fewer of us on the fritz.

The positive psychology movement changed the one-track focus from doom and gloom and reactivity to the building blocks of well-being and effective functioning. A similar switching of lens happened in the work realm, as researchers began to investigate what led to flourishing employees, instead of burned-out ones.

Researchers Wilmar Schaufeli, Arnold Bakker, Marisa Salanova, and Vicente Gonzales-Roma set out to find a measurement for employee engagement by exploring the opposite characteristics of burnout. The key markers of burnout—exhaustion and cynicism—it turned out, are the antithesis of two of the three dimensions the scientists found that mark the state of engagement: vigor and dedication.

BURNOUT KILLERS

Flipping the emphasis relieves the rear-guard action of trying to prevent the negative (fatigue, pessimism). Instead, smart managers can go on the offensive by creating conditions that allow positive burnout killers to thrive. It’s the difference between waiting for the roof to fall in and making that roof invulnerable to sudden collapse.

Schaufeli and company defined engagement as a “positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” Absorption is the third element of engagement, which has a strong component of attention and focus. The resulting high morale isn’t a momentary affair that can fade in a blink. Engagement is a broad and persistent engine that has staying power even amid setbacks.

Free Report: "The Secret of Engagement"

Let’s take a look at the three main dimensions of engagement, how they operate as an antidote to burnout, and how they trigger the extra effort that can increase productivity by as much as 28%, according to Gallup.

1. VIGOR. It’s the veritable definition of an engaged and proactive person—someone who has not just the willingness, but the physical energy to go the extra mile, or, as it’s known in the trade, “discretionary effort.” The key element here is vitality, or energy available to the self, as the University of Rochester’s Richard Ryan has called it. When you have it, you have interest and aliveness, and are liable to feel the well-being that triggers positive affect, a magnetic force that can propel you and others beyond obstacles. You are willing to draw on that energy to go beyond the normal level of effort.

This is the polar opposite of the chief marker of burnout—exhaustion, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Someone with energy and vitality can’t be burned out because there are energetic resources to replace those that are used. Keeping the physical energy up, through strategies that help brains and bodies recharge on a regular basis, is an automatic hedge against fatigue and resource overload.

Getting regular exercise and enough sleep, 7 to 9 hours a night, is essential to refueling energy and, researchers are finding, cleaning out the toxic junk—beta-amyloids and tau—left over from the day’s mental workouts.

2. DEDICATION. This is the commitment piece of employee engagement. You want to do more because you are enthused about the organization, its mission, and your ability to make a contribution to the team and larger goal.

It’s the opposite of the cynicism that comes from burnout, which sees any self-initiative as futile and naïve. Burnout can’t coexist with the passion and loyalty of dedication.

The need to feel effective is critical to self-worth. Dedicated employees feel valued, because they have opportunities to contribute and make a difference. They feel a sense of significance, and as a result, derive meaning from what they do, and that intrinsic reward makes them want to do more.

Feeling effective counters another burnout characteristic, lack of efficacy. Employees who are committed to what they’re doing will keep at it, even if it’s challenging. They have internalized the importance of the product or service to the client or customers. As a result, they find satisfaction in handling difficult assignments.

3. ABSORPTION. When someone is engaged in their work, they are engrossed in it. Engagement brings another gear of concentration to the task, powered by intrinsic motivation, inherent interest in doing the task. The goal is not to get done with the work as soon as possible, but to do it in the best possible way.

Some researchers think that engagement is more about proactive attention than anything else. It’s a decision to immerse yourself in the task for its own sake, not for any external reward. The more attention you have on what you’re doing, the more you like it, remember it, and derive intrinsic pleasure from it, say researchers. 

Absorption is the definition of optimal experience, also known as flow. When your skills meet a challenge in the moment, there’s a sense of mastery, a loss of self-consciousness, and a clear focus, not to mention a sense of competence and autonomy, and that satisfies two core psychological needs.  

Detachment and withdrawal are hallmarks of burnout. There’s no detachment when you have full absorption in the task at hand, making it a bulwark against burnout behavior.

Burnout is extremely costly to organizations, from lost productivity, to absenteeism and medical bills. And it leaves nearly a third more performance on the table. Managers can inoculate themselves and their organizations against the downward spiral of chronic stress and burnout with the antidote of engagement, the vaccine of effort.

