Working Smarter

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

Posted by Joe Robinson

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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.

If you would like out more about the skills and adjustments of true work-life balance, please click the button below for more details.

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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

The Hidden Connection Between Mood and Productivity

Posted by Joe Robinson

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THE SIGN on the copy editor’s desk said, “Next mood swing in 8 seconds.” It always brought a smile to my face, and it was pretty darn close to the truth in the war room of the copy desk at the Los Angeles Times (where I once worked), where editors have to negotiate last-minute story edits and be the last line of defense on errors before publication, all while racing against the clock of the daily deadline.

Mood swings aren’t confined to newspaper editors, though. They are a fact of life for all of us. Our mood is highest on Friday and Saturday (for some reason), lowest on Monday. Mood tends to be high in the morning and low at night. Weather can affect mood, as can headlines, things people say, traffic, and too many other influences to list here.


Each of us cycles through multiple moods several times a day. Depending on how we feel, we may be gung-ho to take on a project or be immobilized by a pessimistic funk. Like stress, moods are often reactions to events and operate behind the curtain of consciousness, pumping us up, shutting us down, leaving us at the mercy of whatever feeling has bubbled to the surface.

Moods have a big impact on what we get done during the day, how much we get done, the decisions we make, and the stress that we feel. Researcher Marcial Losada found in a study that looked at the behavior of business people in meetings (using a two-way mirror for observation), that those with positive mood, who asked questions, didn’t go on the defensive, and used positive framing in their language, were more productive employees, had better sales, and got along with others better.

Maybe we should pay more attention, in that case, to the emotional levers of mood, since they have such an impact on performance, motivation, interest, persistence, and satisfaction, among many others. These are some of the reasons that my work-life balance, stress maangement, and time management employee training programs teach the power of optimism and the resilience that comes from it.

Without awareness of our mood or how to change it, we wind up little more than a marionette to the urgings of autopilot emotions set off by events out of our control.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

We’re all familiar with how things go results-wise when the day gets off on the wrong foot. Everything seems harder, takes forever, as intrusive frustration, sadness, or anxiety gets in the way of what you’re doing. The tone tends to spread throughout the day.


Researchers have found that the opposite is also true: Get off to a good start in your workday, and more good things happen. Nancy Rothbard of the Wharton School of Business and Steffanie Wilk of Ohio State found in a study conducted with customer service representatives that those who started out the day in a calm or happy mood generally stayed that way. Interaction with customers didn’t reduce that emotional state, but increased it.

On the other side of the spectrum, people who began their mornings in a bad mood finished the day that way. Not surprisingly, those in a negative state were 10% less productive than their positive colleagues.

Negative emotions don’t do much to win over customers. They keep us caught up inside our head and ego, which makes it hard to empathize, share, or connect with others. Meanwhile, positive emotions are a magnet for others. Studies show the visible sign of optimism in your demeanor, known as positive affect, is a hallmark of all kinds of success, from business to dating. Who wants to hang out with a grump? Optimists make an average of $25,000 more per year than pessimists 

In the same way that moods imperceptibly latch onto us, they also spread those emotions, positive or negative, to the people we are working with or trying to sell a product to. Emotions and the expressions of them in the tone of voice or facial expressions of others are highly contagious, thanks to mirror neurons in the brain designed to simulate the emotions of others. It's a social bonding tool.

The positive emotions we generate set off those same emotions via mirror neurons in others. When you’re in a negative or pessimistic frame, that triggers a similar attitude in others, which comes back at you to reinforce an unhappy or irritated state.


The work of Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity and the leading researcher in positive emotions, has shown that positive emotions broaden and build us. We are more open, take more initiative, meet new people, take more risks, feel more confident, bounce back faster. A pessimistic state reverses the outward direction, and we wind up bottled up in an internal bunker, distracted by frustrations, anxieties, cynicism, or fears. The focus is on me, me, me, and that shreds our chief productivity tool, attention, as we retreat into the fallacies of the ego.

Moods are ephemeral. They come, they go. We don’t have to be their prisoner. We don’t have to take them seriously or have them put the kibosh on starting a new project, reaching out to others, or enjoying our lives. We can change our mood in an instant. Think of something you should be grateful for that you haven’t been paying enough attention to, and a down mood disappears. The experience of gratitude wipes the surface ego-clinging emotions clean.


How do we get off to a positive start each morning? It starts the night before. The science of work recovery shows the way. If you don’t get rid of the stress and thoughts about the demands of the day when you get home from work, that stress and negative emotions follow you to work the next morning, researchers Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz report. When you recharge brain and body through activities that build positive mood, you go back to work the next day in a positive frame.

We all need work recovery strategies to detach ourselves psychologically from the events of the day. After-work recreational activities from running to going to the gym and relaxation processes such as reading, listening to music or meditating can help you make that break. The most effective tool to get mental separation is through mastery experiences, activities that allow you to learn and increase your core need of competence—aikiko, a dance class, playing an instrument. You feed your core identity this way, not just your performance identity at work, and that allows you to feel good about yourself no matter what happened at the office.

You can also do things in the morning before you start work that get you out of your head and into positive contact with others. Have a light conversation with the barrista, the garage attendant, your neighbor and you can get an attitude adjustment.

What music makes you feel good? Use it on the way to work or during the day to lift you up. The grea,t retired voice of the Los Angelee Dodgers, Vin Scully, would play opera and classical music in his car on the way to the broadcast booth to sustain that genial spirit beloved by millions.

The lesson of a host of behavioral science is that being buffeted around by stress and moods isn't very smart. We are more productive and happier when we are proactively doing something to manage the negative and accentuate the positive. We are not tree stumps. We can make choices that change our world for the better. 

To get your team off to a good start and stay that way, click the button below for details on my work-life balance and stress management training programs.

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Tags: optimism and productivity, resilience, positive emotions and productivity, positive mood, mood and work productivity

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