Health and Wellness

Planning for a Successful Vacation

Show Notes From CoolTimeLife Podcast Episode 15

Note – this podcast was originally aired as a longer, one hour episode (Episode 1). We have been cutting them up and re-releasing seleted parts to make them easier to listen to (i.e. shorter).

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Vacations – we all dream about them, but are they being put to the best use? Half of the therapeutic value of a vacation comes from planning – not just where you want to go, but planning the days leading up to departure date as well as your return to work after it’s done. If you do these right, your vacation will be doubly beneficial.

The Guardian article that I referred to was written by Jana Kasperkevic and can be found here.

Jana Kasperkevic in The Guardian writes:

In the U.S, the number of unused vacation days in the US recently was 169 million days, equivalent to $52.4bn in lost benefits. The reason for this, she writes, is that many employees are afraid to take it, while others just don’t get any at all, in fact she points out that only about 77% of Americans working for privately owned companies got paid vacation days. Those who choose not to go fear the face time problem, and they also feel that too much work will pile up while they are gone and they will be so stressed when they return that time off won’t be worth it.”

There are three distinct ways in which vacations work as a productivity and time management tool:

  • The most obvious is the vacation itself. It is supposed to be a time when you let go of all of the stresses and pressures of the working year and do the things you really want to do. Most people find the first three days or so to be a major period of transition as they catch up on all the sleep they have missed, and actually gear down from the pace of business. After those first few days, the restorative effects of the vacation start to take shape, and like so many other areas of life, this does not exist only in the mind. It has profound effects on the body, particularly the immune system, as you start to actually feel relaxed and feel good.
  • There is also the anticipation of a vacation to consider. If you find yourself in a stressful work situation, putting in extra hours and dealing with crisis after crisis, one of the best ways of mitigating the stress of that moment is to look forward to a break or vacation on the horizon – this is the light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing there is an end in sight has both a motivating and calming effect on your mind and body.
  • Third, there’s the memory of the vacation. Once you have had some time off, hopefully you have done something great with that time, those pleasant memories of the activities – or just the rest – will stay with you forever. Those are good memories, and feeling good always has long term physiological rewards. As the old expression goes, no one on their deathbed ever wishes they had spent more time at the office. Great memories flood your brain with endorphins. They make you feel good, and this too serves as insulation against the stressors of the workday.


Your vacation should be treated as one of the most important parts of your job, because that’s just what it is. Consequently, vacation days must be defended if year-round productivity and achievement are your goals. This means you must take the time to plan your vacation period carefully to help ensure a smooth, stress-free departure and a smooth, stress-free return.

First, plan ahead to avoid that pre-vacation crunch. The last few days at the office before a vacation can actually be more stressful than usual, because it seems that all the work that you would have done if you were not going on vacation becomes immediate top-priority. Everyone around you feels you absolutely must get it all finished before your departure. Start planning your departure a few weeks or months before the actual date, and you can influence the timelines of your projects, meetings, and other office events.

Draw a protective barrier around the period of your vacation, especially including the ten business days leading up to it and the ten immediately following it. Make sure those days before your vacation are carefully planned, so that you can hand off responsibilities to others and wrap up your projects. The days preceding a vacation should not be just business as usual for you. They should be about winding down and handing off. If you try to keep on working on your normal tasks at your normal pace on these days, you will simply generate more stress and overwork than the holiday could possibly alleviate.

Plan your return before you leave. Though most people don’t want to even think about their return to work as they start their holiday, a smooth return will help to ease the stress of stepping back into the rat race. The day of your return should not include any meetings. It should be a transition day, in which time is given over to catching up on the events that happened during your absence, returning returning calls and emails, updating your agenda, and getting back up to speed.

Why is this so important? Because too many people simply return to the office and hit the ground running, trying to immediately regain the pace they were at when they left. They return straight away to the stress levels and pressures that they left behind, erasing much of the therapeutic benefits that a vacation brings. Remember: your vacation is a tool for relaxation and rebuilding. It is part of your job. You benefit, your family benefits, and your company benefits. Ease your way back into the momentum of work, just like a runner warming up before a marathon, and you will be better prepared to handle it. Start planning your next vacation immediately.

Who Is Your Emergency Contact Point?

