Working Smarter

6 Ways Remote Workers Can Get on Top of Boundaries and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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REMOTE WORKING is one of the most popular employee perks. Employers should be fans of it, too, since it does wonders for performance. One study (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta) found that productivity increased 10% to 30% for those working from home offices.

That’s a big payoff and a compelling reason to do more of it. More companies are doing just that. Some 37% of Americans (Gallup) are now working at least some of the workweek at home. Contrary to the image, though, of teleworkers slacking around the house, they actually work more than their colleagues at the corporate office. It’s adding up to a growing downside for virtual workers, whose work-life balance dreams are not always paying off the way they thought.

Remote staff have been shown to work 50-75 hours per week (Doherty et al, Pratt), averaging consistently longer days than their coworkers at headquarters.

THE PROXIMITY FACTOR

And therein lies the irony of telecommuting. As much as remote workers like the increased freedom, lack of commute, and fewer interruptions, a practice chosen for better work-life balance can make it worse. A Center for Work and Family study found that only 24% of telecommuters rated their work-life balance as very good, compared to 38% of those who worked at the office but used daily flex time.

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It’s not the remote option itself that’s driving long hours and a trip down the burnout track. The culprits are the lack of boundaries and self-management skills and the proximity factor. You can’t drive away from the office at the end of the day when it’s in your house. The three priorities you didn’t get to today are feet away from handling. Why not go back to the desk and polish off one more task?

Remote workers have a problem knowing when to say when in an unstructured environment in which there is added pressure to make it known you are getting the job done even though no one can physically see you. An affliction known as guilt enters into the equation, a need to prove worth from afar by going the next several miles beyond to compensate for the lack of face time.

I recently led a work-life balance training for a remote team at a medical laboratory firm. The company was happy to retain top talent by giving them the option to work from their homes across the U. S. As much as they liked the autonomy that virtual work provided, the group was finding it difficult to shut off the workday, get the mental detachment necessary at the end of office hours, and were too accessible to technology that followed some of them straight into bed at night.

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VOTE OF CONFIDENCE

We zeroed in on the importance of time management, boundaries, and setting the terms of engagement with technology. Companies that allow employees to work remotely are providing a vote of confidence in the ability of their virtual staff to self-manage their day. The responsibility is on the individual to structure the day in an effective way and utilize technology so that it enhances, not overwhelms, the chief productivity tool—attention.

Let’s take a look at six habits that can turn remote work into what it was designed for, an aid to a more flexible life and a better work-life fit:

1. Keep Office Hours. It's the same work, just in a different space. To rein in a default to excessivley long workdays, set office hours for yourself and stick to them. You have the advantage of being able to slot in a child's play or yoga session—just keep them within a set schedule. Don't go off on impulsive distractions—such as social media tangents—that destroy focus and make you fall behind. Simulate the schedule of headquarters at home as much as possible.

2. Set Stop Times. The work is not all going to get done by the end of the day, but you can finish yourself off by chronically going on too long. Long hours have been shown to dramatically increase strain and the stress that results from it. Choose a time at which you can remove fingers from keyboards, put down the phone, and stop for the day. What is a reasonable stop time for you? You are not always going to be able to stop on a dime, but aim for consistencly regular closing hours. Kick out the last person in the office, you, at the approinted time. Set an alarm as a reminder. Turn your coffee mug over to symbolize that the day is done. You're going home. Wait a second, you're already there.

3. Set Boundaries on Technology. The remote employee has to have greater reserves of self-regulation, i.e. discipline, to avoid the temptation of having all communcation with the outside world bombarding and notifying incessantly. That means having a strategy to deal with unbounded technology is essential. Check devices manually at set times. Three or four times daily are the most productive schedules, researchers at the University of California Irvine and Oklahoma State report. Try starting at hourly checks and wean down from there. Turn off visual notifcations on your screens. 

4. Organize Your Desk and Prioritize. It's a lot easier for clutter and distractions to pile up at home. Organize your workspace and remove all distractions from view. Get set up for maximum concentration. Turn off browsers. Prioritize and plan the day's events.  Take 10 minutes at the start of the day to prioritize. Qualify tasks by the urgency of doing them now, and create a next physical action for items on the to-do list.

5. Create Focus Zones. When are you the most alert? If you are a morning person, that's going to be anywhere from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and if you are a night own, it's going to be in the late afternoon, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Set aside 30 minutes, an hour, whatever you can spare, and block it off to do your high concentration work. Put a message on your auto-responder that you're on a deadline and will be back at a designated time.

