Working Smarter

The Science of Variety: Why It Can Make You Happier in 2020

Posted by Joe Robinson

Jumping for joy copy

It’s hard to be happy when you’re designed to be jaded. That, unfortunately, is our lot, thanks to finicky brain neurons that get bored easily. We are wired to rain on our own parades, on even things we love to do if we rerun the script too much.

It’s called adaptation. We get tired of eating the same dish over and over. The third viewing of the Adam Sandler film your kid wants to watch has you screaming for mercy. As Sade put it, “It’s never as good as the first time.”

THE SPICE OF LIFE SATISFACTION

And therein lies one of the keys to happiness and work-life balance that flies way under the radar. Variety. Researchers have found it truly is the spice of life satisfaction. The more you can vary the way you do the things you do, you can avoid the bane of what’s known as hedonic adaptation. 

Repeated exposure to a stimulus reduces its ability to excite or even repel. We get used to it, and it’s no longer thrilling or, on the negative side, as horrific as it used to be.  To sustain enjoyment, we have to keep the built-in boredom equipment from ruining our bliss. 

Adapting to the environment is, of course, key to evolutionary survival. It’s why you don’t see Cro-Magnons working in particle physics. Yet the same talent that makes us good survivors makes us bad at enjoying the fruits of survivorhood. 

HARD TO PLEASE

Studies show that lottery winners return to their mood set point within a year. People who get raises receive a quick bump of happiness, quickly adapt to the new funds, and want more money.

Adaptation makes us hard to please, particularly if it’s adapting to something that has an external reward attached. External payoffs, such as money and status, are ephemeral, since they are about what other people think, not you. We don’t really buy it, so it doesn’t stick.

The roots of our unrest go to another of our most important evolutionary mandates—the drive to learn and discover. The low tolerance for repeats forced humans to override the safety equipment in the brain and search out the new. It's a learning device.

It drove hunter-gatherers to journey beyond the horizon to new lands, to pick up a hollowed stick and try to make sounds with it, and one discovery led to another until scientists are able to see the areas of the brain that light up when we are discovering something new, even before we discover it.

Brain scientist Gregory Berns argues in Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment that two of the main needs we all have for long-term fulfillment are novelty and challenge. Just the expectation of something novel, before it’s even happened, sets off the dopamine receptors in the brain that make us feel good.

It’s called the exploration bonus. We are programmed to learn and are rewarded internally when we do by the chemistry of satisfaction.

The operative word as a new year dawns is “new.” If we can find ways to keep life new, our brain neurons are going to be happy, and us along with them.

THE HAPPINESS HUB

Before we start our search for variability and the novel, we have to first take a look at the main domains of happiness and which are the best at getting around the adaptation problem. Studies have found that 50% of our potential happiness is the result of genetic factors, so we can’t do much about that.

Another 10% is due to circumstances—everything from job security to marital status, income, health and religion. The various circumstances of life surprisingly don’t change happiness much, because once again, adaptation takes hold and then the thrill is gone.

The other 40% of the happiness pie, though, known as intentional activities, is where we can impact well-being levels and build in the novelty and variety that can perk up the dopamine receptors. Unlike circumstances, which are things that tend to happen to us, we make international activities happen, and that makes all the difference.

Intentional activities can encompass anything from riding a bike, to helping others, to doing an activity on the weekend, to positive statements we say to ourselves. They are self-generated interactions with our experience.

Happiness scholars Kennon Sheldon, Sonja Lyubomirsky and David Schkade found in one of their studies (2005) that “activity-based, well-being change lasted” and created improved well-being.  People who get involved in activity-based positive changes find that these adjustments provide variety to their lives and, as a result, they didn’t get sick of the activity.

VARY HOW YOU DO WHAT YOU DO

Activities are interactive and tend to be experiential and episodic in nature, so they are less likely to be filed in the brain’s been-there, done-that folder. They are your personal experience and have an internal dimension that is more lasting than rote habits.

The researchers found several other key levers to increase novelty and avoid the adaptation trap.

1) Timing is a very important ingredient. If you really like a song, and you play it constantly, you’ll tire of it quickly. You have to have enough time between each listening to keep it from becoming old news. Play it every day, and it will produce adaptation. Once a week will let you enjoy it much longer.

“People should strive to discover the optimal timing for each activity to remain fresh, meaningful, and positive,” report Sheldon, Lyubomirsky, and Schkade.

2) Vary the activity. The way out of the adaptation rut is to adjust how you do things. This provides novelty and helps satisfy core needs such as autonomy and competence. If you take up running and jog the same route and distance every time, you can get bored, lose motivation and quit.  Instead, go for variety. Find different routes, scenery, maybe running partners. Change the distance, too, which is better for your running anyway, as you can build up your speed on shorter runs and endurance on longer sessions.

3) Reflect and savor. You can weaken the adaptation effect of doing an activity regularly by spending a little time to reflect and savor different parts of it. Bringing varying elements of what makes the experience meaningful into your awareness after doing it helps keep the satisfying elements of it alive and varies your takeaway depending on what you focused in your recalled experience.

OVERCOMING OURSELVES

The key to activating more variety is two-fold. One, you have to overcome the fear/security side of the brain that wants you to do the predictable thing, because that’s more known and, as a result, safer. All the research shows that your brain really wants and needs the opposite—engagement with your world. These experiences inform us through our memories that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, exercising our self-initiative and learning tools.

As Sheldon found in his research, “The more positive and novel the recent experiences one can recall, the higher one will rate one’s happiness.”

Secondly, doing novel things takes effort. You have to deviate from habit, from the routine you can do without thinking. That means you have to overcome autopilot and the built-in laziness equipment. The law of least effort governs most of our behavior. We go for the quickest, the easiest, and reflex habit wins.

To overcome this default, we have to bring awareness to the fore and give ourselves a reason or goal for why we are going to take a longer, harder, or different route than usual.

Tell yourself I’m going to try a new dish this week, taste a different smoothie, read a new book, go to a new website, visit someplace different this weekend, because I want to learn, grow, and discover, to do what I'm here to do.

And best of all, as you meet your internal goals, the path to the new or unfamiliar will trigger other new routes that can keep your brain’s questing chemistry alive in the dance of dopamine.

Get your bonus this year, with curiosity, exploration and variety.

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Tags: happiness, happiness and experiences, leisure activities and happiness, adaptation, variety and happiness

How Stress Leads to Life Unlived

Posted by Joe Robinson

Feet Palm Tree Medium

It’s not enough that stress makes us anxious and can lead to everything from heart disease to stroke and make life miserable. No, for the coup de gras, stress saddles the brain with a killjoy mood that prevents the very things that reduce stress—recreation, leisure, fun.

In other words, when we are anxious, worried, or ruminating over a stressful event or situation, we can’t live. Pretty insidious, isn’t it? How much of your life has gone unlived because it was a bad time or stressful period and you were too preoccupied by worries to enjoy life? It adds up.

WIRED TO FIXATE

It’s maddening, because life is short enough already. We can’t write off large chunks of our years to a survival default that overreacts to the world we live in. Humans are wired to fixate on the negative, and that no doubt was key for us to make it all the way to the 21stcentury. However, we don’t live in a life-or-death, hunter-gatherer world anymore.

We don’t have to turn our back on life because we may have worries or preoccupations that are not life-threatening. We can do both, chew the gum of negative moods and break away to fully participate in our life.

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Why does life and enjoyment go by the wayside when we’re stressed? Stress suppresses the play equipment in the brain. This makes sense, since the last thing the part of your ancient brain that sets off the stress response wants to do in a life-or-death moment is have fun. It’s not a good idea to do a salsa dance routine as an angry rhino races straight at you, horn first.

But you are not on an African savanna. You are at home, maybe on the couch, and it’s just the emotions, the mood of anxiety and worry that keeps you from getting out of the house, not an emergency threat to life and limb. The culprits, negative emotions such as fear and low self-esteem, sap energy and motivation and cause us to withdraw from others, the research shows, while positive emotions make us initiate and reach out to new people, opportunities, and experiences.

THE REFLEX OF LIFE POSTPONEMENT

In the bunker of negative emotions, we concoct rationales, terrible ones, such as I’ll get to my life when I feel better, have more money, the right partner, the right job, the kind of success that makes me feel good enough—and esteemed enough by others—to want to participate in life.  The life postponement syndrome starts here.

