Working Smarter

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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RAT RACE OF HABIT

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.

ACTING CONSCIOUSLY

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: http://www.boostyourcompanysbottomline.com.

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.

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The Hidden Heart of Wellness: Leisure Activities

Posted by Joe Robinson

Hikers

What goes through your head when you have an unoccupied moment outside the office? Most likely it goes something like this: Get busy! I really should be doing something!

The reaction isn’t just based on habit, but something that is drummed into our heads that couldn’t be more hare-brained: Leisure is a lesser realm that has no value. In fact, quality and frequent leisure time is vital to health and life. It IS our life, the thing we’re working for. We don’t get that message, though, and as result, many of us feel squirmy about stepping back, as if only a slacker would partake.

This is what the psychological world calls a “false belief,” an uninformed notion held dear that holds back health, happiness, and the truth.  If you look at the science, getting a regular dose of leisure is as important to your health as eating the right foods or getting exercise. Recreational activities are the missing piece of wellness, the overlooked antidote to entrenched stress and pessimism.

BEYOND BOREDOM

A new study from Matthew Zawadski, a psychology professor at the University of California, Merced, found that people who took part in leisure activities reported they were 34% less stressed and 18% less sad. “When people engage in leisure activity, they have lower stress levels,” he reports on the UC Merced website, “better mood, a lower heart rate and more psychological engagement—that means less boredom, which can help avoid unhealthy behaviors. But it’s important to immerse in the activity and protect leisure time from external stressors.”

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In other words, to get those benefits, you have to be engaged in the activity. That doesn’t mean it has to be aerobic or muscle-flexing, though those work great too. Quieter pursuits, such as listening to music, doing puzzles, or sewing can also shift minds out of tension and into the positive space where recovery and flourishing begin.

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? When you’re having fun and fully immersed, it crowds out stress and negative mood. Why is this so hard to get? One of the reasons is that we have been taught to feel guilty unless we are on task and that productivity is a function of endurance and stamina, a triathlon in pants. All the research tells us this is bogus.

FATIGUED BRAINS LOOK SOUND ASLEEP

Brains that are fatigued look like ones that are sound asleep, MRI scans show. The true source of productivity in the knowledge economy is recharging and refueling and brains that are fresh. Leisure activities have an amazing ability to provide that refreshment, not just because play and doing things we like energize us, but also because these activities satisfy core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence. That makes us happy. Princeton’s Alan Krueger led a study that found that people are at their happiest when they are involved in engaging leisure activities.

The tonic of engaged leisure acts as a rumination-buster. Rumination—thinking over and over again about our problems—is a core driver of stress. Stress constricts the brain to perceived emergencies that lock us in to loops of doom and gloom, or “awfulizing,” as it’s known in the psychological trade. Leisure activities preoccupy the brain with challenge, learning, and fun, which push out worries and allow a reset.

The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions can reverse even the physical effects of stress. They can “undo” a high heart rate and disrupted digestion. They also build resources, in this case of positive emotions that have been shown to buffer stress and help us withstand setbacks.

BUILDING POSITIVE MOOD

If you don’t break up the self-propelling loop of tension and danger in your head, the stress can develop into chronic stress, which can set off a host of medical conditions, and ultimately, morph into burnout, the last stage of chronic stress. That means a mode of continuous fight-or-flight, which suppresses the immune system, and increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind.

We can escape this rut through psychological detachment from the day’s events in the form of that thing right next to us we think is only permissable for kids and retirees: leisure. Making a psychological break from the strains and pressures of the day is an essential stress management tool. It unleashes the positive emotions that turn off the danger signals and bring us back to our core selves and the things and people we enjoy. 

Without a diversion from the day’s preoccupations, we’re left in a morass of negative thoughts and tension. Researchers have shown that leisure activities after work counter the stress loop and negative affect (grouchy, angry, tense, irritable, a non-pleasure to be around) that comes with it. Studies show that people who engage in leisure activities, whether it’s chess, dancing, reading, and especially any activity that involves a mastery experience, wake up the next morning with positive affect and more energy.

