Browsing the archives for the stress tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

The High Cost of Not Liking Your Job

Strategies and goals

As far as I can tell, most Americans consider it normal to be unhappy with their jobs. The idea seems to be that you have to put in your time during the week, suffer through having to do tasks you don’t feel like doing, then get in some fun over the weekend if you can.

This is not a recipe for happiness. After all, most of us spend a huge proportion of our waking time working. If we don’t like our work, than that’s a lot of time spent unhappy and stressed.

For some people, certainly, the solution is getting a different job, even if expenses need to be scaled back to make that possible. But the key to happiness in a job isn’t always what we’re doing: sometimes it’s just how engaged we are.

The new Gallup book (from the people who do the polls), Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, makes the argument based on extensive research that a fulfilling life is one where a person is doing well in five areas: career, social, physical, financial, and community. “Career” in this case can mean employment, self-employment, full-time parenting–even a hobby. Regardless, happiness in a career turns out to have a lot to do with engagement.

Rath and Harter distinguish between people who are generally engaged in their jobs (interested in what they’re doing, focused, involved) and people who generally aren’t (distracted, waiting for the day to end, dissatisfied, bored). They employed a series of pretty clever tracking techniques, including a device that would beep at certain times during the day and prompt subjects to record what they were doing and how they were feeling about it; heart rate monitors; and monitoring cortisol levels in saliva. (Cortisol is a chemical in the body that is closely linked with stress.) From these and other data, they offer a chart measuring happiness over the working day for an average engaged person versus an average not-engaged person.

Of course the people who were engaged were happier, but the specific comparison is striking. Unengaged people come in unhappy, get unhappier after the first hour or so, become more interested and less unhappy during the middle of the day, and then experience a slide in happiness throughout the afternoon that only stops with a sudden burst of comparative happiness at the very end. The least unhappy point in the day for these folks? Quitting time.

By contrast, the engaged people are as happy when they walk in the door in the morning as unengaged people were at the end of the day–and the engaged people keep getting happier from there. The most tedious and unpleasant time in an engaged person’s average day as happy as the most thrilling time in an unengaged person’s day! Weirdly, people who are trying to entertain and distract themselves at work by stretching coffee breaks out and reading e-mailed jokes are having much, much less fun than people who are getting excited about their work.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy to get excited about one’s work. It’s especially hard if you have a manager you don’t like, if you’re doing something you don’t believe in, if you have serious concerns about how the organization operates, if you don’t like your coworkers, or if you don’t have what you need to do your job effectively. In these situations, it might make sense to look for a new job.

In other situations, it can be interesting to ask yourself “What could I do to feel more involved and interested in my work?” There are some suggestions in my article 6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like.

Photo by oso

No Comments

How Not to Make Excuses

States of mind

An experiment in excuses
For most of my life I’ve been running an experiment between two categories of things in my life: the “excuses are OK” group and “no excuses” group. It’s only recently that I noticed I was running this experiment, though, and so the years and years of results are only now starting to come in handy.

Let me give some examples of choices that have been in each group. By the way, though I talk a lot about eating well in this post, the points about excuses and exceptions apply just as well to forming any other kind of habit.

“Excuses are OK” group

  • Eating foods that I’d be better off not eating
  • Going to bed at a reasonable hour
  • Keeping track of incoming mail

“No Excuses” group

  • Parenting
  • Vegetarianism (for the 22 years I decided to do that)
  • Going to work

So I might do well for a stretch at making good eating choices, then hit a day when I was traveling and didn’t have many options, so I’d say to myself “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat well on a day like today–I’ll just eat whatever.”

But on that same trip I would not say “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat vegetarian on a day like today–I’ll just get a hamburger.”

My results
Knowing what I know these days about self-motivation, it shouldn’t surprise me that the “no excuses” group of activities were much more successful than the “excuses OK” group. For instance, when I started making a rule of eating only at specific times of day, it became much easier to make better eating choices. I went 22 years without knowingly eating any red meat, seafood, or poultry–even that time back in my 20’s when I was out of money and extremely hungry while traveling and someone offered me a hamburger. By contrast, it’s rare that I’ve gone 22 days without overeating (though all the days I have eaten well count for something, as I eventually lost 60 pounds and have been in great shape for quite a while now).

