Working Smarter

The Secret to Productivity: Time to Recharge

Posted by Joe Robinson

(This is a feature I did for Entrepreneur Magazine and for people everywhere, struggling to balance work and life.)

As a college buddy was recounting a great trip to Europe, something snapped inside Jeff Platt. "It was like all of a sudden I woke up," recalls the CEO of Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park.

Though only 24 at the time, Platt was exhausted. He'd been working 16-hour days, seven days a week, for two years since launching the Los Angeles-based company's second trampoline park, this one in St. Louis. He had taken no vacations, had no social life whatsoever. In the bootstrap tradition, he was doing it all in the early days of the venture started by his father, Rick. But that habit is sustainable only until the reality of mental and physical limits strikes.

"I felt like I was missing out," he says. "All I was doing was busting my butt. I was tired. I had to slow down. I stepped back and said, it's time to hire some people."

Entrepreneurs are often celebrated for wearing multiple hats and logging numerous hours. But working without letup is a bad habit that can jeopardize business, health and the life you're supposedly working toward.

It's easy to fall into the trap of overdoing it, since capital in the early days is tight, but also because few ambitious achievers understand one of the biggest secrets of productivity--the refueling principle. It comes down to this: You get more done quicker when you step back and recharge the brain and body. Studies show that performance increases after breaks of all durations: from extended vacations down to microbreaks of 30 seconds. .

RUNNING OUT OF JUICE

Continuous time on-task sets off strain reactions, such as stress, fatigue and negative mood, which drain focus and physical and emotional resources. The brain's ability to self-regulate--to stay disciplined--wanes with each exercise of self-control during the day. It's a loss of resources that must be replenished, or it becomes harder to stay on-task, be attentive and solve problems.

"There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources," says Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies job demands and employee motivation. "When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performance decline. You're able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks."

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That's counterintuitive in a culture programmed to believe that it takes near-nonstop work to get the sale, beat the competitor or do whatever is needed to succeed. For most entrepreneurs, rest is considered the province of lesser mortals, put off for a future that never arrives. It's as if each day is an Ironman triathlon that requires one to crawl across the finish line on all fours.

Dan Sullivan, co-founder of Toronto-based Strategic Coach and co-author of The Laws of Lifetime Growth, says it's this mentality that keeps entrepreneurs exhausted, stuck and reaping a fraction of potential profits. He has built a multimillion-dollar coaching business in part by advising entrepreneurs to do the last thing in the world they would ever think to do: take time off. His anthem is that productivity and performance start with free time, which he argues is the fuel for the energy, creativity and focus that lead to success.

"It's not the amount of time you spend working each day," Sullivan says. "Entrepreneurs get paid through problem-solving and creativity. You can create a solution in a shorter period of time if you are rested and rejuvenated."

One of his clients, Jonathan Gassman of the Gassman Financial Group in New York, is a believer. Before Sullivan's program, he was a self-admitted workaholic who each year took maybe a week's "vacation" that wasn't one, since he spent much of it checking in electronically with the office. Since allowing himself free time under Sullivan's guidance, "my personal and company income are up dramatically, and I've started two businesses I wouldn't have otherwise," he says. "More quality time off is what really catapulted things." He now takes off six weeks per year, unattached to the office.

Work-life balance isn't a theoretical frill. It's a necessity for performance. After years on the burnout track, racking up long hours and heavy business travel, Saurabh Bhatia found his normally high energy reservoir tapped out. "I wasn't getting the energy I was used to, and the sense of joy was missing," says Bhatia, co-founder and CEO of mobile video ad company Vdopia in Fremont, Calif. Then he heard a TV commentator talking about how basketball star LeBron James had taken a break to recharge. That, Bhatia figured, was what he needed, too.

Bhatia put together his own program of "boosts," which include daily breaks (walking meetings, lunch with a friend, a swim); unplugged weekend activities such as hiking or driving with family and friends; and home activities, such as cooking, that relieve stress.

"You shouldn't have to slog through every day," Bhatia says. "I'm working smarter now, and finding that doing less is more impactful. My brain is getting more nutrition. On the life side, I'm able to pay more attention to my health and spend more time with my daughter."

As Bhatia has discovered, productivity doesn't come from being glued to the helm every waking moment but from how energized and, as a result, focused and organized your brain is. Humans are just like smartphones or iPods: We have to be recharged, or we run out of juice.

MANAGING MENTAL RESOURCES

Most of us wouldn't think twice about taking a breather after an hour of basketball or Zumba, but mental fatigue is another story. The brain is usually seen as an ethereal realm that exists apart from the body and the laws of physiology. Yet gray matter tires well before the body does. Since almost all of us are doing mental work these days, managing cognitive resources is not a nice thing to be able to do; it's essential.

The brain is "like a muscle. You can strengthen it or deplete it," Gabriel says. "If you let this muscle recharge and replenish, you'll feel better mentally and see improvements in your performance."

Regular refueling--input--is a prerequisite for quality output, because the brain is an energy machine, consuming 20 percent of the body's calories, even though it's only 2 percent of total body mass. Energy that gets expended must be resupplied.

