Working Smarter

6 Ways to Stop Thinking About Work and Be Where You Are

Posted by Joe Robinson

Cyclist takes a bike break copy

We don’t have to wait for a time machine to travel into the future or past. We already have one inside our skull. The mind transports us backward and forward in time and to places other than where we are with such abandon, we all have millions of frequent flyer miles racked up in internal jet-setting.

All the travel makes for lots of split-tense headaches and fractured attention. It’s responsible for one of the most popular aspirations of working people everywhere these days. I asked the audience at a keynote I did recently for the Arizona Council’s Thriving in Times of Change conference what work-life balance means to them, and a woman answered: “When I’m at home, I’m not thinking about work, and when I’m at work, I’m one hundred percent at work.”


Great answer. We have to be fully present to our life at any given moment to truly experience it. This is when we are the most absorbed in the experience, connected to others, most in control, less stressed, the more we like what we’re doing, and feel a lot less guilt. And obviously, the only tense in which we can experience happiness, or anything else for that matter, is the one we are in now.

Guilt drives the dislocation experience that undercuts work-life balance, making us feel guilty when we’re at home and there's work to do/think about and when at work, there are people/responsibilities at home to whom/which we're not giving enough attention.

Especially in the era of nattering devices, there are a lot of good reasons we need to be able to detach ourselves from time traveling thoughts that intrude into whatever we are doing, work or home. First of all, guilt drives stress. Ruminative thoughts of needing to be where you aren’t self-inflict anxiety and interruptions that make anything we do seem more aggravating than it is, say researchers.

Beyond that, Roy Baumeister and colleagues at Florida State University found that when we have thoughts of things still left to do orbiting our brains, they butt into the task we’re on, making it more difficult to complete the task. One eye on another time and place hinders any task performance by driving stress about the undone items and making it take more effort to do the thing in front of us.

Given that all of us have more work to do than we can complete by day's end, it’s easy to lapse into guilt mode when leaving for the day. It can make us try to catch up on more work emails at home. It’s very tempting, since the brain hates unfinished loops, and nags us when there are tasks undone.


How to stop thinking about work has a lot to do with something that has gone the way of the dodo: boundaries. In an unbounded world, we have to proactively set perimeters, or we can never get the mental separation from work thoughts that lets us enjoy time off-the-clock with friends and family, hobbies, or interests.

In a Harvard study (Nash, Stevenson), the key trait of professionals who had true satisfaction in their lives was found to be “the deliberate imposition of limits.” They were able to get to the “just enough” point in a given day or on a given project and didn’t have to overdo it.

Another big factor in exiting the present is ever-shrinking attention spans. Attention is a function of self-regulation, another kind of boundary—the discipline and will power to concentrate on one thing at a time.

The more interruptions you have, the more impulse control is eroded, as the intrusions shred the effortful control mechanism of your executive attention function that gives you the power to self-regulate.

The more you check email, the more you have to check it. The harder it is to regulate impulsivity, the more you self-distract and flit from one thing to another. Your attention span shrinks and the mind devolves to the focus of a frantic flea.


Being fully at home when you are not at work and engaged in the moment of the task in front of you when you’re at work requires two main things, the ability to be absorbed in the mental and physical engagement of now, and secondly, being able to reduce the yammering that comes from your survival equipment and the self-referential part of the brain that’s always asking: What’s going to happen? How am I going to make it? What’s wrong? What do I have to do at home/at work?

Our species should be called homo worrywart, since the default is to the negative and time travel to thoughts about what could go wrong. This has insured our survival over the millennia while saddling minds with endless departures from the present to projected anxieties and concerns.

The good news is that we can corral errant attention and keep the self-referential default under control, if we can create perimeters around work and life and manage the thoughts in our head. We can control the frenzied mind and its constant departures to angsty realms too well-known by learning how to not engage with the stuff in the other tenses. Here are some ways to do that:


1. Set boundaries. Set a stop time that tells you the workday is over. What will your stop time be? 6 p.m.? 7 p.m.? Set the alarm on your phone. After this time, you won’t check work email and will be available to interests and people on the home front.

2. Create a buffer zone after work to transition to the life side, something that brings the pressure down and the patience up. You can read, listen to music, do yoga something that adjusts the pulse rate downward.

3. Activate work recovery strategies. The science of work recovery says we have to detach ourselves from work thoughts and the stress that comes with them, or they come back to work with us the next day. You can do that through relaxation, recreation, or mastery activities, such as hobbies that allow you to increase your skill at some activity. The latter is the most effective at reducing stress, since it builds esteem and confidence that make us feel good and crowd out the negative.

4. Choose intrinsic goals. Don’t look for an external payoff. Do whatever you are doing for the fun, enjoyment, excellence, service, learning, for the inherent interest of whatever you’re doing. That roots you in the present. Research shows that we act for no payoff, we get one internally, in the form of full engagement in the moment that satisfies core needs such as autonomy and competence.

5. Don’t engage with the time traveling thoughts in your brain. Just because the thought or belief is in your brain doesn’t mean you have to engage with it or even believe it. Not grabbing false beliefs is one of the keys to managing stress and your mind. Notice the thought and come back to the present.

6. Do the best thing you can do to both increase attention and reduce the self-referential rabble in your brain—meditate. The science shows that meditation, whatever form you use, from mindfulness to the relaxation response, builds attention and calms the worrywart. There is nothing better for cutting out obsessive thinking and rumination and getting you used to just observing thoughts and not having to grab them and get swept down the projection track.

Yes, there is a lot of overlap and intermingling between work and home these days, thanks to technology and our super-busy lives. Yes, it’s not always possible to get the separation we need, but the goal isn’t perfection. It’s creating enough discrete space to experience work and home life as separate affairs during the week that we feel available to our lives and others outside the office and have the ability to participate in that life to the point where we don’t feel resentment about life missing in action.

One of the best things about sharpening the focus on every moment of our lives is that we remember what we do when we’re paying attention, as opposed to the non-imprint that happens when we’re blowing through to the next item on the list. Since your memory tells you whether you like your life or not, being where you are is a kind of insurance policy that you have the kind of memories that tell you life is more than work and errands and utilitarian tasks. Your memory proves it to you.

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Tags: turning off work stress, mindfulness, mind management, work-home perimeter, attention and work-life balance, how to leave work at work

How Nature Stomps Stress and Builds a Positive Mind

Posted by Joe Robinson


Stand in a lush meadow with grasses swaying gently in the breeze, surrounded by dramatic peaks rising up out of a U-shaped valley, such as at Kings Canyon National Park’s Zumwalt Meadow (photo above), and something remarkable happens.

Cortisol levels and a protein enzyme, a-amylase, both markers of stress, go down. Positive emotions and attention go up, which further crowd out the distractor of stress, whose wont is for us to be in the two tenses we're not in, instead of the one we are.

Maybe we ought to be spending more time outdoors? That’s what more and more studies are finding. The natural world is a kind of ambient medicine, an antidote to tension, pressures, and preoccupation, a restorative that helps the mind recover from nagging psychological demands and their physiological impacts on our bodies, and lets us taste some work-life balance.


It’s a stress management strategy you can use even in the middle of the city. All you have to do is stroll in a park or some greenery. As an undergrad at Stanford, Gregory Bratman wanted to understand why urban dwellers and workers had less anxiety in green spaces. He had subjects in his study walk through a green parkway for 90 minutes while others ambled along a highway.

Brain scans measured the state of their subgenual prefrontal cortex, home to brooding and obsessive thoughts, before and after. The folks who walked in the natural setting were found to have less ruminative thoughts that fuel stress and had, as a result, improved their mental health. The highway jaunt didn't have those benefits.

