How to Set Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Many people struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries. It requires knowing their preferences and breaking points. It means being willing to assert their desires and needs. This is hard for many people, either due to their upbringing or personality—or both.

There are many advantages that come with getting good at this. For example, it can help us protect our emotional wellbeing, grow as a person, develop greater self-respect and confidence, protect our time and energy, avoid burnout, earn respect from others, and prevent unnecessary relationship conflicts.

When we set boundaries, we’re helping others interact more effectively with us. Sometimes we’re setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. We’re getting clear on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

Boundaries help us function effectively. They allow us to enjoy our life and work while also giving us a sense of control over our lives.

When we don’t set and enforce boundaries properly and consistently, we’re more prone to anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We get overcommitted, perhaps falling into overwork, workaholism, exhaustion, or burnout.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to get better at this. Here are 14 proven practices for setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Recognize that setting and maintaining boundaries can benefit our lives greatly, including our work and our leadership. Given all the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. Also, it gets easier over time.

2. Realize that setting and enforcing boundaries is not just good for us but for everyone involved. Why? Because it creates clarity and generates mutual respect.

3. Avoid falling into the trap of overestimating the resistance that will come from setting boundaries. Our brains are good at generating fear and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as we fear when we get into worrying mode.

4. Stay focused on the higher purpose of setting boundaries instead of the down-side of the temporary awkwardness. When we set boundaries, it’s usually for a good and important reason such as protecting our wellbeing or reserving our time for our top priorities. In this light, it’s well worth a little temporary pain or awkwardness.

5. Evaluate our current boundaries to identify areas that need improvement. In particular, look for situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

6. Take an inventory of boundary crossings that have happened. Thinking about these instances, focus especially on the people, the situations, and how they make us feel.

7. Determine new boundaries that we want to set and recommit to or update old boundaries. Our core values and current goals and priorities should inform these decisions. If we’re new to setting boundaries or have struggled with it in the past, we’re wise to start small and build out from there.

8. Communicate boundaries clearly. Sometimes, the problem is that we’re expecting people to read our minds and just know our boundaries. It’s a recipe for frustration and failure. Sometimes, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I can’t help with that”). In other cases, we can leave it with a declaratory statement (“I can’t take that on”) or even just a simple “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

9. Be consistent in communicating and enforcing boundaries. This is key. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Without consistency, others are likely to get confused or forget, and that may take us back to square one. Better to do the hard work upfront and in the early stages until things start to take on a life of their own.

10. Develop our assertiveness, including getting better at saying “no” and saying it more often. We can focus on saying no to requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or advance our priorities. We can avoid spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, neediness, or narcissism. And we can decline opportunities or requests, so we don’t end up doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating things to others).

“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, chair and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

11. Be kind but firm. Ideally, we come across as thoughtful and considerate while still assertive and clear. Sometimes, a little humor helps.

12. Get clear about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. When we’ve done this inner work, it allows us to set and enforce boundaries.

13. Set boundaries on our work time. For example, we can set a maximum number of hours we’ll work each week. We can limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed. It helps to plan ahead—and be sure to identify and focus on our most important tasks.

14. Place boundaries around our emotional commitment to others. Boundaries aren’t just about our time. They’re also about the focus of our attention and emotions. It’s a trap to feel responsible for other people’s choices or their happiness or outcomes.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires reflection and course corrections. As we proceed with it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and when to make exceptions based on new information.

As we choose our boundaries, we should bear in mind that other people will make different choices about their boundaries. What works for us may not work for others. So, we should respect other people’s boundaries even as we fight for our own.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we get good at setting and enforcing boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we actually want to do and experience. By setting limits, we gain freedom. We free up our time and energy to live life on our terms.

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.
You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

-Anna Taylor, author

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Many of us have a hard time asking for help.

Maybe we pride ourselves on being independent. Self-sufficient. A Lone Ranger.

There’s value in being self-sufficient, but when we’re too proud to ask for help it can be costly. It can keep us stuck in hardship and delay our advances, or lead to overwork and burnout. And it can inhibit close relationships with family and friends.

“Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Asking for help is an important skill that can aid us in all our endeavors, from living and loving to leading and learning. We’re wise to get good at it.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Here are 10 things you can do to develop the useful skill of asking for help:

1. Notice that nobody succeeds without the help of others. Where would you be without the help of parents, teachers, coaches, teammates, colleagues, mentors, and friends?

2. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you’re committed to your goals and confident enough to show some vulnerability.

3. Realize that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing your frustration and suffering.

4. Understand that your fears about asking for help are misplaced. Even the worst-case scenario probably isn’t so bad. Perhaps the person refuses to help or can’t right now. Maybe you feel a bit awkward or disappointed for five seconds. So what?

5. Recall that most people like to help others. It makes them feel good to contribute. Think about how you felt when you were asked for help. (1)

“How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right?
Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?”

-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

6. Stop waiting so long to ask. Consider how much time you’ve already spent on the issue, whether it’s something you’re good at addressing, and whether there are better uses of your time and energy.

7. Trust others to set boundaries for themselves. They can always decline or chat further about the extent of help they may provide.

8. Tally the potential benefits of getting help. Maybe you’ll get fresh ideas or greater clarity about how to proceed. And in the process you may very well deepen your relationship with the person contributing.

9. Start small when trying this out and build from there. This will make it more manageable and less likely that you’ll abandon it.

10. Be open with others that it’s hard for you to ask for help, but you’re trying to get better. This will make it easier to ask when the time comes.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this: Ask for help. You need it more than you know.” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take

 

References

(1) According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science, “Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” (Source: Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.) There’s also research noting that helping others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. (Source: Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Knowing and Using Our Strengths

Many people are disengaged at work and not energized and thriving in their lives. One major reason is that they’re not using their strengths—the things they’re good at—regularly.

According to data from Gallup’s global client database, most people aren’t using their strengths every day at work. See the chart below.

Source: Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (Gallup Press).

Many of us are either working in areas of our weaknesses or focused on fixing our weaknesses instead of leveraging our strengths more in what we do. For example:

We’re doing things we’d rather avoid—perhaps things that bore us or make us feel weak or incompetent.
We keep trying things but don’t get traction on them and don’t seem to improve much.
We’re working on things even though we know others who are much better at them than we are.
We feel drained by the things we’re doing.

Could it be that we’re thinking about things the wrong way—focused on just doing what we’re told or what’s in front of us, or on shoring up our weaknesses to avoid looking bad, instead of actively crafting our work and activities in line with our strengths?

In their book, Living Your Strengths, Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld note the following:

“If you’re like most people, you have grown up with the ‘weakness prevention’ model. You’ve been told that to become strong, successful, or truly serve…you must ‘fix’ your weaknesses.…That thinking is just plain wrong.…
the evidence is overwhelming: You will be most successful in whatever you do by building your life around
your greatest natural abilities rather than your weaknesses.”

Enter strengths.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What Is a Strength?

Strengths are the things at which we most excel. According to English consultant and author Marcus Buckingham, “Your strengths are those activities that make you feel strong.”

In Living Your Strengths, Winseman, Clifton, and Liesveld define it as follows: “A strength is the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity.” They conceive of a strength as a powerful, productive combination of innate talent, relevant knowledge, and skills.

“The fundamental building block of any strength is talent.
When you enhance a talent by adding the right skills and useful knowledge, you have created a strength.”

-Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld, Living Your Strengths

Let’s look at the three components of a strength in turn:

Talents, they write, “are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” Examples include a natural tendency to make people laugh, tune into others’ emotions, or thrive under pressure. These talents naturally exist within us as our inborn predispositions (unlike knowledge and skills). We do them instinctively and derive satisfaction in the process.

“The man who is born with a talent which he was meant to use finds his greatest happiness in using it.”
-Johann Wolfgang Goethe, German poet, novelist, and scientist

Knowledge is what we know—whether factual or experiential knowledge. We can acquire knowledge through various means, from reading and courses to conversations and challenges. Ideally, we have a learning mindset and continually look for new ideas and methods.

Skills, they note, “are the abilities to perform the steps of an activity.” Examples include preparing seminars, presentations, or lesson plans. When we focus on developing our skills, we can boost performance significantly.

Talents, knowledge, and skills are the fundamental building blocks of strengths, but there are other relevant factors that influence their development. Such other factors include practice, coaching, repetition, and feedback. When we do things repeatedly and get targeted guidance and feedback on how we’re doing, we can really amp up our performance.

In his book, Strengths Finder 2.0, consultant and author Tom Rath notes that there’s incredible room for growth when we focus on developing our natural talents. He says it’s not realistic to be anything we want to be, as the saying goes, but we can be a lot more of who we already are. By building on our innate talents and interests, we can make incredible strides and thrive.

 

The Benefits of Knowing and Using Our Strengths

There are tremendous benefits to knowing and using our strengths in our work and daily lives, according to researchers. For example, knowing and using our strengths can:

  • enhance our confidence and help us overcome self-doubt (and keep our negative self-talk in check)
  • boost our motivation and engagement dramatically (1)
  • increase our productivity
  • give us more clarity about how we’re likely to succeed
  • help us achieve our goals
  • set us up for more opportunities for advancement
  • make us happier and more fulfilled
  • help us avoid burnout
“Burnout doesn’t happen when you are working long hours on invigorating activities. Long hours may tire you out, but they rarely burn you out. But fill your weeks with the wrong kinds of activities, activities that weaken you,
and even regular activities will start to burn.”

-Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work

There’s also a flip side to this: there’s much lost when we don’t use our strengths. When we’re not operating in our strengths zone, according to Rath, we’re much more likely to be disengaged at work. We may even dread it. We’re more likely to have more negative interactions with colleagues, treat customers poorly, and achieve less.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

The Signs of a Strength

Unfortunately, we tend to take our strengths for granted. In some cases, they’re so much a part of our daily lives that they’ve become invisible to us. We’re not aware that others may struggle with the things that come easily to us because we’ve been swimming in our strengths for so long.

So, what are the signs of a strength? In his book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham identified four signs of a strength, using the acronym SIGN (Success, Instinct, Growth, Needs):

Success: the things we do that make us feel successful. We’ve received recognition or praise for these things.

Instinct: the things we find ourselves drawn to, even if we’re not sure why. We’d like to do them every day, and we may volunteer for them spontaneously.

Growth: the things that were simpler for us to pick up and develop over time. We don’t have to try very hard when we do them. Also, we stay focused on them naturally and lose track of time when doing them.

Needs: the things that fill an innate need of ours and that leave us feeling powerful, fulfilled, and restored instead of drained. We feel a need to do them, and they give us a lot of personal satisfaction.

In sum, our strengths make us feel successful, draw us to use them, are relatively easy for us to develop, and fill a need of ours. We also feel energized while using them.

 

Signature Strengths

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, writes about what he calls “signature strengths,” which he defines as “strengths of character that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently exercises.” They’re essential to who we are, and they tend to give us the following:

  • rapid learning curve as they’re first practiced
  • feeling of excitement while using them
  • sense of authenticity (“This is the real me”)
  • desire to learn or find new ways to use them
  • feeling of enthusiasm and invigoration rather than exhaustion while using them
  • desire to pursue projects that revolve around them

To determine our strengths, we can take assessments (see the resources at the end of this article), ask those who know us well (perhaps via a 360-Degree Assessment), and/or observe our own experiences and ask ourselves questions like the following:

When have I achieved success, and what strengths did I use in the process?
What things do others come to me for help with because I’m good at them?
How have I overcome significant challenges, and what strengths did I use in the process?

