Worry and stress: how to avoid sorry distress

Part 1 - practicalities


The trouble with human beings is that we are thinking machines without an off switch.                    

Tad Boniecki



This two-part article is a general piece on how to solve problems and diminish stress. This first part deals with the practical and mental aspects of tackling problems. There are a lot of suggestions here, so just pick out one or two that could be helpful to you now - don't worry about the others.



If you feel you "can't cope" or that it is "all too much" or that "you can't get going" then make the problem specific and concrete. What particular problem or situation can't you cope with? What exactly are the bits that add up to "too much"? What is it that you are unable to start doing? Problems can seem diffuse and general but solutions are always specific and particular.


Solutions begin with the formulation of the problem, eg "I am unable to balance the needs of my family and career". The next step is to look at what exactly is going wrong, eg "I feel totally tired out". Then think what specific strategies you can take to lighten your burden, eg do less, share the load, take a holiday, hire help, postpone the inessential, and so forth. Then make it more concrete, such as what particular things can you take off your task list or decide who can help you. The more you refine the problem definition the easier it becomes to frame a solution. The key is to identify the first step you need to take.



This is probably the most important single technique of problem solving. Break up a big problem into small and manageable sub-problems, each of which can be tackled one step at a time. Learn how to solve the easy parts of the overall problem or challenge. As you do so, you learn more about the problem area and you will be able to tackle the harder bits, which it's best to leave for last.


Many people fall into the trap of thinking in all-or-nothing terms. The 'all' is too much, so they do nothing. In reality every project proceeds in steps, even if the task appears monolithic. If you can break up a complex task into simple and well-defined sub-tasks then you have a much better chance of success. Conversely, the hardest problem is the one which leaves you with no idea where to start.



Compartmentalisation is an important tool. "Not now" is an excellent remedy for a problem about which you cannot do anything at the present moment. By breaking up your life into separate compartments you prevent leakage of worry from one area into another. One of the best rules of problem solving is, "One elephant at a time." It is the flip side of the proverb, "United we stand, divided we fall." If you isolate your problems you can pick them off one at a time. Do not be overwhelmed by a range of problems and issues - attack them singly and single-mindedly. Especially, do not try to do two difficult things at the same time. If a problem challenges you then give it a fair slice of time with your undivided attention. However, make sure you move on to something else if you are not making progress.


Get started

Strangely, this is often the hardest step. Once you pack your bags, the rest of the journey can begin. Even projects that took decades to accomplish began with a single action, such as a drawing or plan, or just a conversation. The key is to take one concrete step, however small. The only sure thing is that if you do nothing then nothing will happen. Ensure that you do the preparatory work that is needed, such as obtaining the right tools and materials, and that you have the necessary knowledge to begin.


Once you begin a task in earnest, even an onerous one, you will probably find that you acquire momentum and feel more energised and more motivated. Indecision about how to start is perhaps the greatest single pitfall of problem solving. Even a false start is better than paralysis. The problems that wear me down mentally the most are the ones where I can't make a decision. If this is the case, then set yourself a time limit for making that decision, even if you cannot be sure that it is right.


Play around

Don't just sit there marvelling at the complexity and difficulty of what you are trying to do. Make a start, even if you think that it may lead nowhere. This is especially true of doing things on the computer, so start clicking! Unless you play with the tools available and experiment with what they do, you won't learn anything. There is little point in reading the manual from cover to cover if you don't apply what it says. Reading without applying the material is almost as pointless as reading about bathing instead of taking a bath. We learn best by doing, not by reading, listening or thinking. Play around and have fun - it is an excellent way to learn.


Be active, write things down, make a drawing, sketch out a plan. A typed document will help you feel like you are doing something serious, even if it is just a scrappy list. Seeing things written out in some detail on paper makes them appear more manageable.


Invite luck: give new ideas and techniques a try. Be an opportunist. Use any tricks or shortcuts that make things easier. It doesn't have to be hard!


Make mistakes

Paradoxically, failure teaches us more than success. If you succeed then all you are likely to learn is that your approach works. Failure motivates you try something new when the old way does not succeed. Mistakes and failure hurt, but this pain is valuable because it is the engine that drives us to improve. The legendary chess master, Capablanca, learnt more from the few games that he lost than from the hundreds that he won. If you experiment and find out a few dozen things that don't work you'll start to get an idea of what might. So get out there and start making mistakes!


