How to Combat Burnout at Work

Employee burnout, the slow and steady physical and psychological fatigue and depletion caused by one’s work-life, reflects a fundamental challenge of working life.

How to nurse your exhaustion before it escalates into a burnout Burnout is characterized by reduced personal accomplishment, physical exhaustion and unremitting weariness, feelings of despair and helplessness, and cynical attitudes toward work, life, and people.

Many people work in situations that are conducive to burnout. The prevalence of demanding job characteristics and the pressures of collegial and supervisory relationships, together with inadequate job resources and motivational job characteristics can trigger burnout.

If you’re feeling worn out, overwhelmed, even depressed at work, here’s how to nurse your exhaustion before it escalates into a burnout:

  • Investigate ways to limit or disconnect exposure to stress-initiators. First, understand and rank all the triggers of stress. Reflect on your existing responsibilities and relationships at work, and identify any element that strains your enthusiasm or diminishes your energy.
  • Restructure your work. If you’re dealing with excessive job demands and are provided with inadequate job resources, try to discard low-gain and high-pain tasks and responsibilities. Ask for more resources, and reach out to people you find supportive and motivating. If all else fails, lower your standards.
  • Seek opportunities for psychological detachment from work. Stop thinking about work during your leisure time and disengage yourself mentally from work.
  • Nurture yourself. Your needs belong to the top. As you make your way through a busy life, don’t ignore prioritizing taking care of yourself. Don’t surrender, settle, or lose hope. Don’t compromise yourself and become what you can settle for.

Stop Trying to Prove Yourself to the World

When you assess your life and become conscious of how you look at the world and how you look at yourself, you may realize that you often obsess about what people think of you.

'Seeds for a Boundless Life' by Blanche Hartman (ISBN 1611802849) In the delightful and poignant Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, the Soto Zen teacher Blanche Hartman (1926–2016) explains that freeing yourself from being controlled by what other people think is the key to living life with a composed and peaceful mind:

I noticed somewhere in the early years of my [Buddhist] practice that my big effort was to get people to love me. I really wanted people to love me. And what I discovered in practice was that it really didn’t matter what other people thought. The one whose love and appreciation and approval I wanted was right here, and I wouldn’t give it to myself. What I found out was that no matter how much approval I got from outside, it didn’t count if I was not able to appreciate myself and be willing to be who I am. Whatever this is, it has becomes this over an accumulation of the actions of body, speech, and mind of more than eighty years. It’s my creation in a way. And yet it’s really helpful if I acknowledge it and befriend this being that I have created with the help of all the beings with whom I have shared my life.

Be Your Own Person

Stop trying to prove yourself to the naysayers and critics. Avoid assertive behavior and insubordinate conduct that intends to prove you’re worthy to others. You don’t need others’ approval.

Idea for Impact: Don’t fritter away precious time and energy seeking to prove your worth and worrying that you could fall short. The right people will love you for who you are.

Anger is the Hardest of the Negative Emotions to Subdue

Anger is the Hardest of the Negative Emotions to Subdue

The Lekha Sutta, an aphorism of the historical Buddha that has been preserved orally by his followers, identifies three distinct ways that anger manifests in individuals:

  • Firstly, the Buddha refers to the individual who is like an inscription on a rock. His anger stays with him for a long time; it does not war away by wind or water.
  • Secondly, the Buddha relates an individual who is habitually angered, but whose anger does not stay with him for a elongated time, to an inscription in soil that rubs away by wind or water.
  • Finally, the Buddha identifies an individual who is like water. When he is spoken to or treated rudely, he stays impervious, pleasant, and courteous—in the vein of an inscription in water that disappears right away.

Here’s a translation of the Lekha Sutta from the Pali by the eminent American Buddhist monk and prolific author Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

'Dhammapada: A Translation' by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (ISBN B000K6C8NG) And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, & courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, & courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.

Idea for Impact: Learn to Corral Your Anger and Manage Your Emotions

Like everything else in the world, anger surfaces and passes away, restoring your previous sense of calm and stillness. Not identifying the nature of anger and allowing it to take over your state of being can lead to disastrous outcomes. Verse 222 of the Dhammapada (tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu) states,

When anger arises,
whoever keeps firm control
as if with a racing chariot:
him
I call a master charioteer.
    Anyone else,
    a rein-holder—
    that’s all.