Just like the heart, the brain gets fatigued from too much time on-task. "If you overtax your heart, the next thing you need to do is relax, or you'll die," says Jeff Stibel, CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. and author of Wired for Thought, among other books. "The same thing is true of the brain. Do too much, and you'll burn it out. You'll make bad choices."

One study found that mental fatigue takes hold after three hours of continuous time on-task; other scientists say brains need a break after 90 minutes, the length of the "basic rest-activity cycle."

Burning up mental resources without replacing them leads to stress, burnout and poor performance. Stress constricts the brain to a narrow focus--a perceived threat--making it hard to concentrate on anything else, plan or make good decisions.

In the course of staying focused on a task, we use up a key cognitive resource: self-control. Studies show that regulating our emotions is taxing. Known in research circles as ego depletion, this holds that every time we exercise self-regulation--paying attention, suppressing emotions, managing how we act to conform to a cultural norm--we use limited regulatory resources and reduce the ability for further self-control, depleting energy and causing fatigue.

"Engaging in effortful choice and decision-making has been shown to lead to impairments in subsequent self-control," report the authors of a study from Florida State University and Texas A&M University that proved that self-regulation creates a fuel shortage for brain activities. (That fuel is blood glucose.)

From your calf muscles to your brain neurons, the pattern is the same: Activation of energetic resources requires a period of recovery. How? You shut off the flow of demands by stopping or resting, or by building up new resources, such as energy and control, to replace those that have been lost. The goal is psychological detachment from the stress and strain that cause negative activation--feelings of tension, distress, anger, dissatisfaction and fatigue--and engagement in positive activation that drives attention and vigor: fun, pleasure, learning and mastery.

BREAK TIME

Recovery opportunities might range from breaks during the workday to diversions that shut off the work mind when you get home at night, to weekend activities, vacations and sleep.

People who engage in respite activities during workday recovery breaks have higher levels of positive affect (observable expression of emotion) after the breaks, a study led by John Trougakos at the University of Toronto found. That restores regulatory resources that increase focus and resilience. Subjects who used the time for restorative activities--relaxing, social activities, napping--got the benefit, while those who used the time for chores--other tasks and errands--didn't.

As the longest separation from work stressors during the workday, lunch is a big opportunity for restoring energy. Working while eating lunch doesn't aid recovery, one study by Trougakos reports, while autonomy during the break "can offset the negative effects of work" and result in less end-of-workday exhaustion. Exercising during lunch is also effective. Swedish researchers found that taking two and a half hours per week for exercise during work hours increased productivity, even though workers were logging 6.25 percent fewer hours.

Vacations have been shown to lead to significantly higher performance upon return to the job. The energizing ingredients are time away from stressors (you need two weeks to get the recuperative benefits from burnout) and mastery and social experiences while on vacation that build competence and social connection.

Leaving the work at work is one of the most important recovery strategies--and the hardest. If you're still obsessing about work when you're off the job, no recovery can take place. Detaching from work with diversions at night reduces fatigue and promotes positive effects the next morning at work.

What is not an effective diversion? Watching TV. The average state of a TV viewer is a mild depression, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow. Instead, you should try new hobbies and mastery experiences that satisfy core psychological needs such as autonomy and competence, which energize, empower and buffer job stress.

When you make time off as important as time on and have a plan to use it effectively, it can lead to the kinds of performance gains seen by Sullivan's clients. "We've quadrupled the size of the company," says Noah Katz, co-president of Foodtown/Freshtown markets, a New York firm with 850 employees. Katz has been in the Strategic Coach program for 12 years. "You need to recharge the batteries. You come back like a tiger and get more done."

DEFEATING DIY DISORDER

Even after trampoline impresario Platt had his epiphany that he needed help, actually hiring people was another story. After all the sweat equity he'd put into Sky Zone, it was hard to trust others with his baby. He started to give managers decision-making power, but then would overrule them.

Platt had a classic case of do-it-yourself disorder, an entrepreneurial affliction that burns up precious time and mental space on nonessential, grunt or out-of-skill-set tasks that take you away from the important jobs of innovating and building profitability.

"That's not being entrepreneurial at all," says Waterbury, Conn.-based Don Mroz, president of Post University and founding dean of the Malcolm Baldrige School of Business. "It's what's going to move the organization ahead, what's new and innovative that I can be working on, instead of ticking off the to-do list."

It took three years, the advice of a mentor and the realization that he was getting in the way of his company's forward progress for Platt to relinquish some of the reins. "Work started to pile up. I couldn't respond to people fast enough and lost some work," recalls Platt, whose company now has 71 trampoline parks around the world. "I had to get to the point of the business running itself."

It can take a serious pounding for entrepreneurs to admit they can't do it all, shouldn't do it all and, indeed, are going to flame out if they keep trying to do it all. Sullivan's clients often turn to him after a crisis--a marriage falls apart, they're drained by burnout. Sullivan teaches them that the very activity they thought was necessary for success--putting in extremely long hours--was likely the obstacle to it.

In his program, entrepreneurs create a new calendar in which their weeks are broken down into "free days," when no work or checking in to e-mail or the office is allowed; "buffer days," for planning and preparation; and "focus days," for high-value, goal-oriented practices. It can be shock treatment for folks who haven't had a day off in months or a vacation in years.

