Working Smarter

The Hidden Key to Attention: Working Memory

Posted by Joe Robinson

Brain and working memory

I have always been fascinated by prodigies, who by the age of 10 can play complex classical or jazz music as well as the pros. What switch is turned on in their minds that isn’t in the rest of our brains? We are starting to get some answers from researchers working with these gifted children.

It had been assumed that off-the-chart IQs helped prodigies reach their heights, but studies show that a high IQ isn’t mandatory. In a study done by Joanne Ruthsatz and Jourdan Urbach, eight music, math, and art whizzes were found to have IQs ranging from 108 to 147. Yet there was something her subjects had that very few others do, a finding that seems to go to the heart of the mystery. Every child in the study scored higher than the 99th percentile of their peers in one area: working memory. Six of the eight kids measured in the 99.9th percentile.


You may be more familiar with working memory's other handle--short-term memory. And it's very short. We can only hang on to three or four thought chunks for only a few seconds. When an interruption or distraction intrudes, it blows up the momentary grasp of thoughts. We use working memory to do just about anything in our day, so having strategies to protect it and harness it is essential.

The prodigies all have an incredible ability to “store and sort information,” to pay exceptional attention to detail within the moment, a time when thoughts are normally tenuous. They seem to be able to hold notes in memory extremely skillfully while processing incoming data.

They have the ability to maintain complete attention, and with that laser concentration, burn the information into their brain neurons. They may also have exceptional long-term memory as well. One of the prodigies memorized more than 100 pages of classical music before the age of 4.

Increasing your attention skills may not wind up in a gig at Carnegie Hall, but it is something that can dramatically improve your working memory, mood, satisfaction, and resistance to distractions. Building attention is critical to counter constant digital bombardment and interruptions that undermine impulse control and attention spans.


Attention is a very limited resource, constrained by how much you can attend to at one time and how long you can stay locked on it. Researchers say we can only bring full attention to a task for 90 minutes to two hours, after which we have to get off task to allow the brain to refresh. 

“When you increase the metabolism of the brain, it comes with byproducts that need to be cleared out and cleaned,” Northwestern University’s Borna Bonakdarpour told the Washington Post. He recommends a break of 20 or 30 minutes after two hours of focus.

Getting the most out of your working memory requires an overall boost to your focusing skills. Here are five ways to do that in the face of constant distraction.

1. Use more top-down attention. Utilize the selection equipment you are equipped with to attend fully to things in your world. When you choose what you pay attention to, known as top-down attention, you focus the lens and concentration comes with it. On the other hand, you want to manage the "bottom-up" attention brigade of email, notifications,  and various e-noisemakers that divert you from the high brain to the impulsive low road of the amygdala and rote regions like the hippocampus.

2. Block out focus zones on your calendar every day. The white space in your calendar is gold when it comes to opportunities to hone your attention equipment. Block out times when you have the most alertness to do your high concentration work and turn them into no-interruption zones. The more you can set the terms of engagement with devices and interruptions for unadulterated concentration, the more you will be able to dial in full attention on a regular basis.  

3. Manage emotions and the thoughts that trigger them. Mind-wandering and emotional sidetracks take you far from the task in front of you, sending your thoughts back and forward in time to relive or project yourself somewhere else. Stress constricts your brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, since a part of your brain thinks you are facing a life-or-death threat. It will keep you detouring to whatever the problem is, making it hard to keep the thought chunks of working memory together. Put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it when your mind wanders off.

4. Take breaks. Stepping back from cognitive strain is one of the best ways to refresh the mental screen. You can only stay on task for up to two hours before attention wanders, wanes, and sputters. Giving the brain a break every couple of hours by doing something the opposite of mental straining, such as stretching or walking or changing up the mood by listening to music, allows the thinking gear to recover and reboot.

5. Do practices that increase attention. Focus zones and managing devices and intrusions are essential to keep the bombardment of working memory at bay, but they are merely shutting out the noise. Increasing the ability to pay attention and retain information takes a different approach, one more akin to gym workouts for the brain. No workout clothes needed. No transit. All you have to do is pump focus through practices that build, instead of muscle memory, memory muscle. You can do that through techniques that help your neurons to hold on to what you are attending to.

The good news is that you don’t have to memorize Mozart to improve your attention quotient. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s the lack of complexity and, instead, focus on a simple target with repetition that builds the part of your cortex where executive attention lives. The act of sustained concentration on a target trains the mind to focus and resist distraction.

The focusing activity can be as basic as counting—backwards, that is—for two minutes. That’s not something you do every day, so you have to pay more attention. Take the target up to 20 minutes with meditation, and you have one of the best ways to increase attention. Studies show meditation increases the actual size of the attention center in your brain. Summon up the mental discipline to focus on a target on a regular basis, and you can dramatically grow your attention skills and read all the way to the end of stories. Are you still with me?

Tags: attention, memory

How to Manage the Stress of Uncertainty

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman victory

Thoughts are not real, but that doesn't stop us from spending a lot of time letting them trigger us, particularly those about events in the future that haven't even happened. That's a problem, because the research shows we are lousy at predicting what's going to happen to us, and yet we burn up massive amounts of time on simulations of the future that are bogus and keep us from maximizing the present.

Uncertainty in volatile times is a big driver of "future" stress. We are born to make our world familiar, since that is the safer path. The unknown is risky, a realm of any number of potential dangers that we are prone to worry about when there is no clarity.


Yet we don't do ourselves any favors by worrying about what's going to happen in the future. Studies show that we vastly overestimate the outcomes of future negative scenarios, from how long the negative consequences will last to the intensity of the experience (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg).

What we are very good at is turning the bad forecasting into stress, since a good chunk of stress is taken up by projecting future calamities. We fall prey to what are known as mental simulations about what might lie ahead, and those tend to be scary. Imaginations run wild with worst-case scenarios.

One psychological model, the Uncertainty and Anticipation Model of Anxiety, argues that the source of clinical anxiety disorders can be tied to ruminations about the probability and cost of future threats—that we misestimate profoundly.

Since we are terrible at divining the future, cutting the amount of time we spend forecasting future dreads would be a big help in navigating the ether of the indeterminant world we live in. You can start to manage uncertainty, then, by getting out of the prediction business, by catching yourself any time your brain starts to lapse into future horror stories.


The problem is mental simulations. For a species that doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, it would be very helpful for survival to have as much in the immediate environment under control and familiar as possible. And that’s what we have tried to do for millennia, aided by the brain’s knack for leaping to the negative. When we encounter the unknown, the mind errs on the side of the bad outcome, no doubt an adaptive process that has helped us make it to the 21stcentury.

The process itself isn’t the problem. We use simulations every day for events miniscule (if I tried this release, my bowling score would improve) to large (visualizing yourself getting a Master’s degree). It’s just that uncertainty spins everything to the dark side.

Personal uncertainty upends our efforts to make the world make sense and have a semblance of meaning, both of which offer a measure of control and purpose in a world that is lot more out of control than we like to admit. 

Researcher R. Nicholas Carleton of the University of Regina in Canada says fear of the unknown may be the fundamental fear of human beings, something so much a part of our experience that it appears to be a separate emotion.  He defines this fear as “an individual’s dispositional incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of salient, key, or sufficient information, and sustained by the associated perception of uncertainty.”


The “aversive response” to the unknown sets off the stress response, and immediate off-the-shelf questions such as "why" and "what's next" and thinking traps that lead to awfulizing about the future. A negative emotional state, especially stress, causes us to dramatically overestimate bad outcomes ahead. One fascinating study that had subjects read a story of a tragic death found that it led to an overestimation of negative future events by 75% (Johnson, Traversky). Fearful people have been found to make much more pessimistic calculations about risk.

So the mood we’re in and how we navigate it is a key lever in preventing simulations that drive anxiety. Avoid mental simulations about the future when you are in a negative mood. Try it when you’re in a better frame of mind. This means raising awareness, so that you can catch yourself when you're in a low mood and put off future imaginings for another time.

The key to defeating stress is being able to appraise the threat in a way that allows you to change its power, from something that overwhelms your capacity to handle it to something controllable. You can do that by vetting catastrophic thoughts of the future with questions such as: That's not true because...And a more productive way to see this is... 

Another way to challenge thoughts is to see them as thoughts, not self-definitions. Emotions attach themselves to words in our verbal universe in habitual ways, making it seem that dire thoughts are real or definitions of who we are, when they are just thoughts.

Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada calls this cognitive fusion. The thought in your head says, I can’t take this any longer, I’m losing it, as if your first name was Losing It. Instead, tell yourself, “I’m having the thought that I can’t take this anymore,” or “I’m having the feeling of losing it.” Labeling your thoughts as thoughts or feelings, which he calls cognitive defusion, separates you from knee-jerk, emotion-word fusings that hold you hostage to false beliefs.


The tough part of uncertainty, of course, is the lack of an end-date. But all periods of high-anxiety uncertainty are temporary, and this reality is important to reframing the story to something survivable that can tune down the anxiety.

Stress and pessimism fuel a distorted belief that the stressful situation is permanent. It’s taking forever. When the uncertainty builds, keep reminding yourself it’s temporary. Keep a log of the positive things that happen each day. Those help build up the engine of resilience, optimism.

You don’t have to know the future to be able to live in the present. The opposite is also true. The more caught up we are in living for tomorrow, the less we can live now in the only tense available for that activity. Trying to find absolute security in a world that is fundamentally insecure drives insecurity and anxiety. 


People who are higher in uncertainty tolerance are more likely to report lower negative affect and higher life satisfaction. You become more resilient and able to bounce back. People with high uncertainty tolerance also are more adaptable, something essential to progress and growth.

Another key to managing the unknown and anxiety is taking a problem-solving approach instead of an emotion-based one. If you can’t solve the problem, don’t despair. Come back to it and look at it from different approaches. You improvise, experiment. It’s a work in progress. You answer anxiety with factual reality, with workarounds that give you a perception of more control.

The reality is we are all in a marathon, not a sprint. We have to pace ourselves, be patient, and see ourselves crossing the finish line on the other side of the crisis. 

If you would like to help your team manage uncertainty and stress as well as stress and pressures on the job, click the button below for details on my Calm in the Storm Stress Management program.

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Tags: resilience, managing stress reactions, employee stress management programs, employee stress management training, uncertainty and stress, managing mental simulations, Covid19 stress, Covid19 anxiety

When Times Get You Down, Look Up at a Giant Sequoia

Posted by Joe Robinson

Sequoia stress relief


After a couple years, it was nice to see an old friend. Though the turbulent times had made the last months seem like ages, my friend offered perspective, reminding me of a more grounding time off the clock.


You see, my friend is 1700 years old, give or take a century. The General Grant giant sequoia has been standing watch over the passage of seasons, humans indigenous and touristic, and millions of squirrels, deer, robins and blue jays since the Roman Empire was headquartered in Constantinople back in 300 A.D. 


Countless empires, plagues, wars, and human struggles have come and gone in the world, while this stalwart has stood watch over this peaceful grove of giants hugging the slopes of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park, just outside the village of Grant Grove, California. It was easy to see from the lens of this colossus that the troubles of our moment will pass too, like all the others before them.




The Grant is the third largest tree in volume on the planet, thanks to its massive girth. It’s base is so wide, it would take twenty humans to link hands around it. 


The first time I saw these whopper trees as a kid, I was floored, not just by their size, but by their age. I remember looking at a cutaway of a tree trunk of one of the giants felled in pre-protected status days. The tree rings inside, which function like a calendar, were matched to historical events going back to B.C. days.


The Grant tree isn’t anywhere near the senior sequoia. The oldest has stood sentinel for 3,266 years. It’s located in the Converse Basin Grove of Giant Sequoia National Monument. Try to imagine this: This tree was alive when pharaoh and mammoth statue-builder, Ramses II, ruled Egypt. Yosemite’s Grizzly Giant is around 3,000 years old, meaning it was here in the Sierras a thousand years before Cleopatra made her entrance.


I’ve visited Grant and his colossal crew many times over the years to marvel at the scale of these massive creatures, be inspired, and also to lose my mind, at least briefly, in the wonder that is expert at overwhelming the fleeting crises and concerns that preoccupy the human brain.


One of the surest ways out of a mind that won't let worries go is to think small. Nature, especially in these enormous dimensions, tells us there is a world beyond the self-referential thoughts we seem to think are the sum total of the universe, beyond momentary dilemmas that feel eternal. 


Giant sequoias and forests full of their whipper-snapper brethren, maybe only 400 or 500 years old, give us what we could all use right now: perspective, which is a powerful stress reducer. Perspective is a stress management tool we don’t use enough that lets us step out of our heads to see the larger picture.


