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Focus on the things you can control

Journalist and author Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life

by Psychologies

woman playing guitar

The project

When you’re stressed at work, it’s natural to respond by trying to reduce your workload or finding ways to ‘de-stress’, like a spa weekend. But the benefits are short-lived. The lasting way to beat stress is to understand how much stress results from trying to change things beyond your control.

The aim

It’s easy to think of stress as an external force, pressing down on you from outside. But it’s really the result of two things: external circumstances – your boss’s demand for work, or a messy desk – plus your beliefs about them. If you don’t care about your desk, it can’t stress you. When your beliefs are unrealistic, stress is inevitable.

The theory

Two unrealistic beliefs are more stress-inducing – and widespread – than any others. The first is that it’s possible to ‘get everything done’. But the amount you could do is infinite – you’ll never squeeze it all in. The more honest question to ask, says productivity expert Greg McKeown, is: ‘which problems do I want to solve?’ Does it matter if some emails don’t get fast replies? There’s no correct answer; the point is that some kind of trade-off is unavoidable. So you really don’t need to stress about getting it all done.

The second unrealistic belief is that you can control what, in reality, you can’t. You can control your own actions, and sometimes thoughts, but that’s about it. If you decide that you must change others’ behaviour, or what they think of you, stress will result.

Now, try It out

  • Practise emotional acceptance. Psychologists argue that your own emotions are among the many things beyond your control. Stop trying to stamp out feelings of stress with positive thinking – that makes things worse – and focus on taking action instead.
  • Rephrase your to-do list. To ensure you’re only focusing on what you can control, make sure every item on your list contains a physical verb: ‘phone Emily’; ‘go online and look for a job’. If you can’t find a concrete verb, that’s a sign it’s beyond your control.
  • Use ‘creative distraction’. Since stress depends on beliefs, there’s one sure-fire way to get a break from it: fully occupy your mind with something else. Traditionally ‘relaxing’ activities might not be best; they leave too much attention free for worrying. Hobbies requiring concentration – like learning an instrument or language – might prove far more effective.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock