“When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”
— Shunryu Suzuki-roshi
Arjun comes into office, switches on his computer only to find 100 new emails waiting for him. As he sifts through the mound of mail, his annoying colleague Snehal stops by his desk to tell him how her daughter stood first in her school exams despite having chickenpox. When she finally decides to leave, he goes back to sorting his email when he remembers that he has a meeting with the company director in 10 minutes. He goes through his notes. Things seem to be in order and he heads off towards the boardroom. As he is about to enter the room, his assistant rushes up to him and informs him that the numbers that he was supposed to quote in his presentation are all wrong. Unfortunately for him, the director witnesses this exchange and berates him publicly for his incompetence. Does Arjun’s day sound much like yours?
At work, we often face stressful situations, dreaded projects, irritating co-workers, frustrating bosses, an overwhelming number of tasks and messages, boring work we don’t enjoy.
These problems have one simple cause: we’re holding on.
It’s not your work that is stressful
The work itself isn’t stressful—it’s just action that’s taken or that needs to be taken. It’s our reaction to the work that causes the stress: our holding on to a wish that things were different.
It’s not the constant stream of interruptions that is frustrating—they are just events that happen around us, like a leaf falling or a bird flying by. It’s our holding on, in our minds, to the task we were doing before we were interrupted that causes the frustration. We wish we weren’t interrupted from the task, and we resent anything that interrupts us while our minds are still half on the previous task.
Our co-workers and boss aren’t the problem either: they’re just other human beings trying to do the best they can in this world. It’s our holding on to the idea that they should somehow behave a certain way, that they should do their best to make us happy, that causes us anger and irritation.
It’s not that we have an overwhelming number of tasks and messages that causes us to be stressed out—it’s our reaction to that number. It’s just a list of things, or a phone ringing, or an inbox with a list of messages. Those things are harmless. But when we hold on to the idea that we can do everything, and that we have to deal with all this at once, we become stressed, because obviously we can’t. We can only do one thing, though our minds are on all of them.
So what’s the solution? It’s letting go.
This is the Zen of Work.
Learning to let go
When you let go of these ideas of how things should be, how other people should behave to make you happy, how you can do everything at once, then the problems go away. They simply don’t exist.
There are other problems, of course—you still need to do the work. But the frustrations, stress, anger, irritation, feelings of overwhelm… those are all caused by holding on, and they’re in our minds. We also hold on to things that happened earlier—something someone did that wasn’t nice, a meeting during which we said something embarrassing, a mistake we made on our project—and of course this only compounds the pain, keeps the pain replaying on an endless loop.
Letting go allows the problems to disappear.
It’s that simple, and yet letting go isn’t always easy.
It’s a learning process
First you have to learn mindfulness, which is the key to the whole shebang. Mindfulness allows us to see these thought processes that are causing us pain, allows us to delve into what we’re holding on to.
Mindfulness also helps us return to the moment, so that all those things running around in our heads can fade away, and we live in what’s actually happening, right now.
We do a task without holding on to other tasks, or offences made by other people. We do a task, and then let go of it, and move on to the next task.
This takes practice, and so I suggest starting with a simple practice, like five minutes of meditation, and working from there. Once you get good at this simple practice, you can expand mindfulness to other tasks. Eventually you’ll get pretty good at it, and you will notice that the problems will start to dissolve on their own.
How stress beat me this week
I’ll confess: I recently let stress beat me.
People think I never get stressed out, ever, especially as I’ve written about slowing down and simplifying for over five years. But I do get stressed, and I sometimes overwork myself. It doesn’t happen much anymore, but it does happen. This week was one of those times.
Stress beat me… but stay with me until the end. In the end [spoiler alert], I beat out stress.
I was working on hosting two online courses to help people live a healthy life for which people needed to register
Unfortunately, there was a glitch in the registration process that caused 400 people to have registration problems, and so I spent two days manually fixing the problems. It was tedious, exhausting work, I did it until late at night and started early in the morning.
I learned to do it almost as a form of meditation—trying to be mindful as I did it, much as I try to do when I sweep or wash dishes or take a walk.
Still, the overwhelming amount of people needing help at once stressed me out for two days, and at the end of it, I was wiped out.
How I beat stress
Here’s what I did: After two stressful, exhausting days, a workout was actually my first step to recovery. It might seem counterintuitive—why exercise when you’re exhausted? And sometimes that can be dangerous—doing lots of exercise when you are mentally exhausted can put you at risk of burnout or injury. But I’ve found that a good bout of exertion works wonders for when I’m stressed. So I ran and lifted a few weights. I instantly felt better.
Then I meditated for about 10 minutes. Bringing myself back to the moment is a great way to beat stress.
I then shut down my computer, got outside, walked, met with a friend and spent a few hours of disconnected time.
When I got back, I did return to the computer, but only allowed myself shorter bursts.
I also took a short nap.
I massaged my shoulders [OK, my wife Eva also helped with the shoulder massage].
I read for a bit.
I spent some time reading with my kids.
And I had some green tea while drinking it slowly and savouring it.
This de-stressing routine works wonders. You don’t need to do the entire routine, but pick three or four and apply generously.
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