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.
As an executive coach, I have the privilege of talking with people about their very personal hopes, dreams, worries, and fears. And, over the past little while, I’ve worked with several clients who have been struggling with finding meaning in their lives. A freelance musician told me that reading and writing fiction make her heart sing, but that she doesn’t have the time to do either. An IT executive explained that he craves intellectual stimulation, but feels deeply unchallenged in his job. An HR Vice-President desperately wants to pursue some volunteer work, but feels constrained by her professional responsibilities and a need to tend to her children and husband.
Unfortunately, I hear these types of grievances from clients all the time.
In today’s world, most of us are told to “do what we love,” or at least are constantly reminded of the importance of “work-life balance.” The mythology of the first seeks to remind us that we can make a living doing something pleasurable — even though we’re not all privileged enough to have this luxury. The second presumably instructs us to carve out enough time in our “lives” (separate from “work”) to pursue our passions. Both of these scenarios can be easier said than done.
As a result, many people see the the options as follows: either sacrifice steady income to follow your dreams, or stay in your current situation, feeling stuck because other options seem too risky.
Existential psychologists argue that a central aspect of the human condition is to imbue life with a sense of “meaning.” In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that searching for meaning is “a primary motivation” for each of our lives, and that it must be “unique and specific” depending on the person.
Finding meaning is indeed a tall order. Because of this, many resign themselves to inertia, and an ongoing sense of dissatisfaction.
Does this sound uncomfortably familiar to you? If so, consider this as a gentle nudge, and here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Remind yourself that life really is too short.
Of course, we all know that death is inevitable — but how often do we really think about it with a conscious reminder? While this seems a little morbid, reminding yourself that you won’t be here forever is a powerful motivator to shift from inertia into action.
A recent study supports this as well. When a largely female sample of undergraduates were told to live the next month like it was their last in a particular city, they were found to have twice as much of an increase in their sense of well-being at the end of the study compared to a control group. Let this reminder make you more connected to yourself, your desires, the present moment, and those around you. Merely increasing your sense of connection and presence will enrich your sense of meaning day to day. And that’s a great place to start.
2. Take small steps — and notice your satisfaction at each one.
When clients of mine believe they will have to drop everything in their current life to pursue a greater sense of meaning, I’m quick to reassure them that such rash action isn’t required.
I’ll tell them to start doing something — anything! Small as their first action step may be, it will be more fulfilling than procrastinating. If you enjoy writing, for example, then try free-writing just for fun, or create a blog. If you want to be of service, find opportunities to volunteer. Want to create a business? Take a course, investigate how you might do it, or get something started on the side. Instead of having to deal with the gnawing feeling that you’re not doing anything, you’ll find that engaging in activities that bring you joy will give you a greater sense of purpose in your life — even if they don’t become a new career for you.
3. Recognize the meaning that’s already here.
In our ongoing quest for self-improvement, we often overlook the good that is all around us, and lose sight of the present moment. When we reflect on our own mortality, we are not only better prepared to reflect on how we spend our time, but we’re also primed to adjust our perspective at large.
For example, in the aforementioned study, researchers found that participants who thought about their time as limited were more likely to savor their experiences by focusing on the positive. This is like the last day of a vacation, when you try to squeeze out every last bit of enjoyment so you can imprint it into your memory.
Try to shift from focusing on everything that you see as “not enough” in your life, and instead, savor the goodness that is already there. It might just change your overall world view.
A few years before my father died, I asked him some questions about aging — specifically, what surprised him about the aging process, and what he would do differently. He said he had been surprised by how swiftly time passes, and, that if he were to go back, he would probably spend more time slowing down, smelling the roses, and connecting with those close to him. When I asked my mother, she added that she would have tried more things, and not have sold herself short in some areas. (These observations are consistent with other research in this area, suggesting that when people look back on their lives, they regret the chances they didn’t take and not fully savoring the potentially meaningful experiences in their day-to-day lives).
Remember, it’s up to you to live your life in a way that is meaningful to you. I hope you’ll take the challenge, and get started with some step, no matter how small, today.
A mindfulness practice can also help you to experience greater meaning. To learn more, click here.
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Of all the desired areas for growth that come up during my executive coaching sessions, impatience is mentioned pretty often. This may be a concern that to the specific subset of ambitious and goal-oriented individuals with whom I work, but it also says something about human nature.