Our employee engagement programs can help you unleash the three engines of effort. If you would like information on our programs, click the button below for more details and rates.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Task Tweaks That Fuel Work-Life Balance

 
By Joe Robinson

Work-life balanced

It’s repeated so often it’s practically a cliché: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It’s a popular expression, because it captures a distinctly human talent for knowing something is absurd while continuing to partake in it.

By this definition, there are certainly plenty of certifiable behaviors at the office these days, particularly when it comes to doing things that don’t make productive sense, such as not managing email or conflicting deadlines. The more we are on autopilot, the more we are doomed to repeat the bad habits.

Every team in every company has a habitual practice that makes the work take longer, fray nerves, and drain performance. We know the bottlenecks that make work and life more difficult, but seldom do things change, because it’s believed that it’s just the way it is.

BEATING BOTTLENECKS

The reality is, though, that change is possible, and when the suggestions come in from everyone on the frontlines, not only does work get more effective, it becomes much more economical. Accounting giant Ernst and Young had a retention problem a few years back that had set off alarm bells. A growing number of women at the company were leaving because long hours were incompatible with family and work-life balance.

The company launched an initiative to address the issue. They identified practices that weren’t working and driving people away. The suggestions on how to fix bottlenecks came from all stratas of the company, including those at the bottom of the totem pole best equipped to know what didn’t make sense. From this process Ernst & Young wound up creating a much more family-friendly organization. They also saved $15 million by making tasks more effective and policies more flexible.

The step that’s usually missed on the road to work-life balance starts with the actual nature of the work itself, with practices that take longer, disrupt productivity, spread false urgency, and bleed into the home arena minus boundaries and time management. Identifying and fixing those issues within each team and organization can play a major role in reducing exhaustion and overwhelm and organizing a clearer path to responsibilities on both sides of the work-life divide.

QUIET TIME

Researchers have been doing their best to point the way to a more productive path that also produces more time for family and life. One of the leading academics in this arena is Harvard researcher Leslie Perlow, whose work with companies drowning in interruptions and always-on workweeks has shown that we don’t have to keep self-inflicting habits that make work more frenzied and unsustainable. The key is having the ability to self-examine, look the counterproductive faults in the eye, and then fix them.

Perlow worked a while in management consulting before going back to grad school dedicated to finding a better way to work than the burnout model. At a tech firm having trouble getting new product to market without its engineers working nights and weekends for months on end, she uncovered one of the major drivers of excess hours and unbalanced schedules—interruptions. The engineers were being interrupted so often, they could only get work done at night and on the weekend.

She devised a solution called Quiet Time, in which the engineers would have two periods during the day with no interruptions—8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The rest of the day the interruptions could continue as normal. Productivity increased 59% in the morning interruption-free zone and 65% from 3 to 5 p.m. With minds unbesieged, productivity even went up in the period with normal interruptions. The team got a new product designed in record time without the all-nighters.

That simple adjustment to a work behavior made a big difference in work-life balance for the employees of that firm. Perlow took on an even tougher assignment with the Boston Consulting Group. Consultants are among the highest-hours workers on the planet, typically working 60+ hour weeks, weekday nights, and usually decamped in other cities on projects for clients that can take multiple weeks.

Her field research this time uncovered the biggest work-life problem straining retention at Boston Consulting: no predictable time off. When you’re always on, it’s hard to plan off time, which makes it very difficult on families, health, and living.

MORE WITH LESS

Her adjustment was a system that allowed each team member to take one night off per week. It took her several months to persuade a team leader to let her try out the plan. Most thought it was a ticket to disaster and that clients would go ballistic if not every team member was available after hours. The experience proved the doubters wrong.

It turned out the team was able to do its consulting work with each member taking a night off per week. What’s more remarkable, she was able to repeat the experiment with consultants taking a full day off in the middle of the week. Productivity didn’t dive, it increased. The secret was that, with fewer hands to go around, the team had to communicate much more closely and as a result found ways to coordinate better. Boston Consulting was so happy with the program that “predictable time off,” as she called it, is a company-wide program, operating in 32 offices in 14 countries.