 

How to Leverage Our Strengths in Our Life and Work

Here are nine steps for leveraging our strengths effectively in our life and work:

  1. Know what our strengths are.
  2. Clarify how and when our strengths help us with our most important work.
  3. Measure how much time we’re using our strengths (e.g., over the past week).
  4. Set goals for how much time we’ll do so in the future (e.g., over the next week).
  5. Decide what actions we’ll take to use our strengths.
  6. Create a plan for how we’ll develop our top strengths further with new knowledge or skills.
  7. Determine what we’ll do to reduce the amount of time we’re working in areas of our weaknesses. (It may not be possible to eliminate it altogether.) An important caveat: though we should generally avoid working in areas of weakness for us, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore our weaknesses. Knowing our weaknesses can be valuable.
  8. Seek colleagues who have different strengths and who compensate for our weaknesses.
  9. Continually seek ways to leverage our strengths in service of worthy endeavors that we’re passionate about.

It may also be helpful to have a coach because we’re often blind to our strengths. Others can often see our strengths more clearly and help us figure out ways to develop and use them more effectively.

 

How Leaders Can Leverage Strengths for High Performance

Strengths are also relevant for leaders and organizations. They can be a powerful performance booster. To begin with, leaders should know and use their own strengths in their work.

“I’ve never met an effective leader who wasn’t aware of his talents and working to sharpen them.”
-Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander

Next, managers should pay close attention to strengths in people selection and advancement as well as in job and team design. The team overall should have a well rounded and complementary set of strengths. For example, a founding team in a startup can map out the skills of its current team members as well as the skills gaps it’s looking to fill with new hires. See the table below.

Third, leaders should ensure that all team members are using their strengths as much as possible.

“While there are many good levers for engaging people and driving performance… the master lever is getting each person to play to his strength. Pull this lever and an engaged and productive team will be the result.
Fail to pull it and no matter what else is done to motivate the team, it’ll never fully engage.”

-Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work

 Finally, leaders should invest in the development of the strengths of everyone on the team (including themselves).

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Conclusion

We’re all born with certain talents and interests, and we’re all drawn to certain activities and endeavors. If we can discover what we’re good at and build our life and work around those strengths, we can feel more engaged and energized, and we can thrive. And what if we applied our strengths toward a purpose or calling and used them to serve others in meaningful ways? That would be remarkable.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What are your core strengths?
  2. To what extent are you using your strengths (at work, home, etc.)?
  3. Are you using them every day?
  4. How could you use your strengths more?
  5. What will you do differently, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Additional Resources

  • Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (including an online assessment)
  • Albert Winseman, Donald Clifton, and Curt Liesveld, Living Your Strengths
  • Marcus Buckingham, Go Put Your Strengths to Work
  • Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership (including an online assessment for a personalized leadership guide)
  • Clifton Strengths Assessment
  • VIA Survey of Character Strengths

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Strengths

  • “Liberating and expressing your natural genius is your ultimate path to success and life satisfaction.” -Gay Hendricks, psychologist and author
  • “Herein is my formulation of the good life: Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to being abundant gratification and authentic happiness.” -Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness
  • “A leader needs to know his strengths as a carpenter knows his tools, or as a physician knows the instruments at her disposal. What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths—and can call on the right strengths at the right time.” -Dr. Donald Clifton, psychologist and researcher

(1) According to Tom Rath in StrengthsFinder 2.0, workers who can focus on their strengths every day are “six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.”

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Journaling: Benefits and Best Practices

We humans have been journaling, writing diaries, or otherwise writing down our thoughts, feelings, and experiences for centuries. It’s a practice that dates back to the ancients. And it’s a tool that’s been used by pilgrims, explorers, soldiers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and artists.

People journal for different reasons. Some people journal to engage in deeper reflection, while others do it to help manage stress or process difficult experiences. Some journal as a way to reinforce their strengths or accomplishments; others focus on gratitude. Many therapists, counselors, and coaches recommend journaling, and many teachers assign it in schools.

Those who journal are in excellent company. People known to have engaged in some form of journaling include: John Quincy Adams, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, Winston Churchill, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Joan Didion, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anne Frank, Benjamin Franklin, Arianna Huffington, Thomas Jefferson, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Martina Navratilova, Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Seneca, Susan Sontag, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington, Oscar Wilde, Oprah Winfrey, and Virginia Woolf.

“I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone,
and I hope you’ll be a great source of comfort and support.”
-Anne Frank’s first entry in her journal, 13th birthday, June 12, 1942
Anne Frank writing at her desk at school, 1940

Different Types of Journaling

There are different types of journaling. One common form is “expressive writing.” It involves writing continuously about an issue in our lives, including our deepest thoughts and feelings. According to James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth, authors of Opening Up by Writing It Down, it can include different variations, including writing about a problem we’re facing, journaling about our worries and concerns, or doing a word association around a certain word (e.g., “stress”).

Another common form is “gratitude journaling”: writing about positive experiences that we’re thankful for.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Benefits of Journaling

Hundreds of studies over several decades have documented an impressive array of benefits deriving from journaling. For example, it can help us:

  • discern the lessons and patterns of our experiences
  • understand our experiences and feelings in new ways
  • get a clearer sense of our progress over time
  • remember the good things we experience, which can otherwise be easy to forget
  • become more self-aware
  • boost our confidence
  • remain more mindful of our thoughts and feelings

Journaling also comes with a large number of mental and physical health benefits. For example, it can help us:

  • cope with stressful events
  • reduce anxiety
  • regulate our emotions and ease our distress when we’re struggling with difficult feelings
  • reduce the frequency of intrusive thoughts
  • improve our mood
  • enhance our psychological wellbeing
  • make sense of our personal history, of the events and experiences that have shaped us (1)
  • cultivate a greater sense of purpose and meaning
  • have a lower risk of depression

According to the research, journaling is associated with lowered blood pressure, better sleep, and fewer stress-related doctor visits and less time spent in the hospital. It’s also associated with improved function of our immune system, lungs, liver, and memory as well as reduced symptoms of chronic diseases. In addition, it can help with recovery from traumatic events, in part because it allows us to process our experiences and emotions.

Journaling can also benefit our brain and cognitive capacity.

“The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information… it promotes the brain’s attentive focus … boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain’s highest cognition.”
Judy Willis, board-certified neurologist and teacher

At work, journaling is associated with less work absenteeism and less time out of work following job loss. And at school, it’s associated with higher grades. Journaling can help us address many of the common traps of living, including overthinking, self-doubt, negative self-talk, drifting, settling, and more.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Journaling is not only inexpensive and straightforward to engage in but it also avoids the need for having people there to listen every time we want to get something off our chest. The pages are always there for us, and they never interrupt or misunderstand. As Anne Frank once wrote, “Paper has more patience than people.”

Benefits come not only from journaling itself but also from going back and reviewing what we’ve written some time later. This review process can help us recapture forgotten stories or experiences and see patterns.

Note that there can be downsides of journaling for some people—or of journaling in certain ways. For example, it’s not always a pleasant experience, since it sometimes involves dredging up painful feelings.

 

How to Journal: Best Practices

When it comes to how we should journal, there’s of course no single formula. Different people will approach journaling in different ways. The key is to find what works for us. Still, here are some tips:

Remember that journaling is for us and us alone, not for an audience. If we’re self-conscious as we write or concerned about judgment from others, it can reduce or eliminate the value of journaling.

Start small. For many, it’s best to begin with only a few minutes on a manageable topic (e.g., a recounting of the day or a single incident).

Try journaling in different ways. Try writing in a bound journal or spiral notebook. Or try using a digital writing app or voice recording app. (Note, though, that writing by hand comes with real benefits that can easily outweigh the slight loss of speed compared to typing or speaking.) Experiment and see what works.

Try different frequencies. There’s a debate about the ideal frequency of journaling. Some people swear by the practice of daily journaling, in part because it builds a healthy habit, while others warn against the monotony that can come from having a regular cadence. In the end, we should find out what works for us and do that.

Find a quiet and peaceful space without interruptions and distractions. Going deep into our thoughts and feelings requires focus and concentration.

Choose a time of day that works best—the time when our thoughts and reflections flow most naturally. Many people swear by morning journaling. Others prefer to wait until they feel inspired or troubled.

Be sure to include both feelings and thoughts. This helps us avoid unhealthy rumination and makes it more likely that we’ll see patterns and themes. Start with expressing feelings first and then move on to thoughts and thinking patterns.

Be forthright in expressing exactly how we feel without any editing or filtering.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
-William Wordsworth, English Romantic poet

Bear in mind that journaling may bring up painful feelings or some anxiety, and that’s okay. Feel free to take a break and come back to it later. Keep in mind the strong potential for long-term benefits if we stick with it.

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”
Natalie Goldberg, writer

Don’t get caught up in written rumination—in rehashing difficult things over and over. That can actually be counterproductive.

“One of the interesting problems of writing too much, especially if you’re going through a difficult a time, is that writing becomes more like rumination and that’s the last thing in the world you need.”
-Dr. James Pennebaker, social psychologist

Feel free to draw in the journal. We don’t have to limit ourselves only to text. But researchers advise against drawing only, as it can lead to worse moods.

Try journaling prompts, especially if we’re not sure where to begin. Examples: things that bring us joy, what we’re feeling or noticing right now, people who or places that make us feel the happiest, dreams we have about the future, or what deserves our best attention now.

“…one thing journaling has taught me is that the mind is a surprising place, and you often don’t know what it may be hiding until you start knocking around in there. In other words: Writing in your journal
is the only way to find out what you should be writing about.”
Hayley Phelan, “What’s All This About Journaling?” New York Times, October 25, 2018

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Journaling for Leaders

Many leaders have noted how journaling has helped them become a better leader and grow as a person. These days, many leaders are time-starved and deluged by inputs and information, so having a simple process that facilitates thinking, reflection, and analysis can be powerful.

Leaders can use journaling to process difficult events, think through important decisions, prepare themselves for upcoming challenges, vent their frustrations, or document their journey and see progress and patterns. And they can use it to reconnect with their inner voice when they’re flooded with outside inputs.

Journaling can help leaders be more mindful and present with their colleagues—and empathetic toward their struggles. It can also help them make better decisions and unearth important insights about vexing situations, including innovative ideas that may otherwise have been lost. Importantly, journaling can serve as a pressure valve that allows leaders to process difficult emotions and release some of the stress and pressure associated with the job. Finally, it can help steel them for tough battles ahead.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
-Anne Frank

 

Journaling for Creativity and Innovation

British entrepreneur Richard Branson keeps notebooks full of questions as part of his creative process. Journals can be a great tool for entrepreneurs to capture their ideas about new products and services to launch, based on observing customer problems and spotting market gaps.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, advocates a distinct form of journaling as a way to recover our creativity and reconnect with our own inner spiritual guide. With her “morning pages,” as she calls them, she advocates writing three pages of strictly stream-of-consciousness, longhand writing every morning—simply writing down whatever comes to mind, jumping from topic to topic, no matter how banal or bizarre—until the three pages are filled. She explains:

“Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included… Nobody is allowed to read your morning pages except you…. Morning pages are nonnegotiable. Never skip or skimp on morning pages. Your mood doesn’t matter…. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write, ‘I can’t think of anything to write.’”

 

Conclusion

With our busy lives and frenetic work schedules, journaling can be a great way to slow down and reflect, reawakening a rich inner life. There’s a reason so many different types of people have been doing it through the ages.

“How noble and good everyone could be if, at the end of each day, they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day and, after a while, would certainly accomplish a great deal. Everyone is welcome to this prescription; it costs nothing and is definitely useful.”
-Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you using journaling as a practice for personal development, emotional expression, gratitude, creativity, or leadership?
  2. If you’ve tried journaling before but not kept up with it, will you give it another try using some of the tips above?