To look at it another way, and in terms of a real experiment, one study on habit formation found that those participants who kept up the behavior they wanted to make into a habit with no more than one exception over the course of months were much more successful at forming durable habits than those who made two or more exceptions.

The secret of excuses and exceptions
The thing about excuses and exceptions is that if we’re trying to build habits, there’s no good reason for excuses short of total catastrophe. Any time we don’t stick with the behavior we’re trying to build up–that is, any time we make exceptions–we lose some of the habitual behavior we’re trying to build. There may be days when eating well is inconvenient, boring, or annoying, but if I use inconvenience, boredom, and annoyance as excuses, then they’ll wreck my attempts to build a habit over time.

That’s not to say that making one excuse is the end of the world, but it is true that taking excuses as a serious problem and not an acceptable norm will help us develop the habits we want to create.

Easier said than done–but possible!
“That’s really nice,” you might say, “but it doesn’t help me for you to just tell me to behave the way I’d like to all the time. Not behaving the way I want to is the problem in the first place!” And that would be a reasonable thing to mention. Fortunately, there is a practical takeaway here: excuses are red flags and should be treated as such. There’s no such thing as a good excuse when trying to build a habit, there are only catastrophic interruptions. If a friend of yours is in the hospital and you end up throwing your good eating habits out the window from stress and limited choices, that’s fine; it’s not the end of the world–but it is a catastrophic interruption, and it means you’re damaging a good habit you’re working on for something more important. But good friends are more important than good food, and that’s a reasonable choice if you really need to focus on your friend.

On the other hand, what if you just interrupt a good habit because you’re in a bad mood or happen to be in a restaurant that serves something you like? Many of us immediately reach for the excuse box.

But if we recognize excuses and exceptions as danger signs, we can stop ourselves and say “My goal here is to build a habit, not to come up with excuses to screw that up.” Using this kind of awareness, making rules, taking responsibility, surrendering excuses, and making use of any useful tactics we can learn (like this list of 24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry), we can move ourselves out of the “Excuses OK” group and into the group that’s really kicking experimental butt.

Photo by ariel.chico

No Comments

Everything Sucks. Reboot? Y/N

Handling negative emotions

Every once in a while, I have a day where enough seems to have gone wrong that I’m lodged deep in a lousy mood. Sometimes I’m not clever enough to be aware of this right away, so it persists until mindfulness finally kicks in with something to the effect of “You’re in a bad mood, and there is no reason for it unless it’s somehow helping you. Is it helping?”

It generally isn not helping. So I try to find my way out of that lousy mood using one of the techniques in this post.

The human brain is not very much like a computer. It changes its own structure constantly, stores information in locations scattered throughout the brain, and even runs two different systems (one neural and mostly cognitive, the other chemical and mostly emotional) at the same time. There’s more on this in my article about science fiction and the human brain at Clarkesworld.

But even though the brain doesn’t work the way computers do in many respects, it is capable of reboots: shutting down everything that’s currently running–including bad moods–and starting from scratch. However, reboots are not always easy. There are at least two things that get in the way.

The first is called “mood congruity”: this is the tendency of human beings to have trouble really imagining any emotional situation other than the one they’re already in. If you’re in a bad mood and you picture enjoying a nice walk outside, chances are it will be difficult for you to believe in your gut that the walk will be enjoyable–even if you have every reason to think it will be, and even if it generally has been under similar circumstances in the past. Whatever mood we’re in, we tend to imagine the future fitting the same mood. This is one reason the advice “Cheer up! Things will get better” often sounds so hollow. Mood congruity can be overcome, but it’s helpful to realize that the way our brians work, they’re a little limited at imagining an emotion while experiencing a contrary emotion.

Another barrier is that generally speaking, any mental control we have over our emotions happens by thinking (cognition), but cognition can change much more quickly than emotion, because so much of emotion has to do with chemicals like dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin, adrenaline, and others. The chemical states that influence our brains aren’t capable of changing nearly as quickly as our thoughts. We can go from thinking about a horrible tragedy to thinking about a really funny joke and back all within seconds, but our emotional state would not be able to keep up. This means that any mental effort to change mood needs to be kept up for a minute or two at least to allow emotions to catch up with cognition. It also means that idea repair doesn’t have its full effect right away, a subject I’ll be tackling in another article soon.

