Have you ever had one of those days when you get struck in traffic and arrive late for a meeting or appointment—even after allotting twice the amount of time it should take you to arrive at your destination?
Me too. I don’t know what it’s like in your city, but in mine, I come across someone complaining about traffic at least every other day.
So let’s face it, commuting is stressful—and it probably adds to your work stress regularly as much as actual project-based stress. According to a Road Wage Survey, 48% of individuals reported that commuting significantly affects their job satisfaction, 32% indicated that they took the commute into consideration when they took their current job, and 11% noted that it has a negative effect on their ability to maintain work-life balance.
As you might imagine, research has shown that when you’re in the midst of traffic, you may experience negative outcomes in your personal life, including the onset of aggression, negative mood, and increased blood pressure and heart rate. However, even after you’ve left your car and gone into the office (or wherever you’re going) the effects may spill over. One study found that individuals who reported having a stressful commute and were given a difficult puzzle task to complete shortly after, showed worse performance on a follow-up task of moderate difficulty when compared to a group of individuals who had performed an easy task after their commute. In addition, those who reported being in a negative mood performed particularly poorly. This suggests that (1) the mental state you are in following your commute matters and (2) your level of effectiveness can be dependent on the type of tasks in which you engage once when you get out of traffic.
And, lest you think that you are immune to commute-related stress because yours doesn’t involve a car, a study of morning rush hour train commuters suggests this is not the case. In that study, participants who perceived their commutes as unpredictable experienced greater stress and higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) during the ride. An additional study found that the longer the train commute, the more likely the individual was to be stressed at the end.
Given the potential spillover effects (not to mention the fact that a stressful commute just doesn’t feel good while you’re going through it), it would seem prudent to put some thought into how to lessen the potential harm that your commute can cause. Here are some suggestions.
1. Be so cautious about timing that it seems impractical.
While it’s obvious that timing your trip is important, I am including it because I have worked with a number of clients who can be pretty unrealistic about the nature of traffic, and choose not to allot any extra time in case something goes awry with their travel plans. For everyone, unpredictability is stressful.
That’s why I recommend you give yourself more extra time than you even think you’ll need. Try being unrealistic about traffic in a different way, assuming that it will always be extreme. That way, if you do end up getting delayed for some unforeseen reason, you will experience less anxiety than you would have if you hadn’t planned accordingly. And, if nothing unexpected happens and you get where you’re going with time to spare, you’ll have a chance to decompress, get centered, chat with colleagues, and put yourself in a more positive state of mind.
2. Plan the course of your day with your commute in mind.
While you may not have complete control with regards to your schedule, the research cited earlier in this article suggests that if you’re feeling stressed from your commute, diving headlong into complex work might not result in your best work. (Given that the task the participants in the study were asked to do was a relatively short one, it’s difficult to know how long this effect persists; however, it does give reason for pause). So, whenever possible, give yourself a chance to transition from commute mode to work mode and settle in before embarking on tasks that require a lot of mental energy.
3. Listen to your self-talk and adjust it accordingly.
If you were to take a random sample of drivers or train passengers on their way to work, you would likely find huge differences with respect to how stressed people felt. As renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In other words, even though you might be in the midst of congestion, the commute doesn’t have to stress you out. You could choose to fill your mind with stress-inducing thoughts such as, “This traffic sucks,” “This is taking too long,” and “Is that idiot even paying attention?” Or you could choose thoughts that provide you with some relief like “I’ve still got plenty of time,” (see suggestion #1) “Stressing out isn’t going to make traffic move any faster,” or “I’ll get there eventually.” My guess is you’ll feel arrive in a significantly better mood if you opt for the second set of thoughts.
4. Realize the legitimacy of commute-related stress, and manage your mood.
It might feel easy or perhaps even comforting to dismiss the stress your commute brings up as “no big deal,” or “just the way it is.” But it can actually be more comforting to recognize the extremeness of the anxiety that being stuck in traffic can bring up, especially when you’re unable to do anything and aware of your impending late arrival. Being realistic softens the edge, and will help you plan accordingly.
