Holiday recovery: Get back to work with less stress

A lecturer on stress management raised a glass of water and asked, “How heavy is this glass of water?”  Answers from the audience ranged from 20 grams to 500 grams.

“The absolute weight doesn’t matter.” replied the lecturer.  ”It depends on how long you try to hold it.

“If I hold it for a minute,” he said, “that’s not a problem.  If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my right arm.  If I hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance.  In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

The lecturer continued, “That’s the way it is with stress management.  If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won’t be able to carry on.  As with the glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again.  When we’re refreshed, we can carry on with the burden.”

I used this story in my column nine years ago, and I feel it’s just as important today.  So when you leave work today, put the burden of work down.  Don’t carry it home.  You can pick it up tomorrow.  Whatever burdens you’re carrying now, let them down for a moment if you can.  Relax; pick them up later after you’ve rested.  Life is short.  Enjoy it.

stress1Stress is part of life.  A certain amount of stress is normal, even useful.  Deadlines are stressful for many, but they also motivate people to finish projects and even feel some sense of accomplishment.  Sometimes such pressure is effective in fostering teamwork – the notion that we’re all in this together.  Team members share the stress and empathize with each other, and feed off each other’s energy.

That’s the upside of stress.  But when stress results from overwork, unreasonable demands and impossible expectations, it can affect everything from customer relations to personal problems to health issues.  Can anything be worth that?

While your mind may still be on a holiday schedule, you may not feel ready to get back into the groove.  Your job (and your boss) won’t wait, though.  Here’s how to get past the holiday bustle and New Year’s doldrums:

  • Review your goals.  Look back at what you accomplished the previous year.  What remains to be done?  Spend some time setting new objectives for the coming 12 months.  This should help you get charged up for the future.
  • Adjust your energy level.  Log your activities for a few days and identify tasks that waste time and leave you feeling drained.  Eliminate what you can, and look for strategies to manage what you’re stuck with.
  • Set priorities.  Look at what’s most important to get done now.  Achieving a fresh goal will improve your spirits and remind you of what you’re good at.
  • Commit to work/life balance.  Make one of your resolutions to balance the demands of your job and your personal life more equitably.  You’ll be less likely to crash after a holiday if you’re not stressed out before it begins.
  • Get enough sleep.  Lack of sleep diminishes your ability to deal with stress.  Seven or eight hours of sleep every night will help you stay calm and patient throughout the day.
  • Resist the urge to vent.  Expressing your feelings isn’t the same as losing control.  Lashing out at others can intensify your sense of frustration, especially if you can’t do anything about the situation.  Focus on solving problems without exploding.
  • Find your stress triggers.  By observing what’s likely to make you nervous, impatient or angry, you’ll be able to head off an ugly incident with your co-workers.
  • Exercise.  Regular exercise keeps you healthier overall.  Start slowly, if you need to.  Low-impact exercises such as yoga can help you relax your mind as well as your body.
  • Recognize the symptoms.  If you’re suffering from warning signs like lingering headaches, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating or stomach problems, you may be hiding from a very real threat to your health.  Pay attention to what your body is telling you before stress takes its toll.

And if all else fails, just remember:  Stressed spelled backwards is desserts.


Mackay’s Moral:  Don’t let excess stress get in the way of extreme success.

Life is what you make it

One of my favorite “Peanuts” cartoons by Charles Schultz has Charlie Brown saying, “I learned something in school today.  I signed up for folk guitar, computer programming, stained glass, art, shoemaking, and a natural foods workshop.”

“Instead,” he said, “I got spelling, history, arithmetic, and two study periods.”

The last panel has Charlie’s companion asking, “So, what did you learn?”

And Charlie replies:  “I learned that what you sign up for in life, and what you get, are two different things.”

Most years around this time, I write a column about New Year’s resolutions and why they can make such a difference in our lives.  But breaking them often makes us feel like failures.

Some days are tougher than others, it’s true.  But if you suffer from a general feeling that your life isn’t quite what you had hoped it would be, you may benefit from spending some time thinking about what you need to do differently, no matter what time of year.

Think about what your perfect day would be like.  Don’t hold back ideas, even if they seem far-fetched.  Then take it a step further:  What would your perfect life be like?

