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Nicole Lipkin

When my husband was a child, he couldn’t understand why his older brother would voluntarily go to Hebrew School. Worried he would face the same fate, he asked his mother if he would have to go at some point too.

“When you want to know what it means to be Jewish, then I’ll send you to Hebrew School,” his mother told him. Great, my husband thought, all I have to do is never utter those words and I’m home free.

Cut to:

His brother’s bar mitzvah: a huge, lavish party at an expensive hotel, with dancing, food, drinks, laughter, friends, family, and most importantly…TONS OF PRESENTS and MONEY.

The next day, my husband, eight years old at the time, said to his mother, “I want to know what it means to be Jewish.” And off he went to Hebrew School for five years, at the end of which he got his party, his presents, and some cash.

Cut to the present: He has not stepped foot inside a temple since.

I offer this parable to illustrate the effect of extrinsic motivation in the workplace, that being that the offer of rewards – bonuses, raises – do not create employee engagement, retention, or loyalty. With our eye on the prize, we will work towards the reward dangling in front of us until we get it – we will do the bare minimum to get it – and then we will move on to greener pastures.

This is in opposition to intrinsic motivation, which is inspiring someone from within, when an employee wants to do a good job out of a personal and professional sense of integrity. They want to do a good job for the company and for themselves because they find meaning in their work and that meaning gives them a sense of purpose in life.

It is up to the individual to come to work desiring meaning in their work, but it is also up to the leader to inspire from within.

When an Employee Goes Through the Motions

Neuroscientist Patrick Haggard, at University College London, studied the effects of intentional action vs action that is performed because of directives.

What he discovered is that intentional action creates a warped sense of time. If, for example, you have a button that makes a sound and you intentionally press that button to make the sound you will think the sound comes much quicker than it actually does (a phenomenon called “intentional binding”). This warped sense of time is absent from those who press the button because they’re told to; they have a clear sense of the time interval between the button being pressed and the sound created.

This warped time factor can be neurally recorded and this “neural signature,” as Gopnik put it, is how neuroscientists determine whether an individual feels a sense of agency or not with their decisions.

In their studies, whenever a subject was told to do something the intentional binding neural signature was absent. When a subject acted out of their own free will the intentional binding neural signature was present.

To be clear, If we feel a sense of agency, the neural signature of not being aware of time intervals is present; if we don’t feel a sense of agency the neural signature is absent and we clearly remember the time intervals between action and the result of that action.

The end result is that when the neural signature is absent the subject doesn’t feel as though the decision to, say, press the button was their own. It was an order given to them. And as such they don’t feel like it was they who did it.

How does this affect meaning in the workplace?

The more agency you give your employees the more they will feel that they themselves are doing the work, they are creating and assigning the value to their work, and this motivates them from within because they have a sense of free will.

If their job solely consists of taking orders and doing what they are told they will feel a lack of agency, and this lack of agency will create a gap between themselves and the work being done. They will not feel invested, like their own mind was being used, like they are making their own decisions and creating meaningful work on their own.

They will grow bored, feeling untapped. They will work to not be punished. They will work for the paycheck, and the paycheck only goes so far. You will create employees who feel no sense of loyalty and will not experience any guilt over leaving you high and dry should something better come along.

Inspire from within!

You want to create an aligned, harmonious culture where the people are engaged and feel a sense of loyalty to the work.

Doing so requires replacing our habitual, unconscious day-to-day behavior with a conscious relational philosophy built on heightened social awareness and skillful relationship management. It’s called having a relational philosophy.

Here are some tips for doing just that:

  1. Find out what other interests / passions your people have. And then utilize them. This creates more meaning for their life and feeds back into the company by creating an aligned, sticky culture. Promote individuality so people feel like their specific existence plays a valued role in the organization/company.
  2. Promote psychological safety. Create a comfortable environment where speaking up is nurtured. Feeling safe to be vulnerable, to take risks, to just be can be powerfully motivating. Google conducted 200+ interviews over the course of 2 years looking at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. They found the teams that had achieved psychological safety were the most successful.
  3. Create Supportive, Friendly Competition. Focus on how everyone’s individual efforts help the entire team achieve success. Remain alert for unwarranted complaints about others, angry outbursts, backstabbing, finger pointing, and sabotage. Create friendly competition, not an ultimate “win or lose” challenge among team members.
  4. Celebrate Success. Celebrating small wins motivates. It helps teams stay focused on what they are working for, and it gives everyone a chance to reflect on their successes. Take everyone out for drinks or create some time during the workday to acknowledge the wins.
  5. Show Appreciation. Feeling appreciated is a core emotional concern for all humans. It is part of our make-up. A simple thank you, a handwritten note, a pat on the back, or gratitude for someone’s unique contribution can be more motivating than money. If you want to give a token of appreciation, tailor it to the individual: show that you’ve been listening (e.g., a day at the spa, tickets to someone’s favorite band or restaurant that they keep talking about). This makes the gesture unforgettable.
  6. Pay attention to the environment. If you can, build a beautiful, cozy, fun, creative atmosphere for you and your people to work in. Research has shown that environment can be more important and more motivating than money. Our surroundings can inspire our brains.
  7. Hire for cultural fit. You’re building a clan. It behooves you to hire with personality in mind, not just credentials. We spend most of our lives with our coworkers, it thus makes sense for these people to be our friends, people with whom we’d like to get a drink and spend time with outside of work. For proof of concept, look to Zappos. I recommend reading Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness.
  8. Be flexible. For instance, if a remote work situation produces good results from a valued employee, work out an arrangement that works for all parties. Saying no just because it’s never happened before is spiteful. If you can’t reward with money, maybe there are other things you can do to show appreciation – be creative! Think outside of the box.

The tale of Sisyphus is oft-used as a metaphor for drudgery and drone office work. We can all potentially turn into – or feel like we are being turned into – Sisyphus, taking repetitive orders to complete mindless tasks ad nauseum.

But we don’t have to live that way. Our work lives don’t have to be mindless, hopeless struggles. Leaders should play a major role in that pursuit: create meaning in the workplace to the best of your ability, acknowledge successes, and reward the struggle.

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Few children grow up thinking, “Someday I’m going to be a manager.” Truth be told, few adults probably do too.

Management is an elusive field. It’s hard to find the right candidate because, aside from the stature and increase in pay, it typically raises your stress level and negatively affects your interpersonal relationships. Just the word “manager” can conjure negative feelings in employees.

Managers may not have clear visions of how to lead and what to delegate. They may fear a coup of their very position and then become withholding with regard to tasks and responsibilities. They may battle with inner demons of respect and loyalty. Managers are people who are rarely trained in the art of management and thus leave a trail of inconsistency in their wake.

Employees are oft left with the role of self-management in lieu of strong leadership. Navigating inconsistent management is a skill in itself. The good news is it can only help you!

Factors that Contribute to Inconsistent Management

The main ingredient for inconsistent management is a lack of self-efficacy.

