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Thursday, July 19, 2020

Why perfection isn’t a viable goal

Setting extreme targets is a major cause of job-related stress and burnout.

I wonder why so much is posted about how to achieve your goals and so little about choosing them wisely? Many people seem to think that seeking perfection is a good way to achieve outstanding results. In fact, it’s usually the best way to cause yourself frustration and failure—and a great deal of needless stress along the way.
People love “how to” advice, and like others to share their experience of finding how to do something important to them. That could explain why advice on achieving goals is far more prevalent than advice on how to choose them. But surely, if the goals themselves are incorrect, uncertain, ill-defined, or unsuitable, knowing how best to achieve them is pointless? That’s especially true if the goal is to achieve something close to perfection.

Conversations about perfection tend to bring out three opposing views, which I’ll call the “fundamentalist,” “literalist,” and “relativist” perspectives:
  • The fundamentalist view is that aiming for the top is the best way to motivate yourself, and perfection is the only goal worth pursuing. If you don’t make it, that’s because you didn’t want it enough. It’s an expression of the archetypal American Dream, in which everyone can reach the heights, if only they apply themselves.

  • The literalist view is simple; perfection is impossible in human affairs, so it’s not a viable goal. Deciding to aim for it is always going to cause disappointment and frustration. “Good enough” is a better choice.

  • The relativist view questions the meaning of perfection and suggests what’s perfect for one person may not be so for another. From this standpoint, you can produce your own definition of perfection. Given that, aiming to achieve it becomes possible, even desirable. How far you want to go is the key to deciding direction and what constitutes achievement.
Perfectionism is a problem because it often wrecks lives—not just your own, but the other people whom you drag into your scheme, or who are affected by your choice. Being perfect may or may not be possible (it depends, as we have seen, on your viewpoint), but achieving it is just about always a task on the edge of reality. You can't set a more demanding objective, unless your definition is so "dumbed down" as to be meaningless.

A great deal of perfectionism is more or less unconscious, based only on the ill-considered assumptions of a competitive society. We’re urged to set our sights on being “the best” or “the winner,” without even considering what that means or what it will demand of us. Sadly, giving in to that thoughtless ideal has made a vast number of people feel that they are losers from the start. In fact, many of them don’t even try, since they know, deep down, that there’s no way they’ll be willing to follow the brutal regime needed to achieve the heights in their chosen field.

Still, many people have grown up with strong tendencies towards perfectionism, so we need to explore how to deal with this and avoid the worst excesses of the perfectionist mindset.

Countering perfectionism

The best way to deal with perfectionist tendencies is to decide in advance how far you want to go, then ask yourself when you want to get there and what you’re prepared to “pay” to do so. Further and sooner demands much more than slower and later. It’s like driving. If you want to cross the USA as quickly as possible, you’ll need a fast car and a big budget for gas. Pottering around your favorite neighborhood at 25 mph won’t strain your wallet so much, and won’t be so stressful either.

Another approach is to make sure that you select goals that truly represent your own values and desires. It’s too easy to choose goals thoughtlessly or pick up ready-made ones. There are plenty of people eager to tell you what your goals should be. But unless your goals are truly yours, and right for you and your circumstances, you won’t have the patience, determination, or interest to see them through to achievement, whatever that may take.

Review your goals regularly and weed out any that have slipped in and have an automatic perfectionist slant. How do you know if your current goals aren’t right for you?
  • When you forget them, keep changing them, or feel you can’t summon the energy to keep pushing against the obstacles.

  • When they cause you more stress and discomfort than you can handle comfortably.

  • When they cause the people you care about more stress and unhappiness than they deserve.

  • When achieving them is going to demand total devotion to that and nothing else—and you know that you want more than a single-track existence.

  • When each achievement costs so much that it brings you as much pain as pleasure.

Do you really want to be the best?

Too many of our ideals about achievement in life are based on sport. That isn’t to decry sport or belittle what sports champions attain to. It’s simply that being “number 1 in the world” in any sport is a short-term endeavor reserved for the young. In most cases, those with the talent get there—if they have the determination and obsessive need to do so—and retire young enough to establish another career afterwards.

Being the world’s richest person, or even just the CEO of a major corporation, is going to take the whole of your working life: first to get there and then to stay there. By the time you retire—if you ever truly do —there will be no time left for anything much else.

Perfectionism is, I believe, more often an absence of decision, not a true choice. It’s following the conventional dream without considering whether it’s really yours. That’s why, when it doesn’t work out, a great many of its former adherents find that they have nowhere else to go.

Make every choice conscious

People who fail to make their own choices and simply accept the idea of perfection as a goal soon find that they are facing a lifetime of “failure.” Their former dream becomes a daily nightmare. Of course, that failure isn’t real: it’s just a result of assuming a standard for success that cannot be reached. But it hurts just as much.

I believe that much of the reason why so many feel alienated and devalued in today’s world comes from the thoughtless assumptions about success peddled by the media. Only a tiny number of people can be “the best.” Almost an infinite number can be “very good.”

It doesn’t seem to me to be sensible for most people to set perfection as a goal, and not just because no one can attain it in a literal sense. Getting right to the top is going to demand just about everything that you can put into it, and leave no space for anything else in your life.

