Insights for High Stress Professions
Energy is a finite resource. The thing is, we don’t all start with the same amount, we don’t spend it at the same rate, and we recharge differently. We know that the harder we lean in (the more energy we spend), the more we need to recover. What we don’t necessarily know is how much we need to recovery. What we don’t usually know is how much energy someone else spent, and how much they need to recover.
To manage this conundrum, people with disabilities, chronic illness or chronic pain have created a metaphor using spoons to depict energy. Each day, you have a certain number of spoons. Each task (discrete tasks like work, cooking, etc. and emotional load of tasks like stress and frustration) cost a certain number of spoons. Days you are stressed, didn’t sleep well, are overloaded, sick or depressed, you start with fewer spoons than normal. You can push through and do more today by stealing spoons from tomorrow, but then you are starting tomorrow with fewer spoons.
For example, say you have 16 spoons each day. If you spend 16 spoons each day, you have “nothing left” at the end of the day. If you push through and spend 18 spoons today, you only have 14 spoons for tomorrow. If you are stressed, didn’t sleep well, are overloaded, sick or depressed, you start today with 12 spoons.
This is a simple metaphor that helps us understand so much. We have different starting points: I may have 16 spoons each day while you have 18 spoons or 14 spoons each day. We spend energy differently: getting dinner ready after a long day may cost me 1 spoon, while it costs you 2 spoons, or ½ spoon.
It also shows how we set ourselves up to crash when we push too hard too long. If I spent 18 of my 16 spoons today, I have 14 spoons tomorrow. If I spend 18 of my 14 spoons tomorrow, I have 10 spoons the next day. If I slow down and only spend 14 spoons the next day, I start the following day with 6 spoons. It would take several days of “having spoons left over” to get back up to having 16 spoons a day.
When we lean in, eventually we have to lean back. After all, we don’t get stronger when we lift weights, we get stronger when we rest after lifting weights. If we expect to keep going, to keep spending tomorrow’s spoons, we are going to crash.
What I love the most about this analogy is it gives a frame of reference for talking to others about your physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. When considering what you are asked to do, you can consider how many spoons it will take compared to how many spoons you have right now. You can say “I don’t have spoons for that.,” or your can say “I don’t have room on my plate for that right now.”
When looking at a team, this gives you a frame of reference to gauge each other’s physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. This can help a leader or a team allocate tasks better. Giving the task to the person that “always gets it done” might ignore the rate they are spending spoons. If something is going on in a team member’s personal life that’s making them start the day with fewer spoons, you can be mindful about how you allocate tasks.
It takes trust in the team and the leadership to have candid conversations about physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. As a leader, you can step up and model these conversations, and model what it looks like to take a knee and recover. Over time, this shows your team that it’s okay to do the same. It’s can prevent and reverse burnout and is better for the collective physical, mental and emotional bandwidth of the team to recover along the way; to not be in a spoon deficit.
#wellbeing #stressmanagement #diminishingreturns #team #energy
I first heard the term Inefficient Overwork from Allison Bishins, a business consultant in the Tacoma Area, who got it from a NYT article. I’ve thought about inefficient overwork and how it relates to procrastination. There are obvious and unproductive ways procrastination shows up, like social media or binging your favorite show when you should be doing something else, and there are sneaky “productive” ways procrastination shows up (see my blog post on this here). Sometimes procrastination shows up in other ways. It can show up as going down rabbit holes, or doing busywork.
Gayle Porter, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business, when asked about workaholics, said “They’re not looking for ways to be more efficient; they’re just looking for ways to always have more work to do.”
This rang true for me. There are things I put off because they really aren’t that important, but there are also things I put off for other reasons. While I put the bulk of the project off, I might do some things to make me feel better about putting it off. I’ve had to learn to examine what I’m doing because while I may call it productive procrastination, sometimes I’m subconsciously finding ways to make things harder.
I’ve had to come up with a way to categorize what I’m doing based on the impact of my efforts, not by how worthy the work feels in the moment. I’ve come to view these categories as “Pre-work” and “Busywork.”
Pre-work includes things I can do now that will streamline my efforts later. For example, if the task is writing a blog post, outlining my ideas now is something that will streamline the process of writing the article later. It will help me find relevant sources and come up with clearer examples when it comes time to write. I often use pre-work when I have some time to work on a task but I don’t have time to tackle the whole task right now.