6. Take Breaks and Get Exercise. This is an area that is tailor-made for remote workers—so it's important to utilize it. You have been left to make your own schedule. That means you can create one that allows your brain and body to get the daily recharging they need. It's easy to put the head down and barrel ahead for 10 straight hours, but the work and your health will suffer as a result. Researchers say we need to give the brain a break every 90 minutes to two hours. Set times you can step back for a 10- or 15-minute reboot. Use your breaks to build in exercise, to take a walk, do some stretching, or make your lunch break an exercise break. Studies show that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at lunch time increases productivity.

Going from the corporate office to the remote office can be a tough adjustment, one that we aren’t really prepared for. Yet the autonomy can pay powerful dividends for those who get organized and prioritized—more opportunity to take care of personal and family issues, easier access to refueling breaks, more concentration, and best of all, gratification of one of our core psychological needs. We all have a need to feel autonomous and to chart our course.

Remote working offers a choice to take on more responsibility, and when we do, our brain neurons like it, and pay it off in the form of job and life satisfaction. As long as we can resist the digital, self-interruptive, and caloric temptations.

Tags: remote working, work life balance, telecommuting, time management skills, home office tips

Work-Life Is Attention Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

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As I'm sure you have noticed, the mind has a mind of its own. It nags, frets, and guilts with a steady stream of thoughts that get in the way of things we are trying to do. It would be nice if it could just clam up for a while, especially with the badgering about things on our to-do list.

A study at Florida State University (Masicampo, Baumeister) found that worries about unfinished business distract attention, reducing performance in the process. Trying to do a task with an unfinished one hanging over your head hinders performance by flooding short-term memory with anxious thoughts. The fragile state of working memory—three or four thought chunks we can hold onto for only a few seconds at a time—is easy prey for worries that intrude from the unhandled realm.

THE BADGERING BRAIN

It turns out that not handling things is a danger signal for a brain on the lookout for things that are wrong—and that thinks it’s the year 100,000 BC. The warning sign means we are not in control, not handling something, which in turn means that something has overloaded capacity to cope. That is the on-button for anxiety and the stress response.

To stay focused, we need to persuade the alarmist brain that things are being handled. That’s what good time management and work-life balance do. They shut down the nattering brain through prioritizing, planning, and adjustments to schedules that allow people to feel they are managing both sides of the work-life hyphen. As soon as the hectoring brain feels things are being handled, it lets up, say researchers. It doesn’t have to respond to the errant “something wrong,” “out of control” messages anymore.

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The key to silencing the to-do nag is to get the item out of your head and physically in the world, on paper or a screen. You write down your next physical action, whatever that may be—picking up a phone, grabbing a pen, speaking with someone, and noting when you’re going to do the item. That lets your brain know you are on the case, and it stops pestering.

MAKE YOUR BASE CAMP

The same thing applies to really big projects you have yet to start that may be bugging you. The longer you procrastinate, the longer the mind will badger, but if you do something, anything to get started on the project, all of a sudden, the looming dread fades, and the brain releases its alarm button. Spend 30 minutes to get a big assignment started, and just the time spent thinking and semi-organizing it takes the pressure off. Break the task into micro-bits, say 30 minutes a day, and you can chip away at it. Better yet, the project that would not let up its drumbeat feels under control.

I call it the “base camp” approach. Legendary mountain climber, Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world 8000 meter- peaks, told me he doesn’t look at the mountaintop when he starts his climb. Too overwhelming. Instead, he focuses on just getting to the base camp for the day.

It’s a methodical approach we can use every day. One step in front of the other, by learning how to prioritize, to separate the urgent from the important, by not falling for time panic that aggravates the angst of the undone, and keeping our focus on the day's base camp.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE FOCUSES ATTENTION

My work-life balance programs take the concept of clarifying attention to the macro scale, building in adjustments to demands, devices, and distractions, and giving people flexibility in areas that allow them to feel they are able to handle both work and home responsibilities.

I hear from parents a lot that they feel guilty when they are at work and not taking care of their kids and guilty at home when they’re not at work getting more done. Flexibility in start times or a day or two a week of telework can make a big difference in creating a sense that both sides of the balance ledger are better controlled. The mind lets go of the chastising, and you are able to focus on the task at hand without the intrusion of untaken care of issues.

We all have a job we have to do, but how we do it is where we can build in the flexibility that allows for more effective work practices, ones that can reduce strain and the static of unhandled business. In my work-life balance training programs we drill down to the task practices and bottlenecks that make work and life difficult and build in the adjustments researchers have documented are much more effective.

In a world where attention is under siege, we forget that it is our chief productivity tool. Anything that is blowing up working memory and concentration is undermining productivity and the bottom-line. That may be why people who report good work-life balance are 21% more productive than their colleagues, according to a survey by the Corporate Executive Board, which represents 80% of Fortune 500 companies. 

