I like to exercise a high degree of control over my life so that I know what to expect. Some examples of this include eating the same breakfast and lunch every day to reduce what I need to think about, as well as a suite of 20+ recurring reminders to help me follow through on different habits. I also like solving problems, whether it’s working out how to create the best possible education resources or building a comically large spreadsheet model to decide on a mobile phone plan.
Despite my love for solving problems, sometimes small-medium problems can cause me a lot of stress. This is strange as I usually find solving problems enjoyable. On reflection, the explanation lies in the first personality trait I mentioned: my control-freak tendencies. When I’ve chosen the problem, I really enjoy it, however if the problem is forced upon me, it can cause me a lot of stress. Because I try to be organised, unexpected problems don’t come up too often, however, when they do, they can all too easily cause me to spin me out.
A brief primer on stress
Stress isn’t inherently a bad thing. Too much stress has downsides, but too little stress also has downsides.
If you have too much stress, you can be overwhelmed and find it hard to operate at your best. Instead of dealing with the problem, you can spend time worrying about the problem. Even when you are ostensibly working on a task, your mind can be distracted with all the other things you need to do. This is being in a state of distress. Cortisol is pumped through your body and if you stay in this state for too long there can even be negative health effects.
On the flipside, if you have too little stress, you risk getting bored and this can actually be draining. As French philosopher Blaise Pascal put it: "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone". We don’t do well doing nothing as we have a drive to feel useful by doing things of value for ourselves and those around us. Relaxing for too long gets boring and this was highlighted in a conversation that I recently had with a friend who remarked that having spent so much of 2020 in lockdown, she has gotten to the point where she is procrastinating watching Netflix.
So, what’s the solution? The middle ground - eustress: where there is just enough pressure to induce you to perform at your peak so that you can produce work that you’re proud of. You can get into a state of eustress either through external pressures (e.g. someone pushing you to work) or internal pressures (you care about what you’re working on and want a specific outcome to occur). Here is a popular chart that summarises this situation:
The impact of stress on problems that I choose Vs problems that I don’t choose
As previously mentioned, I have dramatically different stress responses to seemingly similar problems. Sometimes I thrive on pressure, and sometimes the smallest bit of pressure can spark anxiety. I’ve come to realise that the difference in my stress response can be explained by differentiating between when I’m faced with a problem that I’ve chosen to take on Vs when I’m faced with a problem I haven’t chosen.
When I've chosen the problem, I can experience a lot of stress and still be in eustress because I’m motivated and excited to solve the problem. Conversely, when I'm dealing with a problem I haven’t chosen, it only takes a little stress to push me into a self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety and avoidance.
The goal then isn’t to generally reduce stress, but instead to deal with problems that I don’t choose in a more constructive way.
Strategies for dealing with problems that I haven’t chosen
Strategy 1: Accept that unplanned problems are part of life
"You never had control; all you had was anxiety." - Elizabeth Gilbert
If I’m being honest, there is a part of me that believes that because I put so much effort into controlling my life that I’m entitled to never deal with unexpected problems. However, if there is one thing that 2020 has taught me, it’s that nobody is ever above dealing with unexpected problems!
This first strategy involves mentally preparing myself to expect non-chosen problems to occur. By shifting my expectations, when problems that I haven’t chosen to deal with inevitably occur, I will no longer be disappointed. If the only way I can be happy is by not dealing with unexpected problems, I’m not going to be happy very often. Complete control over life isn't a realistic goal and even if I ignore this fact in the short term, I can’t escape it in the long term.
Strategy 2: Find a way to ‘choose’ the problem
As per the graphs in the previous section, I’m able to deal with problems that I’ve chosen in a positive way. When unexpected problems crop up, the second strategy to deal with them better is to shift my perspective to see the problem I’ve chosen to solve.
A technique to shift my perspective is articulating how solving the problem in front of me will help me grow. This is usually through recognising that the problem will:
Develop skills/knowledge that will be useful later in life, and/or
Develop my ability to deal with tough problems I don’t have a lot of experience in
As per strategy 1, unexpected problems are inevitable and if nothing else, dealing with the current problem is an opportunity to practice staying calm and present so I am better prepared to face the even bigger unexpected problems that will inevitably arise in the future.
Strategy 3: Accept that there is no option but to solve the problem
From a pragmatic perspective, it doesn’t matter if the problem is chosen or not because either way, I am responsible for solving the problem. I can either grumble and solve the problem, or calmly solve the problem, but either way, I still have to solve the problem. Spoiler: solving the problem calmly is going to be far more enjoyable and effective.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, one of my tendencies is to get distracted with only 20% of my mental bandwidth focussed on the task in front of me while the other 80% of my mental bandwidth is worrying about the fact that I'm not doing something else. The maths would indicate that this means tasks will take 5 times as long as they would otherwise when working in this way. While my worrying brain has the best of intentions, I need to remind myself that the best thing I can do is to focus 100% on the task in front of me, get it done as quickly as possible and move onto the next urgent task.
This is of course far easier said than done, and I’ve found meditation as a great way to practice gently bringing my mind back on task when it has drifted away.
Be kind to yourself
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to be gentle with yourself. A classic cycle of thoughts is to be stressed because of the problem, and then to feel stressed that you’re letting the problem stress you out.
When I’m trying to be kind to myself, some of the thoughts that I like to remind myself of are:
The optimal decision will only be able to be made with the benefit of hindsight, so it’s not reasonable to expect yourself to make the optimal decision
The most important thing is to take action to try and solve the problem and learning through that process
You don’t have to do everything right now! You’re allowed to (and should) take time off to do things that you want to for no other reason than you’ll enjoy them. You don’t need to feel guilty for not spending 24/7 progressing a problem.
It’s ok to feel overwhelmed, many people probably feel the same, and many others in your situation would feel the same way.