Knowing the obstacles, what are the techniques we can use to reboot our brains? Well, computers can go through a “warm boot” (rebooting through software only) or a “cold boot” (physically restarting the computer), and the same is true of our brains. A mental cold boot can be accomplished with techniques that completely clear out what’s going on in our minds. Two excellent approaches for this are meditation (which narrows focus to a very specific subject while letting everything else kind of float away) and exercise (which creates a physiological state that tends to help us cut back to a minimum of thinking).

Techniques for warm boots change attention, immediate experience, and/or thinking. Idea repair is one very useful means to do a warm boot. Other methods include emotional antidotes; visualization; and getting into a flow state (or at least distracted by something interesting for a bit).

Regardless of which method you use, rebooting takes attention, effort, and a little time. However, it often doesn’t take any more than that, and while not every bad mood can be banished in minutes, many of them can.

Photo by rofreg

1 Comment

Useful Book: Getting Things Done


Getting Things Done by David Allen is by far the best book I’ve ever read on organization, and it also has a lot to say about productivity and peace of mind.

When my friend Roger loaned the book to me, I was a little curious but didn’t expect much. I’d already had a pretty effective task management system in place for some time, and at best I was expecting Allen to offer a few ideas for minor improvements. It it did turn out to be true that most of the things he had to say in his book were things I was already doing, but Allen’s deep understanding of the subject offered me a wider, more useful view that was both practical and powerfully motivating.

Getting Things Done offers a way to look at and interact with “stuff”–papers, objects lying around the house, pestering concerns that keep surfacing in the mind, incomplete projects, dead plants, upcoming events, or anything else that’s fighting for our attention. Allen describes how to stream things into useful categories with a set of simple, familiar systems–task list, calendar, file drawers, etc. Yet the rules for the process he describes are not the familiar ones, because once something has been processed, you stop having to worry about it. Allen’s approach doesn’t just clean up and organize a physical environment: it creates reliable ways to know that you’re keeping track of everything and therefore creates a lot of peace of mind. Of course, this same approach does great things for productivity, and it yields unexpected benefits like increased reliability, management of stress, clarifying priorities, and improved communication.

My initial impression of the book was that it was mainly directed toward busy executives, and it’s true that these seem to be the people Allen mainly works with. However, he also understands perfectly well what needs to be done to deal with a home, family, or even vague set of aspirations for the future. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is trying to organize, get a handle on an overly busy life, create more serenity and confidence, or become more productive.

I’ve written recently on the site about several ideas that overlap with or draw on Allen’s:

No Comments

Are Creative People More Likely to Procrastinate?

Strategies and goals


A good imagination may not be strictly necessary for procrastination, but it can help.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about the nature of procrastination: picturing something in the future and imagining how hard it will be or what can go wrong. He goes on to point out that the more easily a person can imagine problems, the more incentive they have to procrastinate “… because their sensitivity gives them the capability of producing in their minds lurid nightmare scenarios about what might be involved in doing the project and all the negative consequences that might occur if it weren’t done perfectly.”

How do people successfully combat procrastination? They take control and move things forward–that is, they figure out what the next physical action is.

Allen is big on the next physical action, and close examination of the idea helps explain why: figuring out the next action changes the focus from broad dangers to easy, short-term wins. For example, if you’re daunted at the prospect of doing your taxes, you may find yourself distracted by thoughts of a big balance due, mistakes, or audits. Figuring out your next task (“Sort through receipts in receipt box” or “Call tax preparer to make an appointment” or “Download an update to the tax softare”), by contrast, puts things on a much more comfortable level. Almost anyone can sort receipts, make a telephone call, or click a button on a Web site, and doing so moves the tax process forward. Reducing large tasks to a series of next actions–only one of which needs to be figured out at any given time–can create enthusiasm or energy around getting things done instead of wrapping the task in anxiety.

Photo by


Relieving Stress by Understanding Your Inputs

Strategies and goals

This morning I got out of bed with the realization that I often have to sort out the same set of e-mails twice: once on my desktop and once on my laptop. Realizing that this was getting in the way of me keeping on top of e-mail as it comes in, I found myself a good Web-based interface for my e-mail, where I started by working on just my last ten days of e-mail. I went through every single non-spam message I had received in that time, sorting them into appropriate folders, responding to or following up on the ones that could be done within a minute or two, and putting about half a dozen that will require more time into a special “REPLY/ACT” folder where I’ll be able to easily tackle them in order. Then I went over the past month and a half and any marked e-mails in my own inbox and added anything that stood out to the REPLY/ACT folder.

