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Wednesday, July 11, 2020

How to save yourself from being hooked again

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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Tuesday, July 10, 2020

Stress-busting ideas: The one-minute check-in

Many people find that they have reached a serious state of stress before they even notice that anything is happening. On the basis that prevention is better than cure, here’s an idea to help you stay aware of what is going on and take action well before anything unpleasant happens.
Stress, overwhelm, anxiety, obsession: all of these creep up on you. They don’t arrive in an obvious way. One moment all is well, more or less. You probably know that you’re pushing yourself a little too hard, but it’s not something that you can’t cope with. Then you go one step too far. What was normal concern becomes anxiety; what was just a little extra effort becomes more than you can handle safely without doing yourself any harm.

It’s the same with extra working hours. You can handle them at first. Maybe it’s only only a temporary effort to deal with a crisis. Then, gradually but inexorably, working 9, 10, 12, 14 hours a day becomes normal for you. You don’t notice the effect until it’s way too late.

The one-minute check-in is a simple and practical way to get a handle on what’s happening. Here’s what you do:
  1. At regular intervals throughout the day, you stop for 60 seconds to bring your attention back to yourself.

  2. Each time, you ask what you are doing, how you feel, and —most important of all—what your patterns of work are. How long are you going without a break? How early did you start and what time is it now? How tired are you?

  3. You don’t cheat yourself. You make it a genuine inquiry into what is happening. No quick, superficial, comforting responses are accepted. That’s why it takes 60 seconds: 30 seconds to give yourself the edited version, then 30 more to get at the truth.

  4. Ask yourself where you are and what you’re doing. How long you’ve been doing it. How long until you can take a meaningful break or stop altogether. How you feel physically and mentally. What’s happening inside you—and where, if anywhere, it hurts.

  5. Don’t prejudge. Don’t make assumptions. Check yourself out carefully and notice what is going on. The purpose of the one-minute check-in is to allow yourself to be aware of your own functioning on a regular basis.

  6. Finally, act on what you find. If all is well, press on until your next one-minute check-in, say in an hour or two. If you need a break, take one. If you recognize that you’re long past being effective and only your stubbornness and anxiety are keeping you in place, pack up and go home right away.
Many of the stress-based problems people cause themselves are overlooked; dismissed as nothing to be concerned about. People take almost no vacation time and expect to be able to go on functioning at peak ability just the same. They skimp on sleep and imagine they are still fully alert. They drive themselves through a physically crippling schedule and imagine they’re tough enough to suffer no ill effects. Until pain or disaster strikes.

By checking in regularly, you can avoid all of this and stay on the right side of your personal limits. It will cost you perhaps 5 minutes a day to do it. It might save your health, your relationships, your career—and potentially your life.



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Monday, July 09, 2020

The 11 best ways to handle workplace stress you can’t avoid

Sometimes you can’t simply avoid stress or make it go away. How can you handle it when there’s no other alternative?

I often write on this web site about ways to avoid workplace stress or stop it happening in the first place. That’s obviously the best course of action, but this isn’t a world where you can always find the ideal situation, however hard you try. You need options to help you when stress cannot be avoided. Here are some suggestions.
What can you do when you can’t avoid a stressful situation or escape from one that has already grabbed you? Is the only course to try to tough it out?

I don’t think so. Here are some other approaches that you can try when prevention or avoidance aren’t available.
  1. Never neglect the obvious. Nothing will elude your attention as consistently as whatever you take for granted. Before you give up, or try some exotic remedy, try considering whether there are some totally obvious aspects of the situation or your working habits that are producing some of the stress. Perfectionism is a common one. Another is neglecting your physical needs for periods of rest, What are the most obvious (and therefore most neglected) actions you could take to improve your situation? Close your eyes and take a break from the world. Get up every 45 minutes for a brisk walk, even if it’s only around the office. Stop going over and over the same thoughts and simply move on.

  2. What ways of coping are hidden by convention or supposedly obvious “truths?” What aren’t you seeing because someone told you in the past that it won’t work, or wouldn’t be allowed? Are you maybe contributing to your own stress by following conventional working patterns, when the situation needs an unconventional style? What are you assuming won’t help, without even trying it?

  3. Which of your unconscious habits might be part of the problem? Worrying is a mental habit that can pile on the pressure. So is feeling guilty for feeling stress at all. How you work may also be part of the difficulty. Perhaps you always work directly on your computer, when some time making hand-written notes might help to break up the monotony and give your eyes a rest. We all become so used to our habitual way of doing something that we can’t even conceive of handling it differently. Try. It may feel odd and uncomfortable at first, but it might produce ways that can lessen the pressure.

  4. What distractions can you remove? Turn off the e-mail notifier. Close down IM. Decide not to answer phone calls for the next hour. Find somewhere to work away from your desk, where casual callers won’t find you. Distractions are terrible thieves of time and ruin your productivity. If you’re under pressure, especially time pressure, constant distractions will raise your blood pressure quicker than almost anything else.

  5. Slow down. Yes, I know that seems like the last thing that will help, but if that’s what you think, you’re wrong. Pressure tends to make you speed up, try to cut corners, jump to quick conclusions and snap judgments, go faster and faster. All of these increase the rate of mistakes and the need for re-working. Then that makes you feel even more stressed, so you speed up some more. It’s a vicious cycle that continually adds to the pressure. So slow down. It may feel counterintuitive, but it’s often the best way to save time overall.

  6. Don’t assume that you don’t already have the answer. Often the best way to produce a mental breakthrough—the kind that lets you jump right to a solution, without needing to spend half the time you thought it would require—is to take all the bits and pieces of ideas and thoughts you have already and play around with them. Shift them into new patterns. Try fitting pieces together that don’t seem to belong. You’ll be amazed at what will pop out. Best of all, since all the pieces are familiar to you, it may not take much time to craft the new combination into a workable solution.

  7. Eat regularly, but lightly. Drink often, avoiding alcohol or caffeine. This is simply commonsense. You’ll need energy to cope with the stress, so that means sufficient food. But not too much at a time, or you’ll start to feel sleepy and sluggish, which is the last thing that you need. Caffeine in large doses will keep you awake but send your mind buzzing like a hamster on a wheel. Alcohol will numb your brain.

  8. Move around as often as you can. Our brains and bodies are linked. If your body is stiff and cramped, your back aches from hunching over your work or sitting in a bad chair, your head aches from poor lighting or just the continual tension, and you feel lousy, you aren’t going to be able to produce your best work—and now, when the pressure is on, is when you need that most. Movement is good for you. Use it to help lessen your physical and mental tiredness.

  9. Get a regular change of scene. It’s easy for some place to become so associated in your mind with the pressure that you start to feel stressed and anxious just by going there. A change of scene can refresh your mind and help you lighten up. Anxiety makes you grim, and grim isn’t going to help you.

  10. Get as much sleep as you can. Anxious people often tell themselves that they won’t be able to sleep, so they stay up late working. But almost any sleep is going to help and it’s easy to over-estimate how long you’ve been lying awake in the dark. It may feel like hours, but it could be just a few minutes, while the rest of the time you were sleeping. It’s worth a try anyway. Depriving yourself of sleep is going to make the pressure worse. And, since one of the keys to getting to sleep is sticking to regular habits, make sure you go to bed at your usual time. Burning the midnight oil is best avoided if at all possible.

  11. Know when you’ve had enough. Sometimes, the only sane thing to do is give up and get some rest. Do it. Don’t kid yourself that you can keep going when all the others have given in. Knowing your own limits is the best way to preserve your health and avoid making mistakes you’ll regret bitterly. Whatever anyone else says, when it’s time to quit, just do it.





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Thursday, July 05, 2020

Stress-busters: How to worry less and live more

Today’s world creates anxiety like never before. It’s time to fight back.

