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: 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 28, 2020

Bad workmen or bad tools?

Handling today’s communications technology wisely

From time to time, people take me to task for my criticism of communication approaches such as instant messaging (IM), cellphones, and BlackBerrys. They usually point out that all these tools can be used positively, especially amongst people who must work together while being geographically separated. It’s a variation on the old saying that only a bad workman blames his tools. The tools, they tell me, aren’t “bad,” just misused. Let’s think about this.

Are cellphones a blessing or a curse? Is instant messaging a useful way of making quick contact or a source of constant, usually unnecessary interruptions? Are the people who must stay “always on” obsessed, or simply responding to a genuine workplace need?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, “yes.” You can encounter situations where a cellphone is a life-saver—and when people seem to use one to talk non-stop about the most pointless and inconsequential topics. When a single IM message saves hours of frustration—and when people waste working time sending and receiving IMs about “American Idol” or gossip about colleagues. No technology of this kind is always a benefit or a curse. It’s bound to be how it’s used that makes it one or the other.

Most people believe they can have the good parts without the bad, but experience suggests that the bad parts keep creeping in and spoiling the show anyhow.

Control-freaks and gossips

My experience suggests that IM is more often used for gossip and trivia than serious communication. Control-freak bosses use it to demand constant updates, and reassurance that the people that they cannot see are actually working (or were, until the IM message interrupted them again). E-mails are useful, but not when people’s in-boxes receive many hundreds in the course of every day.

The problem, I believe, is that the power and availability of modern electronic communications has outstripped the need. We are able to communicate faster, more easily, and more often than the vast majority of working situations require—to say nothing of the rest of life. It’s possible now to contact almost any employee at any time, whether in the middle of the night or on vacation, just about anywhere in the world. But does that make it necessary? Sure, it’s convenient (to those still in the office) to interrupt that honeymoon to ask what the password is to part of the system. But couldn’t you save that happening by a little forethought and proper organization? Just as those people walking around the supermarket asking someone back home to look in the store cupboard and check on whether they need to by potato chips could easily have checked before they left the house.

We all do such things from time to time. What causes the problem is when it becomes a habit and therefore “normal.” When, for example, a recent visitor to my home, supposedly on two week’s vacation, rang the office every day to deal with messages and handle questions. Were the rest of the staff totally incompetent? Could nothing wait until he returned? What was the message being sent along with all those phone calls, except that no one trusted anyone else, unless they were constantly under surveillance?

Interruptive power

I think that what makes the most difference in the “interruptive power” of e-mails and the like is choice. If you can choose what to pay attention to—and when to do it—focusing when you need to and taking a break at other times, they aren’t so much of a problem. Unless, of course, you’re totally bored with your work and spend all your time being “interrupted!” My point is simply that too many distraction —especially those that arrive without choice—are usually bad for concentration and increase stress. Many folk don’t seem to have the willpower and discipline to ignore e-mails until they’re ready to pick them up and read them; at least, not if the e-mail software is open and making little pings every few moments. Nor can they ignore that IM message that is clearly nothing but idle chatter.

It’s the demands from others to meet their schedules that really messes up your day. And yes, sometimes you have no choice about that. But that should be the exception, not the rule. One of the reasons some people are more productive working at home is simply that they can manage that way to be free from so many distractions.

It’s never the essential, important communications that cause the problem. It’s people who get addicted to constant chatter, whether face-to-face or via the Internet, the cellphone network, and cyberspace. It’s the temptation to use the system just because it’s there. It’s stupid bosses who can’t bring themselves to find out the answer on their own, or—heaven forbid—wait until a more appropriate time. Let’s not kid ourselves. If we’re drowning in a morass of useless e-mails, wasted phone calls, and other interruptions, we’re the ones to blame. We can stop the problem any time by exercising discipline, using forethought, and trying to be considerate of others. It’s not the tools, it’s the folk using them—and the corporations that make millions of dollars by encouraging gullible people to text-message, call, IM, or e-mail all their contacts twenty times during the day.

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Thursday, March 22, 2020

Does it have to taste bad to do you good?