And now my inbox is empty. This doesn’t mean that I have no e-mails to respond to, but that I’ve cleared away everything except the e-mails that will need detailed responses and have those easily accessible in priority order. As new e-mails come in, I’ll deal with them in a similar way, since I have a system in place and am going to the same spot to handle e-mail whether at home or on the road. Instead of always opening my e-mail box to a long list of mostly-unimportant e-mails, I’ll open it to a few things that I’ll review, fire off quick replies where those are needed, and have a single place where the bigger tasks will go. Everything else will get filed away. This takes very little time, now that my system is set up. And since I had been gradually developing my ideas of how to sort e-mail in past attempts at this process, it all came together quickly, in just over an hour!

Update, March 30th: I’ve continued emptying my inbox this way virtually every day since I started the process, and it has continued to be much easier than my old process. My REPLY/ACT folder sometimes gets more full and sometimes less, but “full” in this case is at most 16 items. The system seems to be working, and I’m definitely much more responsive than I have been in the past, in large part because I get the short responses out of the way immediately regardless of how important they are and have the e-mails that need longer responses somewhere they’re easy to find and pick off.

What Stress Has to Do With Organization
We can mostly only do one thing at a time, so ideally we’d always know exactly what that one thing should be at any time. Let’s say you’re at home, no phones are ringing, and nothing’s on fire. What do you choose to do with your time? Relax and watch a movie? Wash the plate and glass on the counter? Go over your kid’s homework? Fix that squeaky door? Catch up on some reading for work? Call your old friend from college you’ve been wanting to get back in touch with? Organize papers for tax season? Every responsibility–like housekeeping, friendships, bills, work, concerns about world hunger–and every way we communicate–like mail, notes sent home from school with kids, email, voice mail, conversations with family members–provides another potential source of things that might need to be done. And it’s exactly the same in a work or school environment, often with a completely separate set of systems in each location.

The problem is that all of these inputs can be stress-producing, if not overwhelming. Without some serious organization, it’s next to impossible to keep track of all of them at once, which means that anything that isn’t getting taken care of can potentially be a distraction and a worry. You find yourself regularly pushed around by thoughts like “Do I really have everything set up for the trip next week?” or “I keep thinking I need to pick something up at the hardware store” or “I’ve got to remember to get back to that prospect with a quote.”

Fortunately it is possible to channel some of this chaos and cut back on stress. Here are a few quick tips to that end, inspired in part by my continued reading of Dave Allen’s excellent organizational book, Getting Things Done, along with other sources.

Recognize your inputs. Anything that’s not in the place where you want it to be, may need to be acted on, needs to be reviewed to decide whether you need to act on it, is in the way of you knowing or doing something you need to know or do, etc. is an input, a potential “to do.” That doesn’t mean that you need to waste attention to all of those things every time you notice them, only that they’ll tend to dilute your focus unless you’ve got some kind of reliable system in place to handle them.

Don’t let the noisy things distract you from the important things. An e-mail about a new version of some software you use may be interesting and may pop up right in front of your face while an important financial matter that doesn’t have a specific deadline could be lingering in the background. It can help to have places to put lower-priority things  as they come in, for instance an “Interesting/check out” folder in your e-mail program for that e-mail to go until after the financial matter is settled.

Minimize the number of task systems you use. Almost everyone needs more than one task list: for instance, you might have an e-mail program with messages that need to be read, responded to, or acted on; plus a traditional “to do” list, a place to stack incoming mail, etc. But it’s easy to let task systems proliferate–a few notes written on paper here, an occasionally-updated PDA task list there, a stack of unreviewed papers on your desk to go through, etc.–making it difficult or impossible to determine what the one thing you want to do at any given time is, because there are too many places to look to figure that out.

