Monthly Archives: February 2017

An Uncomfortable Conversation About Stress

By Jae Ellard, Simple Intentions Founder and CEO

WARNING: This content may be uncomfortable.

Just like balance, stress means different things to different people and stress impacts each person differently. What is stressful to you might not be stressful to your manager, coworkers, friends, or spouse. It is important to remember that when it comes to defining stress, everybody has their own idea of what is acceptable, tolerable, and comfortable. Before we talk about resolving stress when we experience it, it’s important to understand WHY we experience stress.

At its most basic, the answer is survival. Fight or flight. We want the ability to experience stress — it is what has kept us alive as a species. When we face danger, such as being chased by a wild animal, the body secretes into the bloodstream stress hormones (called adrenaline and made up of cortisol and a few other hormones), this initiates the body’s “fight or flight” response. This hormone cocktail causes a quick gust of energy, a burst of increased immunity, tunnel vision and tunnel hearing to help you move away from danger, and lower sensitivity to pain as not to distract you if you get hurt as you flee from the source of danger. After experiencing this flood of cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, it’s important that the body and brain move to a relaxation response after the perceived threat has gone away so hormone levels can return to baseline. Research says it takes 40 to 60 minutes for this to happen.

If the body and brain don’t have the chance to relax then the body stays in a stress state because it perceives that danger is still near. When we were cave people, it was much easier to tell if a threat had moved away — the tiger was gone. In our modern world, many times the threat or cause of stress does not move away as quickly or in some cases at all, and our bodies and brains stay in a state of mild, persistent stress.

When the body doesn’t reach a rest state after a prolonged period of time, the result is a chronic stress state. Chronic stress can disrupt the immune system, sleep patterns, digestion, growth, and even reproduction. When the body feels perceived danger, it will prioritize its survival systems. Things like digesting lunch go to the bottom of the to-do list when the body thinks a tiger is going to attack.

As you are well aware, lots of things can cause modern day stress. The most common big stress triggers in life include moving, switching jobs, divorce, and death. Common situations that can lead to chronic stress states include unhealthy relationships, over-committing oneself, dysfunctional work teams, and unrealistic expectations of self and others.

Just as many people don’t know what balance means to them, the same is true for stress — many people are not clear on what causes them to feel stress in their daily lives. In my research, I’ve come to believe that most modern-day stress is linked to communication, or rather lack of it. And the topics we avoid talking about most often relate to our values. A lot of stress comes from the conversations we don’t have about our values with others as well as the conversations we avoid having with our selves. A great way to better understand what is driving your stress is to consider what conversations you are not having right now.

What stresses you out? Remember most modern day stress is linked to communication, specifically when we are hedging, when we’re not aware of how our complaints and criticisms are intermingled, and when we might be withholding to avoid feeling discomfort.

How do these situations make your body and mind feel? What symptoms let you know you are heading into the stress zone? For example, do you get stomach aches, skin rashes or headaches? Do you crave certain foods? We all have a stress “tell” — something our body does that sends a message to us to slow down and pay better attention.

What do you do to take care of yourself when you are feeling stressed? This is a big one as many people I work with haven’t considered how to intentionally care for themselves when they experience stress. We will all experience stress throughout our lives. But how do we want to manage it? Being active, time with friends and family, meditation, engaging in a hobby, being in nature — there is no wrong way to move yourself out of a stress state. Just know what ways feel right to you. The most important thing is to KNOW what is causing your stress, or what is likely to cause stress in the future so you can then nourish yourself when you encounter it. Know your answers and follow through.

As you reflect on your answers, begin to become aware of where your behaviors are supporting you and where they are sabotaging you. Notice the choices you make, notice when you feel in balance, notice when you feel out of balance. Then make the necessary shift.

[Note: This post originally appeared on Thrive Global]

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Cultivate Awareness to Manage Your Attention

By Carson Tate, Founder of Working Simply and Friend of Simple Intentions

There are certain work or career beliefs that we’ve convinced ourselves are true.