It turns out that humans are smart enough to do more than one thing at a time. Yes, negative moods are part of life and we don’t want to deny them, but we are capable of both ongoing recognition of stressors or tangling with a problem and leaving those behind for intervals of life engagement and fun that buffer stress, help us solve the problems we’re stewing about, and turn out to be the memories that constitute the times of our life.

Have you ever looked at a photo of yourself at a dinner with friends or on a vacation and marveled that, even though you had serious challenges and stress at the time that picture was taken, you don’t look like it. In fact, you may look like you don’t have a care in the world. I was alive, calm, not bad looking. How could I have had those fears or problems or taken the worries I had so seriously?

It’s right there in the photo, proof positive that we can live and have worries at the same time. That’s a good thing, because, guess what, we’re always going to have stress and anxieties. That’s what being alive is in a trial-and-error existence, dancing on the razor’s edge. It’s how we manage stressful thoughts and the mind that creates them that determines whether we are immobilized by them or dispute, contest, and challenge them so we can do the living we’re making for ourselves along the way.

THE STRESS-BUSTER

The positive emotions we feel in moments of active leisure crowd out the negative and build resilience to stress. Researchers have found that engaging leisure activities do a host of things that strengthen coping resources. They:

— reduce stress by buffering setbacks and building coping mechanisms (Coleman, Seppo Ahola)

— enhance social support (Chalip, Thomas, Voyle)

— improve mood through increased self-control and camaraderie (McCann, Holmes)

— and build self-esteem and competence (Zamani Sani, Fathierezale, Brand, Puhse, Trachsler, Gerber, Talepasand)

Of course, it’s easier said than done when it comes to switching off the mood that comes from stress or anxiety. You have to override reflex thoughts and emotions that overtake the brain and constrict the mind to the perceived crisis of the moment.

The survival equipment wants you to cling to this stuff as if your life depended on it. It doesn’t. It depends on the opposite, getting your life in as you move through the journey, not waiting out gloom or leaving it up to retirement.

COUNTERPUCHING MOODS

How do we do that? It starts with awareness, being able to catch yourself in life-postponing moods. The emotions are intense and make you want to stay in the doom, but you have to override them and have a counterpunch. You don’t have to fall for the mood and sideline yourself from life engagement.

Identify some life activities that you passed on recently and what issue or stressor was the impetus to not act. What was missed? What are the main issues behind the stress, anger, cynicism that grounded you? What is accomplished by foregoing leisure avenues that could help buffer difficulties?

Play has been found to be a great problem-solver. It creates thought associations that leap to connections and ideas we can’t find when left to grinding it out with the rational side of the brain. So we often stumble on to insights by letting go and getting out of the utilitarian mindset of career and rationality.

Since so much of the life-suppression powers of stress and anxiety are autopilot, here are five ways to counter the rumination equipment and get out and live:

  • Put leisure activities on your calendar. Take them as seriously as work appointments. They are appointments with your life.
  • Set an alarm on your phone to go off when it’s time to do something fun—and a back-up alarm five minutes later to remind yourself you can rally.
  • Shift the mood with music. One of the best ways to break through the negative mood is with music. Choose some upbeat, good-time music in your collection or on Spotify or Pandora and put it on loud. Watch how quickly you can change a mood once the music starts.
  • Sign up for a new pastime, such as a weekly dance class or yoga session. When you have a hobby, you are forced to get out there once a week and override the puppet strings of mood. Five minutes after getting there the funky mood is gone.
  • Act as if. When you feel yourself caving to rumination and vegetative mood, pretend you are someone you know who would get out and do something fun no matter what. Acting is the road to action.

The good thing about moods is that they are ephemeral. They can be dumped, ignored, and risen above. We don’t have to be their faithful, reverential followers.

We can crowd out worries and stress with different emotions, particularly those sparked by direct experience, in which bodies help move the mind to new places. Full, in-person engagement in fun activities is the exit out of the thinking factory and self-infliction and the route to the memories that let us know: We were here.

If you would like to get stress and anxieties under control and activate life balance, you can learn more about my one-on-one coaching stress management training by clicking on the button below.

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Do You Have Burnout, or Are You Just Tired?

Posted by Joe Robinson

signs-of-burnout

It’s hard to get rid of a medical condition you don't know you have, and that's often the case with burnout. Many people with burnout don't know they have hit this debilitating last stage of chronic stress until their health, spouse, colleague, or kid flushes it out of the nether world of extreme exhaustion and stress-related disorders that there's something seriously wrong here. 

Burnout creeps up gradually over a long period of time, draining coping resources and amping up harmful stress side-effects until we morph into a shadow of ourselves. The stealth takeover makes it hard to realize what's going on until we have been in burnout's grip far too long. 

People who reach out to me with burnout say they have struggled to find what's behind the chronic exhaustion, lack of energy, purpose, and drive, the inability to perform their job with the command they used to, the cynicism they feel about what they used to love to do. They have sought out doctors and searched online, trying to figure out how they got something none of us are not trained to expect or believe. 

It's hard to believe that the very thing you have spent your life training for and have always done better than anything else, work, is the cause of a serious health problem that renders you incapable of working-till-you-drop anymore or finding any joy in your life. Unfortunately, the brain and body have limits that, if pushed far enough, long enough drive us beyond capacity. 

For people who always defined themselves by their beyond-the-call-of-duty work ethic, it can seem bizarre to find you don't have any drive anymore. It's certainly not something you want to advertise to others in a world where promotions are connected to endurance. Keeping it quiet causes more time to pass in a state of chronic stress, doing more damage to your body and shredding attention and self-regulation at work.

THE SECRET SCOURGE

Burnout has long been the secret scourge of the workplace, those with it suffering in silence and organizations unaware of the toll it takes on productivity, the bottom-line, and top talent.

In an unbounded 24/7 digital world, the days of ignoring burnout are getting harder to pull off.  A Gallup survey found that 23% of workers report being burned out very often or always, while another 44% feel burnout sometimes. That is almost two-thirds of employees. Some 77% of employees questioned for a Deloitte survey reported they have had burnout, with 70% saying their companies are not doing enough to address it. Half of millennials said they left a job because of burnout.

Burnout has become enough of a concern that the World Health Organization has upgraded its definition of it for the 2022 edition of its International Classification of Diseases, calling it “an occupational phenomenon” that comes from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The only way to reduce rampant burnout is to pull back the secrecy and mystery surrounding this destructive condition. When more know what it feels like, we can prevent ourselves from overdoing it, speak up earlier, reach out faster to recover more quickly, and management can understand burnout's massive impact on the bottom-line, so stress management programs become essential employee support. Health costs for burnout are five times that of other workplace maladies, driven by problems from hypertension to diabetes.

WHAT BURNOUT FEELS LIKE

Burnout occurs after a long period of chronic stress during which all energetic resources—stress hormones, physical and mental vitality, positive emotions, willpower, resilience—all coping reserves, have been drained. We wind up fully depleted in a three-way shutdown: emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, and cognitive weariness.

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You feel chronically exhausted, weary to the bone, soured on work and life, and devoid of motivation or the ability to fight off the feelings of dread and doom. Deep into burnout, even the thought of work can make you feel sick. The darkness has some crossover with depression, but studies show they are two different beasts.

Since burnout is written and directed by stress, brains fixate on catastrophic thoughts from a part of the ancient brain that specializes in fear and irrational emotions. Thoughts turn to pessimism and vulnerability, as they do when we get sick and don’t have physical strength at our disposal.

There is nothing left to battle the downward spiral. We withdraw from others into a bunker, unable to shift mood, with thoughts marked by an absence of positive emotions, a sense of futility, and cynicism that anything can be different. The mind becomes a hub for worst-case scenarios.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BURNOUT AND FATIGUE

How do you know if you are just tired or are burned out? When you are tired, sleep, rest, and hobbies can help you recover from physical exhaustion. Your mind can shift mood and find a way around a problem.

With burnout, the fatigue doesn’t go away even if you get all your sleep. The weariness is there every day, even on the weekend, as is the negative rumination and mental cut-de-sac. 

Fatigue doesn’t cause an absence of positive emotions or hijack the mind with false beliefs and no-way-out, bleak thoughts. It's a temporary physical issue. Burnout crowds out positive emotions with all-negative, all-the-time.

