Slowing down

Thoughts about commemoration and utility


Here in the USA, today, October 8th, is Columbus Day. According to a friend of mine, this commemorates the day that the indigenous people of North America discovered a European sailor wandering around in the Caribbean, hopelessly lost and convinced he had arrived somewhere near India (hence the name West Indies).

Most countries have such commemorative days—sometimes to recall battles or national events, sometimes based on religious festivals.

What is their purpose? Are they simply an excuse for a holiday? Shouldn’t we use them for true recollection, if not of the original battle or person, then for something else?

You can find my answers to these questions in my article today for (Next Saturday (or maybe the one after that) is “Doing Nothing Day”).

It seems to me that we should have such days whenever we need them—not to remember events long past or religious stories, but to give ourselves time to think about who and what we are and our choices in life—to take pleasure in being alive and contemplate what it might mean to live a life worthy of the miracle of even being here.

This, to me at least, is truly something worth commemorating.

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Work/life balance is NOT what you think

It’s easy to assume working less will inevitably make you happier or that spending 60 hours or more each week working is BAD. What is bad is betraying your identity: working longer hours that fits who you are; pretending to be a hard-driven, achievement-oriented workaholic to win approval, when you’re nothing of the kind. The true meaning of finding the correct work/life balance—correct for you that is—comes from selecting a game plan for your life that correctly fits your identity.

Work/life balance isn’t simply about allocating time: it’s mostly about creating a game plan for your life that works for you in your present circumstances. It’s about your identity and authenticity.

How much of your identity, your sense of self, and your self-esteem, is linked to your work?

For many people starting out on a career, the answer is nearly all of it. That’s understandable, since work is usually a continuation of education in terms of a field for achievement, and most young persons long to establish themselves as people of worth.

Later, especially if you gain family commitments, things get more complex. You likely want to be able to give your family a good life, which usually means higher earnings and probably regular promotions. At the same time, if all you do is work, they’ll hardly see you—except as some exhausted, harassed person who appears late at night and spends the weekends locked away catching up with work. Being a “good provider” isn’t sufficient. You have to be able to give your family regular, quality time. What was your authentic identity earlier (the rising star), no longer works. A new game plan is needed.

Later still, you may find yourself dissatisfied with your life so far. Many people find that what seemed such an obviously desirable career path in their 20s appears, in their 40s, to have been the wrong choice. They long to make a change, even if that means sacrificing some financial benefits. Yet another game plan is needed, with a different balance between work and other life goals.

Job or vocation?

Work has considerable advantages as a forum to establish personal standing: objectives and criteria for success are clear; lots of people are keeping score; rewards are well-known and visible to others. It has many disadvantages too: you are rarely in control of your own destiny; the criteria for success may change without warning; economic downturns half a world away may suddenly deprive you of your job; your organization’s goals will never include more than the most incidental interest in providing you with the avenues you need to meet your personal goals.

It’s much less easy to judge success in many other parts of life. The time-scales tend to be longer. How long will it take to know if you have been successful as a parent or a spouse? How can you judge whether you’ve fulfilled your potential as a human being outside the purely economic realm of existence? How can you compare the benefits of basing your personal identity on things outside of work with the benefits you can expect for making work your life?

I suspect many people focus on work success as much because it’s easy to estimate as because they truly see it as the center of their lives. In our achievement-dominated world, deciding not to pursue a path of economic and financial success is usually represented as something of a cop-out: an excuse to cover the fact that you knew you wouldn’t make it. We claim to admire those who follow a vocation rather than hard cash, but fail in many cases to translate this supposed admiration into a living wage.

It’s as if society assumes that those who aren’t primarily motivated by money don’t need the stuff anyway. Most of the jobs that are classed as vocational—teachers, social workers, police, fire, nurses, and the like—are abysmally underpaid. In contrast, guys assumed to be interested solely in money, like hedge-fund managers, are allowed to take home oodles of the green stuff.

How to set your own game plan

What are your standards for a successful life? It’s a question many people rarely consider in any depth. Most simply accept the conventional standards offered by society. That’s a one-size-fits-all approach that really doesn’t fit anyone too well.

Establishing a satisfactory work/life balance for yourself means first answering these basic questions:

  • What are your fundamental values? What matters more to you than anything else? If your actual game plan—the one you use, not the one you claim to use, but only aspire to—is at odds with your fundamental values, you will never feel satisfied, whatever you achieve.
  • What kind of achievements give you the greatest pleasure? If you ignore these, you may earn a great deal of money, or even reach the executive suite, but life won’t be fun or enjoyable. Why sentence yourself to 40 or more years of hard labor doing something that doesn’t even please you?
  • What do your current circumstances seem to demand? As I noted above, peoples’ game plans need to change as their circumstances change. What worked in college likely won’t work for you as you close in on retirement.

These are vital, life-altering questions and it’s always best to reach your own conclusions, whether or not they fit with what society expects, other people demand, or even what you expected yourself when you began to try to answer them. You won’t be satisfied with any game plan for work/life balance unless it accurately expresses your true sense of your own identity.