Making it as easy as possible for minds to work unfettered by mental sidetracking and thoughts of overwhelm should be the goal of every team and organization. When minds are waylaid by the strain of the unhandled, attention isn’t just disrupted, it’s also replaced by the addled and frantic decisions of the caveman/woman brain that takes the wheel when capacity to cope is overloaded.

As they say, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Work-life balance and time management strategies are your insurance plan for attention management.

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Tags: work life balance, time management programs, attention and productivity, working memory, atterntion management, stress and working memory

The Secret Agent of Happiness and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If there's one thing that people around the world agree on, it's that being happy beats being miserable. But what exactly makes us happy? That's something that hasn't been crystal-clear over the ages, which has allowed others to decide for us that a certain luxury sedan or a 55-inch flat screen will do the job. It's also led to the habit of shortcut happiness through default pleasures—double fudge chocolate, "Grand Theft Auto"—that obscures the real deal.

Social psychologists have decoded much of the puzzle of subjective well-being over the last two decades, showing that the external metrics assumed to be the route to happiness can't deliver the goods. There's a momentary bump from toys, money or a promotion, and then it's gone, because these outer symbols are based on what others think. What works is the secret agent of happiness—the subtler art of internal gratification, and understanding it is a key piece of work-life balance.

PLEASURE VS. GRATIFICATION

We usually don't have time or patience for that. The reflex for positive mood states tends to gravitate to quick-fixes, the sensory and momentary delights that University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman calls "pleasures." The impulse is to make a beeline for that hunk of Swiss chocolate or boost the adrenaline with a cinematic nail-biter. You feel good briefly but it doesn't fill you up.

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There's a big difference of opinion between the body's idea of happiness and that of the mind. Pleasures are fun, but they're cotton candy for your brain, which has a higher threshold for satisfaction and demands a more engaged version of happiness, what Seligman calls "gratifications."

The eye candy and bodily sensations of pleasure mode require little in the way of participation or thinking, so their effect on well-being is ephemeral. "Once the external stimulus is gone, the positive emotion sinks beneath the wave of ongoing emotion without a trace," Seligman has written.

Since pleasures are easy and what's drilled into us, they can wind up the only strategy for happiness, leaving us always wanting more. It's the "Is that all there is?" syndrome. They keep you chasing the next momentary hit while doing nothing to fill the void that fuels the chase.

It takes effort for the more lasting form of well-being, the gratifications, something I detail in my book on the power of participant experiences, Don't Miss Your Life.

HIGHER HAPPINESS

Satisfaction and fulfillment are not drive-thru affairs. These higher forms of happiness require challenging and involving activity. That's hard to fathom given the human default to what's easy. It seems that more and more comfort is the mission of life, but your brain neurons say no. They don't like terminal boredom. They want engagement, something required by our core psychological needs, say researchers.

What kind of gratifications can satisfy those needs over the long term? The research points to experiences that allow you to be absorbed and fully engaged, that let you feel you're freely choosing things, that make you feel competent and allow you to learn and grow, and that connect you with others through close relationships, social activities and service to others.

Active hobbies, learning new things, recreational pursuits and volunteering are primo gratifications, satisfying your core as few other things can through challenge and growth. Participant activities, from dancing to aikido to painting, deliver experiences that stick with you through the competence and relationships they build and the joy that lingers in indelible memories.

Unlike fleeting pleasures, gratifications are expansive events, giving your brain the forward movement it craves. "You're constantly learning," says Werner Haas, a chemist from San Jose who gets his gratification from two activities that are a world apart—orienteering and ballroom dancing.

THE SEEKING MINDSET

Another way to look at gratifications is that they come from a seeking mind-set, as opposed to the escapist mode typical of pleasures, as the University of Maryland's Seppo Iso-Ahola puts it.

Recreation seekers, who are driven by personal and interpersonal goals, are less bored, more fulfilled, and healthier than people fueled by the escapist motive, says Iso-Ahola. Spend too long in escapist mode and you become dependent on the entertainment served up until you don't know how to occupy yourself off the clock anymore.

You can find more gratifications if you manage attention better. The reflex to divert attention to phones and distractions in a free moment undercuts the engagement your brain wants.

Try to become aware when you have the impulse to shift attention to a distraction. Instead, think about what you can focus on before grabbing the remote, phone or the Skittles. Ask yourself: What can I learn? What can I try? What can I experience? Where can I discover something?

We don't put much thought into our free time, which we're led to believe doesn't have much value. Without planning or engagement skills, it leaves things up to autopilot escapes and pleasures.

