Think you’ve got 99 problems, but stress ain’t one?
If you find yourself answering that classic small-talk opener “How are you?” with “Busy!” instead of the expected “Fine, thanks,” you’ve got two issues.
The first one is easy to solve: Recognize that this is not a real question so much as a rhetorical device deployed in polite company to grease the wheels of society. No one wants to hear your litany of woes on the escalator, so vow to answer with some polite variation of “good,” “great,” or, for the grammatically fastidious, “well.”
The second issue, my friend, is going to take a lot more work. If you’re busy dodging an endless onslaught of projects and continually find yourself overwhelmed with all you have to do, you’re going to burn out fast. Having too much on your plate means it gets increasingly difficult to focus on any single problem, so they grow until they seem impossible to deal with.
The Mindfulness Solution
Luckily, there’s a way to stop the madness and get your stress in check. A healthy dose of mindfulness will make it much easier to put the brakes on your manic pursuit of perfection and give you a way to tackle even your toughest problems.
Think you can’t do the whole turn-off-your-thoughts thing? You don’t have to.
Mindfulness, according to guru Matthew May, is not about meditation, despite the fact that we often hear those two words yoked together like a pair of oxen about to hit the Oregon Trail. If “mindfulness meditation” conjures up images of blissed-out Zen masters sitting cross-legged with their eyes shut, that’s because the practice comes from the Buddhist tradition. The idea is that by emptying your mind of outside distractions, you can become more aware of the moment and control your stress.
That’s an Eastern philosophy about mindfulness, but May argues it may not always be the best route for Westerners — especially those with jobs that require a certain go-getting attitude about capitalism and places a premium on multi-tasking to the point of exhaustion. Instead of stopping thinking, May encourages Americans to think better by picking apart a tough problem and trying to gain a new perspective on the issue.
Be Your Own Objective Observer
To achieve mindfulness while being fully aware of your surroundings — and that sticky problem you’re trying to tackle — try observing your issue as if you were someone else.
You know how when a spouse or friend responds to your explanation about your latest work crisis, the crisis itself sometimes ends up sounding sort of silly? That’s because they are acting as your outside observer, bringing a fresh perspective about the issue. Sure, sometimes their ideas suck, but they also help you look at your office culture in a new way because they’re not mired in it themselves.
This thinking outside of the box comes naturally to outsiders, but the trick to being mindful is to be your own observer. Try cultivating mindfulness by pretending you’re visiting your office from a foreign land and trying to understand the language and culture. What questions would a stranger ask? What about the way you’ve always done things would seem crazy?
Cultivating a bit of detachment will help calm you, and it will lead to new insights about your problem. Sure, it takes a bit of mental jiu jitsu to do this, but it gets easier with practice. It also helps to actually talk to yourself — out loud! — to help with the illusion that you’re getting advice from an outside source. Just be sure to shut your office door.
Kick Assumptions to the Curb
As you get better at cultivating a detachment from your problems to find more objective solutions, you can also put that basic technique to use to reduce your stress levels. When you feel your pulse quickening and your fight or flight reflexes kicking in, try applying that detachment to those feelings.
You can start by reminding yourself that when you feel stressed out, it’s because you’ve already made some assumptions about the problem — namely, that something bad will happen. Get your detached observer to remind you that disaster isn’t imminent just because you assumed it was on the horizon.
You can take your assumption-busting to the next level by forcing yourself to consider positive outcomes instead. Some of these can be things that will happen after your impending doom arrives, just to remind yourself that nothing awful lasts forever and that your problem is unlikely to bring the world to and end.
Feeling Better Yet?
Unfortunately, mindfulness isn’t a silver bullet. To get the most out of your new problem-solving technique, you’ll have to practice it. When you make the detached observer your new best bud, it will eventually become your default mode of thinking, which will lead you to calmer, more rational problem solving.