Busywork is work for the sake of work. Busywork is spending countless amount of time looking for the “perfect” photo or quote for a blog article. Busywork is creating a chart or graphic organizer of a blog post idea after I already created an outline. Busywork is recopying my blog post schedule. Busywork is rewriting a blog post in my head after I have completed, reviewed and scheduled a post.
Here is how I tell the difference between pre-work and busywork. Pre-work is work I can do now to help make the work I need to do later go smoother. Busywork is work I can do now to put off doing something else. Every example I listed as busywork is further delaying writing the blog post I should be working on, while the pre-work example directly feeds into the quality of work.
Once I know something is busywork, I need to let it go. It's not serving a purpose. If something is pre-work, I get that work done and schedule when I will get to the meat of the task.
#busy #procrastination #productivity
When something is a priority, it’s important. It’s protected. It should be done or thought about before other things. Also, when everything is a priority, nothing is.
The thing is, depending on how you classify your priorities, higher priorities might be based on someone else’s expectations, consequences, importance to your daily life, importance to your larger goals and purpose, or deadlines. In the absence of clear criteria, we tend to use urgency and priority synonymously. The more urgent something is, the higher priority it is, but when urgency controls your priorities, you spend most of your time putting out fires.
Urgency is pretty clear. When something is urgent, it is time sensitive or has a pressing deadline. If not, it’s not urgent. Importance is less clear, that is, what makes something important or not important isn’t as obvious as a pressing deadline.
Let’s explore some ways to look at what’s important. If something is important, it adds value to your life. It contributes to your passion or purpose, or it betters your life or the life of those you care about. If something is important, there are consequences if you don’t take action.
The thing is, when something is really important, we tend to know about it and can plan things around it. This means we can use our time well and give important things the time they truly deserve. This will keep us from spending our time putting out fires that don’t truly require our time and attention.
Colonel Blum wrote a widely respected and distributed article about the difference between important and urgent, and looking back at his career, what he would have done differently. Something is important if you can say yes to the following three criteria:
One way to balance urgent versus important tasks is to use the Eisenhower Matrix (check out free worksheet here). Using urgent and important, we can create four quadrants: Urgent and Important, Urgent and Not Important, Not Urgent and Important, and Not Urgent and Not Important. Once things are divided into the quadrants, then the quadrants tell you how to approach these tasks.
Another way to think about prioritizing is to think of Priorities and priorities and how they nest together. P-Priorities are the big picture things you want in your life and for those in your life. How you want to feel, what sort of life you want to live, the things in your life you don’t want to compromise. p-priorities are the ankle-biter things that come up on a regular basis that need attention but may or may not move you toward the P-Priorities. The p-priorities can be established for the day or for the week. Knowing your P-priorities helps you respond to what’s really important when things pop up and vie for your attention.
When examining opportunities, determine if these opportunities or tasks support your P-Priorities. When looking at the things filling your plate, determine how well the p-priorities feed or serve the P-Priorities. Look at your day’s priorities, do they help serve this week’s priorities? Do this week’s priorities support this month’s priorities? This year’s priorities? If your day’s or week’s priorities don’t nest into or feed your month’s or year’s priorities, then it’s probably just busywork and not helping you life the life you want.
#priority #timemanagement #goals #values
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
Entrepreneurial You by Dorie Clark is a helpful book for individuals looking to start or grow their business. To be successful as an entrepreneur, you need to have multiple streams of income. Period. She then walks you through many successful strategies to diversify your income streams.
Dorie did a great job of providing real life examples of successes and blunders to help normalize the rocky and sometimes unpredictable road of being an entrepreneur.
(Note: sketch notes are a mix of sketching and taking notes that graphically organizes the information).
Clark, D. (2017). Entrepreneurial You: Monetize Your Expertise, Create Multiple Income Streams, and Thrive. Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press.
Rohde, M. (n.d.). What are sketchnotes? Retrieved from https://sketchnotearmy.com/sketchnotes.
#sketchnote #Entrepreneur #business
Thrive: the Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington is a book that has reshaped the way I see the world and my choices in it. We have an inaccurate and unhelpful view of what makes someone successful. Success is traditionally measured by power and money. But when you reflect from the perspective of eulogies, that's not what people talk about when describing someone. There need to be a third metric of success.