Take some time out to ponder (and discuss) the kind of person you see yourself as being and what game plan and type of work/life balance that implies.

You may really love your work and enjoy nearly most of the time you spend doing it. Equally, you may come to realize that work is a substitute for facing up to life’s other demands: it’s always there, it’s easy to get lost in it, it’s socially acceptable, and it prevents you from ever having the time to deal with whatever you’re set on avoiding. You may find that work, for you, is simply an economic necessity and your real love in life is something far from your working environment.

Whatever you find, act on your discovery. Look at the game plan you are following—the one that’s clear from your actions, not the one you maybe talk about—and see if it matches up to who you are. Every game plan implies its own unique work/life balance. And that’s the only one that matters.

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On a long journey, rest breaks are essential if you want to arrive safely. That’s true of your life and career journeys too.

It’s fall migration time. Millions of birds are heading south down the three broad flyways that link the breeding grounds in the north with wintering areas as far south as Argentina. For birders like me, migration is magic. You never know what may pass through. Sadly, many of today’s migrants won’t make it to their destination. The ones that do aren’t just the fittest. They’re also the ones that find places to rest up and re-fuel along the way. It’s a lesson we could all learn.

Some of our native birds travel thousands of miles on migration. But they’re sensible. Every so often they stop off for a few days of rest and recuperation, to feed up and fuel themselves for the next big push southwards.

Southeastern Arizona, where I live, is on the Pacific Flyway—the route down the west coast from Alaska into Mexico and beyond. Our summer monsoon, with its burst of fresh flowers and vegetation, creates an important flyway resort for birds from hawks to hummingbirds. At this time of year, the bird population is swelled by millions of visitors looking for somewhere they can get a good night’s rest and a solid meal of nectar, bugs . . . or migrating birds. Since our climate stays hot for all but two or three months of the year, we usually have a good supply of bugs varied enough for every bird’s taste.

Humans also need regular periods of rest on our journey through life. It’s tempting to keep going and ignore this need. There’s a barrage of advice to push ahead, show determination, get things done, and stay focused on your goals. People and problems are continually demanding your attention. But, like the birds, you need rest and fuel for your mind and body. Pushing yourself too hard causes exhaustion, mental and physical. On a long journey, doing so can be fatal if you want to arrive at all.

What’s your ideal flyway resort?

Here are some ideas to give yourself a break for some much-needed R&R in a hectic world:

  • How about taking a long weekend of total rest at a health resort or a retreat? Leave the cellphone and the laptop behind. It’s an exceptional call or e-mail that can’t wait a few days for an answer. Being available constantly is mostly fashion. It’s almost never necessary.
  • Get out in the fresh air. Walk, ride, hike, go up into the mountains or down to the beach. In a two-hour walk this morning, less than five miles from my home, I encountered more than twenty species of birds, plus lizards, grasshoppers, hundreds of butterflies—and a three-foot Western Diamondback rattlesnake, quietly slipping through the grass on its way home after a night of hunting. We live in a land of staggering beauty. Enjoy it.
  • Do something different. Volunteer to help with children or elderly people for a day—or a week. Go to a show or a concert you’d never imagine yourself attending. Make love all afternoon. Ban TV for 72 hours.
  • Lose yourself in a book. Better still, in a series of books. Forget the problems you face. They’ll wait for you. Be a detective, do some time traveling, visit lands you’ve never been to, explore ideas that haven’t crossed your mind before.
  • Change your routine. Get up earlier, or stay later in bed. Have a midday siesta. Take more exercise, or relax more. The old saying that a change can be as good as a rest is true.
  • Change your diet. Try eating more healthily and more slowly. In the non-stop rush of today, too many people bolt down their food as if taking more than 10 minutes for lunch will cause the world to end. Take time to enjoy your food. Be like the French, Spanish, and italians for a few days: have a 3-hour lunch break and spend it really appreciating what you eat.

This isn’t self-indulgence, it’s an unbreakable law of nature. A Rufus Hummingbird that tried to fly from Alaska to Mexico without stopping would collapse and die from exhaustion well before it reached halfway. A person who tries to make their life journey into a nonstop endurance event will meet the same fate mentally—and likely physically as well.

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The more you focus on what you don’t want, the more of it you’ll keep finding to get rid of.

What you give most attention to nearly always assumes a larger role in your life. This isn’t some nutty “law of attraction” nonsense; it’s a simple observation of the way that the human mind works. People who become obsessed with the amount of dog-poop thoughtless owners leave behind on the street see it everywhere. It drives them mad. The rest of us simply step in it, curse, and forget about it. Still, you can sometimes learn even from what you step in.

I’ve had it up to here with the “Law of Attraction”—about as goofy an idea as ever spawned a thousand web sites and helped lead gullible people astray.

Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth hiding within the hype. The more you focus on something, the more you’ll keep thinking about it and the bigger the part it’s therefore probably going to play in your life—at least in the short term.

It’s commonsense. The toughest element in breaking yourself of a habit is usually how very aware you become of what it is that you’re trying to give up.