If that’s what you truly want, then go to it. Take what you desire (if you can) and don’t whine about the price you’ll have to pay. But if you want a balanced life, with time for things other than pursuing a single goal, perfectionism is a very poor companion. It’s best to let it go right away and settle on some more realistic target.



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Wednesday, July 18, 2020

Chickens, eggs, and happiness

Do you need to be successful first to be happy, or does happiness produce success?

It’s an important question, because making happiness conditional on success is the usual path; and it doesn’t seem to be working for many people. They endure considerable amounts of unhappiness, often for many years, in the belief that when success comes they will finally be happy. What if it isn’t true? That’s surely worth thinking about carefully.
When I started working, I bought into all the conventional ideas about what made for a happy and successful life. A good career, a good income, a good position, a good pension to round it all off. Get those first, and happiness will surely follow.

Well, I got most of them and I found that happiness somehow hadn’t seen the need to fulfill its part of the bargain. Oh, I was happy sometimes—maybe quite often. But it wasn’t due to any of those. Earning a high salary brought stress and ethical compromises I wasn’t happy about. A top position in the hierarchy brought yet more pressures, along with jealousy and politically-inspired dirty tricks. Inflation ate into my salary and pension fund and employers went back on their promises.

What really brought me happiness rarely had anything to do with conventional ideas of success. Mostly, it was due to things totally unconnected with my work. Of course, I was sometimes happy at work too. When I was busy doing something that I enjoyed and made me happy, I was often amazingly successful. When I tried to be successful, and accepted temporary unhappiness and boredom as its price, I rarely managed to reach my goals. If I accepted short-term unhappiness as the price of long-term success—and I very often did—what I got in return was the opposite: short-term success paid for with long-term unhappiness.

Hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of people spend their lives doing work they hate, and enduring pressures that ruin their health and cripple their relationships, with the sole purpose of being successful; which usually means gaining money, position, or fame, or all three. They tell themselves that once they’ve got what they want they’ll be happy. It rarely happens. What they gain has far less real value than all they have sacrificed to get it.

Weighing the evidence

Research has shown that, far from leading to happiness, success is more often dependent on being happy first. Happy people do better work, forge stronger relationships, are more likeable, learn more, take more productive risks, have better health, and live longer. How is this not success? How is a life doing things that you dislike and don’t make you feel happy—and that cause you stress, pain, and frustration—going to lead to enormous happiness sometime in the future; aside, that is, from the pure joy you would get by ceasing to do it at all?

Do you need wealth to be happy? If that is the case, most captains of industry should be delirious with joy all the time. I must say it doesn’t show. Mostly they’re rather grimly set on making yet more wealth for themselves. Perhaps even they don’t have enough money and success to produce the promised happiness? If so, that final state is so far beyond the reach of all ordinary people as to be worthless as an objective.

Some of you may object that lack of money produces misery. Sure enough. But since even extreme wealth seems to do little better in the happiness-producing line, the only logical conclusion must be that neither wealth, nor poverty, in themselves have much of a link with happiness. It’s more likely that what you do with however much, or little, wealth you possess is going to have a far greater impact on how you feel about your life and whether it brings you happiness.

Fame is the same. Are all famous people amazingly happy? I can’t see it, can you? We assume that they ought to be, but many are clearly not. If that’s the case, then fame has nothing much to do with happiness either. The same is true for status and position. All are neutral in terms of producing happiness. For some who possess them, they help. For others, they produce only misery. Isn’t it more likely that happy people stay happy if they become rich, successful, or famous, and use their wealth in happy ways; and miserable people do exactly the opposite, however successful they are?

So what is success?

We need a new definition of life success, I think; one that isn’t based solely on material possessions or hierarchical outcomes. Rather than equate success with wealth, power, or fame—or even achievements—and tell ourselves that happiness will follow, it would be more sensible to equate success in life with happiness, then look for whatever furthered that happiness.

We’ve been told that money equals happiness. It doesn’t. That work, hard work, is good for you and leads to success and happiness. No, that doesn’t follow either. How about saying that what makes you happy produces happiness, whether that’s work, pleasure, relationships, or just the love of a good cat?

When it comes down to it, being happy is what nearly everyone wants, so why not take it wherever it comes from? And if, as the researchers suggest, being happy is the best route to being successful as well, what alternative is likely to be any better?

So take note. Stress, overwork, long hours, constant striving, and ruthless political manoevering may well produce money, power, and fame, but they won’t deliver on the promise of happiness.

Besides, while you’re grimly clawing your way towards the top and suffering as a result, won’t it be truly maddening if some happy person sails past you, enjoying every moment of life, and sweeps ahead on a wave of sheer pleasure in what they are doing?

You pays your money, as the saying goes, and you takes your choice. Just make sure that the choice you make is really worth what you will need to pay for it. Conventional pictures of success are frightful price gougers, all of them.



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Tuesday, July 17, 2020

Stress-busters: The one-day “retreat”

Religious people have long used retreats—time totally away from the world and its distractions—as a way to deepen their understanding and refresh their spirits. Those are goals that can benefit anyone. You don’t need to be religious to use the idea yourself to ward off stress.
The religious retreat is a specific period completely away from the world and worldly things: a time set aside for religious practice and that calm and quiet that many people feel that they need to get their view of life back into perspective. Many Jewish people, for example, keep the sabbath as one day each week free from work of any kind; a time for family-based rituals and a reminder of their cultural origins. Indeed, their ancestors so revered this time set aside from the world that they believed it to be both a commandment and a blessing from their god.