Things like:

  • – Work-life balance will always be a struggle.
  • – You get ahead or you get noticed by replying to each and every email.
  • – The loudest or most-often-heard vaoice in the meeting is best-suited for a leadership role.

These beliefs are just not true. But office politics, water cooler chat, and even pop culture have shown us otherwise, which is why it’s sometimes hard to get out of these belief cycles.

There is no better time than NOW to debunk these so-called truths and embrace a new work belief:

We have more control than we realize.

For some this is a bold, new truth that calls us to muster up a lot of confidence, courage, initiative or moxie. (All of which we are completely capable of.) We will all eventually get to that place, I promise. In the meantime, there is an easy, strategic place to start with launching this new belief. We can start by becoming more aware of what we pay attention to and how we pay attention.

Our brain’s wiring lends itself towards being distracted. Just think about how many times a day you find yourself checking your email, your favorite social media feed or just staring off into space. If we want to strengthen our voluntary attention–the attention we have direct control over—we must improve our focus and ability to proactively complete our work.

The first step in this process involves cultivating awareness. Learning to do this begins with a simple but surprisingly powerful exercise—the attention awareness exercise. Select a span of four hours, either during the workweek or on a weekend, as your tracking period for this exercise. Then choose an attention tracking tool that works for you: pen and paper, the notes feature on a smart phone, or a dictation device. Every time your attention wanders, you lose focus, or you are interrupted either by others or yourself, make a note on your attention tracking tool.

You may want to devise different symbols to refer to your own personal “distractors.” For example, I have had clients use hash marks to denote the number of times their attention wandered and create abbreviations for the people, things, ideas and emotions involved – for example, P = person, F = feeling, C = child, E = email, W = web surfing, and S = social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so on).

And, yes, the exercise itself is also diverting your attention. However, there is a method to the process. The attention awareness exercise enables us to see, literally in black and white, how often our attention wanders and the triggers that cause this to happen. We must notice that our attention has wandered in order to do something about it. I would suggest to repeat the attention exercise multiple times during a workweek and at different times of the day – we want to have enough data to thoroughly analyze our attention awareness trends.

Now that we have our attention data, we can start the path towards change. Review the data and notice any trends or themes:

  • Was it more difficult to focus right before lunch time or dinner time?
  • Was it difficult to focus after a long meeting or a difficult conversation with a family member?
  • Was it easier to focus after a walk or a workout at the gym?
  • Were there specific time periods during the four hours that it was easier to focus?
  • Were there specific projects or types of tasks that you could focus on for longer periods of time?

Keep notes on the trends and themes that emerge.

The second step to strengthening our voluntary attention involves optimizing the physiological conditions necessary for ideal attention management. It is ideal to create an environment that supports unique attention management needs and minimizes the impact of the hardwiring of your brain. When we are tired, hungry, or stressed, we are fighting an uphill battle with our attention. Guess who is always going to win – your brain! If you are up late the night before finishing a project, you may not have the ability to focus on a complex task at eight the next morning. If you’ve just had a very difficult conversation with a colleague or spent an hour consoling an upset friend, be aware and plan accordingly; your voluntary attention muscle is already fatigued due to this interaction.

Plan your self-management activities with all of these factors in mind. Keep packets of nuts, granola bars, or dried fruit in your office drawer, pocket book, briefcase, and/or glove compartment of your car to stay properly fueled for maximum focus. Create a playlist of soothing and energizing music to help you relax or recharge after stressful interactions and conversations. Keep comfortable shoes in your desk drawer or in your car or work bag so you can go for a quick walk up and down the halls of your office building or outside your office building. Physical movement is one of the most effective ways to mentally reset and discharge negative energy. And you do not have to walk long to benefit – ten minutes is all it takes.

