Lately it seems like we’re hearing a lot about how stressed people are at work. According to the International Labor Organization, workers in developing and developed countries across the world are feeling increased strain in the workplace.
I also hear a lot about on-the-job stress when I’m coaching my clients. And, unfortunately, when they talk about it, they often express a sense of helplessness and resignation. Although they recognize that they should do something about it, they often feel that they can’t do anything about it. Sure, they would love to go to yoga classes, get massages, or go on extended vacations, but they just don’t see how they can make the time to focus on self-care.
Can you relate? Here’s Where to Start
The reality is, stress from the workplace can come from a number of different sources. So, instead of attempting a one-size-fits-all approach to cope with it, begin by conducting a stress inventory. To do this, simply create an exhaustive (no pun intended) list of all of the things about your work that stress you out.
Then, beside each stressor, write down as many ideas as you can think of that could help you to deal with it. Don’t worry if you can’t do anything about some of them immediately (e.g. an irregular work schedule or lengthy commute). By attending to the stressors that you can address, you’ll be empowering yourself to take a stand for your well-being.
Need some help coming up with your list of stressors? Here are some of the common culprits, along with some ideas about what to do about them.
1. Heavy Workload
If you’re like many professionals, your main stressor is the sheer amount of work that you have to do. Between meetings, emails, projects, and other demands, it can feel like you’re swimming upstream to keep up with it all.
If you can relate to this, start by paying attention to how you use your time. Are you really managing it as effectively as you could?
When I ask them to track how they’re using their time, many of my clients are shocked to discover that they’re not actually as efficient as they think they are. In fact, one of the biggest threats to their productivity is their habit of constantly interrupting themselves to multi-task.
Here’s a common scenario: You start writing a report. A few minutes in, you notice an email notification. So, you open it, and begin responding. Mid-email, you remember that you need to pick up bananas at the grocery store, so you open your task list app to make a note of it. While you’re on your phone, you notice a text from your best friend. After finding the appropriate witty GIF to reply, you go back to your report.
Sound familiar at all?
Admittedly, some interruptions are unavoidable. However, by tightening up how you approach your work and how you manage your time, you can enhance your efficiency and get more done. So, develop your time management skills and, if you’re in a position in which you can do so, make sure you’re delegating enough, so that you can further manage your workload.
When you manage your time well, you’ll get your work done in less time. And, when you feel less overwhelmed, your stress level will decrease.
2. Conflict with Co-Workers
If, like most of us, you’re in a job in which you work with other people, you have plenty of opportunities for interpersonal conflict. Whether it’s a critical boss, a dismissive colleague, or peers who make unreasonable last minute demands, your relationships can easily contribute to your stress level.
If you’re someone who hates conflict, you might choose to stay silent about your concerns. However, while this may keep things calm on the surface, on the inside, you may be silently seething with resentment, gritting your teeth, and allowing your stress to eat away at you. A better solution? Commit to learning how to manage conflict and be appropriately assertive. Then, aim to have constructive conversations with the people around you. After all, if you’re not speaking up about your concerns, others may have no idea about what’s going on with you.
If, on the other hand, you’re someone who comes across as argumentative or aggressive, it’s possible that your style may be contributing to your interpersonal difficulties. To upgrade your interactions, develop your emotional intelligence, work on becoming a better listener, and place more of an emphasis on connecting with others. Your improved relationships will not only lessen your stress level, they’ll likely also make you a more effective worker.
3. Your Values Are a Mismatch to Your Company’s Values
You’re competitive and ambitious, but your department is all about collaboration. Or, perhaps you’re motivated by the impact your actions have on society, but your organization is primarily focused on financial gain. If your values are in conflict with the culture of your workplace, you could be fighting an uphill battle.
If you find yourself experiencing this sort of mismatch, start by brainstorming ways to exercise more of your values in the workplace. For example, if giving back is important to you, see if you can get a group of people together to engage in volunteer work. Or, if connecting with others is one of your core values, be intentional about socializing with your colleagues. These sorts of actions can help you to bring a sense of meaning back to your job, and might lessen your stress levels.
However, keep in mind that research shows that if there is too much of a misalignment between your personal values and that of your organization, your risk for burnout increases. Therefore, if there’s too much of a mismatch, you might want to look for work at an organization that’s a better cultural fit for you.
4. You Don’t Have Enough Autonomy
Studies have shown that a lack of autonomy, or not having control over decisions that affect your job, is a leading source of work stress that can affect everything from your job satisfaction to your health. If you feel that you have inadequate autonomy in your job, consider talking your boss about ways that you might be able to have more say at work.