Take small risks. It is better to try something and fail then to dither and not do anything at all. Failure teaches, doing nothing only reinforces passivity. When you begin a task postpone judgement and criticism for later; just chop the wood for now. It is important to let go of getting things right.


Limit thinking

Don't ponder the imponderable. If you your mind enters a mode of circular or repetitive thinking then you need to break out of this pattern. One way is to write down your thoughts. Another is to talk it over with someone. If you cannot decide about something then make an arbitrary decision - especially if it is a small thing. If you are thinking too much and doing too little then reverse this imbalance.


The Michael Caine character in a film explained the difference between an amateur and a professional photographer, “The amateur thinks about it first then takes the shot. The professional thinks about it later”. Certain decisions are best taken quickly and intuitively, without allowing the rational mind to complicate matters. An extended weighing up of pros and cons may miss the most important factor or give it too little importance.


Get the necessary information

Knowledge is the key to getting things done. If you don't know enough to start then do some research, whether on the Net (especially wikipedia), among friends and colleagues, or in books and magazines. If all else fails then read the instructions. Learn the necessary techniques or do a course if you need to. You may need to acquire relevant background knowledge, especially new terminology. Ignorance is no excuse, as there is a wealth of accessible information on every conceivable topic.


Get help

Discuss your problems with others. Sharing problems decreases them. It also objectifies them and makes them more concrete. Even if all that the other person does is sit there silently listening, you will feel better and may well have more clarity after explaining your problem to them. The act of explaining a complex problem from scratch to someone who knows nothing about it can often give you unexpected clarity and new ideas about solving it.


Find an objective, friendly person to act as a sounding board or mentor. Whatever your problem or challenge, you can be fairly sure that one of your friends or someone whom they know has dealt with something similar. You are not alone. In addition, there is that inexhaustible agony-aunt, the Internet. Remember that the only dumb question is the one you didn't ask but should have.



Prioritisation is another important tool. Remember that 'urgent' does not necessarily mean important. You can let the answering machine take a call if you are doing something important. Physics tells us that there are two kinds of matter: matter and doesn't matter, so make sure you do the things that really matter. Everything else is secondary and is to be treated accordingly. Don't allow minor, niggling matters to prevent you from devoting time to what matters most.


Avoid perfectionism

Not every job that is worth doing is worth doing well. Few jobs, if any, are worth doing "perfectly". The ideal of perfection is largely an illusion and a sterile one at that. Stop-gap measures are essentially all that we can do in life. Permanence and perfection do not belong to this world. It is much better to get a job done now than to get it done perfectly at some indefinite point in the future, which may well be 'never'.


Another problem that bedevils perfectionists is that they spend most of their time focusing on unimportant things that are not right. It is much better to get the essentials right and to allow minor things to be defective. "Settle for disorder in lesser things for the sake of order in greater things." (GROW blue book)


Avoid trying

If you try to do something that means you are dipping a toe in the water and hope not to get all wet. Unless you are severely disabled you can't "try" to paint, sing, photograph, change a light-bulb, saw through a plank or write. You just do it. You may not do it as well as you would like to; but trying is not an option.


On the other hand, we need to do things where there is a real risk of failure, such as entering a competition or a race. Or doing something novel, like pottery, for the first time.


My favourite motto is, "I will until".


Be creative

Julia Cameron wrote, "What liberates me to be creative is the willingness to be a beginner and to make beginner mistakes... To do something well we must first be willing to do it badly... It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time." Even if you have lots of experience pretend that you are a beginner, as this is the best way to innovate and improve. Beginners often ask basic questions that the experts have lost sight of because they no longer see things afresh.


We can foster creativity by giving it room to grow, by taking care, and by taking the time to think laterally. On the other hand, being consistent is greatly over-rated because it precludes learning. Likewise, stubbornness and rigidity are essentially the unwillingness to accept the richness and variability that are present in reality.


My music teacher used to say, "If you want ordinary results use ordinary methods. If you want extraordinary results use extraordinary methods." To be creative you need to go beyond using formulas and standard techniques. However, you need to know the rules before you start breaking them.


Avoid habit and be flexible

The flipside of creativity is habit. Habit is useful when it saves time doing automatic or trivial tasks, such as driving or washing the dishes. Yet habit can also be a killer because it blocks off the new. Flexibility is needed, not just in how to do a task but in deciding whether a task is worth the effort in the first place. It is one thing to be efficient and creative at hacking your way through the jungle, it is another thing to decide whether you are in the right jungle.


