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How to Get Through an Extremely Busy Time at Work

You’re an accountant deep in tax season, a junior doctor in residency, or an entrepreneur juggling a startup and an actual baby. Many of us go through seasons of life when we have very little personal time. Others may be committed to jobs that regularly involve intense and long hours, creating a long-term lack of rest.

While this kind of overwork is not ideal, there are undoubtedly situations in which it becomes a necessity or makes personal sense. I’ve certainly done it for periods of my life, for instance, in the lead-up to exams or to put final polishes on my books. At times like this, when having full weekend off seems like a distant dream, advice on the importance of maintaining work-life balance, reducing the stress, and getting enough sleep can feel like a slap in the face. You don’t need to be scolded to work less. You need practical tips for surviving and thriving when you have to be fully committed. Here are some strategies that can help:

Use Premack’s principle.
Premack’s principle (as it applies here) is to use an easier behavior as a reward for a harder behavior. For instance, you can reward yourself for finishing a cognitively demanding task (like writing a complex report) by completing a low-key but necessary task, like running an errand that helps you stay organized. This approach can help you pace yourself during your work day, ensuring that you get regular breaks during which your mind can shift into a more relaxed gear, while still being productive. Think of it like recovering from bursts of running by walking instead of stopping.

Compartmentalize.
Tasks you actually enjoy can become tense, unpleasant experiences if, while you’re doing them, you’re mentally elsewhere, feeling stressed and anxious about the other hundred things on your list. What’s quite pleasurable or satisfying for you, even though it’s time-consuming? Perhaps it’s nutting out how best to present an intricate data visualization. Maybe it’s rehearsing speeches in front of friends or family.

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Stress

If you know the task is important and you’re approaching it efficiently, allow yourself to enjoy it. For recurrent hard assignments, think about the parts of it you like best at the beginning, middle, and end stages. For instance, I like listening to my Mac auto-read aloud drafts of my blog posts when doing my final edits. It’s satisfying to find those last few instances where I’ve repeated a word, made a typo, or the melody of a sentence is wrong. I also like the beginning stages of projects in which I get to top up my brain with broad searches on Google Scholar, and the middle stages when I’m wrestling with parts of what I’m writing that aren’t working but when my overall structure is in place and sound. By articulating distinct, enjoyable aspects of tasks, you can be more mindful and savor them.

Save small scraps of time for mental rest.
When you’re very busy, it’s tempting to try to cram productive activity, like responding to email or thinking through decisions, into any small crack of time. This could be when you’re standing in line at the supermarket, waiting for a presentation to start, or in the five minutes between finishing one thing and joining a meeting. When you’re slammed, it can seem essential to work during these moments. However, you don’t have to. Instead, consider using brief waiting times for true mental breaks. Take some slow breaths, drop your shoulders, and just chill.

You don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach to this tip, of course. If using small scraps of time to keep work moving sometimes suits you, keep doing it Monday to Friday, but, on the weekend, consider giving yourself those little breaks. Find the balance that works for you.

Add physical decompression rituals to your day.
When we’re overloaded, we can hold a lot of physical tension. This is partly due to our in-built fight/flight/freeze response to fear or stress. For instance, the evolutionary basis of balled fists is your cave-person self preparing to run or punch. Some people breathe faster when they’re stressed. Some adopt an aggressive, dominant tone of voice or body language. Since these reactions are often unconscious, you’ll need prompts to correct them.

Try using context triggers — deciding which moments in the day you’ll use to physically decompress. For instance, maybe you can take some slow breaths whenever you go to the bathroom, or just after you wake up or just before you get into bed.  You can also use emotions as triggers, like “When I notice I feel stressed, I’ll scan my body for tension and soften and release any spots I find.” If you’re not sure how to do this, just try opening and closing your fists a few times, clenching and unclenching your jaw, or scrunching and dropping your shoulders. Our thoughts, emotions, and bodily reactions are a feedback loop. When you mimic the physiology of someone who is relaxed, you’ll find that your thinking becomes less closed, and psychologically challenging activities in which you need to think openly, like taking in feedback, will seem easier.

Pair pleasure experiences with other activities.
In my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I wrote about how people often put off pleasure, especially when they feel too busy or undeserving because they haven’t gotten enough done. You can buffer yourself against the stress of feeling rushed and overloaded if you recurrently pair simple sources of pleasure with particular activities you’re not as excited to do. For instance, I pack peanut butter sandwiches whenever I fly, which is about the only time I ever eat them, and now the two experiences are mentally linked. No matter how stressed I am about my trip or all the work I need to do before, during and after it, I feel just a little bit more relaxed because I’ve packed that treat for myself. Or, if you love podcasts, perhaps you have a routine of listening to specific shows on your commute home each day of the week. If what you love isn’t as simple as sandwiches or podcasts, set aside just a bit of consistent time to indulge in your interest, so you’ve removed decision-making as a barrier. For instance, if cooking is your passion, perhaps you whip up a big batch of something on Sundays that you can then take as lunch for the week.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that you can life-hack your way through being a permanent workaholic. But, during those times when, on balance, overworking makes short- or long-term sense (or is a necessity), you need some harm minimization strategies. It’s important to pace yourself and not let your obligations consume you.


Alice Boyes, PhD is a former clinical psychologist turned writer and is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.


 
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Device-Free Time Is as Important as Work-Life Balance

The idea of “work-life balance” is an invention of the mid-19thcentury. The notion of cultivating awareness of one’s work versus one’s pleasure emerged when the word “leisure” caught on in Europe in the Industrial Era. Work became separate from “life” (at least for a certain class of men) and we’ve been struggling to juggle them ever since.