If you’re always thinking about food (a common problem with people on diets), you’ll constantly notice tempting goodies and be instantly aware how much you want to eat them. Until you decided not to watch TV so much, you were barely aware of the screen in your living room. Now it’s a constant presence tempting you to switch on.

Getting more of what you don’t want

In the workplace, as elsewhere in life, most people find it much easier to define what they don’t want than what they do.

They don’t want a boring job. They don’t want a nit-picking or domineering boss. They don’t want to work with people that they don’t like. They don’t ever want to work with Adam from Accounts again.

Managers are especially prone to this outlook. They sometimes spend so much of their time and attention trying to root out what they don’t want that very little time or energy is left for working on what they do.

Of course, conventional management teaching and writing encourages this. It urges people to look for gaps in people’s skills and concentrate on filling them. To look for all the ways their operations are falling short; to become paranoid about variances from the plan and any mismatch between expectations for profits (in reality, these are mostly little more than over-enthusiastic dreams) and the reality. Only last week, Dell admitted that some executives had falsified accounts to match profit expectations; another case of leaders focusing on what they hadn’t achieved, not what they had, with embarrassing consequences.

Nature abhors a vacuum

If you focus mostly on negatives, you’ll find more and more of them. If you only know what you don’t want, not what you do, you’ll create spaces with nothing to go in them.

Sometimes you do have to clear what you don’t want out of the way to make room for something better. But if all you do is get rid of what’s unwanted, with little or no clear idea of what should go in its place, you’ll produce an empty space: a vacuum waiting to be filled.

The vacuum that you produce will be filled—often rapidly—by something you may want even less than whatever it was you had before.

People who give up smoking often gain weight. The gap left by stopping the rituals of getting and lighting a cigarette are filled by getting something to eat instead. Supervisors told to give up their habit of taking charge of everything themselves (managing by issuing orders) find they have unexpected free time, which many fill by micro-managing instead (disguising it as coaching) or holding pointless meetings.

It’s quite likely that not knowing clearly what you do want, then focusing on eliminating things you don’t, will leave you worse off than if you had left well alone. Look at the businesses who have focused entirely on eliminating costs by outsourcing operations overseas—then discovered a slew of quality problems. They knew what they didn’t want—high labor costs—but failed to define what mattered instead, so they got their wish . . . plus an unpleasant surprise.

Getting the sequence right

If you begin by being clear about what you want, you’ll find things tend to happen roughly in this sequence:

  • Getting what you want often replaces things you would otherwise have had to remove. There’s no gap. The new (and better) simply takes over from whatever was there before.
  • You’ll quickly become aware of exactly what needs to be removed and when. Since you know what must go in its place, once again there will be no gap to be filled by the unexpected.
  • Quite a number of things that you thought you would need to give time and energy to removing turn out to be trivial or irrelevant. They wither away on their own or can be ignored, with a great saving of your effort.

People who want a slower, more civilized kind of working life need to concentrate on what will produce that, not what doesn’t fit their vision. Instead of focusing on cutting time at the office (which will just make you uncomfortably aware of what you are leaving undone), think about the positive ways you are going to spend the time instead.

Spending the commute home in pleasant anticipation beats spending it worrying about what you left behind—only some of which will be still there to deal with tomorrow. A surprising amount will somehow have evaporated overnight, or been reduced to trivia you can safely and happily ignore, if you stop obsessing about it.

Slowing down isn’t just giving up on rushing. It’s moving to a different, more pleasant, and more effective lifestyle. Focus on that and even the urge to rush will dissipate.

In the end, the power of the habits that we most want to break lies in the amount of attention we lavish on them while doing so. Give that up—focus instead on what you will put in their place—and you will weaken them so much that they’ll stop bothering you.

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When faced with some unpleasant or difficult task, rushing to get it over with can lead to poor decisions.

I see many articles claiming to help people with the “problem” of procrastination, but I have never found one that explains how useful if can be. I’ve decided to put that right. Avoiding decisions and worrying situations—especially unpleasant ones—is a very understandable human trait. But sometimes it’s the only logical course of action as well. Here’s a pat on the back for all procrastinators!

When faced with a difficult situation or a tough decision, plunging ahead and acting on the principle of “Let’s get it over with” may not help. And that isn’t just my idea. Research from Emory University, published in the journal Science in May 2006, shows how dread of what might happen is a powerful force that pushes people into action simply to “get it over with,” even if the more rational course of action would be to delay. So strong is this motivation that it could even cause people to accept more pain than they needed to, just to get it over with.

The research found that the more people fear a negative outcome, the more likely they are to choose “pain now” rather than wait, even if the pain at the end of the waiting period would be less. It seems the discomfort of waiting, fearing something bad is going to happen, is judged worse than accepting the pain right away.

I’ve certainly experienced this many times in my own life, sometimes almost hurrying to face something I know is likely to hurt, rather than accepting the misery of waiting with the threat still looming over me. I’m sure it affects others in a similar way, even if the pain they anticipate turns out in the end to be, as so often, due mostly to imagination.

So let’s think about how any decision to delay, or to push ahead, is critically affected by how people feel during the waiting period.

