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
Lately, a variety of big companies have been dominating the news cycle for the wrong reasons. Reports of toxic culture, executive firings, sexual harassment allegations, unscrupulous sales practices and other negative stories paint the picture of many organizations whose values are more focused on the bottom line than their people.
It’s obvious that working in such an environment would be unpleasant, but research shows that the effects of working in a problematic corporate culture can actually cause significant harm. In fact, working in a toxic organizational culture can have a negative impact on your overall well-being—and even your health.
Here are three potential aspects of your culture that could be harming you.
1. Your coworkers—and your relationships with them
Research has shown that your boss and co-workers can influence your health in a number of ways. For example, one study suggests that being the target of workplace bullying is linked to higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Thanks to hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, boosted levels of stress, anxiety and depression can lead to chronic inflammatory diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, among others. Most of us know that keeping stress in check is the key to maintaining good health—and navigating relationships at work with your own well-being in mind is a key thing to keep in mind.
Another study showed higher degrees of emotional exhaustion among employees of abusive supervisors. Again: this isn’t surprising—but it’s an important opportunity for us all to consider the dynamics we experience with our supervisors at work. Do we feel respected and considered? Or do we feel denigrated and taken advantage of? Emotional abuse includes a vast array of behaviors, and many of them can manifest themselves in subtle, but insidious ways.
While the effects of an abusive boss might be easier to recognize, research has also shown that having a boss who is simply ineffective can also have potentially negative consequences. One Swedish study found that employees of leaders who were rated as “less effective” in a variety of areas (such as consideration, ability to manage change, and encouraging employee participation) were more likely to experience heart attacks. Another study similarly found that employees who rated their managers poorly were at heightened risk of heart disease relative to their peers who viewed their bosses more favorably. And, those risks increased the longer the employee stayed at the organization. Needless to say, there’s a reason that recent research has drawn attention to the “brain-heart connection.”
2. The daily grind, and the things you can’t control
While the people you work with can have either a positive or negative impact on your health, so too can your job itself. A 10-year longitudinal study of female workers found that women who experienced high job strain (which was defined as having both high demands and low control on the job) had a 38% increased chance of suffering cardiovascular disease compared to those with low job strain. Chronic stress on the job was also linked to higher BMI in a mostly male sample. While the behaviors at work of those with high or low stress were similar, the researchers suggested that the individuals who experienced chronic stress were more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors at home, perhaps as a way to unwind.
The idea that your entire job description impacts your health may seem like a bitter pill to swallow—as most of us don’t choose the work we do, or the particulars of our work environments, with our health in mind. (And, of course, most Americans don’t feel a great sense of opportunity when it comes to jobs in the first place.) But once again, the thing we can control is the role we play in response to the external stressors we face: can we develop healthier habits at home—before and after work—to counteract the effects of inevitable stress? Can we speak to HR about the way our boss may treat us, and the stress it causes us on the job? With every stressor that arises, there is likely a small step you can take to reframe the situation, and take a little more control into your own hands.
3. The quirks of your work habits
While it might seem that workaholism is an internal quality that is driven entirely by the individual’s personality, research suggests otherwise. It’s been found that having a demanding workload in and of itself can contribute to aspects of workaholism, such as work-family conflict. Knowing that you have to keep afloat with current and future assignments can cause people to work excessively, and in turn, this can negatively impact relationships and job satisfaction. Although the research showed that workload in and of itself did not create all of the symptoms of workaholism, it definitely could play a role.
As you might expect, workaholism is linked to feelings of burnout and increased stress. This, also unsurprisingly, can have physical health implications. A longitudinal study of white collar workers found that people who worked 10 or more hours a day had a 60% higher risk of heart problems relative to their peers. In addition, the workers who spent more time working were more likely to exhibit “Type A” behaviors such as aggression, hostility, and competitiveness.
Even if you wouldn’t define yourself as a workaholic, your work habits—and attitudes—are likely still impacting you. Are you someone who checks your email throughout the day? (Most of us fall prey to this habit.) In a study conducted by the University of British Columbia one group was told to limit checking their email to three times a day, while the other group was told to check their email as often as possible. The study found that those who checked their email less often reported less stress (although they did find that limiting themselves to checking it that infrequently was difficult to do). Another study suggested that frequent multitasking might actually change your brain structure. In particular, people who reported using several media devices simultaneously were found to have less grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain associated with high level functions such as decision-making and emotion. Because the study showed a correlation, one can’t know if the less dense ACC made one more susceptible to multi-tasking, or if multi-tasking affected the density of the ACC. Still, given that we know multitasking can decrease productivity, this certainly gives you something more to think about.
If you realize things like your work relationships or approach to work are draining you of energy, it’s a good time to take a pause and re-assess the factors that are impacting you. Believe it or not, prioritizing your mental and physical health are not “lazy” or “indulgent” things to do, despite the assumptions we make all the time in our can-do culture. In fact, disregarding our well-being can put us at risk for far bigger problems. Each day, it’s up to us to assess how we feel, and make the changes we need to enjoy a happier and healthier life.
