Working Smarter

6 Ways to Stop Thinking About Work and Be Where You Are

Posted by Joe Robinson

Biker

We don’t have to wait for a time machine to travel into the future or past. We already have one inside our skull. The mind transports us backward and forward in time and to places other than where we are with such abandon, we all have millions of frequent flyer miles racked up in internal jet-setting.

All the travel makes for lots of split-tense headaches and fractured attention. It’s responsible for one of the most popular aspirations of working people everywhere these days. I asked the audience at a keynote I did recently for the Arizona Council’s Thriving in Times of Change conference what work-life balance means to them, and a woman answered: “When I’m at home, I’m not thinking about work, and when I’m at work, I’m one hundred percent at work.”

AVOIDING THE WORK-HOME GUILT CYCLE

Great answer. We have to be fully present to our life at any given moment to truly experience it. This is when we are the most absorbed in the experience, connected to others, most in control, less stressed, the more we like what we’re doing, and feel a lot less guilt. And obviously, the only tense in which we can experience happiness, or anything else for that matter, is the one we are in now.

Guilt drives the dislocation experience that undercuts work-life balance, making us feel guilty when we’re at home and there's work to do/think about and when at work, there are people/responsibilities at home to whom/which we're not giving enough attention.

Especially in the era of nattering devices, there are a lot of good reasons we need to be able to detach ourselves from time traveling thoughts that intrude into whatever we are doing, work or home. First of all, guilt drives stress. Ruminative thoughts of needing to be where you aren’t self-inflict anxiety and interruptions that make anything we do seem more aggravating than it is, say researchers.

Beyond that, Roy Baumeister and colleagues at Florida State University found that when we have thoughts of things still left to do orbiting our brains, they butt into the task we’re on, making it more difficult to complete the task. One eye on another time and place hinders any task performance by driving stress about the undone items and making it take more effort to do the thing in front of us.

Given that all of us have more work to do than we can complete by day's end, it’s easy to lapse into guilt mode when leaving for the day. It can make us try to catch up on more work emails at home. It’s very tempting, since the brain hates unfinished loops, and nags us when there are tasks undone.

GETTING MENTAL SEPARATION

What we need here is something that has gone the way of the dodo: boundaries. In an unbounded world, we have to proactively set perimeters, or we can never get the mental separation from work thoughts that lets us enjoy time off-the-clock with friends and family, hobbies, or interests.

In a Harvard study (Nash, Stevenson), the key trait of professionals who had true satisfaction in their lives was found to be “the deliberate imposition of limits.” They were able to get to the “just enough” point in a given day or on a given project and didn’t have to overdo it.

Another big factor in exiting the present is ever-shrinking attention spans. Attention is a function of self-regulation, another kind of boundary—the discipline and will power to concentrate on one thing at a time.

The more interruptions you have, the more impulse control is eroded, as the intrusions shred the effortful control mechanism of your executive attention function that gives you the power to self-regulate.

The more you check email, the more you have to check it. The harder it is to regulate impulsivity, the more you self-distract and flit from one thing to another. Your attention span shrinks and the mind devolves to the focus of a frantic flea.

THE ANXIOUS SPECIES

Being fully at home when you are not at work and engaged in the moment of the task in front of you when you’re at work requires two main things, the ability to be absorbed in the mental and physical engagement of now, and secondly, being able to reduce the yammering that comes from your survival equipment and the self-referential part of the brain that’s always asking: What’s going to happen? How am I going to make it? What’s wrong? What do I have to do at home/at work?

Our species should be called homo worrywart, since the default is to the negative and time travel to thoughts about what could go wrong. This has insured our survival over the millennia while saddling minds with endless departures from the present to projected anxieties and concerns.

The good news is that we can corral errant attention and keep the self-referential default under control, if we can create perimeters around work and life and manage the thoughts in our head. We can control the frenzied mind and its constant departures to angsty realms too well-known by learning how to not engage with the stuff in the other tenses. Here are some ways to do that:

6 WAYS TO BE WHERE YOU ARE

1. Set boundaries. Set a stop time that tells you the workday is over. What will your stop time be? 6 p.m.? 7 p.m.? Set the alarm on your phone. After this time, you won’t check work email and will be available to interests and people on the home front.

