“The strife is o’er,” as the hymn goes — I’m all done recording the Work Consciously Audio Course. I’m writing up the “liner notes” right now — that’s what I like to call them, anyway, because it has me feel like I’m releasing a rock and roll album.
In the meantime, I’d like to share with you the introduction to the audio course, and hear any feedback you might have on it. If you’ve read Inner Productivity, you’ll be familiar with some of the ideas I present here, but there’s plenty of new content that I’ve developed over the year I’ve spent speaking and leading workshops on the book.
The course will feature both exercises you can do “in real time,” as you’re sitting at your desk, to restore your focus and motivation in what you’re doing, and guided meditations I’ll lead you through for developing awareness around what’s holding you back in your projects.
Whether or not you pick up a copy of the audio course when it comes out, I think you’ll get some useful insights out of just listening to this portion of the program.
I’ve linked to the mp3 file of the introduction in this post, and I’ve copied the text below in case reading works better for you. It’s long, so you have my blessing if you want to read the first couple of paragraphs, or listen to the first few minutes, and leave a comment.
Hello, and welcome to the Work Consciously Audio Course. I’m looking forward to working with you. I think you’ll find that this course takes getting work done and enjoying what you do to a deeper level than what you’ve probably experienced before.
When most of us think about productivity, a pretty predictable group of images comes to mind. We tend to think of all the usual organization and time management tools people recommend — creative ways to organize your e-mail inbox, color-code your folders, find the right iPhone apps, and so on.
What you’re going to hear about in this course will be very different from all that. Don’t get me wrong — there are many great productivity techniques out there. But one thing I’ve noticed about these tips and tricks is that they tend to be almost exclusively focused on our outer circumstances — the ways we have our to-do list or our desktop organized, and so on.
What the usual techniques don’t tend to focus on, though, is what I think is the biggest obstacle we usually face in getting our work done — and that, we might say, is ourselves. It’s our own minds and bodies.
Why There’s No “App For That”
Here, I’m talking about those moments when we find our attention getting scattered all over the place — maybe replaying some piece of music in our heads, or replaying memories of that bad relationship from twenty years ago, or something else.
I mean those times when we find ourselves feeling sluggish or unmotivated, like we have to drag ourselves through the mud to accomplish the task we’re trying to do, and it’s all we can do to keep our heads off the desk.
Maybe we feel paralyzed with anxiety, worrying “what’s the boss going to think of this presentation I’m doing,” and second-guessing every word we write.
As I’ll bet you know firsthand, if you’re having one of these experiences, having a really well-organized e-mail inbox probably isn’t going to cut it. That is, it isn’t going to be enough to keep you on track in what you’re doing, no matter how great the tips for time management and organization you’re following may be.
If you’re paralyzed with fear about what the boss is going to think of this presentation you’re doing, that paralysis isn’t going to go away because you’ve achieved a zero e-mail inbox, or because you’ve made a multicolored to-do list.
Getting Off The “Time Management (Product) Treadmill”
Unfortunately, because — like I said — productivity literature tends to be focused solely on our external circumstances — on how our workspace is arranged — people tend to assume the only way to get more done is to find the right method of organizing their work environment.
So, people often get locked in a cycle of buying a book or taking a seminar, finding what they learned isn’t working for them, going out and buying another one, and repeating this process until they get tired of the whole productivity thing and give up.
Also, to be totally upfront, I think one of the reasons the usual organization strategies are so popular, even though so many people have trouble actually putting them into practice, is that people feel kind of virtuous and responsible when they learn new material on getting organized, or overcoming procrastination, or something along those lines.
They get a temporary high when they buy that new planner, or e-mail application — that frustration they’re feeling, and all the self-flagellation they’ve been doing because they feel like they’re not doing enough, temporarily fall away. But very soon, those feelings come back, and the procrastination and inefficiency come back too.
If you can relate, one of my goals in this program is to break you out of that cycle of frustration. I want you to be able to actually benefit from these organization strategies you’ve been learning, rather than just trying them for a day or for an hour and giving up, which unfortunately is what I think many people do.
So how do we start dealing with the ways our own minds and bodies tend to disrupt our focus as we’re trying to get something done? I’ll begin to illustrate this by telling you a little story about my friend and the frustrations he’s been experiencing around e-mail.
The Core Experience: An Illustration
My friend is really into these tips and tricks for organization and time management — he’s probably what a lot of these productivity websites would call a “productivity ninja.” His most recent goal has been to curb his habit of compulsively checking his e-mail. I imagine you’ve struggled with this at times yourself — or maybe you just, you know, know someone who has.
What my friend has committed to himself to do is to check his e-mail only twice a day while he’s at work — at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. In theory, this sounds like it would help my friend save a lot of time. But in practice, he’s never actually been able to keep this commitment to himself.
This is what happens for him. He gets into work at about 8 or 8:30 in the morning, and he’s able to get about half an hour of fully focused work in, even if he’s got a nagging curiosity in the back of his mind about whether there’s anything interesting or important in his e-mail inbox.
But when that half-hour mark rolls around, my friend’s curiosity actually starts to intensify into physical discomfort. He starts to feel a tension in his shoulders and a tightness in his chest.
If he leaves that curiosity for long enough without doing anything about it, it almost starts to feel like a shortness of breath, and he starts wondering “oh my goodness, am I going to die if I don’t check my e-mail?” So, it seems like a pretty serious situation to him in the moment.
So, of course, to relieve this tension that’s coming up for him, my friend goes off and checks his e-mail. When he does this, he takes his mind off the tension he’s feeling, and so he gets a break from it.
Unfortunately, while he’s checking his e-mail, he’s also taking his attention off the work he’s trying to do. And because this keeps happening throughout the day, he keeps arriving at the end of the work day having accomplished less than he wanted.
The Core Experience: What It Means
The moral of the story here, of course, is not that my friend doesn’t know enough organization and time management techniques. He knows plenty of those. He’s got a super-organized e-mail inbox with about 100 different sub-directories. But no matter how he tweaks his e-mail organization, that burning curiosity still seems to come up.