Bad feelings versus bad decisions

This is an important question for people in the workplace. Rushing into something you fear, just to get it over with, can easily cause you to make a bad decision. At the very least, waiting a little might allow circumstances to change, as well as giving you more time to think through the options. Maybe the tendency to prefer immediate action over delay isn’t simply the modern urge for instant gratification. Maybe it also has a lot to do with the desire to get the bad stuff over with as quickly as possible. Thinking, reflecting, exploring are almost always more rational responses; but all involve delay, while the dread of a bad outcome still hangs in the air. Better to “get it done” and move on, than to think about it too much and face that anxiety from anticipation and imagination.

By knowing that the fear that something bad may happen—perhaps is almost certain to—is such a powerful motivator to instant action—even if that action guarantees facing much of the anticipated pain right away—it should be possible to make the alternative decision to wait and use whatever time you can get to work on getting it right, not just doing it quickly.

But why delay?

The more difficult and scary the decision, the more useful delay ought to be. Who knows what may happen in the meantime? Who knows what fresh ideas may occur to you while you wait—ideas that may ward off the problem entirely? Besides, whatever time is available can then be used to explore more options and consider more alternatives.

That’s the key. The procrastinators who leave decisions or actions until the very last moment—especially if they may involve pain or trouble—purely out of habit and indecisiveness aren’t doing themselves any favors. Especially if they waste the time ignoring the problem and simply hoping it will go away; or filling their heads with ever more wild imaginings about the terrible outcomes that may beset them. Only those who delay consciously—are helping themselves; the ones who use every moment of time during that delay in productive ways. You have to use the waiting period, either to keep your eyes open for any change that might be relevant, or to think long and hard about new options for dealing with whatever painful issue is still looming over you.

Maybe that’s why so many avoid doing this. They not only have to live with the dread longer, they have to make it more real by thinking about it. So they prefer to make even a bad decision if it cuts off the pain and anxiety sooner. In a world where emotions have so often come to prevail over logic, that makes a twisted kind of sense—though the likely result is still more pain and misery to come when those instant bad decisions bear fruit.

Benefits of going slow

For more thoughtful people though, bearing a little emotional pain today is a small price to pay for avoiding much more discomfort—real as well as emotional—in the future. Going slow isn’t simply about curbing the speed of action or thought. It’s more about knowing when to be patient and allow things to take their course, and when to act decisively.

One of the guiding principles of Slow Leadership is expressed as “right tempo.” that means choosing your speed carefully, consciously, and in tune with the actual demands of the situation. It’s an important factor in success, as well as limiting stress. Sadly, the current fashion is to despise patience and act as if the the only available speeds are fast, faster, and flat out.

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Acting on the belief that sometimes enough really is enough can tame self-induced stress and stop cycles of boom and bust

The real importance of work/life balance isn’t about taking vacations, having time off for family duties, or combining work with an active social life. It’s about setting a balance between people’s natural urge to do better and get more and their ability to support the drive to achieve. It’s about setting realistic targets and time-scales, not foolish ones.

Our consumer society runs on the premise enough is never enough. Whatever you have—wealth, status, possessions, power, fame—is only the basis for getting more. Every achievement is no sooner reached than discarded. You’ve done that; on to the next goal. Bigger, better, farther.

Every goal seems to be about getting to another one. You’re at point A, and your goal is now to get to point B. As soon as you reach that goal, you’re supposed to set yourself a new one. And not just a new goal, but one that is more demanding, more challenging, further out of reach. We fear monetary inflation, yet accept inflation of expectations as normal—even laudable.

If your performance rating says you’re “above average” (whatever that is), you aren’t allowed to enjoy that position, let alone accept it as enough. You now have to strive for “excellent.” Hit your budget and it will be raised. Hit it again, and it will be raised by an even larger percentage. There will never be a plateau or a point of rest before moving on. No time! Got to do better!

Much of the problem now facing the financial markets was due to exactly this mind-set. Whatever home you had, you were supposed to follow the urge for a bigger, better, more expensive one. I know elderly couples who bought new, 4000 square-foot homes within the last two or three years. Two people living in a home big enough for 6 or 7. And if you couldn’t afford it, never mind. Some company would “find” a way to make you a loan anyway. Now it’s all gone wrong, leaving many people in a worse state than they were before.

Isn’t it right to have high aspirations?

There’s a huge difference between having aspirations and driving yourself to the edge of disaster in pursuit of impossible goals.

Our society has erected achievement drive into a kind of god: a god that demands constant sacrifice and worship. There are realistic, helpful levels of drive to achieve—ones based on knowing your limits, exercising patience in reaching your goals, and knowing when you need to take a break and recover your strength before pressing on. And there’s achievement drive gone mad, forcing people forward with a continual sense of urgency and push. The kind that doesn’t even pause to enjoy what has been achieved. An obsession with more, faster, better, bigger.

When your natural achievement drive gets out of hand, the result is precisely what I’ve described. Once reached, every goal loses its value. You’ve been there, done that, won the tee-shirt. It no longer counts for anything. This is sad. Enjoying what you’ve achieved is one of the great pleasures of life. Does it make sense to spend hours and hours preparing a gourmet meal, only to throw it away as soon as it’s ready? Don’t you want to taste it? Isn’t it worth savoring?