I have to start this article with a confession. For most of my life, I have been a world champion worrier. I was able to worry about almost anything. And, if I didn’t have anything specific to worry about, I would worry that I must have missed what I ought to be fretting over. The workplace, of course, provides an endless menu of possible sources of worry, which is why it’s often so stressful. Anxiety produces stress and stress produces anxiety. They feed off each other, making a perpetual motion machine of worrying. If anything good can come out of all that anxiety, it might be this: my experience-based ideas on how and why to quit worrying so much.
Most worriers believe that they either must worry (they have genuine reasons to do so), or that they cannot stop themselves, even if they see it doesn’t make sense. Let’s begin with understanding the causes of worry and whether it might be of some use. Until you are convinced that worrying is of no benefit to you, you won’t give it up anyway.
  • Worrying is a form of superstition. A great deal of worrying is driven by the unstated fear that, if you don’t worry about some issue, you’ll somehow be punished for your slipshod attitude; that some universal force will spot your dereliction of worrying duty and bring you back into line by making all the bad things happen. Of course, once you recognize that this kind of crazy, childish behavior lies behind much of the anxiety you’re plaguing yourself with, it’s tough to go on doing it without laughing.

  • Worrying is totally useless as a way to solve whatever the problem is. As Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich once said (not Kurt Vonnegut as I was told originally): “ . . . worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.”

  • Worrying takes a heap of energy. Despite being useless in any practical sense, worrying absorbs a great deal of mental and even physical energy. After a day spent worrying, you will be as tired as if you had tried to calculate the value of pi to 300 decimal places while running a marathon. And you will still have achieved nothing.

  • Worrying is amazingly distracting. While you are worrying, your mind cannot settle on anything else. The worrying constantly gets in the way of whatever you try to do. People tell you things—sometimes important things. You don’t hear them or you forget them within seconds, because your mind is totally taken up with that wretched source of anxiety.
If you’re now convinced that worrying offers no benefits and considerable drawbacks, let’s consider some ways to give it up.
  • Don’t accept that you are helpless. I won’t say it will be easy to give it up, but worrying is just a habit. Perhaps it would be better to call it an addiction. Like all addictions, it’s going to be tough to quit, but you can do it. There will likely be some “cold turkey” to get through, but just think about all that extra energy and enjoyment of life that you’ll have once you’re no longer a slave to continual anxieties.

  • Practice letting go. Worrying is all about control. People worry because something is threatening to happen that they don’t like. If they can do something to stop it happening they will. There’s no cause to worry then, it’s over. But, in all too many cases, we aren’t able to stop whatever it is threatening us: we aren’t able to be in control. So we worry instead. It’s a form of quasi-control. By worrying about whatever it is, we imagine all the ways we would control it, if only we could. The more you are able to accept things the way they are, the less you will worry. No one ever worried about anything they simply accepted. And accepting whatever it is will probably be the best way to start responding to it positively as well, so you’ll get a double benefit.

  • Most worries are totally imaginary. We can all imagine truly terrible outcomes. They rarely happen. One way to curb your worries is to sit down and deliberately imagine the very worst that your mind can come up with. Two things will likely result: you’ll realize how ridiculous the whole thing is; and everything else will seem pretty tame by comparison.

  • Worries don’t exist. So you don’t need to waste time over them. It’s obvious. If a problem exists, it isn’t a worry, it’s a fact. You have to cope with it some way and that becomes an exercise in problem-solving, not worrying. Worries are always about what may happen, but hasn’t yet. Therefore, they don’t exist. When, and if, they do, they’ll be problems to be solved. Until then, they are nothing but rogue neurons in your brain.

  • Try planning instead. Planning is considering what might reasonably happen and getting yourself ready. It’s practical and useful. Even if events don’t work out that way, you will probably have learned something useful in the process. Worrying is imagining what will almost certainly never happen, and then imagining how you would fail to deal with that imaginary outcome.

  • Never feel guilty about not worrying. Not only is guilt a totally useless and entirely negative emotion, but you have nothing whatever to feel guilty about. To feel guilty about not worrying is like berating yourself for not thinking about ten yellow goldfishes balancing on the nose of an alligator. Both are simply thoughts, and ridiculous ones too. Why should you feel guilty about not thinking them?

  • Don’t think too much about what other people have achieved. It will only make you feel dissatisfied and start you worrying again. At least 50% of the good things that happen to people is pure chance; the rest is a mixture of solid effort and unexpectedly good outcomes from what began as mistakes. Do what you do and be happy.

  • If you start to take yourself seriously, take two aspirin and lie down in a darkened room until the fit passes. What do you know about yourself for certain? Most of your ideas don’t work, most of your hopes and plans fail, most of your triumphs were luck, and most of your choices were either made for you by others or happened by default. And you take a person like that seriously? All that stuff is just to impress other people, right? There was an old saying that went: “No one is a hero to his valet.” Hardly anyone has a valet nowadays, but you get my drift.




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Monday, July 02, 2020

Why getting away from work regularly is the best way to work better

Relax! Get away from work! You can do it.

Constant, unremitting hard work is a terrible way to solve problems, spark creative ideas, or maintain high morale. Many organizations demand these crazy work patterns only because their ideas on management are stuck at a point many decades in the past. It’s time to come up to date and recognize that rest and relaxation are as much essential management tools as motivation or planning.

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Everyone has been in the situation where you just can’t recall something that you know perfectly well: a phone number, a name, a piece of information. You know that it’s on the tip of your tongue, but it simply won’t come to you. And the harder that you try to remember, the most frustrating it becomes. Do what you may, you cannot recall it. Then, hours later, when you’re thinking of something completely different, what you wanted pops into your mind as neatly as you like. It’s infuriating.

The same thing happens when you have a difficult problem to solve in the workplace. Trying, again and again, to find a solution is very often the worst possible way to go about it. Like that name or telephone number, the answer just won’t come, whatever you do.

It would be far better to let go and allow your mind to work on something totally unrelated for a while.

That’s what vacations and time spent relaxing and day-dreaming are for: to let your mind refresh itself on a regular basis and clear away the blockages caused by too much effort. The answer that you want is probably right there, only you can’t see it for looking. When you get away from the frustration and irritation—right away for long enough to allow your mental muscles to unclench—the chances are that you’ll notice the very solution that has been eluding you.

Creative people have always found that their best ideas occur to them at seemingly random moments: in bed, just before falling asleep; in the shower; walking in the park. Sitting and trying to force the mind to produce creative ideas seems to stop up the flow totally.

Antiquated management is everywhere

It’s hard to understand why so many organizations and their leaders cling to the crazy notion that you can somehow force the best out of people by working them as hard as possible for as long as possible. That might have worked (not too well, but perhaps well enough) in the days when all employees were required to do was either manual labor or repetitive clerical work. Neither require significant mental input. You can happily dig a hole and think about something completely unrelated at the same time. Writing figures into a ledger needs attention, but neither creativity nor any kind of problem-solving ability.

Nearly all of today’s work needs people who spend their time solving problems, coming up with fresh ideas, and using their minds far more than their muscles or their ability to cope with repetitive details. It should be blindingly obvious that long hours of hard labor are not going to deliver the goods. The fact that organizations and their managers miss this simple fact shows clearly how outdated much of conventional management has become—and how far it has strayed from what will work best in the current context.

Managers obsessed with control, extracting maximum hours, and demanding constant, unremitting effort are shooting themselves in both feet at once. What they get is an exhausted and demoralized workforce, whose brains are so numbed with continual toil that they are no longer able to produce creative ideas—or even recognize and recall the ideas they already have. It’s already known that those who pay peanuts get monkeys. If you bludgeon people around the head all the time, you get zombies.

Many organizations afflicted with advanced Hamburger Management get plenty of both—plus a good few zombie monkeys as well!



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Friday, June 22, 2020

Why changing your self-talk could lower your stress

Cutting your stress level and increasing your pleasure in life and work could require little more than shutting your mental “ears” to phantom voices from your past.

