I am delighted to share this guest post from the writer, Rosie Dub. In this post she explores the relationship between creativity, and change. She shows how fear can block the process, while an attitude of playfulness can enhance it. Do enjoy this special posting!
In the antipodes it is spring, a time of rejuvenation as life bursts forth once more, after the dormant phase of winter. I sit at my writing desk watching the buds forming and the birds collecting materials for their nests. It has been a tough winter, with its short cold days and long, even colder nights, but now the light is returning and my spirits are lifting. It has been tough in other ways too, with family illnesses and other stresses taking my attention, filling my heart with pain and shredding my nerves. But despite all this, I have emerged blinking from the cocoon of winter, clutching a new novel and sporting a slightly broader waistline (an unfortunate side-effect).
My experience with the creative process
For many years I have been intrigued by the nature of creativity which is hardly surprising, considering I work as a writer, a mentor, a creative writing teacher and an editor. In these capacities I am engaging with the creative writing process on a daily basis – both my own and others. I am intrigued too by the way my access to the creative process has always seemed to ebb and flow. For much of my life, I felt like a passive being who either received inspiration or did not. At first, anything could get in the way of my creativity: a fleeting mood, a sunny day, an oven to clean . . . but I gradually learned that inspiration is only a small part of the creative process. The rest of it is dedication, which in translation means hard work. I got better at it, turning up at my desk whether I wanted to or not, struggling with the process on some days, flowing with it on others. Even so, most of the time there was something blocking that writing process, a barrier through which my creativity was ‘squeezed’, rather than a free-flowing space. As a consequence, my writing felt restrained and often forced but I knew that if I could step through this barrier, everything would change.
Obstacles to the creative process
Then this difficult winter arrived, bringing with it every obstacle to writing imaginable. My emotions were running high with anxiety, stress, grief, anger . . . I felt terrified, out of control and unable to focus my mind. I couldn’t sit down to do my usual meditation without being overwhelmed by all kinds of thoughts looping inside my head, to which my emotions would respond obligingly, until I was forced to leap out of my chair and do something else, anything to alleviate the anxiety, and often the wrong thing – more tea, a glass of wine, too much chocolate (hence the slightly broader waist line), unnecessary fussing, useless communications which only served to make things worse, wasting energy on tasks that weren’t important . . . The further I slipped into reactionary behaviour, the more impossible it became to access my ‘toolkit’, those techniques that help me to stay on track: meditation, walks, yoga, nourishing food . . . it all seemed too much to bother with. My fear had pushed me into self-sabotage mode and as a consequence any sense of self control or peace was lost. I couldn’t even sit at my desk, let alone write.
Common misperceptions about creativity
Over the years, I have counselled many people about writer’s block and helped them to find their voices and their stories. In that time, I’ve lost count of how often I have heard people assure me that they’re not creative, when in reality the issue lies somewhere else.
‘I wouldn’t know where to start,’ they say.
‘I don’t use my imagination,’ they say.
Or worse, ‘I don’t have an imagination.’
‘Oh yes you do,’ I generally respond. ‘You’ve just imagined yourself into being someone without an imagination.’
And that’s the key. It’s all about where we send our imagination and what we choose to focus on. It’s in our hands. Every single moment we have a choice. Do we make that choice with fear or with joy? Do we immerse ourselves in a task with fear or joy? The difference is immense, as I discovered for myself this past winter when I found my imagination fuelled solely by fear and as a consequence, lost my capacity to write.
The importance of playfulness and how easily it can be crushed
It has taken me many years to understand that playfulness is an important element in creativity. According to Jung, ‘the creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity’. Yet for most of us, our sense of playfulness is crushed as we progress from childhood to adolescence and eventually adulthood. Much of that loss is due to the way we are schooled and the expectations of society. We are given structures and rules that restrict how we approach creativity and condition our thinking. ‘That isn’t how it should be done,’ they tell us over and over again. We are given gold stars for compliance not creativity. We are given answers not taught how to question. We are trained to copy not to create, and even worse, we are told that creativity is not for everyone.
The consequences of losing our playfulness
Playfulness is light hearted, it involves a lifting of expectations around outcomes and methods and for most of us access to it requires a shift in our thinking, a deprogramming of sorts. If there is too much at stake . . . if we have strict views about how something must be brought into being. . . if we are afraid of failing . . . if we are stressed and anxious . . . then we cannot access playfulness and as a result, we are no longer able to create joyfully. Instead our choices arise from fear and conditioning and our creations are shadowed with negativity. We get trapped by the enemies of the creative process: cynicism, depression, mind chatter, anxiety, perfectionism . . . and more. The list is long but the common element is fear.