Many of the choices people make about work are based on that set of conventional values collectively termed the Puritan Work Ethic. I have explained before that I believe this group of beliefs is outmoded and counterproductive. Yet, even if you accept the Work Ethic at face value, it contains some notable oddities, especially the idea that effort confers value by itself.

According to popular belief, derived from the Puritan Work Ethic, a major part of the value of any action comes from the effort it takes to achieve. Something that demands a long period of extreme effort and determination will be worth more than whatever comes to you easily.

This may—possibly—have contained some small truth when applied to activities that required either the skill that comes from years and years of experience or manual dexterity. However, it makes little sense when you apply it to knowledge work.

If knowledge-work activity takes great effort and determination, that must mean one or more of these descriptions apply:We recognize expertise in large part by the way the expert makes extremely difficult actions seem effortless. Where we would huff and puff, and grit our teeth, and produce a pitiful result, the expert smiles and brings off a brilliant outcome without visible effort. All that skill and expertise is revealed by the ease with which the action is done.

The major confusion is between the determination and effort needed to do something difficult and what it takes to learn how to do it.

Part of the nonsense that what is hard work is also valuable is based on the childish view that to be good for you “medicine” must taste bad. You can almost hear the worried parent saying: “I know that it tastes awful, but it’ll do you good, I promise.” But the major confusion is between the determination and effort needed to do something difficult and what it takes to learn how to do it. Many worthwhile things take a good deal of effort to learn, but that doesn’t mean they should also be very laborious to do once you have learned how to do them.

It’s worth the effort to learn something well precisely because it makes doing it easy, once you have learned enough. If you follow the reasoning of the Puritan Work Ethic, learning to do something easily devalues it. To stay with high-value work, you would always need to be doing whatever you do with least ease: things you are poor at and do badly.

Part of the perverted thinking behind the Puritan Work Ethic is the idea that “mortifying the flesh” is a good thing: that the joys and pleasures of this world are temptations that take your mind away from heavenly things. If you think this way, you almost have to see ease and pleasure as somehow evil. I believe that very few people truly believe that this is the case, but some of this thinking still hangs around in the opposite belief that what costs you pain is somehow better. Americans, in particular, suffer from a residue of puritanical values from their past, which is probably why they see Europeans as likely to be lazy and prone to a lack of serious morals.

What is work? Surely it’s mostly what people do to earn a living. There’s no logical reason why it should be hard work. Work that hurts is in no way better than work that is fun. The English language contains many words with multiple meanings and “work” is one of them. In the sense of gainful employment, there’s every reason to aim for a state where work contains little or no “work” (in the sense of effort and striving) at all.

Don’t fall for the nonsense of the Puritan Work Ethic. Those puritans believed everything about this world was evil, especially if it happened to be fun and enjoyable. If something is hard work for you, even after you’ve spent time practicing and learning how to do it properly, give it up. Focus on doing what comes easily. You’ll get better results and have a happier life.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2020

What do you have time for?

What you make room for in your schedule reflects your true values

There’s a joke that goes like this: “Which three statements are never true?” The answer is: I want to add a fourth: “I really meant to do it, but I didn’t have the time.”

What this statement actually means is either “I didn’t want to,“ or “I didn’t know how to,“ or “I spent the time doing something else more important to me.

Lack of time is an attractive excuse, because it implies that you’re blameless—a helpless victim of stress, overwork, and external circumstances. Of course, you may object that you truly do have far too much to do and something had to be left out. But who decided what you did in the time available? Either you set those priorities yourself, or you’re the helpless slave of some all-consuming power that decides how you spend every moment of your time.

I’m much less interested in what people don’t have time for than what they do.

Lack of time is an attractive excuse, because it implies that you’re blameless.

When someone says they don’t have time for family, or friends, or hobbies, or recreation, because they have so much work, what I hear is someone telling me that work is the most important aspect of their life. It comes first. Let’s be honest, it must do, or they wouldn’t accept living the way they do. If they choose to be at their desk by 5:00 a.m. and stay until 9:00 p.m., they are making success at work the only true goal of their life.

