You don’t need a smoke. You need a break.

Paul, who had been hunched over with his nose close to the computer screen the whole morning, suddenly sat up. For a short moment he held his head with both hands, making his hair messy. Then he stood up.
“I need a break. I will go for a walk.”
Paul walked out, putting on the jeans jacket just before leaving the office landscape.

Lindsey rolled her eyes and turned to the colleague next to her.

“Going for a walk? What does he think we are doing here? Playing around, only working when we feel like it? We got work to do and he just walks out, leaving us here!”
With an annoyed frown, she continued working.

When Paul came back fifteen minutes later, he had a big grin on his face.
“I got it!”, he said, starting to type as soon as his rear touched the chair.
Lindsey couldn’t stand Paul. Young, talkative and just not responsible enough. He gave her a headache. She closed her eyes for a second. The urge became stronger.
“I need a smoke”, she explained to her colleague, grabbed the package of cigarettes and headed for the door. On the way she saw something in her colleague’s eyes. “What?”
“Going for a smoke? What do you think we are doing here? Playing around, only working when we feel like it?”

Photo by Kelvin Valerio from Pexels

Taking breaks is good for creativity and for our health. Still, many work places have a culture where some breaks are accepted while others are not.

I am in touch with people who use smoke breaks to get a break – not because they want to smoke.

 If it would be accepted to take a walk break, a sit-in-silence break, a listen-to- music break, we would increase creativity and efficiency and our employees would be a lot healthier.

Is it time to change how you look at breaks in your work place?

Then initiate that change!


Shrinks, mates and grandmothers

The 15-year-old girl walked unsteadily towards the bus stop. Her hands were shaking like those of an old lady with Parkinson. The anxiety was hard to fight. Her throat felt cramp, her heart was fluttering, and black spots danced in front of her eyes. She didn’t want to get on a bus filled with strangers. She didn’t want to go further than she had ever gone, to the big city she had never been to. Her mother had asked her to go, urged her to go. Maybe this was her only chance. Mum had emptied the jar with food money and pushed the bills and coins in her hand.

When the bus stopped in front of her, she almost fainted. An older man helped her get into the bus. She asked the driver what the ticket would cost. When she heard the price, a price so much higher than all the money mum had given her, she stumbled back out, running away, dropping a letter on the ground. The man who had helped her on to the bus picked up the letter. Invitation to psychiatric evaluation. When he looked up the girl was gone. A few hours later she was found hanging from a tree.

I am sorry to say that the story is based on real events, as described by Eben Shapiro in the article A humble solution to global depression in TIME.  16,5 million people live in Zimbabwe, a country with 12 (!) trained psychiatrists. The 15-year-old girl was on her way to one of them, Dr. Dixon Chibanda, for a scheduled evaluation. She couldn’t afford the $15 bus fare and hanged herself.

Dr Dixon Chibanda decided to do something to improve the situation for others in her situation. With only 12 psychiatrists in the country, something had to be done to increase access to help.
“It suddenly dawned on me that one of the most reliable resources we have in Africa is grandmothers.”
This reminds me of a scene in the film Crocodile Dundee, when Dundee is surprised about Americans talking about their “shrinks” and asks why they don’t just talk to their mates.  

Mates and grandmothers are great when it comes to offering help. When it comes to psychiatric illnesses you will need more skills, so Dr Dixon Chibanda’s organization Friendship Bench trains Zimbabwean grandmothers in problem-solving therapy and behaviour activation.

There is no such thing as unsolvable problems. Too often we limit ourselves by thinking we don’t have the resources. Not enough psychiatrists, not enough money, not enough time. When you switch your mind to: “There is always a way”, you will find the solutions.

Like Dr Dixon Chibanda, who decided to, and found, a way.
You can read more about Friendship Bench here.


Strategies for taking on more work - or how to deal with your husband leaving

My husband left.
Not in any dramatic sense, he only went away for a few days, on a trip I had recommended. What that meant for me though, was that I had to take on his tasks at home.

The same happens at work. Your colleague is off for a few days and you are asked to cover for her/him.

In this post I share strategies you can apply when you find yourself responsible for someone else's tasks on top of your own.

Case study: Taking over the responsibility for shopping and cooking food for the family for 6 days. Additional complication: I hate cooking, and don't even care much for eating. 

Step 1: Ask yourself if the additional tasks need to be handled at all

Whatever tasks you have been asked to take on, ask yourself if they are important enough to handle during the limited time period.
Too often we do things just because they are normally done. To manage your time well, always question if what you are doing is worth your time.
In our case, eating during the days my husband and oldest son were away, was important enough to manage, one way or the other.