PUT PLAY ON THE CALENDAR

Stress is a huge energy-drainer. It forces your organs to work overtime under duress, and that is the opposite of employee engagement, whose main domains include vigor and dedication. Recreational activities refuel that energy, which is why they are a significant piece of wellness and enagement programs.

One of the challenges to unlocking this amazing resource is that stress and the belief it sets off in your ancient brain that you are about to die suppresses the play equipment in the brain. Who wants to have fun when you’re about to kick the bucket? The way around this vise-grip is to plan activities, put them on the calendar, and commit to doing them no matter what negative frame of mind you’re in. Moods are transient, so the false emergency of stress will disappear within a few minutes of doing something fun.

Another way to trick the brain so it doesn’t freeze fun out of your life is to take up a hobby or leisure pursuit. This insures that you engage in the experience on a regular basis and allows for a steady dose of psychological detachment and increasing opportunities to build competence and social connection, core needs. Studies show that a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week. I’m betting that’s something you would consider valuable—even if it comes from that slackery world of leisure.

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Tags: wellness, awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, leisure and stress, life balance, stress, positive thinking and stress, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management, stress at work, burnout, stress management programs, wellness programs,

Stress Management Tricks: Don't Believe Everything You Think

Posted by Joe Robinson

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It’s not enough that we have to duke it out each day with the mercurial Mr. Murphy and his law that insures that all things that can go wrong will. No, we are saddled with an even more annoying pest: the ubiquitous false alarm of stress, time panic, and guilt generated by our own minds. With friends like ourselves around, who needs enemies?

Most of us take the thoughts in our brains at face value. They are in our heads, so they must be true. But the reality is only experience is real, not thoughts. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t built for the time they live in, for the social stressors of the modern world, which they are clueless to compute. Lost in time, they are prone to conflate non-life threatening issues from deadlines to workload as if they are life-or-death emergencies. 

THROWBACK NOGGINS

Humans have the same brain we did back in hunter-gatherer days, 100,000 years ago, when life-and-death events were a daily occurrence. Few things today threaten your life, but your ancient brain makes you think your existence is on the line anytime something overloads your ability to cope. It happens out of your consciousness in a part of your ancient brain that houses your emotions and your ancestral warning equipment, the amygdala, part of the limbic system that once was all we had for gray matter.

This outmoded defense trigger is out of its depth these days. Feel overwhelmed because you have too much to do? That’s enough for the life-or-death signal, the stress response, to go off, because you have overloaded your perceived ability to handle the load. Does that deadline seem impossible? Before you can even think that or verbalize it, the amygdala switches on the alarm.

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Are you going to die if you don’t meet the deadline? Hardly. Two hundred emails in your in-box are very good at setting off the fight-or-flight button. They make you feel you can’t cope. “Can’t cope” for the caveman brain = “I’m going to die.”

Once the danger switch has been pulled, you and your modern brain are mere passengers on the panicked ride of fight-or-flight. The amygdala hijacks your modern brain and its ability to offer rational analysis.

REFLEX AWFULIZING

The first thought you have after a setback or highly stressful event is catastrophic, in line with the part of your caveman brain that thinks you are about to be an ex-living person. This sets off a pattern we know and don’t love so much, that of “awfulizing,” a loop of dark self-talk generated by the fact that your brain is fixated on your imminent demise. You don’t get a specific death message, though, just the racing pulse, churning abdomen, and relentless negative chatter of impending doom or doubt.

Stress management and work-life balance are about managing the false alarms that bombard us every day, thanks to an overreactive amygdala, the brain’s early warning system. The root of the problem is that we are designed to react before we think.

Humans couldn’t be trusted to think their way out of a jam way back on the family tree, so we were equipped with a defense mechanism that goes off first, before we’re even conscious of the threat. How fast? Daniel Goleman reports in Social Intelligence that it can react within .02 hundredths of a second. You’re not going to beat it to the punch, but you can counterpunch.

CATCH YOURSELF

How do you control a hair-trigger reflex like that? You have to stop and catch yourself, when the false emergency, false urgency, and false guilt go off. Stop and ask when the stress erupts, am I going to die? Is it an emergency? Is the frenzy valid, or am I picking up on the panic of someone else? Is it the end of the world if I don’t send this email in the next few minutes? Is the guilt based on real physical harm I’ve committed, or is it just a projected anxiety and manipulation by others?