You might want to be by yourself for a moment if you're tired, but you are not going to close yourself off to the outside world for months on end. That's burnout. You withdraw from others, known as depersonalization, retreating from a world that appears to care less about you.

When you're tired, taking part in fun activities energizes and restores mood and vitality. When you're burned out, things you used to do for fun no longer provide enjoyment. Pessimistic thinking constricts the brain to dire ruminations set off by triggers like these:

— Long periods of extreme workload

— Excessively long workweeks

— No time for recharging

— Unreasonable deadlines

— Poor to no communication and support from superiors

— Unfair treatment that destroys trust

THE HEALTH CONDITIONS CAUSED BY BURNOUT

Of course, there are many other ways to tell the difference between burnout and fatigue, namely, the host of health issues that come with burnout that are missing from mere tiredness. 

Burnout is the result of unmanaged, chronic stress for months and sometimes years. This makes burnout highly dangerous, since the stress response alters systems in the body key to health that aren’t needed in a life-or-death moment or are amped up to risky levels to allow us to fight or run from danger. 

The stress response shuts down the digestion system and suppresses the immune and tissue repair systems. It jacks up the heart rate and blood pressure. These effects are meant to happen for brief periods, not for months and years, or they do a lot of damage.

So that we really understand the boomerang of burnout, let’s take a look at all the impacts of burnout—physical, psychological, and professional—as gleaned from a comprehensive meta-study (Salvagioni, Nesello Melanda, Mesas, Gonzalez, Gabai, and de Andrade) that looked at 993 different studies associated with burnout.

Physical Consequences:

  • hypercholesterolemia – high cholesterol
  • type 2 diabetes
  • coronary heart disease
  • hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder
  • musculoskeletal pain
  • changes in pain experiences
  • prolonged fatigue
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal issues
  • respiratory problems
  • severe injuries and mortality below the age of 45 years

Psychological Effects:

  • insomnia
  • depressive symptoms
  • use of psychotropic and antidepressant medications
  • hospitalization for mental disorders and psychological ill-health symptoms

And there are plenty of impacts on the organization as well from talent that is demotivated and disengaged, as the study reports below. Productivity plummets when burnout takes over a team or company. Its main characteristics—exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy—are the opposite of those of engagement—energy, commitment, and effectiveness—burnout scholar Christina Maslach has reported. The more exhaustion, the less attention and more effort and time it takes to get the job done. 

Professional Effects:

  • job dissatisfaction
  • absenteeism
  • new disability pension
  • job demands
  • presenteeism

THE PASSIVITY TRAP

The most insidious part of burnout is that it steals one of our most important behaviors, autonomy, which is one of our core psychological needs. Burnout can lead to a kind of learned helplessness that makes us give up the helm of life. We can’t summon up the usual coping tools to change thoughts or to formulate action.

In fact, one of the prime markers of burnout is passivity. Because we are so out of gas and feeling so low, we stop trying to find ways out of the bind. This leads to more feelings of inadequacy from lack of agency and neglecting the need we all have to determine our path on this planet.

This might be the clearest signal of burnout, turning our back on ourselves, on our own determination and potential, and letting the negative thoughts in our head drown out the strength we have to rise to the occasion. We can change that, though, by pushing past the false beliefs and thoughts of “why bother” or “nothing will change,” and reaching out for support. 

Burnout is so all-encompassing, affecting our very identity as a working professional, it’s hard to escape its grip on your own. Research shows that reaching out to a professional stress management expert, can provide the direction and impetus to break through the stalemate.

If you would like to learn how to turn off burnout triggers and rebuild crashed resources, reach out for a free burnout consultation by clicking the button below.

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Tags: burnout, job burnout, chronic stress, burnout and fatigue

The Need That Feeds Job and Life Satisfaction: Autonomy

Posted by Joe Robinson

Resilience rally photo copy

The average state of someone watching TV is a mild depression, reports a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Optimal Experience and Flow and a pioneer in the study of intrinsic motivation. Of course, this can’t be much of a surprise to anyone, considering what the fare is on TV, from the Kardashians to Dog the Bounty Hunter. No wonder we’re depressed.

There’s more to it, though, than just lame programs. Watching TV makes our brains do what they don’t want to—be bystanders. Our brain neurons, and us, are not designed to be spectators. We are born to participate. Sitting on the sidelines creates boredom, rumination and default to negative emotions, and deprives us of a core facet of a healthy mind, agency, our ability to act and engage with our world.  

THE 3 CORE NEEDS

As the research of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester has documented, humans have an overriding need to feel like we are writing our own script. We have three core psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and connection with others, or relatedness—that direct us to self-determine our lives by making autonomous choices, taking on challenges that make us feel effective, and developing close relations with others.

Satisfy these needs, or psychological nutriments, with the right goals— intrinsic motivation—and we feel gratified, like we are doing what we are supposed to be doing here, because we are, acting from our deepest aspirations. The core needs require involvement, engagement, growth and a belief we can impact our circumstances, not easily done from the couch. 

The most important of these needs may be autonomy, an under-the-radar concept we know by many other names—choice, freedom, flexibility, control. This drive to feel like we can initiate and participate in our lives plays a major role in satisfaction, on the job and off, reduces stress, builds resilience, and is the key ingredient in work-life balance and something every organization wants: employee engagement.

Employees who are engaged are 28% more productive, a Conference Board survey found. They contribute the extra effort willingly, because they feel valued, and reciprocate that in turn to the company.

What makes people feel valued at work is flexibility, from choice in how they perform their tasks, to flexible schedules, and a role in solving bottlenecks and making decisions. The ability to make adjustments that make work and life more effective and less strained satisfies our autonomy need. It makes us feel we have agency, that our ideas count, that we can make a difference. 

WORK-LIFE BALANCE AND AUTONOMY

The expression of autonomy has a powerful effect because it goes to, not just our brain's mandate for growth and progress, but also to one of the necessities in a world where we don’t know what’s going to happen next. It provides a perception of control over events.

This is the central lever for keeping stress at bay. You can have high demands, but if you also have a perception of control over them, there is no stress, just challenge, even excitement. Autonomy, then, functions as a little-known stress management tool.

The most popular work-life balance policy, telework, is a favorite with employees because it provides an increased sense of autonomy. You have more control over your schedule, and that of your kids, when you can work at home a couple days a week. Studies show that remote workers actually work longer hours than their colleagues at the office, but they don’t mind because the freedom to organize their time the way they want is much more valuable.

Other work-life balance policies, such as earlier or later start and finish times, compressed workweeks, and paid-leave also promote autonomous behavior and as a result more job satisfaction. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the more employees are able to feel they are individuals, the more they want to be team players.

THE POWER OF CHOICE

It’s easy to feel autonomy outside the job. Any activity you opt to do is your call. But how do we find autonomy on the job, when we are there to work for others? Autonomy at work comes down to a perception of choice. When we feel choice in how we do our job or how we think about it, we feel we are exercising autonomous behavior and directing our own path.

Deci turned his research on core psychological needs into a management model known as autonomy support. In his work in the workplace trenches with companies such as Xerox he found that satisfying the need for choice and competence, another core need, resulted in teams working closer together, more people feeling they are able to contribute, more self-responsibility, more job satisfaction and engagement, and more motivated employees.

This is because at its heart, Deci’s work is about motivation, the most potent kind—intrinsic motivation, acting for internal goals, not external ones. When we act for internal goals, such as excellence, service, learning, or challenge, we validate our core needs, and that makes us feel gratified.

The science shows that external rewards are ephemeral, since they are about what others think, but intrinsic rewards stay with us in the form of growth and gratification. Intrinsic goals are about acting unconditionally. This makes them powerful when we are trying to do something difficult. 

If you have a hard challenge, and the goal is intrinsic, research shows that dieters, students learning physics, or people trying to play a musical instrument will stick with it. Those who are motivated externally, doing something because they have been pressured by others or who want a quick payoff, quit.

THE RATIONALE FACTOR

As Deci details in a fabulous Penguin paperback, Why We Do What We Do, autonomy at the work level revolves around getting and giving rationales for doing tasks and neutral and informational language, as opposed to command and control mode. You ask for a rationale for the task you’re doing or give a rationale to someone about why you are asking them to do an assignment. The participation yields a sense of choice.

