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“Plan your time.” With Dave Murray

Plan your time. This comes back to my earlier advice on managing your own time to avoid being stressed. By planning your time and your day, you can make time for others. We all know what it is like to be too busy when somebody asks for our help. If we make time in our week […]

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Plan your time. This comes back to my earlier advice on managing your own time to avoid being stressed. By planning your time and your day, you can make time for others. We all know what it is like to be too busy when somebody asks for our help. If we make time in our week for others, we can really listen to them, be genuinely empathetic, and offer support.

As a part of my series about things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Murray, Principal Solutions Architect at Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Dave is a seasoned expert with well over 17 years’ experience in the industry. Starting his formal career with Microsoft in Ireland, he focused on network engineering for the first decade. In 2014, Dave moved into Cloud Computing with Amazon. He took on his current role with AWS as Principal Solution Architect, dedicated to helping companies architect applications on the cloud.

Dave currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife Lynn and two sons Lennon and Phoenix.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I was one of those lucky people who always knew what field they wanted to work in, and for me, this was the tech industry. When I was nine years old, I spent several months in hospital, and in the ward, they had a broken old Spectrum computer that nobody could figure out how to fix. I spent hours making tweaks and managed to fix it myself. Then every night, I would stay up late in the children’s ward playing games on it. My parents later bought me a Commodore 64 that Christmas, and there was no turning back.

Years later, when I was in my twenties, I was diagnosed with OCD and anxiety. Since that, I felt compelled to try to help others in the tech world deal with the same thoughts and emotions that I’ve experienced — which is the reason I’m speaking with you today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When COVID started taking hold in March, I was asked whether I had time to talk to the non-profit organization, United Way. They had created a homeless prevention program to help people who had been financially affected by COVID-19.

The issue they faced was that they were short-staffed but expected thousands of people to apply for the funding. After speaking to them, I put together a team of volunteers from Amazon. We set about building them an application that would allow their customers to register online and digitally submit documents.

We built an accompanying chatbot, and this allowed the initiative to scale as large as they wanted. United Way has since distributed funding to over 4,300 families in Orange County to help prevent them from becoming homeless. It has been an incredible project to be a part of and certainly a highlight of my career.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Earlier this year, a group of us at Amazon got together and created an Emotional Intelligence affinity group to help our colleagues (who work in high-paced environments) to thrive — and avoid burnout.

We have been teaching proven techniques to help people manage the day-to-day stresses of working in the tech industry. And my number one piece of career advice is to plan ahead.

Truly understand the key, longer-term initiatives you need to achieve in order to succeed in your job. Every day, plan your day early. Focus on the high-priority items first and ensure that they relate to your key initiatives. Once these are completed, you can then set aside some time in the afternoon to help others or tackle the non-urgent tasks.

Sometimes, what we think is a high priority isn’t, and taking on too many non-essential tasks means you cannot achieve your key initiatives. This then can lead to stress because you feel you are underperforming. Always keeping your long-term career plan in mind, and designing your day around this will help you succeed.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

As part of our Emotional Intelligence group, I host a podcast with one of my co-workers, Erin. The purpose of the show is to allow colleagues worldwide to share their unique experiences of COVID in their country and their tips for working from home.

By far, one of the things we hear most about how people are managing to succeed in this new work environment — is when their leaders connect with them on a personal level. When leaders can be vulnerable themselves and share their own experiences during this crazy time, their employees relate to them and feel it is ok for them not to be ok sometimes.

We have heard incredible stories of people connecting and bonding with their leaders in ways that they would never have done before COVID. Ultimately, this all comes down to leadership being vulnerable and displaying empathy with their teams.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Without a doubt, ‘Human Kind’ by Brad Aronson. I have gifted this book to so many people!

The book shares stories of small acts of kindness that may have seemed insignificant at the time, but later changed the world’s course. One specific story that always stands out is about this teacher who had a student with a disfigured right arm.

Every day the child’s mother would tie his shoelaces in double knots to ensure they’d never open — because he could not tie them himself and would always feel so helpless if they came undone.