Again, because of a sensible adjustment to how people worked, people were able to find a more sustainable way to work and open up a much better work-life balance. Out of that experience Perlow developed a model that any team can use to rewrite the script that drives the burnout track. The formula is Collective Goals + Structured Dialogue, a strategy that zeroes in on a universal problem that’s making life difficult, creates a solution, and through weekly conversation overcomes backsliding and keeps everyone on track with the new behaviors.

The results of Perlow’s research and others who have helped organizations overcome the inertia of bad work habits show that behaviors that promote work-life balance and more energized brains increase effectiveness, cut costs (from stress, longer task practices, redo’s), and dramatically increase collaboration—all of which have a positive impact on the bottom line. Ask Boston Consulting, who have the program operating around the world and a couple dozen people working on nothing but the predictable time off process.

If you would like to make adjustments to the work on your team or in your company that would boost effectiveness and work-life balance as the examples in this story, click the button below for details on our work-life balance and productivity programs. There is a better way.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

The Thought Break: 8 Ways to Beat Device Reflex and Build Work-Life Balance

 
By Joe Robinson

Task overload keeps out work-life balance

With all the time people spend looking down at their phones, future generations may be endowed with additional neck muscles to manage the posture. We don’t have to wait for one of the side effects of too much time in screen mode. Researchers have found that when the default in every spare second is to automatically check a digital devicd, you are doing serious damage to memory and learning.

The impulse to fill spare moments with a check of electronic devices robs brain neurons of the downtime they need to process and remember thoughts. Ideas, problems, dilemmas, musings, and experiences don’t have the space to be weighed, so we have a hard time remembering them, research at the University of San Francisco suggests.

In experiments with rats, they discovered that only when the animals took a break from activity were they able to process the patterns of a new experience. They suspect humans operate the same way. In fact, a very novel study from the University of Michigan, which examined how humans (monitored by portable brain sensors) reacted to natural surroundings, found the same dynamic. Walking in a park or in a natural setting created a meditative state in the brain ideal for reflection and processing.

NO TIME TO THINK

The research is providing a very good picture of why so many feel so overwhelmed these days in the always-on world. There’s no time to think. We can’t prioritize, solve problems, or take the time needed to plan an organized workday or time off the clock to refuel the batteries. Instead, there is constant commotion and busyness, which masquerades as productive behavior, but is actually very different from forward progress. Commotion isn’t motion. It’s a mechanical momentum without intentionality or mobility.

Nonstop busyness has become the real business today. Many of us live to be occupied, while being unconscious to what it is that we’re actually doing, since there’s no time for thinking. For busyness to work, it has to be connected with thought and prioritization. Otherwise, everything that comes through the unfiltered digital pipeline is urgent.

When there’s no allowance for critical thought, there’s frenzy and frazzle. Thinking is how we tamp down the load, decipher paths forward, delegate, and make adjustments to how we do our tasks that help us work smarter. It’s how we process the experiences and notions that plant the seeds that lead to discoveries and solutions.

SQUEEZING OUT MEMORIES

When we sleep, our brains process the events of the day, look for patterns, and file the data in our memories. Filling up every minute with reflex digital checking or busyness deprives brain neurons of the thoughts needed for processing during shuteye. That can affect memory, since the information is being squeezed out by preoccupation from entering the incubation process. Besides making our lives a lot easier, memories play an important role in mood state. Our memories are a kind of ongoing status report as to whether we like our lives or not. Researchers say we’re as happy as the most recent positive and novel experience we can remember.

On the front end of the day’s events, reverting to the digital default can affect working memory, since the self-interruptions play havoc with our ability to retain short-term information.

The habit of busyness can become self-defining to the point that if we are not in hyperventilation mode on a task every moment, there is guilt—even at home. Yet productivity is something that depends on informed performance, thought before action. Without thought, we can wind up doing more than we can do well and at times doing tasks we shouldn’t be doing, when others are more urgent.

THINK WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Without thought, there is no work-life balance. That is not the default position. In fact, it’s the opposite. A semblance of work-life fit requires proactive planning and regular check-ins to see how we are doing. Keeping work-life balance in mind can serve as a conscious check on the autopilot that drives frenzy and overwhelm. Having a work-life goal of low-stress, effective work practices, and time for family and friends outside the job insures time to plan and reflect.

