Insights for High Stress Professions
Cybersecurity is a stressful professional field. An unrelenting workload, an ever changing landscape, and round-the-clock availability is a surefire recipe for high stress and burnout. It’s difficult to maintain your wellness as a priority in the face of all of these challenges.
That’s why I want to arm you with tips to create healthy work habits that are practical, powerful, and easy to fit into your already overloaded day. You are human, and that’s actually your greatest asset in this field. As a human, you have multidisciplinary expertise, intuition, and better communication skills. However, you don’t function at 100% when your batteries are running low.
I know: when the pressure is on and you have momentum you don’t want to stop. I know there’s an unrelenting workload, and it feels like you may never get caught up on it. I also know you will perform better if you take a break and reset yourself. The first thing you can do is learn to prioritize what’s on your desk.
1. Ruthlessly Prioritize Your Time and Tasks
If you don’t prioritize your time/tasks, they will be prioritized for you. So begin each day taking a few minutes to establish your priorities. What are the three most important things that need to happen that day? If these three things get done, then you know your day has been a success.
This is easier said than done, and this can have a big impact on your confidence, your focus, and your bandwidth.
But let’s not stop there; a decent amount of your job in cybersecurity may be putting out fires that weren’t blazing when you set your day's priorities, which throws off your ability to accomplish your priorities, or even prioritize at all. Some of these fires may be more important than the priorities you set for the day, and some may not be (even if they feel urgent). Either way, you can navigate this: Define what constitutes a priority. When a fire comes to your attention, is it truly a higher priority than your other tasks for that day? If so, see to the fire. If not, focus on the priorities you set for the day and save this fire for another day or another team member.
Here are some questions to help assess a priority. The more items you can easily answer ‘yes’ to, the higher the priority:
So, if one of your three items for the day is scored a three out of five, and a fire comes across your desk that’s a four out of five, you should see to the fire and allow one of your other priorities to be pushed down on your list. If this fire scores lower than the priorities you set for the day, then you should keep your focus on your priorities, rather than jumping to put out the fire.
2. Recognize Your Stress Indicators
Those of us in high stress professions, leadership roles, or with competing demands between work and home (read: most of us) have learned to ignore the indicators that our stress is rising. It’s like if we know we’re stressed, we will suddenly get overwhelmed and not be able to focus or perform, so we pretend we aren’t experiencing stress. Of course, this is the same as deciding the fuel gauge in our cars is a nuisance, so we ignore it, then seem surprised when we run out of gas.
Stress builds up until it makes us crash in some way (sleep, illness, injury, errors, fights, etc.), and only then do we concede that we may be “a little” stressed. However, ignoring our stress indicators doesn’t serve us because it’s easier to manage stress when it’s lower, just like it’s easier to calm down from feeling annoyed than pissed off, and calm down from feeling nervous than panicky. The fact of the matter is, we need to re-learn how to recognize how stress shows up for us to manage and prevent stress.
So, how does stress show up for you? Do you get irritable and impatient? Do you get headaches or an upset stomach? Do you crave certain snack foods? Do you get fidgety? Do you make more mistakes? If we learn to attend to our stress indicators, we can address our stress while it’s still manageable and small practices still have an impact. Have a plan for what you will do (breathing, meditation, walking, watching a funny video, etc) when you notice your stress levels rising. The rest of the healthy habits in this article are great strategies to try out when you recognize your stress level is rising.
3. Just Breathe.
Breathing is one of the most simple and most powerful things we can do to affect our physiology. Breathing can help us calm down, maintain our composure, or improve our focus. We can take a few deep breaths, breathe slowly for a few minutes, or do a full guided breathing practice.
There are many different styles of breathing practices out there, and ultimately you should use the one(s) that feel most comfortable and impactful for you. As we get stressed, our breathing gets more shallow and our inhales get longer than our exhales (which triggers fight or flight). Start with just breathing slowly, with your belly (not your shoulders).
Use the links below for some guided coaching on different breathing techniques so you can learn which are most effective for you:
4. Move Your Body
Our bodies are pretty amazing machines that put up with us sitting in weird positions and staring at screens all day long. One of the best things we can do is get more movement into our day. When we stay too still or are sedentary, our bodies get really tight. As a result, we develop trigger points and muscle imbalances, experience more pain, and have a greater risk for injury. Moving our bodies increases blood flow, aids digestion, helps us think more creatively, increases the distribution of oxygen and nutrients, clears stress hormones and waste, and releases endorphins.
