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The Small Stuff

- what to do when little problems turn big

Many of us know the saying ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’? As a coach I meet a lot of people struggling to keep on top of the ‘small stuff’ of their working lives — particularly given the swelling volume in today’s inboxes, message apps and social media. And that’s a problem, because paying too much attention to that small stuff diverts your attention away from the bigger picture.

As was the case with Felicity. A medical specialist in her early 50s, she worked for an international company, dealing with regulatory science around cosmetic products.

She arrived to our session feeling overwhelmed with work. As well as handling responsibilities in her area across Australia and New Zealand and managing a team of four, she complained at length about the amount of email and Skype chat she had to deal with. As is the case for many of us, Felicity received hundreds of emails and messages a day, each needing a response and demanding her thought and attention.

As we sat down and talked about her state of mind, she explained how working under such pressure was making it difficult for her to define priorities — being overwhelmed was making her unproductive.

So I started by asking her to give me an example of an email that was particularly weighing on her mind, and to describe what came into her head when she thought about it.

The example she gave was a message from a member of the Australian senior management team, which had queried when she would complete a particular task. “I just feel so bad,” she began, “because I’ve got so many things to do in order to answer that email. I can’t just send back a quick response because they’re asking for very specific information …” And on and on she went.

For just one email, it was prompting an awful lot of thought — and there were hundreds more of these bombarding her inbox each day.

As I often say, what lies at the heart of our well being is our understanding the role of thought in creating our moment to moment experience, and this was clearly what we needed to explore with Felicity.

I asked her to imagine a piece of paper divided into three columns, with a task, say, ‘Skype meeting with Joe’, in the centre column. I then asked her to imagine she had to fill in the left column with past experiences and assumptions that came into her head when she thought about the task.

What she told me was that Joe was demanding the last time they met, that he didn’t like his job, he didn’t want to work on this project, he had been late … The list — which related more to Joe than the actual task — went on.

We then moved to the right column, where I asked her to describe any concerns she had about the up coming meeting. She described how there was a lot of preparation to do and she was worried she hadn’t done enough, that a lot was riding on the meeting, that she needed to confirm the time, that she’d put all this time in and he might not even show up. Again, the list went on.

And it was then Felicity clicked what was going on. It wasn’t the tasks themselves that were driving her to distraction; it was all her stressed and fretful thinking about them from her experience in the past and her thoughts about what might happen in the future. The more she delved into these unhelpful negative thoughts, the huger, hairier and more depressing her tasks seemed to become.

So what was the antidote? How do you stop sweating the small stuff?

Well, a good start is to simply realise when your thought process is taking you off course into unproductive territory. Bearing in mind that our thoughts create our experience, the next time she received an email or had a meeting that was particularly stressing her out, it was important Felicity didn’t waste time dwelling on it with stressful thinking. Instead she could decide to take action on the matter or put it aside until her mind quietened down. Even if she took just a small step, such as sending a quick response to an email explaining she had received the message and when she would be able to get to the task, it was important to bring her thinking back to the present and the task itself.

Unsurprisingly, this strategy increased her sense of productivity and freed up her time. With a greater sense of control and mindfulness that she was creating her thoughts in the moment, she was also able to think of new ways to better manage her time and question assumptions she had made in the past. Who said you had to respond to every email within 24 hours? And who was setting these deadlines that were constantly putting her and her team under pressure? At the end of our sessions together she sent a note telling me she now had 30% more time in her working day.

Often people confuse the rational and analytical thinking they need to do in their job, which is productive, with the worried and stressful thinking that’s unproductive. But it’s crucial you separate the two because the small stuff really ain’t worth the sweat.