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Journaling

  • “Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain.” -Jack London, novelist, journalist, and activist
  • “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” -Louis L’Amour, American novelist and short story writer
  • “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” -Ernest Hemingway, American novelist, short-story writer, and journalist
  • “Writing is medicine. It is an appropriate antidote to injury. It is an appropriate companion for any difficult change.” -Julia Cameron, American teacher, author, and artist
  • “Listen. The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside.” -Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish economist and diplomat

 

Resources on Journaling

  • Nancy J. Adler, Leadership Insight Journal
  • Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
  • Hal Elrod, The Miracle Morning Journal
  • Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
  • Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic Journal
  • James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth, Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain
  • Five Minute Journal (app)

 

Appendix: Why Does Journaling Work?

Based on a large body of research over time, we know that journaling comes with many benefits. It’s less clear, though, why that’s the case. Here are some of the most likely reasons why it’s so beneficial for so many. Journaling:

  • helps us get distance from painful or confusing experiences, seeing them in a fresh light without the pressures of the moment
  • can facilitate emotional release of unconscious conflicts
  • helps us avoid the problem of stuffing our emotions down (it’s healthy to acknowledge, express, and label our feelings about difficult events)
  • facilitates the process of mentally organizing our experiences, allowing us to examine root causes and formulate a coherent story
  • helps us uncover new insights about ourselves and the way we’re suffering or experiencing the world
  • can lower our emotional inhibition
  • gives us a heightened sense of control over our emotions and our lives
  • involves a powerful combination of both recording and processing, of both remembering and reflecting
  • can provide a sense of emotional catharsis

(1) Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams notes the importance of “narrative identity,” an internalized story we create about ourselves. It helps us form a coherent story of our lives, which in turn can help us view our lives more holistically and positively.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Benefits of Nature and Getting Outside

Nature – path by water trees and mountains

How much time do you spend inside? How about staring at a screen? These days, we’re spending more and more of our time indoors and online. Many people don’t get outside enough.

Too many of us are nature-deprived. It’s part of a larger historical trend from the Industrial Revolution. With bigger cities and factories and more office work and indoor living, more and more of us have started feeling separate from nature—or even alienated from it. This has real implications. Richard Louv, an author and co-founder of the Child & Nature Network who coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” noted:

Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.” (1)

 

The Benefits of Getting Outside and Being in Nature

Being in nature has all sorts of benefits. According to the research, being in nature can lead to a reduction of anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones, anger, attention fatigue, muscle tension, the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (a mood disorder in climates where there’s less sunlight during parts of the year), and more.

Furthermore, spending time in nature can help promote the following:

  1. greater attentional capacity, including focus and concentration
  2. our ability to connect with others (a key contributor to our happiness)
  3. creativity and creative problem-solving abilities
  4. empathy and love (2)
  5. more exercise
  6. immune function
  7. a sense of meaningfulness
  8. physical wellbeing
  9. positive mood
  10. sleep quality
  11. vitality
  12. healthy management of body weight
I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people.
I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.
’” -Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

To be clear, being in nature doesn’t have to mean deep wilderness expeditions. Many people these days live in cities or suburbs, and they’re wise to take advantage of what Linda Åkeson McGurk, author of The Open-Air Life, calls “nearby nature.” That means just getting outside in our local neighborhoods and finding whatever green or blue (water) spaces we can.

Nature – CITY PARK WITH LAKE AND FALL FOLIAGE

Sunlight plays an important role here. Direct sunlight has about 200 times the intensity of office lights. Our body’s internal clock depends on the daily cycle of sunlight and darkness. Getting exposure to sunlight helps us feel more tired at night and shorten the time to fall asleep. Sunlight exposure can help with fatigue and low mood. It also helps us get Vitamin D, which is important for our bones, blood cells, and immune system, as well as absorption of certain minerals (e.g., calcium and phosphorus). Also, it helps keep our serotonin levels up, which keeps our mood calm, positive, and focused.

Getting outside can also help us be more social. When we go outside, we get more chances to see and connect with people, which is essential for our health and happiness. (See my article, “The Most Important Contributor to Happiness.”)

There are different theories as to why being in nature is so beneficial. One is “biophilia theory”: since we evolved in wild, natural settings and relied on the environment for survival, we have an innate drive and need to be in nature. Another is “attention restoration theory”: being in nature replenishes our cognitive resources, like our ability to pay attention and concentrate, when they get depleted.

If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover. And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.
-David Strayer, professor of cognition and neural science, University of Utah

Most likely, it’s a combination of these and other factors.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

10 Tips for Getting Outside

When we learn about all the benefits of getting outside, it can motivate us to do so. Still, we have work obligations, time pressures, and all sorts of online distractions and temptations. It’s a challenge for many of us. So, here are ten tips for getting outside more:

1. Keep it simple. It doesn’t have to be trekking into the deep wilderness. Take advantage of your nearby nature and do simple activities like walking.

2. Make it a habit and create outdoor rituals, like morning coffee on the deck, mid-day walks, or evening chats on the patio.

3. Exercise outside sometimes, including walks, hikes, runs, bike rides, or other outdoor activities or sports. (See my article, “Exercise and Movement for Health, Wellbeing, and Great Work.”)

4. Limit screen time, since it keeps us from enjoying the great outdoors. Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning. Check those daily screen time stats regularly. And be sure to unplug sometimes when out there walking or running so you can listen to the birdsong and be present where you are.

5. Experience nature with a friend. This comes with several benefits: deepening our social relationships (a primary contributor to our happiness), exercise, and all the advantages of nature.

6. Try gardening. It has many positive health benefits, according to a large body of research. Gardening, with its digging, planting, raking, carrying, squatting, kneeling, and more, entails functional movement that incorporates whole-body exercise, including movements similar to squats and lunges. According to the research, gardening can:

  • lower levels of stress and anxiety
  • improve our cognitive function and mood
  • reduce our body mass index
  • provide helpful structure to our days or weekends
  • increase our psychological wellbeing, quality of life, and sense of life satisfaction
  • enhance self-esteem and creativity
  • reduce the effects of dementia

What’s more, it’s gratifying to plant, tend, harvest, eat, and share home-grown food. It’s healthy and good for the environment as well. Gardening is also a great activity for practicing mindfulness.

7. Visit city parks, nature reserves, and national parks. They’re there for a reason. They can help bring calm, gratitude, or awe back into our lives.

8. Go camping, boating, climbing, or trekking. These are great ways to bring fun and adventure back into our lives.

9. Try forest bathing (spending time in a forest environment). The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku. Studies show that it can help boost our energy and immune system as well as help us sleep better and recover more quickly when we get sick.

10. Go wild sometimes, i.e., do go to the forests, jungles, prairies, mountains, lakes, seas, or oceans sometimes. As writer Linda Åkeson McGurk points out, the wilder it is, the more restorative it’s likely to be.

 

What about Office Workers?

Thankfully, office workers aren’t doomed to nature deprivation. They’re wise to take breaks (including lunch) outdoors and have walking meetings whenever possible. It helps to have a supportive workplace. (3) For example, managers wanting to support the health, wellbeing, and productivity of their team can:

  • provide a space for employees to relax and get away from the office (e.g., an outdoor area with comfortable seating)
  • give workers flexible hours
  • offer wellness programs
  • have bicycles on the workplace grounds, if applicable, and/or provide incentives for commuting by bicycle
  • employ outdoor team-building activities
  • incorporate nature in company meetings and retreats

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What the Nordic Countries Taught Me About This

When I moved to Sweden many years ago, the temperature dropped to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius) that first winter. A bit colder, and we could have reached the place where Fahrenheit and Celsius converge (minus 40 Fahrenheit equals minus 40 Celsius). For this man who grew up in southern California, it was a shock. But not as big of a shock as seeing all the Swedes get out into that bone-chilling cold. There’s a famous saying in Swedish:

Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Enter what the Swedes and Norwegians call friluftsliv (which we can translate as “free-air life,” “fresh-air life,” or “open-air life”). Linda Åkeson McGurk wrote a book about it: The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day.

Friluftsliv is about connecting with nature in simple ways. It’s a lifestyle in the Nordic countries that’s been passed down across generations, that’s taught in schools, and that’s used as preventive care for mental health (nature therapy), often for people with burnout.

When in the Nordics, you can see it all around you, from people enjoying time in their summer cottages for weeks at a time, to grilling hot dogs outside in the middle of winter (grillkorv), to baby strollers placed outside on the porch of daycare centers and preschools in the middle of winter, with the children swaddled in cozy blankets and breathing fresh air. It’s also a part of the work culture, with gå och prata möten (“walk and talk meetings”). There’s also a conservation aspect: the more connected we are to nature, the more likely we’ll be good stewards of natural places and resources.

During that first winter in Sweden, my inclination was to hunker down by the fireplace. Eventually, I learned a better approach. In Sweden, you just pile on with about seven layers of clothing, including snow pants and great winter gloves, boots, and hats, and you get out there in that magical winter. And in the dark rains of November. Rain or snow, you just get out. It makes a big difference. Friluftsliv.

What are your favorite ways to get outdoors?
How can you build more of them into your routines?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books and Podcasts

  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day (TarcherPerigee, 2022)
  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (Touchstone, 2018)
  • Richard Louv, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (Algonquin Books, 2016)
  • Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2008)
  • Podcast: “We Know Nature Is Good for Us. Here’s How to Make Time for It, Scandinavian Style,” Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris podcast interview with Linda Åkeson McGurk, August 28, 2023.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Nature

  • “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” -Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher
  • “They will forget the rush and strain of all the other weeks of the year, and for a short time at least, the days will be good for their bodies and good for their souls. Once more they will lay hold of the perspective that comes to those who every morning and every night can lift their eyes up to Mother Nature.” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist
  • “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher
  • “Nature itself is the best physician.” -Hippocrates
  • “If you wish to know the divine, feel the wind on your face and the warm sun on your hand.” -Buddha
  • “It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.” -Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
  • “The earth has music for those who listen.” -William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor
  • “We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” -Henry David Thoreau, Walden
  • “I have just come from four days rest in Yosemite… Lying out at night under those giant sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build….” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist

 

Appendix: Research on the Benefits of Nature

A study of 19,806 people by University of Exeter environmental psychologist Mathew White and his colleagues found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces (e.g., local parks or other natural environments) were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological wellbeing than those who don’t. This finding held true whether the visits to green spaces were all at once or spread out over multiple visits. Source: White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019).

“Walk in nature and feel the healing power of the trees.”
-Anthony William

In a Japanese experiment, researchers measured the heart rate and blood pressure of people who were assigned to either walk in a forest or an urban center. The walks were of equal length and difficulty. Those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and reported better moods and less anxiety than the others. Finnish researchers found that city dwellers who walked for as little as 20 minutes through a city park or woodland reported significantly more stress relief than people who walked in a city center.

Dr. Gregory Bratman and his Stanford University colleagues conducted a 2015 study in which 60 participants were randomly assigned to walk for 50 minutes in either a natural setting of oak woodlands or in an urban setting along a four-lane road. The people who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination, and negative affect (likelihood of experiencing negative emotions), plus more positive emotions and better performance on memory tasks. Dr. Bratman and his colleagues noted evidence from a review of the research that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective wellbeing, positive social interactions, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life—as well as decreases in mental distress. Source: Gregory N. Bratman et al., Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Sci. Adv. 5, (2019).

According to a meta-analysis from Dr. Alison Pritchard at the University of Derby in England and her colleagues, people who feel more connected to nature have greater “eudaimonic wellbeing” (experiences associated with living a life of full flourishing, growth, authenticity, meaning, and excellence). Source: Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D. et al. The Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Eudaimonic Well-Being: A Meta-analysis. J Happiness Stud 21, (2020).

Peter Aspinall and his colleagues at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland studied participants while they walked through an urban green space. Mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) monitors showed lowered engagement, arousal, and frustration while in the green space and higher engagement levels when departing from the green space.