Find ways to get the type of movement you like most throughout the day. You can get it in longer exercise sessions, and you can also get it in micro-activities that fit nicely into your day. These micro-activities can include:
Just get more movement throughout your day. You and your body will notice a difference.
5. Rest Your Eyes
Most, if not all of your work is in front of a computer screen. You can do things like change the brightness and use blue-blockers, but your eyes are still taking the strain of staring at a screen all day. It’s important to rest your eyes periodically. Do that by:
6. Get Outside
Most, if not all of your work takes place indoors. It’s even possible you’re in a room with no windows. Getting outside, especially in the sun, can improve mood, focus, concentration, and even lower anxiety and depression. These benefits come from a combination of fresh air, movement, sunlight, and simply changing the scenery. Getting outside also helps anchor you to the time of day which helps you maintain your circadian rhythm. When you’re disoriented about the time of day, your sleep will be negatively affected. Get outside by:
7. Eat Good Food
When you’re working on an intense project and building momentum, it’s easy to forget to do things like stop and eat. It’s also harder to make healthy food choices at that moment (especially if/when you’re limited in what is easily available, or often don’t realize you’re hungry until you’re starving). Also, when we wait until we are starving, then shove down a lot of food, we encourage a roller coaster experience for our blood sugar. The more we overload our system, the more intensely we may crash later.
To keep this at bay, we need to have readily available healthy snacks: fruit, nuts, granola bars (anything that’s ready to eat and not too messy or complicated). Eat at more regular intervals so your body knows it can process the food as you go. Bonus points for eating away from your workstation.
8. Leverage Technology and Gadgets
There are all sorts of tools and gadgets to help us get the most out of our focus and productivity, such as:
It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of your day and forget to engage in healthy work habits. But if you take the time to assess priorities and focus on recognizing stress indicators as well as instituting daily healthy habits, you will help prevent cybersecurity stress and be able to focus on succeeding in your field.
Does it feel like your hair is on fire all day long? Do you tend to run late? Do you schedule things back to back? Does it feel your roles are bleeding over into each other? Do you get bombarded as soon as you walk in the door? It’s time to build in buffers.
A buffer is space between two things to keep them from colliding. Buffers give us breathing room, they give us space to deal with the unexpected things that come up, help us set boundaries, and allow us to dictate the flow of our day.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or that you need more time to reset between events in your day, you need to build a buffer. You need to create space in your day.
I want to share three types of buffers. The most straightforward and common one we hear is a time buffer. Less common types of buffers include mental buffers and physical buffers.
If you schedule meetings or appointments back to back, you have no time to reflect on the last one before you jump into the next. There is no room for the first one to run late or take extra time to answer questions. There is no room for traffic or other unexpected things that often come up. There is no time for you to take some quick actions from the last meeting or appointment. There is no time for you to refocus and prepare for what’s next.
A time buffer is creating a block of time in your calendar after an event that allows you to decompress, recover, reset, refocus, put out fires, answer questions, hit traffic, etc., before you have to get going on the next thing in your calendar.
How long your buffer needs to be can change based on factors like whether an event tends to run over, how draining you think it will be, the bandwidth you have that day, etc. You should actually schedule a buffer into your calendar (especially if others have the ability to schedule things into your calendar). If you think it will take 20 minutes to get somewhere, you should plan to give yourself 30. We tend to estimate time based on best case scenario (as in no traffic or accidents or needing fuel), so giving ourselves 30 minutes allows for a more realistic commute window.
How you transition from one mental space to another. Think of a mental buffer as a warm-up or cool down. A mental buffer acknowledges that to do the next task, you need to be in a different mental or emotional space or state than you are in right now, so you need to transition to that state. This is like getting to work and it taking a while to “settle in” to work mode, or getting home and needing some space before your family jumps in and needs something your energy and attention.
To create a mental buffer, you need awareness, time and tools. You need the time it will take to implement tools to collect yourself and raise or lower your mental and emotional energy to match the situation you are about to face. For example, acknowledging that you aren’t in the right mental or emotional space to respond to and sensitive email or have a difficult conversation, so you deliberately decide to not tackle those tasks RIGHT NOW. Then, you deliberately choose to use a tool like rhythmic breathing, loving kindness meditation, mindfulness, or exercise, to deliberately change your mental and emotional energy to get where you need to be for the next task. You can’t have a tough conversation with someone if you are depleted or if you are on edge. Getting where you need to be mentally and emotionally to be present and engage effectively with others is a service to you and to the other person.
