Working Smarter

The Power of Patience: Antidote to Stress, Frenzy, and Overwhelm

Posted by Joe Robinson

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“Patience” is a word we normally hate to hear, because it usually means we have lost ours. Being reminded that we need to take a minute when we are in a state of hyper time frenzy is like being told to keep calm when you are verging on a primal scream. It’s a concept the emotions refuse to allow in when we are swept away by frenzy and frazzle.

In a world of permanent rush hour, patience seems like some obsolete remnant of a quainter time, something from a do-gooder’s list of manners, something that develops character and all that. Yet this increasingly rare act of discipline is the antidote for much of what ails us in the modern workplace and life. Deploy it, and you kill time urgency, overwhelm, irritability, and a lot of stress. Used regularly, it can do wonders for work-life balance, stress management, and productivity. Are we up to it in an immediate gratification world?

WHAT ATTACHMENT?

First, let’s see where impatience has gotten us. The reflex to race through the day, multitask, short-circuit brain cells with information overload, be in constant texting contact, and go for the next source of stimulation has helped to shrink the average human attention span to eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish. That makes things difficult, since attention is the chief productivity tool.

There are all those embarrassing emails filled with typos and missing attachments. How many times have you sent an email raving about an attachment and forgot to send it? 

Impatience drives multitasking, resulting in the appearance of speed—and more than a few mistakes, since rushing kicks thinking down to the rote and panicked floors of the brain. Research from the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt, among others, shows that multitasking actually slows you down. Brain neurons have to go through a “where was I last time I was here and where was I going?” exercise each time they jump back and forth between tasks, which slows productivity by more than 40%, according to David Meyer at the University of Michigan.

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The forces of impatience can’t resist self-interrupting to check email, and that makes work take longer. Constant interruptions to check mail erode the chief tool of anyone trying to get anything done: concentration. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. Interruptions erode impulse control, the discipline you need to resist time-wasting tangents.

THE WHIP OF HURRY-WORRY

Without functioning self-regulation equipment to calmly direct attention and avoid temptations, it takes more time to get work done and aggravates stress as time urgency cracks the whip of hurry-worry. Impatience puts us on edge, a few hairs away from irritability and anger—and clogged arteries. Studies show that’s the pattern time frenzy follows, leading to heart attacks. Now there’s a time-waster. Think about all those things you won’t be able to get done if you are suddenly demised.

Impatience leads to a host of bad outcomes—lashing out, curt emails, impulsive decisions, conflict with tortoises moving too slowly for your liking, and simmering anger that smolders away in your body and contributes to heart disease. One 2007 study from the University of South Carolina found that anger led to a 1.7 times higher chance of developing hypertension, with a 90% increased risk for coronary heart disease.

Hurry-worry makes you think you have no time to plan your priorities each morning, talk with a colleague or supervisor to distribute workload more effectively, and push the go-button before a report, product, or post has been analyzed and thought enough about to release into the world. Patience is the grown-up in the room; impatience the adolescent.

Patience doesn’t mean moving at the speed of a tree sloth. It is what is known as deliberate speed, informed performance, thought before action, not hurrying. As the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once put it, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

It’s the hurrying that drives mistakes, since we’re operating at a speed faster than brains can manage well. This is the realm of mistakes and the home of the stress response, which interprets time urgency as if every minute of the day was an emergency—which turns on the stress response. With friends like ourselves around, who needs enemies?

FALSE URGENCY

We can work swiftly without the attention deficit of hurrying and the sabotage of what’s known as System 1 thinking—jump-off-the-cliff, impulsive thinking, minus considered options. That means bringing awareness to your pace. Are you hyperventilating? Racing for nothing? Catch yourself and bring attention back to the moment. Is it an emergency or a speed trap? Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent when you haven’t taken time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t.

Are you working frantically with one eye on the stack of to-do’s? Focus on one task at a time, which is all you can do anyway. When the goal is just to get things done so you can get to other things that need to be done, you don’t have attention on the tasks you are doing. Productivity is all about the present, not what’s next on the list.