When you’ve finished, ask yourself if there is a big gap between how you would like your life to be and how it is.  After you have established what seems to be missing from your life, see what you can do, realistically, to take your life just one step closer to your ideals.  Don’t just quit your job to travel around the world – unless you have the means – but consider what you need to do to make that possible, if that’s your dream.

Would more education make a difference?  Is a career change in the future?  Do you need to devote more time to family and friends?  Are you doing anything to help others?  These are all big changes, and will require serious planning and willingness to make life changes.  But if you know what you truly want, and can reasonably accomplish, you will find a way to make it work.

HarveysuccessWrite your plan or goals down and put them where you can see them often.  Remind yourself that you are worth the effort.  And if you slide a little, remember that you can start again.  These are your plans, not someone else’s.

In the meantime, work with what you have.  Expand your experience and enjoy things that are within reach now – not someday when you finally have enough money, which might take a while to accomplish.

Now, instead of making some resolutions that you have little chance of keeping, you can start to make some life changes that will be rewarding every single day.

“There are three constants in life:  change, choice and principles,” said my friend, the late management guru Stephen Covey.  The third element he mentions is critical to making the best choices about the changes you want to make.

Our third United States President, Thomas Jefferson, lived by his “Ten Rules for the Good Life,” a set of guidelines that helped him stay on course.  In my mind, Jefferson was one of the smartest men who ever lived.  His rules may seem very general, but that is the beauty of their message:  a simple framework for making broader decisions in everyday life.  Here are his rules.

1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.

2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.

3. Never spend your money before you have it.

4. Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap; it will never be dear to you.

5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.

6. Never repent of having eaten too little.

7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.

8. Don’t let the evils that have never happened cost you pain.

9. Always take things by their smooth handle.

10. When angry, count to 10 before you speak; if very angry, count to 100.

Whether you use these rules written more than two centuries ago as a starting point, or define your own, making changes will be easier some days than others.  You already know, as Charlie Brown says, that what you sign up for in life and what you get are not always the same.  But you have the power to change that.  Use it!


Mackay’s Moral:  Confucius says:  Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. 

Keep your funny side up

Life is funny – or at least, I think it should be.

Finding humor in everyday things is a gift.  Our very serious world can be depressing and overwhelming.  Problems at work can seem insurmountable.  Your car is making a disturbing noise, and the kids’ school just called to let you know your daughter, who was perfectly healthy this morning, is in the nurse’s office with a fever.  None of this is funny.

But . . .

You’ve had issues at work before, and getting angry or throwing a tantrum only makes things worse.  What did help break the tension was the clever observation from the office grouch, “I suppose this is a bad time to ask for a raise?”  You call the mechanic, who asks you to replicate the sound.  That bit of silliness always lightens the mood, my mechanic tells me.  The fever won’t be a laughing matter until she’s recovered.

We’ve all had days that test our patience.  When circumstances are beyond our control, the only thing we can master is our reaction.  A sense of humor re-aligns our perspective so that we can avoid blowing things out of proportion.

In other words, when you are tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the fire department usually uses water.  Throw a little water on those tough situations and douse the anxieties before they spread – like wildfire – into other areas of your life.

Stories and humor were nearly as important as oxygen and water to our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, according to the Lincoln Institute.  Humor helped offset his natural sadness and escape from the internal and external pressures and events of his life.

Writer Norman Cousins observed:  “What seems clear is that the greater the weight of his Presidency, the greater was the need for release.  Laughter to him was not merely a random physical response to humor but a physiological reality that was essential for restoration and rejuvenation.”


A terrific resource on maintaining a sense of humor is Rita Davenport’s inspiring book “Funny Side Up.”  In it she describes her multi-faceted career, as a teacher, social worker, television host, bestselling author, motivational speaker and corporate president.  I might add Rita has been incredibly successful at all of them.  She led the large network marketing company, Arbonne International, to $980 million in sales from 1991-2011.  Rita is a Hall of Fame speaker who delivers life-changing success principles with a sense of humor.  She understands that laughter increases retention by 80 percent.