The point of the story is that, when my friend tries to sit and concentrate on his work, these sensations come up in his body that he finds uncomfortable or even disturbing. And to relieve those sensations — to take the edge off, as people often say — he checks his e-mail.
In other words, my friend is caught up in what I call the Procrastination Cycle. He sits down to work and is able to chug along in what he’s doing for a short period of time. And then, that pesky sensation, which I call the Core Experience, comes up for him.
I call it the Core Experience because, no matter what type of project you’re having difficulty moving forward in — whether it’s starting your dream business or cleaning out the garage — you’re going to find this particular nagging experience lurking in the background.
In order to get away from the Core Experience, my friend uses what I call an Escape Route — that is, he checks his e-mail to distract himself from what’s going on inside.
Then, after a little while, he returns to work, but within a short time the Core Experience arises again, and he repeats the cycle over and over again throughout the working day.
Everyone’s Experience Is Unique
I imagine you can relate to this story — that you can relate to trying to get your work done, but being confronted with thoughts, emotions and sensations — or, what I call inner experiences — that you’d rather not be having.
Now, of course, not everyone has a problem with a burning curiosity about their e-mail. Everyone’s mind and body is different, so everyone has their own variety of inner experience that tends to come up and make their life difficult when they’re trying to get something done.
For example, maybe, for you, it’s a painful memory that keeps nagging at you while you’re trying to accomplish something. For instance, maybe you keep replaying an old argument you had with someone in your mind as you’re sitting trying to code your computer program. And, to make matters worse, this only seems to arise when you’re trying to do a project that’s particularly important to you.
For other people it’s just an unpleasant physical sensation that arises when they’re trying to get something done. Maybe they feel this jumpy, anxious energy in their body. Maybe they find their shoulders tensing up. Maybe it’s a sinking feeling in their stomach.
Whatever it is, it seems to come up most often, or perhaps most loudly, when you’re trying to get something done.
An Awareness-Building Exercise
What kind of experience tends to come up for you? Maybe the thought or sensation that you keep experiencing is easy to bring to mind. But for some people it isn’t immediately clear — when I ask what inner experience is giving them trouble, they’ll say “I don’t know — I just keep finding myself putting things off.”
If you find yourself unsure about what the particular feeling or thought is for you, I think you can start to get an idea of what kind of experience it is by doing a brief exercise.
Right now, think about some project you’ve been wanting to work on recently, but you’ve been putting off. As you recall this project and the frustrations you’ve been having around it, notice what you’re feeling in your body.
Notice the places where it’s tensing up — where it feels uncomfortably hot or cold — where you feel a heaviness or nausea — or whatever it is you’re feeling. Do you get how unpleasant that experience is for you?
Now, what I’d like you to do is consider the possibility that, when you sit down to work on the project you’re thinking about, this is the experience you’re having — these are the sensations that are coming up in your body. Whenever you put off working on this project, it’s because you don’t want to be feeling these sensations.
And I think you can see, as you experience the sensations right now, firsthand, why you might be doing that. Of course you’ve been fleeing from them, given how unpleasant they are.
The Core Experience: Fighting and Fleeing
So, I think we all have some troublesome inner experience that comes up as we’re trying to complete our projects. But importantly, I want to suggest to you that this experience alone isn’t enough to create procrastination.
The mere fact that we’re feeling some kind of discomfort doesn’t force us to put off our work. Instead, procrastination happens when we do what I call fighting or fleeing from the experience — basically, when we choose to try to avoid having it.
What do I mean by fighting or fleeing? I’ll start with fighting. By fighting the experience, I mean trying to punish or shame yourself into working when that experience is coming up.
For instance, suppose that, like my friend, you tend to experience a burning curiosity about what’s in your e-mail inbox when you’re trying to work on a project.
If you try to shame yourself into working despite that experience, maybe you’ll tell yourself something like “oh, I can’t believe you’re so lazy and distractible — I can’t believe you’re thinking about your e-mail again — what’s wrong with you,” and so on.
Or maybe you’ll threaten yourself with punishment, as I know some people do. Maybe you’ll say to yourself “you know, if you check e-mail again, you don’t get to play any XBox 360 tonight — no video games for you tonight if you check it again.”
Some productivity writers actually recommend doing this — making threats, or using what’s sometimes called “negative reinforcement,” to force yourself to work — but I don’t.
Why not? As I’ll bet you’ve experienced, when you try to beat yourself into submission and make yourself work, that only creates more resistance inside — it only tends to intensify, in other words, that unpleasant experience you’re having.
In fact, I know that, for myself and others I’ve talked to, doing this can actually be physically tiring — by beating ourselves up, we can drain ourselves of the energy we could have been using to accomplish something. This is a good example of what I think Carl Jung meant when he said “what we resist persists.”
What Fleeing Means
The other thing we tend to do, as I said, is that we flee from this painful experience. Whenever that unpleasant memory, or that worry about the future, or that pain in our lower back, or whatever it is, comes up, we do something to distract ourselves from it. Maybe we’ll play Minesweeper, or call a friend on the phone, or surf the Internet, or something else.
When we take our minds off the sensations we’re feeling, the benefit is that we don’t have to experience those sensations. Unfortunately, there’s an obvious cost as well, which is that we don’t accomplish anything when we’re in this self-distraction mode. While we’re messing around on Facebook, playing video games, or whatever, we aren’t getting anything done.
Now, one recommendation you’ll often hear from people who write about productivity is that you should just take away all the “toys” you could possibly “play with” when you sit down to do a task for a long stretch.
In other words, take away all the tools you might use to distract yourself — leave your cell phone in your car, disconnect your internet, and so on. When you’ve got nothing to divert your attention with, you’ll be forced to work on your project.
Unfortunately, if you’ve ever tried this strategy, I’ll bet you’ve seen the flaw in it. No matter how many “outer distractions” you switch off, you’ll always be stuck with what we might call your “inner distractions.”
You can always use your own mind and body to escape from that pesky inner experience, even if there’s nothing else at hand. Maybe you can start thinking about a pop song you like, or drumming your fingers on the table, or getting up and pacing around. The last problem I guess you could solve by tying your legs to your chair, but how far do we really want to take this?
All Right, Then What?
