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Great NYT article on commuting’s emotional and physical cost

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

This article in today’s New York Times, Commuting’s Hidden Cost, resonated with me and spoke to an issue that has received a criminally low amount of discussion in recent years. It’s a well-written indictment of our country’s commuting trend and a chilling look at the emotional and physical toll it takes on those who do it every day. I highly recommend reading it and, more importantly, reflecting on it. Is this what we want in our fleeting lives?

This subject deserves much more attention, and next week I’ll be blogging on the subject for Psychology Today at my regular blog “The Modern Time Crunch” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-modern-time-crunch).

Social Isolation in Work-Obsessed America

Originally published on my blog “The Modern Time Crunch” for Psychology Today.                 A friend and I recently discussed the isolation that can come from being too ensconced in work. He ought to know, having been an excellent student and worker who is now struggling socially. This isolation—and, more specifically, the depression and profound sense of disconnect from others it can cause—is a growing problem that deserves more attention.

Aiding and abetting this problem is, of course, the relatively recent ability to do so much of our work remotely. One might not need to speak to another for days at a time except over email. While sometimes much more convenient and less stressful that genuine interaction, the isolation afforded by our technology can ultimately harm us. The wonders of the digital age can reinforce the sense of social isolation and give the less social opportunities to avoid interaction which previous generations did not possess.

This sort of estrangement has very real consequences for the work-obsessed. Nature has a wicked sense of irony: Workers cutting corners in their social lives in order to squeeze out a few more hours of productivity are harming only themselves and their output rate in the long term. The sacrifice of strong social bonds in the name of work can end up sabotaging the very energy and dynamism upon which the workaholic thrives.

Not surprisingly, mounting research suggests such loss of energy and fulfilment can be traced to the depression triggered by social isolation. It is a fundamental truth that humans are meant to be social creatures, biologically hardwired by evolution to seek companionship and interdependence. When the fragile bonds of the social system are broken—as they can be when neglected for too long—isolation occurs and depression can easily set in, creeping in like a thief in the night.

The workaholic—having had the source of his energy undermined by the depression caused by social isolation—finds there are few close friends to turn to, thus reinforcing the sense of loneliness. From the outside, this can seem like karma; in reality, it’s the predictable consequence of letting those social bonds lapse like a bridge neglected for too long.

Fortunately, the cure is straight forward, if not always easy or quick. If you’re putting work ahead of meaningful relationships. Coming to grips with workaholism is necessary. Like any addiction, the exploration of why the behavior is so rewarding for you—and exploring why it’s more emotionally comfortable to live in the grip of a consuming activity than engaging in genuine interaction with others—is a crucial step.

The key word here is engage. Engage in a rigorous self-examination with qualified psychotherapist, and begin arming yourself with the emotional tools to begin engaging with the world once again. Make no mistake: Replacing the addiction of work and achievement with the warmth of interaction and mutual dependence can be difficult, frightening, and sometimes messy. But it is well worth the effort. Live as you were meant to live—with and for others.

The Perils of Perfectionism Part II

Originally published on my blog “Modern Time Crunch” for Psychology Today.                       Negative self-talk, lack of dichotomy, and unreasonable goals are all perils of perfectionism and should be guarded against as we strive for better work and better lives.

This is the second in a series of posts to flesh out the main aspects of this unhealthy pattern of thought and behavior. As I mentioned in my last post, “Perfectionism as a Roadblock to Productivity”, many people procrastinate due to their perfectionism.

Perfectionists often consider their perfectionism an ally and credit it for motivating them to produce work of excellent quality. But more often than not perfectionism is a set of skewed perspectives and assumptions that can undermine our efforts, make our goals harder to attain, and sabotage our emotional wellbeing.

Negativity is a significant feature of perfectionists. Undervaluing themselves and their work, perfectionists often talk themselves into states of despondency over minor flaws in their production. Mistaking high standards for impossible standards, they are setting themselves up for disappointment that will only further discourage them.

