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John Lennon's Path to Stress Management: Reach Out

 
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.

If you would like to explore individual coaching or a training program for your team, click on the button below and turn challenges into strengths.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

7 Ways to Avoid Overwhelm

 
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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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Passions Power Work-Life Balance

 
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.

 

Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

Information Overload: The Art of Interruption Management

 
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.

If you would like to learn how to implement these and many other tools to create a more productive office click on the button below for more information.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

The 7 Signs of Burnout

 
By Joe Robinson

Burnout is a medical condition

I’m a longtime fan of the old  “Candid Camera” show. People being themselves can be funnier than the most brilliant comedian. I recently stumbled upon a new incarnation of the show, which featured a woman driving a car minus an engine. She pulls in to a gas station by coasting down an adjacent road. When the dead vehicle comes to a halt at the station, the woman complains that it won’t start.

The mechanic looks under the hood, and to his surprise, finds a gaping void. “The reason the car won’t go is you ain’t got no engine,” he says. Another mechanic peers in to the vacant space where the engine should be, scratching his head. The driver tells them the car has been working fine.

NO GET-UP-AND-GO

It reminds me of what happens to people whose engines have vanished, their get-up-and-go extinguished by burnout. Burnout doesn’t just kill physical vitality and motivation, it also guts the entire internal combustion machinery. You can’t get the ignition to turn over, because there’s nothing to turn over.

Unlike with the gag car, we can’t look under the skin and spot the problem. But the void is as real as inside that vehicle, and we have to recognize it and resolve it or pay with serious consequences for work, health, family, and life. 

In the always-on, lean-staffed world, burnout is the sign of our overworked times. Many will face it at least once in their careers, and once they do and recover from it, they will never go down that road again, because of the misery it inflicts on every part of your work and life.

Burnout isn’t just being very tired, which it is (the main dimension is exhaustion). It’s a serious medical condition that can set off other problems—depression, stroke, suicidal thoughts, breakdown. The last stage of chronic stress, burnout occurs when all your energetic resources—emotional, physical, and mental—have been used up.

With no resources left to counter the catastrophic thoughts of stress, it’s hard to contest false beliefs triggered by an ancient part of your brain that thinks you are about to die. Instead of being able to marshal analytical thought or physical will power to fight back, there’s nothing, a void where the engine used to be. That feels very odd and fragile to people who have always had the ability to bounce back.

DIRE THOUGHTS

Burnout is a cumulative process, in which the alarm signal of stress goes off day in and day out for a long period of time. The stress response is only supposed to go off for a brief time until you can fight or run from danger, because the process it sets off is extremely harmful in large doses. The stress response suppresses the immune system, tissue repair, and digestion processes to drive blood to the arms and legs to fight or run from danger, so the longer chronic stress lasts, the more damage it does to your body and the more resources it depletes.

The usual response is to soldier on, but that doesn’t work with burnout, since there are no coping resources left. Unchallenged thoughts of doom and darkness turn to fear, cynicism, and futility.  

The way out of burnout is to reach out. Studies show that one of the most effective ways to overcome burnout is through stress management counseling and coaching. It’s very difficult to shake burnout on your own, especially in its most severe stages. Burnout is a multifaceted issue, with individual and organizational causes and solutions. Navigating it all, and rebuilding crashed resources, such as will power, motivation, and resilience from zero takes a team effort.

I’ve noticed in my coaching work that people usually wait until they are in very advanced stages of burnout before they ask for help. The culture doesn’t make it easy to reach out. Burnout happens to the hardest workers. All of a sudden they find themselves in the ultimate bind. They can’t even bear the thought of working. For people who have defined themselves by performance, it feels shameful. But it’s not. It’s a physical condition that has to be dealt with in the same way as other serious illnesses, by rooting out the cause and rebuilding the body and mind.

Persistence is a great trait, but not at the expense of your immune system and desire for life.  Let’s take a look at seven key signs of burnout that need to be recognized and acted upon to prevent a cascade of physical and psychological issues and bring back the joy of living.

 7 MAJOR SIGNS OF BURNOUT

 1. Severe exhaustion. You can barely get up in the morning. There’s no desire to do anything that involves effort. Just the thought of work, of doing what you do well but have overdone, can make you physically sick.

2. Excessive workload. Excessive workload drives stress and prevents the body from physical recovery and the mind from replenishing mental resources. It leads to little sleep, bad diet, no exercise, and unrelieved stress, and eats away at the immune system. Physical exhaustion leads to mental and emotional exhaustion.

3. Cynicism. There seems to be no point to anything, no sense of accomplishment anymore. What used to fuel—pride, service, ambition, challenge, even money—seems meaningless. Belief, in the company, profession, achievement, anyone else, it's naive and pointless.

4. Emotionally draining work. Burnout was first identified in social workers whose clients and large case loads burned up excess emotional resources. If your work involves intense emotional demands, and there’s nothing to replace those resources or help with them, such as a lack of support, the constant stress can dry up adrenal glands, causing severe physical fatigue and a lack of defense chemicals to manage stressors.

5. Absence of positive emotions. This is one of the hallmarks of burnout. A brain on chronic life-or-death watch from chronic stress fixates on the perceived emergency, on threats, resentments, problems. Even what you used to enjoy outside work feels pointless. 

6. Catastrophic thoughts. Burnout leads to dire thinking. It colors everything dark and strips away the will and effort to change the situation. It sets off awfulizing and worst-case scenarios on a grand scale. “I can’t do this job anymore. I won’t be able to take it. It might be better to be dead. Nobody cares. I’m a loser forever.” It’s all coming from an ancient part of your brain that doesn’t know how to interpret the social stressors of the modern world. It feeds you false beliefs, and there are no coping resources left to fight them.

7. Lack of support or rewards. When you are expected to go beyond the call of duty over and over and your efforts aren’t supported or valued, it can lead to a loss of emotional and physical resources. You may be able to work long hours for a while, or for rewards that make you feel the work and you are worthwhile, but when there’s no payoff for going the extra mile, all that’s left is exhaustion and resentment. You wind up detaching yourself from everyone and everything, lose social support, a key resource, and have no opportunity to feel effective, a core need.

Burnout can happen in any industry, from engineering, to nursing, to administrative assistants who work for nonprofits or churches (expected to work till they drop because of a higher cause). Don’t let burnout rob you of your health and happiness. Take proactive steps to reach out. Burnout can seem like the end, but it’s not. With changes to how you work, think, and take care of yourself, you can make a complete recovery and put the engine back under your hood.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

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.

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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.

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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.

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Tips and Tools to Make Work Work

Copyright © 2012, Joe Robinson

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