With the growing amount of time spent inside staring at screens these days—which reduces attention and increases stress—there’s no doubt we could use the tonic of natural environments to help manage demands and prevent attention spans from shrinking to that of a gnat.

Today’s science confirms what campers, hikers, visitors to mountain resorts, beach-goers, sages, and nature writers have felt instinctively. As Henry David Thoreau put it, “There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”

It feels good to be in the natural world for a host of reasons. It overwhelms worries, uplifts spirits, and makes us want to put on our kid hat again. For centuries, a trip to natural springs or mountain lodges, the fresh-air cure, was the medical prescription for a host of maladies.


Greenery, open spaces, bodies of water, towering ridges, and inspiring landscapes have a calming and therapeutic effect on humans, and no doubt the fact that they are where we come from has something to do with it. Researcher Roger Ulrich argues in his studies that natural environments resonate with us since they provided us with elements key to survival—such as water and spatial openness. Perhaps we feel we are back at home at some level.

Certain natural features are particularly uplifting, such as bodies of water. There's some science behind it too. Air molecules in highly humidified environments retain negative ions, and humans seem to have better mood when in their midst.

Ocean waves and especially waterfalls are hubs for negative air ions, which, unlike negative emotions, say some researchers, can elevate mood and function as an anti-depressant. Maybe that is part of the magic of surfing or watching vertical rivers plunge to earth.

Then, of course, there is the beauty and scale of the natural vista itself, which, like music, helps soothe the addled mind and lead to pleasant reveries and wonderment. The German writer Goethe called wonder “the highest man can attain.”

Wondering removes minds from self-preoccupation and ego and makes us realize our small bit part in something much larger. That gets us out of our self-obsessed heads, always a plus on the blood pressure front.


The operative element in this shift from me-me-me to the world and the moment before us is an exotic realm called “attention.” Researchers have found that natural settings promote a particular kind of restorative to overburdened mental faculties, a recovery from “attention fatigue.”

Stephen and Rachel Kaplan developed a framework around the enhancing cognitive effects of being in nature they called Attention Restoration Theory. They found a progression of attentional states that nature helps encourage: a clearer head or concentration, mental fatigue recovery, fascination or interest, and reflection and restoration.

Green settings help that mental reboot by sidelining worries and to-do's as attention shifts to scenes of non-threatening openness and beauty that command focus.

How natural of a setting do you have to be in to get the restorative benefits of nature? Studies have found that walking in a green space, even a city park, is more therapeutic than walking in the concrete jungle and running outdoors is better at reducing negative emotions than on a treadmill.

Alan Ewert and Yun Chang did a study zeroing in on the degree of restorative benefits of various kinds of natural and urban greenery settings. They measured the effect of a lake area surrounded by wilderness forest and hiking trails, a municipal park with walking paths, and an indoor recreational facility with a running track, treadmills and a weight room. The results showed that the wilderness lake had the highest levels of stress reduction, the least worries about demands, and the biggest increase in level of joy.


The last element is a key one, since it no doubt accounts for the uptick in positive emotions that kick out negative and ruminative states in natural settings. Joy is one of the chief positive emotions, along with interest, contentment, and love, identified by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina as emotions that broaden and build our psychological resources and serve as stress buffers.

Fredrickson says joy helps us engage in enjoyments, and sets off the urge to play and be spontaneous—all participant actions that get us into the thick of experiences beyond the utilitarian that help us gratify core needs.

Follow the green, and you can take advantage of one of Fredrickson's more nifty discoveries—the "undo effect." The joy, inspiration, beauty, and serenity of green space can put you into a state of mind where the positive emotions literally shut off any physiological symptoms of stress. Digestion starts up again. Blood pressure goes back down to normal. Heartbeat slows down. 

What stress would you like to undo today? Find the nearest park and head there on a break or the way home from work. You can write your own prescription.

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Tags: nature and stress, therapeutic effects of being in nature, reducing stress in nature

8 Things You Can Do to Leave Work Stress at Work and Sleep Better

Posted by Joe Robinson

Bicycle riders

More and more of us are taking work home with us, and I’m not talking about checking work email at the dinner table. I'm referring to the stowaway work thoughts that we can’t turn off and keep us on the job, even if we’re at home.

Not being able to shut off work in our heads is a huge problem that drives chronic stress, robs us of recovery time and life balance, and hops in bed at night with us to throttle and blow up our sleep. And if all that weren’t bad enough, new research has found that stress doesn’t just make it harder to sleep, but that the sleep loss it causes itself makes us even more anxious, providing a tag team of stress that operates in a vicious cycle.


It turns out that poor sleep can cause anxiety all by itself. U. C. Berkeley researchers Eti Ben Simon and Matthew Walker found that sleep deprivation caused a 30% increase in anxiety levels, an amount similar to that in people with anxiety disorders. Brain scans showed that the rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, had less activity, while the emotional regions had more.

With the analytical part of the brain subordinated to emotional focus, one of the purposes of sleep—to counter the activation of strain during the day and provide rest and resetting through the body’s own balancing operation—was undermined.

When we take stress home with us and don’t have work recovery and stress management strategies to get the stress down, we set ourselves up for a pattern of cumulative and chronic stress that piles on and becomes an unwelcome bedtime companion.

Insomnia is one of the most common side effects of stress, causing some 75% of cases. The stress response keeps the survival equipment activated even when we are sleeping, including the hormone of cortisol, which is an arousal agent. It’s a stimulant, like drinking a couple cups of coffee before bedtime. 

Guzzling caffeine is not a prescription for sweet dreams, and neither is a flood of cortisol, which is designed to heighten alertness and battle-stations mode for life-and-death moments. The normal pattern of cortisol in the body is that we get sleepy when our cortisol levels are at their lowest, just before shuteye, and we wake up when they are at their highest, in the morning.

Stowaway work stress or any kind of stress blows that up, resulting in fitful nights that, as the new research shows, create additional anxiety. The reason for this is that insomnia and chronic sleep problems set off pretty much the same cascade of sleep-disruption changes in the body as the stress response. The heart rate increases, body temperature goes up (which also wakes us up), and, of course, cortisol jumps too, creating what is known as an “over-alertness obstacle” to getting to sleep and staying asleep.



The answer to this one-two punch to the sleeping gut is to turn off the events of the workday when we leave the office. The key to do doing that, say work recovery researchers, are strategies that allow us to detach ourselves from work thoughts.

This is hard for many of us to do, since our culture has trained us to believe that self-worth comes from only one part of our identity, work. As a result, we fixate on all the events of work with nothing else to take their place.

So the first place to start to get separation from the job is to understand that the performance identity of our professional side is not the sum total of our self-worth. It’s just part of who we are, a persona, that provides an easy social handle for others. If we find worth nowhere but on the job, we default to that and the thoughts it generates even when we are not at the desk.

Our real identity lies in a realm that is the whole point of the work, life. This is the hiding-in-plain-sight counterbalance to the demands of the job and the tensions that come from it, and it's the goal of all work-life balance—to get more of it on the table.

Studies show that engaged leisure activities reduce stress (Coleman, Iso-Ahola), restore energy, boost positive mood through control and social support (Chalip, Thomas), and increase mastery and core needs, such as autonomy and competence.

