Ambition, Relationships, and the Pursuit of Well-Being

“Ambition drives people forward; relationships and community, by imposing limits, hold people back. Which is more important?” — Emily Esfahani Smith

Ambition is arguably a very important component of doing well in our work. It helps us take on new challenges, grow our skills, and advance in our careers. However, it’s possible that ambition comes at a cost of our relationships. Long hours can keep us away from our families, competition among colleagues can fray friendships, and a focus on achieving the next “step” at the expense of all else can be borne from ambition and negatively impact our well-being.

Allow work to be a vehicle for well-being, not an obstacle to overcome on the path to well-being.

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Obtain Super-Focus by Switching off Your Brain’s “Fast Mode”

By Basil Tsedik

One effect the constant overstimulation of modern media has on our brains is what Leo Babauta calls “Fast Mode.” When you rev up your mind by churning through email, your Twitter stream, Facebook news feed, and back again, your brain is working on overdrive. That million-miles-a-minute pace leads to empty productivity. You’ll cross small tasks off your to do list, sure. But you won’t complete anything meaningful or truly substantive.

Why is that exactly? The limitations of your brain’s Fast Mode lie in the quick pace of thinking and decision making. Consider how quickly you flick through tweets, thumbing down each page, favoriting some, clicking on a link here and there, replying briefly to others. Or email: most of the time you probably plow through your inbox, filing and archiving certain messages, deleting others, dashing off a rapid response to those that require it. Any emails that require more deliberate thought undoubtedly languish longer in your inbox until you can find the spare time to address them. Fast Mode is harmful in its blockage of deeper thought:

Writing or otherwise creating when your brain is in Fast Mode is nearly impossible, until you switch to Slow Mode. You’ll just switch from the writing to some smaller, faster task, or go to distractions. Considering a tough decision long enough to weigh the various factors and make a good decision is also pretty near impossible while you’re in Fast Mode…. You can’t really exercise or meditate in Fast Mode, either, because those take longer than a minute.

Babauta encourages learning to recognize when you’re operating in mental Fast Mode, and pump the brakes to switch gears to Slow Mode:

Being in Fast Mode leads to constant switching, and constant busy-ness. It leads to overwork, because when do you switch it off? It leads to exhaustion, because we never give ourselves breathing room.

Learn to recognize when you’re in Fast Mode, and practice switching to Slow Mode now and then. It’s essential to doing all the things that are really important.


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Break Your New Year’s Resolutions into 90-Day Chunks

By Amy Streger for the To Resolve Project

By Amy Streger for the To Resolve Project

Think about the long-term goals that you’ve set for yourself this year. When you will know that you’ve achieved them? If your answer is “by next year,” you might want to rethink your approach. By waiting for December 31, 2016 to measure your success of your 2015 goals, you’re spreading yourself too thin and giving yourself a tiny margin for failure. 

Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, proposes breaking down your year-long goals into 90-day chunks: 

You may have lots of goals, and that’s a good thing. Giving yourself 90 days means you can focus on a few at a time, knowing that there’s another 90-day period coming up soon. Maybe during the first quarter you focus on launching a new product. Then in the second quarter you focus on finding a new and bigger space. At the end of six months, you’ll have the new product and the bigger space, whereas if you aimed to do both at once, you might get overwhelmed and figure out neither.

Don’t wait until the end of the year to assess your success. Break your year-long goals into shorter intervals so that you can fail fast and reset quickly if needed.


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How to Fine-Tune Your Intuition

Created by Till Teenck for the Noun Project

Created by Till Teenck for the Noun Project

In his new chronicle of The Container Store’s past and present, Uncontainable: How Passion, Commitment, and Conscious Capitalism Built a Business Where Everyone Thrives, Chairman and CEO Kip Tindell devotes an entire chapter to the concept of intuition.

Principle Six of The Container Store’s seven foundational principles is “Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind. You need to train before it happens.” In Tindell’s company, the cultivation of intuition translates to a robust training program for all employees from building maintenance personnel up to VPs. The Container Store trains its full-time people almost 300 hours in their first year, then additional hours day in and day out throughout their career. The retail industry average, says Tindell, is eight hours all told.

The justification for all this (expensive, time-consuming) training is Tindell’s firm belief in the power of intuition, and the absolute necessity of knowledge and experience to make that intuition possible. Container Store employees use their intuition to divine what a customer’s true needs are, to gauge whether or not a candidate is the right hire, and to channel their creativity to come up with interesting solutions to problems.

Tindell recounts a story that has stuck with him since he read it in 1986:

One day, Einstein was sitting on a train that wasn’t moving. As another train moved past, he felt as if he were moving backward. It’s an experience most of us have had. But unlike the rest of us, Einstein used the experience, in a flash of intuition, to help him conceive the theory that would change our entire understanding of the universe. Einstein wouldn’t have had this insight if he hadn’t spent his whole life studying physics and mathematics. In other words, Einstein was prepared to have this breakthrough observation.

Intuition is a strong instinct, crucial to creative discovery. Your intuition tells you whether or not you’re working with the right partner, whether or not a design looks or feels right, and whether or not you’re approaching burnout. But Tindell’s takeaway is that you have to fine-tune your intuition before it will be useful to you:

The better you are at something—whether it’s dancing, playing the violin, or Man in the Desert Selling [The Container Store's sales philosophy]—the more reliable, brilliant, and touched by genius your intuition will be. I’ve been fly-fishing all my life. So if I’m teaching you to fly-fish, and I intuitively think there’s a trout under that rock, there probably is. If you’ve never fished before and you think there’s a trout under that rock, there probably isn’t.


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Feeling Stressed? Breathe.

By Manca Flajs

By Manca Flajs

According to a report from the American Institute of Stress, 80 percent of workers feel stressed in their job; nearly half say they need help learning how to manage stress, and 42 percent say that their coworkers need such help.

Whether you’re facing an imminent deadline or an emotionally-charged conversation with a colleague, you need to find a way to let go of the stress. Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, suggests and age-old solution to get into a calm and focused state: count your breath.

Every morning, before I went to work, I did a session – maybe 20 minutes – of focusing on my breath, and wherever my mind wandered, like “What am I gonna do about this boss?” I just let that go and go back to my breath. This has two effects – it sharpens attention, and it calms the body. So I get to work in the best state to get work done, which is full concentration, calm and relaxed…

The stress-busting breathing exercise that Goleman uses is easy to do yourself, no matter where you are or what you’re doing:

When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  2. Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  3. Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  4. Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
Studies reveal that stress levels have been progressively increasing over the past two decades, and they show no sign of slowing down. As the workplace continues to grow more fast-paced, and your work becomes more demanding, it’s more important than ever to help your body relax, and get your mind focused.

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Need a Time Out? Build a Creation Cave

By Tom Haugomat

By Tom Haugomat

Productivity hacks aside, sometimes what you need in order to tackle something huge and long-term (like writing a book, launching a website, or shipping a product) is to give yourself a time out from the world.

Next time you feel the need to put a pin in everything going on around you, consider taking a page out of Clay Hebert’s book and building a “creation cave.” Cut yourself off from commitments and noise unrelated to your project. Say no to meetings, speaking opportunities, distracting social engagements. Carve out the quiet, restorative space and time that will fuel your focus.

The beauty of the creation cave is that it provides a force field that rebuffs any sources of procrastination, even those hiding under the guise of productivity. That is to say, sometimes when you’ve been putting off executing on an important (read: overwhelming) project, you find excuses in other work that’s helpful to the world and even productive, were it not for its theft of your time from your original goal. Hebert talks about how “productive” procrastination is even worse than the kind of procrastination spent watching TV on the couch:

If I was downing Jameson shots and dumping my sorrows on the bartender, the avoidance would be impossible to ignore. But I’m not. I’m helping people. I’m speaking at conferences. I’m teaching crowdfunding workshops. But the reality is, I’m hiding. In his seminal book, “The War of Art,” Steven Pressfield calls this The Resistance. I’m succumbing to The Resistance. My own brain is messing with me. Because I’m spending time helping people, taking one-off phone calls, consults and coffee meetings, one part of my brain tells another part of my brain that I AM being productive. Hey, at least I’m not drinking at the bar, right?! But it’s still hiding. It’s actually a worse form of hiding, because I can lie to myself and convince myself I’m still being productive.

When I help one person, I only help one person. When I produce content that anyone can read online, I can help thousands of people. Very clearly, the best way for me to help the most people is to stop my “productive hiding” and finish my crowdfunding course.

Amid a fire hose of distraction from myriad sources, sometimes a total hiatus is what’s necessary to nurture creative action. Pay attention to the types of activities eating up the time and effort you could be spending on a major project you’ve had on the docket; the more constructive they are, the more harmful they could be to your cache of energy towards that principal endeavor. Build your own creation cave; say no to anything that takes time and energy away from your original goal.


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Treat Procrastination like a Band-Aid

Photo by Joshua Stearns via Flickr

Photo by Joshua Stearns via Flickr

The best way to deal with procrastination is to treat it as you would ripping off a band-aid: get it over with as quickly as possible.

We procrastinate when we face anything that might make us feel even slightly uncomfortable. Whether that feeling of discomfort stems from overcoming difficulty, or boredom, or having to deal with failure, we’re bound to slack off if there’s any chance of us encountering it.

While it’s not unusual to procrastinate, it’s worth questioning when our fear of discomfort and resulting procrastination is justified, versus when we’ve assumed it will be worse than it really is. (But even time spent evaluating the reasons we might be procrastinating can be procrastination in itself.)

Instead, it’s best to dive head-first into whatever it is we’re procrastinating on to get the uncomfortable stuff over with as quickly as possible. As Robert Terson, author of Selling Fearlessly, tells us:

Here’s the vital question to ponder: What do you think is the greater agony to deal with…the pain of procrastination that you’re beating yourself up with day in and day out, or the difficulty of the project itself? I mean, why keep torturing yourself about it when you know down deep that you’re going to have to get to it eventually, that you’re never going to let it go, that sooner or later you’re going to have to, as Nike say, do it? Wouldn’t it be far better to tackle it now, get it over with, just to put a stop to the self-flagellation you’re enduring?

Procrastination is like a band-aid we use to cover up what needs to get done. Removing the band-aid can certainly hurt (no matter how many band-aids you’ve removed in your life) but there’s no way around the fact it has to be done. Besides: once the initial pain of ripping the band-aid off subsides, we’re often left wondering why we didn’t do it sooner.


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