Anger destroys careers. It destroys relationships. As long as you lack the capacity to withstand negative emotions such as anger, you will be at a marked disadvantage in life.

How to Guard Against Anger Erupting

The Destructive Effects of Anger are Easily Recognized

Most people who have problems managing their anger hate themselves for losing their temper but can’t bring themselves to prevent their flare-ups.

'The Dhammapada: Teachings of the Buddha' by Gil Fronsdal (ISBN 1590306066) Here’s an appropriate reading from Chapter 17, “Anger”, of the Dhammapada (trans. Gil Fronsdal), a profoundly insightful compilation of the historical Buddha‘s teachings:

Guard against anger erupting in your body;
Be restrained with your body.
Letting go of bodily misconduct,
Practice good conduct with your body.

Guard against anger erupting in your speech;
Be restrained with your speech.
Letting go of verbal misconduct,
Practice good conduct with your speech.

Guard against anger erupting in your mind;
Be restrained with your mind.
Letting go of mental misconduct,
Practice good conduct with your mind.

The wise are restrained in body,
Restrained in speech.
The wise are restrained in mind.
They are fully restrained.

Discover Ways to Work with Anger and Other Negative Emotions

In its many forms, anger can be extremely energetic. When even a mild annoyance arises due to some apparent injustice, it can quickly grow and overwhelm you. Your inner peace is lost instantly.

When anger surfaces, it usually takes you over by the time you come to observe it. Your mind gets infuriated under the direct influence of aggression and can tempt you to act impulsively through aggressive words or actions—which consecutively feed even more anger.

The mind’s furor intensifies until you are able to lash out like a cornered cat. Even if you can repress your emotions in the heat of the moment, anger can manifest as a subtle simmering of resentment that you carry along with you for some interval of time.

How to guard against anger erupting in your body, your speech, and your mind

How to Refrain from Erupting in Anger

The most effective way to deal with anger in yourself is by not disregarding or repressing it. Science and experience have shown how poorly “anger containment” strategies work.

When anger rises past a threshold, it requires a reasonable and pleasing expression—an outlet, if you will—to be diffused. The key to expelling anger in a way that must feel good and fair is to invoke your calm, wise self and put out some of the fire of the emotion before moving forward.

To prevent anger from flaring out of control, practice the following first-aid system.

  1. Make a list of what triggers your anger. Most people get angry under predictable circumstances—when faced with situations that they see as unpleasant and unfair. Record events that trigger your anger: being insulted, being blamed unjustly, deceit or laziness in others, anything. Commit them to memory.
  2. When you identify a trigger—when you start to feel angry at someone or at something—induce yourself to immediately take a few deep breaths. As the Founding Father and President Thomas Jefferson suggested, “when angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.” Preferably, break away from the situation for a minute or two: step away, go get water, or go the bathroom. Removing yourself from the offending environment will buy you a few moments to decide how you want to respond.
  3. When you can separate yourself from the cause of anger, take a deep breath, and ask yourself if whatever you’re getting worked up over is a priority. Is the issue worth getting upset over? Put your irate-self wise by posing the following “5-5-5” questions:
    • Will this matter in 5 days?
    • Will this matter in 5 months?
    • Will this matter in 5 years?

The “5-5-5” questions will prevent you from being caught up in the little trivialities of life. Remind yourself how good you’ll feel if you respond as your best, wise self and how bad you’ll feel if you rashly fly off the handle.

Only when you’re feeling less agitated and more calm, only when your sensible mind is back, can you assess the triggers of anger rationally, and take action in an prudent way.

Idea for Impact: Guard Against Anger Erupting in Your Body, Your Speech, and Your Mind

The antidote to anger and aggression is patience. Patience has a great deal to do with being mindful about the storms of distress and refraining from doing or saying anything, no matter how strong the urge to do so may be. Reflect before you respond.

The more you can manage your emotions, the more effective you’ll be.

Death Should Not Be Feared

The Flickering Flame of Consciousness Will Go Out One Day

A friend was recently racked with melancholy: in the last few weeks, five of his family members and friends were diagnosed with debilitating diseases or cancer. This followed the passing away of a dear friend earlier this year. Like everybody else, facing the decline and death of the near and dear compelled my friend to contemplate life and confront his own mortality.

