You don’t have to be stressed at work
If you’ve been following our 3-part De-stress Your Everyday series, you’ve already made huge strides in diminishing your stress from and improving your more intimate relationships. If not, go back and read Who Else Wants Less Stress from Their Relationships? now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Good, you’re all caught up. Today, we’re going to delve into one of the most stressful parts of people’s lives - work. Your boss may be a tyrant. You may sometimes make mistakes (like everyone) and get caught up in your fear about what’ll happen as a result. Maybe you have a case of “imposter syndrome” where you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing but everyone else does and soon your boss is going to find out and fire you. Whatever the case may be, I’m going to help you feel more confident and calm at work with just a few tried-and-true strategies.
This baby just stubbed his toe. I recommend staying far away,
1. Realize what the situation is really about
We’ve all been there - you make a small mistake and it’s blown out of proportion or you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time and you end up getting in trouble with your boss. If there’s one thing I learned in medical school, where an incorrect answer to a question can lead to a 5 minute diatribe on the state of medical student education, it’s that when someone blows a situation out of proportion, 9 times out of 10, it’s not about you. Of course, you have to make sure that they’re actually blowing the situation about of proportion and you didn’t just, for example, lose your company a huge client, but that’s a whole different story.
Most of the time, something is going on in that person’s life that is sensitizing them to annoyance, anger, or just being in a crummy mood. Ever stub your toe and just want to yell at someone? It’s kind of like that. This person is hurting in some other way and taking it out on you - maybe they just got yelled at by their boss, maybe they’re tired, maybe their kid is doing poorly in school - who knows. Like I mentioned in Part 1, this is not so you can empathize- this is for you, not for them. Realizing that the situation is not really about you enables you to maintain your self-confidence. You don’t end up analyzing the situation wondering, “Should I have done X, Y, or Z?” to no end, creating chronic stress in your life. You can move on and focus on doing a stellar job, instead of living in fear and questioning what you did wrong.
2. Learn the Law of Diminishing Returns
The Law of Diminishing Returns is an economic principle that in essence states that adding more of a factor of production will at some point yield lower per-unit returns. If you need a more concrete example, let’s think about building a Powerpoint presentation for work. In this case let’s assume the factor of production is your time and the output is slides. At first, as you spend more time on the project, you get in the flow of it, you really understand what you’re doing and you start producing slides faster and faster. Eventually though, you get hungry, tired, and your butt gets sore from sitting. Now you aren’t producing slides as quickly. As you worked longer and longer, the return on your time investment decreased (you made fewer slides per hour).
Let’s take a look at this graphically:
What should you take away from this graph? Working hard is not always the right answer. Eventually you’re going to reach a point where a greater time investment just isn’t worth it. Sure maybe you can make 99 slides instead of 98, but it might take you as much time as it took to build slides 20-40!
Personally, I don’t want to be anywhere near the later half of the curve. That is burn-out central. That’s not where you go to enjoy life. That’s where you go to wonder to yourself “why is life so hard?” So be smart, stop trying to eke out that last little bit and stay in the sweet spot where you’re getting the most bang for your buck, maximal returns from minimal effort. To do that, put a little extra effort in the beginning and then slowly throttle back to find that sweet spot that works for you.
Another benefit of riding slower was that everyone could finally enjoy the sight of my sweet ride
One experience that really brought this point home to me happened while I was living in NYC. While living in the Big Apple I would commute to work on my bike. I would want to get there as fast as possible so I would go all out - pushing as hard as I could, sprinting up the Queensboro Bridge, huffing and puffing the whole way. I would time myself to see how long it took and pretty consistently found it to take 38 minutes. After doing this for a while, I stopped enjoying biking to work. It became this ominous thing. When I would think of it I would think about the huffing and puffing, the stress of all the cars and other bicyclists I was trying to avoid while going as fast as possible, and the sweaty work clothes I was left with. I decided that for 1 week I would just go at a leisurely pace to reset. When I did this I started noticing how pleasant my bike ride was. I know, right, a pleasant NYC bike ride - sounds like an oxymoron. I watched all the boats go past as I crossed the Queensboro, looked at the beautiful way the water moved below me, and waved to my fellow riders. When I got to work I checked how long it took me to get there. 41 minutes. I was flabbergasted. I was in shape. I’d just biked the 40-mile 5 Boro Bike Tour and did spin class all the time, consistently at the top of the class. How could the difference be only 3 minutes? Just casually strolling along got me 93% of the way there. What was the point of all that extra stress on my body and having people at work look at me and ask, “What happened to you?” After that experience, I always just enjoyed my ride, clearing my head for the day. I stopped living at the far end of the curve and stayed in the sweet spot.
