Life balance

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Remember community in the rush to riches

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It’s the holiday season, and in theory, we’re all caring for our Fellow Person. Actually, most of us are frantically shopping, hoping that the Christmas season is profitable, dreading that visit to our parents, and generally letting the happiness of business crowd out the happiness of those of us who comprise the business.

To make matters worse, in the midst of my frenzy of buying, someone had the audacity to ask what were the best presents I’ve ever received in my life. I thought about it. All the best presents I’ve ever received were gifts you can’t buy. One of my favorites was a totally unexpected friendship card waiting for me by a crackling fireplace in the ranger’s station at the top of Mount Greylock (the highest mountain in Massachusetts). To this day, I have no idea how the card got there! And the best present I’ve ever given? A surprise party to my partner, who had never before had a happy birthday celebration. In both cases, the cost was nominal. The warmth, love, and companionship was off the charts.

Think about that. Community. People. Relationship. Those are the things we look back on that really give us joy. So how does economics and money fit into this? Surely, it must. Though according to Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and happiness researcher, once you’re above the poverty level, there’s no correlation between money and happiness. But our business behavior can certainly affect community, people, and relationship.

Business and Social Responsibility—the ability to respond—are linked

I had to take the light rail last week from Newton Center back into Boston. Newton Center’s small subway depot has since become a chain coffee shop. Although this subway stop requires an unusually large amount of change for a single trip ($2.50), the cash register proudly proclaims, “No change for subway customers.”

I guess I just don’t understand the business rationale. Most retail businesses would kill for an entire community’s worth of foot traffic each day. You want change for the subway? Sure! Just wait by our warm, delicious impulse-buy products and we’ll make change once you’re at the register.

Maybe they’re afraid it will be hard to supply the change. How hard is it, really? They get change regularly from the bank for their register. Next time, just stock up on quarters. It really isn’t that much additional trouble. Two additional customers a day (at gourmet-coffee prices) would pay for a part-time employee whose sole job is to do the subway change run every morning.

But to me, there’s a deeper issue: it’s one of community and friendliness. When a store only gives change to purchasers, neighborhood residents and regular travelers won’t stop in. That means they won’t interact, and that much more community gets lost in the race to make Economic Decisions the Be-all and End-all of our existence.

Why not give change because it’s a nice thing to do? Or because it’s the only way for your clerks, who work 60 hours a week to pay their rent, to meet other people from the neighborhood face-to-face?

It’s the little courtesies, the little interactions, and the smiles as we join each other in our daily business that tie us together as a community. Between our walkmans, net connections, and other “time saving” devices, we’ve eliminated much of the casual communing people once enjoyed. Rather than hanging signs rejecting our community members if they won’t buy from us, why not seek to build a community where people like each other so much they want to do business?

Start now. And it’s a great time of year to try out the theory that community matters. You have a built-in excuse: if someone notices you putting people and relationships first, you can always blame it on the holidays.

Remember Community in the Rush to Riches

The Joys of Power Yoga

I’m a big advocate of life balance. Yoga is often held as a good way to relax, become flexible, and build balance for overstressed professionals. Since I like to put my money where my mouth is, I decided to try it. Being generous, I thought I would share the experience. After all, misery loves company.

It’s better than weights

Until three weeks ago, I went to the gym. The results were decent, but my muscles are tight enough to play violin with my thighs. My physical therapist decreed, “Build strength and flexibility! Try Yoga.” At first, my vanity refused. A brawny manly-man like me, doing a sissy-man workout like yoga? Not likely. But then I took a good look at two guys in yoga class. They look strong. They look flexible. And rather than the muscle-bound “hours at the gym” look, they actually look healthy. Most importantly, they looked like they stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. Suddenly giving yoga a chance seemed … necessary.

It’s great in the summer

At Baptiste Power Yoga, it’s summer year-round. Even in summer. They keep the room heated to 85 degrees. When I walked in, people were stretched out on their mats, already looking exhausted. Class hadn’t even begun. They claim that heat promotes flexibility; when your body collapses from heat exhaustion, formerly impossible poses become trivial.