If you had someone constantly crying wolf about calamities that didn’t exist, you would stop listening. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore the wolf cries in our heads, because they seem so convincing. They’re coming from us, after all! But they are almost always false, whether the trigger is a challenge that appears insurmountable or a rush that seems so critical, it’s apocalypse now if we don’t get it done in a millisecond.

CONSTANT CONSCIOUSNESS

The way out of the trap is constant consciousness, being mindful of what it is we’re doing and not lapsing into rote mechanical momentum. Stress and time panic thrive on non-thinking and non-challenge of the events around us. They drive overwhelm and the feeling of a world spinning out of control. Disputing the false alarms as they pop up keeps you in charge of your own mind, instead of at the mercy of a remnant from hunter-gatherer days.

Subject all stressors and hurry-worry to scrutiny. Take a deep breath, then pull out a piece of paper and a pen. What is at the bottom of the stress? What is at the bottom of that? Keep going until you find the trigger. Is it life-or-death? What’s the false story driving the bogus emergency? Tell your brain that you’re not going to die from this particular event, and as a result, that THERE IS NO DANGER.  When you convince your brain of that, the stress response stops in four minutes. Bring out the facts, and the caveman brain has to admit what is already abundantly clear—it’s a drama queen.

If you would like to manage the false alarms of the stress response and keep time panic at bay, explore a stress management training for your department, organization, or yourself. Click the button below and find out how our programs work and how affordable they are.

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Tags: awfulizing, stress and self-talk, time panic, work life balance programs, stress management, job stress, reducing stress, stress management programs

John Lennon's Path to Stress Management: Reach Out

Posted by Joe Robinson

John Lennon reached out in "Help"

The Beatles made reaching out respectable as far back as 1965 with the iconic strains of “Help.” John Lennon said he wrote the song as a cry for help to escape a depressive period in his life.

Nearly 50 years later, it’s still not easy in a culture of rugged individualism to ask for a hand. That’s especially true when it comes to work-related issues. We’re supposed to suck it up in silence, and keep on going till the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving, so we need a smarter approach.

I met one manager at an aerospace firm who was back at work after a heart attack. He was already worried he was going to have a recurrence. A scientist in Tennessee told me how he was hauled out of his office on a stretcher after his myocardial infarction and remembers his panic as the siren wailed in the ambulance on the way to the hosptial.

A social worker told me about her nervous breakdown, set off by an overwhelming caseload.  She didn’t even tell her husband how serious her stress had been until she was in an ER bed. At one training I did for a large consulting firm, staff members reflected on the heart attack death on a hotel bathroom floor of one of their hardest road-warrior workers, someone who was only in his 40s.

FEAR AND EGO

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem, and we have to face up to it as organizations and professionals. All the tragic events above could have been avoided if people had just asked for help—if individuals had reached out when things got beyond their capacity, if managers had reached out to staff or to leadership for training in stress management or time management.

It’s hard to be productive when you’re in an ER or six feet under. So why is it so hard to ask for help? Fear and ego override common sense and even self-preservation. We don’t want to let managers or peers think we can’t handle our responsibilities, fearing we’ll be thought of as lightweights or that we will jeopardize career or promotions. Egos tell us that admitting we need help would be a failure. Like all fear, these are projections that something will happen that almost never does. Irrational self-talk locks in false beliefs that put your health and even maybe your life in jeopardy.

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Denial fuels more stress, because it keeps the false belief driving the stress entrenched through rumination. The more we think about the false belief the more it feels true. Health consequences from your work are flares from your physiology to examine what’s not working and what you can do about it.

STRENGTH OR WEAKNESS?

Part of the problem of reaching out is that we are led to believe that it’s a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s an indication that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. One Harvard report about speaking up in the workplace called the word “No,” the voice-oriented improvement system. We move forward when we find out what's not working and remain counterproductive as long as we don’t say anything. Think about dialogue, not as a sign of failure, but of progress—problem-solving ineffective behavior, such as stress and burnout, that can cost you dearly and the company five to seven times more than the average workplace malady.

