TIME career

How to Practice Self Care in Your Career

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Boundaries aren't just for maps


Whether you’re starting your working life or just starting a new job, deliberately thinking through how you’ll take care of yourself is a must-have part of your professional development plan. A former boss put it this way: “Put yourself first, your family second, and your job third. If you aren’t healthy, you can’t be at your best.” How do you do that? Begin by making self-care a priority.

1. Plan Your Trip

The first time I heard the term “self-care”, I was well on my way to burnout. I was a third grade teacher at a small school in New England. I was living alone for the first time, had no social life beyond my fellow teachers at the school, and it was taking everything I had to manage a particularly difficult class that year. I will always be grateful to the colleague who gently asked, “How are you taking care of yourself?” The truth was, I wasn’t. I had let Me get taken over by Everyone Else. I started hesitantly — a hot bubble bath and candles every night; “Orange Food Nights,” consisting of mac-n-cheese and Cheetos, when things were particularly stressful.

ACTION TIP: Do an inventory of the following things: What makes you happy? When do you feel most at peace? What is your toolbox of activities that bring you back to you? Going for a run? Dancing in your kitchen? Meeting up with friends? Making art? Meditating? Massages? The point is not to lose yourself. The point is to reconnect with yourself.

2. Pay Attention to Your Check Engine Light

I formed some bad self-care habits early. Growing up, it was very difficult for my mother, a high school teacher, to take time off from work, so unless I was bleeding from a major wound or throwing up, I went to school. “Bleeding or throwing up” is a terrible baseline for self-care.

ACTION TIP: When you feel yourself careening toward the edge, take a mental health day (you don’t even have to be bleeding or throwing up to do it!). See a movie matinee. Surprise your kids by picking them up from school and getting ice cream. Leave your work email be for now. You aren’t being truant. You’re being responsible to your life.

As a self-employed entrepreneur, this is more challenging but also even more important. After a meeting the other day, I stepped out into the Manhattan winter sunshine and turned the grocery shopping I had planned to do on the way home into a grand adventure. It took hours longer than I’d planned, but when I returned home, the joy of the day was like oxygen for my soul. I’m learning that “Saturdays” happen at various times — not just on Saturday. Saturday is a feeling, not a day on the calendar.

3. Get Regular Inspections

Make the time to be with people who feed your soul. I have a standing coffee meeting that is mostly work-focused, but our conversations inevitably drift off into the rest of our lives, too. I leave our coffee shop refreshed and filled with renewed creativity and focus. This person could be a mentor, or just someone who provides perspective. Getting out of your head is one of the most important things you can do as you find your way.

4. Enjoy the Drive

“Work/life balance” is a mythical goal. You don’t want “work/life balance.” You want flow between the two. So respect the flow. Sometimes, you’re going to be in such a good groove that you’re going to work 12 or 14 hours at a time. Work at its best feels like art- immersive and creative. Honor that. This, too, is a part of self-care.

Knowing how to care for yourself is a critical part of being a successful professional. Invest the time to understand how you best nurture yourself.

You can learn more about Susanna on her website, and follow her on Twitter @SusannaDW.

This article originally appeared on Live in the Grey.

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TIME Parenting

Dads Feel Just as Guilty as Moms About Time They Spend With Their Kids

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And moms are going back to work after birth more quickly than ever

Dads are feeling more guilty about the time they spend with their kids, and more pregnant women are staying in the workforce longer, according to two new studies on the roles of parents in the 21st century.

For all the hair-pulling about the stressful lives of working mothers, working fathers feel just as guilty about the amount of time they spend with their kids. According to studies from Pew Research Center, working dads are more likely to feel that they don’t have enough time with their kids than working moms.

Working dads are divided on whether they spend enough time with their kids: 48% say they spend too little, 48% say they spend just enough. But working moms are much more likely to report they have enough time with their kids—66% say they spend just the right amount of time with their kids, compared to 26% who say they have too little. (These numbers include parents who work both full-time and part-time.)

Despite the fact that almost half of working dads (46%) say they spend more time with their kids than their own parents did, they still have a lot of guilt about whether they’re doing enough. Among the dads who say they don’t get enough time with their families, only 49% think they’re doing an excellent job as a parent, while of the dads who say they get enough time, 81% think they’re doing a great job.