It’s the heat and the humidity

Did I mention heat and forget to mention the humidity? They keep studio nicely humid. So humid, you sweat. A lot. Not sissy-boy sweat, like you might get running a marathon, or a 3-minute mile. No. This is real sweat, manly sweat. Enough to soak two beach towels through and through. Rivers of sweat which carve canyons in the wooden floor. Enough sweat to make your fingers into prunes. If I’d had any room left for conscious thought at the end of class, I would have been totally grossed out. As it was, the sweat gently cushioned my fall as I collapsed on my mat.

It’s all about posing

So what do you actually do in practice? Mostly you do what they euphemistically call “poses.” Most “poses” are based on medieval torture devices, minus the spikes. You gently flow into a pose and hold it. What could be simpler? Alas, the poses were invented by a placid 13th-century monk with a well-hidden sadistic streak. Assuming you can get into the position (I kid you not; he actually said, “Now gently allow your foot to drift up and across your back and touch the top of your head”), holding it is the fascinating part.

Try this: bend at the waist and put your hands flat on the floor, keeping your feet flat on the floor as well. Make sure your back, neck, and arms are in a line. You’re making a big triangle, with the floor as the base of the triangle and your hips at the point. Use a mirror to make sure your butt’s way up in the air and all the lines are straight. Simple, eh? Now hold that for five minutes. Keep those heels on the floor. Keep those hands on the floor. Press down through the heels and palms. Straighten your back. And breathe gently, enjoying life.

Congratulations. You’re in “downward dog.” What could be easier? After about a minute, you’ll start to pant, easily. Arf. Arf. After two minutes, you’ll be about to collapse. But you’ll be so placid, you won’t be able to tell which body part is weakening. Maybe they all are. At three minutes, you’ll start howling. Now, you’re fully in touch with your inner dog. When your muscles give out totally, collapse into my favorite: “child’s pose.” In a cruel twist of fate, the English word “child” is Sanskrit for “collapsed in a senseless, gasping heap of sweat.”

Yoga masters hold these poses for decades. It isn’t common knowledge, but the word YOGA itself stands for “Years of Gravitational Agony.” For obvious reasons, you won’t find this in the brochure.

It’s something everyone can do

They say Yoga is about process,not results. There is only body, awareness, and breath. We don’t compare ourselves to others. That could get discouraging. The young man behind me is doing a perfect “downward dog,” but has lifted one leg, bent it at the knee, and is managing to rotate his torso 270 degrees with flat palms and feet. And he’s smiling. shudder And pay no attention to the 90-pound woman to my right, who bounces onto one foot and bends so far backwards she can lick the middle of her upper back—as she massages her scalp with her other foot. While the rest of the class tosses their legs deftly behind their heads, I’m working to get my hands behind my head. But I’m OK with that. Really.

It’s good for you

That 90-pound woman is typical. It’s always 90-pound women who swear by Yoga. There’s a reason. They used to be 215 pound men. Yoga did that to them. It’s relentless, brutal, and takes no prisoners.

But you know what? In six weeks, that could be me, licking my upper back. It might take a special effects crew and dim lighting, but it could happen. After going four times a week for three weeks, I’ve realized that the human body, when subjected to absurd torture, can compensate. My energy level is up, my posture is better, and I’m walking better. I’ve lost about 1/2 inch of waistline, and my abs are becoming visible for the first time in my life. I’m noticeably more flexible, more relaxed, and am moving more fluidly. I have never done anything which has had such a profoundly positive effect in so short a time. And that keeps me going. And as they claimed, the more I go, the easier it gets. After three or four months, I expect to be able to make it through the entire class without taking a break.

The body is what I really want. A yoga body looks naturally trim and fit. Frankly, it looks healthy without being excessive. And a yoga master can lick the back of their kneecaps from a standing position. That has possibilities.

I’m convinced! Sign me up!

Give it a shot. It really is amazing. But if you’re going to try it, commit for a few weeks. Make sure you do enough to get to the point where you begin to experience moments of being able to relax and breathe. The first few weeks are tough, but there’s definitely light at the end of the tunnel. You won’t be able to see it—the backs of your knees will be blocking your view—but you’ll be able to feel it. And your life will never be the same.

You can find Baptiste Power Yoga at http://www.baronbaptiste.com.