Rarely is inconsistent management a case of someone so confident they adhere to the Emerson belief that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” More often it is someone who wishes to be perceived as consistent; their underdeveloped self-awareness is the very thing that leads to their erratic decision-making.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Western Ontario (J. Robert Mitchell, Dean A. Shepherd, and Mark P. Sharfman) conducted a study to figure out the how / why behind managerial erratic decision-making.

What they found was the following:

“Erratic strategic decisions are less likely from managers with greater metacognitive experience and for managers who operate in more dynamic environments.

Conversely, erratic strategic decisions are more likely from managers in more hostile environments, especially when dynamism in that environment is low.”

Meaning…

  1. Self-awareness – or the absence of – is one main component for inconsistent management. Managers who do not self-reflect and aren’t aware that they don’t self-reflect will lead to a higher rate of inconsistency. Their lack of self-awareness about how they’re coming to their decisions (past experiences, thought patterns, metacognitive processes) informs the efficacy of their decisions.
  2. Dynamism – The more dynamic the work environment the less inconsistent the decision-making; most likely because decisions have to be made, there isn’t time to deliberate. Given too much time, anyone can second-guess their decisions.
  3. Hostile & Changing Environment – The work environment doesn’t have to be hostile, it can simply be ever-shifting with regard to personnel, protocol, or allocation of space.

And I would add a 4th:

  • Lack of knowledge / experience – If you do not have any past relatable experience to draw upon, chances are you will not know what to do to produce a desired result. You may not even know what the desired result is.

Where does this leave the employee?

Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is when we are conditioned to think we are powerless to change a bad situation for the better, thus accepting that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

In the context of inconsistent management, there are two forms of learned helplessness:

  1. When the manager projects an image of incompetence, sending out conflicting messages and confusing directions. The employee is left feeling hopeless regarding the manager’s competence.
  2. When the inconsistent management takes the form of inconsistent reinforcement, meaning complimentary one day and critical the next. The employee may have initially felt competent, but now feels incompetent due to their boss’ inconsistent reinforcement.

Solutions:

  • Speak with HR.
  • Find new employment.
  • Bounce experience off trusted colleagues for confirmation.

It is crucial for the employee to keep their self-efficacy intact. Doing so requires self-awareness that it’s even setting in.

Hopefully they’re reading blogs about learned helplessness. Hopefully they’re recognizing the behavior as inconsistent and problematic and running it by someone. It can be HR or a trusted colleague. They need to confirm their own sanity to ensure the problem isn’t on their end.

Emotional Contagion

A manager with inconsistent moods that lean toward negativity is a form of mild torture; you’re never sure who you’re going to get. The only upside is it it’s a great lesson in learning what you do have control over, which is your own mood. So, start there:

  • Step outside for a moment.
  • Watch a video you know makes you happy.
  • Listen to a song you know makes you happy.
  • Talk to someone that makes you happy.

When to confront your boss & when to let it ride

Good question. More often than not, I’d suggest letting it ride. Inconsistency is likely due to insecurity. Tapping into their issues may threaten them and consequently hurt your professional standing. I recommend:
  • Pick a time when you’re fairly certain you’re on their good side and they’re pleased with you.
  • Pick a time when they’re in a good mood and seemingly open and receptive to the outside world.
  • Pick your battles. Make sure this is truly a situation that needs to be resolved and addressed before you can move on with your work.

Reframe it back to the manager for clarity

If the inconsistency is with direction and conflicting messages, the employee should ask for clarification:

  • Reflexive mirroring. Repeat what they said back to them so they can confirm their own statement and add what you need clarification on. Have the manager give a clear directive so the onus is on them.

For instance…

“I heard that you want the project done asap, but that we should also focus on this other project immediately as well. I want to make sure I do exactly what you want – which should I make the priority?”

When it comes to inconsistent reinforcement, the employee can do the same thing – throw the ball back, i.e.:

“I want to improve and make sure I’m doing the best job – what is the area you feel I need to work on?”

Asking your boss for clarification shows respect and protects you from future misunderstanding. With inconsistency, there are no rules, so you want to do your part to get on as stable ground as possible.

Speaking up for yourself will also embolden you. When you act and express yourself – even if the conditions don’t change – you will change internally because speaking up for yourself has an ameliorative effect on the soul.

When you don’t stand up for yourself or your needs, you tap your willpower. You are left feeling drained, exhausted, and you increase the likelihood of learned helplessness.

——

We can be swayed by titles – manager, boss, CEO, etc – but it’s always important to remember these are not divine kings sent to us from the heavens, they are regular people who were hired into a position.

Though inconsistency and incompetence are infuriating, it’s important to allow compassion and understanding in. This is a person with faults, insecurities, goals, and dreams like everyone.

Perhaps they took on more than they can handle, maybe the inconsistency is a result of trickle-down inconsistency from the top and they’re just trying to stay afloat; perhaps they never even wanted to be in this position but couldn’t resist the pay increase.

Put yourself in their shoes, consider their life, what might be happening in their world. Consider the fact that if they leave and you get their job that a) that might have been one of their fears all along and b) you might not be so consistent yourself.

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A long, long time ago, in a world unknown, there were two browsers that ruled internet surfing: Netscape and Internet Explorer; and search engines such as Alta Vista and Excite. They were the kings of Internet browsing.

Then more browsers came along: Safari, Firefox, and then Chrome. And with them more search engines. You might have heard of Google. And Bing. And Yahoo is still with us.

Google is by far the best search engine we have seen yet, but it would have been very easy to think, “Alta Vista and Excite and Yahoo are already out there, how am I going to compete with them?” And the same reasoning could be applied to building a new browser, but the architects of Firefox and Chrome didn’t let the fact that there were already successful browsers out there stop them.

The Scrub Daddy is a sponge that won a deal on Shark Tank and is now in every Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Was anyone siting around unhappy with their sponges? Not really, but one person was and they decided to do something about it. The Scrub Daddy is now a huge success.

Look at the juice market, or the chips market, or the confectionary market, or the hummus market. New brands are always entering the fray and they are gaining shelf space among the giants.

Of course it’s better to build something the world has never seen, but the truth is, there is very little the world hasn’t seen, and so what? That doesn’t mean you can’t find a niche in whatever it is you aim to build or build something better than the world has ever seen.

The Illusion of Limited Resources


I’m always working as though there’s a finish line and if I don’t get there first someone else will; they’ll win the prize, they’ll take the business I would have won, make the money I would have made, get the rewards I would have received and then there will be nothing left for me or anyone else.

This attitude creates an anticipatory anxiety that is neither good for business or personal health. It also happens to be a false premise.

The truth is there is always enough to go around for everyone. The belief that there are limited resources and/or opportunities for each of us to be successful is the very belief that will keep success at bay.

Here are the 4 reasons why along with ways you can counteract getting in your own way.

The Self-Serving Bias

This bias is the tendency to attribute positive outcomes to our own behavior and negative outcomes to external factors. It is a great way to exonerate yourself and blame the world for why you didn’t get what you want.

For example, your business scores a huge sale and you think, “I did this!” Conversely, your business doesn’t score the huge sale and you think, “They/that did this to me!” It is a self-preservation technique to protect your ego.

This is biased thinking, meaning it is flawed, and it mentally places the responsibility for your life into the hands of others rather than yourself, even though – ultimately – it is always you who is to credit for your successes and your failures.

