Stress Management
Productivity Consulting and Leadership Coaching for business and nonprofits - get your most important work done. Collaborating with leaders and their teams to become more strategic, focused and productive. Leadership and Board Coaching, Strategic Planning Facilitation, Productivity Coaching and Consulting, Professional Speaker.
Productivity Coach, Productivity Consultant, Leadership Coach, Executive Coach, Business Consulting, personal productivity, time management, nonprofit, board coach, collaboration, strategic planning, facilitation, change management, leading productive teams, project planning, board development, volunteer engagement, association management, workplace productivity, executive director.
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Stress Management

The brain cannot do its best productive work when overstressed, anxious, or under threat. 

Productivity, Stress and Flow Brain Model

A lot is written today about stress and anxiety. We know exercise, meditation, and good sleep help reduce stress. However, little is discussed about the effects of stress and anxiety on our productivity. In a nutshell, the brain cannot do its best productive work when overstressed, anxious, or under threat. (Excerpts from Chapter 3 of Productivity for How You’re Wired.)

Here’s the neuroscience:

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain Model provides a straightforward model to understand the impact of fear and stress on the brain in conjunction with evolution and the hierarchy of brain functions. MacLean describes the brain in terms of three regions:

Brain Stem: From an evolutionary perspective, the brain stem is the oldest part of the brain. It controls bodily functions without thought or effort. This part of our brain operates on “autopilot.”

Limbic System: Next in evolutionary age is the limbic system. This is the emotional center of our brain. It is home to the amygdala, the part of the brain that houses the fight, flight, or freeze response. We have some control over our emotions, but under threat or too much stress, the amygdala automatically “hijacks” our thinking brain and takes over.

Prefrontal Cortex: Newest, and least on autopilot, is our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), our thinking brain. It is here we plan, anticipate, think, and learn. The PFC is where innovation and creative thought occur. It houses our working memory and supports our ability to organize information and draw conclusions.

The PFC and the amygdala compete for control of the brain. When we are our most productive selves, we are functioning from the PFC. However, when there is too much stress, anxiety, or fear, the emotionally driven amygdala kicks in. We move from thinking and being productive to a fight, flight, or freeze state.

When under treat, anxious, or overstressed, our productivity tanks because we’ve moved from our thinking brain to our emotional brain.

Flow

Doing one’s most effective work occurs when a person is in flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the architect of positive psychology’s flow state, defines flow as “a powerful and rewarding psychological state that makes extra effort seem worthwhile.”

When in flow work feels like play, time flies (and stands still,) and productivity soars. To be our most productive selves, to be in flow, we need to function from our PFC, our thinking brain.Finding Productivity Flow

When under too much stress, anxiety can be paralyzing. You may relate to that feeling when you get a note from the boss saying “come see me,” or a long-time client calls and says “can we talk?” Just when we need to be at our best, we freeze up and our emotional brain takes charge.

Without enough stress, the brain struggles to move into action. Waiting until the 11th hour to begin a project causes enough stress to move the brain into productivity flow.

Strategies for Getting and Staying in Productivity Flow

The emotional limbic brain almost always wins unless we learn how to manage it. To be in productivity flow we need to employ strategies to help us manage the stress.From overstressed to productive

Knowledge is power! When you start to feel anxious or lose focus, it’s empowering to stop and think — I know what’s going on here. When you realize that what is happening in your brain is the normal physiologic stress response, you can take back control. Deep breathing, a walk, or other calming activity can help, but sometimes simply understanding what is happening is enough to pull you back into productivity flow.

The 5 Pillars of Productivity

A Note from Ellen: I’ve been working on a book. In the coming weeks I’ll be previewing snippets from the book on my blog. It’s important information I want to share. Today’s post is a summary of Chapter 1.  If you would like to learn more, I’ll post book updates here on the blog. It is exciting. Stay tuned! 

These 5 pillars of productivity are core to your productivity success. Whatever you learn, whatever you do, keep these in mind and build from here.

Productivity is a Quality of Life Issue

Productivity is a quality of life issue. When we don’t know what is important, we end up doing unimportant things. We spend our weekends thinking we’ll get work done, yet we’re exhausted and don’t. We end up more stressed and less effective come Monday morning, worried about the work we didn’t do. Finding a way to work better brings greater ease, peace, and happiness to both career and life.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Each of us is wired differently, and what works for one person absolutely may not work for someone else. Being willing to experiment and discover productivity solutions that fit YOU is essential. I discuss this pillar in depth in this post: Productivity That Fits How You’re Wired.

If It Isn’t EASY, It’s Too Hard

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when trying to improve their productivity is making their systems too complex. Too many steps and the systems are destined to fail. Too much time to learn the systems and more time is spent on the tool, with little time spent on the task itself.

Not All Work is Equally Important

Pareto’s principle, the 80/20 Rule, supports the concept that you can achieve 80% of the results in 20% of the time. Learning how and when to apply the 80/20 rule helps free up time for important things, in and out of work. Be deliberate in how you invest your time.

  • 20% of your work/clients contributes to 80% of your profits
  • 20% of your apps are used 80% of the time
  • 20% of your meeting time achieves 80% of decisions
  • 20% of your time yields 80% of the result

 Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

Taking the time to plan is the secret sauce to productivity. If you think you don’t have time to plan, you don’t have time NOT to plan. Investing a little time for planning drives the shift from overwhelmed to productive.

The greatest benefit of planning may be the process of thinking things through. Winston Churchill may have been right when he said “Plans are worthless, planning is priceless.” Yes, sometimes plans go awry. However, things go much more awry without them.

  • Planning helps you stop worrying about missing a deadline or an opportunity.
  • Planning helps you to anticipate so surprises are minimized.
  • Planning helps you prioritize tasks moving you towards focused success.
  • Planning helps you use your time well. When you say yes to something off–plan, you are saying no to working on–plan.

Working HybridIt seems we just got used to working at home and now we are returning to the office in some way. Today’s workforce is everything but stationary.

Productivity in the hybrid work environment focuses on mobility and flexibility. Your office is in your work bag. The goal is to work effectively regardless of location. Leveraging the benefits of this new work paradigm means looking at productivity differently.

Acknowledge the Difference

  • Time in the office can be energizing and inspiring. Take advantage of the lift you get when you’re with others, understanding that effectiveness improves with a change of pace and environment.
  • Child care and family obligations shift. Going to work provides a much-needed break. The flexibility enables you to be better in each situation.
  • Self-care continues to be important. Taking time for a walking meeting or planning an exercise break with colleagues helps to maximize the time. Leaders are on the lookout for ideas to support the new normal. Tell them what you need.
  • Planning your start and stop times in the office is helpful to helping you create routine and provides markers to keep you on task and effective.

Uplevel Communication

  • Hold planning meetings with your family or roommates. While regular review of work schedules and obligations is always helpful, holding regular planning meetings when one or many are working from home and hybrid is especially valuable.
  • Communicate goals and deadlines. Understanding expectations helps all parties manage deadlines and avoid stressful last-minute time crunches. Share a work-plan that identifies steps, deadlines, and areas of responsibility.
  • Leaders should consider no meeting days to encourage people to come to the office on meeting days, and support focused work time on WFH days.

Redefine Meeting Etiquette

Meetings in which some participants are in the room and others are on video chat present their own challenges. Identifying these challenges and creating new agreements to support them ensures all participants are treated fairly.

  • Those in the room can read non-verbal cues more easily than those on video. Meeting leaders should create extra space for clarifying questions and priorities.
  • Side conversations exclude those not in the room. While they are always annoying, during hybrid meetings they are especially detrimental.
  • Sometimes new ideas come after the meeting when in-person participants are still in the room. Be sure to include any post-meeting comments and actions in the meeting notes and create time to discuss at the next meeting.

Plan Work Strategically

With less structure it is even more important to build in supports to boost your productivity.

  • Weekly Planning: Identify which tasks are most effective doing at home and which are most effective doing at the office. When doing your weekly planning, block out specific tasks for the place they are most effectively performed.
  • Home is best for project, quantitative and focused work.
  • Office is best for meetings, small group work, creative problem solving and planning/
  • Task Management: When working hybrid, you’ll want to add in the variable of where you are doing the work. You can adjust your task list by dividing your list into HOME and OFFICE subsections.
    • Each day, write out a physical list of the most important things you intend to accomplish for the day.
    • Be deliberate and identify what’s possible to do for the day depending on other commitments and amount of time the identified tasks will take.
    • Build in time when at the office for conversation and walking to meetings.
    • Build in time at home for taking care of the kids/pets and household chores you’re squeezing in.

Create Parallel Work Spaces

Boosting productivity in the office is dependent on your particular work set up.