Just about everyone goes to great lengths to make time for whatever they believe is most important. We all have the same amount of time available to us, so how we use it nearly always shows what we value most. Of course we face decisions about what to do first. Of course we have to choose between competing claims on our time. Of course we probably have more demands on us than we have time to meet them. Nevertheless, we can nearly always manage to find time for what we cannot imagine doing without.

I imagine cavemen were little different. They had to choose whether to hunt, or make pots, or paint pictures on the cave walls, or help with the children and tidy up the cave. And I expect some of them grumbled that they fully intended to make a new carrying board for the baby, but the hunting took so long, and the clan chief was such a bastard about demanding help to make a new headdress, and the dog needed more training before the next hunt. and so on and so on.

When you find yourself saying that you didn’t have time for something, take a moment to remember what you did find time for. Whatever you say to the contrary, that’s where your priorities lie at present.

When you find yourself saying that you didn’t have time for something, take a moment to remember what you did find time for.

So if you’re continually telling people that you’d like to relax more, achieve a better work/life balance, improve your education, plan to set up your own business, spend more time with your family, or generally sort out your life, but you don’t have time, you’re not telling the truth. Those things are lower down your list of priorities than whatever it is that you’re spending all that time on. So be honest with yourself. Admit who’s choosing to spend his or her time that way. And if you still want to do what you claim you want, push something else out of the way and make the time.

If you don’t have time for building the life that you say you want to live, what do you have time for?

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Monday, March 12, 2020

Are you enjoying the ride?

What jobs and roller-coasters have in common.

Like certain children on a ride at a theme park, many people aren’t enjoying the ride that their work or career is giving them. They only stay on the ride because they think that they must, due to peer pressure, fear of disapproval, or a hidden belief that there’s something wrong with them for not enjoying what everyone else says is so great. But is it true that all the others are enjoying the ride? Might they too choose to fake it for similar reasons?
Have you ever watched the faces of children on a carousel of other fairground ride? Some show pure delight. Others display fear, boredom, or a self-conscious concern with how they appear to parents or friends watching them. For every child who is enjoying the ride, one or more is there only because they have to be, and would get off at once if only they felt it was possible. (As an aside, much the same seems to be true of adults on the far scarier rides at today’s theme parks).

The experiences of these children are almost identical to the experiences of many people in today’s workplaces. some truly enjoy the ride—even the scary parts. Others are doing what they do because they think that they must, not because they get any pleasure from it.

How often have you seen a frightened child being urged onto some ride by amused parents. “Come along,” they say. “Don’t be afraid. you’ll love it.” And, in many cases, the child finally does what the parents want. Do they love their ride? Some do, perhaps, but I suspect more only say that they do afterwards, wanting to please their parents and avoid appearing to be uncomfortable with what their parents so clearly approve.

We comply and smile, and pretend to be enjoying ourselves, rather than face the supposed consequences of defying authority.

In the same way, many of us are urged into careers by authority figures—teachers, parents, ministers, even writers—and assured it will all be pleasure and gain once we overcome our strange reluctance at the start. And so we comply and smile, and pretend to be enjoying ourselves, rather than face the supposed consequences of defying authority.

Of course, peer pressure is equally important. Many of those inwardly frightened or bored children on the carousel are there because all their friends have indicated it’s the right, the exciting, the cool thing to do. These friends show off their “bravery” at facing the worst, most frightening theme park rides and enjoying them.

In work too, peer pressure keeps many people in jobs they dislike, or even hate.

Does this sound familiar? Have you heard people boasting, not just that they can handle the crippling work pressures and ever-extending hours in the office, but that they actually enjoy the whole process? Can you bear to be left out? Can you bear to be marked down as a wimp and a pantywaist? In work too, peer pressure keeps many people in jobs they dislike, or even hate. Their friends all have expensive cars, huge homes, and crushing working weeks. “See how successful we are,” they say. “We’re rich and important. 80-hour weeks? Child’s play to people as tough as we are.” So you join in, afraid of what might be whispered behind your back at the golf club otherwise, or the pitying looks exchanged at the PTA meeting.