But after learning how to delegate, focus on what they do best and use free time to sharpen energy and clarity, Sullivan's clients may wind up taking a month or more off a year.

"By getting away from work and letting the mind get involved in thinking, hobbies and rejuvenation, you come back to the job and produce results faster," Sullivan explains.

Thinking is one of the crucial benefits of stepping back. Just as quality time off fuels energetic resources on the job, reflective time is critical to producing solutions and creative breakthroughs.

"If you don't give your employees time to think and play, you're not going to have the creativity you need to succeed," says Vincent Berk, CEO of FlowTraq, a software company in New Hampshire that solves tough cyber-security issues.

There's a good reason for that. "When you're thinking about a problem, it's confined to one or two regions in the brain," Dun & Bradstreet Credibility's Stibel says, "but the solution may not be in those areas. By resting, the information sits in your brain and then percolates across other sections of the brain."

Stibel practices what he preaches. His approximately 700 employees can choose from amenities and recovery options such as yoga classes, spinning, surfing lessons, massages and significant flextime. His top two refueling tips: get more sleep (seven to nine uninterrupted hours) and take a break every 45 to 90 minutes.

Now that he has made his staff accountable for decisions and learned to take breathers, Platt is feeling better. "Now I can leave for two weeks, and it wouldn't hurt the business," he says. "I can go to the gym every day, eat healthy food. I'm happier and have more energy at the end of the day."

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The Cure for Zombie Phone Staring and Email Checking: Impulse Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

Phone_addiction

There’s a reason it’s hard to stop checking your email and why everyone around you is staring at screens like zombies. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. 

It turns out that constant interruptions erode impulse control. We lose the ability to regulate our impulsivity, which is to say, we lose self-discipline, essential to getting things done and warding off addictive behavior—which includes technology. Your devices have been shown to be as addicting as any substance.

People who have gone off the rails of digital interruption and distraction are more inclined to interrupt you, suffer from a bad case of crisis mentality, call you to see if you got the email they sent two minutes ago, and have difficulty focusing on tasks to completion or concentrating, the latter leading to a condition known as Attention Deficit Trait. The lack of control also drives stress and aggravation.

THE ENGINE OF SELF-CONTROL

It all makes a crazy-busy world even crazier. What every office could use is the return of something that used to be a crucial element of functioning adults: willpower. Willpower is the engine of self-control, the ability to manage thoughts, emotions and harmful habits and override momentary desires. Not much gets done without it.

In a world of instant gratification, delaying payoff isn’t a popular choice—not surprisingly, because self-regulation is hard. It’s hard for brain neurons to resist an easier path. Since early humans didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, the species developed a habit for going for the bird in the hand.

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The use of willpower also burns up resources. To stay on task, resist an impulsive action, or remain disciplined expends mental energy. That has to be replaced. Self-regulation expert Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has documented that after long hours of staying disciplined, the self-regulation equipment tends to flag at night.

Luckily, researchers say willpower is something we can all build like a muscle. We can improve our ability to hold off temptations at hand and persevere for a later reward. 

A 2000 Florida State University study found that mental resources are depleted by self-regulating processes such as resisting temptation, restraining aggression and coping with fear. The research suggested that self-control is a limited resource that must be resupplied regularly; each act of self-regulation makes it harder to perform another, because it eats up precious mental resources needed for discipline.

PERSEVERING IS BELIEVING

But more recent data indicates that willpower is not so limited after all. You have enough to meet any challenge—if you believe you do. It’s all about mindset. 

“We don’t say it’s unlimited. At some point you do need to replenish,” says Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and a leading motivation researcher. But willpower, she says, “is a much larger resource than previously thought. You can get tired, but it doesn’t mean you’re out of gas.”

Dweck and her colleagues have found that people who believe their willpower is limited feel tapped out after a strenuous mental task, while those who believe they have abundant willpower are able to push on. “Those with an abundant view aren’t monitoring themselves. They’re just kind of carrying on,” she says.

And once you resist temptation, it’s easier to resist it in the future. You can build willpower over time, in other words, by using it—something you can do by deploying the right motivation and belief systems, priming persistence and sidelining the quick-fix ego.

EFFORTFUL CONTROL

Achievement takes effort, and effort requires command of a brain function known as “effortful control.” Part of the executive attention function system, a disciplined effortful control mechanism is essential to self-control and the ability to resist temptation. It regulates impulse control, which prevents you from checking email when you’re trying to complete a task. 

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. Similarly, people who are “cognitively busy” are more likely to make selfish choices. (He points out that a few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night—the self-control of “morning people” is impaired at night, and vice versa.)

Other researchers have found that self-regulation depletes energy in the brain in the form of blood glucose. Subjects given sugary drinks were able to replenish resources to take on hard tasks that demanded self-control. Yet as Dweck discovered, there is another energy source: one’s own belief system and the motivation that drives it. Priming yourself with a realistic expectation of a rough road and the belief that you are up to it can get you through.

When motivation is driven by intrinsic goals that align with one’s inner goals—learning, challenge or the thought of making a difference—one has more staying power. When motivation is external—money, fame, praise, status—it’s harder to stick with it. 