This grove offers timeless solidity in a moment of massive change. It tells us that these stressful times are temporary. It inspires us to see beauty and feel peace even if everything else is going to hell around us. This proves we can entertain positive emotions even amid convulsive negativity.  




Researchers have found that nature—even walking through a city park at lunch time—can lower stress and ease negative mood. It does this by directing attention away from problems and projections to the moment of experience—beautiful landscapes, the aesthetic symmetry of foliage, birdsong, drifting clouds that resemble a turtle or a map of Italy, things that generate positive emotions, which then crowd out the negative.


The experience of natural beauty soothes harried minds so well that it can even be the starting point to bring political opposites together, believes John de Graaf, an award-winning environmental filmmaker and activist who has started a national initiative around the concept, called And Beauty For All. He hopes to stimulate beautification programs in communities across the country by integrating more nature into our day-to-day, such as urban farms, and park and trail developments like the one in Duluth, Minnesota that revitalized the Lake Superior shoreline.


De Graaf believes "all Americans appreciate beauty, regardless of their political views, origin, economic status or creed, and that working to restore beautiful landscapes and create beautiful places is a non-partisan cause that can bring us together and build community in polarizing times."




One of the ironies of life is that we spend a vast amount of time thinking about ourselves and how important our thoughts are, but we are happier when we are thinking about how small we are in the scheme of things. It’s very hard to think about your problems when you are staring at a night sky in the wilderness, jammed with millions of stars and a Milky Way that splashes across the night like a whitewater river.  


Humility is healthy to well-being. The perspective of enormity extracts us from our head and restores the ego to its rightful place, as one of billions traveling on this epic adventure of trial and error.


But it’s not just size that shrinks ego by granting perspective. Many things can give us the distance from ourselves to see that we are more fortunate than we might think. It’s amazing how quickly we can slip the self-talk script by imagining ourselves in other shoes. The evidence is in front of us every day, if we can extract ourselves from rumination and worry.


The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has shown that gratitude is one of the most effective forms of perspective—and stress relief. She has demonstrated that merely spending a minute to think about something you should be grateful for can actually undo the physical symptoms of stress in the body. Digestion starts up again. Heart rate lowers. The immune system reactivates again. She calls it the undo effect.

Fire damage on Grant


Giant sequoias undo it for me. It’s not like they have it easy, standing around all the time, pounded by snow and vicious storms that snap off branches, and charred by eons of fires. During a period from 800 A.D. to 1300 A.D. in a time of frequent drought, fires burned through Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest, which is home to the biggest tree on the planet, the General Sherman giant sequoia, every three to 10 years.


The backside of the General Grant tree is scarred by the blackened remains of fires that have scooped out a large chunk of the trunk a couple feet deep and about 15 feet high. Most giant sequoias show evidence of repeated fire damage. 


The bark of the sequoia, though, is extremely resilient. The outer bark is composed of many fiber bundles that act as a cushion against blunt force as well as a fire retardant. It feels like a sponge to the touch, receding, then springing back again when you take your finger off.


The secret to life the sequoia has evolved is a strategy of bouncing back, something we can do too with a little perspective and a lot of standing tall.


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Tags: stress relief from nature, perspective and stress, general grant tree, giant sequoias

8 Ways to Manage Change

Posted by Joe Robinson

Brain adapting-1

The last couple of years has taught us that there is much beyond our control. It’s a lesson in humility, and, of course, reality, since it’s always been this way, thanks to the ever-changing, moving ground upon which we live.

Nothing is static, including us. But we are in charge of at least one thing, the mind we use to contend with and adapt to change, to new, harsh or difficult conditions. 


Luckily, humans are very good at using brain neurons to help manage change. It’s the hallmark trait of the species -- survival of the most adaptive -- and the engine of our resilience. Coping with threats is what we do. Proof: We're still around.

We have the capacity to bend, not break, in the face of challenge and shift locations, comfort zones, ideas, and self-images when we want to -- or have to. Each of us is an adaptation professional, shape-shifters with a long history of modifying behavior to deal with weather, transit, city life, parents, teachers, peers, supervisors, and partners. 

To live in a world with others is to adapt constantly. The social world is based on cooperation, and the root of cooperation is adapting to the cues and rules around us. Tradition, law and order, manner of speech, fashion – they’re all about adapting to the environment around us.


