Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Escape the trap of "should"

I read this wonderful article today about stress. It contains some very helpful perspectives that center around the idea that we should manage stress better, not try to eliminate it.

It reminded me of how a recent uneventful workday suddenly overwhelmed me and what I learned as a result.

So, let me tell you about how it all went down. My workday had started off simple and easy. I actually had no Life & Career Coaching clients scheduled, when typical days could include meetings off-and-on from 9 am until 8 pm. So, I pretty much had a free day!

Although, I did have two non-client-related meetings, a plan to hit the gym, and an evening phone meeting and doctor's appointment lined up. There was still plenty of time to get all that done, and, in terms of work days, this should have been very light lifting.

During my late-morning meeting, I noticed three calls go to voicemail. Two were potential new-business clients, and one was from a current client. Given that it's important to close new business as soon as possible, it was at this point that I began to feel a bit of pressure to return those phone calls.

However, my meeting ran longer than expected—clear through the lunch hour; this is where my focus drifted. I was extremely hungry, and I felt pressured to get through lunch ASAP so as to get to those calls. 

It was then that I noticed that my website's formatting looked messed up on my smartphone (But it was working fine last week!). I can't get new business while my website is down, so, while I was eating, I rushed through an attempt to re-code and fix the problem (multi-tasking), which took an extra, unscheduled 45 minutes. 

After fixing the website, at this point, I felt frazzled. Eating meals late will throw me off emotionally. Multi-tasking stresses me. On the one hand, you may be thinking that what I was facing was trivial, and you'd be right. On the other hand, notice how trivial ways of being delayed or thrown off schedule create stress that makes it hard to function well.

The pressure I felt to get everything done by the end of the day suddenly felt unmanageable. My mind started racing and scurrying like this: I could make the phone calls. But I don't want to make the phone calls. I'm not good on the phone when I'm in a mood like this. Well, I could skip the gym, and then I'd have plenty of time to get things done. But the gym helps me to keep an even keel; it's important to take care of myself. And I can't move the evening meetings, they're both very, very important! The phone meeting in particular is about a VIP client, and it took me three months to get this doctor's appointment. I don't see a way to out! Arrrggghhh!

I felt trapped. 

As I retreated to the bathroom to take a break and do my business, it occurred to me that I know emotion management, I TEACH this stuff. It was time to apply the skills and approaches to myself.

So, I took some deep breaths, and I did my best to clear my mind. Then, I asked myself to answer this question honestly: Of all the things you COULD do with the rest of your day, what would you LIKE to do? What are you WILLING to do? I followed that with a few more deep breaths, kept my mind quiet and clear, and I waited for the answer to occur to me.

As I continued to slow down, relax, and clear my mind, the answer presented itself fairly quickly, and it felt easy and clear: The evening meetings can't be moved, so I'll do them. I want to go to the gym. Time permitting, I'll answer the call from my current client after my evening phone meeting, and I'll respond to the other two calls first thing tomorrow morning. 

Ahhhhhh! It all felt do-able again.

Later in the day, given that I had to spend some boring time in a my doctor's waiting room, I did a quick review of a document for a client using my tablet, and I emailed her comments before the meeting began.

No problem! What a difference emotionally from how I'd felt about it all at lunch.

*          *          *

Reflecting on how it all went down, several things occur to me.

Most of my unpleasant stress was caused by the strong feeling that I "should" do everything. That word never literally crossed my mind, but that's how I was behaving. As if I had no choice, as if everything had to get done, as if it was up to me to push my way through it all regardless of how I felt.

When I shifted into the perspective that I could do what I wanted to do or what I was willing to do, I felt more in control, the "trapped" feeling went away, and I quickly felt sooo much better. After feeling better and more relaxed, I was better able to get work done.

It occurred to me that, in my 20's, these moments of overwhelm or upset would often snowball into a week of "being in a mood." Decades later, after learning many emotion-management skills, this kind of one-hour-freak-out experience is as bad as it usually gets. Even though I'm talking about trivial events kicking up stress, that's quite an improvement, and it greatly affects the overall quality of my daily life. Handling the little things well really matters.

Finally, as I went about the rest of my day, I noticed that there was no down time until I arrived home at 8 pm. That being said, even though I was a bit tired from being very active and busy, I didn't feel bad emotionally. It doesn't feel bad to chip away at a large pile of work if you feel as if you're doing what you want to do and making reasonable progress. I think that's a good example of the kind of "good" stress discussed in the Can Stress Help Students article, the kind that focuses, motivates, and assists goal completion.