Category Archives: work

Creating Control in 2015

Originally published on my  Psychology Today blog.

Each New Year brings with it the promise of starting fresh or tackling that long-standing item on the bucket list. It’s a great opportunity to commit to something that can enhance your well-being, the most popular being health-related. We all want to feel our best and perform at our highest level, and this is a great time of the year to think about how to go about it. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your physical and emotional health is to establish a stronger sense of control over your life in 2015.

A feeling of lack of control over one’s life–a vague sense of powerlessness over the micro-and-macro events and irritations thrown at us every day– can lead to depression, anxiety, and chemical dependency. Life is, of course, unpredictable and at times overwhelming, but there are a few strategies anyone can employ to counteract the feeling of a life gone out of control:

Set achievable goals in your professional and private life. Much distress and dissatisfaction comes from laboring after unrealistic goals in our professional and relational world. Keep in mind there is only so much you can achieve by yourself in an organization or a relationship.

Choose relationships that are fair and mutually healthy. This follows the previous suggestion. Learn to identify narcissists, sociopaths and other individuals driven by ego and a desire for control over others. They care nothing about destabilizing the lives of others and often leave a trail of human devastation in their wake. Avoid these toxic people at all costs in every sphere of your life, even if it means sacrificing companionship or professional gain in the short term.

Work in a healthy atmosphere. If at all possible, choose a healthy work arrangement. Having a difficult or incompetent boss or a clutch of difficult colleagues can make any job harder. If you’re stuck with a bad situation, try to communicate to your boss that his or her behavior is negatively affecting your ability to function. You might not change their personality or management style, but making them aware of how their approach is detrimental to your performance might make them more thoughtful in their interactions with you.

Follow your passion. Another significant source of dissatisfaction is laboring in something we don’t care much about. Locate your passion in your professional and personal lives and pursue it with all your energy; you’ll find it energizes you rather than depletes you.

Practice meditation. This is one of the most impactful ways to spend a few minutes of your day, and doesn’t mean you have to reach Bhudda-like levels of transcendence or don an orange toga. Neural research shows that even a few minutes of quiet contemplation and measured breathing can restore our mental equilibrium, reduce the cortisol in our system and lower our blood pressure. Even recalling a favorite memory can produce emotional and physiological benefits.

Learn to say “no.” This is a hard one for so many of us. Especially those who like to please and hate to disappoint a friend who’d like us to join a last-minute party, a lecture or a chore like helping them move house. But not having the skill of knowing when—and how—to say “no” to certain things –i.e. things that will clog up our schedule and end up inflicting stress as a result—can undermine our well-being. Learning to politely but firmly decline is vital for maintaining peak emotional health.

To a great degree, gaining a sense of control is about knowing oneself, and as Shakespeare adroitly advised, “To thyne own self be true.” Knowing your priorities and establishing your boundaries accordingly can guide your decision making as you face the myriad of opportunities in the year ahead, and can help you choose the kinds of situations and relationships that empower you rather than demoralize you. Control is something we create and foster, and it is up to each individual to maximize their own sense of control over an increasingly complicated life.

New Studies On Emotional Impact of U.S. Work Culture

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

An ongoing theme of this blog has been the profoundly negative effects of stress and overwork induced by our work culture, both of which are chronic problems that are undermining our emotional (and physical) healthy every day.

Now comes news of two major studies on the emotional and practical dimensions of the topic and their interesting findings, helpfully described in a new article by Quentin Fottrell of MarketWatch (link to article is here). One study discourages the long-held belief (promoted by big business) that more lenient workplace schedules depress a nation’s economic competitiveness, while another suggests that cutting the length of the work week boosts emotional health among a variety of other positive value for society.

Dean Baker, co-director of the left-of-center Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. addressed some of the economic trends involved: “Countries like Germany stand out,” he says of the prosperous European economies known for their generous time-off policies. “It’s been remarkably successful.” He goes on to cite the fact that the unemployment rate in Germany (5.2 percent) is down more than 4 percentage points since before the 2008 recession, while the U.S. unemployment rate (6.1 percent) is still more than 1.5 percentage points higher than it was before the recession.

This suggests that the correlation between hours worked and actual productivity is not nearly as straight forward as most Americans would assume.

Addressing the emotional and social aspects of the issue, a report from the London-based, left-of-center think tank New Economics Foundation found that cutting the workweek roughly in half would help to address overwork, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, and, crucially, the “lack of time to simply to enjoy life.”

The writer also quotes Anna Coote, head of social policy at NEF, as adding that the deputy mayor of a major Swedish city is trialing a 30-hour week for staff, on the theory—recently gaining in popularity due to other findings—that thirty hours per week is roughly the limit for productive time in an office environment.

In fairness, Fottrell cites researcher Robert Rudolf, assistant professor in the Division of International Studies at Korea University, whose own study found that people given a reduction in working hours reported no strong impact on job or life satisfaction.