Boom and bust: the natural result of over-extending

If you discount each achievement the moment the goal is reached, what effect does that have on others? Imagine a child coming home from school elated by some success, only to hear his or her parents dismiss the achievement instantly: “Okay, you did that. Big deal. What we expect now is . . .”

Far fetched? Not really. That’s exactly how many bosses behave. Achieve or surpass your current target and your instant reward will be a new target—bigger, tougher, less achievable. And that process will go on and on until you finally fail. It will force you to fail.

As long as people keep mindlessly pushing and pushing for more, we will face cycles of boom and bust: in business and in our personal lives. Every achievement will be dismissed and replaced by a demand for more. The only thing that ever stops the process is failure on a large scale. Then people are forced to fall back and lick their self-inflicted wounds for a while—before going right back to the same process.

In nature, whenever something extends too far for the circumstances, there’s a crash. Population growth in good years is followed by mass starvation or some terrible epidemic. There’s a sustainable level that nature enforces, often with savage means. Any species that gets ahead of itself is brought back into line.

You can see the same happening in the business world. Boom is followed by bust. Organizations reach a peak, only to be struck by a bewildering series of set-backs. At the peak of power and prestige, many people are seemingly overwhelmed by problems and upsets.

The real work/life balance

Do you give up? Drop out of the rat race and go back to oil lamps and horse-drawn wagons? I don’t think that’s going to work, do you?

There is an alternative. Slow down. Take a little time to celebrate and enjoy each achievement. Praise is worth far more than money. Say “well done” as if you mean it. Savor the pleasure of each achievement. Only when you’ve enjoyed what you worked hard to achieve, think about moving on. No pleasure lasts forever. There’s a natural point when people start to focus on recreating the pleasure by setting a new goal. Over-active achievement drive can be tamed. All it takes is thinking ahead, being realistic, giving yourself time, and offering genuine appreciation for success.

Unless your goals are realistic, they are going to produce self-inflicted problems and wounds. Realistic means:

  • Attainable within your current levels of experience ability.
  • Suited to your present circumstances, including your financial situation.
  • Possible with the amount of effort, energy, and and time you can—or are willing—to devote to them.
  • In balance with all the other demands on your life.
  • Not going to demand that you hurt others to attain them.

Patience has become almost a vice in the world of work, not a virtue. In our achievement-mad culture, to be patient is often dismissed as to be dull, boring, second-rate. Yet few important achievements are reached without it.

Remember Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare? How the arrogant, impulsive hare alternately rushed ahead, then idled and slept, while the patient tortoise plodded along at a sustainable pace to win the race? I don’t think there could be a better lesson for our current society, with its arrogant destruction of the environment, continual demands for more, and resulting cycles of boom and bust.

My bet is on the tortoise—unless the hares out there destroy us all before the race is over.

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One small change may be all it takes

It’s easy to be defeated before you start: to look ahead at the size and scope of whatever you want to change in your life and despair. But even a single, small change can be the catalyst for a personal revolution.

I’m sure that many, many people want to reduce the stress that they suffer, and get a better balance in their lives between the demands of their job and employer and all the other things they want to do. Maybe they would like to change other parts of their life too: become a kinder person, worry less, enjoy the moment more.

Why don’t they do it?

It’s often the apparent size of the task that defeats them. They never even make a start. The potential problems, upsets, criticism, difficulties with the boss or their colleagues—all of these make them feel so daunted that they give in and continue with the status quo.

“Big picture” blues

This is one of the rare occasions when nearly everyone considers the “big picture,” and when doing so really does not help.

That broad overview of what you want to achieve, and the likely problems to be overcome, packs everything into a single picture that is guaranteed to put almost anyone off. You may see all the potential benefits, but you’re also considering every drawback and difficulty you can imagine at the same time.

For a start, a good many of those problems will never happen. Your overview will contain what’s likely, what’s just possible, and what’s downright silly—the product of fear instead of reason—all jumbled together. Even when some parts of what you fear do come about, they’ll do so in a random sequence with gaps in between. They’ll virtually never attack you all at once.

When I was at university, one of my teachers had the annoying habit of calling us together at the start of each new year and setting out in minute detail all the work that we were to do for him. I never failed to leave these sessions depressed, anxious, and terrified. I was absolutely certain I could never do all that work—and he was only one of the professors who gave us tasks to complete!

Not only did I manage to complete his schedule (and the schedules for the other professors), I also found, to my surprise, I had time over for rest, socializing, and plenty of other activities. He made me realize how much studying I would have to do, but I was quite unable to see it in the context of 365 days of living. He presented it all at once, so that was the picture that I responded to.

The amazing power of one

All you really need do to start out on a path that may change your life is take a single step, then another and another. Keep doing that and you’ll accomplish all you wanted—and more besides.

Make one small change, then follow it with another. Tackle one problem at a time. Don’t worry about what might happen. Wait until it does. If you have many tasks in front of you, just do them one at a time.