Fear and ego blind us to the irony that, to appear strong and play the bravado game, we consign bodies and minds to physical weakness. Are CEO’s weak who bring in consultants to chart a new path? No, it’s considered smart to bring in expertise to solve problems.

That’s all we are doing when we speak up and let someone know there’s too much on our plate or a department is too overwhelmed to avoid making serious mistakes. We are solving problems.

Asking for help isn’t a character flaw, it’s a sign of character, of knowing when to  say when, determining when we have diminishing returns, identifying when we have more than we can do well. It’s a sign of strength.

GETTING UNSTUCK

Ignoring health problems is a big lose-lose for employees and companies. Let’s set a new standard to change this. If the way you are working is affecting your health, it’s time to reach out. If the people on your team or department are racking up doctor appointments or citing burnout, it’s time to reach out. If stress and crisis mentality is rampant, it’s time to reach out.

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Most of my coaching clients contact me when they are on absolute fumes, when a small spark could cause a conflagration. It’s no different than going to a personal trainer or music teacher. You move forward through new knowledge, through strategies that take an outside ear and expertise. Our brains generate ideas through associations, putting this idea with that random one. It’s inefficient, time-consuming, and it often leads to an association dead-end. We get stuck in association cul-de-sacs and can’t get out on our own.

The same is true for organizations. If your department is reeling, don’t wait for the entire company to do something, reach out and explore a stress management, work-life balance, or productivity training for your team. Get solutions to overwhelm and burnout that everyone knows are undermining productive efforts, rapport, and future success.

“Help me get my feet back on the ground,” sang John Lennon. Ask, and chances are you shall receive.

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7 Ways to Avoid Overwhelm

Posted by Joe Robinson

Feeling overwhelmed by workload

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

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

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

PILING ON

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

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

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

CHANGING SELF-TALK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Information Overload: The Art of Interruption Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Crazy guy.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIGITAL DISTURBANCES

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

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

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

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

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

THE BATTLE IN THE BRAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ATTENTION DEFICIT

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

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

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

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

THE NO-INTERRUPTION ZONE

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

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

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

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

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

INTERRUPTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stress Management Training: The Antidote to Fear and Loathing

Posted by Joe Robinson

Posterwoman for a stress management program

It takes a lot to get a human ready for the world. A dozen years, plus kindergarten, followed by all-night cram sessions in college—and maybe more, using every available minute and dime to get through graduate school. And after it all we know…next to nothing about how our minds work and how to manage a daily gauntlet for anyone this side of Zen master status: stress.

We learn the skills of our profession but not how to distinguish real threats from false ones, how to contest irrational thoughts set off by stress, or how to turn off the ceaseless alarms that jack up anxiety and blood pressure needlessly. What’s worse, almost none of the people we work with have received training to manage their false alarms, either.

Add to that the growing demands of an always-on work style, and you’ve got a perfect storm of crisis mentality, conflict, and hair-trigger emotions, which undermine intellect and performance and make a crazy-busy world even crazier.

THE STRESS DIVERSION

With the cost of stress to American business more than $400 billion a year, according to Peter Schnall at U. C. Irvine, and stress responsible for 40% of employee turnover, organizations that make stress management a key part of their development programs stand to gain a big edge on the competition, instead of being on the edge of frenzy and frazzle.

One study, by Nextera Enterprises, found that industries with high turnover, as high-stress organizations are, have 38% lower earnings. Firms with turnover rates less than 3% are 170% more productive than firms with turnover more than 20% (Jusko, Industry Week, 2000).

Stress diverts minds from the task at hand to obsess over perceived emergencies that our ancient brains misinterpret as threats to life and limb. As educated as we may be, the mind reverts to caveman/woman days whenever a threat overloads ability to cope with it. It’s like it’s 50,000 B.C. all over again, with the equivalent state of intelligence.