Now more than ever, our culture is struggling with an epidemic of impatience. There’s a videothat’s been making the rounds on Facebook lately that speaks to this phenomenon: a girl of about four or five describes an experience of being caught behind a woman at the grocery store who was walking slowly. The tyke expresses her irritation, wishing that the lady would just hurry up. The video showed up on my timeline several times, and each of my friends who shared it wrote something like, “Story of my life.”
Of course, our world today is one where there are apps for everything—where a three course dinner can show up on your table at the click of a mouse or tap of a finger, and where communication occurs at lightning speed. And this attitude has affected all facets of our lives—from work to grocery shopping to social activities.
I get it: we’re used to immediate results. I’ve left many a restaurant when it looked like I wouldn’t be seated immediately, or driven circuitous routes (that ended up taking longer) just so I could avoid moving slowly through rush-hour traffic on the highway. But while a little impatience might be OK when you’re streaming a movie or heating up your leftovers, it can definitely work against you other times.
In a classic study on Type-A behavior, impatience-irritability was correlated with increased frequency of physical complaints. Another recent study suggested that impatient people age faster, as evidenced by shorter telomeres (caps on DNA that prevent them from fraying). One study of teenagers even found that those who were labeled as impatient or restless by interviewers ended up earning significantly less than their peers by the time they reached middle age. And I think most of us can recognize that impatience doesn’t feel good: it makes us feel exhausted, out of control and on edge. Of course, then, its physiological effects can’t be good for us.
When I’m working with clients who struggle with impatience, I’ll engage them by asking what they’ve done to address it. The response is usually something along the lines of, “I multi-task by checking my email or thinking about other stuff while others are talking about unimportant things in meetings.”
As you can imagine, the people around them pick up on this. As a result, common complaints I hear about impatient people are that they are poor listeners, and that they can be overbearing, rude, and impulsive.
So what’s an impatient person to do? Well, here are some scientifically-proven tricks to cope more effectively with your impatience. And remember: it’s a natural feeling, but we can practice reining it in.
1. Shine light on what’s good in the moment.
While being grateful might not seem to have a lot to do with patience, one studysuggests otherwise. Participants were given a writing task designed to make them feel either happy, grateful, or neutral. Then, they were able to choose between getting $54 immediately or $80 in 30 days. The researchers found that those who felt grateful were more likely to wait in order to receive the $80, compared to those in the happy or neutral groups.
In moments when you are feeling impatient, try a quick gratitude exercise in which you focus on things that you are grateful for in the moment. As a longer term strategy to increase your overall level of patience you might want to develop a regular gratitude practice (e.g. write down three things for which you are grateful at the end of each day).
2. Tune into the micro-moments themselves.
I’ve found that many people get impatient because they want to get to the end result as quickly as possible. But by doing this, they overlook their experiences in the present, and lose sight of their value.
Earlier this week, I was coaching someone who is consistently frustrated in meetings. He tends to make up his mind pretty quickly, and perceives discussion to be a waste of time. But by having this attitude, he was overlooking two very important aspects of collaborative process. First, research suggeststhat the more ideas that people generate, the more innovative their solutions are likely to be.
Second, if he actually wants people to be bought into a decision, it’s valuable for them to have an opportunity to talk things through. Think about it, in which instance are you likely to get more behind a decision? (a) When you have a chance to talk about it and felt like your opinions were being considered; or, (b) when you’re simply told what to do? For most people it’s the former. By recognizing the value of conversation, you will likely feel a greater sense of ease and freedom in the moment (not to mention, you’ll gather additional information that could sway your opinion).
3. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
“Take a deep breath”—it’s a simple (but not necessarily easy) piece of advice. Even if it feels like work in the moment, a deep breath will calm down your body and help you to quell some of the frustration or antsiness you might be feeling in the moment. (I’ve written a more comprehensive postabout how to handle negative emotions through breathing and other practices.) Plus, by relaxing on a physiological level, you will likely be less prone to exhibiting nonverbal signs of impatience like fidgeting or nodding too quickly in an effort to get your audience to speak faster.
4. Make a deliberate decision to surrender.
When there’s absolutely nothing you can do in a situation, you might just want to do nothing. To empower yourself, think of this as a deliberate, conscious decision.
Your flight is delayed. You’re stuck on hold with customer service for 30 minutes (and counting). Trafficisn’t moving. In these cases and more, there’s literally nothing you can do. Will getting irritated and frustrated about it change the situation? Not at all. So, take your deep breaths and take a moment to decide you’re going to accept the situation.
