"I'm stressing out about my new job," Jean told me. "Every time I think about it, I feel nervous, even when I'm not at work. I've tried getting rid of the stress, but that just makes it worse."
"That's a common mistake," I said. "to put your attention on what you don't want. What you need to do is shift your attention."
"To doing things that will improve your mood," I said. Jean thought about this for a moment. "What improves your mood?" I asked.
She didn't need long to think about it. "Listening to music," she said with a smile, "it always makes me feel good."
"That's a good one," I said. "When you're stressing out about your job, I recommend you play some of your favorite music and enjoy yourself. I know that doesn't seem like it would help you deal with your job, but it breaks the cycle. You'll stop going around in circles in your mind thinking about your job, and your improved mood will very likely increase your ability to handle your job. And I know there are other things you can do to improve your mood. Use them when you feel stressed."
Jean looked skeptical. "But it seems to me I should think about my job, try to figure it out."
"Sure," I said, "maybe there are things you could think about that would improve the way you deal with situations at work. In that case, sit down with paper and pen and make a list of the problems you want to handle. Then pick the most important problem and make another list of possible things you could do to solve that problem."
"That's pretty methodical," she said, looking surprised.
"It is. And it works better that trying to work things out in your head." It looked like Jean was thinking about this, so I stopped talking for a minute. "When you think about things only in your head," I said in a softer tone, "your mind tends to wander, and the thinking isn't productive. Making lists puts some order to your thoughts, and allows you to get somewhere. Another good use of making lists is to change your perception of your situation."
"What do you mean?" she asked. "You mean think more positive about it? I've already…"
"No," I interrupted, "I don't mean being positive. Every situation has many different ways it could be interpreted, and you can deliberately create alternative ways to interpret them. It only requires a little deliberate thought. Sit down with paper and pen again and make a list of the individual problems that bother you at work. Now take the one that bugs you the most, and come up with ten different ways to interpret that situation."
I paused for a moment, and went on, "This might take you some time to do, but it'll be worth it. You can break yourself out of the automatic way you now interpret your work situations, giving you more freedom of action, and you'll be more productive going about it this way than you would thinking about it in your head."
"I haven't been productive at all," she said, "This makes me feel less stressed just thinking about doing it."
I was nodding my head. "You know why? Because you know you'll be able to think of some good interpretations. Most people don't normally do this, so they just stick with the one that popped into their minds first, which probably isn't the best one. Even if it's pretty good, if you gave it more thought, you could think of even better ones. Come up with a bunch of them, and you'll find some really good ones — interpretations that don't stress you out as much and make you more effective at dealing with it, and sometimes you'll realize the new interpretation is even more likely to be true than the one you first used. Just seeing that there is more than one way of interpreting it will make you feel better because you won't be so certain about the interpretation that's stressing you out."
"This is good," Jean said, "I feel better already."
What was I doing here? I was shifting Jean's orientation from trying to get rid of something to creating something. Especially while feeling a negative emotion, the natural response is to try to get rid of something. That's the first response. But it is usually not the best response. To make a better response, you'll have to deliberately shift your approach over to something more constructive. You'll need to take your attention off what you don't want and put it on what you do want. This is very important and very practical. Then go even further and put your attention on what you can do to bring about what you want. Don't bother considering what you can't do because that is a waste of your time and will put you in a bad mood.
This is a healthy, constructive, and extremely effective way to solve problems.
"Call it the Second Universal Principle of Excellence," wrote Russell Gough in Character Is Destiny: The Value of Personal Ethics in Everyday Life, "One does not become excellent at something primarily by focusing on and avoiding what is wrong and bad but by focusing on and pursuing what is right and good." Or, as Klassy Evans so eloquently puts it, "First water, then weed."
I think you can see that this is a better approach. But when you're down in the trenches and not feeling very philosophical, it doesn't come very naturally. Harry, for example, has a problem he wants to solve: He is watching a movie at the theater with his son and a woman behind them is talking on her cell phone. This is annoying Harry. He is at a decision-point.
Whenever we are at a decision-point, we have lots of criteria to choose from. What will we base our decision on? What will we aim at?
Harry could aim to enforce the rule, turn your cell phone off in theaters. Result: He feels righteous indignation (an unpleasant feeling), he turns around and says, "That is rude," thus spreading his bad feeling to the woman too, who may be in a difficult situation, who already knows it is rude, but has something more important to deal with than courtesy.
Or, at this decision-point, Harry might aim at increasing good feelings. Right now he is feeling annoyed. He doesn't know what the lady on the cell phone is feeling. Aiming at this lofty target, Harry finds himself in unfamiliar territory. It is not the usual orientation of most people, so he has seen very few examples of it in his lifetime. His goal is harder for that reason — it requires a little more thought and creativity on his part, and also it has less chance of producing the result he wants since he's new at it and no doubt the woman will be surprised and may not know how to respond.
He thinks for a minute and comes up with an idea. He turns around and sees that the woman is bending forward and trying to talk quietly, but of course, it isn't working because the person on the other end can't hear her.
Harry taps her on the shoulder and when she looks up, he whispers as pleasantly as he can, "Could you go talk in the lobby?"
She says to the person on the other end of the phone, "Hold on a minute." She looks at Harry and whispers, "I'm sorry. My car broke down and I'm trying to get it fixed. We need it to drive to a very important meeting with her doctors." The woman motions toward the little girl sitting next to her. "She has had a very difficult month and she's too young to be left alone in the theater. I'll be off the phone in thirty seconds, I promise."
Harry considers the situation in light of this new information and gives her a warm smile as he feels his annoyance fading and he whispers back, "Okay."
Sure enough, she was off the phone quickly, and he felt better, and he's pretty sure she felt better.
Aiming to increase good feelings makes more positive solutions and less negativity. When you try to bring about something you want (like positive emotions), it works much better and has more pleasant side effects than trying to get rid of what you don't want (like negative feelings or unpleasant circumstances). This is a universal principle you can use every day: Rather than trying to get rid of what you don't want, work to bring about what you do want.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.