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A Simple Practice Reduces Stress While Enhancing Performance and Quality of Life

You may be actively cultivating skills that make you less productive, while eroding your health and happiness at the same time. It doesn't have to be that way.

You may be actively cultivating skills that make you less productive, while eroding your health and happiness at the same time. It doesn't have to be that way.

Growing up in a rural area, I used to work on a farm in the summer putting up hay. On a warm afternoon, temperatures in the barn could easily reach one hundred and twenty degrees. Outside, a conveyor belt transported seventy-five pound bales from a wagon to a hole in the wall where they then dropped down around us and kicked up dust and chaff that filled the air, stuck to sweaty skin, and caused a hacking cough. My exhausted arms were covered with red scratches from hauling the bales into place. Steve, the farmhand, always stacked the hay at an unimaginable pace. In his fifties, and sweating more than anyone I had ever seen, he never stopped smiling. I was fifteen and, while I was in that barn, I was miserable. I will never forget a moment when we were waiting for a new wagon to pull up and begin the process again - Steve looked over at me grinning and said, "Isn't this great!?"

I liked Steve and admired his positive attitude, but I thought he was nuts. It turns out that he was practicing a skill that is increasingly valuable in the modern workplace - the skill of working hard, doing well, and being well.

It is not required that we live on the brink of a breakdown to be at the peak of performance. The truth is that it is possible to be very focused and put forth considerable effort while experiencing calm, creativity, and connection. In fact, despite the feeling by many that a high level of stress is required to be productive, the networks in the human brain that produce stress and anxiety actually keep us from seeing alternative solutions, points of connection, and creative ways forward.

When the stress scale tips past the mild worry that can stir us to action, we begin operating at levels well below our potential, we put our health at risk, and it can be hard for others to be around us. The bottom line is that operating out of survival mode is expensive in every way. The cost of lost productivity due to distraction, health issues, interpersonal conflict, and plain old burnout is close to a trillion dollars each year.

Fortunately, there are also networks in the brain that, when activated, allow us to tackle work in an engaged, flexible, and relaxed manner. Working from this exploratory mode, we are more efficient, effective, and easier to get along with - and we find our work more enjoyable and meaningful. Shifting from survival mode to exploration mode allows us to see possibilities and connect to motivation much deeper than collecting a paycheck.

If you want to shift activity in your brain from survival networks to exploratory networks, here's the practice:

Step One: Be Present

Observe the events around you, as well as the thoughts and sensations that give meaning to these events as if you were an impartial reporter. Take the stance that these things are happening rather than these things are happening to you.

Step Two: Be Positive

Take an easy breath, smile gently, open your posture, drop your shoulders, and relax your belly. Take a moment to cultivate acceptance, kindness, and gratitude for whatever is happening.

Step Three: Be Purposeful

Moving brain activity from survival to exploratory networks allows you to ask three crucial questions:

What is most important?

What is possible?

What is next?

As simple (and perhaps even simplistic) as this practice sounds, it works. There is a mountain of research to show that the practice of being present, positive, and purposeful impacts both quality of life and quality of performance. My clients who practice this consistently see dramatic results that include reductions in stress and anxiety, stronger relationships, greater appreciation for coworkers, higher productivity with less exhaustion, and increased enjoyment of their overall experience.

Understanding the benefits of this practice is not the same as practicing. A fitting analogy is that understanding the benefits of exercise does not produce the benefits of exercise. To extend the analogy -- it is helpful to have a running partner to get you out on the road in the morning, and it is helpful to have reminders in your life to get you to practice. Notes placed on your desk or computer, auto texts that cue you to take a breath, alarms on your phone, or even a string tied to your wrist can be helpful. The more you practice, the better you get at it.

What is your practice for deliberately shifting from survival mode to exploration mode? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Dave Mochel is the founder of Applied Attention; a company dedicated to teaching and supporting the transformational practice of being present, positive, and purposeful. He translates research in neuroscience, behavior, and performance into simple principles and practices than can be incorporated into any activity or organization. The result of his work is reduced stress and anxiety with improved performance, relationships, and quality of life.

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