Author’s note: The woman licking her back was an exaggeration, but not by much. The heat, sweat, and spending a third of the class time collapsed in a heap are all accurate. For now.

Anecdote on Quality of Life

This was rumored to have been written by Mark Albion in his newsletter “Making a Life, Making a Living.” The “By Stever Robbins” above is being added by a theme somewhere and I can’t figure out how to change it.

The American businessman was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while.”

The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, senor?”

The American laughed and said “that’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

Mastering Overwhelm at Work!

My name is Stever Robbins, and I’m here to confess: I’m an overwhelm wimp.

Give me more than three things to handle at once and pop, my head explodes. It’s not just me?everyone seems to be suffering from daily overwhelm. At best, we flounder. At worst, we shut down entirely. You can’t be effective running ragged, living surgically connected to your cell phone, and cutting short every meeting because you’re way too on-the-run. If being the center of attention makes you feel important, go for it. Personally, I’d rather be sane.

I’ll warn you in advance: this article is about what’s good for you, not what’s good for business. How can you take care of yourself amidst the chaos?

Surviving in the moment

When overwhelm crashes down, your emergency rip cord is to physically take a break. Grab something to eat, walk around the block, and get away! Breathe deeply, with a long, slow exhale. And lean forward. I don’t know why, but leaning into overwhelm makes it less overwhelming.

Once you’ve calmed a bit, consider taking longer-term steps to recover your life. Overwhelm comes from too much, too fast. The solution is learning to say “no,” keeping firm boundaries, and going easy on yourself when you are not superman or woman.

If you choose sanity, step one is changing your thinking. Rather than worshipping productivity and efficiency, remember that there’s more to life than living it efficiently. There’s family, quality of life, joy, love, spirituality, and community, for starters.

Some of the following anti-overwhelm suggestions will be heretical. They’ll actually suggest that you reduce your productivity. After all, do you want to be highly productive, or do you want to have a life? You can’t do both.

The root problem is that our tools have become too good. We’ve made our lives so very efficient with our cell phones, PDAs, and e-mail. But does your Palm Pilot make you more efficient? If so, just wait. Expectations will expand to include your increased productivity. You’ll quietly lose your relaxation and recharge time, sacrificed to the Gods of efficiency.

Remind yourself on a regular basis that while a Blackberry tempts you with “efficient” e-mail handling, resist! It slowly infiltrates your life, demanding you to respond to e-mail at any time of day or night. Take it on faith that labor-savings devices demand that you labor more.

“But,” you cry, “I can multitask, getting more done quickly!” Multitasking is a myth. At least, quality multitasking is a myth. If you have several simple, brainless tasks, maybe you can do a couple at once. But if you need reflection or depth, forget it. Attention Deficit Disorder is a problem for people precisely because much of modern life really does demand more than ten seconds of sustained attention. Multitasking is a chance to accomplish many things poorly, all at once. It takes nine months to make a baby, and it takes focused concentration to make great breakthroughs.

You’ll probably notice that many of my suggestions can result in slower career growth, less productivity, decreased efficiency.

In the people realm, multitasking can be deadly. Consider this: Effective leaders connect with their followers. When someone comes to you for direction and motivation, talking while checking your e-mail won’t inspire loyalty and commitment. If you’re not committed enough to give someone your full attention, why should they be committed to you?

The emergency solution

Our whole economy seems “just-in-time,” with lag times and delays removed. Here is one illustration. Recent banking deregulation allows checks to clear instantly, eliminating the “float” that provided many businesses with a few additional days of wiggle room to finance cash flow. Now, everyone must be that much more vigilant about their cash.

Just-in-time brings its own problems, too. Problems can happen, just-in-time. When one piece of our tightly coupled, precision system falters, the entire thing can come tumbling down. We risk utter collapse if we stop if even for a minute. Not exactly a recipe for sanity.

So make use of it: Become emergency driven. If the overwhelm is too great, rather than trying to avoid emergencies, orient your life around them. Ignore your inbox. Choose what you’ll let go, and then let go of it utterly and completely. What’s important will resurface as emergencies. Trust me, there will be some Type-A person in the next cubicle who will raise the alarm when a discarded initiative becomes critical. Then you can step in, do the work, and be a hero for saving the day. Sure, you can get promoted by doing it right the first time (assuming you work where such things are noticed), but you just may save your personal life by not doing it until it’s important.

