Working Smarter

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.”


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 employee development programs, from work-life balance, to stress management or time management 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.


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.


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. 


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, productivity training, attention and productivity, stress and working memory, overload, overperformance

The Antidote to Job Stress and Overwhelm: Conscious Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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No doubt, we are creatures of habit. We put on the same shoe first, sit in the same chair in class or meetings, and drive the same route to work so often we don’t remember passing any exit signs or landmarks. We just show up at the office, as if we had one of those Google cars that drives itself. This is because we are often on autopilot, unconscious to present awareness, letting muscle memory and the rote part of our brain run the show.

Habits make the world safe and familiar and remove potential threats from our day, but they also prevent us from thinking, planning, managing demands and stressors, growing, excelling, or even being gratified. It turns out that gratification comes from two things that habit rules out: novelty and challenge. That’s what we really want, says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.

The brain stops paying attention to things we do over and over, preferring to focus on new data. The result is that we operate on rote reflex most of the time, particularly in a tech-dominated workplace, in which we react to devices and others’ crisis mentality all day and chase our own tails. This plays right into the hands of stress and burnout, mistakes, overwhelm, anger, and a host of other unconscious and unhealthy behaviors. Attention is the chief productivity tool, and when we don’t have it because we are operating on rote mechanical momentum, the work takes longer and feels harder, studies show.

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Some habits can be helpful—brushing teeth, practicing piano—but a lot of our habits at work aren’t. The thing about habits is that we continue to do them even when they don’t work for us. An MIT study trained rats to run a T-shaped maze. In the first test, they got rewarded with chocolate milk if they turned left at the T. With that incentive, the rats doggedly ran left, even after the researchers mixed their chocolate milk with a substance that caused light nausea. They lost their taste for the milk and stopped drinking it, but kept running to the left, even without a reward.

Human habits are just as reflexive, relentlessly pursuing courses that don’t get us anywhere—going ballistic when someone pushes our buttons, reacting immediately to a visual notification on your screen. The good news is that, unlike rodents, we can choose to turn off bad habits by activating the higher brain, the prefrontal cortex to overrule the reflex.

The MIT study discovered that when they turned off certain cells in the rats’ IL cortex, that the rodents stopped their habit of running to the left. They concluded that automatic behaviors dictated by the lower floors of the brain, mainly in the hippocampus region, can be bypassed by our higher command and control center, the cortex.


In other words, we can opt out of habitual behavior that gets in our way and the way of our work by bringing back the thinking. Acting consciously is something essential for time management, information management, and stress management, or events run us, instead of the other way around, which drives stress. I did a 30-minute interview on this topic as part of an online conscious leadership summit that runs through May 25. You can catch my comments at Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line, presented by Allison Gaughan of Corporate Prana, at:

Gaughan’s company provides meditation and yoga wellness services, techniques that help build attention and focus, which help make us more conscious. It’s when we’re not paying attention that the default behavior pops up in the form of stress, burnout, and overwhelm. All that stuff happens as a reflex reaction. We have to build in a step-back to catch ourselves.

We can do that by rehearsing rational reactions to common buttons that set us off, by building attention to counter reflex through techniques that train our brains to focus on a target, by cutting stress, which drives robotic, blind action, and by making adjustments to how we work that allow us to manage demands, instead of the other way around. Full attention is the definition of employee engagement as well as optimal experience, when we are at our best. It puts the driver, you, back at the wheel of the runaway, unconscious train.

If you are interested in learning how to override autopilot and build attention and engagement for your team or organization, our productivity, work-life balance, and stress management programs do just that. Click the button below for more information:

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Tags: productivity training, crazy busy, avoiding burnout, employee training programs, corporate training, increase productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, stress management, job burnout, stress management programs, conscious work

Crisis Mentality: The False Emergency Driving Overwhelm and Job Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson


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.


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.


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.