Re-engaging with our playfulness
Last winter when I found myself trapped in fear and anxiety it was an idea that rescued me. One that hovered in the back of my mind trying to get my attention, until in a rare moment of peace, I finally listened. Only then was the idea able to find its voice and nudge me into action; I made a note or two, a title emerged, characters formed and the idea grew, gaining momentum quickly. When my thoughts and feelings spiralled into negativity as they often did, I practised shifting my thoughts to this new idea, and most of the time it worked. I was still incapable of meditating and yet my writing time became a meditation of sorts. It became my ‘tuning in place’. No matter how fearful I was or how loopy my thinking, I found that I could immerse myself in my novel and immediately shift into a positive space. It was hard work, and I sometimes struggled to concentrate (hence the chocolate), but for the most part I was able to maintain focus, and work from a joyful, playful space, trusting the process to unfold as it should and crucially, letting go of fear. In so doing, I was able to complete a novel in just a few months, and for the first time, step across the barrier that has been in place within me for as long as I can remember.
Creativity permeates every aspect of our lives
As I sit here at my desk, bathed in the spring sunlight and feeling grateful that the difficult winter has passed, I realise that creativity and change go hand in hand. Without movement nothing can exist, for the creative process is fundamental to life. It’s all around us, embedded in the ebbs and flows of the seasons, the dance of the planets in their orbits, in the major turning points in our lives. But it is also embedded in the minutiae of life. Whether we are writing a novel, creating a business, cooking a meal, working in our garden . . . we are creating. Each moment of each day we create new possibilities and new directions in our lives. Everything we do is creative and every moment provides us with a choice as to how to implement that creativity. When we turn our backs on fear and free ourselves of our conditioned thinking, we can move into a playful flow that enables rather than resists and that imbues each task with joy. In this way we can gradually take our meditation into our daily lives and live it, thus consciously and playfully engaging with our creativity from one moment to the next.
Dr Rosie Dub is a novelist, mentor, teacher, manuscript assessor and facilitator of the Centre for Story, a platform for stories that enable positive change in individuals and societies. Rosie has spent many years researching the nature of story and the role it plays as a transformational tool for individuals and cultures, and she shares her discoveries in her blog and the wide range of writing workshops and courses she runs in the UK and Australia. (www.centreforstory.com)
We hear a lot about increasing levels of stress in the workplace. It seems that now almost 20% of workers in Europe say they experience stress in their job. I recently witnessed an incident with a flight attendant and a difficult passenger. It struck me how keeping your cool can come at a high price. Looking for ways to ease a stressful situation could work well with less cost.
The incident that caused stress
It was on a return flight to Amsterdam from the UK that I overheard a fellow-passenger giving a flight attendant a really bad time. It was hard to catch the full story from where I was sitting but it involved the passenger asking for hot water in a plastic, see-through cup. Apparently cups of this sort are not safe to hold hot water and the only alternative was the purchase—for three euros—of a polystyrene cup. Not surprisingly the passenger found this rather excessive. What was more surprising was his response—he proceeded to cross-examine the flight attendant in increasingly aggressive tones, applying the kind of ruthless logic that would not have been out of place in a courtroom.
The reaction to the stress
The flight attendant did his utmost best. He remained polite, consistent and managed not to react to the escalating tone of complaint and anger that he was subjected to. He had a kind of party line that he could fall back on, ‘Sorry sir, this is company policy, I am not allowed to give you this cup…’ and so on. After some time, he managed to get away and push his trolley on to the next customer. As he came past me our eyes met and I murmured, ‘breathe’.He looked at my rather desperately but did not respond.
The passenger’s final attempt to get his own way was daring—he simply marched up to the refreshment trolley and started all over again. He returned to his seat carrying a bottle of cold water.
The cost of that reaction
I happened to be one of the last off the ‘plane and exchanged a few words with the male flight attendant. Remembering my attitude of sympathy—but not my advice to focus on his breath—he asked me what I thought of the sort of thing they had to put up with. During our short conversation my earlier hunch was confirmed—when dealing with a stressful situation he relied on his determination to stay professional, rather than adopting any strategy tomanage his stress. Instead of looking for ways to ease the stressful situation, he gritted his teeth in the face of trouble. He took up the burden as a way of demonstrating to himself how efficient he was at enduring one of the downsides of his job. It would probably have been how he was trained.