Today, when so much work and leisure time involve staring at screens, I see a different struggle arising: a struggle to find a healthy balance between technology and the physical world, or, for short, “tech/body balance.” A 2016 survey from Deloitte found that Americans collectively check their phones 8 billion times per day. The average for individual Americans was 46 checks per day, including during leisure time—watching TV, spending time with friends, eating dinner.

So attached are we to our devices that it’s not unusual to have your phone with you at all times. We carry our phones around everywhere as if they are epi-pens and we all have fatal allergies. Consider: two weeks ago, as I was beginning a consulting project at a midtown Manhattan corporate office, I found myself making a U-turn on the way to the restroom. I needed to go back to my office to pick up my cellphone, which I had inadvertently left behind. It was an unconscious decision to go back and get it, but my assumption was clear: I needed to take the phone with me to the bathroom. Was I going to make a clandestine call from a bathroom stall? No. Was I dealing with an urgent business matter? Fortunately not. So why did I need my phone with me while I took care of a basic physical need? I didn’t really know. But apparently 90% of us use our phones in the bathroom.

According to recent data from Nielsen, 87% of Singapore’s 5.4 million population reports owning a smartphone, while a smaller but still substantial 68% of Americans own smartphones. A hefty 89% of American workers have reported feeling chronic body pain as a result of the posture they’ve developed using these devices, and 82% of this same group also say that the presence of phones “deteriorated” their most recent conversations. Pew Globalrecently released a report about the correlation between smartphone use and economic growth, noting that the rates of technology-use are not only climbing steadily in advanced economies, but also in countries with emerging economies. As additional reference points, 39% of the Japanese population reports owning a smartphone, while 59% of Turkey reports relying on mobile internet use. These numbers decrease in developing countries, given the relationship that exists between a person’s educational background, socioeconomic status, and their access to technology.

But whether we are among those who use our devices to work remotely, or we are just obsessed with them because of the culture we live in regardless of how much time we are spending on “work,” it’s time to shift our attention to what tech-body balance could look like.

I decided to launch a two-week, informal experiment to explore what tech-body balance might look like, even as I failed to embody it. I divided my experiments into three categories, based on three basic bodily needs:

Sleeping

For me and for many, the time in bed before sleep is a time to finally stop focusing on tasks to do and bask in feeling unfocused and empty-headed. For me, this means mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or Twitter to tire out my eyes until I am ready for sleep. Sometimes, I’ll mindlessly scroll for as much as an hour. So one night, I decided to impose a time limit. I gave myself five minutes, and they went by in one second. At the end of them, I felt annoyed by my self-imposed discipline and wanted to keep scrolling, even as I realized I had not learned anything new or even been entertained by the activity.

Sure, my work-life balance is fine in those moments, as I’m not writing work emails in bed (though yes, I have done that too). But what about my tech-body balance? My neck is strained while looking at my phone, my wrists tire from scrolling, and my attention is fully dedicated to my brightly lit device, rather than winding down for sleep.

Since imposing a time limit didn’t work very well, I decided a more drastic experiment was needed. I tried using a real, old-fashioned alarm clock to wake myself up (rather than the alarm on my phone), and left my phone in the charger a short walk from my bed. Embarrassingly, this felt like a radical decision to make—and you know what? It was. I didn’t look at my phone before bed, and instead let myself think in the dark, and let my eyes tire on their own.

Eating

Our bodies and minds need fuel to function properly, and eating food is what gives us fuel. Of course, eating can introduce complications like digestive malaise when stress is in the picture (at least that’s true for me), or when I, like so many of us, inhale my food while sitting at my computer writing emails, thinking about a million things at once. 

I tried to stop staring at screens while I was eating, but honestly, it was hard. I was not able to make this a regular habit due to pragmatic concerns like a busy day or not enough time to eat lunch. But I tried it on several occasions, and that in itself felt illuminating.

What if you chose, once a week, to eat one meal alone without your phone or a computer nearby? It might feel unsettling, but you will feel your body, and you may find you are even able to eat more slowly, chew more carefully, and enjoy your food a lot more.

Moving

Personally, I love talking on the phone while walking, and find that my ideas are more organic and free to arrive at my mind when I am on the move. I decided that my first experiment here would just be to walk during more of my phone calls, rather than take them seated at a desk, staring at a screen. Sure, you may be distracted by your surroundings while you are walking, but it is dynamic distraction that prevents you from looking at another device. (I don’t know about you, but I have the awful habit of writing emails while on calls).

To try out something more radical, even scary (as much as I am embarrassed to admit it), I decided to take a walk the other afternoon during the work day, and very deliberately left my phone behind. More than usual, I felt little reminders pop into my head, tempting me to get my phone to jot it down in G-cal or in my Notes app. But instead, I had to experience the discomfort of knowing that I’d either remember what I needed to remember organically, or simply forget and accept the consequences. It was uncomfortable to take this walk, particularly as I did it during a day when I felt stressed and busy at work. But of course, the counterintuitive wisdom I hoped for did arrive: the break from the stressors of my phone and computer gave me a sense of spaciousness and freedom, even though there were distinct moments of panic and disorientation. At one point, I reached into my pocket and felt the cortisol rush as I genuinely thought I lost my phone.

As you can tell, I didn’t have an easy time with this experiment, and it was certainly not a strict “digital detox.” But I think that tech-body balance shouldn’t be extreme. Extreme behavioral shifts strike me as unsustainable and unproductive. Like work-life balance, finding tech-body balance is a constant experiment, and one that is different for everyone. Tech, like “work,” is something that’s mostly a positive thing for each of us, and for the world we live in. But it is important to remember that we often do not need our phones with us, regardless of how much it may feel like we do.

Charlotte Lieberman is a New York-based writer and editor. Charlotte graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University, where she majored in English. You can find her at @clieberwoman.

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/04/device-free-time-is-as-important-as-work-life-balance

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