Make it so you can engage in activities that will make your commute more pleasant for you. Listen to music you enjoy; it’s been found to be helpful in reducing anxiety for people awaiting surgery, so it might just work for you in your car or train. Talk to a friend (as long as you’re not getting yourself worked up by venting about stressful things). Mindfully drive in silence while focusing on deep breathing, looking for beauty in your surroundings, or thinking about things for which you are grateful. I’ve worked with many clients who look forward to their commute as an opportunity to have some quiet time, chat with loved ones, or listen to audio books. Point is, you can empower yourself by engaging in behaviors that will make your travel time more pleasant.
While spending time traveling to and from work may not be your favorite time of the day, it doesn’t have to be the seemingly inevitable drain that it is for so many. So, pick out a few of these tips, try them out, and see if you are able to get your day off to a much more positive start.
Want some other research-based tips that will help you to be more effective in your work? Click here.
(In the first article in this two-part series, I outlined what the research says about workaholism, how to tell if you are indeed a workaholic, and the potential negative consequences of it. In this article, I tell you how to move beyond it).
One of my friends used to work for a busy corporate law firm. And, as you might expect, she frequently shared with me that she and her colleagues were often consumed by their jobs. They were devoted to keeping their clients happy, and as a result, they would travel across the country at the drop of a hat if needed, hold meetings or phone calls early in the morning or late in the evening to accommodate clients, and work on evenings or weekends to ensure that they were as responsive as possible. The firm set aggressive productivity goals for them, and as lifelong high achievers, they did their best to meet them by cramming their days with as much billable work as possible, working through lunch, rushing from meeting to meeting, and limiting down time (because “down” time wasn’t billable).
The combination of the environment calling for a great deal of work, along with individual personalities, caused many of them to become workaholics. As a result, they experienced some of the negative consequences associated with it including work-family conflict, health issues, and high stress levels.
If, you can relate to this, and after reading my first article, you recognize that you’re a workaholic, but you feel unsure about how to address it, here are some suggestions to gain more balance in your life.
1. Read the Research
Before you’ll be willing to experiment with any sort of change, you’ve got to be convinced that it’s a good idea. And, if you’re a workaholic, there’s probably a big part of you that believes that there are benefits to approaching your work the way that you do. Even though you’ve probably heard the negative effects of workaholism ad nauseam, you might believe that they’re all worth it, because you’re getting ahead. However, research shows that workaholism isn’t significantly relate to performance. So, while a strong work ethic is obviously key to performing at your best, if you’re a workaholic, there are diminishing returns for that excessive effort and focus on your job. You might also worry that if you cut yourself some slack and take breaks, your work will suffer. Again, the research doesn’t support this. Once you’ve convinced yourself (or at least opened yourself up to the possibility) that making some lifestyle changes is worthwhile and won’t cause your work to suffer, try out the next few tips.
2. Set Boundaries
To help you to scale back, set boundaries for yourself – and write them down. Set a cut-off time for leaving the office or shutting down your laptop at home. Don’t leave your smartphone on your nightstand (or bring it to the dinner table); instead, put it on the other side of the room, so that you’ll be less tempted to check in on work while you’re in your bed or having dinner with your loved ones. Setting boundaries is simply a form of goal-setting, so for your goals to be most effective, consider them set in stone, so that you don’t allow for any slippage. To up the ante, select an accountability partner who can help you to keep your commitments to yourself.
3. Challenge Your Thinking
Workaholism isn’t just working a lot; there’s also a cognitive component to it. It’s frequently associated with perfectionism, as well as obsessive thoughts about work when you’re engaging in leisure time. To cut back, you’ll need to learn to challenge your unhelpful thoughts, by taking a step back to evaluate the accuracy of them. Learn to become aware of times you are distorting your thoughts or thinking in an “all or nothing” sort of way.
Here are some examples:
Unhelpful Thought: “If I stop working now, my work is going to be crappy.”
Challenging Thought: “Research suggests that all of this work isn’t necessarily going to result in better performance. Besides, this particular task doesn’t have to be perfect. There’s a huge gulf between “good enough” and crappy.”
Unhelpful Thought: “I feel guilty when I’m not busy all the time. To get ahead, I have to work around the clock.”
Challenging Thought: “Life isn’t just about work, and it’s certainly not about being miserable all the time. Besides, I can think of all sorts of people who are successful, and who also have balanced and happy personal lives.”
4. Re-engage in other activities you enjoy
Make time for favorite hobbies that you might have let fall by the wayside. And, as you engage in your hobbies, strive to do so mindfully, by aiming to be present in the moment. If you find that you struggle to stay in the moment, then you might benefit from developing a mindfulness practice to help you to deal with your distracting thoughts. By broadening your horizons outside of work, you will likely find that you are better able to replenish in off-hours, helping you to manage stress, and in turn making you more effective when you do put your focus on your job.
5. Consider changing companies
As noted in my previous article, the environment and company culture can play a role in exacerbating some aspects of workaholism. Work cultures vary significantly, and so if you are working somewhere that has unreasonable demands that make it difficult to have the sort of lifestyle that you desire, then you might consider making a change. In her book The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware found that two common regrets were “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” and “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” Sometimes you just have to take a stand for yourself and move on.
6. Seek professional help
Because many workaholics value self-reliance, you might feel like you should be able to manage your workaholism and move on from it on your own. But, the reality is, we all need help sometimes. So, if you’re struggling, get the assistance you need.
As the legendary Dolly Parton said, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” Moving on from workaholism can be challenging, but you’ll likely find that once you address it, you’ll be much more satisfied with your life.
Recently, I worked with a client who I’ll call Bianca, who frequently describes herself as a workaholic. She is a self-employed entrepreneur who is absolutely passionate about her work. She happily works around the clock, dreaming up ideas, networking, marketing herself, and working on projects. She doesn’t have time for a significant other, and she’s completely fine with that. She “lives and breathes” her business, devoting around 70 hours a week on business-related activities – and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Compare Bianca to Rebecca, another former client. She also works long hours in her executive job – though at 60 hours a week, not as many as Bianca. She constantly obsesses about what she has to get done, and worries about keeping up with her workload. As a result, she has difficulty mentally detaching from the job when at home – even when she is relaxing, she feels that she “should” be working. Although she doesn’t call herself a workaholic, her boyfriend does – he complains that she always prioritizes work over her personal life.
Both of these women devote quite a big of time to work, so are they both workaholics? While many people might say “yes,” the reality is that the effects of Bianca and Rebecca’s devotion to their work are markedly different. As a result, the psychological literature would describe Bianca as being engaged with her work, whereas Rebecca would likely be considered a workaholic.
What is Workaholism?
In an American Psychological Association science brief, psychologist and researcher, Malissa Clark, describes workaholism as being characterized by three components:
- feeling internally compelled to work
- persistently thinking about work, even when involved in non-work activities, and
- working beyond what is reasonably expected of you, despite negative consequences as a result of doing so
The Negative Effects of Workaholism
As you might expect, having an all-consuming devotion to work is linked to a variety of undesirable outcomes. For example, workaholism is linked to work-family conflict, or having competing, and often conflicting demands in one’s professional and private spheres. In turn, work-family conflict can decrease satisfaction with one’s family, or even one’s life as a whole. After all, if your significant other or children are complaining that you’re not present enough at home, and you’re simultaneously feeling that you’re not living up to the demands of your job, it can be a pretty stressful and conflicted existence. Consequently, it’s not surprising that workaholism is also linked to burnout.
By definition workaholism makes it difficult to psychologically detach from work, and can interfere with the individual’s ability to recharge and recover from the job.
Aside from creating psychological challenges, workaholism has also been shown to have physical ramifications. For example, one study suggested that workaholics have increased susceptibility to sleep problems and heightened cardiovascular risk. Another study of workers in the United States, Australia, and Europe found that individuals who worked 55 or more hours per week were more likely to develop heart disease or suffer from a stroke than those who worked 35-40 hours per week.