Work recovery strategies that interrupt, crowd out stressful thoughts, and shift mood can turn off the cycle of stowaway work stress. Yet they don’t happen by themselves. We have to make them happen and be the entrepreneur of our life through proactive decisions to engage with recovery activities—relaxation processes, recreation, and mastery activities, the latter of which is the most effective at cutting stress, since it builds esteem and competence, which crowd out intrusive negative thoughts.

dance class

We have to see life activation, participation in recreation, and, yes, recess as valuable as the work. There’s no success like recess. Stepping back resets the brain, restores energy, recharges and refuels. The two keys to sustainable happiness, Sonia Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon found in their research, is initiating intentional activities and sustaining intentional activities.

So let’s start flipping the switch on stress. Here are some key steps:


1. Mark the end of the workday with a lights-out finishing ritual. Turn your coffee mug over, turn off the light in the office, unplug from work email. Create an action that lets you know the swarm of work thoughts is over for the day.

2. Set stop times. You can set your phone to trigger an alarm to go off an hour before the end of the workday to give you an early-warning that it's time to start winding down and to go off again when it’s time to go. There’s more work and email than anyone can do in a day. We have to cultivate a regular schedule of stopping the work part of the day and starting the life part, or it doesn’t happen.

3. Create a buffer zone after work. I call it a “pressure drop,” the first 30 minutes when you get home. You are like a deep-sea diver coming up from the depths of high pressure and now you have to adjust to another zone. This is a good time for relaxation strategies—walking, listening to music you like (which is super-effective at shifting mood and negative emotions with it), meditation, yoga.

4. Dispute rumination. If you are thinking about some work event over and over, stop and dispute it. The stress alarm driving the rumination is false. You are not going to die from the catastrophic or extreme thought in your head. Identify the false story behind the stress, the most likely story (just the facts), and create a new story going forward. You will handle it. You always do.

5. Counterpunch thoughts of fatigue that prevent you from getting out and engaging in fun activities that reduce stress. It's more of a mood than a state of physical paralysis. You can do this by making a plan, putting it on your calendar and having an alarm go off to remind you to get off the couch. Don't fall for the first mood. As soon as you are out at your intentional activity, you will be glad you are participating in your life.

6.Treat recreation like brushing your teeth or watching your cholesterol. It’s your key to health and emotional hygiene. Get out rain or shine to the gym, to run, ride a bike, see a movie. Intentional activities make up the 40% of our potential happiness that we actually have control over.

7. Start life-tasting. Get online and research potential classes you can take—pottery, painting, volleyball, dancing. Sign up and start learning, something your brain craves. Find a learning experience you can do on a regular basis, at least once a week but hopefully a couple times. Once you are out in the activity, focus on the rules of the activity or game disrupts and destroys stress and work thoughts—what are they? Long gone.

8. Stick with it. Don’t be an adult and bail if the new activity gets hard and you may feel foolish because you don’t know how to do something perfectly as soon as you start it. Worrying about what other people think keeps you from growing and having fun as you develop skills and gratify core needs. You, not them, are the audience. Only you can make yourself happy by satisfying your inner need equipment.

Switching off stowaway stress requires getting off autopilot thought-factory action and going into planning mode. We have to put life on the calendar, get off the ad hoc “when I have time” default, and take it as seriously as our work.

When we have an active world outside the job, we build an identity apart from what’s on the business card. This strengthens, not just our resilience to stress, but our identity as a person as well as a professional producer.

The more we have a part of ourselves that boosts us up and makes us feel good no matter what happened that day at work, the more we can close our eyes at night, sleep soundly, and wake up without feeling we have been in a 15-round boxing match. The result: We always wake up on the right side of the bed.

If you would like to find out more about how to reduce stress and increase work-life balance for your team, please click the button below for details on my stress management and work-life balance training and keynotes.

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Tags: stress and sleep, work recovery, stress and recreation, sleep, leave work at work, work stress and sleep

How to Live to the Fullest While You Still Can

Posted by Joe Robinson

Varanasi sunset

The ancient city of Varanasi on the Ganges River in India has a sunset cruise unlike any other in the tourist book. The attraction isn’t beer, romance, or the last colors of the solar show. Instead, the main event is the funeral pyres along the river.

My boat, filled with Indian tourists, chugged upriver to some 40 yards from one of the outdoor crematoria. Then the barefoot boy steering it turned off its engine. On shore, I could see a shape atop a platform engulfed in flames five feet high. The talking stopped. A few took photos or videos. 

It seemed invasive to me, but death is not a subject kept from public view here. It’s out in the open, a daily reminder of where things are ultimately headed—and we don’t know when. This can be instructive to all of us, a motivation to seize the time we do have to live to the fullest and have better work-life balance, something we can let all manner of things get in the way of. 

Noting the elephant in the mortal room is helpful on another very important front too. A big part of the fear of death is the fear of never having lived. Another reason to leave no life experiencing on the table.

Ganges river architecture copy


The ill and dying come from all over India to leave the mortal world on the banks of the Ganges, whose waters they believe guarantee redemption for believers. The river is sacred to Hindus, known as Mother Ganga, named after the goddess Ganga. 

While the family of the individual at the cremation site mourned the loss, they would also be gladdened that their loved one had departed at this auspicious location.

It’s a scene that has been repeated for hundreds of years in one of the oldest cities in the world, known for a long time as Benares. Traces of settlement here reach back to 1800 B.C. Enter its labyrinthine alleyways off the river, and you are back in a medieval warren of narrow passages, some blocked by cows, sacred here, and folks selling homemade food, candles, statues of Hindu gods, and bamboo fans.

Once known for its silk fabrics and sculptures, Varanasi today is renowned as a spiritual hub. It’s the nexus of two of the world’s major religions—Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon in the fifth century B.C. at Sarnath, a town outside Varanasi that has some very interesting Buddhist sites, including the ruins of a massive fifth-century A.D. temple complex and a museum of remarkable artifacts dug up from it.

Pilgrim in Ganges copy

Temples and offering sites line Varanasi’s riverbank ghats, cement steps that lead down to the Ganges to help the faithful immerse themselves, bathe, or collect its murky water, which, though held sacred, is highly polluted.

I threaded my way to the river through throngs of pilgrims dressed in orange, some of whom had walked upwards of 100 miles, some barefoot, to collect water from the Ganges to bring back to their local Shiva temples in a ritual known as the Yatra pilgrimage. One young man without shoes was limping. He’d hurt his foot on the long walk from his village, but he said he would keep going. He was almost there.

Pilgrims on Yatra copy

An old sadhu, or Hindu holy man, with a long gray beard chanted in the middle of the street, where cows dozed. Religious songs blared from speakers as pilgrims pushed through a din of motorcycle horns and trishaws. It was rush-hour at 5:30 a.m. 


Though the practices along the river might seem shocking or morbid to some, maybe we could use a shock. We are expert at evading the topic of mortality most of our lives in the West, aside from those in the medical, law enforcement, or CSI murder mystery fields. It can give us a false sense of security and lack of urgency about taking care of the life side, a sense that there’s plenty of time left. There’s always tomorrow.

Boat cruise in Varanasi copy

The writer Paul Bowles had a great take on this illusory expanse of tomorrow in A Sheltering Sky. “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems so limitless.”

A friend of mine had a heart attack and died at 41. One of my best friends died in a work accident last year, with a recreational vehicle he’d just purchased to cruise the U.S. in retirement parked outside his house. Michael Justice was one of the best photographers in the U.S. He had documented the world’s largest pilgrimage, some 15 million people, in Allahabad, up the Ganges from here and had done some great work in Varanasi. My trip on the river was in tribute to him.

Heather Burcham thought she had plenty of time, but then the Texan came down with cervical cancer in her late-20s. As I reported in my book, Don’t Miss Your Life, once she learned the disease was terminal, she decided to get as much living in as she could, taking up skydiving and putting her remaining strength to work to lobby for a state law to support a vaccine that could prevent young women from contracting the disease. I saw her on an ABC News report. She said something I won’t ever forget, “You are so lucky. You get to live every moment.”