Perhaps you could lead an initiative that’s of interest to you. Perhaps you could influence changes in processes that affect your day-to-day work. Or, perhaps you could talk your boss into allowing you to telecommute every so often. While you’ll obviously need to take the nature of your job into account, there are likely ways that you can have more influence over your work environment. And, with a greater sense of control, your sense of well-being may just increase.
5. You Don’t Give Yourself a Chance to Disconnect
Many clients that I work with talk about how email and mobile devices are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they give you more flexibility so that, theoretically, you can work wherever and whenever you want. However, because you’re always accessible, your employer may have higher expectations about how available you should be at all times. As a result, digital devices can become a major stressor that can interfere with your ability to disconnect and recharge outside of work.
Although there are some fields in which you may need to be on-call at all times, for most of us, that isn’t a necessity. Therefore, if you are stressed out by being available around the clock, experiment by setting some limits for yourself. Commit to stop checking work emails after a certain time each day. Don’t sleep with your phone next to your bed. Consider having a conversation with your boss about expectations for responding after hours.
By taking steps to allow yourself to disconnect fully, you’ll likely feel greater autonomy. In turn, this will help you to manage your stress.
6. Your Mindset Contributes to Your Stress
Have you ever noticed how people’s reactions to seemingly stressful situations differ? For example, while one person may feel overwhelmed by work responsibilities, his colleague is able to take it in stride. What’s the difference? It may just have to do with perspective.
In one study, when researchers told participants to think of stress arousal as something that could maximize their performance, they felt more confident and less anxious in pressure-packed situations. In addition, the study participants didn’t experience typical negative physiological reactions in response to stress.
By focusing on how stressful situations may actually help you to grow, you can channel your thoughts in constructive ways. And, if that sounds like too much of a tall order, then developing a mindfulness practice might help you. As you become more mindful, you’ll find that you’ll become more aware of the thoughts that may be contributing to your stress. And, with that awareness, you’ll put yourself in a better position to take a step back, reappraise the situation, and decrease your negative reactions.
Finally, as you’re doing what you can to deal with stressors in the workplace, don’t forget to focus on self-care. Exercise. Eat a balanced diet. Get adequate sleep. Meditate. Treat yourself with compassion. Recognize that self-care isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity for a well-balanced life. So, give yourself full permission to recharge when you need to do so. You’ll not only better manage your stress, you’ll become more productive in the long-run.
Need additional help managing your work stress? Click here.
If you’re like most of my friends and clients, you feel like you have a lot to do, but just don’t have enough time to do it all. “If only there were more hours in the day, I might be able to make my dreams a reality,” you lament, wishing that you could magically slow down the clock.
I’ve got some news for you. The problem might not be a lack of time — the problem might actually be you.
Could You Be the Problem?
How familiar does this sound?
You sit down to work on a project, study for an exam, or write the next Oscar-winning screenplay. Fifteen minutes later, you realize that all that you’ve accomplished has been to post a picture of your latte on instagram, send five texts, and take a random quiz that informs you that you should actually be living in Bora Bora.
Research suggests that we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to accomplishing our goals. Although we might think that we’re using our time effectively, in reality, many of us are interrupting ourselves so often that we simply can’t get anything done.
For instance, one study followed adults across 300 hours. The subjects were outfitted with biometric belts to gauge their emotional engagement, along with glasses with cameras embedded in them so the researchers could see how they were spending their time. During the study, it was found that younger adults switched from task to task once every one to two minutes, while older adults switched tasks once every three to four minutes.
In other words, people were switching from task to task anywhere from 17–27 times per hour!
If you work in an office, this research might be exactly what you would expect. After all, I’ve heard many clients complain about how impossible it is to get work done when they’re around other people. Co-workers are always dropping by their desks unannounced. Other people’s emergencies cause them to have to shift priorities on a dime. Bosses continuously add more and more to the demanding workloads that they already have. As a result, it can be really difficult to get into a flow.
Another study, which followed employees at a telecom company, confirmed the idea that people are always getting interrupted. In fact, the data in this study suggested that employees spent only about half of their workdays engaging in behavior related to work. The average length of time that employees spent on any particular task, before switching to something else? A mere three minutes!
However, before you go blaming your co-workers, you might be interested to learn that this same study indicated that almost two-thirds of the work interruptions were initiated by the workers themselves. And, most of these interruptions involved a technological device such as a smartphone and a computer.
To add insult to injury, the study also found that most of those distractions didn’t come as a result of a notification or incoming alert. Instead, it was simply as a result of the workers checking their devices to make sure that they hadn’t missed anything.
In other words, most of the time, the workers had no one to blame for their interruptions but themselves.
Why We’re So Tied to Our Devices
So why are we so tied to our devices?
Part of it comes down to operant conditioning, psychologist B.F. Skinner’sclassic approach to shaping behavior. As has been proven many times over, when you positively reinforce a behavior, you increase the odds that it will happen again in the future.
How does this relate to your devices?
Every time you check your smartphone or scroll through social media, there’s a possibility that you might get positively reinforced. Sometimes, when you look at your phone, there’s absolutely nothing of interest to you. But, other times, there’s a nugget that gives you a rush of excitement — whether it’s a text from your significant other, the latest bit of celebrity gossip, or an email announcing a flash sale at your favorite store.
In addition, the reinforcement schedule that you’re on for your smartphone (the variable ratio schedule, in case you’re interested), tends to produce very rapid responding. It’s also the reinforcement schedule that tends to create the most consistent behavior that is the most resistant to being extinguished (for reference, slot machines operate on a variable ratio schedule). And so, because you’re reinforced every so often when you look at your phone, you’re being set up to continue that checking behavior over and over.
Another reason we’re so prone to distraction?
Technology is everywhere. As a result, we have all sorts of wonderful opportunities to distract and entertain ourselves sitting, quite literally, at our fingertips. And, when something is easily available to us, we’re more likely to use it.
For example, when you’re aiming to eat healthier, what’s one of the first thing you’re instructed to do? Clear your home of junk food. After all, you’ll be lot less likely to eat a chocolate bar if you have to get in your car and drive to the store, as opposed to reaching into your desk drawer to get one.
But what do you do, if the item you’re trying to avoid is simply one click away, and you have to work on your laptop as a function of your job? Is there any way to combat the lure of the potential delights awaiting you on social media and in your inbox?
How to Get Control
Although it might seems like the odds are stacked against you, there areseveral things that you can do to increase your productivity.
1. Turn Off Your Alerts
Although we often interrupt ourselves without any sort of external stimulus, research also shows that when our notifications do go off, we tend to be easily distracted. For example, one study showed that on average, people waited less than two minutes to open their email messages. Another study showed that 41% of workers responded to emails immediately, while 71% answered their instant messages immediately.
The bottom line? Because notifications can be too enticing to resist, you’ll need to do your best to eliminate the temptation.
If you’re working on your laptop, take your email accounts offline. Mute the notifications on your smartphone. Turn off your social media alerts. Give yourself fewer potential distractions to ignore, and you’ll be making your life a whole lot easier.
2. Create New Habits
To decrease your attachment to your technological devices, you’ll also need to change your relationship with them by creating some new habits. To do this, start by setting up some rules for yourself to govern how you’ll interact with email, social media, and the internet.
For example, if you typically check your smartphone every five minutes, decide that you’ll only allow yourself to check it every quarter hour. To avoid going down the rabbit hole of switching tasks every time a message arrives, set aside designated periods during the day devoted to responding to emails. Do the same with web-surfing or engaging with social media — schedule those times in advance too.
Then, consider these rules set in stone, without any wiggle-room. Although they might feel challenging to stick to at first, across time, they’ll become business as usual. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with more control over your own behavior, along with greater productivity.
3. Set Up Your Environment For Success
To increase your productivity, it’s also critical to set up your environment in a way that will support your efforts. If you’re sitting down to work, don’t put your smartphone on the desk right beside you. Instead, leave it in your bag, or better yet, in another room. (If you’re expecting a call, you’ll still be able to hear the ring). When you’re working on your computer, close any unnecessary browser windows, along with your email.
Remove social media apps from your phone. Or, if you really want to up the ante, deactivate your Facebook account (you can always come back to it later). While these might sound like extreme measures, every single person I’ve spoken to who has tried this out has said that it helped them to see just how much time they were wasting, mindlessly liking photos on instagram or decorating their future dream home on pinterest. And, if you take a hiatus from social media, you just might feel happier — research has suggested that young people who engage on more social media platforms have an increased risk for depression and anxiety.
When you go to bed, turn off your phone or, at the very least, don’t keep it on your nightstand. Getting a good night’s sleep is linked to lower stress and higher productivity. But, if you’re spending your late nights on social media or responding to every text that arrives, you won’t be able to recharge adequately. And, that lack of sleep will carry over into your work day.
