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8 Ways to Increase Adaptability in the New Normal

Posted by Joe Robinson

Brain adapting-1

The pandemic is a big reminder that, despite the best-laid plans, 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 new conditions – and the key to surviving and thriving in a COVID-19 world. 


Luckily, humans are very good at using brain neurons to help us adapt. It’s the hallmark trait of the species -- survival of the most adaptive -- and the engine of our resilience. Coping with existential threats is what we do. 

During a long glacial period between 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, the ancestors of our species were reduced from about 10,000 to a few hundred souls living in caves on the southern coast of Africa. And that was just the start of our years of living dangerously. We would overcome still more ice ages, survive desert living, and even adapt to living in a concrete jungle.

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 adaptability is finding ways to respond to the unpredictable, 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). Amid a pandemic, it’s a good time to dig in to these components and brush up on 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 and pandemics. 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, indolence, 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.

Of course, you don’t want to be too flexible when it comes to any threat to your health. We have to be guided by the health experts on virus concerns. Period.

  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, say, helping our fellow citizens stay healthy. Having a goal to beat the virus together reminds us of why we’re making the changes and sacrifices we are and that helps us stick with the new behavior.

  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 see it today in all the personalized masks people are making. YouTube videos show Brazilians making masks from socks. A French company has designed a plastic lamp shade that shields restaurant diners from each other.

We have to change how we do a lot of formerly rote activities at the office and at home. We can get upset about it, or we can make alterations and see them as creative improvisations. If you are a salesperson and can’t meet clients in person, you could send them targeted video pitches to help with the sale. 

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 could use more of these days.

  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. 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.

Avoiding a killer virus doesn’t tend to put us in a good mood. There are a lot of tough things happening to people who don’t deserve it. Naturally, it leads to a lot of negative mood and anxiety. Yet we have a choice. We can complain, or we can alter behaviors that can save our lives and the lives of others. 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—survival, 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 take the changes brought on by COVID-19 personally. This is something we are all going through. 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 would all like the COVID crisis to be over yesterday. Fortunately, we are the 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.

Learn how to help your employees manage change, uncertainty, and stress in the time of COVID-19 with our CALM IN THE STORM stress management and resilience program. Click the button below for details.

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Tags: managing covid changes, stress and adaptability, adapting to change, adaptability

A Stress Management Strategy Is Essential Work for Every Firm in the Pandemic

Posted by Joe Robinson

Mountain top rally copy

As companies slowly return to a new world after lockdown, there are a host of changes in store for workplaces. Plans call for everything from apps that track who you’ve been in contact with, to regular temperature screenings, carpet that designates a six-foot radius around a desk, snap-on partitions between desks, and foot pulls on doors to avoid knobs and handles.

What I don’t hear at the top of wish lists is something just as critical to employee and organizational health, something every company needs to be planning in a period of wrenching change, risk, and uncertainty: a stress management strategy.


We are in the thick of the worst pandemic in a century, combined with possibly the worst economic collapse since the Depression. That is having a major impact on mental health. Two-thirds of Americans report feeling anxious, lonely, or hopeless in a survey by the National Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Meanwhile, 88% of workers reported moderate to extreme stress in a survey by the health company Ginger, with 62% of them saying they lost an hour a day of work due to COVID-19 stress, and 32% lost two hours.

We can’t go back to business as usual or act like a traumatic event of the scope of a pandemic didn’t happen. There are high levels of fear for personal and family safety, a steady tide of RIPs in Facebook feeds, ongoing social distancing and isolation, financial hardship, childcare issues, and painful uncertainty about how long it will all last. Employees are going to need a lot of support and guidance to get through possibly another year of living with risk.


You can have the best physical mitigation measures, but if the mental health side is ignored, it can lead to cynicism, burnout, depression, absenteeism, substance abuse, and worse, not to mention the impact all that has on performance under unprecedented pressure. Experts are predicting post-traumatic stress surges for frontline workers. Even if your team is not on the frontlines, we are all absorbing a tremendous amount of grief and anxiety that will affect us and shape mood for a long time.

Organizations need to be able to bolster the mental health of employees under duress in the pandemic by giving them skills to be resilient and counter the default pessimistic track with the science of optimism.