Just as the distribution of parenting guilt is evolving, so are norms about working through pregnancies. According to a different Pew study, it’s becoming much more common for an expectant mother to work while pregnant with her first child. While only 44% of pregnant women worked in the early 1960s, by 2006 about 66% of soon-to-be-moms were still on the job. Women are also working longer into their pregnancies—in the 1960s, only 35% of pregnant workers continued working through their eighth month of pregnancy, compared to 82% of pregnant workers in the late 2000s. And women are going back to work more quickly after birth than they used to. Fifty years ago, only 21% of women returned to work within six months of the baby’s birth—by the late 2000s, that number had skyrocketed to 73%.


MONEY Workplace

Law Firm’s April Fool’s Joke About Work-Life Balance Backfires

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There are some things bosses just shouldn't joke about.

Add this to the list of April Fool’s Day stunts from Wednesday that failed spectacularly: A big New York-based law firm told employees it was instituting a new policy eliminating work emails during night and weekend hours… and then revealed the whole thing was a joke.

Hilarious, right? All you suckers must keep tabs on work no matter if it’s midnight on a Tuesday or a Sunday morning and you’re on vacation. Ha!

The way the prank played out is that Weil, Gotshal & Manges sent out a company-wide email claiming the firm was banning all work-related emails between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., as well as on Saturdays, Sundays, and employee vacation days. According to messages obtained by legal industry blog Above the Law, associates were elated to learn of the new policy, supposedly inspired by similar practices currently catching on in Europe, until it was revealed to just be a goof.

Since employees generally don’t like it when their bosses see their work-life balance as—literally—a joke, Weil received enough backlash to send out a firm-wide mea culpa in the afternoon. The email, from executive partner Barry Wolf, reads: “We obviously got this wrong and we sincerely apologize. We know and appreciate the hard work that all of you do. We have and continue to take work-life balance seriously and are always evaluating ways to improve the quality of life here, given the intensity and demands of the profession.”

It makes sense that this joke didn’t go over well, considering how notoriously bad lawyers’ hours tend to be and how modern technology makes it hard for employees across all industries to ever fully unplug—even while on vacation.

Though American workplaces generally tend to be slow to embrace policies that make it easier for staff to have a life outside the office, it’s a good sign that Weil was quickly shamed for its tone-deaf prank. It seems even lawyers want to join the movement toward workplace flexibility and family-friendly policies.

TIME cities

See How Bad Your Commute Is Compared to Other Cities

People board an uptown 5 train at Union Square on Jan. 28, 2015 in New York City.
Andrew Burton—Getty Images People board an uptown 5 train at Union Square on Jan. 28, 2015 in New York City.

Let's all move to Louisville

Sorry, New Yorkers—you officially spend more time commuting to work than residents of any other U.S. city do, with an average of 6 hours and 18 minutes spent going back and forth per week.

That time spent also gives New York the designation of having the longest average work week in the country, according to a new economic brief from the city’s comptroller’s office. Now you know why the city never sleeps.

Technically, San Francisco residents work more hours than New Yorkers do on average, but because their commute times are shorter by roughly an hour and a half per week, their work weeks are ultimately shorter too.

Of the 30 major cities surveyed, Chicago had the second-longest weekly commute time (5 hours, 25 minutes) while the Louisville, Ky., area had the shortest, with residents only traveling for about three hours and 27 minutes.

See the complete report over at Capital New York.

Read next: These Cities Have The Worst Traffic in the World, Says a New Index

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TIME Careers & Workplace

How to Have a Life Outside the Office (Without Looking Lazy)

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The secret is working more strategically

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This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article below was originally published on The Muse.

In today’s always-on workplace, where being busy is a badge of honor and around-the-clock availability has become the norm, employees who seek a healthy work-life balance can get a bad rap.

Those who try to find the balance between personal quality of life and career success are sometimes accused of seeming lazy and uncommitted. There’s an assumption that people who want balance are skirting responsibility, while in most cases, they’re really just trying to engineer a workday that promotes long-term productivity and keeps their motivation and focus high.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us fail to speak up when we’re feeling burned out or want more flexibility in our day-to-day; we fear being labeled the office slacker.

