WORK LIFE BALANCE. IT’S NOT WORKING.

Work Life Balance. It’s Not Working.

WORK LIFE PERFORMANCE

BECAUSE WORK LIFE BALANCE ISN’T WORKING

Work Life Balance. It’s Not Working.

Every year people make the bold assertion that things will be different. They say “I work too hard. I never make time for me or for the things that really matter.” But rarely are things different.

While 72% of people rate work-life balance as the most important attribute of a new job – above salary (70%) and flexible working (65%), we are still not getting it right.

In OECD countries, Australia ranks in the bottom 15% scoring just 5.4 out of 10.

This lack of work life balance is not only affecting employees, it is also hurting business. Stress is affecting 73% of employees in Australia and these people are 2.5 times more likely to be looking for a new job. On top of this, flow on effects like poor health and lack of sleep are costing businesses over $2bn a year in lost productivity.

 

Who’s at Fault?

If you ask employees, it’s the employers' job to provide them with work life balance. A staggering 81% said they believe their work life balance is completely in the control of their employer – whether the responsibility lay with the organisation at large or their immediate manager.

Employers are doing more and more to help with work life balance. Mostly, they understand the risks and rewards.

After all, far from having a negative impact on work, research from EY suggests that:

  1. People with work life balance are 2.5 times more productive, and
  2. People without work life balance spend only 50% of their time on high impact tasks

But sometimes the employees need the skills to manage themselves and their own work life balance a bit better.

 

It’s Not You. It’s Your Hardwiring

Unfortunately, work primes us to pay attention. It has all the hallmarks that appeal to our hardwiring – rewards, accountability, urgency and short time frames. For the areas of life outside of our work, these ‘triggers’ rarely exist. The bottom line is that they get neglected.

But on the following pages, we present you with some simple, counterintuitive lessons to take control of your work life balance. They’re not your everyday recommendations like ‘exercise every day’ or ‘have one date night with your spouse every week’ or ‘schedule time in your diary for you.’ You all know those things and they’re clearly not working.

Instead, these are lessons in controlling your attention. They are about how you manage yourself and your day so that you can focus on the things that matter and stop wasting time being sucked into things that seem important (or urgent) on the surface, but which take away from your balance.

And for your high achievers, these lessons not only help with balance, but improve productivity dramatically.

 

The Lessons:

1. Do Less Not More

To achieve balance requires us to focus our attention on the things that really matter. It’s about understanding what’s most important. In the 21st Century we are consumed by doing more and more - but with more on our plate, our hardwiring encourages us to ‘tick off’ small, seemingly urgent things rather than devoting energy to the things that really count.

 

2. Focus Instead of Multitasking

Multitasking is applauded in much of our society, but the reality is that multitasking and being distracted stops us from achieving balance. We become very reactive, instead of proactively focussing on doing things that are high value. And it doesn’t matter if that involves shutting out distractions at work or shutting out work while you’re trying to spend quality time with your family and friends, we need to train this level of focus.

 

3. Slow Down To Go Faster

Whether you understand it at the time, or not, your Emotional Brain will push you into Autopilot behaviours and thinking. It doesn’t have to be this way. When we learn techniques for slowing down in times of stress we stop being so reactive, we get better sleep and we can control our emotions and behaviours a lot better.

 

4. Increase Stress to Avoid Stress

Procrastination, daydreaming, working below our capacity. These things all lead to stress later on. Learning to ‘fool’ your hardwiring into switching into the Performance Zone is critical: the majority of our important goals don’t seem urgent today because their reward - or their pay off - is too far in the future. Being more productive when you don’t actually need to be helped stay on top of everything.

Lesson 1:
DO LESS. NOT MORE

 

THE PROBLEM

Its Friday. You finish another crazy week where things seemed to spin out of control again. There just seems like so much to do: dealing with staff, putting out fires, more urgent work, kids and family. You feel like youre struggling just to keep your head above water.

This week is like every week since the start of the year. You barely have any time to breathe and on the odd occasion that you do, you just want to sit back and take a break. You need a break. Now is one of those times. But instead of taking a break, its 9pm on a Thursday night and you are answering the emails that have been clogging up your inbox for a week and doing those bits and pieces that you forgot about because you were so busy doing other bits and pieces. Hardly a break.