Emergencies such as natural disasters, and the human-made kind, happen all the time, but usually somewhere else. Many of us grow a little complacent when it comes to preparedness, since to even think of a bad thing happening touches our superstitious sides and seems to invite the event into our lives. But floods, earthquakes, power failures and civil unrest will continue, and will likely escalate. There are many things to consider in terms of surviving such a calamity, but two questions that absolutely have to be asked is, “who is my emergency contact person?” and “how will I reach this person?”

We have grown very comfortable with carrying a smartphone with us everywhere, but what if it got lost or broken? Or what if the cell system broke down? How would you reach someone then? I would have a hard time remembering anyone’s actual phone number, since I so seldom actually enter numbers anymore.  Everything is pre-set and one-touch. Most people I ask feel the same.

That’s why it is so important to identify and Emergency Contact Point (ECP). Assign a member of your family, or a trusted neighbor to be your local ECP, and choose a second person – someone who lives at least 100 miles away, to be your long-distance ECP. Both of these people should be someone who is most likely to be available, and will be able to relay messages in case other channels fail.

In the event of a power or cell network blackout, you may still be able to make a call from a payphone or a land-line. In cases of emergency – any situation in which direct connection with family members is no longer possible – everyone should know to call in to the ECP. This person can take messages from each family member as they call in, and then relay them back out. It’s a central communications point.

Consider also having a social media place or code, for example a Twitter account or FaceBook page that could be used as a rallying point for messages, assuming you can get on to the Internet.

The key point here is to set this up in advance. Choose your ECPs and your social media strategy, and inform everyone in your family how to use them. Yes, it seems dorky and tedious, but it can save many hours or days of worry and wasted effort should things fail in a big way.


Learning from Centuries of Stress, Power and Control

This post originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Time Management for iPad Magazine.

book-the-48-laws-of-power1In his excellent book, The 48 Laws of Power, author Robert Greene presents an awe-inspiring collection of stories, taken from all corners of the globe and from all centuries – from history, scripture and folklore, that focus on power relationships between people. As he illustrates, power exists everywhere that two people interact. It fills the space between them, in terms of their respective abilities and influence on a situation. Consequently the awareness of one’s power in any given situation, either having power or lacking it, and the interaction that such an awareness has when it rubs up against the desire to effect change that is beneficial to oneself, becomes a source of stress.

Stress, after all, in both the physical and emotional worlds, is basically the tension exerted on an object by a force. Most people think of stress in the negative sense, since it occurs when “what is happening” does not equal “what should be happening,” in other words, a desire is exerted upon a situation but the results are not satisfactory. This negative stress is more properly called distress. Positive stress exists as well, of course. Its proper name is eustress. Positive eustress is sometimes just accepted as happiness, contentment or excitement. Great examples of this might be the exhilaration of downhill skiing, or watching a thrilling movie. Laughter, too, is a great, and very healthy positive stress.

But most people are aware only of negative stress, although they might not be aware of just how much damage it does to the human body and mind. Numerous clinical studies have suggested that stress is at the root of most major illnesses, due the impact on the immune and chemical systems of the body that instinctive defensiveness causes. Stress releases hormones that put people on guard, or make them fearful or resentful. Sleep is affected. Clear thought is affected too, as age-old reflexes revert to the fight-or-flight state that rejects intellectual thought, halts digestion and increases blood pressure, all in the name of facilitating a hasty escape.

In short, stress kills. It kills creativity, it kills opportunity, and eventually it kills people.

This is why Robert Greene’s book is so effective as a stress-management manual. Most self-help books provide recipes and regimens to follow: prescriptions for good health. But not all adults are good at following orders or techniques for more than a day or so. If they do not fit into an individual’s personality type, many good ideas stay forever locked on the outside of a person’s being.

But The 48 Laws of Power tells stories, and most people are very good at listening to stories. We learned it as children, and it remains a welcome medium for learning, as all major religions will attest. The stories in Greene’s book reveal the magic that happens when people allow stress to pass them by, replacing it with calm and clear thinking. The book does this not by telling the reader what to do, but instead telling the reader what others did.

