Have You Read?

I’m about to go on vacation and I thought, “geez, I haven’t posted to CCS in awhile.  I better write a post before I go.”

Well, I’m not going to write a full post! I’m going to share something!   I frequently get asked what I read on a regular basis to be inspired or to learn more about the topics I talk about on Civil Civil Servant.

One of the blogs I read on a regular basis is Chief Happiness Officer.

This is the blog of a company that is all about having a happy workforce.

Some of my favorite posts:

How to Handle Chronic Complainers

Get Lucky At Work:  Be Positive

Top 5 Reasons to Celebrate Mistakes at Work

How to Deal with Anger at Work

I think it’s important to read about these issues on a weekly basis.  Otherwise, weeks, sometimes months can go by and slowly your attitude can erode.  By keeping these ideas fresh in your mind and experimenting at work and home, you can find the strategies that work for you to reduce anger, stress and  miscommunication and increase satisfaction and happiness.

It requires practice.  I tend to read about 3-5 articles a week about customer service, workplace relationships, or conduct of life type articles.  They help me keep on track and thinking about the issues that are important to me.

Are you interested in establishing a regular reading habit?  Start with Chief Happiness Officer, check out the blogs he reads and go from there.  I try to keep it diverse:  I read a couple of blogs on work issues, a couple on customer service and a couple of Buddhist blogs and a general kind of spirituality blog.  I frequently find new reading sources through my main stable of blogs.  They are great at finding articles and pointing me toward them.

By using a feed reader like Google’s Reader (the one I use), you can subscribe to your favorite blogs and they come to you instead of you trying to remember to go to them.

Well, I’m off on vacation: a road trip to Memphis!


Sleep Your Way to Good Performance

Are you wondering how you can improve your performance at work or at some other practice or task in you life?

Harvard Business Review has an article, Sleep is More Important than Food (which I found via Lifehacker), that is an excellent summary of research and scientific opinion on the impact sleep has on performance.

Whether it’s professional violinists or CEOs, study after study find that sleep deprivation, even the shaving of an hour here and an hour there, results in reduced reaction time, harder time concentrating, poor memory and processing speed.

I go through periods where I am very diligent about sleep and other periods where I shave an hour here and there which I really don’t have the luxury of doing without impacting my ability to function with ease.

I know I need more sleep when I feel myself having less patience with customers.  There is a direct correlation between my sleep habits and my usually unending patience developing limits.  I am currently in a phase where I’m trying to get 9 hours of sleep every night except Thursdays which are impossible because I work the late shift at the library and then turn around and work the day shift on Fridays.  I feel better:  more patient, more energetic, more cheerful, happier.

In the HBR article, the author asks why we think it’s okay to shave sleep, to essentially deprive our bodies of an essential need, when we wouldn’t deny it food and water.  I think this is an interesting question.  Why are we willing to sacrifice health and happiness?  For sure, there is a perceived notion that the time spent not sleeping is “getting things done;” but, I bet that is not true.  It is especially not true if it’s the third night of not getting enough sleep…because then you are spending your awake hours not performing your best anyway.  And it’s probably weighing in on your relationships too.

Depriving yourself of good sleep is affecting your ability to function in all parts of your life.  It affects your personal relationships.  It effects your business relationships.  It effects your ability to remember important things and work efficiently.  It effects your mood and your ability to appreciate your life.

If you do one thing differently today, go to bed early.  It will benefit you, your family and your workplace.  If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, seek out help from your doctor.

In fact, I challenge you to get at least 8.5 hours of sleep for the next 7 nights.  Keep track.  I’ve been writing down the number of hours I sleep on a calendar.  It keeps me motivated and honest.  Plus, I can look back and feel that I’m accomplishing something and doing the things I need to do to remain healthy.  Last night I went to bed at 9:15 and got up at 8am.  I was in Brooklyn Saturday night and the noise disrupted my sleep and I suspect my body was catching up.