Most of us, at one time or another, hear that depressing whine inside our heads that tells us nothing we do is ever good enough, successful enough, or creative enough to be of any real account; that we’ll never amount to anything and other people are probably sniggering at our feeble efforts anyway. This kind of self-talk is responsible for many people simply giving up and settling for mediocrity. Yet all that your mind is doing is trying to help you avoid future pain by scaring you away from taking risks. It’s time to ignore such tainted advice and forget the past upsets that caused the whining to start in the first place.
People who give advice on personal development or coping with workplace problems usually concentrate on what you might do to make things better. Recently, I came across an article on a British web site that takes a different tack. It looks at how you might need to think differently too: specifically, what beliefs you could have picked up in the past which are now holding you back.

The article is titled: “10 beliefs that could hold you back in life.“

Beliefs are tricky things. We often use the word to describe a fundamental outlook on the world, like a religious, ethical, or philosophical belief. That’s not what this is about, though some of these outlooks come complete with a set of supporting beliefs that apply to many other aspects of life. The type of belief that can raise your stress levels, block your career, and produce misery and frustration is the untested, unchallenged assumption about yourself that goes like this: “I’m a failure. I’ve always been a failure. I’ll never amount to anything. People just laugh at me when I try to do any better. I might as well accept it and give up.”

Understanding the self-talk monster

One useful way of thinking about this type of belief is to recognize it as merely negative self-talk: the monologue that plays continually inside your head, criticizing everything you do and dismissing your results as never good enough to help. Some people label it the Inner Critic, but I think that sounds too much like a theater reviewer or a grouchy panelist on American Idol. It also implies that this voice comes from something separate from you, whereas it’s nothing more than the output from a habitual set of beliefs and assumptions that you’ve picked up at various places and times along life’s path.

Self-talk is based on recollections of hurtful and negative things that others said to you—and that somehow were close enough to your own fears and misgivings to be taken up by your mind and treated as . . . well, not quite true, but near enough to one possible truth to be scary. Now your mind uses them as a means to prevent you from running into more hurt. In its own twisted way, this self-talk is trying to protect you from future pain. That’s why it grabs your attention, just as a reflex to jump back from a snake might do.

The easiest way to understand how to move away from this thought pattern is through an example.

Success has always been desirable, but in today’s world it can seem like the only thing that matters. Yet everyone is fallible, so we all make mistakes and feel bad as a result. In your pain at a poor outcome, you’re very likely to be rather sensitive to negative comments from others. A sly look, a half-suppressed giggle, an overheard comment can all convince you that the mere fact of failing has made you into a failure. That really hurts, so your mind decides to save you from more pain by accepting that label. After all, if you’re a failure, no one will have any future expectations of you, so it will be impossible to fail again.

With this belief in place, appropriately negative self-talk kicks into gear. As soon as you seem to be in danger of trying something difficult, you mind starts warning you off. Of course, you’ll fail again sometime—everyone does, without exception—so the mind takes this as confirmation that trying anything new and risky is simply going to result in more pain. The belief has been reinforced and the self-talk steps up to a higher gear as a result.

A protective response?

There are many, many variations on this “protective” response. You might tell yourself that you’re too stupid to be able to grasp anything tough; or too awkward ever to make friends; or too cowardly to be able to face down some bully in the workplace. Others include: “I’m too old to learn new tricks;” “I’m a nobody, so no one will listen to my ideas;” “It’s too risky to change;” “There’s nothing I can do to change anything;” and “Nobody would believe me if I told them.”

As a protective strategy, all this negative self-talk sucks. It may appear to save you from more hurt, but it does nothing to change the situation you’re already in. In essence, it says: “Stand still right here. I know it hurts—badly—but moving could make it hurt even worse.” So nothing changes for the better, and now you’re as frustrated as all Hell too.

The only answer to negative self-talk is to ignore it. Don’t argue with yourself, because what the self-talk says is, quite truthfully, based on certain facts from your past. But that’s just it; they are past. Over. Gone. Of no further account. No longer relevant.

How to fight back

Failing doesn’t make you a failure, because everyone fails at one time or another. Not instantly understanding something complicated doesn’t make you stupid; even the greatest genius has to find his or her way through hundreds of things not immediately understood on the way to some creative insight. No one is ever too old to learn. All these claims by your self-talk are complete garbage. They’re monsters made from smoke and mirrors to frighten you out of putting yourself at risk. Push ahead and they’ll disappear.

I suspect that the majority of stress people feel in difficult and negative workplace situations is self-inflicted. It’s not that the situation isn’t bad. It is, but listening to continual negative self-talk makes it many times worse and raises stress to unnecessary levels.

Like all techniques to lower stress, ignoring negative self-talk isn’t free or easy. It takes effort and it takes time. But the simple truth is that anyone can do it, and the results are more likely to add to your well-being and happiness than just about anything else. That alone should be sufficient incentive to start. And before your self-talk gets to you . . . no, it isn’t going to be a waste of time or another self-help fad that you’ll soon forget. It’s going to change your life.



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Thursday, June 21, 2020

Should you learn not to care — or just not to care so much?

Is being emotional the same as being passionate? Should you allow the jerks and weasels out there to keep on stressing you out?

I’ve been moved to write this piece after being soundly abused—with ample use of obscenities and expletives—by one or two people because I wrote in an article elsewhere: “Stop paying so much attention to how you feel. No one can control their emotions, good or bad. If you spend your attention on how you feel, you’ll be in a constant state of anxiety. If you feel good, you’ll start worrying about how to keep that feeling. If you feel bad, you’ll fret over how to feel better. You feel whatever you feel. Get over it. Just go on doing what you need to do, regardless of your emotions.” The abusers started me wondering why such simple words made them so angry. This article is the result.
I have two principal aims with this blog: to help people to overcome the problems of stress and anxiety caused by modern working practices, and to try to look as objectively and honestly as possible at some of the situations that lead to most upset and frustration.

Should you try to check your emotions?

In various postings, here and as a guest blogger elsewhere (like this recent post at Lifehack.org), I have tried to consider calmly the emotions raised by the difficulties and annoyances most people face in a typical working week. In essence, what I have seen is that allowing your emotions to run unchecked can add to your upset.

I don’t criticize anyone for what they feel. That would be silly, since none of us can stop our emotions from being aroused any more that we can stop ourselves from thinking by an effort of willpower. Nor do I suggest that there is anything “bad” about emotions. They are a natural part of being human, as is the capacity for rational thought. It's just that allowing negative emotions to take complete charge is likely to hurt you more than it does anyone else—which seems a poor strategy.

My suggestion has always been the same: that you can lessen your stress and frustration by simply getting on with things and letting time pass, so that you can stand back and look at the situation more objectively; and that to do so stops you from adding further fuel to already inflamed and stressful feelings.

It’s not a new idea either. The Buddha suggested it more than 2000 years ago. Whether you call it objectivity, detachment, or keeping things in perspective, it comes to much the same thing. It means accepting your emotions as natural, but refraining if you can from whipping them up into greater turmoil. Once you have allowed them to subside a little, you may see things differently. That is why it can be worth trying to put off saying or doing anything too drastic at a time when you’re likely not thinking as clearly as you could.

I find it incomprehensible, therefore, that whenever I have suggested this it results in abusive, often foul-mouthed, expletive-filled comments from people clearly in the grip of turbulent emotions.