3 ways to ease a stressful situation
Here are a few things that the flight attendant could have tried:
1. Humour helps to bring ease to the stressful situation
When he saw that the passenger was not impressed by the company policy, the flight attendant could have used humour. There is something farcical about two grown men arguing about a cup of hot water. With a bit of skill, he could have tried to get the passenger to see things from his point of view and to laugh with him.
2. Putting himself in the passenger’s shoes would have brought ease to the stressful situation
I found myself having some sympathy with the passenger, although I did not care for his aggression. It is galling to be told that a seemingly simple request cannot be granted. No-one likes to be managed and the passenger could probably feel that that was what was happening to him.
Because the flight attendant was focusing on containing the situation, he did not appear to take the time to see it from the passenger’s point of view. Nor did he really take the time to address the needs of the passenger.
Both men adopted opposing sides of the situation, without trying to find common ground. One of the most direct ways to disarm a situation is to realise that all the participants are just trying to manage their day. They would like their day to go well but could be dealing with all kinds of hassles along the way. We all have this in common.
3. Working with his emotions to bring ease to the stressful situation
The flight attendant had his emotions firmly under control but that was part of the problem. He was obviously challenged by the passenger and yet maintained the same party line throughout. Being able to notice when your emotions are triggered and then working with what you noticeis a more sustainable way of being with emotions.
When we are in the grip of emotions it can be hard to remember that they will pass, that they are not solid and real. Mindfulnesshelps us to be able to identify an emotion, to acknowledge it and to gently let it go. It helps us to respect it but not to take it too seriously. When we start to identify with the emotion and use it to bolster our position then we are creating a possible trigger for stress.
The kind of stress I witnessed on this occasion was not major, but it was nasty. The man I spoke to looked very tired by the end of the flight and I doubt if it was his last of the day. The tension he was holding looked like it was heading towards a stiff drink and a good moan—not so bad in small doses but not a good long-term strategy for stress-management.
If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.
I am delighted to welcome back Bhavna Vaish with another guest blog. When people get into meditation, and a different way of approaching life, they often want to quit their job and work for themselves. Hey—it’s what I did! Bhavna runs through some important practical advice about how to make this transition in the best possible way.If you missed her previous post, then check it out,How to Fund an Alternative Lifestyle.
The reasons are many. But to be completely honest about it – that day had been a long time coming.
Heck, I was ready to stop working even at the age of 25. I wanted to do ‘my own thing’. I dreamed of the freedom it afforded, of being accountable to myself. But it took me a whole bunch of years before I could actually quit.
Today my blog is my work and my job. Though it doesn’t quite yet, I am hoping that one day it will graduate from being my passion project to also being my main source of income.
Do you want to quit your job?
Are you getting ready to quit your workplace and start your own enterprise? If you are looking to replace a salary with income from your own venture then welcome to the tribe of people who have chosen to lead a life outside the cube.
Also, you need to read this.
Think you have saved enough to stop working. Think again.
Did you know that as your own boss you are likely to be paying more bills than when you were employed?
In other words, YOU need to plan for higher monthly expenses and hence more income to cover these expenses.
As your own boss, you are responsible for certain costs that earlier your company would incur. There was stuff that your company would provide for when you worked as an employee. In addition, workers like you also get plenty of non-monetary perks and benefits that help you to achieve the lifestyle you have today.
Just make sure you are cognisant of these and have built them in your calculations before you take that key next step – to quit your job. Budget for these expenses if you want to become a successful solopreneur, a blogger or a freelancer.
Many companies provide health and medical insurance for their employees. Not just that, they also incentivise their employees to conduct medical check-ups especially if they are above a certain age. As your own boss, your insurance costs are going to come out of your paycheque.
Health and medical insurance can cost a bomb. But being without them is not an option, really. So unless you live in a country where the government sponsors or subsidises your healthcare costs, you need to budget in this cost.
P.S. – My company also provided life insurance coverage for all its employees. If yours did it too then another cost that you will need to bear on your own account.
Funding Your Future
One way to plan for your retirement is through employer-sponsored savings plans such as the 401(k) or the Roth 401(k). The advantages of such plans are that they provide an automatic way of saving for retirement, there are tax benefits associated with these investments, but most importantly employers offer matching contributions which essentially means free money for employees.