So be flexible. Try some lateral thinking, especially if you are stuck. Get used to asking, "What if?". Try doing it backwards or upside down. It is surprising how many different approaches people can devise for the same problem or task. Do a brainstorm exercise to loosen up your thinking.


Avoid unnecessary assumptions

It is often the unwarranted assumptions that we make that cause a problem to seem difficult or even impossible. Sometimes the worst assumption is that an unfamiliar task will be difficult just because it is new. To see the limiting power of assumptions, try this brain teaser. Two men come to a river. There is a boat that can carry only one man at a time. How do they cross? Solution


See the problem as it really is

Make sure you have a clear idea of what you are striving to do. What the characteristic features and constraints are. You need to see the problem and its context as objectively as possible. Learning to see is like learning to listen. It involves becoming active and receptive to the situation you are dealing with and not allowing your preconceived ideas to limit your view.


Plan realistically

Distinguish between what you can change and what you cannot. Establish achievable goals for the short and medium term. Be realistic with the time you allocate to various tasks. Don't forget that most things take longer than at first seems the case, so let your experience guide you with realistic timing. A related pitfall is maximalism, the feeling that nothing you achieve is ever sufficient. Make sure that once you set your goals you will accept that their achievement is "enough".


It is good to make lists and schedules, but don't get caught up in elaborate planning that becomes a major task in itself. Plan the order and timing of what you want to do, otherwise you might cop out by being unable to decide what to do first. Try specifying when and for how long you will do each task (leaving some empty slots in between), but don't let your schedule become a treadmill.


Finish what you start - do not interrupt a task once you begin it. If you realise that you need to do something else as well, then just list the tasks that would otherwise interrupt what you are doing now. Of course, no plan is so sacred that it cannot be changed if something important comes up, but if you easily abandon your plans then you are unlikely to achieve much. It is a good idea to be flexible and to develop Plan B if your original idea does not work out or circumstances change.


By working consistently to a plan you can avoid the unpleasant feeling that you should be doing something other than what you are doing at any given time. This can be quite liberating.


Monitor progress

Even the best plan will amount to little if you do not monitor how you are executing it. You need to keep track of whether you are achieving what you set out to do within the time allocated. If not, you need to analyse what happened, eg a task may need something else to be accomplished first, or it can only be done on a week-day, or it simply needs much more time. If you set yourself the task of ringing someone then mark it as accomplished, for today, even if all you managed to do was to leave a message. Of course you will follow it up later. The important thing is to set clearly defined short term goals that you can achieve and tick off.


Be realistic about time

Time is not the monster we have created. Time is neutral, impartial and objective (I am not talking about psychological time here). It is not possible to "lack time". What we actually mean when we say this is that we hope to do more in the time available than we can realistically expect to accomplish. The problem is that we are often too optimistic regarding what can be done in the time available.


At the other end of the scale, we don't embark on certain projects because we tell ourselves that they will take "too long". Julia Cameron has the answer to this, "I'm too old is an evasive tactic. It is always used to avoid facing a fear." She quotes the conversation:

            Q: Do you know how old I'll be when I learn how to play the piano?

            A: The same age you will be if you don't.


Don't procrastinate (why did I leave this for last?)

Procrastination has at least two sources. The main one is trying to get out of doing things we don't like. Decide realistically what you actually want to do. Don't deceive yourself that you will carry out some onerous duty "later". "Later" never comes. Decide that you will do it now, if that is possible and appropriate, otherwise schedule it realistically. Either that, or decide you won't do it at all.


The other source of procrastination is the desire for instant gratification. It is tempting to do something enjoyable or to do a task that gives immediate results. The search for quick gratification comes at a price and usually is not much fun anyway.


Do things, especially physical things, beginning with the small and easy ones. Start by just doing one thing that is needed. Doing will give you energy and the more you do, the more energy you will have, even if you are physically tired. If you do the hardest or most unpleasant thing first, this will give you a real boost. Alternatively, do one or two things from your list that can be accomplished quickly, so that you enter the mode of getting things done.


If you are serious about ending procrastination then the best remedy is to make a realistic plan and sticking to it. If the plan turns out to be unrealistic then make the next one more realistic.


If a particular problem or task is so unpleasant that you have persistently avoided taking even the first step, then make the first step to just plan how you want to go about starting it. Look honestly at your feelings about what you avoid doing. Perhaps your head is trying too hard to over-rule your heart. Just because something is painful that doesn't mean it's good for you! In some cases the best solution is to shed a burden.


Tad Boniecki


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