Detachment, not disdain

I may be wrong in what I say (I don’t think so, but anyone has a right to differ with me on that), but I cannot understand why articles containing this set of ideas should provoke such a violent reaction. That’s why I was cheered to read a piece by Bob Sutton for HuffingtonPost.com called: “The Virtues of Emotional Detachment.” In it, he goes a little further than I do, saying:
I have argued for years that learning when not [to] care, what not [to] care about, and how to not care is just as important to career success and personal well-being as being passionate. I especially think that it is an essential skill for people who are trapped in asshole-infested workplaces and can’t get out — at least for now.
It’s interesting that Tom Peters takes quite violent exception to what Bob has written on this topic, quoting George Bernard Shaw to support his case:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”—George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman: The Revolutionists’ Handbook.
I’m far from sure that Tom Peters and Bob Sutton are talking about the same thing. What I hear Tom Peters supporting is being passionate about what you believe. What I hear Bob Sutton saying is that you shouldn’t let the weasels get you down. Not the same thing at all. (It’s also worth pointing out, gently, that George Bernard Shaw, like many of us born and raised in the British Isles, was certainly not a person who wore his heart on his sleeve. What he was protesting about in this quotation was pragmatism: the tendency to “go with the flow” and compromise your principles away for the purpose of fitting in. He was not trying to promote being emotional, or even passionate. It can be misleading to take quotations out of context.)

Bob points to an exceptionally interesting post on Kitetail called:”Effective Strategies For Surviving Culture Tax"—“culture tax” being a way of describing “dealing with organizational cultures where the process of getting things done is draining and demotivating.“ In that piece, the author seems to me to sum up pretty well the case for lessening stress by trying to maintain some emotional detachment from the bad things of working life:
Once you recognize and accept the negative styles of the people you are working with, you are no longer the victim. With that, you can focus and direct your energy on how to effectively achieve your goal. [ . . .] I recommend practicing the Zen discipline of emotional detachment. Unfortunately, this is often misinterpreted as not caring and being disengaged. However, emotional detachment merely directs you not to be attached to an outcome or to an expectation. This practice will help you objectively evaluate the situation and recognize new opportunities as they arrive. After all, when one door closes another will open, but only if you are listening.

Caring . . . yet not hurting yourself

I suppose you might be able to so anesthetize your emotions that you no longer cared about anything much. Stress and burnout does that to some unfortunate people, whether they want it to happen or not. But I wouldn’t recommend it as a way of handling the frustrations, the anxieties, and the jerks in your workplace. It’s pretty much what is meant by the old saying about cutting off your nose to spite your face: doing yourself more damage as a human being through the “cure” than the disease did in the first place.

Despite Bob Sutton’s misgivings on the topic, I think that you can detach from a situation (in the Buddhist sense) and still care about it. You do it by looking at the situation as objectively as you can and reaching the best decision open to you about what action to take in the light of your overall goals. If passionate and deeply-felt involvement seems to you to be the best option to meet your objectives and make yourself feel good, go for it! If, however, you decide to “keep your powder dry” this time and be ready to fight another day, that’s fine too. And if, on mature reflection, you reach the decision that whatever it is isn’t worth your concern after all, why should that be somehow “wrong?”

“Attachment,” in the sense these authors are using it, means to cling to something—hope or hurt or expectation—long after reality has shown that it is hopeless to do so. It’s demanding that the universe reverse course to suit your requirements. That may be understandable, but it does cause a great deal of misery. What the Buddhists, as I understand them, suggest is that it’s better to avoid this: to “detach” and accept that the world is the way it is; then decide what to do next on that basis, as free from stress and emotional turmoil as any of us can ever be.

It’s possible I will be abused again for writing this. If that is in your mind, please stop for a moment and consider whether doing so is likely to change anything for the better. Disagree with me by all means, but don’t add to your stress or mine by getting so angry about it.



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Thursday, May 31, 2020

To get the best from your next vacation, put yourself into “rehab” with these simple steps

Vacation time is ideal for breaking out of that addiction to work—before it gets to ruin your life and relationships

Do you tend to take less vacation that you’re entitled to, because you “can’t get away?” Do you cancel vacation plans at the last minute? Do you have trouble “switching off” when you are away, so you spend time worrying about what you’re missing, and constantly checking-in? The path that descends into serious workaholic behavior has deceptively gentle slope. Before you realize it, your life can be in a mess. So why not use this coming vacation season for some “do-it-yourself detox?”
It isn’t only media stars who may need to check into rehab from time to time. Workaholism is just as much of an addiction as being dependent on alcohol or drugs. Those who suffer from work addiction like the “high” it gives them; the dopamine-assisted lift that they get from completing yet another of the hundreds of items on their to-do list, or rushing to another meeting, or overcoming yet another impossible deadline. Like all addicts, they suffer withdrawal symptoms if they’re deprived of their “fix” for more than few hours. And they can be extremely devious and ruthless in ensuring that they have a way to continue to feed their addiction.

What’s the link to vacations? A recent survey, reported in BusinessWeek, found that more than half of American workers don’t take all the vacation time they are entitled to. Thirty percent take less than half their allotment, and 20% take just a few days, at most. Amongst professionals, 42% report having to cancel vacations “regularly.” And even when they do take time away, a large proportion constantly check e-mails, phone the office, or stay in touch via BlackBerrys or PDAs.

That’s addiction, pure and simple. Forget arguing that it’s what the organization expects. Organizations can’t expect anything, since they’re inanimate. That expectation itself comes from people. It’s work-addicted people who expect others to share their addiction, just as drunks try to get others to drink with them. If you want confirmation that it’s a widespread and serious problem, the same BusinessWeek article says that several high-end resorts are offering “detox programs” for those obsessed with work, confiscating their communication devices and keeping them away from telephones. Some employers are even monitoring how much vacation time people take and ordering those who don’t take enough to leave the office behind them for a time.

So, since we’re now at the start of the vacation season, here’s a simple, gentle “detox’ program you can follow on your own to break up any burgeoning tendency to spend too much time focused on work and its demands:
  • “Contract” with someone to keep hold of your cellphone, BlackBerry, or PDA and refuse you access, save in the very greatest emergency.
  • Do the same with telephone calls. Don’t answer any yourself. Have each one screened to keep distractions away.
  • Leave your laptop at home. No excuses.
  • Tell everyone that you will not be contactable—and don’t contact them either.
  • Give yourself a complete break from the media. No news, no shows, nothing. You can read (nothing work-oriented), think, exercise, and spend time with friends and family. Nothing else.
  • Fill your vacation time with definite—preferably highly interesting or demanding—activities. Don’t just lie on a beach or have whole days with nothing specific to do. The temptation to fill the time with work-related activities will be too much.
  • Have someone monitoring you all the time, with permission to call you to order sharply. All addicts are devious and very ready to find ways to feed their addictions in secret. If you find yourself hiding some work-based activity—or, much worse, lying to conceal it—be very afraid. Your addiction is serious.
And the benefits? BusinessWeek reports that an Air New Zealand study found that people who returned after a proper break increased their personal productivity by 82%.

Workaholism—even the milder kinds—gradually destroys major parts of your life, especially your relationships. It also puts you on the path to burnout, which will destroy your career in time. Don’t you owe it to yourself and your family and friends to use your proper vacation time to make yourself a better person to be around, a better employee, and a better family member?

So, if you tend not to take all your vacation, repeatedly cancel vacation plans, or even just have trouble “switching off” when you are away, heed the warnings before it’s too late. Act now, when all it may take to put yourself right is a little discipline and a sensible detox program of the kind I’ve detailed above. Don’t wait until you’re in real trouble and most of your options have already gone.



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Monday, May 14, 2020

Stress is like a glass of water . . .

Most stress is caused by hanging on to problems and difficulties longer than is good for you. Letting go and taking a rest from time to time isn’t the mark of a wimp, it’s a sign of practicality and common sense. Sadly, many of us keep clutching at our problems and burdens until we damage ourselves, sometimes permanently.

I wish I could claim to have thought this up, but I didn’t. I don’t even know who did. It’s based on one of those pieces that go around the Internet, passed from person to person. A friend sent it to me and I couldn’t resist adapting and using it here.

A famous speaker was asked to talk about stress and stress management. Wanting to give the group a practical demonstration of what was being discussed, the speaker poured out a glass of water, held it up above her head for the audience to see, and asked: “How heavy is this?”

There were many guesses, ranging from an ounce or two to almost a pound. After a while, the speaker asked another question: “How long do you think I can hold it like this?”