When we hear a rationale, the mind internalizes it, feels it has been allowed to play a role in the process, and then sees the task as more important. Even being able to express reservations about doing a task results in performing a task more willingly.

Autonomous behavior is such an empowering force because it goes to one of our most potent aspirations: to determine the content of life. When we do that, we align inner and outer realms, and that concordance sets off the dopamine dance of satisfaction.

As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “People who are able to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”

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Tags: Autonomy, flexibility and work-life balance, control and stress, autonomy at work

The Optimistic Art of Shutting Up Pessimistic Self-Talk

Posted by Joe Robinson

Girl on swing Small

No matter how different we may seem from each other, we have one aggravating thing in a common. We all have at least one person in our lives who we would be very grateful to if they would just shut up for a few minutes and leave us in peace.

That person is none other than us, in the form of the incessant self-talk in our heads. As studies have shown, the vast majority of the inner gabbing is negative—doubts, insecurities, fears. You can’t do that. You’re not good enough. Why bother? Don’t try it, or you’ll look like a fool.

As if we didn’t have enough static coming our way from the external world, we've got an inner alarmist conspiring against us, criticizing, second-guessing, and leaping to worst-case scenarios. With friends like ourselves around, who needs enemies?

THE SELF-TALK SHOW

The unasked-for yammering is part of a process of internal dialogue that helps us formulate actions and feelings and keep us safe. It’s part-survival instinct, part-social defense, part-explanation for why we are knocked down like bowling pins on a regular basis.

Of course, there is another form of self-talk that is helpful to the cause, a positive style, something we experience less of because it’s not the default and most of us have to proactively make it happen. Researchers have found that motivational self-talk, for instance, can help increase effort on a task and improve performance, particularly in the sports arena (Theodorakis, Weinberg, Natsis, Douma, Kazakas), help with skill-building, and boost persistence in achieving a goal.

The inner worrywart, though, is the boss of the ongoing talk show, a legacy from way back on the family tree. We wouldn’t be here as a species if we didn’t have this reflex to the negative and conversations we know and don’t love so much, such as What’s wrong? What do I have to do? How am I going to make it? What’s going to happen?

The fear radar is turned way up in humans, and the interior talker likes it that way. He’s/she’s a drama king/queen and makes us one too if we give it too much credence.

The fact is, our alter-yakker is out of its depth in the modern world, where threats to life and limb on a daily basis aren’t what they were back in hunter-gatherer days. Yes, we appreciate the concern, inner fearmonger, but knock it off already.

A lot of the tussles with our inner critic come from a grudge match in our brain. On one side, there's the overreactive fear hub of the amygdala and emotional limbic system that date back to before the higher brain regions evolved. On the other side, there's what our brain neurons actually want: novelty and challenge—growth.

Besides worries about whether you left the stove on, should ask for a raise, avoid a stranger, or may have salad in your teeth, there is another order of self-talk that isn’t just annoying or stifling to the risk-taking without which there is no progress. It also can ruin your health and your life.

TEMPORARY BUMPS

In adolescence, we all develop a certain style of self-talk that explains why bad stuff happens to us. It’s called explanatory style, and it’s a fork in the road at which we go down one of two paths, the way of optimistic explanatory style or that of pessimistic explanatory style.

No doubt, whether you are an optimist by nature or a pessimist plays a role, along with upbringing and experiences, but after the self-talker gets started on one of the styles, it’s onward and upward—or downward.

Optimistic explanatory style responds to setbacks and negative events as temporary bumps along the way. The inner voice of pessimistic style sees every bad experience as a death blow, a permanent hit that can’t be overcome, or is futile to even try to deal with.

It’s easy to see which one of these styles would be more effective in bouncing back when we get knocked down by life’s setbacks. Negative explanatory style, with its false belief that the event is permanent, keeps us in a bunker of pessimism that is self-reinforcing and hard to shake. While this emotion is ephemeral, like all emotions, it can stick around a long time, painting everything dire.

The pessimistic story causes us to stay frozen in gloom, the opposite of what we need to do—lick our wounds and move on, which optimistic framing helps us do. We don’t have to buy the false beliefs of the pessimistic road. Just because a thought is in your head doesn’t make it true. Thoughts aren’t real. Only experience is real. Yet pessimistic thinking can create damage in the real world to health, relationships, and careers.

OPTIMISTS LIVE LONGER

Studies show that pessimism can lead to serious health conditions and diseases much earlier in life than for optimists. They also help you live longer. Optimistic veterans in one study (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) had 25% less cardiovascular disease than pessimists, while Dutch researchers found that seniors who were optimistic had 23% of the death rate of pessimists.

A pattern of pessimistic brooding and rumination can lock in false beliefs for long periods, creating anxiety and stress that takes a toll on the body and mind. The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman detailed a connection between pessimism and depression in Learned Optimism, a book that shows that anyone can learn how to frame events in an optimistic style that counters pessimistic style.

What makes self-talk so insidious is that it all happens outside our consciousness on autopilot. It’s reflex, so there’s no awareness when it starts up and takes over our faculties. The good news is that you can catch yourself and avoid seeing setbacks as catastrophic, which is, by the way, the same way even optimists view things when the stress button goes off. Learn how to reframe negative events, and you get a twofer—you silence bogus self-talk and shut down false stories of stress.

ALL-OR-NOTHING

Pessimistic explanatory style makes us see a bad event in an all-or-nothing way—as permanent, pervasive, and personal. It locks us in to unlimited duration, scope, and ego eruption. You have a reversal, and the brain automatically sees the setback as a stain of infinite proportions. You’ll never get past it. You’re a loser for life. This always happens to me. I never get a break.

The event casts a pall on every part of life, so we take it globally. And last but certainly not least, we take it personally, fanning ego and emotions into further irrational fears and judgments. But this is an altered state we don’t have to buy—if we can fight off the bogus self-talk and put a realistic spin on things.

The way forward is to do the exact opposite of pessimistic explanatory style. Optimistic style flips the story. It’s not permanent; it’s temporary. It’s not pervasive; it’s specific to this one circumstance. One time, one event. And then we shut off the ego by stepping back from the moment and taking things non-personally, as if you were a lawyer for yourself, providing just the facts.

It’s not the end of the world, and this event doesn’t negate all the other things of value you have brought to work and life and others. Your self-talk style has simply overreacted into hyper-exaggeration through a default button that feeds you self-sabotaging pessimistic stories, such as I’m never going to make it in this world.

SPEAK FOR YOURSELF

What’s the optimistic explanatory version of that story? It could be something as simple as, I’ve had a hard day. Notice, this limits the damage to one point in time and ascribes a temporary condition to your feelings, not one that sets the die for decades. There is a Grand Canyon of difference between these viewpoints, and that difference can be seen not just in health, but also in success on the job and in relationships. Studies show optimists make $25,000 more per year than pessimists.

Instead of falling for the first alarmist neuron burp that enters the brain, we can say, Nope. I’m not going for it, since it is not real, just a false belief. We talk back to the self-talker—challenge, dispute, contest, argue with the catastrophic thoughts of pessimistic explanatory style and stress.

Ask yourself, What is the false story that is driving the extreme reaction? Where is the doom coming from? How accurate is that story? How useful? Find what’s changeable about the situation and possible scenarios other than worst-case. Next, write down the most likely story of what happened, submitting the raw data, evidence, and facts to the clear light of day—no emotions. Then take those facts and use them to construct a new story going forward.

When the negative voice appears, you are ready for it. You’ll do the talking around here from now on.

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How Stress Shreds Impulse Control, and How to Get It Back

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Too many margaritas, and you may reveal a deeply held fear of bats or a sudden love for a complete stranger. Alcohol loosens something essential to functioning in the world: self-regulation, or discipline. Without it, we are at the mercy of impulse and emotions, not rational thought.

What is less known is that the same thing happens when we are under the influence of stress. Stress undermines our ability to regulate impulsivity, as the higher brain of the cerebral cortex is hijacked by the irrational emotions and unhinged thoughts of the lower brain of the limbic system.

