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A new study suggests workplace stress may be as hazardous to your heart health as smoking, high cholesterol and other conventional risk factors for cardiovascular disease

 

Maybe this will finally convince some of the “I can take anything work can throw at me—and so should you” brigade that macho posturing about uncivilized hours and work amounts in the workplace isn’t such a bright idea.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (Job Strain Can Be Risk Factor For Subsequent Heart Attacks), people working in high-stress jobs are just over twice as likely as those in low-stress posts to suffer a heart attack or be hospitalized for angina, which often is a precursor to a heart attack.

“It is a very important effect,” said Michel Vezina, a researcher at Universite Laval in Quebec and a co-author of the study. He deemed it “comparable” to the impact of tobacco smoking, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Prevention efforts should go beyond changing individual living habits to “take into account the work environment,” Dr. Vezina said.

And although senior managers and wannabe high-fliers may believe that they are the only ones who face real job pressure, the heart health may be significantly greater among ordinary people faced with meeting the crazy deadlines and profit targets those same executives impose.

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Thoughts about commemoration and utility

 

Here in the USA, today, October 8th, is Columbus Day. According to a friend of mine, this commemorates the day that the indigenous people of North America discovered a European sailor wandering around in the Caribbean, hopelessly lost and convinced he had arrived somewhere near India (hence the name West Indies).

Most countries have such commemorative days—sometimes to recall battles or national events, sometimes based on religious festivals.

What is their purpose? Are they simply an excuse for a holiday? Shouldn’t we use them for true recollection, if not of the original battle or person, then for something else?

You can find my answers to these questions in my article today for Lifehack.org (Next Saturday (or maybe the one after that) is “Doing Nothing Day”).

It seems to me that we should have such days whenever we need them—not to remember events long past or religious stories, but to give ourselves time to think about who and what we are and our choices in life—to take pleasure in being alive and contemplate what it might mean to live a life worthy of the miracle of even being here.

This, to me at least, is truly something worth commemorating.

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Why change is mostly a simple process of cause and effect

It’s amazing how little attention people pay to the simple process of cause and effect. There’s a common saying that the best definition of insanity is, “Doing the same thing again and again, while expecting the outcome to change.” By that definition, maybe the majority of working people—and nearly all their managers —today are insane. Here’s how to recover your wits.

If you can establish a link between an action and a corresponding result, repeating the action is extremely likely to repeat the result. When the connection is positive and short-term—so people see a certain action quickly produces an outcome they like—they seem fully aware of the link and follow it consciously. But when the outcome is negative and occurs some time in the future—behaving in a certain way now could well lead to unpleasant long-term consequences—they seem to find the link harder to grasp, especially if the action itself is pleasant or comforting.

Smoking is a good example. The negative consequences of smoking are well known and factual. Yet millions still smoke. Logically, being aware of the health consequences of smoking should make any sane person give it up, if they smoke already, or refuse to start an addictive habit they are very likely to regret. It doesn’t happen like that. Instead, people admit to the insanity of smoking, then go on doing it.

The reason has to be that the pleasure is real and here today, while the threat seems theoretical and far off in the future, if it ever happens at all. Many smokers admit the danger, then quickly point to someone they know, or have heard of, who smoked heavily all his or her life and lived to be 90. You could equally logically point to someone who smoked for a week and contracted lung cancer. When you’re dealing with probabilities, any single instance is statistically irrelevant.

Choosing a game plan for life based on short-term gratification

What has all this to do with business life, work, and slowing down? The answer can be expressed in a simple equation:

Old Habits + Old Thinking + Short-term Viewpoint = Predictable Consequences

This seems to be the game plan for life and career that many people follow. It’s definitely the basis of the Hamburger Management game plan.

But if you want to build a better, less stressful business, a better, more enjoyable, and more satisfying career, or a better, happier life, you won’t do it by sticking with the way the majority think and act today: following current fashion while looking only to the immediate future.

A short-term, conservative mindset is not your friend if you want your life to change for the better. Nor is clinging to security. That was my point at the start of this post. If you stick with habits and thoughts that are comfortable and undemanding, and don’t look much further ahead that next week or next month, expecting any different outcome from what you’ve experienced up till now is so illogical it must be described as form of insanity.