The essence of adapting to change is finding ways to respond to the different, uncertain, and novel by swapping old ways for workarounds or improvements. We adapt, not only to fit in socially or take a different course when things aren’t working, but also to manage the stress that comes when a new situation demands change. Adapting takes the heat off, keeps us moving forward. In a sense it's natural selection's stress management strategy to help us cope with shifting conditions.

Researchers say adaptability is less of a basic trait or skill and more of a characteristic that combines several elements—cognitive ability, personality traits, personal preferences, and stress and coping skills (Ployhart, Bliese). Let's take a look at behaviors that make it easier to shift habits and attitudes in the face of changes large and small.

Behaviors That Increase Adaptability 

  1. Be flexible.

Flexibility is a super-savvy strategy that makes it easier to align with the volatile impermanence of our world, such as the convulsive pace of technological and organizational change. We don’t use this tool as often as we should, since we have ego-shaped hard heads and are mostly ruled by the law of least effort. The default is to do what’s easy, the way it’s always been, not what's hard.

When you embrace flexibility, though, you rise above rigidity and snap judgments -- that the new thing is bad or too much work or not normal. You then can see flexibility as a path of advancement, a learning tool, and change as the normal event it is. You give yourself permission to not get in the way of your progress.

  1. Arm yourself with the right goal.

Since most of us don’t want to have to make changes, it helps to have the use of a fabulous tool that can make us more willing. Studies show that having the right goal, an intrinsic motivation behind our flexibility, makes it a lot more likely that we will approve of the new thing and stick with it even when it gets difficult or lasts a long time.

When we act for an internal goal, such as service, growth, or civic duty, we are more willing to do something we may not want to. We’re not concerned with an instrumental gain for doing it, an external payoff—such as a bonus or promotion or getting it done ASAP. We do it for its own intrinsic value.

  1. Use your creativity.

As the tool-building animal, we have been able to solve obstacles on the road to civilization with creativity and improvisation. We can get upset about the change, or we can make alterations and see them as creative improvisations. 

When we alter behaviors and learn new ones, it helps us in two areas crucial for our psychological health—mastery and agency, being able to act on our own and be effective in figuring things out. Those lead to gratification, something we all could use more of.

  1. Reappraise change.

It turns out change isn’t an enemy but a longtime friend. Our brains actually want novelty and challenge more than anything else for long-term fulfillment, brain scientist Gregory Berns reports in Satisfaction.  We are programmed for engagement with our world, to see what’s over the next horizon. It’s one of the reasons many of us love to travel.

How primed for change are we? We all are wired for it by what is known as habituation. We are programmed to get sick of things we do or eat over and over. It’s a prod from our biochemistry to learn and discover and try new things/ Fearing novelty is fearing our own innermost aspirations.

  1. Stay open.

If you are willing to try new things or like to dabble, experiment, and follow your curiosity, you are going to have an easier time handling change—and a lot more opportunity to learn and grow from new experiences. Even if you’re not high in the trait of openness, you can still use it as a strategy, a survival strategy, because that’s what it is. We don’t have to be welded to personality behaviors only we are holding ourselves to.

Being open means not having anything on the line when it's time to make an adjustment. Your identity is not up for grabs on the basis of some new way of doing meetings or tracking productivity from home. You measure your worth by internal standards, again, taking the intrinsic road and keeping the ego at bay. Lifelong learners keep pulse rates calm.

 6. Be more agreeable.

We have a choice. We can complain, or we can alter behaviors. That’s something to be positive about. People high on the personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness have an advantage in malleability. They accept changes more readily. But the rest of us can reach the same conclusion using logical deduction. There are many rationales to choose from—service, community, citizenry, growth—any of which should make us more agreeable as purveyors of an intrinsic goal. We do it to do it, not for an external gain.

  1. Stay patient.

We have to manage emotional reactions to change, so we don’t burn up energetic resources on stress overreactions that we need to accommodate to the modification process. This means staying patient and not losing it when we have to do some new thing that takes longer or makes us go out of our way.

Self-regulation is the engine of patience, the discipline to forego instant gratification or constant email checking. It's a resource that is eroded by interruptions and stress, along with impulse control, without which we can't rein in the stress that goes off with new events or conditions. Is it apocalypse now, or something that's just different?

8. See adapting as problem-solving, not personal.

We can’t change personally. Taking setbacks or changes personally triggers the survival equipment that then throws us into reflex emotional reactions. The whole point of adaptation is stress reduction, not activation.