For example, the story of a Chinese military general who was suspected of disloyalty to his emperor. He was given the ultimatum of creating ten thousand arrows by sunrise or being executed. Instead of hurriedly carving one arrow at a time, he sent a contingent of his soldiers downstream on a raft covered in hay and tethered by a long rope. The raft floated close to an enemy encampment in the dead of night, at which point the soldiers on the raft made a great deal of noise, prompting the camp’s guards to fire arrows towards the source of the disturbance. These arrows embedded themselves harmlessly in the raft’s hay bales. After some time, the raft was pulled back upstream and the arrows, ten thousand of them, were extracted, and presented to the emperor.

These types of stories demonstrate the significant gains that can be made by taking time to step back and think things through before either acting or merely reacting. Grace under pressure, leadership, confidence, charisma, clear decision-making – all of these admirable traits come from not allowing the heat and stress of the moment to overcome one’s higher thinking powers.

This is why the 80/20 rule is so important in managing time, tasks, and most importantly, stress. This rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, has many uses, an illustration of something small impacting something much larger. In the context of time management, this refers to taking the time to plan; to anticipate the future and its possible permutations, and to influence them in your favour.

The antidote to the sense of negative stress is the sense of control. Knowing and feeling that you are in control of a situation changes you physically and chemically. Stress hormones such as cortisol are called off. Blood and oxygen are redirected to the thinking areas of the brain. Blood vessels dilate and circulation improves. Vocal tone deepens (for men and women alike), and most importantly, thoughts, ideas and concerns can be prioritized.

It is well-known that panic is contagious, but so is calm. A person who takes the time to de-stress a situation does everyone a favour. People will flock to, and follow, the calm, confident leader who knows the way. They will do the tasks required, with confidence and faith.

This principle need not apply only to large-scale emergencies; a text message will do. Many tasks and relationships are damaged because people feel compelled to answer their text messages, emails or phone-calls the moment they arrive. This is stress dominating the moment. There is a fear that by not answering, the sender/caller will be offended. This “answering stress” is the medium of the immediate. It was designed originally to help keep humans alive in environments where large creatures dwelled, but now asserts itself in the false urgency of a caller’s expectations.

By contrast, the person who applies a small amount of their time to influence the future, by informing callers and clients as to when, where and how they will return calls, such as “always within two hours,” manages the expectations of the callers and as such controls the stress levels of all involved, including themselves.

Negative stress kills. But control, derived from planning according to the 80/20 rule, turns every situation into something that can be anticipated, handled, and transformed into a win.

The Chemistry of Sleep: A Recipe for Effective Time Management

Time Management MagazineThis post originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Time Management for iPad Magazine.

Here are three things everyone needs to know about sleep: first it’s pure chemistry; second it’s a twenty-four-hour a day thing; third, it’s about quality over quantity.

Sleep is the single greatest investment in productivity and time management there is, followed in short succession by nutrition. When a person arrives at work, ready for a new day, he/she should be able to do so feeling mentally refreshed, alert and headache-free. But because sleep is associated with “not working,” it is discounted as a tedious necessity by many overly busy people, who opt to sacrifice it in the name of doing more work. The bitter irony here is that they would not actually have to do all that extra work, if adequate sleep had been allowed in the first place.

The chemistry of sleep is a hormonal process. Primarily, a hormone called melatonin, produced by the pineal gland located in the centre of the brain, triggers the nervous system to shut down for the night. Melatonin can only be manufactured in low-light conditions. What this means for busy working people is that the production of melatonin starts as soon as the light receptors of the body (the eye and the skin) perceive a decrease in ambient light. So as the sun starts to move toward the horizon, the body anticipates nightfall and starts to produce the hormone in anticipation of sleep.

In a nutshell, this means that the sleep sequence doesn’t start the moment people put their head on their pillow, but rather it begins as the workday draws towards its traditional end of 5:00-ish. The amount of melatonin in the bloodstream then builds up over the following six hours or so until a sufficient amount exists to help a person drift into a sleeping state.

The problems start when people fight this process, either intentionally or otherwise. For example, succumbing to the temptation to take work home in the evenings, to catch up on emails after dinner, or to simply keep on working, forces the body back into “alert” mode where it must fight against the introduction of melatonin by effectively diluting it. Furthermore numerous recent studies have shown that the blue light emitted from electronic devices such as TVs, computers and smartphones is precisely the type of light that is instrumental in decreasing melatonin production.