Studies show that when we are patient and absorbed in the moment of what we’re doing we like what we’re doing more, remember it longer, are at our happiest, and can experience the power of optimal experience, when our skills meet a challenge 

Patience allows us to work smarter, more efficiently, and more in control of our world. This is crucial to preventing stress. The more control we feel we have over events, the less stress we have. Patience gives you perceived control by providing attention unhijacked by frenzy and the hurry-worry of trying to be somewhere you’re not.

Yes, we all have time pressures to deal with, but we can handle it without resorting to frantic default rushing and stress. Much of the time the race pace is fueled by self-deadlines that we have created and set up ourselves with. “I’m going to get this project done by four o’clock.” We rush to make that time and get angry when we don’t.

The gift of patience is that it is something within our control. All we have to do is to take a breath, recalibrate the false urgency of frenzy to the calm of attention, and exercise this act of discipline as one of the best tools to turn down pulse rates, bad moods, and irritable days. It’s a choice.

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Tags: time urgency, stress and patience, overwhelm, employee stress management, multitasking and stress

7 Ways to Avoid Overwhelm

Posted by Joe Robinson

Feeling overwhelmed by workload

There’s enough on most plates these days to keep an 18-armed Hindu goddess busy. As a result, more and more of us feel overwhelmed by all we have to do and the scant time with which we have to do it. A study by the Families and Work Institute found that more than half of Americans have felt overwhelmed by the amount of work on their agendas.

As a result, “overwhelm” has morphed from a verb to a noun and a growing problem for buried individuals and companies alike. Overwhelmed minds get hijacked by stress and have trouble focusing, planning, and solving problems. It’s a condition I see everywhere in my work-life balanceproductivity and stress management training work, and it’s a serious one, since feeling overwhelmed is a sign that demands have outstripped the ability to cope with them.

When humans tell themselves they can’t cope by thinking or saying they are overwhelmed and, therefore, out of control and helpless, that tells an ancient part of the brain that doesn’t know how to compute non-life threatening social stressors in the 21st century, “I’m going to die.” Off goes the stress response and the fear, anxiety, and crisis mentality that go with it.

PILING ON

Managing overwhelm and crazy-busy schedules is about restoring a sense of control and what the psychology world calls “agency.” You feel you have the ability to act to change things. When you feel overwhelmed, there’s a sense of being a helpless bystander as everything and everyone piles on. The constant barrage of interruptions and email keeps you jumping to their demands, instead of you calling the tune, at the mercy of what’s known as “bottom-up” attention, a survival and startle instinct that fuels loss of control.

The more perceived control you feel you have over your work environment, the less stress you have and the more confidence you have that you can handle whatever comes your way. The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman showed in seminal research that, faced with an overwhelming threat that appears to have no end, some people give up and wind up in a state he calls learned helplessness, believing resistance is futile.

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This leads to a pessimistic “explanatory style” that locks in futility and ultimately depression. Explanatory style is the way we frame stories in our heads about why things happen to us. It’s the little-known culprit behind everything from stress, to negative mood, to taking things personally, to depression.

CHANGING SELF-TALK

The way out of the overwhelm trap is to change the thinking and actions that drive it. That means telling ourselves a different story, since self-talk drives stress, and, instead of operating on reflex with devices and people around us, getting proactive with boundaries, prioritization, and breaks to refuel minds and bodies.

Let’s look at seven ways we can activate these strategies to keep overwhelm at bay:

1. Change your explanatory style. It’s easy to lock in false beliefs by repeating them often enough. Setbacks and stressors set off catastrophic stories, courtesy of the caveman brain, that aren’t true even though they are in your head. They have to be countered. You can feel less overwhelmed by not telling yourself you are. Also ban language/thoughts such as, “I won’t be able to handle it,” “I can’t cope,” etc., which are easy triggers for the stress response. Tell yourself you can cope, you have coped, you will cope. Yes, you have 200 emails, but you can handle it. The glass is half-full.

2. Get it out of your head. Human brains are not built for storage, but for processing. Trying to keep all your to-do’s sloshing around in your brain fuels anxiety about how you’re going to get it all done. Cut to-do angst by writing down next actions for each task on your list. As Florida State researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister and Getting Things Done guru David Allen have proven, unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks. Writing them down releases the brain to focus on the moment.

