Some days, work is harder than it usually is. Some days, work is so overwhelming that it becomes even more than a chore, or an obligation, or something you just have to get through. Sometimes, it becomes scary. And scary things can be paralyzing—the last thing we need when it’s time to get things done.
This is not a feeling that is unique to me, or to you. Google “Sunday scaries” and watch the articles and pleas for help come flooding in. Work stresses us out—badly.
We’re all stuck in this cycle of avoidance, stress, consequences, and survival (util next week) and we repeat it again and again. And we need to find a way out of it—fast.
It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve found something that works every time. And I won’t even make you read 1000 words to get to the answer.
The secret is just doing the work. Starting with the thing that makes you the most nervous. Facing something you’re confused by head on and attacking it. Getting that thing that you don’t wanna do done. We all know the feeling and we know it’s powerful.
I know that’s not a satisfying answer. It happens to be the correct one, but that doesn’t make it any easier to do. (I’m sure the answer to “how to live forever and be happy the whole time” is out there too, but we’re probably not gonna like it.)
But if you’re here reading this article, you probably are in a position where you at least want to give something a try. Here are the three simplest steps I’ve come to rely on to help me do the “impossible” task of getting the scary stuff done.
Find the root of your anxieties and make them smaller
My brain is, shall we say, hyper-active sometimes. Someone said to me recently, “whenever something is troubling you, you run way out ahead of it. If it’s not real, you make it real. And you make it even bigger.”
“And then you suffer more than you ever would have needed to.”
That’s often what the Sunday Scaries feel like to me.
The first thought that I recognize is “I don’t want to go to work tomorrow.” Then comes, “why don’t I want to go to work again?”
Then the thoughts flood. The co-worker that’s mean to you. The boss you’re scared of and are always fighting to try to impress. The work that you don’t enjoy doing. The work that you secretly don’t know how to do and are trying not to let it show. (I should have added “panic while Googling thing I don’t understand” into my daily schedule at my old job.)
So any attempt at remedying our relationship with work (or anything that gives us anxiety) should include an attempt at understanding the mind. It needs to be the beginning and end of any conversation or action-taking strategy around your mental state—it wouldn’t really make sense if it didn’t.
Mindfulness is so powerful as a tool that can help you manage work anxiety. Paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and surroundings without judgment.
When you feel anxious at work, take a few moments to close your eyes, take deep breaths, and focus on your breath. This will help you calm your mind and reduce your anxiety. You can also practice mindfulness throughout the day by taking short breaks to stretch, walk, or meditate. This will help you stay focused and productive while also reducing your anxiety.
Then, you’ll see the scary monsters start to shrink. They won’t necessarily go away, and that’s not what we’re trying to have happen. But you’ll be able to see them as they really are. And that’s when they begin to become manageable.
Ease the pain by doing one tiny thing
Now that we’ve put things into perspective by starting to look at our tasks and the reality of them, there’s one more thing to do: begin. Take action.
In a lot of ways, it’s the hardest step of all. This is where I have gotten stuck countless times. Even after procrastinating until there was literally nothing left to procrastinate with.
It was in one of those moments of paralysis when I came across a YouTube video: an old interview with Jeff Bezos, when he still had some wisps of hair.
He was asked a simple question: “how do you deal with stress?”
And he could have responded with platitudes, or with a simple basic answer we’ve all heard before. But instead, he said this.
“Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over. Usually when I’m stressed, it means there’s something that I haven’t identified that is bothering me.”
“And I find that making the first phone call or sending the first email—the mere fact that we’re addressing the problem, even if it’s not solved, that makes me feel better. Stress comes from ignoring things that you shouldn’t be ignoring”
My jaw was already on the floor, but he kept going.
“Stress doesn’t come from hard work. Hard work can be incredibly fulfilling. You can be unemployed and anxious as ever.” He continued the example: if you’re unemployed but actively seeking work, sending out your resume, going to interviews, you will feel active and productive and like you’re progressing. Sitting at home and moping about it, on the other hand, will exacerbate the pain.
So often, the anxiety you feel is much greater than any amount of pain that could come from actually doing what needs to be done. And the “fix,” in a lot of scenarios, is just doing something. It’s the act of taking it from your Brain World, where it’s 100 feet tall and scaly and scary and dark and red, and putting it into the real world, where it might be a little complicated or annoying but far less terrifying.
Gain some momentum and do the hardest thing
So, now that we’ve hopefully made two substantial and well-reasoned attempts at minimizing or otherwise dispelling the fear our work has caused—
Now comes the real doing, if you can stomach it (which I know you can).
There’s this theory out there in the productivity world that I never wanted to pay attention to—because of its name. It’s called “eating the frog.” You understand my perspective on that, right? But as it turns out, that was almost a microcosm of the idea itself.
The “eat the frog” theory is a popular strategy that suggests tackling the most challenging or dreaded task of the day first thing in the morning, which is often compared to “eating a live frog”—something unpleasant that you want to get over with as soon as possible.
The idea behind it is that once you have completed the most difficult task, everything else on your to-do list will seem easier by comparison, and you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and momentum that can carry you through the rest of your day. It can also help prevent procrastination and reduce stress, as you won’t have the looming task hanging over your head.
The “eat the frog” theory has been attributed to Mark Twain, who supposedly said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Apparently that attribution has since been questioned and debunked. But it sounds about as wise as anything else he’s said, doesn’t it?
And if it’s good enough for Mr. Twain or someone impersonating him, it’s good enough for me. It also happens to work.
1. Be mindful. 2. Do something (anything). 3. Do the hard thing. 4. Feel better.
One of the more bitter pills that I’ve had to swallow over and over again in therapy is that anxiety is not something that can be cured, or something that “goes away.” It’s something you live with, cope with, manage. There are myriad reasons for why that’s true.
But what it leaves us with is a need to learn how to rein in a common—most likely universal—experience, and this can be accomplished with the right strategies. By practicing mindfulness, creating a plan of action, and attacking your work with a new ferocity, I think you will be able to measurably reduce your anxiety and feel more in control of your work, and by extension, your life.
More than anything I’ve ever typed, this is the most “easier said than done” advice I’ve given. I recognize that. This game is a hard one for sure. But there was also a lovely calm that fell over me when I heard those words from Jeff Bezos. I had the feeling that next time I felt stressed, I was gonna follow his advice, and see if it worked. And, I’m pleased to report, it did. I hope you have the same experience and can find a little more peace. Good luck out there.