  • If you have an office, focus on creating an easy transition between work and home. Create parallel equipment set ups; two monitors, a wireless keyboard and mouse in both locations so all you have to do is plug your laptop in and start working.
  • If you have an open seating arrangement, follow the above noted recommendations AND work to find your best space at the office.
    • Don’t pick the center cubical. Instead choose a space at the end of the row so you aren’t between two people that can be distracting.
    • Be mindful of the person with the bellowing voice and move as far away as possible.
    • Sign up for conference room space. Work whenever you can with a door.
  • If you have a permanent desk assignment follow both guidelines above. If it is too hard to concentrate in your assigned space, explain to your manager that your productivity is compromised and work to find a better arrangement. Chances are they’d rather have you in the office some of the time than have you working at home all of the time. See if they will work with you to come up with a better solution.

Take Care of Yourself

Working hybrid blurs the lines between work and home. Consider new ways to refuel and reenergize to create conditions to do your most productive work.

  • Differentiating between work time and non-work time can help you to move from the working-all-the-time mindset and help you create the space to give your mind and body necessary recharge and renewal time.
  • ESQ – Exercise, sleep and quiet are your secret weapons. If these basics aren’t in place everything else will be harder.
    • Sleep – When working hybrid, staying on the same sleep schedule for office and home days will help your body acclimate more easily. An added bonus would be on WFH days using your extra commute time for self-care and starting your work day at the same time.
    • Exercise – Walking, working out, doing quick burst exercises all can help your brain work better. If you’re stuck and can’t get started with your work, move your body.
    • Quiet – Research indicates that downtime improves creative thought, problem solving, and replenishes work mojo. Meditation, reading, playing games all help soothe the mind so when you work you are more focused.
  • Take advantage of being able to go to the office. Don’t automatically think you don’t need to be there. As social beings’ connectedness and sense of belonging is an inherent need. It’s hard to motivate when you don’t feel connected.

Working hybrid brings more complexities. If we can structure our work and our time effectively, the hybrid model – working from home for focused work time AND going to the office to collaborate and connect, is the best of both worlds.

overcoming procrastination

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about people struggling with procrastination. The pandemic has taken a lot out of us, and we are all a bit worn down. When we put off doing what we “need” to do it makes us feel undisciplined and lazy.  The self-compassion experts tell us that just makes things worse.

Instead of beating yourself up, it is much more effective to figure out why you procrastinate. Then you can take positive action to overcome the obstacle. Procrastination is typically NOT about discipline!  When the system is right and you understand what is happening then it takes much less willpower to move into action.

Procrastination Strategies

If simply intending to do the task worked, you wouldn’t be reading this. There are a number of less-typical strategies you can try to see what will help YOU blow through YOUR procrastination obstacles.

Figure Out Why You Procrastinate – There are many reasons people procrastinate. Figuring out your reason(s) is the first step to overcoming them.  Is it self-doubt or do you just need more information?  Do you need more time for the information to percolate in your head, or do you simply need the stress of the deadline to activate?  Are you unclear if the task is important? Or do you just hate doing it?  Understanding the cause of our individual brands of perfectionism helps us move into action.

Make the First Step Small – focus on getting started. Don’t worry about finishing. Set one mini-goal to get you to sit down and start.

Trick Your Brain – Start with an easy task to stimulate your brain. Take advantage of the “pleasure seeking” chemicals and as soon as you finish the easy/fun task move to one of the “harder to complete” tasks.

Identity Motivation –Use a character trait you like about yourself to help you activate. i.e. – I am a learner, I have perseverance, I am a problem-solver. Then ask:

  1. What kind of situation is this?
  2. Who am I?
  3. What does someone like me do in a situation like this? If you consider yourself to be thoughtful – then you’ll ask yourself – what does a thoughtful person do in a situation like this? If you consider yourself to be a problem solver then you’ll ask yourself – what would a problem solver do in a situation like this?

Body Doubling – Body Doubling is having a partner share your space to help keep you on task. They don’t need to do anything in particular. Their very presence helps move you to action.

  • Meet a friend at the coffee shop and work on your “hard” project alone – together.
  • Meet a colleague in the conference room and set your Pomodoro timer.
  • Ask a family member to sit with you while you are getting started.
  • Hire a NAPO Professional Organizer or other consultant to work on your project with you

Change Location – A unfamiliar space can provide just enough stimulation your brain needs to move into action. Weather permitting try working outside, a new coffee shop, or even a new location at work or home. Simply changing chairs at your kitchen table may be enough to shift how your brain is processing the environment.