And we are. Except we often don’t realize our good fortune, remaining caught up in worries and trying to fill our time, instead of focusing on ways to make the time fulfilling. How do we do that? Not by waiting for someone else to do it for us.


It starts by becoming the entrepreneur of your life. The science says that our overriding mandate is to determine the content of our life, to put our stamp on it, to write our own script, to participate and not be a spectator, because that is when we satisfy core needs, such as autonomy, competence, and relatedness, or connection with others.

Traffic jam in Varanasi copy

There is no arena better for doing that than in our life outside the job. This is where autonomy lives, in our choosing of how we want to experience our world. Researchers have found that 50% of our potential happiness is genetic. Sorry about that. Another 10% of potential happiness is circumstance, the state of your health, the environment you are raised in. Again, sorry. The good news is that we control the other 40%, which falls into a realm known as intentional activities.

The key to sustainable happiness, as researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon have reported, is initiating intentional activities and then sustaining them. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how we can get started on a life of no regrets. Keep in mind that we regret more the things we don’t do than what we do. It’s called the “inaction effect.”


1. Get rid of stress. The culture tells us to suck it up. Don’t. When we don’t dispute stress and resolve it, we think about it. That’s what drives stress, rumination. Stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain. The last thing a part of your brain that thinks you’re going to die that second wants to do is have fun. Stress is a story, a false belief we tell ourselves about the stressful event. We can and have to turn stress off and turn on stress management to open up receptivity to life.

2. Identify engaging life activities. Engagement is the key. Passive activities, such as watching TV, don’t cut it. The average state of someone watching TV, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Optimal Experience, is a mild depression. Go online, research areas of interest. Make a list of affinities, local activities, potential hobbies, summer vacation destinations, road trips, and bucket list items.

3. Initiate to participate. Just do it. Get going. Jump in without worrying about whether it’s perfect or you have everything figured out, as you did as a child. Make a commitment to live like Heather Burcham. Now.

4. Learn something new. Where can you go, what can you do to learn something new today? The brain’s party drug, dopamine is triggered at the mere prospect of something new. It’s called the exploration bonus. We are all explorers, if we follow our interests and curiosities.

5. Travel more. There’s nothing that turns on the brain’s satisfaction equipment like travel. The brain craves novelty and challenge. That is the definition of going somewhere you haven’t been before. Travel immerses us in novel experiences, wakes us up to our lives and offers insights and reflections, like those that come on a river trip in Varanasi, that remind us of things we need to pay attention to.

6. Use the play mind. The work mind doesn’t know how to play. This is because its focus is all on results. Play and the life side is about the experience, not where it’s going or an instrumental payoff. We do it to do it, for the fun, amusement, challenge, not to get anything external out of it.

We are going to have three questions at the end of our days, said Erik Erikson, the great psychologist who studied the stages of life and worked with seniors: 1) Did I get what I came her for? 2) Was it a good time? And 3) Did I do what I wanted?

When we proactively put life on the calendar, we can answer a resounding "YES" to these questions and insure a life without the regrets of inaction. 

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Tags: live life, living life to the fullest, life is short, Varanasi, Ganges River, core psychological needs, pilgrimage to Ganges

Secondhand Stress: 8 Ways to Resist the Stress of Others

Posted by Joe Robinson

Secondhand stress

The Delta pilot came bursting out of the locked door of the gangway that led to his plane in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his departure was stuck on hold. “What’s going on here?” he yelled, throwing his arms in the air in exasperation. “I have never seen it take this long to get a flight off the ground!”

He was steaming, but one of the gate agents did not respond in kind. She said calmly, “It’s a system problem with the booking, and we are working on it.” She said it with a smile and didn’t let the captain push her buttons. 

After he turned around and went back to the plane in a huff, she told her colleague. “I don’t know his job, and he doesn’t know mine.”

It was the perfect reaction to a scourge that spreads stress like a virus: the contagion of secondhand stress. She did two things that made her immune to his stress. She didn’t take it personally and separated his emotions and the cause of them from hers.


I wish I’d had it on video as a teaching instrument for most of us who are little more than mood marionettes, picking up on the stress of everyone around us. The reality is we are born to be copycats, at least when it comes to the emotional information on the faces and expressions of others around us.

Humans are designed to pick up on the mood and physical expressions of others, thanks to brain cells called mirror neurons.These cells cause us to mimic the emotional states of others, from laughing, to crying, to yawning.

We’ve all experienced the stereo yawn. You don’t even have to see the other person yawning to uncork an epic yawn. Hearing it is enough to send our simulation equipment into the actions of mock sleepiness, even if we’re not sleepy at all.

It’s all part of the equipment we have evolved as social animals to bond with others, size up threats, and increase our odds of being able to navigate the mysteries of the emotional world. Yet the simulation gear doesn’t work too well when what we are mirroring is other people’s stress, which we pick up in the form of secondhand stress.

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The authors of a study on the physical components of stress contagion, (Dimitroff, Kardan, Necka, Decety, Berman, Norman, 2017), report that “the ability to ‘catch’ aspects of another person’s emotions may serve as a relatively fast and effective way of understanding another individual’s affective state, which likely enhances one’s ability to be a successful agent in a highly complex and dynamic social environment.”


Understanding others is great, but do we have to pick up their stress in the process? As if we don’t have enough angst of our own, we are also sitting ducks for the pass-along anxiety of coworkers, spouses, friends, bosses, family members, neighbors, and cable news commentators, passed along through mirror neurons.

One of the earliest studies to confirm the contagion of stress was the Trier Social Stress Test. The investigation showed that stress-related cortisol and alpha-amylase were released not just in the bodies of nervous people asked to speak spontaneously in front of a group of judges, but also in the observers watching the speakers. It’s not just that we feel for them in their predicament. We feel like they do, their chemistry mirrored in ours.

Dimitroff et al took the exploration of the effect of others’ stress further. They wanted to see if viewing people in distress, watching people speaking in front of a group or watching videos of stressed-out individuals could cause a contagious cardiac response in the observer to reflect the jacked-up heartbeat triggered by the stress response. It did. The study showed a direct correlation, an increase in cardiac response that varied depending on the level of stress in the speakers or videos.

Subjects were able to clearly separate people who weren’t in the stress zone from the subtle and not-so-subtle cues that pulse rates of speakers or people on the videos were racing. Being able to read others emotionally is a finely tuned art that aids social functioning, but it’s hard to turn off, since it’s an “autonomic,” reflex behavior.


To keep secondhand stress from constantly triggering the survival equipment, we have to be able to find the off-switch. We want to be understanding of the plight of others, but we also need a separation. We can’t do our jobs if we are absorbing the anxiety and grief of others all day. This is a particular challenge for those who work in emotionally intense industries, from health care, to social work, and emergency services.

So let’s take a look at some things we can do to catch ourselves and resist the stress of others.


  1. Identify where the stress is coming from. Is it yours or is it coming from someone else? Ask: Whose stress am I picking up on today? The plight of someone going through difficulty is concerning, and we want to be understanding. As bad as it may be for them, though, their stress is not a life or death event for you. You are not under mortal threat. So the stress you are picking up from them is a false alarm.


  1. Talk to the person about the habit. If there is someone raising your pulse rate through impatience, anger, hostility, cynicism, unrealistic expectations, or negativity, call them on it. Let them know that a particular behavior of theirs is counterproductive and transfers strain to you and others around them. Tell them about mirror neurons and encourage them to leave their emotional hot potatoes in the microwave.


