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Aug 20 18

Why You Should Take More Breaks

by Beth

According to Anne Lamott, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Human beings are not machines. We need down time in order to function at our best. Constantly being on with no time to rest or disconnect negatively impacts our productivity, health, and relationships. Yet society today pushes us to go, go, go. We feel guilty if we aren’t doing something productive and we pride ourselves in being busy. The ideal employee is available 24/7.

This has to stop! We need to take breaks throughout the day, disconnect from work when we are home, and go on vacations.

We perform better when we take breaks. In his book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz proposes a 90-minute work cycle for maximizing productivity. He cites a study of violinists in which the top performers typically practiced for three sessions, none of them longer than 90 minutes, with breaks between each session.

In his book, When, Dan Pink identifies five rules for restorative breaks: 1) something beats nothing, 2) moving beats stationary, 3) social beats solo, 4) outside beats inside, and 5) fully detached beats semi-detached, meaning don’t think about work or use your phone during your break.

We also need to disconnect from work when we are home, using the time to connect with family and friends, engage in fun activities or relaxing pastimes, and go to bed early enough to get a good night’s sleep.

Vacations are also important. Yet according to a survey of over 2,200 U.S. employees, only 54 percent take their paid vacation time. In another study of Millennials, 59 percent reported feeling a sense of shame for taking or planning a vacation.

Not taking vacations has serious mental and physical health consequences. Men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to die of a heart attack. Women who don’t take vacations are 50 percent more likely to die of a heart attack and 2 to 8 times more likely to suffer from depression. The risk of burnout is also higher if you don’t take vacations.

We need to change the way we think about breaks. Breaks help us to be our best selves. The ideal employee is the one who goes for a walk outside in the middle of the afternoon, doesn’t send emails from home at night, and comes back tan and rested after a week at the beach. Is that you?

Jul 16 18

Your Words Impact Your Well-Being

by Beth

Last summer I heard a talk by Johannes Eichstaedt. He discussed the research he and his colleagues are doing as part of Penn’s World Well-Being Project. They are using language in social media to measure psychological and physical well-being around the world. It’s fascinating!

They analyze tweets to correlate words with outcomes. The difference among words that predict male versus female users is pretty funny. But on a more serious note, they have found associations between word use and things like depression and heart disease. Twitter can actually predict life satisfaction and positive emotions better than income.

The correlational nature of the research means it’s impossible to determine whether a situation leads to word choice or vice versa, but there is evidence that the words we use can impact our well-being. Your language influences your thoughts. If you tell yourself you are stressed, you are sending that message to your brain. Your brain will respond by secreting the stress hormone cortisol, and too much cortisol hurts your health by increasing inflammation. Constantly telling yourself you are stressed reinforces the neural networks associated with stress. This makes them stronger, which means your brain is more likely to generate stressful thoughts.

I read a study a few years ago where researchers found that telling people they had gotten a good night’s sleep positively impacted their performance, while telling them they had slept poorly had a negative impact on their performance. I used to spend the day complaining after a night of not sleeping well. Since reading about the study, I try my best not to think about it when I’ve slept poorly. I can definitely tell the difference. Not talking about how tired I am helps me feel more energized despite a lack of sleep.

In Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Newberg and Waldman explain how a single word can impact your brain. Positive words promote cognitive brain function, while negative words activate the fight-or-flight response, which hinders cognitive function.

We all know that our words can impact others. It’s also important to recognize the power that our words can have over our own well-being.

Jun 15 18

Smartphone Use Impairs Focus and Memory

by Beth

In her book, How to Break up with Your Phone, Catherine Price presents research showing the negative impact smartphone use can have on our brains.

In order to focus, our brains have to ignore distractions. This is hard to do because our brains are wired to look for and pay attention to novelty. The links, ads, and apps on our phones make ignoring distractions virtually impossible. And the more we give in to distractions, the more we reinforce the neural circuits associated with a lack of attention. That means the more we read online, the better we become at not staying focused.