Protecting your ego is nice but it also prevents you from seeing the facts, dealing with them and having the information you need to make better decisions. When you start blaming, you start losing.

Blame creates a feeling of helplessness, that despite your best efforts the world was out to thwart you, so what’s the point. If you feel like everything is futile and there’s no point in pursuing your goals because clearly the world wants to see you fall then you will not have the motivation and willpower to do anything but live a status quo life. You’ll make a living, go through the motions, and in the end hand over the keys to your self-worth to the external world.

To persevere you need to keep your willpower intact. And to keep your willpower intact you need to stay motivated.

 Your Beliefs Affect Your Energy Level

We begin each day with a full reserve of willpower and as we go through the day and make choices, do our work, complete tasks and so on our willpower is depleted. It behooves us to keep our willpower reserve as in tact as possible so that we can stay focused and accomplish our goals.

 

A 2011 study performed by Kathleen D. Vohs, Roy F. Baumeister, and Brandon J. Schmeichel did a study on the effect of our beliefs and motivations on ego depletion.

According to the study, “When the [ego] depletion is slight, there is ample and profound room for subjective beliefs and motivations to moderate the effects” but also that “no person can continue running or swimming forever no matter how much he or she may be motivated.”

Meaning, if we are only mildly depleted and we maintain strong self-efficacy we can keep that fatigue from overpowering us. Conversely, if we lack self-efficacy, the fatigue can gain momentum and further deplete our willpower. But at a certain point of exhaustion it doesn’t matter how much we believe in ourselves.

So, if you’re extremely exhausted it will not matter if you believe someone else’s success has erased your potential, but if you’re not extremely exhausted – the state in which we all typically begin our days – then believing someone else’s success has erased your potential can have a deleterious effect on your willpower, energy level, and ability to stay focused and accomplish your goals.

It thus stands to reason that you might as well give yourself the best chance you can by A) getting the rest you need and B) starting your day motivated, believing there is a space for you in this world to be successful and achieve your goals.

I want to drive home the point that motivation and self-efficacy can keep your ego depletion at bay.

Nothing Begets Nothing

There are unlimited resources for the things we don’t want to come true.

A backwards example of how momentum creates the goals you aspire to achieve is the fact that believing it can’t happen creates the reality where it doesn’t happen.

We build whole lives where things we want don’t happen because we don’t try to make them happen because we believe they won’t happen whether we do or don’t try.

That in itself is proof of success: we’ve become very good at proving nothing will happen with zero effort.

The reverse is also true: things happen when you work to make them happen. Why wouldn’t they? Be smart about it, work diligently, get a coach or advisor, learn from others that have done it already, and get crackin’.

Keep Your Eyes to Yourself

You want to stay focused while you’re building your career or business or working towards a goal. What does wishing you had what others do have to do with your goals?

You have a limited amount of energy given to you each day and you want to use that wisely. You will be shooting yourself in the foot if you expend your energy on what you don’t have, or focusing on what others have.

Instead use your energy to focus on what you want and what you’re grateful you have already. This strengthens the foundation you’ve already created and builds upon it for what you want to come to you in the future.

I don’t mean to suggest that every idea is a winner. Failure is part of life, but the path to failure is part of the path towards success. You’ll learn what to do and not do for the next venture. The key is to start, stay focused, with your eye on the prize, and put in the effort.

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Sometimes when my husband isn’t home at the expected time I assume he’s dead on the side of the highway being eaten by wolves.

So far, this hasn’t happened (but that doesn’t mean it won’t).

Hi, my name is Nicole and I am a Catastrophist.

Catastrophisizing is but one of many cognitive distortions we all fall prey to from time to time, sometimes on a daily basis.

Psychologytoday.com defines catastrophizing perfectly into two parts so I’m quoting them:

Part 1: Predicting a negative outcome.

Part 2: Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.

It’s interesting that anyone thinks like this because it so obviously doesn’t serve us, either in leadership or in our personal lives. Yet we do, because we want so badly for the good to happen, that we put equal amount of energy into fearing the worst might happen too.

Catastrophizing is – excuse the redundancy – catastrophic for leaders. As a leader you need to be a beacon of resilience. And unfortunately…

Excessive Worrying Reduces Resilience

One of the most important traits for a leader is resilience. Inherent in leading, building teams and building a business are setbacks. Actually “setbacks” has a negative connotation to it; really what we should call them are “events that happen that move us towards the events we’d rather happen.”

It’s part of the game. It’s actually part of life in general and resilience is crucial for your personal life too, but when it comes to leadership, resilience or the lack thereof can make or break you.

You therefore want to build an arsenal of tools that support the tendency of resilience. You want sleep, exercise, a good diet, recuperation time, and a growth mindset to focus on challenges as opportunities.

The irony about anticipating stress is that it creates stress, so you immediately bring into your life the very thing you’re trying to avoid when you worry that it will come into your life.

Assumptions and expectations that cause anxiety arise from our past experiences, what we witness from other people’s experiences, and what we see in society from film/TV/books/magazines/etc.

You might have been fired in a past job and assume you will be fired in your new job. You might have seen someone else get fired and assume you will also be fired. You might have seen someone in a movie get fired for something similar to what’s transpiring in your own life and you assume you will be fired too.

These are all fictions and fiction never fully reflects reality.

Furthermore, the future is a landscape that doesn’t exist. Worrying about the future is the same thing as worrying about anything that doesn’t exist. Would you worry that you’re never going to get to visit the country of Alparnia? Probably not, because it’s a country that doesn’t exist.

Keep your mind focused on what exists, which is the moment you are living. It is the only timeline you can control. This will help build a resilient attitude, which will in turn:

  • grow your self-confidence
  • give you a flair for adaptation and flexibility
  • cultivate the belief that you can influence life events

The Benefits of Anticipatory Anxiety

  • Makes you feel terrible
  • Creates the reality you fear most
  • Raises your blood pressure, stress level, and can lead to disease
  • Stresses out everyone around you
  • Makes you look incompetent, non-resilient, and fearful
  • Emotional contagion will spur others to leave you

Obviously none of these are benefits, but I wanted to label them as such to shine a light on our flawed thinking.

There’s an illusion of strength with your anxiety, that it is giving you control over the eventual outcome. Somewhere in the back of your mind you think “If I worry over it I can effect the outcome I want by thinking of everything I need to do to make sure what I don’t want doesn’t happen.” This is neurotic behavior that only attracts what you don’t want, because you’re only focusing on what you don’t want.

What you do want is nowhere in the equation.

Would you go about making a cake by focusing on all the ingredients that you wouldn’t want to be in it? You’d never make a birthday cake with broccoli, cumin, beef, sesame oil, and a microphone. At least not for someone you love.

Worrying about what you don’t want to happen is putting all of the aforementioned ingredients into a bowl, stirring them together, and putting it in the oven, all the while saying, “I hope I don’t make this cake.” And the only thing you’re doing is making it.

Why some of us are prone to anticipatory anxiety and excessive worry comes down to our core beliefs, which I wrote about here.