Physical buffers look and sound more like boundaries or containers and are intended to protect physical spaces and the mental energy around them. It could be keeping work and electronics out of your bedroom, creating physical buffers to protect sleep. It could be creating a specific area in your house where work or homework are done. This not only helps keep your home more organized, but it protects mental space. If you are trying to focus in the same physical space where you relax, sleep, or play, it will be hard to maintain focus because your brain associates that space with other things, not with work. A physical buffer can also be leaving your work station for lunch and breaks.
Some work from home experts go as far as to recommend separate devices (here, here, here, here, here and here). As in have a work computer and a personal computer, have a work phone and a personal phone. That way, when it’s time to put work away, you completely separate yourself from the work devices and only use home devices. You aren’t tempted to switch screens and check work email because it isn’t even set up on your personal device. I understand the logic here, and acknowledge that it’s not necessarily a practical or a feasible options (as I type from my both business and personal laptop and check social media on my both business and personal cell phone).
What can you do to create space in your day? What do you already do to create breathing room?
To manage your time well, you need to get really good at protecting your time from things that aren’t as important. A way to protect your time is to create time blocks. These are designated slots of time in your schedule that are allocate for specific tasks.
This works because we tend to protect things that are scheduled into our calendars by not scheduling other things to occur in the same time window, and limiting multitasking. These time blocks tend to be protected for things like appointments, meetings, transportation, and family time. The time that isn’t already dedicated to something can look like free time when you glance at your calendar, but we know better. There are things we need to work on, tasks we need to accomplish. We need to protect time for those too. Say you are the lead on a project. Others might see you as “available” and come ask questions. It’s important they do this, but it also prevents you from getting your tasks done. If you block time in your calendar to get your stuff done, others know you aren’t available right now and can come at another time. This also helps protect you if someone else can schedule your time. If they see white space, they assume you are available; if they see time blocked out to work on something, they know you aren’t available.
What are the things you need to get done but never seem to make the time to complete? What are the things you aren’t able to get done because others assume you are available to help them? These can be work related things, but they don’t have to be. Time blocking is just blocking out time in your calendar for what needs done. If it’s the first 30 minutes of the day for checking email, if it’s time at lunch to eat away from your desk, if it’s exercising in the evening, if it’s protecting family dinner time, if it’s a time of day you no longer check your phone or email, it can be blocked out in your day so you (and others) plan around it.
Time blocking simply protects your time for a particular thing, but it doesn’t tell you how you spend that window of time. To be efficient and effective in our time blocks, it can be helpful to use a strategy called power hours. Power Hours structure how we spend our time and help us get the most out of our limited focus, build in recovery, and accounts for “warming up” to the task and common distractions.
We have a limited ability to focus intensely on one task. With training, we can get up to about 90 minutes, but most of us are at about 15-30 minutes of focus or concentration. Once our focus is broken, it takes 5-15 minutes to get back to the level of focus we had before.
Power hours help ease us into the work we need to get done instead of expecting us to go from flow and focus on one thing to flow and focus on something different. A power hour consists of 3 phases.
Phase 1: Warm Up (5-15 minutes)
In this phase, we are “warming ourselves up” to the task and the focus it will take. We establish our goals or what needs to get done, we gather necessary materials and we reduce distractions. Ways we can reduce distraction include filling our water or coffee, silencing our devices, going to the restroom, clearing the desk, etc.
Phase 2: Intense Focus or Work (30-40 minutes)
In this phase, we are getting work done according to the plan we created. If we have a small distraction, we bring ourselves back to the task at hand. If we have a large distraction, it may be better to see to the distraction and restart the power hour once you’ve dealt with the distraction. This time window is flexible based on your ability to maintain intense focus. If you can focus without interruption or distraction for 15 minutes, then phase 2 will last about 15 minutes. If you have trained your ability to focus without interruption for 90 minutes, then phase 2 will last about 90 minutes.
Phase 3: Reflect and Recovery (15 minutes)
In this phase, take a few minutes to reflect or review what you accomplished. (What did you get done? Did you plan your work well? Did you manage your distractions well?) Then you do something to recover. Take a walk, get a snack, refill your drink, watch a funny video. Get up from your chair and do something to let your brain shift gears.