When TV hostess and media mogul Martha Stewart was asked how she manages to accomplish so much during a day, she responded by saying, “I used to get tired before I started working out on a daily basis. Even a half hour makes a huge difference to the body’s energy level over the course of a day. Eating healthy, fresh foods is essential. With nutritious diet and exercise, I can get a lot done in a day.”

By optimizing the physiological conditions required to manage attention, boosting our sense of focus is completely attainable.

The third and final step requires that we retrain our brains using a “brain reboot”. Refocusing is hard because we have trained our brains to work on a variety of things simultaneously. How common is it to check email during a conference call? Or to feed a child breakfast, unloaded the dishwasher, and pack lunches all at the same time? Multi-tasking habits does not improve productivity; instead, it undermines our ability to focus.

In order to refocus, visualize a reset button in your brain and say, “I need to hit reboot and get back on track.” According to Dr. Srini Pillay, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, this takes the spotlight off the distraction and puts it on redirection—the refocusing of the task. By frequently rebooting the brain, it is being rewired for optimal functioning.

Another approach to brain rebooting is the use of breathing to restore focus. Try taking a deep inhalation breath, pushing out your navel, and then powerfully expelling the air by slightly bringing in your stomach. Repeat this breath five to seven times and observe how the tension and mental chatter in your mind dissipates. Another breath that also short circuits the mental chatter is to place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and blow out as if you were blowing out candles on a birthday cake. As you blow out, count to seven. You can now regain your focus.

Someone once told me, – whatever it is you think or believe, it’s true; meaning that if I believe I will always struggle with work-life balance, it’s true; or if I believe someone else deserves a promotion more than me, that’s true, too.

The same goes for the control we think we have or don’t have – if we believe we don’t have control over our choices in a situation, we won’t. But that’s simply not true. We have more control than we realize.

So, start with practice – begin with cultivating awareness to pay better attention. Once the belief exists that we can control how or what we pay attention to, we can start to take bigger steps towards exercising more control and debunking work truths that simply aren’t true.

 

Carson Tate is a productivity consultant and the founder of Working Simply, Inc. She is the author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style and serves as a coach, trainer and consultant to executives at Fortune 500 companies including AbbVie, Deloitte, Wells Fargo and United Technologies.

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Hospitality in the Eyes of an Outsider

By Joanna Fuller, Friend of Simple Intentions

ubeth (002)In 1992, shortly after the end of the Gulf War, I had the opportunity to spend a month in the West Bank, in the Palestinian territories. A relatively new college graduate with an English literature degree, I was there—ostensibly—to contribute to English classes at the University of Bethlehem.

But in the first class I visited, I opened the door to students jumping around the room and onto tables, staging a failed coup against Prospero in a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was clear they had a much better handle on the material than I did. I didn’t have much to teach them about the play, and instead found myself sitting back, enjoying their banter (all in English, rather than Arabic), amazed at how learned these students were, and how much they had to teach me about English literature.

I don’t remember much more about that class, to be honest.  But what I do remember vividly is how one of the students, Fatima, approached me, introduced herself, and insisted that I visit her home for lunch that afternoon. She told me to bring along all of my American girlfriends.

A few hours later, six young women from America joined six young Palestinian women in Fatima’s home. Fatima’s mother had gone next door to ‘borrow a chicken,’ which she magically transformed into platters of shawarma, accompanied by stacks of warm pita bread, mounds of deliciously sour labneh, and overflowing plates of saffron rice. After lunch, in the privacy of her home, Fatima and her friends removed their hijabs, tied them around their (and our) hips, turned on the music and taught us to dance. They told us that all their neighbors would consider it an honor that we’d chosen to be guests in their home.

I was surprised, to say the least. Not only that someone would go to all that trouble for us, but without hesitation, or planning. That summer was the first time I’d traveled outside the West, and I hadn’t yet learned what hospitality can look like in other parts of the world. It was the first time I’d heard the belief that many Middle Easterners share: that you must always treat strangers well, especially those traveling from foreign lands, because they could very well be ‘angels sent by God.’ It was a wonderful new way of experiencing hospitality.