In clearing out your inbox, you see an email from yourself, dated January 16th - the day you got back from Christmas break. Four months ago. On it is a list of things: Coach and Mentor Staff, Streamline the Sales Process, Improve Reporting and Tracking, Take one Thinking Day every month.

They are the things you promised yourself you would do this year. None of them are close to being finished, some havent even started.

You go to bed exhausted but unsatisfied. When your head hits the pillow, you start to think of all the other things that are off track. You vowed this year to get healthier, spend more time with your kids, have a date night with your spouse once a month. All of those are completely off track as well. In fact - nothing is really on track. The things you do every day just keep you in the same position. Youre spinning your wheels. How did this happen?

Monday morning, you wake up and the process starts all over again.

When was the last time you got to the end of the week and felt youd made significant progress toward the things that are really important to you? For most people, this feeling is pretty elusive. We get to the end of the week exhausted, but usually, were exhausted from merely spinning our wheels instead of going forward. Or we get to the end of the year and the things we said we would change, the progress we envisioned in January, hasnt materialised.

 

 

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WHY IT HAPPENS

‘Your Best’ Isn’t Enough

We’re all doing our best. And for a lot of people - that’s the problem.

Over the course of many years, researchers have set out to determine if just ‘doing your best’ is worthwhile.

Their experiments usually go like this:

  1. Pick a task - let’s say it’s processing forms on a computer screen.
  2. Give one group a target to hit - let’s say 30 forms an hour.
  3. Take a second group, don’t set them a goal. Instead, tell them to just ‘do their best.’

What happens? The group with the 30 forms an hour goal performs better every time. Even if the target is set low, the group with the goal performs better. They don’t seem to slack off once they’ve hit their target - they use it for fuel to keep out-performing.

Think about the areas where you really need to be at your best - important parts of your work, your health, your home life, family and friends; if you’re like most people, then just 'doing your best' probably isn’t working for you.

 

Clarity - The Key Foundation of Balance

Everybody is wishing there were more hours in the day. But there’s not. And this problem leads us to a realisation: some things dont get done.

Every hour of every day, we make decisions about what to do and what not to do. We no longer just choose a task or behaviour; we prioritise those tasks and behaviours. We choose to do one thing at the expense of doing another. And this is where Clarity becomes so important. Without Clarity, we tend to do the next thing that seems most important, instead of the thing that is actually most important.

Be honest. How many times have you gotten to the end of the week, and thought: Wow, Ive worked so long and so hard, but I dont really feel like Ive made any real progress

Productivity is no longer a function of how long we spend doing anything. It is not a function of the amount of time we sit at our desk, or the amount of time we spend with our kids or our family. Productivity has become a function of our ability to pay attention to the things that really matter and shut out the distraction for the things that don’t. When we do less, not more, we narrow our focus to the things that really matter. We pay attention to those things.

And all the research on performance shows us that to be really successful, we need to balance out three

Critical Areas:

The Three Critical Areas: Work, Home and Relationships, Self

The first is the Work Area. This is self-explanatory, we need to have a purpose at work and we need to feel like we achieve some success and make progress.

The second is the Home and Relationships Area. We need to have a purpose for who we want to be with our families and our friends so that we can keep this on track.

The third is called the Area of Self. This represents our own physical, mental and emotional well-being. It’s paramount to look after this if we want to perform in the other zones as well.

Now here’s the key question: Which is Most Important?

Most people will say either Home and Relationships or Self. But the truth is that each zone affects the others in a very real way and if we want to perform at our best in one zone, we need to try to maximize performance in the other zones as well.

 

Here’s why:

Our emotional brain is extremely sensitive – especially to negative events. And when our emotional hardwiring is ‘tripped’ we lose our ability to perform at our best. This is called Negative Affect.

Once triggered, our emotional brain stops us from doing our best thinking or being able to control our emotions and behaviours. It sends us to reactive, auto-pilot behaviours instead of deliberate, goal-focussed behaviours.

We understand the high-level emotions pretty well. We know that if work is terrible it will affect our Home and Relationships and Self. We know that if our relationships are falling down, it will affect our Self and Work Areas heavily. But Negative Affect tells us that even small amounts of emotion affect us as well.


So, think about this:

When we neglect Work, we might get anxious or feel under a lot of pressure, when we neglect Home and Relationships we might feel guilty and when we neglect the Self zone we might feel low self-esteem or high levels of stress. All these negative emotions mean that it is incredibly difficult to get into the performance zone, and while the negative emotion might be tied to one area, say work, the emotional distraction continues in the other areas as well, making it hard for us to perform in any zone.