Convention can bind us to the notion that death is frightful and should not be talked about. However, death needs to be discussed—and contemplated—all the time, not in terms of the fear of life but as a reminder of the brevity of life. The great English author Graham Greene (1904-91) wrote in the novel Travels With My Aunt (1972,)

You will think how every day you are getting a little closer to death. It will stand there as close as the bedroom wall. And you’ll become more and more afraid of the wall because nothing can prevent you coming nearer and nearer to it ever night while you try to sleep…

Death Should Not Be Feared; It’s an Essential Progression of Life

When we’re forced to confront death, we resist doing so. Death is a very natural phenomenon just like birth, and there’s no need to shy away from it. In his famous 2005 Stanford graduation address, Steve Jobs (1955-2011) addressed his pancreatic cancer and his brush with death:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Accept the impermanence of health and life. Appreciate and live each moment wisely.

Bertrand Russell’s Evocative Reflection on Transience and Morality

The celebrated British mathematician, political activist, and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872—1970) wrote a beautiful reflection on death and life in his essay “How To Grow Old.” The metaphors evoked by the way that Russell portrayed human existence “like a river” are overpowering.

The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Idea for Impact: The Only Thing We Really Get to Influence About Death is the Course of Our Approach to Death

We may look at death and decline with fear instead of anticipation, but the alternative to death could truly be worse: boredom and stagnation.

Fortunately, though death and decline may be unavoidable, how we look at it is totally up to us.

Every brush with death and serious illness should remind you to accept the impermanence of health and life. It should help you appreciate and live each moment wisely. It should serve to remind you to cherish everything with you while you have them.

Release Your Cows … Be Happy

Attachments are Commonly the Cause of Much Suffering

In response to my article on tempering our expectations and avoiding disappointments, a dear friend inquired,

I follow the idea that when one has no control over a situation, one should not have their desired outcome be their expectations or it will lead to disappointment. Ex: I want my favorite sports team to win, but I am not a player who can change the outcome.

But where does this leave someone with a grand vision or a 10-year plan? We all start out having to learn, having to grow, not having the answers, having to “figure it out”. Do you tell a young doctor “you can’t cure cancer”?

How do you bridge from this idea of expectations to one that explains how one can navigate through life and achieve great accomplishments, like finding a cure for cancer?

Attachments are Commonly the Cause of Much Suffering

We Suffer—and Make Our Loved Ones Suffer—when We Try to Hold on to Things

Life is enjoyable, joyful, fascinating, and purposeful because of the attachments we form. Nevertheless, Buddhism teaches us, the loss of these very attachments is the root cause of the worst pains in life. Even the realization of the prospective loss of a cherished attachment—a person, pet, feeling, hope, ambition, or an inanimate object—can make us suffer.

'The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 0767903692) The Buddha taught that all conditioned phenomena (everything we can know through our senses) are impermanent and transient. Everything we come across and all our “encounters” end in eventual separation. Expounding this foremost ingredient of the Buddhist thinking, the renowned Vietnamese-French Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926) narrates a Buddhist parable in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

One day, after the Buddha and a group of monks finished eating lunch mindfully together, a farmer, very agitated, came by and asked, “Monks, have you seen my cows? I don’t think I can survive so much misfortune.” The Buddha asked him, “What happened” and the man said, “Monks, this morning all twelve of my cows ran away. And this year my whole crop of sesame plants was eaten by insects!” The Buddha said, “Sir, we have not seen your cows. Perhaps they have gone in the other direction.” After the farmer went off in that direction, the Buddha turned to his Sangha and said, “Dear friends, do you know you are the happiest people on Earth? You have no cows or sesame plants to lose.” We always try to accumulate more and more, and we think these ‘cows’ are essential for our existence. In fact, they may be the obstacles that prevent us from being happy. Release your cows and become a free person. Release your cows so you can be truly happy.