It is not necessary to remain totally inert between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and midnight; it’s more a matter of identifying activities that are enjoyable, and which continue the production of melatonin, and those that are more stressful and which naturally inhibit it. For example, playing a late evening game of hockey might be highly aerobic and stimulating, but since it represents a form of mental relaxation – it’s a hobby, not an obligation – the chemical process of melatonin production is not substantially inhibited. Contrast this to staying up late to do homework, or bookkeeping or taxes. The stress that comes from doing work that we would really rather not do erases the gains of melatonin production and severely jeopardizes the chance of getting a good night’s sleep.

The role of sleep is to provide rest for the body and mind, allowing both to repair the wear-and-tear from the day before. Healing happens overnight; kids do their growing overnight; dreams process thoughts, memories and experiences and sort them all out on the short-term memory platform of the brain where they are discarded the next morning. Most importantly the immune system is the primary beneficiary of good sleep, helping bolster against short-term illnesses such as colds and flu, as well as more long-term and dangerous conditions such as cancer, type II diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

When a person comes to work after having had a good amount of sleep – even just a few hours will do, not necessarily 8 or 9 – the mind is better able to prioritize, negotiate, delegate, communicate and focus. That’s where it becomes a time management issue. The time invested in allowing an evening to unfold as it should (rather than catching up on extra work) is paid back in terms of higher-quality productivity being attained in shorter periods the following day.


Time Management: Motivation

I write for Time Management for iPad Magazine, an authority on Time Management. This article was originally published in September2013.

TMMag13The formula is quite simple: to be motivated to do something means that your body wants to do it, but not your mind. Take gold or diamond prospecting, for example. It involves a great deal of back-breaking work, for small-time operators anyway. They persevere, day in and day out, spurred on by the possibility of striking pay dirt and its promised riches. Intellectually, the mind knows that a lot of labour is involved, but the body, with its instincts for survival and a better, safer life, is motivated to continue, regardless.

It is the same for all tasks, even those smaller in scope than panning for gold. Motivation must speak to the body, not the mind.

Leadership, for example, is a school of knowledge in which certain people learn, or try to learn, how to extract consistently great behaviour from other human beings. Good leaders learn that motivation and quality are best achieved through positive reward as opposed to punishment, and great leaders learn that positive reward is a process that requires consistent conscious application. Great leadership though, comes down to a few simple concepts, such as acknowledgement of other peoples’ hard work, a vision and communication style that inspires confidence, and the skills to build great teams and realistic plans. All of these attributes inspire confidence in others, and confidence, just like the potential riches of a gold mine, speaks to comfort and security: very human, very instinctive, very basic desires.

Therefore, when an individual seeks to find the motivation to get a task done on time, whether at work or at home – a PowerPoint presentation or the laundry – an intellectual knowledge of the task is not sufficient. There must be a human desire – an enjoyment of the result – a confirmation of the value of this task to one’s own existence, which must factor in.

If you are seeking to motivate yourself to perform a task, what can you identify as the pleasure – as the physiological reward that your body and instincts need? Will this task bring you money? Respect? Promotion? Further opportunity? Such results are positive, tangible rewards and they need to be identified and written down as part of your plan. Tangible rewards symbolize an end point of an action; the point at which the body can rest and recoup its energy, while enjoying a slightly better living situation than it had prior to the task. To schedule an activity without such a promise of reward is to work blind, and the human body doesn’t like to do that. It needs to see that it will be better off after the task or it will not want to do it.

Granted, not all tasks carry a positive reward, or at least not an obvious one. Sometimes the reward lies in just getting it done. The relief of getting an onerous task off your plate might be sufficient reward. A clear awareness of the road ahead, a visualization of the fact that life exists beyond this task, that there are other things happening in your life this afternoon, tomorrow, next week, might be sufficient to keep the task in perspective and to stave off procrastination.

Ultimately, motivation is connected to pleasure. Motivation to diet or eat right must be connected to the pleasure of buying slimmer clothes or of living long enough to enjoy one’s children, grandchildren or one’s leisure activities. The motivation to undertake a new time-effective technique such as organization or planning must demonstrate a similar benefit, to yourself and to everyone else involved.

Think about distraction for a moment. Have you ever found yourself drifting off? You read a paragraph (like this one) and suddenly discover your mind has looked at the words but not processed them? Intellectually you know it is important to read this, but physiologically and physically, your body says there is greater benefit to drifting away and resting for a moment. If that’s the case, it’s time to stop reading and go and do something else instead. Or find a nicer place, maybe a coffee shop or a place with a nice view. Your body knows what it wants, and it will only behave when it gets it. Motivation in yourself and in others comes from tapping into that vein and leveraging the energy that emanates from positive expectation and actual reward.