Again, there were lots of guesses. Some said maybe five minutes, others fifteen. One suggested an hour.

“The actual weight of the glass of water doesn’t matter much,” the speaker said. “I’m not very sure how long I can hold it as I’m doing now, but I can be pretty certain that holding it for a minute or less wouldn’t be a real problem. If I hold it for half an hour, I’ll definitely have a bad ache in my arm. If I hold it for many hours, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it will feel and the more damage I will do to myself. Right?”

Everyone nodded their agreement.

“That’s the way it is with stress too,” she went on. “If you try to carry your workplace burdens all the time, even if they’re quite light, sooner or later they're going to feel heavier and heavier. Soon, you won’t be able to carry on without doing yourself damage. Like this glass of water, you must put them down for a while and rest before going back to holding them up again. When you’re refreshed, you can carry on, if you must.”

There was the kind of silence you get when a roomful of people suddenly realize a truth that ought to have been staring them in the face. A mixture of enlightenment and embarrassment.

“So,” the speaker concluded. “Before you go home tonight, put the burden of work down. Don’t carry it home. Take some rest. Don’t pick it up again until tomorrow. In fact, whatever burdens you’re carrying, let them go whenever you can. Don’t risk hanging on until you need that ambulance.”


Life is short and uncertain. There will always be troubles to be carried. Why spend more time than you must carrying them? Why raise them above your head, if you can carry them some other way? Most stress isn’t caused by some sudden, overwhelming pressure. It comes from holding on to fairly minor problems —often in an awkward or demanding way—until your mind and body have become twisted and distorted with the effort.

Wouldn’t now be a suitable time to let go for a while?



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Wednesday, May 09, 2020

Twelve ways to prevent burnout

Twelve simple, proven ways to avoid burnout and step back from the stress in your working life. No one has to suffer workplace stress. There’s always a way out, even if you’ve tried to convince yourself that there isn’t. You may not like it, but it’s there. Don’t let macho pride, foolish ambition, or misplaced guilt feelings ruin your life. The real proof of a winner is knowing when to walk away.

  1. Stop pretending that you can cope with anything. Why does burnout strike high achievers more than others? Because they’re the most prone to macho beliefs that they can handle whatever is thrown at them. Everyone has limits. Find out what yours are and stay on the right side of them.

  2. Take time out to reassess your values and aspirations. What really matters most to you? Forget what others say ought to matter; or what you’ve been told by others. Times change. People change—including you. Some things you used to find compelling probably aren’t so interesting any more. The better you can focus on what is truly essential and means most to you, the easier it will be to let go of the rest—saving yourself enormous amounts of time and energy you can invest elsewhere. Our lives are like the hulls of ships. As the years pass, they collect a heavy load of ”barnacles”—obligations and habitual actions that don’t matter any more—that cling and cause drag unless we take action to get rid of them.

  3. Slow down and pace yourself. One of the earliest effects of stress is an unconscious speeding up. The more anxious you become, the more you will try to rush everything. Stressed people drive too fast, talk too fast, definitely eat too fast, and rarely give themselves a moment’s genuine relaxation. The human body isn’t designed to run flat out all the time. Piling on the hours and tearing through jobs in record time will just increase mistakes and make you still more stressed.

  4. Stop being a control freak. You can’t do everything yourself. You aren’t a superhero with magical powers. Get real! We have little or no control over the greater part of our lives. You can’t control what happens in the world. You can’t control your customers or the market. You can’t control your boss. You can’t control your staff. You can’t even control yourself, or you wouldn’t be in the mess you’re in! The more you try to control the uncontrollable, the more energy you waste and the greater your build-up of frustration and stress.

  5. Turn down the contrast. Highly-stressed people live high-contrast lives. They’re either going at it flat out, or crashed out somewhere in a state of exhaustion. It’s all or nothing. No wonder they burn out. Step the intensity of your life down a few notches. Those who work hard don’t have to play hard too. Sometimes the best place to be is somewhere in the middle.

  6. Make time to spend with others. It’s so tempting to cut back on purely family or social activities as a way of finding time in the day for all the extra work. Or to be present for other people only physically, while your mind is back at the office, struggling with those problems you know will be waiting when you get back. Isolation is a sure route to burnout. With nothing to give you perspective, you’ll quickly lose sight of reality. Not only do your loved ones and friends need you—fully present and paying attention to them, not you—you really, really need them to help keep you sane and switch your mind off work for significant periods.

  7. Practice saying “no” more often. Willing horses get the biggest loads. There are times when saying “no” is the only sensible thing to do. Sure, it can be scary. Other people don’t like it and may try to pressure you into taking on more so they can take on less. Resist. Why be the sacrificial lamb to let them have time to relax? Besides, if you overload yourself they’ll be even madder when things slip through the cracks and you mess up. Then where will you be?

  8. Stop carrying others’ burdens. We all like to be the nice guy who helps other people. But who’s helping you? There are people around who will happily play helpless and wait for you to pick up the problems and workload they can’t be bothered to carry. You are responsible for your own life. Let them be responsible for theirs. Be firm about the difference between offering short-term help in a crisis and adding their burdens to yours on a regular basis.

  9. Detach, delegate, decline. There’s no need to take everything personally. Recognize that most people don’t think about you even once in 24 hours. Greater detachment bring more calmness. There’s no need to do everything yourself to get it done properly. That’s what subordinates are for: to take the load off the boss and learn how to do things well. They want you to delegate. There’s no need to accept every invitation to join a team, a meeting, or a committee. People will talk behind your back even if you’re present. Let them do it in comfort. Decline unnecessary invitations gracefully, but firmly.

  10. Quit worrying. What is the greatest single source of your anxieties? Your own imagination. Just because you can imagine it doesn’t make it likely. The fact that you are worrying about it won’t stop it happening. Save the worrying for the (very, very few) times it may do some good. For the rest, tell that inner demon to get lost while you do something important, like relaxing or chatting with friends. Worries are like stray dogs. If you stop feeding them, they’ll go find someone else to pester.

  11. Keep a sense of humor. Your worries and fears are really funny, if you look at them from the outside. What’s the worst that could happen to you? You could die, but that would end all your worries for good. You could be fired, but if the job is driving you nuts that’s a benefit. Take a look around you. Who are the grimmest people you can see? The control-freaks, the over-achievers, the worry-warts, the pocket dictators. Who are the funniest to watch making idiots of themselves? The same list.

  12. Walk away. Just do it. If all else fails, don’t stay in a job that’s going to wreck your relationships, warp your mind, undermine your health, and leave you burned-out and wrecked. No amount of money is worth it. Think about it. Every case of burnout happens to a volunteer. Every one had multiple opportunities to walk away. Your best friends in coping with stress may be your feet.




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Tuesday, April 24, 2020

Organizational pathology: Why does it matter?

Part 1 of a series on the illnesses of today’s organizational cultures

Most articles produced on the topics of burnout, stress, and overwork approach the problems from the viewpoint of individuals and their choices. There’s often an unspoken assumption that the organizational context is a given: constant pressure to perform, tight deadlines, impossible expectations. From this perspective, the only way to cope lies in changing your day-to-day responses to a crazy world. This series aims to look at stress and overwork from the perspective of the organization and the diseases of its internal operation.
Many of us have suffered under bosses who are jerks. Their tantrums, callous disregard for others, pompous self-importance, arrogance, and obsessive ambition were the background to our daily lives—and the immediate source of most of the stress and frustrations of the job. But were they born this way; or did something in the organization itself make them jerks?

In an individual case, either or both of these questions might deserve to be answered “yes”. Many bosses have significant personality flaws that cause them to behave like *ssholes. Others might have been less obnoxious, if only the organizational culture hadn’t encouraged—even forced—them to show the worst side of their characters.

A sick organizational culture is bound to cause problems for all those who work within it.

