Modern life is relentless. I’ve written in the past about “the wobble” - the need to balance everything in life that needs your attention. The assumption is that the Macro picture is not fixable - at least, not quickly or easily anyway. The Macro is the the big things in life - where you work, where you live, who you marry, whether or not you have kids. But within those constraints, can you optimize the micro, the little things, to make your day slightly better? The goal is to maybe get a little more energy for all the other things in life. To that end, I found the advice in this little self-help book rather useful; like a little Cliffs Notes version of the Seven Habits.

  1. Refocus your brain:
    • Your prefrontal cortex’s endurance is limited. Don’t waste it.
    • a. Zone refocus: create an island of focus. Physical (a separate work area) or temporal (a blocked off time zone). Block out distractions and interruptions. Communicate with others when you are in the zone and they can’t reach you. Taking control, saying “no”, is more of an executive function and gives you better outcomes than being a worker bee saying yes to everything.
    • b. create a culture where interruptions are not the norm. Be respectful of other people’s time. Run effective meetings. Use the right communication mechanism - if an email will do, don’t send a Chime. If an urgent meeting isn’t needed, don’t set it up. Find another way. Watch “energy farts”: when you let your negative energy or fatigue blow into an outburst that stinks up the area around you (kids, subordinates are especially vulnerable since that’s when we feel like we can let them out)
    • c. set up time for yourself in between meetings. Research shows back to back to back meetings are taxing on your brain. Taking short interruptions is better overall. Bring in the example of the tennis players or cricketers who “switch on, switch off” at the right times, and thus are able to have more endurance.
    • d. Write things down! Reduce the overload in your brain from a conversation where you need to pay attention AND remember actions or make future plans.
    • e. Watch decision fatigue. Continuing, small reductions in brain taxation will end up in better end of day results. Judicial rulings are more likely to be lenient if they’re at the beginning of the day, than before lunch or before EOD. Drug addicts Short periods of rest, spending time in nature, inducing positive mood shifts, and increasing glucose in the body, are shown to help. Delegate! - not everything needs you. Use checklists for repetitive things that have a recipe available. Try to reduce decision fatigue spent on things that don’t matter too much - eg clothes to wear, meal prep, etc.
    • f. Prioritize prioritizing. Prioritize only when fresh and uninterrupted; and avoid attention-hungry tasks (like a critical email) when not scheduled.
    • g. Exercise. This helps both in micro (todays decision making) and macro (your resilience and decision making 2 days, weeks, months from now.) But be strategic - save maximal efforts for when you need to reduce tension. For short term benefits focus on “sub maximal effort” and keep it less than 60 mins. Try walking meetings when possible. Keep a bunch of “desk exercises” you can do quickly.
  2. Reset your primitive alarms:
    • stop your emotions from getting hijacked. When we feel attacked or threatened, or have an emergency, our bodies react in ways outside of our control. We act in ways that are “not me”. Watch for the “amygdala hijack”. Impulses traveling the “back alley pathway” can bypass the neocortex completely. Amygdala can dump cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones into your system. It puts your body in “fight or flight” mode. In todays world we actually need our higher order skills to deal with this; but the amygdala does the opposite. 5 common workplace triggers: (a) condescension or disrespect, (b) unfair treatment, (c) lack of appreciation, (d) feeling unheard or not listened to, (e) unrealistic demands/deadlines. Exclusion/rejection triggers same brain areas as physical pain.
    • “Awfulizing” or “catastrophizing” - imagining the worst case scenario for even minor things - can put us in fight-or-flight modes. You worry and create your own stress. Stress hormones don’t care - they will flow even if the crisis was not actually there. Resilient people adjust the level of emotional resources needed to meet the true demands of a situation. They also “get back to normal” (ie get rid of the indicators of stress) much sooner after the threat dissipates.
    • Solutions: Label it. Call it by a name. What are you feeling exactly? Scrutinizing our reactions engages the PFC, separates us from the feeling itself. Gives us back a sense of control. Remember that you can always choose the response.
    • Conscious relaxation: take a deep breath BUT NOT FROM YOUR CHEST (shallow breathing). That can actually make things worse. Instead, do deep belly (diaphragmatic) breathing (the natural relaxed state breathing) turns off the body’s fight-flight response.
    • Deliberately relax your muscles, esp shoulders and neck. Give in to gravity. Focus on individual muscles and relax them from head to toe. Engage your parasympathetic nervous system by thinking of people you love, things you are grateful for, etc. SMELLS and SOUNDS have a direct attachment to the lambic system -things like cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg can cut through and go to your happy memories. Keep them around you - hand lotion, mint tea, scented candles. Keep a playlist of favorite relaxing music. Try the same with a colleague or angry client - use a walk-and-talk, or go sit at a comfy sofa or near some running water or a fireplace. Kick off meetings with some upbeat music or soothing resonant sounds. Get them relaxed. If nothing else, it will relax you.
