A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Office

Engaging Others with Good Humor at Work

“Right now, this is a job. If I advance any higher, this would be my career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.” — Jim Halpert, character on the TV series The Office.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Office: Engaging Others with Good Humor at Work by Laura StackClearly, work is no laughing matter. It’s where you spend a good third of your life, focused on the things that really matter so you can out-produce your competitors and flood the bottom line with black ink. Some people forget that work is just a part of life—you’re not supposed to live to work—and they become consumed by it. Yes, you should enjoy your work and even be just as passionate about it as your personal life, but don’t take it so seriously! Some people need to lighten up a bit to avoid a coronary (you know who you are).

Humor Has Its Place
Too many people go through life dragged down by worries. But you really aren’t Atlas, even when it feels the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Sometimes it takes some effort to force a smile and attempt cheerfulness when life has you down. But with a few purposeful humor techniques, you can self-encourage enthusiasm and excitement about your job. Those who laugh often suffer less depression, and some studies suggest they avoid the more physical manifestations of stress as well.

I’m not telling you to run around in a rainbow clown wig and do impersonations of the boss (a dangerous practice at best), but there’s no reason why you can’t leave behind a good word or a joke here and a smile there to lighten up yours and someone else’s day. Try to inject some good humor into these situations:

1. While waiting for meetings to begin. When the senior leader is running late from a previous meeting and everyone is milling about, don’t just ignore everyone with your head in your phone. It’s a great opportunity to build relationships and engage your fellow coworkers in conversation. Ask someone, “What’s the best thing that happened to you this week?” Even asking, “What’s new in your world?” will yield some great insights. Or ask for an opinion on an unrelated project on your plate.

2. During presentations. As long as it has to do with your topic and makes a good point afterward, a joke or funny story lightens the mood and helps your audience members retain information longer. A friend of mine remembers well a presentation by an archeologist in a college class more than 20 years ago, when the instructor included some corrections for measurements of prehistoric stone spear points. One of them had been erroneously published as being over an inch thick. “Of course,” the teacher said, “that would be excessive for any prey animal…except maybe this one!” whereupon he displayed a slide of a rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Everyone had a good laugh—and never forgot the presentation.

3. As a creativity tool. One manager once had his team don Donald Duck glasses before a strategic planning session, as a symbolic way of focusing their vision and harnessing creativity. It let the more childlike sides of the team members emerge, got their creative motors running, and united them with a shot of humor. Using squeeze toys and colorful markers can bring out the playful, creative side in a serious matter, helping the team break through barriers.

4. As a way to break down barriers between groups. When you get together and have fun with other departments and divisions, you’re less likely to see internal squabbling, data hoarding, bottlenecking, and other negative behaviors common to organizations. The Tennessee Valley Authority holds charity water balloon fights during work hours, and they hold dress-up days, encouraging the executives to come to work wearing costumes. One of my colleagues puts together game shows for corporate events, where senior leaders face off in trivia contests about company facts.

5. To lighten the emotional tone of your group. Cheerfulness and lighthearted conversation can cool down a tense tone during difficult times and ease the flow of communication. Having a positive attitude costs you nothing, and it will usually engage the follow-the-leader effect. If you’re happy, your team will follow your lead as the role model and try their best to be happy as well. They may be laughing at your bad jokes out of kindness, but there are worse fates.

A Spoonful of Sugar
Humor should never exceed the bounds of taste or hurt anyone’s feelings. The best thing to joke about? Yourself. When you poke fun at yourself, people can laugh with you, and they won’t get defensive wondering if there’s an inside meaning to your “jokes.” Most people find laughter and overall good humor attractive in others. So try some humor—it might just help you lighten up and keep everyone else engaged as well.

© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

Four Must-Have Travel Apps

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.” — George A. Moore, Irish writer.

Four Must-Have Travel Apps by Laura Stack #productivityUnlike some of my colleagues, I’ve always believed in using travel time to get ahead on my business work. That way, when I get home I don’t have to play catch-up; instead, I can spend more time with my friends and family. I’d rather rest from the rat race in my own living room.

In my constant search for ways to save time while working, I’ve investigated or tested dozens of mobile apps that help me complete my work more easily. Most do a good job, but some stand out more than others. Here are four superbly helpful and productive travel apps I urge you to try if you haven’t already. (Now that the Wi-Fi is available on some flights, they’re more useful than ever.)

1. Yelp. Have you ever wandered around a strange city, looking for a decent place to eat? Don’t waste time looking or eat a bad meal—just consult Yelp. Our fellow travelers will have reviewed just about every eatery in town, from high-class establishments where I can meet with clients to local burger joints that serve great food at low prices. Create a free account to get all the bonuses, and you’ll never have to hunt haphazardly for good food again.

2. PackingPro. I write about productive packing fairly often, because even a little disorganization in this department can slow you down. If you can’t seem to keep up with the dry cleaning and your iPad’s charger, download this app from iTunes. It costs $2.99, but once you’ve set it up, it’ll remind you to pack everything from clean underwear to your meds and electronic accessories.