4. Practice Mindfulness
Finally, to strengthen your ability to stay focused on one thing at a time, you might want to develop your own mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is defined by the Greater Good Center at the University of Berkeley as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” As a result, mindfulness helps you to better stay in the present, while also being able to respond to situations intentionally, as opposed to reactively.
Mindfulness has been linked to better concentration, decreased stress, increased creativity, improved memory, and a host of other positive outcomes that will help you to be more productive. Furthermore, if you develop your ability to be more mindful, it’ll help you to reduce the number of times that you grab for your smartphone out of habit.
For example, the next time you feel compelled to reach for your phone when you’re in an elevator, waiting in line at the grocery store, or sitting at your desk trying to work, check in with yourself. Think about why you’re reaching for it. Is it to quell anxiety? Is it because it’s something you habitually do? Is it because you’re expecting a text? Once you’re more aware of your behaviors and why you’re doing them, you’ll increase your ability to make informed choices in the moment.
To get started with mindfulness, a simple practice is to observe your breathing. As you notice thoughts coming up, gently notice them, let them go, and resume focusing on your breathing. Repeat this process throughout your practice, and you’ll strengthen your ability to focus. (For information on how to create a more in-depth mindfulness practice, click here).
Changing your behaviors related to technology aren’t necessarily easy. But, with commitment, you can gain control. You’ll be rewarded with more productivity, and greater freedom over your choices.
This article was originally published in The Mission
“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” ~Colin Powell
Based on my own experience coaching leaders, I definitely agree with this sentiment. The best leaders are the ones who have established regular disciplines to ensure they are regularly attending to the right things. If you strive to be a leader who achieves excellence, then incorporate these seven habits into your work life.
1. Take time to personally connect with your team
There’s no doubt about it, most leaders have a lot to do. As a result, when you have a spare moment, it can be tempting to hole up in your office or cubicle, spending all your time attending to work or getting caught up on emails. However, excellent leaders recognize that if they neglect building relationships with their direct reports, they are missing out on an important opportunity to motivate their people by deepening connections.
While you don’t have to attend daily happy hours with your direct reports, you should, at the very least, make time to walk around and chat. Be genuinely interested in your people, and let them get to know you. You might be surprised how much those personal connections with the boss can make a difference in your team’s level of engagement at work.
2. Determine your top 3-5 priorities for the day
When you’re the boss, time can often get away from you. Aside from dealing with your own workload, it’s not uncommon to deal with employee interruptions, impromptu meetings, and unanticipated crises. To increase the odds that you are able to make the most of each day, as soon as you get into the office in the morning, get into the practice of writing down the 3-5 critical tasks that need to get done. It’s a simple habit, but it can keep you focused so that you can better make decisions about what to attend to when (and which requests can be put off until tomorrow). In turn, this could make the difference between a day that’s productive and proactive, versus one that’s spent responding reactively, with balls dropped or activities falling through the cracks.
Being a leader means dealing with the unexpected, and often having more to do than is humanly possibly. As a result, for most people, there’s simply no way that you can get everything done all on your own, while still maintaining your sanity. Excellent leaders make the best use of their resources by assigning activities to their team. If there are critical priorities that you need to attend to yourself, then delegating less important tasks frees up your time to do so. Alternately, if you need to call in the troops to help you to get an urgent matter completed, delegation (and appropriate oversight) can help you to address it more efficiently.
(Need to be a better delegator? Sign up for my FREE course and learn the 6 step delegation formula).
4. Tie up Loose Ends
Excellent leaders are organized and responsive. Therefore, at the end of the day, make it a habit to tie up any loose ends. Begin by ensuring that you have completed the tasks from your morning priorities. Then, run through your emails to make sure that you have responded to all of the ones that need an immediate response. It can also be a good practice to give status updates to ones that might require additional investigation from you (i.e. “I’ll get you that information by Friday).” Although you might know your intentions, others, might misinterpret your delay as unresponsiveness. Finally, file documents and consolidate your task lists. You’ll return to the office the next day organized, and ready to go!
5. Set aside time to be strategic
With all that’s going on in your world, if you’re not careful, most (if not all) of your time can be spent on immediate activities, at the expense of important but non-urgent ones (as Stephen Covey would categorize them). So, it might not be surprising to hear that a common complaint I hear from leaders is that they don’t have time for strategic thought, planning, and considering the big picture. To guard against this, block out time on your calendar to strategize, read up on industry trends, and generally stay abreast of what’s going on in your field.