Freak Yourself Out – Creating controlled stress can help. Make a list of the top 3 consequences of not doing this project. Now make another list – top 3 consequences of not doing this project on time. Not failing can help move you into action.

Productivity: Post-Vaccine

We used to go to work and come home to relax.  Now we work from home and soon we’ll be going out to relax.  I heard someone say that we really don’t work from home – now we are living from work.  That sounds crazy!  What is clear however, is that things are different. Dependent on your age and where you live, your access to the vaccine varies. Hopefully we will soon all have our “get out of jail free” (vaccine) cards and be returning to our new normal.

I was on a Zoom call last week and we discussed our anxiety around returning to normalcy.  Yes, with this new freedom comes anxiety. We’ve gotten pretty darn comfortable in our yoga pants and bare feet. We’ve built in systems and supports to help us get our work done and live from work.  Now there is another shift coming.  How do we make this transition as healthfully and productively as possible?

It’s about BOUNDARIES!  What you say YES to, and what you say NO to. Building the scaffolding now will support you in reentering in a way that will get what you need, yet not compromise the learning and reevaluating that we’ve had this past year. What supports do you need? What guardrails can you put in place to protect you?

On our Zoom call, my colleague, Susan Lannis of the Time Liberator, posed her questions about our post pandemic behavior, from which I’ve crafted the following questions for you to ask yourself. I suggest you invest the time to journal on this, or open a note or document and write your answers out. Take your time. Give it thought.

  1. What behaviors, actions, or learnings from the Covid shutdown do you want to continue doing – what are you saying YES to?
  2. What behaviors, actions, or learnings from the Covid shutdown do you want to continue NOT doing – what are you saying NO to?
  3. What are the three most important things you look forward to doing post-vaccine?

Now make a list of your boundaries – what you will say yes to, what you will say no to, and what you wish to continue. Here are mine:

  1. What I want to continue doing – What I’m saying YES to:
    1. “No incoming tech” Saturdays
    2. Exercise and yoga classes via Zoom
    3. Speaking engagements via Zoom
  2. What I want to not do – What I am saying NO to:
    1. Going out socially more than 2 or 3 times a week
    2. Networking when it doesn’t serve me
    3. Traveling more than once a month
  3. Three most important things I look forward to getting back to
    1. Seeing my friends and family
    2. Going to the store and picking out what I want
    3. Taking golf lessons

Taking the time to think through and plan will support your success. Good luck as you move through this next transition. Interested in learning more? Here is what is sure to be many articles written about our post-pandemic return.

Now that we’re through the rush of the new year it’s a good time to set some goals and intentions for the year ahead. With all the unknown of the pandemic it is hard to really make plans, however without some direction it’s next to impossible to find peace.

Many struggle to get clear on what is important or what to do next. Taking a few minutes to identify your goals and intentions help you get clear on what you are saying yes to and what you are saying no to.

Why Intentions and Not Just Goals

A goal has a specific outcome – “I want to leave the office at 6pm each evening,” “I want to make profits over 6 figures this year,” “I want to complete the team on-boarding program by June.”

An intention is how you want to live – “I prioritize self-care,” “I make time to give love and care to my family,” “I continue to learn so I can help leaders grow, and develop their teams.”

Most people have both goals and intentions.  To focus on one and not the other is addressing just a portion of how people spend their time.  A new client typically describes himself as needing help getting all their work done. In reality, work isn’t the only problem; many share that they would like to be able to take time off without worry and stress.  As you identify your own goals and intentions you may want to consider more than work.  Remember, we are going for “better life.”

Here is a quick and easy goal and intention setting process for you to follow:

Action Plan for 10 Minute Goal/Intention Setting:   

  1. Take 3 minutes and write down three to four things you’d like to accomplish in the next 6 months, perhaps one per life area – (work, professional growth, personal growth, self-care, family, etc.) label these Short Term Goals.
  2. Take 3 minutes and write down three to four things you’d like to accomplish in the next 6 months to 3 years, perhaps one per life area – label these Long Term Goals.
  3. Take 2 minutes to re-write them in a form that makes them is meaningful:
    1. Check in with 3 former clients per week for the next 4 weeks
    2. Lose 10 pounds by working out twice a week and following the nutritionist’s program
    3. Read to the kids at least 4 times a week
  4. Take 1 minute to copy them on to a pleasing piece of paper.
  5. Take 1 minute to post them in a place that will keep them top of mind

Here’s to a happy New Year.