Do it.  For the next 7 days, sleep 8.5 hours a night, document it.  See how you feel on the 8th day.  I predict you’ll feel rejuvenated.

Unplugged: Thoughts

I enjoyed this experiment.  It was suggested that we unplug from sundown on Friday to Sundown on Saturday.  I refrained from texting, checking email and internet surfing.  I did check my email Saturday night; but, continued the “non surfing” into Sunday afternoon.

I discovered a few things.

  1. On Saturday night when I checked my email there were about 40 emails waiting for me.  2 were of a personal nature, 1 was an online bill notification and the rest were newsletters, store coupons and other marketing notices.  It took me about 5 minutes to delete everything I was not interested in, read my personal mail and star the bill to be dealt with later.  On Sunday night, I spent about 10 minutes responding to the two emails and setting a date for the bill to be paid automatically.  This 10 minutes also included deleting new marketing emails.
  2. Not texting forced my girlfriend to call me!
  3. The most interesting discovery came from the lack of internet surfing.  Anya’s 40th birthday is next weekend and I’ve been told not to purchase a gift because we are going on a trip in April.  I decided to make her a painting and put it off until this past weekend because I knew I’d have the whole weekend to work on it since she had to go out of town.  When I realized how much I actually got done and how I managed to persevere through the spots when I ordinarily would take a break and surf the net or watch tv, I pushed back the no surfing to late Sunday afternoon.  It told me volumes about my creative process and how I actually could power through the slow or blocked spots where I felt like I didn’t know what to do next.  (color, composition, content, etc)

What is the overall things learned?  Email is not my problem.  I have done a good job of keeping what comes in to my inbox at least somewhat relevant to me.  I maintain, not an inbox zero, but about an inbox 10, meaning there are rarely more than 10 items lingering in my inbox.  So, email is not a problem.  Texting is not my problem.  I only have about 4 people who I text with, Anya being the most prolific but even then it’s not much and if my noise alert is enabled, I don’t keep checking my phone.

Internet surfing is the area where I’d like to steal back some of my time.  I’m going to try and go surfing free from Friday eves to Sunday eves and see how that impacts the quality of my life.  I did notice that I was pretty damn happy last night as I snapped a picture of the finished painting!

We can’t unplug at work; but, unplugging more at home could improve the quality of our lives and in turn boost our productivity and happiness at work.  I’m usually a lot happier heading to work on Mondays if I feel like I didn’t waste my weekend watching TV or on the internet or playing video games.   On my last post, I mentioned that I didn’t have any friends in Asbury Park.  Sunday, early evening I called my neighbor to chat about a summer garden project we are contemplating and she invited me down to her place to see her kitchen renovation.  Ordinarily, I would have said no, thinking that I’d rather relax on my last evening before starting up work; but, I said, yes and had a pleasant couple of hours chatting with my neighbor.  I enjoyed her company and was glad I had agreed to go.

One more thought:  I had the need to look up a phone number; but, I really didn’t want to turn my laptop on for fear I’d get sucked in; so, I actually used the good old yellow pages.  We are shifting more ordinary things, like looking up a phone number, checking the weather, listening to music to our computers.  I even use my computer for phone calling.  What are the ramifications of this?  A few weeks ago, Anya and I were waiting for a subway and she whipped out her cell phone and started playing Tetris.  I was slightly annoyed; but, mostly fascinated by this.  She is not a techie.  She doesn’t own a TV.  I don’t think she has ever owned a gaming system.  She has an iphone; but, mostly uses it as a phone with the occasional weather lookup, directions, looking for a business using GPS.  She texts.  She doesn’t Tweet or check in at locations.  I don’t even think she checks Facebook on it.  Yet, here she was playing a game on it while she was waiting.  My parents own smartphones now, Droid X.  Are they going to play games while they wait at the Doctor’s office?  Is there even a significance to this cultural shift?  My mother asked me if I was going to get a Kindle and the reaction in my head was immediate and forceful.  I thought:  NO MORE GADGETS.  All these gadgets require energy and work.  You can’t just pick up the book and read it.  It has to be downloaded and transferred to your device.  You have to make sure your device is charged.  There is a management involved.  Management that usually involves you connecting to a computer.