We can opt out of that mode, though, by exercising choices we're not told we have—to go with the gratifications and the seeking mind-set, a prerequisite to finding things, such as satisfaction and missing lives.

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Tags: happiness, recreation, gratification, life balance, life skills, happier life, work life balance, play,

The Three Things We Don't Know We Need to Be Happy

Posted by Joe Robinson

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There's a difference between what humans really need, as opposed to what we or others think we want.  If we knew what that was, we would know exactly how to get what would satisfy us. How big would that be?

For most of human history, the answer to that question has been a gray area that peers and marketers have happily filled in for us. Luckily, we live in a time when some very sharp minds have deciphered the correct motivational wiring and pinpointed what it is we need to be happy.

THE GPS OF SATISFACTION

Researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have led the way, with a framework that points the way to what it is we really need, as opposed to desire. Self-determination theory, as it is known, is a veritable GPS to fulfillment, decoding our innermost longings and linking the world of science and spirit. It has been vetted by hundreds of scientists in more than a dozen cultures and is key to work-life balance and the effectiveness that leads to productivity.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

No longer do you have to rely on guesswork to know what you need to feel satisfied. No longer do you have to have expectations that constantly disappoint. You can live more fully than you ever imagined when you finally know what needs you need to satisfy.

Deci and Ryan found that at the root of human aspiration, there are three core psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (the need for social connection and intimacy). You need to feel autonomous, that you can make choices in your life. You have to feel effective and competent, doing things  that make you stretch. And you have to have close relationships with others to satisfy your social mandate.

EXPECT NO PAYOFF AND YOU GET ONE

The catch is that you can only satisfy these needs through intrinsic motivation, the reverse of the motivational approach we're all raised with—external motivation. With intrinsic motivation, you seek no payoff, only the inherent interest of the activity itself—for learning, fun, growth. Do it just to do it, and you'll get a whopping internal reward in the form of the lasting version of happiness, gratification.

"When people are oriented to goals of doing what they choose, growing as a person or goals for having good relationships, they experience higher levels of the basic psychological needs," says Tim Kasser, of Knox College, a leading researcher in the psychology of motivation. 

STOP THE PAY, STOP THE PLAY

Deci showed in one experiment how external rewards can sabotage us. Subjects were asked to solve a puzzle in an exercise in which some got paid while others didn't. The ones who received no money kept playing with the puzzle after the teacher left the room at a strategic moment, while the financially motivated had no interest playing unless they got paid for it. "Stop the pay, stop the play," Deci summed it up later. His work and those of many others have documented that we learn more, remember it longer, are more interested in what we're doing, and are more satisfied when we act for intrinsic goals.

Intrinsic goals on the job include excellence, service, learning, challenge, and craft. On the life side, you can't get more autonomous than choosing what you want to do in your free time. Social opportunities, softball games, creative outlets and vacations can get shelved if we use the external goal mode: where's this going to get me? How can I be advanced?

The core needs tell us we're waiting in vain when we expect other people, things, and status to make us happy, and that we are the ones who must make our lives fulfilled through our own choices. Your core isn't satisfied by thinking or spectating but by directly participating in life's meaningful experiences.

CORE COMPETENCE

The need to feel effective is essential to self-worth, Learning a new skill is one of the best ways to activate competence. In one study, first-time whitewater canoeists felt a surge of competence as they handled new risks.

The third core need, relatedness, is a well-documented route to increased positive mood, better health, and a longer life. You can't satisfy your need for relatedness by networking, since it won't produce the satisfaction that comes from close personal relationships. Your core needs are very smart. They know when they're not getting the real intrinsic deal.

The findings of Deci, Ryan and their colleagues have yanked us out of the Dark Ages of our unknown needs. Their data lights the way forward for you to become who you are, as Alan Watts once put it. The key to the meaningful and fulfilling life you want is acting from intrinsic goals that reflect your inner compass—learning, fun, challenge, growth, community, excellence. 

Act for the sake of it, and you are at the center of full engagement in the most rewarding life possible, one that gratifies your deepest longings. There are no barriers to your attention and involvement. You have arrived at the place where the chief ingredients of optimal living meet: experience, intrinsic motivation, and the riveting moment of now.

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: happiness, life satisfaction, work life balance, intrinsic motivation, self-determination theory

How to Stop Working the Hard Way

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Humans are prone to doing whatever takes the least effort—even though our brains want us to do the opposite and challenge ourselves. We are a little contradictory. The high brain wants the gratification of growth, while for the autopilot brain the default is to instant gratification and expending as little effort as possible. The TV remote may be the ultimate instrument for this impulse.