EMOTION REGULATION

We snap at people under deadline pressure, fly off the handle at motorists who encroach into our space, and say things we wish we hadn’t in the heat of an argument. Stress loosens tongues, wallets, and emotions. Studies show that stress aggravates the aggression hub of the brain, which in turn amps up a feedback loop of more stress. Without an intervening filter of self-regulation, we react to emotional demands without thinking.

Stress shreds the levers of willpower that are the difference between humans and marmosets—such as patience, which is a little-recognized self-discipline tool. Having the ability to pause, reflect, take a breath, and not react to demands is a critical component of self-mastery. When we allow events and others to instantly push our buttons, we self-inflict stress, and with it, still more stress and aggravation that come from the bad decisions of an out-of-control brain.

Patience and strategies such as acceptance, picking your battles, and cognitive appraisal—reframing negative events so our brains can use rational analysis to turn off the false danger signal of the stress response in a non-life-threatening moment—are part of the toolbox of emotion regulation. They are the means with which we use our self-discipline to modify thoughts and behavior to avoid impulse and keep stress at bay.

Emotion regulation is a great stress management tool. When we regulate negative emotions and setbacks, we shut off the harmful thoughts set off by our reaction to a stressful event, and stop stress in its tracks (Sayette, 1993).

AUTOPILOT IMPULSE

Stress is a function of demands outweighing perceived control, so the key to managing it is the very thing that stress erodes, the self-control of emotion regulation. The challenge of life is being able to muster this mental discipline to override impulse, temptation, and emotional reactions to pressure and challenges. It helps us listen to our long-term interests over the immediate gratification of ego, mood, and default emotion.

As researchers Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister put it in one study (Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?), “Refraining from behaving requires an act of self-control by which the self alters its own behavioral patterns so as to prevent or inhibit its dominant response…People may sometimes give in and perform forbidden behaviors because they lack whatever strength, energy, or other inner resource that is needed to restrain themselves.”

No doubt, going to work each day and staying on task for eight or more hours requires a lot of inner fortitude and focus. You’d rather be at a pool somewhere in the tropics or nibbling on cheesecake at a café. Instead, you have to bring your attention to the task at hand while devices and interruptions rattle your startle response, a survival behavior, all day—which jacks up stress and lowers self-control.

BURNING UP WILLPOWER

As if we didn't have enough pressure on our impulse control mechanism, known as effortful control, the act of self-regulation itself can reduce self-control. Muraven and Baumeister argue that every time we tap self-regulation resources to do something hard or that we don’t want to do, that makes the next act of discipline harder. When you do two consecutive tasks that require mental effort, the second one is often impaired.

We’ve all seen this in action, as we start the workday plowing through tasks and by the afternoon swoon, the ability to stay on task and do mentally demanding assignments becomes much more difficult. We have burned up willpower supplies for the day. There is no resistance left when we get home and raid the refrigerator. Sara Lee! Haagen Dazs!

Mental regulation resources wear down over the course of a demanding day, primarily in the form of blood glucose. We can resupply this fuel, though, with strategic nutrition and fuel such as energy bars, juice, and other fare that can prime the persistence pump of glucose.

THE MUSCLE OF SELF-CONTROL

There’s more to it, though, than the right snacks. As you might have noticed, some people have a bit more self-discipline than others. They can resist the hot fudge sundae or stay on a job like a laser and not get sidetracked. Were they born that way, or is it a byproduct of practice?

Muraven and Baumeister contend that self-regulation may well be like a muscle that we can build through practice. The more we can accustom our executive brain to resist instant gratification, procrastination, or impulse, and be persistent, the stronger that muscle grows. “Frequent exercise of self-control followed by the opportunity for full rest and replenishment may gradually increase the individual’s total strength for self-control.”

Activities that build discipline—playing a musical instrument, aikido, learning a language, or dancing—can help create a habit of sticking with a difficult task and overriding the temptation to self-distract, quit, or procrastinate. Feeling the satisfaction of accomplishing a task and gaining a new skill or conquering difficulty gratifies our core need of competence, a mastery need.

When you can view the task you do through the lens of intrinsic, or internal, goals, you are also more likely to stick with it, studies show. As Stanford's Carol Dweck has found, intrinsic goals are another lever of self-control that can be used to improve self-regulation skills.

When your goal for a task is internal—excellence, pride of work, craft, challenge, service—in other words, unconditional and not dependent on outside approval or an external metric—money, success, performance, status—it’s easier to regulate your impulse control and stay on task longer. You are rewarded by the inherent interest in doing the task, which makes you less prone to self-distract.

So building up your self-regulation resources is a twofer. You get more attention and focus to complete a task quicker, and you manage stress in the process. Where there's a will, backed by impulse control and the right goal, there's a way.

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Why Our Goals for Happiness Keep Us Unhappy

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Despite the day’s grim headlines, we are all in luck. We happen to be alive at a time when the science has figured out what makes us happy. All we have to do is follow directions. For centuries, humans had to rely on the opinions of elixir salesmen, court jesters, peers, and herd instinct to track down hubs of happiness. That didn’t work out too well.

It’s still not working out, since most are unaware of the research and rush headlong for what doesn’t make us happy—money, success, status, beauty. These traditional metrics of happiness provide a quick bump in good vibes, but it is ephemeral, gone swiftly without a trace, and then we have to get more of it. It's called a hedonic treadmill, on which there is always another external want beyond the one we just achieved.

THE FLEETING PHANTOM OF HAPPINESS

The thrill of a job promotion is gone in two weeks, studies show. Lottery winners go back to however they felt before the winnings six months later. If you want to go for a long stretch of happiness, the thrill of a new home lasts a full year. Unfortunately, the bills for it last a lot longer.

There are several reasons why our go-to happiness goals are a flop. One, they are dependent on external approval, what others think. That can’t make you happy. It doesn’t go to your internal bottom line, what validates you inside. You don’t buy it, because it's someone else's opinion. Only you can make yourself happy through intrinsic goals and experiences, as researchers such as Tim Kasser and Edward Deci have detailed. Happiness is about living richly, not material riches.

Two, our brains are programmed to habituate to the new situation, get used to it, and then it’s no big deal, and boredom sets in. And three, our idea of happiness is at odds with the nature of this highly sought-after emotion. The elation state we associate with happiness is a brief affair. We feel giddy, high. And then we soon come back down to reality. Reality and us suffer in the comparison to the peak state of intense happiness. We can’t hang on to its slippery ether.

PLEASURES VS. GRATIFICATION

The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman draws a distinction in happiness between pleasures and gratifications, a distinction that concerns duration and depth. Pleasures, like a glass of wine or a piece of German chocolate bundt cake, make the senses tingle, a surface happiness, but don’t go to our core, so they fade quickly. Most of us equate pleasures with being happy—and have to keep going for them because they don’t fill us up.

There’s a brilliant description of happiness in the great bossa nova classic, “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”) by Tom Jobim and the poet/lyricist Vinicius de Moraes: “Happiness is like a drop of dew on a petal of a flower that shines quietly, then swings so slightly, and falls like a tear of love.”

De Moraes nailed the fleeting ephemerality of happiness, or at least the form most associated with the happy feeling—something intensely pleasurable. Pleasures are fun, but they are a brief affair.

Our brain neurons are designed to cut us off from excess jubilation and bring us back to our survival default—what’s wrong, how am I going to make it, what’s going to happen, and general worrywart action. This is how the species has made it this far, erring on the side of the negative.

THE 3-TO-1 RULE

But we don’t face a life-or-death struggle every day as we did 150,000 years ago. We don’t have to stay in the negative bunker all day, and studies show that we are much better off if we go the positive route. Positive emotions and an optimistic framing of events (temporary, not permanent; not taking it personally) are the building blocks of the longer form of happiness that comes from gratifications, which is about doing things that involving seeking, learning, and feeling the satisfaction of growth, gratitude, or helping others.

We need three positive events to every one negative to stay on the positive side, because the negative is so powerful and drags us down, reports Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina and author of Positivity. Her work has shown that positive emotions broaden and build us, buffering setbacks, and driving initiative, new friendships, and opportunities. They are the bulwark of long-form happiness, the gratifications, and key to bouncing back and resilience. 

In other words, happiness isn’t something that happens to us. We have to put ourselves in the vicinity of it. To do that, we need the right goal, an intrinsic one, and act unconditionally.