During this time, you can also periodically think about how things are functioning in your area. For example, reflect on your processes and their potential inefficiencies. Are there any that are there just because things have always been done that way? Likewise, would the addition of any processes help with workflow? You could also reflect on the effectiveness of your meetings. Do they need more structure? Less? Can any be cancelled?
Taking this time will help you to make sure that you’re keeping an eye on the big picture, which will help you to make sure that you’re consistently doing the right things for the right reasons.
6. Communicate positive feedback
For many leaders, this habit comes naturally – they’re great at rewarding and recognizing their team. However, if you’re the sort of leader who tends to focus on what needs to be improved, you might forget to acknowledge your people for a job well done. While you should obviously be reinforcing good work when you see it, if you’ve gotten to Thursday and you realize that you haven’t said a genuine “thank you” or “great work,” then be intentional about looking for opportunities to validate someone. Staff (and most of us, actually) can be very motivated by knowing that their contributions are valued. So, make sure to reinforce them for when they exhibit great performance.
Monthly or Semi-Monthly
7. Hold regular one-on-ones
Holding regular one-on-one meetings with your team members will help you to cultivate your relationships with them, while also giving you a venue for keeping up with their assignments. The frequency of your one-on-ones will depend on a variety of factors such as your number of direct reports, their level of experience, and the nature of your work. If you have a lot of people reporting up to you, then having very frequent meetings would likely be untenable. However, if you have particular people who are new or inexperienced, then you’ll need to check in with them more often.
While most leaders recognize that these sorts of meetings are beneficial for delegating and checking in regarding progress on tasks, don’t forget to also take time to periodically ask about their career goals. With your employees’ aspirations in mind, you can better provide them with coaching, feedback, and projects that will help them to ready themselves for their next career steps. It’s also a good practice to ask for feedback about how you can support them or be a better boss for them. That way, you can gain a deeper understanding of your people, while also making sure that you’re also continuing to meet their needs and grow as a leader.
Try to incorporate these habits as a regular part of your routine. I’m confident you’ll see a positive difference with respect to your team’s efficiency, productivity, and morale. And that, is what leadership excellence is all about.
Want some additional strategies that will help you to be a more effective leader? Click here.
You’re a human living in 2017, which means you’ve probably got a lot on your plate. Aside from the demands of your work, you’re tending to relationships—with your family members, friends, and/or your significant other. You probably try to work in some time for hobbies, relaxation, and adequate sleep, though sometimes the balance can still be skewed. It’s a challenge to balance it all.
One question I often ask my clients is, “Are you doing too much? After all, feeling overwhelmed most often results from being over-scheduled and spread thin. Perhaps you’re engaging in a lot of tasks out of obligation rather than actual desire. If so, paring things down can be a good place to start.
But other times, feeling overwhelmed is simply a state of being, one in which you let all of your stressors stew in your head gets the better of you. What if you want to make time for all of your recreational activities, while also making sure to feel focused and productive during “to do list” time?
Well then: your other option is to increase your productivity. Easier said than done, I know.
The following suggestions are focused specifically on work, since most of my clients have found that concentrated periods of productivity at the office free up more personal time. Across the board, the key is being more present, and accountable with how you’re spending your time. So let’s get started:
1. Track how you’re using your time.
While these suggestions aren’t exactly in a particular order, but one is a good diagnostic “test.” Unless we have scheduled meetings or phone calls, we tend not to be aware of how exactly we use our time each day. To get a more accurate assessment, start by tracking your use of time for two weeks. Simply create a spreadsheet, and make a note of how much time you spend doing various activities each hour—from responding to emails, to procrastinating on Facebook.
Once you are able to identify your prime time-wasters, you can cut back accordingly, and be more productive
2. Move some stuff off of your plate (if possible).
If you’re a leader, or in a position in which you are able to delegate activities to others, then you might want to do a self-check to see if you are delegating as much as you should. Often, we get overwhelmed because we make too many assumptions about what others expect from us, even what we expect from ourselves. For example, you may think it’s easier for you to copy and collate those slide decks, but perhaps it just feels easier because you’re anxious about relinquishing control of the project. Get curious, and honest, and ask yourself, “Is this really the best use of my time?” You may find that your administrative assistant or colleague could handle it just as easily.
As you are tracking your time (in step 1), keep a list of those activities you are doing that could be delegated to others because (a) it’s their job or (b) it could provide them with an opportunity to learn new skills. Then, dole out the assignments. While you’ll need to check up on progress (and might have to do some training), this will help you to make the best use of your time over time.