At the office, the “easy” reflex results in rote and last-minute behavior, along with the anemic productivity that comes with them. It’s why I usually hear from clients when overwhelm has peaked or work-life balance survey scores are underwater. 

HARDER THAN IT IS

It may seem like it’s easier to work on rote and avoid change, but it’s actually much harder, as clients learn in our work-life balance trainings. When we are stuck on reflex, that keeps us locked in habits that drive stress, slow us down, and make tasks more aggravating than they actually are.

Take interruptions, for example. Left unmanaged, they not only make it much harder to focus and finish the task you are on, but they also make anything you do seem more difficult than it is. They change the perception of the work to something harder. So which is easier? Managing interruptions or being managed by them?

It’s a no-brainer, as it is when it comes to letting devices call the shots or corralling them, so we are in charge. Do nothing and unbounded devices and messaging run amok, adding to workloads and disruptions that slow everyone down. Do out-of-control messaging and constant disruptions make the work easier or harder? Cut the volume of email and check it at set schedules, and you can reduce the amount of interruptions from 96 (checking every five minutes) to three or four times a day, the most productive checking schedules, report researchers at U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State.

We can all free up hours of time to focus and get work done with a system that manages messaging. This makes changing how we work a lot easier than being bombarded by the anarchy of the status quo. But the law of least effort is seductive and most people today are also caught up in the autopilot of busy-ness, a condition that makes us think we can’t stop for a second, or it will be apocalypse now.

A HEALTHIER ROAD TO SUCCESS

Work-life balance is a process of stopping for a moment to find easier ways to work, of getting tools to carve out the space to live a quality life and take care of personal responsibilities and map out a healthier road to success. In our work-life balance programs we bring your team the best strategies vetted by the research to stop doing things the hard way and start doing things the smart way.

Bad work-life balance survey scores and crazy-busy workplaces rife with overwhelm are clues that things could be done a lot easier. If your team is drowning in meetings and teleconferences, that’s doing it the hard way. If deadlines are out of whack with reality, that’s doing it the hard way. If people are working in a way that drives stress and burnout, that is really doing it the hard way. Stress undermines intellect and drives irrational decisions.

A host of research and best practices tells us that we don’t have to do it the hard way. Instead, with the right self-management, boundaries, and effective norms, any team or organization can get work done faster, communicate more clearly, de-clutter brains, and help employees activate  lives off the job too. It all comes from avoiding the temptation to keep muddling through with the same-old, same-old.

Work-life balance training is about solving problems, taking inefficient habits and turning them into effective practices that create the space to think and manage demands and devices. It’s a collaboration in which we work together to identify the bottlenecks and pressure points that drive productivity and work-life south and get solutions that make work and life easier.

UNLEASHING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

I’m working with a client now on a post-work-life balance training sustainment program, two months of developing and practicing skills of sustainable performance. The managers of this global firm, with offices from Stuttgart to Hong Kong, Brazil, and the U.S, are super-enthused as we troubleshoot bottlenecks, set new norms, and make their days more effective. Each new practice they use to manage information or global time zones, or strengthen the work-family perimeter inspires more employee engagement—the very extra effort our species has an aversion to at the most basic level.

It turns out that effort isn’t a problem for people who are encouraged to participate and solve problems. In fact, we all are designed to be self-starters, to have a hand in writing our own script. Initiative and proactive behavior pay off core psychological needs, such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others as well as the quest our brain neurons have for novelty and challenge—the two key elements in long-term fulfillment 

So when it comes to working smarter with a work-life balance training, it’s a win-win-win-win. We improve work effectiveness, satisfy core needs, unleash the fulfilling powers of novelty and challenge, and inspire the discretionary effort that comes from employee engagement. And along the way, we make work, and life, a whole lot easier.

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Tags: employee engagement training, work-life balance trainings, overwhelm, information overload programs, employee development programs, work effectiveness, work life balance, work-life balance and productivity

A New Productivity Model Based on Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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The traditional measuring stick of productivity has been, let’s face it, a rather masochistic metric—whoever can work the longest or send emails at 2 in the morning. It’s also dead wrong. It’s based on a flawed notion that in the knowledge economy where brainpower rules that a fatigued brain is where it’s at for getting things done.

In fact, MRI scans of fatigued brains look exactly like ones that are sound asleep. The chief productivity tool is attention, and that goes AWOL after three hours of continuous time on task, studies show (Boksem, Meijman, Lorist). 

PREREQUISITE OF PERFORMANCE

Productivity comes from a very different place than burnout and fatigue, from the opposite place than we have been led to believe—from brains that are refreshed and energized. And where do those come from?