  1. Separate yourself from the event/person. Keeping distance between others’ emotions and your own is crucial. Like the Delta gate agent, you want to be able to see that the cause of the stressful behavior of others is not you but something in their own impatience, pressures, and issues. For anyone working in emotionally challenging fields, such as social work or health care, you want to feel for your clients and patients, but you don’t want to feel like them, because if you do, you run the risk of undermining your own health and ability to help them. Emotional distancing doesn’t make you less caring, just less of a potential burnout case.


  1. Don’t take it personally. Taking events personally is one of the biggest drivers of stress. It gets the ego into it, which sets off a boil of irrational emotions. In the case of secondhand stress, the art is to see that it’s personal for the person doing the stressing, not you. The cause of what that person says or mirrors to you is within their head and subject to the irrationality of their caveman brain’s fight-or-flight equipment.


  1. Exercise choice. Like guilt, secondhand stress is a manipulation by others. It may be unintentional, but it nonetheless takes your free will out of the process and leaves you a spectator in your own emotional life. That doesn’t work for humans, since one of our main core needs is autonomy, having agency over our lives. The next time someone mirrors stress, refuse to have them dictate your emotions. Tell yourself you determine the content of your life. If I grab someone else’s stress, then I will drop it, because it’s not mine.


  1. Stop mirroring others’ negative emotions. When people transmit negative emotions, the default is to pick up on that cue and go negative too. Instead, don’t respond in kind. React to complaining with positive body language and comments. Change the subject. Don’t feed the beast.


  1. Shift Mood. Moods are ephemeral. They can change in an instant. We don’t have to go with the first rote emotion that comes up from our mirroring equipment. You can crowd out the negative emotions of secondhand stress by shifting attention to a positive event or exercise. The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Frederickson has found that shifting attention to gratitude, for instance, can switch off the physiological effects of stress instantly. Think about something you should be grateful for and suddenly, your blood pressure goes down and your digestion starts up again, as the stress response is shut down. Music is another great mood shifter, so have some music handy that lifts you up, and turn to it when secondhand stress bites.


  1. Try a Secondhand Stress-Free Zone. Let’s take a cue from the social sanctions on smoking, and have your team or organization print up signs and bumper stickers to place around the office, declaring it a Secondhand Stress-Free Zone. Explain what that means, and that rampant stress transmission can be as harmful as nicotine.

When people around us understand that they are unwitting drivers of the poor health of people close to them, we can all start to get more control over our reactions, which will be healthier for the stress inflictors too.

The emotional life of humans is a cauldron of reflex fears and false alarms. When we bring awareness to the role that the moods and emotional displays of others have on us, we are no longer puppets in the dramas of others. We have less consternation to wade through to tackle the stress dramas we are starring in.

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Tags: contagious stress, mirror neurons, secondhand stress

Work Identity and Self-Worth: What's on Your Life Card?

Posted by Joe Robinson

Palm Tree relaxation copy

EUROPEANS SAY they know only two kinds of Americans, college kids and senior citizens. They are the only Yanks they see traveling in Europe. The vast demographic between those two groups is a mystery. Of course, we know why. From mid-20s until retirement, heads are down, immersed in the scrum of career, family, and mortgages.

Yet those are not total life-breakers, if not combined with another bigger issue: identities wrapped up in one side of the work-life hyphen. We define the self through labor in the U.S., unlike in many other lands, so self-worth tends to get tied up in what we do and identity with what’s on the business card. Yet what we do for a living is only a part of who we are, known as a persona, a social handle for others.

The real you is much more than the work I.D.—it’s a mix of your enthusiasms, interests, friends, family, humor, creativity, a whole bunch of things that come from the life side, your actual experience of living, in other words.


Now there’s definitely nothing wrong with the productive side. I lead productivity trainings, so it’s something I’m partial to. The performance/accomplishment component is essential for our core need of competence and is one of the keys to well-being.

It’s just that we get so one-tracked that we can wind up missing out on the living we are making for ourselves. When all worth comes from output, there’s no value in input, which is also bad for work—no recharging, stress relief, new ideas, plenty of negative affect. We wind up defaulting to the only worth we know, performance, skip an engaging life, have trouble getting a life on the agenda, and forget who we really are.

A former casting director I know in Hollywood opened up a side business as an identity detective. He helps professionals, such as doctors and lawyers in particular, retrace who they are/were before the career. They dig back through high school yearbook comments, old love letters, and sports activities to try uncover the essence of who they were before they became known as their job. 

We need some evidence too of our own lives. I suggest a business card for life. In my work-life balance trainings I have folks create their own life cards, on which they describe themselves by an interest, hobby, something they used to do but shelved, something they always wanted to do, like learn a musical instrument.

They could be a "travel enthusiast," a "dog whisperer," a "gourmet chef." When we have an identity outside the job, we are more apt to take part in it. Many, though, have trouble coming up with anything, because they have been told there's no value outside the office.

When we don’t participate in our life, we quickly lose touch with the skills and goals of play, curiosity, and exploration that make a fulfilling life happen.

Life balance takes a different skill-set than the work mind. The goals are intrinsic, meaning we act for no payoff or result. We try something fun for the sake of it. The output goal is so rote, though, that we may skip a softball game or a vacation. What am I going to get out of it? 

The need for an instant payoff makes it hard for adults to learn, try something new, or stick with a leisure activity long enough to learn it. The double-whammy of not acting for an external reward and worrying that you might make a fool out of yourself by doing something you haven’t tried before keeps many adults sidelined from fun and stuck in spectating after work hours.


Even the words “play” and “fun” seem unworthy of adults, slackerish. That’s because we never learn the value of stepping back from performance mode. Idle time is the devil’s time. Or is it?

The University of Maryland’s Seppo Iso Ahola has found in his research that recreational activities reduce stress. They operate as a stress buffer, taking our mind off problems and building up our resilience. No matter what’s happening at work, you can climb on a bike or jump in a dance class, and the positive emotions soon crowd out the negative that drive tense work thoughts. Iso Ahola says that the more engaged leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction. That doesn’t sound too devilish.

It's time to revalue time off-the-clock from notions that are antithetical to the whole point of the work and counterproductive to quality output, since engaged leisure activities provide the recharge our chief productivity tool, attention, needs to get work done with less effort and stress. These fun outlets vitalize mind and body, allowing us to bring a positive frame to the office.

Researcher Laurence Chalip at the University of Texas has found that engaged leisure activities increase positive mood through more self-control and social support. Overwhelm and stress on the job make us feel out of control. At ease in activities we like to do, especially those that can advance our mastery skills, we bring control back to our day. We also tend to have fun with others, so we get an internal payoff for one of our core needs, connection with other people.


And it gets better. The University of Montreal’s Robert Vallerand has discovered that having a passion, an activity that you do on a regular basis that you love, can add eight hours of joy to your week. Vallerand’s research shows that we internalize mastery activities, and they become a part of our identity. “I’m a runner." "I'm a musician.” 

These self-images serve as bulwarks of our real identity and are not subject to other people’s approval, so they provide ongoing self-esteem and root us in positive events that inform our memories, our ongoing status report, that we like our life. How important are these off-hours attributes of identity? Play scholar John Neulinger called passionate play pursuits none other than the “central life interest.”

Alan Waterman of the College of New Jersey says when you’re engaged in activities of personal expressiveness, ones that are self-chosen and that advance your life goals, you are operating from the “true self.”

So far from being a waste of productive time, recreational activities, play, fun, and hobbies are the road to who we really are. Getting a life I.D. as well as a work I.D., then, is essential for the complete picture of self-image and unlocking the experiences that tell us we are doing what we are supposed to be doing here—determining the content of our lives through participation in it. 