(Need some help with delegation? Take my free course).
3. Commit to doing things at a certain time of day.
Have you ever gotten to the end of the week and realized that too many of the items on your to-do list didn’t get touched?
You may not be intentional enough about scheduling. If you want to get more done, decide in advance when you’re going to do them, and write it down. Research has found that you’re much more likely to fulfill your commitments to yourself if you take this approach. The other benefit of this exercise is that it can help you re-prioritize or delegate as necessary. You may realize you don’t have time to complete all that you’ve committed to, and that will help you get more realistic about your priorities.
4. Be wary of perfectionism, and rein it in.
If you’re a perfectionist, you’re likely not making the most efficient use of your time. This statement isn’t meant to be critical, but rather to point out one of the ironies of perfectionism—that it makes you waste time and energy on things that can sabotage your productivity, and well-being.
Since you might be striving for perfection on tasks that just don’t warrant it, make a concerted effort to differentiate between the tasks that require “perfection” (e.g. a presentation to a sales prospect), versus those for which “good enough” would suffice (e.g. an email to your mom). Then, spend your time accordingly.
5. Give yourself a break from notifications.
Email is one of the of the biggest time-sucks that I hear about from my clients. Even if they commit to limiting email consumption to certain points during the day, the lure of the notification signal is too much to resist. If you’re in a position in which you don’t need to be responding to emails with immediate urgency (I think most of us are in that camp, regardless of urgent things can feel), then cut back on how often you’re checking them.
Turn off your monitor, mute the notifications, or put your phone in your bag so you won’t be tempted. It might feel hard to do at first, but across time, you’ll get used to it, particularly when you are able to appreciate the benefits of being more productive.
6. Skip the sleep sacrifice.
With all of the competing demands many professionals face, sleep can often be the first to go. If you sleep a little less, you can shove one more activity into your schedule, right? Not exactly.
Research suggests that this is flawed reasoning, as inadequate sleep is linked to fatigue, poor concentration, and decreased productivity. If you’re someone who tends to skimp on sleep, shift your priorities to include rest, and you’ll likely find that you’ll be much more efficient during your waking hours.
7. Procrastinate with intention.
AKA: Take breaks. It may seem like a paradox, but you can actually make better use of your time if you carve out time for intentional “procrastination” (e.g. not working) during the work day.
Breaks have been found to help you to refocus, increase job performance, and even increase your level of satisfaction. During those instances when you feel your energy and concentration waning, don’t try to will yourself through it with a clenched fist! Instead, take a 5-10 minute break. Then get back to work with a renewed sense of energy.
In my on-site work with executives, I always notice a a lot of employees wearing ear-buds or listening to music in the office. My first thought is to marvel at how many different songs must be playing in one office at a given time. On that note, one woman I work with, who used to work at a lively startup in Brooklyn, told me that her reason for swearing by headphones at work was simply to drown out the music being played over the company speakers. “Headphones gave me a faux-sense of privacy,” she told me. And she attributed her ability to be productive in what was a chaotic environment to to the sense of privacy she created with music.
But as a classically-trained pianist, I couldn’t imagine being the idea of music creating an atmosphere of focus and productivity. To me, music is often a distraction that causes me to involuntarily tap out the melody with my fingers. So, is there a “right” answer here? What does science say about the effects of music on performance?
Long story short: It depends. And specifically, it depends on the nature of the task you are doing—and, to some extent, also type of music you’re listening to!
In a classic study of assembly line workers, background music was found to increase overall productivity. Based on what we know today, this net improvement was most likely due to the music having a positive effect on the mood of the workers—especially given the repetitive and likely boring nature of their work. This reminds me a bit of how music can “pump” you up during running or lifting weights.
But what if your job is more demanding from a cognitive perspective?
In a quasi-experiment of individuals in a variety of jobs in an office environment, researchers found that those who preferred to listen to music during work experienced an increase in performance, mood, and satisfaction with the organization as a result of their choice to “tune in” on the job. Again, the individuals who had the least complex jobs seemed to benefit the most from the addition of music.
However, for surgeons (who have pretty complex work, if you ask me), listening to music on the job has actually been linked to greater relaxation, speed and accuracy. The possible explanation posed by the study authors is that music helped them because they were experts familiar with their work, and were simply uplifted by (rather than distracted by) the music in the background. Further, since their work was primarily nonverbal, any presence of lyrics didn’t interfere with their ability to concentrate on the task at hand.
