We are so filled with expectations of success and happiness that we spend much of our lives scurrying from one thing to the next in an endless quest to achieve. Regardless of what we accomplish, we often tell ourselves that we should be doing more, and that we should be doing it better and faster. We never feel completely satisfied with the way things are. As a result, we live with a nagging sense of incompleteness and an underlying anxiety of imperfection.
Constant anxiety becomes long-term stress. Stress piles up in small amounts, moment by moment and day by day, and we barely notice it until a critical part of our life begins to suffer. Our health fails. Our relationships deteriorate. A personal tragedy jeopardizes our success.
The anxiety and stress that build up during our constant striving are fueled by our attitude. If we can change our attitude, we can transform inadequacy into contentment. Here are a few mind-changers that can help to overcome the attitude of anxiety.
ONE THING AT A TIME
There are so many things on our to-do lists that we automatically multitask to save time. We think that we can accomplish more by doing several things at once. Modern electronics, particularly cell phones, have turned us into a multitasking culture.Our minds constantly jump from one thing to another, devoting attention to one of a number of tasks for a very short period of time, then moving on to the next. Multitasking is a myth because we can’t effectively maintain concentration in short spurts of time. Our attention becomes scattered and diluted, and we wind up not doing anything particularly well.
The most detrimental type of multitasking, in terms of our attitude of anxiety, is not physical but mental. Mental multitasking, or multi-thinking, occurs when we’re not engaged in any physical activity at all. We multi-think about everything that we feel we need to do. When we multi-think, we overwhelm ourselves by contemplating every conceivable task and chore that needs to be completed in the near and far future, often convincing ourselves that everything is a high priority that needs to be done sooner rather than later. Whenever we feel “overwhelmed,” it is usually because we are focusing on the totality of everything that we believe needs to be done.
We are happiest, and most peaceful, when we focus on one task at a time, when we concentrate fully on just one activity. Multitasking is automatic because it is mindless. Instead, make a list of all of the tasks that need to be done. Divide them into sub-tasks if necessary. Prioritize the list so that anything urgent and important is scheduled sooner rather than later. And then concentrate on one task at a time. If something important should interrupt that task, then concentrate on the interruption. Otherwise, go back to the task. This is being mindful.
Often, we avoid certain tasks or situations because we anticipate disaster or, at least, unpleasantness. The medical test that we’re supposed to schedule will reveal that we have an incurable disease. The boss appears in our office to interrupt us with horrible news. If we go to the party next week we’ll have to spend time with someone we really don’t like. The more we think about it, the more we magnify the possible negative outcomes, and the likelihood of their occurrence. In our imagination, one possible negative outcome leads to a chain of possible negative outcomes – in our minds, a trip to the grocery store can lead to complete ruination.
To avoid unpleasantness, we procrastinate and put off things that are much better dealt with immediately. The more we put these things off, the more opportunity we have to think about all of the things that could possibly go wrong. We postpone unsavory chores, delivering bad news and having difficult conversations.
The least amount of anxiety comes from doing unpleasant tasks as soon as possible, so we don’t live with a constant sense of dread as we continue to anticipate them. The odds are that the negative consequences of cleaning out the garage, an appointment with the doctor or an awkward conversation with a coworker will be much less severe in reality than they are in our minds, and the sooner we do them the less time we will spend agonizing over them.
The flip side of the coin contains those things that we anticipate to be overly joyous. We expect accolades at work after we complete a particularly difficult and complex job, but no one says anything. We envisage our upcoming vacation to be idyllic, but our reservation is lost. We look forward to the best party ever, but it is a flop. Unrealistic expectations frequently lead to disappointment. It’s okay to be satisfied with a job well done. It’s okay to look forward to that next vacation. But events in life usually exceed or fall short of our expectations, so why detract from the actual experience by dwelling on unrealistic possibilities?
We need to prepare ourselves for countless events and situations throughout life. But being prepared is not the same as as over-anticipating positive or negative outcomes.
IT’S GOOD ENOUGH
It has been said that the best is the enemy of the good. Our quest to be perfect in everything that we do breeds anxiety and feelings of insecurity, and it steals time from other tasks. Trying to be perfect fuels feelings of inferiority because we never seem to be able to do things as well as we would like, or to accomplish as many things as we feel we should.
Perfection leads to an ever-growing to-do list and poor time management. Not only do we feel that what we do is never good enough, we find that we have more and more things to do because we spend so much time trying to make everything perfect. By devoting so much attention to eliminating every possible flaw in every minute detail, we can easily neglect not only other important tasks, but entire areas of our lives.
Whatever we choose to engage in, we should do our best. Once the task is complete or the goal has been met, it’s okay to continue only if we can realistically expect to obtain further benefits. Otherwise, it is better for our psychological well-being to recognize that what we’ve done is “good enough,” and then move on.
Hope is the feeling of wanting something good to happen. It is a negative feeling because it implies that anything beneficial that can happen is outside of our control. Hope tells us that for anything good to come about, it must arise from external circumstances. Hope produces a state of mind in which we are powerless, not powerful. Hope convinces us that we are not in control of our lives.
Hope is similar to worry. When we hope that good things will happen in the future, we are really worrying about bad things happening in the future. We are most prone to engage in worrisome thinking after we make a decision. We spend a great deal of time and energy worrying about whether our decision was correct. That is, we hope our decision was correct. The time for worry is beforethe decision is made, not afterward. By hoping that things turn out the way we want, we unsettle our minds and our thought patterns. Hope breeds anxiety.
We should do the best we can and then let it go. Consider all of the possibilities and make the best decision based on the information that is available, and then watch it play out. Nothing worthwhile can be accomplished by sitting back and hoping for good things to happen. Much can be accomplished by taking the actions necessary to make good things happen.
IT IS WHAT IT IS
We tend to convince ourselves that we have the ability to control every aspect of our lives when, in fact, most of what happens in our lives is not within our control. This is especially true when dealing with other people who will simply not react the way we wish. Occasionally, our delusion of control leads us to over-react to bad situations or outcomes because things are not the way we expect them to be.
There are some things that are within our control and some things that are not. Happiness comes from knowing the difference. This is equanimity, the master key to inner peace. We let things come and go, not being emotionally charged about outcomes that do not affect us personally, and tempering our emotions for those things that do. When things don’t turn out the way we’d like, we accept the new situation, determine whether there is any way that we can change it, and move on.
Throughout our lives we expand our influence and control in many areas of life. This is natural. But we need to realize that the boundaries of our area of control will most likely never reach the boundaries of our area of concern. We cannot control each and every one of the many things that concern us. The most we can do is prepare well, take the actions that are within our control and observe the results.
These five mind-changers may not make us more successful or increase our accomplishments, but they will provide us with more peace of mind and reduce our anxiety. This will not happen overnight. We need to exercise our new attitude as much as possible so that it becomes natural for us. It’s okay to put an oar in the water to change our direction from time to time, but we can often accomplish more if we just “go with the flow.”