Ditch unimportant tasks. Still have last week’s newspaper because you didn’t get around to reading it but might still? Consider how often you’ve gotten around to ever reading a week-old newspaper before, and if it’s close to 0% of the time, the newspaper can go. I’ve found sometimes in the past that I’ve been hanging onto an unimportant tasks for years–something that really would be good to do, but has never been important enough to trump all the other things that are going on in my life on a daily basis. It can be freeing (and a good way to cut down on an unrealistically long task list) to be able to look at some items like this and say “I’m just going to decide to not do that one.”

Part of how you’ll be happiest dealing with all of these inputs will depend on whether you want to organize your life or just keep the noise level down a bit. You may find you want the productivity and peace of mind you can get from a real organizational system. Allen’s book is a good resource for tackling this if you decide to.

On the other hand, maybe your life isn’t all that hectic, but a little additional clarity and order will help–in which case the suggestions above might be enough to give you the lift you’re looking for.

If you’re not sure whether it’s worth committing to a big organizational effort, ask yourself: Am I sometimes not taking care of things I need to get done, with bad consequences? Do I feel overwhelmed or anxious about the things I need to do? If either of these is a yes, time spent organizing effectively can provide relief while making more efficient use of your time. A successful organizing effort pays for the time it takes to do it in short order, and doesn’t have to necessarily be done all at once to be effective.

Photo by andres.thor

1 Comment

The Problem of Living One Minute in the Future

States of mind

I recently noticed that I have the habit, sometimes, of living approximately one minute in the future. This is a problem. I’ll explain:

Of all the focus and motivation-related skills I could be developing, the one that helps me the most when I practice it and causes the most harm when it’s missing is mindfulness. When I take time to be aware of what’s going on around me, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking about what I’m doing, what’s really important to me, and from all that what choices suit me the best, I make some terrific choices. When I lose track of too many of these things for too long … not so much.

The question of how well mindfulness works has a lot to do with how much effort and attention go into it, so the problems come for me mainly when I let my attention be taken up too much by other things.

Recently I was doing my best to apply mindfulness to how I eat. This probably sounds like a relatively unimportant, navel-gazing exercise, but since eating is one of the things that in the past I’ve done least mindfully, for me it’s something that I benefit from working on regularly.

What I noticed about myself was that while I was eating something I enjoyed, I wasn’t paying the most attention to the bite I was actually eating. I wasn’t even paying attention to the next bite: no, the bite I was focusing on was the one two bites ahead. Somewhere deep down I seem to still have a concern that the food will all just run out all of a sudden. And who knows? Someday I may live in a time and place where there’s a famine and there isn’t enough food. For an adequately employed American in 2010, though, that attitude is ridiculous.

And yet, I began to notice that whenever I was on my next-to-last bite, I stopped enjoying what I was eating and felt as though I had no food left. This is while I’m still chewing and have another bite to go, mind you. I was living two bites in the future, and even when there was still food two bites away, it wasn’t food I was eating–all I was enjoying then was the fact that there was still food available.

I don’t eat like this all the time, or even necessarily most of the time. But when I’m not paying attention and letting my least useful long-term eating habits get the best of me, there’s a disconnect between me and my food–which may explain why until the last couple of years, while I ate healthy food, I didn’t have a good sense of how much I should eat or when. That’s changed with effort and practice, fortunately, but some of the attitudes that gave rise to the problem in the first place are still present, even though they’re diminished.

The problem of living a little bit in the future can crop up anywhere: watching the clock during the work day and not being willing to be happy until it’s time to leave; working on a project and not allowing a sense of any accomplishment until the project is done (if then); and so on. If you find you’re having trouble enjoying something, it can be useful to pay attention for a moment to where your focus is: is it on what’s going on now, or is it on some imagined payoff, deadline, beginning, or end?

That’s not to say we should always live in the moment: always doing that is neither wise nor practical, and I talk about the reasons this is true in this article. But living slightly out of kilter with the moment often isn’t a good strategy either, and sometimes all it takes to be happier and reduce stress is to set the clock back a minute or so.

Photo by rockmixer

No Comments

How to Reduce Stress and Get More Done by Turning a Project into a Habit

Strategies and goals

One of my first posts when I started the Willpower Engine site was about the two uses of self-motivation: acquiring habits and getting projects done. What has become clear recently is that projects can and sometimes should be treated as habits to acquire. There are two main reasons to do this: first, the habit approach can relieve a lot of stress, and second, the habit approach can be very productive.