Step 2: Define the ambition level

When you take on someone else's tasks on top of your own, there is most likely a need to reduce the ambition level - either on what you already do or on what you take on, to make it all fit in to the time you have available.

In our case there was plenty of room for lowering the ambition level. My husband cares about food and cooks "properly". Me? Not so much.

When my husband asked what we would eat when he was away, I shrugged and said
"Müesli and sandwiches. Left-overs. Whatever we find in the fridge." 
This ambition level suited me and my middle son well. But there was one more stakeholder -  and he did not agree.

Step 3: Agree on the ambition level with all stakeholders

Whenever you take on additional tasks, agree with all stakeholders on the ambition level. For instance agreeing with the colleague you are taking over tasks from, what the minimum level is.

In our case, the dissatisfied stakeholder was our youngest son. A 12 year old who watches cooking programs on Youtube and who remembers different events by what he ate.

 "Oh, you mean when we were at the restaurant where I had [a dish I don't even know what it is]?"
So the ambition level couldn't go quite as low as I initially planned.

Step 4: Check if you can get help

When you find yourself taking on more work than normal, you can ask for help with your normal tasks or with the additional tasks.
We often think we need to manage things on our own, when there are plenty of people around who can and want to help out.
In our case this meant involving the youngest son, the one who actually likes cooking.

We did the grocery shopping together. He prepared the shopping list and he found all the things in the store. I paid and drove us to the shop and back.

He cooked most meals. I contribued with a fruit salad.

One evening the youngest son was away, eating at a friend. My middle son and I ate ramen noodles and were perfectly happy with our meal. And the small amount of dishes.

Step 5: Managing the unexpected

Your colleague probably handed over some tasks properly. But then there was this extra thing (s)he forgot to mention and it turns out it has to be managed.
Then it is time to get creative. And in our case - brave.
My husband has more tasks than cooking at home. He is also the house spider man, meaning moving any spiders from our house to our garden. (There will be no killing of animals in my house.)

We had prepared to take over the tasks from the family cook. Not from the house spider man. And still, there it was. A huge, terrible spider sitting on the ceiling, just above the computer desk. The youngest son went out and refused to come in again until we (my middle son and I) had "taken care of it".

We quickly went through all the steps above:

Do we really need to take care of the spider? Yes we do. The youngest son will not come back into the house as long as the spider is there. And the rest of us don't like it lurking above our heads either.

Can we reduce the ambition level?  Taking it out was the only ambition level we could agree on.

Can we get help?  I was seriously considering asking the neighbour for help but I felt too silly to do that, so in the end it became a collaboration between my middle son and myself. I got it into the vase (it was too big for a glass - or at least we thought so) and put paper on top, he put the spider and vase in the garden.

Then we celebrated. We made it! Remember to celebrate when you have managed something new.

I am happy my husband is coming home soon.


Is your day longer than a week?

Lindsey dragged herself out of bed for the third time that night. The baby was teething and kept waking up. After an hour of carrying around the baby while sleepily singing, Lindsey fell asleep in the armchair, with the baby on her stomach. Early in the morning Lindsay’s husband carefully put a blanket over the two of them.

The day was endless. It contained all the normal elements of a rushed breakfast where she ended up cleaning up after the children, asking them to hurry up and getting everyone into the car before realizing she had not eaten anything herself.

At work the tempo was as high as usual, meetings taking longer than planned, leaving no time for her normal tasks. She kept checking her watch, feeling as if the work day should have been over by now, but the hands of the watch moved as slowly as her tired mind.

When she went out of the office and got into her car, she looked at the flyer on the windshield. “Spring market” it read in a playful bright yellow font.
Spring market? Already? How could the days be so long and the weeks so short?

In Man’s search for meaning, Viktor E. Frankl describes how we can suffer from deformed time.
“In camp, a small time unit, a day, for example, filled with hourly tortures and fatigue, appeared endless. A larger time unit, perhaps a week, seemed to pass very quickly. My comrades agreed when I said that in camp a day lasted longer than a week.”
Time is special. We can and do measure it, in a clear and linear manner. But we can experience it in all kinds of ways.
The deformed time Viktor Frankl described, is especially common when we don’t see a clear goal or meaning with our lives. Then we go into auto pilot mode and the days become boring and long – at the same time as the weeks fly by since we experience so few new things.

If your days seem grey and boring, lift your eyes, remember why you are here, who you love and what you are working for. 

With this in mind, you will make the most of each day instead of “robbing the present of its reality” as Viktor put it.