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Handling the bad stuff

Handling the bad stuff

Many people are having a bad time in organizations today. It’s not simply those experiencing budget cuts and lay-offs. Many others are experiencing a deep sense of hurt and loss: loss of much of a life outside of work, loss of their hopes and expectations, loss of their trust in the future, loss of confidence in reaching their career goals. The cruelest hurt is the collective loss of belief that things will soon return to normal. In today’s cut-throat world of global competition and corporate greed, it’s hard to know what normal is.

So many losses at one time are hard to bear. When things go wrong like this, we usually get mad or we become depressed. And because we live in a “can do” society, far more people typically get mad. Anger also has a quality of energy that makes you feel that you’re doing something. Depression may follow, but at the beginning you feel buoyed up by that sense of righteous anger. Of course, to sustain your anger and resentment, you do need a target. You have to be mad at someone or something. So people look around for a suitable scapegoat to take the blame for their disappointment and unhappiness. Where do they find one? “Out there” in the world. The greedy bosses, conniving politicians, job-stealing foreigners, sly financiers, or simply those cursed computers and machines.

I’m not going to excuse those who deserve criticism. But what gets missed is how powerless you make yourself whenever you locate the causes of your hurt “out there.”

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If you excuse yourself from any part in what has caused your hurt and pain, you also cut yourself off from responding in ways likely to make your life better. It may feel as if you’re doing something, but mostly you’re inside your head, imagining what you would love to do to the guilty party—if only you had the chance. Can you change Wall Street’s obsession with short-term profits? Can you you give your Tin Man of a boss a heart? And if you act out your feelings and vent your anger on someone you can get to—maybe your colleagues, your friends, or your family—you will have alienated people who might otherwise have been willing to help. Nothing else will have changed. You still have the problem; only now you have people who feel mad at you as well.

The trouble with blaming “them”—whoever “they” are—is that they are also “out there” where you have no direct control and probably little influence. While you dissipate your energy in resentful complaints and self-righteous demands, “they” are untouched.

A friend of mine has a compelling way of putting this: “Whatever you resist tends to persist.” If you direct your anger at someone, they usually fight back, turning a one-time hurt into an on-going conflict. If you blame impersonal forces, they catch your attention again and again, until it’s easy to believe they’re behind every hurt you suffer. The more you fret and fume about “them,” the more power you give “them” over your life, adding to your helplessness.

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Whatever happens, you always have the power to choose your response. If you can’t change “them,” you can still change yourself.

When bad times come around, try modifying the responses and attitudes “in here”—in your mind and heart —not “out there.” What happens in our lives is a blend of external events and internal reactions, so changing how you react will always affect the outcome—maybe not completely or instantly, but quite certainly.

The next time something or someone seems to be hell bent on messing up your life, try stopping and asking yourself these questions before you launch into the usual indignant complaints:

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  • “What have I done (or not done) that has contributed to this problem?”
  • “What have I been avoiding that I know I should have faced up to long ago?”
  • “What am I postponing that I know I should have done by now?”
  • “What am I blaming on others that I know is down to me?”
  • “What am I going along with that I know I should refuse?”
  • “What am I agreeing to that I know to be false?”
  • “What am I accepting that I know is selling me short?”
  • “What can I do about the things I’ve just discovered?”

Ask the questions in a spirit of curiosity, with a genuine interest in the answers. Don’t add to your guilt or try to beat yourself up over what you find. Guilt is a worthless emotion and beating yourself up changes nothing. The purpose of this exercise is to help you break through the automatic habit of pushing blame “out there.”

Only when can you see clearly what in your actions or attitudes has contributed to the problem can you discover what you can do that will have some chance of producing change. We’ve all done our share of blameworthy things; we’ve all been the innocent victims of circumstance—then made things worse by our response. As long as you deny accountability for your part in how your life has turned out, you’re held fast in pain and loss. Let go of your baggage and move on.

One of the greatest threats we face today is the relentless increase in global whining. Instead, conserve your energy for the positive task of confronting setbacks and exploring fresh ways to move forward. Don’t let anger and scapegoating others make you helpless. Change what you can and work with what you cannot. If you are honest with yourself, you will be surprised just how much falls into the first category and how little into the second.

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Adrian Savage is a freelance writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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