A game plan for positive change

To produce slow, measured change you should try changing one, or perhaps two, of the terms in front of the equals sign in the equation above. For example:

Old Habits + Old Thinking + Longer-term Viewpoint = Potential for Different Consequences

I say “potential” because those old habits and thinking will still hold much of your life in place until the longer-term viewpoint starts (fairly slowly) to change them.

The same would be true if you changed your habits, but kept your current ways of thinking and short-term outlook. There would be some change, but your old-style, short-term thinking would keep pulling you back towards the way you’ve always reacted to events until now—and thus to very similar consequences.

To make major changes, you must change habits and thinking and viewpoint at the same time:

New Habits + New Thinking + Longer-term Viewpoint = All New Consequences

If you do that, the “law” of cause and effect will ensure different outcomes and paths through life. When people have some life-changing experience, they often describe it as having turned their lives upside down. They can’t think as they did before, nor can they bring themselves to fall back on their old habits or see the world in the old way. They have new thinking, new habits, a new outlook, and therefore their life is totally changed.

Life-changing experiences . . . on demand

Armed with this insight, you can create your own life-changing experiences. Open your mind to new thoughts, lengthen and broaden your outlook, and try new ways of behaving. You can definitely expect different results to come about if you do that. The major drawback to a short-term, conservative, risk-averse mindset is not that it’s always wrong (though often it is), but that it’s static.

When you choose to alter your life in a controlled manner, inner change precedes outer change. You change yourself and how you choose and new consequences arise as a result. When outer change forces inner change on you, it’s nearly always due to some traumatic life event. That’s what happens when you stay fat, dumb, and happy until the universe forces you to make a major course correction.

If you wait until that happens, it’s likely to be painful. Wouldn’t it be far better to choose change than be compelled to experience it through a life-altering trauma?

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Can you display integrity only when it suits you?

Many people believe that they practice integrity, yet also allow themselves to slip from that standard when that suits them better. Since a calm mind and a clear conscience are major buttresses against suffering workplace stress, anyone who aspires to practice Slow Leadership ought to ask themselves this fundamental question: “Do I really behave with integrity—or do I only do so when I find it convenient?”

Peter G. Vajda, writing recently for Management-issues.com (Integrity at work — how do you stack up?), posed the question of how far you can mix integrity with convenience. Is it acceptable to set aside the demands of ethics, honesty, and truly fair dealing when it is convenient to do so?

My own experience suggests that this is what most of us do. We believe we really are honest people—and we are, most of the time—yet we still allow ourselves the occasional (or not so occasional) lapse from strict standards of integrity when we feel that we need to do so: to meet a deadline, achieve a target, avoid getting into hot water, or butter up some superior.

Mr. Vajda’s view of such lapses in uncompromising:

Integrity is a lot like being pregnant. Either you’re pregnant, or you aren’t. There’s no middle ground. It’s the same with integrity. Either you’re behaving with integrity, or you’re not.

I’m not so sure.

Discovering your own truth

It’s good to have high ideals, but far harder to match them every day. I agree that we would all feel calmer and less anxious if we always behaved in ways that matched our deepest values, but human beings are fallible creatures. the last thing we need to do is add to our stress by feeling guilty because, faced with an impossible deadline or a raging boss, we fudged our consciences to meet our goals.

You might want to try the quiz in Mr. Vajda’s article to see how you match up to his lofty standards. I would use it for another purpose: to help understand what most often causes me to suffer from regrets and a bad conscience.

There’s more to be gained, in my view, by seeking understanding of yourself and your motives than there is from erecting some golden standard of perfect behavior and battering yourself for falling short.

Slowing down offers everyone the chance to take part in a fascinating piece of detective work: to unravel reality from the mess of myths, half-truths, misperceptions, and wishful thinking that makes up our own view of our motivations in life.

Integrity has to begin with a true understanding of who you are and what matters to you most. Only then can you see to what extent to actually live these values in your life and work. And if, as is true of most of us, the answer is that sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t, you can see what effect this has on your life.

I suspect that those who genuinely explore the effects of NOT living with integrity soon reach the conclusion that it isn’t worth it. The benefits from short-term convenience are far out-weighed by the drawbacks of long-term regrets.

