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worklife balance

Over the years I’ve found myself at the end of many a workday beckoning to the heavens, “Where did the day go???” I eventually came to the realization that I needed to streamline my life and structure my days around my energy levels.

I used to immediately grab my phone when I woke up to scroll through emails. To be honest, many mornings I still do if I’m anxious about some aspect of work, but I try not to because it drains me instantly.

These days I try to take a moment first — to kiss my husband, to kiss my cats — to have a moment of personal life before I entrench myself into work mode.

You can close the door to your office (if you have one), tell everyone not to bother you, and turn up the white noise in your noise-canceling headphones all you like (and believe me I have!) but when it comes to productivity and focus it’s all about preserving your energy — or willpower.

This stuff is personal and requires trial and error. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you, but here are some tactics I’ve adopted to put me at my most productive. And I’m thankful for them!

Pave the Road from Wake to Work With Something Fun, Relaxing or New

Bon jour, Madame! Où est La Rue Saint Jacques?

La Rue Saint Jacques? C’est là-bas!

I have started to learn French in the wee-early hours of the morning and I’m loving it. My husband and I wake up at the crack of dawn and take a brisk hour walk and listen to our French lessons, he a few feet behind me so I don’t have to hear him and his perfect French accent while I struggle with “Je.”

The morning air, the exercise, the brain cell increase from learning a new language — it’s a great way to wake up and prep the mind for taking in information.

Yes, there’s a certain willpower depletion that comes from learning something new, but because it’s not work-related it feels invigorating and allows me the time and relaxation in the morning to transition from waking to working.

If you can’t handle me in my active wear, then you don’t deserve me in my…active wear.

I wear active wear every single day that I get to work from home. Leggings and a shirt is my uniform.

By reaching for leggings and a shirt I don’t tap into any serious brain functioning to decide what I’m going to wear. Being that I get to work from home when I’m not with clients it doesn’t really matter anyway. Might as well be as comfy as can be. When I’m out with clients, I have my go-to also. A black skirt or pants, a belt and a button down blouse or a dress with a belt. Simple and done and already known.

Every decision we make depletes our willpower and you need as full a reserve of willpower as possible to get through the workday. My willpower is thus still relatively intact after I’ve showered and dressed for the day because I’m not thinking about what I’m going to wear.

Mark Zuckerberg does the same, as did Steve Jobs. This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard about the uniform routine. I’m a believer in it; it helps me. I actively feel the absence of having to choose what to wear and that relaxes me, as do my leggings.

Find your uniform! It can be as simple as “I like blue shirts” or “I like boots” (and who doesn’t love a great pair of boots?)

Hardboiled eggs are my best friend; so is Sunday cooking.

I like a couple of eggs every day with some vegetables, maybe a little sweet potato, a cup of coffee and I’m good. No more “What am I going to eat?” “Where will I eat?” “Should I eat this?” I save the more exciting breakfasts for weekend brunches when I have the luxury of choice.

On Sundays I roast vegetables, bake sweet potatoes, boil eggs, cook some meat, and voila: food for the week.

Being able to not think about food, although it’s fun to think about food, saves so much time and so much energy.

Let it all out.

I need to be able to emote freely, speak at full volume on the phone freely, pace if need be.

Suppressing emotion or curtailing your personality in any way is a willpower zapper.

If you don’t have a door or a private room, step outside for a moment to vent; grab a cup of coffee. Make sure you have an emotional outlet, otherwise it churns inside you, gathers momentum and power, and steals your focus.

System Preferences → Notifications → None

“Cheryl also commented on Rebecca’s post about feeding the giraffe at the zoo.”

“@luvsrockclimbing44 has sent you a message.”

“LinkedIn Message: “Hi Nicole, I’m new to organizational psychology and was wondering if you could give me some pointers about…”

I love social media and I love the notifications, so much so that if I don’t turn them off I will find myself typing a lengthy considerate email to Jennifer Somebody about how to start your consulting practice while I ignore my own.

I save all social media follow-ups for post-dinner / TV watching or early AM coffee time. It has no place in the meat of the day. Only eating meatballs belongs in the meat of the day.

Chunk isn’t just a Goonies character, it’s also a productivity hack

At the end of each day I look at what I have lined up for the next day. Then I chunk out my day. Tasks that are going to require a fair amount of mental energy I schedule as early as possible.

Did you know that the average worker actually checks their email up to 74x/day???

Our willpower is fullest at the start of the day. You’ll need that willpower reserve for the tasks/projects that tax your brain. If you spend the first half of your day answering emails, crossing off the easy-to-do items on your to-do list you are putting yourself at a disadvantage for the harder stuff later in the day.

Sometimes life is boring…and that’s OK.

Resisting temptation — to abstain from distraction — depletes our willpower. The more depleted our willpower, the less we are able to attend to important projects and important conversations.

Giving in to every distraction versus training your brain to be still creates a scattered, inattentive mind.

I’ve learned not everything I do is exciting or interesting. Sometimes I need to perform a solo brainstorm session and it’s not fun. Sometimes I need to write lots of proposals that are boring. To get these tasks done so I can move on to the next point of business I have to accept that boredom is part of my life, and presumably part of yours too.

If you allow yourself to distract every time boredom creeps into your day you are empowering your ego, which aims to grab and attach to something — anything! — in every second of every minute, all day long.

Take back control of your mind. You steer the boat.

Productivity is less about tricks and more about just managing your energy in a way that works for you.

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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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