Low performance in one zone will eventually lead to low performance in the other zones.

Which Critical Area is most important? Well, in reality, they are all equal. If we neglect one, then another one will also suffer. When we do less, not more, we still need to make sure that we are paying attention to all three areas.

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

What we need to do is pretty simple. But it takes some reflection, some thinking time, and sometimes some self-realisation.

1. Build Solid MIT’s (Most Important Things) in the Three Critical Areas

This seems like a really simple exercise, but most people actually find it quite hard. We need to create clarity, by setting our Most Important Things in each of the three Critical Areas. The hardest part is that you are only allowed to pick one MIT in each area. if you focus on more than this, things don’t get done, and it becomes hard to prioritise. If you are going to commit to do less, not more, this is where it all starts.


Area One: ‘Work’

This seems like a really simple exercise, but most people actually find it quite hard. We need to create clarity, by setting our Most Important Things in each of the three Critical Areas. The hardest part is that you are only allowed to pick one MIT in each area. if you focus on more than this, things don’t get done, and it becomes hard to prioritise. If you are going to commit to do less, not more, this is where it all starts.


Area Two: ‘Home and Relationships’

I think one of the big reasons we never set ‘goals’ in this area is because they sound fluffy and immeasurable. Don’t worry about these things - we’ll deal with that later. You might want to be a great dad, get back in touch with some friends, or be a better role model for your family or community. Maybe you’ve been working so hard you’ve lost touch with some relationships or maybe you just squeeze your home and relationships area in between everything else and you’d like to improve the quality of the time you spend with those you love.

Some questions to get you thinking:

  • Are any relationships being neglected?
  • What would I like my relationships to be like in five years’ time, and what do I need to start doing about it?

 

Area Three: ‘Self’

What are the things that you personally want to achieve? Do you want to complete some study or focus on your health and fitness? These are the personal endeavours that you want to undertake. They should include things like you own physical, mental, emotional health, self-esteem, personal goals.

For now, find some time, some inspiration and a blank sheet of paper and go ahead and think about what these MIT’s might be for you. I think you will find that just creating this clarity will have an enormous impact on the ways you choose to spend your time over the coming weeks.

Make no mistake. This is a hard exercise. It’s easy to pick 8 things in each area that are important but narrowing it down to the things that really matter is critical. If you want balance, then this is where it starts. Do less, not more.

 

 

Lesson 2:
INCREASE STRESS. TO AVOID STRESS

 

THE PROBLEM

You know those days:

You wake up in the morning and you are completely overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do that day. As soon as you wake up, the enormity of the day hits you. Your eyes open and you think: Man. I have SO much to do today!

Maybe you get up and get showered, throw down some breakfast. Tell your spouse about how ridiculously busy your day is going to be. And youre so anxious that you think you had better get into the office early and get a head start on things.

So, you drive to the office. Youre so early you miss peak hour, which is a bonus. You sit at your desk and check the clock: 7.20am. Youre feeling really good about being in early. You feel productive just being there before anyone else.

Fast forward to 10am, and youve managed to:

  1. Clean your desk
  1. Answer a bunch of email
  1. Do some research on the best restaurants at your upcoming holiday destination

 

This might be a bit exaggerated, but everyone has done something like this. Things seem so urgent, we get overwhelmed with what we have to do and then we get sidetracked by completely meaningless, busy work instead of doing the things that we really should be doing.

 

Why do we do this?

For some reason we seem determined to make our lives more stressful down the track. To let ourselves down by doing something easy or comfortable right now instead doing something that might be more difficult but will save us some stress down the track. And the result is that the project we need to complete doesn’t get the attention it needs, or we have to pull some 15-hour days and pile on a year’s worth of stress in two weeks in order to hit that deadline that we have been sitting on for the past few months.

These are often the things that have long deadlines. They lack urgency until the deadline gets closer or someone voices their disapproval. So, we get sidetracked by easy things.

 

 

WHY IT HAPPENS

Attention is our new currency

You see, attention is one of the most important things we can build to be as productive as possible. It might even be THE most important thing. Think about it. Our productivity is a direct result of the things we pay attention to, and just as importantly, the things that we don’t pay attention to.

