Juggling Act

“Balance doesn’t mean things stop moving,” Kathryn Budig says in her “Aim True” yoga practice video. She goes on to say that what balance really means is that you are able to handle the wobbling and the moving better. How does this relate to time and energy management?

The concept of life “balance” is complicated; we think of it in terms of choices, in having to give up some of one thing to have more of another. It’s certainly true that we have to make trade-offs in life, and that we sometimes have to consciously choose to devote time to something. Otherwise, it would be just too easy to say, “I don’t have time.” But no matter how good we are at setting priorities and saying no to things that aren’t important, we often end up with a lot on our plates. In those times, how do we handle all the moving pieces with grace and balance?

Having to do my taxes this week is a good example. Yes, I started working on them last month, but I stopped when things got busy, and now only a few days remain before the deadline. Sometimes I think I might be what’s called an “arousal procrastinator”, someone who gets a thrill from doing things at the last minute. Yesterday, when I sat down to work on the taxes for a couple of hours, I felt a little undercurrent of excitement; I was energized to get it done.

Was I truly getting a burst of energy from the sense of “crisis” (essentially a stress response), or was I simply aware that I was moving the pieces of my life productively? Is there a difference, and would I be able to tell?

I like to think that I am not as much of a crisis-maker as I used to be, that I’ve learned to live my life with more equanimity and calm. I plan better now; I don’t do crazy things like decide on Monday to make a dress for a party on Friday; I let other people help me even if I know I can do the job better; I just let more things go.

Gil Fronsdal, a teacher of Buddhist meditation, describes equanimity as a translation of the Pali word, upekkha, which means “to see without being caught up by what we see”, or to see with a somewhat detached understanding and patience. Another Pali word that translates to equanimity is one that means being able to remain centered even while in the midst of everything that is happening around us.

Would I like to stay centered while doing my taxes? Yes! For one thing, I think it will lead to fewer mistakes. When we’re overly stressed, the quality of our work usually goes down. So what I’m trying to do is take plenty of short breaks from the work – getting up to stretch, walk around and look out the window – while not stopping for so long that I lose the flow.

I’m also trying to stay present with what I’m doing. In other words, while I work on the taxes, it’s just the taxes. When I’m finished with that for the day, I’ll turn my attention and focus to the next thing that needs to be done today, instead of worrying about it while I’m working on the tax return. That’s not easy for me – sometimes I feel like my mind is all over the place – but I’m getting better at it. As Fronsdal says, “As mindfulness becomes stronger, so does our equanimity.”

Keeping balanced doesn’t necessarily mean we have less to do. It’s more about finding that sweet spot where all our best qualities – attention, joy, wisdom, humor – come together to help us appreciate the wobbly ride of life.

Life is a laughing matter

Sometimes it seems like every day brings more bad news. My advice? Don’t forget to laugh.

Laughter can be profoundly healing. I recently read the results of a new study showing that laughter and humor were as effective as drugs for reducing agitation in a group of Alzheimer’s patients. Sight gags and verbal humor were used to get the patients to participate and react. Virtually everyone benefited, and the results were found to last beyond the duration of the study.

We are all born knowing how to laugh, although our sense of humor is learned later. Some people seem to laugh more “naturally” than others; but it is a skill that can be fostered and improved, and there are good reasons to do it.

  •  Laughter leads to immediate increases in heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen consumption (similar to exercise) and is followed by muscle relaxation, as well as decreases in heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure
  • A good belly laugh provides a physical workout for the lungs and abdominal muscles
  • Laughing provides tension relief in the neck and shoulders
  • Laughing may decrease stress hormones and enhance the immune system
  • Laughter is a distraction from negative thoughts and feelings
  • Laughter can provide social bonding with others

That’s why Dr. Madan Kataria started the movement known as Laughter Yoga back in 1995 in Mumbai. As a medical doctor, he was always intrigued with the concept of “Laughter is the best medicine”. So he started getting together with a group of people in a park every morning just to laugh — for no reason other than the joy of laughing.

Today Laughter Yoga has swept the globe and there are thousands of clubs in over 60 countries. People have joined together to laugh in workplaces, schools and public places. The groups have even inspired a documentary by Mira Nair, The Laughing Club of India.

