There’s a certain word I’ve banned myself from using in this post. Let’s just say this word is related to a social media platform that I prolifically mentioned in my last two posts. Furthermore, after some initial success, my subsequent severe overuse of said social media platform over the past month almost left me looking like a bit of a, well, um, er, twit.
Using famous people to help spread my message online was good fun at first. But what started out as a good cause ended up becoming a time-consuming near-obsession masquerading under the illusion of a good cause. It was a pretty powerful illusion though, as it kept me feeling busy and productive over the Christmas holidays.
Just to briefly update you, I failed in the Presidential bid I challenged myself to in my last post. I didn’t even come close. But as you may recall, the whole point was that I actually couldn’t fail, regardless of the outcome, simply because I gave it my best shot. Anyway, enough said, lesson learned, moving on.
Staying with the topic of feeling busy and productive, however, I came back to work after three weeks off over Christmas feeling rather refreshed – only to find the not-entirely-unexpected 300+ emails in my work inbox. Ah, the anti-social media platform!
Without getting into a “my inbox is bigger than your inbox” competition, I couldn’t help but recall how in my black dog days of old, a tidal wave of 300+ emails in my inbox would set me flying into a mad panic.
I would already have been anxiously dreading what awaited me in my inbox for the last few days of my holiday. When I finally placed my nose back on the grindstone, fingers back on the keyboard, I would take a deep breath – and never know where to start. Look at the most recent ones first. Then worry about the older ones and skip to them. Then get even more anxious and skip back to the most recent ones again. Then catch a glimpse of what looked like an important one somewhere in the middle, and absorb myself in that one for half an hour.
Amidst a barrage of interruptions from walk-ups, phone calls, even more incoming emails, I would randomly and frantically continue sifting through as much of my inbox as possible during that first day back. I would then spend the train journey home and the rest of that night feeling overwhelmed, worrying about those emails I hadn’t even managed to open yet.
I might have caught a glimpse of the subject of one or two of the unopened ones. As I lay fitfully awake at three o’clock in the morning, when the anxious mind is at its most vivid and most unchallenged, I would dream up weird and not-so-wonderful scenarios for the messages of doom that those emails might contain. All this amidst the usual worrying about marks on my skin, had I put the car handbrake on, unplugged the iron, locked all the doors and so on.
The black dog can be a real nasty bitch, the way she sits on your chest and growls right in your face in the middle of the night when your mind is so defenceless. At times like this, 3 unread emails would feel more like ∞ as they swirled around at high speed inside my irrational head. More often than not, when I finally read them the next day I would discover that they were mostly old news that had already been dealt with in my absence, or just reply-alls with the simple message “thanks”. Delete…
Of course it’s not just emails that keep us anxiously busy at work. I’ve been managing teams in various capacities and of various sizes for over ten years now, and I often get individuals just providing me with reasonable updates – good old FYIs. But even a simple FYI could in the past so easily set me off.
Sometimes I would panic and do something – anything really – from feeling the need to take action about the situation I was being FYIed about. I feared coming across as a slackarse, uncaring manager – yet I didn’t seem so concerned about coming across as a reactive, worry-bag of a manager.
At other times, I might be set off by an unmerited lack of trust in my own team’s abilities to completely cover off every conceivable scenario in a particular minor drama. Without an anxious what-if mind like the one I used to have, I could hardly have expected them to either.
This was worse than micro-management. This was extreme professional time-wasting on my part. Either way, I would end up needlessly involving myself – and feeling usefully busy – in situations that someone else was dealing with anyway as it was their job and not mine – situations that simply did not need me.
I’m not saying that I was completely crap, unorganised and scatter-brained at my job. Several people I’ve worked with have expressed surprise when reading my story, partly because my anxiety-driven approach made me come across as someone who would go the extra mile when the situation called for it. But as I just alluded to, someone else in my team would already be running that extra mile anyway, and didn’t necessarily need me to hold their hand.
My defence-mechanism sense of humour also made many of my colleagues think I took a lot of stresses in my stride. This all appears to further illustrates how it is possible to function for a prolonged period with the appearance of normality, productivity, even contentment on the surface – while the great struggle with one’s internal demons rages on beneath.
Such experiences have taught me a lesson of the bleeding obvious variety – that feeling busy and involved does not always equal being productive. Delving a little deeper, I’ve discovered the hard way that there is a vast difference between thinking about work all the time, and working all the time – and yet to the anxious mind, both can often feel like one and the same.
To make matters worse, I often suffered from the grand illusion within my anxious mind that it was possible to complete in a day all the work that could be done that day. In the reality of today’s corporate workplace, there is never in a month of Sundays enough time to get done all the work that could be done. And so, my anxious mind could always find some work to do somewhere, to create an even grander illusion of addressing those worries swirling around inside my head.
No wonder so many people suffer from frog-boiling burnout in their forties, having spent a couple of decades thinking they could just keep on coping. I too thought that meltdowns happened to others, not to me. I also feel that the main cause of my burnout was not the amount of hours I was working, but rather my inability to focus on just doing my own job and letting others to theirs. There was also my inability to find the off-switch; my inability to stop worrying about work when the bell rang at the end of the day for hometime.
It’s not that easy, you may say, you can’t just ‘find your off-switch’. And I wouldn’t disagree with you there. But I would argue that everyone has an off-switch. Finding it, however, can be as good old Blackadder once put it: like looking for a small piece of hay in a giant stack of (very sharp) needles.