How to Deal

1. Take a moment to stop the train. You may have to forcibly take a moment to stop doing what you’re doing and just pause. Sit, breathe, close your eyes, and project what you want coming true rather than what you don’t want.

2. Find Something Immediately that Makes You Happy. It can be a video, a picture, a memory, it
doesn’t matter, just go there mentally, visually. You need to replace the anxiety with different thoughts. For me, it’s animals.

3. Full Steam Ahead. The best method is to proceed as though catastrophizing is something you’ve never even heard about. Make small choices towards your goals; keep putting one foot in front of the other towards the end game. This helps focus on the here and now while simultaneously keeping the anxiety at bay. What you don’t want is to sit in a chair ruminating without taking any action and/or taking preventative action towards a reality that doesn’t exist.

4. Make the Choice. The easiest and hardest part of moving past your anticipatory anxiety is making the choice to move past it. You have to want to move past it; you have to consciously choose happiness over suffering; resilience over stagnation; growth over regression; peace of mind over anxiety. It’s a choice, and the good news is you always have that choice available to you. Make little choices rather than huge sweeping ones. So, agree with yourself to make the choice not to have anticipatory anxiety. It’s not easy, and it’s not an immediate cure, but it’s a start.

Let go of the delusion that your worry is controlling the external world and creating desirable circumstances. Worry is not control.

The solutions, as the saying goes, “are in your head.” You may not permanently solve your catastrophizing, but you can learn to deal with it more effectively.

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I had a situation recently in my business where employees were sending around group emails discussing the outcome of the election. Unbeknownst to them, there were a couple of employees in the mix that held opposing views and they took offense to the emails. One of the folks with an opposing view spoke with me about it and I found myself in unchartered waters.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Lately, employees and CEOs alike are making their voices heard and the consequences are dramatic:

  • Uber’s CEO was initially on Trump’s advisory council but removed himself after facing pressure from within – and from outside – the organization. Uber’s membership dropped by 200,000 accounts as a result.
  • In Philadelphia, Comcast allowed employees to take off work to participate in marches.
  • Mark Zuckerberg began to address the issue of fake news that populated Facebook during the presidential run.
  • A senior executive at Oracle publicly resigned after the CEO joined the Trump transition team.
  • Nordstrom’s dropped Ivanka’s clothing line; #boycott is trending on twitter.

It’s fair to say at this point that the rule of “no politics in the workplace” no longer applies. This can create conflict for teams and coworkers working under the same roof who need to get along and work toward the same goal.

As I wasn’t entirely sure how to handle the matter in my own business, I felt it deserved some exploration. What’s a leader’s role when a divisive political climate enters the workplace?

Given that I’m a shrink, I looked at why first. I figure if you can get a grasp on the why, it’s easier to understand the best intervention.

There are many factors at play but there seems to be two obvious psychological phenomena that are triggering the intensity.

Us vs. Them – Let’s Get Back on the Same Team

When I first moved to Philadelphia from New York, I went to a Phillies / Mets game. New to the city, I was unaware of the fanaticism of Philadelphia sports fans. As I cheered for my Mets, I found myself on the receiving end of jeers and threats from Philly fans. It was the first time in my life I feared getting attacked by a group of lunatics. It was also the first time in my life that I really understood the “us vs them” phenomenon.

The groups we belong to are an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity, a sense of belonging: feeling pride for your sports team because it’s where you live or were born; being born a blonde or brunette; being born a man or a woman.

With “us vs them” the “versus” becomes prominent. In order to increase our self-image we enhance the status of the group to which we belong. There is nothing inherently wrong with this except when one group starts to perceive the other group as “bad,” “wrong,” or “defective.”

In a non-heightened political climate “us vs. them” can potentially stimulate healthy workplace competition, but the same aspects that promote healthy competition in an us vs. them team-based work environment can backfire dramatically when politics enter the fray.

Once congenial co-workers can become teams of you versus me, us versus them, and ultimately bad versus good. The current political climate has heightened the potential for these workplace chasms; pushing against each other serves to give more power to the struggle.

But this is not the only psychological phenomenon at play.

Confirmation Bias: The Glue that Keeps Us Comfortably Stuck

Confirmation bias has started and sustained wars, prompted consumers to buy things they neither want nor need, and led to some of the worst (and best) business decisions ever made.

You’ll find no better example of confirmation bias than in the emotionally charged world of political opinion. In 2009, three Ohio State University researchers—Heather LaMarre, Kristen Landreville, and Michael Beam—used the satirical Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, to investigate the subject.

Stephen Colbert parodied conservative politics and pundits, pretending, for example, to have launched a run for the presidency. The researchers asked 332 participants in the study to describe Colbert’s point of view. Those who held liberal opinions viewed him as a liberal and his show as pure satire. Conservatives, on the other hand, saw him as a conservative pundit expressing honest conservative opinions through his satire. In short, the participants’ own views strongly colored their perceptions of the comedian.

We see things the way we want to see things. We hear what we want to hear. We look for information that supports our views and quickly ignore or diminish information that goes against our views. When something as dividing as politics comes into the picture, it highlights this normal human characteristic more than ever and thus, enhances emotions and fuels conflict.

So at the most basic level, these are some of the things making an already tense situation heightened.

So now that we understand the why, lets move on to what to do as a leader.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers; this is as new for me as well. However, based on what I know about bias and counteracting bias, here are some things to try and think about.

To show your hand or not

Some CEOs have come out in support of the current administration and some have come out to denounce it. Your company’s image will be affected on either side of the coin.

Whether you choose to show your hand or not, you need to weigh the risks and ensure that it’s in the best interest of your people and your company versus your own interests. Taking sides can have an alienating impact on some and an ameliorative impact on others. If a demand for your voice isn’t requested, then your voice might be best served in a bipartisan fashion.

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton, but also sent a thoughtful letter to the entire company after Trump was elected, urging everyone to choose compassion and understanding as we moved forward as a country.

Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, published a pro-Trump letter prior to the election, confident that Trump would be positive for business growth.

Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, was an outspoken critic of Trump during the election process, but continued to sell Trump-related products on Amazon. Post-election, Bezos offered a conciliatory tweet wishing Trump success.

If you do speak out, personalize your story to clarify your motivation. It’s easier to empathize and relate when the narrative is more personal rather than political. I recommend a recent article in The Harvard Business Review, which offered some sound insight into the matter.

See it as a strange opportunity

The current political climate – if it is leaking into your workplace – is a perfect excuse to confront conscious and unconscious biases: biases of which we are unaware but are responsible for interfering with good decision-making, clear thinking, effective problem solving, healthy relationships and even creativity.

It’s imperative for biases to be identified so everyone can spot them when they rear their ugly heads. If we can better understand our biases, we can better counteract them. Use this as an opportunity to teach and train.

You can implement training and workshops that focus on developing self-awareness around biases, and tools to counteract them. This will only make your workforce stronger.

Use it as a chance to flex your empathy muscle

The bottom line is this is rough for both sides. Perhaps too much time has passed at this point but other divisive issues will surely arise in the future, whether political or other.