So many things are fighting for our attention. The television, our smart phones, our email inboxes, our kids, our spouse, our manager, our staff, our clients, our desire to find something out on Google, our social media accounts. When we procrastinate, we allow things to get our attention that don’t really help us in the long run. One of the biggest elements of balance is keeping our attention on the important things. A lack of self-control allows us to procrastinate and switch our attention to those less important things.

Procrastination is about picking an easier thing. Either because the other thing is hard or maybe just boring. When we need to get started on a project, we procrastinate not only because the deadline is so far in the future, but sometimes because the project is complex and overwhelming. Those easy things seem so much more attractive.

When we are faced with doing boring, mundane tasks that we don’t see as important, but which need to get done, we procrastinate because we’d rather do something more enjoyable.

 

Procrastination reinforces itself

Think about the physical and mental effect of procrastinating. Not later on - when you feel guilty, or remorseful. But think about the physical and mental effect at the precise moment that you decide to procrastinate.

Whether you know it or not, you face an internal struggle. You are thinking I really need to get started on this project or this task but its boring. Or, but its difficult and I dont know where to start. Or - I just cant get motivated. Or - Ive got ages until its due, do I really need to get started right now?

And this continues for a little while. You know you should get started, but the internal conversation you don’t hear is the other side, saying Well, you could actually just do something else thats easy, or more enjoyable, or something that seems urgent right now (even if its actually not).

So, you decide to do something easy, or enjoyable, or comfortable.

And your body and brain react in a way that might surprise you: it gives you a reward.

That’s right - in the moment you decide to procrastinate, there is this internal sense of relief. It’s like your brain says: Yes! I am so glad I dont have to do that hard thing! It feels good. And you get rewarded with a little shot of dopamine – our feel-good chemical.

And here we see the real reason procrastination is so prolific in the 21st Century. You don’t have to be an expert in behaviour to realise that positive reinforcement creates repeatable habits. So, since procrastination is always internally rewarded - whether we like it or not - the result is that procrastination becomes an embedded behaviour.

Also, in the 21st Century, we procrastinate by doing other things that give us a reward - something fun, something interesting, connecting on social media, seeing how many ‘likes’ our post got…. and this provides yet another reward every time we procrastinate.

 

People with Balance are More Productive

But as Ernst and Young have found in their studies on productivity in Australia, you procrastinate less when we have work life balance. Why? Think about these scenarios:

  1. It’s 3pm and I have urgent work to do, and I need to be out of the office by 5pm to pick my kids up from soccer. Or,
  2. It’s 3pm and I have urgent work to do, and it doesn’t matter what time I leave the office - I can stay until 7.30pm if that suits me.

Now, in which of these situations do you think you’ll be more productive? Which creates the most urgency? Is it any wonder that productivity research in Australia shows that people without work-life balance spend only about 50% of their time on high value tasks. Without any deadlines - with all the time in the world - we tend to get distracted by easy, low-value things.

 

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

Unmotivated? Trick Your Brain into the Performance Zone

Many situations and tasks cause us to procrastinate when we shouldn’t. When you’ve got a deadline in a few weeks but can’t get going on that project. Or there are mundane things to do like the housework or some banal administrative tasks.

If we think about this compared to when we’re productive, we see some pretty distinct comparisons: when we are productive, there is an increase in stress, an increase in performance chemicals (dopamine and adrenaline), and we switch on the focussed part of our brain, instead of the auto-pilot.

 

Increase Stress - Timer Strategy

This is the only time you are going to hear someone telling you that you need more stress. But when we’re stuck procrastinating, this is exactly what we need. We don’t have enough urgency to get started on the task, so we procrastinate or choose something that’s comfortable, fun, or enjoyable over the thing we should be doing.

A simple way to increase stress is to set a short deadline on the task. Get a timer - this could be an egg timer or a digital countdown on your desktop - and set it for the time you have allocated to the task. Be clear about the tasks you want to complete in this block of time - it might be a list of things you want to get done, or it might be one particular element of a larger project - but set a realistic goal of what you can achieve.

Now start the countdown and get working.

You will find that this small amount of self-imposed urgency increases stress just enough to get you into the Performance Zone. If you practice this enough, you will find that you get halfway through and start thinking, “Wow. I need to get moving if I’m going to finish this.”

