Author Archives: Rob Kendall

What You Can Do to Combat Stress

The statistics on stress don’t make for happy reading. It’s been called the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’ by the World Health Organization, costing American businesses up to $300 billion a year. In the UK, 39% of people who are signed off work for health reasons are suffering from stress.

Our foraging ancestors honed their ability to react almost instantaneously to threatening situations. While stress responses can be perfectly healthy when they’re brief and acute, the converse is true; chronic stress is incredibly unhealthy. Think of the analogy of an elastic band: it can be extended to several times its length, but if you stretch it for long enough, it reaches a point where it won’t spring back to its original size. If your body is in a continuous state of heightened arousal, you’ll find that you can’t switch off.

In my book Workstorming, I refer to four modern-day strategies that we employ to cope with the demands of daily life. But, when strung together over weeks, months or years, we pay a heavy cumulative price:

  • Firstly, there’s STACKING, which is about the way we manage our TIME. To cope with the ever-increasing demands on us, we fill every available space in our calendar, leaving few – if any – pauses between them. This in turn can leave us in a state of overwhelm. In the same proportion that we cram our calendar, we sacrifice opportunities for recovery.
  • Secondly, there’s SPINNING which is the way we manage our ATTENTION. Our modern-day attention span is embarrassingly capricious. Each time we find a new source of stimulation, we get the reward of a small dopamine hit, but the chemical process doesn’t stop there; our body increases production of the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. What’s more, in our effort to focus our emotional and mental energy on the new moment – and let go of the last one – we consume oxygenated glucose, which is exactly the fuel that our brain needs to think clearly. When repeated hundreds of times daily, we experience an inexorable rise in stress and fatigue, and erosion in our decision-making abilities.
  • Thirdly, there’s SKIMMING, which is the way we deal with INFORMATION. We’re consuming five times more information than we did in 1986 – equivalent to 175 newspapers a day – but we pay an energy tariff for extracting the wheat from the chaff. Not only do we need to decide which information we’ll ignore, which we’ll pay attention to now, and which we’ll come back to later, but we also need to decide what we’re going to do with it. Even small decisions take a levy on our energy reserves.
  • Finally, there’s SPILLING, which is the way we collapse our BOUNDARIES. Each time we read our emails during a meeting or check who’s sent a text message during a meal at home, we erode the boundaries – and the sacred spaces – between tasks, relationships or domains of our lives. This is now endemic; for example, a study of employees in small to medium-sized businesses across the USA found that 55% of workers check their email after 11 p.m.

If we allow them to become a way of life Stacking, Spinning, Skimming and Spilling are wrecking balls for wellbeing. As leading occupational psychologist Rob Archer says: ‘In situations of high demand, recovery is essential. If we become chronically stressed, it harms our performance in the short term and our health in the long term.”

So, what can we do to reclaim control? The good news is that we can make small, immediate changes to our daily routines. For example:

  1. When you plan your day or your week, fiercely protect the spaces between commitments. These are your recovery periods. If you have 10 minutes between meetings, don’t use this time to scan emails. Go for a short walk, breathe the air, or do something that feels markedly different from what comes before or after it.
  2. Say ‘no’ more often, or at least negotiate the terms of requests. If you feel overwhelmed, you probably hate saying ‘no’, but people (and especially family) aren’t going to thank you for the additional stress. You probably have more room to negotiate than you think.
  3. Seek periods of uninterrupted time each day to focus on a single activity. For example, turn off your email while working on a document so that banner messages don’t flash up on your screen, and only have one document open on your computer at a time. In a home context, ensure you do something daily, even for a short period of time, that brings you joy. The more it absorbs your attention, the better. This is the underlying principle of mindfulness.
  4. Turn off your emails when you leave work. In doing so, you strengthen the boundaries between home and work. If someone needs to reach you urgently, they can call you.

As the pressure goes up, our instinct is to squeeze out recovery time. This is a fatal mistake. The busier we get, the more we need to find corresponding opportunities to slow down. As the old Zen saying goes: ‘Meditate for 20 minutes a day unless you’re too busy, in which case meditate for an hour.’

 

 

References:

Employees Reveal How Stress Affects Their Jobs https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/2267-workplace-stress-health-epidemic-perventable-employee-assistance-programs.html

GFI Software report, 2013, http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/survey-checking-email-at-night-on-weekends-and-holidays-is-the-new-norm-for-us-workforce-207352741.html

Levitin, D.J., The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 2015.

Rob Archer, the Career Psychologist, http://www.thecareerpsychologist.com/

Latest work

I’m currently exploring the skills and habits of values-based decision-making in collaboration with the brilliant occupational psychologist Rob Archer.