Of course these are just studies, and their findings may or may not be accurate. But the fact remains that more and more research seems to be indicating that the societal ills of chronic stress, mental illness and physical illness are tightly connected, and that an adjustment in the work culture of the United States might likely bring emotional benefits that offset these afflictions.

How Workaholics Can Relax Right During the Holidays

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

So the holidays have arrived and that detested stretch of time when nothing much happens—a few days before Christmas till a few days after New Year’s is here. The workaholic in you hates it; the long void between the Yuletide and early January makes you feel anxious and powerless. Your nerves jangle and you feel guilty. Irritation and a maybe some depression set in as your frustration mounts.

Let’s face it: Workaholics don’t do vacation well. Especially enforced vacations like the one currently underway, presents and parties be damned.

So what can you do?

One of the best things you can do in this situation is to deal with that lingering sense of guilt lurking in the back of your mind; the one that drives you to work so hard to begin with. Negotiating a deal with yourself can be helpful; try striking a bargain to put a little bit of work in here and there, in return for extended downtime.

This ties into a critical task: reframing the situation. Instead of the enforced break that the holidays represent to you, try reframing them as an ideal opportunity to recharge for the coming year’s exertions and gain a clearer head. The time away from projects can bring the distance needed to gain a fresh perspective, which could lead to better solutions and brighter ideas. We all know burnout is our enemy; the holiday break can be used as a perfect chance to defeat it and start the year off strong.

Another benefit of refocusing your attitude to avoid burnout is seizing the opportunity to improve relations with your loved ones. The youngsters will be out of school and the adults will likely be working less, if at all, between Christmas and New Year’s. Study after study has shown that the health of relationships with those close to us have an enormous bearing on our emotional and physical wellbeing. Seize the chance to spend the time with those you love and start of the year with a tighter and healthier bond.

The holiday break also represents a great opportunity to get in shape; counter the depression and anxiety with some vigorous activity. You’re no good to anyone if you’re injured or ill, and regular exercise can keep both at bay. Put on the gym shoes and get those feel-good endorphins flowing. It doesn’t have to take long; a half hour of intense cardiovascular exercise reduces body tension and can clear the mind magnificently. You’ll feel better and think clearer afterward, trust me.

So don’t despair at the holiday break, workaholics. It represents a golden opportunity for much-needed reconnecting with loved ones, recharging mind and body, and rethinking ideas of all sizes. All these activities can provide huge boosts to your emotional and physical wellbeing. And that’s a great project to focus on until the New Year dawns—just in case the next year’s challenges require every bit of wellbeing you can muster.

Three Actions to Start Making Things Happen

Originally published on my blog “The Modern Time Crunch” for Psychology Today.                Thinking about a huge task or a series of tasks can be daunting. It’s easy to let the mountain of “to-do’s” intimidate you into abandoning all hope of reaching the summit. But there are common-sense ways to make the heights seem climbable.

1) Break down the mountain of to-do’s into achievable chunks.

A great mountain climber was once asked, “How do you manage to climb a mountain?” His answer: “One step at a time, and I just keep going.” A monumental goal can be broken down into very doable mini-goals.

For example, planning a major career change and desiring to do something very different than you’ve ever done before? The notion can make a hearty person think twice, and stay in an unfulfilling job out of sheer intimidation. But chopping the challenge into smaller, doable tasks, such as re-writing the resume and networking with those in your chosen field can drastically reduce the intimidation factor.

2) The key metric is productivity, not just being busy. Measure your progress.

In our whirlwind world, it’s easy to mistake “busy” for “productive”. Sometimes they are the same but often they are not; busyness is a very clever imposter. The best way to foil this imposter and prevent it from stealing your time and energy is to prioritize your tasks. This takes focus and deliberate planning. It takes some tough decisions; you must be ruthless with your time.

Finally, it requires tracking of your productivity and establishing clear metrics against which to measure your efforts. Are the hours and energy expended yielding significant results that are germane to your goal? In the answer leaves you unsatisfied, the message is clear: A course correction is needed. Revisit your list of tasks and adjust your priorities.

3) Make time for fun and exercise.

It seems counter intuitive that having fun (however you personally define it) can boost your productivity. But study after study has proven that “behavioral activation”, as the researchers call it, can flood the brain with the feel-good chemicals we need. The result is improved focus andoptimism, renewed emotional strength and generally a healthier state of mind. Pair this with the similarly endorphin-releasing activity of exercise (every plain old stretching) and you have brain-refreshing re-set.

Whatever your goal, these three tactics can help you to feel happier and more empowered in your quest. The triple-threat of breaking a project into feasible tasks, creating metrics against which to measure your efforts, and taking ownership of your emotional, spiritual and physical well-being can put you on course for conquering the summit, no matter how daunting the elevation. Channel your inner mountain climber and get moving.