3. Qualify urgency. Time pressure is a huge factor in overwhelm. It drives a belief that everything is an emergency and must be done immediately. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent. We need to qualify the urgency of tasks, and take a breath to do so. What’s the urgency of doing it now? Busyness isn’t the same thing as being productive. If you are the type of person who celebrates how busy you are, that can add to the workload and lock you in to overperformance at every moment as essential to your identity.

4. Say, “Let me get back to you.” People who are overwhelmed tend to have a hard time setting boundaries. They are over-optimistic about how much they can get done and how fast. Self-management begins with basic boundaries. You can’t take on more than you can do well. When you get an assignment and you have a big stack on your plate, say, Let me get back to you. Clarify your time lines and priorities, and let them know what's on your plate.

5. Set the terms of engagement with devices. Turn off devices and check them at set times. Shut off the bottom-up attention of unbounded messaging and interruptions, and you feel in control, not at the mercy of an avalanche of notifications, rings, pings, and pulses. Cut the volume of email, and use strategies to do so. Every email results in six emails.

6. Stop multitasking. Multitasking is a myth. A host of studies from the University of Michigan to Vanderbilt show that you can’t do two cognitive tasks at one time, particularly anything involving language. There’s only one channel for language to flow through. Each time you multitask you self-interrupt. That causes it to take longer, some 50% longer, to complete tasks, and the interruptions make your brain feel that tasks are harder than they really are, which fuels overwhelm.

7. Reach out for support. When overwhelm is at a level that is causing serious health issues, say something—to a manager, supervisor, spouse, significant other. Reach out for support. Others can vet our stories and bring fresh perspective. There are always other ways of arranging workflow.

Overwhelm is a cumulative condition. It builds by default without boundaries and systems to work more productively and create more work-life balance. The hardest workers can easily turn into burnout cases when they are doing more than they can possibly do well. That's a lose-lose for organization and employee.

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Tags: job stress, job burnout, stress management programs, overwhelm, productivity programs, crazy busy, multitasking and stress, feeling overwhelmed, information overload and stress, interruptions

Information Overload: The Art of Interruption Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IT JUST MAY BE the crime of the century. Our minds, thoughts and chief productivity tool--attention--are being stolen by a thief operating with absolute impunity: incessant, unbounded interruptions. An ever-growing volume of intruders--e-mail, texts, apps, phone calls, social media alerts--combined with assaults from increasingly time-panicked humans, are leaving few places safe for chirp-, chime- or ding-free concentration.

Information overload, which includes the recovery time from unnecessary interruptions, cost the U.S. economy $997 billion in 2010, according to Overload!: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization by Jonathan B. Spira. An Intel study found that lost productivity from information overload alone would cost $1 billion per year for a company its size.

Chronic intrusions shrink attention spans, drive stress by burning up mental and emotional resources and trigger mistakes. An interruption averaging 2.8 seconds--say, one of those blinking notifications in the corner of your computer screen--can double the risk of error, a study by researchers at Michigan State University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory found. Increase the duration of the interruption to 4.4 seconds, and you triple the chance of a mistake.

Interruptions play havoc with working memory, fuel overwhelm, and undermine intellect. A study that measured the effects of forced interruptions on resident surgeons performing a simulated laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) found that surgical mistakes occurred 44 percent of the time with the distractions, and only about 6 percent without. Interruptive questions triggered the most errors, followed by sidebar conversations.

There's a reason airline pilots have mandatory no-interruption zones just before takeoff and landing: Federal regulations prohibit any activity--from nonessential conversations with crew or others in the cockpit to reading nonessential publications--that could distract a pilot during critical phases of the flight.

So, what are the main sources of intrusion, how do they affect us, and what can be done to curb them?

DIGITAL DISTURBANCES

The average businessperson receives and sends about 109 e-mails per day, and that rate is growing each year by 7 percent, according to studies by technology market research firm The Radicati Group. Instant messages are increasing 11 percent, and texting, once confined to the nonwork realm, is bombarding offices, with 67 percent of professionals saying they text for business, according to messaging service HeyWire Business. How interruptive is this? Mobile Marketing Association reports that 90 percent of all texts are read within three minutes.