Intrinsic goals are things we do for the inherent interest, fun, challenge, learning, excellence, service, craft, or community. We act not for instrumental gain or reward. When you dance, the purpose isn’t external, to shake your way to the other side of the dance floor. It’s simply to be in the fun of the experience of body in sync with rhythms. When you act for no payoff, you get one internally, and as a result, it sticks with you, unlike external goals.

EXPERIENCES MAKE YOU HAPPIER

The glow lasts, because it’s your personal event or experience, no one else’s. The University of Colorado’s Leaf van Boven and others have documented that experiences make us happier than material things because they can’t be compared to anyone else’s experience. Experiences are also interactive, so they fire off lots of different parts of the brain. The neurons that fire together wire together. That means we remember experiences for a long time.

Memory is key to happiness. It’s your ongoing status report, at any given time adding up the recent happenings and reporting back good or bad. A study by Sonia Lyubomirsky from the University of California at Riverside and Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri detailed that you are as happy as the most recent positive and novel thing you can remember.

Studies show that 50% of our potential happiness is genetic, and another 10% is due to circumstance—the state of your health or the environment you are raised in. You can’t do anything about either of those, sorry. That leaves you with 40% of potential happiness that you can actually control. It’s a realm known as intentional activities, the proactive things we do to engage with our world.

Intentional activities such as pastimes and hobbies fall squarely into the gratification column. They create positive mood, self-esteem, social support—things that not only increase positive emotions but also make us feel we are writing our own script as participants on this planet. As the University of Rochester's Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have documented, that results in gratification of our three core needs—autonomy, competence, and connection with others. Ultimate gratification. 

The brain responds by releasing dopamine, the chemical form of satisfaction. When your skills meet a challenge while doing something fun, you can satisfy both short and long-term forms of happiness through optimal experience, also known as flow. If you have a passion you partake in on a regular basis, you can add eight hours of joy to your week (Villerand, University of Montreal).

THE PARTICIPANT MANDATE

Anything that improves skill and makes us stretch beyond the routine gratifies the core need of competence. It’s our mastery need, and we feel great when we are tapping it. We feel we are doing what we are supposed to be doing on this planet. And we are. Your brain wants novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment, reports brain scientist Gregory Berns in his book, Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.

Lyubomirsky and Sheldon say there are two keys to sustainable happiness: initiating intentional activities and sustaining them. Both of these require us to engage with our world and follow our need to learn and grow. It’s about being participants in the journey, since this is when we gratify core needs such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others.

Initiating and sustaining are hard. We have many distractions and obligations, and the stuff of life gratification isn’t considered important enough to vie with it all. Yet all it takes to get the living in we are making for ourselves is to prioritize these behaviors and make them important, which they most definitely are.

The great psychologist Erik Erikson, who studied the stages of life and worked with many seniors, said that one of the questions we will have at the end of our days is: “Was it a good time?” Go for intrinsic participation and experiences now, and you can make sure you have the right answer to that question.

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Tags: life balance, happier life, leisure activities and happiness

Are You Mad? The Link Between Irritability, Anger and Clogged Arteries

Posted by Joe Robinson

Mad woman small

We all know certain lifestyle behaviors can be hazardous to the old lifespan. High cholesterol and heart disease, smoking and lung cancer, obesity and diabetes. Yet there is an under-the-radar behavior that can be just as deadly: irritability.

It seems innocuous. You’re just in a bad mood, grouchy. You woke up on the wrong side of bed. Yet a pattern of chronic irritability can lead to the same blowback as that caused by cholesterol—heart attack. The danger is that it is a very short distance from irritability to anger, hostility, and clogged arteries. When you are ticked off, seething, simmering inside, any little spark can set off a burst of anger, which has been shown to be a major risk factor for cardiovascular issues.

GETTING MAD CAN QUADRUPLE YOUR RISK

One study of 1305 men with no history of heart problems (Kawachi, Sparrow et al) found that anger can triple the risk of developing heart disease. A huge metastudy on anger as a heart attack trigger (Mostofsky, Penner, Mittleman) found that an anger outburst two hours before the episode can more than quadruple the risk of myocardial infarction.

Anger can also take a cumulative toll. A study of medical students found that the angriest were five times more likely to have an early heart attack and three times more likely to get cardiovascular disease (Finney, Stoney, Engebretson).

Anger and particularly hostility do their damage through activation of the stress response, which jacks up heart rate and blood pressure and suppresses the immune system. The flood of adrenaline to help you fight or run from danger can cause heart spasms and arrhythmias, and the velocity with which the blood is pouring through arteries can wear down their lining, causing craters that attract platelets and clogs.

Hostility has been linked to increased levels of C-reactive protein, which can form plaque and restrict blood flow. It’s such a red flag that one study by the Boston University School of Public Health suggested hostility is a better predictor of coronary disease than high cholesterol or smoking.

THE DOWNSIDE OF A SHORT FUSE

The real threat of anger is its staying power. It keeps us in a prolonged state of emergency and high blood pressure after even a minor event. Five minutes of anger can suppress the immune system for five hours (Rein, Atkinson, McCraty). The longer stress lasts, putting strain on your cardiovascular system and compromising the immune system, the greater the health risk.

Irritability keeps the prospect of anger close, amping up impatience, annoyance, and aggravation. Irritability is defined as a proneness to anger. It is both an enabler of anger and a low-grade form of it. It is the famed short fuse that some have temperamentally and others have conditionally. The more irritable we get, the better the odds that anger will erupt.

Researchers have connected irritability to the frustration that comes with a blocked goal. We can see this with the cause of much of the irritability in the workplace: time urgency, the frenzy of hurry-worry that most of us work with today that comes from a lack of patience.

Time frenzy is rampant in a digital world as is the impatience that trips it off. Digital devices have conditioned us to expect immediate gratification. Everyone wants the product, report, the email response yesterday. The Internet page won’t load fast enough, so it’s apocalypse now.

FUMING OVER BLOCKED GOALS

Traffic, coworkers, and progress not moving swiftly enough all fill the blocked goal thesis. In fact, time urgency makes every event in the day a potential source of frustration, because little in real life happens as quickly as we want it to. It sets an impossible standard on turnaround time, while locking us into self-inflicted irritation. Some of the most prone to impatience: Type A’s, whose defining trait is a fixation with the passage of time and annoyance with those moving in slow motion.

Chronic impatience fuels rushing, which jacks up aggravation and stress. It also drives crisis mentality and the belief that whatever I’m doing is an emergency, so I have the right to interrupt anyone at any time. Rushing and time urgency put everyone on edge and set off bad judgment and decision-making, since they rely on the irrational lower brain unfiltered by the analysis of the higher brain.

Researchers studying time urgency have identified the irritability/anger nexus as the danger zone. This is where on-edge tips over-the-edge at any slight aggravation, and triggers reflex emotional reaction and the stress response.

HOSTILE TAKEOVER

Whether the source of the irritability is impatience, something somebody said, a low-value assignment, lack of progress, stressful life events, setbacks, or generalized grouchiness, most of it comes on unconsciously. It’s part of the cloud of negative emotions and moods that can waylay the productive day or mind.

Moods ebb and flow constantly. They rise and fall depending on the time of the day (morning up, night down), the day of the week (Friday up, Monday down, for some strange reason), and multiple other swings throughout the day.

Most of the time we get swept downstream by the automaticity of irritability, and, like with most deeply felt emotion, it’s hard to let go of the mood once it takes hold. It’s as if we want to be irritated, because it allows us to feel justifiably up in arms about something.

If we could opt out of this prelude to anger, we could do a big solid for our heart and mind, not to mention the people around us on the receiving end of our funks. To do that, though, we would have to first become aware of the mood when we are in the middle of it—not easy to do—and then have the willpower and presence of mind to shut it down, and not let it spiral to fight-or-flight meltdowns.

GRUMBLING IN THE BRAIN

Irritability is essentially a loss of patience with others, ourselves, the world. We’re mad but don’t want to come out with it directly, so it’s kind of passive-aggressive. It’s a grumbling in the brain of unexpressed, unprocessed annoyances, frustrations, resentments, and anxieties. It doesn’t serve any purpose, other than to make others want to give us a wide berth.

How do we off this reflex behavior? Get the triggers into the open. Ask where the irritability is coming from. Did you not get enough sleep (lack of sleep can drive irritability)? Are your efforts not being rewarded? Are there obstacles in the way? If so, what are they? Who are they? Did someone push your buttons?