In a Graceful State, There is No Clinging, No Expectation, and No Desire

Though somewhat pedestrian, there is a profound wisdom in developing a sense of nonattachment (Sanskrit: upādāna.) Take for example our personal relationships. They are always a challenge because we keep wanting others—family, friends, and colleagues, even pets—to be who we want them to be for us. But if we can learn to accept them for who they are and let go of our conceptions of their perfection for us, our relationships become more straightforward and richer.

Often, the Buddhist concept of nonattachment is misunderstood as “non-loving” and relinquishment. The “absence of craving” (alobha) is the opposite of “craving” or “greed” (lobha). Nonattachment is not to abandon our loved ones, but to dispose of tendencies of self-protective clinging that preclude us from treasuring our loved ones more unreservedly and unconditionally.

All conditioned phenomenon are subject to emerging and passing. The more we attach to things that will change and pass away, the more we will suffer. The more expectations we have—for material success, for comfort, for exclusively happy relationships—the greater our inevitable disappointments.

Idea for Impact: Let Go, Be Happy

Release Your Cows » No Clinging, No Expectation, and No Desire Learn to let go of your metaphorical cows—those things you’re attached to. Only when you can get out of your own way, you can allow the world and its riches to work their magic. Embrace that prosperity.

Remember, nonattachment is neither indifference nor self-denial. Accepting the nature of our clinging and attachments in their true and transient nature eases our fears, opens our hearts, and benefits others and ourselves. Letting go of attachments is the secret to really enjoying life and loving others. It is freedom. It is nirvāṇa.

The More You Can Manage Your Emotions, the More Effective You’ll Be

The More You Can Manage Your Emotions, the More Effective You'll Be

Understanding the deep-rooted basis of our negative emotions and their destructive consequences can help us navigate the turmoil that sorrow, love, anger, greed, envy, pride, and fear can invoke in our lives.

American Philosopher William James on Emotions The pioneering American psychologist William James argued in his famous 1884 essay “What is an Emotion?” that emotions and their effects on our attitudes and our behaviors is bidirectional. That is to say, “bodily disturbances” are manifestations of our emotions and those reverberations are really the fount of the emotions themselves.

Our natural way of thinking about these standard emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion. Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other, that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be. Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we could not actually feel afraid or angry.

“Geological Upheavals of Thought”

American Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Upheavals of Thought I’ve been reading American philosopher Martha Nussbaum‘s outstanding—albeit demanding—book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. The initial chapters contemplate the power of emotions and the manifestation of emotions in all aspects of our thought stream.

One of the central positions of Nussbaum’s book is that our sentiments and emotions spring from internal narratives—the stories we ponder within ourselves about who we are and how we feel. Emotions are acknowledgments of our indigence and lack of self-reliance.

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

Emotions … involve judgments about important things, judgments in which, appraising an external object as salient for our own well-being, we acknowledge our own neediness and incompleteness before parts of the world that we do not fully control.

Emotions should be understood as “geological upheavals of thought”: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control—and acknowledge thereby their neediness before the world and its events.

Human beings … are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. This means that they frequently learn to reject their own vulnerability and to suppress awareness of the attachments that entail it. We might also say … that they are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and who take pride in themselves to the extent to which they have allegedly gotten clear of vulnerability.

'Upheavals of Thought' by Martha Nussbaum (ISBN 0521462029) Nussbaum notes that our strong emotions stem from our intolerance and from the disruption to our internal narratives about what comprises perfection:

The emotions of the adult life sometimes feel as if they flood up out of nowhere, in ways that don’t match our present view of our objects or their value. This will be especially true of the person who maintains some kind of false self-defense, and who is in consequence out of touch with the emotions of neediness and dependence, or of anger and aggression, that characterize the true self.

Idea for Impact: People who lack the capacity to withstand psychological distresses such as anger, fear, frustration, and sadness are at a marked disadvantage in life. Learn to manage your negative emotions.

Learn to Manage Your Negative Emotions and Yourself

Negative emotions not only take their toll on our mind, body, and spirit, but also hinder your liberation from suffering, according to the Buddhist way of life.

People who lack the capacity to withstand psychological distresses such as anger, fear, frustration, and sadness are at a marked disadvantage in life. When faced with life’s unceasing challenges, they respond with greater emotional distress. Worse yet, rather than deal with the challenge at hand wisely, they engage in destructive behaviors, often with verbal and physical aggression toward themselves and others.

Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati on resilience and equanimity

There’s great strength in learning to divorce yourself from negative emotions

People with lower tolerance for distress usually spin their wheels and find as many escapes—including substance abuse and binging—as their troubled minds can conjure up. Instead of allowing themselves a modest amount of grieving, rebounding quickly, and moving on with their lives, they feel victimized. They avoid people and situations that may provoke frustration, discomfort, embarrassment, and uncertainty. In due course, their mind, body, and spirit start to atrophy.

Speaking of the need to expand the human capacity of resilience and equanimity and learn from adversity to achieve success, the renowned Hindu spiritual teacher Swami Chinmayananda Saraswati (1916–93) once said, “The secret of success behind all men of achievement, lies in the faculty of applying their intellect in all their activities, without being mislead by any surging emotions or feelings. The secret of success in life lies in keeping the head above the storms of the heart.”

Having a propensity to react negatively will hurt your career and personal life

When the celebrated American tennis player Andre Agassi (who was infamous for his temperaments) was asked in a Harvard Business Review interview if he learned to manage his emotions when he played, Agassi replied,

I’ve seen people use emotion, positive or negative, as a tool, and it works for them. But typically, the more you can remove emotion, the more efficient you’ll be. You can be an inch from winning but still miles away if you allow emotion to interfere with the last step. So you have to accept the weather, heat, rain, stops and starts, the line calls, whatever your opponent is giving you, however tired or injured you are. There are so many things that can distract you from taking care of business. The only thing you can control is your engagement.

Equanimity is thus at the center of Buddhist practice

When you learn to better understand, tolerate, and harness negative emotions, you become empowered.

Learn to manage your negative emotions and yourself. From Buddhist perspective, learn to thoughtfully attend to your negative emotions with an emphasis on neither suppressing them nor acting them out. According to verse 4.34 in Udāna, eighty stories that contain eighty utterances of the Buddha,

Whose mind is like rock, steady, unmoved,
dispassionate for things that spark passion,
unangered by things that spark anger:
When one’s mind is developed like this,
from where can there come suffering & stress?

Equanimity is thus at the center of Buddhist practice, which prescribes many forms of disciplined practices to overcoming the harmful effects of destructive emotions. According to the Therīgāthā (“verses of the female elders”,) a set of principles composed by senior nuns during the lifetime of the Buddha,

If your mind becomes firm like a rock
And no longer shakes
In a world where everything is shaking,
Your mind will be your greatest friend
And suffering will not come your way.

Idea for Impact: Negative emotions and the destructive behaviors they breed are essentially always wrong—they are psychological errors you’ll do well to eliminate in yourself.

Book Summary of ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload’

'The Organized Mind' by Daniel Levitin (ISBN 0147516315) In the best-selling The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that the problem with the proliferation of information isn’t as much about the storage of the information as it is about organizing and retrieving that information. The human brain is incredible at storing data; the challenge is summoning up the right stuff at the right time, while not being distracted by the rest.

To be efficacious, we not only need to limit the information we consume (by simplifying, limiting our sources, quitting social media, taking digital Sabbaths, etc.) but also need to develop systems to take the strain off our befuddled brains. To do this, Levitin says, we must organize our personal environments to better channel our brains’ unique approach to doing things.

According to The Organized Mind, the trick to efficiently organize and manage information is to “shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.” Levitin uses the latest brain science to propose “organization principles”—methods and disciplines to regain a sense of mastery over the way we can organize our time, home, and office.

Organization Principle #1: Conquer information overload

The information age is drowning us with an exceptional deluge of data. Simultaneously, we’re expected to make more decisions quickly than ever before. To survive information overload, Levitin suggests:

  • Be much more discerning at what you allow in. Not all input is worthy of being let in. Exercise control and discipline regarding your input choices. Don’t keep what you can’t use.
  • Develop and put into practice an organization system that works for you: to-do lists, 3×5 cards, etc. Whatever that system is, it needs to offload, classify, and be easy to retrieve. A mislabeled item or misplaced location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  • Organize in all areas and facets of your life. “Too much stuff” is fatiguing, no matter which part of your life has the “too much stuff” problem.