2. Create a buffer zone after work to transition to the life side, something that brings the pressure down and the patience up. You can read, listen to music, do yoga something that adjusts the pulse rate downward.

3. Activate work recovery strategies. The science of work recovery says we have to detach ourselves from work thoughts and the stress that comes with them, or they come back to work with us the next day. You can do that through relaxation, recreation, or mastery activities, such as hobbies that allow you to increase your skill at some activity. The latter is the most effective at reducing stress, since it builds esteem and confidence that make us feel good and crowd out the negative.

4. Choose intrinsic goals. Don’t look for an external payoff. Do whatever you are doing for the fun, enjoyment, excellence, service, learning, for the inherent interest of whatever you’re doing. That roots you in the present. Research shows that we act for no payoff, we get one internally, in the form of full engagement in the moment that satisfies core needs such as autonomy and competence.

5. Don’t engage with the time traveling thoughts in your brain. Just because the thought or belief is in your brain doesn’t mean you have to engage with it or even believe it. Not grabbing false beliefs is one of the keys to managing stress and your mind. Notice the thought and come back to the present.

6. Do the best thing you can do to both increase attention and reduce the self-referential rabble in your brain—meditate. The science shows that meditation, whatever form you use, from mindfulness to the relaxation response, builds attention and calms the worrywart. There is nothing better for cutting out obsessive thinking and rumination and getting you used to just observing thoughts and not having to grab them and get swept down the projection track.

Yes, there is a lot of overlap and intermingling between work and home these days, thanks to technology and our super-busy lives. Yes, it’s not always possible to get the separation we need, but the goal isn’t perfection. It’s creating enough discrete space to experience work and home life as separate affairs during the week that we feel available to our lives and others outside the office and have the ability to participate in that life to the point where we don’t feel resentment about life missing in action.

One of the best things about sharpening the focus on every moment of our lives is that we remember what we do when we’re paying attention, as opposed to the non-imprint that happens when we’re blowing through to the next item on the list. Since your memory tells you whether you like your life or not, being where you are is a kind of insurance policy that you have the kind of memories that tell you life is more than work and errands and utilitarian tasks. Your memory proves it to you.

If you would like to learn more about how my work-life balance and stress management training programs can help your team or organization work smarter and live better, click the button below for details.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

Tags: turning off work stress, mindfulness, mind management, work-home perimeter, attention and work-life balance, how to leave work at work

How to Turn Off Stress Instantly and Be as Smart as Your Dog

Posted by Joe Robinson

Dog barking.jpg

YOU DON'T SEE a lot of dogs running corporations or doing brain surgery, but in some ways they are a lot smarter than humans. Take, for instance, how they respond to a stressful event, say, a neighbor and his dog from up the block passing by the perimeter of your house. Your dog gets a whiff of that intruder, and bam! Let the barking begin.

That makes dogs great security guards and sometimes the bane of neighbors. When the dog reacts, its ancient defense mechanism, the amygdala—the same organ that sets off human fight-or-flight hormones—goes off with the timeless trigger built to insure survival through instantaneous recognition of danger and immediate response.

LIKE IT NEVER HAPPENED

Now what happens after the stranger dog has gone on to sniff the tree trunks, grass, and hydrants blocks away, or heads home for some Kibbles 'N Bits? Does your dog keep barking for another two hours? Two days? Two weeks? Two months? Two years? No way. The dog drops the event like it never happened. Once the incident is over, the stress response is gone, dropped like an old chew toy.

That’s what makes your dog smarter than you. Because we keep barking long after the stressful event is over. We hang on to the stress, clinging to the undertow of emotions unable to let go.

But we are not helpless. We have the power to shut off stressful incidents right after they happen and avoid turning them into false beliefs we ruminate about for months on end, something we learn in my work life-balance and stress management training programs and one-one-coaching.

Cutting stress off at the pass after it goes off is crucial, because if we don’t, the emotions triggered by our ancient defense equipment—which aren’t designed for the social stressors of the modern world, like work pressures—will feed your brain with catastrophic thoughts. Remember, a part of your ancient brain thinks you’re going to die that second, which is why the stress response is activated. Those thoughts then automatically set off consequences fueled by berserk, raw emotions.