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Of course, there was no shortage of stress at work pre-virus. To transition staff to a mid-pandemic workplace, organizations need a stress management plan to manage major upheaval and change and navigate ambiguity. Most experts say that this battle isn’t going to end until there’s a vaccine, at the earliest next year.


We know how high stress undermines organizations. It creates 46% higher health costs, and 40% of employees who leave companies cite stress as the reason (Sparks). Stress undermines decision-making, intellect, judgment, and impulse control, leading to conflict and poor interactions with colleagues and customers. Stress sabotages attention (i.e. productivity) as it directs attention to thoughts in tenses other than the one with the task at hand.

What would a stress management plan look like? It could start with a stress management training for employees and management, an orientation on return that lets folks know we are all in this together and that we can make our lives and work easier with tools that increase resilience and coping capacity.

Almost all of us are flying blind when it comes to stress management, since the culture doesn’t teach us those skills. So the need now for everyone to understand how to manage it is crucial. The default to stressors large and small is to autopilot reflex, catastrophic thoughts and false beliefs that drive stress. Yet everyone on your team has the power to manage demands, instead of be managed by them, even in a pandemic.


Stress management programs should address the pandemic head-on and the issues created by it, which span work and life. Our virtual stress management training, for instance, Calm in the Storm, brings together tools to navigate change, uncertainty, and anxiety during COVID-19 and also equips employees with stress reduction and smarter-work skills for the task bottlenecks and normal pressure points of the job.

Since our thoughts are what generate stress, employees learn how to reframe the false stories of stress, think before they react, and switch from emotion-based reactions to problem-solving-based solutions.

Did you know we all have, not just a physical immune system, but also a psychological one? We are highly resilient, when we know how to exercise that system, something our stress management training helps your team do.

After the training, it’s important to develop an ongoing stress management and resilience support system—to sustain the new practices and negotiate a long period of ups and downs of the virus, economy, sales, marketplace, and events that fuel pessimism and impatience. This can include ongoing webinars, support groups within the company as well as on-call support with one-on-one counseling and coaching, all of which we can help with.

If there was ever a time for teamwork, this is it, both within organizations and the nation. One of the best ways to build that is through a stress management plan that gives everyone the practical and emotional support needed in overwhelming times. 

For details on our virtual stress management and resilience program, Calm in the Storm, please click the button below.

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South Korea Shows How We Break Coronavirus and Panic

Posted by Joe Robinson

Coronavirus test

A swing through local grocery stores in my city shows the clear evidence of panic. You can’t buy large containers of water or toilet paper in my part of Los Angeles anymore unless you are there when the shipments arrive. The shelves are bare, stripped by hoarders as if a hurricane was about to hit.

That storm, of course, is the coronavirus, COVID-19. Though there are only 16 known cases in a county of 10 million people, emotional contagion is infecting thousands, and millions across the country and globe. It’s a fever spiking in a vacuum of hard data and missing aggressive measures to counter the virus.


Hysteria doesn’t follow facts or science. It operates on reflex default to our caveman brain and its raw, irrational emotions. It’s time for voices of reason to step forward before we have hand-to-hand combat in the Charmin aisle. That reason and a way out of this mess is coming from South Korea, where coronavirus cases are decreasing while they are going up everywhere else.

The swift spread of COVID-19 in just four months to 100 nations and 46 U.S. states has plenty behind it to drive fear. The coronavirus is highly contagious. It can be spread by people who are not symptomatic, and, as a German study reports, can remain transmissible even after the end of symptoms. It appears to have the capability of doubling every week, since it spreads to two or three people per infection.

The virus has proven deadly for seniors (15% fatality rate for those over 80), those with underlying health issues, and many health workers have gotten infected. It has the potential to make millions of Americans sick, if it’s not brought under control, not to mention wipe out industries from travel to restaurants and whatever is left of retail and the workers who depend on these industries for survival. It’s a big deal, a now official global pandemic.

Yet there is hope in data out of South Korea. The number one panic driver of COVID-19 is the perceived fatality rate, which the World Health Organization estimates at 3.4%. That's high, given that the death rate for flu is 0.1%, and that causes some 61,000 deaths annually in the U.S,, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Accurate numbers on the death rate have been hard to come by in the confusion and chaos of this new virus, but the Koreans have uncovered a way to attack it. It appears that the virus may not be as lethal as feared. 