5. Expand your aperture.
There’s a reason that “put it in perspective” is a common piece of advice for all sorts of issues. But when it comes to impatience, I like to think about this advice visually: imagine your point of view is a camera lens, and you can adjust the aperture to let in a bigger picture. Think about it: in the grand scheme of your life, does a few extra minutes behind an elderly person using a check at the grocery store really matter? A year from now, will you care that your colleague wasn’t perfectly concise when presenting her argument in a meeting? Probably not. So, focus on the big picture, and relax.
St. Augustine wrote “Patience is the companion of wisdom.” Cultivate yours, and appreciate the benefits.
If you need more help dealing with your impatience, I encourage you to check out my Executive Mindfulness Online Course. To learn more, click here.
Recently, I was coaching a client I’ll call Justin, who was complaining about his difficulty falling asleep. As his company goes through major structural transitions, Justin is, unsurprisingly, very stressed out. As a senior executive, he has a lot on his plate, and often finds himself obsessing about what he needs to get done rather than just diving in.
To be clear, Justin has good reason: as an analytical guy, he typically tries to address all sides of a given issue before making major decisions or taking definitive action. While this problem-solving impulse is definitely a huge asset for him on the job—when having to develop new business strategies, or engage with clients—it can be hard for him to turn it off at night when he’s trying to go to sleep.
And Justin’s definitely not alone. I can’t tell you how often I hear about sleep issues in my work. There are the top managers who rely on cutting back on sleep as a way to get more done (especially before big meetings or presentations); then there are the company founders plagued with insomnia, who spend their sleeping hours stewing in questions and obsessions about high-level business matters. Across the board, the likely result of poor sleep is fatigue, poor concentration, and hampered productivity—plus a range of conditions spanning diabetes to immune suppression. Needless to say, pulling all nighters is rarely “worth it.”
So, how common are sleep issues?
Well, let’s just say it’s not just company founders who are finding themselves struggling to get some shut-eye. According to the American Sleep Association, 30% of Americans experience short-term insomnia, and 10% have chronic difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep during the night. Further, inadequate sleep (or consistently getting low-quality sleep) has been shown to increase stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, leading to all the ill effects associated with chronic stress—from reduced focus to hypertension and high blood pressure, among others.
Bottom line? If you have sleep issues, they are affecting way more than just the quality of your life—because the quality of your life affects the quality of your work.
If, like Justin, you often find yourself awake at night stimulated by work-anxiety, here are some suggestions.
1. Tire yourself out.
For those who deal with chronic insomnia, moderate aerobic exercise has been proven as an effective sleep-aid:regular exercise has been shown to halve the average time it took to fall asleep, while also improving sleep quality and feelings of restedness in the morning. These research results stem from a relatively long-term study (the duration of which was several months), suggesting that regular exercise isn’t a short-term fix, but a worthwhile investment that will have a positive impact on your sleep (and your mood, your relationships, your diet, and a myriad of other facets of your life).
2. Be disciplined with a bedtime ritual.
Those of us who have children know that parenting experts frequently suggest having some sort of a routine to get the kids mentally and physically prepared to fall asleep (e.g. I use a bath, book, and lullaby with my preschooler). Yet most of us ignore this wisdom when it comes to ourselves, instead choosing to “lull” ourselves to sleep by checking email, surfing social media, reading news reports about crime or politics, or something else equally unsettling.
Well, the parenting experts have long-been right: just like our children, we do far better when we are conditioned for sleep with a wind-down routine of our own. So try going to bed at a consistent time each night, choosing a relaxing activity or two (e.g. bath, reading, quiet time, meditation) as a lead-up to bedtime, and you might find that it helps you to wind down and go to sleep.
3. Resist the temptation for digital distraction.
Perhaps it’s comforting to know that our entire culture is constantly tempted by distraction, inundated with images, updates, notifications and more at all times. Whatever your reaction, it’s clear that indulging these distractions isn’t a recipe for relaxation.
When you’re tossing and turning in bed, it is certainly tempting to pass the time by scrolling through social media or getting caught up on your stack of magazines. However, by doing these things, you’re engaging your mind in activities it finds “interesting,” and therefore increasing the odds that you’re not going to fall asleep.
Fortunately, I’ve never had problems with insomnia; but I have spent countless nights staying up later than I wanted to be because I got sucked into Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. (If you’re wondering if that extra time spent scrolling was particularly edifying or enriching to my life, the answer is no). If it’s too hard to resist the siren call of your smartphone, don’t keep it near your bed.