How to make a project into a habit
First, how can a project be turned into a habit? A habit is something you do regularly, usually with the idea of continuing forever, while a project is a set series of things to do with a clear end point. How does one translate into the other?

It’s true that not all projects can be made into habits: the ones that can are those that require a lot of the same kind of work over a long period of time–especially if that work is something that will need to be done again in the future. These kinds of projects include many kinds of organization, creative or constructive habits, lifestyle changes, etc.

For example, the project of writing a novel can be made into a habit of writing every day for a set period of time or a set number of words. The project of decluttering a house can be made into a habit of organizing the house a little bit at a time on a regular basis. The project of documenting all of the in-house software at a particular company can be made into a habit of noting details of any in-house software product that comes in sight plus a habit of fleshing those notes out into full-fledged documentation.

When changing a project into a habit like this, there’s less emphasis on the overall structure of the thing and more on the day-to-day work. If there’s too little emphasis on the overall structure, than part of the habit should be reviewing the overall progress of the work.

The kinds of projects that don’t make good habits are ones that involve very different kinds of work over time, like starting a business, and/or that have a clear stopping point after which you don’t intend to do much of that work again, as for instance if you were doing a one-time renovation of your house.

Relieving stress
Making a project into a habit can relieve stress in two ways: first, it narrows the scope of what needs to be done at any given time to something very small and manageable. Instead of filing all of the papers lying around your office, you just need to spend 15 minutes at a time filing papers. Instead of losing 50 pounds, you just need to track what you eat, exercise regularly, and make good food choices (still a tall order, but much more feasible than losing 50 pounds in a single go).

The second way making a project into a habit relieves stress is that when this transformation is made, the project no longer needs to ever get done. Instead, the intention is to keep working on it, writing another symphony after this one, maintaining weight after losing it, keeping the office organized once it gets organized in the first place.

The advantage of maintenance
Another advantage of changing a project into a habit is that many projects need maintenance even once they’re complete, like keeping a decluttered house from getting re-cluttered or keeping on top of new sales prospects once you’ve caught up with a backlog.

Handling multiple habits at once
I’ve mentioned a number of times that it’s generally a bad idea to try to take on more than one major goal at a time, because even one significant effort or life change generally requires enough attention and focus that introducing another goal tends to serve as a destraction that causes the first effort to fail. In other words, second and third and fourth goals will suck away focus from the first goal until it dies from neglect or crashes spectacularly because attention was elesewhere.

One way around this limitation, though, is to bind habits together. For instance, if you’re trying to simultaneously organize your home, your office, and your finances, your discipline can be devoting fifteen minutes (for instance) to each of those tasks every day, at set times. (“Every day” isn’t a strict requirement, but it is much easier to acquire a new habit if you practice the behavior pretty much every day.) When you’re thinking about your goals, then, you would be thinking about whether or not you’ll be able to accomplish those three things in their regular times, whether there’s extra time that can go to one of them, and what specific issues may be arising with any of them.

There is a drawback to this approach, which is that with it, there is less attention to give to specifics and problem-solving for any one goal, so it may still be best to stick with one intention at a time if this causes problems. However, if the main task is to stay on track and remind yourself to do something, this “binding” approach can work just fine. And even without binding, the approach of turning a project into a habit can be of great use.

Painting courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum


To Free Your Mind, Capture Your Responsibilities

Strategies and goals

One of the current books I’m reading is David Allen’s excellent guide to task management, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I’ll certainly have more to say about this book in future posts, but Allen makes one particular point that’s immediately useful: if you want to be relaxed and focused, it makes all the difference in the world if you capture the things you’re concerned about and get them out of your head–that is, if you type them out or write them down.

One use of this principle is in dealing with a thought that’s nagging at you or upsetting you. To use this idea, you write out everything that’s in your mind about the problem: your concerns, possible solutions, fears, and so on. Doing all of this stops these thoughts from swirling around in an incomplete state within your head, leaving a more peaceful, constructive and resolved state of mind.

Allen himself doesn’t really go into why this process works, at least not in what I’ve read so far, and he isn’t really concerned with how it can be applied in areas other than task management. It’s enough for him to say that to handle tasks, it’s important to have a system for collecting all tasks needing to be done as they arrive and getting them on paper or onto the computer so that you can prioritize and deal with them instead of fretting about them. But some of the reasons capturing your responsibilities in writing can work so well are clear from other things we know about motivation and mood. For instance, we know that the human brain is designed to focus on only one thing at a time, so having multiple responsibilities or concerns knocking around mentally is stressful and not very constructive.