Humor can be an advantage in the workplace, if used appropriately. Studies conducted by Melissa Wanzer of Canisius College have shown that employees have higher job satisfaction and view their managers more positively when the manager is perceived to be humor-oriented. She also found that humor can be a beneficial coping strategy for workers in high-stress occupations; and that students say they learn more from teachers who use humor in the classroom.

Laughter and humor may even protect you from heart disease. A University of Maryland study showed that people with heart disease laughed less often than others; and that they did not  turn to humor as often as others did in response to daily life situations.

How can you start bringing more humor into your life? Begin by not taking yourself too seriously. Learn to recognize the absurdity in certain situations and just laugh at it. Build a humor library of movies, jokes, tv shows and cartoons that you can turn to when you need a laugh. Here are some of my favorites:


Time Zapper

When people are asked about stressors in their lives, one of the most common answers is not having enough time. Yet, we don’t always acknowledge that we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to creating time crunches for ourselves.

Sometimes time pressures result from genuinely having too much to do. But often they come from either inability to set boundaries for our time, or frequently, from our own unproductive work habits. Probably nothing has had a bigger effect on procrastination and low productivity at work than email, whether it’s our habit of reflexively checking it every five minutes or our expectation that it will be read immediately.

Although we see commercials on TV of people seamlessly and instantaneously completing international business deals with a click of the smart phone, in reality many business and personal transactions take place only after a long string of emails back and forth. The question is, is that the best way to get things done?

Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference, addressed this topic in last Sunday’s Washington Post. He believes that email volume is getting out of hand in part because email is “easier to create than to respond to”. Someone sends you an email, crosses that off their to-do list, and leaves you with the harder job of formulating an answer. Worst, Anderson says, are the emails with open-ended questions, such as “What are your thoughts?”

Because people have come to expect rapid responses to emails, the recipient is then stuck with deciding whether to drop other (probably more important) work to come up with an adequate answer to that open-ended question, or to leave it in the inbox for a while and let the email pile up.

As long as 20 years ago, some early tech pioneers had already given up email and gone back to using the telephone as a primary tool of communication. Sherry Turkle of MIT may have coined the term “email bankruptcy” after her research showed that people wanted to wipe out all the email in their inboxes. Since then, there have been regular news stories about people who have done just that – deleted all their unanswered emails, and started over with a clean slate.

Stephen Covey, in his books on time management, recommends dividing tasks into a matrix:

  1. Urgent & Important;
  2. Important but Not Urgent;
  3. Urgent but Not Important; and
  4. Not Urgent or Important.

He believes that most time should be spent working in quadrant 2 (important, but not urgent), doing things like planning, relationship building and personal development. The problem might be when you think you are relationship building by sending someone an email, when you’re actually creating a quadrant 3 (urgent, but not important) task for them by expecting them to respond!

With that in mind, Anderson and others at TED have come up with the Email Charter, which is basically a list of principles to abide by when sending email. All the principles are designed to “encourage senders to reduce the time, effort and stress required of responders.” They include points such as “no open-ended questions” and use of the acronym, “NNTR”, which stands for “No need to respond”.

Some other things we might ask ourselves:

  • Is email the best form of communication for this message? Will I be better understood if I call or talk face to face instead?
  • How often do I really need to check my emails? Would once an hour be appropriate? How about every two hours, or three times a day? Figure out what is best for you and try to make it a habit.
  • If you cannot resist checking the email, consider downloading software that will block it for you. Programs such as SelfControl can block email servers and Facebook for a set amount of time, and not let you use them until the timer runs out.
  • Can you declare an email vacation once a week, or once a month? Plan a day without checking or responding to emails. You’d be surprised how much time you have for things like family, friends, reading a book or going for a walk.

Ultimately, we need to figure out if the things that are least important in our lives are getting the most attention. Sherry Turkle has said, “Sometimes we’re too busy communicating to listen to each other.” Can we break the cycle?

“No vacation goes unpunished”*

With President Obama vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard this week, some in the press have had a field day discussing whether or not he should be taking time “off”. I doubt a president is ever truly on vacation, but I can think of some good reasons for wanting him to have some down time.

Cindy Aron, the author of Working at Play: A History of Vacations, has said that “we have a love-hate relationship with our vacations”. America’s history of a Puritan work ethic has meant that we tend to frown on idleness. While the wealthy always traveled, and went to spas for their health, the middle class started vacationing later. Many early vacation choices for them were actually associated with churches. If you went to a Methodist campground, there was less temptation
to indulge in idleness or other vices while on vacation.