Commit to putting your work away at a certain time, and stick to it. And, while it might be comfortable set up your laptop and work in your bed (even before your cut-off time), if you have sleep problems, you should really avoid doing this. Aside from the fact that it’s bad for your posture (my massage therapist has admonished me for this on multiple occasions), it’s also strengthening a connection between your bed and work. (i.e. like Pavlov). A classic piece of advice from sleep experts is that the bed should be reserved solely for sleep (and sex). (Similar reasoning to the wind down routine – want to condition yourself appropriately).
5. Schedule your “worry-time.” Really.
This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s a Cognitive Behavioral Technique (CBT) for people who suffer from anxiety disorder. Select a time on the calendar during which you deliberately decide to devote 15 – 30 minutes to worrying. You can aim to do this every day for a week or more. And instead of leaving it to chance, insert it as an entry on your calendar, along with a reminder. Think of it as a trick for your mind.
Strangely, when we are having anxious thoughts, we usually try to avoid them; we feel like we shouldn’t be worrying, or start telling ourselves stories to try to convince ourselves that we feel differently. But with this paradoxical technique, you are actually embracing your worries, and giving them less power. During your “worry appointment,” spend the whole time worrying about whatever problems are bothering you.
This might cause anxiety the first few times, and that’s normal. But what tends to happen over time is that people can become bored with their own worries, which are often repetitive. The other benefit of this approach is that when you catch yourself worrying about something at other times during the day, you can tell yourself, “I don’t need to think about that right now— I’ll worry about it later during my scheduled time.” (And, since you have the time scheduled to do so, you actually will).
6. Vent about your stress…to your journal.
Research has shown that expressive writing can help to reduce intrusive and avoidant thoughts. To make this exercise effective, focus on creating a cohesive narrative, using words related to cause and insight. In other words, try to use the writing to make sense of the experience – instead of just getting stuck in the worries, look at the meaning you can make of it, or the learning you can experience from the events. (e.g. If you have a friend that is constantly complaining about the same thing over and over, it’s unlikely to make her feel better. However, if she is gaining perspective and growing as a result of the experience, then the mental exercise is much more likely to be beneficial to her).
7. Keep a notepad by your bed.
When you have a lot going on in your daily life, it’s totally natural to feel your upcoming tasks and agenda items tugging at your mind when you’re lying in bed each night. There are the projects steps that need to get done, the ideas that need to be generated, the people you need to remember to call.
To deal with this, it can be helpful to keep a notepad by the bed, so you can make a quick note of these thoughts when they came up, rather than ruminating about them. In my own experience, this little trick saves me from the worry that I’ll forget the thoughts. And once you write the thoughts down, think of it as a release—then you can think about something else. (And, if you’re thinking you’ll save yourself a step by entering these ideas straight into your favorite organization app of choice, I recommend staying with the old school approach so that you don’t get pulled into all of the other potentially distracting delights that your smartphone has to offer).
8. Give your mind something else to do.
Instead of counting sheep, you might want to try out University of British Columbia researcher, Luc Beaudoin’s technique called the “cognitive shuffle.” To do this, when you are in bed, come up with a word that has no repeating letters. Then, think of words that start with each letter of the word. For example, if you came up with the word “plate,” you would first, come up with a list of words that start with “P,” then “L,” “A”, and so on. Apparently, this strategy is engaging enough that it gives your mind something to do instead of worrying, but not so exciting that it will get in the way of falling asleep.
9. Meet your new friend mindfulness.
I know you’ve probably heard the benefits of mindfulness touted for productivity, but hear me out. Developing a regular mindfulness practice will also help you to create a different relationship with your thoughts, and help you relax a bit—especially before bed, when monkey-mind can go wild.
The Greater Good Center at the University of Berkeley defines mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” A simple mindfulness practice is to strive 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.
By learning to observe your thoughts with a greater sense of spaciousness, you’ll get more skilled at letting them go, instead of getting caught up in them. With consistency, your mindfulness practice will create changes in your brain that will help you to better regulate your emotions and stay calmer.
To learn more about the benefits of mindfulness and how to develop a practice of your own, click here.
We’ve all worked with someone who had difficulty managing their emotions—especially the “bad” ones like anger, fear, frustration, disappointment.