Time Management Magazine for iPad

Seeking Innovation between the Last Minute and the Critical Path

Google's Black Light Aquarium Room

Google’s Black Light Aquarium Room

It has been announced in various places, including Quartz and the Huffington Post that Google has effectively closed down its 20-percent time policy, which allowed employees to work on side projects for up to one fifth of the workweek. Along with the black light aquarium room, the excellent food, and the fleet of wi-fi buses, this block of company-sanctioned experimentation time made Google the go-to-place for smart designers, thinkers and programmers. Google was the do-no-evil wonderkind that nimbly stepped clear of the vast and dull corporate shadow being cast by Microsoft. At the heart of its growth was the wonderfully innovative idea that a company could be built basically on a product called knowledge.

Now I myself have never been CEO of a global colossus the size of Google, so I shall not presume to say I know to run a company of that size any better; however I have worked with the employees of companies large and small for twenty years now, and one thing I do know: innovation cannot be hatched from cubicles.

The workplace, whether its product is data, insurance, cars, law, or any one of a million other items, remains a collective of square holes into which the roundish heads of humans are forced. The expectation is that productivity comes from an eight or nine hour day, and that anything left over can be caught up at home. Cubicles are square; the blocks on the Microsoft Outlook calendar are square, and the boxes on the corporate hierarchical org chart are all square.

Humans, however, do not fit this square mold; they are flexible, organic and reactive. Their capacity for creative thought, for focus, for collaboration and for problem solving ebbs and flows with the chemistry of their blood, with quality of the sleep they had a few hours earlier, and with the impact of the day’s stresses on their nervous system. People’s brains do not solve problems or come up with brilliant ideas by staring at a blank computer screen. Ideas come when the eyes and hands are distracted by other things, at which point the brain has time to move around and unravel segments of its tightly wound  processing system.

That’s what made Google’s black light aquarium room so great. It wasn’t a place to hide from the boss or burn off a hangover; it was a place to keep the eyes busy while the brain did its work. The same applied to the Google staircase, where people were able meet and talk informally. These were the synergy machines; the brainstorming centres.

There seems a time, however, when bright young companies suddenly hit middle-age. For some it is when they go public, and they trade in the youthful fires of energy and idealism for a huge pile of cash and a boardroom full of imagination-free masters. For others, it is a size issue. As soon as a company needs an HR department, it has moved, emotionally, from motorcycle to minivan. And once a company turns inward, the focus becomes less on innovation and more on just getting the work done.

Yahoo’s recent and highly public recanting of its work-from-home policy is an example. Working from home has never been looked upon kindly by the managers of the world, regardless of the industry. After all who knows whether an employee is really doing the work assigned? Thus the nickname “shirking from home.”

The problem seems to be that many companies including the smart ones, seem to confuse face-time with quality output. For example, Jody Thompson, co-founder of consulting firm CultureRx, was quoted by Bloomberg stating that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer “has taken a giant leap backward…instead of keeping great talent, she is going to find herself with a workplace full of people who are good at showing up and putting in time.”

Productivity and innovation need room, time and opportunity to develop. In most companies, employees are trapped on an eternal critical path. Workload and deadlines clash with delays and wasteful practices so that every task being worked on bumps up against the next one, shunting them all down the line out the door and into personal time. Human beings cannot work well under pressure, and the critical path of an overstretched workforce is a prime manufacturer of that pressure.

I have met many people who claim to work best at the last minute; the adrenaline and energy of quickly arriving deadlines forces them to be at their best. However, based on my company’s analysis of their results, I have to disagree. They are forced to be the best they can be at that moment, certainly, since the human nervous system is programmed to be reactive and to kick into action-mode whenever a threat is present. However, high-energy output is not the same as high quality output. For example every document, presentation or proposal could be at least fifty percent better, more powerful and more concise when a smart person gives him/herself the time to plan, prepare, review and rewrite. But who has time for that?