Only since the 1950s or 1960s have paid vacations been a common aspect of employment. Most employees currently receive paid time off ranging from five to thirty days per year. Since the financial downturn, however, many people don’t feel comfortable taking all of their vacation time anymore. They are either afraid of losing their jobs, or worried that they will have too much work to return to now that companies have downsized so much.

Even earlier, a 2005 survey by the Families & Work Institute found that one-third of employees said they were overworked, and did not use all their vacation days. Half said they worked often during vacation, and one-third said
they were contacted about work during non-work hours.

Research on the health benefits of vacation, or the detriments of not vacationing, is sparse. A study that is often cited is one conducted in 2000 with the Framingham sample. It found that men who took annual vacations had a 30% lower
risk of dying of heart disease. Factors thought to play a role were reduced stress, more sleep, more socialization and more exercise while on vacation.

In 2005, the Wisconsin Medical Journal published a study of women who did not take an annual break from work, which found that they had more psychological health risks. A 2010 study from the University of the Rockies concluded that sufficient vacation time stabilizes mental health and contributes to “professional well-being”. Those researchers also found that a vacation’s benefits peak at 10 days, making a 10-14 day vacation just about perfect.

Some experts, such as Saki Santorelli of the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, suggest that we try to inject some of the qualities of a vacation into our daily lives at home. Getting more sleep and regular exercise, as well as practicing stress reduction techniques could help balance out the work vs vacation dichotomy.

At least one study backs up Santorelli’s ideas. It examined work engagement and burnout in a group of teachers. The researchers found that positive effects of vacation faded after one month; however, building more relaxation experiences into one’s daily schedule after vacation prolonged the vacation’s effects.

So, in that spirit, here are some tips for making both vacation days and work days better:

  • Consider whether you will benefit most from a very active or more relaxing vacation.
  • Don’t try to cram too much into your vacation. Make sure you actually take time to relax.
  • Set boundaries for work time, work calls and emails. Most of us don’t really need to be available 24/7.
  • Get outside every day, even if it’s just for a walk around the block at lunch time.
  • Take 5-10 minutes every day just to sit quietly and breathe.
  • Laugh. Milton Berle once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation.”

*Karl Hakkarainen


Liberality in giving or willingness to give.

An article in the newsletter from my local hospital caught my eye yesterday. It told about some hospital employees who started a program to volunteer to help patients during meal times. Many patients, especially the elderly, need a little extra help with cutting their food or opening containers. When a family member can’t be there to help them, hospital employees (from all departments) volunteer to step in, providing assistance, encouragement and companionship for one to two hours a week.

By giving the gift of their time and attention, these employees are also receiving many benefits. There is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health. People who regularly volunteer generally live longer, function better, and have lower rates of depression as they get older than people who don’t volunteer.

Volunteers also report more satisfaction with their lives, higher self-esteem, higher levels of happiness and a greater sense of being in control of their lives. In addition, being a volunteer can sometimes involve people in a new social network, with all of the stress-buffering benefits that social support provides.

Why do some people volunteer and others don’t? Sometimes it feels like giving something to others – whether it is our time, our money or our love – means that we will have less of that for ourselves. When we let go of that habit of clinging to things, we learn that to give is to receive, and to receive is to give.

As a practical matter, studies have shown that one big difference between those who volunteer and those who don’t is time spent watching TV. Active volunteers watch far less television. So while it may seem that we don’t have time to volunteer, the reality may be that we only need to give up one of our “low-value” activities.

Helping others can also put people into new social roles; this can give them a sense of meaning and purpose in life. In that context, practicing generosity can be considered a spiritual practice. While that may sound surprising, if you think of spirituality as being connected to something larger than yourself, it makes sense. Practicing generosity helps us see how we are all connected and interdependent. It breaks down the barriers of time, space, age, race or socioeconomic status that may falsely separate us.

If you want to be a volunteer, but aren’t sure how to get started, look into programs in your city or county. Many local governments have web sites devoted to volunteer needs, some keep a roster of volunteers to call upon, and others will match you according to your interests. There are usually short term, long term and one-time opportunities available in your community.

The Corporation for National & Community Service is also a good resource.

Training for Life

Several years ago, when I was part of a boot camp fitness program, I was running one morning with my group. A woman passing by asked us “What are you training for?” Without missing a beat, our instructor answered, “For life.”