Use these times to acknowledge and validate. When you acknowledge and validate, it makes people feel heard and understood. It creates a foundation of safety knowing that it’s okay to have differing opinions, as long as respect permeates the culture. As a leader you have an opportunity to set the climate and to model empathetic behavior.

Use Us Vs. Them as a Chance to Unite and RE-Instill an Ideology

Everyone who works together needs to realize that one’s political affiliation does not make them a bad person nor professionally incompetent. Ultimately, the diversity can only help, both the company and the employees of the company.

A diversity of beliefs in a cooperative culture is what you want; it’s what we all want for our society. You can create a microcosm of the perfect society within your organization where diversity is cultivated and respected.

Why would we want everyone to think the same in our organization anyway? That just leads to groupthink, status quo, and the acceptance of the group’s version of “common knowledge.”

A leader’s challenges during this politically divisive time is to bring everyone together, to validate the realities felt by all, and see it as an opportunity for the company to become something more expansive than it was prior.

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We all talk to ourselves when we’re alone. When we’re walking down the street, when we’re sitting in front of the computer, when we’re waiting for our car to come out of the car wash.

And when we talk to ourselves there’s a narrator with a particular bent. Sometimes our narrator is inspiring, but sometimes our narrator confirms our deepest fears for us. Of course it’s always us narrating our own story.

You’d think we’d always choose an inspiring narrator, yet so many of us – myself included – fall prey at times to a terrible, uninspiring narrator. Where does this narrator come from? He/she is born out of our core beliefs.

Our core beliefs are all the ingrained positive and negative thoughts that influence how we think and feel about ourselves, and the world around us. Unless discovered and diminished, core beliefs tend to solidify and resist change.

Here is a list of some common negative core beliefs:

  • I always get the short end of the stick
  • I must be perfect at all times
  • I can never change
  • I must only look out for myself because no one else will
  • I am not a people person
  • I am never listened to or respected
  • I must strictly adhere to my plans

To compound matters further, our core beliefs start to hang out with our cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are beliefs our minds tell us to reinforce something that is untrue, and they typically reinforce something negative.

So you might start with the core belief, “This always happens to me” and end up with the cognitive distortion, “This will happen to me forever.” (Overgeneralizing)

Another example would be starting with the core belief, “I am never listened to or respected” which is then cemented in the brain with the cognitive distortion, “I must be boring and insignificant.” (Emotional Reasoning)

Do this enough and you will build a world around you that reflects your inner negativity, which will add to your stress, which will reinforce your negative self-talk, and so on and so forth. It’s a self-inflicted Murphy’s Law. The loop has to stop somewhere.

[There are approximately 15 cognitive distortions that psychologists have sorted out over the years that you can find here.]

How Negative Core Beliefs Affect a Leader’s Reaction to Stress

These negative beliefs and self-talk undermine a leader’s ability to handle stress effectively.

If you take as an example the core belief of “I must be perfect at all times” it’s easy to see how this will create anticipatory anxiety: you will not be perfect at some point in the future.

That anticipatory anxiety becomes a daily stress – either in the forefront or as a constant background buzz. The reaction to that daily stress is to mount even more anxiety and high-wire behavior to avoid the fear from coming to fruition.

Then, should we find ourselves imperfect at some point (which we of course will) we do not have the required cognitive energy to handle the stress as the anticipatory anxiety has already burned it up.

As another example, a leader with negative core beliefs might react to the news that sales are down by thinking, “This always happens to me.” Or in anticipation, “this is going to happen to me.”

Again, this response does not have the required resilience to think about how to change course. It has already deemed the current reality as permanent and unfixable.

We all write scripts for ourselves for how we will act or not act in certain situations. Rather than write yourself as the character that gets killed in the first act, write yourself as the hero who thinks outside of the box, who keeps the negative self-talk at bay.

How Negative Core Beliefs Affect a Leader’s Ability to Lead

When we bombard ourselves with negative self-talk, our anxiety mounts. As our anxiety mounts our stress builds, and it becomes contagious for all around us.

You might have an MBA from Wharton and a law degree from Harvard, but if you are a stress case your peers and colleagues will not notice your credentials; they’ll only notice your stressed out behavior.

Neuroscience backs up the notion that people find it hard to work for leaders who do not handle stress effectively. Everything that goes on in our environment affects the brain’s limbic system (emotional center). So it goes to reason that a stressed out leader will contaminate the emotional wellbeing of those around him/her. Frantic people make other people frantic.

Effective stress management makes you and everyone around you more efficient and productive.

How to Manage Our Negative Core Beliefs

Become Cognizant. Listen to your inner voice. How is it talking to you? Would you tolerate it if a friend talked to you in the same way? Pay close attention to your exact words and write them down. You’ll begin to see how the voice in your head contributes to stress.

Challenge the negative thought. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is my negative thought?
  • What evidence proves this thought true?
  • What evidence proves this thought false?
  • What unhealthy feelings and behaviors does this thought cause?
  • What will eventually happen if I continue to think this way?
  • What advice would I give a friend who feels this way?
  • What conditions should I accept right now? What won’t change?
  • What can I do to make my thinking more positive?
  • What words will express my new healthy thought?

How to Ultimately Beat the Negative Self-Talk

We don’t have to become Pollyannas to shift our self-talk. Simply by maintaining a healthy dose of realism we can improve our psychological health and ultimately our leadership skills. It is a learned optimism.

1. Get a coach or therapist. If your brain is looping with negative self-talk I highly recommend a coach or therapist to help break the spell. It is a sign of strength to admit you need help and allow an outside perspective.

2. Commit to Your Life. Pardon the new age analogy, but if you were a plant would you be flourishing and robust or would you be withered and half-dead? Get yourself in shape, physically, socially, and professionally. Water the plant! The more you are fulfilling what you see as your innate self the less time you’ll have to listen to the negative self-talk, but also…the less it will actually be talking to you in the first place.

3. Perceive Control Over Situations. You can choose how you react to a stressor and thus exert some degree of control over it. This takes practice, but you have to start. Don’t fret if you aren’t a master at perceiving control over situations at the beginning. You need to create new neural pathways in your brain, which requires repeated tries.

4. View Stressful Events as Problems or Opportunities. Those who cope successfully with stress tend to look at the silver linings as well as the clouds. Plus, once the event happens you have to react to it in some way. Might as well do it in the way where you and those you lead stand to benefit.

5. Give yourself some space. If you find that you are consumed with negative self-talk and cognitive distortions you may need to clear your head with a vacation or some time off. I recognize this may not be possible given your circumstances but see if you can carve out some personal time to re-boot your brain.

The bottom line is how do you want to feel about your life on a daily basis? While it may seem like you do not have control over your thoughts, actually the opposite is true: you do. And in each moment when you hear negativity in your head you have the opportunity to halt it and switch to something that feels good.

There’s no question life throws “unfair” curveballs our way. I’m not asking you to like them, but I am suggesting that once the curveball is acknowledged you don’t dwell on how bad it makes you feel.

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“Bueller? … Bueller? … Bueller?”

Remember Ben Stein as the über-dull economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? He was the quintessence of uninspiring. His students slept with their eyes open while he answered his own questions addressed to no one.