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 Enemy of Employee Productivity: Impulse

Posted by Joe Robinson

Harnessing the brain's impulsive nature

It’s called the law of least effort. Given a choice, the brain would rather exert less than more effort. Instead of sticking with a demanding task, we find it hard to resist the temptation of something easier, really hard when the attention span has been shrunk to that of a gnat’s.

That tends to be the case often these days, thanks to the barrage of distractions and devices. The more you check email, for instance, the more you have to check it. Interruptions erode impulse control. The ability to regulate impulsivity is compromised, and without it, the default is to more checking and attention that flits from one task to the next. It’s a pattern that kills concentration and, as a result, productivity. The condition thrives without interruption management policies and is aided and abetted by someone we wouldn’t suspect: us.


Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine says that 44% of interruptions are self-inflicted. With friends like you around, who needs enemies? The more attention is compromised by interruptions or time urgency, the less ability you have to stay on task. When you divert yourself to check email or a grab a secondary task, say, one that shows up as a visual alert on your screen, it takes 25 minutes to get back to the primary task, says Mark. That drains productivity, slowing progress, trains of thought, and performance.

Technology and human nature are driving teams and the individuals in them to be their own worst enemies. Every time you stop to check email you self-interrupt, which leaves you further behind and rushing to catch up to where you think you should be. That causes time anxiety and a false urgency that makes it seem okay to interrupt anyone else at any time—because you’re behind.

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One of the biggest cogs in the productive wheel is multitasking, which is 100% self-inflicted. Every time you multitask, you are self-interrupting and forcing your brain to do what it doesn’t want to: shift back and forth between tasks. This fractures working memory, as brain neurons strain to figure out what they need to do on a new task while trying to remember where they were on the old one.

That takes time, which is why multitasking can cut productivity 50% and more, according to multitasking expert David Meyer at the University of Michigan. This self-sabotage also kicks thinking downstairs to the rote floors of the brain, where we make mistakes triggered by a state of simultaneous inattention.

The constant barrage of distractions does something else particularly insidious. It makes you think the work is more difficult than it is, and that in turn ratchets up the stress, which goes off when something overloads perceived ability to cope with it. Interruptions increase annoyance 106%, say researchers Brian Bailey, Joseph Konstan, and John Curtis. That further diverts attention from the task at hand to a threat to coping resources.


While our attention spans have no doubt taken a hit from devices and distractions, we are not helpless bystanders. Proactive management strategies can cut down on the self-infliction that comes from multitasking, excess email checking, and other saboteurs. It’s not easy to do, since we have to find a way around default behaviors and the law of least effort.

In my Optimal Performance productivity trainings, we learn that the way to a more productive work style is a lot less use of the automatic mind that puts action before thought and more reliance on the effortful brain, which is needed to manage impulsivity, patience, and discipline. We are really of two minds, and one often gets in the way of our better judgment and productive efforts. The instinctive brain gets the upper hand in a time-sensitive world, because it’s much faster—and also more prone to mistakes, making snap assumptions that have not been vetted by the analytical brain.  

The idea is to manage impulse and reflex with a system that can catch the brain’s least-effort machinery in the act and prime it to defer to a higher authority, informed decision-making.  You can get more done faster and with a fraction of the aggravation when the productive brain is in charge, instead of the knee-jerk one.  


The majority of people in every organization I visit are overwhelmed by distractions and devices. If you could control 44% of the avalanche, the self-inflicted portion, how much more productive could your organization be? 

Messaging is seductive, because it provides positive reinforcement. You send a message, you get one back. But, if we let the analytical brain think about it, that reinforcement isn’t all that positive after all. It reinforces a lot of bad habits that sabotage attention and productivity. Each email you send can result in 18 minutes down the electronic rabbit hole.

What is productivity, if not the ability to fully concentrate on the task at hand, so that we have more output per input? All we have to do is get out of our own way.

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Tags: effect of stress on productivity, increasing productivity, productivity programs, employee productivity, productivity training, workplace productivity, increase productivity, stress management programs

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