Today I’ve been thinking about this idea that we have to be ready for whatever life throws at us, the curve balls like divorce, job loss, deaths or serious illnesses. Sadly, too many people I know are dealing with some of those big life stressors right now. While we expect in an abstract way that our lives are going to have low points, it still can feel like a ton of bricks when we are hit with it. And when we have to deal day after day with the repercussions of divorce, or caring for a sick family member, it will tax even those of us with deep reserves of strength and good health.

Coming into a stressful situation with high levels of wellness in all dimensions can help people be more resilient and better able to meet the challenges. Physical wellness is very important, but it’s not the whole story. The 6 Dimensions of Wellness model emphasizes the whole person:

  • Physical – Do you have healthy eating habits and engage in regular exercise? Are you getting regular medical exams and engaging in self-care?
  • Occupational — Are you getting satisfaction from your work? Do you feel like you make a contribution to something? Does your choice of work align with your values?
  • Social – How are your relationships with family and friends? Do you feel that you have a support network you can call upon when needed? Do you feel connected to others in a community?
  • Emotional – How able are you to accept and express your feelings? Is your outlook on life more optimistic or pessimistic?
  • Spiritual – Do you feel a connection to something larger than yourself? Do you feel your life has meaning? Are your actions in harmony with your values and beliefs?
  • Intellectual – Are you a life-long learner? Do you take opportunities to be creative, to challenge yourself, and to share knowledge with others?

All of these dimensions make up your wellness path, and contribute to your ability to handle stress. Visualize your path right now, and think about an area you would like to improve.  Focus on enhancing your wellness in just that one dimension for now. Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Physical – If your nutrition needs a boost, set a goal of eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • Occupational – Evaluate your current job. Can you develop a new skill for use there or in your next job?
  • Social — Reach out to someone you’ve been missing. Make a date to go out with friends. Plan a neighborhood get-together.
  • Emotional – Start writing down your feelings in a journal. Watch a funny movie to lighten your mood with humor.
  • Spiritual – Take a walk in nature. Get involved in helping others. If you have been religious in the past, think about reconnecting with your faith.
  • Intellectual – Set a goal to read a newspaper every day, or a book each month. Perhaps sign up for a class on a subject you’ve always wanted to learn.

Wherever your path takes you, and no matter how many bumps in the road, I wish you ease and well-being in body, mind and spirit. Train for life!

Have you played today?

“Health begins where we live, learn, work and play.”

That statement came out of a recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commission on building a healthier America. It means that all of the social environments in which we spend time help determine our overall health outcomes.

Play (def.): to occupy oneself in amusement, sport, or other recreation.

But how much do adults play? Is having fun the lowest priority item on your to-do list when obligations at work and at home have to be met? The truth is that, like exercise, we will never have enough extra time for play until we make the time for it and schedule it in our day.

There’s a good case to be made for playing – doing something that’s fun just for the sake of having fun, in a noncompetitive and unpressured way. It helps us regain some of the unqualified joy and spontaneity we had as children, and, possibly, to experience what Buddhists refer to as “beginner’s mind”. Beginner’s mind means looking at something without the lens of prior knowledge, experience, or, especially, judgment. It means simply experiencing something as it is, in the moment, instead of how we want or expect it to be.

Beginner’s mind can more easily be accessed if we regularly try new “play” activities. Being a little bit adventurous, perhaps even taking a risk (whether it is physical, social or psychological) could create an opportunity for a beginner’s mind experience.  A few years ago, I decided that birthdays are a good time of year to try something new. That’s a bit challenging with a birthday at Thanksgiving time, but it was easier on my sister’s summertime birthday, when we tried a 7-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. We challenged ourselves, took a wrong turn or two, laughed a lot and thought about nothing else for those few hours.

While it’s pretty widely recognized that play is important for children’s development, we sometimes forget that adults have a need for play too. Any type of play, whether it is something we’ve always enjoyed or something new, can give us perspective on other areas of our lives. It can foster creative thinking and problem-solving. Play can stimulate and refresh both brain and body.  Playing with other people helps us make and nurture social connections. Play teaches us to be flexible and cooperative, and to work as a team.

In some workplaces, play is integrated into the workday. Google is probably the most famous for supplying games such as Foosball, ping pong and volleyball on site. At Zappos, one of the company’s core values is to “create fun and a little weirdness”. Other companies provide climbing walls, swimming pools and monthly parties. Some would say that these perks are designed to keep people working longer hours. That may be true, but at least they have the opportunity to take a play break.