So how can you achieve work-life balance without seeming like you’re bailing on your responsibilities? The secret is working more strategically, so you can excel at your job and have more time for your life outside of the office.

Here are some tips to help you navigate working smarter and more efficiently—rather than harder and longer—to both avoid burnout and deflect any question of your work ethic.

1. Remember Parkinson’s Law

According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you give yourself until the end of the day to write a report, guess what? It’ll most likely take you until the end of the day.

This illustrates the importance of setting boundaries for your projects. To avoid spending more time on tasks than is really necessary, you have to learn to implement more structure, so you can work efficiently—not constantly. Try this: Instead of leisurely spending the first 30 minutes of the day checking email, give yourself five minutes to process as many messages as you can.

Or, schedule your day creatively by using enjoyable personal or social activities to sandwich your to-do list. For example, make plans to attend an art class or meet a friend after work to put a hard stop on the time you leave the office. Limiting the amount of time you have available to crush your tasks can push your focus through the roof.

2. Eliminate the Urgent, Not the Important

Before you start working on a project, make sure you have a clear sense of why you’re doing it and the tangible outcome or impact you expect to achieve. Often, “urgent” tasks, like emails, phone calls, or emergency meetings can keep us on a perpetual hamster wheel, while important tasks that actually contribute to long-term mission and goals get pushed to the wayside.

So before you dive in to any task, ask yourself the hard question, “Do I actually need to do this?” You may find you’ve been superfluously tracking metrics or busying yourself with projects that could be trashed—which could free up significant time for you to focus on what really matters.

3. Create Systems

If you complete any activity or task more than once, document your process from start to finish. Not only will this save you time the next time you have to replicate that assignment, but it’ll also help you get a clearer view of which tasks you can delegate. Routinized, repeatable projects—such as filing reports in a certain way or formatting a presentation to fit your company’s template—are perfect targets for delegation since they include clear instructions and are generic enough that you don’t have to be the person who completes them.

The same goes for your personal life, too. For example, if you host a birthday party every year, make a note of when to send out invitations and to whom, when to decide on a venue, and which friends to call to help with different aspects of the planning and set-up. This will save you time and stress in the long run.

4. Know Your Lazy Hours

Most of us realize that we’re more productive at certain times of the day, but the key to benefitting from this information is being able to identify those times and adapt your schedule around slumps.

Over the next few weeks, pay attention to the times when you’re at peak productivity and when you’re the least motivated. Do you power through the morning, but hit a wall just before lunch? Are you mentally checked out from work tasks around 5 PM in favor of trolling the internet? These are your lazy hours. Once you figure out your peaks and valleys, you can set yourself up for success by structuring your days so that you’re tackling the most important, attention-grabbing work before or after your slow blocks. (If you’re struggling with this, this quiz can help.

5. Set Expectations Early and Often

Straightforward, candid, and frequent communication with your boss and team is essential for maintaining a healthy work-life balance. They should understand exactly what you’re working on, what types of tasks you don’t work on, and what they can and can’t expect from you when you’re working from home, during the weekend, or when you’re on vacation.

For example, rather than giving the general expectation that you’ll be traveling for a few days and will have limited access to email, specify your availability and the best way to reach you. Getting more specific by saying, “I will be traveling and available via email from 10 AM until 12 PM. After 12 PM, please reach me by phone,” helps avoid miscommunications and ensures you’ll be pinged at times that won’t interfere with your other plans.

As long as you share your boundaries in the spirit of team collaboration and transparency, your co-workers will appreciate—and respect—your honesty.

6. Outsource Your Life

Free time is precious. When you have downtime, you want it to be restorative—but that can’t happen if you’re running around looking for an open washing machine, waiting in line at the grocery store, and cleaning your apartment.

When your downtime becomes just as stressful as your workday, you can create more time for yourself by outsourcing errands to others. These days, there’s an app for everything, and depending on how busy you are, the benefits of hiring someone’s services can seriously outweigh the costs. Too busy to cook? Look into a meal delivery service. Laundry piling up? Send it out to be cleaned professionally. Apartment cleaning, home improvement, grocery shopping, errand-running—you name it, there’s a service for that.