If, on the other hand, you’re simply highly engaged with your work, and work a lot because you’re passionate about what you do, you’re unlikely to suffer many of the negative consequences that we usually associate with workaholism. For example, researchers found that employees who rated themselves high on work enjoyment showed less work-family conflict, and greater life satisfaction and job satisfaction. Another study of 1246 Dutch employees found that although individuals who were categorized as “engaged workaholics” worked more hours than workaholics or engaged employees, they did not experience the highest levels of burnout. As a result, the researchers suggested that being engaged with your work can act as a buffer against the undesirable effects of workaholism.
While simply having a demanding job can definitely contribute to working excessively, and the associated issues with work-family conflict, personality factors also play an important role in actually being a workaholic. For instance, in one study, researchers found that having a high workload contributed to work-family conflict. However, this relationship was fully mediated by excessive work. In other words, having a job that demands a lot of you makes you work a lot so that you can keep up or stay ahead of what might come. And, the fact that you are working a lot, creates issues with the important people in your life. Still, the research showed that workload in and of itself was not significantly related to persistent thoughts about work.
The bottom line? While your job can trigger excessive work and create issues for your personal life, you likely aren’t a “workaholic” unless you are also feeling bad about it, feel you should be working when you aren’t, and are plagued with thoughts of work.
But Workaholism is Necessary to Get Ahead on the Job…Right?
If you are having negative consequences as a result of workaholism, and you’ve convinced yourself that it’s worth it because you’re being more productive, research suggests that you’re likely fooling yourself, because workaholism hasn’t been found to be significantly related to performance. In other words, even though you’re devoted to your work and spending a lot of time engaged in it, you may not be any more effective than you would be if you were taking breaks and leading a more balanced existence.
If you’re seeing too much of yourself in this article and realize that you should do something about it, then stay tuned for the second part of this series, in which I’ll lay out an action plan so that you can develop a healthier relationship to your job.
Want to learn some research-based ways to get ahead in your career (that don’t require workaholism)? Get my free Checklist for Success with 40 Ways to Get Ahead in Your Career. Click here to get it!
“We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible,” the physicist Richard Feynman once wrote. “Because only in that way can we find progress.” Feynman was referring to the nature of scientific inquiry—the debunking of hypotheses through which we attain knowledge of the world around us. But his willingness to learn from his mistakes is as useful in the office as it is in the laboratory.
As a corporate psychologist and consultant, I often meet high-potential employees who either feel that they aren’t receiving the workplace criticism they need, or that they are unsure of how to meet criticism when they are exposed to it. They aren’t alone: it’s rare that we encounter a model of constructive criticism that feels productive, healthy, and satisfying.
In The Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman describe research they conducted in which 72% of participants felt that their performance at work would improve if they received constructive criticism. In fact, 57% said they preferred corrective feedback to praise.
But in my experience, even people who say they want constructive criticism often have a love-hate relationship with it: sure, most of us would appreciate specific insights to know how we’re doing—and yet negative interactions with a boss can lead to rationalizations, beating ourselves up, or even dismissing the advice entirely. (It’s worth noting that in Zenger and Folkman’s research, almost half of respondents reported that constructive criticism wasn’t their preference, even as a majority recognized that it would improve their performance.)
Overcoming such obstacles to self-improvement can be one of the corporate world’s great challenges. So how can you empower yourself to reduce these negative reactions? Is this sort of suffering the inevitable cost of growth in a high-pressure work environment?
I don’t think so. Even as studies affirm the difficulty of embracing challenging feedback, cultivating greater mindfulness can help you address the emotional and even physiological consequences of criticism, while also shaping a mindset of self-growth.
Intuitively, we all know that focusing on shortcomings is the key to true mastery of a subject or task. This sort of logic explains why, for example, my childhood piano teacher instructed me to spend most of my time practicing music that I found “hard.” (I certainly don’t claim to be a virtuoso, but I did win a lot of competitions as a kid.)