When we cultivate wellbeing, wisdom, wonder and giving, we create the third leg of a stool to what makes someone successful, so we create a success that is more balanced and sustainable.
To create this third metric in our lives, we need to figure out little practices we can do regularly to build the factors that make up the third metric. This can be having walking meetings, scheduling time to be away from your technology, or crossing things off your to do list because they really aren't that important.
(Note: sketch notes are a mix of sketching and taking notes that graphically organizes the information).
Huffington, A. (2014). Thrive: the third metric to redefining success and creating a life of well-being, wisdom, and wonder. New York: Random House.
Rohde, M. (n.d.). What are sketchnotes? Retrieved from https://sketchnotearmy.com/sketchnotes.
#sketchnote #abundance #wellbeing #wonder #thrive
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
What is stress? Stress is a demand placed on your body. Stress is also the non-specific response to those demands.
Stress is a good thing. Stress mobilizes energy so you can rally and overcome the challenge you are facing. Stress protects you from danger. If you’re getting chased by a cougar, the stress response helps you fight or escape from that cougar.
But stress management is a $13.9 billion industry. Stress is bad when it becomes chronic. We aren’t generally getting chased by cougars, but we are bombarded with stressors and irritants on a daily basis. It’s hard to escape stress. Not only that, we can turn our stress response just by thinking about something stressful. This makes it near impossible to stay away from stress triggers. We never really turn off our stress response anymore.
If we were a deer, and we were chased by a cougar, the stress response would kick in to help us escape the cougar. Once the cougar was gone, the stress trigger was gone, and our body can go through the natural reset process to bring us back to a non-stressed state. As humans, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to go through the natural reset process to bring us back to a balanced energy state because we are bombarded with stressors, we relive stressors, and we anticipate stressors.
Saying “the stress response” is still pretty vague. Let’s dig into what’s happening in our body with stress. Most of us are familiar with the fight or flight response, but it’s a little more nuanced with that. Polyvagal theory identifies three different branches of the stress response.
The newest development in our stress response evolved in primates. This branch emphasized the important of social cues and social interaction. When there’s a potential threat, we look around to see what others are doing, and this determines how we respond. If others don’t perceive a threat, we stay grounded, open and calm. Picture a small child that just fell. The child instinctually looks around to see how others reacted before they react. If we rush over with concern in our faces, it signals that what happened was bad and unsafe, and the child starts crying. If we don’t react, or we react with positive emotions, the child will generally stay calm.
The next branch of the stress response evolved with mammals. This branch is the traditional fight or flight response. When there’s a potential threat and we perceive ourselves as being able to handle this threat, our body mobilizes energy so we can fight or flee. Adrenaline kicks in, our respiration and heart rate increase, all so we can get more energy to our arms and legs. This response also turns off digestion, reproduction and our immune system, as these functions aren’t needed if we are currently being chased by a cougar. If we enter fight mode, we might feel anger, frustration, or irritation, and get fidgety with our hands. If we enter flee mode, we might feel anxiety, worry, panic or fear, and get fidgety with our legs.
The oldest branch of the stress response evolved with lizards. This branch is the freeze response. When there’s a potential threat that we perceive to be beyond our ability to fight or flee from, we enter the freeze mode. When we are in freeze mode our body shuts down and withdraws from external stimuli. It conserves energy, decreases blood pressure, and physically and/or emotionally isolates you. In this mode, we may feel numb, dissociated, withdrawn, trapped, shut down, depressed or hopeless.
In all my years learning about the stress response, I pictured freeze mode to be “deer in the headlights,” literally freezing up in an unhelpful way at an inopportune time. As a result, I never thought I spent much time in the freeze response. With this more nuanced understanding, I realized I spend a lot of time in freeze mode. When my stress level gets really high, I don’t want to talk to people, I numb, I avoid people and any non-essential activity, and I just want to wait it out until it gets better.
What’s really powerful about this deeper understanding of the stress response is the power our perception has over how the stress response impacts us.
What can we do with this information? Stay tuned for the next blog post where I’ll cover some strategies to impact the stress response.