Roger Ulrich and his Texas A&M University colleagues conducted an experiment in which participants viewed a stressful movie and then either videos of natural scenes or videos of urban settings. The people who viewed natural scenes demonstrated a much quicker and more complete recovery from their stress. In a study of gallbladder surgery patients, with half of the patients given a view of trees and half given a view of a wall, the patients with the view of the trees tolerated pain better and spent less time in the hospital. Nurses also reported that they had fewer negative effects from the surgery.

Juyoung Lee, Dacher Keltner, and other University of California, Berkeley researchers showed participants nature scenes, independently rated for their levels of beauty, and then observed their behavior in two games, one measuring generosity and another measuring trust. Those who viewed the more beautiful nature scenes experienced greater positive emotions and acted with greater generosity and trust in the games than the others.

Penn State University sound researcher Joshua Smyth has found that when people hear songbirds, the tension in their nervous system falls. The opposite occurs when they hear cars and airplanes. Another study compared participants who listened to nature sounds (e.g., waves crashing and crickets chirping) to those who listened to urban sounds (e.g., traffic and the noises of a busy café). Those who listened to nature sounds performed better on demanding cognitive tests. Source: Van Hedger, S.C., Nusbaum, H.C., Clohisy, L. et al. Of cricket chirps and car horns: The effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance. Psychon Bull Rev 26, (2019).

According to a 2015 study of 2,000 people in the United Kingdom, more exposure to nature was associated with more community cohesion and substantially lower crime rates. Source: Netta Weinstein et al., Seeing Community for the Trees: The Links among Contact with Natural Environments, Community Cohesion, and Crime, BioScience, Volume 65, Issue 12, 01 December 2015.

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
-William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor

The benefits of nature aren’t limited to green spaces. They also come from blue spaces, including marine and freshwater environments.

(1) According to researchers, concentrations of air pollutants are much higher indoors than outdoors, and there’s a risk of respiratory problems because of that. Being outside can also help reduce the chances of contracting airborne viruses like the flu and covid-19.

(2) When study participants viewed nature scenes, it activated the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love, according to fMRI scans.

(3) More and more organizations are paying attention to and investing in this. We’ve even seen an increase in “forest schools” in many countries. Forest schools are found in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, and Japan, among other countries.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Great Sleep for Health, Wellness, and Great Work

Good nutrition, exercise, and sleep are three key drivers of our health and wellness.

No surprise there, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got them covered. In this article, we focus on great sleep for health, wellness, and great work. (We covered nutrition and exercise in previous articles.) Sleep is the “sleeper” of the three—often overlooked but hugely important. I used to focus mostly on exercise and nutrition but have recently come to see how sleep really is the linchpin.

“Sleep is the most underrated health habit.”
-Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer, Wellness Institute, Cleveland Clinic

 

Many People Struggle with Sleep

Many people struggle with not sleeping well. The National Sleep Foundation reports that about 40 million Americans have a chronic sleep disorder, 62% of U.S. adults have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week, and 30% of Americans experience insomnia at some point over the course of a year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than one in four U.S. high school students gets the recommended amount of sleep per night. (1)

Of course, this is a worldwide problem. According to the International Journal of Epidemiology, about 30% of adults report having had “some insomnia problems over the past year”—and about  10% report having chronic insomnia.

 

The Problem of Not Sleeping Well

There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is widely considered to be a form of torture. With poor sleep comes a wide range of risks and side effects. For example, it leads to a higher risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity, and depression.

Sleep loss slows our metabolism and triggers food and sugar cravings. (2) It elevates cortisol, a key stress hormone, and scrambles our blood sugar.

Poor sleeps impairs our memory—both short- and long-term—including our ability to consolidate learning during the previous day. It downgrades our mood, negatively affecting our relationships and parenting. And it reduces our productivity.

“When you are tired, you are not yourself. Well, at least not the best version of yourself.”
-Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Generally, sleep deprivation may facilitate or intensify all sorts of problems, including:

  • accidents
  • addictive behaviors
  • anxiety
  • appearance issues (e.g., dark circles under our eyes)
  • appetite surges
  • attention problems
  • blood pressure problems
  • concentration problems
  • confusion
  • depression
  • reduced enthusiasm about positive events
  • headaches
  • increased stress hormone levels
  • immune system suppression
  • impulsiveness
  • irritability
  • lower libido and sexual health in both sexes
  • memory lapses or loss
  • motivation drops
  • obesity
  • relationship problems
  • violent behavior
  • temper tantrums in children (and some adults)
“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds.”
-JoJo Jensen

According to a study in The Lancet, surgeons who had not slept the previous night took 14% longer to complete a task and made 20% more errors than those who had a full night’s sleep.

 

Effects of Poor Sleep on Leaders

For leaders, poor sleep can be an occupational hazard—especially if they work in an organization with a culture of burnout.

Too many leaders brush this aside. “Sleep is for wimps,” they say, or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“The Western workplace culture… is practically fueled by stress, sleep deprivation, and burnout.”
-Arianna Huffington, Thrive

Unfortunately, poor sleep negatively affects skills and capacities that are important for leadership effectiveness, including:

  • ability to focus
  • cognitive speed
  • decision-making capacity
  • mathematical processing
  • performance on tasks

In a nutshell, being tired is a terrible state for leading and living. Importantly, sleep deprivation also makes us less ethical, according to researchers, in part by reducing our resistance to pressure. In his book, Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson notes that when we don’t sleep, our parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex lose a significant amount of their glucose, impacting our social control and ability to tell the difference between right and wrong.

According to researchers Christopher Barnes, Brian Gunia, and Sunita Sah writing in their Harvard Business Review article, “people who didn’t sleep well the previous night can often act unethically, even if they aren’t unethical people.” In an experimental study, tired participants (after an all-nighter) were given the opportunity to play along with a lie to earn money. The result? Tired participants were more likely to abandon their morals for cash.

Author Ruth Haley Barton, founder of the Transforming Center, distinguishes between what she calls “good tired” and “dangerous tired”:

“Dangerous tired is an atmospheric condition of the soul that is volatile and portends the risk of great destruction. It is a chronic inner fatigue accumulating over months (and sometimes years)…. it can actually be masked by excessive activity and compulsive overworking. When we are dangerously tired we feel out of control, compelled to constant activity by inner impulses that we may not even be aware of. For some reason we can’t name, we’re not able to linger and relax over a cup of coffee. We can’t keep from checking voice-mail or e-mail ‘just one more time’ before we leave the office or before we go to bed at night.”

Our state of sleep deprivation impairs our judgment and can bring out the worst in us, causing damage to our health, families, teams, and organizations. (See my article, “The Problem with Tired Leaders.”)

“We continue to live by a remarkably durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity. In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity, and our productivity.” -Tony Schwartz, “Sleep Is More Important than Food,” Harvard Business Review, March 3, 2011

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Benefits of Great Sleep

By contrast, quality sleep comes with an incredible array of benefits. For example, it has positive effects on:

  1. appearance
  2. bones
  3. cognitive function
  4. disease prevention
  5. emotional regeneration
  6. hormonal balance
  7. immune system function
  8. inflammation (reduction)
  9. longevity
  10. memory
  11. performance
  12. relationships
  13. sexual function, including desire and arousal
  14. skin health
  15. stress resilience
  16. weight loss
“Sleep… will magnify the results you get from your food and movement in the most amazing way if you allow it to…. Sleep is the secret sauce. There isn’t one facet of your mental, emotional, or physical performance that’s not affected by the quality of your sleep.” -Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Good sleep is also a driver of athletic performance. It’s no secret that top organizations, from the U.S. Olympic Committee to professional sports teams, as well as athletes (including LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Phelps), musicians, and artists, have worked to tap into the amazing power of great sleep. Stanford University researchers tested members of the men’s varsity basketball team after increasing the amount of sleep they got and discovered the following:

  • increased speed (faster sprint times)
  • improved shooting (9% improvement in free-throw and three-point shooting)
  • faster reaction times
  • less fatigue
  • improvement in mood and overall physical wellbeing

According to Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, “What these findings suggest is that these athletes were operating at a sub-optimal level” before their sleep time was extended. “They’d accumulated a sleep debt…. It’s not that they couldn’t function… but that they might not have been at their full potential.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Top Strategies for Getting Great Sleep

So how should we go about it? Here are top strategies for getting great sleep:

Make sleep a priority, since it affects everything we do so profoundly. Turn the good sleep practices below into rituals and habits. Reject a “grind culture” at your office or a mentality of toughing out late nights.

Get enough sleep, consistently. Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. (1) Find out what works best for you by learning to listen to your body. If in doubt, start by increasing sleep by just 30 minutes for a few days and see how it feels—or take a short nap (20-30 minutes) during the day, if possible.

Awaken early in the morning. According to researchers, waking early can help reduce negative thoughts and set us up for better quality sleep the next night. Also, “night owls” tend to sleep less overall than early risers, and they’re more likely to develop sleep disorders.

Get adequate sunlight during the day—including some sunlight as early as possible after waking up. Our sleep cycle depends in part on the amount of sunlight we get. Not getting enough sunlight can disrupt our circadian timing system.

Get adequate exercise. When we sleep, our body releases many beneficial hormones and does the repair work necessary for us to benefit from our workouts. The relationship between sleep and exercise is powerful—and bidirectional. Getting good exercise—including strength training two or three times a week—helps us sleep better, and getting good sleep helps us exercise and perform better. Morning workouts are ideal for the best sleep, so be sure to move in the morning even if you do your main workout in the afternoon. When we exercise early in the day, it gets us in a good cortisol cycle. Meanwhile, exercising too late in the evening raises our temperature, which can make it harder to fall asleep.

Limit screen time, especially before bed. According to researchers, using electronic devices before bed can negatively affect our alertness and our circadian clock. Shawn Stevenson notes that eliminating screen time at night is “likely the number one thing you can do to improve your sleep quality immediately.” If we shut off all screens at least 90 minutes before bedtime, we help our bodies normalize our natural melatonin and cortisol levels. Little things like blue light blockers and “Do Not Disturb” phone settings can go a long way.

Manage caffeine intake and set a caffeine curfew. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that excites our nervous system, and it causes our adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol, both of which work against our sleep. If taken in excess, caffeine can make us jittery and can cause insomnia. It has a “half-life” of between five to eight hours. Avoid energy drinks because they provide excessive amounts of caffeine (e.g., 80-300mg) and use natural sources (e.g., green and black tea or coffee) instead. According to many experts, most people need a caffeine curfew of 2:00 p.m. (3)

Calm our inner chatter. Many people have difficulty falling asleep because their mental wheels won’t stop spinning. Many struggle with overthinking, rumination, and worrying. Simple calming or relaxation techniques can go a long way. For example, try deep breathing or meditation, or listen to calming apps (e.g., the Calm app), stories, or audiobooks.

“A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.”
-Charlotte Bronte, English novelist

Create a sleep sanctuary—a cozy place that your mind and body associate with rest and sleep. That begins with a comfortable bed with a quality mattress, sheets, pillows, and blankets. Set it up for peace, quiet, and comfort.

Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Start winding down 30 to 45 minutes before bed. Do something relaxing, like listening to light music, journaling, or reading a book (ideally, fiction, poetry, or something spiritual—and not something that will generate stressful thoughts about work).

“A bedtime ritual teaches the brain to become familiar with sleep times and wake times.
It programs the brain and internal body clock to get used to a set routine.”

-Jessica Alexander, National Bed Federation

Maintain a regular bedtime. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule (both going to bed and arising in the morning—even on weekends) can dramatically improve our sleep quality because our body gets into a good sleep rhythm.

Set an eating and snacking curfew well before bedtime. It’s best to give our bodies at least 90 minutes to digest food before bedtime—and even better with more time.

Avoid or reduce alcohol consumption. Alcohol can significantly disrupt our REM sleep and prevent our brain and body from fully rejuvenating. When we do consume alcohol, it’s best to stop at least three hours before bedtime.

Remove devices from the bedroom. According to a 2023 Reviews.org survey of 1,000 Americans, 60% sleep with their phone by their sides (e.g., nightstand) at night, and many check alerts and notifications in the middle of the night, seriously disrupting their sleep. Watching television before bed also disrupts our sleep cycle.

Make sure it’s dark when we sleep. Light sources can disrupt our sleep patterns significantly by throwing our biological clock out of whack. We sleep better when it’s dark enough that we can’t see our hand in front of our face. Blackout curtains are a good investment.

Maintain a cool temperature in the bedroom—ideally, between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16-20 degrees Celsius.

Use technology to measure sleep duration and quality (e.g., sleep tracking devices), and make adjustments accordingly.

 

What to Do If You’re Having Trouble Falling Asleep

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, get up out of bed after a while and go do something relaxing (without a screen), instead of just lying there and getting frustrated. If there’s a lot on your mind, such as unfinished projects or ideas about how to address a problem, write it down. That way, you can avoid having your working memory churning on it. (A caution: Don’t try to suppress unwanted thoughts because that only makes it worse. Consider scheduling worry time in the afternoon and writing down worries and stressors so they’re captured on paper—leaving no need for your mind to keep spinning on them. See my article, “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying.”

Other recommended practices:

  • Think of three things you’re grateful for about your day while lying in bed.
  • Count backward from 100 to zero as slowly as possible.
  • Check with your doctor for underlying sleep conditions (e.g., sleep apnea) if the problem persists.
  • When needed, take natural, herbal supplements (e.g., nighttime tea with chamomile)—and don’t go straight to sleeping pills or melatonin. (4)

 

Conclusion

In the end, sleep is pivotal to everything we do. It affects everything. If “sitting is the new smoking,” as they way, then sleep is the new cool. So hit that pillow without guilt and enjoy the experience of life when we feel rested, fresh, calm, energized, and ready for the day. Our lives are too important to spend them in a foggy state of fatigue.

Wishing you well with it!
Gregg

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Resources

Books:

  • Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter (Rodale, 2016)
  • Arianna Huffington, Thrive (Harmony Books, 2014)

Podcasts:

  • “Model Health Show” (Shawn Stevenson)
  • “Feel Better, Live More” (Dr. Rangan Chatterjee)

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Sleep

  • “Sleep is a necessary part of life, though most of us scrape by with as little as possible. Most physicians and public health officials ignore it as a cornerstone of optimal health…. It turns out that sleep can make or break your ability to lose weight, age slowly, prevent cancer, and perform at a high level.” -Dr. Sara Gottfried, physician-scientist
  • “Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” -Thomas Dekker, English dramatist
  • “Proper sleep has helped me get to where I am today as an athlete, and it is something that I continue to rely on every day.” -Tom Brady, American football quarterback and champion
  • “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” -Irish proverb
  • “Never waste any time you can spend sleeping.” -Frank H. Knight, economist
  • “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” -E. Joseph Cossman, inventor, entrepreneur, and author
  • “When you’re sleep deprived at work, it’s much easier to simply go along with unethical suggestions from your boss because resistance takes effort and you’re already worn down.” -David Welsh, a University of Washington professor
  • “With too little sleep, people do things that no CEO in his or her right mind would allow.” -Dr. Charles Czeisler, Professor of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • “Tired officers are always pessimists.” -General George S. Patton, World War II U.S. Army General
  • “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” -Vince Lombardi, legendary football coach
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton, former U.S. president (famous for getting five hours of sleep a night)
  • “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” -John Steinbeck, writer

 

References

(1) Most teens should get between eight and ten hours of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The amount of sleep we need changes throughout our life. Here are guidelines for recommended amounts of sleep by age group:

  • newborns: 14-17 hours
  • infants: 12-15 hours
  • toddlers: 11-14 hours
  • preschoolers: 10-13 hours
  • school-aged children: 9-11 hours
  • teenagers: 8-10 hours
  • adults: 7-9 hours

(2) Sleep deprivation triggers higher activity in our amygdala, an emotional and reactive part of the brain associated with our motivation to eat. Also, it reduces activity in the more advanced parts of the brain associated with judgment, maintaining social appropriateness, social control, and decision-making.

(3) Those who take too much caffeine are wise to consider reducing it gradually, because it can have withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, nervousness, and fatigue. Few people realize that decaffeinated coffee actually contains some caffeine (e.g., 2 to 15 milligrams), though much less than regular coffee.

(4) Stevenson points out that many experts agree that melatonin supplements can be very effective for some people, but it’s a hormone that has a risk of potential problems, including down-regulating our body’s natural ability to use melatonin on its own and creating a dependency. Many people turn to sleeping pills prematurely without understanding the causes of their sleep problems (e.g., too much caffeine, irregular schedule, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, physical problems, side effects from other medications, etc.).

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Getting Good at Asking for Help

Many people struggle with asking for help. It just doesn’t feel right, or it goes against their nature.

This fits with a narrative we’ve been fed all our lives. In our culture, we tend to worship the self-made man or woman. We’re told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps (a truly ridiculous phrase, if we stop to think about it).

Perhaps we grew up admiring the Lone Ranger, Superman, Ironman, or Wonder Woman. It’s part of U.S. history, with the rugged individualism and self-reliance inherited and lionized from the frontier days of the Wild West.*

We value being independent and self-sufficient, a grinder who can push through hardship and get things done.

There’s surely value in much of this, but it comes with a hefty price. If we’re reluctant to ask for help, it can get us into big trouble in life by keeping us stuck or slowing down our advances.

Asking for help is an important life skill, work skill, and leadership skill. Those who struggle with it are wise to address it urgently.

“I respect and value the ideals of rugged individualism and self-reliance. But rugged individualism didn’t defeat the British, it didn’t get us to the moon, build our nation’s highways, or map the human genome. We did that together.”
-Cory Booker, U.S. Senator, former Mayor of Newark

 

The Problem with Not Getting Help

When we fail to reach out and ask for help, we’re more likely to get and stay stuck. We’re more likely to struggle with overwork and burnout. And we’re bound to experience the emptiness of going it alone.

It can prevent us from maintaining closeness with friends and family. When we let our relationships and social ties lapse, it reduces our happiness and can lead to anxiety or depression.

 

Types of Help

Since many people aren’t accustomed to seeking and accepting help, they may not be clear on the many distinct types of help available to them. For example, types of help we can receive include:

  1. listening as we process difficult emotions
  2. sharing their experience with similar challenges
  3. brainstorming potential solutions
  4. serving as a sounding board
  5. providing input and feedback
  6. reviewing our work for errors or things we’ve missed
  7. encouraging us to stay the course despite challenges
  8. giving advice or counsel
  9. teaching us a new skill
  10. asking tough questions
  11. holding us accountable to our commitments
  12. introducing us to people who can help

At any given time, any one of these can be significant. We’re wise to be open to them so we can operate at our best.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What Prevents Us from Asking for Help

We may “get” the conceptual case for seeking help, but that doesn’t make it easy to do. There are many reasons we may be reluctant to do so, including that we:

  • don’t want to feel stupid or embarrassed
  • are too proud
  • don’t want to be a bother
  • are too shy
  • would rather just figure it out on our own
  • are afraid of appearing weak, stupid, or incompetent (at work here is the deeply mistaken belief that vulnerability is weakness)
  • fear rejection
  • worry about losing status (e.g., tarnishing our image of being a go-getter) or control
  • don’t want to feel beholden to others
  • believe we don’t deserve help

Sometimes, we can trace one or more of these common thoughts and feelings to a source. For example, maybe someone criticized or belittled us as a kid when we asked for help. According to Deborah Grayson Riegel, coauthor of Go To Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask For, and Accept Help, “starting at about seven years old, we start to associate asking for help with reputational costs. We’ve been conditioned to think ‘They’re going to think I’m dumb/bad/lazy/weak if I admit I need help.’”

Additionally, we may have inherited a personality trait that makes it difficult to ask for help. For example, perfectionists often insist on doing everything on their own because they feel strongly that things must be done a certain way and believe it’s better just to do it all themselves—even though that often makes them a bottleneck and prone to overload.

Our mindset is also relevant here. Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, distinguishes between a fixed mindset (in which we believe our intelligence, abilities, and talents are static and fixed) and a “growth mindset” (in which we believe we can develop them). A fixed mindset, she argues, leads to a desire to look smart in front of others, making it harder for us to ask for help.

Our personal core values can also get in the way. Those who have self-reliance as a core value, for instance, may pride themselves on being able to manage things on their own. Or perhaps we identify as a high-performer and overachiever and feel like it’s beneath us to ask for help, or we’re a martyr and wish to make others feel guilty for our suffering.

Cultural influences are also relevant. Many Western societies value individualism, as do many families and organizations. It’s part of their ethos. People don’t want to ask for help in cultures where it’s looked down upon.

Finally, we often misjudge how others will respond to our requests. According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science:

“Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” **

There’s research indicating that serving others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. *** In other words, when we ask for help, in some ways we’re helping those we’re asking, because it allows them to do things that help them enjoy life and thrive. It’s called the “helper’s high.”

“The person who is being asked to help also gets a huge benefit from being in that position. They are strengthening social ties and they are able to feel generous. Asking for help is quite generative for both parties.”
-Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D.

At the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates said, “there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest, and caring for others,” and we’re most successful when we’re driven by a “hybrid” engine of those two forces.

 

The Benefits of Seeking Help

Getting good at asking for help can lead to big wins in our life and work, because it can affect so many things. For example, it can help us deepen our relationship with others, because asking for help involves courage, vulnerability, authenticity, and trust, which are powerful connecting forces in relationships.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”
-Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

Asking for help can help us gain clarity on the issue at hand as we describe it to others. It can set up a powerful dynamic of reciprocity that benefits all. And it can inspire others to stop going it alone and ask for help more as well.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown recounted the personal implications of this in her life:

“…my greatest personal and professional transformations happened when I started asking hard questions about how my fear of being vulnerable was holding me back and when I found the courage to share my struggles and ask for help…. I also learned that the people who love me, the people I really depend on, were never critics who were pointing at me while I stumbled. They weren’t in the bleachers at all. They were with me in the arena. Fighting for me and with me…. Sometimes out first and greatest dare is asking for support.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help

Though it’s sometimes hard to ask for help, thankfully there are many things we can do to develop this valuable skill. For example, we can:

  1. recognize that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness, because it means we’re committed to our goals and confident enough to demonstrate some vulnerability
  2. consider that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing our frustration or suffering
  3. recognize that nobody succeeds in life without the help of many people from different areas of life (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, friends, even rivals sometimes)
  4. recognize that our fears about asking for help (e.g., that we’ll lose status) are misplaced, given all the research on how people underestimate others’ willingness to help
  5. recall that most people like to help others, as it makes them feel good
  6. evaluate whether it’s a good time to ask for help, given that most people tend to wait too long to do so (good things to consider include how much time we’ve already spent on the issue at hand, whether we have the time to keep working on it alone, whether it’s something we’re good at solving, and whether there are better uses of our time and energy)
  7. trust others to set boundaries for themselves and say “no” if warranted
  8. flip the script and recall times when people asked us for help and whether that made us feel burdened and resentful or glad to be asked and happy to help
  9. consider the worst-case scenario (i.e., the person refuses to help or can’t right now, and perhaps we feel awkward for a bit)
  10. tally the potential benefits of getting help (e.g., having more bright people working on potential solutions or sharing how they’ve solved a similar problem, as well as the support and solidarity that may arise)
  11. start small when first learning to ask for help, and build out from there (this will make it more manageable and less likely that we’ll abandon it)
  12. share with others that we struggle with asking for help but want to improve (this will make it easier to ask when the time comes and help us be accountable for improving)
  13. set a target for how many “asks” we’ll make in a week or month—and keep track

 

Things to Do When Making the Ask

Sometimes it’s helpful to address the mechanics of how exactly to go about asking for help. Here are some tips:

Do substantial initial work and thinking on the issue before turning to others. Don’t be the person who goes straight to asking others without putting in some initial thought or work, as that can drift into taking advantage of them. Sometimes, Google and YouTube searches can go a long way.

