"I'M STRESSING OUT ABOUT my new job,"
Jean told me. "Every time I think about it, I feel nervous,
even when I'm not at work. I've tried getting rid of the stress,
but that just makes it worse."
"That's a common mistake," I
said. "to put your attention on what you don't want.
What you need to do is shift your attention."
"To doing things that will improve
your mood," I said. Jean thought about this for a moment.
"What improves your mood?" I asked.
She didn't need long to think about it.
"Listening to music," she said with a smile, "it
always makes me feel good."
"That's a good one," I said.
"When you're stressing out about your job, I recommend you
play some of your favorite music and enjoy yourself. I know that
doesn't seem like it would help you deal with your job, but it
breaks the cycle. You'll stop going around in circles in your
mind thinking about your job, and your improved mood will very
likely increase your ability to handle your job. And I know there
are other things you can do to improve your mood. Use them when
you feel stressed."
Jean looked skeptical. "But it seems
to me I should think about my job, try to figure it out."
"Sure," I said, "maybe there
are things you could think about that would improve the way you
deal with situations at work. In that case, sit down with paper
and pen and make a list of the problems you want to handle. Then
pick the most important problem and make another list of possible
things you could do to solve that problem."
"That's pretty methodical," she
said, looking surprised.
"It is. And it works better that trying
to work things out in your head." It looked like Jean was
thinking about this, so I stopped talking for a minute. "When
you think about things only in your head," I said in a softer
tone, "your mind tends to wander, and the thinking isn't
productive. Making lists puts some order to your thoughts, and
allows you to get somewhere. Another good use of making lists
is to change your perception of your situation."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"You mean think more positive about it? I've already
"No," I interrupted, "I
don't mean being positive. Every situation has many different
ways it could be interpreted, and you can deliberately create
alternative ways to interpret them. It only requires a little
deliberate thought. Sit down with paper and pen again and make
a list of the individual problems that bother you at work. Now
take the one that bugs you the most, and come up with ten different
ways to interpret that situation."
I paused for a moment, and went on, "This
might take you some time to do, but it'll be worth it. You can
break yourself out of the automatic way you now interpret your
work situations, giving you more freedom of action, and you'll
be more productive going about it this way than you would thinking
about it in your head."
"I haven't been productive at all,"
she said, "This makes me feel less stressed just thinking
about doing it."
I was nodding my head. "You know why?
Because you know you'll be able to think of some good
interpretations. Most people don't normally do this, so they
just stick with the one that popped into their minds first, which
probably isn't the best one. Even if it's pretty good, if you
gave it more thought, you could think of even better ones. Come
up with a bunch of them, and you'll find some really good ones
interpretations that don't stress you out as much and
make you more effective at dealing with it, and sometimes you'll
realize the new interpretation is even more likely to be true
than the one you first used. Just seeing that there is more than
one way of interpreting it will make you feel better because
you won't be so certain about the interpretation that's stressing
"This is good," Jean said, "I
feel better already."
WHAT WAS I DOING here? I was shifting Jean's
orientation from trying to get rid of something to creating
something. Especially while feeling a negative emotion, the natural
response is to try to get rid of something. That's the first
response. But it is usually not the best response. To
make a better response, you'll have to deliberately shift your
approach over to something more constructive. You'll need to
take your attention off what you don't want and put it on what
you do want. This is very important and very practical.
Then go even further and put your attention on what you can do
to bring about what you want. Don't bother considering what you
can't do because that is a waste of your time and will put you
in a bad mood.
This is a healthy, constructive, and extremely
effective way to solve problems.
"Call it the Second Universal Principle
of Excellence," wrote Russell Gough in Character Is Destiny: The Value of Personal Ethics
in Everyday Life, "One does not become excellent at
something primarily by focusing on and avoiding what is wrong
and bad but by focusing on and pursuing what is right and good."
Or, as Klassy Evans so eloquently puts it, "First water,
I think you can see that this is a better
approach. But when you're down in the trenches and not feeling
very philosophical, it doesn't come very naturally. Harry, for
example, has a problem he wants to solve: He is watching a movie
at the theater with his son and a woman behind them is talking
on her cell phone. This is annoying Harry. He is at a decision-point.
Whenever we are at a decision-point, we
have lots of criteria to choose from. What will we base our decision
on? What will we aim at?
Harry could aim to enforce the rule, turn
your cell phone off in theaters. Result: He feels righteous
indignation (an unpleasant feeling), he turns around and says,
"That is rude," thus spreading his bad feeling to the
woman too, who may be in a difficult situation, who already knows
it is rude, but has something more important to deal with than
Or, at this decision-point, Harry might
aim at increasing good feelings. Right now he is feeling annoyed.
He doesn't know what the lady on the cell phone is feeling. Aiming
at this lofty target, Harry finds himself in unfamiliar territory.
It is not the usual orientation of most people, so he has seen
very few examples of it in his lifetime. His goal is harder for
that reason it requires a little more thought and creativity
on his part, and also it has less chance of producing the result
he wants since he's new at it and no doubt the woman will be
surprised and may not know how to respond.
He thinks for a minute and comes up with
an idea. He turns around and sees that the woman is bending forward
and trying to talk quietly, but of course, it isn't working because
the person on the other end can't hear her.
Harry taps her on the shoulder and when
she looks up, he whispers as pleasantly as he can, "Could
you go talk in the lobby?"
She says to the person on the other end
of the phone, "Hold on a minute." She looks at Harry
and whispers, "I'm sorry. My car broke down and I'm trying
to get it fixed. We need it to drive to a very important meeting
with her doctors." The woman motions toward the little girl
sitting next to her. "She has had a very difficult month
and she's too young to be left alone in the theater. I'll be
off the phone in thirty seconds, I promise."
Harry considers the situation in light
of this new information and gives her a warm smile as he feels
his annoyance fading and he whispers back, "Okay."
Sure enough, she was off the phone quickly,
and he felt better, and he's pretty sure she felt better.
Aiming to increase good feelings makes
more positive solutions and less negativity. When you try to
bring about something you want (like positive emotions), it works
much better and has more pleasant side effects than trying to
get rid of what you don't want (like negative feelings
or unpleasant circumstances). This is a universal principle you
can use every day.
Rather than trying to get rid
of what you don't want,
work to bring about what you do want.