The data tells us from organizations that take work-life balance seriously. It turns out that work-life balance is much more than a check-off box on an employee survey. It’s the prerequisite for performance and engagement. It gives employees the tools and encouragement to work more effectively, to take care of their health, improve skills, and work in a way that makes them feel valued.

People who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who don’t, reports the Corporate Executive Board, which represents about 80% of the Fortune 500. Gallup found that engaged employees are 28% more productive than those who aren't engaged. But only 29% of workers are engaged. American businesses leave more then $300 billion on the table in lost productivity every year due to disengaged employees.

Naturally, every company wants employee engagement, which means that employees put forth discretionary effort beyond the call of duty. What makes an employee do more than what's necessary? Certainly not a fatigued brain. The key dimension of engaged employees is energy, vigor.

That can’t come from people who are burned out. You will never have engaged employees, if they are caught up in the Burnout Model of productivity. The main marker of burnout and chronic stress is exhaustion, the polar opposite of engagement. All energetic resources have been depleted—mentally, physically, emotionally.

THE EFFECTIVE MODEL

It’s time for a new performance model, one that’s actually based on what the science says works. Let’s trade exhaustion for the Effective Model. The goal is to eliminate the bottlenecks that drain attention and engagement through things like interruption and information management, make operations more effective and less aggravating with better time management, manage demands, refuel the brain, and allow employees the sense that they can take adequate care of responsibilities outside the office. 

In other words, make work-life balance an integral part of the operations and workflow of the team or organization. When the goal is working in a way that strengthens attention, well-being, trust, communication, wellness, and value, it doesn’t take a brain scientist to see that people are more inclined to give not just their all, but more than that, the discretionary effort of employee engagement.

Work-life balance sets the stage for engagement, making employees feel valued, competent, trusted, and that they are a part of the mission, participants, not just cogs. Companies with high participation levels have a 19% higher return on investment, a study by Edward Lawler found.

Every company should want their employees to have better work-life balance, since that leads to the energy, commitment, and involvement that creates engagement. Every company should want their employees to have better self-management and be more proactive. When they are, we can delegate more, more ideas come forward, better communication reduces conflict, and we eliminate stress levels that fuel turnover (40% of people who quit cite stress as the main factor in leaving) and bad decisions.

THE MILLENNIAL CHALLENGE

The Burnout Model leads to ill and drained employees who are there physically but mentally depleted—the condition known as presenteeism, which costs U.S. companies more than $150 billion per year. The Effective Model produces team members whose brains are energized and focused on going the extra mile. Which is the better choice?

As a new generation that prizes work-life balance starts to play a bigger role in the workplace, the timing has never been better to integrate a comprehensive work-life program in every organization. There is a tectonic shift in corporate culture under way led by millennials and their values, and the Effective Model of work-life balance can lead the way. It’s a no-brainer for millennials—for productivity, commitment, wellness, and satisfaction.

How do you get started? Start with our comprehensive employee Work-Life Balance training that brings the strategies of the latest science to help your team work smarter and live better. We also offer a follow-up program that sustains the new behaviors, builds in new protocols and norms, and identifies challenges and solutions. Aftwards, everyone wonders why they didn't do this years ago. Let common sense and work-life balance demonstrate that there's another road to success, instead of one that is best described by an old Monty Python routine, "Being Hit on the Head Lessons."

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Tags: work-life balance training, presenteeism, avoiding burnout, employee development programs, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance, work-life balance and employee engagement, work-life balance and productivity, work-life balance and millennials, millennials

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.”

"Best Business Case for Stress Management"

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.

If you would like to improve wellness and engagement on your team or in your company, click the button below for more information on our wellness programs.

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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,

8 Stops to Work-Life Balance in 2015

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman celebrating

The first couple of weeks of the new year are rare, indeed. They are one of the few times it is permissible to actually pause from head-down, full-blast mode, to reflect, ponder the upcoming year, even smell a rose or two.

Pausing is not something most of us are very good at. We are raised to keep on going to the last drop of caffeine. The premium is on action, and non-action appears to have no payoffs. Yet the key to work-life balance, productivity, stress management, and a quality life in 2015 or any year is in the space between the action, the moments when we take time to consider what’s working, what’s not, what needs to change, why, and how we get there. 

THINK-TIME

Without a pause, we can’t chart a better path forward. So before resolutions, before intentions, we need to stop so we can plan where we're going. Without a step-back to plan it’s easy to keep doing the same-old, same-old and default to the mechanical momentum of busyness. Planning, from prioritizing work tasks to putting life on the calendar, is the essential self-management tool. It figures out what you want and offers a path to make it happen.

So let’s make 2015 a year in which we are going to take the time to make the time to plan, whether it’s 10 minutes at the start of the day to get priorities together, time to discover what tasks need to be adjusted for more effective work, time to choose a new hobby to recharge during the week, or time to figure out what you’re going to do on your vacation this year and when you’re going to take it.