Ask in person or by videoconference or phone and not email or text, if possible. That will help make it more personal. (According to the research, in-person requests are much more successful anyway.)****

Provide enough information and context for the person to make an informed decision about whether and how they can help. The more clarity and transparency upfront, the better.

Respect their time, expertise, context, and preferences.

Be specific on what the ask is and isn’t, with clear boundaries, including why it matters to us and how we think the person we’re asking can contribute. Many experts recommend making what they call “SMART” requests for help, an acronym that stands for Specific, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-bound. The clearer we can be on exactly what kind of help we want and need, including the time and resources involved, the better. But even while we make our requests specific, we should be open to new information as we learn what people know, who they know, and how they can help. Let the people we’re asking for help decide how much help they can offer (or not)—and how.

Don’t apologize for asking and don’t minimize the request. That can take away from the other person’s generosity. Be straightforward and matter-of-fact.

Don’t emphasize reciprocity when making the ask. By promising a return favor, we risk turning the request from altruistic and noble to transactional.

Follow up afterward to thank them and let them know how things went (and, ideally, what impact they made).

Watch out for the “illusion of transparency” (the mistaken belief that our thoughts, feelings, and needs are obvious to others). Don’t expect people to read our minds about what we want and need. Also, watch out for the “curse of knowledge” (when better informed people find it difficult to adopt the perspective of others—or subconsciously assuming others know what you know about a topic or situation).

Recognize that it can take time to become comfortable with and good at asking for help, because old habits die hard. We can surely get better at it with practice. According to Dr. Wayne Baker, faculty director of the Center for Positive Organizations and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, “You’re working to become desensitized to the fear of what might happen when you ask for help.”

Develop this practice into a habit, not a one-and-done activity.

Ensure this is reciprocal. If we want help from others, we must be willing to give help—and sometimes actively to seek ways to help others (but without being needy about it). Ideally, we can earn help from others by being a helpful person—not just once but consistently over time. Still, someone has to start the cycle of helping first, which means that someone needs to receive help first.

Try a “reciprocity ring,” a fun and rewarding approach created by Wayne and Cheryl Baker. In such a ring, a group convenes so that each person can ask for something they need and can’t easily get or do themselves. As each person takes a turn articulating their request, the others think about the resources they might have to help. They can make as many offers of help as they like. Even if they can’t help personally, they can connect the person to someone in their network who might be able to help. Such a practice is powerful because reciprocity is hardwired into our brains, and it can normalize the act of asking for help.

 

Implication for Leaders

Leaders are wise to create a culture in their team or organization in which asking for help is not only encouraged and common but also rewarded. At IDEO, designers receive coaching on this and executives model it. And at Zingerman’s, a Midwestern food company, all attendees at the induction of new managing partners state what they’ll do to help each new partner succeed. The company’s founding partners participate as well, sending an important message from the top.

Notably, asking for help can help reduce burnout levels in organizations. A global study conducted by Rebecca Zucker from Next Step Partners found that lack of help-seeking was one of the top two predictors of feeling overwhelmed at work. Those who don’t ask for help, she found, scored 23% higher on overwhelm.

 

Conclusion

For many, asking for help is difficult—and one of the most important skills we can develop because of the connections and breakthroughs it can engender.

Be patient with this process. It may take time, because it involves unlearning old habits. But it’s well worth it.

“If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this:
Ask for help. You need it more than you know.”
-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you in the habit of powering through adversity without asking for help—or even considering it?
  2. Do you wait too long before seeking help, wasting precious time along the way?
  3. In what areas are you comfortable asking for help?
  4. In which cases did you not ask for help when you should have, and why?
  5. What will you do today to develop this important skill?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” -Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve
  • “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” -Madeleine L’Engle, writer
  • “Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart.” -Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take
  • “How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right? Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

* There are cultural differences at work here. For example, many Western societies value individualism, while East Asian and Latin American societies tend to place a greater value on the group, the community, and the collective.

** Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.

*** Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.

**** M. Mahdi Roghanizad, Vanessa K. Bohns, Ask in person: You’re less persuasive than you think over email, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 69, 2017, 223–226,

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Setting Boundaries—Why It’s Hard and How to Do It

Article Summary: 

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things for many people to do but it’s a powerful and empowering personal development practice. And costly if we don’t do it well. This article addresses why it’s hard, its benefits, and how to do it well.

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Boundaries are dividing lines that mark the limits of an area. If we pause to notice, we can see boundaries all around us. The boundary of our body. Our apartment walls or home and property line. State and national borders. The boundaries of sports. In soccer, it’s sidelines, penalty areas, goals, and goal posts. With basketball, it’s sidelines, free-throw lines, three-point lines, and more. In track and field, it’s running lanes. And in many sports, the clock serves as a time boundary, delineating quarters, periods, or halves, and perhaps overtime.

In life, setting boundaries is about identifying ways for others to behave towards us—and also setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. Our personal boundaries set a limit on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

We need boundaries to function effectively in and enjoy our life and work. They’re there for our protection and wellbeing, and they can give us a sense of control over our lives.

 

The Problem with Not Having Boundaries

Lack of boundaries can lead to many negative consequences, including:

  • negative emotions like anxiety, frustration, resentment
  • overcommitment and a sense of “time poverty” (“the chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them”)
  • overwork or workaholism
  • exhaustion and burnout
  • numbing behaviors (escaping from our thoughts and feelings by doing other things like shopping, eating, binge watching, or doom scrolling)
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

 

Boundary Types and Examples

To understand boundaries, it helps to consider their different types and see examples of them in action. There are many different types of boundaries, including:

  1. Physical boundaries (e.g., whether we hug or shake hands with people we meet, what we do with our bodies, who we allow into our personal space and under what conditions)
  2. Emotional boundaries (e.g., whether we take on other people’s emotional burdens or allow their moods to change ours)
  3. Relationship boundaries (e.g., how we let others talk to or treat us, such as whether we tolerate disrespect, dishonesty, wasting our time, belittling, bullying, etc.)
  4. Privacy boundaries (e.g., deciding what personal information we choose to share and with whom, when, and where)
  5. Conversational boundaries (e.g., whether there are topics—like politics and religion—we choose not to discuss with certain people or in certain circumstances because they may be awkward, painful, volatile, or triggering)
  6. Work boundaries (e.g., whether we allow ourselves to get overcommitted, whether we take on the workloads of colleagues who are slacking, whether we work on weekends or check email on vacation)
  7. Self-care boundaries (e.g., whether we have good sleeping, eating, and exercise habits, whether we check our phones first thing in the morning and/or last thing before bed, how much time we spend on our devices)
  8. Ethical boundaries (e.g., whether we harm, deceive, or manipulate others, whether we look the other way or cover for people when they’re doing bad things)
  9. Financial boundaries (e.g., what to purchase, how much to spend, whether we choose to lend people money and, if so, who, when, how, and how much)
  10. Sexual boundaries (e.g., which kinds of intimate behaviors we’re comfortable with or not)

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Causes of Poor Boundaries

For many, it’s not easy to draw the line, say no, and enforce boundaries. It requires knowing our preferences and breaking points as well as being willing to assert our desires and needs.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

Why is it hard? Many reasons, including that we may:

  • find it stressful and draining to have such awkward or difficult conversations, or feel guilty about asking for what we want or need
  • be afraid of harming our relationships
  • suffer from self-doubt or low self-esteem
  • fear of judgment
  • feel undeserving or unworthy
  • focus too much on others’ needs
  • care too much about what others think of us
  • struggle with perfectionism 
  • have people-pleasing tendencies
  • lack clarity about what we want and where we’re going, thus making it difficult to know where to draw the line to protect those priorities
  • not be in touch with our emotions and their causes (that is, not connecting the dots between our anxiety and people making us uncomfortable with certain behaviors)
  • have experienced previous boundary-crossing, betrayal, violence, or trauma, which can damage or destroy our self-esteem and make it harder for us to set boundaries
“People-pleasing is not who we are; we’re living a lie. So, if we don’t say yes authentically, we say it resentfully, fearfully, and avoidantly, and that leads to far more problems than if we’d just said no in the first place. Find your no, find yourself, find your joy.”
-Natalie Lue, author, The Joy of Saying No

 

The Benefits of Boundaries

Getting good at setting and enforcing boundaries can lead to big wins in our life and work, because it can affect so many things. Setting healthy boundaries can help us:

  • protect our personal space, safety, and energy
  • feel less anxiety, anger, frustration, and resentment
  • enhance our mental health and protect our emotional wellbeing
  • build and maintain a strong identity
  • develop greater self-respect and confidence
  • get clear on who we are, what we want, and our core values and belief systems
  • develop independence
  • grow as a person
  • protect our time and energy and thereby avoid burnout
  • manage our life, work, time, and relationships more effectively and with greater ease
  • develop and maintain healthy and positive relationships with mutual trust
  • earn respect from others
  • prevent relationship conflicts
  • positively influence others
“Setting emotional boundaries prevents people from manipulating you, using you, and playing with your feelings.”
-Remez Sasson, author

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Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries

We know it’s hard for many people to set and enforce boundaries. It’s easier said than done! So, how can we get better at it? Here are some effective approaches:

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries can add great value to our lives. It’s well worth the effort, and it gets easier over time. Note all the benefits above and consider the personal empowerment and freedom they can bring.

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries is not just good for us but for all involved because it creates clarity and mutual respect. It’s not an unreasonable or selfish endeavor. Far from it.

Evaluate our current boundaries (if we have any), including whether there are situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

Take an emotional inventory of potential boundary crossings, including the people we’re spending time with, the situations we’re in, and how they’re making us feel. This requires tapping into or further developing our self-awareness and emotional intelligence to help us gauge our comfort level. A little self-reflection goes a long way here.

Determine new boundaries and recommit to or update old boundaries, ideally informed by our core values and current goals and priorities. If we’re new to setting or enforcing boundaries, it may be wise to start small and build from there. The earlier we start, the better, so we can work through conversations and make adjustments before getting too far down the road.

Communicate boundaries clearly. In some cases, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I just can’t help with that,” or “I’m exhausted from a bunch of things lately so I can’t get together this week”). In other cases, we can leave it with a simple statement (“I can’t take that on,” “That doesn’t work for me”) or even just a straightforward “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

Be as consistent as possible in communicating and enforcing boundaries, lest others get confused or forget.

Work on developing our assertiveness, including self-advocacy and getting better at saying “no”—and saying it more often. For example, we can focus on saying no to:

  • requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or further our personal or professional priorities
  • spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, or excessive neediness
  • doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating to others) or overworking, in the process sacrificing our health and important relationships
“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, legendary investor

Strike a good balance between being kind but firm. We should work at being thoughtful and understanding while still clear and assertive. Sometimes, a little humor or levity can go a long way in dialing tensions down.

Get as clear as we can about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. Doing that allows us to set and enforce boundaries. Incidentally, if we’re doing a good job of protecting our boundaries, over time we’ll be filling more of our days with productive and enjoyable activities. In essence, we’re crowding out the bad stuff with the good stuff.

Set boundaries around our emotional commitment to others (e.g., avoiding the trap of feeling responsible for their choices or their happiness or outcomes).

Set boundaries on our work time. For example, set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed.* It helps to plan ahead so we can use our time intentionally and effectively. And it helps to remember the “80/20 rule” (a.k.a., “Pareto Principle”), a power law distribution suggesting that about 80% of our results typically come from 20% of our efforts. So, we’re wise to determine and focus on our most productive tasks. (See the Appendix below for tools that support our time boundaries.)