No doubt, this is why a study out of Princeton led by Alan Krueger found that of all the things on the planet, what makes humans the happiest is participating in engaging leisure activities.

Engagement with life is a proactive affair. You are the entrepreneur of your life. No one can make it happen except you. You have to put leisure activities on the calendar for after work, on the weekend, and make sure to take every day of your vacation. Take your life calendar as seriously as work appointments, because these are events of the highest order, your appointment with life.

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Tags: play,, getting a life, get a life, positive mood, work and life identities, work life balance and play, self-worth and work identity

Slam Dunking Job Stress and the Mental Health Taboo

Posted by Joe Robinson


IT'S ONE OF THE FEW REMAINING TABOOS left in the closet: mental health. This is particularly true when it comes to the wellness of the brain on the job and conditions invisible to the naked eye, such as stress, anxiety, and burnout.

Few speak up about these health and job hazards, out of a fear of being seen as weak or less promotable, and it's making us sick. Millions suffer in silence, the very condition that fuels more stress through what happens when we don’t talk about and manage demands—rumination.


This is why it was big news when one of the top stars in pro basketball, six-foot-ten inch Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, stepped forward to tell the world about his struggles with anxiety. Outwardly Love seems the calmest player on the court, but inside it's a different story.

He had to leave a couple of games because of anxiety. One panic attack left him gasping for air on the locker room floor and thinking he was going to die. His heart was beating out of his chest, and he could barely breathe. He thought he was having a heart attack, which is what everyone thinks who experiences the profound terror of a panic attack.

He was taken to a hospital, where doctors gave him a clean bill of health. Without an obvious physical disorder, some teammates and many fans started questioning his commitment to the team and toughness. After a period of intense speculation about whether he was a slacker or malcontent, he decided to open up.

Love admitted he suffers from anxiety and depression, a family issue from way back. The revelation lifted a huge load from his broad shoulders, and people started to understand that this All-Star athlete, a giant of a man and fierce rebounder, had a medical condition, except, instead of it being a knee or hamstring or physical problem we can see on a scan or x-ray, it was in his brain. Lebron James shook his hand and told him he had helped a lot of people with his disclosure.

There’s a great article on here about Love and the challenge of getting NBA players to seek mental help. One insider estimates 40% of the players league could benefit from a mental assistance program, and the league is now making them readily available. Yet few players think they need assistance, primarily because they think a session with a mental health expert makes them less tough and might affect their valuation on the market.


The story got me thinking about what I see in the corporate world and how similar it is. People suffering from high stress seldom seek out the help they need. People who would think nothing of getting a broken arm fixed, endure months and years of high job stress, which is doing much worse things to their bodies and brains. They have been led to believe they are supposed to take stress as a badge of courage. To admit anxiety is almost to admit defeat. You can’t handle it.

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Wrong. Courage comes, not in enduring punishment and getting sick, but through speaking up and resolving demands and getting healthy. Stress has to be challenged, contested, and disputed, or it doesn’t go away. You can’t do that unless you can get it into the open and admit to yourself, your spouse, a friend, a coach, a counselor, or a supervisor that the bottleneck, deadline, high stress levels or pressure are not sustainable, that something isn’t working, and that it’s draining you and your productivity.

When management doesn't get any feedback to the contrary, it's assumed all is well, but when people speak up, it can lead to adjustments that can solve the stressors and to training programs of the sort I lead, in stress management or work-life balance. The most common phrase I get from clients is that work-life balance or stress management "keeps coming up on our surveys of employees."

It's also good idea to speak out, because it's much healthier to do so. Studies show that verbal expression of emotions reduces stress (Pennebaker) and suppressing emotions increases anxiety (Roemer). 

The ostrich approach is the first instinct, but it’s a waste of health, performance, and life too, since stress suppresses the play equipment in your brain. You can’t have fun when a part of your brain thinks you are about to die every second of the day. The false belief and catastrophic thoughts of stress will keep orbiting the brain until you convince it there is no mortal threat and turn it off.


When we switch off the false danger signal of non-life-threatening stress, the stress response stops in four minutes. Yet almost none of us are taught how to do this by managing the thoughts that cause stress.

We don’t know how to turn off catastrophic thoughts and increase perceived control over demands, the key to shutting down stress. We don’t know that it’s not others or external events that are driving stress—it’s the stories we tell ourselves about the stressful events that fuel stress. These are stories we can change and deactivate as triggers when we know how to reframe appraisals from life-or-death autopilot to manageable.

Stress does its damage when it lasts for a prolonged period of time. So nipping it in the bud by addressing it head-on is crucial. Chronic stress left unchallenged can lead to burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, and to depression, stroke, and other serious health problems.

I work with many people in my coaching and stress management training practice who have had chronic stress long enough that it has morphed into burnout. They typically have had chronic stress for six months to a couple of years. That takes a huge toll on the body, from heart problems to insomnia to irritable bowel.

Yet breaking through the stress cycle usually only takes three or four one-hour training sessions. As the optometrist says, “Which is better?” Three or four hours? Or upwards of a year or more of anxiety? 

Many of my male clients come to me because their wives have convinced them to seek help. This is why it's so important to talk to loved ones, friends, and family members about stress and anxiety issues. They can help us see beyond the emotional impasse to an outside solution.

In 2018, it’s still hard for men, but also women in the ruggedly individualistic culture we celebrate, to come to terms with the fact that they can't figure it all out themselves. A social worker I met told me she didn't tell her supervisor or even her husband about how overloaded she was until she was in the hospital with a nervous breakdown.

The stigma on mental health can make it seem we are not as capable as others, if we need some help. But stress isn’t about capability; it’s about a brain that wasn’t built for the social stresses of the modern world. We have defective brain architecture that makes us prone to go off unless we know how to manage reactions.


Since we are not psychics, we don’t know what’s in the heads of the people around us. I can guarantee you, though, that there are plenty of others who may not look it but feel the way you do, who are struggling to manage intense pressure every day. Even top professional athletes, such as Kevin Love.

Stress left unmanaged can build to high anxiety levels that can tip over into panic. If you have ever experienced a panic attack, you know you don’t want to have another one. It’s a condensed burst of terror that sends blood pressure sky high and heartbeats pounding like bass drums. It’s sheer panic that comes from a feeling of being trapped, like being cornered by a grizzly. It mimics a heart attack, but it’s simply a state of intense anxiety that has a finite duration. Twenty minutes, and it’s over.

Yet, as Love discovered, once it happens, you live in fear of it happening again, the biggest fear being that others will see you having it. It can lead to avoidance of anything that might trigger another attack, which can lead to seclusion and aversive behavior that leaves you isolated and fearful.

Love took the hardest but surest step to end the syndrome. He disclosed his vulnerability, sought help, and did so under the glaring lights of television cameras and Twitter feeds. He got help, and now he knows that talking about his mental challenges was the best thing he ever did. So much so that he is helping many others who have reached out to him for advice. He is now looking to set up a foundation to help young boys manage anxiety and depression.

“I think I found my life’s calling,” he told

Finding ways to manage reflex reactions and emotions is a life calling for all of us. Reaching out puts us on the path to awareness and knowledge, without which we are at the mercy of events, and with them, master of those events.

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Tags: job stress, mental health, mental wellness, speaking up, panic attacks, Kevin Love

Searching for Boundaries and Balance in Mumbai

Posted by Joe Robinson


THEY GET TO WORK at 9 a.m. and often don’t leave the office until after 9 p.m. The competition for the top jobs is fierce, so no one wants to be seen as having less stick-to-itiveness than the next person. The work ethic is enshrined in the culture and religion of the land, devotion to the divine seen in every task you do.