Such a good idea need not belong only to the realm of formal religious activities. Most of us would benefit from regular breaks away from all the pressures and distractions of our lives; taking time to refresh ourselves, enjoying peace and quiet, thinking and renewing our perspective on life, or just catching up with sleep, family, and friends. Best of all, it could be time devoted mostly to resting and letting our minds wander into paths far away from the daily stresses and pressures of work.

I think we would all do well to take such regular one-day “retreats” in this way; preferably every week, but at least as often as we are able to do so. You could, of course, combine it with religious practices of any kind, if you wish. But that isn’t the essence of the idea. The purpose that I have in mind is a specific period of rest and relaxation to help deal with stress and the many ways that it distorts our thinking and undermines our health and peace of mind.

Here’s how a purely secular and non-religious version might work.
  • You set aside a clear period of 24 hours for your retreat. That time is sacrosanct. Nothing must disturb it short of a national or personal emergency.

  • You remove all possible distractions. No telephone calls. No e-mail. No use of computers, not even to surf the Net. No TV, radio or newspapers.

  • You must not do anything connected with your work. Nothing, however small or seemingly insignificant. And that includes golf with potential customers, “talking shop” with friends, reading anything work-related, or simply thinking about work problems. You can make physical effort (playing sport, walking, gardening, painting the house), or mental effort (spending time at some hobby, playing or listening to music, reading some challenging book, writing on non-work subjects, watching serious programming on TV), but none of it must be related in anyway to your job.

  • There’s no need to be serious or “worthy” in what you do. Probably the best way to spend the time is playing, relaxing, and generally having fun. My only suggestion would be not to “veg out” and waste the whole time on the couch in front of some mindless TV program.

  • If you have visitors or go out to visit friends, try very hard to make sure that they aren’t directly connected with your work or you’ll be tempted back into talking shop. If you do have some work contact with them, gently ask them to stay away from conversations about work topics while they’re with you. If they can’t, invite them on another occasion instead.

  • At least 8 full hours must be set aside for sleep. No excuses.

  • All meals must be leisurely and relaxed. If you enjoy cooking, cook. If you don’t, eat out.

  • At least half the non-sleeping time ought perhaps to be devoted to being with family or friends. This isn’t a rule, just a suggestion. Some people enjoy social time. Others find greater refreshment in time alone. It’s your choice.

  • Try to get plenty of fresh air. Nowadays, most of us spend far too much of our time indoors. Walking or cycling is good.

  • If work-related matters (or people) try to intrude, they really must be ignored. If you aren’t strict about this, your attempt at a retreat is doomed. Nothing must be allowed to spoil it. No exceptions. Allow just one in and all the rest will push through the crack you opened. It’s only 24 hours. Almost nothing is truly so urgent that it cannot wait that long.

  • It’s best to hold retreats like this regularly, on set days. That way, everyone else gets used to your schedule and knows that it’s pointless trying to interrupt.
The benefits are, I think, obvious. Aside from the rest, refreshment, and re-establishment of perspective, just the self-discipline involved is likely to be extremely beneficial. So is the process of reminding yourself—regularly—that it’s your life and you should be able to set aside some part of it for yourself.

So consider this: if you can’t do this, how are you different from a slave who lives continually at the whim of someone else’s agenda?



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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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Wednesday, June 27, 2020

Keeping your sanity and your cool

In today’s manic workplaces, personal boundaries require constant attention.

Boundaries are essential to effective organizational functioning. They’re just as important to individual functioning too, especially in the workplace. It’s dreadfully easy to allow organizational needs to swamp your personal space, reducing you to an automaton whose only direction is the one currently set by organizational policies and goals. Here’s how to stop that happening.
Everyone knows the old saying that good fences make good neighbors. Nowhere is it more true than in the workplace, especially when it points to the need to establish and maintain personal boundaries in the face of continual pressures to lose your identity in the group.

Good fences make good neighbors because each side knows where the limits lie. This side is mine, where I can choose freely; that side is yours, where I can enter only with your permission. You don’t trespass on my side and I don’t try to eat into yours.

Where boundaries are poorly marked or uncertain, there will be a constant tendency to disputes, land grabs, turf wars, and the consequent resentments—even violence. No one is quite clear about their limits. Those who are—or feel themselves to be—stronger are tempted to encroach. Bullies can grab bits of someone else’s territory and hope to conceal their aggression behind a smokescreen of uncertainty. Such boundaries as remain are under continual threat.

Keeping your space clear

That’s not an uncommon situation in many organizations. The powerful (bosses, top executives, ambitious colleagues) stand on one side of each individual’s boundaries. On the other side are that person’s private needs, personal life, family obligations, career hopes, and health requirements. If the boundaries are unclear, weakly laid down, or easily breached, the strong will be tempted to encroach, nibbling away until little is left that is not under their direct control.

Without good personal fences, your time, your energy, your achievements, and your dreams are more or less up for grabs. Those bullies, domineering bosses, uncaring executives, and even so-called friends out for a free ride can just walk in and take more or less whatever they want: your time, your energy, your self-esteem, your confidence. The result is wage slavery.

