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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 August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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