Now this issue is not new. It has existed for most of the post-war high-tech age. However what is new is the mobility of the workforce upon which such companies rely. Professionals of all ages, from new grads to 50-somethings seeking a second, third or fourth career, are realizing that their best opportunity for a fulfilling and secure job might actually come from outside the well-manicured perimeters of a publicly traded company. Freelancing, contracting, and networking are becoming the essential skills of the new economy.

I recently interviewed a CEO who stated that when hiring new grads he always looked for candidates who had scored B’s and C’s in school, because, he said, these people know how to talk and communicate.  Social skills, he said, were more important, since they were the catalysts for ideas, innovations and relationships.

When I read about an organization that has folded in on itself and has replaced the spark of innovation with the slow-burning wick of administration, I ask myself, “How long will the goods ones stay there?” One need only look at the huge collection of start-ups, niche companies and self-employed experts, whose stock-in-trade is creativity, innovation, and agility. These individuals and companies recognize that they are the authors of their own success or failure. As such it is incumbent on them to stay great, competitive and employable. That’s the original spark that has always made great things happen.

Better Homes and Gardens Article: Getting Orgaanized

Better Homes and GardensBelow is a link to a story that ran in the September 2012 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. I was interviewed as one of their experts on the topic of “Getting Organized.”

Get those bills out of sight!

Unsightly bills!

Unsightly bills!

This is the time of year when everyone gets serious – paying taxes, focusing on financial responsibility, performing the penance of life. Most people dislike doing taxes and paying bills because it is not enjoyable and can be a major source of procrastination and stress.

Here is just a little tip to make one part of this a little easier: keep your desk clear, and your mind will follow. Here’s what I mean:

When you receive a bill in the mail, what do you do with it? Most people leave it lying around as a reminder to pay the darn thing. Pretty soon this leads to a pile of ugly looking envelopes, lying in a stack in the kitchen or by the computer, reminding you in their passive yet nasty way that they are still waiting to be paid.

Clutter affects thinking. Your short-term creative memory needs all the help and space it can get, and when too many items fill its field of view, clear thought is pushed away. You might not think this happens to you but it does. You might not think it means a lot, but it does. Clutter obfuscates clarity, and leads to procrastination and resentment of tasks. Your personal success is dependent on being able to think clearly, plan, negotiate and influence.

My suggestion is simple and clean: whenever you receive a bill in the mail, open it, and note down in your calendar the amount and its due date, allowing three days or so for processing (for online banking), then file the actual bill away. That’s it.

This leaves you with a clean working area without losing track of the bills you have to pay.

Bills will never go away, but it is always worth it to live every minute of your life free of dark feelings and fear. A clean workspace devoid of “threats” is a humble but powerful step on that path.

Problems getting to sleep?

sleepRecently a past workshop participant asked me for advice on how best to fall asleep. Her mind gets too busy with thoughts, which leads to one of the classic problems of working people – sleep deficit.

To wind down towards healthy sleep, one must first remember that the build-up towards sleep is a gradual chemical process, in which the body introduces the hormone melatonin into the bloodstream bit by bit. As such, rule number one for getting great sleep is to see the entire evening as part of this build-up process, so focus should be placed on relaxation, not work issues.

Relaxation is a very personal thing, and refers mainly to an emotional-chemical state rather than just being physically passive. mainly it comes down to fun. Vigorous sports, such as skiing, basketball or working out can be relaxing, because even though they are vigorous, they are mentally relaxing, which allows the release of Melatonin on-schedule.

By contrast, evenings filled with extra work left over from the office, or even doing life-related work such as bookkeeping, paying bills or things like that, are really not enjoyable and as such stimulate the body to work against itself, the sleep build-up process and stimulating it into action.

Rule number two for great sleep: If your mind tends to race and to seek out things to worry about during the evening, give it something else to do. Hobbies, reading, watching a movie, FaceBook, whatever interests you. A racing mind has be calmed, either through distraction, or by writing your ideas and thoughts down. By writing your ideas or plans on paper, you give your mind permission to let go of them by transferring them to a tangible surface.

The goal is to avoid having to lie there tossing and turning, by bringing sleep on in a slow, gradual fashion over the 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. period.

If you wake up in the middle of the night and find it hard to get back to sleep, it helps to understand why. The act of sleep is not a single continuum. It consists of five discreet phases, inside each of which different activities happen, from light dozing at the beginning throught to Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. Each of these phases is identified by different electrical outputs from the brain, and we pass through this collection of five phases three, four or five times a night.