Look for the next thing that needs doing and do it. Repeat that again and again.

Here are some ideas to get you started on the path to living a slower, calmer, more balanced and enjoyable life:

  • Set aside one period during one working day (maybe one hour) when you make sure that you can’t be interrupted. Repeat as needed.
  • Each week, keep one day totally free from work-related activities.
  • Excuse yourself from going to one useless meeting.
  • Choose a single activity you really love and do it for one hour, without any concern for anything else.
  • Choose one random act of kindness and do it.
  • Pick a day and leave work early, regardless of what’s hanging over you.
  • Look down your list of to-dos and do one thing that you’ve been putting off.
  • Pick a person who needs it and tell them how much you appreciate what they do for you.
  • Give your nearest and dearest one single hour of your absolute, undivided attention.

That’s it. Do one thing and see what happens. If you feel good, do another. Don’t try to go any faster. Don’t rush ahead in a burst of enthusiasm and crash into a wall of problems and exhaustion.

One step at a time. When you think about it, there’s no other way to walk or run without falling on your face.

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However much you try to slow down and avoid activities that consume time and energy to no purpose, there will still be occasions when you are going to be busy and pressured. That’s a simple fact of modern organizational life. So how to deal with it?

Here are some ideas, taken from a wide range of sources (plus my own experience), that should help you to save time and trouble when things get hectic:

  • Always think ahead about the most likely consequences, not just the ones that you want to happen. The idea here is simple: to try to avoid causing yourself more problems and stress through a moment’s thoughtless action. One of the commonest consequences of being under pressure is a failure to look ahead. It seems so important to get a quick result. But cutting corners, taking risks without proper consideration, and rushing into precipitate action can all cost you far more time in cleaning up the mess afterwards than you saved at the time.
  • It’s always worth taking ample time to get a message across to others. It’s the same temptation: to rush through some phone call, message, or conversation because you can’t really spare the time and you have so much still waiting for you to do. Resist it! If people can see that you’re harassed, they’ll often try to be helpful by saying they understand when they don’t. Few situations are more maddening than discovering, too late, that someone you were relying on for a key element in a project misunderstood what you said that you wanted.
  • Consider every request to attend a meeting with the greatest skepticism. Your default position should be to stay away. Avoid any meeting with no clear agenda, no obvious ending time, and no purpose that makes sense to anyone except the organizer. Don’t assume you can go and quietly do work at the back. It’s more discourteous than staying away and it rarely works.
  • Practice at least a dozen firm but polite variations on “no” until you can say them in your sleep. Then use them whenever needed—which will be all the time. The best way to stop yourself becoming overloaded is to refuse to take an anything else. If the person giving you yet more work is your boss, ask for clear priorities, explaining that you need be sure what to drop to make way for the new piece of work. You’ll be surprised how often this will make a boss reconsider.
  • Learn the two key ways of reading: skimming for relevance and filleting for data. When you skim a document, your sole purpose should be to decide whether it contains anything worth reading. Let your gaze run down the page looking for key words and phrases. If you find any, put a small “x” in the margin and move on. Then glance over the number of “x” markings. Less than 5-6 means don’t mess with it further unless one of those is essential. Filleting is going back to the “x” marks and collecting the data you need. The best way is to make your own notes in a small book. Then toss the original.
  • Don’t accept what you’re told on trust, save from proven sources. When you’re rushed, the temptation will be to “save time” by accepting what you’ve been told. Always check. It’s well worth the time. You’ll look an idiot if the information isn’t true, and no one will accept the excuse that you were in a hurry.
  • Become familiar with the notions of estimates and orders of magnitude. You can often spot an error or problem almost instantly, without any calculation, by realizing that it is impossible. That’s especially true with numbers. If you know the answer has to be less than 10, and if what is on the page is 14.7, it has to be wrong. No more analysis is needed than that. One of the most useful skills I ever taught myself was the ability to estimate the order of magnitude of the right answer. I rarely needed to know any more to save myself huge amounts of time on analysis.
  • Know when to stop. The more you’re under pressure, the more you will be tempted to press on working well beyond the point where your attention and effectiveness begin to fail. Don’t do it. It seems as if it will help, but you’ll most likely either have to do all that work again or waste time clearing up the mess you made for yourself. And you’ll have denied yourself the rest needed even to do that properly.

Coping with turbulence

Imagine someone in a kayak, negotiating a river full of rapids. That’s you, facing all the turbulence and unexpected pressures of your work.

An inexperienced and foolish kayaker is totally occupied with trying to deal with every twist and surge of the current. His or her attention is fixed on what is happening right now. The ride is a nightmare of hidden rocks, violent eddies, and constant threats of being overturned and drowned. Time flashes by in a blur of near-panic. Any patches of calm water are used up in exhausted collapse, desperately trying to catch a breath before the next horror.

The more experienced kayaker faces the same perils. But that person has learned to look always a little way ahead, sensing the flow of the river and avoiding some at least of the hidden rocks and shallows. By doing so, he or she has more scope to find areas of slightly calmer water, where rest is possible and there’s a moment to look around and enjoy the view.