Often, irritability is generalized and as long as it stays that way, we can’t resolve it. As with all stressors, the way forward is shining the light on the trigger, so that we can see that it is not life-and-death, and then turning off the danger signal. We can do that by having a conversation about the issue, changing the way we think about it, and identifying a more productive way forward.

MANAGING UPSET EGOS

Irritability is one of the ways that humans excel at getting in their own way. It pushes others away, entrenches negative emotions, sets off anger and stress, keeps you in a bunker of me-against-the-world, makes you unhealthy, and hands over the keys to your life to your ego.

One way to keep this self-inflicting behavior at bay is to treat yourself as the enemy, or at least your ego. Make it a competition between you and your ego. When irritability starts up, making you the most important person in the world, aggrieved by everyone, tell yourself, no, I’m not going there.

Make it a game. If you’re impatient, for instance, deliberately walk slower or get in the longer line at the market. You’re not going to take the bait. You act the opposite, using the extra time to take deep breaths to restore your higher faculties and step off the runaway train. You are in charge, not your ego.

Another approach is to identify the issues that set off irritability and create scenarios you will use to defeat it the next time that trigger pops up. You can use an implementation intention, an if-then statement that seeds a new behavior in the future. You tell yourself: If I get irritable, then I won’t take the bait. You solve the issue, let it go, and refuse to be a breeding ground for anger and assorted cardiovascular havoc.

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Tags: Stress and anger, anger and heart risk, irritability and stress, negative mood and productivity

Working Stupid: How Stress Undermines Intellect, Decisions, and Judgment

Posted by Joe Robinson

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As a general practice, it’s not advisable to make important decisions while stone cold drunk. I'm feeling lucky—let's go to the casino. I’m going to send an email to the client and tell them what I really think.  We don’t want to make crucial choices when we are not in possession of all our faculties.

But that is what most of us do on a regular basis under the influence of something that sabotages decision-making ability as surely as too much Jim Beam: stress. When the brain is hijacked by the fight-or-flight response, we are under the command of an altered state, one in which irrational emotions, impulsive behavior, and an inability to see beyond the moment cloud sound judgment and reason.

Call it cognitive impairment syndrome, and it's hazardous not to just individual health but to the people around anyone who has it and company bottom lines.

STRESS IS A DECISION HAZARD

The effects of a mind bent by stress can be deadly. The world’s worst airline crash, when two 747s collided in the fog on a runway in the Canary Islands in 1977, killing 587 people, was the result of a pilot whose time pressure, i.e., stress, got the best of him and "decided" to take off without the okay from the control tower.  Versions of this happen every day on the nation’s roads because someone is late or driving aggressively (high stress causes risky driving behaviors and a result more stress) and the impulsive moves or speeding results in an accident.

In the workplace there are a host of impacts of stress on our mental capacities, which can have a dramatic effect on productivity, quality, clients, and profits, but are rarely discussed when it comes to the need for stress management. They may be out of sight, but they are definitely not out of mind.

What stress does to the brain and attention is something every organization should take seriously. It's a major cognitive hazard, blowing up the rational functioning of the higher brain. Stress undermines decision-making, judgment, attention, impulse control, engagement, mood, social rapport, and self-regulation (discipline), among others, all of which affect output. It also drives aggression (see "Why Stress Makes Us Take It Out on Others"), which fuels tension and conflict.

THE MENTAL WELLNESS IMPERATIVE

Anything that affects the chief productivity tool of attention is going to impact productivity, teamwork, and workflow, so stress management for mental fitness should be as important as physical wellness to any organization.

Minds addled by stress get easily distracted, take longer to do tasks, act before they think, and make decisions not based on all the data but from a very narrow bias of what’s familiar or most recent. Studies show stress makes us not fully weigh the downside of a given decision (Mather, Lighthall), for instance.

Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, so we can’t see the bigger picture.  It makes us discount negative data and err on the side of rash behavior turning out positive—say, swerving between two cars to make a light to get work on time—which amps up risk-taking behavior.

YOU ARE OF TWO MINDS

It turns out that we are of two minds, two different cognitive systems, to be specific. Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explores their impact on behavior in his fabulous book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which takes a deep dive into the surprising number of ways the brain defaults to poor decisions, deceptions, and illusions.

Most of the damage comes courtesy of fast thinking, which Kahneman refers to as System 1 thinking. This mode is triggered by stress, pressure, deadlines, overwhelm, and time frenzy.  Slow thinking, or System 2, is the deliberative process of weighing pro and con and reflective analysis.

System 1 plays a critical role in making quick decisions in moments of need or crisis, but fails us on a regular basis in a world where overreaction to social stressors keeps us in false alarm mode.

In an unbounded world of constant interruptions, time pressure, and digital bombardment, it’s no surprise that System 1 is getting a workout these days, and that is driving brains and performance south and ratcheting up false urgency and mistakes.

Stress undermines intellect in a variety of ways through an emotional hijack that takes the wheel from the 21st-century brain and leaves it with a part of the brain that thinks the year is 150,000 BC. Here are some of the major cognitive impacts of that handoff.

MAJOR STRESS IMPACTS ON THINKING

—Fractured Working Memory. Stress impairs working memory and undermines top-down attention in the prefrontal cortex and, therefore, control over events, while it jacks up task-irrelevant emotional distractors, as one study found. Working memory, which is also known as short-term memory, is what we use to get anything done in the day.

The problem is working memory is a very tenuous affair.  We can only hang on to three or four thought chunks for only a few seconds. Stress and interruptions break the tenuous hold we have on those thought bites, and they disappear into the ether. Interruptions fuel stress and make any task seem harder than it is. They also erode impulse control and with it, attention, by blowing up working memory.

The cognitive load of trying to stay on task as your emotions react to a disruption and the aggravation it causes slows reaction times and undermines accuracy (Arnsten, Goldman-Rakic, Dolcos, McCarthy). An interruption of 2.8 seconds doubles mistakes, while one of 4.4 seconds triples errors (Altmann, Trafton).

—Hijacked Attention. Our survival equipment is set up to direct our attention in a threatening moment away from whatever we are doing to the danger at hand. If a rhino comes charging at you, horn first, you can’t be thinking about a new dandruff shampoo you’d like to try, only your next move to get out of harm’s way—which is to find a tree to climb ASAP or jump out of the way at the last second, since rhinos have terrible eyesight.

It’s the same when someone or something pushes your buttons at the office. Your countermanded mind will be preoccupied by the stressful event that it thinks is going to kill you, so you can’t focus on the task at hand. The emotional alarm set off by the mistaken life-or-death drill overwhelms the prefrontal cortex’s ability to calmly concentrate and finish what you are working on. We ruminate about the stressful event, turning a false belief into obsessive thoughts that fuel future anxieties and can keep us distracted from what we are trying to do for hours, days, weeks, or longer.

Stress has been shown to reduce the goal-centers in the brain and increase the habit-formation centers, not a prescription for productivity.

—Knee-Jerk Decision-Making. Stress and rushing make us default to System 1 for decisions, and it’s not a good outcome. Decisions are made quickly without the full backup of facts, since System 1 is primed for instant responses. It has no time to dig deep into the memory banks, so it bases decisions on recent events and what’s familiar or feels right.

System 1 glosses over the details, makes impulsive choices, and uses emotionality to render judgment. It uses only the evidence at hand, not what’s absent, suppresses doubt, and is prone to confirmation bias—all of which can be a recipe for disaster when people operating on System 1 are making key decisions.

—Snap Judgment. System 1 makes us think we know things we don’t because of the vast amount of information it screens out in a snap decision. This is one of the reasons why rushing and time urgency result in a lot of mistakes. They drive impulse, gut, and intuition, which are not always correct in the emotionality of a stressful moment. Stress creates shallow, impulsive thinking, which can lead to everything from irate clients to coworker arguments. The belief is that there is no time for thoroughness. You are too busy for that. And, besides, you trust your unvetted gut.

—Depleted Self-Regulation Resources. To get anything done at work, you need to have the discipline to show up and stay on task. The willpower to do that, known as self-regulation, is undermined by stress and demands that surpass coping equipment.

