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productivity

Sometimes when my husband isn’t home at the expected time I assume he’s dead on the side of the highway being eaten by wolves.

So far, this hasn’t happened (but that doesn’t mean it won’t).

Hi, my name is Nicole and I am a Catastrophist.

Catastrophisizing is but one of many cognitive distortions we all fall prey to from time to time, sometimes on a daily basis.

Psychologytoday.com defines catastrophizing perfectly into two parts so I’m quoting them:

Part 1: Predicting a negative outcome.

Part 2: Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.

It’s interesting that anyone thinks like this because it so obviously doesn’t serve us, either in leadership or in our personal lives. Yet we do, because we want so badly for the good to happen, that we put equal amount of energy into fearing the worst might happen too.

Catastrophizing is – excuse the redundancy – catastrophic for leaders. As a leader you need to be a beacon of resilience. And unfortunately…

Excessive Worrying Reduces Resilience

One of the most important traits for a leader is resilience. Inherent in leading, building teams and building a business are setbacks. Actually “setbacks” has a negative connotation to it; really what we should call them are “events that happen that move us towards the events we’d rather happen.”

It’s part of the game. It’s actually part of life in general and resilience is crucial for your personal life too, but when it comes to leadership, resilience or the lack thereof can make or break you.

You therefore want to build an arsenal of tools that support the tendency of resilience. You want sleep, exercise, a good diet, recuperation time, and a growth mindset to focus on challenges as opportunities.

The irony about anticipating stress is that it creates stress, so you immediately bring into your life the very thing you’re trying to avoid when you worry that it will come into your life.

Assumptions and expectations that cause anxiety arise from our past experiences, what we witness from other people’s experiences, and what we see in society from film/TV/books/magazines/etc.

You might have been fired in a past job and assume you will be fired in your new job. You might have seen someone else get fired and assume you will also be fired. You might have seen someone in a movie get fired for something similar to what’s transpiring in your own life and you assume you will be fired too.

These are all fictions and fiction never fully reflects reality.

Furthermore, the future is a landscape that doesn’t exist. Worrying about the future is the same thing as worrying about anything that doesn’t exist. Would you worry that you’re never going to get to visit the country of Alparnia? Probably not, because it’s a country that doesn’t exist.

Keep your mind focused on what exists, which is the moment you are living. It is the only timeline you can control. This will help build a resilient attitude, which will in turn:

  • grow your self-confidence
  • give you a flair for adaptation and flexibility
  • cultivate the belief that you can influence life events

The Benefits of Anticipatory Anxiety

  • Makes you feel terrible
  • Creates the reality you fear most
  • Raises your blood pressure, stress level, and can lead to disease
  • Stresses out everyone around you
  • Makes you look incompetent, non-resilient, and fearful
  • Emotional contagion will spur others to leave you

Obviously none of these are benefits, but I wanted to label them as such to shine a light on our flawed thinking.

There’s an illusion of strength with your anxiety, that it is giving you control over the eventual outcome. Somewhere in the back of your mind you think “If I worry over it I can effect the outcome I want by thinking of everything I need to do to make sure what I don’t want doesn’t happen.” This is neurotic behavior that only attracts what you don’t want, because you’re only focusing on what you don’t want.

What you do want is nowhere in the equation.

Would you go about making a cake by focusing on all the ingredients that you wouldn’t want to be in it? You’d never make a birthday cake with broccoli, cumin, beef, sesame oil, and a microphone. At least not for someone you love.

Worrying about what you don’t want to happen is putting all of the aforementioned ingredients into a bowl, stirring them together, and putting it in the oven, all the while saying, “I hope I don’t make this cake.” And the only thing you’re doing is making it.

Why some of us are prone to anticipatory anxiety and excessive worry comes down to our core beliefs, which I wrote about here.

How to Deal

1. Take a moment to stop the train. You may have to forcibly take a moment to stop doing what you’re doing and just pause. Sit, breathe, close your eyes, and project what you want coming true rather than what you don’t want.

2. Find Something Immediately that Makes You Happy. It can be a video, a picture, a memory, it
doesn’t matter, just go there mentally, visually. You need to replace the anxiety with different thoughts. For me, it’s animals.

3. Full Steam Ahead. The best method is to proceed as though catastrophizing is something you’ve never even heard about. Make small choices towards your goals; keep putting one foot in front of the other towards the end game. This helps focus on the here and now while simultaneously keeping the anxiety at bay. What you don’t want is to sit in a chair ruminating without taking any action and/or taking preventative action towards a reality that doesn’t exist.

4. Make the Choice. The easiest and hardest part of moving past your anticipatory anxiety is making the choice to move past it. You have to want to move past it; you have to consciously choose happiness over suffering; resilience over stagnation; growth over regression; peace of mind over anxiety. It’s a choice, and the good news is you always have that choice available to you. Make little choices rather than huge sweeping ones. So, agree with yourself to make the choice not to have anticipatory anxiety. It’s not easy, and it’s not an immediate cure, but it’s a start.

Let go of the delusion that your worry is controlling the external world and creating desirable circumstances. Worry is not control.

The solutions, as the saying goes, “are in your head.” You may not permanently solve your catastrophizing, but you can learn to deal with it more effectively.

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You hear a Star Wars ringtone repeat until the call finally goes to voicemail.

Nearby, some coworkers are discussing the logistics of The Walking Dead while the latest Drake album plays through communal speakers.

You stare at your computer screen, trying to remember what you were about to do when you’re asked to join a meeting that will go nowhere and solve nothing.

After the meeting a coworker asks you to help him with something. You can’t believe he couldn’t figure this out on his own.

Your boss has been absent the last few days and suddenly bursts in to alert everyone to stop what they’re doing because the ship is about to go under. This happens every month.

As our offices get hipper and the sharing of information encouraged more and more you might find yourself in an unproductive working environment. Fear not! There is hope.

All it takes is changing all of your ingrained habits and routines. I know, easier said than done. But it’s not impossible. Here are some tips:

  1. Buy noise reductive earphones. I used a pair while I wrote my book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night. My neighbor’s house was under construction for six months. I would not have been able to write a word without my trusty Bose noise-cancelling headphones. These earphones – coupled with a little white noise or brain.fm – makes a world of difference.

Note: These things really work. If you do this, put a sign on your back to gently approach you because it can be terrifying when you’re not expecting someone.

2. Set boundaries with your time. Every office has a few interrupters who routinely need help, who like to chitchat, who seek advice. They’ll hunt you down. See if you can have some fun with this one: maybe an “ON AIR” light to indicate you’re not available, maybe a velvet rope, or maybe an auto-response you create in the AM that announces you’ll be unavailable for a period of time that day (every day?).

3. Chunk your time: This can be done the night before or first thing in the morning. Assign time periods for your projects so you have a plan in place. It can be very relaxing to look at your daily calendar and see, “OK, I’m doing this until 12, then I’m doing that until two.” Assign a time slot for tedium like answering emails and such and then turn off those notifications for the rest of the time. Tell the people in your personal and professional life to call if there is an emergency, rather than text or email. That way you’ll know it’s necessary to pick up.

4. Divide your day into Creative & Reactive work. To time-chunk more effectively, try this. Creative work is projects that require your undivided attention and the full scope of your mental capacity. You’ll want to schedule those early in the day when you are the least depleted. Reactive work – answering phone calls, emails, unimportant but unavoidable meetings and so on – can be slated for the latter half of the day.

Note: During the creative part of your workday block out everything that is not part of your creative work. No emails, phone calls, texts, social media.

5. Don’t go to every meeting if you don’t have to. If you work for a meeting-heavy company, figure out when your presence is truly required. Maybe you can get exemption if not truly needed. If you are truly needed, see if the meetings can be scheduled for a time that works for you (see: #3: chunk your time). Basically, this falls under the “don’t be afraid to speak up” umbrella. If you never say anything then you’ll never know.

6. If you’re not a fireman, don’t get involved with putting out every fire. There are those reactive-putting-out-fires constantly environments that can tire a soul out, i.e. the whole company might fold any second if we don’t do THIS! Maybe you can implement a grass roots campaign to analyze what’s urgent and what’s not. A nice consequence is you will begin to behave proactively (versus reactively) to abate these “urgent” scenarios from reoccurring.

7. If you’re drowning in work, prioritize. Sit down with your manager/boss to help prioritize your workload. Then you can chunk your time (#3), maybe work from home, and skip some meetings perhaps (#4). To be clear, I’m referring to the overwhelming workload that results because you might work at a company where everyone wears a lot of hats, or perhaps someone was recently let go and their job was folded into yours. This isn’t because you don’t know how to manage your time and/or distractions. Bottom line: don’t assume other people know you are overloaded. It’s your job to speak up.

8. If your boss is inconsistent, ask for confirmation. This can be frustrating. You start to work on something only to be told to change directions midway; something was given top priority and then there’s a new something that’s suddenly an even higher priority; but wait, now there’s something even more important; actually, now that they think of it, the first thing is still the most important and by the way, where are you on that? If you have a boss like this, get confirmation on the prioritization of work.

9. When your colleagues aren’t carrying their weight, do this. Communicate, but don’t tattletale. For instance, you can send a group email to all parties involved, with the boss cc’d, asking for confirmation on who’s responsible for what. That way it’s in writing and there are no assumptions. If the scenario doesn’t allow for that type of communication the next best thing is to speak with the colleague(s) themselves. Again, speaking up is vital!

The only reliable way to get different results in this world is to change your own behavior. Don’t expect anyone to change. Much of being productive in an unproductive work environment involves being communicative about your needs and speaking up for yourself. It’s the only way you’ll know what resources and freedom are available to you.

A great byproduct of all this speaking up for yourself is your self-confidence will improve; your self-efficacy will be bolstered; you’ll feel empowered to ask for what you need; the world will start to work for you instead of against you. Perspective is everything. Don’t presume anyone knows what’s happening in your world and don’t expect anything to change without your effecting the change first.

It all starts with you.

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“You’re not watching with me.”

“I am! I can do both, I have to check something.”

“Then check and then we’ll watch the show.”

“It’s fine, just keep watching, I’m paying attention.”

“But it feels weird to watch alone while you’re doing something else.”

“It’s fine, I’m watching. Here, I’m putting it down, you happy?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“So catch me up.”

This is an exchange that happens from time to time in front of the TV between my husband and I. In this exchange he and I are interchangeable as we’ve both played each role, each requesting that the other put down their phone in order to be present and watch TV together.

TV is clearly insufficient entertainment at this point in our modern lives. A story on a screen is all fine and good but what about our story? When will the TV tell me about my life? Well, I know what will: my beautiful adoring phone.

So now the TV is on and we’re scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Snapchat and Instagram. When we return to the TV we no longer understand the plot. When we return to our phones we feel a diminishing dopamine reward. We’re now caught in a limbo of unsatisfying entertainment. Maybe at this point we go and look for something to eat, or we text a friend hoping for a response. The friend doesn’t text back and there’s nothing in the fridge.

We decide to get ready for bed. We get into bed and we repeat the same TV/phone routine in bed until we pass out. We wake up, we immediately check our email. Out of the shower, we check our phone for updates. We get dressed, we check our phone for updates. We’re almost annoyed by the time it takes to get dressed as we can see something is lighting up on the phone while we are putting our boring pants on. When did getting dressed get so boring and insufferable!?

We do not know how to be bored.

Our intolerance for boredom is one of the primary reasons our productivity suffers. It is not the phone or Facebook, those are secondary causes. Before we check Facebook we are bored. Before we text a friend it is because we are bored.

This is the result of being ego-based creatures with brains that seek pleasure and reward at all costs. Humans have never been comfortable with boredom. Most of us do whatever we can to resist being alone with ourselves. We turn on the TV, we read, we call a friend, we go to the movies, we go out to dinner, we get drinks, whatever, whenever.

We rarely sit with our own minds and practice being present in the moment. As the Internet develops and social media broadens the number of distractions it is increasingly difficult to ignore the lure of self-attention.

It’s no mistake that one of the common activities of successful people in many online articles is “meditation.” Meditation is the practice of sitting, of being present, allowing thoughts to flow without following each one down its windy, unending, tangential path.

Without this practice it is difficult to withstand the moments of boredom in life when nothing is happening on Facebook, nobody is texting you, you’ve seen all the episodes of The Walking Dead, and you haven’t read a book in years.

Why you need to work on your attentiveness

If you’re growing your business or just working on a spreadsheet you need the skill of attentiveness in your arsenal. Otherwise your willpower will deplete as you think about all the other things you could be doing, seeing, eating, reading, and talking about. You’ll overhear someone in the office talking about last night’s Game of Thrones episode and you’ll leap out of your chair like a dog greeting its owner that just came back from war.

There’s a darker undercurrent to not being able to withstand boredom, which is that boredom is becoming synonymous with sadness. The withdrawal from Internet addiction, from TV, or any “substance” can lead to a sadness that nothing is happening right now.

Resisting temptation – to abstain from distraction – depletes our willpower. The more depleted our willpower, the less we are able to attend to important projects and important conversations. So at first, it would seem like it’s best to give into temptation, i.e. give into the chocolate chip cookies, give into drugs, give in to McDonalds. Give in, give in, give in. But over time, with all the giving in, your body gets sick. Same with our minds. Giving in to every distraction versus training your brain to be still creates a scattered, inattentive mind.

How to get rid of the distractions

What needs to happen is you build the habit of focus by building the habit of distraction management (e.g., turning off your notifications when you are working, scheduling times to check social media and email, etc.). Behaviors that become habitualized do not deplete willpower. Of course the process of building the habit will be exhausting, difficult and depleting, but once it is built, it becomes a routine that does not sap your energy.

Thus it will no longer look like this:

work>email>work>facebook>work>twitter

but rather something like this:

Work>work>work>email>facebook>work>work>work

Or something to that effect, depending on what your distraction of choice is.

Make a concerted effort to turn off all modes of distraction. This involves silencing your phone, turning off any banner notifications for social media and email, not opening instant messaging, maybe turning off wifi altogether, and sitting yourself down in a locale that isn’t distraction-prone. Just like we learned to distract over time, we can learn to attend over time too. It takes sustained practice to build your attention muscle and diminish your distraction fat.

But the fact remains that sometimes life is boring. Boredom is a mild form of pain. Humans resist pain and seek pleasure in every moment of life. The pleasure we get from work distractions, however, diminishes over time, yet we keep chasing our fix. The chase serves to damage your long-term ability to focus on a task. If we can increase our boredom stamina we will rehabilitate our minds and increase our productivity. A fit and focused mind is less ‘distractible’. Yes, it is that simple.

Now, I have to go and see if anyone liked my post on Facebook.

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