If you’re really struggling to get started, make it just a 30-minute block. This is really achievable, and you might find that you build enough momentum to keep going for another 30 minutes after that. You see, once we start doing something, it becomes easier to keep doing that thing than to change. Build momentum.

 

Reward being proactive

This is a biggie. If procrastination is constantly reinforced and rewarded, then it’s going to become your go-to behaviour.

Now that we know that we get rewards for procrastination, we need to start getting rewards for being proactive instead. People often laugh at me when I mention this, but if you think about it, if I am constantly rewarded for procrastination, and never rewarded for being proactive, which of those behaviours is going to stick?

So, we need to find ways to reward being proactive. Even really small things can be interpreted as a reward - they don’t have to be huge. The easiest way to reward yourself is by doing the thing that you were going to procrastinate with.

Let’s say that you need to do some housework, but you find it boring, so you’re likely to procrastinate. Maybe you’d rather sit and read a magazine instead. An easy strategy is to decide that you will do one hour of housework and then sit and read that magazine. The magazine becomes the reward.

We have this opportunity regularly in the office. Often, when it’s time to start an important piece of work that we usually procrastinate on, we decide it’s really important to go and get a coffee before we start. Instead, maybe give yourself a goal of doing 30 minutes work on the project, and then going to get a coffee.

Sometimes just completing the task is its own reward. This might be especially true for exercise, which releases some endorphins. But simply crossing something off our to-do list or the satisfaction of making some progress can be a rewarding experience.

 

 

 

 

Lesson 3:

FOCUS INSTEAD OF MULTI TASKING


THE PROBLEM

Distractions have become so compelling for us. We say they’re usually ‘urgent but generally, we’re lying to ourselves. One of the clear signs that we are doing too much is that our attention is constantly stretched. We are trying to devote effort to so many things at once that no one thing is really getting our attention.

We spend our days being reactive and barely get time to be proactive. Consider these statistics:

  • We switch tasks every three minutes
  • Once we’re interrupted by an email, it takes on average 24 minutes to get back on track and get focused on the original task again
  • 28% of the average person’s day is taken up with distractions

In the moment, when we’re being distracted by email, by a query that takes us down another rabbit hole on the internet, by putting out fires at work, or by social media, we think the distraction is more urgent than whatever it’s interrupting. But later on, when we reflect, it looks like the ultimate weakness. We think: If only I have a bit more self-control I could have ignored those distractions and got more done today.

Being distracted is one of the ultimate contributors to our lack of balance. The most obvious is when we’re with our families and are distracted by work matters. But the flip side is that we get distracted by unimportant things at work that stops us from being more productive in the time we are.

 

 

WHY IT HAPPENS

Waiting For That Email? You’re Probably Missing Something

Distractions take up valuable attention and completely compromise our balance. If I give you an intelligence test and record your results, then give you an equivalent intelligence test in a room where there are ringing phones and pinging emails, your effective intelligence can drop by up to 8%. This is true even if you don’t have to respond to the phone or email.

When you use part of your brain to monitor for distractions, you leave less available to do the high-value things.

So let’s look at some common distractions in a different light now that we know a little something more about how our brains treat even the possibility of distractions:

When we are wondering if we are going to get an email, it stops us from doing important things with full attention, so they take longer and are less effective.

When we are waiting for a comment on our social media, we have less bandwidth to really focus on conversations with our kids, spouse or friends

We get distracted by the possibility of phone calls, so the day-to-day tasks take longer, leaving us little time to get to the big projects.

You see, the distraction doesn’t actually have to happen to compromise our attention. It just has to be a possibility of happening. You’ve probably experienced this if you have sat at the dinner table waiting on an important email, phone call or message and realised you have completely missed the last 30 minutes of conversation.

It’s yet another way that multitasking is not very effective.

Scanning for distractions signals that we are on high alert. Think about our four-million-year-old ancestors. If he or she was scanning for disruptions to their environment, then things were probably looking dangerous. They couldn’t be leisurely preparing dinner or reading cave paintings to their children. Being constantly on the look-out takes up all their attention, and rightly so. If there’s something dangerous out there, they needed to be alert.

In the 21st Century, these dangers are replaced by digital distractions: awaiting phone calls and emails, social media alerts. The bottom line is if I am on the look-out for something - whether consciously or just in the back of my mind - I have less bandwidth to focus my attention on the task at hand and do it with my full potential.