In another study, researchers found that the quality of work in a sample of software designers also improved while listening to music. Again, as is case for both the assembly line workers and the surgeons, this effect was likely contingent on the relationship between improved mood and productivity. And although lyrics might be distracting to some (which I’ll tell you more about below), they didn’t interfere with their ability to concentrate because of the nonverbal nature of the work.
Now, with all that said, music—especially music containing lyrics—may be a distraction if you’re engaging in complex, verbal tasks, emphasis on the “verbal.”
If you are engaging in complex verbal tasks that involve memory, analysis and/or comprehension, you might want to turn off the music—particularly if you are an introvert. Not sure? Let me explain.
In one small study of introverts and extroverts (as assessed by the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire), the researchers examined the effects of listening to pop music while engaging in a memory task in which participants had to remember objects immediately or after a delay, and a reading comprehension task. They found that performance on the immediate memory task was hampered when listening to music for both groups. In addition, introverts revealed a significantly worse ability to remember objects after a delay than extroverts (and also performed significantly worse than introverts who did the same task in silence). This same pattern of hampered ability was seen in introverts who completed a reading comprehension task while listening to music. The researchers suggested that because the introverts in the study reported that they were less likely to work with the radio on and that they listened to the radio less in general, the study itself put them more outside of their preferred work style comfort zone. I also suspect that because introverts tend to be more likely to process internally and can find too much external stimulus to be draining, the music might have been more of a distraction to them.
Now, if none of these study findings felt relatable, perhaps you are just one of those people who just feels powerful when listening to music—and you are not alone!
Remember the ubiquitous meme of Michael Phelps listening to his headphones during the Rio Olympics? Did that meme resonate with you?
Well, science may still be supporting your choices, as research has shown that music may help you get pumped up before a big meeting or presentation. Though once again, it depends: You have to pick the right song.
In one study, researchers had undergraduates complete a variety of tasks while listening to music that had either been identified as “high power” or “low power” by another group of subjects (these ratings were not correlated with the lyrics). They were then asked to complete ambiguous words that could be completed with powerful or non-powerful words. E.g. p – – – r (someone could choose power or paper, for example). Those in the high power condition were significantly more likely to choose “high power” words than “low power” words, suggesting that an implicit feeling of power had been elicited through the music. Researchers also found that listening to powerful music enhanced abstract thinking, feelings of control over future events, and subjects’ willingness to go first in a debate (i.e. showing more assertiveness).
If you want to harness the power of music, choose songs with heavy bass, as researchers found that tracks with strong bass-lines were associated with higher feelings of power among listeners, as compared to those who listened to music with less bass.
PS: In case you’re wondering what songs created these effects, the high power songs were: “We Will Rock You” (Queen), “Get Ready for This” (2 Unlimited), “In Da Club” (50 Cent), while the low power songs were “Because We Can” (Fatboy Slim), “Who Let the Dogs Out” (Baha Men), and “Big Poppa.” (Notorious B.I.G.)
Whenever I’ve been out to eat at a restaurant recently, I’ve noticed families, couples, and coworkers alike all glued to their phones during a meal. No, this isn’t uncommon, but stopping to really notice these people forgoing in-person communication for their phones has a powerful effect. Specifically, it’s gotten me thinking about the psychological dangers of 24-7 accessibility, and the way it’s shifted our expectations in both personal and professional contexts. Now that smartphones enable us to have constant, efficient and ongoing forms of communication with literally everyone we know, we are now always at anyone’s beck and call. The benefits are clear, but the downsides sometimes feel even clearer.
In their article, “Extended Work Availability and Its Relation With Start-of-Day Mood and Cortisol,” psychologists Jan Dettmers et. al cited research showing that technological advances such as smartphones and mobile internet access have made it easier for people to take their work home with them, resulting in larger workloads, more hours worked and increased expectations from employers (not to mention increased levels of stress hormones among employees). In other words, it’s not just that employees feel like they should be accountable to their work emails, but also that employers are expecting to reach their employees 24-7. But smartphones or not, 24-7 accessibility is not the definition of a “full-time” job.
In my own work with executives (who are arguably in the “boss” role in most contexts), I’ve heard a wide range of mixed feelings about the technology that allows them to stay connected with work, even when they are out of the office. On one hand, many who spend most of their days in meetings or on the road simply appreciate being able to get on their phone in the evenings to read company-wide emails, respond to urgent messages, and catch up with the statuses of certain projects. Others, especially those who receive a lot of emails or are particularly anxious, characterize constant smartphone use as an unfortunate obligation—a behavior that can stem from defensiveness, a fear of their potential to be paralyzed with overwhelm.