If you are self-employed, not only would you have to actively plan and save for your future you also miss out on the employer’s contribution which can be a lot of money that you have to work for yourself.
Continued Education, Training, and Conferences
All companies have a budget for the skill enhancement of their employees. But guess what, once you are on your own, you will need to pay for that training you want to go for.
As a solopreneur, you will need to know about the different aspects of running a business – marketing, accounting, taxes, the technological aspects about which you probably know little to nothing about.
Add in the networking conferences that you want to attend – all costs that you did not have to pay for as an employee.
Holidays and Time Off
Leave policies vary across companies but there is one thing common – employees are allowed paid leave each year. Not so when you are a freelancer or a solopreneur.
While you will have lots more flexibility in deciding your work hours and choosing your days-off, chances are that you will also feel compelled to not take any time off, at least initially. Yes, you could write a book, run ads on your blog and have a course set-up. But setting up passive income streams take time.
And if you are a freelancer, then you earn when you work.
Workplace at Home?
One of the many perks of being a blogger or a freelancer is getting to work from your own home. You can be with your children, oversee your home while you earn your living.
This does not come for free. You have to buy your own equipment – laptops, printers, cameras, pay for their running costs. Utility bills will inch up.
Does your job provide you with accommodation or a car? Does it reimburse your phone bills? How about your family – what are the benefits they enjoy as a result of your employment?
You need to think of how you will replace these in order to maintain your lifestyle and the cost of replacing them.
Working in an office environment along with other colleagues has its own charm. The social aspect is important for mental health. You learn from your colleagues and bosses which you will miss out on when you work as a freelancer or a solopreneur.
The Bottom Line
Nearly all young and middle-aged workers ask themselves if they are ready to quit their day job in order to do something on their own. It is an exciting prospect.
However, there are additional costs you have to incur when you work for your own self. The best way to ensure that life does not have any surprises hidden is to be prepared. Know the costs and advantages of what you are planning so you can make an informed decision. —————
Bhavna Vaish is a blogger who loves the world of finance. She writes about being wise with your money so you can live a life you love on a budget you can afford. Her blog Pennies For Cents has more useful articles for you. She has been a banker and a finance professional for many years before choosing early retirement.
Meetings can be dynamic, creative events where plans get moved on and decisions made. They can also be boring, tedious and sometimes feel like a big waste of time. Whatever the case, many of us spend quite a lot of our time in one sort of meeting or another. That gives us plenty of opportunity to ensure that any meeting we are part of is a mindful meeting.
Preparing yourself for a mindful meeting
My sister is in the kind of job where she can have back-to-back meetings all day. Sometimes her boss schedules an extra meeting at the same time as one she already having! It’s all she can do to make sure she has all the documents and information she needs for each meeting, never mind having the luxury of doing a sitting session before one begins.
One thing you can do though is to use the set-up time of the meeting to come back to yourself. There are always a few moments of chatting and settling before a meeting gets going. You can quietly focus on your breath as you sit down and sort through your papers.
Remember your goals
I have been in too many meetings where people just talked for the sake of it, without any real purpose. It helps to be clear for yourself about what you are hoping that the meeting will achieve. Having this in mind will help you to contribute to the meeting in a way that will help it move along in a creative way.
What are your personal goals for the meeting? There are the kinds of meetings where you might have a private goal of not wanting to lose patience, or not wanting to feel put down by another member of the group. No-one else needs to know about these goals. They are for your own growth and development. Gently keep them in mind, not to beat yourself up, but to help you manage the situation as you want to.
It’s very easy to get distracted in a meeting. Maybe you get bored and your mind wanders. Or perhaps you are caught in intense discussion that takes all of your attention. It helps to have something to remind you to be present. I like to take notes by hand in a meeting, so I use my pen as a reminder to be present. Each time I pick it up to write, I remember I am trying to contribute to a mindful meeting.
You could also use each time you take a drink or when a different person speaks. A friend of mine carries a special stone in her pocket to remind her to come back.
See who is in the room
As the meeting gets started take some time to look around and notice who is there and how they are. Remember, that just like you, each person in the room has worries both inside and outside of work—bring to mind any specific problems that you are aware people might be facing. Allow yourself to feel a sense of common humanity with what they are going through—it will really help if things get intense and difficult to remember how much in common, we all share.