A state of busyness can make it seem that you don’t have a moment for reflection, but that is a mirage from stress-addled thoughts that make you feel every minute is an emergency. The I’m-Too-Busy mental block is very effective at screening out the things we need to work more effectively or squash any notion of time off-the-clock for recharging. As the old saying goes, you have to take time to make time, so let’s look at times when you could do that and schedule something new and very exciting into your day: thought breaks.

1. The first ten minutes of your day. When you get into the office, before you check email, write down your top three priorities for the day.

2. Use the transition points between tasks or work spheres, when you have finished one and are moving into another, to take a moment to celebrate the finish of one task and think about what you want to accomplish with the next item.

3. Use coffee or water cooler breaks to take a deep breath, think about what you’re doing next, or muse on something unrelated to help rebooting.

4. Take a five-minute walk three or four times a day to let your mind reflect and wonder.

5. Shut off all devices at lunch and have uninterrupted time to space, observe, muse, or plan a weekend activity.

6. The first 30 minutes when you get home from work. If you’re doing exercise, do it without digital screens in front of you. But music is good for letting your mind drift to thoughts and associations that may connect some dots.

7. Anytime your brain is fried, and you are going in circles mentally, get up, take a walk, do some stretching, and let your mind reset. Even five minutes is helpful.

8. Do a work-life balance check once a week to see how you are doing. What are the challenges? What’s going well?

If you would like more information on how to build more attention and effective work practices, click the button below for pricing and details on one of our work-life balance or productivity programs.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Stress Management: How to Switch Off Job Stress at Home

 
By Joe Robinson

Dancing builds great work-life balance

One of the things my coaching clients tell me over and over again is that they can’t switch off from work at the end of the workday. It’s not just the electronic pipeline that keeps the tension going, it’s the work mind that just won’t punch out after-hours. There’s the constant replay of events that didn’t go according to plan, the worries about what’s coming up tomorrow, the rehash of issues with colleagues.  

How do you turn it off? The replay loop is a side effect of stress. The stress response is triggered when a part of your ancient brain believes there is a threat to your life and limb. Since it thinks you’re going to die, from 200 emails or a deadline or some other pressure that appears to overwhelm your ability to cope, it keeps harping away with its false alarm. That makes it hard to let it go and keeps work-life balance a pipedream.

DAILY DETACHMENT

The key to relaxing evenings, less stress, and better focus and mood when you go back to work the next day, say researchers, is psychological detachment from the pressures of the day. While we’re all pretty good at planning our careers, when it comes to our free time, we don't pay much attention to that. Yet it’s in the self-determined realm of free time where you have the best chance of keeping stress at bay, recovering burned-up mental and emotional resources, and putting a quality life on the calendar. 

It turns out that what we do away from work is critical for well-being, health and even what we do at work. Researchers at the University of Konstanz and Bowling Green University found that work-related thoughts combined with a lack of recovery strategies after work aggravate emotional exhaustion and prevents the resupply of energetic resources. As they put it, “High workload, emotional dissonance, and low spatial work-home boundaries are related to poor psychological detachment from work during non-work time.”

Studies show that leisure experiences off the job play a major role in buffering stressors and creating a positive mood state—active and strong— that allows for recovery and keeping negative mood at bay. Research by Williams and Alliger found that mood state, called affect, at home was related to affect state at work.  

RECOUPING RESOURCES

Job stressors drive psychological attachment to the events of the day that make it harder for our brains and bodies to let go and recover the resources they expended. This sets up a pattern of cumulative fatigue, in which we don’t recoup our resources at night and return to work the next day already behind the energy 8-ball.  The more fatigued we get, the more recovery we need.

Just as we need sleep to function the next day, we also need strategies to replace the mental and emotional resources burned up at the office. If they’re not replenished, we go down the track to chronic stress and exhaustion. The key tools to resupply lost resources are relaxation techniques, active leisure experiences that promote mastery, and sleep.

One of the things that makes it hard to unwind from the pressures of the day is that the stress response suppresses the play equipment in our brains. How can you think about having fun when your life is on the line? When demands are at their highest and you need relaxation the most, your ancient defense mechanism is working against you. You’re not in the mood to do anything non-serious. The way out of the loop is blocked by what’s known as negative affect. Gloom, anger, and pessimism restrict options to stewing and rumination.

Rumination is one of the leading drivers of stress, pessimism, and depression. It’s the constant replay of a stressful event, or rather the story we tell ourselves about that event, that entrenches a false belief and makes us think the danger is real. Rumination thrives on the nonsense coming from self-talk inside our head, so the counter to that is physical action and relaxation experiences that shut off the broken record and the demands of the workday. 

MOOD-SHIFTING

A wide variety of relaxation techniques can take thoughts off the stressful events of the day. Researchers have found that techniques from progressive relaxation, to experiences in nature, to aerobic exercise, yoga, meditation, and listening to music can shift the focus of attention. The evocative power of music is particularly effective in changing the emotional dynamic. The negative mood that locks us in our bunkers is ephemeral. Subject it to some empowering or beautiful music, and you change the emotional temperature.

One of the most effective ways to squelch self-talk and make the break from the workday is through active leisure experiences, the fun track to work-life balance. As a study led by Princeton’s Alan Krueger found, we are at our happiest when we are involved in engaging leisure experiences. This is not something that gets a lot of press, but it should. When we participate in recreational activities, from dancing to rowing, that allow us to build skills and meet a challenge, we satisfy core self-determination needs, such as autonomy and competence.

The two key elements for long-term fulfillment are novelty and challenge, brain scientist Gregory Berns has argued. Jumping in to pursuits that allow you to gratify those needs and feel mastery is a powerful way to shift out of brainlock and leave the work at work. Absorbing experiences off the career track allow you to demonstrate competence in a world of your own making, no matter what happens at the office. Everything isn’t riding on every approval and perfect outcome in the workday.

MASTERY EXPERIENCES

Research by Sonnentag and Ernst shows that “people who experience mastery in their off-job time generally report better well-being and life satisfaction.” Sports and hobbies are the places to look for mastery experiences. What have you always wanted to try your hand at? What are your affinities? What did you used to do for fun that you dropped and could take up again? Give it a try, and you will discover one of the best antidotes to one-tracked work minds.

Experiences make us happier than material things, and they usually connect us with others, which satisfies another core psychological need, connection with others. One of the great things about taking up a hobby or sport is that it is self-propelling. As we get better at it, the competence growth motivates you to learn more. If you get home from work, and you're not in the mood (or so your ancient brain makes you think), having a scheduled activity to go to forces you to get out and participate. Within five minutes of doing a dance lesson or volleyball, you've forgotten you weren't in the mood.

Having a fun activity to do every week or a couple of times a week is a powerful counter to negative affect and a provider of something that may be the best tonic of all, joy. Having a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week, say researchers.

So when you get home from work, do something different. Don’t fall for the usual mood. Too exhausted, too upset, etc. Rally and jump in to a new leisure activity or relaxation process. It puts you in charge of your mood, not the workday—and doing the living you’re making for yourself.

If you would like to get tools to turn off the work mind, reduce stress, and open up your life, click on the button below and learn how my one-on-one coaching program can get you where you want to go.

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Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Attention and Employee Engagement

 
By Joe Robinson

Focused team demonstrates employee engagement

With the growing advances in brain research, we’re getting a much better picture, literally, of when our command center works and when it doesn’t. Researchers say MRI scans of fatigued brains show so little activity, they look like they are sound asleep.

I’m sure you know that feeling around 4 p.m., when it seems like you’re swimming in molasses, and you have to expend twice the effort to get something accomplished that you need when you are fresh. The reality is that there is a limited period that the brain can stay focused without wandering or going into brownout mode. Researchers say 90-minutes to three hours of time and task, and the brain has to step back from task to reset.

The instinct to never pause and go to the mental wall may be admirable, but it’s not productive—and it’s one of the best ways to kill employee engagement. Studies show that engagement is not so much an attitude as a state of motivated attentiveness.

FULL ABSORPTION

One of the key hallmarks of engagement is absorption, full concentration in the moment. Pushing gray matter to the edge insures there won’t be much of that. Fried, overloaded brains are characterized by tension, inability to focus, slower processing, and an inability to handle complex tasks.