Although both kayakers may pass the same time in the rapids, as measured by the clock, the experienced one feels as if he or she has much more time. Time is always as much subjective as objective and when we’re in a turmoil of short-term fire-fighting, it passes with such speed that it causes stress by itself.

If I had to sum all of this up as simply as possible, I would say that the key to coping with stress and pressure is to do just about the opposite of what feels most called for: slow down as much as you can, look ahead as much as possible, drop everything non-essential, and do the rest as carefully and thoughtfully as possible so you only have to do any of it once. And always, always, try to avoid making yet more work for yourself by rushing, cutting corners, and making needless mistakes.

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If you ever say, too late, “It’s got me again,” this article is for you.

What do people and fish have in common? They’re both easily caught with baited hooks. In the human species, the bait doesn’t even need to be attractive or edible; just something that sparks an emotional reaction. One moment you’re sitting there, relaxed and content, and the next you’re being led by the nose by an advertising jingle, a newspaper headline, some emotional slogan, or a comforting habit. If you want to lower your stress—and stay in charge of your life and choices—it’s a good idea to understand what hooks you and how it happens.

What are hooks? A hook is anything that grabs us and trips us into a thought or an action without any conscious choice intervening. Every writer tries to start anything from an article to a major novel with a good hook: something to catch the reader’s attention and draw him or her into reading more. Headline writers seek for that elusive phrase that makes the most casual reader want to find out more. Advertisers pay big bucks for an idea that can grab people’s attention and make them listen. People who are hooked find themselves going along with the message regardless of pretty much anything else.

Throughout every day, we’re all surrounded by baited hooks trying to snatch our attention and direct it where someone else wants it to go. We think we get pretty smart about avoiding them. Then we wake up, our emotions roiling and our blood pressure on critical, and groan: “Oh no, it got me again!”

What happened? Something grabbed you and set you going down a path you’ve probably followed all too many times before, and which you swore to yourself that you would never go down again.

The process is rather simple, but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating. Somewhere in your mind is a trigger: a word, a feeling, a concern, a look, an idea. That trigger is connected to some deeply-held value that produces a habitual emotional reaction. Bait the hook with the trigger and the reaction kicks in instantly. You grab at it and get soundly hooked without any conscious choice on your part—at least until it’s too late. Your emotions propel you towards the hook and you are soon firmly fixed. You even do it willingly, since the value that was triggered is something important to you; something you want and feel is important.

Typical hooks

The only way to prevent this process is to recognize what hooks you most easily, and put yourself on your guard when a situation arises where those hooks are likely to be around. Everyone’s hooks are slightly different, but here are some common ones to set you going on your search for the hooks most likely to get you again and again.

  • Ego. Many, many people are hooked by their own sense of self-importance. They can’t resist getting involved, even in things of no real concern to them or in situations they know are dangerous. It’s a form of showing off that usually ends in a mess.
  • Desire. When you want something—money, power, status, love—anything that even hints that it might be linked to what you want will grab you in an instant. Greedy people are some of the most gullible and easily-manipulated folk around.
  • Being a savior. Lots of people love the idea that they might take charge of a bad situation and clear it up right away. Show them someone in trouble and they can’t resist the temptation to step in and save the day. If it worked, it would be okay. Sadly, good intentions tend to be all they have to offer. When the rescue turns sour, you have two miserable people instead of just the one.
  • Gossip. This is one of the commonest hooks. It’s linked to people’s love of drama and being “in the know.” They aren’t so much hooked by the information itself as by the image of themselves creating a great dramatic scene as they pass it on to others. They’ll burst through the door, shouting: “Hey! You’ll never guess what I heard.” People will be impressed—perhaps. Mostly gossip just causes misery and stress and marks out those who spread it as malicious jerks.
  • Boredom. When you’re bored, almost anything can hook you if it seems more exciting than whatever you’re doing: scanning e-mails, reading jokes on the Web, sending someone a silly message. So many people today are bored that anything promising excitement can draw their attention like a magnet.
  • Ambition. Wanting to get ahead isn’t a bad thing, but it does make you rather easy to hook. Whatever starts you feeling that it will move you towards your goal is going to catch your attention and hold it. For those who play office politics, there are even more hooks, mostly linked to hopes of increasing personal influence and power.

How to escape being hooked

How do you either avoid the hook or unhook yourself after you’ve been caught?

  1. Sit down and work out your personal hooks. Ask your friends. Listen carefullly to whatever you hear, however humiliating. Most hooks are totally childish, yours included. You aren’t judging them, just knowing what to avoid.
  2. Recognize the physical and mental signs of being hooked: telling yourself it’s “just this once;” over-reacting to minor problems or set-backs; jumping into something without any prior thought; spending time on things that you’ve already decided aren’t worth it.
  3. As soon as you spot a hook, or realize it’s already in your mouth, stop. Don’t struggle, don’t complain, don’t get mad. Just stop. Then walk away. Put it right out of your mind, if you can. Let your emotions simmer down. Trying to fight it will only drive it in deeper. Letting go and moving on is the only way.
  4. Stop behaving like a helpless victim. Take time to work out what you should do, then do it. Put yourself back in charge. You can’t stay hooked if you’re awake, alert, and fully in control of yourself.
  5. Explore what you did to let yourself be hooked (or get into a hook-able situation). No one forces a hook into a fish’s mouth. They take it in themselves. You did too. Everyone who gets hooked did so voluntarily. The more you understand what caused you to do that, the more easily you’ll avoid it in the future.
  6. Resolve to keep avoiding the hooks. Positive reinforcement works. The more power you take over your own life, the less events and other people will be able to hook you and turn you into a victim.