"It's a huge problem," says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts psychiatrist and co-author of Driven to Distraction, which chronicles the siege on attention. "It's the newest addiction. There are in-patient centers now for people with technology addiction. Marriages break up."

"There's a thrill to it," adds Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. "Your texts and e-mails are like video games. There's a stimulus and rewards."

The surge of texts and social media notifications in recent years may be leading to a tipping point of terminal distraction and always-on availability. Michael Salem, co-founder and CEO of Vorex, a Plano, Texas-based provider of cloud-based professional services automation software, says he gets 1,000 messages per day. "I'm overwhelmed," he admits. "Responding is a daily thing, 24 hours a day." For a while, he says, he barely slept, taking calls from global users of his product from his bed. His health started to suffer; he gained weight and became anxious from the never-ending assault.

"I counted recently," says Matthew Bellows, CEO of Boston-based Yesware, an e-mail productivity service for salespeople. "I have 22 inboxes, from e-mail to LinkedIn. The idea that I'm supposed to monitor and troll through these is absurd. I get hundreds of e-mails a day. Interruptions and distractions are the biggest drain on productivity for the modern office worker."

THE BATTLE IN THE BRAIN

The volume of intrusions today is unsustainable by any metric: productivity, engagement, physiology or common sense. So what can we do about it? The first step is to understand the impact of constant interruptions on our brain neurons.

Out of all the things your brain could focus on right now, your attention at this moment is on this sentence. This is because you are implementing what's known as top-down attention, in which you choose what to take note of. You set the terms of engagement, giving you control and concentration--that is, if you can block out the distractions of the other kind of attention: bottom-up, which is dictated by something or someone else. Bottom-up attention is part of our survival equipment. When you hear a siren or a car backfire, your attention instantly shifts to the potential threat. The cavalcade of electronic noisemakers--e-mails, texts, IMs, phone calls, notifications--are all bottom-up intruders. They arouse defenses and hijack concentration.

It's a battle that's daunting but winnable. "You are the boss of what's in your head," Gallagher points out. "Attention is a tool, and you can take charge of it. It's a matter of knowing when you want to use your top-down attention, and then you have to suppress the bottom-up stimuli. Otherwise, you become a victim of stimuli."

Interruptions trigger detours that tax working memory and increase the time it takes to accomplish tasks, all of which drives stress. When an intrusion occurs, "it sets off a chain of random events, with people switching activities," explains Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of a study on the subject. On average, she says, "you work on two intervening tasks before you get back to the original task." For example, you might be at work on a marketing project one minute, then shift to an e-mail from a customer, then off on a trip to LinkedIn.

Mark followed 35 managers, engineers and project leaders for three days. She found that the average time people spent on a single task before being interrupted or switching to something else was a whopping three minutes. The amount of time they worked on a device before switching was two minutes, 11 seconds.

The interruption blitz is held in place by fallacies that the human brain is an inexhaustible well that can be crammed with an unlimited amount of information, perform multiple functions simultaneously and switch tasks without decrease in output. The shocking truth is that our gray matter has limits, from working memory to data volume to neural channels that permit us to perform only one high-cognitive task at a time.

Interruptions undermine effortful control, which reflects the ability to regulate impulse control. The more interruptions one has, the more they erode the self-regulation equipment. Feel like you have to check your e-mail even though you just checked it five minutes ago? That's your impulse control and attention span on the blink. Interruptions shred the ability to self-regulate everything from checking e-mail to consuming Häagen-Dazs or Jack Daniel's.

ATTENTION DEFICIT

This is why technology is so addictive. It can destroy the ability to control impulsivity, which means more frequent message checking and web browsing and shorter attention spans. That, in turn, leads to more distractibility and less ability to see tasks through to completion--exactly the sort of symptoms psychiatrist Hallowell began to see in the '90s in patients who thought they had attention-deficit disorder.

But people with true ADD are born with the condition. So Hallowell's patients' fractured attention was a byproduct of something else--an affliction that mimics ADD, set off by interruption and information overload "filling our heads with a cacophony of mental noise" until the brain "loses its ability to attend fully and thoughtfully to anything," Hallowell notes in Driven to Distraction. He dubbed the condition "attention deficit trait."