Organization Principle #2: Quit multi-tasking and become fanatical about focused work

Quit Multi-tasking Levitin’s pet hate is multitasking, which he describes as “the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy.” Our brains are not designed for multitasking; he writes, “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

  • Allow no distractions when you are in “focused work mode.”
  • Limit the interruption caused by email, text messages, visitors, and callers.

Organization Principle #3: Rest more, work less

In our chronically sleep-deprived society, sleep deficit is a performance killer. The general effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance are well-known: scientists have documented that when we are sleep-deprived our immune system suffers, our thinking and judgments are impaired, and our fuse becomes very short.

Studies have found that productivity goes up when the number of hours per week of work goes down, strongly suggesting that adequate leisure and refueling time pays off for employers and for workers. Overwork—and its companion, sleep deprivation—have been shown to lead to mistakes and errors that take longer to fix than the overtime hours worked. A sixty-hour work week, although 50% longer than a forty-hour work week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of overtime to accomplish one hour of work. A ten-minute nap can be equivalent to an extra hour and a half of sleep at night.

  • A calm, well-rested mind is a fruitful mind. Don’t overlook sleep, rest, and vacation as stress busters.

Organization Principle #4: Organize your physical environment into categories so it helps your mind

Organize Your Physical Environment One principle that Levitin emphasizes repeatedly is “offloading the information from your brain and into the environment” so you can “use the environment itself to remind you of what needs to be done.” One appealing example he offers is, “If you’re afraid you’ll forget to buy milk on the way home, put an empty milk carton on the seat next to you in the car or in the backpack you carry to work on the subway (a note would do, of course, but the carton is more unusual and so more apt to grab your attention).”

  • Levitin also emphasizes the importance of putting things away in their designated places, because there’s a special part of our brain dedicated to remembering the spatial location of things.
  • Neuroscientists have proved that the human brain is good at creating and thinking in categories. “The fact that our brains are inherently good at creating categories is a powerful lever for organizing our lives.” Further, “productivity and efficiency depend on systems that help us organize through categorization.”

Organization Principle #5: Spend only as much time on decisions, tasks, and actions as they are worth.

Significantly, Levitin suggests the practice of satisficing—a decision-making approach that aims for acceptable or “good enough” results, rather than the optimal solutions:

Satisficing [is] a term coined by the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, one of the founders of the fields of organization theory and information processing. Simon wanted a word to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. For things that don’t matter critically, we make a choice that satisfies us and is deemed sufficient. You don’t really know if your dry cleaner is the best—you only know that they’re good enough. And that’s what helps you get by. You don’t have time to sample all the dry cleaners within a twenty-four-block radius of your home. … Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior; it prevails when we don’t waste time on decisions that don’t matter, or more accurately, when we don’t waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction. … Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more; rather, they are people who are happy with what they already have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it.

Organization Principle #6: A Zen mind is an organized mind

Conquer Information Overload Beyond the productivity hacks and the tweaks, Levitin suggests a spiritual composure in favor of mental organization. He advocates practicing Zen-like mindfulness not only to relieve the anxiety that comes with worries over undone tasks and unease over future uncertainties, but also to allot more of your limited attention to the present moment.

  • Instead of seeking to cope with information overload and travel at warp speed, focus on the things you can do to put yourself on the right path to better wellbeing—one thought, one bite, one task, one project, and one breath at a time.

Recommendation: Read Daniel Levitin’s ‘The Organized Mind’

In today’s “age of information overload” you may find yourself continuously distracted and swamped with demands for multitasking. Daniel Levitin’s fascinating The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains how to organize your mind, systematize your home and office, and gain control over your life.

Even if The Organized Mind is somewhat meandering and ill-organized (which is ironic for a book getting organized,) Levitin discusses noteworthy capabilities and limitations of the human brain and how to effectively deal with them.

Idea for Impact: Develop a comprehensive plan to audit, simplify, and structure how information flows through your life. Develop personal habits and organizational systems to lead your mind effortlessly to good decision-making. As Levitin suggests, “The task of organizational systems is to provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.”