And yet other times, the distractions aren’t physical, but mental. Sometimes we get distracted by our own thoughts:

We think about the grocery list or the things that need to be done at work tomorrow, and we have little attention left to play with our kids.

Maybe you say it’s okay because you’re multitasking, and multitasking is a badge of honour in the 21st Century, right? Unfortunately for society, people love the concept of multitasking. And unfortunately for those people, multitasking is a myth.

 

But You’re Sure You Can Multitask? You Can’t.

Only a couple of years ago, a group of scientists decided to retest this ability - or inability - to multitask. Their rationale was pretty sound: humans are masters of adaptation, so it stands to reason that we should have started to adapt to multitasking by now.

So their experimental design was pretty simple. They would bring in a group of ‘Heavy Media Multitaskers’ who were mainly comprised of the younger generations and who had quite literally grown up in our multitasking world. They were masters at doing multiple things at once.

The second group would be what we can describe as ‘Single Taskers’. These people were more comfortable doing discrete tasks independent of one another and trying to stick to one simple thing at a time.

They put both groups through multitasking experiments. That is, they measured their performance on a Primary Task, while the participants were distracted by things around them as well as being asked to respond to other requests for their attention. The scientists measured the time taken to complete the Primary Task as well as the number of errors they encountered along the way.

The results were pretty clear. There was absolutely no difference between the two groups. To put it another way, the people who constantly multitask every day of their lives were in no way better than the group that never multitask. It reinforces what the physiology tells us - that we weren’t wired to multitask; even with practice, it can’t be done effectively.

However, there is a small piece of this research left to discover.

One other thing they measured during this experiment was how quickly and how readily the participants responded to the ‘distraction’ tasks. What they found was that the Heavy Multitaskers were distracted more often and more quickly than the Single Taskers.

This is interesting because it tells us that when we constantly multitask - or task-switch for a better term - we don’t train our ability to do two things at once. We actually train our propensity to be distracted. The more we multitask, the more we become distracted. And this is not a good thing for our balance.

 

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

Every Day Distractions

So, the science is pretty clear. When we're distracted - when we constantly attempt to multitask - we use valuable bandwidth that we could otherwise be using for things that really matter: working on projects, paying attention to our friends and family, or maybe just getting things done quicker so we can do more of them or we can move onto other things.

There are some basic things that we need to do really well in order to beat this hardwiring.

 

Mindset

Just approaching your day with the intention to work with full intensity, and single-task your way to success is a big start.

Just being aware that we get distracted, being aware of what it is that usually distracts you and being aware that multitasking is not your answer to getting things done puts you on the right path.

Work deliberately with the intent to get one single thing done.

 

Set Time Frames

Following from above, this is even more effective when you set time frames. Maybe start small, but set aside a period of time to get one single thing done without being distracted.

If you’re a distraction junkie, then having a definite ‘finish time’ that signals when you’re allowed to be distracted again is a huge help for our anxiety about missing something important.

 

Control Environment - Control Yourself.

Here is the key to controlling distractions. In fact, it is the key to exerting self-control, period. The simple rule is:

The best self-control is the self-control you don’t have to use! What does this mean?

It means that controlling your environment is a heck of a lot easier than controlling yourself. The simplest example is the one in the tip above: shut down your email program.

The reality is that it is easier to ignore distractions when the distractions aren’t in your face. When you here the email ping and see the little pop-up notification, it is harder to ignore the distraction than if you didn’t see those things at all.

Just like it is easier to resist eating ice-cream when it’s not even in your freezer, it is also easier to avoid distractions when they are out of your reach.

Make it as easy as possible to ignore those things that completely hijack your time and attention.

If you have trouble resisting the temptation to check your smartphone while you’re having dinner with the family, then turn it off and leave it in another room.

If you have trouble avoiding the call of your email at night, then leave your laptop at work or - at the very least - leave it in your car.

Controlling your environment is a lot easier than controlling yourself. Do anything you can to keep distractions at arms-length whenever you know you need to avoid them.

 

Set Aside Time For Email

The ping of a new email is like a rush of excitement for our physiology. It signals very clearly that there is a distraction you need to pay attention to. It gives us a shot of dopamine (maybe this is something good!), or maybe a shot of adrenalin (oh no… maybe this is a customer with a problem I need to solve!) or maybe a combination of both (this could be something funny or exciting that I’m missing out on!!).