I had a friend who received an ipod as a gift and asked me to help her get her music on it.  I’m not a fan of iTunes; but, I spent time wrangling with her iTunes and burning CDs and showing her how it worked.  She set up to playlists: one for the gym and one for bus riding.  She has never changed or added anything and this was about 5 years ago.  When I asked her about it, she said:  I can’t be bothered.  Her iPod battery finally died and she never replaced it, though she admits that she sometimes misses having it at the gym.

Are we going to reach a saturation point?  A point where we won’t be able to stand being engaged with an electronic thing for one more task?

I consider myself a techie person; but, I know that I’m happier the less time, outside of work,  I spend engaged with technology.

National Day of Unplugging

Sundown March 4th, 2011 begins the start of the National Day of Unplugging, sponsored by Reboot.  It’s odd that a group supporting the idea of unplugging is promoting their app and connecting to them via social networking; but, once you get past that oddity, you will come to see the idea that they are promoting.  Reboot is a Jewish organization though their ideas are universal.  They see the National Day of Unplugging as an opportunity for people to reclaim time, slow down their lives and reconnect with friends, family, the community and themselves.

Ultimately they hope that we’ll do this once a week, which is where the app comes in…a way to remind us to turn off.  They are not anti-technology; they are just pro disconnecting from technology on a regular basis and reconnecting with loved ones, our community and ourselves.

I am going to take their challenge and refrain from e-mail, internet surfing and watching videos/tv (which I do on my laptop).

Currently my routine, and I actually find this sort of …not embarrassing…but disappointing maybe…is:

  • Wake up and check email and overnight txts on my Android Phone.
  • Drink too much coffee while reading email, The New York Times and sometimes Facebook.  All on my laptop.
  • Work.
  • Back home.  Cook while sometimes listening to the radio or watching tv on my laptop.
  • Watch streaming movies or TV on my laptop.

In 2004, I stopped watching TV.  In 2005, while recovering from my accident, I started watching TV shows on DVD.  In 2006, I again stopped watching TV.  In 2008, I moved to NJ for my current job and probably by mid 2009, I started watching TV on my laptop.  By last summer, I was watching TV on my laptop at least 4 times a week.  I’m disappointed that I’ve let TV inch back into my daily life.

For the Day of Unplugging, I plan on getting home and cooking, maybe read or make art until bedtime.  Saturday, I’ll wake up, drink too much coffee and eat breakfast.  It is a rare weekend when my girlfriend and I don’t see each other; but, this weekend is one of those.  I had already planned on working around the house and I’m sticking to that plan.  I’m guessing it will be hard to go all day Saturday without checking email or reading the news.

What about you?  Can you disconnect from your gadgets?  How many times, on the weekend, do you check email?  Do you text, use Facebook, surf the net?  How many times do you watch TV, txt, surf the net instead of engaging with a human being?

I’m going to confess something that is hard to confess.  I don’t have any friends in Asbury Park.  I moved here over a year ago and I have a couple of acquaintances; but, no real friends.  I have plenty of excuses: too tired after work to volunteer, spend many weekends in Brooklyn with Anya, haven’t found my people.  I understand that when you move alone to a new place, it is hard to make new friends.  But,  sitting at home watching Law and Order reruns on my laptop is not helping matters.

Take the challenge with me.  I’ll be back in a few days to let you know how it went.

For further reading on this subject, check out one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Sharon Salzberg.

Zen and the Art of Criticism

by Jon Jordan via Flickr CC

Delivering and receiving criticism with grace is one of life’s biggest challenges.  Mastering this challenge has an enormous effect on your overall happiness and quality of life, both at home and at work.  And it can help you foster and maintain relationships and sustain healthy communications.