While dealing with stress and burnout from an individual point of view is both valid and useful, personal lifestyle and behavioral choices are not the only factors involved—nor always the most significant ones. A sick organizational culture is bound to cause problems for all those who work within it. Unless it is reformed, no amount of personal change will do more than act as a temporary Band-Aid to hold people together and keep them functioning despite the poison all around.

Every organization develops a unique character, based on an institutionalized set of automatic approaches to the world. That is what we usually call the organizational culture. Some are benign, others strongly poisonous, but all serve as the background to people’s working lives. A toxic leader in a basically benign culture can usually be held in check. If he or she acts out such character flaws too often or too much, the organization is likely to move to curb the bad behavior. Only silence on the part of those who suffer will mask the problem, as least for a time.

But what of “ordinary” leaders, neither especially good nor markedly bad? What will happen to them . . ?

A good leader in a toxic organization will also find him or herself rejected. Most will remove themselves well before that happens, since the poisonous culture around them will be more than they can tolerate. But what of “ordinary” leaders, neither especially good nor markedly bad? What will happen to them, if the culture around them constantly promotes negative, oppressive, Hamburger Management behavior?

I was interested to note on Bob Sutton’s blog that a newspaper article reviewing the French translation of his book, “The No *sshole Rule,” (“Objectif Zéro-Sale-Con” in France) was titled: “L’entreprise, pépinière de cons...” In English, this means something like: “The company, a tree nursery for *ssholes.”

Sadly, this statement is all too true. Many organizations act exactly like garden nurseries where jerks and *ssholes are grown in bulk. These enterprises cling to cultures that force any good managers to leave, allow bad ones to flourish, and shift the great mass of in-betweens slowly and inexorably towards the dark side.

In the next few days, I plan to review some of the most typical categories of toxic organizational cultures, drawing heavily on the work of Manfred Kets de Vries, a Dutchman who is professor of Leadership Development at INSEAD, the premier European business school, as well as my own experience.

Organizations have lives of their own that impact all who come into contact with them. If the culture that develops internally demands results at any cost, it is inevitable that the organization’s leaders will respond by creating the ideal conditions for stress and burnout: irrational demands, overwhelming pressure, casual cruelty, macho posturing, and suffocating conformity. Since these are precisely the conditions that will also nurture the greatest concentration of jerks, the management class of such an organization will rapidly teem with *ssholes of every type.

Organizational problems demand organizational solutions. You cannot expect personal change, however good in itself, to have much impact. That’s why Slow Leadership requires more than individual development. It requires that organizations themselves understand how counter-productive and negative their behavior may have become. They too have to admit to being *ssholes.



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Monday, April 23, 2020

The problem of ambition

Is being strongly ambitious a benefit? Is searching for excellence always worth it? Whatever happened to “good enough?”

The Ancient Greeks had a word for the behavior shown by over-ambitious people who went too far in striving for excellence. The word was hubris. Not in our modern use of the word as meaning little more than being somewhat too big for your boots, but in its original sense of causing your own destruction by drawing down the wrath of the gods. The writers of Greek tragedies focused on showing the effects of hubris on previously successful people: men like Oediipus the king, who blinded himself, and King Agamemnon, murdered in his bath by his wife and her lover. In our modern world, we have forgotten that the pursuit of excellence can sometimes go too far: that crossing certain boundaries turns success into a nightmare of deceit, stress, and guilt. Maybe we ought to recover this idea, for the sake of our sanity.
This is something that it’s worth thinking about; a saying I came across somewhere (I can’t recall quite where), but which has stuck with me because it seems to express something profound about the way that most of us live our lives:
80 percent of the problems in your life come from wanting what you don’t have. The other 20 percent come from getting it.
Our consumer society cannot exist without a large majority of people constantly wanting what they don’t (yet) have. Advertisers and marketers spend their lives promoting craving in potential customers: not just a craving for particular products, but a generalized sense that you are never complete. There is always something new to long for—and seek to find some way of possessing. Always something more to pull you on into greater and greater hubris.

People in the past shared the belief that mankind began in an ideal state (the Golden Age or the Garden of Eden) and, since then, has descended in a more and more debased and troubled existence. Nearly everyone nowadays believes the exact opposite. Our superficial assumption of progress convinces us that each year will be better, more prosperous, more plentiful than the last. Success can never be too great. Like the profits in commercial endeavors, the only acceptable direction is upwards—and the faster the better. But is it true?

Our belief in unending progress is just as much a cultural myth as those ancient beliefs in a Garden of Eden and a subsequent fall from grace. Before we dismiss these stories as simple pessimism, consider this: they actually offer us a clear-sighted view that going too far typically extracts a terrible price in mental health; one that quickly destroys all the success that went before. With constant ambition and desire for more comes constant anxiety. What if your progress falters? What if others do better than you? What if you suffer some significant failure that thrusts you backwards? What if the only way to go on winning seems to be to lie, cheat, and use any means to destroy rivals? What if failure, however small, flips you into depression, or even a psychotic episode?

It’s no coincidence that the highest achievers are typically the most anxious and stressed. Those who have gained most have most to lose. Stress hits hardest at those who are most productive and successful. They live with a constant sense of fear. They worry whether their progress is good enough. Whatever they earn, whatever level in the hierarchy they reach, however many goods they buy, there is always more, just out of reach. They cannot relax because they never reach the point where they feel relaxation can be justified. They have lost the notion of “good enough;” of reaching a state where what they have is sufficient, so that they can now spend time enjoying it. They never recognize the point when productivity becomes less important than pleasure.

To find pleasure in your life, you first need to come to terms with the fact that constant economic striving and enjoying yourself are rarely fully compatible. Making time and space for pleasure usually demands stepping back from all that striving to be the leading rat in the race. “Good enough” can be better than excellence, if the price of achieving excellence is continual overwork with a thick topping of anxiety and guilt.

Even for businesses, the cost of being the market leader can become too high to tolerate. A good business that provides sufficient wealth for those whom it employs, some reasonable stability for the future, and a lifestyle that has a good balance of pleasure as well as productivity, used to be the ideal. Only in recent times has that image been replaced with that of an organization that is never satisfied with anything; and which automatically responds to meeting any goal by setting another, more demanding than before.

We need to see this for what it is: not some profound and inescapable truth, but just another cultural norm that will, one day in the future, seem just as strange as the wearing of powdered wigs and knee-breeches seems to us today. For most of us, “good enough” is in truth very good indeed. Pushing too far beyond it often produces more stress than is compatible with a good life. The problem of ambition has always been the same: knowing when to stop.



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Wednesday, March 28, 2020

Accept it: you can’t concentrate on two things at once

Multi-tasking isn’t a solution to soaring workloads. It’s a huge part of the problem.

There are some topics that it’s worth returning to periodically; some myths that are so deeply-rooted in our culture that eradicating them is like getting rid of couch grass—you know that it will take many, many applications of weedkiller to do the job. One of these topics is multi-tasking. The more stressed people become, the more they attempt to do several jobs simultaneously. Yet research (and commonsense) strongly suggests that the human mind simply isn’t designed to work that way. Here’s another dose of anti-multitasking “weedkiller.”
What is multi-tasking? It’s a process of mental juggling with tasks or thoughts: trying to handle two or more tasks simultaneously, switching constantly between tasks, or jumping through several in rapid succession. It’s become a staple of macho styles of management, especially Hamburger Management. So much so that people don’t just rely on this supposed ability to handle their crushing workloads; they boast about how many disparate jobs they can handle at the same time. It’s another case of: “I’m better than you are, because mine (my mutli-tasking) is bigger than yours.” The kind of infantile boasting that we fondly think is confined to adolescent boys, but turns out to be just as prevalent in middle-aged ones, especially after several drinks.

Of course, organizations have come to rely on this supposed multi-tasking ability to allow deeper and deeper cuts in staffing to save cost and boost short-term profits. So people pile on the work, constantly switching between tasks, while being distracted by all the e-mails, phone calls, BlackBerry messages and the like that they imagine they have to handle to prove their management and professional ability. Since there’s no time left in normal office hours for real work, what with all the pointless meetings as well, they take work home every evening and weekend, telling themselves that they’ll be able to do it then in peace and quiet.