When the emergency alarm is turned on, discipline crumbles as emotions take over. With less focus, it takes longer to do the job and more effort is needed, which increases cognitive load and strain. As self-regulation resources are burned up, it’s even harder to stay on task, but a lot easier to fall prey to junk food cravings to replace some of the lost resources, such as blood glucose, and distractions, such as going online to escape from demands. Productivity takes a tumble. 

In multiple ways every day, stress is reaching into your team’s heads and compromising their ability to make the judgments on which your organization’s operations, performance, and bottom line depend.

The good news is that there are remedies for the smorgasbord of mental hazards set off by stress that restore attention and informed decision-making. If you would like to explore them, please click the button below for more details.

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5 Ways We Cut Vacations, and Life, Short

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Not only do Americans have the shortest annual paid vacations by far among industrialized nations, we also have developed a habit over the last couple decades of self-inflicting even shorter holidays than are in our company policies by leaving untaken vacation days on the table.

It’s bad for your health, productivity, leaves you with life highlights unlived, and I would like to simply plead, don’t do it again this summer!

AT A CERTIFIABLE LOSS

A Glassdoor survey found that half of American workers give back unused vacation time every year.  Expedia’s annual vacation deprivation survey reports the grim stat that Americans give back some 400 million vacation days each year.

An Australian or German vacationer would find it incomprehensible to give back a single hour of their allotment of four to six weeks. Wait a minute! You are actually going to voluntarily abbreviate your holiday? No, that would be certifiable.

Not taking all your vacation time is like handing back your paycheck, only worse, since you are handing back priceless items such as life experiences, which studies show make us happier than material things. They are the living we are making for ourselves, the proof of some semblance of work-life balance and a reminder of what's out there for us if we are.

The annual holiday is your best chance all year of fully partaking in the panoply of life opportunities free of duty and obligation. The time you shave from your vacay or holiday that's skipped completely is never coming back again. That's not going to sit well when you look back over your life. We regret more the things we don't do than what we do. Researchers call it "the inaction effect."

THE LOSE-LOSE OF LIFE LEFT ON THE TABLE

The research tells us that not taking all our time off is a lose-lose, for you and the company. Reaction times have been shown to increase 40% when we return from a vacation. Studies show breaks of all kinds, from five minutes to two-week vacations increase productivity. Minds and bodies get rebooted after the recuperative time away from the source of stress. It takes less effort to get the job done when we come back to the job.

The tradition of the American vacation was actually started back in the 1920s and 1930s by companies as a productivity tool. Fatigue studies back then showed that when workers returned rejuvenated from their holiday, output increased. It was a factory era back in those days, so you might think, yeah, a physical break made sense. Today, we’re just sitting on our butts, though.

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Researchers say the brain goes down well before the body, and when it does, so does your chief productivity tool, attention. The source of productivity in the knowledge economy is a refreshed and energized brain. Vacations provide recreation, as in re-creation, for your mental faculties. They turn off job stress and increase positive emotions as well as gratify core needs such as autonomy and competence.

Burnout is the opposite of employee engagement, which all organizations want, since engaged employees are some 28% more productive. Its main dimension is exhaustion—mentally, physically, and emotionally. Vacations can cure burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, by regathering crashed emotional resources, like a sense of mastery and social support (Hobfoll, Shirom). But here’s the kicker, it takes two weeks of vacation for this recuperative process to occur, so we need to take all our time off to get the health benefits.

It also takes time if you want to travel to another hemisphere and see an exotic realm like the Cook island of Aitutaki (top photo), a series of islets ringing a sunken volcano over which a lagoon has formed. It's jammed with colorful fish, a snorkeler's dream, and devoid of something that usually interrupts our dreams: stress. 

5 WAYS WE STEAL TIME FROM OUR VACATIONS 

What prevents Americans from taking all the time coming to them? Mostly unfounded fear and guilt, all-consuming busyness, digital addiction, and the inability to plan. These are all conquerable obstacles.

1. Defensive overworking. Fear kills vacation time by making people think that if they take all their vacation time, or take it all at one time, that they will be seen as a slacker. It could make them more expendable in the next round of layoffs. It’s called defensive overworking—working longer, skipping vacations, or cutting them short to underscore commitment and bolster a hard-working image. The reality is, though, that people who skip vacations get laid off like everyone else.

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One woman I interviewed had been with her company for two decades, and had five weeks vacation as a result. Yet she only took a couple of long weekends off each year for fear of it making her seem too replaceable and not gung-ho enough. Then she got laid off. Now she wonders where her life went. Let your productivity and engagement at work speak for itself. Vacation denial is futile. All things change, all companies change. Live now or never.

2. Email derangement syndrome. It seems implausible that people would actually forego vacation time because of too much email when they get back to their desks, but no. This actually happens. Nobody likes a pile of email, but is a bunch of it really worth passing on your life? Like all fears, it’s just the prospect of it, not the reality, that makes you think you can’t handle it, which is the cue for the stress response to go off. At the worst, you have a couple of days of heavy email on return, and it’s over.

The better solution is to put a notification on your vacation email autoresponder stating that email will not be checked while you’re gone and to send it when you are back in the office. Many of the issues prompting the email will have been resolved by the time you get back. You can also designate someone else to take care of issues in your absence.

3. Coworker guilt. I hear this one a lot. People are afraid of burdening their coworkers and teams with extra work as a result of their taking time off, so they shave off vacation days here and there. Granted, staffs are leaner these days, but it’s crucial to ask yourself how many of your coworkers would feel guilty about you having to do extra work on account of their vacation. If the time off is in your company policy, you are entitled to take it.

The answer here is to have cross-training within teams and departments. This is one of the secrets to European vacations as well as holidays for those in the U.S. Army. The idea is that each of us trains colleagues on bits of our job—20% here, 30% there, etc.—and while we are gone, those folks fill in for us. When they are on vacations, we pick up the slack for them. Cross-training builds tight teamwork like nothing else. You are grateful to your teammates who help you get your vacay, and they feel the same about you helping them get out and live.

Companies who use cross-training report massive increases in teamwork and productivity. Ron Kelemen, head of the H Group in Salem, Oregon, told me that an extra week of vacation combined with cross-training was the best productivity strategy he’d ever seen.

Girl in Ireland copy

4. The "I'm-too-busy" mental block.  In a culture that celebrates rote busy-ness as productivity, when often it’s just commotion without conscious thought or forward movement, many of us these days can get trapped in a false belief that we can never stop or step back. There’s too much to do. We can’t be out of email touch and might missing something important. The mental block of busy-ness tells us there’s no time to take off. I'm too busy to think about a holiday or plan a vacation.

Busy-ness also drives hurry-worry and time urgency, which aggravate the perception of zero time for anything that’s not productive, like your life. To take time, you have to make time, plan months in advance, and put your vacation on the calendar so it’s locked in for yourself and your team. Ask yourself, am I too busy to live?

Rote busy-ness also fuels mechanical momentum, which can lead to being so wrapped up in the day-to-day duties, that it appears all will fall apart without you. If you aren’t there, things will go to Hades. As former vacation-skippers have told me, the job, the team, and the company did not implode when they finally took a long overdue vacation. It was just a fear, and fears have an abysmal track record as a predictive tool.

5. Macho-rexia bravado. Many a vacation gets shrunk or tossed out of a belief that the job is a macho endurance contest. Whoever is left standing at 11:30 p.m. wins. In this view taking a vacation or one of any length is wimpy or weak. This doesn’t just cut vacations short, it can lead to cutting life short from the diseases of overperformance and workaholism, from heart attacks to stroke and hypertension. Like anorexia, macho-rexia is a self-driven affliction that comes from excess concern about what others think.

Extreme hours and skipping vacations may get a clap on the back, but at what cost? Toughness is an inside job—working smarter, not at the threshold of pain.  Instead of bragging about late nights and weekends worked, try telling others about that bicycle trip in the wine country of California or what it was like to parasail. Researcher Leaf van Boven and colleagues have found that people like folks more who have experiences to share.

Let’s make a vow this summer to not fall for lame, self-defeating busyness, the no-time rut, the guilt and bravado, and forego the masochism, instead of the vacation. Discover the power of the rapture of being alive as fully as you can experience it for as many days as you can squeeze in. 

 

Tags: leaving vacation time on the table, vacation time, vacations and life balance

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