YOU CONTROL HOW LONG THE STRESS LASTS

Because they are in our head, we think the thoughts are true. The longer they remain unchallenged, the more the rumination about them will convince us that the false beliefs and worst-case scenarios are valid. Then we’re stuck with them for days, weeks, months, and, yes, even years.

Managing stress is a function of perceived control over demands, known as cognitive appraisal. Stress is relative, in other words, to how much control you feel over demands. When something sets you off, you surrender control to the emotions of the moment, when you don’t have to. This feeds an emotional state that drives more stress.

The fact is you control quite a bit more than you know. You control how long the emotional reaction lasts and the story that sets off the emotions with the stress response. It’s not the external event that causes stress; it’s your reaction to it, the story you tell yourself about the stressful event. The catastrophic story set off by the caveman brain—I’m going to lose my job, I’ll never be loved again—can be countermanded if we can take a cue from our dogs and drop the whole thing.

This is something we can do by creating a new, factual story in which the rational mind of the 21st century brain can take back control from the clutches of the ancient brain. When stress is activated, the perceived threat streams straight to the neurons in the original brain, the limbic system and its chief sentinel, the amygdala, hub of the emotional brain, bypassing the prefrontal cortex and hijacking our modern faculties. We have to be able to catch ourselves when we feel the emotions of stress go off and reframe the story by waking up our modern, analytical brain.

ARGUE WITH YOURSELF

This means we have to argue with ourself and dispute the false beliefs set off by the fight-or-flight response. How do we do that? First, we identify the false story that switched on the danger signal. What thought pushed your button and made your ancient brain feel you are about to die? What made you feel you couldn’t cope or handle something, which is the caveman brain's instant trigger—something beyond coping capacity? What form did the imminent demise take? I’m going to lose my job? I’m embarrassed because I made a mistake? I’ll never be a success?

Next, round up the evidence of what happened, looking at the facts, and determine what the most likely story is, not the most catastrophic. What other causes are there for the event other than the worst-case scenario?

One of the things that fans the exaggerated thoughts of the stress response is that we take the event as permanent and personal, which jacks up the fear and panic by making everything appear hopeless and directed at you personally.

NEVER TAKE IT PERSONALLY

To escape these boxes and drop the event as adeptly as a cocker spaniel, we need to see the situation as changeable, specific to factors that only happened in this instance, and not take it personally. Things happen in the world. You live in the world, so things happen to you. Taking things personally unleashes emotions, ego, and an irrational state that blinds us to the fact that this approach is a complete waste of time.

Then you create a new story, write it out on a piece of paper or put it on a screen, one that shows how you are going to solve this challenge going forward. Say there’s a tough deadline causing you to think you can never meet it. You tell yourself you can handle it, because you always wind up handling it in the end. I can do it by unloading other to-do's that aren't as much of a priority, getting more support, delegating, changing aspects of the deliverables, negotiating more time, breaking it down into daily chunks I can do first thing each morning, or whatever reasons you can find. What's your new story to solve the stressor, something you're going to take action on?

The key to the practice is catching yourself in the act of stress, so you can use your modern brain to find out what’s under the stress, what’s under that, and so on until you have unmasked the bogus belief, which lets your brain know that it’s not a life-or-death emergency.

When your brain knows the alarm is false, the stress response stops in four minutes. And you have shut off stress before it can entrench false beliefs that lead to rumination and emotions that keep us self-inflicting for weeks and months on end.

As a reminder of your new role model, purchase a chew toy from your local pet store and put it on your desk. When stress goes off, grab that toy and drop it, symbolizing the canine approach—and then go after the false story and create a new one that makes you as smart as a Yorkshire.

For details on our stress management and work-life balance training programs for your team or organization and tools to control reactions, emotions, and excess barking, click the button below. 

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Tags: employee stress management, turning off work stress, stress response, job stress, controlling stress, managing stress reactions

Stress Management: How to Switch Off Job Stress at Home

Posted by Joe Robinson

Mtn_bikers

Most of us have a hard time switching off work, or at least the tension and thoughts of work, at the end of the workday. The mind seems determined not to let go of the day's events and worries. We just can't stop thinking about work.

What keeps the tension going is a side-effect of stress. The stress response is triggered when demands overload your ability to cope with them, switching on a part of the ancient brain that believes there is a threat to your life and limb. As a result, it constricts your brain to the perceived emergency of the moment, causing that loop of worry to spin round and round in one of the telltale byproducts of stress, rumination. 