Her book draws on her life experiences, starting with her dirt-poor youth in Tennessee.  She credits her success to her ability to dream big dreams when faced with the life of struggle and poverty that her parents knew.  Her positive attitude has carried her through plenty of challenges.  My favorite chapter is titled “Laugh Your Way to Success (Or, How to Cope with Stress, Guilt, Change, Failure, and Life’s Other Little Blessings.)”

Among her pearls of wisdom, she advises bringing a sense of humor to the table, whatever table that might be.  She says, “Laughter is internal jogging.  It causes the muscles around the face to vibrate, which causes blood to rush to that area, which in turn improves brain function.  You think better and you feel better, and your health is improved. . . Besides, if you hold those chuckles back, the air tends to go back down and expand the hips!”

Rita’s book, like her speeches, is punctuated with humor.  Her theory is that it is important to develop a sense of humor because it is something that none of us are born with.  As proof, she offers this explanation:  “I have given birth twice and distinctly remember that neither baby was laughing when he came out.  Come to think of it, neither was their mama.”

What saved her, she says, is “the ever-ready capacity of laughter when your impulse is to cry or scream.”

“Failure is also one more opportunity to develop a strong sense of humor,” Rita writes.  “Have you ever had something happen that seemed just awful at the time, yet months or years later you found yourself laughing at it?” she asks.

“Here’s what you do.  First, get in the habit of saying, ‘Someday, we’re going to laugh about this.’  And after you’ve said that, then say, ‘Hey, why wait?’  The secret is to laugh sooner.”

What terrific advice!  Laugh sooner – and share the joy!


Mackay’s Moral:  A sense of humor is almost as important as our other five senses.

Be a friend to make a friend

Aristotle viewed friendship among the highest virtues.  It was an essential element in a full, virtuous and worthwhile life.  For Aristotle, there were three kinds of friendship:

  1. Friendship of pleasure:  Two people are wonderfully happy in each other’s company.
  2. Friendship of utility:  Two people assist each other in everyday aspects of life.
  3. Friendship of virtue:  Two people mutually admire each other and will be on best behavior in order not to jeopardize their relationship.

The value of friendships is perhaps most emphasized throughout the holidays.  We share special gifts, look for opportunities to connect, and vow to do a better job of keeping in touch.  That’s so much easier said than done, given the busy-ness that we call life.

I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t had such loyal and true friends.  I am fortunate to number among my friends several classmates from first grade, as well as people I just met.  My friends have saved my bacon over and over again.  A few have actually saved my life.

So where does friendship fit into your business life?  That’s what often begins as “friendship of utility.”

You probably spend most of your waking hours at work, so friendships are natural. Working together can easily turn co-workers into best friends, making jobs more enjoyable and the workplace a home away from home instead of a pit of boredom or an arena of stress.

But friendships need to be managed appropriately just like every other workplace relationship.  You need to understand and respect each other’s boundaries and privacy, just like with personal relationships.  But work issues can present some unique challenges so that neither your friendships nor your job are at risk.

  • Limit social chatter.  Don’t let your friendly conversations overshadow your responsibilities. Stay focused on your job most of the time.
  • Keep private issues private.  When you have problems to discuss, do it over lunch or after work.  You don’t want to make your co-workers privy to your personal dramas – and they probably don’t want to listen to them either.
  • Avoid gossip.  Most of us love to talk about other people, but keep your natural inclination to share rumors about co-workers or managers in check.  If colleagues realize you’re gossiping about them, the backlash could be unpleasant.
  • Don’t do each other’s jobs.  Pitching in to help a friend in a crunch is admirable, but keep to a reasonable limit.  Your manager is in charge of assignments and responsibilities, not you.  You don’t want to spend so much time helping a friend do his or her job that you neglect your own.
  • Include, don’t exclude.  Don’t ignore the rest of your work place.  Invite other co-workers to lunch, and include them in your conversations so they don’t feel left out.  You may even make new friends by expanding your circle at work.

HarveyfriendshipIf you value your relationships with family and friends outside of work, you need to work to maintain them.  Take a few cues from your job for evaluating your priorities and scheduling your activities.  These “friendships of pleasure” are worth all the effort you put into them.

A mission statement might be helpful.  You have career goals and aspirations. It’s just as important to establish what kind of relationship you want with your family and friends.  A clear mission statement can help keep you focused on your personal life goals, especially when your schedule gets demanding.