In one study, Dweck found that college students who were concerned about grades and self-validation (external performance goals) weren’t as interested in tackling difficult goals with the possibility of failure, showing “substantial decreases in intrinsic motivation” after a significant setback. On the other hand, students who were in it for the learning—who want to work harder to increase their understanding—persevered.  

Researchers have found that rehearsing in one’s head the reaction to setbacks can help subjects resist temptation and overcome anxiety. Instead of reacting with autopilot panic and stress when the going gets tough, you can teach the brain to have a different reaction.

People “who persist have the idea that they can improve their abilities,” Dweck says. It comes down to “recognizing that you have more willpower than you think and finding strategies to put that into practice.”

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The Link Between Vacations, Productivity, and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Beach guy.jpg

Humans are energy machines. We expend energy over the course of the workday and work year in our body and brains (which use up 20% of the body’s calories), and then we have to replace it, or fatigue sets in, stress and exhaustion build, and productivity plummets.

It’s a basic law of effort: Quality output requires quality input. It’s called work recovery in the scientific journals, and one of the best ways to get it is through the recuperative benefits of a vacation.

TIME OFF BOOSTS TIME ON

The annual vacation, which used to be a rite of summer for families in the 1960s and 1970s, has been shrinking ever since, with nearly two-thirds of Americans telling a Harris poll that they won’t be taking a vacation longer than a week. Numerous surveys show Americans giving back vacation days, 169 million days a year, according to a study conducted by Oxford Economics for the U.S. Travel Association.

There are many reasons for these trends—lean staffing, fear of layoffs, technology addiction, crisis mentality from an epidemic of false urgency and frenzy, and certainly ignorance about how our biology works, or doesn’t, when it can’t get the recovery it needs, from the cellular level to the blood glucose that gets spent in the course of staying disciplined and focused on the job. But executives shouldn’t cheer the extra days people spend on the job, since exhaustion doesn’t lead to effective work. Without recovery, employees fall prey to chronic stress, absenteeism, and burnout, the central feature of which is exhaustion.

ENGAGEMENT OR BURNOUT?

Exhaustion is the opposite of what every manager wants: employee engagement. When employees are engaged, they are 28% more productive, according to Gallup data. Engaged employees willingly put out extra “discretionary effort.” They are so committed to the work they do, they go the extra mile. Studies have shown that the key dimensions of engagement are involvement, efficacy, and energy. Engagement takes physical and mental energy, participation. That can’t happen when someone is exhausted and burned out.

The antithesis of engagement, say researchers, is burnout. Instead of energy, the key burnout dimension is exhaustion. Instead of involvement, you get cynicism, which is described as an active disengagement from others. You get depersonalized, demotivated. Not a recipe for interacting with colleagues and customers. And, of course, there's no efficacy when someone is weary and cynical. Instead, you have the opposite: ineffectualness.

Gallup found that only 29% of American workers are engaged. That means business leaves more than $300 billion on the table in lost discretionary effort. Add to that more than $400 billion that American business loses every year due to stress-related costs, according to U. C. Irvine stress researcher, Peter Schnall, and you begin to see that having a recovery strategy like vacations—and making sure your employees take them—is critical.

PERFORMING BETTER ON VACATIONS

The concept of the vacation was invented by companies back in the early part of the twentieth century as a productivity tool. They conducted fatigue studies and found that employees performed better after a respite. The same is true today. In one study by Alertness Solutions, reaction times went up 40% after a vacation.

Work demands build up strain and that causes a loss of energetic resources. That in turn, research by Stevan Hobfoll and Arie Shirom (“Conservation of Resources”) shows, increases stress. Time off helps build lost resources back up again. Hobfoll and Shirom called it “regathering.” They found that it takes two weeks of vacation to get the rucperative benefits to regather crashed emotional resources such as a sense of social support and mastery that go down when we’re burned out.

Vacations shut off the stressors and pressures of work. With the danger signal turned off, the stress response stops, and the body's parasympathetic system can get to work on reparative and maintenance functions. Through the process energy-drained cells get new sustenance. Vacations build positive mood, which crowds out negative experiences/thoughts and “undoes” the physical and mental effects of stress, as Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has documented.

VACATIONS: THE TALENT INSURANCE POLICY

Since 40% of job turnover is due to stress, consider the vacation then, a proven stress buster, as an insurance policy against losing top talent and the high costs associated with replacing an employee. Some studies show that it can cost up to two times an annual salary to replace a valued salaried employee.

Charlotte Fritz and Sabine Sonnentag (2006) found that “health complaints and exhaustion significantly decreased during vacation,” and that there was a performance increase when employees got back to the job. Employees reported less effort needed to do their work.

LEADING THE WAY

Some companies are starting to put two and two together and are emphasizing vacations as a key component of productivity and workplace cultures that walk the talk on work-life balance. Highly successful inbound marketing firm Hubspot, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers unlimited vacations to its employees and mandates they take at least two weeks of it.

Another major company, Evernote, also has an unlimited vacation policy. To make sure people take time off, Evernote pays employees $1000 to take at least a week of vacation. Go Daddy offers three weeks of vacation the first year on the job.

Many of the companies leading the charge to a new understanding about the role of recovery/vacations in productivity and work-life balance policies are technology companies. They are embracing a belief that in the knowledge economy, it’s not how maxed-out your gray matter is that leads to productive results, it’s how fresh your brain is. A focused, energized brain gets the most work done the fastest. Policies that keep minds in the red zone of chronic stress and see endurance as a measure of commitment undermine productivity and fly in the face of all the data. 