Even if dedication and commitment are there, engaged employees can’t deliver extra effort when mental resources are spent. Fatigue and exhaustion also undercut another key metric of engagement, the physical, energetic resources of vigor.

There is a fallacy in the knowledge economy that, because we are just sitting on our behinds, that the brain is a kind of unlimited well. We’re not being physically taxed, so the mind can just keep going. Brain scientists I’ve spoken with have told me that the brain goes down well before the body. That means, so does the chief productivity tool, attention, and the prospects for engagement.

FRACTURING FOCUS

Any organization that wants engaged employees has to have attentive employees, yet everything about the nature of work today undermines that—unbounded interruptions, information overload, social media intrusions. It’s not how much volume we can cram into our heads, but how we manage demands that leads to the focus necessary for engaged performance. Yet few organizations have tied shrinking attention to engagementm si more and more intrusions pour in.

It’s often thought that engagement can be measured by the amount of commitment to the organization, but that’s not enough to drive engagement, which is a function of the specific effort an employee brings to the task. As Alan Saks at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto put it in one study, “Engagement has to do with how individuals employ themselves in the performance of their job,” not attachment to the organization.

It’s great when people are dedicated to the cause, but, if they have the attention span of a gnat, there won’t be much in the way of engagement. Disengagement is more like it, and, in fact, that is the trend these days as attention spans shrink, thanks to nonstop interruptions and information overload.

Leaders need to be alert for the signs of disengagement—withdrawal, absenteeism, personal conflicts, falling behind schedule, burnout—when attention vanishes in the face of excessive demands without compensating latitude or choice. Researchers say that burnout is a marker for the opposite of engagement’s dedication, absorption and vigor. Instead, there is estrangement from the goals of the organization and a downward spiral of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and futility.

THE OPPOSITE OF BURNOUT: ENGAGEMENT

That leads to the logic that less burnout can promote more attentive employees who have the potential to be engaged. What areas do organizations have to adjust to reduce the burnout track and promote more focus? Saks points to research from burnout scholar Christina Maslach and associates. “Job engagement is associated with a sustainable workload, feelings of choice and control, appropriate recognition and reward, a supportive work community, fairness and justice, and meaningful and valued work.”

People who have a sustainable workload are naturally going to be able to bring more focus to the task than if they have depleted their coping resources. Choice and control keep stress away, which prevents the brain from having focus constricted to the narrow fixation of a perceived false crisis. Recognition and supportive work means that attention is appreciated and nurtured, while fairness and meaningful work internalize the importance of doing quality, attentive work.

So much of the way we work today is simply autopilot, reflexively responding to the demands without managing them. The research shows that engagement, and productivity, are not the result of brain drain, of cognitive feats of endurance, but the opposite, promoting behaviors and policies that allow minds to find the space to focus.

That’s hard to engineer when most people are in a state of triage all day. Yet there are other choices than triage, other approaches to the way we do our work that are actually based on the evidence of what has been proven to be productive. From no-interruption zones to email management to the power of full-absorption goals, there are a wealth of tools that can bring about the gains in commitment, attention, and motivation that prime the pump for engagement.

This is where development programs can make a big difference, providing a path out of reflex mode to practices that are the most engaging and productive. If you are interested in increasing the attention, engagement, and productivity of your employees, click on the button below for more details.

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Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Employee Engagement: The Secret of Involvement

 
By Joe Robinson

Employee engagement delivers attentive troops

 

IF THERE'S A SECRET to the universe that's not generally known, it's that the magic in work and life comes, not from being a spectator, but from being a participant. You'd never know it, of course, given how much time we spend staring at digital screens.

The consensus of behavioral scientists is that humans are designed for action. The two key elements for long-term fulfillment are novelty and challenge. No wonder, the average state of someone watching TV is a mild depression, as research from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found—especially given what’s on TV, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Worst Tattoos. Depression is more than a natural reaction to superb fare like this.

Nobody wants to sit at the office and watch others participate or be a cog in a wheel. Everyone wants to feel like they can use their talents to achieve results, be effective, and have a sense of contribution. We were not born to sit on the bench. Our brain neurons are designed for us to be in the game and contributing. When we participate, we satisfy core psychological needs crucial for gratification. Lack of involvement fuels boredom, cynicism, and learned helplessness. 

