High levels of stress affects our ability to think and perform at our best and can actually start to make some areas of our brain deteriorate. Fortunately, rest helps the brain ‘grow back’ to normal function. How much rest do we need? Coincidentally, it takes four weeks for some brain regions to grow back to normal size. If you haven’t taken four weeks holiday in a while, now could be a good time to start.
In a study of medical students who crammed for three weeks before final exams, it was shown that their cortex (the part of the brain that learns, controls behaviour and helps us to think critically) actually began to shrink. A smaller cortex means less ability to do all the things that make you valuable in work and life and help you achieve your goals.
The student’s brains eventually returned to normal size, but only after four weeks of rest. While some long weekends and a few short breaks here and there help us to recharge in the short term, our long term brain health and our ability to perform requires us to have some longer breaks as well.
Here are some tips for making this more effective:
1) Get away
If possible, get away. Away from work and away from home. This makes sure that there is no feeling of ‘oh, I really should be doing x’ around the home or home office
2) Turn off the office
Set up your auto-responder and divert your phone. You might still see your email on your smart phone, but if you’ve set up an auto-reply, then you set the expectation for people that you won’t be getting replying until you are back from holidays.
3) Spend time slowing down
Don’t go flat out every day on your holiday. Trying to cram things into your holiday can sometimes be as stressful as cramming them into your work day. Make sure you take time every day to stop and slow down. Maybe a long walk on the beach, or an hour reading a book – anything that takes your mind of
Take a look at your day and see what you complete. What we actually get done during our workday says a lot about where we focus our attention and what priorities we are carrying. The question is: do you like what your day says about you?
Our lives are filled with espoused priorities – the things we say are most important: things like our health, our families, being a good leader, being productive so that we can spend time on the most important things (whether that means work things or other things).
Do this quick exercise: make a list of just four things that are important to you – it can be at work or outside of work – it’s up to you. These should be the top four things that you feel are most important. Now, go back and have a look at your calendar or task list from yesterday (or the last work day). Take a good look at these. How many of these things actually helped you achieve those four ‘most important’ things?
If you’re like most people, this is a little frustrating. Quite often we find, through this exercise, that people spend a good deal of their day doing things that don’t get them closer to their goals. In some cases they do things that actually get them further away. In many cases, we can go the whole day (or whole week) completely neglecting one of those ‘most important’ things.
If you’re one of those people, take these simple steps to rethink the way you work and the things that get your attention:
1. Be clear about what is most important:
Think of the simple question that was asked earlier. What are the four things that are most important to you. If you had to think long and hard about that, then it is no wonder you don’t prioritise those things. When we are clear about what’s most important, then it becomes easier to factor those things into our days and weeks
2. Highlight simple behaviours that get you closer
Try to do something every day that impacts all four of the things on your list. These should be simple things that, when done regularly, will make a big impact in the long term. Don’t wait for opportunities to do huge things that make an enormous difference. Doing smaller things every day will eventually make a big impact.
3. Review every day for two weeks To embed the behaviours and keep you on track, review your most important things every day for two weeks. Answer this simple question for each one: ‘What did I do today that got me closer to …….?’
We all make choices every day about where to focus our time and energy. Sure, there will be things that you simply have to do, but there are always small choices along the way. Make sure you choose behaviours that will have the biggest impact on the most important things.
In a recent workshop, I asked all the leaders to spend some time getting to know people during their work week. When they came back to the follow-up session, they all reported that their staff looked suspicious and confused when they simply asked how they were and tried to have a normal conversation.
If you are a manager, here’s one of the most nerve-racking things you can do to your staff. Just walk up to them and say ‘How are you going?’
It seems innocuous enough. You might even be genuinely interested in their weekend or their wellbeing. But the reality is that the vast majority of employees think that if you are talking to them, then there’s a problem.
I have dealt with so many organisations, whose staff believe that the only reason management talks to them is when something is wrong. Is this the truth? I am sure it isn’t – I am sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle of what management thinks and what the staff think. Whether this is actually true or not, though, is inconsequential. Their perception is their reality.
The vast majority of staff think: ‘no news is good news’. If no-one’s talking to you, then things must be ok.
Why does this happen?
There are two reasons:
Firstly, leaders in general, don’t talk to their staff enough. And the staff are actually right – they hear more about the bad than the good. If they do a good job, they are doing their job, right? No need for praise when someone just ‘does their job’. But, if they do a bad job, there is a flurry of activity. Now, even if you don’t actually get angry at the team member, there is a still a flurry of activity trying to rectify the situation. Therefore the bad gets more attention than the good.
Secondly, humans are hard-wired to be more sensitive to negatives than positives. This is a throwback to our evolution. As a survival machine, I couldn’t afford to miss a threat – like a predator – but I didn’t see an apple tree, it wasn’t going to kill me. So we learnt to become hypersensitive to negatives.