If you ever feel yourself noticing this internal “Ugh” feeling, feeling like you are reaching and working so hard to get what you want, that’s your cue to assess whether you’re in fact pushing too hard and need to throttle back.
The meme in question.
3. Remember you cannot see the future
Let’s say you really screw something up at work. For example, at an old corporate job, one of my colleagues forgot to end a screenshare with one of our clients before they began looking for a sweet meme to send to a friend, which of course the client saw. Whoops. If you’ve ever messed up at work, the following internal monologue may have gone through your head.
Another likely result of your mistake - the end of the world. Thanks for that.
“Oh man, I’m going to get fired, This is the worst thing in the world. I’m going to have to find a new job, but all of my friends work here. Will they still be my friends? How will I get a new job? No one will hire me. I’m going to not be able to pay for my apartment. I’m going to have to go live in a cardboard box! This is so embarrassing.”
There are two inter-related things you are doing here:
You’re catastrophizing - this is a common issue. You’re having irrational thoughts that are making the current situation seem far worse than it actually is and you’re anticipating that everything in the future is going to go wrong.
You are, therefore, pretending like you can see the future. You are basically saying to yourself, “I can see the future. I’m going to be fired and everything will be terrible.” You’re like the most depressing seer ever.
FYI: You can’t see the future You don’t know what will happen and spending all this mental energy worrying about what will happen only serves to create stress in your life and take away valuable mental bandwidth that could be used to deal with your current situation.
In fact, sometimes something that initially seems so terrible can lead to the best changes in our lives, we just don’t realize it until we’re given the benefit of hindsight. For example, for some, a firing leads them to finally pursuing their dreams or a health issue leads to a overhaul of their entire life and a healthier body afterward. Trust in your inability to see the future and be thankful for it.
4. Don’t forget the power of accommodation
You know how once you’ve eaten a lot of something you stop really tasting it? Or how after a few minutes you don’t feel the clothes on your body? That’s called accommodation. Basically, your mind doesn’t really pay attention to things if they’ve been constant, like the feeling of your clothes on your skin. It keeps it’s eyes out for changes. That’s a big part of how our ancestors stayed alive! Well, your body and mind don’t just accommodate to physical phenomena. Whether good or bad, when something happens in your life, you’ll accommodate to your new normal. It happens with lottery winners, amputees, and I’m sure it’s happened to you - something that seemed so amazing, tragic, or important feels much less so after some time has passed. In fact, one of the most common answers I get to the question “If you could tell your younger self one thing in only two words what would you say” is “chill out” or some variation on that theme. Clearly things that seem so critical in the present usually end up being less so in the future.
It’s amazing how we can accommodate such a variety of circumstances, make the best of them, and even thrive, So stop making everything so heavy. Take off that backpack filled with things you’re worried about and have fun for a bit. You can always pick up the backpack again later.
5. Remember what’s truly important
Sure making money has it’s role in life - you need to pay for food, shelter, etc. But, first of all, the job you currently have is not the only way to make money. Second of all, although there is a basic requirement for money, you’re probably giving it way more mental energy than it deserves (remember that whole diminishing returns thing we talked about?). Yes, you need to make money, but you don’t have to constantly wonder if you’re good enough or if you’re going to be fired or why everyone else seems to be better and so on.
A job and money are not intrinsically fulfilling - even though society sure tells us they are. Valuing money, power, and fancy jobs over friends, family, and inner peace is a surefire way to unhappiness. Whenever you find yourself caught up in worrying or stressed out about work, ask yourself: “Is my livelihood threatened here?” If it is, worry on friend! If not, remind yourself what is truly important and brings you joy. Then you might care less about the mistake you made or that Jane got a promotion instead of you - you’ll assign these things less importance and when something looks more like an anthill than a mountain, it’s a lot easier to manage.
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