May 10, 2010, Updated September 13, 2012

An Israeli researcher suggests that with a marathon mindset we can avoid burnout in the workplace and stay at the top of our game.



Photo courtesy of Roni Schutzer/Flash90.
If employees think like a marathon runner in the workplace, they’ll get even the most challenging tasks done.

With budget cutbacks continuing at most workplaces, workloads are getting heavier than ever. More people are more stressed about getting their work done and holding on to their jobs. That can lead to a situation in which workers can turn into “control freaks.” But according to Dr. Danit Ein-Gar, there’s a way for control freaks to reduce their stress load and perform better.

Her new study from Tel Aviv University’s Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration offers tips to help us stay at the top of our game. The research suggests that with a marathon mindset, burnout can be avoided. Ein-Gar believes that a careful marshalling of our inner resources will make us better performers in the workplace as well as in our personal lives.

With her co-author Dr. Yael Steinhart of Haifa University, Ein-Gar is investigating multi-tasking control freaks. Contrary to the notion that they get the job done well, people with high-levels of self-control tend to burn out the fastest, she warns.

Self-control – poor at surprises

People who are high in self-control tend to use all of their resources at once – concentrating intently on the task immediately at hand – and are stymied when unexpected challenges arise. Ein-Gar quantified this unexpected finding in a series of studies presented last year at the Society for Consumer Psychology in San Diego.

“The general notion is that we all have a pool of resources available for different tasks,” Ein-Gar explains. “Stamina is like a muscle, but it’s not an endless resource. Our new research shows how our personal, work-related resources can be measured and our on-the-job performance improved.”

In new experiments and surveys, Ein-Gar finds that people who define themselves as high in self-control are in fact the least able to manage their own internal resources in situations which are very important to them. They burn out quickly when flooded with unexpected challenges.

“They tend to invest all their energy at once and are then left with insufficient resources for additional tasks,” says Ein-Gar, who used shopping as a way to measure the effect.

Analyzing results from hundreds of volunteers, she found that when high self-control people went shopping at a grocery store they were far more impulsive than those who defined themselves as low in self-control. Most surprisingly, those high in self-control made more spontaneous purchases at the checkout counter without regard to price.

According to surveys that Ein-Gar conducted later, such people “didn’t foresee certain events like having to wait in line. It’s the same in the workplace when the boss hands out a major assignment just before quitting time.”

Tips for a marathon mindset

Ein-Gar claims that we can maintain energy and avoid burnout with a little alteration of our mindset. Those who think like marathon runners – who start slow but pace themselves – are better able to keep their energy tanks full, unlike a sprinter who gives all his effort at once.

Ein-Gar referred to a subsequent study she conducted. “Participants were told they were about to perform two tasks. Those with forewarning did better than a second group that thought they had only one task but then were given a ‘surprise’ second task.

“This warning put the first group in the marathon mindset,” Ein-Gar explains. “Our results can be applied across the board from managing a business to making sure we run our personal lives more smoothly.”

She suggests that managers prepare employees for a particularly difficult workload by alluding to upcoming challenges in advance – rather than mentioning them for the first time on the day of the conference or big meeting.

“The world may be multi-tasking at a frenetic pace,” Ein-Gar concludes, “but in thinking like a marathon runner, people with high self-control won’t mind other people passing them. Marathon runners know that the race is long, but the winner is the one who can finish the race.”

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