That doesn’t work either, of course. There are domestic and family matters to attend to. Perhaps the television is on in the same room, or nearby. Other people interrupt with questions, comments, or futile requests for attention. After a day spent juggling half a dozen tasks and distractions at once, the evening or weekend is devoted, in large part, to the same thing. Stress is piled on stress. People lose sleep to work; and when they do get to bed, their brains are on hyperdrive, so sleep is patchy and interrupted.

Multi-tasking isn’t a solution. It’s a vast and growing part of the problem.

Research shows convincingly that doing more than one task at a time, or jumping between tasks, especially complex ones, takes a heavy toll on productivity. This macho approach to handling greater workloads turns out to make the people who use it less productive, not more.

The truth about multi-tasking is simple. You can never have more than 100 percent of your attention available. Split it across two tasks and nothing changes. Still 100 percent. Only now each task has 50 percent—or one has 70 percent and the other 30 percent, however you choose to share out your attention. Even if you “oscillate” between the tasks, each gets only 100 percent for a limited time, before you switch back to the other one. Maybe not even that, since it is known that it can take the mind up to 15 minutes or more to get back to full attention on the task that you previously dropped. Take the average attention devoted over any period and it must be less than 100 percent (remember all the gaps with zero, plus the “warm up” periods?). Now suppose you’re multi-tasking between three or four tasks. How much of your attention will each one get? You do the math. Of course, this assumes you are ever able to put 100 percent of your attention on any task. In most organizations, that’s rarely possible, what with meetings, phone calls, e-mails, and all the other distractions.

People who believe they can multi-task effectively share a dangerous delusion: that paying attention to several things simultaneously actually increases their available attention above 100 percent, so they can still focus fully on every task. This is logical nonsense. It’s like saying you can spend your total income on food and housing and have the same amount available to spend on an expensive vacation. Of course, some people even believe that. It’s called “getting hopelessly over your head in debt.” But there are no banks or credit-card companies available to lend you more attention, even at racketeering levels of interest. However you divide up your attention, you’re stuck with the same overall amount. Just 100 percent, never more.

If you still don’t believe me, look at this research published in the extremely prestigious scientific journal “Nature.” Putting attention on something necessarily means taking it away from something else. Every distraction consumes attention. Every extra task takes attention away from all the others.
A study of brain activity in subjects performing a task in which they were asked to ‘hold in mind’ some of the objects and to ignore other objects has revealed significant variation between individuals in their ability to keep the irrelevant items out of awareness. This shows that our awareness is not determined only by what we can keep ‘in mind’ but also by how good we are at keeping irrelevant things ‘out of mind’. This also implies that an individual’s effective memory capacity may not simply reflect storage space, as it does with a hard disk. It may also reflect how efficiently irrelevant information is excluded from using up vital storage capacity.
Or how about this article in the New York Times [via] ? Or this one in TIME magazine?

Our total awareness is limited to only three or four objects at any given time. We can concentrate fully on only one.

Because of this “extreme limitation,” people need to control what reaches their awareness, so only the most relevant information in the environment consumes their limited mental resources. Try to fill your mind up with too many things (e.g. by multitasking) and your “limited mental resources” will be as surely overwhelmed as they would be by all those irrelevances. It will be like the party where you’re holding a glass in one hand and a full plate in the other when the Chairman comes along to shake your hand. You just know something is going to drop!

How long will it take to convince everyone, including the grab-and-go organizations and macho Hamburger Managers out there, that true multi-tasking isn’t possible? That what they are doing is lowering productivity, raising stress levels, and turning creative, productive people into semi-idiots?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure it won’t be a quick fix. In the meantime, for the sake of your own sanity and health, refuse to join in the whole multi-tasking nonsense. Slow down. Only check e-mails at set times. Turn off your cellphone whenever you can. Don’t attend pointless meetings. Keep right away from inane activities like Instant Messaging people all the time. And if your boss asks you to take on still more work, ask him or her which existing items you should drop to make room.

But above all, never, never, join in all the silly boasting about how much work you can handle and how well you can multi-task. Killing yourself for your career means you won’t be around to enjoy your success, while your organization will. Remember the Latin phrase, much beloved by mystery writers, cui bono? (who benefits). Organizations benefit from multi-tasking and Hamburger Management, not employees. Why should you go along with that? Besides, as the research proves, multi-tasking makes you less effective and productive. If you’re under pressure, multi-tasking is trying to put out a fire with gasoline.



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Monday, March 19, 2020

What causes stress?

It’s not always what you that think it is



It’s very easy to concentrate only on the visible and external causes of stress: things like long hours, bullying bosses, crazy profit expectations, and continually shortening deadlines. Are these causes of stress? Yes, indeed. Do they lead to serious problems? Yes again . . . but not in every case. One of the criticisms thrown against the whole “work/life balance” movement is that it over-dramatizes these aspects of life, sees universal problems where none exist, and ignores people who handle such stressors with ease. The critics have a point, but not the whole point. Maybe the answer to what really causes stress lies within us.

According to the critics of those who draw attention to stress at work, hard work never killed (or significantly harmed) anyone. Long hours are simply a fact of modern life, like idiot TV programs and fast food. Just as eating fast food on occasion does no harm, so working long hours isn’t harmful either, unless taken to excess (I wonder what would count as “excessive” long hours. Maybe 20 hours per day, 7 days a week?). All these causes of workplace stress—long hours, bullying bosses, crazy profit expectations, and continually shortening deadlines —are dismissed either as problems capable of an easy solution or the whining of the chronically lazy.

I’ve deliberately stated these objections in extreme terms, since that is how they are often delivered. But when you cut out the inflated rhetoric, it must be admitted that the critics have a point. Most of us know of people who work very long hours, do so quite voluntarily, and thrive on it. There are folk for whom a terrifying deadline is a source of motivation, rather than dread. And there are assuredly people who set themselves seemingly impossible goals and expectations, yet still meet them—and experience excitement and joy as result, not exhaustion.

Is the answer to stress to find, and work on, only what you truly love? Well, maybe.

You cannot simply dismiss the evidence that there are more than a few people who see hard work as pleasant, and not at all stressful. Is this just another case of: “different strokes for different folks?” Is it simply a reflection of the difference—as so often claimed—between those who are doing what they love, and the rest of us who do what we must? Is the answer to stress to find, and work on, only what you truly love? Well, maybe. But my own experience suggests that only a small proportion of people even know what work thay might they truly love doing; and an even smaller proportion find themselves able to make this a source of sufficient income to serve as their sole, or even primary, employment.

Maybe the problem is that we so often take a rather simplified view of the phenomenon of workplace stress.

There are, it’s quite clear, externally-applied stressors: compulsory long hours, insufficient resources, fear of job loss. These do cause stress in the majority of people, though a minority find them acceptable, or even stimulating. This parallels human activities like climbing mountains or parachuting. the majority of people find the very idea of frightening or negative, but a dedicated few enjoy them thoroughly. Still, I know of no organization that makes jumping out of an airplane and dangling on a piece of nylon fabric compulsory for everyone, not even the parachute corps. So pointing out that some people seem to enjoy what others find stressful is no argument in favor of imposing it on everyone.

There’s also good evidence to suggest that most stress is produced in the mind, both by our reactions to events and by our attitudes and thoughts. I happen to be afraid of heights. I know my response is illogical, but I cannot stop myself from becoming physically sick and terrified if I stand near the edge of a precipice. The stress that I suffer is caused by my mind. I know this, because people standing around me are quite at ease, and even lean over the edge to get a better view.

Still, even this understanding is of little use if it merely applies to certain individuals. Are there general mental causes of stress: ones that apply to the majority of people? I believe that there are, and that they contribute at least as much to today’s epidemic of workplace stress as the far more often blamed working conditions and crass bosses.