There is a word on the other side of the hyphen of “work-life” balance. The life side is essential to resupply the resources needed to get the work done well—and, is, after all, the point of all the work, isn’t it?

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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The Thought Break: 8 Ways to Beat Device Reflex and Build Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Task overload keeps out work-life balance

With all the time people spend looking down at their phones, future generations may be endowed with additional neck muscles to manage the posture. We don’t have to wait for one of the side effects of too much time in screen mode. Researchers have found that when the default in every spare second is to automatically check a digital devicd, you are doing serious damage to memory and learning.

The impulse to fill spare moments with a check of electronic devices robs brain neurons of the downtime they need to process and remember thoughts. Ideas, problems, dilemmas, musings, and experiences don’t have the space to be weighed, so we have a hard time remembering them, research at the University of San Francisco suggests.

In experiments with rats, they discovered that only when the animals took a break from activity were they able to process the patterns of a new experience. They suspect humans operate the same way. In fact, a very novel study from the University of Michigan, which examined how humans (monitored by portable brain sensors) reacted to natural surroundings, found the same dynamic. Walking in a park or in a natural setting created a meditative state in the brain ideal for reflection and processing.

NO TIME TO THINK

The research is providing a very good picture of why so many feel so overwhelmed these days in the always-on world. There’s no time to think. We can’t prioritize, solve problems, or take the time needed to plan an organized workday or time off the clock to refuel the batteries. Instead, there is constant commotion and busyness, which masquerades as productive behavior, but is actually very different from forward progress. Commotion isn’t motion. It’s a mechanical momentum without intentionality or mobility.

Nonstop busyness has become the real business today. Many of us live to be occupied, while being unconscious to what it is that we’re actually doing, since there’s no time for thinking. For busyness to work, it has to be connected with thought and prioritization. Otherwise, everything that comes through the unfiltered digital pipeline is urgent.

When there’s no allowance for critical thought, there’s frenzy and frazzle. Thinking is how we tamp down the load, decipher paths forward, delegate, and make adjustments to how we do our tasks that help us work smarter. It’s how we process the experiences and notions that plant the seeds that lead to discoveries and solutions.

SQUEEZING OUT MEMORIES

When we sleep, our brains process the events of the day, look for patterns, and file the data in our memories. Filling up every minute with reflex digital checking or busyness deprives brain neurons of the thoughts needed for processing during shuteye. That can affect memory, since the information is being squeezed out by preoccupation from entering the incubation process. Besides making our lives a lot easier, memories play an important role in mood state. Our memories are a kind of ongoing status report as to whether we like our lives or not. Researchers say we’re as happy as the most recent positive and novel experience we can remember.

On the front end of the day’s events, reverting to the digital default can affect working memory, since the self-interruptions play havoc with our ability to retain short-term information.

The habit of busyness can become self-defining to the point that if we are not in hyperventilation mode on a task every moment, there is guilt—even at home. Yet productivity is something that depends on informed performance, thought before action. Without thought, we can wind up doing more than we can do well and at times doing tasks we shouldn’t be doing, when others are more urgent.

THINK WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Without thought, there is no work-life balance. That is not the default position. In fact, it’s the opposite. A semblance of work-life fit requires proactive planning and regular check-ins to see how we are doing. Keeping work-life balance in mind can serve as a conscious check on the autopilot that drives frenzy and overwhelm. Having a work-life goal of low-stress, effective work practices, and time for family and friends outside the job insures time to plan and reflect.

A state of busyness can make it seem that you don’t have a moment for reflection, but that is a mirage from stress-addled thoughts that make you feel every minute is an emergency. The I’m-Too-Busy mental block is very effective at screening out the things we need to work more effectively or squash any notion of time off-the-clock for recharging. As the old saying goes, you have to take time to make time, so let’s look at times when you could do that and schedule something new and very exciting into your day: thought breaks.

1. The first ten minutes of your day. When you get into the office, before you check email, write down your top three priorities for the day.

2. Use the transition points between tasks or work spheres, when you have finished one and are moving into another, to take a moment to celebrate the finish of one task and think about what you want to accomplish with the next item.

3. Use coffee or water cooler breaks to take a deep breath, think about what you’re doing next, or muse on something unrelated to help rebooting.

4. Take a five-minute walk three or four times a day to let your mind reflect and wonder.

5. Shut off all devices at lunch and have uninterrupted time to space, observe, muse, or plan a weekend activity.

6. The first 30 minutes when you get home from work. If you’re doing exercise, do it without digital screens in front of you. But music is good for letting your mind drift to thoughts and associations that may connect some dots.

7. Anytime your brain is fried, and you are going in circles mentally, get up, take a walk, do some stretching, and let your mind reset. Even five minutes is helpful.

8. Do a work-life balance check once a week to see how you are doing. What are the challenges? What’s going well?

If you would like more information on how to build more attention and effective work practices, click the button below for pricing and details on one of our work-life balance or productivity programs.