And the bored children? They aren’t afraid or excited. They can handle the ride, scary or not, but it has no real interest to them. In part, they are there for the same reason as the rest—pressure of some kind. But there is also, perhaps, an element of self-doubt. “Everyone says the ride is wonderful and exciting. Since I don’t find it to be either, may be there’s something wrong with me?” So they keep riding, attempting to hide their supposed “problem” and pretending to enjoy it like everyone else.

By any rational criteria, the conclusion is obvious: they should try something else. Yet they don’t.

All too many people don’t enjoy their working lives. By any rational criteria, the conclusion is obvious: they should try something else. Yet they don’t. Many even pretend to enjoy their jobs, further fixing themselves into a stressful and meaningless round of drudgery and frustration.

Why is this? Like the children at the theme park, they have maybe given in to authority figures. Or they have accepted the notion that there’s something wrong with them: “This is a good job with a high salary. I ought to love it”. Or they are obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses and cannot contemplate the potential financial consequences of changing to a career they might really enjoy.

We all have only one ride around the sun. It’s our choice whether we select a ride we enjoy (even it isn’t the most financially advantageous), or one that scares or bores us (however much we earn). Having free will in broadly free, industrialized societies, means being able to choose wealth or social respectability over happiness—or the other way around.

If you truly love the ride you’re on, regardless of all the pressures, horrendous working hours, and terrifying ups and downs of the business roller coaster, what you have chosen is clearly right for you. You should ignore anyone who tries to tell you that it’s too risky or too demanding.

You are spending your one life doing something that you dislike—and often suffering as a result. It makes no sense.

But, if you have all the fears, pressures, and frustrations—or you are bored to distraction much of the time—without the corresponding enjoyment of what you are doing, why are you still on that ride? Whatever the pressures, you are spending your one life doing something that you dislike—and often suffering as a result. It makes no sense.

Come the end of your individual ride around the sun, will it have been worth it?

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Monday, February 26, 2020

Are you having fun yet?

Try these nine ideas and start making your work fun again

I just came across a web site dedicated to “The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun.” It’s not specifically about the workplace, but the principles it suggests would work really well there. Most of them fit closely with the basic principles of Slow Leadership, so I’ve taken the liberty of listing them here, with my own, workplace-oriented comments. I also added a ninth principle of my own:
  1. Stop hiding who you really are. So many people do this. They pretend to be someone else: someone more acceptable to the boss; someone more serious and determined; someone who might appear to be a high-flier; someone who “fits in.” Even professional actors need to take a break sometimes and just be themselves. Can you imagine the stress that you’re putting on yourself, trying to be someone that you aren’t, every hour of every working day? And what’s the point anyway? You are who you are. Totally unique in space and time. Who says you aren’t good enough? Don’t fall for that rubbish. All that matters for a satisfying life is to be the best possible version of whoever and whatever you are: to develop your unique talents, express your special personality, and contribute all that you can to the life and people around you. Never, never, accept that you aren’t “worthy.” That’s crazy talk. Being yourself, openly and with joy, is essential to having fun anywhere—and especially at work.

  2. Start being intensely selfish. I’m not quite sure about “intensely selfish,” but I see what they are getting at. I would rephrase this as: “Start standing up for yourself and what you believe in.” No one will ever have the same degree of interest and investment in your life and future as you. No one will ever care as much as you do. No one will ever understand your needs as well, or know what it is like to be you and do what you do. People are always trying to make us into the kind of people they want us to be; to make us fit the mold and conform to their views. Do they do this for our benefit? No way! It’s for them: to stop us causing them trouble, messing up their neat lives, asking for things they don’t want us to have. This isn’t the same as people who give us good advice or share their experiences to stop us making bad mistakes. I’m talking about those who will compel us to fit in, if they are able. Focus on yourself and your own needs. At work, it’s likely that no one else will.