3. TripIt. Track logistics information with TripIt and access your itinerary right on your phone: no more printing and pulling hardcopies. It’s by far my favorite productivity app! I forward confirmation emails to plans@tripit.com, and it automatically populates my itineraries. Then I can access the details for my travel either online or from my mobile devices.

4. Evernote. Evernote is a crowd favorite. If you use only one, choose this one. How they managed to pack so much into a single app—FREE unless you use gobs of data—boggles the imagination. You can take photos of receipts with it, and later upload them into accounting programs. Taking notes is easy, and storing them by keyword even easier. It’s a snap to search for them later. You can even search for handwritten text in a photograph (great for snapping photos of whiteboard notes for later transcription). You can get Evernote versions for just about every smartphone or tablet. The best part? You can not only store a huge amount of data in almost any medium—audio, video, photos, text, etc.—you can synchronize your account across all devices. For maximum productivity, read Brett Kelly’s witty, ever-expanding Evernote Essentials. It’s fun and instructive simultaneously.

Around the World in Four Apps

It won’t surprise you to learn you can tap into literally hundreds of travel apps nowadays, if not thousands. But we all need a place to start when overwhelmed with an embarrassment of riches, and I’ve suggested these four because business travelers tend to find them über-helpful. That said, just consider this your jumping-off point, and don’t hesitate to try other apps. They may work better for you than these—and inevitably, as technology advances, new apps will take their places. You never know: thought-driven apps like the plane in the Clint Eastwood movie Firefox may come online any day now.

What are your favorite travel apps?

Give Me a Break! Get Your Rest and Protect Yourself From Burnout

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” — John Lubbock, British scientist and politician.

Give Me a Break! Get Your Rest and Protect Yourself From Burnout by Laura Stack #productivity #rest #balanceBy nature, most of us in the business world feel driven to prove ourselves—by working hard, generating massive productivity, and moving up through the ranks. Before long, it becomes second nature to work long hours with a tight focus on work, often to the exclusion of other things in life. Some of us willingly sacrifice exercise, a decent diet, vacation, weekends, and even family time to get ahead.

But what are we getting ahead for? If you really care about your work, you’ll want to do what’s best and most productive for the organization. This means helping your team advance over the long haul, rather than burning out in an absurdly short period of time. Sure, a flashbulb may be super-bright…but a quiet 40-watt CFC lasts tens of thousands of times longer.

What I’m trying to say is: Give it a rest!

The Global Energy Crisis

Ask the average American worker how they feel at any particular point in time, and if they answer honestly, many will say, “Tired.” We work hard, don’t play hard enough, and don’t take very good care of ourselves. According to recent studies, the average American leaves about nine days worth of Paid Time Off (PTO) on the table at the end of each year, including three vacation days.

For starters, make sure you take your PTO—all of it—if you want to maintain your health, sanity, and productivity. It exists for a reason. Time spent completely away from work helps recharge your energy and brain function, leaving you better able to produce when you return. Some of the most successful people in the world recognize this fact and take it to heart. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, takes weeklong vacations every four months. Richard Branson of the Virgin Group regularly takes “inspiration vacations” that expose him to people and circumstances he rarely encounters in his normal life.

According to Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project, 74% of all employees “are experiencing a personal energy crisis” that precludes them from doing their best on a daily basis. This exhaustion triggers poor work and disengagement from their jobs.

Slow Down to Speed Up

I’ve based my entire practice on teaching people to produce maximum results in minimum time®. It’s a trademark and our company tagline. But in addition to skills such as planning, prioritization, focus, and email management, I show them how even the small things, like taking breaks, can help them accomplish more while maintaining a reasonable work/life balance.

I’m not telling you to kick off your loafers and take a nap under your desk for the rest of the afternoon, but you do need small, regular breaks to help you keep your head in the game. According to studies by researchers at the University of Illinois, maintaining too tight a focus for too long eventually causes your focus to fade. Even if you’re paying close attention, your brain stops registering what you’re studying after a while. You then need a little time off to reset your focus. Humans apparently focus best for periods of 15-45 minutes at a time, though many researchers recommend working in 90-minute bursts before taking a brief break. I prefer 45-minute focus periods, followed by 15 minutes of “recovery,” email processing, quick calls, etc.

That said, if you don’t feel the need for a break, don’t take one unless hours have gone by. You might have to set a timer to make yourself take a break. You should take at least a couple quick breaks and your meal break during the course of the day. Most labor laws mandate these breaks for good reason. According to James A. Levine of the Mayo Clinic, the best kinds of breaks are those that encourage physical movement. So the best break might involve taking a quick walk around the building or getting some sunshine.

Reeducating Yourself

Not taking breaks because you’re trying to impress your superiors with your diligence? I assure you, they won’t be impressed if your productivity drops because you can’t focus, you start making errors from too many hours at work, or if you drop because you’ve worked through too many weekends. When it comes to long-term productivity, a slow, steady burn is always preferable to a burnout. So take your breaks, take your days off, and especially take your vacations—by order of The Productivity Pro®.