PERFORMANCE STRATEGY

The reality is that we have some bad brain architecture. Our gray matter wasn’t built for the social stressors of the modern world. Two hundred emails or a stack of to-do’s aren’t life-or-death, but brains not trained to recognize this automatically default to fight-or-flight mode and the fear that comes with it of not being able to cope. The stress response is activated, releasing a flood of chemicals, from adrenaline to cortisone, that cloud judgment, trigger rash decision-making, and unleash a tide of medical bills and absenteeism, since stress suppresses the immune system.

It’s a cycle that saps vitality, motivation, and commitment, and fuels fear and paranoia, yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, there’s always going to be pressure and demands, but with tools to manage stressful situations, we can keep the panic buttons and overwhelm at bay.

Stress management training delivers the knowledge we never got in all those years of schooling to manage the mind and prevent it from being hijacked by an ancient interloper. Development programs to manage stress are an extremely effective performance strategy, taking minds off threats and conflict and focusing them on the task at hand. Stress management programs should be a go-to option for any organization in these turbulent times—and would be more often if management knew how unmanaged stress and burnout shred productivity and talent.

"Best Business Case for Stress Management"

OUTWIT THE INNER HYSTERIC

The survival default of the stress response thrives on action before thought, on instant, emotional reaction, so one of the things that a training program has to do is counter the reflex autopilot that plays right into the hands of stress and burnout, which are a byproduct of reacting before we think.

Our stress management programs provide the missing tools to contest stress reactions and their apparent signs of imminent danger. Your team learns how to reframe stressful events and control their stories, instead of having the scripts driven by a panic-prone hysteric some 50 millennia behind the times. They learn how to dig out the false story, substitute the real one, and turn off the danger signal driving anxiety. When that happens, the stress response shuts down in four minutes.

Besides a grounding in how the brain works, and doesn’t sometimes, workshop participants also get training in a number of proven stress-reduction processes and techniques to break up the pattern of strain, anxious thinking, and awfulizing. There are a number of techniques, from progressive relaxation to the relaxation response, that have been shown to cut stress and untense the mind and body.

BUILD RESILIENCE

Changing how we do our jobs is another key component of reducing stress. The more control we have over how we do our work—managing email, interruptions, time, and other bottlenecks—the less stress. The more attention we have on the task we’re doing, the less stress. Building attention and self-regulation reduce stress by cutting the sense of overwhelm and increasing what’s known as latitude—demands are high, but there is also some control over the work environment. So increased attention and performance are key benefits that comes from stress management training.

The training helps participants build coping skills to turn down behaviors that cause pressure and conflict. Afterwards, people are less time urgent, rash, and cynical. They understand the important role optimism plays in resilience and effective performance.

Teams can bolster resilience with positive emotions, regular refueling, and mastery experiences—which buffer the setbacks and slings and arrows. As Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina has demonstrated, positive emotions broaden and build psychological resources, while negative emotions shrink them.

Teams that are more other-focused, more apt to frame things in a positive way, and ask more questions, have been shown to be more successful, have better rapport with coworkers, and sell more than their uptight counterparts.

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Tags: productivity and stress, stress management training, stress management trainer, employee training stress, job stress, job burnout, stress management programs

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.

INTERRUPTING OURSELVES

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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MULTITASKING: KING OF SELF-INFLICTION

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.

RESTORING FULL PRODUCTIVE FACULTIES

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.  

WHAT IS PRODUCTIVITY, ANYWAY?

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

Task Tweaks That Fuel Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Work-life balanced

It’s repeated so often it’s practically a cliché: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It’s a popular expression, because it captures a distinctly human talent for knowing something is absurd while continuing to partake in it.

By this definition, there are certainly plenty of certifiable behaviors at the office these days, particularly when it comes to doing things that don’t make productive sense, such as not managing email or conflicting deadlines. The more we are on autopilot, the more we are doomed to repeat the bad habits.

Every team in every company has a habitual practice that makes the work take longer, fray nerves, and drain performance. We know the bottlenecks that make work and life more difficult, but seldom do things change, because it’s believed that it’s just the way it is.