So, merely rearranging your workspace isn’t going to be enough to break you out of the habit of fleeing — of distracting yourself from — these unpleasant thoughts and sensations that you’ve been going through.
Now, imagine if, instead of fighting or fleeing from the experience, you could just calmly accept that the experience is coming up, and choose to move forward in your work. Suppose that you could stay relaxed, keep breathing, maybe notice for a moment “oh, there’s that experience again,” and stay focused on what you’re doing.
Imagine the sense of freedom and ease that this could give you in your work, and how much more this would allow you to accomplish. Learning how to do that is the heart of what this course is about.
Awareness of the Core Experience
I see dealing with this inner experience as basically a two-step process, and I call these two steps Awareness and Allowing.
I’ll start explaining this by talking about what Awareness means. By Awareness, I mean that we become aware of the Core Experience that we’ve been running away from, and the Escape Route we’ve been using to run away from it — that is, calling friends on the phone, messing around on social media, playing Solitaire, and so on.
Remember I talked about my friend, who came to me and complained that he couldn’t concentrate on his work, because this burning curiosity about his e-mail would keep coming up that was almost painful.
In a sense, my friend’s situation is unique — perhaps you could even say he’s lucky — because my sense is that most people don’t have that level of awareness of what the Core Experience and Escape Route are for them.
Let me put it this way — have you ever gotten to the end of the workday, and wondered to yourself “where did the whole day go? Why didn’t I get anything done? What could I have been doing with all that time?” And you feel frustrated and confused. I think most of us have had that experience from time to time.
My sense is that, when we have a day like this, this Procrastination Cycle I’m talking about is happening outside our awareness. It’s happening unconsciously.
Throughout the entire day, this is what’s happening: we work for a few minutes, then that Core Experience — that jitteriness or resentment or whatever it is — comes up, and then we turn our attention away from our work — we follow our Escape Route. The cycle repeats again and again, and we’re not even aware that it’s happening.
How could this be? What I’m going to suggest is that you’re doing unconscious behaviors like this all the time. For instance, have you ever gotten into the car, and just watched your hand shoot out and turn that car radio on, as if you didn’t even have to participate in the process?
Breathing, of course, is another good example — most of the time it’s happening even though we’re not doing it consciously. This Procrastination Cycle, if we’re not aware of it, becomes just another one of these unconscious behaviors going on in the background for us.
Awareness by Itself Can Be Curative
The good news is that, when we become aware that this Procrastination Cycle is happening, we start to gain some control over the way we move through our workday.
Sometimes, just being conscious of the Core Experience we’re avoiding, and the Escape Route we’re using to get away from it, can free us from this Procrastination Cycle, without us having to develop a lot of self-discipline and constantly monitor ourselves to see whether we’re back in our usual habits.
Fritz Perls, the inventor of Gestalt psychotherapy, said that “awareness by itself can be curative.” In other words, awareness by itself can create transformation. I think this is true, and I’ve certainly seen evidence of it in my own life.
For example, I used to be in the habit of clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth. I wasn’t consciously aware that I was doing it — the only thing I knew was that my jaw would be strangely sore a lot of the time. Eventually, someone close to me pointed out that my jaw seemed really tense, and I had an amazing experience — my jaw just spontaneously relaxed.
In other words, I didn’t have to do any work to accomplish this — I didn’t have to get a jaw massage, or acupuncture on my jaw, or something like that — thankfully, no needles needed to be involved. All I had to do was become aware of the tension, and it naturally fell away.
I’ll bet you’ve had an experience like this — you were doing some habit, like tapping your fingers on the table, or tensing up your shoulders, or something like that, and when someone pointed out to you that you were doing it, you effortlessly let go of the habit.
That’s what I want for you when we do the awareness-building exercises I’m going to talk about in this program — to spontaneously let go of ways you may have been hindering your progress in what you do.
Allowing the Core Experience
Unfortunately, just becoming aware of this procrastination cycle I’m talking about isn’t enough to help some people break out of it. Some people are acutely aware of the Core Experience — of that troublesome thought, feeling or sensation — that keeps coming up when they try to focus on their project. But that doesn’t stop them from habitually running away from this experience.
I think one reason is that, for many people, this Core Experience is actually kind of disturbing and scary. When that anxiety, or anger, or distraction, or whatever that sensation is comes up, it can seem like a really serious or dangerous situation.
Some people get the sense that, if they just let that feeling be there without trying to do anything about it, it might stay there forever, or they might somehow be hurt or destroyed.
It’s almost as if your body is a steel pipe, and there’s pressure building up inside when this Core Experience is arising, and if you don’t open the valve and let some of that pressure off, maybe you’ll explode or implode or disintegrate or be destroyed in some other horrible way.
What Allowing Means
This is where what I call Allowing comes into play. Allowing a sensation means to keep breathing, relax your body, and let that sensation pass away on its own — to just let that feeling flow through you and dissipate, without resisting it.
For example, suppose you’re sitting there chugging along in a project at your computer, and suddenly, like my friend I described earlier, you start to have this burning curiosity about what’s in your e-mail inbox.
Before, you may have been in the habit of beating yourself up for feeling that curiosity, like “oh, I can’t believe you’re so lazy and distractable,” and so on; or, perhaps, you may have been in the habit of giving into the urge by checking e-mail.
But this time, I invite you to try something different. Instead of fighting or fleeing from that sensation, just sit there, and breathe, and relax your body, and allow that burning curiosity to pass away on its own. Just let that tension or discomfort, wherever it may be coming up in your body, just drain out of you by itself.
The Core Experience Is Fleeting
What I think you’ll discover, when you practice Allowing in the way I’ve described, is that this Core Experience — this sensation you haven’t wanted to be with — is actually fleeting. That is, it’s temporary, and it passes away quickly when you don’t resist it. In that sense, it’s like any other thought or emotion we experience as human beings.
Take anger and sadness, for example. If you feel angry or sad, as I’m sure you have at some point in your life, usually those emotions don’t stick around forever. Normally, they pass away, and they’re replaced by some other thought or feeling. That’s just the human experience.
What you’ll find when you take on this practice of letting the difficult experience pass away is that, in fact, the Core Experience is exactly the same as other thoughts and emotions in this sense.