A similar idea is encapsulated in the work of the psychologist Anders Ericsson, who helped inspire the “10,000-hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell; it’s not just 10,000 hours of practice that makes a person improve, Ericsson has observed, but 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. To practice deliberately, you need well-defined goals, and ideally a teacher—or boss, or mentor of some kind—to help you with the fine-tuning by providing criticism.
It can also be helpful to understand why we can often have negative reactions to critical feedback. In the paper “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” Roy Baumeister and his co-authors cite numerous articles that show how people process “bad” information more thoroughly than “good” information—an ability that, from an evolutionary perspective, serves the adaptive purpose of enabling us to quickly identify threats in our environment. To miss dangerous information historically meant you might not live very long; if you missed something positive, you might have regretted it, but you’d still pass on your DNA. Baumeister also cites research that suggests people can be more motivated by minimizing the bad feedback they receive than by maximizing the amount of good feedback. This sort of phenomenon helps explain why negative interactions with a boss, research shows, can affect employees’ moods five times more than positive interactions.
One way to avoid this sort of downward spiral is to identify and address the immediate physiological consequences of such an interaction — a shift that can be achieved through greater mindfulness. Many people experience visceral, physical discomfort in response to negative feedback: an increased heart rate, say, or a tensing of the muscles. Breathing deeply and focusing on your body can relax you, putting you in a better position to take in difficult feedback calmly and productively (in part by activating the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is associated with problem-solving, rather the threat-oriented amygdala).
When you receive criticism, mindfulness can also be the key to cultivating healthier, growth-oriented thought patterns. In addition to helping you manage your emotions in the moment, taking a step back to observe your mental processes can help you avoid needless self-doubt and negativity. Are you falling prey to cognitive distortions? Try to frame the interaction with your boss differently — as I did with my piano teacher, knowing that the feedback was designed to help me grow, even if it could sometimes be hard to hear.
Research attests to the importance of this sort of shift. Keith Renshaw and co-authors, for instance, have differentiated between hostile and non-hostile criticism; if you tend to see criticism as hostile, it can be helpful to focus on the benefits you can derive from it. Once you’ve been able to settle down any emotional reaction you had in response to how it was delivered, strive to examine it for any useful content.
“True intuitive expertise,” the Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman once wrote, “is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.” Even if you want feedback, the real learning comes from being able to mindfully listen to it and apply it — from seeing it not as negative but as good.
Want to see how mindful you are? Take my quiz here.
Have you ever set aside a block in your calendar to be creative—whether to pitch that TED talk you’ve been meaning to do, or start the recipe blog you bought the domain name for last fall?
If so, how did it work out?
I have found that attempting to plan the rhythm of my creativity always shoots me in the foot. The mornings I have deliberately “reserved” as time for to come up with great ideas inevitably become windows for busy work like writing emails or sending invoices.
To be sure, it’s certainly not impossible to schedule creativity (after all, research studies on creativity often require their participants to be creative on demand). But for most of us, it’s easier for the brain to motivate to do laundry when G-cal pings, “LAUNDRY NIGHT” than it is to brainstorm book ideas on command.
Now let me ask you this: have you ever come up with a fantastic idea when you weren’t trying to do so?
Well, moments of inspiration have often come to me when I’m making coffee, taking a shower, or while driving in silence. My mind is seemingly focused on some random topic like reminding myself to go to the bank or pondering what I’ll eat for dinner. Then, all of a sudden, the important insight I had been waiting to come up with for weeks arrives.
Although many of us may have experienced this phenomenon, we tend not to see it as evidence that sometimes our creative brains just need a break.
In my work as a leadership consultant and coach to executives, I repeatedly come across individuals (and groups) who are impatient with the process of problem-solving. In their states of tunnel-vision and desire for quick results, they actually undermine their ability to reach the best possible solutions. The forgotten byproduct of hyper-focus is the fact that, when we are setting our sights on a singular thing, we can’t see anything outside of our frame of vision.
The good news is that there are ways we can proactively help our brains be creative by giving them a little siesta from time to time. These three modes of “slacking off” can counterintuitively help you cultivate more creativity—on and off the job.