It’s always possible that you have enough time to do everything, but just aren’t organized. I’ve spent four decades searching for the perfect organization system. The closest I’ve found is David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. He lays out a system that empties your inbox daily, turning items into “To-Do’s” and ensuring things get done. Of course, he doesn’t have much to say about what you do when you commit to too much that it takes a full workday just to process your inbox.

That’s because, as with technology, better organization will often result in temporary savings followed by increased expectations. This, you can control. Get yourself organized?but don’t tell anyone. Scatter books around your office and season the scene with old folders with papers spilling out of them. Then empty your real inbox (hidden in the corner behind the potted palm) daily, and enjoy an organized life.

Just enough

You’ll probably notice that many of my suggestions can result in slower career growth, less productivity, decreased efficiency. That’s right. In fact, here is the most powerful strategy of all: Settle for just enough. Unless you’re living in a really different world from me, you can’t have it all. You have limited time and attention. You can’t spend it all trying for “the most” in every category. Figure out what “enough” is and make that your target.

Just enough applies to money, too. If you’re driven by money, decide in advance when you can ease up. A real estate investor I know never set an “enough” goal for herself. The last time I saw her, she had been a millionaire for twenty years, and worth over $50 million. Was she enjoying life? Hardly. By not deciding what was enough, she was pushing herself as hard as if she were still working on her first million.

Just enough applies to title and status, as well. An executive vice president of a several-hundred-person company decided that she hated her job. So she decided to downshift to a director-level position that gave her just enough status. It worked like a charm. She later downshifted again, spending a year climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and leading safaris in Africa. “Just enough” gave her the freedom to create a much richer life.

Just enough information

This is big. In our Brave New Economy, information is plentiful, cheap, and usually irrelevant. Lots of information is useless; the right information is invaluable. In preparation for a client meeting, someone will often circulate a dozen pages of client “data dump” the night before. Overwhelming, certainly. But is it worth reading? Who knows?

Don’t just accept information. Start by choosing some good questions, ask them, and collect just enough information to get a good enough answer. You’re not shooting for a perfect decision every time; you want just enough good decisions so you still reach your goal.

Your intuition may be helpful in defining this elusive “enough.” The COO of a company may find she can begin to make the right decision most of the time with just 30 percent of the information she normally would collect.

Scheduled maintenance

One thing you should have “just enough” of is work itself! In the book The Power of Full Engagement, author Tony Schwartz points out that regulating your energy is key to being productive. That means taking frequent work breaks to rest, relax, and recover. The same holds true writ large; schedule vacations throughout the year, and make sure you take them. When on vacation, leave your Internet connection and cell phone at home. Never, ever call into the office.

The last way to reduce overwhelm is to make frequent use of “no.” Say it when someone tries to obligate you for something you don’t have time for. Say “no” when your boss sets targets that can’t be reached without burnout. Say “no” when someone wants your feedback for the tenth time on the same memo?tell them, “it’s GOOD ENOUGH.”

“No” is hard for most of us to say. We like to feel appreciated and useful to others. But far better to say “no” many times and concentrate on a few great wins than to say “yes” after “yes” after “yes” and deliver poor results.

If saying “no” doesn’t work, take a drastic course: Let go. Stop caring. If your environment is demanding too much of you, let go of it. (And if you’re a leader, don’t put your people in the position of having to make this choice!) In a choice between sanity and emotional buy-in, choose sanity.

Detaching doesn’t have to mean that you do less work. In fact, if you detach in just the right way, you can start delegating out work you previously guarded with your life. Find someone who can do the work better, then let them go at it. The key to delegation, however, is striking the balance between sharing the burden and caring enough to make sure things get done.

At the end of the day, it’s not like there’s much choice. You will reduce your overwhelm. Either you’ll do it voluntarily and deliberately, or you’ll do it when you collapse with a nervous breakdown. You owe it to yourself to take control of your own life and make the hard choices now, when they’re uncomfortable, but doable. Something’s got to give. Don’t let it be you.