Just letting it be there, without trying to force it away, isn’t going to make you spontaneously combust or disappear or be harmed in some other way. Instead, it will simply fade away on its own.
Once you experience, firsthand, the fact that this Core Experience is fleeting and temporary, I think you’ll start to observe something remarkable, which is that you’ll actually begin to get more comfortable and more familiar with that Core Experience. It will start to seem more manageable, and less disturbing and scary.
Moving Through The Core Experience
And ultimately, when you get comfortable enough with this Core Experience, this experience that used to be difficult for you to tolerate, you become able to keep moving forward in your work, even when that Core Experience is coming up. In other words, you become able to make progress in the project you’re working on, even when that sensation is arising.
It’s as if, when that anxiety, sadness, tightness, or whatever it is comes up, you become able to say “yes, I’m feeling this sensation — and, I’m going to keep drafting this presentation, or coding this computer program, or sculpting this sculpture,” or whatever activity you happen to be doing. And when you develop that ability, that’s when you really start to get the sense of ease and flow you want in your work.
This attitude of Allowing is similar to the practice of yoga. If you’ve done yoga, you’ve probably had the experience of getting into a pose that involved a really deep stretch — and choosing to hold that pose, despite the intensity you were experiencing, and just allowing the sensations you were feeling to be there, without trying to do anything about them.
You may have had the urge to get up and run out of the yoga studio, or take a break and fold your socks, but you consciously chose to stay with that feeling.
I imagine you noticed that, as you stayed in that challenging pose, the intensity you were feeling in your body started to seem more comfortable. You started to understand that you could be with that feeling, and that it wasn’t going to envelop you or destroy you if you just allowed it to be.
In the same way, when we allow the difficult sensations that come up as we’re working to just be, rather than distracting ourselves from them, we start to see that we can actually handle that intensity, and that nothing awful is going to happen to us if we continue working when that intensity is coming up.
How To Use This Course
So, like I said, the method of finding focus and motivation in your work I’m talking about in this program has two basic steps: first, becoming Aware of the Core Experience you’re avoiding, and the Escape Route, the way you’re habitually escaping from that Core Experience; and second, learning to just Allow that Core Experience to pass away on its own, without resisting.
The exercises we’re going to talk about in this program are all about bringing this two-step process of Awareness and Allowing into your everyday working routine.
One last note: as you’ll notice when you listen to this course, the course consists mostly of exercises. It’s important to actually do those exercises if you want to get the benefits out of this program — this isn’t about just passively soaking up information. The good news is that, for all of the exercises, you don’t need any special props — you just need your own mind and body.
With all that said, let’s dive right into the perspectives and exercises I’m going to talk about in this program.
I want to share a few videos from a talk I gave recently at a job-seeking group. I’ve revamped my “Transcending Procrastination” presentation to add some more techniques and ideas, and these videos offer some samples of the new content. I hope you find them useful and fun.
In this first video, I talk about how to develop a longer attention span, and thus get more done in a single sitting in your work, by practicing holding your attention on your breathing or an object:
In the next video, I talk about how being able to say “no” to requests is an important part of staying focused and motivated in our projects. Often, this is a matter of getting comfortable with the intense sensations that can come up when we refuse a request:
Here, I answer a question about dealing with job interview-related anxiety, discussing how useful it can be to find the place in your body where you’re feeling the nervousness or tension, and breathe into that place. This can be helpful for anxiety in other situations as well:
I’ve been doing a lot of speaking recently to groups of job-seeking professionals (one reason I’ve been MIA on the internet for two weeks), and predictably I tend to get questions about dealing with job interview anxiety.
But if I get the chance to explore the issue more deeply with people, I often find that they’re not really interested in reducing their anxiety. Instead, they want to convince the interviewer they aren’t anxious.
I usually discover this when someone asks a question about interview anxiety, and I respond with some ideas from meditation and yoga, like bringing your attention into the body, noticing where you’re restricting your breathing, and so on. They then give me a puzzled look, and say “but don’t you have any practical advice?”
When I ask what they mean by practical advice, they’ll reply “you know, things like how I should spin bad stuff on my resume, how long I should spend answering a question,” and so on. In other words, what they really want to know is how to look like a confident, competent person. Their own feelings aren’t important — only the interviewer’s view of them matters.
Image Obsession Creates Anxiety
I think this attitude is in keeping with the conventional wisdom in our culture. For any situation in life involving “selling yourself” — marketing, interviewing for jobs, dating, or something else — most advice out there is about “making” people have the “right” thoughts and feelings about you.
The trouble is, in my experience, this attitude is actually a big source of anxiety. The more deeply we’re concerned about our image, the more scary and exhausting relating with people becomes.
For example, suppose you went into a job interview having memorized ten questions you’re “supposed” to ask, five “confident body language” tips, seven “interview mistakes” to avoid, and so on. Wouldn’t trying to remember and follow all these rules create stress for you?
But that’s not all — suppose you also went into the interview believing that “how I feel doesn’t matter — only this interviewer’s feelings about me are important.” In other words, your sense of self-worth is riding on the interviewer’s opinion of you. Don’t you think that might cause some freak-out as well?
What Do You Want?
So, if memorizing a lot of interviewing tips and obsessing over your image isn’t the key to overcoming interview anxiety, what is? I think all the techniques I usually talk about regarding breathing, focusing your attention, and so on are wonderful, but here’s an even more basic starting point: try focusing on what you feel and want.
That is, instead of going into the interview worrying about what the interviewer will think, see if you can get curious about questions like: is this job in keeping with my career goals? Does this seem like the kind of working environment I’d enjoy? What would I need to know to feel comfortable taking this job?
If you’re in the job market, one thing I think you’ll immediately notice about this attitude is that it actually allows you to have an informative, and even enjoyable, dialogue with the interviewer. Focusing on what you want out of the job helps you to ask questions you’re actually curious about, rather than parroting canned questions from some interviewing book that don’t really matter to you.
Although I’ve been talking about job interviewing, I think the attitude I’ve discussed is useful for any “selling yourself” situation. I’ve found that focusing on our own wants and feelings, rather than getting caught up in strategies for manipulating others’ experience, can help make these situations easier to endure, and maybe even fun.
I shudder a little when I think about some of my old working habits. One of these habits was to do what I now call “pushing the moment.” When I’d be under time pressure, or I just wanted a task off my plate quickly, I’d tighten up my shoulders as I worked — as if I were physically trying to push the project to completion. Not surprisingly, my shoulders used to get sore pretty often.
Today, when I work with someone who’s looking for focus and motivation in what they do, we often discover they’re doing the same thing. Much of the working day, they recognize, they’re unconsciously tensing up some part of their body, as if their project is some big piece of furniture they’re trying to move across the living room floor. No wonder work feels so painful and uninviting to them.
Beliefs That Lead Us To Push
The most obvious way to deal with the “pushing” habit is to notice it and let it go. Every so often, as we’re working, it’s useful to scan our attention over our bodies, and notice anywhere that feels rigid. When we become aware of the tight places, they often relax by themselves, or we can breathe into those places to help our bodies let go of the tension.
But for some people, this offers only temporary relief. They become aware of the tight place and relax, but a few minutes later they’re clenching their jaw or neck again, and working again feels stifling and uncomfortable. Sometimes, I find, people have trouble breaking the “pushing” habit because of deep-seated ideas they have about themselves and the world that could use some examination.
These ideas differ from person to person, but I’ll go through a few common ones. It may be helpful to notice whether any of them resonate with you.
1. Work Takes Suffering. A few people I’ve worked with have noticed that, when they relax the tense parts of their bodies as they work, they start thinking of themselves as lazy. Somewhere along the line, they learned that, to be a responsible, hardworking person, you have to suffer while you work — “no pain, no gain.” When they look closely at this belief and see how irrational and self-hating it is, it often unravels.
2. Pushing Makes Us Work Faster. Some people tense their bodies based on the false, unconscious idea that clenching their muscles will speed up their progress — as if they’ll get more efficient if they just “put some muscle into it.” In fact, tightening up inside just wears us out, and turns work into a more dismal chore than it needs to be.
3. I’ve Got To Get “There.” In our culture, we usually don’t even consider the possibility that we can enjoy the moment-to-moment process of writing an e-mail or plugging values into a spreadsheet. The only thing we think we’re capable of enjoying, and let ourselves enjoy, is the product of our work — the money we make, the prestige of our career, and so on. This mindset can leave us literally aching for the reward, and not realizing how much we can make out of this moment.
In my experience, becoming aware of these destructive beliefs is a lot like noticing the places in our bodies where we’re holding tight. Often, when we become aware of it, the belief — like the tension we’re holding onto — dissolves on its own. And as it turns out, we get a lot more done when working is no longer such a physically painful process.
Recently, I told a distant relative about the career change I’d made, the book I just released, and a few other things I’ve been up to. “I would have been too scared to do all that,” she said. “You must be a pretty courageous person.”
This conversation got me thinking: am I courageous? If being courageous means not feeling afraid, I saw, the answer is clearly no. I definitely recall feeling afraid before changing my career, putting out my book, and doing lots of other stuff.
If I’m not particularly courageous, how was I able to do these things? After thinking about it a bit, I realized it was because I’ve developed the ability to choose how I’ll act when faced with intense sensations. This is one of the most valuable gifts my mindfulness practices have given me.
Learning To Let Go
For many years, when faced with that chill in my solar plexus I call fear, I didn’t really have a choice about how to react. Automatically, without thinking, I’d withdraw from what I saw as the source of the fear. If the prospect of changing my career, or something else, sounded scary, I’d instinctively avoid it. This habit was so deeply ingrained that I didn’t even know other ways of responding to fear were possible.
One important thing I learned to do in meditation was to let my thoughts and feelings pass away, without resisting them. If I felt anxious during meditation, I learned to simply allow the anxiety to flow through me and dissipate, rather than trying to distract myself from it or convince myself I shouldn’t be scared.
What I gradually recognized was that I could bring the same approach into my day-to-day life. I came to see that, when I experienced fear, I didn’t have to revert to my old habit of resisting by running away. There was another option: I could simply allow the fear to pass away on its own, and then go do what I wanted.
As you can probably see, this way of relating to fear is different from a lot of approaches out there. It’s not about “crushing” or “killing” your fear, convincing yourself you shouldn’t feel afraid, or imitating the behaviors of confident people. All of these are forms of resistance, which in the end only holds the fear in place.
Taking Ourselves Off Auto-Pilot
Of course, dropping our resistance to fear is easier said than done. Our habitual ways of reacting to fear, and other thoughts and sensations, have often been with us a long time — so long that we’ve forgotten we can relate to our fear differently. This is why, I think, it’s important to develop a practice of watching the ways we react to the thoughts and emotions we experience.
When we watch ourselves carefully, we start to notice our habitual, automatic ways of reacting to how we feel. We may realize, for instance, that we always seem to yell at someone when we’re feeling angry. Or perhaps, like I used to do, we habitually withdraw whenever we’re starting to feel afraid.
And when we become aware of our unconscious habits, we also start to get conscious of our power to choose how we respond to the situations we face. Maybe, we start to realize, we don’t always have to blame someone else whenever anger arises. Perhaps we don’t always have to back away whenever fear comes up.
In a nutshell, I don’t see fear as something we need to overcome, but as something it’s best to allow. When we learn to do this, I think, our sense of freedom and control over our lives greatly expands.
Do you think you need anxiety to get motivated at work? Several people I talked to recently told me as much. If they didn’t worry about finishing their project on time, what others might say about their work, and so on, they think they’d never get anything done. They’d just kick back on the couch, grab the remote and a bag of chips, and never get up again except to replenish their chip supply.
But is this true? After all, surely we do many things that we don’t need anxiety to finish. We don’t need to worry, for instance, to motivate ourselves to go see a movie. We don’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, fretting “oh, no, what if I never watch that movie? I’ll be a failure!” Yet, for some reason, we think this kind of thing is necessary in our work.