The place? India, not the U. S., something I discovered while leading a work-life balance training for the Reserve Bank of India in muggy, monsoon-soaked Mumbai. The religions may be different, but each helped forge a habit for overdoing it that would lock millions into a queasiness about boundaries that has been further aggravated by an always-on world at the command of digital devices.


The two countries also share the stress load that comes from overperformance, compounded by white-knuckle commutes that make L.A. gridlock look like Fargo’s in comparison. Yes, there are lanes painted on the road, but they are a formality. Three lanes are a waste of space when you can cram in between them with every possible conveyance—tuk-tuks, motorcycles, trucks, pedestrians, bicyclists, rickshaws, carts pulled by humans or horses, and cows and water buffaloes in cities like Varanasi--to create five or six lanes.

Traffic in India

Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, is the financial and film capital of India, home to the most prolific movie hub on the planet, Bollywood. It's a hectic mix of British colonial structures, gleaming high-rises, and slums.

And a sign of India’s growing future. The nation's economy is growing fast, upwards of 7%, and for the first time it is no longer the home of the most impoverished people on the planet. Nigeria is. Tech companies are flourishing and Indian cable TV has hundreds of Hindi-language channels. Barefoot tuk-tuk drivers use the GPS on their smartphones to navigate the chaotic streets or watch videos in gridlock.

Yet some executives in India know that the long-hours, work-until-you-drop style is a prescription for burnout and poor performance. General manager of RBI Academy and Welfare, the human resource division of the Reserve Bank of India, Dr. Vijay Shekhawat reached out to me to come to Mumbai and provide some tools for stress management and work-life balance to leaders with some of the toughest work schedules, which combine their normal jobs and oversight on the boards of Indian commercial banks.


We dug into the factors that drive overwork—mechanical momentum (habit), the cultural overlay of their own work ethic, guilt, fear, and what I call the performance identity. Just as the Protestant work ethic derived from beliefs that idle time was the devil's time and all work was a glorification of God, so too Indians viewed work as the path to the Hindu deity. Work can be the way to self-transcendence if it's done without regard to ego and external personal gain.

Like the American work ethic, the Indian work ethic has been largely secularized for the upwardly mobile track, which results in a very similar sense of self-worth derived from output. I was struck by how similar the performance ID in India is to that in the U.S., a belief that all worth comes from external output.

Yet the job is just part of who we are, a persona, a social handle for the world to peg us. When we think it’s the entirety of our being or validation, we get fidgety in a free moment and find it hard to relax if we’re not getting something done. Life can’t get on that calendar, because it leads to squirminess without production.

There’s a study that Mark Cullen of Stanford Medical School did in which he looked at super-successful retired executives who made lots of money on Wall Street. Two days after they walked out the doors of the company into retirement they felt worthless. They weren’t producing anymore. They had no leisure skills.

Achievement is an important factor for our core need of competence, but we can find ways to feel it outside the job as well. In fact, mastery activities in the leisure-skill world are some of the most potent in delivering competence since they combine with another powerful core need, autonomy, as we gain abilities in a pastime or hobby.

We need a balance between achievement and the internal gratification that comes from intrinsic satisfaction and experiences on the life side of the work-life hyphen. As I reported in my last blog, balance is part of the human mandate, built in to our physiology, which offsets activation and tension with the parasympathetic system of rest and digest.


Balance is also a resounding feature of the most famous symbol of India, the Taj Mahal, thought to be one of the most synchronous pieces of architecture ever created and an apparition I found myself staring up at on a very early morning side trip. As I stood gaping at its seamless use of marble and decorative patterns and scripted phrases from the Koran, every inch was in symmetry to the rest of Shah Jahan’s fabled ode of love to his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

On either side of the courtyard surrounding the monument, out of view of most images of the Taj, which was designed as a mausoleum for Mumtaz and also holds the remains of Shah Jahan, there are two large, identical temple-like structures. One is a mosque still used today, and the other is its twin edifice, which is there for no reason other than to balance out the mosque. Nothing askew here.

Taj temple

There is quite a bit askew in our work style these days, which has repercussions on performance and health. Here are some brief cites we discussed in Mumbai for what the science says happens to us with chronic overperformance and with work-life balance:

— Sixty-hour weeks reduce productivity 25% (Clifton)

— People who have good work-life balance work 21% harder (Executive Conference Board)

— WLB increases productivity 10.6% (Federal Reserve Board)

— WLB tripled shareholder return (Hewitt Assoc.)

— Working more than 51 hours a week results in a 29% greater risk of cardiovascular disease (Yang, Schnall)

— People who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33% increased risk of a stroke (Kivimaki)


Boundaries aren’t a frill in an unbounded digital world; they are a necessity to avoid the emergency room and burnout that grinds performance down to going through the motions. They are also a choice we can all make, since ignoring boundaries is mostly a byproduct of reflex behavior and fear of being seen as less than gung-ho.

I shared with the Mumbai audience an anecdote from my friend Tom Freston, former head of Viacom and MTV.  “At the end of the day, I was waiting for my managers to leave, so I could leave. And they were waiting for me to leave, so they could leave.” 

The Indian executives smiled, because they live that standoff every working day, as do millions of people around the world. What if we could be smart and productive enough to go with the science, instead of the fear? How different would our lives and output be?

The job is not a triathlon in pants. Endurance is for sports, not performance, as any brain researcher can tell you. We have limited powers of attention, which are shredded by excess time on task.

As India joins the ranks of modern nations, with a thriving tech field and growing entrepreneurship, it has a chance to learn from the mistakes of industrialized nations that bought in to the “more hours are better” trope. I salute Dr. Shekhawat and his colleagues for opening the conversation to a more successful road to performance and for knowing there can be no progress while operating on the same old unconscious reflexes. 

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Tags: overwork in India, long work hours, overload causes

The Work-Life Balance Imperative: Why Excess and Overload Are at Odds with the Human Mandate

Posted by Joe Robinson

Life balance at the beach copy 2

When your car is out of alignment, you know it. It drifts into the other lane when you take your hand off the wheel, and you wind up fighting your own vehicle to stay on the path. So you take it to the shop and get the wheels balanced. When humans are misaligned by overwhelm, 60-hour weeks, or five hours of sleep a night, we know it too.

That’s because our physiology was designed to function with all systems operating in tandem at a level the brain can manage most efficiently, known as homeostasis. It’s another way of saying we are born to be balanced.

When we’re not, we drift out of our physical and mental lanes into exhaustion, stress, and serious illnesses and diseases that burn up our health and performance like unbalanced wheels burn rubber—for nothing.


You wouldn’t know it from the state of the world or the sales of Tums, but staying aligned is a favorite topic inside each our heads and bodies. In one study, researchers measured what happens in the brain when it’s confronted with crazy, dissonant music with no discernible melody. The MRI scanner captured brain neurons furiously firing away, trying to find something, anything resembling a pattern.

They were looking for harmony, things in melodic equilibrium. Finding none, they couldn’t do their job, which is making sense out of the scrambled hash in front of us every day.

Another study measured what it is that people like about good dancers, which obviously we do, considering the number of dancing contests we have on the air and the appreciation of clever footwork going back to Fred Astaire and Soul Train. Researchers digitized the figures of the dancers, so the study’s participants wouldn’t be distracted by looks or clothes to go for the coolest or most beautiful person's moves. It turned out that what we are attracted to in the best dancers is their symmetry, the flow of body movements—harmony once again.