Having skills that allow us to shift from the anxiety and false beliefs of fight-or-flight to rational solutions is key. Choosing problem-solving over emotion-based stress reactions increases ability to adapt and find a solution in a tough situation. Research shows that active stress coping measures that help us confront and resolve obstacles are effective at helping us adapt while passive coping strategies—alcohol, drugs, shopping—are not. Emotion-based reactions make us more fearful and then much less flexible.

We are products of tens of thousands of years of honing our singular survival talent of adaptation. We have the wiring, and we have the examples in our individual lives of travails we have overcome that show us we can bend and not break, just move forward differently, as is the way of the world.

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Tags: stress management training, stress management programs, stress and adaptability, adapting to change, adaptability, resilience programs, employee stress management training

6 Ways to Stay Calm Under Pressure

Posted by Joe Robinson

Baby with no stress

Even if your artistic talent barely goes beyond stick figures, the mind can be super-creative when it comes to one unfortunate category: projected calamity. Most of us have no trouble at all concocting vivid images of imminent disaster. We are all Picassos when it comes to the art of conjuring worst-case scenarios.


Your spouse/partner/relative/friend isn’t back home at the expected hour, and the dire projections erupt. Accident, foul play, you’ll never see them again. You get two blocks from the house, and you can’t remember if you left the stove on. Visions of  conflagration erupt, and you turn around to check the stove. The burners stare back at you in perfect “off” position, and you’re happy no one else saw you.

The client doesn’t return an email when you expect it, and thoughts turn to rejection and a certain lost sale. They get back to you a couple days later with good news. The boss says she wants to see you in the office, and you start getting your resume ready, but, instead, she compliments you on your work.

We all suffer an unending series of false alarms in life, created and inflicted by our own minds. Why do we do this to ourselves? We are wired to be alarmists. The default of the human brain is to the negative, to fear and worry, to being on the alert for threats to safety and survival. Where does the brain go in a quiet moment? To problems, anxieties, stress.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

One of the keys of getting rid of stress and anxiety is to stop self-inflicting, by not grabbing the false beliefs set off by the brain's broken car alarm. In my stress management training and coaching work for companies and individuals, we focus on how to manage thoughts and turn off the bogus danger signal. 

The hyper-attunement to threats has insured survival for the species, but it has also guaranteed that we spend a lot of our lives sweating for nothing. This means frequent bouts of stress that undermine health, attention, relationships, and quality of life. 

When the going gets tough or when sudden potential calamity appears, worst-case scenario thinking is the last place we want the mind to go. It leads, not just to the fantasy catastrophes touched off the irrational emotions of the ancient brain, which take over in a state of fear and panic, but also to the shutdown of the rational and calm thinking required to solve the problem.


Case in point: the rip tide, a strong ocean current created by troughs in the sea floor that can sweep swimmers out to deep water. When you are caught in one, it’s like being in a river in the ocean, and that river is flowing in the opposite direction from shore. I’ve had a lot of encounters with rips over the years. When I got caught in one for the first time as a kid, I did what everyone does. Fueled by the panic of the river sucking you out to sea, I swam frantically directly against it for the beach.

It was all reflex reaction, no thinking. Reflexes get in the way of higher brain function and set us up for bad decisions, rash and wrong. I was no match going straight into the force of Mother Nature and quickly wore myself out flailing for shore. I got sucked out further to sea. A lifeguard swam out and helped extricate me from the frothy, brackish soup that colors a riptide. I learned the way out of a rip is not following reflex. It’s using your head. You have to swim parallel to the beach until you are out of the current. Then you can swim right in.

The fight-or-flight alarm was not made for riptides. It wasn’t made for the vast majority of incidents that set off panicked thinking in the 21stcentury. We can’t let this out-of-time mechanism drive autopilot fear and stress. The problem is that the survival equipment is very quick on the trigger, capable of setting off the fight-or-flight response within .02 hundredths of a second. We have to make adjustments to reflex mode to have smarter responses and less primal fears.

We can do it by training ourselves to have the opposite reaction under pressure, to be calm in the storm. We can do this one of two ways—by being calm enough on the front end so that we don’t go off, or by catching ourselves quickly when we do.