Similarly, we know that mindfulness–conscious consideration of what’s going on in our own brains–helps nourish constructive behaviors and opens up the possibility of detecting and repairing broken ideas. Broken ideas can’t really be tackled unless they are laid out explicitly, and writing is often the easiest and most effective way to do this. As long as a broken idea is floating around inside a mind without being fully detected and named, it can cause damage while the person is having it may not even realize it’s there.

For task management, of course, there are more steps to go through after writing things down. But for some of the other useful applications of this idea, writing down can sometimes be all that’s needed. And even when there’s more work to be done after, writing down stray thoughts instead of letting them roam is the first step in many complete solutions.

Photo by tnarik


Some Ways to Find Out What’s Really Bothering You

Handling negative emotions

One of the real benefits idea repair has brought me since I started learning about it years ago (under the title of “Rational Emotive-Based Therapy”) is an awareness that my bad moods, when they come, generally can be traced to something. It’s true, sometimes being overtired or not having had a chance to eat (or especially, both) can jostle me over into my least flattering behaviors, but much more often, if I feel bad emotionally, it can be traced to some thought I’m having. For me, it’s usually worrying about something. For instance, I might find myself getting more anxious than really makes any sense over a minor work deadline.

The thing is, when I’m working myself up about something, often I’m signaling myself that there’s a larger, underlying problem. This points to the one limitation I know of about idea repair: idea repair helps a person feel better right away, but sometimes it helps to trace a broken idea to its source before fixing it, because our emotional reactions give us important clues to what will make us happy (or drive us out of our tree with worry or annoyance).

So when I find myself seriously overreacting to a situation, I’ll often try to find out what’s really bothering me first, and once I know that to use idea repair to bring my mood back into balance. Here are some ways to cover that first step: finding out what’s causing the negative emotions, deep down.

Major issues that bother a person usually don’t lurk too far beneath the surface. One of the quickest and most direct ways to get to those issues is to have someone ask you some very straightforward questions, or even (if you don’t mind talking to yourself a little), asking them yourself.

The kinds of questions to ask are very basic, like “So, what’s bothering you today?” or “What are you most concerned about at the moment?” or “If you could have one thing happen today to make you happier, what would it be?”

Continued questions just follow up on the answers. For instance, if a person being interviewed (or self-interviewing) comes up with the statement “The thing that worries me the most is that I don’t think I’m going to have enough money to send my daughter off to college next year,” then the follow-up question might be something like “What would happen then?” or “Why don’t you think you’ll have enough money?”

Another handy kind of question for these situations is “What else?” This is useful when the real problem still seems to be lurking out of sight. “OK, you’re worried about that deadline at work. What else is bugging you these days?”

An interesting side note for writers: this same strategy works well for character and story development. There’s more detail in my free eBook, The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation.

It’s true, I recommend journaling for a lot of things: for detecting broken ideasgetting immediate motivation, feedback loops, tackling daunting tasks, and so on. Of course, the reason I recommend it so often is that it’s a very practical technique: writing things down draws thoughts out of our heads that we might not otherwise have pursued, and it helps give these thoughts structure and direction. It also provides a record, should we want to go back in future and remind ourselves of past states of mind.

In effect, journaling works much like interviewing, and can be done question-and-answer style if that format helps. Alternatively, a free flow of thought spurred on by focusing on the negative emotions can get to the same place by a different route.

Talk therapy
If you find that lurking anxieties or frustrations are sabotaging your mood on a regular basis, you may want to consider whether a therapist could help out. Unfortunately, therapy often seems to be thought of as being only for people with serious mental illnesses rather than also for people who are doing fine with their lives but who want to sort out a particular issue or concern or get more clarity. A good therapist can help either type of person.

Cognitive therapy particularly has a high success rate in studies done on it, for a wide variety of conditions and needs. One way to find a certified cognitive therapist is through this link on the Academy of Cognitive Therapy Web site.

Photo by manic*.

1 Comment
« Older Posts
Newer Posts »

%d bloggers like this: