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

How Overwhelm Swamps the Surprising Limits of Your Brain and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If it’s hard to focus these days, here’s a reason why. Estimates vary widely, but humans are simply drowning in thoughts—from 12,000 to 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. It’s a wonder we can break through that babble for a moment of concentration on a single item from that cacophony.

It’s not like we’re deep thinkers, since most of the stuff is the same rehash from day to day, worries, projections, things to do, things to watch out for, threats on the horizon, things people said, things we’re fed up with, problems of the day, and ruminative loops that come from the false beliefs of stress. There are even a few good thoughts—curiosities, joyful musings, “man, that tasted good.”

YOUR BRAIN IS NOT A STORAGE CENTER

Into this noise comes even more static with the steady tonnage of information overload, email, texts, all prompting their own threads of thoughts to add to the pile. Is it any wonder that overwhelm, having more on our mental plate than we can process, has become the affliction of the modern era?

Most of the people I work with in my work-life balance, stress management or productivity trainings are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of to-do’s and information and data taken in each day. It’s a natural response to a barrage our brains aren’t designed for.

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The fact is the brain is not a storage center to be stuffed like a supercomputer. We don’t have Pentium processors. We are not hard drives with hair. The brain has limits that, once we become aware of them, can help us use our brain in the way it was intended, as a processing tool.

Working memory, also known as short-term memory, is one of these limitations. It’s the key to doing anything, whether in work or life, but it is highly restricted. You can’t hang on to more than three or four thought-chunks at a time for only a few seconds.

BLOWING UP WORKING MEMORY

It’s very tenuous but also focusing, since you have to really concentrate in the moment to make it work. When interruptions bombard it, they blow up that fragile grouping of thought chunks needed to get something done. Then we have to try to reassemble the thoughts and where they were going. What was it I was going to do? 

We’re not talking about multitasking here, which is a separate issue and even more limited. We can do only one cognitive task at a time, for instance, since there’s only one neural channel for language to go through. Working memory gathers thought associations needed to perform a single task, not multiple ones.

Another way your brain is constrained is in the number of events and to-do’s it can keep track of. Your brain is good at staying alive, eating, and avoiding harm’s way. That’s what it was designed for. It’s not built for keeping track of 30 appointments in your head. Trying to ignore that limitation is a big driver of overwhelm, as the to-do’s circle the mind and nag us, trying to get us to notice them. The longer those items remain unhandled, the more urgent the nags become, which drive a belief that things are out of control.

OFFLOADING THE INTERNAL NAG

The key to managing overwhelm is to get the volume issue under control. It’s the number of incoming and still-unfinished items that trigger the danger button in the ancient brain that turns on the stress response because the quantity has overloaded perceived ability to cope with them all. We can make the stack of to-do’s manageable when we get all the floating, hectoring items out of our head and onto paper or a screen, along with a next physical action for each. Once that happens, the brain lets up on the badgering and hanging on to the to-do because it thinks you are on the way to handling things. 

We need to clear space in the brain taken up by trying to keep many balls in the air for what it’s built for—analyzing data, working in the moment, innovating. We can unclutter a dump truck of space upstairs by setting the terms of engagement with the devices and interrupters that are blowing up working memory’s painstaking efforts to complete tasks at hand.

Researchers say that checking email at designated times is one of the best things we can do to rein in intrusions into our concentration. You turn your mail and phone off and turn it on manually at times you want to check. This way you are in charge, deciding when you want to deal with the business at hand, instead of being at the behest of the distractions. This lowers the intensity of volume concerns and makes things handleable.

Research at Oklahoma State University found that two to four times a day was the most productive email checking schedules. The University of California at Irvine’s Gloria Mark says three batching sessions a day, where you power through mail—but at your command—is the most effective. 

TURNING DOWN THE VOLUME

Overwhelm is a byproduct of excess volume, pace, and load, all of which can be turned down by taking the time to plan, prioritize, and delegate, and strategically question. The latter is a willingness to identify bottlenecks, unrealistic deadlines, and other issues that drive overwhelm and then ask if there are more productive ways to do things. There always are, because the work style of first resort is all based on reflex and devoid of any productive basis.

Overwhelm is a menace to productivity, since it undermines the chief productivity tool, attention. Fractured, overbombarded attention is prone to rote and panicked decision-making, and defaults to System 1 thinking, the “fast” brain of impulse and jump-off-the-cliff decisions. The overwhelmed mind is also caught up in time frenzy, since it feels it is falling behind on everything. Time pressure makes the decisions worse, leading to crisis mentality.

There are research-based solutions to handling overwhelm, as along as we agree that it’s a problem and not a badge of courage. Being overconsumed with overperformance and busyness is not a good thing. It doesn’t speak to your endurance. It speaks to counterproductivity, because we wind up doing more than we can do well.

Overwhelm is also one of the quickest triggers of the stress response, because it’s the definition of something beyond coping resources. It can be the engine of a lot of physiological and emotional issues—hypertension, insomnia, irritable bowel, stroke, family dysfunction, burnout and depression. 

Productivity is not a function of how many things you can do at one time or how fast you’re doing them. It’s about focused attention on one thing at a time. We get the job done faster and like what we’re doing more when we are fully absorbed in it. All we have to do is elude the thousands of extraneous thoughts sidetracking us and focus on the one right in front of us.

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Tags: overwhelm, overload, productivity training, stress and working memory, attention and productivity, overperformance

Five Ways to Unleash the Antidote to Work Stress and Overwhelm: Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

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WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you saw someone freaking out because they were completely in control of their work? I’m going to take a wild guess: never. Feeling that you have control over demands means that the demands are no longer a threat, and, as a result, they can’t turn on your ancient defense equipment, the stress response.

Control is the difference between managing work and life pressures and being at the frayed mercy of them. It’s a critical distinction in an unbounded world of devices and distractions, where so many things are intruding into working memories and limited bandwidths that it seems we have no control over anything. As the unmanaged email and interruption count skyrockets, so does overwhelm, which explodes when there are more demands than we think we can keep up with.

THE FUEL OF JOB STRESS

When things are out of control, you can bet stress and work-life balance are too. Work-life balance is itself an exercise in control, trying to ensure that both work and home responsibilities are being handled.

Researcher Robert Karasek of the University of Massachusetts identified the central mechanism in work stress as the level of demands versus the amount of control over them. The more decision “latitude” you have, the ability to affect the work you do and how you do it, the less stress. High demands and low control add up to high stress. High demands and high control, though, mean the work is manageable, even enjoyable as a challenge.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

Karasek’s job strain model demonstrated that employees with the least decision-making options had more exhaustion, depression and sleep issues. These unhealthy impacts of little latitude have been vetted by scads of research over the years, including the landmark British Whitehall Studies, I and II, which examined some 28,000 civil servants altogether. Those investigations found a clear connection between stress and the position of the person in the organization hierarchy. The lowest ranking people, who had the least decision-making discretion, had a mortality rate three times higher than administrators.

Interestingly enough, this dichotomy is also what Stanford University scientist Robert Sapolsky found in his research with apes. Those on the bottom of the social totem pole were the most stressed and least healthy. Helplessness is stressful, and in humans it leads to a downward spiral of pessimism and depression.

LATITUDE ADJUSTMENT

Having the ability to control the work environment makes a massive difference in how brains process demands. When we can’t do anything about job demands mental strain develops. That in turn can set off the body’s defense equipment, since you aren’t able to take actions to cope with the demands. Not being able to mitigate a demand that is perceived as a threat is the definition of stress—and a fight-or-flight trigger.

Control isn’t just key to managing demands, it’s also the essential element of attention, performance, and doing the tasks that need to be done. It’s a managing partner with self-regulation in discipline and willpower to keep you focused on task. Stress undermines intellect and constricts the brain to perceived crises and rumination in tenses other than the one you’re trying to work in, which shreds focus and concentration. The same is true of missing work-life balance, the lack of which is an ongoing source of concern and guilt, taking minds far afield when home issues aren’t being handled.

Obviously, we can’t all be control freaks on the job. We are there to do what others want, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more flexibility in how individuals choose to do and think about the practices they are tasked with and how managers frame the tasks to be done. This is the dynamic behind autonomy support, one of the most effective systems for increasing employee engagement, when people willingly put forth extra effort. It’s based on tapping into core human needs such as autonomy and competence, which bolster perception of self-control by increasing employee involvement and responsibility.

Getting more control over your work-life is a matter of taking many practical steps to better organize, plan, and manage an unbounded world. It comes down to something that all humans are primed to do for their own safety and well-being—make life more predictable. Threats are manageable when we have wrestled them into more predictable paths and outcomes. I’m not saying you have to be a psychic, but you do have to take steps to harness the bucking broncos in your life and minimize the possibility of being thrown.

Here are a few steps that can help you feel more control:

1. Control Email and Devices. If you have your email on autopilot, with incoming every five minutes, that’s a potential of 96 interruptions over the course of the day. Unbounded email is a great way to drive overwhelm. Check your email at designated times. Three and four times a day is the most productive, say U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State researchers. Keep your email and phone turned off and check them manually when you decide, not the startle response set off by device noisemakers.

2. Interruption Management. Disable the visual alerts on your screen. Set aside times, 30 minutes here, an hour there, for no-interruption zones. Put a message on your autoresponder that you’re on a deadline. Researchers say that when you’re being interrupted, it makes anything you’re doing seem more difficult, i. e., out of control, than it actually is.

3. Stop Multitasking. Circus clowns can juggle bowling pins, but you can’t do more than one cognitive task at a time. There’s only one neural channel for language to go through. You are not talking on the phone and doing email at the same time. You are switching back and forth. In that switching there’s a cost: stress, as brain neurons try to figure out where they were before they jumped to the secondary task.

4. Ask for a Rationale. Studies show that when we ask for a rationale for doing a task or give one to someone we’re asking to do something, the task gets internalized, and it becomes something more important and makes us feel we are exercising choice, autonomy, latitude. This undercuts hierarchy and order-taking strain.

5. Time Estimation. Take time and figure out how long it takes you to do each of your primary tasks. When you are asked to do one of them, you then have a hard time estimate, instead of wishful optimism, about how long it’s going to take to do it.

And finally, Karasek pinpointed demands that drive low control and strain—time pressure, reaction time needed, pacing, amount of work, having to wait for others to do their part of the task, interruptions, and concentration needed. How could you and your team adjust these demands to make them more manageable?

Propose alternative ways of doing a task that would allow you to feel it’s more manageable. Studies show that speaking up doesn't have the whammy we think. It’s how everyone finds out what isn’t working, in other words, what’s out of control.

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Tags: work stress, job stress, stress management, stress, reducing stress, overwhelm, feeling overwhelmed, job strain model

The Brain and Productivity Drain of Unbounded Devices, Interruptions, and Information Overload

Posted by Joe Robinson

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DESPITE A FLOOD of technology investment in the workplace in recent years, productivity gains are at their lowest since 1982. Economists are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why. In the past, technology improvements were followed by big productivity gains. Why not this time? A lot of us under the thumb of 24/7 technology know the answer to that one. 

Digital overload. Too much technology has swamped the human capacity to deal with it. Instead of helping us get our jobs done, it’s making our work harder and longer. 

THE QUAGMIRE OF UNBOUNDED TECHNOLOGY

It’s on display every time I conduct a work-life balance, stress management, or time management (Managing Crazy Busy Work) training, which I did last week at the Supply Chain Leaders in Action conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Executives from Pepsi to Starbucks to Microsoft told me they were drowning in messaging and digital interruptions to the point they can’t keep up with it all and feel like they’re constantly falling behind.

One executive told me he feels a semblance of control if he can get his email box down to 200. A couple people in the training were getting more than 300 messages a day. That means doing email at home to catch up, which drives exhaustion, crowds out recovery options, and grinds down performance.

Technology is helpful when humans are in charge of it. Most of the time these days, we’re not. We’re at the mercy of unbounded in-boxes, information overload, and distractions. 

How many of you have been known to sleep with your significant other who’s not your partner? Your smartphone. Based on my experiences, it’s well more than a few.

We have lost one of the most basic management tools: boundaries. The devices are running us, instead of the other way around. As a result, most people are in retaliatory mode all day, reacting to what’s coming at them—acting before they think. That drives time frenzy, crisis mentality, overwhelm, and poor time management, not to mention bad performance, because our chief productivity tool, attention, is under assault.

WHO'S IN CHARGE?

What we don’t understand about digital devices is that they are supposed to work for us, to help us, not barrage our working memory and survival equipment all day. We're supposed to be in charge.

All the bongs, chirps, chimes, and pulses play to what’s known as bottom-up attention. That’s what happens when you hear a loud noise. Your attention immediately shifts from whatever you were focused on to see what the threat is. It sets off the startle response, a stressor, interruptor, and all-around saboteur of working memory.

Intel estimated the cost of lost productivity per year due to email overload at $1 billion for a company with 50,000 workers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can put humans back in charge with a set of rules and guidelines that rein in the abuse.

A solution is long overdue. Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine says that 10 years ago, we used to shift between work spheres—online to offline and back again—every three minutes. Now it’s every 45 seconds. Her research shows that it takes an average of up to 25 minutes after answering an email for someone to get back to what they were doing before the interruption. We open a browser, talk to a colleague, and self-distract after an interruption.

BLOWING UP WORKING MEMORY

Interruptions throw us seriously off track. They do that by blowing up working memory, that fragile collection of germinal thoughts that we can hang on to for only a few seconds and that is at the heart of self-discipline and concentration. Research has shown that interruptions can slow us down by up to 27% and make everything we do seem more difficult than it is.

Interruptions can lower IQ up to 10 points. This is why we make suspect decisions under the influence of distractions.

Multitasking, which is really a misnomer (you can’t do two high cognitive tasks at one time), reduces productivity more than 40%, from all the switching back and forth that brain neurons have to do, according to research at the University of Michigan. And, of course, there are all the mistakes that come from multitasking, or what it really should be called—simultaneous inattention.

The problem is worse than we think, since we don’t understand the impact that unbounded devices and interruptions are having on our brains and self-regulatory equipment. Interruptions erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

We are losing ability to regulate impulsivity. Without self-regulation, the discipline needed to avoid temptation and be able to focus, we’re backsliding into addictive behavior. As Gayle Porter at Rutgers found in her research, technology is as addicting as any substance.

EVERY EMAIL RESULTS IN SIX

In a poll at my Scottsdale training, the biggest distraction and time sink was email, which is growing at a rate of 25% a year. The volume is not sustainable. Every email results in six emails, three going, three coming back, as we try to tease out what someone is saying and find a polite way to exit the conversation. The good news is that we can do something about email, interruptions, and multitasking. We can create boundaries, rules of the digital road that restore control. 

For instance, we can create manual checking schedules, which reseearchers have documented increase productivity and reduce chaos. We can make sure everyone knows that if something is an emergency, then that requires a phone call. This way people don't have to be checking email every five minutes for fear of missing an emergency.

Does your organization have an email or interruption management strategy? Our programs provide the tools to get the deluge under control, including an Email Etiquette Guidebook and Interruption Norms Rulebook.

Most organizations today are operating without norms and standards, which leads to digital abuse and triage mode all day.

Our productivity and time management training give your team the best practices vetted by the research to keep the productivity killer of unbounded technology at bay. When we develop new practices and norms and address bottlenecks, the chaos and stress ends, minds and working memory refocus, and more work gets done in less time.

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Tags: email overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, feeling overwhelmed, information overload, time management programs

Beat Email Overload and Overwhelm by Setting the Terms of Engagement with Devices

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Face-to-face conversations these days more often than not mean a face-to-scalp session, as you speak to the hair or pate of the person looking down at their phone. You can almost say anything, because they’re really not paying attention to you. “Hey, your car just got towed.” “Uh-huh.”

They hear human sounds in the world beyond their screen, but ask them to repeat it back, and they would be stumped. It’s not just the device that is impeding discourse, it’s the type of attention that is being brought to bear—divided and distracted.

MULTITASKING SLOWS BRAIN NEURONS

The reflex is to both look at the phone and listen to the conversation, but doing both things at once is impossible. You can’t do more than one high cognitive task at a time, especially anything involving language, because there is only one neural channel for language to flow through.

As a result, you are either doing one or the other task and switching back and forth between them. That switching has costs—time to figure out where you were on the task each time there's a switch, fractured attention, inability to retain information, rote behavior that results in mistakes, and stress.

Multitasking forces attention down from the top floors of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, to the rote realms, like the hippocampus, which act on muscle memory. Thinking is sidelined for default action. Operating on rote mode is highly unproductive, as the data on multitasking shows. Productivity can drop from 40% to more than double that, according to David Meyer, a multitasking expert at the University of Michigan.

Why would you want to work so ineffectively and scatter-brained? You wouldn’t—if you were thinking about it. But, alas, you’re not thinking about it. Almost none of us are. We are simply reacting, following orders from devices and interrupters. That means we are using a form of attention, bottom-up attention, that undermines focus and engagement and drives loss of control, stress, and overwhelm.

THE NOISEMAKER REFLEX

Bottom-up attention is a survival instinct. When a car backfires, we stop whatever we’re paying attention to and focus on the source of the threatening sound. Blood pressure increases, thoughts are constricted to the intrusion, and we lose the fragile thought chunks held together in short-term memory that we need to get our work done. Then we have to reconstruct later what it was we were doing before the interruption.

Research by U. C. Irvine’s Gloria Mark shows that it can take up to 25 minutes for your thoughts to get back to wherever they were before bottom-up attention took hold. Think of the hit to productivity that delivers multiple times a day.

The reason so many feel overwhelmed today is that attention is being driven, not by what our brains were designed for—selecting one thing to attend to—but by the bottom-up world of the noisemakers and flashers. The chimes, dings, chirps, and pulses, along with visual notifications (impossible to resist flashing lights; could be a threat) that keep us in startle response mode, a defensive posture, instead of on the attention offensive.

The key to restoring focus and productivity to the day is bringing back the kind of attention we need to get work done and concentrate: top-down attention. How do we do that? By setting the terms of engagement with the bottom-up brigade.

That means creating strategies that put top-down attention in charge as much as possible. When we use the ability we are programmed with, to select and pay attention to one thing at a time, studies show we have more focus, less stress, we like what we’re doing more, and we remember it longer.

BOTTOM-UP DICTATOR

All of that good stuff comes from full absorption in what we’re doing, from something that used to be known as undivided attention. Reclaiming it requires that we deploy perimeters around the unbounded realm of bottom-up intruders. Like a city without traffic lights, a workplace without boundaries on the incoming is anarchy, a field day for bottom-up dictatorship.

When we’re not choosing what to pay attention to, and just reacting all day, we feel out of control, which is the root cause of overwhelm—a belief we can’t cope with demands. This is all your ancient brain needs to flip the danger switch of the stress response. It’s a huge attention saboteur, exploding working memory for a false emergency that constricts thoughts to the perceived crisis that isn’t one. The definition of stress is high demands and no control, what’s known as “latitude,” over the work environment.

When we select what we pay attention to and when, we have command and control to keep overwhelm at bay. We can set the terms of engagement with adjustments to how we work, by checking email at designated times and keeping it turned off otherwise, by shutting off the noisemakers on our email and phone, by creating no-interruption “focus” zones that allow us to concentrate by using 100%, undivided top-down attention, and by many other strategies that restore control and attention.

The average corporate email user gets 109 bottom-up emails a day. Business texts have increased 67%. An interruption of just 4.4 seconds can triple the risk of errors. How sustainable is this path and at what risk to safety and bottom-lines? There is a better way than terminal startle response all day. Putting the humans back in control.

If your team could use more top-down attention and less bottom-up, more focus and less overwhelm, we can get you there with our Work-Life Balance and Managing Crazy-Busy Workload training programs. If you would like to learn more, click the button below for more details. Proactive self-management is the answer to overwhelm and growing attention deficit.

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Tags: email overload, increasing productivity, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, information overload programs, information overload, stress management, attention management, productivity and attention

6 Ways to Prevent Deadline Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If you’re wondering which deodorant works best, submit each to the time pressure test. Deadlines are a splendid way to do this, since they are world-class triggers of the perspiration equipment. As the due date arrives, the tension mounts and deadline panic rises. How am I going to get it all done? What if I don’t make it? Will I be fired?

The more unrealistic the deadline is, the more industrial-strength deodorant you need—and the more stress management, since deadlines are very good at simulating emergencies that set off the fight-or-flight behavior of the stress response and the worst-case ruminating known as “awfulizing.” Down to the word itself, deadlines feel like life-or-death, but you can survive them and make adjustments to how you deal with them that can turn these nags into reminders, instead of execution dates.

LESS FRENZY, BETTER OUTCOMES

There’s nothing inherently deadly about deadlines. They are a simple tool to insure that tasks get done on time and we don’t have to chase others indefinitely to move projects along. We have to have them, but we don’t have to be driven crazy by them. As with most things in a crazy-busy workplace, we can make adjustments that allow us to manage deadlines, instead of have them manage us.

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Sometimes market developments require extreme turnaround times, but most of the time better planning, more awareness of what’s on people’s plates, and less optimistic time estimation can help keep deadlines doable. Lack of information drives deadline problems. Managers don’t know everything staff is working on, and employees don’t have task time estimates to make an informed projection on turnaround time.

Deadlines are an ad hoc item without much of a system to corral them. The tendency is to pull dates out of the air or decide on the spur-of-the-moment without careful consideration of doability. Granted, there’s not always much recourse with a deadline that comes from on high, but a more systematic approach to the process can produce better outcomes and less racing pulse rates. Here are a few steps to prevent deadline dread and make the process work better.

AVOID DEADLINE PANIC

1. Do time estimates of all key tasks. The more you know exactly how long it takes to do each of the components that make up tasks and assignments, the more accurate time estimates will be, and you’ll know whether you can meet a due date or how much extra time you might need. Break down tasks and projects into their constituent parts and time them. How much time is needed to complete each task practice, from product development, to meeting preparation, customer training, monthly reports, or meetings? Add those together with estimates for other projects you might have, and you will be able to determine how realistic a deadline might be and how long it will take to accomplish it.

2. Resist over-optimism. Humans are lousy predictors of the future, particularly of personal ability to get done what we think we can in a set period of time. Type A’s, in particular, tend to be overly optimistic in what they think they can accomplish, believing they can will their way to a best-case due date. We also have to think of a worst-case estimate and what can go wrong. If you take the time to estimate what it takes to complete all tasks on your watch, you can’t go down the Shazzam road to the genie school of instant materializations. Always build in an extra 20% of time for scope creep, as parts move and Murphy’s Law intervenes.

3. Deadline-setters: Plan more. Viability all starts with the deadline-setter. Have you allowed enough time for the job to be done well, or will it take rushing and crisis mentality to complete the task? The first is much more preferable since it leads to quality outcomes and avoids mistakes and conflict, but that requires thinking ahead and better planning to allot adequate time. Over-optimism also strikes at this stage of the process, with the belief that others can get it done at an appointed time because it has to be done. Sound out colleagues and other members of the team on the feasibility of the request before announcing due dates. It’s better to over-deliver with a great project than over-promise a raggedy or late one.

4. Assess deadline feasibility. One of the things I hear often from managers in my productivity trainings is that team members tend to say “Yes” to deadlines automatically without examining whether there is enough time or resources to complete the request, boxing themselves in to a date tough to pull off. If you take on more than you can do well, you are not doing anyone a favor. Unless the time estimate is doable, the deadline-setter is in trouble as well as you, so make the time work for both of you with as accurate an estimate as possible. Build in a pause to assess the deadline for its viability and say you’ll get back with an answer after checking resources and schedules.

5. Negotiate a more realistic due date. If the deadline isn’t feasible, propose or negotiate an alternate date, if that is possible. Managers are more open to making due dates work than is thought, especially when mitigating facts are brought to their attention that they are not aware of. Demonstrate why the deadline could be adjusted to insure a better outcome. Catching unrealistic deadlines on the front end is one of the best ways to prevent heartburn, mistakes, and missed deadlines later.

6. Create more informed timing expectations. Leaders and sales managers may have an idea of how long it takes to get something done that is at odds with the reality on the ground. Establish timing expectations through communication that insures that everyone has a clear idea of how much time is needed for each step of the process or project. 

Deadlines tend to fall through the management cracks, yet they play a huge role in daily operations and stress loads that drive crisis mentality, rushing, errors, conflicts, poor decisions, and health problems that undercut productivity. Every team and organization needs to make the time to create a deadline process that puts the emphasis on the best outcomes, not just rote speed. A little inspiration can save a lot of perspiration.

Tags: stress tips, overwhelm, workplace productivity, stress coaching, crazy busy, time management and planning, stress, work life balance programs, stress management, work stress, deadlines, managing deadlines, deadlines and stress

How to Stop Working the Hard Way

Posted by Joe Robinson

Sleeping_woman

Humans are prone to doing whatever takes the least effort—even though our brains want us to do the opposite and challenge ourselves. We are a little contradictory. The high brain wants the gratification of growth, while for the autopilot brain the default is to instant gratification and expending as little effort as possible. The TV remote may be the ultimate instrument for this impulse.

At the office, the “easy” reflex results in rote and last-minute behavior, along with the anemic productivity that comes with them. It’s why I usually hear from clients when overwhelm has peaked or work-life balance survey scores are underwater. 

HARDER THAN IT IS

It may seem like it’s easier to work on rote and avoid change, but it’s actually much harder, as clients learn in our work-life balance trainings. When we are stuck on reflex, that keeps us locked in habits that drive stress, slow us down, and make tasks more aggravating than they actually are.