1. Procrastinate. Yes, you read that right.
Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Never put off for tomorrow what you can do today.” And undoubtedly, his is an inarguable strategy to be successful in those times you just need to check items off of your “to do list.” However, the “get it all done ASAP” attitude is likely less effective for the creative process. Creativity needs the natural rhythm of starts and stops in order to reach full fruition.
In his book Originals, Wharton professor Adam Grant reviewed research suggesting that the more ideas you generate, the more creative they are likely to be as you continue to amass more and more.
A related takeaway is that if you come to a conclusion too quickly, you cut off the process of mass-idea-generation before you might have a chance to get to the really innovative ideas. To guard against this, Grant recommends “strategic procrastination.” Specifically, he suggests purposefully stopping while in the midst of generating ideas or brainstorming in order to get perspective. This gives ideas a “chance to incubate.”
Of course, this method only works if you are motivated to solve the problem; if you aren’t interested and are just putting it off until later, then it actually puts you behind. It may sound counterintuitive, but the value of engineering a greater perspective for yourself will serve the quality of your ideas in the long-run.
2. Don’t stop your mind from wandering (and you may even want to plan some daydreaming).
A close cousin to procrastination is daydreaming. In their article “The Costs and Benefits of Mind-Wandering” Benjamin Mooneyham and Jonathan Schooler review research suggesting that mind-wandering can be helpful for creative problem solving, even though it’s been shown to harm performance in a variety of areas (e.g. tasks required sustained attention, comprehension).
In a study out of UC Santa Barbara, researchers required four groups of subjects to complete a task in which they were given two minutes to come up with as many uses as they could for everyday objects. Then, three of the groups were given a 12-minute break. During that time, one group rested, another engaged in a demanding task, and a third group engaged in a mundane task that encouraged mind-wandering. The fourth group was not given a break at all. The researchers found that the subjects who had been in the mind-wandering group performed 41% better on the ones they had done before the second time around. There was no change in the other three groups.
It may seem artificial to try and engineer time specifically for daydreaming during your workday, but there are ways to do it. Plan time to go for a walk, to buy your lunch a little bit farther than usual, to stretch for 10 minutes as a break. The key factor is that you’re not hyper-focused or doing anything mentally-taxing. When you return to the given task, you might just find that your creative juices are flowing.
3. Recall the wisdom of your parents, and sleep on it.
Do you ever wake up for work after not getting enough sleep and feel like you literally can’t function? Well, you’re partially right: sleep-deprivation significantly debilitates both our mental and physical functioning.
By contrast, do you ever feel like after a good night’s sleep, you have perspective on something you experienced the day before that you wouldn’t have had otherwise? That question may summon the age old adage your parents probably gave you when dealing with a tough situation: “sleep on it.” Well, they were right: sleep is not only necessary for brain and body function, but it may also facilitate insight.
In a small study, a group of individuals who went 32 hours without sleep were compared to a control group who slept normally. The researchers found that the sleep-deprived group showed less creative flexibility and originality when compared to controls.
In another study, subjects were given a task that was designed so that researchers were able to determine training period in which they were presented with number sequences that they had to transform by changing one digit at a time based on two rules. However, if they had an insight while completing the task, they would discover a “hidden” rule that would enable them to solve the problem immediately— instead of gradually. Thus, the design of this study allowed the researchers to ascertain the exact moment that each person had a “eureka” moment.
After the initial training, subjects either spent the next eight hours awake or asleep. The researchers found that those who had slept on it were more than twice as likely to have the hidden rule insight than those who had been awake. The researchers concluded that sleep may be a tool for facilitating insight, in addition to a necessary bodily function. So, if you need to come up with a solution to a problem, you might give “sleeping on it” a try.
It’s definitely important to have all of the facts and relevant information at hand when you need to be creative. But when you put too much thought into it, you don’t give your brain a chance to settle, consolidate the information, and put it together in new ways. So give yourself permission to “slack off,” so that you can be more likely to gain insights and inspirations.
Did you know that mindfulness can also improve creativity? Find out more here.