If your role allows it, then make a simple change to your routine, and check your email at regular intervals. Maybe you do 30 minutes in the morning (right after you’ve spent time working on those MIT’s, of course), then another 30 minutes just before lunch and then another 30-minute block later in the afternoon.

When you can do this, not only do you spend more focus time on those tasks other than email, your email efficiency increases dramatically. In a way, you get focused time devoted to email - you get more done in less time, you make less mistakes and you build momentum.

And finally, the other thing you will find is that, if you only have 30 minutes, you will work at a greater intensity to get things cleared and out of the way, than if you decided that you had all day to answer email.

 

 

Lesson 4:

SLOW DOWN TO GO FASTER

THE PROBLEM

Something is nagging you. It’s been nagging for a while now. Or maybe it’s a few things. Maybe it’s the financial pressure you have or the constant deadlines at work. Or maybe it’s the feeling that you are always on the edge. Rushing from one thing to another. Another meeting, another kids’ appointment, another social event, another late night and another early start.

You start to see your behaviours change. You’re a bit erratic, you’re very reactive. You are getting frustrated and angry over small things. Things that usually don’t matter so much. It’s almost impossible to make healthy food choices and you don’t feel like exercising because you’re constantly tired. The fact that you’re not sleeping well isn’t helping things either.

Maybe what you’re feeling is stress.

If you feel your heart beating out of your chest when you’re sitting at your computer, or in the school pick-up line waiting for your kids, or at night when you’re lying in bed contemplating your life, then it’s definitely stress.

Not the short term, high intensity stress that you feel an hour out from a deadline, or when someone makes you angry, or when you are anxious. No - this is long-term, moderate stress. Though it doesn’t feel like it immediately, it is actually more debilitating than those high-level short-term emotions that send us over the edge. Because this type of stress sneaks up on you and gradually wears you down.

 

 

WHY IT HAPPENS

Now, believe it or not, stress comes from a good place. Our stress response is, quite simply, one of the most brilliant pieces of physiological hardwiring that was embedded millions of years ago.

The Stress Response is a survival mechanism left over from evolution. When we were in physical danger, millions of years ago, this response would flood our bodies and brains with energy, and release chemicals like adrenaline, to make sure we were able to run away or stand our ground and fight. In short, stress was actually designed to help our performance in these situations.

And this all went really, really well for our ancestors and their survival. Until something began to change.

And our development went a little too far.


An Imaginary Pack of Wolves

Think about this:

It’s been a really long day at work, and you’ve spent all of your time putting out fires for other people.

You’ve got a big presentation the next day, and you haven’t even been able to get it started.

So, you sit down at your desk at night and you start working away, but the more you try to put this presentation together, the harder it seems to get.

At some point, you decide that enough is enough and you are better off getting some sleep rather than slogging it out at the computer.

So, you go to bed. And all that really matters right now is getting some sleep. But it doesn’t happen. You toss and turn and start thinking if I dont get any sleep, this presentation is going to go horribly tomorrow. Your thoughts get the better of you, you start thinking oh no, theyve been making some redundancies, maybe thats whatll happen if this presentation doesnt go well.... how am I going to pay the mortgage...... Ive got school fees to pay.... All these things start unravelling in your mind.

Everyone has had a night like this. This is a uniquely human trait - to turn abstract thoughts into physical stress. We have evolved so that we can just think about a stressful situation and turn on the stress response.

Our ancestors never experienced long bouts of stress - in fact the stress response only needed to be active for about three to five minutes- after that, you were safe or you were on the dinner menu. But psychological stress makes it possible to take this response that is only meant to last for one to five minutes and turn it on for hours, days and weeks at a time.

What happens when we make this stress response last for longer?

When we’re under constant stress, even small things tip us over the edge - things that would usually be trivial. We don’t sleep, we get really hungry (or sometimes lose our appetite), we get easily frustrated, angered or upset and sometimes our immune system packs it in. But when you understand the mechanism of the stress response, this all starts to make sense.