As you work through the agenda notice when your attention wanders and you stop being fully present to what is going on. You can use your breath as an anchor of it helps. Simply notice where you can feel your breath entering and leaving your body and rest your attention there for a moment, or two until you feel you are ‘back’. This will help to maintain a mindful meeting.
Keep a look out for when you feel irritation, or frustration rising and recall your scan of the room at the beginning and try to see everyone as simply doing their best. Again, you can use your breath to help you settle.
Be mindful of how much you are speaking and the tone of voice you use. Are you making it easy for people to listen to you and to hear your point, or are you pushing them away with an impatient tone, or hurried explanation?
Listening can be a good mindfulness practice. Rest your attention on what is being said at any given moment. Try to keep your attention there and not let it stray off into thoughts and rumination. By bringing your full attention to what is being said you will find that you get less tired, will stay in closer touch with the progress of the meeting and can contribute more.
Notice when opinions and judgements come into how you are listening. Try to drop them and keep your attention open and receptive. Pay particular attention to how you listen to people in the meeting you do not agree with. It is so easy to mentally dismiss what you think they are going to say before they have even started to speak.
Try to stay aware of your facial expression as you listen. I know my concentrated face can look pretty grim—I don’t mean to, but my expression gets kind of stuck and I need to consciously relax and assume a more neutral, pleasant expression.
What about if things get difficult?
If you feel that the meeting is getting bogged down, you may find it possible to introduce some skilful humour to allow people to relax for a moment and let off steam.
If this feels too risky, doing things like bringing along fruit, or cake can help people relax and be normal together while they enjoy the treat.
Suggesting people simply sit in silence for a moment or two to get things back in perspective can be beneficial also.
I have a story from a workshop I gave years ago that always stays with me. A CEO of a non-profit shared how on one occasion she found herself in a meeting that was becoming acrimonious. She was not a main player at the table and did not see how she could skilfully intervene to turn things around. So, she simply stayed quiet and looked around the room wishing everyone present happiness and well-being. She said that normally she would have left a meeting like that exhausted and unhappy but after this one she felt invigorated.
A few days later she met up with another participant from the same meeting who asked her what she had been doing and commented, ‘I felt the meeting was deteriorating so badly and then I looked over at you and you looked so calm and focused it helped me settle and feel better.’ Just as anger and irritation can pollute the atmosphere of a meeting, self-awareness and kindness are also contagious but in a healthy way.
Recently I was doing a piece of work in a rural area in the south of France. You might think that’s very pleasant and, in some ways, it can be but not when you need to get things done. When you are in the middle of nowhere the internet can be really unreliable.
After two frustrating days of not even being able to use a dial-up system to retrieve email I turned, in some desperation, to an acquaintance who runs a small IT unit in the area. We had worked together before and he had helped me out.
As I explained my situation over the phone and asked for advice on how to get on even a slow-line, I could sense his reluctance. Slowly but surely this reluctance began to merge into impatience at my request for help. He was extremely busy; he said and was squeezed in between several conflicting demands already. The more I asked for his help, the worse he felt and the more irritable he became.
I was desperate, so I did not give up. I pointed out that it was an indication of the seriousness of my situation that I was bothering him in the first place. All he needed to do was to set me in the direction of who to talk to. I reminded him that is hard to sort out how to get online without beingon line. We had two or three rather tense phone calls before he used the excuse of taking an hour to check out something and did not call me back.
In spite of this setback, the story ended happily. Eventually, through some miracle, I got on to a local provider with a line for non-French speakers and they confirmed that yes, it is still possible to go on dial-up in that part of France but I would have to travel to the nearest office to register—the nearest office being in a town two hours away. At my gasp of dismay, the agent on the phone offered to look further and within five minutes had provided me with all the coordinates to get me online. There should be a way of ringing back people who provide help at such times and telling them how they have changed your day!
What the story shows
No-one sets out to be anxious. It usually happens as a response to a situation we find ourselves in that is harder to manage than we expected. It can come up when we can’t get what we need at any given time, but it can also come up when we can’t give someone else what they want from us. My IT acquaintance spent more time on the phone with me telling me how he could not help me than the person who eventually solved the problem. Although it did not seem like it, he felt bad about not helping and it made him more cross.
It can be hard to see the effect that our anxiety is having on our own behaviour. It can be even harder to see the effect it is having on other people.
I thought about this story and what it tells us about anxiety for quite a while afterwards. I realised that when we are caught up in anxious state, we can be quite difficult. Maybe we don’t mean to be but that is how it comes across.
3 ways anxiety led to unhelpful behaviour
My anxiety made me too desperate
For my part, my anxiety at being out of touch with the people I was working with, as well as the world at large made me more brittle than I would normally be. My own need felt more important than what was going on with anyone else. It made me push, where I should have been more skilful.
Anxiety can close you down
My colleague’s experience of being over-worked and under pressure made him resent my asking him anything in the first place. This sense of grievance deepened in the face of my refusal to give up, so that his ability to solve my relatively small problem became limited and constrained by emotional resentment. The person who solved the problem was relatively relaxed and able to look at the situation from a bigger perspective.
When you are experiencing anxiety it’s hard to see clearly
I realised later that I was not able to read the signs my acquaintance was sending me. Just as his stress closed him down, my anxiety undermined my ability to see the situation clearly. I did not appreciate how stressed he was and thought if I just kept asking, he would give in. My anxiety clouded my judgment. For me, how I was experiencing the situation was how it was. There was little or no room for other people’s feelings.
So often, the frustrations and limitations we experience at work can be traced back to our mood at the time. When we are under pressure, we need to know that we will be operating much less skilfully than normal.
We can waste a lot of time this way, as well as disappointing people and limiting our capacity to contribute creatively to what is going on around us.
Looking back, I felt badly for the IT guy. My own anxiety swamped any feeling of kindness for what was going on for him. OK, he had not tried very hard to be helpful, but I had not given him much space either.
Do you have any examples of this sort of thing happening to you recently at work? How did you resolve it?
If work issues are important to you right now, you might be interested in this online course:
9 Ways to Cope Better With Your Work Frustration – you can find out more here
Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.
By the end of 2019 it is estimated that there will be 2.9 billion email users. That is more than one third of the worldwide population. Around 246 billion emails are sent each day. Business users receive about 126 emails per day. Right there is one source for email overload.
How do we get to email overload?
Email has a kind of seduction
Having a constant stream of email certainly gives us the feeling of being busy and in demand. There’s a kind of bravado we hear when people speak about their average daily email totals. The speed and immediacy of the messages flowing into our in-box can have a slightly addictive quality as we plough through them looking for the ones that we hope will make a difference.
The Harvard Business Review recently carried an article on what it called email addiction in which it stated the findings of a survey done for the Huffington Post. Here are two of the statistics:
Out of 1200 respondents, some 60% said they spend less than two waking hours a day completely disconnected from email.
20% spend less than half an hour disconnected.
Our email has embedded itself deeply into our lives.
It creates an illusion of multitasking
It’s not just our email either. We are linked in to any number of communication tools and apps. As we sit at our computers, we are subject to alerts and notifications providing us with information that we feel is essential to keeping in touch and getting things done. We can pride ourselves on being able to switch our attention between several different demands at once but perhaps we also need to question the quality of our attention divided into so many different directions. Think about trying to answer an email on your smart phone while waiting for your train to work, or juggling your shopping in the supermarket. It may feel like using every moment fully but is it worth the risk of making an error of judgement because your attention is not focused?
Our brain is not comfortable with shifting back and forth between several different tasks. It has the effect of splitting our attention and tends to make us less productive rather than more. The quality of attention we give to each task is so reduced that it becomes counter-productive. The risk of replying to an email in this way is quite high. With our attention so divided we are likely to miss things and respond inappropriately.
It’s the same thing if we are trying to write a report while we keep an eye on our incoming email. In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock states that:
on average office distractions take up about 2.1 hours per day
employees tend to spend about 11 minutes on a task before being distracted
people switch activities every 3 minutes
after an interruption it takes people 25 minutes to return to their original task
Some emotional reasons for challenges with email
A lack of intimacy as a communication tool
Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us impact the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us. When we communicate face-to-face we are able to form an instant connection and enhance this by how we use our voice, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.
Add to that the increasing body of study into mirror neurons, which enable us to instinctively feel another person’s thoughts, emotions and intentions and we have a clear picture of the volume and intensity of communication that flows between people when they meet.
None of this is available to us on email. We may conduct long and important business relations with people that we rarely—or perhaps never—see.
It’s easy to misinterpret the tone of an email
When we are under pressure to answer a large number of emails we naturally try to be as succinct and efficient as possible. We cut down on the niceties and go straight for the main point. Unfortunately, for the recipient who cannot see us and maybe does not even know us well, the effect can be quite negative. Email that we intend to be concise and practical can seem to be unfeeling, or even rude.