INVOLVEMENT INCREASES PROFITS

Management studies testify to the importance of employee involvement. USC’s Edward Lawler studied the performance of a number of large firms and measured them on various financial indicators—from sales and equity to assets and stockholder investment. He found that companies that invested in employee involvement had a return on investment of 19.1%, higher than any other metric. Greater employee involvement also increased job satisfaction and work-life effectiveness.

Lawler wrote that, “Employee Involvement, if well implemented, changes the fundamental relationship between individuals and the organization they work for. It really builds [employees] in as a business partner, so they know more and they do more to make the organization successful, particularly in industries where the human component is important—most knowledge work, high-tech, and many kinds of service industries."

When people participate, they feel a part of the process and team. They feel trusted and valued, which are key to employee engagement, which is another way of saying employee involvement. With a vested interest and more self-initiative, the effort level increases and along with it performance. Data from Gallup, which has been tracking engagement metrics meticulously for a number of years, shows that engagement can result in employees being  28% more productive. 

LEAVING MONEY ON THE TABLE

Yet few organizations encourage employee involvement or engagement. Lawler estimates that only 12% of employees are highly involved in their work. The command-and-control style of management still predominates when the research shows the opposite, that collaboration, self-responsibility, and self-initiative are much more effective at generating employee engagement.

Over the last two decades scientists have discovered that the most potent motivation is not fear, external payoff, or even bonuses, but something completely different, intrinsic motivation. That comes from within, as does the discretionary effort of engagement. Intrinsic motivation can’t be commanded; it can only be enabled and encouraged through involvement and internal goals such as excellence, service, challenge, learning, or inherent interest.

EFFORT DRIVES SATISFACTION 

Researchers Judith Harackiewicz and Andrew Elliot found that intrinsically motivated employees are continuously interested in the work that they’re doing. When employees feel they have a stake in the process and can make contributions, they are self-motivated, self-managed, self-propelled. That satisfies core needs such as autonomy, feeling that you are not being forced and controlled, and competence, a sense that you can be effective. Satisfaction is not something that comes from doing something easy. It’s the result of effort. Participation sets up a cycle of effort followed by the internal payoff of satisfaction.

How can managers unlock the power of intrinsic motivation and create more employee involvement and engagement? The answer lies in promoting more self-responsibility and self-assessment, including employees in on decisions, and providing feedback that satisfies the competence need. It’s not “great job,” but “I love how you did that project,” which plays to their effectiveness.

Allowing for more choice in how people do their work invites more involvement. We all have a job we have to do, but how we do it can tap the autonomy need as it creates a feeling of competence for doing tasks or projects in a smarter way.

MULTIPLY PROBLEM-SOLVERS

Managers don’t give up final decision-making power. They simply spread the wealth around to bring in contributions across the company that can help create better outcomes. How much better off, nimbler, and quicker, is a company with a highly skilled roster of people at all positions capable of making decisions, instead of having everything left to a handful of overstretched executives?

Every company’s main resource is its people. Unleashing them to participate to the fullest degree is the best long-term strategy for increasing productivity, sales, innovation, and retention. Otherwise, there’s a lot of money and effort left on the table. Gallup estimates American businesses drop $300 billion a year in lost productivity due to unengaged personnel.

If you would like to activate the untapped power of an engaged staff, click the button below for rates and details on our engagement programs. 

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Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

The 6 Skills You Can't Live Without

 
By Joe Robinson

A work life balance skills that activates life to the fullest

Despite all the classes we take, degrees we get, documentaries we watch, many of us never get the word about a remedy as key to health and happiness as watching cholesterol or eating the right food. It's the invisible cure for a host of our problems, from stress to obesity to loneliness: leisure skills.

What's that? Microwave popcorn popping? Isometric finger exercises for the remote? Actually, what we do with our time off-the-clock has a lot to do with our satisfaction with life and work, too, since life is the engine of our energy, creativity, and productivity. Knowing how to participate in engaged recreational activities is also one of the best stress management tools and guarantees we have work-life balance in our lives.

When we don't have leisure skills, what do we do? Flip on the TV. The average state of someone watching TV, though, is a mild depression, reports Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, author of "Finding Flow" and the pioneering authority on optimal experience. Considering what's on the tube -- Dog the Bounty Hunter, Worst Tattoos -- that's no bulletin.