But then, there are also the individuals driven by a sense of urgency, who actually like the rush of being the first to know and respond to developments in the workplace. Still others have expressed that incessant smartphone-checking has become a compulsive, bad habit. One woman with whom I’ve worked has even likened her “OCD email refreshing” to an old habit of cigarette smoking—an unproductive, but automatic response to free-floating anxiety.
But the effects of constant phone-checking can be more pernicious than just mild malaise. Research suggests that extended availability and the associated blurring of the boundaries between work and home can have a measurably negative effect on well-being. It has been shown to affect physical health by affecting the stress hormone cortisol (which, when present in high levels, correlates with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illness). Resentments can build when employees don’t perceive themselves as having control over their availability, and can easily contribute to both internal and interpersonal conflicts. And not only does this accessibility cause stress in and of itself, but it can also interfere with one’s ability to recover from the stress of specific work-projects; the absence of clear boundaries between “work” and “life” preclude some people from being able to adequately compartmentalize their work-related stressors.
Still, based on my own experience of working with clients over the years, it’s important to note that not everyone finds extended availability stressful. In fact, some find it energizing—and research supports this with somewhat counterintuitive findings. Those who expect work-life and home-life to be separate have been found to experience more stress when they use their phones for work matters outside of work hours, as they are forced to confront the disappointment of unmet expectations. However, those who plainly expect that they will bring some work home with them end up experiencing less stress the more they used their smartphones for work outside of the office, perhaps because they were maintaining their expectations, and thus staved off any worry about falling down on the job.
Either way, the key is being aware of if your stress triggers are related to email and what your expectations have to do with it. If you’re someone who knows that you find excessive smartphone use stressful, you’ll likely want to be more intentional about finding ways to detach outside of work hours. Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Get clear on your boss’ expectations around availability
Over the years, I’ve worked with quite a few leaders who actively emphasize their respect of boundaries to their employees. Still, what tends to happen is that employees respond to their boss’ behavior, rather than their words. So if their boss ends up writing an email after hours or on the weekend, that communicates a strong signal regardless. As a result, employees may internalize the expectation that they should also be working outside of standard hours.
If, as an employee, you find yourself in a situation in which your boss communicates a respect for boundaries with words but not with actions, find a time to address it directly. Point out the disconnect, and try to clarify expectations. Then, if your boss gives you the message that he or she legitimately doesn’t expect you to always be available, believe him or her and give yourself permission to go off-line. Period.
With that said, I’ve worked with many bosses who simply aren’t aware that they are communicating mixed messages by sending emails at all hours of the night and weekends even as they say they don’t expect their employees to respond outside of office hours. If you’re a boss who isn’t practicing what you preach in this regard, a simple fix that I’ve seen work for various clients is to save your emails to draft and send them in the morning, so as not to create confusion for your employees.
2. Unplug for small stretches of time, and schedule them if need be.
If you don’t have to be available 24-7, but do need to check messages periodically, set aside times during which you can be sure to unplug. For example, if you’re working out but use your phone to listen to music, turn off your notifications so you will be uninterrupted as you take this deliberate time for self-care. Or, if you’re having dinner with your loved ones, keep your phone in your purse – not sitting face-up beside your dinner plate. Rest assured that you’ll still be able to get to your messages later, and you’ll be a whole lot less likely to stir up emotions or conflict.
3. Limit smartphone use for business before bed.
The blue light that’s emitted from electronic devices has been shown to impair sleep by affecting our levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps control our sleep and wake cycles. And it appears that using your electronic devices for work before bed ups the ante in terms of the potential negative effects. A study out of Michigan State University found that people who used their smartphones for work purposes after 9pm were less engaged and more tired at work the next day. And the adverse effects of smartphone-use was far worse than those from watching TV, working on a laptop, or using a tablet. Although moving your phone might not be a viable option if your job necessitates that kind of availability (e.g. you are an on-call physician or IT professional), honor the times you are able to be “off-duty.” If and when you do have a night when your phone doesn’t need to be right beside you before bed, set a boundary for yourself, and put it elsewhere.
Whether it’s technology, food, or any other potentially addictive (but necessary) aspect of life, these behaviors are usually most harmful when you feel like you can’t control them. The most powerful trick is finding even the smallest ways with which you can give yourself some semblance of control, helping you feel as though your off-hours are your own, and that your accessibility can only be monitored by you, and you alone.
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