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Don't Sweat the Small Stuff at Work
Simple Ways to Minimize Stress and Conflict While Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others
By Richard Carlson
HyperionCopyright © 1999 Richard Carlson
All rights reserved.
DARE TO BE HAPPY
Many people don't allow themselves the luxury of being enthusiastic, light-hearted, inspired, relaxed, or happy—especially at work. To me, this is a very unfortunate form of self-denial. It seems that a great number of people are frightened at what a happy demeanor would look like to other people, including coworkers, clients, and employers. After all, they assume, "Someone who is relaxed (or happy) must not be a hard worker." The logic goes something like this: If they looked happy, others might assume they were satisfied with the status quo and therefore lacking the necessary motivation to excel in their work or go the extra mile. They certainly couldn't survive in a competitive environment.
I'm often hired to speak to corporations around the country on stress reduction and happier living. On a number of occasions, the person who invited me to speak has asked me, in a nervous tone, whether I would help the employees become so happy that they would "lose their edge." I'm not kidding!
In reality, it's the other way around. It's nonsense to believe that a relaxed, happy person necessarily lacks motivation. On the contrary, happy people are almost always the ones who love what they do. It's been shown again and again that people who love what they do are highly motivated by their own enthusiasm to continually better themselves and their performance. They are good listeners and have a sharp learning curve. In addition, happy workers are highly creative, charismatic, easy to be around, and good team players.
Unhappy people, on the other hand, are often held back by their own misery or stress, which distracts them from success. Rigid, stressed-out people are a drag to be around and difficult to work with. They are the ones who lack motivation because they are so consumed with their own problems, lack of time, and stress. Unhappy people often feel victimized by others and their working conditions. It's difficult for them to be solution-oriented because everything is seen as someone else's fault. In addition, they are usually poor team players because they are often self-centered and preoccupied with their own issues. They are defensive and, almost always, poor listeners. If they are successful, it's despite their unhappiness, not because of it. In fact, if an unhappy, stressed- out person can learn to become happier, he or she will become even more successful.
I felt this strategy would be an excellent way to introduce this book because one of my goals is to convince you that it's okay to be happy, kind, patient, more relaxed and forgiving. It's to your advantage, personally and professionally. You won't lose your edge, nor will you be "walked on." I can assure you that you won't become apathetic, uncaring or unmotivated. To the contrary, you'll feel more inspired, creative, and driven to make an even greater contribution than you do right now. You'll see solutions and opportunities where others see problems. Likewise, rather than being discouraged by setbacks or failures, you'll bounce back quickly and resiliently. You will have increased energy, you'll be able to work "in the eye of the storm," and, because you'll be so level-headed, you'll be the one who is looked to when tough decisions need to be made. You will rise to the top.
If you dare to be happy, your life will begin to change immediately. Your life and your work will take on greater significance and will be experienced as an extraordinary adventure. You'll be loved by others and, without a doubt, you'll be sweating the small stuff far less often at work.
BECOME LESS CONTROLLING
When I talk about being "controlling," I'm referring to unhealthy attempts to manipulate the behavior of others, having the need to control your environment, insisting on having things be "just so" in order to feel secure, and becoming immobilized, defensive or anxious when other people don't behave to your specifications—the way you think they should be. To be controlling means you are preoccupied with the actions of others and how those actions affect you. To put it in the context of this book, people who are controlling "sweat the behavior" of others when it doesn't match their own expectations.
I've made several observations about people who are controlling; two in particular. First, there are too many of them. For whatever reason, there seems to be a national trend toward controlling behavior. Secondly, the trait of being controlling is highly stressful—both to the controller and to those who are being controlled. If you want a more peaceful life, it's essential you become less controlling.
One of the most extreme examples of controlling behavior I've heard of involved, of all things, paper clips! A lawyer at a top-flight law firm had a penchant for certain things to be done in certain ways—not only "big picture" things, but very minuscule things as well. This fellow liked to use copper-colored paper clips instead of the silver ones his firm provided (what could be more important than that?). So he had his secretary buy his own private supply for him each week (and didn't even reimburse her). If something came to his desk with the wrong kind of clip, he'd fly into a rage. He became known in the office as "the paper clip king."
It probably won't come as a big surprise that this guy was almost always behind on his paperwork, and his work for his clients suffered. All the time he spent getting angry over petty things slowed him down. The paper clips were only one aspect of his controlling behavior—he had rules and regulations about everything from how his coffee was served (in a special china cup and saucer) to the order in which he was introduced in meetings. Ultimately, his controlling behavior turned off one too many of his clients, and he was let go from the firm.
This is a very unusual and extreme example, yet if you examine your own behavior, you may find areas that you are trying to control that are futile or just plain silly. I encourage you to take a look.
A person who is controlling carries with him a great deal of stress because, not only does he (or she) have to be concerned with his own choices and behavior, but in addition, he insists that others think and behave in certain ways as well. While occasionally we can influence another person, we certainly can't force him to be a certain way. To someone who is controlling, this is highly frustrating.
Obviously, in business, there are many times you want to have a meeting of the minds, or you need others to see things as you do. You have to sell yourself and your ideas to those you work with. In certain instances, you must exert your opinions, influence, even power to get something done. There are times you must insist on getting your way or think of clever and creative ways to get others to think differently. That's all part of business. And that's absolutely not what I'm referring to here. We're not talking about healthy, normal attempts to come to a meeting of the minds or balancing points of view. We're also not talking about not caring about the behavior of others—of course you care. Rather, we're discussing the ways that insistence, singular thinking, rigidity, and the need to control translates into pain and stress.
What hurts the controlling person is what goes on inside—his feelings and emotions. The key element seems to be a lack of willingness to allow other people to fully be themselves, to give them space to be who they are, and to respect—really respect—the fact that people think differently. Deep down, a controlling person doesn't want other people to be themselves, but rather the image of who they want them to be. But people aren't an image of who we want them to be—they are who they are. So, if you're tied to an imagined image, you're going to feel frustrated and impotent a great deal of the time. A controlling person assumes that he knows what's best, and by golly, he's going to make other people see the folly of their ways. Within the need to control, there's an inherent lack of respect for the opinions and ways of others.
The only way to become less controlling is to see the advantages of doing so. You have to see that you can still get your way when it's necessary, yet you will be less personally invested. In other words, less will be riding on other people being, thinking, or behaving in a certain way. This will translate into a far less stressful way of being in the world. When you can make allowances in your mind for the fact that other people see life differently than you do, you'll experience far less internal struggle.
In addition, as you become less controlling, you'll be a lot easier to be around. You can probably guess that most people don't like to be controlled. It's a turnoff. It creates resentment and adversarial relationships. As you let go of your need to be so controlling, people will be more inclined to help you; they will want to see you succeed. When people feel accepted for who they are rather than judged for who you think they should be, they will admire and respect you like never before.
ELIMINATE THE RAT RACE MENTALITY
I often hear people conversing about being stuck "in the rat race" as if they were discussing the weather—in a very casual, matter-of-fact manner. The assumption seems to be, "There's no escaping it—it's just a fact of life for everyone."
One of the problems with this mentality is that the label "rat race" implies, among other things, assumptions like, "I'm in a hurry, get out of my way, there's never enough time, there's not enough to go around, it's a dog-eat-dog world," and so forth. It sets you up to be frightened, impatient, and annoyed by constantly reinforcing and validating a self-defeating belief. You'll notice that most people who describe themselves as being "in the rat race" will indeed be hyper and easily bothered. It's important to note, however, that there are other people with the same types of jobs, pressures, responsibilities, and schedules who experience and describe their work in a much more peaceful and interesting way. Yet, they are every bit as effective and productive as their more nervous and agitated counterparts.
It's always refreshing for me to meet people who, despite being part of the corporate, commuting, and/or working world, have made the decision to not buy into this frenetic and destructive label. They refuse to box themselves in by the way they describe their experience. Instead, they live in a more accepting way, constantly on the lookout for a positive take on their experience.
So much of our daily work life exists in our own mind, dependent upon what aspects we focus on and how we characterize our experience. In other words, when we describe our day, we might feel very justified in saying, "Oh God, it was awful. I was stuck in horrible traffic with millions of other angry people. I spent my day in boring meetings, always scrambling a few minutes behind. There were arguments and almost constant conflict to deal with. What a bunch of jerks!"
The identical day might be thought of differently. You might describe it like this: "I drove to work and spent much of my day meeting with people. It was a challenge, but I did my best to stay as long as possible at one meeting without being late for the next one. The art of my work is bringing together people who, on the surface, don't seem to be able to get along very well. It's a good thing I'm there to help."
Can you feel the difference? And it's not a matter of one description being "realistic and accurate" and the other being wishful thinking. The truth is, both are absolutely accurate. It all depends on the well-being of the person doing the thinking. The same dynamic applies to whatever you happen to do for a living or how you spend your time. You can always make the argument, "I'm stuck in the rat race," or you can find another way to think about it.
You can begin to eliminate the rat race mentality and, in the process, become a calmer person and create a more interesting life, by deciding to stop discussing it with others—and by recharacterizing your day and your responsibilities in a healthier way. As your mind is focused in a more positive direction, and as you're looking for the gifts of your day instead of the hassles, you'll begin to notice aspects of your work life that may have been invisible to you. You'll actually see things differently. Everywhere you look, you'll see opportunities for personal and spiritual growth. You'll see more solutions and fewer problems, as well as plenty of ways to enhance and maximize your experience. I hope you'll consider eliminating the rate race mentality—your work will be a lot more rewarding if you do.
DON'T DRAMATIZE THE DEADLINES
Many of us work under the constant demands of tight deadlines. Authors are no exception to this rule. But have you ever stopped to think about how much mental and emotional emphasis we put on our deadlines? And have you ever wondered what negative consequences are attached to such emphasis? If not, I encourage you to give these questions some careful consideration.
It's true that deadlines are a fact of life. Yet a lot of this type of stress comes not so much from the deadline itself, but from all the thinking about it, wondering whether or not we will make it, feeling sorry for ourselves, complaining and, perhaps most of all, commiserating with others.
Recently, I was in an office waiting for an appointment. The person I was to meet with had been delayed in traffic. I was trying to read, but became fascinated by a conversation between two co-workers in the office. They were complaining among themselves about the unfair tight deadline they were on. Apparently, they had less than two hours to complete some type of report. Whatever it was, it was to be turned in by noon that same day.
I sat there, listening in amazement, as the two of them spent almost an entire hour complaining about how ridiculous it was to be put through this. They had not taken the first step toward the completion of their goal! Finally, about a minute before the person I was to meet finally arrived, one of them said in a frantic tone, "God, we'd better get started. It's due in an hour."
I realize that this is an extreme example, and few of us would waste time in as dramatic a manner as this. However, it does illustrate the point that the deadline itself isn't always the sole factor in the creation of stress. Ultimately, these two people seemed to realize that they could get the job done—even in one hour. So you have to wonder how different their experience could have been had they calmly taken a deep breath and worked together as quickly and efficiently as possible.
It's been my experience that complaining about deadlines—even if the complaints are justified—takes an enormous amount of mental energy and, more important to deadlines, time! The turmoil you go through commiserating with others or simply within your own head is rarely worth it. The added obsessive thinking about the deadline creates its own internal anxiety.
I know that deadlines can create quite a bit of stress and that sometimes it doesn't seem fair. However, working toward your goal without the interference of negative mental energy makes any job more manageable. See if you can notice how often you tend to worry, fret, or complain about deadlines. Then, try to catch yourself in the act of doing so. When you do, gently remind yourself that your energy would be better spent elsewhere. Who knows, perhaps you can ultimately make peace with deadlines altogether.
Excerpted from Don't Sweat the Small Stuff at Work by Richard Carlson. Copyright © 1999 Richard Carlson. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
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