Sometimes if you awaken, either naturally, or due to a noise, at the conclusion of the five phases your mind and body might consider the act of sleeping concluded, at least for the time being.

Many people get stressed at this point, afraid they will not get back to sleep and that tomorrow will be ruined.

Here then is a list of techniques and ideas to help.
Don’t fret the loss of sleep. People have been able to function on three or four hours of sleep. More is better of course, but most people will be ble to get through a day on just a couple of hours sleep.
Cover your clock. Lying there, watching the minutes tick away just increases stress and delays relaxation. Cover it up and don’t worry about it.
Move to another room. If sleep still won’t come, move to the living room and read a book – an enjoyable one, not related to work – under low light.
Eat some natural sleep inducing foods. The best is quite simple and quite tasty: simple cornk-based cereal such as Corn Flakes with some milk and honey added is a good sleep assistant, since this combination of natural ingredients allows the passage of tryptophan into the bloodstream to assist in sleeping.

If sleep deprivation lasts for many days, it is advisable to see a physician, of course, but the best rule of thumbis to remember that the sleep process actually stats in the late afternoon and builds up to the actual act of sleep over many hours. Anything you can do to end your workday and allow the evening to be used for relaxation only will be to your advantage.

The best ingredient in a productive workday is the quality of the sleep you had the night before, so any guilt you might feel about wanting to do extra work in the evening must be balanced against the truth that rest tonight equals top-level performance tomorrow, whereas work tonight is just borrowing tomorrow’s energy.

Thinking Clearly during Transition: Build a Gazebo

Stressed? Build one of these, or something like it.

Stressed? Build one of these, or something like it.

It was during a workshop in which I was talking with a group of professionals-in-transition that one gentleman in the audience asked me if it was okay for him to take a week or two off from job-seeking so that he could build a gazebo in his back yard. It was something he had wanted to do for his family for a long time, but he had never been able to get around to it because he had spent too many weekends stuck at the office. He wanted to know if it was wrong to take time to do this when a part of him felt he really should be out looking for his next job.

Clearly, he was looking for permission to step away from the work of finding work. I told him that it was absolutely the right thing to do; in fact, I have long held the belief that everyone in a position of stress, confusion, or overload should go out and build a gazebo of their own. Everyone who is thrown into the soul-wrenching position of losing identity, career, and financial stability should, as a first step, take on some activity that allows time to flush out the panic through physical distraction: a catalyst for reflection.

To set out to build a gazebo is to undertake a physical activity in which body and mind become focused on a plan of action unrelated to life and its current problems. When both body and mind become occupied in this manner, even when the gazebo-building work gets strenuous, there is relaxation that comes in the form of a positive stress called eustress. When both the body and mind relax, blood pressure drops, reflection happens, and then creative thought happens.

Action creates positive stress which helps solve problems.

Some people might turn to a week of playing tennis, or of long walks with the dog, or of painting (either with an easel, or on the living room walls with a roller), or of tidying the yard or building a deck. What is most important is that you choose a solitary activity in which body and mind focus on constructive work. There will be time for discussing your findings and thoughts with your mentor later. For now, you need some time to slow down and let the thoughts come.

Remember, this is not a chronic assignment, just as unemployment need not be a chronic condition. The gazebo project might take a week, or two. It symbolizes not just a mind-and-body focused activity but a finite activity as well. Upon completion of the project, you’ll be ready for the next chapter of your life.

By slowing down in this fashion to work on your personal gazebo, you allow for significant, salient thoughts to emerge and rise to the top, unfettered by the trivial priorities of email and meetings. Questions will emerge, in your expanding, thinking mind, such as:

  • What do I value?
  • What do I like to do?
  • In my heart, what does my next job look like?
  • What hours and conditions would suit me best?
  • What do I wish to achieve? What companies interest me, regardless of whether they currently have openings or not?
  • Who do I know that can help me and what should I say to these people?
  • How would an ideal job fit with my ideal balanced life?

Focusing on an unrelated topic such as building a gazebo gives your mind permission to massage and work on these questions without the stress of applying hard focus to them. This is indirect thinking, and in just the same manner that slow is so often quicker than fast when seeking to attain a goal, so indirect thinking leads to resolution faster than direct thinking does.

(Excerpted and abridged from my book “Work Like a Wolf.” To purchase the book visit