If you have 3 hours blocked for a particular task or project, you can break it into 2-3 power hours based on your ability to maintain intense focus on that task. If you’re on a roll and want to stay in phase 2, it’s up to you. If you stay in phase 2, you can maintain momentum, but will likely be depleted when you finish. If you move to phase 3, you can recover some energy and brainpower and pause to look at the big picture, then do an abbreviated phase 1 before getting back into a groove in phase 2. You will lose some momentum, but you’ll check in on the big picture and manage your energy and brainpower better throughout the day.
A Power Hour is adapted from a study skills strategy taught to cadets at United States Military Academy.
#calendar #timemanagement #priority #powerhour
Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz is a really interesting book to read. It's easy to assume that having choices is a good thing. However, having too many choices can create a larger conundrum than having limited choices. is a powerful and motivating book. He describes the challenges with making decisions with too many choices, and provides some guidance on how to navigate those tricky situations.
I'd like to highlight two distinctions or tendencies in one's approach to making decisions. When trying to make a choice, you can be a maximizer or a satisficer. Maximizers believe that there is a perfect solution, and are dedicated to ensuring they make the best choice. They tend to agonize over decisions and collect a lot of information (often times even after a decision has been made). Satisficers have clear standards for the solutions they are examining, and once they make a choice that meets their standards, they they make a decision and they move on.
Here's what's really fascinating: maximizers spend an extraordinary amount of energy researching and comparing to make their decision, and are more likely to regret the choice they made than satisficers. Satisficers strategically limit their choices based on their goals and expectations, and are more satisfied with their choices than maximizers.
(Note: sketch notes are a mix of sketching and taking notes that graphically organizes the information).
What does it mean to hustle? To work hard, put forth effort, to move with a purpose? To push, strive, rush, grind, or hurry? To stay busy? Growing up, hustling was a good thing. Hustling meant put in extra effort. It meant the difference between achieving your goals and not.
Hustling has earned me many good things in my life. I have earned advanced degrees and have had great jobs. Hustling taught me how to set goals and focus, how to put in the effort required to get what I wanted. Hustling brought me a sense of accomplishment, it brought me praise and acknowledgement.
Hustling has earned me more than just these things. It’s gotten me stress. It’s secured my place on the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill describes the need to strive for what you want, only to immediately want greater things once you get what you wanted. Hustling has also earned me an extreme discomfort with the status quo, a discomfort with quiet and stillness. I feel like I must always be striving for something.
There’s no doubt the hustle got me where I am, and I like where I am. But constantly hustling is uncomfortable and draining. Constantly hustling makes it hard to appreciate where you are and what you have because you’re always pushing and grinding for the next thing. The hustle can be a powerful and positive driving force, and the hustle can also be vicious cycle that grinds you down.
Was I hustling because I wanted to accomplish greater things? Or was I hustling because I didn’t feel I was good enough as I was? Was I hustling to lift myself up? Or was I hustling to run away or to prove I was worthy? Who was I if I wasn’t achieving great things? Who was I if I wasn’t grinding away at the next thing? Brene Brown describes this as hustling for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing and proving.
As a business owner, I have to work hard to be successful. But I don’t think I need to hustle. As a parent, I want to cultivate a good work ethic, but I also want to cultivate a comfort with quiet and non-busyness. I’m trying to remove hustle from my vocabulary and mindset. I value hard work; I value focus and targeted effort towards goals. I do not value busyness for the sake of being busy. I do not value wasted effort. I do not value proving my worth or value by how busy I am or how much I’m hustling. I’m trying to learn to value quiet, to value peace in what I have in the moment. I'm even trying to remove "busy" from my vocabulary when describing my state of affairs.
There’s a time to hustle. That is, there is a time to work hard, to strive, to put in the extra effort. But there are also times when that’s not important. You can’t drive and grind full out all the time. You can’t push and strive for 110% in all areas of your life at the same time. I’m trying to get really good at noticing the difference between the times and things that need the extra effort, and the times and things that don’t.
I’m also trying to cultivate comfort with quiet, with non-busyness. To cultivate compassion and acceptance for my value in moments when I’m striving for something and in moment when I’m not. Yoga, breathing and mindfulness are strategies that help me cultivate quiet. As my work schedule gets fuller, and we approach the holiday season, I’m also practicing boundaries on how I protect my time and effort.
What helps you cultivate quiet?