GET ON UP

A sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for heart disease and other serious health problems. A recent study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reported that men who spend 23 or more hours a week sitting, watching TV or glued to car seats, had a 64% greater chance of fatal heart disease than those who only logged 11 hours or less per week in seated mode.

That could well be a bigger problem, since some 78 percent of Americans over age 30 don't get any exercise, according to Census Bureau statistics and Seppo Iso-Ahola of the University of Maryland.

The root of the problem? Missing leisure skills, something we don't know we need. The assumption is that leisure is a vegetative condition, and therefore there are no requirements aside from batteries for the remote. But it's actually the exact opposite. As Aristotle saw it, the non-work arena is a realm of engagement, of self-fulfillment and learning. 

In one of the not-so-great ironies of the modern world, we are trained to make a living, but not how to do the living we're making. That's left to others -- the stars with the production values, the tabloid train-wreck of the moment. We wind up without the skills to do what is essential for physical and mental health -- participate in our lives through engaged experiences.

WORLD'S HAPPIEST PLACE

The link between active leisure and health is plenty clear to researchers. Of all the things on the planet, humans are at their happiest when they're involved in engaging leisure experiences, a study led by Princeton's Alan Krueger found. Leisure experiences have been found to reduce stress by buffering setbacks and building coping mechanisms. They also build self-esteem and confidence and improve mood through increased self-control and social support.

Aerobic exercise and vacations have both been shown to reduce depression. The more active leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction, says Iso Ahola.

Passions and the active leisure skills that create them work wonders for your health and outlook because they satisfy core psychological needs for autonomy, competence and connection with others. Yet this power of this health resource doesn't filter down to us because we are using the wrong skill-set to access it.

THE LIFE SKILL-SET

You can’t play hopscotch with a flowchart. The work skill-set is the opposite of what’s needed to activate your life. On the work side, the objective is results, output. On the life side, it’s about the experience itself, not where it’s going. On the work side, it’s about control and micromanaging; on the life side, risk-taking. On the work side, it’s about the familiar; on the life side novelty and challenge.

It takes another skill-set to create a fulfilling life outside the professional world. Here are some of the key leisure skills that get your life going:

1. Intrinsic motivation. Pursuing and enjoying experiences off the clock takes a different motivation: intrinsic motivation. You do it for the inherent interest, fun, learning or challenge. Research shows we enjoy what we're doing more when the goal is intrinsic. Expect no payoff, and you get a big one, internal gratification.

    2. Initiating. We have to break out of spectator mode and self-determine our lives to feel gratified. We need to research and plan activities and vacations, seek out and try new things, invite others to get out and participate -- and if they don't reciprocate, go alone.

      3. Risk-taking. The real risk is not risking. Security is a red flag for the brain, which is built to seek out novelty and challenge. Make the risk intrinsic (the result doesn't matter), and you're able to venture much more because, instead of having anything on the line, you're just exploring.

        4. Pursuit of competence. Since competence is one of your core needs, it's a handy thing to build and sublime to feel. The idea here is that you want to get better at something -- not to show off, not for anyone else but for your own gratification. Pursuing competence leads you to build your skills at an activity to the point where it can become a passion. It's a fabulous life-sustaining skill.

          5. Attention-directing and absorption. The key to optimal experiences is being 100 percent engaged in what you're doing now. That means losing the electronic devices and distractions and putting all your concentration on the activity at hand. The more absorbed you are, the more your thoughts and deeds are the same, and the happier you are.

            6. Going for the experience. Observation and hanging back don't satisfy the engagement mandate of your brain neurons. To activate a fulfilling life, we have to participate in the 40 percent of our potential happiness  we can actually do something about -- intentional activities. That's the realm of experience. Experiences make us happier than material things because they can't be compared with anyone else's experience. They don't lose value through social comparison. They are personal events that engage our self-determination needs.

            These skills take us inside the participant dynamic essential to a healthy and extraordinary life. They show us that the good life comes from a place quite a bit different than we thought, and only we can make it happen, nobody else.

            If you'd like to bring a better work-life balance to your life, click on the button below for a free consultation. Life's out there, if you are.

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