Twenty-two years later, arriving as a newly sworn-in Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, I experienced a different but equally surprising reception. I laughed and in truth, bristled a little, when I first heard how the people in my community referred to me: as манай Америк хүн (pronounced manai Amerik hun, meaning ‘our American’). Fellow volunteers across the country shared the same experience, and none of us were sure how we felt about it. It was both flattering and slightly off-putting to feel like a town status symbol, along with the Land Cruisers and modern apartments owned by the wealthier families.

Hidden in that designation, though, is something I failed to realize at first: манай Америк хүн wasn’t so much an expression of possession, but of responsibility. I’d chosen to come live in their community and my Mongolian hosts considered it their duty to take care of me and to make sure I had what I needed to survive—be it a bed, a pair of winter boots, or enough meat in my freezer.

Just like in Palestine, it wasn’t always easy to be an outsider in Mongolia. But if there was one luxury I came to appreciate, it was the special status my American-ness afforded me – one of acceptance.  I could be completely different from the people around me, and it was not only OK, it was expected. There was a reason that explained all the ways in which I diverged from the crowd, and rather than causing people to reject or distance themselves from me, it instead somehow drew them in, and motivated them to take an interest in my well-being.

Today, it’s hard to believe I’ve been home from Mongolia for nearly six months. Since I’ve returned, people have continued to ask me how re-entry’s going. For the most part, I’d actually say it’s been amazing. (The WiFi! The paved roads! The bagels!) But it’s also been fascinating to find that I’ve been using the cultural integration tools taught to me during my Peace Corps training just as much here in America as I did during my time abroad.

In order to join the Peace Corps three years ago, I left a job of nearly twenty years and with it, the comfort of working at a place where I knew the ropes, and where my colleagues trusted and respected me. Looking to forge a different path upon my return home to the U.S., I took a new job in a new organization, with its own unique culture and systems and lingo and social dynamics.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been the ‘new girl’ in an organization. I don’t always know what I’m doing, and often have to muddle through first being bad at things (and people seeing that) before getting good at them. I’ve shown up, ready to dive in and get to work, only to first find out how much I don’t know and how much I need to learn from others. I’ve had to rely on people to show me how to do the simplest tasks, including how to make coffee and how to operate the copy machine.  I’ve gotten lost trying to find the restroom. I’ve had to remember what it feels like to have people make assumptions about me based on my appearance, my age and my title. Not because they’re not enlightened or evolved—but because they’re human and that’s what humans do. I’ve had to catch and stop myself doing the same to others.

The biggest difference is that, here in America, I don’t get the benefit of the mini-celebrity status I enjoyed in Mongolia and the Middle East, the status that made people want to drop what they were doing and take shared ownership in my well-being. In America, people have a lot going on, which means that often, I’m left to my own devices, and to learning by trial-and-error. Some days it feels like much more error than trial, and that’s when I have to remind myself to:

  1. Take time to listen and observe; resist the urge to act immediately and instead focus on truly understanding the situation and how I can best be of service.
  2. Anticipate that in the beginning, anything I try will take three times as long as I think it should, and likely be twice as expensive. Remember this is normal.
  3. Be gentle with and extend myself grace when things don’t go according to plan.
  4. Avoid being an island; while my natural instinct might be to withdraw or turn inward to hide my mistakes or feelings of vulnerability, continuing to reach out to others is the key to survival.

And while it seems sometimes as if every single person in America is time-starved and under pressure, I’ve been so grateful for those who’ve surprised me by their willingness to stop, take the time to connect in a meaningful way, and extend a hand to someone trying to fit into their new surroundings. Our American culture isn’t one that always allows for spontaneous afternoon lunches or dance parties, but there are at least a few hospitality angels out there doing their best. I’ve come to appreciate what a gift they are.

More than that, I’ve realized how important it is to be one of them, and what a difference it can make to another human when you’re able to show up, unhurried, and offer them your time and presence.

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