Here are some ways to establish sound personal boundaries without alienating the guys on the other side.
  1. Start as you mean to go on. Setting and maintaining good “fences” from the outset will always be easier and less contentious than trying to establish them when others have become used to walking all over your patch.

  2. Be firm. Your boundaries are going to be tested. Others will try to take more time, energy, and personal space than you are willing to give. It’s tempting to give in a little, if only for the sake of seeming flexible. Don’t do it. It will always be harder to eject a squatter than stop them entering in the first place.

  3. Be crystal clear where your boundaries are. You can’t really blame the organization or the boss for trespassing on your private time, or requiring unreasonable work out of working hours, if you haven’t made it clear what you will do willingly, what you will do only in a true emergency, and what is going too far at any time.

  4. Defend against incursions. However clearly you lay down your barriers, there will be times when others cross them. If you don’t defend yourself, they’ll assume the boundaries weren’t meant seriously.

  5. Set your boundaries carefully. It’s well worth taking the time to be absolutely certain of where your boundaries should lie. If you aren’t sure, how can anyone else be? Constantly shifting them won’t work either. It will tempt others to assume that your decisions on boundaries are weak and easily changed.

  6. Negotiate when there is no dispute. The worst time of all to try to resolve any boundary problems is when they are in dispute. Don’t wait until the boss expects something you aren’t prepared to give to talk about the whole issue. By then, emotions are aroused and firm positions taken. If you have the good sense to discuss boundaries when everyone is relaxed and can see one another’s needs rationally, it will give you a handsome pay-off. Later, all it will usually take is a polite reminder of what was agreed to get everyone back on their own side of the line.

  7. Don’t violate others’ boundaries yourself. You’ll be in a weak position to defend your own, if it’s known that you’re quite ready to step over the line with others whenever it suits you.

  8. Don’t be a sucker for hard-luck stories. Not every attempt to snatch something inside your boundaries will arrive as an obvious incursion. You’ll face a good many pleas and much wheedling based on claims that it will only happen just this once. Any time you give in sets a precedent and the next incursion will be harder to resist.

  9. Don’t be greedy. Other people also have legitimate claims. Colleagues may reasonably expect a helping hand in a crisis. The organization that pays you has a sound claim for value for its money. The boss can reasonably expect respect basic loyalty. If you push your boundaries out too far, they’ll never be respected, whatever you do.
Establishing and maintaining good personal boundaries works because prevention of abuse is always better than cure. As a human being, you have a moral right to a private life, with time and energy enough to enjoy it. It’s also necessary for physical and mental health. By setting firm boundaries, you’re helping to create a balance between what others may reasonably expect and what you are prepared to give. And by staying firmly in charge of your boundaries, you can relax them if it seems appropriate, and reestablish them afterwards without weakening your position.

Work and the rest of your life are neighbors. As with all neighbors, life is calmest and most pleasant if they co-exist with a minimum of friction. That’s why good fences—and open communication about mutual boundaries—are so important.



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Monday, June 25, 2020

How to work less and accomplish more

A simple way to increase your productivity without spending another minute working

There’s an easy way to get more done in the same total time. It doesn’t require fancy software, special organizational tools, or even understanding anything new. All it takes is to slow down and understand the realities of how you spend your time; then apply what you will learn.
Let’s begin with a simple picture of spending 20 minutes working on a single task. It will take you a little while to get into the work, say 5 minutes. That’s for getting things together, settling down, and starting your mind working in the right direction. Before you leave the task, you’ll need maybe another 5 minutes to wind down, put things away, tidy up, and shift your thoughts to what you’ll need to be doing next.

Simple arithmetic shows that, of the 20 minutes total time elapsed, 10 minutes in total was available for productive work, with two sets of 5 minutes allowed for starting up and winding down. That gives a productivity ratio (productive to non-productive time) of exactly 50%. It look like this:


However, if you increase the total period of uninterrupted, focused time on that task to 30 minutes, your productivity ratio immediately increases to 67%, since it takes no more time to start up and wind down. You now have 20 minutes of fully productive time out of 30 minutes total time elapsed, like this:


If you can increase the uninterrupted time to 40 minutes (and the task will take at least that long to complete), your productivity ratio will rise to 75%. With one hour spent like this, productivity rises to 83%. And if you could set aside two hours free from interruption, your productivity ratio would be 92%.

Now see what happens if you have uninterrupted time, as before, but decide to multi-task: that curse of much management thinking. We’ll go back to a period of 30 minutes in total, since that makes a chart that will fit on this page, and assume only two tasks for the sake of simplicity.

Because research has shown that it takes time to swap between tasks—the human brain can’t just jump fully-effective from one to the other—and you still have to allow start up time and wind down at the end, your total effective working time is sharply reduced. You still spent exactly 30 minutes, split between the two tasks, but your productivity ratio has fallen to 33% from the 50% in the first case in this article.


Being interrupted is the very worst thief of productivity, as this chart shows. With no multi-tasking and only two interruptions, 40 minutes being “busy” gives only 10 minutes of truly productive time: a productivity ratio of only 25%. Imagine how low that ratio will fall with more interruptions and a vain attempt at multi=tasking as well. Is it any wonder that people reach the end of a hectic day and cannot see any results for all that effort?