Work-life balance is incredibly important for your physical and mental health, and it’s perfectly reasonable to fight for it. When you’re able to spend more time doing the things you love, you’re better equipped to confront challenges when they arise. And having time for activities outside of work will help stoke your creativity in the office and propose out of the-box-ideas. And altogether, this will make you a more productive, more valuable, healthier, and happier employee.

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TIME Careers & Workplace

Think You Have Off Monday? No, You Don’t

Michael Kelley—Getty Images Don't waste time filing emails away

You're actually more likely to open and reply to email

This Presidents Day, most offices will be dark. But a surprising number of us will still be working, even on what’s nominally a holiday.

Yesware, an email tracking and analytics company, sifted through more than 23 million emails sent out by corporate users of its service over roughly the past year and took a look at email activity around three-day weekend holidays — Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day. Its findings are kind of discouraging — and probably quite familiar to many of America’s overworked desk jockeys.

“On the weekdays leading up to and following a holiday, there is a noticeable bump in email volume,” Yesware’s report notes. We “cram” for the holidays before and afterwards by buckling down and tackling our inboxes, but our actual email usage doesn’t actually drop by all that much during the holiday itself.

“The move towards laptops, tablets, and smartphones can also make it more difficult to fully disconnect on the weekend — even when that weekend is followed by an extra day off,” says Yesware CEO Matthew Bellows.

The data shows that, while less email is sent, read and replied to on holidays, the drop isn’t nearly as steep as you might think. On a holiday Monday, people only send 40% less email than they would on a regular Monday, even though they’re technically off.

And while it takes people longer to get around to opening emails and writing replies back, the difference is only about 15 minutes — a strong indication that we’re all pretty much tethered to our smartphones all the time. Sure, you might leave your phone on the towel while you take a dip in the pool, or stick it in your back pockets while you take a hike, but we’re not really getting off the grid in any meaningful way.

The two holidays when people are most likely to take an honest-to-goodness break from the email madness are what Yesware dubs the “backyard bbq holidays,” Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Presidents Day is another story, though. “The email volume going out on President’s Day is actually much less compared to the other holidays and normal Mondays,” Bellows says. “The open and reply rates are indeed higher.”

Specifically, the number of emails people open as a percentage of the ones they receive are higher on the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and weekend before, as well as the Tuesday and Wednesday after, Presidents Day, than on any other holiday with one exception: Open rates are higher on the Sunday before Memorial Day. The rate at which people reply to the messages they get shows a similar pattern.

The holiday has a spillover effect, too, Yesware finds: The open and reply rates the entire week of Presidents Day (Wednesday through Sunday before Presidents Day as well as Tuesday and Wednesday after) are even higher than they are on regular non-holiday workweeks.

Bellows says some of the high percentages of open and reply rates on holidays and the days surrounding them can be attributed to much lower volume. Since the sheer number of emails people get is so much lower, they ones they do get are more likely to get their attention.

“On any given day, weekday or weekend… people [are] constantly fiddling on devices. It doesn’t matter if you’re out in public or home on your couch, there is always a path to reach people,” Bellows says.

TIME career

How to Fight for Your Right to Leave Work by 6 PM

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Give yourself a break

Question: I leave work every day at 6:30 PM — because I come in at 8:30 AM, and working for 10 hours is enough for one day and one brain. I meet deadlines, and I don’t leave anything undone that can’t wait until the next day. But, sometimes it seems like there’s an unspoken competition at work over “who stayed the latest.” Every morning, other women are like, “OMG, I was here till 9!” or “I was here till 11 PM.” I always respond with something like, “I can’t believe you stayed so late! You’re crazy!” — which I guess just encourages them. How do I keep my regular work hours without feeling like I’m in last place in the who-stayed-the-latest race? I worry that everyone around me will think I’m a slacker for wanting to head out on time.

Answer: In the halcyon days of my youth, I attended a fancy-schmancy Liberal Arts College — the kind with no frats and a tuition that I’m still pimping my Etsy page to pay off. (There’s a strong market for throw pillows.) Before you roll your eyes and close this window, there’s a reason why I’m telling you this.

Each year, at finals time at said fancy school, there was a contingent of students who basically moved into the library. Now, studious and stressed-out college students wouldn’t normally draw my ire, except these Poindexters reveled in their misery. They would prominently display their piles of comically oversized tomes and Red Bull cans, shuffle around the Harry Potter-esque grandeur in slippers and clouds of anxiety, loudly bleat about how long they have gone without a shower. At first, I assumed that these students had incredibly rigorous course loads, that I was “doing college wrong.” But, as I began to recognize certain drowsy faces as people from my classes, classes I was preparing for while still showering and sleeping fairly regularly, I realized that the library was a place of performance. These students wanted to be seen: They loved to gripe about surviving on cigarettes and coffee for three days, just to see the combination of awe and pity flutter across our faces. Being busy and stressed was more than just a state of being — it was a declaration of worth.

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I have a hunch something similar is going on with your coworkers. If they are routinely staying in the office that late and their responsibilities don’t differ that much from yours, either they aren’t being productive during the work day or they’re just staying late to stay late. Whether consciously or not, we use busyness as a way to show our significance and importance: I’m needed, I’m necessary, I toil selflessly for the good of the company.

And while I’m being hard on these 11-PM-ers, it’s not exactly their fault. It’s capitalism’s fault. (Can’t you tell that I listened to punk rock in high school?) The economy is sluggish, the job market is tough, and everyone who’s managed to stay steadily employed feels lucky. And so we Assistant Assistants to the Junior Head Marketing Manager take on ever-growing amounts of responsibility, check our emails 24/7, and allow the boundaries between public and private and day and night to blur. But, by doing that, we’re inadvertently helping to perpetuate the problem: If everyone answers emails at 11 PM, people start to expect prompt replies to the emails they send at 11 PM. By remaining plugged in and accessible even after the after-shows have aired, your coworkers are creating a new, unattractive standard. It’s no surprise that you’re feeling the pressure.

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So, what to do? Keep resisting! As long as your boss hasn’t said anything about your work schedule, don’t give in to the crazy. Opt out. Take a lesson from the woman who taught you to grab life by the rhinestones, Dolly Parton. As she sings in “9 to 5” (which is just a jangly, countrified version of The Communist Manifesto, if you ask me), “It’s enough to drive you crazy, if you let it…” And, she’s just talking about an eight-hour day — imagine what Comrade Dolly would say about staying past dinnertime!

And, if you’re one of the many chronic 11-PM-ers, whispering, “I wish I could quit you” to your computer: Give yourself a break. There are other ways to show your value than staying hyperconnected. In fact, unplugging and getting a good night’s rest will undoubtedly increase your productivity and present-mindedness during normal work hours. Boost your work-life balance by giving yourself a firm curfew and turning off your phone at the same time each night. Inform your boss, colleagues, and clients of this new cutoff point and, I assure you, they’ll adapt. Train yourself: Just because you see an email notification doesn’t mean you have to take care of it right away. Unless it’s time-sensitive or you truly have a ton of work to do, fight the urge to shoot off a quick reply or burn the midnight oil. Surely, the overnight janitor won’t miss your sighs and manic stare that much.

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

TIME psychology

3 Steps to Minimizing Stress at Work

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Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

1) Know What Really Works

Most of the things you instinctively do to relieve stress don’t work.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

The APA’s national survey on stress found that the most commonly used strategies were also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who reported using them. For example, only 16 percent of people who eat to reduce stress report that it actually helps them. Another study found that women are most likely to eat chocolate when they are feeling anxious or depressed, but the only reliable change in mood they experience from their drug of choice is an increase in guilt.

So what does work?

According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby. (The least effective strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.)

2) It’s All About A Feeling Of Control

As is often said, stress isn’t about what happens to you, it’s how you react to it. This is true.

We’re not as stressed when we feel in control. Again, the emphasis is on feel. Even illusory feelings of control can eliminate stress. (This is the secret to why idiots and crazy people may feel far less stress than those who see a situation clearly.)

Anything that increases your perception of control over a situation — whether it actually increases your control or not — can substantially decrease your stress level.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

Steve Maier at the University of Boulder, in Colorado, says that the degree of control that organisms can exert over something that creates stress determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. His findings indicate that only uncontrollable stressors cause deleterious effects. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be destructive, whereas the same stress that feels escapable is less destructive, significantly so… Over and over, scientists see that the perception of control over a stressor alters the stressor’s impact.

Why do people choose to become entrepreneurs when working for yourself often means more hours for less money? Control:

A number of studies show “work-life balance” as the main reason people start their own small businesses. Yet small business owners often work more hours, for less money, than in corporate life. The difference? You are able to make more of your own choices.

Do things that increase your control of a situation ahead of time. According to one study, the stress management technique that worked best was deliberately planning your day so that stress is minimized.

The best way to reduce job stress is to get a clear idea of what is expected of you.

The trick to not worrying about work stuff while at home is to make specific plans to address concerns before you leave the office.

3) You Need Some Stress To Be Your Best

Heavy time pressure stresses you out and kills creativity. On the other hand, having no deadlines is not optimal either. Low-to-moderate time pressure produces the best results.

Via The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work:

If managers regularly set impossibly short time-frames or impossibly high workloads, employees become stressed, unhappy, and unmotivated—burned out. Yet, people hate being bored. it was rare for any participant in our study to report a day with very low time pressure, such days—when they did occur—were also not conducive to positive inner work life. In general, then, low-to-moderate time pressure seems optimal for sustaining positive thoughts, feelings, and drives.

In his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin discusses one of the key elements that pro athletes like Jordan use to perform at their peak: spontaneous relaxation.

“…one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods.”

They’re not Zen masters who experience no stress. Far from it. But they’ve taught themselves to turn it on and off. The pros are able to fully relax during the briefest periods of rest. This prevents them from burning out during hours of play.

Via The Art of Learning:

The physiologists at LGE had discovered that in virtually every discipline, one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods. Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who end up coming through when the game is on the line… Remember Michael Jordan sitting on the bench, a towel on his shoulders, letting it all go for a two-minute break before coming back in the game? Jordan was completely serene on the bench even though the Bulls desperately needed him on the court. He had the fastest recovery time of any athlete I’ve ever seen.

One Last Thing:

I’m stressed RIGHT NOW!!! What’s the quickest, easiest thing to do?!?!?!

Watching a video of a cute animal can reduce heart rate and blood pressure in under a minute.

Via Richard Wiseman’s excellent book 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

In an innovative study, Deborah Wells examined whether merely looking at a video of an animal can have the same type of calming and restorative effects as those created by being in its company… compared to the two control conditions, all three animal videos made the participants feel much more relaxed. To help reduce your heart rate and blood pressure in less than a minute, go online and watch a video of a cute animal.

Here you go:

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Careers & Workplace

Skip the Excuses: This Is What Your Boss Wants to Hear

MoMo Productions—Getty Images

Here's what to tell your boss when they expect the impossible

We’re all doing more with less today at work. Between taking on tasks that fall in your lap after positions are eliminated to being on-call in the evenings and on weekends, American workers are stretched thin.

So when the boss dumps a beast of a project, or one with an impossible timeline, or both, into your lap, you might feel justified in saying, “Nope, I can’t do that.”

That’s the wrong answer, though. If you want to get ahead, the old adage still holds true: “No” shouldn’t be a part of your vocabulary.

But the good news is you don’t necessarily have to be a pushover and burn yourself out trying to make the higher-ups happy. There are better, more constructive replies. We asked company CEOs, presidents, owners and founders to tell us what they would rather hear — or what they have heard — out of an employee’s mouth when they hand them a difficult assignment.

Instead of “I can’t,” make one — or all — of these your new go-to.

Establish priorities. “Good answers are, ‘I am currently working on [another project], which you gave me yesterday,'” says Brad Caracciola, president and CEO of GroundForce Logistics. “Which is most important to finish first?” He suggests following up by asking if there’s a colleague who can work with you to get everything done on time.

Acknowledge the challenge. “I want them to be honest with me that this is a difficult task,” says Evan Bloom, owner of Sir Speedy Printing and Marketing Services. “Starting there allow us to make sure we are on the same page about what needs to be accomplished,” he says.

Ask for help. An employee should say something “if it’s something they feel it’s not really their tasks or they don’t know yet how to do,” says Silke Fleischer, CEO of app developer ATIV Software. You could ask, “Maybe [another department or person] would be better to do that?” she suggests. Or ask the boss if they or a colleague could show the ropes so you’ll be able to tackle that kind of task on your own the next time around.