What are your ideas for fun at work or at home? Have you played today?

One Moment, Please

Get ready: May is Employee Health & Fitness Month. This is a change from prior years, when just a day was devoted to employee health. The National Association for Health & Fitness and ActiveLife (sponsors of EHFM) made the change for one simple reason – it takes longer than one day to change behaviors.

The two organizations have a web site and a week-long kick-off (Demand Healthy Week) to get people started. They are promoting a 3-prong strategy:  Healthy Moments (actions taken by individuals), Healthy Groups, and Healthy Projects (company or community-based). The focus on employee health comes at a critical time: the economy has caused many companies to cut back on employee wellness programs.  It’s a short-sighted decision, however, because there is a wealth of evidence that investing in employee wellness can lead to lower long-term health care costs for employers.

When employees aren’t well, employers pay not just through direct health care costs, but through lower productivity. In fact, some research indicates that the productivity costs are higher than the direct expenses. And since chronic conditions (many of them related to unhealthy lifestyles) account for about 75% of medical costs in this country, it just makes sense to focus on health in the workplace.

So, in the spirit of Employee Health & Fitness Month,

I’ve come up with my own list of suggestions for Healthy Moments. My ideas aren’t limited to physical wellness. They encompass other dimensions of wellness, such as emotional and social, as well.

Healthy Moment #1: Take a break to breathe at work. Just sitting quietly for five minutes, with your eyes closed, paying attention to your breath, will calm and refresh you.

Healthy Moment #2: Check out Instant Recess. You can follow right along (at work!) with this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHiwiTZtl7Q

Healthy Moment #3: If you work at a computer, give your eyes a break from the screen. Look out the window if you have one. Otherwise, bring in some nice pictures to decorate your workspace. Doing this will rest your eyes and give you a mental break too.

Healthy Moment #4: Instead of emailing people in your office, get up and walk over to see them. Not only will you stretch your legs, you’ll also benefit from face-to-face communication.

Health Moment #5: Thank someone at work for their help. Sometimes in the rush of work, we don’t always express appreciation. But thinking about gratitude can help you be more optimistic and positive.

Now you have tips for 5 days of work!  What else can you think of?

Work to live, or live to work?

Earlier this week, a study was reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, indicating that working 11 or more hours per day may be a risk factor for heart disease. Risk factors for heart disease have been long-established by the Framingham study, a 60+ year project that followed a group of people living in Framingham, Massachusetts. By studying the same people (and later their children) over a life span, researchers were able to learn a great deal about risk factors for heart disease (the study was designed for that purpose).

The new study examined people in the British civil service, first in the early 1990s and through 2004. The researchers wanted to see if working hours could also be a predictor for heart disease, in addition to those factors established by Framingham research. The British civil service provides a desirable population for researchers because everyone has the same access to health care in England. Results showed that those participants working 11 hours or more a day had a 67% higher risk of developing heart disease. (One caveat is that this was a relatively low-risk population to begin with, so there is no way of knowing if the results could be generalized to higher-risk populations.)

How do we tame working hours in an era of being constantly tethered to our work through smart phones and laptops? Forty years ago, people thought that when computers and other technology became universally available, our lives would be easier and include more leisure time. In fact, one could argue that the opposite is true. There is a fun video on YouTube by Philip Zimbardo (Stanford professor famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment), called The Secret Powers of Time. It’s a riff on our attitudes about time, cultural differences related to time and how technological changes have influenced our perceptions of time. One distressing part of the video is when Zimbardo talks about a study that asked people what they would do with an extra day if there were 8 days in the week. In spite of the fact that so many people bemoan not having enough leisure time or time with family, what did most people say they would do? Work more.

I think we all know at some innate level what is good for us and what’s not. We know that more sleep feels good, that being with people who love us feels good, that being in nature nourishes us, and that eating good food and moving our bodies a little (or a lot) feels right. So when are we going to make the choice (for those of us privileged enough to have a choice) to live in a way that brings us that sense of well-being? Maybe it will take a major cultural shift that will be led by a younger generation that rejects the value of live to work. Maybe they will figure out that living a “balanced” life isn’t about finding a way to have and do it all. Balance is about knowing your values and making choices based on them.