The lesson is simply this. To get the most done in the least time, focus on only one task, remove all possible interruptions, and never multi-task. And try to allocate as long a period to the task as you can, before you have to stop or change to something else. The longer the focused period, the higher the productive ratio of useful time to time spent in starting up, winding down, and the like. That’s why “chunking” time, thought much better than multi-tasking, still isn’t much of a help unless the “chunks” are good, big ones.



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Tuesday, June 12, 2020

Lighten up

Don’t add to your own anxieties by obsessing about work.


Many of the problems that we face we cause ourselves by a combination of overwork, unrealistic expectations, and imaginary anxieties. Sometimes, it seems as if the whole world is losing its sense of humor and proportion in favor of chasing ever less realistic expectations and more magical beliefs about constant progress. Does life offer nothing better than making more money profit in less time by working all hours? Lighten up! That way you get to enjoy all parts of your life, not just one or two.
Most of us take our lives and our work far too seriously. We fret and fume over every setback, lash ourselves with harsh words when we screw up, and set ourselves such ludicrously excessive targets it’s a miracle we aren’t more anxious than we are. We live in tiny, cramped, “me-centered” worlds, where everything that happens is, we believe, directed at us. Problems at work are put there to drive you mad. It rains when you’d planned to spend time outdoors; therefore the rain fell specially to ruin your day. Someone passes you by in the corridor, ignoring your greeting; that means they’re mad at you, or stuck-up, or deliberating snubbing your attempts to be friendly, or plotting against you. Why couldn’t they simply be preoccupied, unobservant, or even slightly deaf? Why does it have to be about you?

Any sane person would surely laugh at such childish egocentrism. But then, even sane people fall into the trap of attributing results to the wrong causes. Most of our successes are due as much to luck as anything else. So are most of our failures. The people around us spend ninety percent of their waking hours thinking about themselves and their own concerns—just as you and I do—but we act as if they spend at least that amount of time worrying about us.

When do people perform best at any task, from sport to nuclear physics? When they’re relaxed, intent on what they’re doing, find pleasure in the activity, and are more or less oblivious of everything else. When they’re having fun. So loosen up, forget what others are thinking about you (mostly, they aren’t concerned with you at all), and enjoy your life. It’s the only one you have (so far as we know).

Try something new

I’m a strong advocate of thinking what most people would do in a given situation, then trying the opposite. In this case, most people will assume their inner doubts and worries reflect reality. So try the opposite. Tell yourself your doubts and fears are simply an over-active imagination and some temporary digestive problems. Instead, make the assumption that your performance can obviously be improved with a little effort, some practice, and fewer emotional tantrums. See if it works. My guess is that it will. Even if it doesn’t—and why wouldn’t it?—you’ll feel better without all that pandering to your fears and anxieties.

Sure, work is important. But so are many other things. When all that you focus on is one aspect of your life—working—all the other aspects are ignored. However much achievement you get from your work, it won’t make up for all that you’ve given up elsewhere. A one-sided life is bound to be limited and narrow. It’s like only ever eating pasta at every meal: neither sufficiently nutritious nor very interesting.

Don’t fall crank up your expectations to stratospheric levels

Don’t fall for the glib talk about being able to do anything, if only you set yourself some sufficiently demanding goals. There’s no magical force of intention and affirmation. Doing this will encourage you to create foolish hopes that you can do anything (no, you cannot) or reach the heights in no time (wrong again, it’ll take many years). Worst of all, thinking like that encourages people to believe in the power of “if only.”

If only you can get that next promotion. If only you can get a raise. If only you can buy a new house or a new car, everything in your life will be wonderful. It’s a fallacy. Nothing is that simple and excessive hopes are very likely to end in equally excessive despair. If you want to have some realistic expectation of success, try taking steady, patient action. It’s not spectacular, nor will it deliver without effort, but you’ll be far less likely to end up disappointed and depressed.

Life has many sides

A good life is doing the best that you can with what you have been given—and that means all of it, not just the parts that you take to your place of work. Grim determination and excessive work may produce material benefits (though even that isn’t assured). They will also destroy any chance of others (and that’s much more certain). Do alcoholics drink for the pleasure it brings them, regardless of the terrible effect is has on the rest of their lives? Surely not. They do it because it has become a compulsion that they cannot fight, and they endure the misery and shame as best they can. Do they have a carefree glass of wine once in a while with good friends?

Workaholics are the same. They do what they do because they are obsessed and gripped by a compulsion they have brought on themselves. Do they enjoy it even? I suspect few do. They simply fear the alternatives so much that they cannot do anything else. They wreck most of their lives to satisfy only a part.

Relax. Lighten up. The world will go on much the same, whether you’re around or not. You might as well enjoy as much of it as you can.



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Friday, June 01, 2020

Want a trouble-free day?

Here's how to get one almost every time.



One of the best ways to be able to slow down and lower your stress is to save yourself trouble, especially the kind that others so often cause you. And the best way to save yourself from that kind of trouble is to avoid causing trouble to others first. Really. You may want to believe that other people are natural assholes (some, sadly, are), but most are behaving that way because they think they have to deal with an asshole . . . you!