Explain what’s so tough. “I don’t mind an initial ‘no’ if their additional information is goal-oriented,” says Cliff Mark, president of Mid-Atlantic SEO. “As long as a team member expresses legitimate concerns, initial objections can actually be positive for the project to move forward,” he says. The key, though, is to make sure that the issues you raise are technical or procedural rather than personal.

Buy some time. “Give me a day or so to figure out how to do it just right, and if I need your help I’ll let you know,” says Jahn Levin, CEO of nutritional supplement company Purity Products.

Just dive in. “Saying ‘let me try’ to your boss is one of the most pivotal sentences you can utter in your career,” says Brian Wong, CEO of Kiip, a mobile advertising company. “It opens the door for new opportunities and can be the deciding factor in a raise or promotion down the road.”

MONEY work life balance

President Obama Wants You to Get Paid, Even When You’re on Leave

closeup of pregnant woman at office desk
Damir Cudic—iStock

New proposals for paid maternity and sick leave

President Obama thinks if you’re sick, or you have a newborn at home, you should stay home from work—and you should still get paid.

In many developed countries, that’s a given. Not so in the United States. Only 12% of American workers receive paid family leave, and only 61% have paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ahead of the State of the Union on January 20, Obama is proposing big changes to the rules governing sick pay and family leave, outlined by senior advisor Valerie Jarrett on LinkedIn yesterday.

First, Obama plans to sign a memorandum giving federal employees at least six weeks of paid leave after the birth of a child. Second, he’ll ask Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act that would let workers earn up to seven days of paid sick leave. Finally, he’ll offer a plan to help states and towns start their own sick leave programs.

Even these proposals are meager compared to the paid family leave in other nations. The United Nation’s International Labor Organization surveyed family leave policies in 185 countries or territories around the world. Only two nations did not offer paid maternity leave: the United States, and Papua New Guinea.

Weeks of paid maternity leave % Pay
United Kingdom 52 weeks 90%
Canada 17 weeks 55%
France 16 weeks 100%
Netherlands 16 weeks 100%
Germany 14 weeks 100%
Japan 14 weeks 60%
China 14 weeks 100%
India 12 weeks 100%
Obama’s proposal for federal workers 6 weeks 100%
Average length of paid leave for American women who got it 3.3 weeks 31%
Paid leave required by American law 0 weeks 0%

And the other 183 countries? French mothers get 16 weeks, paid in full. Indian mothers get 12 weeks, paid in full. Mothers in the United Kingdom get six weeks paid at 90% of their usual salary, a little less for the next 33 weeks, and then they’re entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

American parents are guaranteed only 12 weeks of unpaid leave, total, provided they work for a company with more than 50 employees. That means 15% of American workers aren’t allowed even unpaid leave to care for their families, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics.

Of course, some American employers choose to give workers family leave benefits. But it’s often not much. In the United States, only 41% of new mothers receive paid maternity leave, according to study in the Maternal and Child Health Journal. The 2013 study is based on a survey of 18- to 45-year-old mothers who gave birth in American hospitals in 2005. The women who did get paid maternity leave had an average of 3.3 weeks off and were paid just 31% of their total salary, on average.

Unsurprisingly, the more women earn and the more education they have, the more generous their maternity leave benefits tend to be. Still, just three out of five women with post-bachelor degrees received paid maternity leave—5.1 weeks, on average. (By contrast, only 29% of women with high school degrees or less received paid maternity leave, of 2.3 weeks on average.)

Then there’s sick leave. (You can guess where this is going.) According to a 2009 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States was again the only country out of 22 industrialized nations that guarantees no paid sick leave. Americans are only protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires that employers give employees unpaid leave in the event that an employee needs to care for a family member with a “serious illness”—the flu doesn’t count.

President Obama’s family leave proposal would apply only to federal employees, and his sick leave proposal needs to get through Congress. So perhaps your best hope comes not from the federal government, but from your state legislature or city hall. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island offer paid family leave. California, Connecticut and Massachusetts have instituted paid sick leave. San Francisco, D.C., Seattle, Portland, Ore., New York City, Jersey City, Newark, Eugene, Ore., San Diego and more cities have passed paid sick day laws, too. And Massachusetts just guaranteed fathers more unpaid paternity leave.

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