07/12/2013 08:26 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Don't Let Work Take Over Your Brain


It's been one of those days. You can't believe the number of emails, your calendar doesn't even have space to get a cup of coffee, and your phone keeps buzzing.

It is so easy for every single one of us to get sucked into the reactive cycle of problem solving and producing.

Worse, we think it's normal. We think that our job as human beings is to earn, perform, and win. Okay, earning is good, it's usually a better day when we're at our best, and winning is more fun than losing (usually).

The problem is, our offices are almost exclusively dominated by a culture of doing. What matters to most managers most days is metrics and profit. That's not wrong either, but it's not enough. Before applying the calculus of efficiency and worker productivity, we need to think about the way we work.

Our ability to pay attention to what's happening right now defines the quality of our efforts and whether we enjoy the volume we need to produce. Our well-being is at its highest level at work, whether we love what we do or we do what we have to do to survive, when each moment is treated as more than just results.

Your brain has an alarm, the amygdala, that wants you safe and to pay attention. It also has frontal lobes that help you feel focused and in control. It's really easy for your alarm to run your life and treat work as a life or death struggle. If you're not in the military, public safety, or espionage, work needs to be bigger than survival.

And it doesn't take much to get your frontal lobes in control of your body and moment to moment experience. Here are a few exercises to test whether you're present at work.

Stand on one leg. During a conference call, there is nothing like a little stork kung fu to tighten your core and get your brain refocused. No time between meetings and already too caffeinated to use a coffee break to reset your thinking? Stand on one leg for 30 seconds at a time then switch to the other leg. Your alarm will realize you're choosing to slow down and focus and it will turn down the reactive flow of adrenaline that makes us stressed.

Take back your calendar. If there is not reflection time is your daily schedule; if you can't make time to exercise; if you know how you're going to get your work done in the time available each day; you have to reset your calendar. You have to start each day fitting in the time you need to be well. It may be little breaks or mental health days. It may be balancing difficult with pleasurable conversations and meetings. Regardless, you own your calendar. Your alarm will turn down the moment it sees you chosing the pace of your days.

Dial a friend. You're not calling to vent. You're not calling to make plans. If they're having a bad day, it is not your job to solve their problems. You're just calling to listen. The moment we listen to the people we care about, with no other purpose than to appreciate that we love them and that they are in our lives, the world's problems dissolve. Imagine if we treated every relationship with such reverence. Your alarm can't fire when you're savoring a few moments with the people you care about.

The reason we react is that our alarm thinks there is a problem for us to solve or danger to escape. Don't let your brain make work feel like everything's dramatic and falling apart. Even on your worst days, you can refocus with just a little intention.

For more by Jon Wortmann, click here.

For more on stress, click here.