 

Europeans use the month of January to sit down with coworkers and managers and figure out when people want to take their vacations, so that holidays can be built into the workflow and operations of the company for the year. Planning puts things you value on the calendar. 

STRATEGIC PAUSING

Taking strategic pauses to map out our days and life highlights gets shoved aside usually because of the grip of time urgency and overwhelm that afflict most of us these days. Time urgency is a fixation with the passage of time. It makes you think every minute is an emergency and that each moment must be booked to the gills, or you’re a slacker.

The result is a cheek-flapping ride through the blur of busyness. We can’t stop for a second, or it’s apocalypse now. “Did you get that email I sent you three minutes ago?” The vise grip of busyness keeps you from making the extra call to a colleague, doing the research to have accurate turn-around times, or get exercise or life in for stress relief. “There’s no time!”

But studies show we do have time. It’s just not organized. Let’s take a look at some pauses we can use to direct a more thoughtful, effective, healthy year ahead for both work and life.

1. Big Picture Pause. Set aside a chunk of time, say, 30 minutes this week and then once a month, to think about where you’re going at work and life this year and why you’re going there. What are your work goals? Life priorities? What’s missing from the picture? What do you need to change? How can you do that?

2. Work Effectiveness Pause. Review tasks and identify ones that are frequent bottlenecks and time-wasters. How could they be adjusted for less stress and more effectiveness?

3. Priorities Pause. Set aside 10 minutes at the end of the workday or at the beginning to map out the top five tasks on your list for today or tomorrow.

4. Balance Pause. Each Friday, take a few minutes to assess the state of your work-life balance. Are you out of whack? What needs to happen to have a better work-life fit?

5. Recharge Pauses. Fatigued brains look like ones that are sound asleep. Pause when the pressure peaks, you’re stuck, concentration fades, the daydreaming begins. Take a walk, listen to music, or plan your weekend to build up energy and cognitive resources again.

6. Free Time Pause. Take time to put together a free-time log for a week of all your time outside work. Where are the time sinks? Where are the free-time slots you could schedule a new hobby or activity? What would you like to do? Salsa dancing? Cycling?

7. Vacation Pause. Figure out at the beginning of the year where you want to go on vacation and when you want to go. This makes it easier for coworkers and managers and locks them and you into making the holiday happen at the most opportune time, with plenty of notice to make workflow adjustments.

8. Life List Pause.  Take some time to think about what you’d like to do on this planet for the experience of it. What’s on your Life List? Sail the South Seas? Learn guitar? Keep a rotating list of five experiences and start jotting down steps to make them happen.

We are led to believe that nonstop commotion is the only road to success, but it’s informed action that makes work effective and life worthwhile. Satisfying work and a well-lived life are the result of thinking, assessing, and having the attention to create a better pathway forward, something no one else can do for us. What you want doesn't happen on its own. You have to make it happen.

Let’s use this opening of the dawn of the new year to pause frequently in 2015 and put the most underrated tool of work-life balance into action.

 

Tags: work life balance, time urgency, work life balance programs, 2015 resolutions, work effectiveness, time management and planning, stress and prioritizing, well-lived life, work-life coaching

Passions Power Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Dancing to well-being

The Declaration of Independence may guarantee the pursuit of happiness, but, as we all know, landing the prize is a different story. It's a winding road through the options we're given. Status, wealth, popularity, the refrigerator, the medicine cabinet -- all the standbys have failed to get the job done. What really works, though, is something that wouldn't cross most of our minds: a passion or a hobby.

Robert Vallerand from the University of Quebec at Montreal and his associates found that participating in a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week. I think we could all hoist a glass to an extra eight hours of bliss each week.

But a passion doesn't just plug you into a dependable source of rhapsodic moments each week, it also provides the best kind of happiness: gratification, a lasting sense of fulfillment that the instant mood upgrades can't. Passions demand initiative and mastery, which go deep to satisfy core self-determination needs.

And maybe deeper. "Playfulness is the very essence of the universe," philosopher Alan Watts noted, in music, dance and activities that get us off the bullet train and allow us to celebrate where we are.

PRIMING THE POSITIVITY PUMP

Passions are stellar at this, planting you in optimal moments and connecting you with others equally ecstatic, widening your social circle. Studies show they increase positive emotions during the activity, boost positive mood, and decrease negative feelings afterward, and go a long way to delivering work-life balance you can feel to the tips of your hair.