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done deal. As we do it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and rigid and when to make exceptions or changes based on new information or factors.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we set and enforce boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we can experience within those bounds. It helps facilitate all the things we want to do and will allow, without having to worry about the stresses and resentment of being defensive and fighting back against potential incursions.

Having boundaries frees up our time and energy to live the life we want.

As we work through this process, we’re wise to recognize that, since people are so different, they’re likely to make different choices—and sometimes vastly different choices—about their boundaries. What boundaries work for one person may not work at all for others. So, we need to advocate for our own boundaries while also helping people advocate for their own—and respecting their choices even as we fight for ours.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Which boundaries are most important to you, and why?
  2. What boundaries are easier for you to set and enforce?
  3. Which boundaries do you struggle with, and why?
  4. Do those boundary struggles tend to involve certain people and/or certain situations, places, or times?
  5. What more will you do to set and enforce healthy boundaries, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Traps

 

Appendix: Tools that Help Protect Our Time

There are many tools that can help us protect our time. Here are several:

  1. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, only moving to the next task after completing the current one.

  1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

  1. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that longer list. From there, choose only to pursue the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.” -Anna Taylor, author
  • “Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn’t make me mean, selfish, or uncaring (just) because I don’t do things your way.” -Christine Morgan, psychotherapist
  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “It’s OK to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about.” -Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran minister
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

* According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with postgraduate degrees and higher incomes were most likely to report that they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Gratitude and Recognition in the Workplace–The Benefits and Top Practices

Gratitude and Recognition in the Workplace— The Benefits and Top Practices

We don’t need to look at the data on “quiet quitting” and the “great resignation” to understand that many workers today feel undervalued and underappreciated. They feel like disposable widgets in a heartless organization.

Though recognition is a fundamental human need, many managers think that having a job and salary with benefits should be thanks enough for their workers. Those managers may not only be stressed but also unappreciated themselves.

But they’re missing something fundamental. In a previous article, “The Trap of Not Being Grateful for What We Have,” we saw that gratitude can lead to better moods, more happiness, better sleep, lower blood pressure, less stress, and more

What about gratitude at work?

 

10 Benefits of Gratitude in the Workplace

According to researchers, gratitude and appreciation in the workplace can:

  1. boost worker health, wellbeing, and optimism
  2. help improve the work environment and organizational culture
  3. facilitate closer and better relationships among co-workers and between works and their managers
  4. help managers be more effective
  5. help protect workers from stress and burnout
  6. help make workers more enthusiastic about their work and motivated to do a better job
  7. help reduce employee turnover
  8. produce more trust and teamwork
  9. generate higher job satisfaction
  10. lead to better performance
“…study after study has shown that no one is immune from the motivating effects of acknowledgement and thanks.”
Mark Goulston, “How to Give a Meaningful ‘Thank You,’” Harvard Business Review, February 2013

Here’s a sample of some of the research on gratitude and recognition in the workplace:

  • According to a 2023 Great Place to Work survey, recognition was named by workers as the most important driver of great work.
  • In a Glassdoor survey, 81% of workers reported they’re motivated to work harder when their manager shows appreciation for their work.
  • In another survey, 40% of working Americans say they’d put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often for their efforts.
Research on gratitude and appreciation demonstrates that when employees feel valued, they have high job satisfaction, are willing to work longer hours, engage in productive relationships with co-workers and supervisors,
are motivated to do their best, and work towards achieving the company’s goals.
Christine M. Riordan, “Foster a Culture of Gratitude,” Harvard Business Review, April 2013

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The Problem with Lacking Gratitude and Recognition

It also cuts the other way. Problems abound when gratitude and recognition are missing at work.

In a January 2023 Workhuman report, 46% of workers reported feeling only somewhat valued and 11% reported not feeling valued at all in their workplaces. What’s more, those numbers are worse for women and workers of color, with 48.8% of women and 49.3% of workers of color reporting that they feel undervalued.

According to a 2023 Wakefield survey of 400 U.S. adults, 42% of workers overall say their organization lacks the strong culture of appreciation that’s essential for their success. It also found that workers who feel appreciated are more than seven times more likely to feel completely secure in their jobs.

In a 2022 poll, 59% of workers reported that they’ve never had a boss who truly appreciates their work, and 29% say they’d willingly give up a weeks’ worth of pay for more recognition from their employer.

According to a 2021 survey of 1,417 American workers, 49% of the workers said they had quit a job before because of a lack of recognition. And according to a study of 1,714 adults conducted by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association, half of all workers who say that they do not feel valued at work reported that they intend to look for a new job in the next year.

People may take a job for more money, but they often leave it for more recognition.”
-Dr. Bob Nelson

 

8 Ways to Bring More Gratitude into Our Workplaces

Worker recognition is a $46 billion market globally. Based on the data above, though, it’s clear that many managers and or have much work to do on this important front.

According to a Templeton Foundation survey, of all the places people express gratitude, workplaces are among the places where people are least likely to express it. What a shame.

What to do? Below is a punch list of gratitude-related workplace practices. (As you read through it, use it as a checklist to determine how you’re doing in each area—and consider getting input from your team as well.)

Employ simple expressions of appreciation via notes, letters, or emails. These can be surprisingly powerful for the recipient, especially since many people almost never receive thanks or praise in the workplace.

Launch appreciation programs and success celebrations (e.g., of accomplishments, launches, retirements, etc.) via events, newsletter features, appreciation parties, etc.

Create opportunities for workers to interact with their customers, users, or other beneficiaries of their products and services. This helps them get a sense of the value experienced.

Give simple gifts or rewards. This can be free meals, gift cards, event tickets, or company swag (tech accessories, bags, drinkware).

Encourage peer-to-peer recognition among workers. This can be done via thank-you notes or in meetings.

Give gratitude journals to workers to help them keep gratitude top of mind.

Educate workers about the benefits of gratitude and the many different gratitude practices they can consider. Distribute blogs, articles, videos, or books. (See my previous article, “The Trap of Not Being Grateful for What We Have.”)

Initiate a 30-Day Gratitude Challenge. Some tips on how to go about it:

  • Make an organization-wide announcement so people understand what it is and how it will work.
  • Ensure that the senior management team is actively involved with and communicating about it far and wide.
  • Promote it creatively via promotional materials (posters, flyers, etc.) and social media.
  • Consider providing incentives for participation, such as gift cards, meals, or a half-day Friday.
Take time to appreciate employees and they will reciprocate in a thousand ways.
Dr. Bob Nelson, expert on worker recognition

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

How to Do It Well

In addition to the “what” of workplace gratitude and recognition efforts, it’s also important to think about the “how.” Some tips:

  1. Workplace gratitude and recognition efforts don’t have to be big and complicated. They’re often better when they’re simple and straightforward.
  2. Recognize people and express gratitude to them both in private sometimes and in public other times. Both are necessary.
  3. Thank people at key moments. It can be in the middle of a big push, during a stressful period, or after a big win. Pay attention to timing. Thank people immediately or very soon after the relevant action.
  4. Express appreciation for going above and beyond the call of duty. Acknowledge the effort and sacrifices involved with their work. Share what it means to you and the organization.
  5. Ensure expressions of appreciation are specific, relevant, and authentic. They can also be spontaneous. Standard, generic thank-you’s can be counterproductive.
  6. Personalize the thanks and recognition. Tailor them to the recipient.
  7. Pay attention to frequency. Many leaders don’t recognize and thank their people nearly enough. Researchers* have identified three levels of gratitude in the workplace:
    • Episodic gratitude, in which workers feel grateful for a particular experience.
    • Persistent gratitude, in which workers have a stable tendency to feel grateful for their organization or work context.
    • Collective gratitude, in which many, most, or all the members of an organization feel persistent gratitude. Why not shoot for more persistent and collective gratitude?
  8. Add in some creativity and fun. Many of us have sterile and joyless workplaces that lack life and heart. What a shame. In their book, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp noted a clever example in which a couple weeks before the year-end holiday party, the organization asked workers to write three to five qualities that they most appreciated about each member of their team. The organization gathered all the qualities listed for each person and turned them into a word cloud. At the party, the word clouds were displayed anonymously around the room, with names hidden. Workers were asked to guess which word cloud was theirs, and they held a contest to see how many people could be correctly identified via the word clouds.
  9. Smart leaders also build celebrations into the rhythm of their organizations. In their book, Corporate Celebration: Play, Purpose, and Profit at Work, Terrence Deal and M. K. Key outline different types of celebration at work, including:
    • Celebrations with seasonal themes or organizational anniversaries
    • Recognition ceremonies
    • Celebrations of collective accomplishments (e.g., new office or product launch)
    • Personal transitions: entrances and exits
  10. Make sure no one is left out in the larger scheme of gratitude and recognition efforts over time. Appreciation is especially important for front-line workers who often bear the brunt of customer complaints. Think of salespeople, service personnel, customer support staff, and call center workers—and how cruel and vindictive stressed-out customers can be sometimes.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Dark Side of Gratitude in the Workplace

The benefits of gratitude are clear and powerful, but as with most things, there are some nuances to consider. In some cases, dynamics around gratitude can become problematic, according to researchers. For example, it can cause resentment if gratitude becomes like a type of currency in a relationship or team, with one or more people feeling underpaid or exploited. Also, those who receive large gifts or favors may struggle to establish appropriate boundaries, in part due to expectations around reciprocity.

We should also be wary of gratitude that’s based on flawed foundations like obligation, shame, or guilt. Some people, including narcissistic or toxic leaders, may seek to manipulate people via gratitude. For example, if we feel we should be grateful to our boss for our job, it can make us blind to their flaws and harms. That gratitude can also make us more willing to violate our values to protect them if they misbehave.

Researchers have also found that gratitude in the workplace can solidify existing power structures, with low-power group members dependent on high-power ones, and high-power group members pacifying low-power group members with expressions of gratitude. (For more on this, see “Gratitude Traps: Why We Should be Critical of Gratefulness.”)

 

Conclusion

Too many workers today feel undervalued and unappreciated. Gratitude and recognition are key components leaders can employ to humanize the workplace, giving people a sense of pride and belonging for their efforts and contributions.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How are you doing when it comes to recognizing and thanking your colleagues?
  2. Have you checked with your team or surveyed your organization to determine how well you’re doing with gratitude and recognition—and in which areas you need work?
  3. What more will you do on this important front, starting today?

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Gratitude in the Workplace

  • “When a manager recognizes an employee’s behavior, personally and sincerely, both feel proud, gratified, and happy. There’s a human connection that transcends the immediate culture to create a shared bond. The power of this bond is stronger than you might think; indeed, it’s the power that holds together great organizational cultures.” -Erik Mosley and Derek Irvine
  • “Employees who report receiving recognition and praise within the last seven days show increased productivity, get higher scores from customers, and have better safety records. They’re just more engaged at work.” -Tom Rath, author and consultant
  • “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” -Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller and leadership author

* Source: Fehr, Ryan & Fulmer, Ashley & Awtrey, Eli & Miller, Jared. (2016). The Grateful Workplace: A Multilevel Model of Gratitude in Organizations. The Academy of Management Review. 42. See also Waters, L. (2012). Predicting Job Satisfaction: Contributions of Individual Gratitude and Institutionalized Gratitude. Psychology, 3, 1174-1176.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Hidden Trap Catching Many High-Achievers

The Hidden Trap Catching Many High-Achievers

We all have wants and needs, but most of us don’t think of ourselves as needy. That may be true, but in many cases we’re more needy than we think.

For many people these days, and especially high-achievers, neediness shows up as excessive attachment to recognition, praise, or success–or to saving others–for self-acceptance. It comes with an excessive desire for reassurance or affirmation from others. This is easy to miss because we’re probably reluctant to admit it when we feel it.

Such achievement-based approval is baked into Western culture and our society’s views about what’s expected in life—and what comprises a good life. At work here is the mistaken assumption that success and prestige in the eyes of others will bring us happiness and fulfillment. (They won’t.)

Neediness can hit us hard when we encounter hard times in our career, such as a layoff, and when we go through big transitions in life, such as graduation, career change, or retirement.

It has pros and cons. On the one hand, neediness can motivate us to work hard, achieve at high levels, and contribute to others. On the other hand, it can detract from our quality of life and harm our relationships.

In his book, Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine describes the profile of what we calls a “hyper-achiever:” someone who is “dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation.” (This is one of ten “saboteurs”—automatic and habitual mind patterns—he’s identified that work against us and our work teams.)

Some people become insecure overachievers. They seek to win by accomplishing the love,
admiration, and attachment they can’t get any other way,
but of course no amount of achievement ever gives them the love they crave.”
-David Brooks, The Second Mountain

 

White Knight Syndrome

One version of neediness comes in the form of what psychologists call “white knight syndrome” (or “hero syndrome”). It’s a need to rescue or save people via helping, such as with advising or coaching them or sharing ideas with them, as a way to boost our sense of self-importance.

Often, it leads us to give unsolicited advice often, in all sorts of settings, with the justification that we’re just trying to help. It can also come with feelings of anxiety or aimlessness when we’re not helping others and annoyance or hurt when people don’t come to us for advice or follow the advice we gave—and sometimes with fishing for praise after we give advice to get acknowledgement about how much we helped.

Drs. Mary Lamia and Marilyn Krieger, clinical psychologists and authors of The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself from Your Need to Rescue Others, defines it as “a compulsive need to be the rescuer” and notes several signs that we may have it:

  • We base our self-worth on our ability to “fix” people, and it’s a core part of our identity in relationships or work as we’re overly keen on offering help and advice
  • We have a strong need to be viewed as important
  • We have a tendency to engage in controlling behavior under the guise of helping people
  • We’re quite self-critical
  • We gravitate toward those who are needy
  • We fear emotional distance and seek to entangle people back into a position of needing our help when that fear arises

According to Dr. Lamia and other psychologists, it can come from many sources, including: a lack of healthy and affectionate bonds during childhood, authoritarian parents, being deeply affected by the suffering of a caregiver, a history of neglect or unhealed abandonment wounds, or having to take on a parent role due to a parent with addiction or health issues.

Though there’s a desire to help that’s part of this, there are also selfish and controlling dynamics at work. People can sense that, so they may begin to resent the help and pull away. Many people can feel put down when others step in with unsolicited advice or unrequested help.

They may also sense that the advice that comes from another, while valid in its original context, often misses the mark in the new context with different people, personalities, and dynamics at work. It can take a high toll on both parties and lead to misunderstanding and mutual resentment, as well as codependency and the undermining of the recipient’s ability to address their own issues.

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Signs of Neediness

There are degrees of neediness. We’re probably all needy to some degree in certain areas, while some people are very needy in several areas of their life and work.

With neediness, we tend to do at least a few of the following fairly often:

  • have a frequent urge to be noticed
  • go out of our way to impress others
  • feel attacked when receiving criticism—or obsess over it
  • be hyper-competitive
  • have a strong desire to be the one who comes up with the answer or solves the problem
  • play status or power games or want to control the people or things around us
  • be prone to adapting our personality to impress others
  • pay people excessive compliments as a way to earn their favor
  • experience discomfort with self-disclosure, emotional vulnerability, or intimacy
  • pull away when close relationships are beginning to form
  • be skilled at hiding insecurities
  • only feel good when we’re successful and held in high esteem
  • have a hard time feeling lasting peace and contentment due to a recurring itch for the next win
  • be image- and status-conscious and spend a lot of time on social media (e.g., tracking follower counts and likes)

(Note, also, that many of these can be blind spots for us. We can go long periods without being aware that we’re doing some of these things, then get surprised with forthright feedback from a trusted friend or mentor.)

When everybody loves me, I’m gonna be just about as happy as I can be.”
-The Counting Crows in their song, “Mr. Jones”

 

Where Neediness Comes From

Psychologists note that neediness often comes from not having our needs adequately met as children (e.g., feeling neglected, dismissed, invalidated, or rejected). When we’re children, even minor incidents involving these feelings tend to get blown up.

Many children learn early on that they can gain acceptance, praise, affection, or love by proving themselves with obedience or achievement, setting up a conditional view of self-regard that can become problematic later on if not balanced with a healthy sense of self-worth.

Even with well-intentioned, caring parents, we can get the sense that we’re only worthy and loved when we do things as our parents expect—i.e., that we’re only worthy of conditional love.

Neediness can also come from mistaken beliefs about ourselves (e.g., we’re not worthy or good enough) that we’ve never examined critically, as well as from insecurity, trauma, or abuse.

Part of the challenge here is that we’re battling our own neural wiring. Our brains and bodies seek the chemical rewards, via neuro-transmitting hormones, of achievement leading to praise (and the avoidance of mistakes leading to disapproval). It’s a stimulus-response feedback loop that begins early in life and becomes etched deep into the neural pathways of our brains.

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The Problem with Neediness

Though neediness can come with certain benefits, such as intense effort that can lead to achievement, it also has many drawbacks. For example, neediness can:

  1. make us overly intense, controlling, or demanding
  2. make us dependent on or excessively vulnerable to other’s judgments and opinions
  3. make us feel bad, ashamed, or distraught when others don’t like what we did
  4. make us feel as if we’re never enough
  5. lead to dysfunctional behaviors, such as people-pleasing
  6. bring anxiety, stress, burnout, disappointment, or loneliness into our lives
  7. be a heavy burden to bear—always carrying the pressure of living up to imagined and exaggerated demands and expectations
  8. lead to compulsive overwork or workaholism, creating an obsessive relationship with work in which we can’t switch it off and in which we feel guilty when not working
  9. lead to underinvestment in other priorities like our health and close relationships
  10. lock us into the wrong career path or a job that’s no longer a good fit for us because we’re so focused on what others think about us
  11. cause us to give our power away
  12. make us vulnerable to manipulation and control by others since we’re so focused on their approval
  13. cause us to compromise our integrity and make poor decisions as we downplay our personal values to continue a positive appearance among others whose moral fiber may be compromised
  14. make it hard for us to make decisions without input from the ones we seek approval from
  15. further the illusion that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our circumstances (e.g., where we live, what we drive), as opposed to deeper and more lasting things (e.g., our character and contributions)
  16. further the mistaken belief that climbing the ladder of success is the point of life
  17. take us away from ourselves (from who we really are and what we value), as we seek to remain the good graces of others with different values and priorities
  18. induce us to play the comparison game as we obsess over our standing among others
  19. cause us to obsess over what we don’t have
  20. inhibit the level of authenticity, connection, vulnerability, and intimacy in our relationships
  21. push our partner, friends, or colleagues away because it’s not an attractive quality and can feel clingy and smothering
  22. make us waste a lot of time seeking feedback and assurances from others instead of doing what’s needed to get things done
  23. make us reluctant to accept help from others
  24. cause us to become addicted to approval and external validation
  25. lead to selfishness or being perceived as self-centered and overly image-conscious
  26. haunt us throughout our lives with fears of disapproval, rejection, or abandonment
  27. inhibit our spiritual life or development as our need for external validation crowds out ultimate matters

Personal Values Exercise

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How to Overcome Neediness

It’s clear that neediness has many drawbacks. So, what to do about it?

There are many things we can do to address neediness, including:

Develop more awareness and understanding of this behavior pattern. Ask ourselves these questions: When does it show up? Where does it come from? How does it affect me?

Cultivate self-acceptance and self-compassion—and shut down our inner critic.

Celebrate our successes (even when others don’t).

Spend more time alone, in the process building our comfort level with solitude and working to overcome the cultural bias against it. As we do this, we see more and more that we can fulfill many of our own needs with the right disposition and mindset.

Change our focus from working for approval to working for some other higher aspiration. Examples: contributing to others, supporting our family, expressing our true nature, just doing the work for its own sake, or feeling satisfied when we’ve worked hard and done our best.

Focus on being an equal partner to those we’re with, not a savior, and on letting them figure out their own path, perhaps guided by gentle questions or things for them to think about instead of advice

Ensure we have clarity about what success means to us, instead of letting conventional views about money, status, or fame dictate our choices.

Stop equating ourselves with our results or our titles.

Reflect on whether our goals are mostly concerned with how others view us or with our deeper intrinsic motivations (such as earning a degree or certification because it interests us).

Avoid overthinking and ruminating—as well as jumping to conclusions about what others are thinking and why.

Connect with ourselves more, tuning into our inner life, purpose, and core values.

Recall that true self-worth comes from inside ourselves and not others.

Don’t assume that someone’s feeling or opinion about us makes it accurate. They may be missing important aspects of the story or have some other confounding influence or bias.

View criticism as information to consider and potentially helpful feedback, not as disapproval or a personal attack. Also, note that many people struggle with both giving and receiving feedback well.

Maintain perspective: even if someone disapproves of something we did, how much does it really matter? How much will it matter a few months from now?

Focus less on ourselves and more on others—and serving them. Oddly enough, the more we focus on ourselves, the more miserable we tend to be.

Focus on replacing ego and fear with acceptance and love.

Realize that relying on the opinion of others for happiness, love, or peace is bound to disappoint. Consider looking instead to something more transcendent and lasting such as fidelity to a community or worthy cause, creative inspiration, reverence for nature, religious worship, or spiritual liberation.

 

Conclusion

If we struggle with neediness, it’s worth addressing because on the other side of it lies real power, freedom, and contentment. Without such neediness, we can experience more ease, appreciation, and joy. We can let go of things that won’t hold up over time so we can dive into and savor the things that will.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you attached to recognition, praise, success, or saving others for self-acceptance?
  2. How is it impacting your quality and your relationships with others and with work?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

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Tools for You

 

Appendix: Notes on Neediness and Fame

One facet of neediness for some can be a strong desire for fame. According to social psychologist Orville G. Brim, about 30 percent of survey participants in Beijing and Germany and over half in the U.S. report daydreaming about fame. Recent studies have shown that the biggest goal in life for U.S. children aged 10 to 12 is fame. A survey of British children found that the most coveted career choice was “YouTuber.”

Mathematician Samuel Arbesman devised a crude but clever method for estimating the percent of the population that is famous, taking Wikipedia’s “Living People” category and dividing it by the world’s population. The result? About .0086% of the world’s population is famous, using that method. A tiny number indeed.

Meanwhile, how many of those people are pleased with the baggage that comes with fame and how it changes their experience of life? With all its appeal, fame can be one of the trickiest human experiences to manage. A problem of privilege, no doubt, but still a tough problem for many.

I think everybody should get rich and famous and everything
they ever dreamed of so they can see that that’s not the answer.
-Jim Carrey

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Neediness

  • “Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives.” -Martha Beck, writer
  • “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” -Dalai Lama
  • “As long as the egoic mind is running your life, you cannot truly be at ease; you cannot be at peace or fulfilled except for brief intervals when you obtained what you wanted, when a craving has just been fulfilled.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what people think.” -C. Joybell C., writer
  • “I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” -Chip Conley, entrepreneur and author
  • “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy.” -Alex Dias Ribeiro, former Formula One race-car driver
  • “Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important… They do not mean to do harm…. They are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” -T.S. Eliot, “The Cocktail Party”
  • “We are not devastated by failing to obtain a goal. We’re only devastated when our sense of self-esteem and self-worth are dependent upon achievement of that goal.” -William James
  • “The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves, to live into authentic selfhood, to honor our birthright gifts and callings, and be of service to humanity and our world….” -Frederic Laloux
  • We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” -Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
  • “The only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working.” -Albert Einstein
  • “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” -Norman Vincent Peale

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!