  3. Stop following the rules. Yea! Those rules are there to force you into conformity. The more you follow them, the less creative, individual, interesting, and open-minded you will become. There are two kinds of workplace rules: necessary ones (like rules for safety) and the rest. The first account for probably less than 10% of all the rules around. You’ll never have fun by following the rules. You’ll just become a grey, boring, wage slave, with not a single difference from all the other wage slaves around you. You won’t even advance your career much. No one ever promoted someone who didn’t stand out from the crowd in at least some way.

  4. Start scaring yourself. To learn, to grow, to develop who you are, to find excitement and fun, you have to take risks. If it doesn’t scare you, it isn’t a risk. Fun is all about taking risks—look at all the theme parks with their scary rides. Look at all the people who go surfing, or snow-boarding, or climb scary mountains, or challenge their minds with reading and listening to great music. Don’t wait for the universe to start scaring you. It may well do so in ways you really don’t want. Start scaring yourself. At work, this means taking on new and scary challenges, volunteering for jobs that you aren’t sure that you can do, taking on learning opportunities that scare you. Dare to do what you’ve never done before. Practice “conscious incompetence.” Just do it!

  5. Stop taking it all so damn seriously. Especially yourself. The most boring, least fun people around are all those who take themselves so seriously it hurts. They drone on and on about whatever tedious things they are involved in. They get hung up with never losing face or admitting they are wrong. They demand constant reassurance about their inflated sense of self-importance. There’s one life. It’s far from perfect, but it’s all there is. Crap happens—often. The more seriously you take it, they more it will worry you, and the more pain you’ll suffer as a result. Most of the misery in the world that humans cause (and that’s an awful lot of it) comes from people trying to control their lives down to the most minute details. They think they’re so damned important that everyone, and everything, else has to be lined up for their convenience. It will never happen. Give it up, sit back, and enjoy your ride around the sun. You might as well, since there’s usually damn all you can do about it anyway.

  6. Start getting rid of the crap. I am constantly amazed at how much crap people collect around them, especially in the workplace. Pack rats look tidy by comparison. All those electronic gizmos to stay in touch, all the “to do” lists, the constant meetings, the endless e-mails and memos. How much of it ever accomplishes anything? My guess is that 80% of it is simply distraction and a waste of time. People complain that they have no time to do their jobs, yet waste most of the time that they have reading e-mails, attending pointless meetings, and contributing to the tide of organizational crap engulfing them by producing e-mails and calling meetings of their own. Give it up. You’ll be amazed how much time you have suddenly; and how much fun you can pack into it, in place of all the “stuff” that was there before.

  7. Stop being busy. Constant busyness is the curse of our generation. People believe that if you aren’t constantly busy, you’re not pulling your weight. The curse of the Puritan Work Ethic hangs over us, like a cloud full of misery and drizzle. Busy is not the same as productive. Busy doesn’t mean “good” or “worthy.” Mostly it means “doing things for the sake of convincing others that I am worth keeping on here.” When lay-offs started becoming commonplace, people began extreme efforts to appear busy every moment of the day. As Hamburger Management became conventional, bosses starting measuring activity, because they had no idea how to measure effectiveness, and they thought they should measure something. The result is people who are too busy to have fun, too busy to live their lives, too busy to enjoy anything. Don’t join them. Life has enough misery without adding to it.

  8. Start something. I can’t do better than quote a comment from an earlier post: “Trying something new is like catnip—irresistible fun. Getting better and better at something that I initially did badly—THAT breeds enthusiasm.” Don’t wait for others, or you’ll wait for ever. Start it yourself.

  9. Don’t worry what others will think about you. This is my “extra” principle. All too many people are stuck because they’re worried what others may think. The truth of the matter is that others are mostly doing what we all do most of the time—thinking about themselves. They aren’t concerned with you at all. A lot of the time, they aren’t even aware of your existence. So if, from time to time, they drag themselves away from self-absorption just long enough to disapprove of whatever you’re doing, ignore them. It’s your life, not theirs. Self-doubt and fear of embarrassment are major dampeners on any kind of fun. Throw them away. They aren’t worth the time of day.
When do people perform best at any task, from sport to nuclear physics? When they’re relaxed, intent on what they’re doing and more of less oblivious of everything else. When they’re having fun. So loosen up and enjoy your life.

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