Stocking up on positive events is important because we're usually in a losing battle against the negative avalanche barreling down on us from all sides. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has documented that we need a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative events to stay on the positive side of the ledger. The negative is that powerful, and it tends to be our default, part of the survival worrywart instinct we know and don't exactly love. Hobbies and passions keep the positivity pump primed.

GO FLY A KITE

I met dozens of people in the course of doing a book ("Don't Miss Your Life") whose lives were changed radically by something as simple as flying a kite. Amy Doran was a youth program director in Bend, Oregon, newly divorced, without friends in a new town and facing the challenges of her son's epilepsy when she took up flying stunt kites. As she learned the ropes of the flier's aerial ballet, she wound up becoming a confident festival performer. She now has a host of friends and her son, Connor, doesn't need his meds anymore.

Connor took up flying after he saw the fun his mother was having, and he got so good at it, he flew in front of millions of viewers on a couple segments of "America's Got Talent" last year. Because of his epilepsy, he had thought he was worthless, but that all changed with kite-flying. "My whole life I've been told I can't do things," he said. "But kite-flying changed that. I have something I'm good at."

Unlike romantic passions, the pursuit that becomes a reason to get up in the morning doesn't appear across the room, setting your heart aflutter. It comes out of a process of building capabilities and a persistent quest for mastery. There are no thrills until you've gotten the skills.

Passions take foreplay. The passion that can transform your life from missing or just okay to extraordinary has to be developed. Vallerand, a pioneer in the field of passion research, and his associates have studied passionate cyclists, dancers, music students and swimmers in search of the keys to avid involvement. Along the way, they have put their fingers on a couple of very important pieces of optimal life.

DO IT TO DO IT

One, pursuing happiness has a lot to do with pursuing competence. It's the pursuit of competence, wanting to get better at something, that fuels the skill-building process. Secondly, you won't get the satisfaction you want from a hobby unless your motivation for doing it is intrinsic. You have to do it to do it, not for a payoff.

As Alan Watts put it, "When you dance, do you aim to arrive at a particular place on the floor? Is that the idea of dancing? No, the aim of dancing is to dance."

Harmonious passions, as Vallerand calls them, spring from a goal of mastery, an intrinsic aspiration that puts the focus on learning and drives practice. A lot of it. This jibes with findings on happiness that show that effort is a critical component of satisfaction. Repeated practice leads to improved ability and further interest, until the activity begins to define you. The activity becomes your conduit to self-expression, tapping your core values and creating a focal point for life.

DANCING CHANGED HIS LIFE

Chicago investor Richard Weinberg is a perfect example of this. A dinner at a Mexican restaurant that featured salsa dancing sparked him to take dance lessons at the age of 49. A few years later, he was competing in 14 different dance categories and had found something central to his entire being. "It's changed me totally," he says. "It's really given me a purpose. I went to the office, had a great family to care for, but dancing shifted my spirits and energy and direction in such an amazing way. I feel 20 years younger than I am."

Having an enthusiasm that connects with you at a core level and gives you something to look forward to energizes your life and provides a sense of direction and meaning, far from the rap of triviality hung on hobbies. I can't think of anything as potent as a passion or hobby to activate life to the nth degree.

So how do you get your hands on this elixir? You have to select the right activity, something that would have internal value for you. It all starts with interests. Try many kinds of pursuits and see what connects.

INTERNALIZING AFFINITIES

When you find something you'd like to learn, stick with it. You need to be persistent to get through the adult phobias about not knowing everything and looking like a fool. An intrinsic motivation will get you through it. You're in it for the learning, not to be an overnight champion triathlete or tango dancer. A study of music students found that only 36 percent developed a passionate interest in playing their instruments. The students who felt it was their choice to play, and not the result of pressure from others, were the ones who found the love.

For an activity to turn into a passion, it has to click with your core needs, especially autonomy and competence. You have to increase the intensity of your interest, says Vallerand, with more practice. That increases your skill base to the point where you're good enough at the activity to enjoy and meet the challenge. The final stage is internalizing the activity by valuing it as a part of who you are. You wind up seeing yourself as a "runner" or a "salsa dancer," which gives you a critical sense of self apart from the almighty identity on the business card that is not you but is very convincing at making you think it is.

This might be one of the best services passions provide. They introduce you to yourself, long forgotten under a pile of duty and obligation. They reacquaint you with the enthused, eager soul you used to be, pre-adult straitjacket, and give you a reason to be that person more often. You're home, at last.

 

Tags: work life balance, work life balance programs, happiness, fulfilling life, wellness, passions, recreation, living well, gratification

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.

If you would like to make adjustments to the work on your team or in your company that would boost effectiveness and work-life balance as the examples in this story, click the button below for details on our work-life balance and productivity programs. There is a better way.

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

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