Take interruptions, for example. Left unmanaged, they not only make it much harder to focus and finish the task you are on, but they also make anything you do seem more difficult than it is. They change the perception of the work to something harder. So which is easier? Managing interruptions or being managed by them?

It’s a no-brainer, as it is when it comes to letting devices call the shots or corralling them, so we are in charge. Do nothing and unbounded devices and messaging run amok, adding to workloads and disruptions that slow everyone down. Do out-of-control messaging and constant disruptions make the work easier or harder? Cut the volume of email and check it at set schedules, and you can reduce the amount of interruptions from 96 (checking every five minutes) to three or four times a day, the most productive checking schedules, report researchers at U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State.

We can all free up hours of time to focus and get work done with a system that manages messaging. This makes changing how we work a lot easier than being bombarded by the anarchy of the status quo. But the law of least effort is seductive and most people today are also caught up in the autopilot of busy-ness, a condition that makes us think we can’t stop for a second, or it will be apocalypse now.

A HEALTHIER ROAD TO SUCCESS

Work-life balance is a process of stopping for a moment to find easier ways to work, of getting tools to carve out the space to live a quality life and take care of personal responsibilities and map out a healthier road to success. In our work-life balance programs we bring your team the best strategies vetted by the research to stop doing things the hard way and start doing things the smart way.

Bad work-life balance survey scores and crazy-busy workplaces rife with overwhelm are clues that things could be done a lot easier. If your team is drowning in meetings and teleconferences, that’s doing it the hard way. If deadlines are out of whack with reality, that’s doing it the hard way. If people are working in a way that drives stress and burnout, that is really doing it the hard way. Stress undermines intellect and drives irrational decisions.

A host of research and best practices tells us that we don’t have to do it the hard way. Instead, with the right self-management, boundaries, and effective norms, any team or organization can get work done faster, communicate more clearly, de-clutter brains, and help employees activate  lives off the job too. It all comes from avoiding the temptation to keep muddling through with the same-old, same-old.

Work-life balance training is about solving problems, taking inefficient habits and turning them into effective practices that create the space to think and manage demands and devices. It’s a collaboration in which we work together to identify the bottlenecks and pressure points that drive productivity and work-life south and get solutions that make work and life easier.

UNLEASHING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

I’m working with a client now on a post-work-life balance training sustainment program, two months of developing and practicing skills of sustainable performance. The managers of this global firm, with offices from Stuttgart to Hong Kong, Brazil, and the U.S, are super-enthused as we troubleshoot bottlenecks, set new norms, and make their days more effective. Each new practice they use to manage information or global time zones, or strengthen the work-family perimeter inspires more employee engagement—the very extra effort our species has an aversion to at the most basic level.

It turns out that effort isn’t a problem for people who are encouraged to participate and solve problems. In fact, we all are designed to be self-starters, to have a hand in writing our own script. Initiative and proactive behavior pay off core psychological needs, such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others as well as the quest our brain neurons have for novelty and challenge—the two key elements in long-term fulfillment 

So when it comes to working smarter with a work-life balance training, it’s a win-win-win-win. We improve work effectiveness, satisfy core needs, unleash the fulfilling powers of novelty and challenge, and inspire the discretionary effort that comes from employee engagement. And along the way, we make work, and life, a whole lot easier.

If you would like more information on our work-life balance training program, click the button below for details.

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Tags: employee engagement training, work-life balance trainings, overwhelm, information overload programs, employee development programs, work effectiveness, work life balance, work-life balance and productivity

When Working Memory Is Overwhelmed, You Are Too

Posted by Joe Robinson

Overwhelm and working memory

Everybody hates a nag, and that especially goes for the one inside our heads that keeps bugging us about all the to-do’s that have to be tackled NOW. The unfinished items swirl around and around, like a cloud of flies orbiting the cranium, interrupting focus and helping to fuel a belief that we are overwhelmed.

Productivity is a function of how much attention we have on a single task at a time, so any time our thoughts are straying to other projects or hurry-worry to get to the next task, we’re not paying full attention, and that undermines performance. The human brain was designed to do one thing at a time, to use our brains as processing centers, not storage devices.

THOUGHT LIMITS

One of the keys to getting anything done is working memory. Also known as short-term memory, working memory is a temporary holding pen for ideas/thought “chunks” that we are actively using to complete an action at any given time. It has very limited storage capacity over a very brief period of time, thought to be a matter of seconds. It was once thought that we could keep seven thought “chunks” in the brain at one time for working memory use, but researchers now believe the real capacity is three to five items, a core known as the central working memory faculty.

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In a study examining how much subjects could retain in short-term memory in a visual test of shapes and squares, researchers J. Scott Saults and Nelson Cowan (2007) found that subjects could hang on to no more than four items at a time. It’s important to point out that we are not talking about the capacity to do four separate actions at one time, as in multitasking, which is impossible for mortals, but merely to hold that many thought elements in mind while at work on a task.

Researchers aren’t sure why working memories are so limited, but theorize that it was too expensive, in both energy and time, to have excess information getting in the way of processing and action. Evolution appears to have selected out the reverse of information overload—focused selection—as a survival instinct.