I can’t say for sure how and where I found mine. It might have been while I was hiding from my black dogs in my deepest, darkest cave. Perhaps, faced with the ultimate implications of not finding it, I realised it would be less painful to frantically rummage through the needles with my bare hands, and I just stumbled across it on one day by accident. Or, perhaps less adventurously, I just found it in a packet of modern day prescription medication.
Either way, I went from believing I was not lucky enough to have an off-switch, to suddenly having one – and more importantly, having my time and my mind to myself outside of work.
As a result, over the past 12 to 18 months, I’ve learned to fully embrace the fact that all I can do in a day is the best I can do in a day. I am no longer hard on myself as long as I can hand on heart say that I’ve truly done my best in the time available to me.
I do get my work done, but I no longer get stressed or suffer from anxiety or depression because of it. I also harbour only healthy concerns should a deadline start to loom closer and closer, and this allows me to shift my focus productively, without going out of my mind with worry.
I’ve also come to the realisation that although it is not possible to get all the work done in a day that could be done, it is more often than not possible to get done all the work that absolutely needs to be done in a day.
I find I am able to best achieve this by using to-do lists. I’ve actually been working from to-do lists for many years, thinking that writing things down was the best way to organise myself, to ensure I didn’t forget even the smallest detail. But my lists used to have about thirty tasks at the start of any given day. Just like the overflowing inbox, I would waste each day jumping from task to task and back again. I would often end the day feeling anxious because I had a longer list than the one I started the day with. Worse still, I began to rely on my lists and found that I couldn’t remember anything without writing it down. To-do lists were my way of attempting to keep all the chaos under control, but they were having the opposite effect.
Ah, control! It’s such an ugly word, isn’t it? It suggests that you can either be in control or out of control, with no in between. It’s also such an egotistical word. I mean, when do you ever hear someone in the corporate world tell their boss they have a situation under their influence? We all want to believe we are big and important enough to control our lives – and in many cases, those in our lives. But in reality, isn’t influence all we are really capable of? Influence, that is, masquerading under the illusion of control?
If I can just stretch the imagination briefly, I do wonder whether some of us are also prone to anxiety and depression because we believe we can strive for control, but we are left feeling sub-standard because we are only capable of obtaining a degree of influence. I also wonder whether at some level we are further prone to depression when our true inner self is at conflict, or worse, taken over by our outer ego through expectations, words or actions that do not represent our true inner self, our true beliefs and our true capabilities.
Well, what has changed for me is that I’ve learned the magic influential power of the number three – and the magic influential power of setting seemingly sub-standard objectives. I’ve discovered that if I set myself any more than three main objectives that I must achieve that day, I can so easily become a lost cause. Three objectives might sound sub-standard, but when you factor in interruptions from phone calls, emails, meetings and walk-ups, more often than not three is just about spot on for any given day.
I’m constantly amazed even today, whether at work or play, that when I think I have an incredibly busy day ahead with a zillion things to do, when I write everything down, it’s more like just ten things. Even they can still be reduced to the magic number of three for any given day. All else is bonus.
When it comes to interruptions, I’ve also learned that whenever someone is FYIing me, they often just want to use someone – anyone really – as a sounding board. I might be the logical – or nearest – such board. Or, they might just want to make me aware. So nowadays I like to thank them, ask the question ‘is there any action you require of me?’ and trust them enough to leave them to it if I am not required.
From my own experience of seeing where getting too anxious, too involved as a manager can get me, I’ve also developed the confidence to openly communicate my approach to anyone I am managing. I let them know that if anyone ever feels that I am not pulling my weight in any given situation, to just tell me, as I am more than willing to pull more weight if really needed. In this way, everyone understands each other, the black dog that used to bark at me that I was being an uncaring, slackarse manager now whimpers away in his kennel – and I get on with doing my own job.
My new-found ability to have this approach to my work has quite literally transformed my working life. My weekends have doubled in length, only because I no longer suffer from Mondayitis on a Sunday, and I really do now enjoy the work that I once used to despise so much.
Of course, as I’ve alluded to above, much of this has come down to me developing a degree of confidence in myself and my ability to approach my work in the way that I now do. It’s an elusive and curious little creature is our friend confidence, and as such she will have an entire post – my next post – dedicated to her. As with all my previous posts, I will take my time so as to not get overly busy writing it – and in doing so, I will be able to give it my very best.
I first read of a concept similar to the power of the number three in the book “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss. I’d therefore like to take this opportunity to gratefully acknowledge that. I’d love to open my copy of the book right now and elaborate a bit more here, but we’ve just moved house, and my copy is somewhere in one of about thirty unopened boxes in our spare room. Anyway, I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to get more out of their day. Even though I can’t claim to be even close to a 4-hour work week myself, many of the principles the author discusses can go a long way towards at least making a 40+ hour work week more productive and enjoyable.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to invite suggestions from you on any particular topics you might like me to cover in future posts. The story of how I beat the black dog is nearing an end. However I intend to keep writing on various related one-off topics and how they related to my own experience with depression. In upcoming posts, for example, I will be writing about my views on the likes of confidence, the effects of exercise, the power of understanding the unknown, the importance of taking full responsibility for your actions and your circumstances – and any others that may be of interest to you.
As I am not a man of few words, and as you have read this far, once again thank you for reading!