Stress and burnout can result from internal causes as much as external ones. It’s tempting always to blame greedy corporations and macho managers for the uncivilized and noxious state of our workplaces. They’re definitely guilty, but they aren’t the only ones to blame. All too often, people do it to themselves.

So what are your hooks? If you know, and are willing to share them, tell us. It might help others to avoid similar instant reactions and the problems that they cause.

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Sufficient time is the key to making personal changes that stick.

One of the worst aspects of modern working life is the constant pressure to hurry. Not only does it create needless stress and tension, it goes a long way to making people seem dumber and more resistant to change than they are. If you want to make some personal—or organizational —changes, and make them stick, slow down and give yourself some time and space in which to work.

In all the discussion on the subject of personal or organizational development, one subject that occurs far too rarely is time: the necessity of giving yourself and others sufficient time to allow change and development to take place properly. Time is an essential component in any change involving human beings. Despite all the rush in today’s world, and the constant demands for the gratification of desires now, almost any progress people make in their lives takes far, far longer than they usually allow for.

Time to learn

Your first requirement should be plenty of free time to learn, to think, to reflect, and to internalize fresh ideas. Everyone has the experience of thinking they know something, only to find they’ve forgotten it after a few days. Say you’re learning another language. In the class, what the teacher says is clear and obvious. You know you have it straight this time. But 24 hours later it’s gone. Your brain isn’t a bag that you can stuff with knowledge and ideas and expect them to stay there. Most people’s brains are more like boxes full of holes that allow a great portion of whatever is put in to escape rather quickly. New learning is ‘liquid’ and easily runs out through the holes. Only by repeating the learning experience, typically many times. can you make whatever you’re trying to learn ’sticky’ enough to stay put.

Time to see patterns

You also need time to reflect and see the links between items or areas of knowledge. The human brain finds it hard to hang on to disconnected pieces of information. Unlike a computer disc, it doesn’t cope well with large amounts of more or less random data. What it does best is see connections, linking information together and remembering the patterns, not the individual bits and pieces of data. Remembering a principle is far easier than recalling facts or some specific set of procedures. Do you see such links instantly? Usually not. It takes time to register them fully and understand them well enough to recall them whenever you want.

Time to think

Thinking time is also vital: time to plan, to prioritize, and to choose how best to expend your attention and energy. Doing anything in a rush increases the risks of missing key elements, making needless mistakes, and wasting effort. I’m somewhat suspicious of today’s fashion for simply getting things done. Which things? For what purpose? Are they the right things anyway? All the to-do techniques and software programs may make it easier to ‘recall’ tasks and list them in some kind of order, but they don’t seem to me to help much with recognizing how much garbage doesn’t need to be on the to-do list at all. Lists easily become clogged with items if you don’t allocate enough time to thinking carefully about what you are doing. It’s a good idea to periodically go through any to-do list to see how many items can simply be dumped, with little effect other than saving valuable time and effort.

Time to change

Of course, change itself also takes time. You aren’t going to be successful with every change or idea for development every time. Many people, faced with change, behave like the investor who buys a stock today and sells it immediately if it doesn’t double their money overnight. Experienced investors allow enough time to grow their money steadily. They don’t get into situations where they must act on a particular day, since that may force them to buy or sell when the market is unfavorable. They don’t become ecstatic at every up-tick in the indexes, or depressed by every down day. They take the long perspective. Warren Buffett is famous for saying the best way to treat the ups and downs of the market is never to think about them at all. His kind of steady, thoughtful, long-term investment strategy works just as well for implementing change as it has for building his enormous fortune. Focusing on small, consistent improvements builds a solid foundation for long-term alterations that go deep enough to last.

Time to be creative

Finally, you need time to be creative. I’m not talking about sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That’s a romantic idea that bears no relation to what genuinely creative people do. In all those ‘gaps’ where they appear to be doing nothing at all, the world’s outstanding creative minds are hard at work reflecting, ruminating, ‘noodling’ with odd ideas: tinkering with patterns and unexpected connections. What you see as the result is a mental iceberg: nearly all the activity that brought it about is hidden below the surface.

Most people don’t achieve anywhere near their creative potential because they never give themselves time to do so. They’re so conditioned to quick action that they give up on fresh thinking long before it has a chance to develop into anything. Don’t make the same mistake. Time spent day-dreaming or running over odd ideas in your head is the ’soil’ in which creative ideas grow.

Give yourself time. Give others time. It’s essential, if you truly want to improve your own prospects and advance a more civilized way of living and working.

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