Failure to capture your audience will quickly sour a leader to his or her team. The paycheck is no longer the inspirational force it once was. The uninspiring leader may wonder, “What else do I have to do to get people to work hard if money is not enough?”

It’s a fair question as not every entrepreneur or boss thought anything more would be required of him or her. Unfortunately, more is required; at least if you want to get the most out of the people working for you.

Extrinsic motivation, such as paycheck, bonuses and such only go so far when it comes to motivating people and can, in fact, serve as demotivating forces in certain circumstances.

Influence requires winning the minds and hearts of your audience and thus inspires action. Thus intrinsic motivation, coming from within, is how you truly inspire a workforce.

But how do you motivate intrinsically? How do you ultimately know if you’re inspiring your people?

The first indication would be if this is even a question you’ve ever asked yourself. Do you care if you’re inspiring anyone? If you’ve never been curious, chances are you’re not as inspiring as you could be.

Here is a short list of other signs that you might not be so inspiring:

  • Do people buy into the vision you have created and does it play out in the day-to-day behaviors?
  • Are you happy when you arrive to work?
  • Is the tone of the office upbeat or dead?
  • Is anyone presenting new ideas? Or is it status quo 24/7/365?
  • Is there a high turnover rate?
  • Are you resistant to new ideas? Are others resistant to your ideas?
  • Are your people curious? Are you curious?
  • Do people go above and beyond? Do you?

Leaders Need to Self-examine Their Brand of Creativity

We all have our own personal drivers that inspire us to create, to hop out of bed in the morning. It might be money, charity, art, or collaboration on a project.

Think back to when you last popped out of bed excited. What was it that got you going? What puts a pep in your step? Re-ignite your creative force.

If your own creativity is not burning from within you will not be able to inspire others to tap into their creative potential. A lack of energy and creativity will spread like wildfire in an organization. Never underestimate the power of emotional contagion.

There isn’t a panacea for self-energizing, but exercise, diet, sleep, laughter, and friends are a few typical means to boost your energy levels and get you revved up for what life holds.

Once you are energized, you can then focus on your team: figure out what drives your people. It’s not a leader’s job to be the creative impetus for his or her people, but it is your job to know what excites them.

To bolster your creative force, it’s imperative to cultivate an attitude of resilience. Leaders serve as a beacon of hope and you can easily fail to inspire with incessant negativity and a focus on events you can’t control. Therefore:

  • Focus on events you can control
  • View setbacks as impermanent and as growth opportunities
  • Don’t fall prey to victim mentality
  • Have a positive outlook of the future

Leaders Need to Self-examine their Brand of Curiosity

When we stop being curious about life we stagnate. The uninspiring leader needs to pinpoint when and why he/she stopped being curious. Another way to describe a lack of curiosity is laziness, which is boredom’s best friend. If the leader is bored so will everyone else be.

Boredom, laziness, and a lack of curiosity about what could be build a protective wall around status quo thinking.

A company – and its people – needs to feel like it is moving forward. Nothing gets in the way of momentum like adhering to the status quo out of fear of the unknown and a lack of energy for new ideas. A leader needs to be open to new ideas, ready to travel down unpaved roads for growth potential.

Challenging the status quo is where innovation lives, it is how companies like Apple and Amazon became monolithic. When you feel yourself slipping into fear mode and/or favoring the way it’s always been done (particularly when the way it’s always been done is currently failing) that’s the signal to step outside of your comfort zone. Get curious!

Get a pulse on the level of curiosity in others. Cultivate a free flow of ideas. Just because you’ve been doing something one way since the beginning doesn’t mean it’s the right way.

Leaders Need to Self-examine Their Brand of Connection

Are you moving toward or away from people? Are your people moving toward or away from you (and each other)? Spend time with your ear to the ground rather than in the clouds.

To create an inclusive environment, make an effort to heighten your social awareness. Rather than go through your days on automatic pilot, be aware of how you are communicating and relating to others, what is called having a relational philosophy.

A relational philosophy means thinking of others every time you interact with them, not just some of the time. It requires opening your ears and mind to what is being said to you. It involves using body language that invites rather than discourages. It promotes a team identity over a “me” identity so that everyone is one important piece of the puzzle.

For example, do you listen to others or is your mind elsewhere as people talk to you? Do you look up from your computer when people speak to you? When you are speaking do people seem interested?

It is about promoting empathy, collaboration, creativity, and enthusiasm. It can’t be faked. Building a relational philosophy takes energy, effort, mindfulness, and a genuine interest in the people who work for and around you.

You won’t experience a 180-degree shift in your rapport with others overnight, but day-by-day, with a conscious effort on building relationships you can increase your influence.

Leaders Need to be Conscious

The ability to inspire should be a top priority for a leader. Hire a coach to work on the areas of your personality that need improvement. Everyone is a work in progress. We are all weak in some area and the best leaders have all sought counsel at one time or another.

I highly recommend a 360˚ evaluation to get a sense of your impact. Assessments show you exactly how others feel about you. It also never hurts to ask a trusted ally or advisor, someone who won’t honey coat the truth.

The key point is to remain open to suggestions and new ideas. Arrogance and fear kill inspiration. A little arrogance is necessary otherwise why would anyone think they should lead in the first place but it’s important to keep arrogance in check.

When you open up your mind to change and growth, not only will your work life improve but so will all other areas of life as well. It’s all connected.

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It’s going to be 2017 in a couple weeks and we all know what that means: an influx of New Year’s Resolutions. They often look a lot like the previous year’s resolutions.

“I’ll stop smoking.”

“I’ll stop obsessing.”

“I’ll stop eating badly.”

“I’ll stop being lazy.”

Stopping, quitting, refraining, avoiding – I’ve got news for you: resolutions like this rarely work.

According to a survey published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, about 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only 8 percent are successful.

Confession: I was the winner of the “Unsuccessful 8%” many years in a row. I struggled to quit smoking, promising myself I’d quit every Monday and every New Year’s Day. I quit smoking so many times that the most excellent quitter became part of my identity. Understanding how my brain works finally helped me kick the habit, but here were some of my very human, very common mistakes over the years:

  • Motivated by Should
  • Propelled By Stopping
  • Fighting against Habit

Motivated by Should

My motivation for quitting was always grounded in “should” versus “want:”

  • I should because my friends and family keep guilting me
  • I should because I smell like an ashtray
  • I should because it’s really cold outside
  • I should because the daily dose of cognitive dissonance feels terrible

Propelled By Stopping

When you focus on stopping or quitting or not doing something that has become an ingrained (overeating, smoking, drinking, overspending, etc.) you fight against your natural, human urge to gain over lose.

Humans are loss-adverse; it hurts us more to lose something than to gain something (e.g. it’s more painful to lose $50 than to gain $50). Therefore, when we frame our bad habits as things we need to lose, we resist with all our might.

Fighting against Habit

To make a resolution stick you have to change. For the brain, change is danger. Change requires neural rewiring and that creates discomfort. Even the prospect of change can create significant psychological discomfort.

The effort to abstain from bad habits compels you to do them more because abstention feels bad. Ergo, you will fight to feel good.