Of course, just about everything these days is conspiring against focus, from information overload to stress, which can seriously reduce working memory performance by sidetracking your immediate attention to a perceived emergency.

THE INCOMPLETE LOOP

With working memory so constrained, it’s easy to see how the to-do nag can interfere with the task at hand as it interrupts short-term memory and plays havoc with recall of our primary task. Productivity guru David Allen noticed that “incompletes,” as he calls them, were a big drag on performance, and it led to the central principle of his “Getting Things Done” organizing system. He observed that unfinished tasks will harass in a constant loop unless the item is finished—or the brain is persuaded that you are on the way to completion.

It was the inspiration for his concept of the “next action.” The best way to keep to-do nagging at bay, he argues, is to let the mind know you’re on the case by jotting down the next physical action for each item on your list, breaking tasks down into a series of specific steps. That stops the loop and the brain lets go.

In recent years Allen’s gut instinct was confirmed by science. Florida State University researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister found that unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks and that writing down plans to finish a task released subjects so they could do their jobs undistracted by to-do nags.

Improving time management has a lot to do with how we manage short-term memory, that brief period of focus within which we get stuff done. That means sealing it off as much as possible, not just from our own incompletes, but also from the siege of electronic intrusions and interruptions, which studies show fracture working memory, and, therefore, productivity.

Interruptions blow up the tenuous hold we have on the three to five items in working memory. We forget thought associations we had before the interruption, or where we were going.

AVOIDING DISRUPTIONS

This is known as a ‘disruption,” when performance plummets because it takes longer to complete the task as you try to piece together the vanished items that were in short-term memory. Think how many disruptions you go through in a day and the downtime and mistakes that result when you try to piece together again what you were doing. 

If you have to take an interruption, finish the task or thought you are on first, and make a note about where you are going with the thought train. That prevents disruptions and helps you get back to where you were without a long backtrack.

Other keys to retaining working memory and avoiding overwhelm are setting the terms of engagement with devices—checking manually at set times, turning off noisemakers and notifications—as well as keeping distractions, such as that bowl of Haagen Dazs or the conflict you had with someone out of your precious few-second realm of working memory. 

When we break away from distractions and intrusions through better planning, organizing and prioritizing and dive deep into the absorption of the moment, we find a realm of focus far from the frazzle of overwhelm and self-badgering where we can be on the same page with, well, ourselves.

If your company would like to avoid the frenzy and frazzle of overwhelm and work less harried and more effectively, click here for more on our productivity trainings and a smarter way to work.

 

 

 

 

Tags: stress management and change, employee engagement programs, increasing productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, managing interruptions, email management, employee training, stress, information overload, productivity, stress management

Crisis Mentality: The False Emergency Driving Overwhelm and Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Crisismentalityshot

Crying wolf is a behavior frowned upon by society at large, but celebrated in the workplace. Did you get that email I sent two minutes ago? We need that report by noon! Or what, apocalypse now?

How about that person who sends every email with a giant red exclamation point on it. New cat video!

Granted there are deadlines and competitors to reckon with and work that must be done in a swift way, but that doesn’t mean everything is an emergency every minute of the day, as has become the norm in most organizations caught up in the Crazy-Busy Model of performance. Time panic has become the order of the day, setting off a vicious cycle of clenched necks, churning stomachs, absenteeism, and dismal productivity.

SIEGE OF INDIVIDUAL HEROICS

Harvard management professor Leslie Perlow found in a study she did while at the University of Michigan that nonstop rushing sets off a state of “crisis mentality,” that in turn triggers “individual heroics,” which cause people to believe they can interrupt anyone at any time, which drives more time panic as the interruptions make people fall behind in their work.

Technology has played a large role in amping up the hyperventilation, creating an illusion that the speed with which communications travel can be duplicated by the humans on the other end of them. Devices and the interruptions they rain down on us have also undermined attention spans, and with that the ability to regulate impulse control. Without self-regulation, we have no ability to resist interrupting others or practice patience, which requires self-discipline. We want what we want NOW!

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Perlow found that crisis mentality had a huge impact on performance and engagement at a technology company she studied, reducing both.  The engineers tasked with designing new products were so inundated with interruptions, they would have to work nights and weekends to get anything done. It took longer to finish tasks. The obsession with speed above all else caused people to focus on individual needs over group goals and sapped any commitment the employees may have had for the company.

WHEN EVERYTHING IS AN EMERGENCY, NOTHING IS

It was all-emergency, all the time—even though the emergency was false. Everything became life-and-death, which is a perfect description of the stress response that crisis mentality sets off. It's a false emergency, unless you are literally about to die. You’re not going to expire from a deadline or 300 emails, but time panic can convince your ancient brain otherwise. When everything is an emergency, nothing is.

The frenzy at this company was toxic to deadlines and quality work. One of the insidious things about interruptions is that they make you believe the work you’re doing is more difficult than it actually is.  Studies show that interruptions can increase annoyance and aggravation more than 100%. That makes it easier for irritation to click over into anger, increasing the stress load further.