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Tags: productivity, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management programs, email overload, work overload, work breaks

The Secret of True Productivity: Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

The look of employee engagement

The usual approach to increasing engagement is to demand it and bump up the quantity of work. That can have the opposite effect, say researchers. To really motivate people, it has to come from within each individual, through intrinsic motivation.

A study by Judith Harackiewicz and Andrew Elliot found that employees who are intrinsically motivated are continously interested in the work that they are doing. Inherent interest in task leads to more attention and extra effort.

"It's an illusion that the harder and faster we work, the better our solutions will be," says Diane Fassel, founder of Boulder, Colo.-based Newmeasures, an employee survey firm. "The mindset is that more is better. They're not thinking that effectiveness is more productive than quantity," she says.

It's a focus that can lead to a major dysfunction: disengaged, burned-out employees, simply going through the motions.

Fassel, a Harvard grad, sounded the alarm on the unsustainable workplace in her books The Addictive Organization and Working Ourselves to Death. She discovered that an addiction to busyness drives a contagious loop in which company leaders model bravado behavior that undermines productivity and engagement. To break out of this counterproductive reflex, leaders must gather information about how people work—and how they feel about their work and turn that into the engine of a more productive office: employee engagement.

Engaged employees are more energized, dedicated and committed to their tasks and to the company than folks operating by rote. The oomph they provide, or "discretionary effort," has been shown to increase performance and profits.

The Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study measured 32,000 people in 29 global markets, focusing on engagement brought about in the following areas: leadership (leaders show sincere interest in employees' well-being and earn their trust and confidence); stress, balance and workload (stress levels are manageable, there's a healthy work-life balance and enough employees to do the job); goals and objectives (employees understand how their job contributes to achieving company goals); supervisors (managers assign appropriate tasks, coach employees and behave consistently); and image (the company is held in high regard by the public and displays integrity in business practices).

The study found that companies with the highest engagement levels had an operating margin of 27 percent, while those with the lowest were at less than 10 percent. At disengaged companies, 40 percent of employees were likely to leave in the next two years; at the most-engaged firms, the number was 18 percent.

Employee engagement is a major concern among large companies and human resource professionals, but the proven benefits can't be realized unless concrete steps are taken to change the way management and employees relate to one another. Engagement is the X-factor managers would be wise to harness.

The key is appealing to core psychological needs, such as autonomy, competence, and connection with others that are at the root of the most potent motivation: intrinsic. When people act for the sake of it, for the excellence, craft, service, or challenge, they feel more interested and gratified and deliver extra effort.

When the connection element is improved, with quality communication taking place between manager and employee, the employee feels more trust and value, another key element to eliciting the self-propulsion of engagement.

Feeling valued means that the work culture supports the employees' growth and development, removes obstacles to getting the job done and allows employees to use all of their gifts in the service of the organization. If they don't feel valued, they can burn out quickly. But if they feel valued, they tend to work hard and cope well.

Recognizing value requires effort from leaders to find out what people really think, by taking time to dialogue solutions and showing a willingness to communicate beyond mouse clicks. That means offering positive feedback, looking employees in the eye and affirming that they are doing a good job. Recognizing a good idea or dedication to a project fuels engagement, particularly when it goes to a person's sense of competence, rather than just results. ("I like how you handled that.") A sense of competence is a core psychological need that drives intrinsic motivation and a continuous interest in the work at hand.

A personal touch can go a long way to building an engaged team. It's not just, 'What a great job you did,' but 'When I saw you solve this problem, I realized what a wonderful asset you are to the team, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate that.'

If you would like to unleash the power of engaged effort in your organization, click the button below for details on our employee engagement program and visit our Employee Engagement page. Get the latest tools to unlock your X-factor.

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Tags: productivity, burnout, increasing productivity, work life balance programs, employee engagement, employee engagement programs, employee retention, employee training

How to Get a Work-Life Balanced in 2013

Posted by Joe Robinson

Balance isn't a problem at Kings Canyon's Zumwalt Meadow

I was on the dance floor at a local restaurant when the New Year kicked in, letting the backbone slip with my wife and a bunch of friendly strangers to an old disco number like “We Are Family.” Dancing makes just about everything better, and about a thousand times more than just watching.

The crowd was thin but animated, a diverse bunch in ages and ethnicities all united in hopes for the coming year—and in shaking it no matter what their rhythm aptitude was. Several had already stepped onto the floor solo without regard to what others thought. Bravo! A great start to a year of no regrets.

Above the band there was a giant TV with ABC’s Times Square countdown. Just before the midnight hour, I caught a glimpse of a graphic showing the Top 5 New Year’s resolutions. Of course, “lose weight” was there, but also “enjoy life more” and “do more things with family and friends.”

In other words, I couldn’t help notice, two of the top five resolutions, the resolution behind the resolutions, had to do with a more balanced life (you can add "exercise more" to that category too). A lot of us know we need to do better in this department, but it can’t happen without a couple of key ingredients that the first weeks of a new year can help us with—time to think and commitment to change.  

At the beginning of the year we do something we seldom do beyond January—take a moment to self-reflect. Usually, mechanical busyness holds off the questions that need to be asked to chart a different trajectory. What is it I really need in my life, as oppose to want? What can I do to make life and work more enjoyable, meaningful, less stressful? Where am I going? Where do I want to go? 