 

Long-term stress: Great for Right Now. Horrible for Your Future

When we are under long term stress, we have prolonged periods of our lives when we try to do the following things:

  • Stay on high alert in case we’re in danger
  • Mobilise energy so we can run away or fight
  • Increase our appetite so that we can recover the energy we just used to fight or run away
  • Decrease our short-term memory so we can have more energy to devote to survival
  • Switch on our Auto Pilot so that we can save energy and react on instinct
  • Shut down the analytical part of our brain, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the Auto Pilot (therefore we find it hard to control emotions, exert self-control)
  • Stop sleeping as much just in case predators are still close by
  • Do anything else to preserve energy



WHAT YOU NEED TO DO

Fighting Long-Term Stress

So, we know that stress can have terrible health effects, but now we know that it can also stop us from doing our best work if it goes on for too long.

There are a few major ways we can beat stress: through physical strategies, or through mental strategies. Let’s tackle the physical strategies first, as most people find them to most obvious.

 

Physical Strategy #1 - Exercise

Why is this so effective?

Well, let’s consider that the entire purpose of the stress response is to prepare us for fight or flight. When we exercise, it actually puts this response to use. We can go for a run (flight) or even do a boxing class (fight), or any other things which allow the stress response to achieve its desired goal - to put us in a physically demanding situation. When we exercise, the chemicals that prepare us for physical stress don't just circulate in our bodies and brains looking for an outlet, now they actually have an outlet.

But exercise is only half the stress-reducing equation. Because, unfortunately, while exercise does some great things, it also does some not-so-great things.

It increases heart rate, blood pressure and adrenalin, and these are actually elements of the stress response that we are trying to reduce.

That's where the next factor comes in.

 

Physical Strategy #2 - The Relaxation Response

To really fight stress, we need to create what’s called the relaxation response. The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response - it involves decreasing heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. It also increases the calming chemicals so that they override our stress chemicals. Most importantly, it allows our brains to switch off and decrease activity. So, people opt for things like yoga, breathing exercises and meditation. There is actually some great science behind making this happen effectively.

In groups of stressed-out executives, studies have shown that as little as little as three sessions of 30 minutes a week learning how to meditate revealed some incredible changes in the brain’s structure.

Firstly, the part of the brain responsible for focused attention gets stronger. Secondly, the amygdala - the part of the emotional brain that responds to emotion- can start to get smaller and less reactive.

 

Mental Strategy #1 - Get Control

Control has a huge effect on the stress response.

In one study, participants sat in front of a computer screen and were told that they needed to process all the emails in their inbox within two hours. And if it wasn’t done in this time, they wouldn’t be paid for that day’s work.

As they started processing, more and more emails started to flood their inbox. The researchers measured their stress response - their heart rate, blood pressure and levels of stress chemicals - and they all shot through the roof.

Now a second set of subjects were put in exactly the same situation. They had to process the emails and there would be the same penalty if they failed. But there was one difference. This set of workers could use another button to control how often the emails landed in their inbox. To the researchers’ surprise, this tiny bit of control decreased the stress response dramatically.

One of the key elements that makes stress helpful instead of painful is a feeling of whether or not you can control that stress.

 

Here are some ways to get a feeling of control:

  • Creating a plan
  • Analysing and making lists
  • Focussing on the things that you can do, rather than the things you can’t control

And here’s the kicker - it doesn’t matter if you actually have control or not. Even the perception of control has exactly the same impact on our ability to process the stress response.

 

Mental Strategy #2 - Think Different

Although humans have the ability to create the stress response with mere thought, the good news is that the opposite is also true. When we can actually switch off the stress response with thoughts as well.

This is called re-framing. It simply means that we can take something negative and re-frame it in a positive light. You might be going through some change at work. There are bound to be some negative aspects to that but, I’m sure if you think long and hard about it, there are also some real positives as well. And the same is true of any situation.

Like anything else, we can get better at reframing with practice. Some people have a natural tendency to think the worst of any situation and this tends to switch on the stress response at the drop of a hat. But, with practice, we can change our natural reaction, re-frame the situation in a more positive light, and avoid the stress.

 

Small Things Often Trump Big Things Rarely

Managing stress so that we can perform at our best is not about the big, three-week overseas holiday. Or the month you go part-time because you are completely burnt out.

We need to focus on doing small things every day to manage stress effectively, rather than big things every now and then. When we do this, we are able to keep performing at our best day-to-day. We are able to make great decisions in those moments where we really need it, instead of spending (most likely) weeks or months at a time unaware that stress is affecting our daily choices, until it spill us over the edge.

 

 

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's
application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture
change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology
and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.

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