Anxiety Causes Procrastination
Oh, but that’s different, some might say, because watching a movie is fun and work isn’t. But does work have to be a drag? Or does it only seem that way because we worry so much when we’re doing it? Could work be more enjoyable — and could we actually be more productive — if we let go of the anxiety we tend to associate with it?
Many psychologists suggest the answer is yes — that worrying actually creates more procrastination than motivation. For instance, Dr. Joseph Ferrari studied how anxiety affected the test-taking habits of college students, and concluded that “students who have extreme anxiety are most likely to procrastinate, because it is more reinforcing to avoid the anxiety associated with studying than it is to study.”
Similarly, in The Now Habit, Dr. Neil Fiore writes that “procrastination is a habit you develop to cope with anxiety about starting or completing a task.” And in The Tomorrow Trap, Dr. Karen Peterson says that anxiety causes procrastination because, when you’re worrying, “so much energy is needed to control your anxiety that other thoughts cannot receive your full attention.”
Watching Your Worry
It seems worrying isn’t the motivational wonder drug we tend to see it as, and that it would actually help our productivity to stop doing it. But of course, it’s not enough for me to just say “don’t worry, be happy,” because our anxiety often seems beyond our conscious control. So, here are a few ideas for gaining more control over work-related anxiety:
1. Notice how you identify with your results. If we aren’t careful, we can fall into the trap of believing we’re “only as good as our next project” — that our value as people depends on our performance in the task we’re doing at work. If we’re thinking this way, it’s no wonder we’re worried, because we believe a mistake or setback would make us worthless. Becoming aware of this pattern of thinking is often enough to help us let go of it.
2. Notice how you make a virtue out of worrying. Many of us, consciously or not, associate worrying with being diligent and caring about our work. If we aren’t worrying, we think, we must be bad or lazy. Of course, this isn’t true — freaking out doesn’t get your project done better or faster. Remembering this helps keep the compulsion to worry in check.
3. Notice how you’re breathing. Just as obsessing over possible problems can have us breathe shallowly, breathing in rapid gasps can contribute to anxiety. When you find yourself worrying, see if you can slow down and deepen your breathing, and notice how that benefits your mental state.
There’s a simple question I’ve found it useful to ask myself, whenever I find myself getting stressed or tense, which is: “Am I really in danger right now?” When I do this, most of the time, I quickly realize the answer is no, and my body relaxes again.
This exercise has helped me see how many situations in my life I was unconsciously treating as life-and-death, when in fact they were nothing of the kind. Among other things, if someone criticized me, a magazine rejected my article, or I had an argument with a loved one, I’d find my shoulders tightening and my heart accelerating, as if I were facing a dangerous predator. Remembering that these situations usually don’t present a physical danger has brought a lot of peace into my life.
Some of the wonderful benefits of this technique include:
1. Let Go Of Your “Attachments.” Regularly asking this question, and experiencing the peace it’s brought me, has helped me understand what spiritual teachers mean when they say we tend to get “attached” to things in the world — our money, looks, intimate partners and so on. We start thinking about these things as if they were part of our bodies (literally “attached” to us), and that if we lost them we’d be hurt or destroyed.
Similarly, some of us get attached to the image we present to the world, and the risk that someone might see us differently starts to look like a threat to our very existence. If we’re deeply invested in having everyone think we’re happy, upbeat people, for example, letting the world see our anger or sadness can seem like a dangerous thing to do, even though doing that once in a while probably wouldn’t kill us.
We can tell we’re attached to something when our bodies tense up and recoil at the thought that we might lose it. Reminding ourselves we normally aren’t in physical danger when we’re at risk of not getting promoted, losing our relationship, and so on helps us let go of that attachment, and stay calm and composed in the face of challenges.
2. Handle Conflict More Easily. When we feel criticized or put down by someone, many of us automatically react by fighting — shaming the other person or trying to convince them we’re right. Or, perhaps we get so overwhelmed with sensation that we feel paralyzed. If we pay close attention to how we’re feeling in these moments, I think, we’ll notice a “fight-or-flight” reaction in our bodies, as if we’re in the wild and a tiger is approaching.
It’s not always easy to do, but if we can remember, in the moment, that there’s no real threat to us in most heated conversations, those conversations become far less stressful. When we aren’t so hung up on our survival, we become much better at listening to and staying loving toward the other person (and toward ourselves).
3. Explore New Possibilities. Another great benefit of this exercise is that it helps us try new things. When we remind ourselves the activity we’re interested in trying doesn’t really present a threat to our lives, we feel more free to explore and enjoy the world. I found this technique particularly useful when I started doing public speaking — taking care to remember that I won’t die if the audience gets bored or disapproves of me dissolved a lot of anxiety.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savannah probably benefited from seeing nearly everything they did as a life-or-death matter, because many of the things they did in their daily lives actually were. It makes sense that our nervous systems seem geared to perceive the world as full of threats around every corner. But today, although we don’t live in a danger-free society, it’s better for our health and sanity to remember we’re usually pretty safe.
(This is the second part of a series I began a few months back with “Don’t Wait To Do Your ‘Real Work’,” an article about overcoming the fears that often hold us back from pursuing work that genuinely excites us.)
Much has been written about the importance of finding work that not only supports you financially but also deeply moves you. Many people react to this kind of advice by thinking something like “well, it’s nice that you can do something you’re passionate about, but I’m focused on trying to survive right now.” Presumably they figure that, once things are more financially stable for them, doing work that feels meaningful can finally become a priority. Or maybe they’ve grown too cynical to believe it’s even possible for them to enjoy working.
Doing something we’re genuinely interested in, of course, isn’t the only thing we tend to put off until we find the financial security we’re looking for. Many of us also put off taking our intimate relationships and outside pursuits as deeply as we’d like, hoping one day we’ll feel secure enough to go for what we want. The trouble is that, for many of us, the sense of security we crave never seems to arrive. For many of us, no matter what we achieve in terms of money and material rewards, a nagging fear that it could all disappear tomorrow lurks in the background.
We tend to assume that the sense of stability we’re seeking will come if we just work a little harder or longer. But is this true? I’ve known many wealthy people who, despite their material success, seem trapped in “survival mode,” fearing they’ll make a mistake and the abundance in their lives will dry up tomorrow. And of course, there are more public examples of famous actors, like Johnny Depp and Jennifer Lopez, who have, surprisingly (at least to me), been concerned that their careers won’t last.
What this suggests to me is that money won’t give us the lasting feeling of security many of us are chasing. Instead, I think it has more to do with our view of the universe. That is, do we see it as a basically safe place, where we’ll probably come out okay if we take some risks and even make a few mistakes? Or do we see the universe as unforgiving and hostile, likely to punish or destroy us for even a minor slipup? If we hold the second view, it’s not surprising that, no matter how secure our job seems, and how much money we have, that fear that “everything’s going to fall apart” keeps its hold on us.
If the degree of security we feel really depends on how we see the universe, how can we shift our perspective to develop the feeling of safety we want? In working with clients, I see it as one of my roles to help them cultivate what A.H. Almaas calls a sense of “basic trust,” or a “confidence in the goodness of the universe.” Here are three approaches to developing a more trusting perspective on life that I’ve found useful:
1. Let Go Of The Idea That “Insecurity Equals Success.” Many of us have spent our lives believing, consciously or otherwise, something like this: the more afraid I am of failing, the more successful I’m likely to be. We tend to assume that anxiety about running out of money or not achieving the status we want in our careers will keep us motivated. If we weren’t so afraid, after all, we’d have no reason to get out of bed or off the couch.
First, notice that this way of thinking puts you on a treadmill you can’t get off. If you really have to stay fearful to stay motivated, you can never allow yourself to relax and let go of your anxiety, because if you did, you’d lose your will to go on. Also, notice that this mindset can actually harm your productivity. When you’re constantly worried about your career security or performance, the time and energy you spend tossing and turning at night, endlessly second-guessing the work you produce, and so on don’t contribute much to advancing your career.
Most importantly, if you recognize that you’ve been thinking this way, just consider for a moment the possibility that sources of motivation other than fear exist. There are things you can enjoy doing so much, and feel so deeply moved by, that you don’t even think about the money, material rewards, or whatever else you’re earning when you do them. In other words, you can enjoy the process of doing those things without even thinking about the end product you’re creating.
Take the activities in your life you see as “play,” for instance. Suppose you enjoy running. Running is obviously a great way to stay healthy, but while you’re running you don’t need to focus your mind on the product—good health—to like doing it. You can enjoy the pure process of it, without giving any thought to the results you’re getting. Once you see this is possible, the next step is to find something you enjoy the process of doing—whether it’s fishing, computer programming, dog training or something else—and incorporating that into the work you do.
2. Face The Possibility Of Failure. Although we all seem to be afraid of failing in our careers and elsewhere, many of us never seriously consider what “failure” really means to us, and what we’d do to pick ourselves back up again if we did fail. When we take a hard look at these issues, we often find that the risk of failure no longer seems so terrifying.
I invite you to honestly ask yourself: what’s your definition of failure? Would it mean losing your job? Getting negative comments from the boss on a project? Not meeting your sales targets? Once you have an answer in mind, give some thought to what you’d do if that worst-case scenario came true. Would you find another job or career? Sell a few of your possessions? Take some time off and write a book?
Most of us are unwilling to seriously consider what we’d do if we “failed,” because even thinking about that feels too scary—it’s almost as if we’d die if the situation we’re imagining came about. But when we actually contemplate how we’d handle a “failure,” and begin coming up with fallback plans, we often discover a strength and resourcefulness in ourselves we didn’t know we had. In fact, we’d probably manage to survive and even thrive in the face of setbacks.
When we recognize we’re capable of dealing with most of the challenges we may face in our work, a peace and focus set in as we go through our normal routine. The risks we thought were too frightening to take, the conversations we thought were too difficult to have, and so on start to feel more manageable, and the success we’re looking for starts to feel more available.
3. Notice How The Fear Of Failure Feels. Ultimately, the worry that things will “fall apart,” in your career or elsewhere, is just a sensation you experience somewhere in your body—for many people, it’s the feeling of some part of their bodies tensing up. Like a cramp or a crick in your neck, it may be uncomfortable, but it isn’t likely to seriously hurt or kill you, and in fact it tends to pass away quickly.
Take a moment, the next time you’re feeling anxiety about your career, financial security, or something similar, to observe how that fear manifests in your body. What sensations let you know you’re feeling afraid?
When you simply start to notice how anxiety about failure feels for you, your relationship with that sensation begins to change. Many of us hold back from pursuing our most deep-seated goals—whether it’s the business we’re interested in starting, the screenplay we’d like to write, the relationship we’d like to have, and so on—to avoid experiencing this fear. But when we realize that the emotion of fear is actually a quickly passing bunch of sensations in our bodies, it ceases to look so threatening.
When we perceive our anxiety about failure for what it really is, the universe starts to look like a less hostile and more welcoming place to exist. And we come to see that the feeling of security we’ve been looking for can actually be found within ourselves.
I wrote a piece a little while back about transcending the fear of “having nothing to say” that often plagues us when relating with people. A similar fear, which I’ll discuss in this article, is the worry that we might not “have a comeback” when someone puts us down—that we’ll be unable to defend ourselves against verbal attacks. Someone may insult us, accuse us of a mistake, or dismiss us, and we won’t have a snappy reply ready.
Many people seem to harbor the unconscious fear that, if they don’t have a quick and witty enough reply when someone criticizes them, they’re actually going to be physically injured or die. Either they’ll be so humiliated that they’ll disintegrate, or they’ll lose face, be socially ostracized and perish from starvation or loneliness. This kind of anxiety has some people shy away from meeting people and avoid conflict, for fear that they’ll be challenged to a “war of words” they can’t win.
Some of us even experience this anxiety in situations where someone isn’t criticizing us, but is merely expecting a response. For instance, when a waiter at a restaurant asks for our order, and we don’t know what we want yet, some of us start to get anxious, as if failing to think of what we want quickly enough, or telling the waiter something he doesn’t want to hear, will actually put us in danger. Or we start to feel defensive and resentful, as if he’s insulting or challenging us.
Why We Have This Fear Of “Losing A Verbal Battle”
Why do we experience this fear? It doesn’t seem to make sense rationally. If someone, say, told me I was ugly and I didn’t reply, it’s not as if I’d suddenly shatter into a thousand pieces. Some psychologists say this fear is an automatic response ingrained into us in childhood. As young children, when our parents demanded an explanation for something we did, many of us probably did worry that our parents would withdraw their love for us if we didn’t respond quickly and convincingly.
From our perspective at the time, because we couldn’t take care of ourselves, our parents’ withdrawal of their affection really would have meant the end of us. As psychologist Gillian Butler writes in Manage Your Mind, “if you are vulnerable to being hurt by a particular person, or inexplicably go to great lengths to please someone else, it is probably because that person speaks to the child within you with the authority of the parent.”
Three Approaches To Managing This Anxiety
How do we overcome this fear and regain a sense of composure and control in our interactions? I’ll describe three approaches I’ve used myself and in working with others. If you find yourself dreading some interactions because you’re afraid you’ll be unable to defend yourself against verbal attacks, these techniques will likely give you some comfort.
1. Observe Yourself In The Moment. Watch for the thoughts and feelings that come up for you in those “clutch moments” where you feel the need to have a fast and witty retort. Are you concerned that you’re going to be hurt or destroyed? Are other people going to dislike or ridicule you? Are you going to inconvenience people or waste their time if you don’t say something quickly enough?
Or perhaps no particular thoughts come to mind when you’re experiencing this compulsion to respond, but you just feel uncomfortable sensations in your body. For example, maybe your face starts to feel hot, or your shoulders tighten up. You feel the overwhelming desire to reply quickly because you want to dissipate that tension or nervous energy.
If you pay close attention, and notice what arises in moments where you feel the urge to respond as quickly as possible, you can start putting those thoughts and feelings in perspective, and becoming aware of how little sense they make. For example, I used to frequently get anxious when someone asked me for a piece of information, such as directions to some place or a summary of a document I prepared at work. I’d worry that the other person might get angry or impatient. Because I didn’t want to experience this anxiety, I’d try to give a fast response.
When I actually trained my attention on this concern that the other person would lose patience with me, I finally recognized I was taking that concern way too seriously. I was treating the other person’s possible disapproval as if it were life-threatening. When I realized I had this perspective, I couldn’t help but laugh, and I gradually started feeling less anxiety and more freedom in all my interactions with people.
2. Breathe Into Your Back. Some of us, when we feel like someone else is challenging or criticizing us, are in the habit of surrendering—of frantically trying to please the other person, submitting to their will, or falling into sullen silence. We lose consciousness of our strength and dignity as human beings, and regress into childhood behaviors designed to pacify our parents.
One way we can counter this tendency to automatically surrender is to focus our attention on our spine—particularly the base of the spine, known in some spiritual traditions as the root chakra, or the source of our groundedness and solidity. You can do this by focusing your attention on your back, and any sensations, whether it’s tingling, tightness, or something else, you may experience in that area.
Breathe deeply as you hold your attention on your back. If you’ve done yoga, you’ll probably be familiar with the idea of “breathing into” part of your body—breathing as you focus your attention on some part of yourself—and this is what I’m talking about here. If you have trouble focusing your awareness as you breathe, put your hand on your lower back and concentrate on the pressure of your hand against your spine.
When you breathe into your spine, you’ll likely start to feel more solid and grounded, and less easily affected by others’ judgments and negativity. In fact, you may even start to recognize that many of the comments by others you may have been interpreting as critical actually weren’t intended that way at all. Most importantly, when you’re fully feeling the back of your body, you’re less likely to regress into trying to please others or escape in a confronting situation.
3. Practice Slowing Down. This is probably the most obvious solution I’ll talk about here, but it’s one few of us are actually willing to try. When someone says something to you, and you feel the urge to respond quickly and perhaps defend yourself, practice pausing, taking a breath, consciously choosing whether to answer, and—if you decide to reply—choosing what you’re going to say.
In the past, when you’ve felt this need to respond as quickly as possible, you may have been—at least unconsciously—afraid that you’d be physically hurt in some way if you didn’t reply, or replied too slowly. By consciously delaying your response, breathing, and choosing how to react, you can prove to yourself that you’ll survive unharmed if you don’t give into that urge. When you know this on a deep, visceral level, the urgent need to reply will fade away and be replaced by peace.
This can help you overcome the anxieties you may have around interacting with people and have you feel more comfortable and in control. As psychologist Richard H. Pfeiffer writes in the Real Solution Assertiveness Workbook, “the urgency to fix a problem too quickly is usually the result of anxiety. You don’t need to respond immediately to every problem or have an instant answer whenever your partner raises an issue.”
If trying this technique feels too scary, or you find it hard to remember to apply it during your conversations, I’d recommend starting small by practicing “slowing down” in interactions where the stakes don’t feel so high to you. For example, you might practice taking a breath and collecting your thoughts when a waiter asks what you want to order, or when a clerk at a store asks what you want to buy. Over time, you can start using this technique in situations that may feel less comfortable for you, such as when a loved one is accusing you of making a mistake.
Once I’d used these techniques for a while, I started noticing an interesting paradox. We tend to assume, consciously or otherwise, that we have to be constantly prepared to defend ourselves to make sure we can “hold our own” in a confronting situation. However, the more I let go of my fear of being unable to defend myself in a verbal confrontation, the easier communication with others became, even in what most people would see as “difficult” conversations. The more we let our guard down, the less hostile and threatening, and the more welcoming, the world appears.
I wanted to share with you another excerpt from my Career Satisfaction From Within Audio Course. This exercise helps us transcend our tendency to replay painful memories and imagine negative future scenarios while we’re working, and thus helps us find more productivity and peace in what we do. This exercise is an example of how the course isn’t just about making career transitions — it’s also for people who just want more fulfillment and success in what they do right now.
You can download the MP3 file by right-clicking on the link below and selecting “Save Target As.”
In other news, I wanted to point out two other special offers related to my audio program. First, I’m offering affiliates who sell the program a 30% commission from sales to buyers who visit from their websites. Second, if you’re a blogger and you’d be interested in reviewing the course, please contact me — I’m planning to provide free copies to bloggers who review the program.