Once high-producers, people with this condition flit from one thing to the next and find themselves falling behind in their work, which in turn increases time panic and anxiety as they try to catch up. Thus the constant disruptions feed a fear of being overwhelmed and not being able to cope, a signal to the ancient brain to set off the stress response.

"I can feel my heart racing," says Karen Swim, who launched her Sterling Heights, Mich.-based public relations firm, Words For Hire, 10 years ago. She used to be able to manage the electronic flood, but she says the increase in texting over the last couple of years has pushed her coping resources over the edge. "There are days when I feel I have to stop and breathe. It feels like you're on a treadmill that keeps speeding up, and you can't keep up."

THE NO-INTERRUPTION ZONE

Everyone knows the volume of intrusions is counterproductive, but attempting to moderate the flow strikes fear in the hearts of business owners and managers. It shouldn't.

More entrepreneurs would crack down on interruptions if they knew how much it was costing them, says Dan Adams, CEO of Woburn, Mass.-based New England Network Solutions, which provides computer services to small and midsize companies. "Business owners don't know how much time is being lost to these distractions," says Adams, who installs firewalls to track and monitor internet and social media use.

As relentless as the siege is, entrepreneurs and employees don't have to throw up their hands. There is a range of tools available to control the onslaught, improve productivity, and along the way build in stress management controls.

Strategies range from curbing e-mails to limiting personal pop-ins from colleagues. U.S. Cellular, Intel and professional-services giant Deloitte are among large firms that have attempted no-e-mail days--not mandating a complete shutdown of electronic messages, but encouraging in-person or voice communication, especially among co-workers--which may cut down on unnecessary distractions.

"Without uninterrupted time you can't listen to someone, write good code or think," says Yesware's Bellows, who once spent a year at a Buddhist retreat meditating for hours a day. "Those tasks take concentration and focus that is quickly taken away by devices."

INTERRUPTIONS

Bellows is trying to stem the tide of interruptions. Instead of interrupting one another with questions, Yesware employees send messages via a HipChat.com intranet page that colleagues can review on their own time, when they have a break in the action. Bellows blocks out uninterrupted time on his calendar to think, urges everyone to close laptops and not check messages during meetings and reads and responds to his e-mail in designated chunks a few times a day.

The latter strategy in particular can dramatically reduce interruptions. If your e-mail automatically checks and feeds you messages every five minutes, that's a potential of 96 interruptions over an eight-hour day. However, if you manually check it every 45 minutes, that cuts the total to 11. Researchers at Oklahoma State University say the most productive checking schedule is four times per day. UC Irvine's Mark recommends that you plow through as much e-mail as you can in three scheduled periods per day; the rest of the time, it should be turned off.

Other interventions aim to block off no-interruption zones. Leslie A. Perlow, Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, developed the "quiet time" program, which walls off all intrusions during certain times of the day.

She deployed the method at a software company whose engineers were having trouble creating products without working nights and weekends. After a period of investigation, Perlow discovered that the engineers were being interrupted so often they didn't have time to think and couldn't get enough done during regular hours. With everyone falling behind schedule, a crisis mentality developed, in which people felt entitled to interrupt anyone at any time.

Perlow's solution was to set aside a certain portion of the day, before 11 a.m. and after 3 p.m., for uninterrupted work. (Normal interruptions could take place during that four-hour window.) The results: 59 percent of engineers reported that their productivity increased in the morning interruption-free zone, and 65 percent said the same for the afternoon. With heads cleared, 41 percent even reported that their productivity jumped during the interruption portion of the day.

Harman Singh likes the idea of quiet time. The founder and CEO of WizIQ--who gets upward of 200 messages each day--says he's been thinking about the need for rules to control the flood at his online education company. "It's gotten crazy," he says. "I don't get enough time to think. It's a menace."

His most frustrating distraction: mobile messaging via WhatsApp. He has considered getting off the app but is concerned about how investors who contact him that way might react. As with most thoughts of managing interruptions, there is fear. Would they respect boundaries? But Singh believes that ultimately his investors would rather have him engaged in productive thought and running his company than buried in social media and needless communication.

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Tags: stress management programs, email overload, information overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, managing interruptions, reduce distractions, multitasking and stress, information overload programs, email management, interruption management

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