Add to this the brain’s negativity bias, which makes it much easier for us to interpret something as hostile, even when it’s not. Designed to help us remember dangerous circumstances so we could avoid them in the future in order to survive, this feature easily converts a neutral but business-like message into an unfriendly communication. Having not given our correspondent the benefit of the doubt, we are likely to pass the irritation on in subsequent emails we send throughout the day.
Three simple steps to avoid email overload
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and persistence of our email traffic but there are a number of simple things we can do that will help. It’s a question of identifying them and putting them in place as our regular habit.
Here’s a few ideas for how to be practical with your email:
Have regular times of day for dealing with email. This will avoid the nightmare of your email spilling over your entire day and making it hard to accomplish anything else.
Try not to answer emails on your journey to work but use the time to prepare for the day. When you are in your workplace you can give better attention to the email you are writing.
Deal with the emails already in your inbox before you start on the incoming messages of the day. This helps you to keep track and prevents an important email slipping through the cracks.
Sort out your inbox regularly. It is encouraging to see the volume decrease in your inbox and helps you to keep track.
Turn off your notifications when you are working on other things. This decreases anxiety when you see emails surging into your inbox.
Check that sending an email is the best means of communication for the message you want to send. Would a phone call work better This helps to ensure good communication.
Check your subject line—is it identifying the topic clearly? The person receiving the email is as busy as you. Helping them assess how to deal with your message will make it more likely it is answered quickly.
Think carefully about who you copy in—do all these people need to see your message, or will it complicate things? It helps to keep the communication channels uncluttered.
We have already looked at how often someone gets distracted from the task in hand while at work and how long it can take them to get back on track. Distraction is not just something that happens to us at work. In 2010, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his associate, Matthew Killingsworth conducted a studyin which they developed a smart phone app to measure peoples’ happiness. During the day people were sent a series of questions asking them what they were doing and how they were feeling. The results showed that for 46.9% of their waking hours people were thinking about something other than what they were doing, and they were not feeling happy. Think about that for a moment—it is almost half of your life!
Meditation is the best way to work with distraction. Here is a very simple mindfulness meditation exercise you could try.
A simple mindfulness meditation exercise
Connect with your breathing
—stay with where the sensation is most vivid for you
—moment by moment by moment
—breath by breath by breath
—notice any changes in your breathing
Notice when your attention is not on your breathing
—check where has it gone
—dissolve the distraction
—bring your attention back to your breath
—begin again as if for the first time
Doing an exercise like this regularly will help you be less distracted with your email. Mindfulness means being present. Meditation means developing awareness. Both of these are useful skills with email.
Here’s a few ways to be mindful with your email:
Keep in touch with yourself by maintaining awareness of your body on your chair, your chair at your desk and so on.
Try to avoid sending email while you are on automatic pilot.
Don’t zone out at the computer.
Take regular short breaks to breathe deeply and relax your shoulders.
Re-read your messages before sending them—if they are tricky emails, re-read them twice.
When you receive a difficult email take time to separate the message from your reactions—make sure that you can get your reaction in proportion.
Keep a photo on your desk that helps bring you back when you are distracted.
3. Be kind
We have already discussed how email does not come with an instinctive way to connect. On top of that, the brain’s negativity bias leads us to interpret business-like emails as hostile. We all know that it is all too easy to have a misunderstanding—or worse—over email. Once we are upset ourselves—or have caused upset to someone else, the ripple effect spreads and spreads as we all pass on our irritation and stress to the other people we interact with. Kindness is not something we always think of in dealing with our email and yet engaging with kindness while we deal with our inbox will help the quality of our communication—and even help to reduce our own stress levels.
Here’s a few ways to be kind with your email:
Try to stay connected with the person you are writing to—visualize them in your mind’s eye.
Realize that the person you are writing to is just like you—they want things to go well at work and yet they have all kinds of hassles to deal with.
Put yourself in their shoes—how would you feel about receiving the email that you are sending?
Don’t just dash off a quick reply in order to get it done—it can end up taking up more time.
Never send an email when you are upset, disappointed or angry—‑chances are you are not seeing things clearly.
If you are unsure of an email, put it in your draft box and re-read it the next morning.
Alternatively—read a tricky email out loud to yourself to check the tone.
I would love to hear from you how you avoid email overload – do leave a comment in the box below.
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