QUIET TIME

In her study, “Finding Time, Stopping the Frenzy,” Perlow argued that blind rushing is counterproductive and countered it with an intervention at the company that cut crisis mentality and dramatically boosted performance. Her solution, Quiet Time, mandated two periods during the day free of all interruptions and contacting. From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. in the morning, the engineers couldn’t be interrupted. Normal contact and messaging resumed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then it was back to an interruption-free zone from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Performance increased 59% in the morning no-interruption zone and 65% in the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. focus slot. With minds more focused, productivity even shot up 42% in the period with normal interruptions. The engineers created a new product on time without needing to work every night and weekend for months on end.

Crisis mentality undermines intellect, since stress constricts thinking to the perceived emergency of the moment. That means poor decisions, snap decisions, emotional decisions, and an inability to see beyond the latest crisis—no planning, in other words. It means colleagues at each others’ throats. And it means lots and lots of exclamation points on the emails in your in-box.

We can do better by learning how to qualify urgency, setting boundaries on messaging, respecting others and being judicious about interruptions, getting clarity on what a true emergency is, resisting the hurry-worry of others, and practicing the hidden weapon of excellence: patience.

If your company would like to lose Crazy-Busy Overwhelm and work less harried and more effectively, click here for more on our productivity trainings and a smarter way to work.

Tags: effect of stress on productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, employee productivity, productivity training, interruptions, false urgency, increase productivity, stress management, job stress, burnout, chronic stress, time frenzy,, crisis mentality,

The Hidden Agent of Job Stress: the Startle Response

Posted by Joe Robinson

Bracing for impact

You’re walking down the sidewalk thinking about the mouth-watering hoagie sandwich you’re going to sink your teeth into for lunch, when you hear a loud, “Bang!” In milliseconds, the hoagie vanishes from your mind, and your head jerks around to see what the danger is. It turns out that it’s only a car backfiring, but your blood pressure and breathing are still racing from the brush with this potentially ominous threat.

It’s known as the startle response, an instinctive flinch and bracing move at the sign of a threat. Even babies have this early warning system. A sudden, loud noise will cause them to bring their hands and feet closer to their chest. The reflex is designed to go off before we can even think and prepare us to brace for harm’s way.

EMAIL ALARMS

Like, say, another email or text dinger or a pulse from your smartphone. That’s right, digital alarms and noisemakers can also set off the startle equipment, along with the stress that comes with it. The more anxious you feel or stressed, the easier it is to overreact to the incoming stimuli and go into startle formation, ducking, cringing, blinking the eyes, and otherwise ready for impact.

In a world of unbounded email and smartphones, that turns most days into a startling performance—and that’s not a good thing. It amounts to repeated, jarring alarms throughout the day that signal threats, drive a defensive posture, and hijack attention.

Startling might be fun at a fright flick or on the local roller coaster, but it makes for lousy work and health. University of Minnesota researchers Brian Bailey and Joseph Konstan found that interruptions can lengthen the time needed to complete a task by up to 27% and increase annoyance by as much as 106% by making everything seem more difficult that it is. In other words, a steady diet of startling from flashing and noise-making devices lowers the threshold of coping, which increases the stress load. That makes sense, since the startle reflex activates the sympathetic nervous system associated with the stress response, which colors all in doom and gloom.

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FLINCH MODE

What doesn’t make sense is to be in flinch mode all day from unbounded devices. We have to set the terms of engagement with email and smartphones, or they will keep the the startling coming, raising the stress level and stealing attention for survival threats that don't exist. Most people answer the flashing visual notifications in the corner of their computer screens within six seconds. Because it plays to a survival instinct, these notifications are almost impossible to resist.

So much for free will. Or whatever it was you were thinking about when you got startled by the incoming noise or light. Interruptions vaporize short-term memory, which is why an interruption of just 2.8 seconds, can double the risk of error, according to researchers at Michigan State and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

The rings, bongs, chimes, and light shows that we’ve come to know and love not so much are part of what is known as “bottom-up” attention, part of the startle reflex that takes priority over anything you want to focus on. These intrusions are seen as perceived threats in a part of our brain that never got the manual for the 21st century.

BOTTOM-UP ATTENTION

Bottom-up attention lives to startle. Everything is an alert, 72-point headline font. It’s like having your own Breaking News ticker interrupting you every couple of minutes.

Luckily, there’s a better way of getting things done than cringing for the next alarm. It’s called “top-down” attention. Humans were designed to select and pay attention to one thing at a time. When we do that, we no longer have to be on guard all day, waiting for the next threat. We get to choose what we pay attention and when. That puts us in control. The more control we feel we have over our work environment, the less stress, the faster we get tasks done, and the more we like what we’re doing, say researchers.

How do we get more control and reduce the volume of startling we go through in a given day? Start by turning off mail software and noisemakers unless you are using it. The same goes for your smartphone. Check them both at designated times. Researchers from the University of California at Irvine to Oklahoma State say that the most productive email checking schedules are three or four times a day. If you have to have your email software on, turn the sound all the way down or set the volume extremely low on your desktop (higher decibel levels activate the startle response) and ask someone in IT how to turn off the visual alerts. These are easy and highly effective stress management tools.

The humans are allowed to set the rules on devices, and in the process reduce a lot of needless startling and stress. If you want to get the tension and time urgency down and improve work-life balance, make a vow to check messages on your terms, and not at the hysterical beck and call of every call or spam message that appears in your in-box. 

Tags: email overload, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, stress and email, startle response, smartphone addiction, stress response, setting boundaries

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