I was recently asked how I handled rejection of my ideas or direct criticism and it got me thinking about the role criticism plays in our lives. I came up with the following list of three  elements one needs to master.

  • Deliver criticism gently and in a way that gives it the highest chance of being heard.
  • Accept constructive criticism in a way that allows you to learn and grow from it and not just see it as a personal attack.
  • When criticized in way that is not constructive and could possibly be a personal attack, calmly view the criticism from any angle to see if there is any useful information in it; take what is useful and learn from it; and, most importantly, let the rest go completely.

I wish I could take credit for setting this as a goal and accomplishing it; but, I have to admit, that I was unknowingly trained in the ins and outs of criticism.  After 2 years of art school and 2 years of studying for a Masters in creative writing, which were both criticism boot camps, I became more adept at delivering criticism and thoroughly trained to hear criticism and take what I needed from it.

I’m going to leave the first one for another post and tackle the second two because learning how to receive criticism with skill can have a dramatic improvement on your work life.  It can help change your experience from negative to positive and help you succeed in a work world where developing emotional intelligence is more and more becoming a pathway to success.  It also gives you control over how painful an experience it is.

Accept constructive criticism in a way that allows you to learn and grow from it and not just see it as a personal attack.

I think it might be human nature, when faced with criticism, to immediately begin thinking defensive thoughts and many folks don’t just think them; they verbalize these thoughts thereby starting a cycle that is hard to break and usually results in no one being heard.  The first rule of receiving criticism is:  Say nothing.  Just listen.

When you refrain from responding immediately and focus on hearing what is being said, a funny thing happens.  Your initial defensive thoughts that were clouding up your brain begin to dissipate and it becomes easier to hear what is being said.  Then the constructive part starts because you can start zeroing in on the parts of the criticism that are helpful.

The second rule of receiving criticism is to back away from the personal.  You’ll want to take it personally, after all, someone is expressing disappointment with something you did.  Even if it requires a Herculean effort on your part to wrangle your brain past the personal, do it.  Nothing will be accomplished if you are taking criticism personally.  Ask yourself this:  if this was not about my performance, what would I think about this criticism.  If this is not a personal attack, what is this person trying to say?

The third rule is to filter out what you need.  I’d have to say that most people are not the greatest at delivering criticism.  So, when you receive criticism, you frequently have to weed through extraneous details, nervous chatter, and commentary that is just irrelevant.  If you imagine a sky filled with stars, there are always a few that twinkle and shine a bit brighter than the others.  I think of it like that.  Let the useful information shine brighter than the filler.

When criticized in way that is not constructive and could possibly be a personal attack, calmly view the criticism from any angle to see if there is any useful information in it; take what is useful and learn from it; and, most importantly, let the rest go completely.

There are people who are motivated by personal reasons to criticize.  They even sometimes take pleasure in it.  I think these people are rare.  Most people feel uncomfortable delivering criticism and would rather avoid it.  It is still your job to listen, pull out any bit of information that is useful and just let the rest go.  You need to follow the first rule above and say nothing.  When a person is motivated to personally attack you, there is no point in engaging in a discussion with them; but, there is also no point in not learning something from it.  It might be that the thing you learn is how to deal with a toxic coworker.  Or you might learn how a boss handles stress, failure or pressure from their own boss.  You are the master of you.  A coworker may push every one of your buttons; but, you get to choose how you react.

A few years ago, a friend made me make a list of the qualities I was looking for in a romantic partner and near the very top of my list was the following:  someone who receives criticism maturely and delivers it gently.  I think the same could be said about any of the people who pass through my life in a significant way including bosses and coworkers.  It is an essential life skill that when mastered will change the quality of your work and personal life quite dramatically.

Fakin’ It

photo: mmlolek via flickr cc

I recently had an awesome experience.

At our library, we are starting up a wellness team to think up and plan health and wellness programs for staff. Our township does not provide any health and wellness activities so we thought it would be a good idea to start some in-house.