The teacher observed this and quietly at home, started to practice how to tie a shoelace with one hand. Once the teacher mastered it, he triumphantly took the little boy aside and taught him exactly how to tie his own laces.

This one small act of kindness made the boy feel invincible, and he then started to excel in all areas of his life. The determination that the teacher showed would go on to shape this child’s future significantly. The little boy’s name was Jim Abbott, and he went on to become the first one-armed pitcher in the MLB, signing for the Los Angeles Angels.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Avoid the news where possible or limit it to 5 minutes a day. The news media is designed to sensationalize the message — and they do a great job at this — it’s how they make money.

We can all become addicted to the negative news cycle, checking back in several times a day. This, though, has been proven to significantly elevate your stress levels and trigger anxiety or impact your sleep.

Stick to the science-backed news from sites such as the CDC and the WHO. Know the facts of COVID, how to protect yourself, and what to do should you catch the disease. By having a plan in place, you can reduce the overload on your senses every time you read one of these dramatic jolts.

Understand your stressors and try to avoid them or have a plan in place for them. Each of us has our own unique events that cause us stress or anxiety.

Some of us are not aware of what they are; we just know that we feel anxious at times. But when you can become more self-aware, you can understand what stresses you or even realize when you start to feel the anxiety’s physical effects. Then, we can do something about it.

A funny example of this is one of my own major stressors: trying to get out the front door and into the car when we go on vacation or family trips (which we do quite often). We have a very narrow doorway in our apartment, and when I’m trying to drag big suitcases out the door and to the car, I can get overloaded with stress if anything is blocking the way.

I now know that the night before any trip — we need to clear the hallway and neatly line up the bags. I even go as far as visualizing the experience and how stress-free it will be to get out the door and pack up the car. I give myself enough time to get the bags loaded without rushing, and if I feel like I am getting anxious, I stop for a moment and take a couple of breaths.

Practice mindfulness or breathing techniques that are proven to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Regardless of how hard you try to avoid the news or stressors, you will still encounter them from time to time. This is when you need to take back control of your body before getting caught up in what the scientists call an emotional hijack.

As our senses perceive things, they get sent to our brains through our spinal cord, with the amygdala’s being the first stop. The amygdala is responsible for the fight or flight reaction. This is an ancestral trait, and unfortunately for us in the 21st Century, we can be hijacked by our emotions before our prefrontal cortex (logical part of our thinking process) can take over to ensure we deal with it rationally.

Mindfulness and breathing techniques, such as the Box Breathing technique, lower our heart rate and blood pressure. It allows us time for our prefrontal cortex to help us rationally deal with the stressor, thus avoiding the emotions that come with being stressed as anxiety and panic.

Practice Gratitude. Gratitude is scientifically proven to help us feel happier. When we are grateful, we can look at situations with a longer-term lense.

We sometimes forget that every problem we encounter, including COVID, is transient and will eventually pass. When we are stuck in the moment, it feels like it is the world’s worst situation and will never end. Try to take some time every day to write down three things you are grateful for. They may be small things such as the sun shining today or longer-term, such as the fact you are healthy; either option is fine, just remember to do it every day.

If you don’t believe it works, take a happiness test online and then practice gratitude for 30 days. Retake the test at the end and watch the score difference. I know for me personally, it also helps me cope with some of my stressors because I am looking at life with a longer-term lense.

Develop Grit. Once you are versed in the practice of gratitude, you are on your way to developing something that is called grit. Grit is defined by Angela Duckworth, the worlds leading expert on the subject, as ‘Passion and sustained persistence towards a long-term goal.’ As you can imagine, mental toughness and perseverance are very valuable traits to have in times like this.

My great friend and mentor, Rich Hua, who helped start the affinity group at Amazon, tells a great story about how they train the military to stay in battle longer. As Rich explains, the key ingredient is giving the soldiers a long-term purpose or passion to focus on — something to live for.

Gratitude and compassion are significant components of grit. When we think long term, we can take time to step out of the day to day madness and remember our overall purpose, reminding ourselves that our experiences are temporary. Compassion for others is a skill that will help us connect to our higher purpose and thus help us in our pursuit of grit.

From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Listen to others empathetically. As one of the world leaders in this area, Brenee Brown explains that an empathetic response never beings with the words “At Least…”. Empathy lets us briefly walk in the other person’s shoes and feel what they are feeling.

Remind people that it is ok not to be ok. You can do this by being vulnerable yourself. Share your own experiences and worries and encourage others to do the same. As the old saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved.

Be self-aware. Daniel Goleman is a renowned expert in emotional intelligence, and he explains self-awareness as “the ability to monitor our inner world — our thoughts and feelings.” Being aware of our own feelings can help us to help others. When we feel anxious or stressed ourselves, this can be picked up on by others — and is not the best foundation for offering support. Mindfulness, especially guided body scans, can help us to develop self-awareness.

Remind them that they matter. Sometimes, a simple reminder of the value that a person offers to the world can be enough to impact someone’s life. If you have never heard of the You Matter Marathon, I encourage you to look it up. It was started by Cheryl Rice, who left a card that simply said ‘You Matter’ in random places for strangers to find. Seeing the impact the cards were having, she created the movement that now lets you sign up and receive You Matter cards completely free. If you have someone in your life that you know matters in your world, remind them of that.

Plan your time. This comes back to my earlier advice on managing your own time to avoid being stressed. By planning your time and your day, you can make time for others. We all know what it is like to be too busy when somebody asks for our help. If we make time in our week for others, we can really listen to them, be genuinely empathetic, and offer support.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

Sometimes the best resources are the simplest. When we feel anxious, it is often due to a build-up of our heads’ thoughts and expectations. Grab a pen and paper and write down what you are thinking and feeling. It is incredible how doing this regularly can untangle the mess of imaginary situations we make up in our minds! When you couple this journaling with gratitude, we can keep our thoughts focused on the long term and our higher purpose, which can help us feel relieved of some short-term anxiety.

When these are not enough, talk to somebody. This can be someone you are close to or someone in a support group you’ve never met. Always remember that what you are feeling is transient, and with enough care and support, it can pass.

If you ever get stuck for someone to talk to, reach out to me; my personal email address is [email protected], and if you put the subject line of ‘I need to talk,’ you will automatically get prioritized in my inbox.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

This one comes from my favorite band of all time, Oasis. In the song ‘Whatever,’ there is a line that says:

“I’m free to be whatever I, whatever I choose, and I’ll sing the blues if I want.”

Oasis’s band members came from a similar working-class background to me, but they were never afraid to dream big and visualize success. They became the biggest British band in the world at the time and proved that they could be whatever they chose to be. But the key part of the quote for me is the last part. In the pursuit of my dreams, there will be times when I am feeling blue, and that is ok. I accept that I will have my bad days, but I try to stay positive by focusing on my higher purpose and the long term.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to most people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am a believer that a lot of the problems that arise in the world stem from stress. We have remarkable abilities to detect when we are stressed; however, we only learn these later on in life, usually after a long period of suffering. I would start a movement that teaches kids about their emotions very early in their life.

Many studies out there show that the ability to self regulate emotions and delay gratification early in our lives, can lead to greater academic and professional success later on. I feel the possibilities are endless in a world where we help people avoid stress and become a greater influence on society.

I would encourage people to read ‘Brain Rules for Baby’ by John Medina for the science behind a lot of this.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Ironically for a tech person, I avoid online as much as possible. In fact, I don’t even own a smartphone.

These technologies are designed to keep our brains always on, which is a critical factor in increasing stress. I don’t do social media, but I have a LinkedIn account that I occasionally use to post interesting articles about my thoughts on technology or emotional intelligence.

My profile is https://www.linkedin.com/in/olegend20/ .

My wife (who works in PR) is also encouraging me to use twitter more, so I will try to post some EQ based articles here. You can find me at @dbamurray

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thank you for having me!

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