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. New York: Random House.
#hustle #stress #worth #worthiness #worklifebalance #cultivatequiet
In my last post, I discussed how we miss the point (and power) of optimism when we think optimism is viewing the glass as half full and pessimism as half empty.
Optimistic thinking is incredibly powerful, but we have to take it beyond the image of “glass half full” thinking and just seeing the good in everything. We need to identify what we did to fill the glass and what we can do to keep filling the glass. In this, we discover the super power of optimism. In these next few posts on optimism, we’ll explore ways to not only fill the glass, but keep the glass full in the face of events and circumstances that threaten to empty it.
Giving Gratitude an Oomph
A gratitude journal is one of the best ways to build a habit of noticing the good that happens around you. It is key to training your brain to see the glass as half full. The Army teaches this practice as a Hunt the Good Stuff journal, others call it a “5 good things” exercise, others gratitude or “give thanks” journal. In all cases, the basic premise is the same: you make a deliberate habit of looking for the good things that happen in your life.
This exercise can be conducted in many ways:
There is a wealth of research to support gratitude journals increasing happiness, decreasing depression and increasing optimistic expectations about their week and engagement in healthy behaviors (Peterson, 2006; Verkuyten & Thijs, 2002; Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Froh et al., 2010; Frederickson, 2004; Komter, 2004).
My family jokes that my grandma Lela has “Lela-colored” glasses. She has a very special way of looking at the world (as I imagine most grandmothers do). Every Tuesday, she prays for something special to happen to her or someone she loves. And every single week something special happens. Part of this is because we all know about it, so sometimes we made it a point to do something nice for her on a Tuesday, but part of it is she opened her aperture to find something good that happened. What truly gives my grandma her super power of optimism is her reflection of how those good things happened. She did something that helped to bring about that good thing. And she can repeat that behavior to make more good things happen.
We can give gratitude an oomph so it helps build our super power of optimism by taking the time to reflect on the items we identified. This reflection helps us savor the good stuff a little more, but most importantly, it gives us a “what’s next.” The reflection gives us a way to fill our glass even more effectively.
Gratitude is about noticing and savoring the good that happens. But the super power of optimism is about identifying what is next and what can you do to generate more things to be grateful for.
High-Yield Energy Investments
In the Yoga Sutras, there is a moral code called Bramacharya. Most often, when bramacharya is translated, it is thought to mean celibacy. In more modern interpretations, it refers right use of energy. Again, this can often be interpreted as exercising moderation in external or hedonistic indulgences. However, the idea of right use of energy can go beyond external expenditures of energy. We can examine internal energy expenditures as well. Where attention goes, energy flows. If we really think about where our energy is spent (and wasted) throughout a day, we spend an awful lot of energy spinning our wheels worrying and complaining about factors and circumstances we can’t control. Any time something happens to us, are are we spending our energy in the right way?
Low-yield energy investments tend to feel great in the moment. We complain, we vent, we identify other people or circumstances to blame for what’s going on, we look for allies to our point of view. In these energy investments, we tend to stay very problem focused; name the problem, how others created this problem for us, what it would be like if we didn’t have this problem, what we should have done differently to avoid this problem, and how great it would be if the stars aligned so this problem magically went away.
High-yield energy investments don’t feel as gratifying early on, but have much higher payouts. Right use of energy is about staying solution focused. Solution-focused thinking can be fact finding (especially using opposing or differing perspectives), generating solution strategies based on what is going on and what you can do next.
In short, solution focused thinking centers almost entirely on factors you can control or influence to replicate a good situation or improve a less-than-ideal situation. If you can change something about a situation, change it. If you don’t have control over anything about a certain situation, you can still control your perspective and how you spend your energy and attention on the situation. This is where positive action can occur. This is where the super power of optimism sits waiting to be unleashed. In the next post, we will explore how we refine the super power though changing our perspective and identifying where our beliefs and assumptions may be limiting our super power.
Emmons, R. (2008). Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York: Mariner Books.
Malouff, J.M. & Schutte, N.S. (2016). Can psychological interventions increase optimism? A meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1221122
Newlyn, E. (2014, November 19). The Yamas: Brahmacharya, right use of energy. Retrieved from https://www.ekhartyoga.com/blog/the-yamas-brahmacharya-right-use-of-energy.
Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer In Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
#optimism #gratitude #superpower #hope #optimisticthinking #solutionfocused #positivethinking
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