Then it becomes merely rational to stick to what your conscience dictates, not a matter of guilt or following anyone else’s standards.

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Work/life balance is NOT what you think

It’s easy to assume working less will inevitably make you happier or that spending 60 hours or more each week working is BAD. What is bad is betraying your identity: working longer hours that fits who you are; pretending to be a hard-driven, achievement-oriented workaholic to win approval, when you’re nothing of the kind. The true meaning of finding the correct work/life balance—correct for you that is—comes from selecting a game plan for your life that correctly fits your identity.

Work/life balance isn’t simply about allocating time: it’s mostly about creating a game plan for your life that works for you in your present circumstances. It’s about your identity and authenticity.

How much of your identity, your sense of self, and your self-esteem, is linked to your work?

For many people starting out on a career, the answer is nearly all of it. That’s understandable, since work is usually a continuation of education in terms of a field for achievement, and most young persons long to establish themselves as people of worth.

Later, especially if you gain family commitments, things get more complex. You likely want to be able to give your family a good life, which usually means higher earnings and probably regular promotions. At the same time, if all you do is work, they’ll hardly see you—except as some exhausted, harassed person who appears late at night and spends the weekends locked away catching up with work. Being a “good provider” isn’t sufficient. You have to be able to give your family regular, quality time. What was your authentic identity earlier (the rising star), no longer works. A new game plan is needed.

Later still, you may find yourself dissatisfied with your life so far. Many people find that what seemed such an obviously desirable career path in their 20s appears, in their 40s, to have been the wrong choice. They long to make a change, even if that means sacrificing some financial benefits. Yet another game plan is needed, with a different balance between work and other life goals.

Job or vocation?

Work has considerable advantages as a forum to establish personal standing: objectives and criteria for success are clear; lots of people are keeping score; rewards are well-known and visible to others. It has many disadvantages too: you are rarely in control of your own destiny; the criteria for success may change without warning; economic downturns half a world away may suddenly deprive you of your job; your organization’s goals will never include more than the most incidental interest in providing you with the avenues you need to meet your personal goals.

It’s much less easy to judge success in many other parts of life. The time-scales tend to be longer. How long will it take to know if you have been successful as a parent or a spouse? How can you judge whether you’ve fulfilled your potential as a human being outside the purely economic realm of existence? How can you compare the benefits of basing your personal identity on things outside of work with the benefits you can expect for making work your life?

I suspect many people focus on work success as much because it’s easy to estimate as because they truly see it as the center of their lives. In our achievement-dominated world, deciding not to pursue a path of economic and financial success is usually represented as something of a cop-out: an excuse to cover the fact that you knew you wouldn’t make it. We claim to admire those who follow a vocation rather than hard cash, but fail in many cases to translate this supposed admiration into a living wage.

It’s as if society assumes that those who aren’t primarily motivated by money don’t need the stuff anyway. Most of the jobs that are classed as vocational—teachers, social workers, police, fire, nurses, and the like—are abysmally underpaid. In contrast, guys assumed to be interested solely in money, like hedge-fund managers, are allowed to take home oodles of the green stuff.

How to set your own game plan

What are your standards for a successful life? It’s a question many people rarely consider in any depth. Most simply accept the conventional standards offered by society. That’s a one-size-fits-all approach that really doesn’t fit anyone too well.

Establishing a satisfactory work/life balance for yourself means first answering these basic questions:

  • What are your fundamental values? What matters more to you than anything else? If your actual game plan—the one you use, not the one you claim to use, but only aspire to—is at odds with your fundamental values, you will never feel satisfied, whatever you achieve.
  • What kind of achievements give you the greatest pleasure? If you ignore these, you may earn a great deal of money, or even reach the executive suite, but life won’t be fun or enjoyable. Why sentence yourself to 40 or more years of hard labor doing something that doesn’t even please you?
  • What do your current circumstances seem to demand? As I noted above, peoples’ game plans need to change as their circumstances change. What worked in college likely won’t work for you as you close in on retirement.

These are vital, life-altering questions and it’s always best to reach your own conclusions, whether or not they fit with what society expects, other people demand, or even what you expected yourself when you began to try to answer them. You won’t be satisfied with any game plan for work/life balance unless it accurately expresses your true sense of your own identity.

Take some time out to ponder (and discuss) the kind of person you see yourself as being and what game plan and type of work/life balance that implies.

You may really love your work and enjoy nearly most of the time you spend doing it. Equally, you may come to realize that work is a substitute for facing up to life’s other demands: it’s always there, it’s easy to get lost in it, it’s socially acceptable, and it prevents you from ever having the time to deal with whatever you’re set on avoiding. You may find that work, for you, is simply an economic necessity and your real love in life is something far from your working environment.

Whatever you find, act on your discovery. Look at the game plan you are following—the one that’s clear from your actions, not the one you maybe talk about—and see if it matches up to who you are. Every game plan implies its own unique work/life balance. And that’s the only one that matters.

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Overwork can be a seemingly respectable way to avoid dealing with other difficult issues in your life

Working long hours is a great way to hide from life’s problems. It can absorb so much of your time and energy that you never have any left to deal with aspects of your life that you’d like to forget about. From relationship problems to excessive drinking or financial woes, overwork is used by some people as a smokescreen to hide far worse issues.

Working too hard and putting in excessive hours is quite often often used to avoid facing other, more serious problems. After all, who is going to criticize you for being too diligent, or showing too great a commitment to your job? Besides, making your way up the corporate ladder can also offer some compensation—money, status, power— for the misery you are likely facing elsewhere.

Many, many people have aspects of their lives which are unsatisfactory or unpleasant, yet too difficult or scary for them to want to tackle. They need a diversion that works and is socially acceptable, and working too hard is nearly always the best.

Relationship problems are probably the most common type avoided in this way, if only because overwork will likely cause them if they weren’t there before. Not only can you make sure that long working hours keep you away from the other person as much as possible (periods traveling are good for this), you can honestly point to being so tired when you are together that it’s never the right time to tackle known personal issues. It’s a variant on the old excuse of not having sex because you have a headache.

Avoidance behavior

Here are just a few of the reasons why overworking is so often used to avoid dealing with other problems:

  • Working extremely long hours is widely seen as acceptable, especially in a society obsessed with competition and winning. Far from being criticized for doing so, to the detriment of other apsects of life, workaholics are given sympathy, or even praise.
  • It’s inexhaustible. There is always more to be done.
  • It usually gets you physically away from whatever the other problem might be.
  • It can absorb as much energy as you want to give it.
  • It provides benefits and rewards that may be seen as making up for the dissatisfactions and frustrations of the other parts of your life.
  • It can provide the illusion of a separate, far more enjoyable world, with its own relationships. Many people have almost a parallel existence at work, quite unlike they way they are outside it.

Armed with such a diversion, it’s perfectly possible to avoid dealing with unpleasant realities for many years. In the case of a sour relationship, if you wait long enough, and act distantly enough, the other person is very likely to give up and either accept prosperity in lieu of intimacy or walk out on you.

Sadly, deep-seated problems don’t go away so easily. In fact, the stress of all that excessive work will likely worsen problems, especially any that involve bad relationships, drinking, or drug use. Only getting out of debt can be helped by fat bonuses and rapid promotions. Even then, keeping up with other executives in terms of big houses, fast cars, and other toys—or buying off family problems with a super-rich lifestyle—might just land you in even worse financial problems.

Modern-day karma

Spending your time caught up in an illusion is a poor way to live, whatever the incidental material rewards you can get out of it. Inside, you know it’s an escape from reality. That makes it always fragile—and liable to collapse at any time.

There are also heavy costs: a constant level of dishonesty with yourself or others; the on-going anxiety to protect your carefully constructed world against the blows of reality trying to break in; the stress of dealing with those periods when you cannot avoid returning to the real world, with all its frustrations; and unexpected problems with maintaining your more-or-less-fictional successful existence.

As well as the strain associated with working so hard, this additional stress, coming from whatever issues you’re trying to blot out of your mind, may be just enough to push you over the edge into real burnout.

The Buddhist concept of karma is often misunderstood as some kind of cosmic retribution for past sins. I don’t see it that way. I think it points to the simple fact that every action has consequences. If you live a lie, based on erecting your working life into either an avoidance mechanism and a consolation, there will be consequences on both fronts.

Don’t depend on illusions. They are fragile and easily destroyed. Work isn’t, in most cases, sufficient to act as a proxy for the whole of life. The gaps inevitably show. Tackle your problems honestly and leave work out of it.

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The keys to a calmer life include becoming the master of information, not its servant

How much time do you waste each day dealing with e-mails or instant messages, catching up on RSS feeds, or handling needless telephone calls? Would you like much of that time freed for other things? It’s possible—provided you stand firm on a few vital points.

When people complain of information overload they’re admitting that they have become the servant of their communication, not its master.

Data is infinite, for all practical purposes. However much you have, there will always be more. However much you process, more will arise to re-stock your queue.

It’s worth thinking about all that data. How much is really necessary? How much is there in your in-basket because that’s the way it has always been? How much do you absorb and understand—truthfully? How much is accumulated for the age-old purpose known as CYA (cover your ass)?

And how much time is spent communicating because it is much more interesting and enjoyable that the rest of your job?

How can you get back to a sensible level of information gathering and regain control over your time?

  • Stop assuming needless obligations. Just because messages are waiting, you do not have to read them now—or ever. If people send you messages unasked, delays in answering aren’t your problem.
  • Take charge of all means of communication. Use what you need and discard the rest. Too much information is as bad as too little. It swamps your mind and prevents you seeing the truth clearly.
  • Establish rational priorities and stick to them. It’s so tempting to keep adjusting as more and more “demands” arrive. But unless something fundamental has changed, there’s no call to change what you decided earlier was most important.
  • Be firm and courageous. Much of the reasoning behind people’s inability to stop jumping to read every message as it arrives is really based on fear: the fear that the new message may be something bad, that it may call attention to some mistake, that it may be “something important.” Fear is never a sound basis for setting priorities.
  • Learn to say “no” more often. If you’re a pushover, people will continue to impose on you, valuing their own time much more highly than yours.
  • Reading RSS feeds is a choice, not a duty. If it takes too much time, don’t do it. Always limit the time spent on it.
  • Disconnect for long periods. You are employed to do specific work and that must always be your first priority. You aren’t there to pander to people who expect instant answers to trivial questions,. Let them wait or ignore them altogether.
  • Notice any tendency to addiction. Why do people become addicted to being instantly available? My guess is because it’s far more interesting than their actual work. in fact, it’s an excuse not to do what they’re paid for. If you notice signs of addiction in yourself, think about what it’s telling you. If answering e-mails, playing with IMs, and reading RSS feeds are more interesting than your real work, it’s high time you considered getting a job that really does claim your attention.

Distractions of all kinds are amongst the most potent sources of workplace stress and loss of effectiveness. When communication itself becomes a distraction, it’s high time to shut most of it down.

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If most leaders and executives worked half the amount of time they are working today, I am convinced they would produce much greater output. Before I get a barrage of e-mails arguing this point, let me explain.

The reason is simple. If you had less time to work, you would work on only the things that produced the greatest impact. You would work less on the things you enjoy and more on the things you should. You would meet with only selected people, answer fewer emails, and attend fewer events. Your efforts would be focused only on activities and relationships that produced the greatest return. Moreover, each interaction through the day would be valued at a greater level than today.

I know hundreds of CEOs and entrepreneurs, with organizations from 1 million dollars sales volume to billions in revenue. They have a universal problem that is not dependent on the size of their company. Most are extremely busy and their lives can be described as chaotic most of the time. Yet, however hard they work, they still never have enough time to accomplish everything they want.

However, I have also seen a select few whose lives are very stable—so stable that I would describe them as peaceful. I estimate less than 1% fit in this category. What is their secret?

Would you describe your work life as relaxed? If not, you might try something: To find out what you should be working on, take off at noon today. That’s right, stop working and go home. If you know the day will be over at noon—if you know that’s all the time you have—you will gain clarity, focus, and give priority to the things you should be doing.

Matthew Myers is co-founder and partner of Giant Partners and Giant Impact. He has years of CEO experience, both in start-up and mature companies. Mr. Myers is passionate about helping companies grow by working with CEOs and senior executives to implement strategic growth initiatives and build leaders. You can find additional articles by Matthew at http://giantpartners.wordpress.com.

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On a long journey, rest breaks are essential if you want to arrive safely. That’s true of your life and career journeys too.

It’s fall migration time. Millions of birds are heading south down the three broad flyways that link the breeding grounds in the north with wintering areas as far south as Argentina. For birders like me, migration is magic. You never know what may pass through. Sadly, many of today’s migrants won’t make it to their destination. The ones that do aren’t just the fittest. They’re also the ones that find places to rest up and re-fuel along the way. It’s a lesson we could all learn.

Some of our native birds travel thousands of miles on migration. But they’re sensible. Every so often they stop off for a few days of rest and recuperation, to feed up and fuel themselves for the next big push southwards.

Southeastern Arizona, where I live, is on the Pacific Flyway—the route down the west coast from Alaska into Mexico and beyond. Our summer monsoon, with its burst of fresh flowers and vegetation, creates an important flyway resort for birds from hawks to hummingbirds. At this time of year, the bird population is swelled by millions of visitors looking for somewhere they can get a good night’s rest and a solid meal of nectar, bugs . . . or migrating birds. Since our climate stays hot for all but two or three months of the year, we usually have a good supply of bugs varied enough for every bird’s taste.

Humans also need regular periods of rest on our journey through life. It’s tempting to keep going and ignore this need. There’s a barrage of advice to push ahead, show determination, get things done, and stay focused on your goals. People and problems are continually demanding your attention. But, like the birds, you need rest and fuel for your mind and body. Pushing yourself too hard causes exhaustion, mental and physical. On a long journey, doing so can be fatal if you want to arrive at all.

What’s your ideal flyway resort?

Here are some ideas to give yourself a break for some much-needed R&R in a hectic world:

  • How about taking a long weekend of total rest at a health resort or a retreat? Leave the cellphone and the laptop behind. It’s an exceptional call or e-mail that can’t wait a few days for an answer. Being available constantly is mostly fashion. It’s almost never necessary.
  • Get out in the fresh air. Walk, ride, hike, go up into the mountains or down to the beach. In a two-hour walk this morning, less than five miles from my home, I encountered more than twenty species of birds, plus lizards, grasshoppers, hundreds of butterflies—and a three-foot Western Diamondback rattlesnake, quietly slipping through the grass on its way home after a night of hunting. We live in a land of staggering beauty. Enjoy it.
  • Do something different. Volunteer to help with children or elderly people for a day—or a week. Go to a show or a concert you’d never imagine yourself attending. Make love all afternoon. Ban TV for 72 hours.
  • Lose yourself in a book. Better still, in a series of books. Forget the problems you face. They’ll wait for you. Be a detective, do some time traveling, visit lands you’ve never been to, explore ideas that haven’t crossed your mind before.
  • Change your routine. Get up earlier, or stay later in bed. Have a midday siesta. Take more exercise, or relax more. The old saying that a change can be as good as a rest is true.
  • Change your diet. Try eating more healthily and more slowly. In the non-stop rush of today, too many people bolt down their food as if taking more than 10 minutes for lunch will cause the world to end. Take time to enjoy your food. Be like the French, Spanish, and italians for a few days: have a 3-hour lunch break and spend it really appreciating what you eat.

This isn’t self-indulgence, it’s an unbreakable law of nature. A Rufus Hummingbird that tried to fly from Alaska to Mexico without stopping would collapse and die from exhaustion well before it reached halfway. A person who tries to make their life journey into a nonstop endurance event will meet the same fate mentally—and likely physically as well.

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Your imagination is sometimes your worst enemy in the fight against workplace stress

At work, imagination can be both a blessing and a curse. It fuels innovation, but also produces the ability to imagine many situations and problems that don’t yet exist—and probably never will. How much of the stress people feel at work is directly due to imaginary scenarios? More than you think.

Many of the thoughts that run around in people’s heads go like this: “This is going to be a mess. I can just imagine how painful it will be too. Right, let’s consider how to deal with it. If that happens, I’ll do this. But if this other thing happens, then I could do that or that.” This isn’t planning, it’s anticipation of imaginary hurt, driven by anxiety and fear. Such thoughts stir up emotions that your mind treats as real, adding to your stress in advance of any genuine problems. You can, literally, worry yourself into burnout based on nothing but imagined difficulties.

How your fearful mind works

Suppose Jenny has her annual appraisal meeting next day—that pointless and destructive ritual so beloved by organizations who ought to know better. She’s feeling a nervous. Like most people, her work over the past year has been uneven: sometimes excellent, mostly acceptable, and occasionally downright bad. She also knows her next salary raise will depend on the overall rating her boss gives her.

As she lies awake that night, she’s thinking something like this: “If my boss brings up that time I had a row with Barry in Accounts, I’ll remind her that he started it. Besides, what he wanted to do was crazy; and everyone knows Barry’s a bully. I could always remind her how much work I won on the Edmonds account. That should be more than enough to offset the odd spat with some accounts nerd. . . . I’ll bet she’s forgotten the time I saved her bacon in the meeting with the COO. She never remembers anything that reflects badly on her, but I ought to get credit for that. . . . If she doesn’t bring it up, I will. Graham is always telling me I don’t stand up for myself enough. This time I’ll prove him wrong.” Every imagined situation feels real enough to bring up the feelings that would be there if it truly happened.

And so it goes: a series of possible events, followed by a rough outline of a response if that particular event occurs—plus all the feelings that go with it. It doesn’t even have to be something as important as an appraisal meeting.

Every day, millions of commuters drive into major cities, their heads spinning with an internal dialog on what they’ll do if the traffic’s snarled-up on Broadway, or the bridge is still closed, or those roadworks on Alvernon aren’t finished yet.

Maybe 40 or 50 percent of our thoughts in the course of a normal day are of the kind that uses imagination to anticipate a range of events and imagine how to deal with each one in turn. No wonder people say “I knew that would happen!” They didn’t know; it was just one of many scores—even hundreds —of potential outcomes they imagined before and fretted about to no purpose.

Your mind treats imaginary emotions as real ones

All this may sound normal and unimportant, but it isn’t. When you think this way, you prime your mind with synthetic emotions and pre-set responses—neither of which take any account of the circumstances you’ll actually find when action is needed. Worse, you’ll be stirring up real emotions, based on nothing more than your fears and insecurities. By rehearsing these dreamed-up feelings—and preparing a response based on them—you’re making yourself anxious now and readying yourself to say or do something that may be wildly inappropriate when the time comes.

Just like the situations your mind conjures up, these emotions are, strictly speaking, imaginary. They have no basis beyond your anxieties and fears. But your brain doesn’t recognize this. They’re completely real so far as your body and mind are concerned.

If you stir up fear, anger, or anxiety in this way, your body will respond by secreting the “fight or flight” chemicals that churn your stomach, raise your blood-pressure, and build harmful stress. By going over and over the situation again and again in your mind, constantly imagining what might happen and how you might respond, you keep those body chemicals flowing way longer than Nature ever intended. It’s a quick route to all the diseases that flow from chronic stress.

The way out

If you find this happening, here’s the way out:

  • Stop. Let go of all the imaginary scenarios and emotions. They won’t help deal with the problem and they’re hurting you into the bargain.
  • Take some quiet time to think about the real situation. Why are you anxious? Is there anything you can or should be doing about it now? If there is, do it. If not, forget about it until the time comes.
  • If you find yourself returning to the anticipation and worrying, note what’s going on in your head and let it go again. However often it comes back into your mind, simply note what’s happened and let it all go. Never mind if you have to do this 100 times or 1000. Let it go and move on to something else.
  • Patience is worth more than any number of pointless imaginings. If immediate action isn’t essential, do nothing until you’ve had quiet time to think.
  • Never act on emotion alone. When the time for action comes, be as objective as you can. Always try to get past any emotion to the reality.
  • Once there’s nothing more you can do, put the matter out of your mind. Whatever the outcome—good, bad, or anywhere in between—note it and let it go. It’s over. Learn what you can, then put it gently into the “file closed” part of your memory.
  • Never waste time going back over situations and imagining what you should have said or done. You didn’t. You can’t change anything by worrying or stirring up dead emotions.

If your head is full of imagined scenarios, options, and their attending emotions, there’ll be no room for reality. You won’t ever deal with the actual problems or people—just the stories you’ve made up about them in advance. Deal with problems when they happen, not when they’re mere imaginings. If you can act, act. If you can plan in a rational way for something likely to happen, do so. For the rest, let it all go. Ignore it. There’s true freedom from stress and inner peacefulness in that.

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