Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

The Way I Stopped Big Ticket Impulse Purchases

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 2

The changes I made in my life would have been much harder without the support of my wife.  First, I made changes in my identity to start putting people first.  And there were implications – it was possible that I could get promoted more slowly because I wouldn’t jump up and volunteer for the extra project that would require that I work over the weekend.  And then one day, on a drive home from Yosemite National Park, I announced that I just wanted to resign and stay home with the kids.

We planned my exit from the corporate world for two months, looking at the finances primarily, to see if we could pull things off with only her salary to live on.  What was key, however, was not the raw numbers per se, but our shared values.  We decided that reducing the stress in our lives was the top priority.  And we were fortunate that we’d gotten a big stock windfall earlier in the year.  Rather than make a big purchase, we used the money to buy freedom.  If our values required a new beamer every two years and expensive shoes every month, I would still be working to maximize our income.

It was amazing how much less money we spent after I became a stay at home dad.  Off the top, we saved money on childcare, gardening, lunches, eating out, and dry cleaning.  But we saved even more money on big ticket items that we didn’t really need.  We’d be in Costco, and buy something expensive on a lark.  Looking back on it, I think these purchases were a palliative for stress.

And while not everyone has a family, as we shall see in as the chapter progresses, everyone has the ability to grow a community of people who share their values.

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How To Change The Habit Of Stress

The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 6

Prior to his stroke, David was living a life of corporate idolatry, where the company was the top priority to the detriment of his health and family.  After the stroke, David changed his values, and refocused his personal identity.  He was in the habit of deriving positive reinforcement from job-related activities, and shifted his focus to family related activities.  Remembering that a significant portion of idolatry derives from a collection of habits is an important clue to change.

In his book The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that in a typical habit, there is some kind of cue that triggers a behavior that has a reward at the end of it.  For example, if someone puts a plate of cookies on the table in front of me, I will take and eat the cookie, even though I am trying to lose weight.  The cue is the cookie, the behavior is eating, and the reward is a burst of pleasure and sugar.  In addition, when my brain sees the cookies, it anticipates the pleasure, and I start craving the cookie, such that it becomes harder and harder over time not to take a cookie.

Habits are mediated by a primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia which operates independently of rational, cognitive thought.  In other words, a habit is similar to a reflex, something we just do without thinking.  The best way to change a habit  is to disrupt one of the three stages of a habit, which means avoid the cue, change the middle behavior, or change the reward.

In David’s case, the work stress became a self fulfilling prophecy.  For example, Duhigg explains that checking email becomes a habit.  Executives get a reward from the temporary distraction a new email provides.  For me, I got an adrenaline burst from all kinds of work-related issues, and I think that was David’s issue.  The rewards for his people first values were calm and peace.

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The Second Step To A Balanced Life Is To Examine Your Values

Values Priorities Decisions Actions

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity

Over the last few posts, I’ve argued that time management cannot solve a work life balance issue because the root cause is a company first value system.

To illustrate the interplay of values and decisions shown in the figure to the left, I’ll tell you a before and after story of “David,” who had a stroke before the age of fifty because, in his own words  was working 100 hours a week because he“cared too much about a bunch of people and a small company that did not care about [him].”  Luckily for David, the stroke was not serious and he made a full recovery.  But this brush with death gave him pause, and led him to reexamine his basic values.

Prior to the stroke, David had a company first value system, meaning that he gave priority to things he thought could help the overall welfare of the company.  So he made it a priority to “never leave work unfinished.”  So in the moment, when it came time to take a break and head to the gym, he would decide to skip his workout to catch up.

David’s action created an example of cognitive dissonance, a conflict between the desire to be in shape and the desire to help the company.  The psychology research has shown that people will find a way to reduce this mental conflict, and since the action in the past cannot be changed, one way to reduce the conflict is to elevate the importance of the path taken.  In other words, staying on the computer reinforced the underlying value that the company comes first, meaning that in the future he would be more likely not only to skip the gym but do make other decisions that favored the company over people.  And indeed, David missed his wedding anniversary, kids birthdays, and didn’t go on a ski trip with friends because “the company needed me.”

But after his stroke, David’s priorities changed dramatically, and his life got much better.

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The First Step To A Balanced Life Is a Two Minute Time Audit

My Corporate Idolatry Time Profile

Chapter 7:  Secure Your Identity Part 3

When I was working 90 hours a week, the last thing I had time to do was to reflect on my life. But if it had, it would have looked something like the pie chart to the left.

The time audit is a very simple way to bucket your time.  Our day can be divided into three categories: work, sleep and life (everything else). Time is a zero sum game.  When we spend time on one thing, it is time not spent on something else.  Here are three steps to conduct a two minute time audit for a single work day.

1. Calculate the number of hours you sleep. For the last week, what is the latest time you turned out the light? When did you turn on the light in the morning?  I say latest time because we tend to think if the ideal, not he specific.  Getting undressed, reading and brushing your teeth do not count as sleep time.  I count sex in this bucket because both are so wonderful, and both take place in bed.  Add in nap time.

2. Calculate the number of hours you work.  Commute time counts as work.  If you eat alone and think about work during meals, count 100% of that time as work.  If you ruminate about work when eating with other people, count 50% of that time towards work.  In fact, if you think about work, check email, or take a phone calls during an activity even once  count 50% of that time as work.

3. Calculate the life bucket using the following formula: 24 minus sleep minus work = life.   Our life bucket contains the basic activities of cooking, cleaning, running errands.