Thinking prevents regrets later. As researchers have found, we regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do. It’s called the “the inaction effect.” That’s why resolutions like “enjoy life more” pop up on a lot of lists. There’s a nagging void when we are caught up in action to the exclusion of the thought that puts life on the calendar.

If you don't make the time and the resolutions, the world does it for you by default. Unconscious mode leads to the kinds of resolutions you don't want: 1) Do nothing about the stressors in my life, 2) Make sure devices and messages can badger me at any second, 3) Do tasks in the most inefficient way, 4) Run myself into the ground by not having any self-maintenance and recharging.

Resolutions get a bad rap, because the concept is excellent—fixing what's not working. The problem is that we aren’t taught how to use the right goals to create or achieve resolutions. Studies show that external goals, such as losing weight or getting rich, don’t stick. They’re about what others think. You don’t really buy these goals, so it’s hard to stay motivated.

Intrinsic goals—for learning, growth, excellence, challenge, fun—are much more effective at helping you commit and persist with an objective. The goal is meaningful to you in and of itself, and that keeps your self-regulation equipment sustaining the effort.

If enjoying life more or having more time for family and friends are on your resolution list, upgrading work-life balance is the intrinsic goal that gives you the best chance of success. Is that really possible? Can you get more life on the agenda and do all the work your job demands? The science says, unequivocally, yes.  

Work in the right way and you get more done in less time, and with a truckful less stress. Work-life balance means that you and your organization are using the research tools available to work more productively, have better time management and prioritizing and more control over devices and stress, deploy regular recharging and refueling, and explore the proven flex options.

Like most resolutions, it’s not easy, but unlike most vague resolutions, there are many practical tools to build a more effective work style and stop stress in its tracks. Key adjustments to how you and your colleagues do your work make all the difference.

It takes courage to change the same-old, same-old. That means speaking up, reaching out, whatever it takes to make things different in 2013. The ability to identify what’s not working and be receptive to another approach is invaluable to any organization. One Harvard study says speaking up results in improved practices and satisfaction. It called the word “No” the “voice-oriented improvement system.”

Doing things differently isn't as much of a stretch as it would seem. In fact, it's something humans were born to do. We get a burst of the brain's reward chemical, dopamine, at the mere expectation of doing something new. So change is who we are. We simply need to find the will and motivation to become who we are. 

As with all resolutions and goals in life, we achieve what we believe we can. We have more belief this time of year, so now is the time to move. Let's jump through the wormhole of change before it closes and work smarter, live better this year.

I'm happy to show you how you can make that happen. Just click on the button below for a free consultation and learn how to put a work-life balance program into action this year, for your organization, yourself, or someone you love. This is the time of your life. 

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Tags: job stress, productivity, work life balance programs, work-life balance trainings, work life balance, increasing productivity, employee engagement, employee engagement programs

The Yin-Yang of Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Life balance in nature

A recent study confirmed a missing key to work-life balance in a hyperventilating 24/7 world. It found that constant connectivity—sending, receiving, and checking messages to the exclusion of a moment to think about any of it—makes it hard to remember the incoming or make any complex decisions based on the information. The problem: too much output and no time for brain neurons to absorb the input or its meaning.

We need time to process the work we do and to step back to determine the best course ahead. None of that’s possible when we are in continuous output mode. Our brain neurons need comprehension of the day’s events to process them and incubate the data during sleep to build the associations that lead to solving problems.

There’s a duality to work, as there is in life, a yin-yang dynamic that is essential to balance and the engaged minds that comes from it. Quality input is mandatory for quality output. Without input, time to process what’s coming at us, our output is missing analysis and reflection and driven by mechanical momentum. That, in turn, drives job stress, which thrives on reactivity and emotional frenzy devoid of thought.

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Researchers have found that the brain has to step back every 90 minutes, or it fatigues and defaults to rote mode. We make a lot of mistakes when flying on autopilot output, send emails with the wrong names on them, forget to send attachments, plow ahead on projects without knowing what our objectives are. Where are we going? Why are we going there? We have no idea when autopilot output controls all.

We all seem to know instinctively that being unbalanced doesn’t add up. Millennia ago Chinese sages held that we are complimentary, not exclusionary, characters. Yang and yin referred to the dark and sunny sides of a hill, and came to be associated with the positive and negative, male and female, two sides of the same coin.

“The art of life is not seen as holding on to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other,” wrote philosopher Alan Watts.

When you're all-output, all the time, physical maintenance and stress management are non-existent, and that affects performance. Cumulative fatigue comes out of your hide the next day and the next, lowering productivity as output overrules the input of recharging, researchers tell us.

You can build input into your day by setting aside a few minutes each day to catch up on reading, research, and conversations needed to stay ahead, not behind, the eight-ball. Step back before you take an action and ask what your goal is. What should this task accomplish? Why? Take the time to refuel during the day to allow your brain to reset. Monitor when you are flying on mechanical momentum and being run by commotion, instead of motion.

Input is the engine of productivity, vitality, innovation, and it's the essence of any good work-life balance program. Without it, work and physiologies head down a dark, slippery slope.

