Programming your mind to proactively solve problems
Are you feeling overwhelmed? Do you sometimes struggle to understand an explanation that you think everyone else around you understands perfectly well? Do you worry that there is not enough time in the day to get through your “to-do” list? Do you avoid taking on certain projects because you simply don’t know where to begin?
Worry no longer. The answer is simple. Stop. Break it down. MC Hammer was right!
If you are experiencing any of the feelings or frustration associated with being overwhelmed, it is because you are either looking too far ahead or thinking about too much at once.
If you don’t believe me, conduct your own experiment. Identify someone that you know who is organized and who demonstrates good time management skills. It shouldn’t be too difficult. We all know someone who always appears to have it all together, sometimes annoyingly so.
Ask that person what their secret is. She may start by telling you all about the tools that she uses to stay organized, but press her to give you more details about her personal system for managing her day to day calendar, and I am willing to bet you that she will tell you that she does not allow her mind to get ahead of her and that she tends to break everything down into smaller pieces. So, let’s start there.
Stop. Before you even start to break it down, stop and take a deep breath. Remind yourself that someone else’s time frame and schedule is not necessarily your time frame or schedule. Give yourself an opportunity to think, to listen, and to process what you are being told or asked.
When you see someone act calmly despite a whirlwind of activity around him, he is able to do so because he is processing all of the information on his own terms. In effect, he is not allowing his environment to dictate the pace of his thought process. He has found a way to take in information and process it as he normally would, while remaining impervious to what is happening around him.
Picture a quarterback who drops back to throw a pass. He will typically have about three seconds to scan the field, check the position of three to four potential targets, anticipate the route that each receiver is running, make a choice as to what his option is, and then throw the pass. By the way, this is happening while at least four pass rushers are coming right at him.
Do you think it would be easy to feel overwhelmed in that situation? You bet. Most quarterbacks, however, have disciplined their minds to simply follow a process without getting distracted by what is going on around them. You can do the same with a little practice.
The next time someone asks you a question that you do not know the answer to, don’t waste time pretending to know or worrying about what you don’t know. Take the opportunity to find the answer responsibly and respectfully and give yourself the time to do so accurately. The person who asked you the question will appreciate the effort and the accuracy.
When the demands start piling up at work, take a moment to decide what your top priority is and take the same amount of time to handle it as you would if it was the only thing you had to do that day, using the same amount of efficiency and care that you always do. Then knock the next item off your list using the same technique.
Now that you’ve trained yourself to stop, let’s break it down. Problems often feel more complicated than they actually are. Many times, it is because you are trying to solve everything at once. When you face adversity, prepare for a conflict, or simply take on the headaches that arise in your daily routine, you will be well served if you can break these matters down into smaller pieces.
As an example, if you are diagnosed with a serious illness, you will likely be unable to grasp every aspect of that illness all at once. Even if you are positive minded and your sole focus is to get better, you are not going to get better immediately so don’t put yourself in the impossible situation of trying to figure it all out immediately.
Write out every question you can think of and then rank them in order of importance. Then, set out to answer each question one at a time according to the rank you have assigned. You will develop a much clearer picture of what you are up against and, most importantly, a stronger understanding of what you are going to do about it.
If you know that a conflict is brewing, say with a friend or a family member, it is natural for you to develop anxiety and to fill your mind with dread. Most of the anxiety and dread you feel is because you have allowed your mind to race to the possible negative outcomes of this conflict. Stop. Break it down.
Put yourself through the paces of analyzing the cause of the conflict, any attempts (if any) to resolve that conflict, and possible next steps. While you are at it, think about what the best case scenarios for resolution would be and then set a course toward that resolution.
When you put your mind to work resolving a problem instead of just worrying about that problem, your mind will not have time to focus on the anxiety and the dread that you would otherwise create because it is occupied with productive thoughts designed to help you achieve your desired outcome.
Break it down.
Repeat, if necessary.
You don’t necessarily have to play that song in your head, but if you follow those simple lyrics, you will greatly limit the number of times you ever feel overwhelmed again and you will put yourself in the best possible position to make a good decision regardless of what you are facing or the task at hand.
This article is part of Scott Arney's educational series, entitled The Serial Decision Maker.