You know, the impatient boss who lashes out at employees in response to the slightest bit of bad news; the overly negative colleague who complains about almost everything in the office; the co-worker whose stress and burnout are palpable in every meeting; your supervisor who becomes hostile at the drop of a hat when he’s overworked.
As you’ve probably experienced, working around people who struggle to manage their emotional struggles independently can be pretty unpleasant, and even unbearable, if you happen to be on the receiving end of the negativity. But even if your boss’ criticisms are aimed at someone else, or you’re not the pessimistic colleague’s chosen confidant, you might still find yourself absorbing the negativity around you through osmosis.
There’s a term for this in psychology: Emotional Contagion (EC) is defined as the tendency for our moods to be influenced by the moods of those around us. Researchers Elaine Hatfield et. al.argue that this occurs because we can tend to unwittingly mirror others’ expressions, postures, etc. This can cause us to experience similar emotions to those others are experiencing. On the positive side, this is a foundational piece of empathy—when we are able to “put ourselves in another’s shoes,” in other words. Or, when we’re around someone whose happiness or enthusiasm radiates forth, their positive emotions, too, may become infectious. But this dynamic can be a real downer if we’re around someone in a bad mood and we’re unaware of a need to manage our own emotions.
In office environments,research has shown that when a team’s boss is in a positive mood, the effects tend to spread to their team members; participants showed a greater ability to coordinate and collaborate compared to groups whose leaders were in a negative mood.
So, the golden question: how is it that you develop greater awareness of your emotions in the moment so that you can (1) recognize what’s going on and (2) manage them so that they don’t unintentionally hijack your behavior?
Here are my suggestions.
1. Honor the cliché: listen to your body.
Believe it or not, we experience emotions physically. Take stress, for example. Cortisol and adrenaline (aka “stress hormones”) are released in the blood, and several effects unfold. We may begin to sweat, or feel our hearts beating faster. These symptoms may happen, too, when you’re scared or angry.
Whether or not you’ve realized your body’s responses to various emotions, they are there—so start to pay attention. You can get better at catching negative emotions early on by becoming aware of how they tend to show up for you in your body.
2. Determine your trusted colleagues, and reach out.
Find someone at work who will be real with you and let you know when you seem to be having difficulty managing your emotions. Perhaps you are excessively stressed and are exhibiting irritability in meetings. Try to think of someone in your team who could gently call you out on this, and encourage them to help you notice the strengths and weaknesses of your behavior. Even if you get defensive in the moment, I assure you that the wisdom will help you in the long-run.
3. Identify your triggers.
When you have an incident of inadequately managing strong emotions at work, try to trace it back to your triggers. Do you feel angry around certain people? Did your reaction have something to do with your internal state (e.g. not getting enough sleep, skipping meals)? Were there psychological triggers such as feeling criticized by a supervisor or, feeling overwhelmed by too many demands?
When you are able to recognize potential triggers, you put yourself in a position to know that you will need to be vigilant about applying your coping skills appropriately when those situations arise. Keeping track in a journal can be a helpful means of getting more in touch with your triggers
4. Be proactive about the situation, as uncomfortable as it may be.
If there’s a situation or person at work that’s an ongoing stressor for you and you’re avoiding it, then you might be causing more trouble for yourself, your work, and your colleagues. By avoiding what is bothering you, you’re allowing your emotions to corrode inside of you, which may end up causing resentment in the near-term, and decreasing your resilience in the long term. If you’re someone who tends to be unassertive, then explode when it gets to be too much, learning to manage conflict effectively and speak up is a more constructive approach.
5. Get enough sleep at night.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to greater susceptibility to mood disturbance. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of being more irritable after a poor night’s sleep. While this tip is more of a preventative measure, it’s a tool to rely on always for greater mood stability, boosted immunity, heightened productivity and focus. There’s no ill effects of getting adequate rest!
Of course, many of these tips require a bit of planning in advance—so what to do if you’re stuck in a crisis-moment? The answer is simple, but not easy. 1. Try to be mindful of what’s happening in the moment. Notice your emotions bubbling up, how they’re showing up in your body, and simply take note. 2. Take a deep inhale and exhale, making sure to expand your belly (not just breathing into your chest). This will help calm the nervous system. 3. Check-in with your thoughts. Is there a way to look at the situation differently? What other explanations might there be for what’s going on?
This 3-step process itself may not be possible each and every time a tough emotion catches you off guard. But the good news is that these tools are portable and always available to you. So practice on!
Need some more help managing your emotions on the job? Click here.