Need to get a handle on how you’re managing stress at work? Mindfulness can help. Click here for more details.
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 video that’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 study suggests 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 suggests that 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 post about 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). Traffic isn’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.
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.
Have you ever had one of those days when you get struck in traffic and arrive late for a meeting or appointment—even after allotting twice the amount of time it should take you to arrive at your destination?
Me too. I don’t know what it’s like in your city, but in mine, I come across someone complaining about traffic at least every other day.
So let’s face it, commuting is stressful—and it probably adds to your work stress regularly as much as actual project-based stress. According to a Road Wage Survey, 48% of individuals reported that commuting significantly affects their job satisfaction, 32% indicated that they took the commute into consideration when they took their current job, and 11% noted that it has a negative effect on their ability to maintain work-life balance.
As you might imagine, research has shown that when you’re in the midst of traffic, you may experience negative outcomes in your personal life, including the onset of aggression, negative mood, and increased blood pressure and heart rate. However, even after you’ve left your car and gone into the office (or wherever you’re going) the effects may spill over. One study found that individuals who reported having a stressful commute and were given a difficult puzzle task to complete shortly after, showed worse performance on a follow-up task of moderate difficulty when compared to a group of individuals who had performed an easy task after their commute. In addition, those who reported being in a negative mood performed particularly poorly. This suggests that (1) the mental state you are in following your commute matters and (2) your level of effectiveness can be dependent on the type of tasks in which you engage once when you get out of traffic.
And, lest you think that you are immune to commute-related stress because yours doesn’t involve a car, a study of morning rush hour train commuters suggests this is not the case. In that study, participants who perceived their commutes as unpredictable experienced greater stress and higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) during the ride. An additional study found that the longer the train commute, the more likely the individual was to be stressed at the end.
Given the potential spillover effects (not to mention the fact that a stressful commute just doesn’t feel good while you’re going through it), it would seem prudent to put some thought into how to lessen the potential harm that your commute can cause. Here are some suggestions.
1. Be so cautious about timing that it seems impractical.
While it’s obvious that timing your trip is important, I am including it because I have worked with a number of clients who can be pretty unrealistic about the nature of traffic, and choose not to allot any extra time in case something goes awry with their travel plans. For everyone, unpredictability is stressful.
That’s why I recommend you give yourself more extra time than you even think you’ll need. Try being unrealistic about traffic in a different way, assuming that it will always be extreme. That way, if you do end up getting delayed for some unforeseen reason, you will experience less anxiety than you would have if you hadn’t planned accordingly. And, if nothing unexpected happens and you get where you’re going with time to spare, you’ll have a chance to decompress, get centered, chat with colleagues, and put yourself in a more positive state of mind.
2. Plan the course of your day with your commute in mind.
While you may not have complete control with regards to your schedule, the research cited earlier in this article suggests that if you’re feeling stressed from your commute, diving headlong into complex work might not result in your best work. (Given that the task the participants in the study were asked to do was a relatively short one, it’s difficult to know how long this effect persists; however, it does give reason for pause). So, whenever possible, give yourself a chance to transition from commute mode to work mode and settle in before embarking on tasks that require a lot of mental energy.
3. Listen to your self-talk and adjust it accordingly.
If you were to take a random sample of drivers or train passengers on their way to work, you would likely find huge differences with respect to how stressed people felt. As renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In other words, even though you might be in the midst of congestion, the commute doesn’t have to stress you out. You could choose to fill your mind with stress-inducing thoughts such as, “This traffic sucks,” “This is taking too long,” and “Is that idiot even paying attention?” Or you could choose thoughts that provide you with some relief like “I’ve still got plenty of time,” (see suggestion #1) “Stressing out isn’t going to make traffic move any faster,” or “I’ll get there eventually.” My guess is you’ll feel arrive in a significantly better mood if you opt for the second set of thoughts.
4. Realize the legitimacy of commute-related stress, and manage your mood.
It might feel easy or perhaps even comforting to dismiss the stress your commute brings up as “no big deal,” or “just the way it is.” But it can actually be more comforting to recognize the extremeness of the anxiety that being stuck in traffic can bring up, especially when you’re unable to do anything and aware of your impending late arrival. Being realistic softens the edge, and will help you plan accordingly.
Make it so you can engage in activities that will make your commute more pleasant for you. Listen to music you enjoy; it’s been found to be helpful in reducing anxiety for people awaiting surgery, so it might just work for you in your car or train. Talk to a friend (as long as you’re not getting yourself worked up by venting about stressful things). Mindfully drive in silence while focusing on deep breathing, looking for beauty in your surroundings, or thinking about things for which you are grateful. I’ve worked with many clients who look forward to their commute as an opportunity to have some quiet time, chat with loved ones, or listen to audio books. Point is, you can empower yourself by engaging in behaviors that will make your travel time more pleasant.
While spending time traveling to and from work may not be your favorite time of the day, it doesn’t have to be the seemingly inevitable drain that it is for so many. So, pick out a few of these tips, try them out, and see if you are able to get your day off to a much more positive start.
Want some other research-based tips that will help you to be more effective in your work? Click here.