The Gift of the Present Moment

People Tend to Live a Fantasy … They are Unable to Remain in the Present Moment

Most people tend to focus on things that aren’t happening right now. They get easily distracted. Through their bodies are present physically, their minds are elsewhere. They become easily absorbed in the past, get depressed, and compulsively pick over the past with the purpose of learning their lessons. Or else, they project themselves into a hypothetical future, get anxious, and worry about things that may never occur.

'Present Moment Wonderful Moment' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 1888375612) According to the renowned Vietnamese-French Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (b.1926), life can be found only in the present moment. In his Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, a persistently insightful discourse on the Zen-Buddhist philosophy of dwelling in the present moment and living a meaningful life, Hanh writes,

When we are driving, we tend to think of arriving, and we sacrifice the journey for the sake of the arrival. But life is to be found in the present moment, not in the future. In fact, we may suffer more after we arrive at our destination. If we have to talk of a destination, what about our final destination, the graveyard? We do not want to go in the direction of death; we want to go in the direction of life. But where is life? Life can be found only in the present moment. Therefore, each mile we drive, each step we take, has to bring us to the present moment. This is the practice of mindfulness.

When we see a red light or a stop sign, we can smile at it and thank it, because it is a bodhisattva helping us to return to the present moment. The red light is a bell of mindfulness. We may have thought of it as an enemy, preventing us from achieving our goal. But now we know the red light is our friend, helping resist rushing and calling us to return to the present moment where we can meet with life, joy and peace.

The prominence on living the present moment is perhaps the defining characteristic of the Zen philosophy. This attitude tries to get you to understand that life exists only in the present, or nowhere at all. There’s no purpose in getting anywhere, if, when you get there, all you do is think about yet another future moment.

The Gift of the Present Moment

Reclaim and Expand the Present Moment

'Calming Your Anxious Mind' by Jeffrey Brantley (ISBN 1572244879) Life is only available in the present moment. The past is just a memory and the future is merely a projection. The American psychiatrist Jeffery Brantley writes about the importance of awakening to the present moment by way of discipline and deliberate practice in Calming Your Anxious Mind:

Everything happens in the present moment. It is in the present moment, the now, that you live. All of experience, whether it occurs inside your skin or outside your skin, is happening in this moment. In order to live more fully, to meet the stressors and challenges of life (including fear, panic, and anxiety) more effectively, and to embrace the wonder and awe of life more completely, it is fundamental that each of us learns to connect with and dwell in the present moment.

To teach yourself the art of attention and presence is both a difficult and beautiful undertaking. The habits of inattention and absence are strong, yet the experience of life, moment by moment, is precious.

Bear in Mind, Your Present Life-span is Only One Moment Long. So Live It Now.

'Fear Essential Wisdom' by Thich Nhat Hanh (ISBN 0062004727) In Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that mindfulness lets us become “aware of what is going on in the present moment—in our bodies, in our feelings, in our perceptions, in the world.” Hanh advocates grounding ourselves in the present moment via mindfulness meditation:

When we are not fully present, we are not really living. We’re not really there, either for our loved ones or for ourselves. If we’re not there, then where are we? We are running, running, running, even during our sleep. We run because we’re trying to escape from our fear.

We cannot enjoy life if we spend our time and energy worrying about what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow. If we’re afraid all the time, we miss out on the wonderful fact that we’re alive and can be happy right now. In everyday life, we tend to think that happiness is only possible in the future. We’re always looking for “right” conditions that we don’t yet have to make us happy. We ignore what is happening right in front of us. We look for something that will make us feel more solid, more safe, more secure. But we’re afraid all the time of what the future will bring—afraid we’ll lose our jobs, our possessions, the people around us whom we love. So we wait and hope for that magical moment—always sometime in the future—when everything will be as we want it to be. We forget that life is available only in the present moment. The Buddha said, “It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have.”

Establish Yourself in the Present Moment

Idea for Impact: Whatever adverse happened or whatever bad looms, don’t let it spoil the present moment.

Learn how to pay attention to the present moment rather than getting tied up in negative thinking about the past or the future.

When you establish yourself in the present moment, you can live life and make the most of those stimulating, refreshing, and nourishing elements of life that are always within you and around you. As the American psychologist and yogic scholar Richard Miller said, “In the end, we realize how simple life is when we accept this moment, just as it is, without pretending to be other than who we are.”