South Korea has been the second hardest hit nation by COVID-19 after China. They have more than 7755 cases, but infections in the hardest hit area, Daegu, have been decreasing. Confirmed cases in Korea dropped from 686 on March 2 to 131 this week, according to the Washington Post. This is because the Koreans jumped into action immediately with massive testing of the affected population areas and measures that have mitigated the threat. They shut down big public events, kept people away from areas of infection, and went as far as to track people with coronavirus by GPS. 

The Koreans are showing that the key to managing the coronavirus, and the panic that comes with it, is testing. More than 240,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 in South Korea, massively more than anywhere else, particularly the U.S., where only some 11,000 have been tested as of March 11, reports CNN. The Koreans have been testing 10,000 people a day. The Korean government opened 53 drive-through testing stations that allow people to be tested without having contact with another person. 

As a result, the Koreans have been able to determine the universe of infected people, and so they can produce an accurate fatality rate from the virus.

Without knowing how many people are infected, scientists can’t compute a credible death rate. The Korean data has shown that the coronavirus has a death rate of 0.65% to 0.71%.


The 3.4% estimate of WHO is alarming, and no doubt, it has helped fuel panic. Yet if that percentage does not reflect the wider population who have COVID-19 with very minimal symptoms and aren't being figured into the calculations, then that number is wrong.

Time reports that COVID-19 may not be as bad in terms of its lethality as previously thought. “Since the COVID-19 outbreak began to pick up steam in China in January, experts have been scrambling to get a handle on the disease and the way it behaves. But they have also warned that estimates are not exact, and that numbers are likely to shift over time. One key reason: people with milder versions of the illness are underrepresented in official case counts, since they may not be sick enough to seek medical attention or realize they have anything more than a cold. Some people, research now suggests, may get infected by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, without showing any symptoms at all.”

The Chinese analyzed 70,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and found that 80% of COVID-19 cases are mild, which means many likely don’t get reported or found—unless, like the Koreans, health officials are aggressively testing tens of thousands of people. The Koreans are showing the world how to do it. 

Testing, testing, and more testing is the key to control the virus and along with it the anxiety that drives the fear of what we don’t know. “If you’re not doing thousands of tests a day, you’re not ready,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, an epicenter of the disease in the U.S., on MSNBC. She said the state is ramping up testing, including a drive-up clinic for nurses and medical people to get tested in Seattle. We need a lot more of this now anywhere where there are cases. We need to be testing thousands of people a day.


Unlike for SARS, testing is easy for the coronavirus. The German study above found that swabbing the throat or nasal passage is highly successful in identifying COVID-19. The researchers found replication of the virus in the throat.

Time reports that the mortality rate of COVID-19 looks more like the seasonal flu (0.1% death rate) than SARS (10% fatality rate) or MERS (34% death rate) and says that more testing capacity is the key. Yet the coronavirus is going to cause much more illness and health system havoc because of its easy transmissibility, long duration (average 14 days compared to 5-7 for flu; serious cases can last six weeks), and potential to overrun hospitals and ERs and a limited number of ventilators needed for the most acute cases.

However, if the actual fatality rate of COVID-19 is closer to the range for flu, less than 1%, that makes a big difference in how we think about this pandemic and could, if confirmed and widely broadcast, start to turn down the panic and turn up the mitigation efforts—staying away from large gatherings, closing schools, companies switching to telework, self-quarantining for anything resembling cold or flu, washing hands and not touching the face, and, of course, testing. We have to do all these things fast, like yesterday.

We should all be lobbying our political leaders and health agencies to do as Korea did, as much testing as soon as possible. We don't have to reinvent the wheel. 

We will get through this. The Koreans have shown us how.

Pass it on.

Tags: COVID-19, coronavirus testing, surviving coronavirus, coronavirus, stopping coronavirus

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.

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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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Tags: deadline pressure, deadline stress, how to stay calm, how to avoid panic, how to not freak out, how to calm your nerves, calming fears

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.”


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 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.


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


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 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.


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.


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 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 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

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman w hammer keyboard

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.


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).


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.


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.


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.

To improve impulse control and focus on your team, please click the button below for details on our stress management and time management training programs.

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