The self-defeating talk and cognitive distortions don’t end there; perfectionists regularly assume that a bad day at an effort means they possess no talent and are doomed to failure. An example would be telling yourself, “I’m a failure as a parent!” when junior brings home a bad grade or ends up in the Principal’s office.

Another example would be castigating yourself for being the world’s most terrible golfer after a lousy day on the links, or assuming you’re a thoroughly hopeless musician after the first few lessons on an instrument prove harder than anticipated.

Artists are notorious for this sort of blind spot; if a story or painting isn’t working as well as hoped, it’s “awful” and they’re talentless. Isn’t it possible that there are good parts worth keeping? Generally speaking, a perfectionist’s lack of dichotomy won’t tolerate this perspective.

Also, perfectionists regularly compare their performance to the greats at their best. This is a common pitfall of high achievers. Did someone you admire achieve more than you by the same age you are now? Then it follows that you must inferior in talent or effort. It’s easy to see how this belief can wreak havoc on one’s sense of pride and agency.

Perfectionists rarely take extenuating factors into account in these scenarios, such as the relative advantages that other person enjoyed which might account for the difference, that person’s previous failings and hardships, and the unquantifiable element of plain old luck.

Unreasonable goals are a related dimension. The tendency to set such absurd and arbitrary goalposts, and pegging one’s sense of self-esteem to the ability to reach them is a hallmark of perfectionism. When the goal is inevitably missed, the negative self-talk becomes a shouting match and emotional wellbeing is further undermined.

To compensate, the perfectionist will often re-set the unreasonable goals and pledge to “try harder.”

The better route is coolly reassessing the goals versus your resources and then recalibrating the objectives. Looking at the situation with a more dichotomous perspective can help the perfectionist strike a better balance between the ideal and the possible.

In the next post I’ll discuss more hallmarks of perfectionism, their pitfalls, and how to short-circuit them.

Perfectionism as a Roadblock to Productivity

Originally published on my blog “The Modern Time Crunch” for Psychology Today.                        Far from being a motivator for productivity, perfectionism (or more precisely, the byproducts of it) can be a debilitating pattern that inhibits healthy functioning.

Though it’s driven many of the great feats of art, science, and sports, it has driven many others to distraction and led to significant problems with beginning and finishing projects. One of the main roadblocks to productivity created by perfectionists is a tendency to procrastinate.

While procrastination is often confused with plain laziness, sometimes it is the byproduct perfectionism. The daunting nature of the unrealistic goal of perfection can be so intimidating that it leads to a crippling fear of beginning. This is particularly true when one’s self-esteem is closely tied into (or contingent) upon success.

This tendency for perfectionists to yoke their sense of worth to the success of a project can be a prime driver of procrastination. It’s that fear of failure (and the ego-crushing that would inevitably result) is powerful motivation for avoiding the situation altogether.

Falling short of an unreasonable  goal too many times can lead to a sort of learned helplessness, i.e. “no matter what I do, it’s never quite good enough.” Disempowerment follows, which is another significant nail in the coffin of productivity—not perfectionism per se.

The best way to fight this self-reinforcing pattern of negativity is, of course, to water down the perfectionism and thus its unwelcome side effects. How? It’s simple: First, try beginning any project with a good-enough plan and a good-enough skill set. Remind yourself that you can always adjust your plan as you go along, and that you can always find a work-around or draft in help when you’re in over your head.

The important thing is beginning, taking the first steps of the journey. Only then you can develop momentum that can carry you along. Remember the Newtonian gravity rule that, “an object at rest tends to stay at rest”. This can help break through the icy barrier of anxiety that causes procrastination.

Second, decouple your performance from your sense of self-worth. One is not dependent on the other, and punishing yourself for failing to meet an unrealistic goal is simply counterproductive. Talking yourself into a very negative self-image as you castigate yourself is dangerous. Take a more holistic view of yourself and your role in life. Perspective is the key.

This is all easier said than done, and therapy can help.

With these initial steps, you can begin to better manage the anxiety and insecurity issues that drive procrastination and negative self-esteem, the insidious byproducts of perfectionism.