BEATING BOTTLENECKS

The reality is, though, that change is possible, and when the suggestions come in from everyone on the frontlines, not only does work get more effective, it becomes much more economical. Accounting giant Ernst and Young had a retention problem a few years back that had set off alarm bells. A growing number of women at the company were leaving because long hours were incompatible with family and work-life balance.

The company launched an initiative to address the issue. They identified practices that weren’t working and driving people away. The suggestions on how to fix bottlenecks came from all stratas of the company, including those at the bottom of the totem pole best equipped to know what didn’t make sense. From this process Ernst & Young wound up creating a much more family-friendly organization. They also saved $15 million by making tasks more effective and policies more flexible.

The step that’s usually missed on the road to work-life balance starts with the actual nature of the work itself, with practices that take longer, disrupt productivity, spread false urgency, and bleed into the home arena minus boundaries and time management. Identifying and fixing those issues within each team and organization can play a major role in reducing exhaustion and overwhelm and organizing a clearer path to responsibilities on both sides of the work-life divide.

QUIET TIME

Researchers have been doing their best to point the way to a more productive path that also produces more time for family and life. One of the leading academics in this arena is Harvard researcher Leslie Perlow, whose work with companies drowning in interruptions and always-on workweeks has shown that we don’t have to keep self-inflicting habits that make work more frenzied and unsustainable. The key is having the ability to self-examine, look the counterproductive faults in the eye, and then fix them.

Perlow worked a while in management consulting before going back to grad school dedicated to finding a better way to work than the burnout model. At a tech firm having trouble getting new product to market without its engineers working nights and weekends for months on end, she uncovered one of the major drivers of excess hours and unbalanced schedules—interruptions. The engineers were being interrupted so often, they could only get work done at night and on the weekend.

She devised a solution called Quiet Time, in which the engineers would have two periods during the day with no interruptions—8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The rest of the day the interruptions could continue as normal. Productivity increased 59% in the morning interruption-free zone and 65% from 3 to 5 p.m. With minds unbesieged, productivity even went up in the period with normal interruptions. The team got a new product designed in record time without the all-nighters.

That simple adjustment to a work behavior made a big difference in work-life balance for the employees of that firm. Perlow took on an even tougher assignment with the Boston Consulting Group. Consultants are among the highest-hours workers on the planet, typically working 60+ hour weeks, weekday nights, and usually decamped in other cities on projects for clients that can take multiple weeks.

Her field research this time uncovered the biggest work-life problem straining retention at Boston Consulting: no predictable time off. When you’re always on, it’s hard to plan off time, which makes it very difficult on families, health, and living.

MORE WITH LESS

Her adjustment was a system that allowed each team member to take one night off per week. It took her several months to persuade a team leader to let her try out the plan. Most thought it was a ticket to disaster and that clients would go ballistic if not every team member was available after hours. The experience proved the doubters wrong.

It turned out the team was able to do its consulting work with each member taking a night off per week. What’s more remarkable, she was able to repeat the experiment with consultants taking a full day off in the middle of the week. Productivity didn’t dive, it increased. The secret was that, with fewer hands to go around, the team had to communicate much more closely and as a result found ways to coordinate better. Boston Consulting was so happy with the program that “predictable time off,” as she called it, is a company-wide program, operating in 32 offices in 14 countries.

Again, because of a sensible adjustment to how people worked, people were able to find a more sustainable way to work and open up a much better work-life balance. Out of that experience Perlow developed a model that any team can use to rewrite the script that drives the burnout track. The formula is Collective Goals + Structured Dialogue, a strategy that zeroes in on a universal problem that’s making life difficult, creates a solution, and through weekly conversation overcomes backsliding and keeps everyone on track with the new behaviors.

The results of Perlow’s research and others who have helped organizations overcome the inertia of bad work habits show that behaviors that promote work-life balance and more energized brains increase effectiveness, cut costs (from stress, longer task practices, redo’s), and dramatically increase collaboration—all of which have a positive impact on the bottom line. Ask Boston Consulting, who have the program operating around the world and a couple dozen people working on nothing but the predictable time off process.

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Tags: increasing productivity, productivity and time off, interruptions at work, Quiet Time, work life balance programs, work life balance programs, work life balance, job stress, stress management programs

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?

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

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