This is the focus of our research:

How can we reliably take actions that move us towards our values, even when we’re under intense pressure?

Drawing on empirical findings from clinical psychology and neuroscience, we’ve tested our models, tools and programmes in high-pressure environments that include major construction projects, global financial institutions and Formula 1.

Please be in touch for more information.

How to Find Happiness Where You Least Expect It

Many years ago, I worked with a remarkable man who’d spent 20 years as a monk before getting married, starting a family and becoming a brilliant educator. He was making a brief stop in the UK and I had the afternoon free, so I took him to Hampton Court Palace near London.

I imagined that we’d go round the palace, but he seemed more interested in the garden, so we walked round that instead. I set out at my normal walking pace, which was almost a jog, but he wasn’t in such a rush. He asked me when the blossoms came out, and although the same trees were on my street, I couldn’t remember because I always dashed past them. He inquired into the history of Hampton Court; I knew King Henry VIII had lived there but couldn’t recall anything else. He was aware that I’d been a professional artist and he stopped to ask me about the correct name for a particular shade of red on one of the flowers. I said I had no idea. He must have got a little exasperated at this point because he turned to me and said, in a gentle way, “Do you notice anything?”

His words stung, but they highlighted an uncomfortable truth: that I lived in a cloud of distraction and missed out on experiencing what was in front of me. As Leonardo da Vinci is claimed to have said, “An average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.”

Living in a state of distraction inevitably leads to shallower relationships and reduced effectiveness, but a study conducted by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert revealed that we pay a price in happiness too. They used an iPhone application to gather data from 2,250 participants, aged 18 to 88, on subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their daily lives. They concluded that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. The punchline was this: people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not.

The challenge of being present isn’t helped by the fact that our attention span is shortening. For example, researchers at the University of California tracked the average time people spent looking at a computer screen before moving their attention to another window. In 2004 the average time was three minutes. By 2012 this had dropped to one minute and 15 seconds and in 2014 it broke the one-minute barrier, averaging 59.5 seconds. The issue with switching attention is that it exacerbates our tendency to bring thoughts and emotions from the last task or conversation into the new one, which in turn erodes our ability to engage in the present moment. Sophie Leroy, a business school professor at the University of Minnesota, refers to this phenomenon as attention residue. It’s the same challenge faced by a professional tennis player whose game suffers because she gets caught up in thinking about the volley she missed in the last game rather than playing the point in front of her. Equally, we rob ourselves of experiencing the present moment when we are engaged in anticipatory rumination; on these occasions, we are too busy thinking about a future moment to experience the present one.

The good news is that small changes in our habits can make a demonstrable difference.

  1. Start to notice how little you notice. Improving the quality of our attention starts with observing it. While it’s impossible to always give people your undivided attention, you can notice when your attention drifts away and then bring it back to the person you’re speaking to. This takes discipline and practice but begins to turn the habit of being distracted into a habit of being present.
  2. Practice switching on and switching off. The correlation between preoccupation and unhappiness makes good sense when we consider the converse: that simple activities can be a source of great joy when we become absorbed in them. The following practice will help. When you begin a task or conversation, imagine that you’re turning off a switch that relates to the last thing you were doing and turning on a switch that relates to the new one. Sports professionals use the same prompt to remind them to stay in the present. Before moving to your next activity, you’ll need to switch off again, before repeating the process again. You can practice this countless times each day; each time you do so, you are strengthening the mental boundary between tasks and improving the quality of your attention.
  3. Go deeper. Interruptions are a part of life, but this doesn’t stop us scheduling uninterrupted time, during which we put our phone away and stop checking our emails. During these activities, focus entirely on what you’re doing, expecting to be nowhere else. Being absorbed is both productive and healthy.

As neuroscientist Moshe Bar puts it, “Except when you are flying an F-16 aircraft or experiencing extreme fear or having an orgasm, your life leaves too much room for your mind to wander. As a result, only a small fraction of your mental capacity remains engaged in what is before it, and mind-wandering and ruminations become a tax on the quality of your life.”

Thankfully, the route to being happier may lie directly under our nose.

 

References:

Moshe Bar, ‘Think Less, Think Better’, The New York Times, June 2016.

Steve Bradt, ‘Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind’, Harvard Gazette, 11 November 2010, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind

Ian Hardy, ‘Losing Focus: Why Tech is Getting in the Way of Work’, BBC News, 8 May 2015, www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32628753, based on studies by Professor Gloria Mark, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California.

Sophie Leroy, ‘Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks’, Science Direct, July 2009. 

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