What is work-life balance in light of these findings? Balance is a built-in mandate, from balanced minds, to meals to work-life balance. Someone who is unbalanced we tend to want to give a wide berth to.

We can see that maintaining equilibrium is an essential part of the physiology and not a frill by the body’s own balancing acts to counter stress. As Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky puts it in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “a stressor can be defined as anything that throws your body out of allostatic balance and the stress-response is your body’s attempt to restore allostasis.”


When a threat overloads capacity to handle it, it sets off autonomic activation of the body’s defense system to cope with it, the stress-response triggering an alert that gushes hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, jacks up blood pressure, rounds up energy stores in the body to push blood to the arms and legs to fight or run from the danger, and stops energy storage, unneeded when life is on the line.

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The activation process burns up energetic resources, such as fats and sugars, which have to be replaced. No problem. The body’s counterbalance squad, the parasympathetic system, is there to put a brake on the hyper-arousal and fuel-burning with its mandate—rest and digest. It makes us hungry for foods that can help us replace the lost nutrients (which can wind up to be junk food, if that’s what’s handy), and serves to calm us down after the threat is gone.

When the activation system of stress isn’t shut down, and we can’t return to allostasis for long periods of time or chronically, it can lead to any number of major health issues that we could term diseases and syndromes of imbalance. Irritable bowel. Hypertension. Diabetes. Stroke. Insomnia. Back pain. Adrenal dysfunction. Chronic fatigue syndrome. We get sick when we can’t counterbalance the forces throwing our system out of whack.

A mind out-of-balance because of excess demands and the chronic stress that results from them has less attention and focus, which undercuts performance on the job or anywhere else. Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment. You can’t plan or see the big picture. Emotions are on a hair-trigger. Rapport with customers or colleagues plummets.

It takes more effort for a fatigued mind to get anything done. Every task seems more difficult than it is as the strain of rumination keeps minds projecting an obsessive loop of worries.

One of the afflictions trending these days in many workplaces is Attention Deficit Trait. It’s not something you are born with, like Attention Deficit Disorder, but it mimics the symptoms—highly distracted, hard to stick with a task, flitting from one thing to the next, time urgency, shrunken attention span. It’s a condition that comes from overstuffing brain cells with excess demands, information overload, and various short-circuiting that comes from trying to do too much without a clone at your side. It’s your brain’s warning light that the gray matter is severely unbalanced.


We tend to procrastinate about things we don’t feel have value. Clearly, balance shouldn’t be one of those things. It is invaluable, crucial to our health, critical thinking, performance, and outlook. When we don’t pay attention to it, the default is to overload, chronic stress, burnout, and an unconscious mechanical momentum that perpetuates all of that.

Taking work-life balance seriously is a process of proactive self-management and awareness. We need to be aware of stress when we are in the middle of it, aware of emotional reactions and moods when we are in the middle of them, aware of where boundaries are needed, aware of demands that overwhelm coping ability, aware that we have to engage in work recovery processes after the day is done to enable the body’s balancing resources to shut down the activation of demands and start the re-creation process.

With awareness, we can catch ourselves and do what we need to dispute stress, solve challenges, restore the body’s natural recovery processes, and find the counterbalance to get back to where we once belonged, as Lennon-McCartney once put it.

If you would like to inject balance into your team or organization and the engagement that comes with it, click the button below for details on my work-life balance training programs and keynotes.

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Tags: work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and stress, physiology of balance, work life balance and the mind

The Best Stress-Buster We've Never Heard Of

Posted by Joe Robinson


The greatest motivator isn’t on an auditorium stage or audio book. It's a force that lies within all of us. It’s the drive of self-motivation that comes from an internal propulsion system that drives us toward achievement and progress, a hidden resource that can dramatically cut stress and increase work-life balance: mastery.

Whether you are trying to improve a 10k running time, or learn an instrument or ballroom dancing or yoga, the call of self-mastery propels you to do better—or less worse than you did last time, as one aikido enthusiast told me.


We are designed to continuously improve our skill at pursuits we are interested in and practice them regularly for the learning and self-challenge itself, intrinsic motivations shown to increase persistence and accomplishment. Studies show that students learning a musical instrument stick with it if they are self-driven and not forced by parents or peers.

The same is true of dieters. If they are losing weight because they want to and not externally motivated by the pressure of others, they are more likely to reach their goal. Students motivated by grades, an external metric, will drop a tough class, such as physics, while those whose goal is to learn will persevere even if it means a “C” on their records.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester have documented why intrinsic motivation and the mastery compulsion it fuels are so powerful. We all have an overriding need to determine the content of our lives. Activities that let us experience mastery help us do that, allowing us to steer a course we have designed.

Self-mastery satisfies two of the three core psychological needs Deci and Ryan identified that all humans seek to satisfy—autonomy and competence. And if we do the activities with others, we gratify the third need, relatedness, or close social connection with others. Satisfy these needs, and we are gratified in a lasting way that external goals—money, success, status—which are ephemeral, can’t approach. We don’t really buy the fickle approval of others that comes with external metrics, so they don’t stick with us. Mastery, though, is self-validating. 

We can experience mastery on the job in work that we find challenging, and as we get better at our craft for its own sake, which can tap the competence need. But where we can really advance our mandate to be skillful is outside the professional world. Autonomy and competence can be best satisfied in our time off-the-clock.


Besides making us feel great and touching off a dopamine dance of satisfaction when we learn and advance our abilities, mastery also happens to be one of the best stress management tools on the planet. Work recovery science, which looks at the ways bodies and minds need to recover after a day of pressure and tension on the job, places mastery activities at the top of the list of strategies that can separate us from work stress and the thoughts of work that keep us ruminating about the day's events.

Relaxation and recreation are also good work recovery options, but mastery if the most effective at cutting stress. It fires up your competence, confidence, esteem, and sense of control, in addition to the learning and progress, which make you feel you are moving forward in life no matter what is happening on the professional side.

Mastery activities also have something else going for them. They force us to pay full attention to the rules and moves of the activity. The more attention we have on what’s before us, the less stress, which lives in the other two tenses.

There is a complete cutoff of the thoughts that drive stress. We are able to completely detach ourselves psychologically from work and work thoughts, which researchers say is the key to the recovery process from the overactivation mode we have been in all day.


The only competition in self-mastery is yourself and no goal except for developing your abilities. That’s the learning process, something we used to be very good at. As kids, we jumped in without worrying if we were good at it or not, and that’s how we learned.

Anyone who has ever seen a class of first-graders waving their hands, so enthused to answer a teacher’s question that some kneel on their chairs to try make their hands go higher knows that learning is exciting. Though we lose that spirit as we get older and worry too much about what others will think, that spark of mastery is still alive and well.

We just have to put on our kid hat again and do these five things we once did without thinking about it:

Don’t wait for an invitation

• Be eager to try something new

• You don’t need to know how

• Jump in without thinking about what anyone else thinks

• You want to try because you’ve never tried it before

Mastery activities trounce stress because they also contain the two keys to sustainable happiness. Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri and Sonya Lyubomirsky from the University of California Riverside have shown in their research that staying happy comes down to two proactive choices: initiating intentional activities and sustaining intentional activities.  

This puts mastery pursuits squarely at the center of a happy life. Mastery activities are a work-life balance insurance policy, making sure you indulge in the things that provide purpose and fun and connect you to your real life and that you actually have one.

Research from the University of Montreal shows that if you have a passion, you can add eight hours of joy to your week. Is that something you could use?

If you would to learn more about my work-life balance and stress management employee training programs, please click the button below for details.

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Tags: leisure activities and happiness, stress management at home, mastery activities

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