We all spend time and attention—usually plenty of both—focusing on the trouble and difficulties we think other people cause us. But how often do you stop to consider what trouble you cause others? Maybe someone cut you up in traffic today, or spoke to you rudely. Perhaps your boss chewed you out for some minor problem or one of your subordinates was surly and inattentive. What’s your immediate inclination? To dwell on your hurt . . . or wonder whether you might have done something to cause their response?

Mostly people don’t even notice times when they cause others discomfort or extra work. If they do, they probably excuses themselves by saying “that wasn’t what I meant” or “that was just an accident.” Push them further, and they’ll likely say, “It wasn’t such a big deal. They’re making a fuss about nothing,” or “That’s life, I guess.”

The purpose of self-reflection shouldn’t be to find excuses or indulge in sentimental navel-gazing. Our problem as humans is that we’re so often out of touch with reality. What we do, think and say is based on fantasies from our minds. We don’t deal with the real world. We’re wrapped in our flawed perceptions of what’s there. Reflection is the first step towards seeing the world as it truly is—and that includes seeing our part in the problems and difficulties others face.

Looking carefully at what you and how people around you respond do will give you more insight into how and why other people do what they do. You can never get inside their heads to understand the real balance between inner drives and outer circumstances that triggered their behavior. But you can certainly do that with your own actions.

Here’s a simple exercise taken from Gregg Krech’s book Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection

Sit quietly and ask yourself three questions:
  • What have I received from others today?
  • What have I contributed to others today?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused people?
See what you become aware of that you’ve been missing, especially when you ask yourself that final question. Spend at least 60% of your time on that one. It will be worth it.

People nearly always respond as best they can to the situations in which they find themselves. Some of the response is down to them and their personalities. Most is due to the circumstances and how they understand them. Yet our human tendency is to focus on the circumstances that caused us to act badly—and so rationalize away our own thoughtless or cruel behavior—yet attribute poor behavior in others entirely to the person themselves, ignoring the circumstances—which may include, of course, our behavior which triggered their outburst. Psychologists call this Attribution Error and it’s behind many kinds of human conflict, from Road Rage (that driver cut in front of me deliberately, because he or she’s an idiot and an asshole) to war (those people have to be crushed because they’re inherently evil).

Of course, people who think that kind of thing about you or me are misguided or plain stupid. Right?



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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 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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Friday, May 18, 2020

Keys to saving time

How to lose the useless items that weigh down your day


Many people complain that they never have enough time for all that they need to do. It’s true . . . only a large part of the problem lies with the way that they fill their day with useless and unnecessary activities. Time to go on a “time diet.”

This article is about getting rid of the flab that fills your working days: all those unnecessary activities that clog up your schedules, weigh you down, and make your day feel longer and tougher to get through. Activities that leave you miserable and exhausted, with little or nothing to show for all that extra effort.

We’ve all got them: bloated in-trays, calendars that contain more junk activities than there are calories in a Mega-Mighty-Gigantic Whoppaburger with triple fries, grotesquely obese work schedules, and an e-mail inbox that fills every 15 minutes. Getting rid of them won’t be always a complete answer to stress and burnout. Many people are genuinely overworked. But it’s sure going to help.

If you could drop all this useless flab, wouldn’t you feel better? Imagine what a difference it would make to your day, your life, your enjoyment of your work. There would be more time to spend on important matters. More time to get things done. The chance to end the day knowing you’ve accomplished more than you dreamed you could with far less effort than you might have imagined.

You can do this. It takes a little time, some initial effort, and a small amount of self-discipline, but anyone can at least stop wasting a significant part of every working day on actions that gobble time and give nothing useful back.

One of the primary areas for saving time is cutting back on pointless communication. E-mails, instant messaging, BlackBerrys, cellphones. All are useful in their place. All are major consumers of time and providers of pointless distraction anywhere else. How many of the messages you get through these means really matter? How many matter enough to interrupt whatever else you are doing?

Very, very few—especially compared with the time and energy they take up. It’s time to get tough with these thieves of time . What about blowing away those irritating Instant Messages for good? Putting yourself on a strict e-mail diet? Turning off the BlackBerry and the cellphone whenever you can? We give these nasty little beasts altogether too much importance in our lives. Even in the supermarket, you see people walking around with cellphones to their ears, telling some poor soul that they’re in the supermarket and picking up a packet of Cheerios. Who cares? And what about all those morons driving and yakking on their phones at the same time/ Aside from being a major cause of traffic accidents, what are they talking about? The traffic. The weather. Some inconsequential element of their day. I want to yell: “Shut the *@!*&$ up! and concentrate on your driving.” Maybe if they did we’d all be safer and get home sooner.

  • If you have Instant Messaging on your computer, turn it off. Now! Better still, remove the hideous abomination altogether. Do not use IM. You don’t need it, unless you’re a pre-teen geek without a life.

  • Never keep your e-mail software open all the time. Open it to check for e-mails only when you choose.

  • Set fixed times to check for new e-mails and let everyone know when they are. At other times, ignore it.

  • Filter everything coming in, so you can sort out what matters from what doesn’t. For e-mails, use the filtering facility in your software.

  • Give each one a priority and deal with it when you choose. Only respond immediately to genuine emergencies. Make everyone else wait (and I mean everyone).