    • Do a “power pose” reset, Amy Cuddy style, before stressful situations like big meetings, speeches, or crucial presentations. Try to listen to something that makes you laugh or relax. When you feel threatened or disrespected, try it.
    • Conclusion: Not dealing with emotional hijacks can be bad - either you get outbursts (mood farts) or internalized anger/frustration/fear. Chronic anxiety can be very harmful to your body. Get your amygdala under control, it can be the biggest price you pay if you don’t.
  3. Reframe your attitude. A large number of studies show that a positive attitude, and belief in positive outcomes, will lead to changes in behavior that engender that outcome. It changes your interactions, your “vibe” that creates better partnerships.
    • a. Create a “joy file” - something you can thumb through that will create positive associations. Thank you notes, pictures of friends or family, memorabilia, etc.
    • b. ABCDE: the adversity trigger (A) is not the culprit of the consequence we experience (C). It’s usually our beliefs (B) about A. Remember to (D) dispute those beliefs and (E) energize new beliefs with actions that can lead to favorable consequences.
    • c. Reversi. Write down your belief/limitation/obstacle. Then write down the opposite of that belief, even if you don’t believe it to be true. (Note: this is just affirmations). Holding the opposite thought in your head allows you to see things you otherwise wouldn’t have. It allows you to remove seeing the limitation as “fact”, which sometimes stops us from acting on it. You get unstuck. Sometimes this means thinking hard about what to right. “My ex-husband is making me miserable” - the opposite may not be “I love my ex-husband and will remarry him”; it might be “I can improve my life despite obstacles from my ex.” In the solution, try to focus on what you can do.
    • d: PPP to CCC. Pessimism of “learned helplessness” sees negative things as personal, permanent & prevalent (PPP). “I am a terrible cook” or “I am so weak”. Optimists see situations as changeable and don’t take failure personally. CCC: “What is the challenge to be tackled?” “What choices can I make here?” “What am I committed to? (ie what outcomes or values am I really after?)”
    • e. daily practice. Like exercise, a regular pattern of conscious, intentional positive focus each day can help us flex our “positivity” muscles. Gratitude, sending thank you notes or appreciation notes daily, see beautiful things (sunrise, sunset or the nighttime sky). Treat small things as gifts.
  4. Refresh the body.
    • a. Hydrate. Drink regularly throughout the day.
    • b. Eat well and regularly. Glucose is your brain’s fuel; but it can store a small amount at a time, and it uses up its store in 10-15 mins and then needs replenishing. Higher order functions are the first to go; so we feel “hangry”, anxious, frustrated, tired, short tempered. We lose emotional self control. Don’t overdo it either: hyperglycemia can lead to plenty of health risks. Eat low glycemic snacks - eggs, hummus, meat, nuts, Yogurt, fruits and veg, etc.
    • c. Be aware of your body. Name your feeling - hunger, thirst, and look for symptoms like fuzzy thinking or irritation.
  5. Replenish your soul.
    • a. The Why of what you do matters. Purpose is more than just long-term goals. It’s more than the obvious “why” (eg put kids through college, pay off the mortgage, whatever.) it’s what keeps you going. Like Viktor Frankl found - optimists and pessimists die of a broken heart. Realists survive. Directedness in life, having a higher purpose, can increase your lifespan too. Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, or power, or money. Frankl saw 3 possible sources: meaningful work, caring for someone (love), and in courage during difficult times.
    • b. Articulate your purpose. Purpose is active and mutable. It’s a combination of Values + Goals. Values (passion, beliefs, joy) and goals (actions, direction). Define values broadly; and be like a detective about it. What makes you joyful? Make notes. Observe patterns. Use these emotional touchstones to guide you. Where do you spend your money and free time? Who do you enjoy spending time with? How do you like to live? Bring together a list of 10-15 things, circle ONlY the top 3-5, and then focus only on those. Say NO to the others until you have achieved the top 3.
    • c. Write a personal statement. A tagline. Why are you here in the world. What can you do.
    • d. Create a touchstone: keep your purpose in view every single day. Tangible visible representation of what matters. Whatever brings your purpose into focus.
    • e: Tailor your calendar to your sense of purpose. If doing something “well enough” at work will buy you 2-4 extra hours with your kids, or an extra hour with your wife, why would you overdo it and waste that time? Make time in your calendar for what matters. Ruthlessly prioritize.
    • f: Flow: map your energy levels. What are your energy levels when doing something, keep a log. Pictorial representation of your feelings doing something. For things that drain you: ask yourself if you can redesign it to have more flow. Can you realign it to match with your values? If not, can you drop them altogether?
  6. Put it all together.
    • Micromanage your metabolism. Prioritize your energy. Control your emotional hijacks. Focus on the macro pieces first (anything major you need to stop or start doing), then focus on making these a habit.