Overwhelmed by the pressures of your workday? Try this “timeline shortening” technique
Steve Maxwell continues his series on the mental game of being a better contractor. Here he discusses how to focus better and worry less.
By Steve Maxwell
This is the third part of a 10-part series on “The Inner Life of a Contractor.”
The world is faster, more demanding and more competitive than it used to be, and I find that staying sane in the 21st century requires mental and lifestyle strategies to match. The best of these don’t hide reality but rather remind me more firmly what reality actually is. Something I call the variable mental timeline is my favourite.
At any given moment in our lives, things can get overwhelming. The more pressures and deadlines you face, the more debilitated you can feel. For some people the turmoil in the head and heart degenerates into a destructive spiral. This is where I find that imagination can give great relief.
While it’s true that there’s usually nothing you can do in the immediate term to get rid of life’s demands, there’s no reason you need to think about them all the time. The fact is, the amount of productive “thinking time” required to deal even with large challenges is usually quite limited. The rest is destructive “worry time.” Here’s a copy strategy I’ve found to deal with that.
Whenever I find it stressful to think about big, challenging and possibly ugly realities on my timeline, I imagine these things don’t exist until some work or action is required of me. After that, it’s back to intentional amnesia for that issue. The technique of shortening one’s mental timeline on purpose really does work. Capable, ambitious, conscientious people, in particular, often get over-spun because they think about too much at once. It’s like food. A normal mouthful of roast beef is great, but try to eat the whole roast in one gulp and you’ll choke. It’s impossible and it’s the same with life’s challenges. Shorten your time perspective enough to reach a sane balance. Try it!
In some ways, your inner self is like a cordless drill. It’ll work fine for a while, but eventually the battery needs to come out and sit idle in the charger. Every moment you think of life’s hard things unnecessarily it prevents your mental “battery” from sitting in the charger.
There’s great stamina in a shortened time line, but you need to cultivate the inner skill to make it happen. Success takes practice because your mind will keep trying to eat the whole roast beef at once. But the more you practice your shortened mental timeline, the more you’ll trust it and the less your mind will try to make your perspective too long. The more you’re able to forget issues where no immediate action is possible or necessary, the more you’ll be able to accomplish with a light heart.
Want to know a powerful secret I’ve discovered? Shortening my timeline during the week works great, but it would never be enough on its own. That’s why I find it essential to completely unplug every Sunday. It’s like shortening my timeline down to zero for everything I have going on in my working life on that day. I never let myself work or even think about work on Sundays even though I sometimes dearly want to get things done. It’s a mental discipline, and like all disciplines it involves paying a price to get something more valuable. In this case, it’s an especially great deal. Just don’t go and do the really foolish thing and convince yourself that you “can’t” take Sundays off. So often the word “can’t” actually means “won’t.”
One of the most ancient sources of wisdom advises complete rest every seven days and it’s golden. I didn’t always follow this wisdom, but after working seven days a week until the mid-1990s, I now know I’ll never go back. Do all your work in six days (not five), but the seventh day is for rest.
Isn’t it strange how so much of the world claims to be concerned about diet, exercise and “healthy living” while at the same time ignoring the old boundaries designed to keep work and worry in its place? Could this neglect be why we’re seeing an epidemic of debilitating anxiety, especially among young people?