  • When you send someone an e-mail, make a practice of telling them when you need a response (be specific; say “by Monday at 3.00 p.m.” not “a.s.a.p.”). Ask them to do the same when they e-mail you.

  • When you receive e-mail copies that you don’t want, send a polite note to the sender asking them to take you off the circulation list. Don’t stay on the list from inertia, or “just in case” something important comes along. It won’t. Be ruthless. If they don’t take you off the list, use your filtering software to classify that e-mail as “junk” and ignore it.

  • Only use BlackBerrys and cellphones when you must. Turn them off the rest of the time.

  • Discourage people from calling you on your cellphone, save on matters of genuine urgency. Don’t use it for gossip.

  • Keep cellphone calls short and to the point. Leave anything else for when you have more time.

The worst complaints about your new-found discipline will come from yourself. People get addicted to e-mails because of fear: the fear of missing something, being “out of the loop,” or not knowing what’s going on.

Get used to it. Like most fear, it’s irrational. You can either have a sensible work schedule, or give in to your inner demon and waste your time “just in case” you might miss something. Are you too weak to cope with this stupid obsession? Of course not. Kick it out. Bad news travels very quickly and will be sure to reach you. Good news will be a nice surprise when you next check your e-mail. In the meantime, you’ll have a calmer, more productive day.



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Tuesday, May 15, 2020

A few ideas to help you through a busy day

Sometimes, working life can seem extremely burdensome. Here are a few ideas that might help:
  • Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance anyway. Sitting life out is a sure recipe for frustration and regrets. If you never try, you can never succeed. If you’re too afraid start out badly, you won’t start at all. Many people stick to doing only those things they can do well, so they end up with a restricted, tedious life. Ignore all the macho rubbish about winning. Do what you enjoy doing and you’ll have a great time, even if you don’t make it to the top.

  • When everything is coming your way, you’re probably in the wrong lane. Sometimes we all need a sharp whack over the head to wake us up and alert us to the fact that we’re on a track that doesn’t work for us. The trouble with rushing through life is much the same as the problems you’ll face if you try to rush through an unfamiliar city: it’s extremely easy to take wrong turnings and end up in a mess. Slow down and look where you’re going is good advice for life as well as driving.

  • Some mistakes are just too much fun to make only once. Nearly all creativity springs from setting out to do, or explore, or research one thing and ending up with something totally different and unexpected. Making mistakes is an essential part of all innovation. People who never make mistakes don’t allow themselves to do anything new.

  • Don’t take it all so seriously. My grandfather’s typical response to me, whenever I complained to him about some problem or setback, was: “It’ll all look the same in 10 years time.” As a child, I thought he was just trying to wind me up. Now I agree with him. Mostly, the things we get most worked up about turn out to be of zero importance in the longer-term. Meanwhile, we’ve no attention left over to notice those things that are going to change our futures. Accept that some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue.

  • Keep away from jerks as much as you can. Jerks contaminate everything around them. I sometimes wonder if their sole purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others. Trying to change them usually makes you more frustrated . . . and leaves them exactly as they were. If you lend a jerk $50 and never see them again, it was probably worth it. If you find a way to warn yourself when you’re being a jerk, it’s definitely worth it, even if it costs you $200.

  • Politeness costs little and is worth more than you imagine. You never know when you might need help from that person you’re chewing out; or when you discover, in the middle of laying down the law, that you are the one who has screwed up. Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them. If you can’t be kind, at least have the decency to be silent. And try never to put both feet in your mouth at the same time, because then you won’t have a leg to stand on.

  • The best way to look the people around you is to consider a box of crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty, and some are worn and dull. Many have weird names, and all are different colors. But they all have to fit in the same box.
Life is fascinating and the more people you meet and know, the more colorful the palette becomes. It’s very interesting overall. Now it’s one thing to observe all of this. It’s another entirely when it affects you personally. So at one point in my assessment, I had to ponder if the people around me were part of the problem or part of what was helping me hang in there. I concluded it was definitely both, so this factor was a wash. (Source: www.leavecorporateamerica.com)


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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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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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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:
  • It’s something you have never done before, you are not competent in doing it, or you lack the know-how and training required. Basically, you are out of your depth.
  • It’s something you haven’t done for a long time, so you are extremely rusty. Once again, this means you are not competent.
  • You hate doing whatever it is, you have no interest or aptitude for it, and you are only involved because you have no choice. As a result, you are likely to be unmotivated as well as incompetent.
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:
  • “My check is in the post.”
  • “Of course I’m not just interested in persuading you to have sex with me.”
  • “I’m from Head Office and I’m here to help you.”
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 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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Wednesday, March 14, 2020

What makes a company the best to work for . . . four times in a row?

There’s no problem, it seems, combining a great workplace with great profits



The Times of London announced recently that W. L. Gore, makers of Gore-Tex fabric, has come top in “The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For” survey for the fourth year running [link] . The paper describes this contest as “the UK’s toughest survey to measure staff satisfaction.” The survey, submitted by almost 150,000 employees, covered eight key areas:
  1. Leadership by the head of the company and senior managers.