 

 

Tags: work life balance, job stress, productivity, stress management, chronic stress, increasing productivity, work life balance programs, improving productivity

How to Avoid Burnout

Posted by Joe Robinson

Humans are known for their legendary adaptability. We survived Ice Ages, droughts, and the pre-medical care and grocery store eras, even Twinkies. We’re so good at adapting to our circumstances, though, that it can actually be hazardous to our health.

Doctors say that when patients arrive with burnout symptoms, there is always a long prelude to the problem. Heart palpitations, headaches, back pain, insomnia, irritable bowel, hot flashes, exhaustion. All the signals of stress pave the way to burnout, since burnout is the final stage of chronic stress. If we don’t pay attention to the signals leading up to burnout, we can wind up adapting to the stress until our resources are gone, no forwarding.

That’s burnout in a nutshell. After months and years of chronic stress flooding your system with adrenaline and cortisol and suppressing your immune system, you simply run out of coping resources. That’s not something you want to adapt to, since it can lead to stroke, depression and other very serious conditions, not to mention reduce the contribution, achievement, and joy in your life to zero.

Burnout is a three-way shutdown—mind, body, and emotions (see our Burnout page). It marks the depletion of all your energetic and emotional resources, something you can feel in the total exhaustion that saps enjoyment from anything you do, work or life. The result is dramatically lower productivity, guilt, shame, cynicism, falling behind, not caring, confusion, little concern for yourself and the people around you. Overcoming job burnout is critical for all concerned, employee, family, and employer. If you think you might have burnout symptoms, take the Burnout Test here, created by one of the foremost scholars on the subject, Dr. Arie Shirom.

The irony of burnout is that it tends to happen to the hardest workers—the most conscientious, the go-getters, the ones with the most endurance. This makes burnout a serious threat to any organization. Productivity tanks for anyone with burnout, a cause of presenteeism—you’re there physically, but not mentally—and the sick days mount. Burnout creates disengagement, not a prescription for performance.

Preventing burnout takes a vigilant mind, paying attention to the stress signals and doing something about them, not simply adapting to them. You can avoid burnout by dedicating yourself to an ongoing stress management system. Start by identifying the stressors and habits that are driving it—typically, excessive overwork without breaks for recovery, perfectionism, unviable schedules, chronic conflict and giving too much of yourself emotionally without reciprocation.

Then make adjustments to turn down the stress by altering the way you do your tasks and expend yourself emotionally. Everyone needs to develop recovery strategies to buffer stress and chronic exhaustion, which can be the start of the withdrawal from life that marks the burnout downward spiral.

Basic health maintenance is essential to ward off and recover from burnout. Make sure you exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and build regular stress relievers, such as recreational and social activities, into your week.

Researchers have found that a brief intervention, such as a six-hour counseling session and courses, can have a dramatic effect in cutting chronic stress, reducing the number of subjects on sick leave in one study from 35% to 6%.

One of the best remedies for burnout is getting support, so don’t hesitate to reach out and send burnout packing. You can start by clicking the button below for a free consultation. Taking care of yourself, so you can take of your family and work, is the real home of the brave.

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Tags: work life balance, job stress, productivity, work life balance programs, stress management, chronic stress, burnout, avoiding burnout, job burnout, how to prevent burnout, burnout prevention, I'm burned out

Contest the Stress for Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Stress, we’re led to believe, is something we just have to take. It’s merely a nuisance. The reality is that our bodies are no match for chronic stress.

Nor are our minds. Anxiety subverts the intellect, and, as a result, performance too. By constricting the brain to perceived emergencies (that are false alarms almost all the time), stress reduces complex decision-making and puts emotions on a hair-trigger. That’s not a good basis for informed decisions or rapport with colleagues or clients.

Denial is the usual way we treat stress, but that is precisely what fuels it. When we don't deal with stressors, we think about them. Ruminating on the exaggerated beliefs set off by stress drives the process. The stress response is fed by distorted thoughts that spiral into false beliefs if left uncontested.

Instead of allowing stress to spiral and fester by ignoring it, it's critical to contest the irrational thoughts it kicks up and resolve them. Or your health and performance pay the price.

The smarter policy for every organization is to slash stress, since it undercuts the work of everyone affected by it, is highly contagious, and increases presenteeism, retention problems (40% of employees who leave companies cite stress as the cause), and medical costs.

“Stress isn’t just a nuisance. It’s as much of a risk factor for heart attacks, stroke, and cancer as any of the other known carcinogens,” says Dr. Steven Lamm, of New York University Mount Sinai Medical School.

Few of us are trained to understand the stress-burnout cycle, which is a byproduct of something we can all change, how we frame the stress. Stress management programs have been shown to dramatically cut stress and the problems that come with its irrational thinking.

A stress prevention program in a study by St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance reduced medication errors at one hospital by 50%, and in a separate study cut malpractice claims by 70%.

Think of it this way. Those in chronic stress mode are in a fight-or-flight state. They’re ready to fight or run. Neither lends itself to gold-medal performance on the job or off.

Arm yourself with the tools to defeat stress with a "Managing Crazy Busy Work" productivity training or a Stress Management workshop. Get started with our report on the best case for stress management for your team or organization. 

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Tags: work life balance, job stress, productivity, stress at work, work-life balance program, stress management, chronic stress, effect of stress on productivity

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