Here are some that I think are common enough to qualify as typical:
  • The obsession with being in control. I’ve noted several times in these postings that belief in your ability to control anything absolutely is a dangerous and stressful illusion. Yet many go much further. They seek to control almost every aspect of their work, even their life: future results, the actions of those around them, external events, even the thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes of customers and clients. Such folly is doomed to constant failure. That would be stressful enough. But what makes it still worse is that such people—and not a few organizations—don’t just believe this kind of direct control is possible; they demand it. For them, it is the mark of success, as compulsory as turning up to work, or following legitimate orders from the hierarchy. It’s bad enough to fail all the time. How much more stressful is it to feel that succeeding in this obsessive control is both possible and required? This production of permanent failure, frustration, and guilt is a major cause of stress, especially in otherwise successful people.


  • Linking satisfaction to specific, external circumstances. This is so common that most people don’t even recognize it as abnormal. It expresses itself in statements like: “I’ll know I’ve succeeded when I’ve [fill in the blank].” Or “My goal is to have [this status, these possessions, this level of income, this lifestyle]. Then I will be happy.” Aside from the fact that no one can control the future, so even the hardest work may fail to produce the desired “goodies” due to events completely outside your control, most people have no proof at all that what they claim they are working for will make them happy, even if they get it. Most of these desires aren’t even based on thorough, personal consideration of the likely costs, benefits, and alternatives. They’re picked up from the media, friends, the fashion of the moment, and the continual activities of marketers and advertisers, whose job depends on maintaining everyone in a constant state of unfulfilled desire for still more things, however much they've alreadty got.


  • The illusion of continual growth. Very few things grow without limits. Nature doesn’t contain any creatures that live for ever, grow to infinite size, continually learn to run faster the longer they live, or possess abilities that have no limits. Even the human capacity to learn, while “infinite” in most individual cases only because we typically use so little of it, has limits somewhere. Nevertheless, many people act on the assumption that as soon as you have something (wealth, power, status, possessions), the only natural course is to seek still more. Once again, marketing and advertising encourage this idiocy. If they didn’t, they would have to face the reality that even people with three cars cannot drive more than one at a time, and someone with a lust for buying shoes equal to Imelda Marcos's still has only two feet. Never being satisfied is bound to produce stress over time, since you will be so tormented by the imagination of all that you still don’t possess that you will never enjoy what you have.


  • Egotism, pure and simple. Very small children are supreme egotists. As their brains develop enough to form a conception of themselves as separate from others, they become obsessed with being the center of attention at all times. Happily, for most this is simply a phase of development, like sucking their thumb or repeating the same nonsense syllables for hours with no sign of being tired of them. It seems, though, that some people never grow out of the egotistical phase. Even as adults, they behave as if the whole universe revolves around them. Many of them become senior executives.

    We are back to the stressful effects of seeking the impossible. The more egotistical your thoughts, the more every setback, problem, difficulty, harsh word, or simple piece of bad luck will feel as if it is personally directed at you. Where others may shrug and accept that things just didn’t turn out as they hoped, you will be driven to seek out why you were treated so badly by events, or by others. Simple upset becomes translated into personal insult. A moment’s frustration becomes hours of churning anger at the “unfairness” of it all.

Stress has many causes and demands an equal number of solutions. We should try to create more civilized workplaces and limit the external causes of stress wherever we can. But this will never be sufficient on its own. The internal causes of stress—obsession with control, seeking satisfaction in externals, the illusion of “necessary” growth, and personal egotism—must also be conquered before stress at work can become limited to obviously pathological cases.

Stress soars like a multi-stage rocket, with each stage (working conditions, bullying bosses, greedy organizations, and personal obsessions) driving it higher and higher. Until all the stages have been tackled, you will never be able to keep it down to earth.



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Friday, March 02, 2020

The Perversions of Workplace Power

Today’s top executives have too much power and business is suffering as a result.

Feeling powerless, even over your daily schedule, is a major component of workplace stress. The inequalities of power in today’s organizations are too extreme. It’s time to restore a better balance.
Hierarchies are all about power. Those in the workplace are no different. The people at the top exercise most power; those at the bottom have least—or none at all. I think that this is a simple fact of life. Some idealists may hope for a power-free workplace, but I don’t see that happening. Someone has to accept responsibility for making decisions and issuing instructions for others to carry out, or there is likely to be something close to anarchy.

What causes problems is not so much the unequal distribution of power as the degree of that inequality.

In dictatorships, all the power is held by an individual—like Hitler or Stalin— and everyone else must obey. In oligarchies—like the old Soviet Union after Stalin, or China today—power is concentrated in the hands of a favored elite. In democracies, power is far more widely distributed. An elected few hold some of it, but only subject to legal and political checks. Some is given to middle-ranking officials. And even those at the bottom of the social ladder have a little power, even if they can only express it at voting time.

Organizations are, generally speaking, not democratic. But that shouldn’t mean that the only alternatives are dictatorships or oligarchies run for the exclusive benefit of an elite.

Organizations are, generally speaking, not democratic. But that shouldn’t mean that the only alternatives are dictatorships or oligarchies run for the exclusive benefit of an elite. There is a wide spectrum available: from the kind of quasi-democracy of some small, high-tech organizations to the rigid oligarchies of most old-established corporations—or the quasi-dictatorships run by high-profile, egotistical CEOs in recent years.

Those in power quickly come to resent any checks on their freedom to use it however they like. They try to remove checks on their freedom, and extend their power wherever they can. It’s said that all power corrupts. Maybe that’s true in one sense: it’s frustrating and irksome to have to submit your ideas and wishes to others for approval, especially if you fear they will be rejected or watered down. Top executives have usually spent years fighting for the power that they now exercise. They don’t like to give it up, even a little.

The more macho the organization, the more power matters. Organizations afflicted with Hamburger Management become obsessed by power struggles and ambition.

All the politics that go on in organizations are simply people jockeying for power and influence. It’s often easier to build greater informal power than to try to get the “rules” changed for your benefit. Influence and patronage, for example, are both potent sources of power, though neither appear on the organization chart. In nearly all organizations—especially large and complex ones—there is a constant process of shifting power structures. The more macho the organization, the more power matters. Organizations afflicted with Hamburger Management become obsessed by power struggles and ambition.

The reality is that there is only so much power available. To get more, you have to take it from others. In the 1990s and early 2000s, CEOs worked to take power for themselves and away from boards of directors and shareholders. Of late, shareholders have been trying to take it back. “Rising stars” try to sneak power away from established leaders. Divisions and departments “steal” power from the centre whenever they can. Central functions typically write policies and procedures that deny power to subsidiaries and operating divisions. And everyone in the upper reaches of a hierarchy takes power from the easiest source: those lower down.

When people feel that they have no power even over their own daily work schedules, the results are instantly stressful.

Powerlessness—real or imagined—is one of the major causes of frustration, stress, and burnout. When people feel that they have no power even over their own daily work schedules, the results are instantly stressful. In the past, only slaves and servants had no power in this way. To be without power is to be reduced to a paid slave. What we see today is even highly-educated professionals being treated as serfs, to be allocated crippling working hours without the resources or the freedom to decide how to live their own lives.

Disparities of power in the workplace are like wage disparities: everyone accepts that they will happen, but expects them to be held within reasonable limits.

We know that the CEO will earn far more than the lowest-paid worker. We accept that as reasonable. But when it is 400 or 500 times more, that looks very like an abuse. It’s the same with power. No one expects the workplace to be an idealized democracy. But when it becomes a dictatorship or an oligarchy based on a tiny elite, we smell the corrupting effects of an obsession with power.

In a civilized society, all power must be kept under constant scrutiny, and any abuses detected and dealt with before they can turn into abuses. What we have today are corporations with too much power held in the hands of too few people. It’s producing stressful, toxic, and uncivilized working conditions for too many people.

It’s time to slow down, take a hard look at what is happening, and get back to a better balance.



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