At our Annual Staff Day, I got to introduce the idea of having a wellness team, some of the initial ideas we had, conduct a survey to see what staff actually want and I taught a class on 2 different meditation techniques. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed sharing some of the things I’ve learned over the years about meditation. The theme of the day was “Civility” and I took that idea and applied it to my meditation class by choosing to teach them Loving kindness Meditation. I was a bit nervous at first because I understand that people sometimes don’t like activities which they perceive as touchy–feely. I asked them to open their hearts to the technique and give it a try and I asked them to give me the space to talk about love and kindness openly.

The class went well and there was a lively discussion. One of the things that kept coming up for people is that it is hard to do loving kindness meditation for someone who is their “less than favorable” person. One person asked me point blank how I do it for someone who has angered or hurt me. That it is impossible to be sincere. What do I do?

Fake it. That was my answer and I think it was a pretty good one. Repetition breeds habit. I also said that I sometimes need to try it on, to think about WHAT it would really feel like to have these wishes and love and compassion for this person. I think faking it is also part of that process. But what about the insincerity of it? If the intention is sincere, the motivation behind the practice is sincere, then I think faking it is just practice. Practice that eventually leads to meaning and sincere feelings. Even if you are thinking of the worst, violently abusive person, you can wish them health and happiness. Why? Why would you? Because if their suffering is lessened what would their impact on the world be?

Plus, I think faking it, practicing it, leads to a softening of your heart and that benefits you and lessens your suffering.

I think this technique is particularly useful in the workplace. If you do loving kindness meditation for a toxic coworker and your heart softens towards them, you are helping to heal the workplace and that is always good. I guarantee that there are NO negative side effects to loving kindness meditation!

Yesterday, one of my coworkers called me on the phone to tell me that she was thinking about the empty boat story and that it was hard but she was going to help me carry the torch.  This is win/win all the way around.  She will have less suffering. She will provide better customer service.  She will spread joy to other people.  I feel inspired by her.

Cultivating Compassion Takes Practice not Magic

I think there is a belief that a person is either “nice” or not.  There is a belief that people don’t change.

This is not true.  People do and can change.  If you want to be a nicer, kinder, calmer person there are things you can do to cultivate that.  Years ago, I met a man who told me that I was one thought away from changing my life and in some ways he was right.  Maybe the thought is:  it doesn’t have to be this way.  Or maybe the thought is:  I really hate when I get angry and say things I end up regretting.

Compassion requires the ability to let go of preconceived ideas and perceptions.  It requires you to open your heart and to see another person’s suffering.  You can cultivate compassion through a sustained effort, a practice of focus on other and a practice of seeing other as you.

Ode Magazine in 2007 published an article on cultivating compassion that included the following exercise:

Practising compassion

Compassion can be practised anywhere: at airports, on beaches or in shops, whenever we are together with other people. Try this five-step exercise around friends and strangers. Do it discreetly and try to do all the steps with the same person.

With your attention geared to the other person, tell yourself:

Step 1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.”

Step 2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.”

Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”

Step 4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”

Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”


I really love the simplicity of this exercise.  I think it an excellent practice to begin cultivating compassion.  You can use it with strangers and you can use it with coworkers who are toxic and with family members who are annoying.  In my previous post, I called for some compassion for the two college students who bullied Tyler Clementi.  Let’s try using Mr. Ravi in our exercise:

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is seeking happiness in his life.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is trying to avoid suffering in his life.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi has known sadness, loneliness and despair.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is seeking to fill his needs.

Just like me, Dharun Ravi is learning about life.

I think the last one particularly resonates with me in this case.  I think that he is learning very hard lessons about life right now.

There is no magic in developing compassion.  There are no secrets, no special skills, no barriers outside your control.  All that you need to develop compassion is within you.  Start your practice today.  The pay off is enormous, as described in this well known quote of the Dalai Lama:

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”