So, here’s what you need to do:
1) Just talk
This seems like a waste of time to a lot of people, but you would be surprised at how much you find out by just having a normal conversation with someone. They might bring up work or problems they are facing, and that’s ok, but that shouldn’t be your agenda. Your agenda should be learning about your people, and in particular what they like and what motivates them. It’s a chance to build rapport – and we tend to trust people with whom we have a good rappport.
2) Praise the good – a lot
To combat our natural tendency to remember negatives and not positives, we need to make sure that positive feedback outweighs negative. Make a set time each week to go through the team’s accomplishments and give them a verbal pat on the back. Do this without any negatives at all. Save them for another time.
3) Analyse the negatives
When there is some negative feedback to deliver, force your staff to analyse. When we wwitch on the analytical brain, it dulls the noise from our emotional centre. Ask ‘how’ questions – these make us analyse. Avoid ‘why’ questions, because this analysis actually switches the emotional brain on and makes us ruminate.
These are three simple things that you can do to help your people see that management isn’t all about dealing out punishment and bad news. Next time you ask ‘How are you going?’ you might be greeted with a smile rather than fear.
To fight stress, the fuel we take in is critical. Here’s what we need: antioxidants to fight the damage that stress causes; omega 3 fats to rebuild cells and B-group vitamins to help produce calming chemicals that work in opposition to the stress response.
When we are under stress, we produce enormous amounts of energy and our cells (both body and brain) work overtime. This is why stress is exhausting. Just like a car, when we run our cells at high levels, high levels of by-products are also produced and it is these by-products (called free radicals) that eat away at our brain cells (and others) and hurt performance.
Antioxidants neutralise these free radicals. Foods high in antioxidants are coloured fruits and vegetables and berries. Article – 5 Foods Rich in Antioxidants
Omega 3 Fats:
Omega 3 Fats nourish our brains. After we are working overtime with the stress response, we need to repair the cells. We also need to make sure we have enough of the fuel that helps us to build new cell connections (this is learning) and lay down new behaviuors and habits. Omega 3 is that fuel.
Omega 3 Fats are found in some nuts, and fish such as salmon. Article – Best Omega 3 Foods
These vitamins provide the inputs from which our calming chemicals are made. Like anything, if you don’t have enough ingredients, you can’t make enough of what you need. B-Group Vitamins, especially B6 and B12 are the ingredients for serotonin and GABA – the calming brain chemicals that help us to switch off the stress response so we can get back to normal.
Milk and milk products are one source of vitamin B. Article – Foods that are high in Vitamin B
How often to you agree to something trivial, only to forget to actually follow through with it? Well, that trivial thing might have more impact than you think. Research shows that when we set expectations but don’t deliver, it has an enormously negative effect on people’s motivation.
We’ve all done it. We say “yes, sure. I’ll get onto that tomorrow.” And we forget. If you are a leader, then your ability to deliver on these commitments and expectations is paramount if you want your people to do their best work.
The Expectation Effect
Some recent research showed what happens to the dopamine levels inside our brains when we set expectations and if they are delivered. Remember, dopamine is the chemical that signals motivation, reward, makes us feel good, and keeps our attention. In short, it is THE performance chemical.
The researchers measure the level of dopamine in subjects under a number of conditions. When the researchers told people they were going to get a financial reward, the level of dopamine went up dramatically. Later, when those people received their financial reward, the level of dopamine went up again – to exactly the same level.
This shows us that expecting to get a reward is produces the exact same effect on our dopamine levels as actually getting the reward.
But what happened when the reward wasn’t given? In this case, the dopamine levels didn’t only drop back to baseline, nor did they stay the same as previously. When subjects found out that they weren’t ogint to get the expected reward, dopamine levels dropped off the scale. This represents a severe decline in motivation, attention and even problem solving, amongst other performance traits.
A little disappointment goes a long way
Most people think this only works for significant rewards, but it also happens for relatively ‘trivial’ things. Have you ever been waiting to cross the road at a set of lights, maybe you’re in a bit of a hurry, you press the button to get the walk signal and wait patiently. The other direction gets their walk signal and start crossing the road. Surely your turn’s next. The cars start racing through the intersection again for a while, then comes the red light. It should be your turn, but instead, somehow the other crosswalk lights up again and you are left waiting.
The expectation was that it was your turn to cross next. When it didn’t happen, you most likely got really irritated. This is a trivial thing, but it still set that dopamine response into action. If you were really in a hurry, chances are it also elicited some irrational behaviours and thinking.
And so it is with our people. Send that dopamine response on the downslide and you’ll find that they can’t do their best work – they might become irrational and exhibit some behaviours that aren’t productive.
Upholding expectations is a simple process that has very effective results. Stay on top of this if you want your people to do their best work.