Smoking, laziness, boredom, compulsive eating, overspending – these are all default behaviors based on habitual brain wiring to give you what will make you feel good.

To change we need to create new ways of thinking which trigger new neural pathways, which lead to new default modes of behavior.

With deliberate effort new habits become the default schema for your brain.

Reframe the challenge into something you GAIN.

  • I need to lose weight = I want to gain strength, endurance and flexibility.
  • I need to quit smoking = I want to run three miles without wheezing.
  • I need to stop overspending = I want financial flexibility and freedom.

To learn is to be human.

We begin to learn from the minute we are born.

Therefore, challenging yourself to learn something new flows with the grain of human nature; challenging yourself to lose something you like goes against human nature. Use the word “learn” to counter the effects of the stop language of resolutions. You are not quitting smoking, you are learning how to be a non-smoker.

The Neuroscience Behind Habits

Habits live in the most stubborn of our brain structures: the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia stores useful skills and habits: putting our socks on before our shoes or effortlessly driving our usual route to work.

The basal ganglia can also be a curse: it can cause you to habitually drive home from work along your normal route when you had meant to stop at the grocery store. It contains all of the skills and memories we need to function on a daily basis but could also potentially contribute to keeping you in a rut.

To learn to tie your shoes takes a tremendous amount of initial brainpower, but once learned it consumes very little. As we master these small routines, dopamine rewards us with feelings of pleasure. So we are perpetually rewarded for maintaining our habits, good and bad alike.

When you try to change a habit you activate the prefrontal cortex, a very active part of the brain that helps us focus our thoughts; this requires a lot of conscious mental energy.

The prefrontal cortex is connected to the emotional center of our brain. A firestorm of emotions (fear, anger, depression, fatigue, anxiety, etc) is triggered when the brain senses change. When you think, “I want to change this habit” your brain kicks into protection mode and tries to fiercely protect the habits it has grown to love.

The Bottom Line and What to Do About It

Change is brutal and triggers psychological and emotional discomfort. Change takes time, discipline, a plan and some basic TLC (if / when you have a lapse). Recognize that you will naturally want to hold onto your own personal status quo.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit suggests a three-stage process for creating positive habits:

  1. Cue: Since habits are triggered by cues (triggers or signals that tell you to act in a certain way) identify cues that will help you meet your goal. Cues are often centered on location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding an action. For example, if you typically find yourself noshing on junk at your desk every afternoon at 3PM, identify a 3PM cue that helps you learn the new habit (e.g., get up from your desk and go for a 10 minute walk, chug a bottle of water and set a 15 minute timer before you put anything else in your mouth)
  1. Routine: Be very specific about the steps you will take to form the habit. For example, if you want to work on gaining strength, endurance and flexibility, schedule the times you will do your chosen exercise throughout the day and the foods you will be eat that day.
  1. Reward: In order to neutrally embed the new behavior, reward yourself with something related to the habit. Perhaps it’s recognizing the endorphin rush after a workout or the taste of a healthy breakfast following a workout. If you anticipate and associate the reward with the action, your brain eventually craves the reward, further entrenching the habit.

Hopefully this insight will help you if you wake up in February and you haven’t made any progress into your resolutions.

Instead of giving up completely, figure out what you really want to do differently. Frame the goal into something that you are gaining (vs. losing) and learning (vs. stopping).

Respect your brain. It will need some time to incorporate the new behavior into your life.

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In March of 2011 António Horta-Osório became the CEO of Britain’s Lloyd’s Banking Group. By the fall of the same year he was suffering from such acute insomnia that he remained awake for five straight days. With no rest and increasing stress and mental exhaustion, he was forced to seek medical help. He took an extended enforced leave from the company due to stress and overwork.

The results were dramatic; shares in Lloyd’s fell 4.4%, a whopping $1.5 billion reduction in market capitalization.

Horta-Osório eventually returned to the bank in late December, but he forfeited his bonus and was forced to radically alter both his work and personal habits.

There’s a tendency for leaders to power through tough times in the name of getting work done. We may experience the symptoms of physical and emotional exhaustion, but ignore the signs because we have to make a living, put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and shoes on our feet.

We may also not want to admit that we need the rest, as we fear it’s a sign of a weak character, especially in Western Societies.

It’s imperative we pay attention to what is happening inside of us so that we don’t precipitate the decline of our mental and physical health.

Look out for the symptoms of mental exhaustion:

  • Physical: Feeling tired most of the time but finding it difficult to sleep; you get sick frequently; loss of appetite; gastrointestinal problems; more headaches and muscle pains than usual.
  • Emotional: feelings of helplessness; depression; anxiety; irritability; self-doubt; reduced life satisfaction; reduced sex drive.
  • Behavioral: Declining ability to concentrate and focus; impaired decision-making; social withdrawal; self-medicating with drugs or alcohol; unusual procrastination; decreased attention to physical health/wellness/hobbies. 

We sometimes ignore these symptoms until mental exhaustion strikes. In times like these we need to slow down and give ourselves sufficient rest and recovery time.

Look out for the physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms and then establish new habits that sustain your energy so that you have a system for battling it in the future.

Here are some tips for doing just that:

Let Go of the Guilt Suitcase – Guilt can be a useful emotion as it informs you that something is off, but it also expends a lot of mental energy. It keeps you self-focused rather than able to proactively deal with a situation head on. Letting go of guilt requires practice. It’s not easy. Try visualizing your guilt as a briefcase, dropping it wherever you are, and then walking on. You can throw the briefcase too if you want.

Routinize – Create positive habits. A routine work uniform (think Zuckerberg and Jobs) and a favorite morning breakfast will be one less decision you have to make, allowing the mental space for more important decisions throughout your day.

Exorcise Emotional Vampires – Try to distance yourself from those that are consistently stressed out, emotionally overloaded, and generally negative influences if they are not imperative to your work or family life. And drop the guilt suitcase when you do this! Emotional vampires suck the life out of you and we don’t have that much time on this earth, so why give it away to people that deplete rather than fulfill you?

Be less self-focused. Sounds ridiculous, since who isn’t self-focused, but the more we can attend to life outside of ourselves the less we’ll overwork our own brain. It’s the overworked, myopic self-centered thinking that runs you ragged. If your mind is looping about a past or future scenario go out with a friend to hear about their life. It’ll take you out of your own orbit for awhile so you can return to the task at hand with a fresh perspective.

Exercise. Release those endorphins. You’ll feel better, you’ll look better, you’ll eat better, and your brain will function better. You can do ten jumping jacks wherever you are. It’s hard to think of all your problems while you’re exercising. Your mind needs the time-out from problem-solving to rejuvenate. To borrow a well-known phrase: just do it.

Take a caffeine nap. If you can manage to take a 10-15 minute nap after drinking a cup of coffee there is research that shows this gives you an energy boost once you wake up. A little counter-intuitive but give it a go.

Manage Distractions. Unless your business is placing ads on Facebook cut down on the social media browsing. Every decision and action you make taxes your energy to some extent. Make sure the decisions you’re making for how you spend your time are the ones that will grow your business.