NicheHacks, (2018, December 18). Stress Yourself Into This $13.9 Billion Dollar Niche That Has Millions Of People Frustrated For Relief. Retrieved from https://nichehacks.com/stress-niche/
Porges, S., (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. W. W. Norton & Company.
#stress #stressmanagement #stressresponse
“Good Enough” means different things to different people. For some, it means you put your best effort in, and you’re ready to call that task done. For some, it’s the benchmark where you’re off the hook for trying any harder. For some, it’s when you give up and walk away. Regardless, it’s a really loaded term. Even these descriptions can be interpreted multiple ways. Good enough could mean you put in your very best effort, or it could mean you put in the very best of what you had that day, or it could mean you put in the very best effort of what you had to spare on that task.
For some, good enough is very freeing. It gives them a sense of satisfaction and the ability to move on, focusing their energy on different projects. For others, good enough is not freeing at all; good enough is a cop-out, a flimsy standard that excuses not putting your best effort into something.
I think we need to be better at embracing the idea of good enough. In order to do this, we need to redefine our understanding and standard of good enough. There are a few reasons we need to redefine this. Good enough can feel like it’s lowering our standards. It’s not. It means you met the mark and can move on.
If good enough means we put in our best effort, that’s great, only “best effort” is hard to measure. My best effort on a task is probably different than your best effort. But even within myself, my best effort on a task might change based on time, energy, competing priorities, etc. Is my best effort my all-out best effort? Is it the best effort of what I have to give that day? Is it my best effort of what I have to give that day if I ignore everything else? How can I use best effort as a benchmark for good enough if best effort isn’t constant?
Another reason to redefine our standard for good enough is Parkinson's Law. Parkinson's law states that work expands to fill the time allotted. At my old job, if I only had an hour to prepare for a training, I could spend that whole hour preparing, organizing my notes and reviewing timing. If I had a full day to prepare for a training, I could spend the whole day preparing, organizing my notes, rehearsing, reviewing the timing needed for activities, etc. I had a core set of things I did to prepare, beyond that, I could spend a little or a lot of time preparing, but beyond those core things, the rest was just busywork. If you have weeks to spend writing a paper, you could spend weeks writing that paper. If you only have tonight to write that same paper, you could write it tonight. It should be noted, that shrinking the time window for a task can result in rushed and sloppy work, but the point I want to make with Parkinson's Law is that while chasing “good enough,” I could spend a little time or a lot of time. Based on how much time I have, my standard for good enough might need to change. But If I allow it, chasing good enough can take way more time than is appropriate for the task.
Finally, and this is what I try to focus on the most when defining what good enough means to me, is diminishing returns. There’s a point in my productivity where suddenly it’s a lot harder to get the same results. For example, in school, I knew about how much effort I needed to put into a class to get the grade I wanted. I could put more effort in to get a higher grade, but it would have been an extraordinary amount more time and effort to get the extra few points. Proportionally, it was a substantial amount more effort for only a slightly higher grade. This turning point, where it suddenly takes way more effort to yield the same increase in outcome, is the point of diminishing returns. This is the point where I try to place the good enough mark. I could do better, but it’s not worth the extra hustle to get to that mark.
I like working hard on things I care about. The more I reflect, the less I like hustling. To me, hustling is running around busily spending energy that doesn’t necessarily yield a better result. It’s spending energy to prove my worth instead of knowing I am enough, regardless of how I do, what gets done, and what doesn’t get finished.
If you find yourself hustling for the extra results, ask yourself two questions:
When evaluating the big things in your life, it’s important to remember there’s a time to rally, and there’s a time to move on to the next gig. There are things in your life that are worth the extra effort to strive for your best. But there are things in your life that aren’t worth your extra effort. It’s important to determine what these are ahead of time before you get stuck hustling on the hedonic treadmill.
Basco, M. R. (2000). Never good enough: How to use perfectionism to your advantage without letting it ruin your life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Malone, K., Gonzalez, S., Horowitz-Ghazi, A., & Goldmark, A. (2018, November 21). Episode 877: The Laws Of The Office. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/11/19/669395064/episode-877-the-laws-of-the-office
Parkinson, C. N. (1958). Parkinson's law: Or, The pursuit of progress. London: John Murray.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Perennial.
#goodenough #satisficer #besteffort #productivity #diminishingreturns #hustling #haveitall #haveitall
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