Time management is just as important for friendships as for your business schedule.  Keep all your commitments with family and friends on one calendar, planner or smartphone so nothing falls through the cracks.

Spend some time planning your personal time.  Review your schedule so that you are prepared for your most important activities.

Honor your plans. When you must choose between events, decide which is more in line with your mission, values and goals.

Finally, I’m not sure if this is the best example of a “friendship of virtue,” but I love this story.

A losing football coach felt all the fates were against him.  The team hated him, the fans hated him, even his wife and children were losing confidence in him.  The only one who loved him was his dog.  The dog was always glad to see him.

The coach told his wife, “A dog is fine, but a man can’t live with just one friend.”

So she bought him a second dog.


Mackay’s Moral:  The best vitamin for developing friends is B1.

Lessons from Santa

No matter how you celebrate the holidays, or even which holidays you celebrate, chances are you know about Santa Claus.  The jolly old elf brings merriment to the season, but he also teaches us many valuable lessons.

Of course, the first is the value of giving.  Aside from milk and cookies, Santa doesn’t get anything in return for all the gifts he shares with others.  That is the real spirit of giving:  not expecting anything in return.  The joy of giving is reward enough.

Santa is a genius in marketing and public relations.  His image is everywhere, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t pay a dime for the exposure.  He attracts crowds wherever he goes.  Businesses put him front and center in ads, decorations, even in big comfy chairs in prime locations in shopping malls.  They practically beg him to show up!

He is recognizable and hasn’t changed his basic look since time began.  More people can identify Santa than the President.  His distinctive style of dress will never get him on a best-dressed list.  But he doesn’t concern himself with that.  His message has remained the same:  a simple “Ho, Ho, Ho.”  He doesn’t drive the latest model car.  He is who he is and is content with that.  What he does is more important than fad or fashion.

His attitude is contagious.  He is always positive, reminding young and old alike to be good for goodness sake.  How he keeps track of who is naughty or nice doesn’t really matter – he encourages everyone to be their best.   He rewards good behavior.  And who doesn’t like to be recognized for trying?

HarveySantaSanta respects deadlines.  He knows from one December 25th to the next that he has customers to satisfy.  He is beholden to the calendar.  It wouldn’t work to try to stretch it into January or February.  Reliability is an important trait.

Santa understands the value of tradition.  Most of us have family or cultural traditions that bind us together.  Businesses have traditions that customers anticipate.  But have you ever noticed what happens when someone tries to change a long-held tradition?  Santa knows better.

Customer service is high on his priority list.  He aims to please, and he rarely disappoints.  I’m guessing he reads every letter written in a childish scrawl before he makes his list.  If you happen to overhear a conversation between Santa and a child asking for the hottest toy of the year, you will likely hear a promise to do his best, but he has some other great ideas too.  He won’t promise what he can’t deliver.

Teamwork is central to his operation.  The demands on him are enormous.  He understands that he can’t do it alone.  A workshop full of elves and a team of nine little reindeer help him accomplish an impossible task year after year.  I’ve heard there is magic involved, but I have no evidence to support it.

In that same vein, he epitomizes leadership.  He leads his team, but he also guides the rest of believers toward the right path.  He is consistent with his values.  He is patient.  He works hard.  He is forgiving of mistakes and loves what he does.  And that brings me to my next point.

I’m fond of saying, “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  There can be no question that this guy wouldn’t want to do anything else.  Santa couldn’t do what he has done for centuries without real enthusiasm for his efforts.

Santa takes his work very seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously.  He loves to laugh, make people happy, bring surprises, and spread good cheer.  Santa understands that fun is good.  In a world full of serious problems, bringing a little happiness is a welcome relief.  We can all do something to brighten someone else’s day.

Here is a shameless plug for getting on Santa’s “nice” list:  This month I will once again be donning a Santa hat and taking a shift ringing bells for the Salvation Army.  For 12 years I have had this pleasure, and I hope to continue this tradition for many more holiday seasons.  I encourage you to toss a few coins or dollars into the red kettle, or help whatever charity you can.  Even if Santa doesn’t see you, you can be sure you have embodied his spirit.


Mackay’s Moral: Happy holidays to all.