Jesus said “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[i]  Our greatest treasure is time. How we spend our time tells us what our real values are.  And because you are reading this, you are the type of person who wants to have a balanced life.  And  you can in less than a year.

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[i] Matthew 6:21 http://bible.cc/matthew/6-21.htm

Six Ways to Turn Panic Into Urgency

Don’t Panic Badge by Jim Linwood via Flickr CC

Today, a guest post from Jarie Bolander. Busting Your Corporate Idol will return on Monday 

Panic is a horrible feeling.

When we panic, our stress levels have increased to the point where we feel out of control. This increases our anxiety and makes it more difficult to focus and make good decisions.

Many poor decisions, overworking, stress, anxiety and guilt can be attributed to panic. That’s why it’s important to change panic into urgency.

Urgency conveys the appropriate and right response to any situation while panic pushes our fight or flight buttons.

Urgency shows that we are in control while panic shows our lack of control.

Urgency demonstrates a command of the facts while panic shows we don’t know what’s going on.

Urgency instills confidence in those around us while panic makes others, well, panic.

Panic is Natural

Panic is a natural response to a life threatening situation. It’s a primal emotion that has helped us adapt, overcome and survive life threatening situations. It’s only logical that panic would carry on to modern humans because our ancestors used it to survive.

Nowadays, we don’t really face any life threatening situations where panic is warranted. Even during real life threatening situations, panic will most likely make the situation worst.

If panic is ingrained in our DNA, then how can we switch panic into the more manageable urgency?  Consider these six ways to do just that.

Way #1: Pause and Just Breath

Most panic happens when we react without thinking and our stress levels are high enough to push us over the edge. The good news is that panic is triggered by events known to us and the second and probably most important, is that panic is our fight or flight responses miss-firing in the absence of true danger.

By pausing and taking a deep breath, we can calm ourselves down and think about how the situation or event is triggering our fight or flight response and reassure ourselves that there is no danger — just an uncomfortable situation that we should deal with urgently.

Way #2: Apply The 24 Hour Rule

Decisions made in a panic will most likely be poor. By delaying a decision, for 24 hours if possible, it will allow us to gather more data and make the decision in a calm state.

The 24 hour rule is a great way to reduce corporate panic as well. In almost all cases, a corporate decision, be it a new result or competitor, can and should be delayed in order to either confirm the data or event or formulate a better plan.

Way #3: Explore Alternatives

When we feel we have no control over a situation, we tend to panic.

This panic prompts us to attempt to quickly fix whatever is broken. In some ways, this progress, even if it’s bad, makes us feel at least something is being done.

It also reduces the criticism of others that nothing is being done. If we are running around in a frenzied panic, our boss or colleagues will at least get the sense we care.

Outwardly, it may appear that progress is being made, but in reality, the moment panic sets in, progress will be haphazard, slow and consume more resources.

It’s much better to explore other ways to solve the issue or situation before just jumping into a totally random path or continue down an unproductive path.

When we explore alternatives, it also gives us more of a sense of control of the situation which will reduce our level of anxiety and panic.

Way #4: Get Unnaturally Calm

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, in this article, recounts the advice his father gave him about managing fear (which is the precursor to panic). His dad’s advice was:

“The most important lesson my dad taught me was how to manage fear. Early on, he taught me that in a time of emergency, you’ve got to become deliberately calm. He used to say, “The more people are yelling and screaming around you, the calmer you should become. Become unnaturally calm. Somebody’s got to be able to figure a way out of the jam. And you’ll be able to do that.” — Rudy Giuliani

That advice served Mayor Giuliani well during September 11th and the subsequent panic that ensued.

Remaining calm during a crisis takes practice and not everyone can pull it off but it’s important to remember that those that remain calm and carry on will be more able to deal with stressful situations.

Way #5: Slow Down

After pausing, it’s important to assess the situation and deliberately slow down and think about what to do. Obviously in cases of life and death, rapid reactions are important but even then, if you feel yourself starting to panic, taking that deep breath and slowing down the situation, if practical. This will still maintain a sense of urgency but reduce the level of panic considerably.

How slow should you go? The pace of urgency is just enough to show that the situation is important but not too much that we feel we must make hasty decisions. Decisions made in haste will be of lower quality and may even exacerbate our level of panic.

Way #6: Go With the Flow

We all have the illusion of control to some degree or another. Greg’s example here of when Pat had a panic attack because he felt he had control when he really did not illustrates that we can only attempt to guide a situation to resolution — we really can’t completely control everything.

Once we realize that we don’t have complete control of a situation, we can more easily reduce our panic and go with the flow of the situation.

This is especially important when others rely on us to solve complex problems. It’s extremely tempting to feel empowered and in control to get things done when really it’s just an illusion that we all need to realize.

Reduce Panic and Live a Better Life

My hope is that all of us can reduce the levels of stress and panic we feel when things don’t go exactly as planned. By striving to do this, we can make better decisions and live a fuller, panic free life. Switching the times we panic into urgency will help us do just that.

Are their other ways that we can switch the panic we feel into urgency? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Jarie Bolander is an engineering by training, entrepreneur by nature and leader by endurance. His site, EnduranceLeader.com combines two of this passions — leadership and endurance athletics. He is also the author of #ENDURANCE tweet — A Little Nudge to Keep You Going. Feel free to follow him on Twitter via @EnduranceLeader