We all know people who don’t lose it in dicey times. It can be done. Some cultures are adept at this. I used to live in England, a place where the unflappable, stiff-upper-lip approach has many adherents. Keep calm and carry on. As long as they are not reacting on the inside, which is unhealthy, it’s a coping style that can keep you thinking clearly so you get through tough challenges.

This brings us to one of the most helpful qualities in the human tool kit: the ability to stay calm under fire. This means increasing self-regulation resources to maintain discipline over emotions and impulse control and becoming adept at the non-reaction. Let’s take a look at some of these key components of calm.


1. Focus on the facts. Short-circuit the brain’s hysteria equipment by refusing to jump to the worst-case explanation.  Avoid catastrophic thoughts by identifying all the facts and evidence of the situation—the most likely story of what’s going on. Make a long list of evidence, and the data itself will calm nerves by waking up the modern brain, which can then reclaim command from the ancient interloper. There’s always a logical explanation.

2. Decelerate. When fear touches off the broken mental car alarm, this signals the body to roar into hyper-activation mode. To stay calm, we have to counter overreaction and over-stimulation with deceleration. We can do this by downshifting the mood with calm music that can either soothe the savage beast inside your head or empowering music that makes you feel strong and powerful to take on the challenge. Music also orders thought, so it helps you organize rational thoughts to counter the seeming catastrophic.

3. Activate impulse control. While the ancient wiring wants a volcanic eruption of fear and panic, we can override that with strong impulse control to maintain discipline. We use impulse control every day, not saying what we really think about someone, not screaming when a dispute turns infuriating.  We’ve all done it. We can all do it. We just need to be able to deploy non-reaction in scenarios when the inner alarmist pops up. Research says we have more self-regulation resources when we have a full supply of blood glucose. Resupply discipline resources with strategic additions of glucose (lemonade, energy bars) during the day.

4. Embrace non-reaction.  The great human challenge is to avoid responding emotionally when our buttons are pushed. To counter the reactive reflex, we have to be prepared. Identify stress and fear triggers and develop scenarios of non-reaction to them. Turn off the ego, which fans the emotions that drive and accelerate crazed reactions. Repeat to yourself, “I don’t react” for a couple of minutes when a worst-case reaction goes off. You’re not going to fall for the knee-jerk response. You’re going to rise above your own ego and brain and play tricks on them, instead of the other way around.

5. Practice patience. Non-reaction is attainable when we have the ability to step back from a false alarm and put a reaction on pause. Taking deep breaths for a minute will un-tense muscles (stress = tensed muscles) and keep the bogus alarm from rooting in the brain. The more the catastrophic thought is allowed to spiral unchallenged, it’s perceived as real and drives us over the edge into hysterical thinking. Patience is the dragon slayer of fear and stress reactions. It gives us time to think our way to a solution.

6. Build attention. The more attention you have, the less stress. In the moment of a worst-case-scenario alarm, your attention is gone, swept away to a fictitious future by the ancient brain. Building up your executive attention function can keep you present when the false alarms go off. The key to increasing attention is focus on a target. Try chess, dancing, learning a language. all of which focus on the moment.

The best way to boost attention, say researchers, is the relaxation response and mindfulness, two variations on the same theme: meditation. Not only do they increase your focus, they also tamp down on the self-referential part of the brain that incites fear—what’s going to happen, how am I going to make it, what am I going to do?

When you ask people the ultimate thing they would like in their life—beyond money, beyond stuff, beyond status and beauty, the bottom line for many is simply “peace.” We just want to have the stuff bugging us and preoccupying our minds to disappear. We get there through calm, the mild-mannered agent that turns fears, problems, and chaos to thoughtful responses and solutions.

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The Science of Variety: Why It Can Make You Happier

Posted by Joe Robinson

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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.”


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. 


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.


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 intentional 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.


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.


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

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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.


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.


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 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.


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

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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, or colleague, lets them know 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 cite a series of mysterious burnout symptoms—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 trained to expect. 

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 have 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.


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 literal textbook burnout definition in 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.


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.


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 burnout 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


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 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 get rid of burnout 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

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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.  


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 and job satisfaction 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. 


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.


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.


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

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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 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.


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.


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.


Pessimistic explanatory style makes us see a bad event in an all-or-nothing situation—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.


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.

If you are interested in how to manage stress and build resilience for your team or organization, click the button below for details on my stress management and work-life balance trainings.

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