DAILY DETACHMENT

The key to relaxing evenings, less stress, and better focus and positive mood when you go back to work the next day, say researchers, is what's known as psychological detachment. We need to make a mental break from the job and flip the off-switch on work concerns.

That means identifying and disputing the false beliefs that come from stress triggers, reframing thoughts and reactions, and countering the activation of the stress response with the deactivation of rest and refueling, processes I teach in my stress management training, coaching and classes

It turns out that what we do away from work is critical for well-being, health and even the quality of what we do at work. Researchers at the University of Konstanz and Bowling Green University found that work-related thoughts combined with a lack of recovery strategies after work aggravate emotional exhaustion and prevents the resupply of energetic resources.

As they put it, “High workload, emotional dissonance, and low spatial work-home boundaries are related to poor psychological detachment from work during non-work time.”

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

Studies show that leisure experiences off the job play a major role in buffering stressors and creating a positive mood state—active and strong— that allows for recovery and keeping negative mood at bay. Research by Williams and Alliger found that mood state, called affect, at home was related to affect state at work. 

RECOUPING RESOURCES

Job stressors drive psychological attachment to the events of the day that make it harder for our brains and bodies to let go and recover the resources they expended. This sets up a pattern of cumulative fatigue, in which we don’t recoup our resources at night and return to work the next day already behind the energy 8-ball.  The more fatigued we get, the more recovery we need.

Just as we need sleep to function the next day, we also need strategies to replace the mental and emotional resources burned up at the office. If they’re not replenished, we go down the track to chronic stress and exhaustion. 

One of the things that makes it hard to unwind from the pressures of the day is that the stress response suppresses the play equipment in our brains. It's hard to think about having fun when a part of your brain thinks your life is on the line.

When demands are at their highest and you need relaxation the most, your ancient defense mechanism is working against you, suppressing the play equipment in your brain. You’re not in the mood to do anything non-serious. The way out of the loop is blocked by what’s known as negative affect. Gloom, anger, and pessimism restrict options to stewing and rumination. 

Rumination is one of the leading drivers of stress, pessimism, and depression. It’s the constant replay of a stressful event, or rather the story we tell ourselves about that event, that entrenches a false belief and makes us think the danger is real. Rumination thrives on self-talk that stress sets off--a disorted false belief that by repeated obsessing about it appears real. The counter to that is physical action and relaxation experiences that shut off the broken record and the demands of the workday. 

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

MOOD-SHIFTING

A wide variety of relaxation techniques can take thoughts off the stressful events of the day. Researchers have found that techniques from progressive relaxation, to experiences in nature, to aerobic exercise, yoga, meditation, and listening to music can shift the focus of attention.

The evocative power of music is particularly effective in changing the emotional dynamic. The negative mood that locks us in our bunkers is ephemeral. Subject it to some empowering or beautiful music, and you change the emotional temperature.

One of the most effective ways to squelch self-talk and make the break from the workday is through active leisure experiences, the fun track to work-life balance. As a study led by Princeton’s Alan Krueger found, we are at our happiest when we are involved in engaging leisure experiences.

Absorbing experiences off the career track allow you to demonstrate competence in a world of your own making, no matter what happens at the office. Everything isn’t riding on every approval and perfect outcome in the workday.

MASTERY EXPERIENCES

Research by Sonnentag and Ernst shows that “people who experience mastery in their off-hours generally report better well-being and life satisfaction.” Sports and hobbies are the places to look for mastery experiences. 

Experiences make us happier than material things, and they usually connect us with others, which satisfies a core psychological need, connection with others. Having a fun activity to do every week or a couple of times a week is a powerful counter to negative affect.

So when you get home from work, do something different. Don’t fall for the usual mood. Too exhausted, too upset, etc. Rally and jump in to a new leisure activity or relaxation process. It puts you in charge of your mood, not the workday—and doing the living you are making for yourself.

Control stress at work, prevent burnout, and activate your life. Sign up for one of my stress management or life balance classes, or take advantage of a free consultation to learn about our coaching program

Give me a call at 310-570-6987. Look forward to speaking with you.

 

Tags: avoiding burnout, leisure and stress, life coaching programs, switching off stress, turning off work stress, stress relief, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management programs

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