Cultivate a Growth Mindset. Keep a “can do” attitude. It will help propel you forward, focused, and on target. Negativity and self-doubt will tire you out and hinder your progress. Reframe challenges as opportunities. Vigilantly watch your mind to see if you are shutting the door in your own face.

Watch a puppy or kitten video. Seriously. The reason for this is it zaps you into a completely different world immediately. The brain doesn’t know you’ve tricked it and it doesn’t care. All it knows is there’s something making it happy and it feels light and good. It’s a trick and it’s a valid one. If puppies and kittens don’t do it for you try to find that go-to thing that makes you laugh and feel light. Maybe your kids or a viral video. Some light laughter will freshen you up.

If you feel the effects of mental exhaustion creeping in and you have the space of mind to attempt to reverse them that is excellent. You may not be able to let go of the guilt right then and there, you may not be able to go see a movie, or stop the looping thoughts but admitting that you are mentally exhausted in the first place is a crack in the armor. It takes humility and patience.

None of this is easy, nor can it be done overnight. It’s a lifestyle commitment that takes daily practice. New habits, routines, and belief systems take practical application to be incorporated into your life and that takes time and effort.

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If you’re like me you power through your workday without distraction.

You don’t take no for an answer.

You tackle one project after the next.

You feel refreshed at every turn.

You ignore Facebook and texts.

You don’t need snacks or coffee.

You never restrain your words and behavior.

You emote all over the place.

You are so self-confident you never try to impress anyone.

You don’t have fear.

You always keep your eye on the prize.

RIGHT?!?!

Not really.

That’s the life I strive for, where all of my willpower is in tact. In reality, I – and presumably you too – are hit with all sorts of emotional, mental, and biological impulses throughout the day.

Vacations feel so good because we stop exercising willpower. We don’t work, we eat what we want, we drink what we want, we stay up late, we sleep late, we express ourselves, we are free! We keep nothing at bay.

Life often feels like one big test of willpower. Even when you love what you do for a living the 40+ hours / week to stay competitive in the workforce is exhausting, and most of the required behavior to stay on track depletes our willpower.

***

With that said, a recent study led by Carol Dweck suggests that the most effective way to keep your willpower intact is to simply believe that willpower is not depletable.

Dweck’s study tested the longstanding theory that glucose levels and willpower are linked.

The theory states that when you tap your willpower the glucose level in your body goes down; thus, if you were to raise the level of glucose in your body, then your willpower reserve should go up as well.

The study was composed of two groups, both given demanding tasks to complete. Before being given the task, however, Group 1 was led to believe that willpower is not a depletable resource while Group 2 was led to believe that willpower is a depletable resource.

The participants who were led to believe that willpower was not a depletable resource showed no change in their glucose level when faced with the task at hand. Even a boost to their glucose level did not enhance their performance.

But the glucose levels for participants that believed willpower is a depletable resource did drop when faced with the same tasks.

This would indicate that believing willpower is not depletable is sufficient for keeping it in tact. Easier said than done.

Remember that the participants in the study were in a controlled environment in order to prove the researchers’ hypothesis. Once they went out into the world they joined the rest of us in the fight against willpower depletion.

***

We can’t avoid every behavior that depletes willpower but we can at least strive to stay aware of the behaviors in order to improve our productivity.

Here are some behaviors – some avoidable, some not – which we know deplete willpower:

  1. Filtering Distractions – Email, Facebook, Twitter; your office doesn’t believe in doors; your friends keep texting you. Every time you try to ignore or deal with a distraction, your willpower suffers.

Tip: Turn off your technology, close the door (if you have one), buy some noise canceling headphones, alert family/friends/colleagues of your availability. These rituals organize your mind and win your focus.

  1. Resisting Temptation and Impulses – When’s lunch? Is it time for another coffee? Should I organize all of my folders into other folders before I start work? Your brain often wants to do so many things other than the task at hand. Though necessary and healthy, resisting the urges taps your willpower.

Tip: Chunk your day by scheduling tasks/projects that require the most concentration in the morning and those that don’t later in the day. Give yourself a scheduled impulse indulgence chunk of time to let loose and give in.

Sidebar: Given that the average person checks their email up to 74x/day and Facebook every two minutes this is becoming imperative in our modern day lives. They will lose their hold on you once you stop checking.

  1. Suppressing Emotion – This isn’t to say you should cry in a business meeting, but if you generally have trouble expressing your emotions you may not have the necessary willpower to complete a task when you sit down to do it.

Tip: When appropriate, let it out! Learn to express yourself; the self-confidence you will gain is critical for all areas of growth. Seek professional help if need be.

  1. Restraining Aggression – Restraining aggression is part of living on earth, but it does deplete you. If you find that you are restraining aggression left and right try to pinpoint the triggers. Maybe they can be avoided, removed, or resolved.

Tip: Exercise, hit a punching bag, build a soundproof scream room, keep a stress ball on your desk.

  1. Trying to Impress Others –This will wear you out. It’s essentially acting in a play nobody paid to see. Any time your natural personality is stifled you are exercising self-discipline, which taps willpower.

Tip: “Be yourself, everybody else is taken” – Oscar Wilde

  1. Coping with fear – We are all familiar with the energy-sap that fear creates. If you are afraid of someone or something at work your productivity will suffer.

 Tip: Seek professional help if need be. Fear is a lifetime battle but it dissipates when you confront it.

  1. Doing Something You Don’t Enjoy – If you have committed to a job or lifestyle that you don’t enjoy you will forever feel depleted. Doing something you don’t enjoy goes against the natural grain of human existence, which is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Tip: If the unenjoyable somethings are small tasks that are part of your workday save them for the morning when your willpower reserve is greatest. If it’s a larger issue, muster the courage to reevaluate your situation. Seek help if need be. You don’t need to live a depleted life.

  1. Selecting long-term over short-term rewards – Here we have the pleasure principle (seek pleasure & avoid pain) at play. You could watch TV right now or you could work on that business plan that could lead to professional and financial freedom down the line. Yes, long-term awards deplete your willpower but they’re well worth it.

Tip: Write down the accomplishments / gains you earned when you selected long-term over short-term. Keep them somewhere as a constant reminder. Or – dare I say it – a vision board that shows the rewards you will reap if you stay on the long-term path.

  1. People Pleasing – People who feel compelled to exert self-control deplete more than those driven by their own internal goals and desires. Speak up for yourself, express your emotions when appropriate, and believe in who you are. It literally makes you mentally stronger. As the American Psychological Association put it:

“When it comes to willpower, those who are in touch with themselves may be better off than their people-pleasing counterparts.”

Tip: Seek professional help if need be. If you find yourself people pleasing, try to evaluate where you can change your behavior and then take small incremental steps towards that goal.

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Thus, the fact remains that willpower depletion is a necessary part of life in order to evolve, whether personally or professionally. All new behaviors deplete willpower, but they also pave the way for a healthier lifestyle. Each new healthy behavior eventually becomes routine, paving the way for the next healthy installment.

It’s exhausting but you have to start somewhere or you risk getting mired in your old ways.

We all need to be on the lookout for the factors that thwart us. Our lives depend on it!

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