  2. Stress, pressure, and the balance between work and home duties.

  3. The immediate boss and other day-to-day managers.

  4. Immediate colleagues.

  5. Pay and benefits.

  6. How much companies are thought to put back into society, and the local community in particular.

  7. The company itself, as opposed to the people.

  8. Whether staff feel challenged by their job, their skills are being used, and the scope for advancement.

Here’s what a spokesperson for W. L. Gore said on winning again:
Workplace engagement, we strongly believe, is a competitive advantage. Competitive advantage when used correctly not only creates income and profit, which we are great at doing, but also comes with a responsibility to society as a whole. We are successful because of the ability of our associates to grow, explore and learn in an environment of freedom and trust.
It would be hard to find a simpler statement of the principles and benefits of Slow Leadership: a responsible organization that values trust, focuses on its wider role in the community, not just profit, and sees the creativity, growth, and freedom of its people as an important part of its corporate role. Gore remains the best company to work for because it gives its employees better personal growth, a more attractive working culture, and a stronger sense of belonging than any other company in the contest.

Interestingly, overall satisfaction with all of the companies in the survey rose this year. People think that they are well paid and have strong opportunities for personal growth. As usual, small companies do better then large ones, probably reflecting the greater flexibility small employers can offer.

However, there is one dark spot on the horizon. In the category of “employee well-being” (stress, pressure, and the balance between work and home duties), there was a significant fall in scores, which the survey authors see as “a reflection of the consistently poor scores recorded for workplace stress and feeling exhausted by the end of the day in the bigger companies in particular.”

Surveys like this give the lie to the argument by many macho organizational leaders and politicians that ideas like work/life balance and avoiding excessive stress are merely fancy ideals proposed by liberals and do-gooders. Gore makes high profits and is the leader in its field, yet manages at the same time to provide a civilized and attractive working environment and be a good citizen in its community. If they can do it—and do it better than anyone else in Britain for four years in a row—what is stopping everyone else?



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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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Friday, February 23, 2020

Stepping through the looking glass

It’s long past time to try something new in management

Management today is mostly based on standard responses to problems. But like Alice, stepping through the looking glass into a wonderland on the other side, it’s always open to us to consider what might happen if we didn’t follow the set path, but broke out into fresh ideas and opportunities.

Suppose that we implemented the opposite of today’s standard management responses? What kind of business world might lie on the other side of the looking glass? Would it be a wonderland of untapped potential, or a wasteland of risk and problems? Let’s take a look.

Gone would be the cramping over-emphasis on instant results and avoidance of risk. No one was ever inspired to great ideas or endeavors by thinking only about immediate or short-term practicality. Only idealism ever inspires. That’s why corporations that favor idealism over pragmatism produce more innovative, more inspiring, and more motivating ideas. Pragmatism is fine for second-rate businesses handling commodity products, but that route will never win long-term market leadership. Visionary companies, and leaders with a fierce resolve to implement those visions, consistently win over the long haul.

If we want people to look to the long-term for their returns, we have to offer the kind of security and support that warrant their trust.

On the other side of the looking glass, organizations would retain key employees with long-term rewards, such as development, security, and opportunities for personal growth; not just short-term ones like bonuses and stock options. Where employees have learned to distrust the long-term security of their employment, they will always demand large rewards now as insurance against future lay-offs. If we want people to look to the long-term for their returns, we have to offer the kind of security and support that warrant their trust. The corollary of this must be that consistent, long-term performance would be seen as more valuable than quick wins (and long-term losses).

The more the demand grows for quick, measurable results, the more our aims become distorted to give only these—even if it hurts the organization’s interests in the longer term. Creativity and long-term potential is worth so much more than merely current performance. Instead of paying reluctantly to try to deal with any present performance shortfalls, which are only the symptoms of some underlying malaise, through-the-looking-glass organizations would go straight to the fundamental drivers of excellence: being trusted to do your job, set in the right role, given the right support, and allowed the freedom to contribute freely whatever gifts you can bring to your work. A group of free people, having fun and acting together out of choice and shared beliefs, will always outperform pressed labor and those whose loyalty and interest goes no further than the salary check.

Most management is still based on the underlying assumption of a “master” stipulating what the “servants” must do and judging them according to their performance against his or her imperious standards.

This is not the way to promote creativity, learning, or fun in the workplace—let alone real productivity. Leadership of this kind is always ‘us’ versus ‘them’: the expert leader instructing the ignorant subordinate and demanding compliance. Yet compliance never produces better than mediocre performance. None of us can do anything well if our hearts are not in it. Real achievement only comes about when people engage in an act of free will—an act with joy and passion—by choosing to thown themselves wholeheartedly into their work and seeking to understand what will improve their output, knowledge, or skill the most. Our public schools should have shown us all that when alienated pupils withdraw their consent to work and learn, no amount of discipline or teaching produces any result at all.

Our organizations and its leaders, like our society, have a long history of trying to deal with problems by coercion of one kind or another—legislating against them, or trying to drive them out of existence, instead of exploring to understand what produced the problems in the first place and continues to sustain them. At best, this drives problems underground; at worst, it gives them something to push against to build up their muscles. We need at long last to understand the total futility of this kind of behavior.

I shall be away until early March, so posting will be more intermittent than usual, as my access to the Internet will be sporadic at best. Please be patient and things will return to normal in about 10 days or so.



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