Smartphone use also hurts our memory and capacity for deep thought. To start with, every minute you spend looking at your phones is a minute you are not attending to the world around you. So those are memories you won’t have.

Next, what you are paying attention to at each moment is held in your working memory. In order to convert that information into a long-term memory, your brain has to use mental energy to connect the information to schemas, which are networks of other connected memories. The more schemas a memory is connected to, the greater your capacity for complex thought.

Your working memory can only hold a few things at once. When it becomes overloaded, your ability to connect information to schemas is impaired. Smartphone use overloads your working memory, which means it’s harder for your brain to transfer information to long-term memory. So, basically, you are less likely to remember things.

Kinda scary, huh? I’d rather not do something that hurts my focus, memory formation, and ability for complex thinking. On the other hand, I’m not willing to stop using my phone. Instead, I’m working to change my relationship with it. I am trying to be more intentional about when and why I use it.

My first step was to download an app to track my phone use. It’s already helping! It lets me see how much time I spend on my phone and it sometimes asks me if I really want to unlock my screen. Sometimes I do, but other times I realize I’m just bored and I choose to put it away.

How about you? Would you like to change your relationship with your phone?

May 15 18

Staying In is as Important as Leaning In

by Beth

As I have mentioned before, I believe Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In provides good advice for women who aspire to top leadership positions. However, in my research interviewing and surveying over 1,000 women, I found that most of them were not interested in the corner office. What they wanted was a job that fit their lives and let them use their talents to do meaningful work.

That’s why I was pleased to read an advanced copy of Kathryn Sollmann’s book, Ambition Redefined. She believes the most pressing issue for women today is finding flexible work. Too many women feel they must choose between a full-time corporate career that leaves no time for family or leaving the workforce all together. Sollmann explains that there are many alternatives to this all-or-nothing scenario. She shares practical advice for securing flexwork that accommodates caring for children and aging parents.

The most valuable message in Sollmann’s book is the importance of staying in the workforce for financial reasons. Women who continue to work, even in part-time positions with lower pay, make significant contributions to the long-term financial security of their families. A woman loses up to four times her salary each year she is out of the workforce, and women who leave to care for children stay out an average of 12 years. Continuing to generate an income, however small, provides insurance against unforeseen circumstances like divorce or a spouse’s job loss, disability, or death. Earning money is caring for your family.

Women should have the freedom to define their own versions of success. Ambition should be redefined to acknowledge that there are many different ways to pursue fulfilling work and earn a decent income. Flexible work options are paramount for allowing women to stay professionally active and financially secure, while also caring for their families.

Apr 20 18

Employee Well-Being: A Workplace Imperative

by Beth

I just finished filming a course for The Great Courses entitled “How to Build a Thriving Workplace: A Leader’s Guide.” It should be available in the fall, so stay tuned!

Clearly, I’m a firm believer in the importance of the employee experience. I agree with Sir Richard Branson who has said that, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” Focusing on employee well-being will give your company a huge competitive advantage.

In his book, The Employee Experience Advantage, Jacob Morgan cites research showing that companies with the strongest focus on employee experience are significantly more likely to be ranked among the best places to work and among the most innovative companies. They are also found in the American Customer Satisfaction Index twice as often. And their profit is 4 times the average.

A focus on employee well-being is good for business and, according to Stanford business school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, it is a moral imperative. His book, Dying for a Paycheck, was published last month. In it, he discusses many of the ills of the modern workplace and argues that they can be life-threatening. He explains how the biggest source of stress is the workplace and that stress is responsible for much of the chronic disease from which so many Americans suffer. Pfeffer estimates that job stress may cause as many as 120,000 deaths each year.

He believes the environment we work in is as important as the one we live in. So we should hold organizations accountable not just for the impact they have on the physical environment, but also for the impact they have on the human beings who work for them. His book is an urgent call for companies to focus on workplace well-being.

The experiences that employees have moment to moment throughout the workday impact their well-being and their performance. Leaders who intentionally focus on creating workplaces where people thrive positively impact the lives of their employees and the success of their companies.

Mar 20 18

Be Happy in Spite of

by Beth

People are often surprised to hear that we get happier as we age. It seems like a paradox, because old age is filled with aches and pains and losses. But it’s true! Older people experience as many positive emotions as younger people, but fewer negative ones.

In his book, Happiness is a Choice You Make, John Leland discusses many of the reasons our happiness increases as we age. One is that older people are “happy in spite of”. Many of us think we will be “happy if only” all of the bad things would go away or “happy when” we achieve a specific goal. Older people have learned that there will always be bad things, but they can choose to be happy in spite of them.

Studies show that older people experience more mixed emotions. They can be sad about some things, while being happy about others at the same time. They have learned that life doesn’t have to be all good to be good. You can be happy despite negative circumstances. It depends on your attitude and what you choose to focus on.

Older people know that life is too short to wait around for happiness. They don’t let small stressors get them down. They have figured out what makes them happy and spend more time doing those things.

Fortunately, you don’t have to grow old to be happy in spite of. You can change your mindset right now by recognizing that happiness won’t magically come when you graduate or when you get married or when you lose five pounds or when you can afford a bigger house. You can be happy now – in spite of any problems you might be facing.

Be grateful for what is good in your life. Savor happy moments. Do what you love. Help someone. Appreciate your family and friends. And don’t waste time on worry or regret.

Stop waiting to be happy when and start being happy in spite of!

Feb 16 18

What’s Your AQ?

by Beth

A lot has been written about the importance of IQ, your intelligence quotient, and EQ, your emotional quotient, for success. A lesser-known quotient, your AQ, can also have a big impact on performance and happiness. AQ is your adaptability quotient or your ability to adapt to and thrive in an environment of change. Despite the fact that “change is the only constant,” many of us have trouble accepting and dealing with it.

People with a high AQ recognize the need for change and adjust accordingly. This helps them to be more resilient, which boosts both their success and their well-being. When a situation changes, you may need to adapt your plan or possibly even move on to another goal. The sooner you recognize the need for change and take action, the more successful you will be. You will also be happier, because much of our unhappiness comes from wishing something were different than it is. Accepting that things have changed and choosing to move forward can minimize your suffering.

Here are some tips for increasing your AQ:

  1. try to accept change, rather than fight it, by reminding yourself that change is inevitable
  2. alter your mindset to view change as making progress, something exciting, or an opportunity to learn
  3. think about different ways to achieve your goals so that you will be ready to change direction if necessary
  4. stay open to the possibility that you might need to choose a different goal and that’s OK
  5. keep your focus on the things that you can control
  6. make sure you have a strong social network who you can turn to for support

People with a high AQ accept that change is inevitable and recognize that the sooner they adjust to a new reality, the better.

Jan 16 18

Use Design Thinking for Positive Change

by Beth

Are there things you’d like to do differently in 2018? According to one study, only 9% of people achieve their New Year’s resolution. We often give up trying to change our behavior because of the way our brains react to failure. Let’s say you resolve to go to the gym before work 3 days a week. Then, as luck would have it, the East Coast is hit by a “bomb cyclone” of freezing temperatures and you just can’t force yourself to face the frigid morning air, so you miss a day or two. Your brain considers this a failure, and, in an attempt to prevent you from wasting time repeating a failed behavior, it will suppress your motivation to try again.

Design thinking can empower you to make positive change that will stick. It’s the creative process used by designers like architects or engineers to solve problems. Design thinking is iterative, meaning it’s a repetitive process of making small improvements to come up with a better design. This means there is no failure; each stage in the process becomes a starting point for a better solution.

Using design thinking can trick your mind, making it easier to change your behavior. If your goal of going to the gym 3 mornings a week isn’t working, you haven’t failed, you just need to come up with a way to improve your plan. Maybe you’ll be more likely to go in the afternoon when it isn’t so cold and dark. Or perhaps you should pay in advance for a month’s worth of exercise classes. Or promise to meet a friend at a certain time.

Don’t approach your goals with the expectation that you will succeed. Expect that you will need to tweak and adjust things as you go along. Thinking of your goal as something that will continually evolve prevents you from experiencing failure, which keeps you motivated. Even when you come up with a plan that works, circumstances will change and at some point you will need to adjust your plan again. Use design thinking to make small, continual, positive changes as you build a better life.

If you’d like to learn more, here are a couple of books to check out:

Designing Your Life and Well Designed Life

Dec 12 17

Wishing You a Phubbing Free Holiday

by Beth

I love to celebrate the holidays by giving and receiving presents. But this year, I’m going to do my best to also give the gift of presence. The holidays offer many of us the chance to spend time with family and friends, but technology can prevent us from connecting in a meaningful way.

Have you heard of “phubbing”? It’s a new word that refers to snubbing someone by checking your phone. It was popularized by an advertising campaign in Australia in 2012 that encouraged people to “Stop phubbing”. A few years later, researchers in the United States surveyed people to determine the effects of phubbing on relationships. Forty-six percent of respondents said their partners phubbed them, and 23 percent said it caused problems in their relationship. In another survey of women who were in a romantic relationship, 62 percent reported that their partner phubbed them daily.

Checking text messages and social media on our phones is an addictive behavior. Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, has admitted that the site was designed to create something addictive by exploiting “a vulnerability in human psychology”. A former vice-president at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, recently admitted feeling guilty for his part in creating “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”. I use Facebook and I love that it lets me keep in touch with family and friends who live far away. But I do make an effort to limit the amount of time I spend on it.

Most of us don’t realize just how much time we spend on our phones. Our son downloaded an app that tells him how often he checks his phone and how much time he has spent on it each day. This is a great way to become more aware of your behavior. You will likely be shocked if you decide to give it a try.

My wish for everyone this holiday season is that we all make an effort to limit the amount of time we spend on our phones, so that we can enjoy quality time connecting with our loved ones. If you can’t resist the temptation, leave your phone at home or in another room. Or download an app that will help you stop using your apps. Notice how nice it is to give your brain a break and to see how much the people around you appreciate the gift of your presence.

Nov 13 17

Finding Flow

by Beth

Flow is a mental state that occurs when you’re so absorbed by an activity that you are completely immersed in the moment. You lose your sense of self, forgetting about your worries and concerns, and your sense of time is distorted. Athletes describe it as being “in the zone”.

Experiencing flow is good for our well-being and our success. The actual state of flow is void of emotion. We are so wrapped up in the moment that we don’t notice how we are feeling. Yet on reflection, people report having enjoyed the experience. This makes flow a powerful source of intrinsic motivation.

Neurochemicals are released in our brains when we experience flow, helping us to learn better. In a study done by DARPA, military snipers who were trained while in a state of flow learned 230 percent faster than normal. The focus that accompanies flow can dramatically improve performance. According to a 10-year study by McKinsey, top executives were five times more productive when they were in flow.

There are three main conditions for achieving flow. First, skills must be well matched to the challenge of the task. When a challenge exceeds our level of skill, we become anxious and stressed. Alternatively, if the task is too easy for our skill level, we become bored and distracted. A balance between the two produces a degree of focus and satisfaction, which makes the experience enjoyable and contributes to optimal performance.

Second, we need clear goals with feedback regarding progress. Goals give direction and structure to the task, and feedback helps us adjust our performance in order to maintain the flow state. Playing sports or video games are often associated with flow because they provide both a clear goal and feedback.

The third condition is to eliminate distractions. Studies show that it takes up to twenty minutes of focus before you become fully immersed in an activity. So you have to shut down email and social media and put away your phone in order to maintain focus.

See if you can find more opportunities to experience flow. Find an activity that you enjoy and that requires a certain level of focus. This can be anything: a project at work, a hobby, or cooking dinner. Eliminate distractions and commit to it for at least 20 minutes. You’ll appreciate the way it makes you feel and the sense of accomplishment you will gain!